Before I went travelling, if I had to think of a really random situation to find myself in, teaching English in Laos would be a strong contender. I didn’t know much about Laos and I had absolutely no desire to teach anything to anyone ever. Yet travel changes you and I arrived in the UNESCO-listed town of Luang Prabang, in northern Laos, a different person to the one who left London several months earlier. I immediately fell in love with Luang Prabang and its sleepy old town, sandwiched between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. I spent days wandering through streets lined with palm trees, past Buddhist temples and historic, wooden-shuttered buildings, occasionally stopping for an ice cold Beer Lao or a pastry from one of the many French bakeries. During one my walks, I walked past a sign written in English saying “Will you help eager young Lao students practice English?” Who could resist a request like that?
What’s Big Brother Mouse?
The sign was outside a building run by Big Brother Mouse. Big Brother Mouse are a local charity dedicated to promoting education among young people, by making learning accessible and fun. They place a particular emphasis on literacy. According to their website, they want to change Laos from a country where “people don’t read”. The three founders of Big Brother Mouse – Siphone, Khamla and Sasha – began to create books designed to be read for fun. Most people had only seen textbooks. The concept of reading for pleasure was a strange one. The team behind Big Brother Mouse wants to change this. They started by writing down traditional stories and eventually set up an office where children and young people could visit, borrow books and listen to stories. Of course, not everyone can come to the office in person, so the team also organise book parties in rural communities.
There’s now also Big Sister Mouse, a learning centre in the countryside outside Luang Prabang. Here, both children and young adults have access to resources they don’t get in school – they can use computers, play games and learn English.
Where do tourists come into it?
The Big Brother Mouse centre in Luang Prabang runs two sessions per day – one in the morning and one in the evening – where tourists can drop in and help local children with their English. It’s also possible to volunteer for the entire day at Big Sister Mouse. The beauty of both Big Brother and Big Sister Mouse is that you don’t need to book in advance. All you need to do is turn up at the correct place and time. If you choose to volunteer at Big Sister Mouse, you’re asked to donate 100,000 kip (approximately £9.50) towards running costs but this is optional.
What’s it like to volunteer?
I loved to read as a child (and still do) so I strongly believe in the importance of books for youngsters. Furthermore, the unexpected opportunity to do something helpful really grabbed hold of me. It took me a while to build up the nerve to actually do it though. I knew it wasn’t going to be a classroom situation, where I’d have to stand up in front of a bunch of people, but I was still apprehensive. When you suffer from anxiety, even something as straightforward as walking into a room feels like you’re walking on stage in front of an expectant audience.
So, even though I spent several weeks in Luang Prabang, I only felt brave enough to visit Big Brother Mouse right at the end of my trip when it was a case of ‘now or never’. I wish I’d done it sooner because I went back again.
Sessions run from 9:00 – 11:00 am and 5:00 – 7:00pm every day, and you can drop in at any point between those hours. The set-up is very laid back. I walked in to a room that looked a bit like a classroom but less formal. People were sitting around in groups looking like they were engrossed in conversation. Each time I visited, a member of staff greeted me and led me over to a “student”. After introductions, we just chatted – it’s as simple as that. Every experience will be different depending on what your student wants to get out of it. I let myself be led by whoever I was talking to. Most of the locals who attend are young people. The first time, I was paired with a 19 year old and the second time, I was paired with a 14 year old, both guys. My 19 year old student was so incredibly polite and enthusiastic. His English wasn’t the best so he wanted to go over some basic vocabulary – questions such as “what are your hobbies?” or “do you have brothers or sisters?” together with the answers.
The length of the session depends on the student. The first time I attended the morning session, my student ended our chat when he had to go off to school. He was extremely appreciative of our time together which warmed my chilly heart in a way I’d never experienced before. As he’d had a very clear plan for our session this led me to think that other students would be similar, so I arrived at my next session – an evening one this time – armed with a ton of conversational questions. And, of course, the student I was paired with had very different ideas.
This time I was “teaching” a young Buddhist monk! He was only 14 but, as monks in south east Asia often have access to a better education than lay people, his English was much better than my last student’s. He just wanted to have a regular conversation so it was a great opportunity for me to learn more about life as a Buddhist monk in Laos – and for him to find out more about the UK. He was very keen on eventually moving to the UK to study so I was gave him some (hopefully helpful) advice and he even promised to add me on Facebook!
Why should you do it?
As travellers, we often pass through communities and make only a financial contribution. While this is a vital and extremely worthwhile part of travelling, it’s nice to have the opportunity to do something more or just different. It’s only an hour or so of your time, you don’t need any training, it’s rewarding, and it’s a great opportunity to meet new people and learn something about the country you’re visiting.
And if you’re not visiting Luang Prabang any time soon, you can still contribute either by sending a donation or by sponsoring a book or even a student. Check out the Big Brother Mouse website for more information.
Need to know:
- I visited Luang Prabang three times during my stay in Laos and my favourite area to stay is the peninsula bounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It’s here that you’ll find the main tourist sites, the night market, temples and restaurants.
- I stayed at different guest houses each time and the best one (and the best value for money) was Villa Philaylack.
- A visa is required for UK and US citizens (these are the nationalities I know about – check your consulate for details). You need a photo and US dollars to pay the visa fee.
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