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Questionable Kindness: Visiting a Hmong Village in Laos

Posted By in Laos | 27 comments

Questionable Kindness: Visiting a Hmong Village in Laos

Luang Prabang turned out to be every bit as magical as I had imagined it would be. I was completely swept off my feet by the city’s unique fusion of Asian and European elements, owing to its 50-year long occupation by France.  I loved seeing Buddha statues on the counters of otherwise perfectly French-looking cafes that served flakey croissants and warm baguettes.  The whole city felt charmingly quaint, yet exotic at the same time.

Luang Prabang, Laos

The night after we arrived, we went to a bar recommended in my second-hand copy of “Rough Guide to Laos”. It wasn’t long before we met the owner, Troy, who had moved to Laos from Winnipeg and taken over the bar that very week.  He moved confidently from table to table, chatting with customers as if we were all at a big house party and he was the host. He sat with us for a while so that the three of us could appropriately marvel at the phenomenon of Canadians running into each other in a completely faraway location.

He bought us shots of lao-lao, a traditional Laos rice whiskey. We were a little reluctant since we had recently taken a shot at the night market from a bottle containing a scorpion, which had not gone down smoothly. He insisted that red lao-lao was way better than the white type that we had tried. It turned out to be delicious.  Soon he was taking us back to the kitchen to show us his new meat-smoking machine, and Brent was trying his hand at DJing for the whole bar.  The next thing I knew, we were being invited along on a trip to a remote Hmong village where his bartender, Ai, grew up.

The Hmong are a well-known ethic group who typically live in the mountainous areas of Laos, China, Vietnam and Thailand. In Laos, this group has a long and complex history of being persecuted and disenfranchised. There are plenty of “village treks” offered by tour companies all over Thailand and Laos, but I had never wanted to go on any of them because a) They’re generally crazily expensive and b) I imagined that these villages would somehow be corrupted by the constant comings and goings of gawking tourists.  Needless to say, I was pretty excited about this opportunity to visit a village minus the tour group.

Hmong Village, Laos

 

Troy arranged for a slow boat to take us down the Nam Khan river to Ai’s village.  Troy planned to leave at the end of the day, while Brent and I were hoping to stay overnight.

girl in the Hmong village, Laos

 

When our boat docked, 3 children with dirty faces and mismatched clothing attached themselves as our shadows.  They spit frequently, shamelessly and often disturbingly close to me.  Later, they gathered handfuls of wildflowers for me – literal handfuls crumpled up in their small fists.  Perhaps this was a gesture of apology for the loogies, but more likely it was for no reason at all. We had been in the village for exactly 5 minutes when an older woman approached us and began shoving wallets in our faces, insisting that we buy one.  I was instantly uncomfortable. It wasn’t that I was blind to their obvious need: The village was tiny; a cluster of small, dilapidated huts, and a few roaming chickens. But this also didn’t seem like a case of buying local handicrafts to support the community.  Many of the wallets were identical, and they each fastened with a plastic zipper, which led me to believe that they hadn’t even been produced in the village. Of course, I bought one because I was basically a guest, so how could I refuse? I was happy to give;  but I wanted to give in the spirit of friendship and gratitude for their kindness, rather than because I was being pressured.

One of Ai’s friends invited us into his hut for a beer.  I’ve seen thousands of small huts in Thailand and Laos, but this was my first time going inside of one. The floor was dirt, and the walls were made of scavenged wooden panels, which didn’t connect with the edge of the aluminum roof on all sides. There were no windows and no bathroom. It was dark and cool. There were incongruous modern accessories: a TV resting on some scraps of wood, a fridge next to a small, hard bed.

Hmong Village, Laos

Later, we shared a dinner of sticky rice, chicken and a watery soup filled with leaves and herbs. I love the way Lao people eat with sticky rice: they ball it up in their hands and then use it to dip in sauces and to scoop up other foods. We drank a few BeerLaos the Laos way: The beer was poured into a single glass, and each person had to chug the glass until it was empty, refill it, and then continue passing it around the table.  After we finished, the women who had cooked our meal emerged. We thanked them and they asked for their payment. It was more than double what Brent and I typically pay for simple, local meals. That’s when I knew that I wanted to skip the overnight stay and hop on the boat back to Luang Prabang that Troy had arranged for himself that evening.

What did I learn? I’m not totally sure.  I feel unconvinced that these kinds of village visits can occur without exploitation on both sides.  Since coming to SE Asia, I feel like I’m constantly faced with situations that cause me to sharply judge the eagerness of certain people to take indiscriminately from Westerners. But then I realize that I have absolutely no right to judge because I couldn’t possible understand their perspective.

Do you think we were being exploited a little, or were we the guilty ones? Have you ever done a village trek in SE Asia?

 

27 Comments

  1. Jo (the blond) November 29, 2012

    I feel the same when I'm faced with poverty. I feel that I'm being used, but then those people are poor, right? and I have money, right? So I should give them what I can…on the other hand, maybe this giving and buying some dodgy wallets from an old woman encourages this kind of behavoiur? it's so hard to judge…
    I read once that tourists should donate to charities, run in the countries they go to and do not buy anything from people, unless it's produced locally. In this way you don't feel guilty that you're not helping. What do you think?

    • waysofwanderers November 29, 2012

      I like the idea, Jo. I would definitely be selective about which charity, so that I could know that the money was going where it needed to in order to provide the most benefit for the community. As you said, it would be nice to help without encouraging people to resort to begging or pawning off mass-produced trinkets. I just wish it helped with the challenge of saying "no" when I'm face-to-face with someone in need.
      My recent post Questionable Kindness: Visiting a Hmong Village in Laos

  2. Suzy December 3, 2012

    I have experienced similar feelings while traveling, those of just being a $ to people. I think it is frustrating because you don't feel like how you were being treated was truly genuine and without agenda.
    My recent post My Beauty and Fashion Gift Guide For Travelers

    • waysofwanderers December 3, 2012

      Exactly! I can completely understand the reasons behind their actions, but on some level it still hurts my feelings a little to be treated as some kind of cash cow.
      My recent post Sunday Snapshot: Loy Krathong

  3. Jenna December 3, 2012

    Very interesting. I like your take, without judgment and with sensitivity to their situation without being naive. I teach ESL and have had many Hmong students. They are kind and humble and have been through some truly horrible situations in recent history (e.g. trekking for days through the jungle with family members dying along the way…) and losing their culture, too.
    My recent post Delights of Tuscany at Mercato Centrale in Florence

    • waysofwanderers December 3, 2012

      Thanks, Jenna. It's certainly a very tricky topic to get into. From the little research I did about the Hmong before visiting the village, I could see that there have been far too many dark moments in their history. It's truly sad, and it's definitely something that has to be considered before rushing to judgement.
      My recent post Sunday Snapshot: Loy Krathong

  4. themostalive December 5, 2012

    LP was one of my favourite places of SEA and the Hmong people were probably the lovliest I met in the region too. Great post!

    • waysofwanderers December 5, 2012

      Thanks! I loved LP too! It's such a unique city – I wish I could have spent more than I few days there.

  5. Zara @ Backpack ME December 7, 2012

    I truly enjoyed reading this!

    Most times that I read travel bloggers stories on visiting villages and generally poor places, it feels like they are always so welcome, everything is so wonderful and magical… it's all smiles and all. Yet, when I go to these places, I feel exactly like you: people are welcoming, yes, but nevertheless they are exploiting your visit. Same as you are exploiting them, in a way, by visiting and somehow disturbing the natural order or things.

    It is indeed a 2 sided coin: should I give money because they need it and I have it? Or should I avoid over paying for things because that will change the way things work in a given place and that, ultimately, is not sustainable? It is a tough, tough question…
    My recent post A Sunday tasting of Peruvian cuisine

    • waysofwanderers December 11, 2012

      Thanks, Zara! This experience definitely made the whole issue really confusing for me. I still have a desire to visit different kinds of communities, and learn about other cultures, but I'm not sure how to approach it without ending up in another similar situation next time. It's tough not to give, even if you know that it will probably do more harm than good.
      My recent post Sunday Snapshot: Inside Palma Cathedral

  6. Tom @ Waegook Tom December 10, 2012

    Now this is tricky. On the one hand, some may say they're exploiting your relative wealth and viewing you as an open wallet. On the other hand, others may say that you're exploiting their village to satisfy your curiosity, so why shouldn't you contribute financially to them? In an ideal world, you'd buy something that they produced locally, but it seems that that isn't always an available option.
    My recent post Seoul’s Waterway: Hangang

    • waysofwanderers December 11, 2012

      I agree, Tom – I think the ideal would be to give back to the community in a sustainable way, and support local crafts and trades, but as you said, this isn't always an option depending on the circumstances. I like to think that communities and people can still connect genuinely with one another, overcoming cultural and financial barriers, but it's definitely not as simple or easy as I imagined it would be.
      My recent post Sunday Snapshot: Inside Palma Cathedral

  7. cham@volunteertravel February 12, 2013

    I hadn't really thought of the tourist exploiting the village. But I definitely think the best way to give back is in a sustainable way. But maybe the tourism they are bringing in is a sustainable form of income while they are able to keep their culture alive and share it with the outside world. If you look at it like that it seems like a win-win even though it doesn't always feel like that. This is a hard situation!
    My recent post Park City Sundance and Humanitarian Documentaries

    • waysofwanderers February 12, 2013

      I think in an ideal situation, it could be exactly that way. The problems tend to arise when more-profitable tourism begins to replace the traditional trades, which then begins to erode the very culture that the tourists are coming to see. Then you end up with local people putting on a show that they think tourists want to see, and the whole thing starts to become kind of ugly.

  8. Fong July 6, 2013

    Hi Jessica. Just ran into your post while reading up on things to do in Laos. I'm Hmong and I can understand your situation. No one is at fault here really and it comes down to what you think is acceptable or not. There is no right or wrong as both worlds are so vastly different.

    Many of our people are still living in conditions you've described. Many don't have much to go by. Their situation and the lack of support does not offer or provide any opportunities for growth, change, and happiness. Happiness comes from the tight clan communities around the villages, as it does here in US and other countries where our people now reside.

    You've explained the problem correctly and from that it's up to you to decide whether that amount of money is ok for you to give up knowing that they are doing so from desperation. I can say this truthfully and honestly because the majority of our people are extremely kind and warm. We are very family and clan oriented. Families across the nation know, respect and support you because of your family(s). More likely whatever happened to the two of you were most likely done in secret. If the village knew I'm positive they would not have stand by it and doing so would cause them to lose face.

    But as always there are always the few that will take it to the extreme and get more than what they really need. Then again, what is "more" to you and to them. I wouldn't judge too harshly on what you've experienced and would even suggest visiting more villages if both of you have the chance. I love my people and I can't think of another group that is more kind and more deserving of any improvements.

    • waysofwanderers July 9, 2013

      Thanks for weighing in on this, Fong. I've always heard wonderful things about the Hmong people, and I completely believe all of it to be true. I definitely felt conflicted about the whole situation. My feelings were hurt because I felt like I was being used, but when I looked at their living conditions I could see that what they were experiencing was much bigger and much more serious than my hurt feelings. As I said, I wish they had let us give to them freely instead of forcing us, but I can understand that their need was so high that they couldn't risk relying on our generosity.

  9. Andreea February 14, 2015

    Maybe you did go like happy go lucky and you shouldn't. Their poverty is extreme and your intrusion has to be respectful and helpful. Being given that you are on such opposite sides you should come prepared to give. Not money for dodgy stuff, but come with pencils, notebooks for children, colored pencils, little books with images to learn English. Come as a friend, not as a Westerner looking for a poverty show. You might think of something for the women. Something useful as a thermos. You might also want to dress appropriately because showing your knees and shoulders is disrespectful in their culture. I am no expert, but as I worked as a teacher in remote villages in Africa and Asia I learned that you have to earn their respect.

    • christina July 27, 2015

      well said.

  10. creativemindsrock July 10, 2015

    Great pictures! It looks like you all had a great time. It always can feel uncomfortable when visiting areas so different than what you are used to, but as long as you respect the locals I think it can be beneficial for both sides. Thanks for sharing! – Green Global Travel

  11. shocked July 27, 2015

    You don't feel pressured in giving money away in the tourist areas because you're groomed, pampered, and loved there, yet you feel pressured in giving money away outside the tourist areas where poverty (The REAL world) is? I'm confused. Either way you're still being "used" for your money. The only difference between the two is that one can actually persuade you into wanting to pay more without the desperation. No difference from living in the suburbs and visiting the ghetto. I'm actually surprised that you just learned this.

    • waysofwanderers July 27, 2015

      Where did I say I rather give away my money in tourist areas? That wasn't my point at all.

  12. Bert October 18, 2016

    I had the honor of living with a Hmong tribe, in a mountainous area much farther south from where you were, for a year nearly 50 years ago. The Hmong have been persecuted and abused for centuries and today is no different. The Hmong you visited most likely were relocated and perhaps “re-educated” and left to survive among the Lao without support. They are a proud, caring, respectful, loving and unbelievably loyal people. I agree with Fong.

    What we all should do when we make attempts to visit indigenous ethnic peoples is to visit as a friend and show respect. As some of the commentaters expressed, come with things which are of use and needed. Books and educational materials are especially needed and the thermos’ (which I had not encountered or thought of – hats off to you for suggesting) are appreciated and welcomed. But my comment to this is don’t just bring the books, sit down and read them to the children, Show them you care. Show them the respect they deserve.

    Before I went there the first time my mother gave me some common but sometimes forgot advice, “Treat your new friends in the same manner you would like them to treat you.” This is good advice where ever you go – even at home.

    My experience with and love for the Hmong was sealed that first encounter and is just as strong today as it was when my adventure began.

    I hope all of you who wish to do as this author did will go with a different purpose. Learn about and from them. Help them to have the life they wish (not yours) and if so inclined help establish a school or any other thing they need. Become a friend, not a visitor. Make a difference.

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