In November, Darwin Animal Doctors came to us to ask if we could assist in an endeavour to construct and provide medical care to a new elephant sanctuary in Laos (and in our spare time set up a small animal clinic as well)! Of course all the plans were made to get everything ready: personal vaccines, flights, supplies and we started reading about elephant care.
Since we aren't elephant specialists, a plan was set in motion for us to begin our training in Thailand, volunteering in an elephant sanctuary to gain experience.
After spending 3 weeks in the elephant sanctuary we left for Laos in the second week of February. We started our trip from Chang Mai, Thailand, to the village of Vang Vieng, Laos, taking the scenic (and cheapest) route. It took us about 3 days to reach the village but it gave us the opportunity to see the country we would be working in and to meet local people.
Laos had been a French colony until 1954 but there is not much that will remind you of that history. About 60% of the less than 7 million inhabitants are Buddhists and those beliefs reflect in the nature of the people who are warm and very friendly!
When we arrived in Vang Vieng we met with Kate, who was in charge of organising the elephant sanctuary. Unfortunately the construction process of the sanctuary in Laos had been delayed and they were not quite sure when the first elephants would arrive. Luckily we were aware of this problem ahead of time and we already had our mind set in organising a small animal vet clinic!
Vang Vieng currently does not have a “true” functioning small animal vet clinic; all the local vets work for the government, but they are not trained veterinarians.
During the week we had several meetings with government officials. Those meetings were really formal by character as hierarchy in the political system in Laos is very important. All people present would stand up, the moment the minister enters the building and nobody speaks unless spoken to. 'Face' is a very important part of the culture, this means that, no matter what people, would protect their status. Knowing that we were extremely surprised at one meeting where the minister brought in his veterinarians: they all sat down with us and talked about the project. They were very excited about it and to our great surprise they asked us if we could teach them skills like spay/neuter techniques! (Asking for help is stepping away from your pride ('face') )
They also asked us to come with them to another province where they had a problem with cattle: Within the last month about 30% of their cows had suddenly died and there were several stories about different diseases going on. (Rabies, hoof and mouth disease, etc.)
Two days later we went on a 6 hour bus ride (it was not that far, but there were no paved roads) to the village. We went outside the tourist areas where the kids were running with the car: they had never seen caucasians before! In the village we were welcomed by the local authority and a meeting was set up.
Next day they showed us the office and their medicines and vaccines and their way of diagnosing diseases: a poster where 1 picture was shown per disease together with one or 2 symptoms.... We talked about how to diagnose the problems and how to start working to a solution. The problems they had where not 'special' in Laos: these problem where going through Laos year by year.
Back in Vang Vieng we met with several people who were actively trying to improve the lives of the animals in the village. We visited a monkey sanctuary, run by a French man: he rescued sick and injured monkeys from the tourist industry and lodging areas. He also was happy to see a veterinary team in the village and showed us around his sanctuary.
We were all very impressed by the hospitality of the local people and the beauty of the land. It was really clear to us that veterinary help is needed and the government emphasised this thought: a good connection was made for future work!
Unfortunately we had to leave the country unexpectedly. We left our supplies for the local vets to use and in the hope to come back to this beautiful country. As we all seen the need for proper vet care and the willingness from the people to make a change!
Laos February 2014