Lao Journal: Part One

I’ve decided to type up parts of my reflections from the Griffith Business School Community Internship in Laos in June 2013. Here is part one:

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Ministry of Tourism – Meeting in Pak Xeng District Office, 25 June 2013

There are approximately 52 villages between the Xeng and Seuang Rivers. Pak Xeng is in the Luang Prabang Province and due to the mountainous terrain visits from tourists are restricted. There is a priority placed on protecting the rivers and local waterfall areas in order to attract tourists – nature and culture are Pak Xeng’s primary attraction. Almost 100% of tourists come from Buffalo Tours (the company we were traveling with) and almost all are Australian. The Ministry of Tourism office in Pak Xeng currently has no internet or website, which restricts knowledge and the marketing of the region, as well as making it difficult to attract tourists who want highspeed wifi and internet connection. From questioning the Tourism officials we gathered that a development plan for tourism has recently been enacted to encourage more families in villages to host a guesthouse for tourists.

Another line of questioning was regarding rubbish collection. Currently, the situation is very basic where rubbish is brought to separate locations/offices and eventually put in the ground or burnt. There is no good recycling system and in many of the more regional villages, rubbish collection is virtually non-existent. As tourists care about rubbish and the cleanliness of the environment, this must be made a priority in order to attract more visitors.As a coincidence, there is not a strong ecotourism system.

Some other challenges include that because tourism in the region is still so young and not enough tourists have passed through yet, there is no defined structure for dealing with and fully accomodating and promoting tourism. There is also no specific sites or cultural traditions to stand out to tourists. Added to this, guest houses don’t know how to market and reach tourists due to a lack of internet and the activities of the region’s Tourism Ministry is restricted by its meagre staff of 4-5 people.

Ministry of Education – Meeting in Pak Xeng District Office, 25 June 2013

We conducted this meeting with the Director of Education for the Pak Xeng region, Tong Pan.  Currently there are 248 members/officials of education (100 of which are female) in the Pak Xeng District. Primary education is currently compulsory and Tong Pan claimed that 96% of primary-aged children attend primary school ( a figure found to be suspicious by our tour manager, Graham). From this September, the first three years of primary education will be fully subsidised by the government. After this, many students drop out to return to helping their family farm or because simply can’t afford to continue an education. Major challenges include that students have to travel great distances (some of more than 3 hours each way) to get to school, often through mountainous terrain and fluctuating weather. Alongside this, there is often not enough family funds and so attendance rates drop. Currently secondary education costs around 60 000-70 000 kip per year (approx. USD$25, with average family income USD$30-100 per month). The cost of textbooks and pens add to this economic burden and in primary school one textbook generally services 3-4 people, with secondary and highschool textbooks available for rent at 2000 kip per year (approx USD$0.25).

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Abandoned classroom at Sop Jak Highschool

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Ministry of Education Office

Other challenges include a lack of resources, primarily teachers and classrooms. Ceilings in particular are a priority as the current construction of classrooms means that they are very noisy and hot, making it difficult for students to study effectively. These other challenges – physical, involving property and buildings – present a unique problem for sustainable tourism and volunteering projects like ours. As our tour manager Graham noted, each year a school or university group comes and does a fantastic job working with the villagers to build new classrooms or dormitories or facilities. Yet when a new group comes back the next year, the buildings have been poorly maintained – with lighting systems broken, classrooms left in a filthy and unkempt state, and trash lying everywhere outside the doors of buildings in a great mess.

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Tong Pan, Director of Education, Pak Xeng Region

Is this the fundamental problem of these villages? Or is it the fundamental problem of these volunteering programs? Originally we were to go over and help build an artesian water well in Sop Jak village. However, the government would not approve our involvement for the reasons that they have seen what has happened in Cambodia – it has become overrun and riddled with NGOs and international aid organisations. Instead of able-bodied and willing villagers working to improve their village, their families, their lives, these foreign groups of people come in and do it for them. Is it any wonder there is no sense of ownership and responsibility? I agree that it is difficult to simply hand over the money to these projects and hope that the money will go where it is needed, yet maybe that is really the best option. I believe that interfering, even in a ‘friendly’ way like volunteering, is not the sole answer. Help, yes, but don’t do things for people who can do them for themselves, and to better effect. It actually reminds me very much of a musing by Henry David Thoreau:

“No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.”

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Likewise – we may do things for Lao and these villages, but it is not therefore desirable that we should do so to the exclusion of them doing things for themselves. The best possible interaction we could have had in these villages, was the impact we had. We went in, we observed and interacted, and we offered our support for a project which they need, which they can do, and which they will do, with our support from the sidelines.

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All photos copyright (C) Elise Stephenson.

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