After my share of tubing, I decided to spend three weeks volunteering with SAELAO, an environmental sustainability and educational project just outside of Vang Vieng in the sleepy Nathong Village.
Sae Lao’s mission is to provide of model of sustainable development within the local and wider communities by focusing on environmental sustainability, education and employment. They achieve this with their organic farm, farm-to-table restaurant and free English classes. As the project grows, so too do the employment opportunities for the local community.
The project aims to be as environmentally sustainable and self-sufficient as possible. Total self-sufficiency will take a long time to achieve, but their current system is still impressive. In my time there, the project was self-sufficient in rice, a number of vegetables and soon to be eggs as well. The majority of buildings on site are made entirely of sustainable materials, such as mud-bricks and bamboo. Their most inspiring feature is the Biogas system, which uses human and animal waste to create energy, which is then used to power the kitchen stove. Think about this – the food grows in the garden, it is cooked using the Biogas, we eat it, we turn it into waste (I’m talking about poo here) and then it is fed back into the Biogas system for the cycle to repeat itself. And, the physical after product of the Biogas system eventually decays to compost, which goes back into the garden to grow more veggies.
Aside from being a model of environmental sustainability, the project also offers free English classes to the local community, which is a big step up in improving the education standards in the area. These classes are taught by the volunteers, and the classes I taught were a highlight of my time at Sae Lao.
A typical day at Sae Lao began at 6:50am, as my fellow volunteers and I rolled out of bed and dragged ourselves toward the breakfast table. If you made it there early enough, you had time to have a coffee and a banana, but if not, its straight to work. The morning tasks were things like cleaning the dorm and bathrooms, cleaning the pig pens, feeding the chickens, watering the plants and maintaining the Biogas system. While all that was going on, three or four people had the huge task of cooking breakfast for the entire group. We usually left this to the French volunteers, who whipped up crepes, goat cheese tarts and French toast.
After breakfast we broke off to do some more tasks. These varied from day to day but usually included digging things and moving things and chopping things with machetes. Then came lunch, a couple of hours break, more work and another break, when we would usually walk down the road to the Blue Lagoon, a gorgeous blue water hole that was perfect for cooling off.
Then it was time for English classes. These ran over two hours, with one session at 5pm and the next at 6pm. For the first week, I didn’t teach, but in the second week I taught two classes. My 5 o’clock class had five students, ranging in age from 10 to 14. I taught them about time, like, how to look at a clock and be able to say it’s a quarter past three in English. There was this one student, Maisouk, who learnt everything so quickly it was honestly amazing. I would explain something to him once and he’d have it locked in his memory instantly. He picked up the whole time thing within one lesson, which left me struggling to find ways to challenge him while the other students caught up. A sad reality in these small Lao villages is that education just isn’t a number one priority. Not that people don’t recognise it’s importance, but because working on the farm or at the family business comes first. Because of this, Maisouk isn’t able to come to classes all the time. It is so heartbreaking to see such a bright kid with such incredible potential not being able to excel, but unfortunately that is the way things are.
My 6 o’clock class were a group of eight boys in their late teens, who already spoke English quite well and often said some very entertaining typical teenage boy things. They had a habit of staying later and asking questions, sometimes for an extra 45 minutes. Whilst this occasionally got a bit annoying, it was inspiring to see how eager they were to learn, and how excited they were to practice and challenge themselves.
I also got to teach a group of monks. They were learning really basic phrases like greetings, and I taught them vegetables. They were SO funny. I’m pretty sure half the time they had no idea what was going on but they were just so happy to be learning that it made us all happy.
We followed that working schedule for six days a week, with one day off to go into town and be reunited with civilisation, junk-food, sit-down toilets and wifi.
About half way through the second week we were told that it was time to start work on the rice fields. In short, this was hell. Standing out in the drizzling rain all day, digging small holes, planting rice, picking seedlings, filling big holes, chopping down weeds, shovelling grass off the field banks and the rest of the never ending work load. It was pretty horrible to be honest, and I have newfound respect for rice farmers who do this day after day, year after year.
Probably the most hilarious thing to happen at those rice fields was when my fellow volunteer and good friend, Karlee, took a shit in them. Walking back to the Sae Lao site would have taken her fifteen minutes and she knew she wouldn’t make it, so she simply dropped her dacks, dug a hole and did it in the field. Without a doubt one of the funniest moments Karlee and I ever shared and for the rest of her life I will never let her live it down.
My three weeks at Sae Lao were a tough but rewarding experience and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to volunteer there. I feel like I gained a true cultural exchange while making lasting friendships with the other volunteers from around the world. Sorry if this post was long and boring, but I believe in this cause and I think it deserves to be shared. If you’d like to learn more about Sae Lao, you can do so here.