Excited to be part of the project “Teaching English in Laos“, I arrived in Vientiane on 9 February 2020. It was my first time in an Asian country, so the first time in Laos. Before I left for Laos, I had asked some previous volunteers what it would be like to live in Laos and what life at schools was like. They all gave the same answer, always with a big smile: “People are extremely friendly, but it is difficult to believe how friendly until you have experienced it yourself, so go find out!”
So I did not really have an idea of what to expect, which was good because this way I was open for anything that might happen – I thought. But I was not, as you will read in this post.
Welcome to the VEDI
The first day at the VEDI was full of hearty welcomes already. We were invited for coffee in the morning, had lunch with colleagues, and were picked up for dinner. Already we had learnt that food, music, being together with people, and Beer Lao is important for a good dinner. It was great that we were invited to go out for dinner so often by our colleagues. This gave us a great opportunity to experience Lao culture and to get to know people we worked with so much better.
Being an “associate”, a person who works at the VEDI, means more than just working together. Teachers meet during the week after classes to do sports together on some days. This is actually more than just doing sports together with people you work with – rather an activity for “family” cohesion. There were also always young children of VEDI teachers present.
At the VEDI you can play volleyball, football, and boccia (pétanque). Celine, Chelsea and I took part in some of the boccia games. What great fun! The teams cheered up their players, which motivated us even more to give the best for our team.
In our first week, a colleague of ours, Ms Bounyet, invited family, friends, and all VEDI colleagues to celebrate her Master’s degree. It was a matter of course that we volunteers were invited, too, even though I had not met her before the celebration.
Arriving at the party felt as if we had been part of the group for a long time already. We had a nice Lao lunch together with the VEDI staff. It was good to get some advice about which dishes we should eat together. Some things were unknown to us volunteers. The most important information always was whether the food was “spicy”, “a little bit spicy” or “good for Europeans”. We often made jokes with the colleagues about how challenging Lao food can be when you are not used to spicy food.
Adventures in our free time
Baci in Thalat
Looking at it from a German perspective, Lao people seem to be very spontaneous, which can be great because you can end up in situations you never expected to be in. One wonderful example of this was the invitation from Mr Khounmany to visit him and his family near Thalat.
We went up there with hired motorbikes to see Nam Ngum Lake, which is a huge barrier lake that provides Vientiane City and Province with electricity. Together with Mr Khounmany and his little daughter, all volunteers from the LGTC and the VEDI went on a boat on the lake to enjoy the peace and quiet of nature. Our captain wanted to please us with loud western music, which seems to be normal in Laos. Therefore he was surprised when we asked him to please turn off the music so that we could enjoy the hour on the boat just looking around and having a swim in the cool water.
After the trip on the boat Mr Khounmany invited us to his house and for dinner. What we did not know at that time was that his brother-in-law was going to have his Baci that night. A Baci is a traditional spiritual Lao ceremony which is held to give people good blessings for special situations in life, like travelling, a wedding, or – as on that day – for an engagement.
We were honoured to be part of such a special event. A special decoration made with banana leaves and orange flowers is used to mark a centre. On top of this decoration white threads were fixated, which were held by the family and the guests to have a connection. If there are not enough threads you touch a person who holds one of the threads so that everybody is connected. A monk or the eldest of the family says prayers and gives the blessing.
At first we felt a little bit uncomfortable because we were not prepared for the event. We had no presents and were still wearing our dusty touristic clothes. Mr Khounmany’s family eased our minds by saying that it did not matter what we were wearing, but that it was just great that we were part of the ceremony. It was incredible to be part of the Baci.
Sitting together on the floor in a big circle listening to the prayer and good wishes of the eldest, holding one of the threads, the candlelight and the cheering of the family all created a devotional atmosphere. I did not understand what the eldest said, but the sound and the rhythm of his voice made me calm down and relax.
After the prayers of the eldest, we used short white threads to symbolise good wishes to the future bridegroom and everybody present. You say your good wishes and tie the thread around the wrist of the person who you wish for. Some also bound money on the threads. Everybody got good wishes. Mostly I did not understand what people said to me because they spoke in Lao, but looking at their smiling faces was enough to feel happy and blessed – and maybe communicated more than words can do. It was also wonderful to do the same back in return for the family members.
“International Women’s Day” competition
The next big team event was a sports competition that was held in honour of “International Women’s Day” on Friday, 28 February. After lunch there were no more student classes. Most of the teachers went to a stadium in Vientiane together in two vans. Different schools played against each other in three disciplines:
Tug-of-war is played in two teams pulling on a rope in opposite directions, trying to get the other team across a line. Three-legged race involves running in pairs while your leg is bound to one other team member’s. Ten people in a team formed a line standing next to each other, so 5 pairs had their legs bound to their neighbour’s. The balloon fight happens in a big marked circle, and again two teams play against each other. Nobody is allowed to step out of the cirlce. Each player has two balloons tied to the right leg, and the other team has to try to step on the balloons to make them burst.
To make visible that we were the VEDI team, all teachers got a yellow tricot. We were definitely visible in our bright yellow tricots next to the other teams!
Before the competition started, all teams lined up in front of the grandstand. Ms Sounita gave me the VEDI sign, so I had to stand in front. For some of the female teachers this was nice because they could stand in my shadow to get out of the hot sun, which was actually quite funny for me – in Germany I am not very tall, but in Laos I am (nice new feeling). Some days later we saw a report about the competition on TV. It was funny to see ourselves in the video holding the sign and fighting in the competition.
Together with 11 other teachers, Celine, Chelsea, and I took part in the tug-of-war competition. None of us volunteers had ever done it before. Pulling on the rope was exhausting, but big fun! In the end it did not matter which position we had in the ranking – it was just a lovely fun afternoon together with the team.
A Lao wedding
One of my personal highlights in Laos was the wedding of my colleague Mr Khamphoun and his bride Ms Thipphalone, who worked in the same office as me. Lao weddings take three days and are scheduled by the monks for the (dry) wedding season. On the first day of a wedding the bridegroom goes to the house of the bride together with family and very close friends to ask for his bride. There will also be a big Baci.
(Another post by previous volunteers Ms Anika Broghammer and Ms Silja Schäfer gives you more information about the different days of a Lao wedding if you want to read more on the ceremony procedure.)
The second day is the time for the big celebration with relatives and friends. This was the part of the wedding which Celine, Chelsea, and I were invited to. The celebration took place near Sikeud on the grounds of a school, about 18 km away from Vientiane. After a week of rainy weather, it was the first hot and sunny day again – it was lovely to sit under a big tent in the shadow with some fans around us that made a nice light breeze. I am not able to say how many people were there, just a lot, maybe 200. Definitely more than I would expect at a German wedding.
Editor’s note: Lao people cherish festivities, and weddings are one occasion in a lifetime to splash out and invite everyone you know to celebrate with you. Some couples go heavily into debt to finance this feast (up to 5-digit dollars), but the custom for guests is to give the newly-weds an envelope with money to help cover the cost. I was told 10 dollars would be the right sum to put in the envelope for a western guest. Western guests adorn such a feast with extra flavour, we gather.
Eerybody was dressed-up, especially the women in their colourful sinhs. They were impressive and so beautiful. Some men wore traditional shiny bright silk shirts. They looked so much nicer to me than “normal-(for-us)” shirts men in Europe wear. Maybe it was because they were made with light shiny fabrics in strong colours.
We arrived at 11 a.m. All guests were welcomed by close family members, who formed a guard of honour to greet everybody. It made me feel really special to be welcomed like a celebrity on a red carpet by people who were important for the newly-wed couple. Behind the two lines, Mr Khamphoun and Ms Thipphalone were waiting to greet the guests as well.
Together with other VEDI teachers we took some pictures with them. It was a nice opportunity to greet the two and to thank them for the invitation. In the background the names of the couple were written, but I was so exited about the wedding that I just realised it when we left the celebration hours later. The elegant white-and-blue decoration was used in the entire tent and created a nice atmosphere. Together we had lunch that had been prepared in the form of a buffet, so everybody could partake what he or she liked. Many round tables were prepared for the guests under the big tent. Many VEDI teachers were already there and welcomed us happily.
Lao dance is big fun. One way of traditional dancing goes like this: You face your partner and walk slowly in a big circle with all the other pairs. Everybody holds up both hands in front and turn them around constantly so that the back of one hand is on top and the other hand shows its palm facing upwards. By slowly turning both hands in opposite directions these positions change.
First it was difficult to move both hands in different directions, but with some practice and concentration it was manageable. We danced a lot at the wedding!
At the beginning I thought too much about doing it right but with time the hand movement became easier. Of course mine did not look as elegant as that of the Lao women, but considering it was the first time it was good enough for me.
The most important thing for all dancers was to enjoy the time and to have fun together. There were also different versions of line dances. The music of those other dances was faster, but when you stand in middle of so many people who know what to do you can do it soon too and enjoy a great dancing experience. We this became part of the dance celebration.
Before I went to the wedding, I was looking forward to spotting and experiencing all the differences between a Lao and a German wedding. But then I realised that there was not really such a big difference. People come together, eat, drink, dance, bring presents, and are happy that two people found love for and in each other and want to stay together for the rest of their lives.
Much more than a guest!
In the beginning I said that I was not prepared for what it would be like at the VEDI and in Laos in general. This is true. I thought I would be a guest at the VEDI before I went, but now I know I was never just a guest: I was part of the VEDI team. I still feel close to the people at the institute and stay in contact with the friends I made at the VEDI.
This is possible due to the open and friendly way I was welcomed and treated during my stay. I was not prepared to get so close to Laos and its wonderful people. Now I am more than happy about my marvellous experiences in Laos.
Text by L. Koch, editor’s note by I. Martin
Photos by L. Koch, C. Hog , C. Seeger, A. Bounsouhak & K. Shithisay