FOR THE LOVE OF LAOS

Former journalist and TV presenter on “Beyond 2000” Iain Finlay, and partner Trish Clark have 
“made a difference” in a new life  – in Laos.

Here Trish reflects on how it began and all they have achieved  – beginning in a poor village in Laos.

Travelling in a small boat from the north-eastern border of Laos with VietNam down the Nam Ou river in 2010, we fetched up in Luang Prabang and whammo! felt immediately at home. So much so that our new life began that very first night. 

After finishing up our restorative evening meal at a simple riverside restaurant we thanked the affable young man who had brought our meal and asked his name.

‘Chanthy’, he told us with a wide warm smile. ‘Chanthy Sisombuth. I study English at school during the day and work here in the evenings.’ 

Some things are meant to be.

On our post-dinner walk I said to Iain, ‘How about tomorrow I ask Chanthy if he would like me to help him with his English studies.’

Chanthy leapt at the offer. We arranged for him to come everyday at 4pm for an hour to the guesthouse where we had made arrangements for long-stay accommodation. 

Time spent with Chanthy was alive with fun and laughter. 

A small request came a month or so later. Could we please assist him in changing language schools. We helped him write a letter of resignation from his present school and a request for a refund of fees for the remainder of the year. Iain went with him to present this at the school’s front office.

The Road To Nalin village (2012 – Before)
The School at Phoujong (2014) Sole teacher, Kaojien

Following on from their grudging agreement we then helped him apply to attend classes at another, more highly regarded, language school, we then offered to pay along with those of his  younger sister, Bounlee, who’d come to train as a Primary School teacher. The fees were miniscule by comparison with what a comparable education would cost in Australia. He accepted with grace, a trait that was a teaching for myself. Pleasing too was how his grasp English progressed in leaps and bounds. 

Before returning to family commitments in Australia we were invited to visit Chanthy’s family in their village, NaLin, a small settlement of rice-growers a half day’s journey by public boat down the river followed by an arduous slog through sticky mud; a visit that changed our lives. 

No running water. No electricity. No medical care. Worst of all the track in and out deteriorated into an unnegotiable quagmire during the annual rainy season, cutting off access to the outside world including healthcare and food markets.

We returned to Australia determined to raise the $50,000 we estimated it would require to build a decent all weather road to and from the settlement. 

It took two years of demanding hands-on fund-raising. The turning point coming when philanthropist/businessman Dick Smith donated $10,000. That road transformed the lives of 300 villagers. It even raised the profile of the village to the extent the local government came on board with electricity and running water.

We returned to Laos to share in the pleasure of making the road a reality: sleeping on the floor of the Sisombuth family home squeezed in between hessian sacks of the family’s store of rice, beneath long strings of pungent garlic and showering out back under a full moon which lit up the surrounding rice paddy.; Chanthy had blossomed into a confident young man so did all the negotiating and translation which at one point included asking on behalf of the village Headman what motivated us and whether we had any plans to build a church. We assured we had no such plans, but did want to film the progress, having both working in television!  

Back in Australia we screened the 40-minute documentary Iain had made of the road-building which raised funds from a growing list of supporters. So we returned to Laos to put in a 14 kilometre road-saving culvert drain. 

It was during this process we stumbled across Phoujong a remote village further up the valley. Its Yao inhabitants had been relocated to this isolated spot by the government and had a one-room shack in which a lone teacher struggled to educate thirty to forty students aged between four and thirteen.

Chanthy had put together a team of men who looked on as Iain marked out where a school could be sited and politely nodded as he unrolled the architectural plans a kind friend in our home valley had drawn up for us. So he  simply got on with the job, needing no input from us about how to build a sturdy two-room school with, most important of all, a twin set of outdoor toilets. 

Chanthy’s serenely affable father, Khamchanh, slept under a lean-to on site. He also caught fish from the nearby stream and cooked up a midday meal every day for everyone toiling in the heat. 

It was while working on this building I met a local woman who was sitting outside her simple hut, embroidering a masterpiece of exquisite colours in tiny cross-stitch. Her work was beyond exceptional and demanded a wider appreciation though how, I had no idea. The woman, Merynguyen Saechou, was the wife of the school teacher.

The opening of the school was a big event attended by two officials from the Australian Embassy in the capital, Vientiane.

It was a delight to witness the teacher grow in official stature to become a Principal and to be allotted two junior teachers to share the work.

Back home again we had another documentary about the building of the school. This one screened again at our local art-house cinema in coastal Kingscliff NSW, and  Randwick TAFE in Sydney. Funds, though never easy to raise,  started to flow and I sent out an appeal email headline headlined Pigs Will Fly. But soon  enough donations arrived to establish of a series of small piggeries plus the purchase of two buffaloes shared as a breeding pair amongst the villagers of NaLin.

Once more Chanthy took on the management role and on our next stay we took the buffaloes for a riverside evening stroll.

We next found ourselves fundraising to build a 60-bed dormitory with attached cooking facilities and an ablution block for a Middle School at Koktum, a village in the same valley but closer to the Mekong River. This would provide weekly boarding for students, both girls as well as boys, from the far-flung hamlets scattered through the area who would otherwise have no way of continuing their education and more likely than not would drop through the cracks to follow the path of their parents into subsistence farming.

This was a bigger financial exercise  but a generous couple, Ross and Marianne Allan, from Mullumbimby, offered to donate half the $70,000 we estimated it would cost to turn the idea into bricks and mortar. 

Again Chanthy, now a married man (what a wedding that was!) with his pregnant wife, Oan took on the Project Management. His father and father-in-law, Lar, slept on site and headed up a team of hard-working competent builders, carpenters, plumbers and painters, who tackled whatever job was required. 

Over a period of three months on land behind the already extant school, generously donated by a Koktum villager, they erected a safe haven which quickly filled with students who arrived on Mondays, planted and tended their own food garden, washed their own clothes and kept their own bunk-bed sleeping places tidy and clean, leaving for their mountain homes on Friday to spend weekends working on their family farms.

Throughout the process the students remained at their studies while Chanthy, was everywhere at once, keeping an eye on the supply chain of cement, building blocks, roofing tin, timber, rainwater culverts and paint. Oan gave birth to their son who was given a small Aussie homage in the name Banjo.

The growing numbers of our donors and supporters needed to be kept electronically in the loop, meaning computers and phones in our home office ran hot. Iain designed and printed bright Donation Certificates we posted out and the legalities of the fund and its bank account we had established required careful attention. There were newspaper articles to write, interviews to give but somehow I even managed two books, one on the Road another on the School and somewhere in there we squeezed in time with family and friends.

By now we were pretty much firing on all cylinders spending most of our time in Laos with intermittent trips home. Next came an idea to establish a Women’s Business School of Arts to teach the endangered crafts of weaving and embroidery to village farming women who had missed such an opportunity 

Within two weeks of returning to Australia Chanthy was on the phone telling us he had found a suitable shop-house for the School in the Provincial District Centre of Muang Nan. He sorted through a tidal wave of women applicants of various ages and ethnicities, found weaving and embroidery teachers, and we asked Merynguyen to become Principal. The plan was to pay the teachers the equivalent of $10 a day and give the eight farming women students on the 12-week course a bursary of $5 a day to cover their loss of income from being unable to work in their fields. 

Solid teak looms and spinning wheels were ordered. This was to be a multi-ethnic safe house for women, so bunks were made and installed on the upper level and equipment purchased for the kitchen. This had all been implemented by Chanthy before we returned to Laos in time for the opening, which this time was attended by no less than the Governor of the Province. Iain and a videographer friend shot yet another documentary about the School including the weaving villages of Laos’s northern provinces.

Beautiful Laotian weavings and embroidery began arriving at our local post-office and a group of women in the Tweed Valley turned the weavings into home-wares, décor items and clothing which we sold on-line and at screenings. We met with Sydney’s Ultimo TAFE College of Fashion and Design and their students  formed plans for a coterie of their final year students to base their presentations around the women’s work. There was much creative enthusiasm.

Then came Covid and Lao’s tourism industry, on which its economy depends, stopped in its tracks.

The women needed to return to their villages to do what they have always done, care for their extended families while planting rice, fishing in the rivers and trapping small animals in the surrounding forests.

Our friend Chanthy whom we met when he was 19 and who was at that time so keen to embrace a larger life, will turn thirty this October. He, Oan and their two children Banjo and Zara,  are holding on in their tiny home on the edge of Luang Prabang feeding themselves with what they can grow in their handkerchief-sized garden and sell in the morning market.

Oan is continuing to feed her almost two-year-old daughter Zara because this means one less mouth to feed from their garden but also because she hopes her breast milk will offer protection.

We often talk by WhatsApp, exchanging news and photographs.

And look forward to returning to what has become, a second home.

Trish Clark.

(if you wish to make a donation–)

The Road to NaLin Fund

Commonwealth Bank 

Murwillumbah

NSW 2484

Account Number 1029-7109

BSB: 062-580

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