When we travelled around the world, over a year ago now, we did some truly wonderful things. We rode elephants, saw orang utans in the wild, bathed in Japanese hot springs, visited a real live, smoking volcano, ate bugs and camped in the desert. We have a plethora of amazing memories to keep us warm on cold nights.
But there’s something fighting for space with these memories in my head. Something I need to say about the things we saw and did. I don’t now where I’m going with this, and it’s not a well thought out cry for action, more of a muddled, half formed feeling that it needs talking about.
When I turn on the tap these days, I often think about the family we stayed with in Borneo. They live in a wooden house on stilts beside the Kinabatangan River, a wide, muddy rapidly flowing, croc infested highway. Their entire lives depended on this river, for food, washing, toileting, drinking and transport. They don’t have running water. They collect water in huge barrels from the river, then leave it until most of the silt has sunk to the bottom. They don’t have taps.
They also didn’t have electricity until five years ago, and now it’s pretty ropey. This is Malaysia, a country we tend to think of as being relatively developed, and it is in the cities. But rural life in South East Asia is so far behind that in the West that it’s like stepping back in time hundreds of years. Life is about finding food, collecting water, keeping the bugs out. The children all go to school, and people aren’t starving, but life is hard. Hard in a way it’s difficult for us to imagine. Not only do people not have washing machines, or dishwashers, or microwaves or cars, they don’t have taps and roads.
And this isn’t a one off. A single village in the deepest darkest jungle. We went to rural Northern Thailand where things are a little better, but life is often about subsistence, and to Laos, where things are a whole lot worse.
Laos is a popular tourist destination these days, if you’re the adventurous type, primarily because of the stunning World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. We had a fabulous time there, drinking cocktails in restored colonial mansions and watching monks carving Buddhas in a UNESCO supported monastery. But something has stuck with me. The first night we were there, we wandered down the main street looking for something to eat. All along the road, on both sides, were beautifully restored buildings, both Lao and French colonial. There were shops, restaurants, a palace or two, guest houses and monasteries. In the middle of the street was a large building with broken glass in the windows, a dusty, scrubby, front yard with bits of rusty metal on the ground and a cow tied to a tree. The paint was peeling, the walls were mildewy and I remember thinking that it must be derelict.
It was the school.
Laos is one of the twenty poorest countries in the world. Their hospitals are not as well equipped as my local GP. They regularly don’t have blood or oxygen. People die from easily treatable injuries because they don’t have blood or oxygen. Malaria is a serious issue. The schools have broken windows.
I don’t know what to do about these things.
But I wanted you to know.