Philip Malone

Philip Malone

Ambassador to Lao PDR

Part of UK in Laos

4th September 2013 Vientiane, Laos

Laos through my eyes – Mark Ratter

This article is part of a series of guest blogs contributed by Brits who have lived and worked in Laos, or who have other interesting links to Laos.

“Where’s that?” was the response I was often met with when I told people of my interest in Laos when I was younger.  From the age of about 14, I had a fascination with this relatively small, low populated nation, surrounded by so many other well-known and well-travelled countries.  I spent a number of hours mesmerized reading and wondering about what I considered to be the most exotic of places.  Where exactly this fascination for Laos came from is difficult to pinpoint, but this seemingly unlikely choice was perhaps even more accentuated by the fact I’d lived my whole life in the Shetland Islands – never more than 5km from the sea wherever you are on land.  Despite my love for Shetland, perhaps this was the very reason for landlocked Laos’ strong impression on me: the ultimate contrast.

This wondering became wandering when I finally embarked on my ‘Big Asian Trip’ five years ago – a trip I had promised myself for many years and a trip which was ultimately life-changing for me.  My itinerary read ‘India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam…’ and a whole host of other countries planned for thereon after.  A year into my trip, I entered Laos for the first time and, not long after, decided to postpone my itinerary indefinitely – I had found a new home in Laos.  Many foreign settlers to Laos seem to have a similar story to tell.

I initially travelled in the north of Laos for a month during the rainy season with a fantastic group of people.   I remember thinking that it was exactly as I had imagined from when I was younger – the lushness of the forest, the good nature of the people and the emphasis which seemed to be placed on the community as a whole.  After this month, however, I took my own route and arranged to volunteer at the Organic Mulberry Farm in Phoudindaeng Village just outside of Vang Vieng.  Initially, I worked mainly on the farm – cutting, cleaning, picking, gathering and feeding – based around the farm’s two major products – mulberry and goat cheese.  The beauty of this experience was getting to know some of the local people who worked on and around the farm – their favourite things, their jokes, their problems, their lives.  The obvious language barrier was simply motivation for me to learn Lao quicker.  When I started to understand Lao well enough to interpret the farm workers’ stories, I began to pick up on the concepts of ‘kwaam-suk’ (happiness) and ‘kwaam-tuk’ (suffering) – and how central these, and their influences, are to the daily lives of Lao people.  At that point, I decided I wanted to stay longer and make something more of a contribution to the local community.

 The farm was also the headquarters for a non-profit organization called Equal Education for All (EEFA) which looked at ways to increase the quality of education in the local area, through building primary schools and providing English lessons to students and other keen learners – both during and after school hours.  Over the next two years, I found myself teaching English to a wide range of students:  aged 5 to 50; beginners to advanced; apprehensive to enthusiastic (but nearly always the latter); and Lao Loum to Khmu and Hmong. I still believe that the positive interaction between the students of different ethnicities which I saw in the classroom will become the basis for an increasingly mutual respect between all the different groups in Laos – but hopefully also a source of pride for their given identities.  After time, I assisted with setting up the English curriculums, training some of the EEFA staff and introducing new volunteers to the organization.  In addition to the wonderful friendships I made with both volunteers and students on the project, I sincerely hope my time there – along with the organisation’s efforts as a whole –  will prove to be a long term benefit to those Lao students who were so eager to learn and gain an opportunity in life.  These two outcomes seem to be confirmed when I go back to the area now to visit and see some of my previous students – now friends for life – and how many of them have gone on to either study further or to find employment in the community where English plays a big part in their work, and still a big part in their lives.

At a similar time to my volunteering with EEFA, I met my wife-to-be: an amazing girl from Salawan province who had worked as a cook on the farm for several years and whose family had moved to a village nearby.  In true Lao style, we got engaged soon after.  Between our engage

ment and marriage, and during a lot of running around getting documents (both in Scotland and in Laos) for our permission to marry, I became familiar with the bureaucratic ‘process’ of marrying in Laos,  and I learnt a lot about the frustrations of trying to get things done here.  Retrospectively, it was an invaluable experience in learning how to approach certain situations and issues here, and the importance of building potential frustrations into you plans when you want to get things done – and, of course, trying to do it all with a smile on your face!

We had our wedding in February 2011, in the back garden of my parents-in-Law’s house, overlooking the beautiful limestone karsts, rice fields and the Namsong River with all the friends I had made over the previous two years.  My parents came over for the wedding, their first time outside of Europe, and had an extraordinary time.  I don’t believe there’s another country in this world which would show the kind of genuine hospitality that my parents received during their time in Laos.  It also made them feel relaxed about the place where their son – and daughter in law – chose to live together.

Soon after our wedding, we moved to Phonsavan to open up a restaurant and bar with our good friend, who had also worked on the farm with us.  We hoped to open it as a means of sustaining ourselves so we could remain in Laos and think about what our long term plans would be.  Quite soon after opening, we seemed to be consistently busy and have been lucky to build up a good profile since then.  We get a good mix of travellers, expats and Lao people and it is such a great job for meeting people and to hear their stories.  We also support the Lone Buffalo Foundation, a local community project set up to develop Lao students’ ability, mainly through means of English teaching and football training.  In a province still heavily burdened by the effects of war, particularly UXO, such organisations are so important for providing hope to the future of those in the area.  Similar to the EEFA project I did before, I have found that this has given a meaning and purpose to what we do, and we hope to continually increase our contribution to Laos as time goes on.

So now that we are relatively settled here in Laos – and more specifically in Phonsavan – it seems appropriate that a few weeks ago, when my wife and I went to Shetland for our second visit, I was clearing out my old bedroom in my parent’s house and came across a drawing.  I instantly recognized it as a drawing I had done of the Plain of Jars when I was about 14 years old.  Strange then, that 14 years later, I find myself living in the town next to that Plain of Jars’ site.  I don’t follow the superstitious beliefs of some Lao people, but perhaps this is the place I am meant to be.

1 comment on “Laos through my eyes – Mark Ratter

  1. Great blog post, and particularly interesting for me as a half Lao girl growing up in Scotland. I am all too familiar with the response “where’s that?” when talking to Scottish people about Laos! It’s fascinating that Mark was not only aware, but interested in Laos from such a young age.
    Would love to know what Mark’s wife thought on her visits to Shetland….wait, let me guess…COLD!

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About Philip Malone

Mr Malone joined the FCO in 1981. He has served in a range of FCO and overseas posts with a particular focus on South East Asia and Europe. Philip Malone…

Mr Malone joined the FCO in 1981. He has served in a range of FCO and
overseas posts with a particular focus on South East Asia and Europe.
Philip Malone LVO took up his appointment in October 2012.
Curriculum Vitae
Full name: Philip Malone LVO

Married, two children
Oct 12: Laos,  Head of MissionJan 08 – Aug 12: Helsinki, Deputy Head of MissionApril 03 – Jan 08: Singapore, Head of ChanceryApril 99 – Sept 02: FCO, Head of France/Benelux Section, EU
Bilateral Department and additionally Deputy Head of Department (March
02- Sept 02)Jan 95 – Feb 99: Bandar Seri Begawan, Second Secretary (Defence/Chancery)May 92 – Nov 94: Luxembourg, Third Secretary (Commercial/Press and Public Affairs)June 89 – Jan 92: FCO, Assistant Parliamentary ClerkOct 86 – May 89: Guatemala City, Third SecretaryOct 83 – Aug 86: Buenos Aires, Attaché1981: Joined FCO, CSCE Unit, East European and Soviet Department

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