Updated: May 15, 2021
If you are asking: where is Oudomxay? Then you are asking the same question we had for several months. The answer is: it’s where very few tourists go.
Oudomxay is a province in northern Laos centered approximately around the city of Muang Xai, which is 55 miles northwest of Luang Prabang near the border of China. That may not sound like a long ways, but its a four (4) hour van ride on crazy roads from Luang Prabang. This is Laos after all…
We went to Oudamxay to volunteer at the Phuanmit “Friendship” School – Phuanmit means “friendship” in Laos. We “discovered” this school through a friend who had a friend at a church who knew a missionary in Laos who was dedicated to helping the people in this region. We are not a religious family but we were looking for a volunteer activity and helping out a new school in northern Laos sounded like an adventure.
We spent the better part of a day making our way from Laung Prabang to Oudomxay province and then working up gravel roads to the Phaunmit “Friendship” School. We had planned to spend five full days there doing whatever we could to help the school. Upon arrival they asked if we knew electrical. Having done several home construction and improvement projects I said “Yes”; so Mina, the school director, showed me a partially completed solar power system and said “can you complete it?” I thought we were going to wire a few light bulbs together, not rewire the whole school… But having actually installed a solar power system previously I said “sure – why not”.
We unpacked all of the components from their boxes and started reading the system manuals and spec sheets. It took us the entire week, but we were able to assemble a functioning solar power system and integrate it into the school's power panel(s). During that week we lived onsite and got to know Mina, the faculty and students. For many, the school is not only their lifeline to the future, but their source of daily nourishment. If these children, who ranged in age from 8-14, were not at this school (where they receive lunch), then they would be in the rice fields working alongside their parents trying to subsist day to day.
During our evening meals Mina explained that the Laotian power grid was unreliable and her annual power bill was $3,500 US dollars each year. It cost her $500 to educate and feed a child for a year. If we could get the solar power system working we could effectively transform the lives of seven locals boys and girls. Suddenly the weight of the project came into focus. We toured other local schools that were much less fortunate - constructed of cinder blocks, wood and tin roofs without electricity or the ability to prepare meals.
We came away from these experience appreciating our priviledged first world lifestyle, but also wanting to help these people and others like them. I began to think: why does setting up and maintaining a solar power system need to be so hard? Why can't it be like setting up a desktop PC? I know nothing about the electronics and software but yet it shows up in a box, I plug in the keyboard, mouse and monitor, then press the power button and it just works! Why can't solar power be that way for everyone?
That winter, which is their dry season, was especially dry and the school's well ran dry a few weeks after we left. There is no central garbage collection in SE Asia and the trash accumulates everywhere, especially in the rivers. Mina had to resort to shipping in water via truck to feed her staff and students, at an unaffordable cost. I had already been noodling on a turnkey solar power system, what if it could also make water? This idea came from a friend and now fellow business partner - we would take it right out of the atmosphere! BluOasis was born...