An autumn chill is in the air as I leave the flat for a walk on Hampstead Heath. The leaves are turning from yellow to burnished gold, and the silence is complete, except for the sound of leaves stirring in the trees and the echo of a dog barking in the distance. It is a peculiarly British scene, and yet in my heart I am still in Laos.
I first met our guide Mark Steadman in Pakistan three years ago. He told us about his adopted home in Ponsavan and the story of how he came to found the Wild Buffalo Foundation: a charity that teaches young people English and gives them the opportunity to play football and learn about film making. The afternoon we spent with the students was one of the highlights of a trip that took us deep into the heart of Laos, and showed us what life is like here in all its complexity.
In a fortnight of surprise and adventure many things stand out: meeting Lao Lee at The Living Land Community Farm and participating in the twelve stages of rice production; a sobering visit to the offices of the Mines Action Group and the UXO Survivors Centre where an all-female team demonstrated their painstaking work; travelling into central Laos, where we strolled around colourful markets, experienced life in a Hmong village and enjoyed a playground game with some schoolchildren.
We were stunned by the noise and colour of the Buddhist festival of light at Thakek, and enjoyed dining by the Mekong and watching the candle lit floats sail by. We travelled by boat through one cave and swam through another, trekked through jungle and finally made it south to the 4000 islands, which we explored by boat. Mark has an unerring ability to appear at unexpected moments with a little treat. In Pakistan it was tea as we watched the sun rise over the Himalayas, here it was gin and tonics at sunset on the French bridge near our hotel at Sala Don Khone.
I thank Mark, Louis and Det for sharing so much with us. Whilst we build up to Christmas at Daunt Books, I will be thinking about adding ginger and lime to my porridge, trying to learn how to make noodle soup, and wondering what Miss Yor Yong and her classmates at Lone Buffalo are learning this evening.