Road Less Traveled to Namyen Village
Namyen Village is located 176 kilometers (or 110 miles) from the Xieng Khouang capital city Phonsavan, yet it took over 5Â½ hours to travel there. Our 4WD Toyota Vigo Champ pick up truck averaged 40 miles per hour on the paved, capital city road in Paek District through the old capital city in Khoun District. We continued to cruise on paved dirt roads to the expansive valley town Phouvieng, surrounded by lush green rolling hills. They reminded us of the northern California Marin Countyâ€™s rolling hills. What was particularly new and interesting was the large number of horses and milking cows roaming the hills.
From there, the terrain became mountainous. We grinded in first and second gears through muddy, windy roads, carving through the denser and denser mountainous jungles of what appeared to be virgin hard woods. (There were towering hardwoods reaching heights of 20 to 30 meters. Yet, when we got closer views of the trees, we realized that the century-old hardwoods had already been cut down. These standing trees were less than one meter around, separated by open secondary growth. Occasionally, we saw massively huge logs resting on the hill side, waiting to be hoisted onto a flatbed and taken to a sawmill in neighboring Vietnam.)
Many of the mountain roads were destroyed by the incessant pounding floods during the 2011 rainy season. Our trips to Namyen in December, January and March were cancelled because the roads were un-drivable during the dry season months (from November through March). Last nightâ€™s rain saturated the fine clay dirt into a slick of slippery red â€œiceâ€. As we watched Mr. Keomanyvanh (our builder and driver) negotiate the road, the driving felt very similar to driving back home in Connecticut in the blizzards before the plows cleared the hilly roads. At times, we found our truck sliding uncontrollably and sometimes at a 45 degree angle on the mountains edge. There was nothing he could do but hope that the truck hit a patch of dry dirt or rocks, the side of the deep two-tracked trough created by prior truck traffic. Automobiles had no chance of making it.
We had a couple of close calls, where the truck veered to the mountain roadsâ€™ edge. After the second close call, we decided to get out of the car when encountering a potential red slick.
We arrived in Ban Nakorn, which is the Mok District center at about 1 pm. We picked up the head of the District Education Department and drove for another 30 minutes to Namyen. We passed the school grounds of the Namyen primary school for grades 3 through 5. There were two buildings. One was funded by a Vietnamese lumber company and another was funded with a combination grant from AUSAID and a loan from ADB.
Damaged and Unpassable Bridge
En route to our new preschool, the recently built two-lane cement bridge was damaged by last yearâ€™s rainy season. The gravity of the monsoon storms was evident. Water rapids made no effort to obey the paths of the established streams. Paths of eroded soil were random and deep. They ripped through the landscape and carried down the mountainside anything that was not firmly fastened into the earth. The rapids must have been fierce because taller-than-man massive tree roots rested on the bridgeâ€™s edge, breaking through the steel reinforced concrete. We drove on the lower opposite side of the bridge through the foot deep stream. Ironically, this is how we reached the opposite side of the stream during our first visit to Namyen two years ago before the bridge was built.
Namyen Preschool in Process
We drove a kilometer further to the school grounds of our new preschool, our ninth Xieng Khouang preschool. (40 meters away from our preschool was a two-room first and second grade primary school, funded by a Vietnamese lumber company.)
We were very excited to see the preschool. It was definitely one of our most difficult preschools to plan and build to date. This preschool project experienced many bumps along the way and we apologize that we could not live up to our 120 day commitment to get the school built. Weâ€™d like to share some of our challenges.
- Because of the serious rainy season, the village was inaccessible for us. The Education Department discouraged our traveling there because of the personal dangers of traveling on the treacherous roads from Phouvieng to Nahkorn. Meeting with the stakeholders (e.g., district, village and school leaders) is something we like to do for each of our preschool projects.
- We experienced discrepancies from the village naibane and the Education Department with whether the land was surveyed and cleared of UXO. After two months, we learned that it was not. We asked UXO Lao to survey the land and they did find four mortar rockets on the schoolgrounds. They were removed.
- Unfortunately in April, our guy Thongchanh and the builder Mr. Keomanyvanh had an auto accident after a visit to the preschool site. They were given the go ahead that the roads were now driveable. On their return trip from Namyen to Luang Prabang, his truck lost traction on the roadâ€™s edge and they rolled over three times down a 50-foot cliff. They suffered some tough bruises, no broken bones. Barbara nursed Thongchanh remotely with pain reducers, BenGay, instructions on how to make a sling, and periodic phone calls.
- Rainy season delays are normal this time of year. While the foundation and frame were being built, the builders some days could only work one hour. Rains were reported to be torrential. (Mok District (Mok means foggy) is particularly affected during the rainy season with a higher average rainfall than the rest of Xieng Khouang Province.)
Lunch with the Naibane
The naibane (village leader) met us at the school grounds. While it was Thongchanhâ€™s fourth visit to the village, he was happy to see Barbara and Dori again. While we had visited Namyen before, it was before we committed to build there. In the familiar Lao tradition, the naibane wanted to get to know us better. Since the Provincial Education Department engineer had not arrived to perform the inspection, we went to the naibaneâ€™s house for lunch.
While the naibane is Hmong, it was unusual that he built his home like a traditional Lao home on stilts with the living space on the second floor and with windows (versus a typical Hmong home being single floor home with no windows). Lao kitchens are generally outside; Hmong kitchens are inside. What impressed us most about his home was his flooring. The floor planks were hard wood and over 12 inches wide. The home was built in 2001. Such planks would be costly in the states, if you can find such planks at your local lumber yard. His lumberyard was the local jungle. There, he and his village friends cut the trees down and brought large pieces of lumber for final manual milling outside his home.
Mr. Keomanyvanh chose to help the women prepare lunch. We had chicken, rice and soup for lunch. Our lunch discussion was very interesting. It started out with our questions about his village, how many people, its history. The naibane started his story about how Namyen was founded in the latter half of the 1970s after the American War aka the US Secret War.
We learned that for many years after the American War was over in 1975, the naibane, as a child had to flee with his family and fellow villagers into the jungles. They would establish temporary villages in the jungles and move periodically to avoid being found by the new regimeâ€™s army. (His father and others had sided with the Americans. When the USA pulled out, those who sided with the Americans were sought.) After many years, they finally settled in Namyen Village.
In the meantime, many other Hmongs stayed in the jungle expecting to be â€œsavedâ€ by their former leader General Vang Pao. He never did. The Lao government finally forced the jungle Hmongs to settle in a village or be shot. Two families settled in Namyen. Others settled elsewhere. Each family in Namyen was given 900 square meters of land for their home and three hectares of land to farm. (All jungle Hmongs in Xieng Khouang Province have left the jungles and are settled in villages in Phaxai and Mok Districts. This seems to be common knowledge. Our builder, the District Education head and the naibane corroborated that this was the case. However, they were not able to confirm that it was the case for a portion of Xieng Khouang Province (called Xysambone) that was a protected area after the war and finally annexed to Vientiane Province.
Back to Namyen
The recently created, less than 15-year new village Namyen was chosen to be the center for their primary schools and regional health clinic. The lower and upper secondary schools were built in the adjacent village Ban Khangvieng. The governmentâ€™s plans to build the full complement of preschools, primary, lower and upper secondary schools in the Namyen zone is coming to fruition with our preschool and the recently expanded primary school buildings.
Preparation to Build the Namyen Preschool
We purposely chose a very remote village because that is where the greatest needs are. Mok District is defined to be one of the 26 â€œPoorest Villagesâ€ in Laos. While itâ€™s been challenging, we are and you should be proud that we are helping those with the greatest need. As well, Namyen was declared to be a Kumban village, an economic cluster of villages with a full complement of public services, government support to enable the village to economically sustain itself and grow. While Namyenâ€™s industry was heavily lumber in the past, much of the jungle virgin forests have been depleted and alternative sources of income are being sought.
As a side note, we learned that over the past three years, Xieng Khouang Province has reduced the number of villages from 572 to 502. This is part of their continued efforts to bring those most remote villages closer to the road, where there is easier access to the public services.
The Namyen Preschool inspection commenced shortly after the Provincial Education Department engineers arrived to complete the first of two inspections. The inspection was attended by the builder Mr. Keomanyvanh, Thongchanh, the naibane, the village school principal, the Provincial Education Department engineers and other staff, the Mok District Education Department head, Barbara and Dori. The key players were the provincial engineer and the builder. It was interesting to watch the body language between the two. Smiles turned to straight-laced serious dispositions.
The school was about 60% completed. The structure was completed. The roof was on. The wooden window frame and door jams were installed. The septic system was dug and cemented.
By afternoon the drenching rains had already started. The air was windless. The raindrops were large. It fell heavily and thickly from the sky. One would only walk 4 meters and they were drenched.
This was the first school inspection for Barbara and Dori. The inspection lasted about 30 minutes followed by a review of the inspection for all to discuss. We were pleasantly happy with the thoroughness of the inspection. They checked every door for splinters. They checked the straightness of every wall both vertically and horizontally. They thoroughly checked the roof, which was getting tested with the torrential rains. They checked the air vent (like our soffit vents) quality. Everything was thoroughly touched, â€œeyedâ€ and knocked for integrity.
Three issues surfaced. There were some wet spots on the roof, but no leaks. The engineers required that the builder replace all of the fasteners with screw and bolts vs. the nails used. Burs were found on some of the door jams, so they needed to be sanded smooth before painting. Some air vents were not smooth and had be smoothed or replaced. The structure was very sound.
The builder used thicker rebar wire, i.e.,12 gauge rebar wire for the column supports and 14 gauge wire for the roof supports. In fact, for the first time, there were three longitudinal 14-gauge, steel reinforced beams that extended along the length of the preschool to give the school structure greater longevity and soundness, accordingly to the builder.
The inspection review was short, given the short list of issues. The education departments were exceptionally appreciative that we came to Namyen to witness the inspection. What we heard is what we wanted to hear. The Namyen and our other preschools set a good example of what preschools should be for others. We do not sacrifice on the design as well as the materials, when building the preschool. As well, we were willing to invest in the electrical aspect of the preschool including the fans and lights, even though Namyen does not have electricity. There are plans to install electricity in the village. When? Itâ€™s not known.
At the conclusion of the review, we were asked to sign the inspection review documents, noting that we witnessed the inspection and approved of the issues. It was about 4 pm and the engineers gratefully said goodbye and jumped in their vehicles to begin their trip back to Phonsavan. We decided to stay in Nakhorn at the district guesthouse. It cost 40,000 kips or $5.00. We checked in and then went to dinner. It was fairly easy to decide which restaurant to go to. There was only one open at night. During the day, there are three.
The District Education Head joined us. We has fish soup and fish. We were surprised at the size of the fish in this remote village. We asked where the fish came from and the Head said â€œfrom Vietnam, from the seaâ€. There is a species of fish that travel from the sea through Vietnam to Mok District to spawn each year. I forgot the name, but it seems they have their own version of salmon who do the same in the Pacific Northwest.
As always, we learned more about the countryâ€™s and provinceâ€™s history, more about the vestiges of the Secret American War, and how it affected peopleâ€™s lives and the District Education Headâ€™s life in Xieng Khouang Province.
Returning to Phonsavan
It was sunny, when we got up. We had breakfast near the morning market. We traveled on the only road back to Phonsavan.
We felt our trip to Namyen was successful. We met new friends. We learned more about the history of the American War and how it impacted peopleâ€™s lives in Mok District. We had good inspection results.
We look forward to our return to see our finished preschool and the final inspection. Despite the challenges of the rainy season, the school will be complete for the new school year.
We thank you Coleman, Michael and Denise for your generosity. We greatly appreciate your passion and commitment to help the preschool children. Vutiny and Somphone, we will be taking the school supplies to Namyen, when school is in session.