Claire and I went to Vang Vieng to laze in a grove of Edenic green. It was a picture-perfect fantasy, conjured up by a postcard in Vientiane labelled Blue Lagoon, but we were curious too. Vang Vieng was where drug-addled backpackers bobbed downriver in tyre tubes, and its ugly reality did not come as a surprise when we arrived, or even a disappointment. The town pandered to the depths of hedonism, and its signboards promising cold beer, blaring hip hop and reruns of Family Guy and Friends were like a parody of Western culture, as if the joke was on us. It was laughable and dispiriting by turns, but on the day we rode out to find landlocked Laos’ Blue Lagoon, pedalling mountain bikes over a bamboo toll bridge and along a dusty track, into farmland, we found a reason to return to Vang Vieng.
Rain started pouring down in heavy, languid drops. The track became slippery, forcing us to pedal quickly through deep puddles, spraying mud. It covered us up to our necks in a layer of brown, like the buffaloes around us, wallowing idly in the paddy fields. There were signposts at intervals, pointing to caves with Buddha idols in their depths and a variety of Blue Lagoons; if we hadn’t stopped to play with a litter of puppies, we might have paid 20,000 kip for access to the wrong pool of water.
The puppies’ owner was a Thai man with a small homestead set beside the road, kilometres from the closest settlement. He said he had been a jungle monk at home, but now he was married to a Lao woman, and he meditated with her every evening, in their home of crooked logs without electric light. The couple had chickens and a garden planted with vegetables, basil, lemongrass, bananas and pineapples; the only food they bought was rice. They had placed three tables in the garden and optimistically opened a restaurant, where Claire and I promised to eat on our way back. We did, and the slices of pineapple served with our fried rice were sweet and soft, without a trace of stringy fibre. The Thai man warned us to ignore the signs to other pools, and pointed us in the direction of the postcard’s Blue Lagoon; it was about five kilometres away, he said, past a village and over two more bridges, where we saw children cavorting naked in the clear river water, and wondered why we were cycling further, our arms aching from the dirt road’s constant bumps.
We paid the entrance fee, parked our bikes and rinsed off in the Blue Lagoon, which wasn’t blue. Water flowed into it from a spring in a nearby cave, but monsoon rains had washed down sediment, and made it murky green. It was narrower than it had seemed in Vientiane too, but deep: four or five metres I guessed, when I needed to equalise on my way down to the bottom. There was a tree hanging over it, with swings strung from its branches and steps nailed into its trunk. I climbed up into its leaves and jumped, plunging hot into the chilly water.
There was a reclining Buddha in a cave near the pool, and we climbed up a steep path into it, then slipped and skidded down in the dark – barefoot, holding hands – to the gilt statue glimmering in the sliver of light that entered through a hole overhead. The climb made us sweat, and we swam again back at the pool; on our way out, on the bikes, we noticed a sign just past the exit:
HELP! THIS COMMUNITY PROJECT
- Garden, Build
- Teach English
- Buy a delicious shake or meal
We went in, ordered a lime, mint and banana shake and drank it sitting on a log platform set on silts, above a pond no deeper than a flooded paddy field. It was late afternoon and the sun was low, casting a reflection of lime green grass on the water, with avocado trees and peach-pip mountains at its edge. I asked about volunteering, but a weaver, working slowly on a handloom, and the woman who had served our shakes were the only people around, and neither spoke English. They gave me the name Bob and a number. A day later, when we were back in town, I called it.
Bob wanted to meet at his guesthouse on the outskirts of Vang Vieng. I walked there at night, the screeches of drunk tourists and babble of TVs receding as I put distance between me and the tourism-ravaged epicentre of the town. Bob’s Guesthouse – literally, according to a Beer Lao sponsored sign – was just a home with rooms set off to one side. Guests shared the living room and the overgrown garden with Bob’s family, who were eating when I arrived. They asked me to join them, but I’d already eaten, and I waited at the dining table while they finished the meal, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Afterwards, Bob explained his community project. His Lao name was Sengkeo Frichitthavong, but he had lived in Canada for twelve years, where he picked up the simplest of English names. “I was a tourist myself when I came back in 1998,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that Lao people were destroying their country for quick money, selling natural resources to China and Vietnam.” Bob’s concerns where an echo of what I had heard in Vientiane, about development in Laos, but he had decided to work at an alternative, and in 2009, with the help of a Frenchwoman, Bob set up the Saelao Project.
The farm where Claire and I had drunk fruit shakes was where his project was taking shape. The land belonged to his wife’s family, and Bob had started simply, by opening the restaurant to raise funds, and looking for volunteers who could help him to expand the facility. Initially, it was not a community project, but local people noticed the foreign volunteers and asked if they could teach English at the village school; local women started weaving on the site, with silk from the Mulberry Organic Farm, and selling it to passers-by like Claire and I, going to and from the Blue Lagoon. These were tacked onto the project, to increase its acceptance by the surrounding community, but its goal was different: Bob seemed to be working to establish a farm that was as sustainable as possible, and adapting what he learned to the needs of subsistence farmers, who relied on firewood and logging and did not understand their effect on the environment.
I revisited the farm two days later, to see what he had achieved, and found Bob with two volunteers, instructing them on the subtleties of weaving a bamboo wall. Both were indulging academic interests: there was Constance, from France, who was studying indigenous building techniques, and an American studying sustainability, who was progressing improbably from a week at Saelao to an internship with McDonald’s. Bob took me on a tour of the farm, explaining his successes and failures as we moved. He was not a farmer, and the chickens he had tried to keep, without a coop, were gobbled up by weasels, but he did grow enough sticky rice on-site to feed the volunteers. He had ten cows, but again there was no pen; he wanted to build one, he said, when we reached his proudest achievement: a pig pen beside a biogas digester, built by a volunteer from Spain. With a cow pen he could collect the manure and feed it into the digester, but at the moment he even had trouble finding time – or willing volunteers – to shovel the pig manure.
The biogas from the digester was piped into the project’s kitchen, where it was used to cook. It saved firewood, and was a large part of Bob’s big dream. He wanted to set an example with biogas, hoping that his neighbours would adopt it, but didn’t have skills or manpower to offer them. “When I was a child,” he said, “eighty percent of Laos was rainforest. It was dark at night, because there were so many trees. Now, because of logging, and because trees are cut down for firewood, the soil is so dry in places it’s cracked. You can see it. No trees, no water. No water, no food.”
We continued from the pigsty to a community hall, still under construction. It was being built with bamboo – which was used in everything – and mud from the pond, but window and door frames needed to be bought, and construction had dragged on for a year and a half while Bob waited for funds. When finished, he wanted to move some of the English lessons to it, but he also wanted to use the space to teach locals about sustainability, to give the concept a physical space at the centre of the community. The two bamboo dorms volunteers slept in were past the community hall, on the other side of the pond. They were basic: just cots and mosquito nets, and because he only had two, Bob was constantly worried that local officials would shut him down. He needed a total of six rooms to qualify as a guesthouse, and without a license was not supposed to have foreigners sleeping on the property at all. It had happened before, a year before we met, when a volunteer was caught smoking a joint.
Saelao was haphazard and half-built, without the formality of an established NGO, but there was merit in that too; volunteers gave of their own interests, skills and personalities, and the people who passed through, who Bob remembered by name and referred to collectively as the Saelao family, could do more here – for better or worse – than if they were regimented, with clearly defined roles and routines.
My tour ended when we crossed a flooded field, which served as a football pitch for children in the dry season. I took a photo of Bob standing shirtless in front of the community hall, which was stacked for the moment with bamboo poles and incomplete strips of bamboo wall, and we rejoined the volunteers, who were waiting to swim in the Blue Lagoon, which they could enter free. Enviously, I said goodbye. I had to peddle back to town before dark, to catch a bus out of Vang Vieng, when I had at last found a good reason for being there.
Costs and contact details
At the time of our visit, volunteers paid a 200,000 kip ($25) donation and a 30,000 kip ($3.75) fee for using the project’s facilities just once, whether they stayed for three days or a year. They paid 60,000 ($7.50) kip daily on top of that, to cover the cost of meals and drinking water.
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