Friday, 24 February 2012

Road to recovery: children go back to school

Ten year old Joy hugs her grandfather at the evacuation centre.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
Ten-year-old Crizelle Joy lives with her grandfather, sister, two aunts and uncles, and nephew in a small one-room hut at an evacuation centre in Barangay (village) Mandulog in Iligan, the Philippines. The village is right next to the river and was one of the worst affected by the flash floods that followed Tropical Storm Washi in December.

“We were asleep in our house when the flood came,” Joy remembers. “The Barangay Captain woke us up. He was going from house to house in a bamboo boat. We had to leave immediately. My grandfather brought blankets for me and my sister but we left everything else behind. I was very scared. It was dark and the water was rising, and I could hear people crying out for help.”

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Relocation, relocation: families living in tent cities

Children use an umbrella to shelter from the sun at the tent city.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
I was in the Philippines recently to see how UNICEF was helping children in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Sendong, which hit the southern island of Mindanao last December. This was the worst storm in the area in modern history, dropping the equivalent of a month's rainfall in just one day and causing flash floods which left thousands of families homeless.

After my morning visit to Barangay Carmen evacuation centre (see part one of this blog), we returned to ‘Alpha Base’, the temporary UNICEF office in Cagayan de Oro (CdO). In fact it was a rented house in a residential compound, with a UNICEF banner hung from an upstairs balcony. Here I met Phil, a bubbly communications specialist from New Zealand who was my main contact for the trip, as well as Love, a friend of mine from the Manila office who had volunteered to work in CdO, and Rohannie, a child protection officer who I was due to accompany on her afternoon rounds.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Peer to peer: children recover from disaster

Kim helps six-year-old Robin with a math lesson, at an evacuation centre.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
Seventeen year old Kim sits with a group of young children in a child-friendly space at an evacuation centre in Cagayan de Oro, the Philippines, one of the towns worst hit by Tropical Storm Sendong last December. The centre is in a barangay (village) covered court. It’s crowded and humid, with the smell of sweat. Over 130 families live on top of each other with little comfort or privacy – sleeping, cooking and washing in the open.

But this morning an area has been cleared for children, marked out by a UNICEF tarpaulin mat. Here, Kim and other young volunteers are teaching math. “What does five plus two equal?” Kim asks in English, holding up a piece of paper with numbers drawn on it inside different shapes. “Seven!” the children shout happily in unison, before colouring in the right number with a yellow crayon.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Luang Prabang: monks procession at dawn

Joyce at Wat Xieng Thong. Having lost my camera memory card in January,
all these photos were taken on a return trip in October
© Andy Brown/Laos 2012
Luang Prabang is like a city adrift in space and time. The old royal capital of pre-communist Laos, it now feels like a cross between a suburb of Paris and a rural Thai village. It occupies a peninsular between the Mekong (see part two of this blog) and Nam Khan river, which takes a hairpin bend off the larger waterway. The main roads are lined with French restaurants, cafes and bakeries in colonial era buildings: brightly painted villas with wooden shutters on the windows. French tourists cycle lazily around between the cafes and sights, conversing in Gallic tones.

Yet just a step back from the post-colonial villas are a warren of packed-earth side streets, just wide enough for a bicycle or small motorbike to get down. Here, there are Thai-style wooden houses on stilts, many with the Laos and communist party flags hanging outside. Women cook food without electricity on coal stoves and chickens peck around in the yards. Here the locals still use traditional addresses, based on ‘villages’ named after the local temple.

As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang is off limits to larger vehicles and there are relatively few cars. We spent three days exploring the town by bicycle, visiting various wats (temples) and the former royal palace. On the first day, we rode our bikes over the old wooden bridge and into the centre of the old town. From here, we walked down small pathways through the villages to Phu Si, the hill in the centre of Luang Prabang.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Laos: slow boat down the Mekong

Sunset at Huay Xai, Laos, looking back over the Mekong river to Thailand.
Having lost my camera memory card, this photo is from Lonely Planet
Coming from Thailand (see part one of this blog), Laos is both familiar and subtly different. The people are from the same ethnic group, they have a similar language and the same religion. The streets of a Lao town look very similar to those of a small rural Thai town. They have the same wooden stilt houses with the same spirit shrines in the corner. The shops accept Thai currency and locals sit in cafes watching melodramatic Thai soap operas on TV.

However, there are small but significant differences. Where in Thailand you see yellow royal flags hanging next to the national flag, in Laos their place is taken by red flags bearing the communist hammer and sickle. And where Thailand hustles and bustles, Laos moves at a slow, sleepy pace. Here, roads are often unpaved and bicycles and motorbikes are the main modes of transport. “Thai people view Laos as a backwards province of Thailand,” I was told in Bangkok, and while it’s true that the economic benefits of development were absent, so too were their darker side effects, like pollution, over-population and prostitution. It was in many ways a refreshing change.

We arrived at the border crossing by bus from Chiang Rai. Here, the Mekong river forms the border between the two countries. On one side was the Thai village of Chiang Khong, on the other bank the mirror-image Laos village of Huay Xai. The passport office on the Thai side was a small wooden hut at the bottom of a dirt road. From here, a handful of small wooden boats ferried passengers across the river, while lorries lined up to make the crossing on shaky-looking articulated barges.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Chiang Rai: bamboo forests and hill tribes

Elephant trekking in Chiang Rai province. Sadly, having lost a memory card
during the trip, this photo is from Lonely Planet
Where Bangkok is concrete grey, Chiang Rai is red, yellow and green. We landed at sunset at a small airport surrounded by dusty red earth and fields of tall yellow grass translucent in the evening sun. Beyond the fields, green forested hills curved out of the plains like the backs of whales from the ocean. This was the first stop on Joyce and my adventure honeymoon through Laos and Cambodia  - the adventure being admittedly more my idea than hers and obtained against the promise of a future beach holiday. We were in Chiang Rai primarily to reach starting point for our overground journey through Laos, but while we were here we decided to take a few days to see the sights.

For our first day, we hired bikes to ride around town and visit the local temples, including Wat Phra Kaew, originally known as Bamboo Forest Monastery. The forests had long since retreated up the slopes of the nearby hills but the temple remained, now surrounded by market stalls and tuk-tuks. It was still very much lived in and young monks in orange robes roamed the grounds, sweeping the paths clean, reading the daily newspaper or being bussed in and out by song-tau.

There was a museum of artifacts, and I chatted to the monk supervising it (he wouldn't talk to Joyce, as women represent temptation away from monkish pursuits). I told him my name and where I was from. "You speak Thai very well" he said, somewhat overstating the case, before turning to the exhibits. "We have statues of King Rama V and King Rama IX," he said proudly, pointing to two small gold statues, one wearing glasses and the other an impressive moustache. ACS46RPKF7AK