Laos Kills Me

Monday, November 23, 9:13 PM
Muang Houn, Oudomxay Province, Laos

They’re killing me with kindness! It’s past my bedtime, but I need to write about Laos! It’s amazing, but I never have a chance to reflect (except when I’m biking) as I’m never alone. One of the things that boggles most people’s minds (Esp. the Lao) about my solo-trip is that I don’t have any companions, but don’t they know that they are so warm and hospitable that I don’t need any?

Today while I was pedaling down from Oudomxay, I was burning to write. I wanted to just stop and go at it, but when you’ve got 100km to pump through there are NO excuses to prolong it! I was afraid of how long my next journal entry would be… 16 topics in my shortlist. I see so much every day and it takes so long to put it down in writing! When I arrived here, in the biggest village for 100km in either direction – yeah, there’s just one way or the other to go from here! – which has no internet and didn’t have any power until about 30 minutes ago, I was too wiped out to write. I took my freezing cold bucket shower, walked to the market for some snacks (of banana, potato, carrot and kaf-fae Lao), and then I crashed out (at 2pm!) I awoke to the blaze of a small bamboo grove going up in smoke outside my window against a plum red sky, so I got up to watch the sunset.

With three hours to grab a small bite and to write, I had my evening planned out. I walked into town and ate my second meat noodle soup today. (I’m just having back luck with food today, finding myself hungry and in totally non-touristed towns, where the only warm food to buy that’s not actual meat is a noodle soup without meat… but that broth left my tummy feeling animal fattened, yuck! (And no, I didn’t even enjoy it.) I managed to go pure-veg for my in-between-lunch-and-dinner-noodle-soup… a packet of instant noodles, munched without water or flavouring! (It’s hard outside of the cities to find real veg food beyond raw fruits & veggies.) Folks out here eat at home, so in this case I’m left without many options. (BTW, I’ve been so well cared-for in Laos that tonight is only my fifth night in a guest house this whole month, the rest have been with couch surfers and random Lao people!

So I was going to write all about my last week, touring and chilling a real Lao city (no tourists), and then tonight happened. As always, I don’t want to write about last week now… I want to write about today!

So I’m slurping noodles when a guy on a motorbike pulls up and starts making small talk. He asks where I’m staying, so I tell him (I’ve become quite accustomed to having no sense of privacy anymore), and he asks if he can come by after his bath (Laos people bathe 3x a day!) to talk to me and practice his English. I say “Sure!” I’m peeling and eating a new kind of potato, it’s white and sweet, eavesdropping on the English language class going-on in a simple bamboo classroom next to my guest house. My new friend, Mr. Sovung, 17, (everybody calls each other “Mr.” in Laos, it’s so polite and cute), pulls up and asks me if I’d like to go to his English school to talk to the class and meet his teacher. I say “Sure!” From the bamboo classroom emerges the son of the guest house, and asks me if I can come into his class first. Sure! I meet his class of twenty shy smiling teens, introduce myself, and I try to make small talk. I’ve never taught English before so I don’t have any exercises to try out on them, but I tried asking their names and ages and they were too shy to really respond, and then I learned that it was a beginner’s class, and they only had a few months of instruction. Also, foreigners apparently never come to Houn District as there’s no draw, so I might have been the first foreigner that many of the kids have ever met! I kind of loved it, because they were nevertheless thrilled to have me.

Next I hopped on Mr. Sovung’s motorbike and he took me to the school. Class was in session, and the small classroom was filled with at least 40 teens, five students to a bench, girls on the left and boys on the right. I introduced myself, wrote my name on the board, which none of them could come close to pronouncing the TH in my name (which is why I often introduce myself as Anto), and we had some conversation. I was mindful to speak slowly and pronounce my words with care. I think all the girls (and most of the guys) had a big crush on me. It’s so funny how the teacher, Mr. Xaiyaphoum, and all guys kept telling me how handsome and beautiful I am. The girls just said it with their giggles whenever we made eye contact. After a session of about 30 minutes, the students cleared out through the rear of the classroom, and from an unusually small door in the front of the classroom 40 new students piled-in, (which makes three classes!) I think this was the advanced group, as we had some really good chat and pronunciation time during the next hour. I was the first foreigner to visit the class in three years, so it actually was good practice to speak English with me. Mr. Sovung was in this group, and during our conversation when I asked him how he is, he replied very hungry, as he was so excited that I accepted his invitation that he forgot to eat dinner. I was invited back many times, also to come to their homes, and out for dinner (by the teacher). We talked about our religions, and I learned how the Hmong (one of the ethnic groups here) kill a cow when a family member passes away, and a chicken when a child a born. They all wanted to know if I was married, or if I had any pictures of my girlfriend, (especially the teacher). One girl, 13, asked my number so I gave it her, and the rest of the class. Hands were shook. Photos were taken. I was reassured many times that I’m very handsome, and one kid said “Sorry I’m so ugly” as we snapped a photo together. I gave them my email and website, promising to write to them if they ever want to practice their written English with an American friend, and I recommended they join Couchsurfing.com if they’d like to have more guests come visit their town in the future. And suggested they include their mobile numbers in their profiles since there’s no email within 2 hours drive.

Mr. Sovung gave me a ride home, very slowly so we could talk more, and told me he’s having some trouble at home. His parents are divorcing, his sister is going to school in Vientiane (the little big Laos city) and there’s not enough money to go around. I asked what he wanted to be for a career, and he answered a tour guide for foreigners, so he can speak English, although his future is uncertain as they won’t have enough money to send him to school too. I can see how in this tiny village, the world and its possibilities can seem so small.

I never wanted to be an English teacher, as among the international group it seems so ordinary. As far as legitimate work goes, it’s reputedly not a bad way to make income, but the very idea of working for money out here puts me off. (All the NGOs get a bad enough rep for wasting valuable funds on over-paid workers.) I have visited some English language classes in the past year, mostly private lessons with a dozen or less kids, but Mr. Xaiyaphoum teaches three classes every night (for over 100 students), after his daytime job, and I can see how he’s single-handedly trying to help out his village without making much profit. The kids are hungry for the knowledge, and it’s these kids who need help from the more fortunate. From volunteers all over this country, I think the best work, like many of the best things in life, come for free. Why am I leaving SE Asia in a week again? There’s so much here to do and get into! And only one of woeful me.

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