Huay Xai, in north-west Laos, lazes beside the tranquil Mekong River (it really is tranquil this far north), facing Thailand across the river.
Most visitors don’t see a lot of Huay Xai. Some travellers might stay in town for a night before embarking upon the Gibbon Experience, which is a multi-day zip-lining expedition through the jungle (we didn’t do it as the kids aren’t old enough), but most just use Huay Xai as the embarkation point for the slow-boat journey down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. The vast majority of tourists don’t even spend a night here – they cross the border from Thailand and get on a boat on the same day.
This is a shame, because the area has a lot to offer.
Most of our experiences in Huay Xai were organised by MJ, from New Challenge Discovery, which is a relatively new tour outfit set up by a group of local guys who know and love the Bokeo province and its people. A proportion of funds from New Challenge Discovery Tours go towards local education initiatives. In addition to organising kayaking and trekking adventures, and local village visits, MJ and the team are passionate about the power of education to lift people out of poverty. They have a big dream to broaden the opportunities of the local children.
Our first activity, and one of the highlights of our stay, was to visit the little night school that MJ has set up in his parents’ village. Out the back of his parents’ little wooden house, he and his father have built homemade desks and stools, hung up a whiteboard, and strung some fluorescent lights. Into this little haven the children come voluntarily at 7:00pm to learn English several nights a week. MJ, who learned English himself just through conversation and pop songs (he said he owes his skill to Savage Garden) teaches the kids, and often brings travellers to help out.
MJ’s parents themselves were illiterate in their own language, Lao, so to help kids become bilingual is a massive advantage for them and a great passion for MJ.
I should mention that this is a village without a town water supply, where the kids have to collect water from a little spring in the stream each day, and where people bathe and wash their clothes in the same stream.
Despite living a life devoid of the luxuries we are used to in the western world – the boys play in the jungle setting traps for rats, not on iPads; the girls help their mothers cook and wash clothes, and look after smaller children – these children were full of life and laughter.
As were we! I haven’t laughed so much in a long time. My cheeks hurt at the end. The local kids were eager to learn, and just beautiful. Many of them were shy at first, but they devoured the lesson. While most of the local children go to primary school, often they don’t go on to high school as they need to work to support their families. MJ is trying to give them a little leg up in an area where there are not a lot of opportunities.
I think the pictures tell the story of the class better than words.
MJ asks kids to volunteer and ‘act out’ the words they’re learning. This is ‘old lady’.
I’m having a go here. I think I’m supposed to be hungry. That or laughing.
The kids come voluntarily, and the little outdoor classroom was full! When I spoke to them, lots of them wanted to be teachers and tour guides – it seems MJ has inspired them. He may need to build more desks!
We brought along some pencils and books for the kids to use to practise their skills.
These two had matching smiles.
Our kids were tired, but it was such a valuable experience for them to see the village and meet the children.
As we headed back to town in our tuk tuk after the class, from the darkness we could hear the kids shouting goodbye, running home. We were laughing, they were laughing; it was brilliant!
MJ dreams of making enough money to dig a well in his parents’ village so they can more easily access clean water. I hope he achieves them! If you’re ever in Huay Xai, look him up at New Challenge Discovery. It’s an experience not to be missed!
Stay tuned for our kayaking and waterfall adventure!
In case you missed my last post from Chiang Rai, check it out here.