The kids look up to you with intrigue in their eye, sitting on the dusty concrete floor, eating their lunches slowly, curiosity floats through their mind as to what these strange foreigners are doing in their school. They have seen foreigners before, it is not new to them, but to wander in the school grounds with fellow volunteers is an experience to always saviour. They stare at you with curious eyes, some smile, some frown and some kids even run up to you as if you are a Rock star here to perform a hit concert, but we are far from Rock stars, not even close. Still you wave and smile and hand out a few high fives, then it hits you instantly at what you are doing here and you have sudden pride in the decision to Volunteer in Laos.
It is an experience like no other, travelling to an unfamiliar country, one that is underdeveloped, with little infrastructure and dodgy roads. Where the smell in the air is different to what you are used to back home and their way of living comes a little different to the standards of western civilisation. Yet, you don’t let it deter you, it is why you choose to volunteer, to help where you can and to support those who need it. Of course, you can’t change the world, but for a fleeting moment you can change the experience of someone’s life, bring joy and even a smile, then by doing so, you create a lasting memory that will last a life time.
What triggered the decision to Volunteer in Laos?
I have travelled to some fabulous destinations throughout Asia, stayed in some luxury resorts, drinking booze by the pool and have been on some incredible adventures through some stunning scenery. I felt the need to do something different this time, to give back to a community abroad that needed a helping hand. Therefore, I made the decision to volunteer, the only decision to make next, was which organisation to volunteer with? And which country to visit?
I searched a few organisations on the internet, studied the countries available, the prices and the programs on offer. Some organisations were quite hefty in price, so I went with the more affordable International Volunteers Headquarters (IVHQ). At the end of the day the IVHQ organisations were professional and thorough, the only thing to do was to pay the fees and choose which country to volunteer in. Amongst a number of destinations, I narrowed it down to Nepal and Laos, and for no particular reason, I chose to volunteer in Laos.
The Green Lion Volunteer Organisations
Once your dealings with IVHQ are done, you are more or less handed over to the organisation running things in Laos, The Green Lion. Not that contact with IVHQ are ever lost. The Green Lion are run by two great guys in Laos, brothers in fact, Micky and Ticky. They pick you from the airport, help make plans for a weekend away, help with any translations that is required with the locals and of course, provide the schools or monasteries where you will teach English.
The accommodation is a little away from the Laos Capital, Vientiane. There is not a great deal to do at the placement, except to visit a few local markets and play sport with other locals and Volunteers. The rooms are dorm style, with three bunk beds and thankfully it is not fully occupied but you are still not alone in the dorms. In the placement area, there is a kitchen and dining area, a social common area with occasional WIFI and a sports field, which was made entirely of gravel.
A Splash of Culture
Entering the Green Lion organisation was not just about getting into the nitty and gritty of volunteering, with the program beginning with a step through some Laos Culture. It started with making flowers for the monks and delivering it to their very own temple where they lived at the Vat Pana Khoun Temple, a little away from the Vientiane city. Not only did we offer the volunteers the flowers but we received a spiritual and deep meditation lesson from the mons themselves.
The culture continued through a day trip into the city, where we learnt about the tragic tale of the cluster bombs, that destroyed many innocent lives long after they were ejected from a U.S war plane. We wandered the streets of Vientiane, making our way into markets, shopping malls and the Patuxai War Monument. The best bit, however, was entering the Golden Palace, a stunning Buddhist temple that is decorated with proud symbolic statues found regularly throughout the South East Asian countries.
We ventured deep into a local village, a real highlight as we walked down the dusty gravel road and witnessed how the locals lived during a normal day. Houses were made of wood, no windows, the kids smiled and played down the straight without a care in the world, and the bulls roamed free on the roads in the village.
A hike through some wonderful Laos bushlands in humid conditions capped off culture week, finishing on top of a rock with a great view of the country side in Laos, it was the perfect spot for a picnic lunch with the fellow volunteers, although there was no respite from the heat.
Teaching English to the Monks
From an outside perspective, I have always viewed the monks as very special people and they are exactly that. To approach one, to communicate or to even shake one’s hand from my own perspective always seemed to be a tad on the forbidden side. Not that I had a great deal to with monks beforehand, I had to volunteer in Laos to change that perspective. And how wrong I had been.
It was a privilege to be in the presence of the monks, to talk with them, to teach them and to even laugh with these great men. In life no matter the person or their position in the world, everyone is a human being first. It is no exception with a monk, they have a great sense of humour, they full of wit, character and at times a little cheeky. If that is not enough, the monks in Laos even do Facebook and if you befriend a couple, you will see they are quite active on the social media platform.
Besides their great character, sense of humour and their obsession with Facebook, the monk’s willingness to learn English was astounding and they were a pleasure to teach. Communicating and understanding at times was quite difficult, but they never shied away from the challenge of learning and their development over time gradually improved.
The challenge of Teaching English to the kids
I always knew this journey would be a challenge, I mean not one of the volunteers are teachers by profession, we just know how to speak English. So, the challenge of keeping the kids occupied for a couple of hours each day was indeed a mental battle. As I said at the beginning of the piece, the kids idolised the volunteers from the moment we walked into the school grounds, but to maintain the focus of a child as young as seven, who couldn’t speak our language, was another story completely.
They had the basic fundamentals of English, in terms of counting, shapes and the alphabet, but to go further than the basics was when the road blocks began. All over again I had to learn kid songs and basic kid games, any way to the best or ability to entertain the kids when boredom started to sink in. It was these kinds of challenges that made me sign up for the program in the first place. then came the unbridled joy when everything clicked in the classrooms and students would burst out in full voice and laughter, it was indeed hard work but high reward.
Getting along with fellow volunteers
An unknown when volunteering is who will be joining you on this adventure, or who you will be joining up with. Upon entering the program, you anticipate a lot of things, you expect volunteers to be of different nationalities and of different age groups. So, you can imagine my surprise when I rocked up at the Green Lion, and a majority of the volunteers were university students, and at the tender age of 35, I was the oldest at the program by some considerable margin.
During my time at the placement, there were seven French people, two Danish girls, two Malaysian women, a Dutch woman, an Englishmen and a Canadian. I was the lone Aussie. All the volunteers were of a youthful age, at least to me, but they were all great young people, with good intentions and we were all there for a common cause, to volunteer and to lend a helping hand anyway we could. It was a pleasure to meet such fine people and forever there will be great memories of time spent together, especially during those tense volleyball matches against the French.
The experience that I will never forget
To volunteer in Laos, an experience that I’ll never forget and a journey I am glad I participated in. Memories were created, friendships were made and I can only hope that I reached out to people who needed a lending hand. It is an incredible adventure and there are challenges when venturing into an underdeveloped country, but if ever given a chance and the finances permit, take the journey into volunteering because it is a rewarding experience that you will never forget.