By the banks of the Mekong Part 2

Continuing the account by Shreya Dutta of a Laos trip

On 15th June, 2014 we started our journey. Michael, an engineer from Rezeca Renewables, a relatively fresh start-up engineering firm joined us as we boarded our flight at Changi International Airport to Wattay Airport, Vientiane. After a quick immigration, we made our way to Luang Prabang from the domestic terminal. The view during the hour long flight was breathtaking – with the first glimpse of the Mekong River, the valleys and the cloud-covered mountains and multiple rainbows. We were welcomed in Luang Prabang airport by the general manager (GM) of MyLaoHome, essentially a chain of hotels and villas in UNESCO World Heritage Site Luang Prabang. The GM, Mr. Ninthala also happens to be the education minister’s son. We had an authentic Laotian meal and called it a night in the New Daraphet Villa. Next day, some of the team members went along with Michael to purchase items required for electric wiring in the school in the first village and some went to purchase foodstuffs for breakfast in the village during the upcoming week. Around mid-morning we transferred the entire luggage to a covered boat and began our 3-hour journey to the first village, Ban Khene Kheng. As we reached the village, transferring the items took a toll on us. 400 liters of bottled water, personal luggage, wiring paraphernalia, food and logistic items and materials for teaching and sports left not just us, but even the villagers, old and young, breathless. Grace (yes her name is also Grace), the COO from YMCA Singapore welcomed us. The girls proceeded to a dorm above the village headman’s house while the guys proceeded to the village chief’s, which was much smaller.
The guys had a gala time bathing together, bonding around an open air faucet while the girls did so while washing their hair. Thankfully, the girls were provided a separate bathroom. The first evening ended with basic facilitation and revision of DOs and DON’Ts by Wei Sum after a dinner prepared by Mr. Tae, our freelance guide and Mr. Phuviang, our translator. We all slept on our sleeping bags at night (I say ‘on’ and not ‘in, as the weather was pretty sultry and humid but adaptable in a short time.) The next morning, even though we were supposed to start morning exercise at 6.00 am most of were awake much earlier due to the cocka-doodle-doo of the chickens from 4 am. The next 4 days were pretty repetitive, with each group preparing breakfast (we were divided into 5 fixed groups of 4) on the respective day, we heading out to the village school, half of us being involved in teaching while the other half in installation of lights and fans in the classrooms and their wiring. I was initially in the teaching team and it was a both fun and frustrating experience as the kids knew nothing of English and we knew nothing of Lao. But through art, music and sports, we were able to imbibe some information in their minds. As the end of our sojourn in the village drew nearer, we started being more involved in wiring as there was need of manpower in that area. We managed to install two lights and two fluorescent lamps in each of the 3 classrooms and their complete wiring but the functionality of the system is yet to commence since the government has not yet provided electricity from the grid through the nearby pylon.
On the last day in the village, we were given a grand farewell by the villagers with a thread-tying ceremony being the show-stealer. The elders tied white thread around our wrists and chanted mantras showering us with blessings and gifting us snacks. Later we were served a fresh catch from the Mekong for Lunch. In return, we had a gift-giving ceremony where Wei Sum handed them few extra lights and fans (all the wiring materials was sponsored by Rezeca), old clothes and toys for the children and then we performed our ‘well-rehearsed’ dance to the tune of “Top of the World” by The Carpenters and “Happy” by Pharell Williams. Finally we headed towards the boat which took us back to Luang Prabang for our weekend R & R (Rest and Relaxation) session. The moment we reached the guest house, we pounced on our mobile phones and connected to WiFi. In this tech-obsessed world, even a week without electricity and telecommunication is a lot to endure, nonetheless it’s refreshing as well. We visited the Phousi Hill in Luang Prabang followed by a taste of local delicacies. We called it a night after a speedy shopping at the local and extremely famous night market.
The next day was complete relaxation. In the morning, we travelled to Tad Sae falls, around an hour’s drive from the guest house for elephant ride and bathing with the elephants. The trip was quite enjoyable and on our way back, we purchased, almost literally, a truckload of pineapples. As we saved some money on our previous night’s meal, the leaders gave in to our request to lunch in an up-market restaurant. French and Portuguese cultures have a huge influence on Laos and its people, so we decided to visit a posh French place where we had our fair share of Western Food. In the evening we welcomed the ‘big-shots’: Senior Manager of YMCA Singapore Mr. Andrew, General Manager of Rezeca Renewables Mr. Zachary, Marketing Manager Mr. David and an engineer Mr. Murali of Yingli Solar Singapore and an intern at Yingli from University of Berkeley Nikki. Mr. Andrew decided to take us to a Mookata restaurant, Mookata being a Thai Barbeque and Steamboat style of cooking.
The following day all of us repeated the same preparation procedure as we did for the previous village and after an early lunch, set out for the next village, Ban Lad Khammune. Although manpower was more this time, the situation was slightly tougher. The solar panels shipped in from China and sponsored by Yingli solar were already loaded onto the boat, which was a big relief. But the main challenge was transporting it to the village school and the pathway was treacherous – steep, slippery and muddy. After much contemplation and a long discussion, we set out on a 5-hour journey to our destination, with a short pause in the previous village on the way, to collect few logistic items. As we reached the village, darkness started creeping in. Each solar panel was around 50 kilos and each box had two of those. It was really tough for the guys to carry the panels and the battery box up the slope and the girls too struggled hard to bring up the other items from the river bank. As we were to stay at the village school this time, some of our teammates were in charge of cleaning it while others dispatched the luggage. At the end of the day, we were all beyond exhausted, in complete darkness and proud that we managed to sail through the whole process.
( To be contd)


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