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.

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