Meet “King Kong.” (He’s the one on the lower right.) At least that’s what he told us to call him.
He was one of our guides for a trek we did in Laos.
He is 18 years old and just graduated from high school. He wants to go to university, maybe to study business or English. He’s not sure yet.
He has to take an exam at the end of this year before he can be accepted into university. He’s very nervous because it costs $500 just to take the exam. And that’s a hefty chunk of change, especially here in Laos.
King Kong is a hard worker. He grew up in a small Hmong village outside of Luang Prabang. He moved to the city because he wanted a better education than the one his village had to offer. He says he’s lucky to get to go to high school in the city. And he’s lucky he still gets to see his family twice a month because his village isn’t far. Some students live 12-15 hours away by bus and they don’t get to go home often.
Kong has 9 brothers and sisters. He’s one of the youngest ones. Many of his siblings are already married and with kids, but he wants to wait. He wants an education first.
Men in Laos usually get married between 16-22 years old and women between 14-18. And when they get married they usually stop their education. Sometimes they stop even before they get married.Because even though villagers value education, it’s costly. Especially when there are 10-12 children in a family to send to school. Usually boys get first priority. It gets expensive quick.
Primary school costs a whopping $5/year per student in the village and $10/year in the city. Kong says the city has better teachers, so many parents want to send their kids to the city, but it’s too expensive. The teachers in the country don’t get paid much either so they usually have multiple jobs. One teacher in the village we visited also served as the police officer and owned a store on the edge of town.
Secondary school (equivalent to American high school) is more expensive – $15/year in the village and $40/year in the city. This is when people typically stop going to school, either because it’s too costly or because it’s too far away.
See, most villages have a primary school, but not secondary school. Many have to travel up to 3 hours one way hiking through a jungle to get there. We did that hike and it was tough. There were some steep parts! So during the school week children can set up in these little huts they build right next to the schools.
13-18 year olds do this. They hike to school. Make dinner for themselves at night. Take care of themselves.
I burned my arm when I was 14 trying to warm up hot dog buns in the oven. I still have a very prominent scar.
And to be here? And cook over an open fire? That’s just a disaster waiting to happen for me.
But that’s normal here. Normal if you want an education. So no wonder many people stop before they finish high school.
King Kong says even if he does continue on and earn a university degree – after all this hard work and money he has to put into it – it will be very difficult for him to secure a job. Unless he wants to bribe the government to let him have a position. I was so shocked when he said this I made him repeat it. He told us “not to let the cat out of the bag” though.
He gets this cute prideful grin on his face when he uses English phrases like this. Proud that he knows these little nuances to our language.
Because like I said, Kong is a very hard worker.
He learned English by going up to Mount Phusi (a huge tourist spot in Luang Prabang to watch the sunset) every night to talk to tourists. Some he met would take him out to dinner which he says “makes me over the moon.” That’s how he tried pizza for the first time. Five months ago. But he’s still not sure if he likes it.
Kong also told us about a local organization – Big Brother Mouse – that he visits every day. It offers a free services that sets up a time and place for locals to talk to people in English. It’s set up like a coffee shop where anybody can go in and talk to anybody.
So Zach and I checked it out after we got back from our trek. Many tourists go in to talk to the locals. And it was just as amazing as Kong described.
We met many local students I also want you to meet.
John has a scholarship for his math skills to attend the city high school. He lives in a village 13 hours away. He wants to become an architect. He just started to learn English and was very nervous to speak. He carried a notebook where he would ask me to write down the new words I said that he didn’t know.
Pete just started learning English too. This was his second time at Big Brother Mouse. He asked Zach to teach him English words for the different parts of the body.
Adam has been coming to Big Brother Mouse consistently for six months and he sounded fluent in English. He wants to be a doctor. I taught him about the Super Bowl and he taught me about rattanball, which is like volleyball except with your feet!
Big Brother Mouse doesn’t just offer this service though. It has essentially taken up publishing books in Laos singlehandedly. Before them, only the government was allowed to print books in Laos. Many people, the founders of Big Brother Mouse discovered, had only seen textbooks in their life and didn’t understand how reading could be fun.
When Big Brother Mouse started in 2006 there were almost no books to read in Laos, except historical books about Laos.
So Big Brother Mouse got a permit to start printing books, the first of its kind outside the capital of Laos. They wrote and illustrated all the books themselves. They even had to create fonts so they could print the books. They opened up a bookstore with 6 titles they published personally as well as any other other books they could find in Vientiane (the capital). But after two weeks activity slowed down because everybody had read everything. Twice. They now have published over 300 books.
Plus, they bring books to the villages. They created “book parties” where they talk about books and read stories out loud in the villages in Laos. They teach how to take care of books and let each child choose a book of their own to keep.
They also train teachers on how to incorporate books in the classroom, and they teach people in Laos how to write books so they can publish even more books!
We fell in love with this program!
I could rave about them forever, so if you’re interested in learning more I’m just going to point you to their website (where you can also sponsor the publishing of a book or a reading program!! And in case that link doesn’t work it’s bigbrothermouse.com).
But let’s get back to King Kong.
While attending these little coffee shop sessions at Big Brother Mouse, Kong met a woman who lives in Colorado. He told her all about these education troubles in Laos.
The high cost. The travel. His fears of maybe not completing.
She offered to pay for university for him. About $100/year for four years.
Isn’t that such an incredible offer? What an inspiring woman!!
Kong says he keeps up with her on Facebook. But even that’s hard because he doesn’t have a phone – many people don’t, especially in the villages where there’s no service anyway. So he uses the computer in the library in Luang Prabang when he has the time to go.
He’s been trying to work more at the travel company where we met him to save money to continue to live in the city and help support his family back home.
He is an inspiration. He really touched my heart, or as he would say “played on my heart strings.” That’s why I wanted you to meet him.
Luang Prabang has been the only place in our travels where I could actually picture myself living. I asked Kong if I could become a teacher there. To help the kids.
Oh my goodness how awesome! I started talking about living in a village when he stops me.
“But you can’t be a teacher in the village. Only the city. At a private school. The teachers at the public schools and village schools have to be Lao.”
Sorry to “burst your bubble” he said.
And that’s what he did. My heart sunk. Because private school was even more expensive than the public city schools I mentioned previously. I wanted to help the village schools. It makes me sick to think about the level of government corruption…
I have to be Lao?
“How much does it cost to bribe the government?” I asked.
He just laughed.
But I was half serious. Still am!
I can’t get the beautiful souls we met out of my head – John, Pete, Adam, King Kong…
For now I’ll focus on Big Brother Mouse and pray to God for guidance.
I wish I could keep in touch with all these students I met. But none of them had phones. Even when I asked King Kong for his Facebook he couldn’t find it anymore when he searched for himself. He doesn’t know what happened. So I’ll keep searching for him. His story and Luang Prabang will remain in my heart for a long time. And I hope they “play on your heartstrings” as well.