31st October 2017
Subsistence farming provides 80 percent of employment in Laos. Rice dominates agriculture, with about 80 percent of the arable land area used for growing rice. So this sets the scene for much of what we saw during our travels. We journeyed through Laos from Luang Prabang in the north to Khone Island in the south, often meandering alongside the mighty Mekong River, and saw the people of Laos working and living through a wide range of activities.
There were of course those in the fields, planting and harvesting the infamous sticky rice, or under their wooden houses thrashing the grain or separating the rice in their willowing pans. In the village of Ban Na Ou, others were using the rice, mixed to a white paste with water, to cook huge, round, pancake-like shapes to dry on bamboo grids outside and then slice into the noodles that we know so well.
We visited the Soundera Salt factory, where salt pans are rented by families to produce bagged salt for sale. In countless villages we witnessed women weaving on their vast wooden looms – creating colourful fabrics for their own skirts and other goods such as scarves and bags for sale. Our visit to Mulberries farm was fascinating; we saw the whole silk production process from the mulberry bushes to the silk worms, the larvae feeding and the silk being spun. The final room full of looms, set up for intricate weaving patterns, was impressive – in particular the detailed work of one young girl who was being trained at the farm on a scholarship before returning to her family to earn a living through weaving.
It was not uncommon to see folk sitting outside their homes splitting bamboo, this has a variety of uses but is mainly used in weaving wonderful baskets in all shapes and sizes carefully designed for their specific roles. The industrious village of Ban Nong Bouang was a joy to see, as locals were busy at work on various tasks including those of wood carving – mainly creating masks and vast wooden bowls. Others were employed in the tea plantations near Tad Fan waterfall, where red, white, green and black teas are produced and packaged. Nearby we encountered Jahi coffee roasters, who invest all their profits in education and water projects.
Others work in Lao Friends Hospital for Children, opened in February 2015 with the idea to create a locally sustainable hospital by and for the Lao people. In the visitors centre we learnt that it is common for children to die from preventable and treatable diseases, such as malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhoea. Approximately one in five children will not live to see their fifth birthday.
In Phonsavan, it was a real treat to visit our guide Mark Steadman’s Lone Buffalo project. Here we met dedicated staff who provide free English lessons and football coaching to young people. We also met some of these young people in their classrooms – they were inspirational and it was great to hear about their plans for the future.
It was chilling to visit the UXO Lao offices – the size of their task is horrific. Many work tirelessly to clear the land of the ordnance dropped over 40 years ago – it was a real privilege to see a team of UXO clearance personnel at work ‘in the field’.
Others earn a living as masseurs (we can recommend the massages and steam room at the Red Cross centre in Luang Prabang) or selling their wares in the colourful street markets – exciting arrays of vegetables and herbs as well as a wide range of creatures both alive and already slaughtered. We were so privileged to see all this activity, and more, in Laos.
This blog was written by Wild Frontiers client Margaret Miles, who travelled on our Laos Unlocked tour.