Friday, December 9, 2011

Off to Nong Khiaw

Luang Prabang (bottom of map) to Nong Khiaw (designated by letter B, top right of map).
Early this afternoon a minivan, which Steve Rutledge had previously arranged, pulled up to our residence to take him, Mike Yap, Art Quickenton (who arrived in Luang Prabang late that morning), Sean Holt (who is staying in Laos for several months), Khamdee (our translator), and myself deep into northern Laos. Once we loaded up the vehicle with our backpacks and ourselves, we began our trek to Nong Khiaw.

With Luang Prabang falling behind us, the highway began to snake its way through the countryside. As we drove, the full majesty and beauty of the Annamese Mountains became quickly and readily apparent. Shrouded in lush vegetation, these natural edifices began to surround us and tower over us, which were simply an awesome sight to behold.

Main street in Ban Nong Khiaw
A couple of hours later, we arrived in Nong Khiaw, a sleepy little village nestled on the west bank of the Nam Ou River. Across the bridge and on the opposite bank of the river is the little village of Sop Houn. A dramatic backdrop of high mountains, some with vertical faces of exposed rock, dominated and embraced this region. The economic life of these two villages primarily relied on tourists, as evidenced by several guesthouses and boats for hire.

View of Nong Khiaw from Sop Houn

Our first priority in Nong Khiaw was to visit the local school, where Steve Rutledge was to distribute five water purification filters that day. The second priority was to load two trucks with fifty water filters for the trip to the village of Phonsavan, which was the following day.

Steve Rutledge assembling one of the water filters.
The five water filters for the school were unboxed and assembled at the front of the classroom. The students, teacher, and several officials, including the education minister for the region, sat down for the hands-on water filter demonstration given by Steve Rutledge and translated into Lao by Khamdee.  Later, students, teacher, and officials all had an opportunity to ask questions.

After the demonstration the students, teacher, and officials went outside to have their photographs taken with the water filters.

Students, teacher and education minister pose with water filter.
As part of the photo op that day, Steve Rutledge posed with the education minister (on the left) and the Nong Khiaw school teacher (on the right) below.

Before we headed over to our guesthouses to check in, we had one brief stop to make. Steve had to drop off a water filter for Khamdee's brother, who is living in a dorm not too far from the school. When I saw the place in which he lived, I was absolutely shocked.

Phanoy Restaurant

As the last vestiges of daylight succumbed to darkness and the air quickly chilled, Mike, Art, Sean, Khamdee, Oudom (Khamdee's brother), Khamdee's brother-in-law, and myself gathered at Phanoy Guesthouse restaurant in the village of Sop Houn for dinner.

While we chatted over dinner that night, I discovered that Khamdee's brother-in-law worked as a de-mining technician for UXO LAO. Prior to visiting Laos, I had done extensive research about this dark time in Laos' history and its deadly legacy - a legacy which hinders its economic development to this day. In the process, I learned about this organization which is dedicated to helping Laos rid itself of the tons of unexploded bombs - haunting reminders of the secret bombing campaign by the United States (1964 - 1973) - still scattered throughout its countryside.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Visit to the Buddha Caves

This afternoon my new Laotian acquaintance, Juck, and I ventured 25 kilometres north of Luang Prabang on his motorbike. Motorbikes are as numerous in Laos as cars are back in North America. Our destination was the Buddha caves (Tham Ting and Tham Theung, lower and upper caves, respectively) near Ban Pak Ou, a village located near the Mekong River and catering to tourists. But before leaving Luang Prabang, Juck took me to a local market where I purchased a helmet, which I needed to wear so that we didn't get fined by the police. The helmet cost 80,000 KIP or $10 US.

As we drove up to Ban Pak Ou, it was simply wonderful to feel the freedom of riding in the fresh and open country air. The Laos countryside with its majestic mountains and lush vegetation was absolutely breathtaking. An hour or so later, we arrived at our destination, where we parked the motorbike and paid the parking attendant 5,000 KIP ($0.63 US). Then we strolled into the village and wandered around for a bit before heading to the riverside. While I was in the village, I purchased a small bottle of locally made Lao Lao (or rice whiskey).

Ban Pak Ou vendor
Shops in Pak Ou
At the riverside, we hired a boat, similar to the ones pictured below, to take us across the river to the Buddha caves themselves. The roundtrip cost 10,000 KIP ($1.25 US).

Once we reached the other side of the river, we disembarked and walked along a dock constructed from bamboo. At the end of the dock, there was a small ticket booth where we paid 20,000 KIP ($2.50 US) for admission. From there, we walked along a short plank and then ascended a steep set of stairs to Tham Ting (the lower cave), which contained the greatest number of Buddha statues.

Bamboo dock
Stairway to Tham Ting (lower cave)
The collection of Buddha statues, numbering some 4,000 in this natural cavernous cathedral, in Tham Ting (the lower cave) was simply staggering. Each statue is different in some way. In the photo below is just a sample of what I mean.

Tham Ting (the lower cave)
After spending some time there, I visited Tham Theung (the upper cave) alone. Unlike Tham Ting, Tham Theung extended deeper into the rock face. By the time I reached the back of the cave, it was almost pitch black and soon discovered that there were only a handful of statues.

Tham Theung (upper cave) entrance
On our way back to Ban Pak Ou, the boat driver had some issues trying to start the motor. As he attempted to restart it, the boat began to drift through the water. After a couple of failed attempts, the driver sounded like he was getting frustrated. Eventually, the motor sprang to life and driver, now in good spirits, took us back to Ban Pak Ou, where Juck and I had some lunch with Beer Lao.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day One in Laos

After having had a good night's sleep, I awoke to the sounds of cock-a-doodle-doo from the local rooster on my first day here in Laos. In Lao culture, the rooster symbolizes good luck.

Shortly after 7 AM I got out of bed and had a warm shower. After getting dressed, I made a coffee and had one of the protein bars for breakfast. Surprisingly, the protein bar was quite tasty.

Once Mike gets ready, we will venture into downtown Luang Prabang to run some errands and for me to visit a money changer to convert some of my US currency into KIP.

Blue Ice Bar: A Home Away From Home

On the way back from the airport, Mike suggested that we visit Blue Ice Bar. I responded that I would love to do that, but I understandably wanted to do a quick change of clothes and freshen up a bit before embarking on this little adventure.

Once we arrived at the house, Mike showed me to my room. Within moments, I opened my big suitcase, which my friend Jason had lent me for this trip, and quickly selected what I would wear. After changing into something more comfortable, Mike and I were out the door.

As we walked down the street, it didn't take long for me to realize that this was a poor country. We passed by many retail establishments, which by North American standards, were very basic at best.

About twenty minutes later we finally reached Blue Ice Bar, a warm and inviting little place popular with locals and tourists alike on the banks of Nam Khan River. The entrance to the bar, which I later learned was built in the 1960s, was flanked by the Laos flag on the left and the flag of the former Soviet Union on the right. Once we stepped inside, Mike introduced me to Phut, the bar owner, from whom he promptly ordered two huge bottles of Beer Lao, each bottle the equivalent of two pints and costing 15,000 KIP (just under $2 US).

We stayed at the bar until closing, which was around 11.30 PM, and then walked back home.

Since that first visit, this place has become a great spot to hang out because it and the cliente there makes me feel very much at home.

I'm in Laos!

At 9.25 PM (9.25 AM in Toronto) on Monday, December 5, my Lao Airlines flight, originally scheduled to land at 7.25 PM (7.25 AM in Toronto), finally touched down at the airport in Luang Prabang. As soon as I deplaned, I felt the warmth of the night air gently touching my face. It was an absolutely wonderful feeling. Considering the length of my journey and being my first time traveling internationally, I felt remarkably well.

From the plane to the terminal building, a small and the only structure on the airfield, I only had to walk a short distance. Entering through the main doors, one of the airport officials directed me to the customs desk where I needed to pay for and pick up my visa. While I waited in line, I could see Mike standing outside. I instantly and excitedly waved and mouthed hello. He responded in kind, and so did a young Lao man, whom I would soon learn was one of the students sponsored by Adopt a Village in Laos. When it came my turn, I greeted the customs official seated in the booth by saying "Sabaidee"(which means hello in Lao). He smiled and replied, "Sabaidee". Then, I presented my visa paperwork, which I had completed on the flight, and my passport. The whole process was surprisingly swift and painless.

With that out of the way, I walked over to the luggage conveyor, where I anxiously awaited the appearance of my two pieces of luggage. Two days had passed since we parted company at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. In that time, my luggage had been transferred from Delta to Korean Airlines in New York City, from Korean Airlines to another Korean Airlines in Seoul, South Korea, and then finally from that Korean Airlines to Lao Airlines in Hanoi, Vietnam. When they finally materialized, I joyously grabbed them both and ventured down the corridor. Once outside, Mike greeted me warmly and introduced me to Siphan, that young Lao man, who smiled widely and said, "Sabaidee".

Within a few minutes we boarded a tuk-tuk, a small three-wheeled vehicle, which, in this part of the world, is the equivalent of a taxi cab in North America. Like taxi cabs back home, these vehicles are ubiquitous in Luang Prabang. In addition to shuttling people to and fro, they are used for transporting goods and other things.

Traveling aboard this mode of transportation greatly appealed to my sense of adventure. It didn't take long before we arrived at the residence where I would be staying in Luang Prabang. The cost of the trip from the airport to our destination was about 30,000 KIP (8,000 KIP = $1 US), which, in this instance, works out to about $3.75 US.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Of Teddy Bears and Beanie Babies

While I will be traveling to Laos by myself, I won't be entirely alone. Packed in my luggage are fifteen teddy bears and thirty-one beanie babies, which were graciously donated by some new friends, as gifts for some of the hill tribe children.

Taking Medications

Last Friday I took my first of two doses of Dukoral, which prevents traveler's diarrhea and cholera. This morning I concocted my second and final batch of this medication. From the kit I simply added the contents of a sachet to a glass of lukewarm water, which fizzed like Alka-Seltzer upon striking the water. Next, I gently shook a tiny vial of liquid and then poured its contents into the glass. I swiftly stirred this concoction and then promptly drank it. Surprisingly, it actually tasted good.

After downing that medication, I took my first of dose of Doxycycline, which prevents malaria. I will need to take this throughout my stay in Laos and for four weeks after my return to Canada.

Visiting The Villages

At 2.43 AM this morning an email from Mike Yap arrived in my INBOX. He informed me that we would be heading into the villages on December 9 and staying there for three nights or so. Exciting!

In Less Than 23 Hours...

In less than 23 hours from now, I will be on a Delta Airlines flight bound for Kennedy International Airport in New York City. This will be my first port of call on my way to Laos.

To help travellers take the headache out of calculating what the time difference is between any two locations in the world, I stumbled upon this fantastic little web site simply called

There is a section on the site where you select the date, time and location from which you want to convert. Directly below that there is another section where you select the place to which you want to convert.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Going to Laos: 5 Days to Go

The countdown continues to my departure for Laos. Now only 5 days remain.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

This Time Next Week...

Terminal at Kennedy International Airport
It is now only one week until I depart for Laos. This time next week I will have just completed the first leg of my trip there. I will be at Kennedy International Airport in New York City waiting for my next flight, a Korean Airlines aircraft bound for Seoul, South Korea. Of all the times that I will be spending in the air, this one will be the longest at 14.5 hours.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Going to Laos: 10 Days to Go

The countdown continues to my departure for Laos. Now only 10 days remain.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Another Thank You Email

A couple of hours after receiving that thank you email for Andrew Reyes' donation, another email arrived from Steve Rutledge in which he thanked my friends, Gary Kraft and Dennis McKibbon, for their water filter donation. These three people were among many with whom I spoke earlier this year in my efforts to raise awareness for Adopt a Village in Laos and the important work that this humanitarian organization is doing in Laos.

Since Steve didn't have an email address for Gary and Dennis, he attached the photo of the receiving family to that email. I have taken it upon myself to have this image printed and framed. Then, I will personally present it to them.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Email to Andrew

This evening I received an email from Steve Rutledge in which he thanked my friend, Andrew Reyes, for his water filter donation. Photos of the receiving families were attached.
Hi Andrew, 
I hope all is well with you these days.  In Luang Prabang the cool season has arrived and although still warm during the day, the villages are quite cool at night (low of about 12 degrees).  It may not seem like much for us but without heat and with a breeze in the air, it is quite cool. 
We are pleased that we are able to attach pictures of the two families you purchased a water filter for. You will note that one of the families is very young - I think his wife was preparing Bacci for us.  The other picture of the mother and child were without the father for the picture because he was in the fields harvesting their rice - it was a bumper crop this year too. 
Internet has been very slow these days and the uploads are taking forever so I will do my best. 
Anyway please take care and enjoy the pictures.  You have done a lot for these families!!! 


Friday, November 18, 2011

Going to Laos: 15 Days to Go

The countdown continues to my departure for Laos. Now only 15 days remain.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dress Warmly

Yesterday I received an email from Steve Rutledge updating me about the weather conditions in Laos.
The cool season is pretty much upon us.  Suggest that you bring a warm jacket and a couple of pullovers or sweaters.  During the day it generally goes up to 24-27 but at night it drops down to about 14 degrees - this is in Luang Prabang.  In the villages it is about 4-5 degrees cooler and the temperature will drop at nights to about 4-5 celsius there in December or January. 

If we are lucky though, it won't get quite that cool in the villages but you should be prepared just in case.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


On Sunday, November 13, my new acquaintance, Jim Calcutt, posted a short and eloquent entry on his blog, World Ripples. Simply titled Selfless, it tells of my commitment to helping the people of Laos.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Going to Laos: 20 Days to Go

The countdown continues to my departure for Laos. Now only 20 days remain.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

World Heritage Sites

While taking a break at work (The Computer Shop, University of Toronto) this afternoon, I took a little time to wander through the bookstore section next door. It didn't take long before one of the books leaped off the shelf.

Published by FireFly Books, World Heritage Sites: A Complete Guide To 890 UNESCO World Heritage Sites is an 840-page book covering places from around the planet which are recognized and protected by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) because of their cultural or natural importance. Complimenting this voluminous work, this book is richly illustrated with more than 850 maps and 850 colour photographs. Among the sites listed is the Rideau Canal, which is situated in my home province of Ontario, and the town of Luang Prabang in Laos.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Canadian Hats

While rummaging through my closet this morning, I encountered a stack of seldom worn baseball-style caps. Among the hats I discovered a couple of them with the word Canada and the maple leaf emblazened upon them. I have since added them to my luggage and will wear them when I am in Laos.

Meal Replacement Bars

Since I may not be eating as regularly as I should while venturing through the rural regions of Laos, one of the few remaining items which I still needed for my trip was some sort of nutritious bar. Yesterday, one of my friends took me to a store he normally visits to see what we could find.

As I was perusing the bars, I had to keep in mind one of the things that Steve Rutledge had noted in his list - don't bring anything that contains chocolate. Basically, chocolate doesn't travel well and will simply melt. Most of the bars I encountered contained chocolate in some form, either incorporated into or coating the bar itself.

Eventually, I did find a couple of bars which didn't contain chocolate and decided to take both kinds for variety. One bar was basically a mix of different berries and the other was a mix of oatmeal and peanut butter. Yum!

I purchased enough bars to last me for about three weeks.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Lao Language Guide for iPhone

While doing some online research on the Lao language yesterday, I encountered an iPhone app which teaches you some basic words and phrases. You not only see the translations for commonly used words and phrases, but you can also hear how each word and phrase is spoken.

After downloading and installing the software on my iPhone, I tried it out last night before going to bed. In a word, brilliant!

Going to Laos: 25 Days to Go

The countdown continues to my departure for Laos. Now only 25 days remain.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Learning Some Basic Lao

In this video we learn some basics, specifically how to say hello, good-bye, and how to count.

The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)

Yesterday afternoon I finally sat down to view the DVD which my friend, Bev Korasack, had given to me the Sunday before. As I watched, I could feel my emotions rising and falling like the waves on an ocean.
Filmed over the course of 23 years, THE BETRAYAL (NERAKHOON), is an astonishing tale of perseverance - one family's struggle to survive their journey from war-torn Laos to the streets of New York. Eloquent yet devastating, renowned cinematographer Ellen Kuras' directorial debut is a remarkable collaboration with co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath - a documentary that reveals the hidden, human face of war's "collateral damage".

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Weather in Laos Added

Today I added a link to the sidebar of my blog where you can get up-to-the-minute information about the weather in Laos.

Khaen Lao (Lao mouth organ)

While chatting with Bev Korasack on Facebook today, she told me that on Sunday morning she would be bringing in a traditional Lao musical instrument called a khaen to the radio station and demonstrating it on the air.

In the video above, we get a lesson about how to play this instrument.

Remnants of a Secret War

View excerpt from this book

Through my wanderings on the Web one day, I encountered this book about Laos and the Hmong. I was most intrigued and have added it to my wish list. Hopefully, I will have this book in my hands before I leave so that I can go through it on my way to Laos.

To provide you with a glimpse of what this book is about, read the overview below.
The story of the Hmong people in Laos is a story of survival. Recruited first by the French, and then by the Americans, to be the front line of defense against the North Vietnamese army, their territory became a fierce battleground of the Viet Nam War. The United States’ covert bombing campaign from 1964 to 1973 gave Laos the distinction of being the most bombed country in the history of warfare. Photojournalist Mike Greenlar made 10 trips to Laos between 2000 and 2009 to document the lives the Hmong were fashioning in two resettlement villages. There they continue to farm land rife with unexploded cluster bombs and other munitions.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Going to Laos: 30 Days to Go

The countdown continues to my departure for Laos. Now only 30 days remain.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

SNAP Downtown Toronto - Adopt a Village in Laos

SNAP Downtown Toronto - Adopt a Village in Laos

Around mid-afternoon today I received an email notification from SNAP DOWNTOWN TORONTO to inform me that the Chapters Indigo event, which was covered by SNAP on September 24, had just been published on their web site.

While the event was a far cry from the event at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope the Saturday before, it was still a wonderful opportunity for Steve Rutledge, Mike Yap, and myself to meet one of the other members of the Sieng Lao Radio team, Khamkeut Keovongsa.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I'm On The Air

Fairchild Radio headquarters, Richmond Hill, Ontario

This morning I shared the program with Sieng Lao Radio host regular, Bev Korasack.

At 9.30 am this morning I appeared as a guest on Fairchild Radio's Sieng Lao Radio program, which shares news, events, and other information of interest to Toronto's Lao community and which is broadcast locally and around the world on the Internet, to talk about Adopt a Village in Laos.

While my time on the air was short, I tried to include as much as I could in the allotted time. First, I introduced myself in Lao by saying, "Saibaidee, kanoy man...", which essentially means, "Hello, my name is....".  Then I thanked Fairchild Radio for having the opportunity to appear on the program and to the donors who contributed to Adopt a Village in Laos. I said special hellos to two acquaintances in Laos, one of whom I met at the Buddhist temple a couple of weeks ago and one Facebook friend. Afterwards, the focus shifted to talking about the work of Adopt a Village in Laos, where I touched on some recent project updates and fundraising targets. I emphasized to listeners that they should visit the Adopt a Village in Laos blog for more information and about how to donate.

Before my time was up, I informed listeners about my own venture to Laos this coming December and that I would be providing updates through my blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype.

Throughout my portion of the program, I alternated between two of the Sieng Lao Radio team, Khamkeut Keovongsa and Bev Korasack, who provided the necessary translations into Lao. You can listen to that part of the broadcast here, with the English segments starting at 2 minutes and 20 seconds.

As the program was about to conclude, Khamkeut received a call from a listener who wanted to donate a $100. After briefly chatting with the caller, she passed the phone to me and I personally thanked that person for the contribution.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Live from Laos

When not visiting the hill tribe villages, I will be based in Luang Prabang. From here I will have easy and ready access to the Internet and be able to update my friends and acquaintances back in Toronto and people around the world about what's happening with me through this blog, email, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype.

Going to Laos: 35 Days to Go

The countdown continues to my departure for Laos. Now only 35 days remain.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Beauty of Luang Prabang

When Bev Korasack, my friend and host of Fairchild Radio's Sieng Lao Radio program, recently posted on Facebook a beautiful video about Luang Prabang, the former royal capitol of Laos and now designated as a World Heritage City, she said that the video brought back many cherished memories of her homeland, which, to this day, she deeply misses.

Upon viewing this video, I immediately thought that in just 38 days I will be landing in that very city. Soon after, I will be exploring it and experiencing it. It will also be my place to call home whenever I am not venturing in the rural regions to work with the hill tribes.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Going to Laos: 40 Days to Go

The countdown continues to my departure for Laos. Now only 40 days remain.