I woke from a deep sleep to the rythymic sound of thwacking. In my sleep-muddle state, it sounded to me like someone chopping down a tree with a very strong axe, and I thought 'Why would anyone be cutting down a tree in the middle of the night?'
Then we looked out of the window and saw the orange haze of flames. And came out onto our front steps and saw this:
I didn't realise how high the flames were until I saw it on the camera screen. The smoke was billowing and orange embers crackled and shot high in the night sky.
We live down a small lane and opposite us, on the corner, is a compound that is home to about 50 or so Laotians. They are the teachers and their families of a nearby school.
And last night their homes went up in smoke.
The fire must have started quickly. There was hardly anyone around on the road though I could see people carrying things out of their homes and occasionally running down past us with bags.
Once we were outside, the thwacking noise was quickly replaced by loud popping sounds, like crushing bubble wrap. Over the tin roof we could see white sparks flying and realised that it was the electricity wires inside the compound short circuiting. Then the connecting electricity pole on the nearby corner exploded in white light and the lights around the compound went dark.
As for us, our fear was that the flames would leap across the narrow lane and into our garden. It would be easy enough if the old, giant mango tree in their yard caught fire. Its huge spreading branches reach almost across the lane, brushing against an equally tall tree in our garden. Fortunately, though, there was no wind.
By now it was about 4.00am, the fire was well and truly blazing and had been for at least half an hour. The fire engines hadn't arrived though we had called them, and I imagine the neighbours had too.
I cranked up our garden hoses and started spraying water across our wall and onto the road and their tin roof. The hoses were frustratingly short and there was also the worry about the still-sparking and popping electricity cables. Nobody else seemed to have hoses out and the neighbours were more concerned with getting their belongings out of the burning buildings.
Then I heard the wail of fire engines in the distance.
One of the first things the emergency crew did was to switch off the neighbourhood electricity. People were gathering out of nearby homes, clad in pyjamas and shorts, standing under the now defunct electricity pole and staring at the unfolding drama.
The fire engines carry their own water as there are no hydrants around. Four engines squeezed their way down the narrow lane, spraying water from every vantage point.
The flames subsided; replaced by billowing smoke. Everyone just stood back and watched. The fire fighters were inside the compound and spraying water from the tops of the trucks. The neighbours spread out down the lane. One helpful guy chased and caught a scrawny rooster that had escaped its owner (and the fire).
Dawn was starting to break and people dispersed a little. I went home to check on the kids who had slept through the entire episode and were still fast asleep. When the sun rose at 6am, I returned to see the damage...
Smoke still rose off the hot embers and metal corrugated roofs. Frayed electricity cords dangled everywhere. Two fire fighters remained, dragging the heavy hoses across the debris.
When the blaze was finally out, it was time to pack up and go home. This fire fighter above took off his boots and emptied out the water. The hoses were loudly cranked back into the engines and they rumbled noisily away.
This home above was one of the lucky ones that escaped the fire. Though as you can see, its construction of wooden planks, cement blocks and sheets of tin doesn't make it particularly fire proof.
Such is life in Laos. But alongside dubious building construction, this fire showed me evidence of the Lao spirit of resilience and pragmatism. Nobody was hurt in this fire, thankfully. But 9 families lost their homes and the community in which they lived. Yet at no point was there hysteria, panic or even despair, though people were witnessing their homes go up in flames.
This afternoon, we visited the compound where everyone was hanging out in the yard / parking lot. People were talking and laughing, drinking beer and commiserating, while kids rode their bikes around and played.
In times of trouble and grief, people bring food. We brought our signature homemade cupcakes.
And we'll be bringing more practical things over the next few days. I tried to imagine if it had been my house that had gone up in smoke. And I like to imagine that people might extend a hand of friendship then. After all, everyone loves cupcakes, right?
I have set up a fundraising page to help these families with basic household goods and food. Please give generously. Thank you.