Travel Report March 2017
Luang Prabang, Laos in March 2017
Travel report by Franzisca Gartenmann
After a two-hour flight from Bangkok, my mother Annika Gartenmann and I landed on the small, but fine airport of Luang Prabang on the twelfth of March and firstly had to get used to the brooding hear. Walking through the dusty streets of the city released a deep feeling of happiness inside of me, it felt like coming home. Due to the experience of my last visit, we had already expected the city to be more lively, crowed and touristy, but we were surprised by the enchanted and romantic atmosphere that still filled this place. The green streets, the beautiful temples and the small boutiques were still the same, although the number of hotels and parked vehicles had increased.
Visit of the „Deak Kum Pah Orphanage“
The day after our arrival, we met with Andrew Brown, the Australian project manager and former owner of the Lotus Villa hotel, where we stayed during every visit. We spent the entire morning taken in by the conversation about his various projects. These currently consist of three orphanages and eleven villages, which he supports individually in the areas of water, nutrition, health and education. Once again, we were very impressed hearing about the incredible poverty in Laos and realizing what a tremendous difference people like Andrew Brown have through their “let’s do this” –mentality.
After we had lunch in a local, authentic restaurant, we drove to the nearby Chinese market and with 60 dollars bought countless shoes for the children whose shoes were either too small or already broken. It was a touching experience because we had the opportunity to personally get in touch with the children, while doing something helpful.
After distributing the shoes, I got to know Te Thor and Beh on the playground. Both are in their final year of high school and will graduate 2018, hoping that they too will find a sponsor.
Te Thor, 19
The English of the 19-year-old was impressive and above average, so we sat together for an hour on little wall of the playground. Te Thor had grown up in a remote little village about three hours from Luang Prabang, where his seven siblings still live today.
His biological father died early and when his mother followed, he stayed with his stepfather until he sent him to the orphanage. He has a very special relationship with his eight-year-old half brother Yaw Thor, who is deaf. When his stepfather remarried and moved, he took the little boy to Luang Prabang in September 2016 in order to look after him.
Luckily, he was able able to find an accommodation for him in the local “Silent School”, where Annika visited the two and spent an entire afternoon.
What impressed me about Te Thor was his conscious and reflective way of thinking, which is quite untypical for the Laotian people. Talking about recycling for a long time, it was amazing to notice how he saw himself as an educated scholar compared to his parents, who hadn’t enjoyed the privilege of an education. When I asked him about his future plans and dreams, he said he would like to study English and become a director. His first short film “The Abandoned Orphan” with English subtitles can be found on Youtube:
During the conversation with Te Thor I got to know Beh, since the two were really close and spent a lot of time together. Like his friend, he also has a sad story and does not even know exactely how old he is. After the death of his parents, him and his five siblings went to live with his uncle, who recognized his potential early and sent him to the orphanage in Luang Prabang at the age of approximately seven. His younger sister was less fortunate and must marry soon without ever having received any kind of education. Beh touched me. When I asked him about his studies, he explained that he would like to work in a development project in order to help Laotion children with a similar background. He also really wants to learn Spanish.
I met Khoasone on my very first trip to Laos in 2011. We noticed him immediately due to his incredible painting talent and his impressive English skills. Today he is in the third year of his four-year long Englisch studies and we are so happy, being able to support him. As he wasn’t around at the orphanage, I met him on the local night market where he sold his art. We sat there together for about two hours, selling pictures and him telling me his story. Khoasone comes from a village about five hours from the city. He has no family left, his little sister died when she was two years old. His biggest dream is to open up a gallery with his best friend Semsong and help other poor children.
Stories from Suan Luang
On the third day, Andrew took us to Suan Laung, a school for orphans or very poor chidren, about an hour from Luang Prabang. The visible difference between the two orphanages really surprised us. Due to the distance from the city, tourists rarely come to Suan Luang, which we noticed through the lack of English skills of the children. Taking a look into the kitchen, we met Oon and MEng, two young girls who will graduate from high school this summer.
Like our other acquaintances, Meng has also grown up in a village that is so far away that is takes her five hours to visit her father and her nine siblings. She and her brother were very lucky to have gotten placed in the orphanage.
Unfortunately, they were separated at the time and he is at home in Launag Prabang. She told us, that she would love to study at the university, but as she doesn’t have any money she will probably return to her village and work on the rice fields.
Compared to the others, Oon is an exception. She still has both parents. However, they are rice farmers and belong to the poorest group of people in Laos, since they don’t even own land. Oon would like to study in order to become a teacher, but she knows that the odds aren’t with her.
Payment day at Andrew’s
The scholarship program of Andrew Brown currently supports 190 students. We were very lucky as the payment day, which takes place every two month, exactly hit our time being there. At four o’clock Andrew picked us up and we drove to his house, where a huge crowd of students were already waiting for us. For five whole hours, he spoke with every individual student in fluent Lao, asking about their studies and their well-being. He made notes for every single one of them and finally gave me the sign to hand them over their “pocket money”. With an admirable patience, he translated every single story for me, many of which touched me deeply.
Although it is a lot of work for him, he is absolutely convinced by the benefits of his system, as the personal relationships and the personal contact prevent any abuse of donation money. In the evening, we made our way home, exhausted and speechless from the beautiful impressions and the commitment of the project manager.
In a conversation with Andrew, we learned that 37 of 43 of the students who have graduated from university since the beginning of the program have a job now. It is unclear how many students will graduate this year, since the duration of the studies vary from two to four years. It is certain however that 60 young Laotians from Luang Prabang, 30 from Suan Luang and 30 from Nambak will complete high school this year and will want to attend university. Among them Te Thor, Beh, Oon and Meng. Unfortunately, it won’t be possible to support all of them through a scholarship. Andrew and his assistant Ping will choose the most vulnerable young people and try to find sponsors for them. “Lotus for Laos” would like to help even more young people to get a university degree.
Lotus for Laos
This year, among the 37 supported students we will have three graduations and use the freed funds in 2018 to enable other young people to attend university.
At this point, Evelyne Spargaaren and I would like to thank all wholeheartedly for their support and trust in us! For me this was once again a wonderful, impressive and humbling visit and we are convinced that we are making a difference in the lives of these young people. After four years of “Lotus for Laos” we are still enthusiastic about this project and will continue to give everything for it.
We do need more sponsors. Help us to empower more young people like Te Thor and Beh!
Khàwp jai lai lai!
Verein „Lotus for Laos“