The events of my solo trip to Laos took place in 2015. However, it played an important role in my life and self-growth. I learned a lot from this trip, mainly about myself, my weaknesses, my way of thinking, and more importantly about other cultures and their different ways of thinking and also their tradition.
I believe, this is indeed an enriching experience and everyone should at least perform a solo trip at some point in their life.
It’s 2015 already, and I want to change the world, If I’m travelling for my next vacation, it needs to have a value, adding something to the world even if it’s a small tiny thing.
So I applied for a construction & renovation project in Laos with IVHQ (International Volunteer HQ) marking my first volunteer abroad experience. It turned out to be the most magnificent place to volunteer in Southeast Asia so far.
My journey starts in Alexandria, Egypt. Followed by a 6-hour layover in Dubai, UAE. Then, off to Bangkok, Thailand for a 2-hour layover. Finally, arriving at Wattay Airport in Vientiane, Laos. Totalling a 20-hour travel time.
Afterwards, I headed to the visa-on-arrival counter to apply for the entry visa. The visa costs USD 30, at least at that time. I suggest you bring a passport-sized photograph with you. Otherwise, you will pay extra fees at the counter.
I was welcomed by Ms Tuk as I exited the airport. Ms Tuk is the volunteer coordinator at The Green Lion organization (the local organization). She was waiting for me with the IVHQ signpost, and she picked me up to the volunteers guest house. It was night already, so there wasn’t much to do.
I arrived two days earlier than other volunteers as I wanted to know the city before my placement starts.
My first working day (left: Barny, right: me) – Credit: Beth
On my first day, I assisted in building a concrete footpath at a local Buddhist temple in Vientiane. In this photo, my roommate Mr Barny from Australia, was teaching me how to prepare a concrete mixture before we get started.
It was a great day, and I spent some time talking to the novice monks (the ones who show their right shoulders), they were taking English classes at the time which was also organized by The Green Lion and IVHQ.
One of the great things about the volunteering experience with IVHQ is socializing with other volunteers and enjoying our break time. We usually have lunch around 12:00 together with volunteers working on different placements like child care and teaching. After lunch, we would head back to work on our placements and then finish around 15:00 in the afternoon.
Afterwards, we were free to do anything during that time, and then we had dinner together at a local restaurant. One night we went to the night market area, which was a beautiful market place by the riverside and you could see Thailand across the river. I did one-day English teaching at a local school because they were short of one volunteer, and it was awesome, but teaching English is tough work! =D I joined Phi, a fellow volunteer from Canada, that day and we taught the kids the letters C & D, we also did a review on the numbers.
COPE Visitor Center Credit: asiabookingtravel.com
The next days I was assigned to a rehabilitation centre named “COPE” which stands for “Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise”. The locals know it as CMR (Center for Medical Rehabilitation) as the two organizations work together and are located within the same facility. They basically help out the victims of “bombies” or UXO, and explosive munitions leftovers from the period of the Vietnam war. Also, those who lost a leg or an arm, get a prosthetic one as well as psychological treatment and mental health support.
There is also a visitor centre which has an excellent showcase of the different kind of bombs and how the locals use it to create utensils and other tools constructively. Besides, you can also find several documentaries and movies talking about the danger of the UXOs and the risk they pose on children in the affected areas.
Scrap metal dealers abuse the children, asking them to search for metal objects in the forest to make some money. Sadly, this is done without the use of any protective equipment or metal detectors. The young children might encounter a UXO which could explode, causing severe harm or even death.
School for deaf
Fixing benches with the help of students at school for deaf in Laos – Credit: Beth
I was assigned to fixing seats and benches at COPE with two fellow volunteers, Mr Barny and Ms Beth, she is from the USA. We added bracing to the loose chairs and benches used at the dining room as well as classrooms at the deaf and blind school.
The time I spent at COPE at the deaf school was the most fantastic time I had in Laos, the deaf students helped us a lot during their break time, and they even taught me sign language. We used to sign together and write down words I don’t know how to sign.
My great friend, Phad, who taught me some sign language and a lot about the culture in Laos. Below is a photo where we pose with one of the fixed benches that I wrote on it “MADE WITH LOVE :) EGYPT” shown on the top-left corner below,
My friend and one of the students Phad - Credit: Beth
Weekend in Vang Vieng
Beautiful Vang Vieng from the rooftop of the Souksomboun Guesthouse (click for full size photo)
On the weekends, volunteers have the choice to go sightseeing or spend a couple of days in another city. During my second week, I went to Vang Vieng with fellow volunteers, Phi and Beth. It was a 4-hour drive by bus to the north of Vientiane up to the mountains. It was lovely and magical but unfortunately a little spoiled by the too many tourists over there.
We really enjoyed our time there from tubing into the caves, kayaking 8km along the Nam Song river and jumping off trees at Blue Lagoon.
The accommodation was fantastic, I really liked the guest house where we stayed, the owner was a good heart, and it had a nearby market as well as an ATM. We had our bicycles as well, and my placement was less than a 5 minutes ride by bicycle.
We also learned some Lao phrases and numbers during our placement. You could also take a tuk-tuk around the city which costs around 30,000 kip (1 USD is roughly 8,000 kip).
The food in Laos was amazing, I also loved the fruits, especially the ones you can get at the morning market “Talat Sao”. Since I’m a Muslim I can’t eat pork or drink wine/beer, so I loved the chicken there, and I was delighted to find a local Halal restaurant called “Nazim’s”.
Mr Nazim is an Indian Muslim who also have other branches around Laos, they had one in Vang Vieng as well. The Lao noodles are super delicious, you should also try the mushroom soup they make. On my last night, I had a fantastic squid at the Kop Chai Deu restaurant in Vientiane.
Laos has a minority Muslim community, and there were two Masjids in Vientiane. One is located 2 blocks east of the Nam Phou fountain square built by Pakistani Muslims community. And, the other one by Cambodian Muslims community, as far as I can remember. Still, I have only been to the Pakistani one.
I attended two Jumaah prayers in Vientiane (Friday prayer, when Muslims have their weekly sermon). I was pleased to meet other Muslim families of both Lao and Pakistani origins as well as Indian, Bengali and others.
Two fellow volunteers also had the chance to join me at the Masjid during our prayer to experience the Muslim place of worship. I was delighted they enjoyed the experience.
It’s charming to see Muslims living with Buddhist in Laos, it’s different from other parts of Asia, for example, Burma. But I felt the respect and love between different religions in Laos. I also found that there is a lot in common, especially the spiritual kind of things and beliefs between Islam and Buddhism.
It’s a great overall experience, and I’ve changed a lot during these couple of weeks! I believe it happens when you get to look at the world from a different perspective, experiencing life within a different culture and different people, it’s really amazing. I was not very social before I went to Laos. Still, I found out that what keeps us going is being together and embracing our differences.
Lao people are very kind and peaceful. Even if they don’t understand your language, they would just smile back at you or make a good laugh at your broken Lao language. I just love it when I’m able to put a smile on someone’s face.
That being said, it doesn’t mean there were no issues. Still, we had some problems with the hand tools and power tools during our placement, but it got sorted out eventually. I also had problems with fixing some doors on my first day at COPE because I didn’t have enough experience with that type of work, but Barny helped me out the next day. Going back home you have to make your own way to the airport, the organization will arrange for a tuk-tuk to pick you up at the guest house which you will pay for. But I made some Lao friends during my final week, and they came to pick me up in their car to the airport.
Vientiane on a Tuktuk