“But Neda, what about our plans to head to Luang Namtha and then Nong Khiaw for the riverboat journey on the Ou River? If we head back to Houay Xai with Dett we’ll be totally backtracking…"
     “Well, Dett said we could stay at his place, eat with his family – see real Lao life! So f&*! it, let’s do it!”
The village
 As travelers we all crave “authentic experiences.” We’ll pay big bucks to hike out to a remote hill tribe village to see how real hill tribe people live. But the problem of course is that if enough people do that, the village slowly changes to cater only to tourists – losing the authenticity that people wanted to come for in the first place. Neda and I have avoided such excursions in our belief that you can’t pay for an authentic experience – you have to let it come to you. When Dett invited us to come stay with him we realized that this was our chance and that we needed to be flexible enough in mind to let go of our “plans” and let things unfold as they may.

The little munchkins
And boy did they unfold! We motorbiked about 30 km to Dett’s village where Dett suddenly veered off the road and brought us through a dirt track to his house. Dett’s village is all ethnically Khamu – their language is a Mon-Khmer language totally different from Lao. Many of the kids didn’t speak any Lao because they learn it later in school. As we unpacked from the bike Dett went to tell the town elder that he had invited foreigners into the village (luckily we were approved) as we stood around being smiled at (and stared at) by what seemed to be the whole town! The little girls of the village took an immediate affinity to Neda, who they kept calling “swuay mak” (very, very beautiful in Thai learned from Thai TV shows). Their endless giggling held the innocence of a time seemingly lost in more developed parts of the world.

Traditional Lao meal
For dinner and breakfast we ate communally with Dett, his family and friends. This involves sitting on the floor around several plates and bowls of food. Every two people get some glutinous sticky rice to share between them. You roll the sticky rice into a ball and dip it in the sauces or eat it with a piece of meat. The traditional food was amazing: boiled bamboo and forest ginger that you peel before dipping into a dip of hand roasted and smashed chilies along with local herbs and sugar. We also had roasted green eggplant smashed with chilies and herbs – like a Lao Baba Ganoush! They even had an herb they added to their fish soup that took away all the fishiness and left a delicious tasting stock! Perhaps even more interesting than the food was the style of drinking. In Khamu culture, there are only one or two glasses even with a group of 10 in the circle. When a person finishes drinking their glass of BeerLao, it is filled up and passed to the next person. So as you eat together you don’t have your own glass or your own plate. Dett said that this keeps their community strong as they share everything together.

Jeff teaching the girls yoga
After breakfast, we put on our ceremonial clothes (“sorry Dett, we only have jeans and a few shirts to our name right now!”) and prepared for the coming festivities. In Khamu culture, the building of a new house in the village is an event of near equivalence to a marriage. Invitations are sent out and hundreds are invited. The family and friends set up tables, a sound system (which was hauled in on a tractor), and lots of food and drink for the coming guests. Right before we headed to the party, some of our friends from the Gibbon Experience arrived via taxi to join in. Dett had invited them before leaving the day before and they couldn’t resist joining. They even changed their plane tickets to make it work!

Sticky rice wine jar and well wishes dish
The party was a fantastic time. It started with lunch and lots of Lao people offering us shots of lao-lao, a fiery moonshine distilled from sticky rice. Little did I know that one is supposed to take a sip to be polite before dumping the remainder on the ground. Oh well…After the lao-lao and some sort of fruit whisky, we were ushered into the house to offer blessings to the mother and father who own the house. Everyone put some small amount of money or candy onto a bowl and then knelt down together. You then tie a bracelet made of many white cotton strings to the homeowner’s wrist as you wish them well. They then tie a bracelet to your wrist to return the wishes. To complete the connection, they bring out a giant stone jar of fermented rice wine with numerous winding straws protruding from it. Everyone drinks together from the jar until it runs dry.

After the blessing, a little band struck up inside the house with symbols and drums for the sword ceremony. In this ceremony, an elder Lao man wields two bamboo swords in an intricate dance that is meant to warn evil spirits to stay away from the home and the family who lives there. We were able to record a short video of the dance - http://flic.kr/p/bxF8W9. As we sat watching this glimpse of culture, I was overwhelmed at what I was experiencing and so grateful to have been included. As if that wasn’t enough, we all went outside and were taught to dance in the traditional Lao style (which involves a lot of wrist rotation). A local woman approached me and asked me to dance and we all got out there and had a great time. Luckily, we had been given some lessons in Lao style dance by the little girls earlier in the morning so it wasn’t too hard to pick up! Jeff captured the dance on video, see it here - http://flic.kr/p/bLhLTZ.
Cat, Toun & girlfriend and a guest
Dancing, revelry, and a bit of Karaoke ensued. We sat at many different tables with people from all over the village, communicating with broken Lao and hand gestures. And it was wonderful. To be accepted at such a deep level despite our many differences is a fundamentally human thing to do. Our cultures couldn’t be more different in many regards, but the ability of human beings to form community and share joy together gives me hope when I am cynical about how alienated we have become from each other. Authentic experiences can be hard to find and it can be tempting to pay in order to try to get them. But like all good things, patience, flexibility, and a willingness to participate wholeheartedly will usually lead to things unfolding just as they need to.

To see all the fun pictures from the party, you can click here - http://flic.kr/s/aHsjyTBVQG.

Leave a Reply.