For a while now we have been making plans with Thong and Paet to help them with their trekking agency, and teach them what tourists are looking for, how to market the business and how to attract people in and most importantly, to tell tourists what is unique about Forest Retreat Laos. Forest Retreat, which Thong has been running for the past couple of years (in a 1.5m x 3m shoebox!) is the only agency in Luang Namtha that has imported kayaks, (rather than dodgy Lao ones), the only agency that has the rights to stop at the confluence of the Nam Ha and Nam Tha rivers – in our opinion this is the most beautiful part of the entire river in the Nam Ha National Protected Area – he has a camp there which is a bamboo house made by the local Khmu tribes people that tourists can stay in…. all of these amazing unique features that he has never thought to tell any tourists! And now we have helped him to up the ante: He has the only real espresso in town, the only couches in town, the only cool hang out place in town, the only falang music in town, and will soon have the only real cocktails and wood fired pizza in town. We want to help Thong to understand that while many tourists know about Green Discovery (the main tourism agency in Laos) before they get to Luang Namtha, and pay sometimes up to double price to go with GD because it’s a name they know, he actually offers many services and trekking/kayaking adventures that are superior to these in that they are unique, private trails etc, and yet he is the ‘little guy’ that just needs some exposure for tourists to begin to understand that there are better, cheaper, more friendly alternatives to Green Discovery. Forest Retreat Laos is the only trekking agency in Luang Namtha to actually offer Forest Retreats – where people can chill out in the jungle as well as trek or kayak or cycle or spend time in small minority villages – and we really want to help Thong to advertise this fact. His business is unique in town and yet no one would know it because he simply has no idea how to sell himself, or even that he needs to.
So… all of this information has lead to the birth of Project Laos – a project that we have enjoyed quite possibly more than anything else we have ever done before, a project which has stretched our brains in ways we couldn’t previously perceive, a project which has at times left is wondering what on earth we have embarked on here! The cultural differences between the western world and sheltered wee Laos are sometimes too vast to comprehend, and throughout this process it has been both a massive learning curve, and a hugely fun and fulfilling experience.
Let’s start at the beginning: several months ago, when all of this information came to light about Thong’s agency being so unique, and when we got to know Thong and Paet, their amazing, generous and genuine nature, their need to help the minority tribes and the community (a large percentage from every trek/retreat/kayak/cycle goes directly to the minority people or community) we had discussions with them about how we could help them. We instructed Thong to keep looking for a larger building (1.5m street frontage really doesn’t cut it, even in Luang Namtha) and we actually walked the main street looking at all of the buildings and picked out a couple which we thought would be perfect to rent and transform into the best hang out and trekking agency in town.
A couple of months ago, when we were preparing to leave Koh Lanta Thong phoned us and said that the building which we had earmarked as being our best option, had become available. The exact building – was this divine intervention, or what? So we sent him to take photos and asked lots of questions (we had never been inside the building) Does it have a western toilet? Yes. Does it have a western shower? Yes. Is it renovated? Yes. Does it have a kitchen? Yes. Does it have water in the kitchen? Yes. How big is it? Big enough. OK, we’ll come and have a look.
We headed back to Luang Namtha and initially we were both shocked at the state of the inside of the building. The ‘renovated’ building was disgusting… filth like we haven’t seen before and mould and mildew everywhere. We told Thong that we thought maybe he shouldn’t rent this building. It obviously had a lot of water damage and needed a LOT of work done to get it up to falang standards. Thong, having no idea about falang standards, couldn’t really see what we were on about (seeing as he lives in a Lao hut). The water damage by the fridge was explained by the fridge leaking. The water damage on the upstairs ceiling happened when the neighbouring hotel had a partial wall collapse onto the roof and has since been repaired. The water damage on the upstairs wall might be because someone spilt a glass of water there? The western toilet did not flush. The western shower was in fact a tap coming out of the wall. The ‘kitchen’ was a fridge that the landlords were taking with them. The ‘water tap in the kitchen’ didn’t exist. The entire top floor’s power didn’t work. Hmmmm. What were we getting ourselves in for?
After much negotiation between Thong and the landlord, we managed to get a discount on the rent and would use this money to renovate the building and fix all of the issues. The deal clincher, was that a building on the main street only becomes available for rent every couple of years, on average. So if we wanted to go ahead, we had to work with what we had. (A building not in the main street is not really worth having, since Luang Namtha town really is just the main street.) So began our building/painting/repair project.
The beginning was relatively easy. We hired some Lao’s to clean out the building, and when we suggested using a soap and bucket they looked at us and laughed as though we were mad. When we went back to check on their progress, we found that the Lao way of cleaning is taking a hose inside and hosing out the entire building. We had to choose paint colours, to make the place stand out and also be a nice place to be. We learned that in Laos, you can buy paint rollers, but not roller trays. You can buy Chinese paint brushes, with jagged edges and bristles that fall out onto the wall you’re painting with every second brush stroke. You can make roller and brush extensions with bamboo, if you need them. You can use a bowl or paint your roller with a brush if you need it to be able to spread paint. Bopanyang. (No problem). You can only buy Chinese tools, which is fine if you don’t mind your hammer breaking in half, your drill bit spinning crookedly and oscillating 1.5cm as it spins, the drill button getting stuck in and only working when you put your finger inside the button, and your extension lead literally melting, sparking and catching on fire (true story!).
Then we asked for bamboo to be put on the walls – this part was really fun – Thong and the builders went into the jungle for a day and came back with 50 bamboo poles, all about 10m long. They then had to cut them to size, cut them in half (for putting on the wall), paint them on the inside with insect repellant and then staple them all to the walls. For us this part was awesome because all we had to do was tell them where to put the bamboo and watch the walls take shape.
Next came the kitchen and bar. What seems to us in western society as a simple task, quickly becomes very complicated in a country where they have never seen or heard of a bar before, don’t know what one looks like or what it could be used for, and so need step by step by step instructions to build one. (which then only get followed loosely). In the end, after drawings, 3D drawings, physical demonstrations, and lots of explaining to Thong who would then translate into Lao for the builders, we ended up going to the timber shop and building a 3D model for the builders so that they could understand what a bar is. It’s little things like that that we take for granted and end up taking days of effort to explain the concept. Still, we found it all very entertaining, and we did end up with a bar, albiet a bit higher than we asked for.
Then there were the finishing things – we needed them to take a door off, shave off some of the bottom (where it was scraping on the floor). Seemingly to us, an easy job. And it was – when you don’t have a screwdriver to get the door off, you just use a hammer to bash it off. When you break the door hinges with the hammer, you just straighten them with the hammer, or at falang insistence, get new ones. When you don’t have a screwdriver to put the hinges back on, just use a hammer. Bopanyang. This kind of thing was mindblowing for us – with western sensibilities you would never use a hammer for this and in the beginning it was hard not to get a bit stressed out! But we quickly realised we just had to go with the flow, the task might not be done in the way we thought was the ‘right’ way, but it still got done. So a lesson in not worrying about the details or the ‘how’, just about the result.
The toilet. Although the Lao’s couldn’t understand why we needed a proper western toilet, we convinced them it was very necessary. So off we went to buy a toilet. The extensive range of western toilets in Luang Namtha meant that we had 2 to choose from. We got a ‘top of the line’ one. When the builders assured us that they knew how to put it in, we believed them. Then later in the day came back to find cement all over the floor, a toilet perched on the edge of the platform (that the old toilet was sitting on), and the cistern on backwards. This was probably the funniest moment in the entire project. What on earth could make someone think that the flush lever should face the wall, and the non-enamel, non-polished, ‘made in thailand’ stamp-side of the cistern should be the side that faces out? We laughed for ages about this one and the builders said ‘they were just resting it there’ (not, it was screwed in) and it was quickly fixed.
As the inside of the building has taken shape, we have received massive interest from the local community. Udon, our manager (an amazing person who has just finished being a monk for the past 5 years), said ‘Wow, it’s like paradise for humans’ and every Lao that comes in just says “Nyam lai, nyam lai” (Beautiful). We drew attention by having the first vaccuum cleaner in town and people would come into the shop just to try it out. We have the first couches and people come in just to experience sitting in a chair that isn’t hard. And overall it’s just the most interesting that that has happened in town for a very long time. The fact that a building is actually having thought put into what goes inside is a new concept. Painting it green alone has drawn the crowds. Seldom have we been able to work without Lao’s watching us, just out of curiosity about what these crazy falang are doing in their town.
So our paradise for humans is now open. There is still lots of work to be done, wood fired pizza oven to build, seating for upstairs to get, lots still to learn and to teach. A big ups to Dre’s sister Kate, who designed the Forest Retreat logo for us – without you, Kate, we would have been totally lost. Forest Retreat Laos is about to become Luang Namtha’s next big thing, just wait and see. Our photos of Project Laos – the new Forest Retreat Laos are here.