Mike Liu, Simon Latham, and I traveled to Salavan Province in southern Laos to visit two villages as part of our work on land legal issues with Village Focus International (VFI). We left by pickup with the three of us in the back seat of the extended cab, while two VFI employees, Viseth and Kasone, drove. We arrived in Pakxe after 10 or 11 hours and picked up three other members of the VFI team the following morning. Keith is a professor at Green Mountain College in Vermont, while Namphone and Bounme are two new Lao hires with VFI.
From Paxse we traveled to Laongam in Salavan where officials of the district’s Ministry of Education met with our team. Our tourist visas limited many areas of the country that we could “work” in. So for us to convene meetings in the village, we became Dr. Keith’s students and presented a certified letter from the National Ministry of Education.
A majority of work done by INGOs in Laos requires a formal relationship (MOU) with one of the government ministries. Without such a relationship, as some of our fellow frustrated Lao interns know, there is little that can be done without risking further isolation by the Lao government.
Laongam was a quite little town that lined the main road. We ate a lot of noodle soup and there wasn’t much to do at night, but we weren’t “roughing it” because the Lao staff really looked after us and we stayed at a clean guesthouse. At times I thought that they saw me and the other farang with giant “Fragile” stickers on our foreheads, but it was just their hospitality and they wanted us to enjoy our trip.
We visited two villages on two separate days. Each day, many of the villagers were already assembled in a meeting hall as we arrived. We were treated as real guests of honor, sitting at a long table as we introduced ourselves and listened to initial statements by village leaders. The villagers were divided between men and women with each seated on mats on different sides of the room. Shortly after introductions we were able to also move to the floor and Viseth’s ability to make villagers laugh, allowed our meetings to be more relaxed and conversational. He is as close as I’ve seen to any Lao having ADHD, so he always liked to keep moving. We began with conversations and questions about issues pertaining to the village itself, specifically relating to land. But there were some questions that they had for us; mostly pertaining to what life was like back home and what we thought about Laos. Our translator, Bounme, joked that we could start signing autographs.
More than just their curiosity, however, both villages wanted to communicate their village’s needs, trying to find ways that VFI could partner with them. Us coming to the village was an opportunity to show that they are working hard to improve the village. They care about making things better for their children and making sure their kids will have enough rice, enough land, an education. I’m not sure how our trip could directly help those that we met, but it did give me a greater focus for who we are seeking to help here at VFI; the villagers.
We had a good trip and were fortunate to experience little parts of village life and also the new friendships we made with other members of the VFI staff. And all the farang came back in one piece.