The beautiful party town of Vang Vieng was the second city that my friend Kyle (here’s his website) and I visited during our week-long sojourn in Laos. You can read about our first few days in Vientiane, the Laotian capital city, here. You can also read about our experience in Luang Prabang, definitely my favorite, here.
We traveled from Vientiane to Vang Vieng in a very air-conditioned bus. Kyle was quite pleased with that situation, but I was freezing. The ride took about four and a half hours. It rained for the majority of the trip and I enjoyed watching the clouds move outside the window. The landscape didn’t change too much as we climbed into the beautiful, misty mountains. We passed rice paddies, cows, some goats, and lots of dogs and chickens.
Like Vientiane, Vang Vieng is situated along the Mekong River. The town is quite small, beautifully located in the midst of mountains, and very easy to walk around. We spent both afternoons alternating between food, drinks, and walking and I do believe we saw everything there was to see.
As usual, we wandered past some beautiful Buddhist temples. No matter how much travelling I do in Southeast Asia, they never get old.
For our first night in Vang Vieng, we found a neat bar located along the Mekong River where the best available seats were hammocks! We stayed there for a while and watched the sun go down over the water. It was a very serene experience, despite the mosquitos.
We spent the next morning with a guide we booked through Green Discovery who took us on a short trek first through rice paddies and then through several caves, which were really neat. I’ve explored caves before, but never caves as dark and deep as these. We wore headlamps that the guide had us turn off at one point so we could experience complete darkness. Bats were the primary inhabitants of at least one cave, and another extended so far through the mountain that we had to turn back because we ran out of time to go through it. At the end of the trek, we loaded ourselves into inner tubes to float through yet another cave while clinging to a rope for dear life. Very cool experience!
While walking through town, we saw a number of signs in Hebrew (fun for me) and Korean (fun for Kyle). Low tourist season meant that it was relatively quiet, even considering the drinking, drugs, and partying culture that has given Vang Vieng a certain reputation. Unsurprisingly, the town was full of backpackers looking to have a good time. If our own experiences out and about are any indication, I can assure you that they did! If you’re ever in Vang Vieng, I highly recommend a trip to Sakura Bar, even if you’re going just for the top-notch people watching. We spent a few hours and very little money there and were highly entertained.
Neither of us were completely prepared for the seven and some hours on a rather poorly air-conditioned, much more crowded bus the next morning, but it was completely worth it to reach the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. Stay tuned!
This week-long adventure was different from any I have ever experienced. This was my first time in Cambodia and my first traveling internationally with students. I visited Battambang with the entire grade 10 class of my school (about 90 students) along with the seven other teachers. Upon arrival, we joined JUMP!, a very wonderful experiential education social enterprise with which school is currently working to plan the annual field studies trips for all secondary school students. I am in awe of what JUMP! planned and how their plans came to fruition.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The focus of the grade 10 week in Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, was to get students thinking about community development, both as communities of advisories (groups of about 15 students that meet daily) and global communities. We spent the week learning from and working with different social enterprises that aim to make Cambodia a better place. All the restaurants where we ate were social enterprises, as well. As part of the program, we explored privilege, voluntourism, sustainable development, Cambodia’s history, and how to bring about positive social change. Throughout the week, I saw my students’ hearts and minds open up, not only to these ideas but also to each other as individuals and as friends. I can say without a doubt that every student returned to Singapore wiser, humbled, empowered, and with new friends.
This post will chronicle my week in Battambang as best as I can based on the photos that I can share. Most of my photos for the week were of and with students, and there are a variety of reasons (i.e. privacy, confidentiality, just plain propriety) why I won’t share them in an unprotected online space. Heartfelt thanks both to JUMP! for their incredible work and to John, the extraordinary JUMP! facilitator assigned to my advisory for the week.
To get oriented, here is a very helpful map from Lonely Planet:
One of our first activities was a tuk tuk ride to visit Phnom Sampow. We took a difficult climb up a steep hill, pausing along the way to see Buddhist temples and learn about Cambodian agriculture from our guide. We could see farms for miles from various lookout points.
The temples were exquisite, as well. I have a few Buddhist students who stopped to pray along the way.
We also encountered a number of monkeys and actually had to alter our route at one point to get away from them. Monkeys are vicious and will grab any food item or even backpack in site. My favorite monkey was this one:
The highlight of this trip, though not photographed because I felt weird about that, was the killing caves, a site of Khmer Rouge slaughter. The caves contained a memorial to victims, including skulls of those who died there and a Buddha statue for those who wished to pay respects.
Probably my favorite morning of the trip started with a trip to a local market to pick up ingredients for the Cambodian lunch we would learn to prepare! The market was wonderful (and sold more than vegetables, though my photos might have you believe otherwise) and the cooking school was incredibly accommodating to my vegetarian needs. Even better: We received cookbooks to take home!
Another really transformative experience was our visit to COMPED, a social enterprise that collects organic material, turns it into compost, sells it to farmers for fertilizer, and uses the money to run enrichment programs for children. To learn about what they do, we visited a market, collected rotten produce, and shoveled it onto the compost pile at a local dump. While there, we also learned that the families who live on the dump are paid more than they would be in other jobs. Despite health risks from being around burning trash, they choose this life to feed their children.
Like many social enterprises, COMPED receives support from another foundation, this time in Germany. This partnership is because COMPED’s founder used to be a waste management engineer in Germany before returning to his home in Cambodia.
New organic material on the right, four months into the composting process in the center.
This child lives at the dump and wandered over to the sifter just as I was taking a picture
Another social enterprise, Coconut Water Foundation, also runs after school and summer enrichment programs for students. We joined them at a school for about an hour one morning to play games with some of the students. Rather than sharing pictures of children, here are a few artsy shots:
Our last full day found my group on a bike ride with Soksabike, a social enterprise that pays families to produce traditional products, therefore putting money into the economy, and brings tourists to see these products. Soksabike’s tour guides are local university students who are working to enhance their English skills as they do their jobs.
Among other things, we learned how rice paper is made . . .
. . . and sampled some delicious dried and fried bananas.
The final stop on the tour was a very moving memorial to another killing fields site across the street from a Buddhist temple that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and interrogation facility. I didn’t have the heart to take pictures of the memorial, mostly because it broke my heart. The 1970s weren’t that long ago, and the Khmer Rouge existed in Battambang until 1991. 25 years ago is not very many years. The detachment with which Cambodians speak about the Khmer Rouge genocide is painful to witness.
I don’t have photos to share, but other social enterprises that we visited and worked with were Phare, FEDA, and Cambodian Children’s Trust. All of these organizations work with and for community development, specifically targeted at children. CCT was the most moving for me because they taught us about orphanages and orphanage tourism. We learned that 80% of children in Cambodian orphanages have living family and are in orphanages (and often exploited and abused as a result) because their families were tricked into thinking their children would have better lives and a better chance at education.
It was a week of growth, that’s for sure. I’ll be back in Cambodia in March to spend a weekend in Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to travel with my students to Battambang to learn how real Cambodians live. The trip we took and experiences we had would not have been possible for me to orchestrate. JUMP!, thank you for opening my eyes to this beautiful country and its proud, hopeful citizens.
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place