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Our life and times in Laos

BACK HOME: This year's Tweed Australia Day ambassador Iain Finlay with wife Trish Clark on the deck of their North Tumbulgum home earlier this year. They are now in Laos overseeing the building of a school dormitory.
BACK HOME: This year's Tweed Australia Day ambassador Iain Finlay with wife Trish Clark on the deck of their North Tumbulgum home earlier this year. They are now in Laos overseeing the building of a school dormitory. Scott Powick

LATE on Saturday evening we made an emergency dash from Muang Nan District Centre to the hospital at Luang Prabang, in northern Laos. Eighty kilometres in just on an hour, expertly driven in the dark by Mr Nie, the man who has been supplying the innumerable bags of cement and concrete blocks to the remote site where a 68-bed dormitory for middle school students we are building is rapidly taking size and shape.

There had been a phone call to Chanthy, our dear friend and colleague and an essential member of the team building the dormitory, from his mother-in-law to say that his wife Oan's baby was due imminently. He wanted to get home as soon as possible.

At 3am they arrived at the hospital only to be turned away. They were told there was no room.

Ms Oan and her mother Ms MunTake. Note the oversized safety pin attached to the front of Oan's dress. She wore this every day of her pregnancy to ward off the phi, or evil spirits.
Ms Oan and her mother Ms MunTake. Note the oversized safety pin attached to the front of Oan's dress. She wore this every day of her pregnancy to ward off the phi, or evil spirits. Contributed

Pregnancy, childbirth, life itself are far more precarious events in Laos than almost any Australian faces. Damage and death during birth, for both mother and child, are well below World Health Organisation standards. Conditions for hospital birthing, when they do exist, are extremely basic and many pregnant women live too far away from any medical care to receive any assistance at all. Infant mortality rates are cruel: average life expectancy, though increasing, is still only 63 for women and 59 for men.

These are just a part of the backdrop of challenging statistics against which life operates in this tiny, landlocked country here in the very heart of Southeast Asia.

For seven years we have been raising funds, in the main among friends in the Tweed Valley but also other parts of Australia, always attempting to do more with less by pushing the boundaries of the possible, simply to battle these statistics.

With generous help we built a road into the remote village of Nalin in 2013, adding 16 big culvert drains the following year, and then a primary school for nearby Phoujong Village in 2015. We've also been able to establish pig and buffalo farming in an effort to extend the possibilities for these villagers beyond basic subsistence rice farming.

It's tough territory but the spillover results from these ventures have been so heartwarming and truly inspirational that we keep coming back.

This dry season we were anxious that we had in fact over-reached ourselves by proposing to build a 68-bed dormitory for a third local village, Koktum, that lies 20km over rough roads from the district centre of Muang Nan, which itself is connected by local bus to the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang.

The dormitory will be a home away from home for students, the larger percentage of whom would otherwise drop out of school at the end of primary level to face a demanding life of constant work on their village farms.

Friend and colleague Chanthy Sisombuth, on the building site, slices up green papaya for inclusion in the hot spicy salad that is a treat for the tradesmen's lunch.
Friend and colleague Chanthy Sisombuth, on the building site, slices up green papaya for inclusion in the hot spicy salad that is a treat for the tradesmen's lunch. Contributed

To break from the cycle of poverty, in which they would otherwise be held in lifetime thrall, it is necessary for them to complete their middle and then high school education. But Phoujong, Nalin, Houyahe, Hadsaikham, and many other tiny habitations along the valley, present too long and - particularly in the wet season - too arduous a walk to and from Koktum Middle School for them to accomplish there and back each day.

The middle school at Koktum already caters for some 200 students from the ages of 12-15, plus seven teachers. The extra 60-plus pupils the dormitory will accommodate will walk to Koktum on a Sunday afternoon and stay for the school week. During this time they will, in addition to their schooling obligations, grow their own vegetables, cook their own food, wash their own clothes and maintain their dormitory space. On Friday afternoons they will walk back to their villages to work on their family farms.

As well as the student dormitories, the new building will provide accommodation for up to 10 male and 10 female teachers, hopefully enticing more teachers to the school than the abysmal tin shack in which the present coterie is crammed.

As a bonus, Principal Khamla tells us that more than 95 per cent of students who complete their middle school education go on to finish high school in the district centre. At that point a far wider world opens before them.

Up and down the length of the valley the news of the dormitory at Koktum has spread. The roof insulation, a welcome luxury, is in place under the tin roof, the walls are up, the door and window frames in place. Even gardens have been planted.

The construction site for the 40m-long dormitory complex at Koktum that will house 60 middle school students, 30 girls and 30 boys, as well as 10 male and 10 female teachers, all of them as weekday boarders.
The construction site for the 40m-long dormitory complex at Koktum that will house 60 middle school students, 30 girls and 30 boys, as well as 10 male and 10 female teachers, all of them as weekday boarders. Contributed

Principal Khamla has no concerns about filling the 30-plus double bunks. He even asked us if it would be OK for students to live there before the bunks are made. We felt a momentary resistance to the idea of students sleeping on mat- covered floors.

But any such temporary moves would be just that... temporary, for as soon as the outdoor cooking facilities, the extra toilets and the ablution facilities are done, the rush will be on for builder Noi to get stuck into making the needed wooden double bunks, not only for the 30 female and 30 male students but also for the 10 female and 10 male teachers who will also be accommodated in their own adjoining dormitories.

A double bunk and bedding will cost $120. At this moment we have enough donations to build 15 - that's 30 sleep spaces. Your name on a bunk in the dormitory at Koktum could be a great way to share this special time of year, to open your hearts by turning over the sign that read 'no room in the inn' to read instead 'welcome'. Each donor will have their name attached to the bunk as a gentle reminder of it being a gift.

And although there was initially no room at the hospital, Oan was admitted the following day and this morning (November 13), at 4.05am, after a protracted labour, she gave birth to a 3.2kg boy.

We have been honoured with making the choice of his name. He is... Banjo Sisombuth.

Chanthy and Oan's new baby. Welcome to Banjo Sisombuth.
Chanthy and Oan's new baby. Welcome to Banjo Sisombuth. Contributed

Trish Clark and Iain Finlay (former Beyond 2000 host) are veteran (that means old!...75 and 82) journalists who live in the hills on the other side of the river from Tumbulgum overlooking the caldera of Mt. Wollumbin. They can be contacted by email: iaintrish@mac.com

The Road to NaLin Fund is registered as a charity with Charities New South Wales.

Topics:  laos muang nan district centre north tumbulgum the road to nalin fund trish clark and iain finlay



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