Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Next Stage

Our next task was to get to Muang Mai, a district east of where we were and a place where MCC used to work. We headed to the bus station and got on a bus bound for Muang Khua which is about 75% of the distance but about half way there in terms of time. We had lunch in a restaurant called Han Sabai Sabai overlooking the Nam Ou (River). This was the view.

Then it was on to a different bus to go the last stretch to Muang Mai. It was slow going. The road was fairly rough. Along the way we passed 3 or 4 villages with signs indicating the MCC used to work there.

We got stuck within sight of Muang Mai and had to wade through some shin deep water.
Here’s the Guest House we stayed in.

KHAM – a name like no other

Just about all the people we met with in Muang Mai had "Kham" at the beginning of their name. I was traveling with Khamseng, our first host was Khammai, second host also Khamseng. [Photo Above: Khamseng and Khamseng.] At the Education Office we met with Khammoan and had dinner with Khamsai. We interviewed Khamsao. Before the trip was over, I was introducing myself as KhamPhyllis!

8 New Students

Since 7 students graduated and don’t need our support anymore, we now have money to sponsor 8 more students. So our purpose for being in Muang Mai was to affirm the selection of 8 new students. The Education Office found us 4 women and 4 men who are from 5 different ethnic groups: Tai Dum, Khmu, Pho Noi, KaBeet, and Tai Cow. (Don’t count on my spelling of the groups as being accurate. Additionally, the name groups call themselves is often different from the name others call them.)

This photo only shows 7 students. One of the women couldn’t meet with us in the morning but we visited her home in the afternoon.

Lots of Food

One evening, the group for the Education Office had a “small party” for us. It was a great dinner and lots of fun meeting new people. All of the food in Muang Mai was delicious and our hosts were all so warm and inviting. I really enjoyed their hospitality. If we ever ate on our own, I tried to eat only a snack because I always knew that at the meals we were invited to, there would be lots of food.

Of course, this being Laos, there was lots of drinking too: beer, home brew and one time some fermented embryonic deer juice! My “trick” was to accept a cup of whatever I was offered, toast everyone and then fake drink. Of course people soon caught on because my liquid level never decreased but everyone was very gracious and allowed me to play my little game. It just confirmed their belief that foreigners are a wee bit strange.

We were invited out for breakfast with this family (father named Khammao) on Sunday and served beer and home brew -- and lots of it. What a way to start the day!


One of the many sad things we saw on the way was the increased extent of deforestation. It was really sad to see how many hillsides were denuded of trees. One morning we climbed up a road build by a company that is planting rubber plantations in the area. First they cut down all the old growth forest and then clear the under brush. Then they get the villagers to plant the trees.

When we first arrived, our hosts told us that they would be taking turns hosting us because they had to work in their “gardens” on the weekend. It turns out that the rubber company made a deal with some higher level of government that the villagers and the company would share the project 50-50. This sounds good but when you learn the details, it doesn’t work out to be fair or equal. (We met a foreigner who explained how the company worked the deal. Lao people would not explain this to me, a foreigner, because it might be seen as being critical of the powers that be.)

The company and the villagers will each own half the area and half the trees. For the trees planted on the company half, the company will pay villagers to plant, weed and maintain the trees. On the village half, there is no remuneration. So the villagers are happy to work on the one half but unwilling on the other. Therefore the village has imposed a fine of $50 on families that don’t work in the plantation. That’s a tremendous amount of money for a family in Laos. In many years time, when the trees are old enough to produce rubber, the company's half will be strong and healthy and the villagers half may be weak and sparse. The villagers had no say in the contract; they have never seen it. The deal was made at some higher level of government.

MCC’s Past Work

I mentioned that we passed villages with signs indicating that MCC used to work in them. We also heard from many people that some things MCC started were still going on. Rice banks and revolving drug funds were continuing. In more than one village pig lending schemes continue. We saw water running from irrigation systems in a few places.

We heard stories about the good old days when MCC worked there. People talked about learning tours they had been on with MCC. One former counterpart said he had been to Thailand, Vietnam and southern Laos with MCC tours. If it were not for MCC, he would not have seen those places. He was very grateful.

People also spoke fondly of our MCC co-workers in Vientiane and sent gifts back for them with us. Because Muang Mai produces a lot of top quality honey, that was the gift of choice. Khamseng had to haul more than 13 kg of honey on the back home journey.

And Back Again

We retraced our steps and got one crowded bus after another. On one there were seats for 20 and we had 33 passengers. Eventually the driver’s wife, who was collecting fares and generally organizing us, wouldn’t open the door for any more passengers.

NOTE: Some of the pictures are Khamseng's.