Tuesday, December 21, 2010

School Daze - Luang Prabang

Lao Students Clean Their Classroom Before the Start of Lessons
On our last day in Luang Prabang, we were scheduled to leave at 5:50 P.M. so we had essentially the whole day for sightseeing.  Since we had visited three outlying villages the day before and had visited the two local Hmong New Year festival sights three times, we decided to dedicate our last day to walking about Luang Prabang.  Although we had visited the city before there were several things that we wanted to see and do.

On the top of my list was to go to the Royal Palace Museum and specifically visit the now completed Sala Pha Bang.  In February 2008 during our first visit to the city we spent a great deal of time watching craftsmen applying gold leaf to the walls.  This year we would have the opportunity to enjoy their completed work but that will be subject to a future blog entry.

The second location that I wanted to visit was the Luang Prabang Primary School.  Our hotel was located in the Historical Temple District of Luang Prabang on Th Sakkrin which seamlessly transforms into Th. Sisavangvong.  Th Sisavangvong is where the Royal Palace Museum is located and where the nightly Handicraft Market is set up.  During our stay, it was also where films were screened for the Luang Prabang International Film Festival.  Every evening when we walked downtown we would pass by the Luang Prabang Primary School about two or three blocks from our hotel.  I wanted to see what school was like for Lao children and compare it to the schools that I have visited in other countries.

Friday morning, or last day in Laos, I was awoken at 4:00 A.M.just like every other morning by the banging of the Wat's bell next door.  The early wake ups didn't bother me because, for me, it was part of the ambiance of the location and culture.  It was just like when I lived in the Muslim countries of Algeria and Malaysia. The calls to prayer from very early morning to night never bothered me.  To the contrary, I actually enjoyed them for they were reminders that I was no longer home and for me they were a connection to a distant past.  Experiencing rituals that are over 1,800 years old is fascinating to me.

Being a practicing Buddhist, the early morning wake-up was not so fascinating for Duang.  Since we did not have offerings for the Monks she was embarrassed to watch the Tak Bat without participating.  The hotel could arrange for food offerings and as I wrote earlier about this trip, roving street peddlers were all too willing to sell you offerings for the Monks.  I told her about this but she still chose to fall back asleep and get up at 7:00 A.M.  It actually worked out well, she was dressed and cleaned up for the day upon my return to the hotel.  After sharing breakfast together, I quickly showered, shaved, and we set off upon our daily trips.

I had heard that the Monks practice meditation and chanting prior to going out on their alms walk each morning.  I interpreted this as they would assemble in one of the Wat buildings to perform their meditation and chanting.  This was a ritual that I had not seen before and definitely wanted to photograph.  Since I was already awake, I got dressed, grabbed my camera bag and headed downstairs.  My hiking boots were underneath the hotel Christmas tree where I had left them next to Duang's shoes.  Each night I had joked with the staff about Santa Claus coming to fill my boots with goodies.  Each morning I feigned disappointment that Santa Claus had not taken care of me - yet.  Actually I was just happy that the boots were still there. I can only imagine how difficult US size 11 (Lao 44) boots would be to find in Luang Prabang or any other place in Laos.

I walked over to the Wat next door and found all the front gates to be locked shut.  I tried the side gates and soon found one that was not locked.  I entered the Wat compound and located a building that seemed appropriate for Monks to assemble in for meditating as well as chanting.  There was a stone bench outside of the building so I sat down and made myself comfortable to wait for the Monks. I waited and waited and then I waited some more.  It was interesting to hear the sounds coming from the street on the other side of the Wat's perimeter wall.  People were setting up sahts on the sidewalk and laying out the containers of sticky rice for the tourists.  I could hear the shuffling sound of flip flops on the asphalt as the street vendors went about their business.  Other sounds were from local residents setting up their little restaurants on the sidewalk in front of their home to prepare, cook, and serve hungry people their first meal of the day.  What I did not hear was anything of interest coming from inside of the Wat compound.  Once in a while I heard a cough or saw a door crack open as a Monk left his quarters to go the bathroom building.  I did not see any meditation.  I did not hear any chanting.  I suspect that the Monks must do both the chanting and meditating silently in the privacy of their room alone or with only the Monk that they share their room with.  Oh well just as in sports ... you may not play in every game but you dress to play every game.  I didn't get any photographs but I had tried and I was ready.

A Food Vendor In Luang Prabang

Around 6:00 A.M. the Monks came out of their quarters and started to assemble outside to begin their Tak Bat.  I joined the other tourists outside on the street. literally and figuratively.  For some shots, I actually sat in the street to get a better perspective of the scene.

An Elderly Woman Makes Early Morning Offerings In Laos
After the Tak Bat, I walked down to the Nam Khan River and watched men fishing with nets for awhile and then I walked to the primary school.  I arrived at the school at 7:30 A.M. for the scheduled 8:00 A.M. start of the day.  Some students were brought to school on motorbikes by a parent or older sibling.  Some students arrived on Tuk-Tuks.  Most of the children walked from their nearby homes to the school.

Main Building of Luang Prabang Primary School, LPDR
The school yard was a beehive of activity.  Many of the students were occupied cleaning up the school yard.  Many of the students, typically the boys, were busy avoiding work and chores.  Groups of young girls gathered to prepare for the day and get caught up on whatever is important for young Lao girls to talk about.  Some boys were busy playing a game that involved a soccer ball and a line pulled taut between two posts - it wasn't volleyball; it wasn't soccer; and the ball was too big and heavy to be kataw - it may have been just a game that they invented with what is available to them.

School Boy Cleaning the Canopy Roof of His School

School Boys Playing Before the Start of Lessons

A Teacher Supervises Some of His Students Outside of the School Yard
I entered the school yard and started to take photographs.  There were no security guards.  There were no Police.  The school yard reminded me a great deal of my elementary school days at Colonel Ledyard Elementary School in Groton, Connecticut - no play ground equipment, no rubber mats or astro turf - just dirt and rocks.  There were no security concerns just a bunch of kids burning up energy and excited about the start of the day if not about a stranger that walked amongst them.

Young Girl Cleans Up the School Yard
Some of the children reminded me of some of the people, perhaps characters, that I attended elementary school with.  It was amazing that after 50 years I could easily recognize the people that I went to school with or rather the character traits and behaviors common to my former classmates half a word and half a century away.  It reinforced a theme to my photography - "to show extraordinary people doing ordinary things. In so doing, I wish to show how different people appear, to provide a glimpse of other cultures, to celebrate the diversity of mankind, and to demonstrate that despite our appearances we are so much alike."

Student's Shoes Outside of Their Class Room
The Luang Prabang Primary School is an old building in the French Colonial style.  I suspect that it was built when most of the colonial buildings were constructed in Luang Prabang from 1920 to 1925.  The classrooms have extremely high ceilings. There is no air conditioning or screens on the windows.  In fact there is no glass in the windows.  Heavy wood shutters are open during the day and closed over the window openings at the end of the day.  The window trim exhibited many layers of paint.

Students In the Class Room Window, Luang Prabang
A wide porch on the school building in conjunction with a cantilevered overhanging roof provides protection from rain and most likely just as important - the sun.  Floors of the classrooms are tile and the walls are stucco cement.  The walls were painted many years ago and at the risk of hyperbole not washed recently.  The class rooms are mostly natural lighted with just a minimum of florescent fixtures for the darkest times.  I used high ISO settings and a flash on my camera to photograph the rooms which are much darker than they appear in the pictures. 

The Teacher's Lounge - I Think
 Some of the posters such as the "Times Tables" 2x2, 2x3, ... 11x11 ... 12x12. are printed on cloth rather than paper; much more durable.  I was very impressed with the neatness of the Lao writing on the blackboards.  The desks look they very well could have been the originals form 1925.  They were heavy and obviously capable of lasting several generations rather than mere years.

Two Boys Finishing Their "Home"work Before Class Starts

Lao Anatomy Poster

Waiting For the Last Minute to Complete His Homework

I introduced myself to a couple of the teachers and showed them the photographs that I had taken in case they were concerned or cared.  I suspect that the teachers were not concerned and didn't care.  It appeared that they had given me the benefit of the doubt and trusted me - very much like the times when I went to elementary school.  It was a much more relaxed and happier time that still exits for the most part here in Southeast Asia even in a Communist state.  I really appreciate the freedom here to photograph people, and to interact with them without suspicion and accusations by them.  To the contrary, I find that the more that interact with the people the more opportunities that I have for photographs and the more that I learn about their life as well as culture.

Lao Primary School Teacher - 5th Grade

I had expected some type of formal flag raising and quasi-military "start of the day" ceremony prior to the beginning of class room work. The start of the formal class day was actually very informal. A middle aged man dressed in dark slacks and a cotton long sleeved shirt that had the sleeves rolled up to his elbows walked on to the school yard. I got the impression that he was the man that all the children kept an eye out all the time - the PRINCIPAL. He said some things in a normal voice to a couple groups of students and all the students from throughout the playground ran off to their appropriate class rooms - just like we did when Mr. Fitzgerald appeared and spoke back during the 1950's in Groton.

I realized it was time for me to go in that I did not want to disrupt the children's formal education time but I was not done causing trouble yet. As I exited the schoolyard on to Th Sikkarin or was it Th. Sisavangvong, I encountered a class and their teacher finishing up their task of cleaning the sidewalk in front of the school. The young girls of the class were busy with brooms and large woven baskets picking up trash and debris. The two boys of the class who reminded me of two of my former classmates were busy either watching or goofing off. The boys were rather large and apparently had not missed many meals. The girls by comparison were slender and slight. The girls struggled with the basket of debris. Seizing the moment to have some fun and to teach a lesson, I motioned to the teacher that I was going to get involved. I stopped the girls who were struggling with the basket and motioned the two boys (Gary and Larry?) to come over. I admonished them in rudimentary Lao and pantomime that the girls were working very hard which made me happy but they were not working which made the foreigner sad and angry. I told them that they should be carrying the basket because they were big and strong. I then showed them the difference between the size of their biceps and the girl's biceps; which definitely got my point across. The boys each grabbed one side of the basket and virtually flew as they ran back to the schoolyard as the teacher laughed, the girls giggled, and I smiled. The teacher and girls said goodbye to me and I was on my way back to the hotel.

I suspect that my lesson to the boys will not be forgotten soon but I also am not sure that they learned anything from the lesson. Such is life everywhere - lessons may be remembered but not necessarily learned.

I was just pleased for the opportunity and freedom to learn a little about the schools in Laos.

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