The village boy who became a community leader

Welcoming Visit Laos-China Year 2019, Vientiane Times is publishing a series of feature articles and images promoting the two countries’ cooperation in attracting more tourists, especially Chinese, to experience the nature, culture, history and hospitality of Laos, Jewel of the Mekong.

For an example of the transformative rewards that hard work and persistence can bring, meet Mr Salee Thongsavanh, the Manager of the Konglor village Community-Based Tourism organisation in Khounkham district, Khammuan province.
Despite being born into a very poor family and leaving school when he was barely a teenager, Mr Salee has risen to become a successful family man, local community leader and role model on how to run a successful, community-based tourism project.

Deputy Prime Minister Dr Sonexay Siphandone visits Konglor cave.

Recently, Vientiane Times had a chance to talk with Mr Salee after he was presented a best practice in tourism development award by the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism at the National Culture Hall in Vientiane.
He recounted how he was born in Konglor village to a very poor family. After finishing lower secondary school he went to work to help support his family. 
While still a young man Mr Salee married a local beauty.  Together, he and his wife had four children.  Some of these are married now, and Mr Salee wouldn’t be surprised if a grandchild arrived one of these days. He himself is just 40 years old.  
Mr Salee said he used to have to work two jobs just so he had enough money to support his young wife and family. He worked as a clerk in the local village office at the same time as he was working as a security guard at Konglor cave.  Eventually he became a boatman, guiding tourists through the shadowy, cold expanses of the cave’s interior.
Mr Salee said that caring for his family was his prime, motivating factor for working so hard in those early years of his marriage.
“Initially I didn’t know much about tourism at all,” Mr Salee admits, despite having worked directly with tourists for many years at the cave.
“Nevertheless, at one point I just got really lucky and was selected to take part in a national tourism training programme that was sponsored by the Asian Development Bank (ADB),” he said.
“I have always had a lot of energy for work and could recognise a good opportunity when it came my way.  As a result, I travelled all over the country, and to neighbouring countries too, learning about tourism and its development as an industry.” 
Growing up in Konglor village and working in the cave meant Mr Salee had already developed an appreciation of the natural beauty of the area before he was showing tourists around.  He said it wasn’t until much later that he really started to understand what an asset the cave complex could be to his local community.
In 2010, Mr Salee participated in a study programme which involved meeting other tourism operators interested in eco-tourism initiatives. He met with authorities at Don Det and Don Khone village in Champassak province and travelled to Khonphapheng Waterfall and Somphamit Park in the heart of the 4000 Islands area where he learned valuable lessons about sustainable environmental development initiatives.
Mr Salee said that when he came back from this trip he was very interested in ideas about what could be done to sustainably develop Konglor cave site as a quality tourist attraction. 
After exploring other tourism ventures in the north of Laos, in 2012 Mr Salee received funding through an ADB programme to work and study tourism development in France.
On his return, Mr Salee said he was inspired to get to work on developing Konglor immediately. “When I came back I gathered all the local residents together to form a type of working party that would both protect the cave complex and develop its tourism services,” he said.
“Soon, our little group was to be officially recognised as a Community Based Tourism Association by the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, and I was honoured with the title of ‘manager’.”
Now, he said, he meets people from all sectors of society both locally and internationally.  He works hard to build the right networks that can help Konglor village.  He said that a strong work ethic meant he was able to learn a little bit of English and this has helped him sustain contact with overseas associates over quite long periods of time.
Mr Salee said the recent award he received was an honour, and that he is both humbled and proud of the official recognition given him.
“It is through hard work and determination that I have been able to raise four children and send them to university.  It is through hard work that I received the award as well,” he said.
Mr Salee said he and his wife had managed to save up some money over the years and eventually were able to build a small homestay for travellers in Konglor village. Eventually, he plans to build an adjoining restaurant.
“I believe if you set a goal and work really hard towards it, unimagined rewards can follow,” Mr Salee said. “Things can change really fast sometimes, especially if you’re looking for it. I had obstacles to overcome, but I never imagined my life would be as transformed as it was, all those years ago.”
“Who knows what life will bring?”

By Phouthong Sivongsa
(Latest Update February 20, 2018)

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