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.
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.
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.
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.
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?