Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Homestays: Experiencing The Real Laos

The following is a guest post by Cindy Fan

Ban Dong Muong (Photo credit: Sheila Rivera)
Sharing photo with the children
The children huddle together in awe of the giant 6’3” figure looming over them. The giant spreads his arms, threatening to devour them in one swoop. The kids are giddy, their excitement palpable; they know what’s coming next.

“My…name…IS….BAZZA!” the giant roars. The kids squeal with glee and eagerly wait for the giant to do it all over again.

We’re in the small village of Khmu people in southern Laos, known for its sacred “Monkey Forest” and small temple monastery overrun by wily, thieving rhesus macaques.

We’ll be staying in someone’s home tonight—no hotels here. Our accommodations will be the floor of a simple home. Village life is an integral part of Lao culture and society, and this homestay will allow us to experience how the majority of people in this developing country live.

The home is a hive of activity. Old women—petite and wiry—are busy setting out mattresses and sheets for us. The men are outside chopping the vegetables for dinner while pounding back potent lao-laowhiskey infused with the earthy herbs that are said to increase longevity (wink wink, nudge nudge). They take turns pouring and drinking, pouring and drinking, the task of cooking becoming less and less important as the shot tally increases. I pray that the women will come rescue this cooking operation gone awry or else we’ll never have dinner.

Children from the entire village have come to observe the giant falang named Bazza. Bazza accidentally smacks his head on a low Lao-sized doorframe. We play games with the kids. Neighbours drop by to chat. Baby chicks—bright peeping puffballs—roam freely about the yard but scurry to the safety of their mother when the black puppy appears. The pup sniffs my dusty ankles with a wet, inquisitive nose. The sun sets behind the rooftops. Cows mosey on down the dirt road. . Ban sabai sabai, I think: peaceful, peaceful home.


For those who are new to the idea of homestays or have reservations about trying it, remember this: Homestays are not about you. Homestays are not about you “roughing it” or seeing how well you can cope without a hot shower or internet. It is not about seeing how The Other live as if you’re visiting a museum, and it is not an appeal to pathos; it is not an invocation for pity from you, the audience.

On the contrary, homestays are about your host’s experience; you are immersing yourself in their way of life. What you’ll gain is an appreciation for their challenges, the simplicity and hard work of rural living and the feeling of family and community in a village, the legs on which the country stands. This is Laos.

The Facts

A homestay is one of the highlights of Activetravel Asia’s 7-day “Luang Prabang trek” tour

Village stays are also an integral part of hill tribe treks in Luang Prabang. This tour takes you into forest and several villages of the most prominent ethnic groups in Northern Laos: the Khmu and Hmong. The Khmu are also called "Laos Theung" and settle at a medium altitude, the latter, sometimes called "Laos Soung", live in high regions along the mountain ridges.

Tips for your homestay in Laos

  • Have an open mind and relax. They’ve welcomed you into their home and are probably anxious to please you. They will be sensitive to your reactions. Try the food they’ve offered you. Compliment the chef.
  • Ask permission before taking a photo (note: you’ll get better responses if you smile when asking). Then share. Show the photos you’ve taken of them, of your trip, and even photos you’ve brought of your family and country.
  • Give a small gift to your host or the village chief (ask your guide what’s appropriate). Avoid giving gifts to children directly as it can encourage begging. Instead, interact with them: play games, sing a song, learn their names and show them a dance or magic trick.
  • Communicate! You may not know the language but gestures and facial expressions can go a long way. Engage and show you’re enthusiasm. You don’t need words to exchange names, ask their age, etc. The ensuing charades can be great fun.
  • Learn! This is a great opportunity to learn a few words. Point at objects and find out what things are called. A phrasebook can also be handy.

Both men and women should dress modestly.

You’ll almost certainly be offered a shot of lao-lao, homemade rice whiskey. While you can politely decline, if you can handle the firewater, have a few. You’ll be lauded and make instant friends.

Don’t forget to thank your host and leave no trace. Take all your rubbish with you.

WHAT TO BRING

  • A sleeping mattress and blanket will most likely be provided, you may want to bring your own sleep sheet ư
  • sarong, for bathing at public taps or rivers
  • travel mosquito net; flashlight
  • arplugs, if you don’t want to wake with the roosters
  • pictures of your country and family
  • enthusiasm & smiles

Sharing photos with kids in Ban Dong Muong (Photo credit: Cindy Fan)
Have you done a homestay in Laos or elsewhere in Southeast Asia? Share your experience in the comments.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Trek Luang Namtha - An Authentic Village Experience Like No Other

Many people who come to South East Asia seek to find that unique cultural experience of an idyllic little village tucked away in the misty jungle clad mountains where people still live the way they have for thousands of years…living in bamboo and grass huts, hunting and gathering in the forest and growing seasonal crops…

A way of life that can no longer be found in the west
Many people go to northern Thailand or Vietnam or Malaysia to try to get this insight into a traditional way of living before Facebook, media saturation and Smartphones cluttered up our lives.  Disappointed travellers have told me that in these places the villagers hurriedly put down their ipads and turn off their plasma TV’s and don costumes to put on a “touristy” show about a life they have long left behind…not exactly an authentic hill tribe experience is it?

If you really want to experience people living in misty forested mountain villages exactly as they have done for thousands of years you should come to Luang Namtha in northern Laos!  Unlike Thailand who has had tourists for 100 years northern Laos has only had tourists (and electricity!) for 10 years, it is much less developed than its wealthier neighbours, more densely forested and is also the most ethnically diverse part of South East Asia, a real cultural melting pot with over 20 different minority tribes; which means you can go to numerous tribes’ villages in a single day and witness the striking differences in culture, tradition, belief system, architecture and agricultural practices.

 Why should you choose Luang Namtha for your hill tribe experience?

1.  Because these local people really do want to be  gain a sustainable income from arranged homestay visits and handicrafts such as silk weaving.  To even stay the night at a village the entire village agrees, via a village meeting, to apply to become part of the eco-tourism project.  If the government approves them, then they will be given some training and then you will be able to stay. This eco-tourism empowers them to preserve their tribal culture and encourages them to protect and preserve their natural environment. The original model homestay is the Khmu village of Ban Nalan another amazing jungle village on the river is the Tai Lue tribe’s Ban Sin Oudom.

2. Many of these tribes live in the Nam Ha national protected area (NPA) for example Khmu, Ahka, Tai Lue and Lanten minorities and so have become the caretakers of the national park. This means you can tie in an amazing cultural immersion experience with a trekking/kayaking/rafting tour in the national park.

3. The UNESCO sponsored Nam Ha NPA eco-tourism initiative ensures that a hefty proportion of the tour costs go directly to the villagers themselves and to conserving and protecting the national park.

4. Because it really is untouched! The nature is stunning and the villages and their inhabitants really are authentic minority tribes living in a self-sufficient way that is relatively unchanged for thousands of years.

5. Luang Namtha province is ideally situated close to the overland border crossings of Vietnam (Muang Kwa), Thailand (Huay xai) and China (Boten). Making it very easy to get to, It also has the best roads in all of Laos!

As one of the most Adventure and Responsible tours available in Indochina and Asia, ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA's trips are designed for all levels of outdoor enthusiasts, real people seeking real fun and adventure. So  you find one that is the “real deal” and gives a good percentage of the money directly to the local community,  you can refer Trek Ban Nam Lai Village, Luang Namtha tour at: http://www.activetravellaos.com/trek-ban-nam-lai-village-luang-namtha.html

Luang Namtha - Nam Lai Village - Luang Namtha
2-day trekking tour
Trekking grade: Moderate

This 2 days trek through the Nam Ha Protected Area takes you into a mountainous forest camp and the world of the Akha people where you will spend time learning about the lives and culture of these famous woodsmen. Learn about the rich fauna and flora of the protected forest. Walk along a stream to a refreshing little waterfall. Spend the night with your Akha hosts and taste their special forest spices.

Highlights 
  • Jungle trails
  • Akha forest camp
  • Guided by the Akha people

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Free Eating Guide in Laos

Things you can eat: always ask, because local recipes can vary.

Rice
Rice- brown, black, steamed, sticky, or as noodles, rice is your friend. It is eaten by Lao people with every meal of the day.  I know that that the other term for sticky rice is glutinous rice, but never mind- it does not contain the same protein that causes you problems. Spend enough time in Asia and you will be sick of the stuff, but you will always be able to eat something

Lap
Lap- (also spelled lab, laarb, or some variation) The national dish of Laos!  It is made up of crumbled meat (beef, fish, chicken or pork) and sometimes tofu or bamboo mixed together with galanga, lemon grass, mint cilantro, lime, sugar and fish sauce.

You can find it in a multitude of forms here- red, thick and spicey, with chunks of tofu, mild and made from eggplant, green chilis, or with some kind of pork.  Usually listed as an apetizer, the Jeows are served with steamed carrots, kale or cabbage and sticky rice.  May contain fish sauce, and always double check that soy sauce, mushroom sauce, or oyster sauce is not an ingredient.

Sticky rice with coconut and mango- not as sweet as the Thai version, but still good.
Papaya Salad



Papaya Salad- wicked spicey, and full of fish sauce.  If you are buying from a street vendor, watch which sauces go into it, and if it looks dark brown stop them from using it.

Omelets and Fried Eggs- almost always available, see the paragraph on MSG










Things you MIGHT be able to eat:
Spring rolls

Spring rolls- in Northern Laos, they seem to use rice noodle sheets instead of wheat wrappers, that they then deep fry.  If you are sensitive to cross-contamination, stay away from these.

Soups- Pho, Khao Soi, noodle soups, vegetable soups. . . the Lao people really like to eat soup.  I personally only get soup if I can get it made to order and stay away from street vendors.  I make sure to ask for the white rice noodles, with NO soy sauce, NO oyster sauce and NO mushroom sauce, and pray for the best.

Curries- yellow, green, red, tofu. . .  most will use either soy sauce or fish sauce to give it a salty flavor.  I usually ask for just salt instead.

Stir Fried Anything-  whether you want fried rice, fried noodles, or some combination of veggies and/ or meat, they will automatically use soy/mushroom/oysters sauce unless you ask for something else.  If it comes out with a brown sauce, they might have used tamarind but probably didn't follow your instructions.
Fruit Smoothies- although I didn't drink them often, and when I did they weren't an issue, I read another blog that warned against smoothies because they might mix in some sort of wheat or barley powder in with the sugar.

Here is more good news: if you get tired of Lao food, almost every tourist town will have an Indian restaurant run by a family from Tamil Nadu that serves up curries, pakoras and dosas, all (most likely) safe for your consumption.

Although a food allergy creates a more challenging travel experience, I hope it doesn't hold you back from visiting.  With research, patience, and a lot of restaurant conversations traveling while celiac is entirely possible!

Are you looking for a tour holiday exploring south-east Asian country? Take a look through all our trips to find the one that blows your hair back. Look no further, you've found the right spot. This is where it's at for a  touring holiday in Asia with Activetravel Asia at: http://www.activetravellaos.com/tour.php?op=listByCategoryId&catId=9.

About Activetravel Asia(ATA): ATA is one of the Indochina's leading adventure travel companies. ATA offers a wide selection of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar adventure tours, including hiking and trekking, biking, motorcycling, overland touring and family travel packages. ATA’s packages and tailor-made private itineraries will take you through exotic destinations to really experience the culture, history and nature of Asia.