As a German volunteer of Team X at the Lao-German Technical College (LGTC) in Vientiane, we also had free time to travel, in which I got to experience the growing tourism in Laos. This blog has a few articles about tourism in Laos, especially about the Vang Vieng Challenge, which offer tourists a great opportunity to experience Lao nature in the most exciting ways, and also about the Kuang Si Butterfly Park in Luang Prabang with its soothing effect of nature. Even though I was in daily contact with my Lao colleagues at the LGTC, I still felt like a visitor in a foreign country, of course.
This is why I asked myself: How can I change my one-way perspective? What would the everyday life of a Lao tour guide be like? What are the disparities between my working life as a German teacher and a Lao tour guide’s life? Are there maybe any correspondences? When I decided to try and do the Vang Vieng Challenge for myself this year, I wanted to get answers to my questions and explore Lao locals’ life further.
Therefore, I tried to get as much insight into the life of my tour guide at the Vang Vieng Challenge as possible so that I could change from my perspective of the tourist into the perspective of my tour guide.
The following video clip was filmed and edited by my fellow team-member Morten Bilger. It provides a glimpse of our tour, the Vang Vieng Challenge. One cannot only see the outstanding nature, but also the adventurous tasks we mastered with the help of our tour guides.
Who is Ding?
During the Vang Vieng Challenge, which Morten and I did together, we had two tour guides: Mr Boonding Khamheuangxay and Mr Thien (surname unknown). They guided us during our adventures. In addition, there was one employee, Mr Pheng Duangdee, who was the driver of the van that brought us to the countryside. I can now tell you the story of the daily life of Mr Boonding Khamheuangxay, or “Ding”, as he asked us to call him.
Ding is 33 years old and originally lived next to the Vietnamese border. As a proud husband and father, he loves to talk about his two daughters and his wife. The girls are one and six years old. Family plays an important role in his life – this is true of Lao culture in general. In his spare time Ding puts all his effort and strength into building a house for his family to provide a home for them.
When we met in March he was quite happy about the growing tourism in Laos and his job connected to this. I can only hope that the Lao leisure and tourist industry, as well as the whole world, will overcome the crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, and that tourism in Laos can normalise once again.
When Ding started to work as a tour guide for Green Discovery Laos – Adventure and Eco-Tourism, his English knowledge was very limited. Working with international tourists, who almost never speak or understand Lao, was a major challenge for him, but also an opportunity to start learning the English language while working as a guide. He managed to improve his language skills over time by practising and communicating with his colleagues and tourists.
As an English language teacher I found it especially interesting that he learned to communicate while giving those tours. Particularly regarding his pronunciation I saw the remarkable effect of him using English as lingua franca with international tourists. He also tried to use each possibility to improve his language skills with us, mostly to expand his vocabulary. When he heard Morten using the terms “crime” and “criminal”, for example – words he previously did not know – it was a matter of concern to him to understand the definition and then practise the pronunciation.
During his years as a tour guide, Ding did not only improve his language skills, but also deepened his interest in biology and nature. As our tour took place in the stunning Lao landscape, consisting of a variety of plants and animals, Ding excitedly explained different species of birds to us and the reason for them to live exactly in this area, and he also told us facts about the other animals’ lives in the jungle, like for example rare spider species and a variety of frogs. The possibility to gain expertise in this field while spending each day right inside the impressive atmosphere of a thick rainforest seemed quite unique to me.
What does a typical working day of Ding look like?
Ding’s working day begins in the agency office of Green Discovery Laos, which is situated right in the center of the Lao town and touristic highlight Vang Vieng. When meeting the tourists who Ding is going to accompany for the next hours or days, he says he tries to constantly act with intercultural awareness and sensitivity. The tourists all come from different cultures, age groups, and have different previous experiences, with only one thing in common: They all are excited about experiencing the outstanding Lao nature and getting their thrill on the ziplines.
After buying the groceries, Ding packs his backpack very carefully to make sure he can fit in all the necessary tools and the food for the next hours or days out in the forest. Selecting the best food for our trip on this bustling market already requires quite a bit of experience in haggling with vendors and finding the right ingredients – which Ding certainly has.
As soon as the actual tour begins, Ding explains each of the activities, organizes breaks, and prepares nourishing meals. Those tasks clearly reminded me of my own work routine as a primary teacher. However, in my opinion the most outstanding task in his job is the responsibility he takes on for himself and the tourists in the hazardous environment, all day long. Therefore, teamwork with colleagues and tourists plays a major role in his actions. This responsibility, paired with the generally exhausting tour itself, is a very demanding, tiring, and tough everyday task. Therefore, Ding uses every free minute during the tour to take some rest, recharge his batteries, and gather strength.
Although it is important for him to take those free minutes to rest: At the end of a long tour day when all we (tourists) wanted to do was rest on the sleeping mat, he still was energetic enough to cook our dinner and serve us our meals. But afterwards one could see that he of course also got tired after this long day: He went to bed quite early – after the sun set.
In summary, the most important “guide-lines” are to work as a team with colleagues and tourists so that everyone enjoys their adventure to the fullest whilst staying as safe as possible. In addition, a guide should continuously spread positivity by encouraging tourists when they get tired so the experience is unforgettable for each and every one of the tourists. The everyday working life of Ding includes hiking, climbing, abseiling, ziplining, and kayaking. Those are the adventurous and exhausting tasks every tourist must also fulfil after “accepting the challenge”.
Next to those, Ding takes on the responsibility, explains all the instructions in detail, and provides the tourists with freshly cooked food. Being a tour guide definitely is one of the hardest but also the most remarkable jobs I have ever seen. As a tourist, I felt incredibly lucky to be able to experience this stunning nature within a guided tour such as this one.
Experiencing Lao nature and researching tourism and the life of tour guides developed my perspective on travelling. During the past months in 2020 travel restrictions and environmental disasters seemed to have become habitual. This experience has put into even sharper focus the value of nature and the importance of acting responsably towards it.
“Responsible travel is not only better for our world, it’s also more interesting and memorable. Responsible tourism is the future of travel.” (Simon Reeve)1
I would like to thank Mr Boonding Khamheuangxay for not only enabling us to have such a great experience of the Lao nature, but also giving an insight into his exciting life as a tour guide.
Text by C. Blersch, note by I. Martin
Photos by M. Bilger
Video by M. Bilger
1 More articles on eco-tourism and our carbon footprints will appear in our “Language Education and Global Citizenship” series: These evolve out of presentations or papers written by Ms Ramona Erhard, Mr Leon Sperr and Mr Raphael Diestel in my seminar “Global English(es) and Global Citizenship Education“.