Through the looking glass: Laos Village Life

We heard the village before we saw it. The speakers buzzed, sending a jolt through my entire body with every beat of bass.  Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.

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Laos countryside outside Moung Ngoi. Rice, tobacco and taro were the primary crops.

In SE Asia, it’s easy to fall into the tourist routine. We had just spent two weeks in southern Thailand  doing what every other tourist does: rock climbing, snorkeling, yoga, hanging by the hotel pool with a good book. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but it left me craving authentic.

Six years ago we found ourselves in Vanuatu, crossing the island of Tanna by foot. For eleven grueling hours we trekked through the jungle, pulling ourselves up walls of mud by roots, devouring giant cucumbers with village chiefs, swimming in the mystical pools of a jungle waterfall.  Now THAT was authentic.

It’s become quite difficult to step off the conveyer belt of the tourist track. My version of “authentic” is when you look around and you’re the only foreigner. The people are interacting as they would if you weren’t there, and responding to you genuinely. They’re not paid to talk to you. The polar opposite of the big Hawaiian Luau you attended at the Maui Sheraton. No costumes or rehearsed dances – instead, you’re stepping through the looking glass and into another world…the more alien the better.

THAT type of authentic experience is what I love about travel. The best experiences come out of nowhere, when you least expect them.

We entered Laos via a lovely two day Mekong River Cruise where met Teri and Dan, an awesome American couple traveling for 6 months through Asia and documenting it on their gorgeous blog. We spent the next four days exploring the French colonial town of Luang Prabang, visiting temples and museums, riding single speed bicycles through town admiring historical architecture, pampering ourselves with daily massages and sampling local delicacies such as crispy river seawead. The leisurely, surface-level pace was both enjoyable and intentional – yet we desired the space outside our comfort zones and longed to replicate that authentic adventure we found in the islands of Vanuatu. We said goodbye to mom, and hopped in a bumpy van to the dusty village of Nong Khiew.

We arrived at the Nong Khiew with little more than an inkling of a plan, and before long we found ourselves piling into a creaky, wooden, long boat headed for the “old village” of Muong Ngoi.  Amidst the confusion at the bus station where we’d been deposited, a taxi truck driver shouted “boat to Muong Ngoi, leaving now” and we hopped in without more than a “sure why not” shrug between us. Sometimes you have to let the path choose you.

And so we let it, as a woman at the boat dock scooped us up and led us to her bungalows saying “Hot shower, double bed, porch with hammock – 60,000 Kip ($7.50)” – SOLD!

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View of Muong Ngoi from the caves above

We had hoped to book a guided trek for the next day but came up short after vetting several candidates with varying English skills, routes, and prices. We traipsed through the jungle trying to find the “lonely planet teacher guide” and instead found a village boy showing off a dead squirrel he’d just killed, dangling it by it’s limp arms in a morbid little dance, and later found ourselves standing awkwardly in a bookstore after inquiring about the “guide for hire” sign while the guy on duty “went to put clothes on” and then demonstrated he was clearly in no rush as he wrestled another naked gentlemen behind the curtain…maybe we weren’t meant to see the countryside.

But as we sat eating our fried rice and egg breakfast at the bungalows the next morning, the sign appeared right in front of our noses – “Full Day Guided Treks: Ask for Mr. Kan”.  Mr. Kan put his plans aside, we grabbed our daypack and off we went.

Kan is a 30 yr old Laotian father of two, born and raised in Muong Ngoi. He and his wife, Lan (who’d scooped us at the boat dock) run Nicksa’s Place where we stayed, as well as the restaurant and guided trips. His English was quite good and as he led us through streams, jungle, rice patty and tobacco fields we got to know each other.  At times a village elder, or a group of boys out fishing joined us for a few miles.  Always smiling, always welcoming.

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I’m not sure what this guy is smoking but it’s rolled in college ruled paper.

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It’s difficult to find the words to describe how out of place and jarring a Karaoke party is in a village of rural Laos. These villages received electricity less than a year ago and it never occurred to me that Karaoke would be one of the first applications. Normally, the first clues of a village are chickens and pigs along the path, but as we approached this village it was the MUSIC that first caught my attention. The melody sounded Hawaiian in it’s breezy tempo but the vocals screamed Chinese pop anthem, big group choruses in a minor key, heavy in tingy percussion with the occasional cymbals and flute riff. The speakers were so blown, that everything muffled together like those campaign trucks in Mexico that drive around blasting political propaganda.

As the source of music came into view we could see what appeared to be the entire village packed into a large straw hut extended  to make a party pavilion with blue tarp tent tops and picnic tables. With wide-eyed curiosity we walked by the party to our lunch destination. Kan explained the party was to celebrate a new born baby, and maybe we would stop by after lunch.  The father was a friend of his, and we would be welcome.

We ate our lunch with the “Mayor” equivalent of the region. A sweet man with a big smile and infectious laugh, who opened Laos Beer after Laos Beer to share with us. Lunch was typical village fare.  Soup with salt pork and cabbage, rice, steamed greens, and a special dish from their Chinese New year celebration – pork belly. The people of the village are Hmong. During the Secret War, the Hmong were recruited by the US and French to fight invading forces from Northern Vietnam. As a result they were singled out for retribution by Marxist Pathet Lao and the Vietnamese Army when they took over the government in 1975. They continue to preserve their culture, language and identity living mostly in the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

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After lunch we made our way down to the party pavilion. I could hardly hear, the speakers blared so loudly.  A long picnic style table was crowded with men, smiling and swaying, clearly imbibing in the local fire water – Lao Lao Whiskey. They enthusiastically waved us in, scooted together to make room for us, and insisted we try every dish on the table. Spicy chicken laab, sesame chicken wings, perfect sticky rice. “Try this one next” their gestures pointed, “drink this” their raised eyebrows beckoned as they handed us shot after shot of lao-lao.  If you’re having trouble picturing this liquid – think Everclear. I’m pretty sure you could run your car engine on this stuff – they call it fire water for a reason. Woooo!

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After my 5th shot I gave Eric a look of concern, we had a two hour hike to the boat after this and they weren’t slowing down!!! Kan leaned over and yelled to Eric over the music that he was going to participate in a special ceremony inside, and would we be ok outside.  Sure, sure, do what you need to do. Eric and I hung with the guys, making friends through our ever-improving charade skills.

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One of my new besties, a frequent provider of lao-lao shots, grabbed E & I by the hand saying ”Laos Beer, Laos Beer!” which had become a substitute for anything else he wanted to say to us. He led us into the room where Kan and Mr. Baby Shower had gone and then I saw the women! There they were! Six or so of them sitting on the mats, many with a baby slung across their breast. More men crowded the room, sitting on bags of rice stacked against the hut walls.  It smelled of cigarettes, lemongrass, chilis and beer.  The music continued to blast from one end of the hut and the rapid fire Laos and Hmong chatter and laughter created another melody altogether.  Mr. Baby Shower motioned to us to sit cross-legged on the mat and handed us what I later found to be IV tubes bought from the medical supply store. The opposite end of the tube was in what looked like one of those fishbowl drinks you get at a tiki restaurant and share with 6 of your girlfriends. This version had a ceramic pot with Khmer whisky and ice (rut row), covered in some sort of shredded husk (to keep the tubes in place?). Then, like a Laos beer bong, they raised their IV tube, began pouring beer over the husk into the whiskey mixture and frantically waved at us to drink! Drink! Drink!

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The syrupy mixture went down surprisingly easily. Like a flat rum and coke in melted ice with a tangy twist. That skinny little tube was working in my favor. I could hear my father’s voice as I sucked this mysterious liquid through the IV tube – is that ice safe to drink? Who’s mouth hasn’t this tube been in? Is it worth the risk? And unanimously every cell in my body responded YES!  You just can’t manifest or plan for experiences like this. You have to put yourself out there, be open to what comes your way and jump on board when the ride begins.

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Kan and Mr. Baby Shower

After a few rounds of this the other women started to come alive and join in. Nobody spoke a lick of English and of course our Laos and Muong is non-existent but we made friends, and had a blast. Finally at 4pm Kan realized the boat driver is going to be waiting for us (we’re an hour late already) and we bid our farewells. After a quick stop at the outhouse (squat toilet in a tent complete with two ducks who had made their home there) we headed out. How we weren’t all falling over I have no idea, we were definitely much jollier than we’d arrived, laughing and joking the whole way back.  We’d left that morning with a guide, and we returned that evening with a friend.

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Kan invited us to have dinner with his family: Yan, his two kids and his Uncle. When we arrived back at the bungalows his 7 year old daughter proudly showed him the frog she caught which I later saw her quarter with a machete and skewer on the fire. Now that’s a childhood! Thankfully, we were served grilled fish and rice instead. Cooking over a tiny fire in his backyard, all of us hunched around on wooden stumps, passing tea, Laos beer and a newly acquired bottle of lao-lao between us.  According to Eric, if you drink enough of it, you start to appreciate the flavor. Mmmm hmmmmm….

We gifted Kan one of our headlamps after seeing how delighted he was to use it while preparing dinner. He says he can get cheap Chinese batteries in Nong Khiew when ours run out – I hope he’s right.

As I sat on my stump by the fire light,  I noticed another guest walking to her bungalow on the other side of the fence without noticing us. The rickety fence that separated the tourist world from Kan’s family life – the barrier that we had the privilege of being invited across. How many times had I walked by such a threshold unable to see beyond it into another world. And as I poked the coals to even the heat on the fish, I smiled.  Lucky me.

Looking back on our travels thus far it is days like this that stand out above the beautiful beaches, the historic monuments or the fancy hotels.  So rarely are we given the opportunity to be invited below the surface of another world like Kan’s and the Hmong villagers. To be truly enveloped in their reality, to observe an authentic experience where the behavior of those around you is the same as if you, the foreigners, were not there. Like a fly on the wall – except you’re really in the center of the room with an IV tube jammed in your mouth sucking down a mystery liquid with the room cheering you on! You can’t make this shit up!

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Heading home with Kan.

Additional Resources

Nong Khiew: A Comprehensive Guide to Nong Khiew

Luang Prabang:

  • Stay: Lao Lu Lodge or Lakhangthong Boutique Hotel
  • Eat: We loved Tamarind and Joy’s restaurant.
  • Do: Rent a bike, ride to Paper Village, buy a silk shawl, cross the river with a scooter and get lost. Massages every day.

Mekong River Cruise

3 responses to “Through the looking glass: Laos Village Life

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