My time volunteering
Two of us, Chris Wright and myself, were assigned to work at Lao National Radio in Vientiane, Laos. Our primary assignment was to train Lao technicians to City & Guilds standard in electronics. It was my first introduction to being a trainer - and great fun! We were also assigned to work alongside BBC and Marconi engineers in building a national radio broadcast network. Being in a war zone added much excitement to the appointment. Travel outside of the city was virtually impossible so we had to travel via the embassy plane to Luang Prabang the royal capital in the mountains of the north, and Pakse in the far south.
We were treated as junior Embassy personnel so had access to the frequent embassy functions and swimming pool. We were also classified as staff of the Lao government's Ministry of Information so had invitations to special national celebrations - as at Pi Mai (Lao New Year).
The impact of my placement
Chris and I later met with some of our former students who had arrived in UK to attend British universities. The project was part of a wider Colombo Plan aid programme that contributed to the development of a reliable radio network that would provide information and entertainment, and played its part in helping unite the Lao people. Sadly, our efforts did not last long as the government was taken over by a communist regime in 1975. Many of those we worked with emigrated to Australia and other countries.
My unforgettable moments
One of my most challenging moments was when I was assigned to accompany a 2-ton generator set to Luang Prabang. A New Zealand Air Force training crew were in town and our boss at Lao National Radio had talked them into taking it - and me - aboard a flight to Luang Prabang in their aged Bristol Freighter. Loading the monster into the front-loading aircraft was not so difficult at Vientiane's airport, but off-loading it in Luang Prabang was quite a different story. There was no lifting gear - only pipes and planks to help get the generator set off the plane and onto the truck.
At the airport Lao coolies looked to me to direct the operation. There was a 50-cm drop from the plane onto the bed of the truck. Then at the radio station we had to get it off the truck and into position in the engine house, adjacent to the pretty little radio station, in the shadow of mount Phou Xi and opposite the royal palace, right in the centre of this fairy-tale royal capital.
It all worked! There was nothing more satisfying that getting it connected up, then when it was fired up it started - to the familiar sound of a London bus!
The impact my placement has had on me
It impacted me in several respects. I jokingly say that I grew up in Laos. It was an environment where I often had to dig deep, but in the process discovered who I was and what I was good for. This affected various areas of my life: relating to Asian people of a different culture ( and learning a non-European language), my leadership ability, problem-solving - and being witness to the impact of the Vietnam War on the region. I extended my initial contract from 15-months to 2 years ('I can't go home yet!') and later returned to Laos to run a recording studio. I also met my Dutch wife-to-be there and we were married in 1974.
I still have a number of Lao friends that I stay in touch with via Facebook, mostly, but have also met many of them in person. Most of these were from the Lao church where I used to teach English in my spare time. I have also returned to Laos several times, the last being 2 years ago when with my wife, son and family we went back there, visiting some of the old haunts and travelling by road to Xieng Khouang province and the Plain of Jars in the north east - territory we could never have visited during VSO years. It is an exceptionally beautiful country, especially the mountains north of Vientiane.
Since my six years in Laos (1969-75) I have spent a lifetime in international radio broadcasting and have travelled extensively throughout Asia.