Our first visit to Phou Leuay was in October 2002. Huts were built on a narrow and high mountain ridge in southern Luang Prabang Province. While front and back yards steeply sloped hundreds of feet below, we were in awe of the ‘heavenly’ panoramic view from their windows.
Give Children A Choice was the first nonprofit organization to visit Phou Leuay Village. Due to its remoteness, other nonprofit organizations had overlooked Phou Leuay and its children.
Give Children A Choice built a three room preschool for not only the children of Phou Leuay, but also for five other remote villages nearby.
Phou Leuay is 102 kilometers or 4 hours by SUV south of Luang Prabang, situated in Phou Khoun District, close to the Vientiane and Luang Prabang Provincial borders. Riding on roads built atop mountain ridges and narrow dirt roads hugging the winding mountain slopes, it was a challenging trip. When we arrived, we were in awe. The panoramic views were incredible. We were on top of the world. The deep blue skies above us and the lush deep green tropical jungles below us were mesmerizing.
We were warmly welcomed by the local district and village leaders. Immediately, we were whisked off to the village meeting place. We followed the village leaders from the main road along a grueling uphill dirt path of perhaps a thousand feet to Phou Leuay village. Being that we were the first foreigners to visit their village, the children were reserved, curious and serious. They were quiet and only slightly responsive as we smiled and waved to them. The children were poorly dressed in tattered and toen clothing, and most were dirty.
The village, while neat and clean, consisted of typical Lao homes built on stilts, but generally smaller than homes closer to Luang Prabang, most with one-room and straw roofs.
When speaking with the village leaders who spoke Khmou, we needed two translators – one to translate our English to Pasa Lao and then a second translator from Pasa Lao to Khmou.
The village leaders celebrated our visit with a ‘baci’ and a meal of goat meat, ‘lap’, a local specialty made of local greens and goat’s blood, goat’s milk and of course, lao whiskey. Villagers also played a local string instruments and sang local songs for us.
Anxious to tour the village and primary school and to meet the children, we put our shoes on and walked outside. The village was deserted. The children were gone. Puzzled, we toured the village and walked further up a steep slop along the ridgeline to the primary school. When we arrived at the top of the ridgeline, we were surprised with a shouting welcome from the children who welcomed us and sang for us. At that point, the children were cautiously friendly and responsive.
When we began to survey and explore with the village, district and provincial education department what was the best location to build a preschool, we settled on building on a piece of land closer to the road. We were abit concerned with the proximity to the Phou Leuay Village. The education department indicated that the preschool would be able to support not only Phou Leuay village but also five nearby villages, some up to two miles away. A major question was whether a preschool child would walk so far away to preschool. The head of the district education department enthusiastically answered that school is so exciting for them that when the school is built, ‘they will run to school.’
In June 2003, Give Children A Choice and Phou Leuay Village signed a Memorandum of Understanding. Details including payment terms, delivery dates and the village’s contribution to the project were defined within this document. Phou Leuay Village, jointly with the Education Department, provided wood for the preschool construction and furniture for the classrooms.
Construction began in early Fall 2003, and was completed in January 2004. The preschool was built with more sturdy materials to deal with the harsher elements and higher elevation of its location. The preschool at Phou Leuay is our largest to date. It comprises three classrooms and a bathroom and also has an office space for the teachers. Phou Leuay preschool serves Phou Leuay and five surrounding villages.
It was during construction of Phou Leuay preschool that Give Children A Choice started working with local manufacturers to build playground equipment for the preschoolers. It is our belief the playground encourages a child’s physical and social skills, skills that are carried into their adult lives. We also identified a furniture manufacturer to help us make toy blocks to assist with the children’s motor skill development.
As with all of our preschools, we asked the village to participate in the school construction. The villagers of Phou Leuay and the surrounding community dug, by hand, a dirt road from the highway to the preschool, a tremendous undertaking.
The Education Department stressed the importance of providing the children of this area with opportunities. The people were committed to their children’s education, and were willing to work hard to help get them that opportunity. By building in Phou Leuay, we were not only provided the local village’s children with positive choices, but also the children of several surrounding villages.
On our post construction visit, we were in awe when we saw the preschool from a distance. Surrounded and overwhelmed by the vertical landscapes of the surrounding tropical mountains, the bright white preschool was dwarfed by the vast green landscape. It was an awesome sight.
Since the preschool was completed in early 2004, attendance at Phou Leuay has averaged between 80 and 100 children. Phou Leuay has six trained preschool teachers, and their program has flourished since the preschool was completed.
Check our our visit to give the Gift of Reading here.