One of the reasons we’re taking this trip is that we want the girls to see how different people around the world live. While we’ve been to many places, we have not spent much time in rural communities and have not done a homestay yet. This all changed when we disembarked the slow boat and set off to visit the village of Muang Soune with our homestay guide Kham. She grew up in this village, which is home to both ethnic Lao people and Hmong people. Kham returns with small groups of tourists to a newly built wooden house she owns surrounded by fruit trees on the outskirts of the village. This place is not on Google Maps – a tiny village on the Ou River north of Luang Prabang.
We started the journey by car, driving up a relatively well-maintained highway, and learned that you used to be able to take this journey by boat. Recently, a Chinese company built a giant dam that blocked river traffic and displaced a lot of nearby communities. I remember learning about dam displacement in my International Development classes at university (yes, I have a degree in International Development!) In Laos, I could see it all firsthand. We drove by flooded villages where only the tops of the unmovable temples were visible; all the houses had been moved to higher elevations. Somehow, Muang Soune, where we were going, had not been flooded and remained in its original location. We had to take a small boat from the highway-side of the river to the other side because Muang Soune is only accessible by boat. The village was actually a gateway to 6 other villages (the furthest being 38 km from the river, deep in the mountains).
The residents we met were primarily farmers who grew sticky rice in plots behind the village. The rice fields were as picturesque as the ones we saw in Bali but without any other tourists. The only people we saw in our hour-plus walk in the fields were a group of schoolboys walking to a neighbouring village to pick up their vaccine cards since the school was doing COVID shots on that particular day. We visited the school and observed the children at work (both primary and secondary). We were saddened to see that the highest grade class had 15 boys but only 1 girl. The COVID shots disrupted normal school operations (most kids were getting their second dose) and caused the kids to be dismissed before lunch. They flooded back into the village, and we watched them celebrating the early dismissal by swimming in the river and playing in the streets.
We went fishing in a stream catching some small minnow-like fish which we later fried for lunch. We also saw women harvesting river weed which they made into a delicious snack that resembled crispy wakame (we actually thought it was the Japanese snack food until we saw them making it from scratch).
Kham herself employs her relatives at the wooden house to entertain and cook for the guests. Her aunt and cousin were the chefs cooking amazing Laotian food like larb, smoked eggplant, papaya salad and more. The girls admittedly lived on sticky rice and homemade spring rolls. We “helped” with cooking, and this culinary experience was 1000 times better than our Chiang Mai cooking class. Isabella has decided that spring rolls are easy to make and should be part of our regular meal rotation at home!
Kham’s uncle took us in his boat to watch the sunset. He also took us to ride on his Tak Tak (a soil tiller that pulls a wagon). Isabella says that it surpassed a Tuk Tuk as her new favourite form of transport. In addition to rice farming, the uncle raised animals, so the girls got to feed his ducks and chickens daily.
Another truly memorable part of the homestay was participating in the Alms Giving: a morning ceremony whereby local people give food to the monks in the village. Muang Soune has 3 monks, one adult and two teenagers, and we learned how to offer sticky rice and other food items. Tourists can participate in similar Alms giving throughout Laos, but this was very special since we were the only tourists there and actually entered the temple compound watching the monks eat the food after collecting it. We did not photograph the experience because it did not seem appropriate in the setting, but it is something we’ll never forget.
Where we stayed:
- Kham’s Homestay: Amazing Rural Experience!
By the numbers:
- Number of Kids at the Primary School: 88
- Number of Papayas Izzie picked: 1 after climbing a barbed wire fence
- Number of helpings of sticky rice girls ate: At least 3 at each meal
- Number of times we swam in the Ou River: 2
What a great experience!