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12 Jun

He was eleven.  He’d never been scrap metal collecting before, but he and his two school friends followed some adults.  They wanted to earn some money.  The adults carefully put aside the unexploded cluster bombs.  The children didn’t know what they were.  His school friend picked two up and banged them together.

He was still alive when his Mum and Dad got to him.  They hired a truck and took him to the nearest hospital.  There was no blood and no oxygen, so they couldn’t treat him.  They took him to the next hospital.  There was no blood and no oxygen.  They knew they couldn’t make it to another hospital in time, so they took him home to die.  He was eleven.

Laos had millions of cluster bombs dropped on it by US planes during the Vietnam war.  Clearing them is a gargantuan task and countless numbers remain unexploded in the Lao countryside.  This heartbreaking story is sadly one of many.


Luang Prabang

8 Jun

It’s like being on a film set.  Indochina, 1950’s, start of the rainy season.  Frenchmen drink strong coffee in cosy bakeries, while orange robed monks hurry past, protecting themselves from the drizzle with black umbrellas.  A water buffalo chews listlessly on what’s left of the grass in the muddy school playground while a cluster of school girls, wearing smart white shirts and navy sarongs with stripes embroidered around the bottom, cluster together, giggling and sharing gossip.  Tuk tuk drivers sleep in hammocks strung from the roofs of their brightly painted vehicles.

The set designers have done a splendid job.  Grand French colonial mansions have bamboo bird cages hanging from their intricately carved, hardwood balconies.  Chinese shophouses jostle together, their ground floors are home to pharmacies, noodle shops, cycle repair workshops and laundries.  The narrow lanes are shaded by heavily laden mango trees.  Cyclists weave past racks of rice crackers baking in the sun and wandering cockerels.

But it’s the temples which really define Luang Prabang.  Rearing silver nagas heads with fearsome pointed teeth and red tongues, lead you  up the steps towards glistening white and gold buildings with steeply pitched terracotta roofs, mirror tile decorations showing rice harvesting and elephant riding.  Boy monks, wearing novices’ yellow tabards, banging drums bigger than themselves as thunder rumbles overhead in an ominously dark sky, and practising their kung fu moves in the courtyard before evening prayers.  Glimpses into private quarters with annatto orange robes hanging up to dry and alms bowls full of sticky rice.

It’s a sleepy place.  Our days are punctuated by coffee drinking, croissant eating and chatting to friends. When we’re feeling energetic, we cycle from one end of town to the other in a morning or take a bumpy tuk tuk out of town to swim in a spectacular waterfall.

But mostly we wander.  Through temple courtyards listening to novice monks practising their sutras, through the market looking at toads and monitor lizards and wondering how you might cook them, along narrow alley ways past centuries old wooden houses,  down the film set streets with their beautiful buildings and cast of smiling extras.  It’s a hard place to say goodbye to.

How to dye silk

3 Jun

Big Brother Mouse

2 Jun

Playing the Shopping List game at Big Brother Mouse

Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, officially, I didn’t just make it up.  Which means that books of any kind are in pretty short supply.  Children’s books are even rarer and children’s picture books in the Lao language are like hen’s teeth.  Many children have never even held a book, let alone discovered the magic of reading.

Which is why Big Brother Mouse is such a wonderful organisation.  They are a charity which publishes books espcially for Lao children.  Colourful books, fun books, the kind of books my lucky children have shelves full of at home.  And they make sure that their books are enjoyed by as many children as possible.  Children who may never have seen a book before.  They do all kinds of lovely things like setting up lending libraries in rural villages and holding book parties, at which every guest receives their own book, pencil and paper.  It’s hard to imagine not owning a pencil, isn’t it?

They do lots of other things too, in an education vein.  At their office in Luang Prabang, they run English language lessons every morning.  It’s a brilliantly simple idea.  Tourists, of which there are many in this stunning World Heritage city, are asked to donate two hours of their time, to talk to local young people.  You can help them with their college work, or to decipher instructions given to them by their boss, play word games, read books aloud, or just chat.  We been three times now, and not only do we get a warm glow from hopefully helping someone to improve their employment prospects and therefore their future, but it’s also fascinating.

How many times when you’re a tourist do you get to have a properly in depth conversation with a local, with no agenda other than using words?  Some of them speak limited English and we’ll just help translate specific words or with pronounciation, but most of them have an impressive command of it, and have worked incredibly hard, to become so proficient.  We’ve spoken about all sorts of things including central banks, agriculture, wedding customs and how many people live in a Lao house (lots in case you were wondering).

I’m sure we’d have had a wonderful time in Luang Prabang, whatever we did, it’s a stunning place with friendly people and impossibly grand guest houses, so it would be hard not to.  But having a chance to meet its lovely people too has made it really special.


If you want to donate to Big Brother Mouse, I can confirm that your money will be very well spent.

It really is a small world after all

1 Jun

I’m sitting in a rather lovely cafe, drinking fair trade organic coffee, Luang Prabang’s that kind of place, and the children are squabbling over who gets the last bit of the cinnammon roll, when a slightly breathless Canadian woman in running gear approaches us and says “I read your blog!”

Once I got over the shock, we established that we have children of the same age, are doing the same sort of thing and agree that we should meet up.  Which we do, and we spend the whole day together, swapping stories.

That was five days ago and we’ve seen them every day since.  It’s been such an unexpected treat to meet like minded people so far away from home.  Turns out it really is a very small world.

We’ll be millionaires, Rodney

25 May

“Can I have twelve thousand kip when we go to the market, Mummy?”  Yes, you read that right.  We are currently in Laos, more of which later, and exchange rate is twelve thousand kip to the pound, or thereabouts.  Very good for ones twelve times table.

The most you are allowed to take out of the cash point in one go is a million kip.  Which isn’t really that much, less than £100.  The smallest note is one thousand kip, or approximately ten pence, which at least means you don’t need a wheelbarrow to carry your notes.  The locals think that coins, which they don’t have here, are very confusing.

It’s utterly ridiculous, but quite fun.