Volunteering at SAELAO Project, Nathong Village, Laos

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.

View over the Sae Lao site.
View over the Sae Lao site.

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.

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Karlee and I with LongTail, our favourite cat.
Karlee and I with LongTail, our favourite cat.

 

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.

Playing with machetes is all fun and games until someone loses a toe.
Playing with machetes is all fun and games until someone loses a toe.
Taking a dip at the Blue Lagoon.
Taking a dip at the Blue Lagoon.

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.

Community centre/ dorm room/ class room.
Community centre/ dorm room/ class room.

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.

We also went out one night in VV, things got weird and one of us got arrested. (Wasn't me, promise)
We also went out one night in V.V., things got weird and one of us got arrested, but more on that another time.
This guy bet Karlee he could pick her up. He literally picked her up.
This guy bet Karlee he could pick her up. He literally picked her up.
This photo sums up my entire time in Laos pretty well actually.
This photo sums up my entire time in Laos pretty well actually.

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.

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This was on day one when i didn't want to poke my own eyes out.
This was on day one when I didn’t want to poke my own eyes out.

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.

Karlee and I that time we got covered in mud.
Karlee and I that time we got covered in mud.

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.

We also got drunk a few times. I believe this was taken during a rendition of "Pump It" by the Black Eyed Peas.
We also got drunk a few times. I believe this was taken during a rendition of “Pump It” by the Black Eyed Peas.

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The Infamous Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos!

Laos is a binge drinker’s dream. Responsible service of alcohol simply doesn’t exist, so much so that there will almost always be more alcohol than mixer in any given drink. Since the price of local alcohol is lower than the price of soft drink/juice/red-bull/what have you, it makes perfect economical sense. This is the case pretty much all over Laos, and most of Cambodia as well, but no such place is as famous for its drunken debauchery than the picturesque riverside town of Vang Vieng, where the infamous “tubing” takes place.

Basically, “tubing” is floating down the Nam Song River in an inflatable tube, taking in the beautiful scenery, making new friends, and getting absolutely shit-faced. Yep, there are bars lining the river. Bars that welcome you in with a chorus of “TUUUUUBERS” whilst forcing free shots of Tiger Whiskey into your hands and singing praises of $2 Vodka Redbulls. Oh, and by “bars” I don’t mean a swanky outdoor terrace, I mean a person pouring drinks in a bamboo hut, surrounded by beer pong tables, a giant game of drinking Jenga and in one case, a beach volleyball court.

Tubing was at it’s peak in popularity around 2010, when there were dozens of bars along the river,  along with rope swings, zip-lines and water slides. With absolutely zero safety precautions in place, these are dangerous activities at the best of times, but add drunken backpackers and it gets out of control. Sadly, as tubing grew in popularity, so did the death toll and so measures were taken and the bars were closed. The rope swings and zip-lines were taken down and the slides were dismantled.

These days, things are up and running again, but there are only four bars along the river and there are no rope swings, zip-lines or slides to be seen. But that doesn’t mean that Vang Vieng isn’t still one of the best (if not the best) party towns in South East Asia. 

I went tubing three times and given the opportunity, I would go a hundred more. I freaking loved it. It is so so so much fun and one of the top highlights of my entire trip.

The party doesn’t end with tubing though, Vang Vieng town is full of bars that kick on well into the night. Whether you’re into playing beer pong at Kangaroo Sunset, chugging Guinness at Gary’s or getting happy at Jaidees, this place literally has something for everyone. And no night in Vang Vieng would be complete without a chicken baguette eaten on the side of the road at 4am. Oh man I miss those baguettes…

Pre-tube with my favourite British babes.
Pre-tube with my favourite British babes.
The moment Samar and Caitlin became beer pong queens at Bar 1.
The moment Samar and Caitlin became beer pong queens at Bar 1.
Bar 1. Dignity not yet lost.
Bar 1. Dignity not yet lost.
Aw this gal.
Aw this gal.
Around about the time when things got weird.
Around about the time when things got weird.
Liam and random Lao family ?!?!??! Um, wot?
Fabulous Liam and a random Lao family ?!?!??! Um, wot?
Me taking over a sandwich lady's stall. And I have no idea who's glasses they are.
Me taking over a sandwich lady’s stall. And I have no idea who’s glasses I’m wearing nor do I give any shits about how utterly ridiculous I look in this photo.
Lol evidently loving life right here.
Lol evidently loving life right here.
Vang Vieng, how could I not love you?
Vang Vieng, how could I not love you?

Stay tuned for my post about volunteering at educational and environmental sustainability project, SAELAO !

Birthday Bowling in Luang Prabang, Laos

GO SHAWTY IT’S YA BIRTHDAY

WE GONNA PARTY LIKE IT’S YA BIRTHDAY

WE GON’ SIP BACARDI LIKE IT’S YA BIRTHDAY

Okay okay so it was my birthday, the big one-nine in fact, and I was lucky enough to celebrate over two Tiger Whiskey fuelled nights in Luang Prabang with the fantastic company of new friends.

I liked Luang Prabang a lot. There’s a really impressive night market, cheap and delicious food ($1 buffet anyone?), and no shortage of charming Lao hospitality.

Temple and tents of the night market in Luang Prabang
Temple and tents of the night market in Luang Prabang

The celebrations began on the day before my birthday, when I was re-united with Amelia and Chloe from The Gibbon Experience, and met the final third of their travelling trio, Alice. Now, I know that nobody likes to hear about other peoples’ “funniest thing EVER but you had to be there” night-out stories or see their totally #lol #yolo drunken photos, but I’m going to subject you to them anyway. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. It is my birthday after all. 

After picking up some very cheap and very delicious watermelon vodka from the bottle-o down the street, we began our night of festivities in the hostel common room with a game of drinking Uno. After a few rounds, we were in high spirits, and running along the road screaming complete nonsense in an attempt to hail a tuk-tuk. How is it that tuk-tuk drivers seem to be everywhere you look until you actually need a ride?!

Like most backpackers, our first stop was Utopia, a chilled out bar complete with floor cushions, shisha and crazy cheap drinks to get the night really started. It was packed to the bamboo rafters and we had a really good time. We made some new friends, had some Lao Lao shots (never again), and failed to pick up some hot German guys before the bar closed at the strike of midnight. Cya Utopia, it’s off to bowling.

Bowling? Yes, bowling. Believe it or not, every night hundreds of backpackers converge on Luang Prabang’s back-to-the-80’s bowling alley for more alcohol and a game of the ol’ ten pin. It’s absolutely hilarious, and so much fun. Bowling shoes optional, bumpers not allowed.

It’s at this point my memory gets a little blurred. I have a video on my phone of everyone singing “Happy Birthday” to me at one point, which I wish I could upload, but it’s probably best that I can’t. We met some cool Canadian guys who were totally wowed by my Canadian accent and me a bottle of vodka as a birthday present. I don’t remember how the night ended, but I do remember walking back to the hostel with a chicken baguette in my hands.

Amelia, Chloe and two Canadian heroes.
Amelia, Chloe and two Canadian heroes.
Alice and I
Alice and I
The ridiculousness of it all.
The ridiculousness of it all.

We awoke the next day with hangovers. Or should I say, LUANG PRABANG-OVERS ?! (Am I right?!) I treated myself to a birthday brownie for breakfast with Amelia, Chloe and Alice, before they headed south to Vang Vieng where I would see them again in a couple of days. I told myself that I’d had my birthday fun now, and that that night would be a nice, quiet, relaxing one. 

Oh how wrong I was. Someone had let slip to the adorable Lao girl who runs the hostel that it was my birthday and the words nice, quiet and relaxing don’t seem to be in her English vocabulary. She threw me a legit birthday party. She bought me a cake, decorated the hostel with a big “Happy Birthday Maddison” sign and provided eight bottles of whiskey! Eight freaking bottles.

It wasn’t what I had in mind for that night, but regardless, I was totally overwhelmed and amazed by her kindness and generosity! I didn’t know what her name was, and I felt terrible about it. Nobody else knew what her name was either, so after a few drinks, I took matters into my own hands and named her myself. I started calling her Kitty, and told everybody else to do the same! I wish I had a photo with her, she was the sweetest thing. If you’re heading to Luang Prabang, I whole-heartedly recommend the hostel Khammany Inn. tell Kitty that birthday girl Maddi says hey!

That night progressed very similarly to the night prior, although quite a bit faster due to the vast quantities of free-flowing alcohol. Due to the fact that my Nan reads this blog, I won’t go into too much detail about the state I was in, but you can be sure that I embraced the Y O L O mentality very enthusiastically. What else are birthdays for? Shout out to Liam for holding my hair back when I threw up in the squat toilet of the bowling alley and for making sure I was alright when I cried my eyes out over nothing in particular. Soz ’bout it.

Kitty you are THE BEST!
Kitty you are THE BEST!
Before things got out of hand...
Before things got out of hand…
Cake cake cake cake cake cake cake
Cake cake cake cake cake cake cake. (Kitty also made me wear this flower crown)
Tuk Tuk party pals!
Tuk Tuk party pals!
At least I was doing better than John.
At least I was doing better than John.

I felt horrendous the next day, but I braved the bumpy tuk-tuk ride to Luang Prabang’s famous Kuang Si Waterfalls. They’re beautiful and freezing cold, so a great place to cool off from the heat and attempt to wash away my sins of the night before.

Giving Niagra a run for it's money.
Giving Niagra a run for it’s money.
New friends: Dan, myself, Caitlin, Hayley, Samar and joe
New friends: Dan, myself, Caitlin, Hayley, Samar and joe
See that branch above that guy's head? It doesn't look very high but I can assure you it is terrifyingly tall. I jumped off it because that's how wild I am these days guys. CRAY-ZY.
See that branch above that guy’s head? It doesn’t look very high but I can assure you it is terrifyingly tall. I jumped off it because that’s how wild I am these days guys. CRAY-ZY.

Next stop, Vang Vieng! Can I get a “TUUUUU-BERRRRRRS!” ?!

Scenes from the Slow Boat

The “Slow Boat” (“slow” being the key word here) to Luang Prabang leaves from Huay Xai, the border town on the Laos side of Thailand’s Chiang Khong border in the far North. Most people find themselves plonked straight onto this boat after a long bus journey from Chiang Mai or even Pai, but I had just spent two tummy-troubling days in the dire town of Huay Xai and was very eager to leave.

The journey takes a total of 14 hours, with 6 on the first day, and 8 on the second. I SURVIVED. The first hour or so was actually quite pleasant. The gentle rock of the boat, the breeze against my face and the beautiful scenery made for an enjoyable beginning of the trip. Ahh the serenity.

After that, I was bored and numb-bummed. 

The night of day one is spent in a tiny town called Pakse that’s only reason for existing seems to be to cater for travellers on this particular journey. There’s nothing but guesthouses and restaurants, and I heard there’s even a bar or two. I saw none of these though. I spent the night hidden away in my room which had a wifi connection strong enough to stream Seinfeld. YAAAAASSSS.

The second day’s perfect weather and amazing scenery totally made the entire boat journey worth it. Floating past huge jungle covered mountains and tiny little villages made up of nothing but a collection of bamboo huts was pretty damn cool.

IMG_3067 IMG_3069 IMG_3070IMG_3073 IMG_3077 IMG_3084 IMG_3091 IMG_3098 IMG_3104 IMG_3107 IMG_3112Next stop Luang Prabang. Time to party like it’s ma birthday.

 

The Gibbon Experience, Laos

After crossing the border from Thailand to Laos, I was forced to spend a night in the absolute hovel that is Huay Xai (sorry Huay Xai) before being whisked away in the back of a rusty old pick-up truck to The Gibbon Experience. It took three hours of speeding down the bumpiest, most winding dirt road I have ever been on (seriously bouncing around back there was like being on a rollercoaster it was so fun) to finally get us to the Gibbon Experience site.

Essentially, The Gibbon Experience is an eco-tourism forest conservation project that aims to protect the Bokeo Nature Reserve from illegal logging and poaching. The funds generated from tourists are reinvested to protect the forest, and as the project grows, so too does the employment of the local people and by extension, the development of the local area.

The project does this by selling their programs: multi-day adventures into the nature reserve which involving trekking through the jungle, zip-lining above the tree-tops and sleeping overnight in a tree house, all with the hope of spotting one of the famously elusive black gibbons that call the reserve home.

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Tree house views

I had signed up for what’s called The Classic Experience, three days and two nights in the jungle, with lots of zip-lining and supposedly only one hour of essential walking at a relaxed pace.

How wonderful, I had thought upon making my booking. It will surely be a nice gentle stroll across a flat plain of lush green grass, followed by a short, non-strenuous ascent to our tree house.

NOPE.

We trekked for at least three hours uphill through the wild overgrown Lao jungle in the blistering heat of the midday sun. My T-shirt was literally saturated in my sweat and tears (okay so I didn’t cry but it was close). At one point we even had to take our shoes off and walk through a river. Thank goodness I made fast friends with two awesome English girls (shout-out to Amelia and Chloe) and we were able to struggle along together.

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By far the best part of the entire Gibbon Experience is the zip-lining. I don’t remember exactly how many zip-lines there were, but we went on a few each day. They act as the transport between the kitchens, staff camps and tree houses, and connect different parts of the jungle to break up the trekking.

Remember going on the flying fox at the playground when you were a kid? Awesome, right? Now multiply that feeling by, like, one hundred million and add a view of tree tops for miles and stunning mountain scenery. So. Freaking. Amazing.

Coolest thing ever.

After finally making it to the tree house on day one, we were all exhausted. I think our whole group of five went straight for a nap and didn’t wake up until dinnertime. The food was delicious home cooked Lao food, delivered from base camp kitchen directly to our tree house. That evening the group relaxed, played cards and got to know each other while trying not to get malaria.

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On the second day we were woken at 6am by our guide (who was creepily flirty and weird with all of us btw but that’s a story for another time), who helped us to spot gibbons in the surrounding trees. We did actually see a couple of them, wayyyyy off in the distance. Apparently it’s super rare to seem them at all though, so that was pretty neat. 

The second day was full of more trekking and zip-lining. We were able to visit all of the tree houses and use the highest zip-line. The guide told me it was 500m high. Now that I’m typing this, I’ve realised that that figure is probably ridiculous, but I can’t find anything online that says how high the highest line really is, so for now, I’m just going with it. Humour me.

The second evening played out much the same as the first. Food, talk, sleep.

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A tree house in the middle of the Lao jungle is probably one of the worst places on Earth to have explosive diarrhoea. (TMI? Sorry) Hello day three.

The main activities on this day were packing up all our stuff, saying goodbye to the jungle, and making the three-hour trek back to base. For obvious digestive reasons, this was an absolute shit-storm (as Kevin Rudd would say) for me. However, I am proud to say that I made it to base camp without pooing my pants (yay!) and after three hours in the truck heading back down that bumpy road; we made it to Huay Xai, where I was reunited with air-conditioning, the Internet and a sit-down toilet.

And so the wait began for my two day boat journey to Luang Prabang.

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