Everyday in our busy lives we rarely take the time to appreciate the small wonders in our world. There’s so much on our to-do list – things we need to do, things we don’t want to do, the things we treat ourselves to: a manicure at the mall, a takeaway on the way home because we can’t be bothered to cook. We binge watch some reality TV, while online shopping and texting about the weekend. Sleep. Repeat.
What if you could entirely remove yourself from this world and experience life lived in the most simple way? Would you start to see the world a little differently? Would you go home and feel different?
As you cross the border into Laos, something instantly feels different. Perhaps it’s the late afternoon light filtering through the trees, the dusty quiet streets, or the soft lapping of the Mekong as we sit riverside with a cold Beer Lao in hand. There are 21 of us and we’re all on this adventure together. We represent so many corners of the globe: United Kingdom, United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, Thailand and Europe. Tomorrow morning we’ll board a long boat on a 2 day slow cruise down the Mekong River. We’ll be staying overnight in a remote Lao village, where there are no shops, no bars, not even road access, and we’ll be staying with the families who live there, in their homes. We’re all very excited (and perhaps a little nervous) about this adventure.
It will take around 8 hours to reach the village. Eight hours!! What will we do? There’s no wifi, no in-flight entertainment. As we start our journey we look out the windows, watching the locals fishing, boats going by and the river rolling out before us. We see water buffalo bathing in the river, herds of cattle sitting on the sandy river beaches, waterfalls, impressive rock formations and mountains covered in jungle.
The boat gently lulls as it moves downstream. We chat. We play cards. We relax and nap. We read. We sip tea. We drink in the beauty of our surrounds. We start to think how wonderful it would be if more days were like this.
We arrive late in the afternoon at a sandy beach and dock the boat. As we climb the sand dunes, the children of the village come running out to meet us. “Sabaidee!” they call as we head through the village, following our guide.
Walking through the village is eye opening. In this village, people don’t have jobs. Most people won’t earn any money. There is no need, there is nothing to buy. There are no shops, there are no advertisements telling us what we can’t live without. The village teacher and Chief are paid by the government and may earn around $300 USD a year. We pass by chickens running free, pigs in their pens, vegetable gardens, the village temple with young monks in their saffron coloured robes. There is a new home being built and all the men on the village are working together to build it. Everyone helps each other. Selfishness doesn’t exist here.
The Chief welcomes us to the village. He tells us that it means a lot to him that we have come to Laos and to his village. He apologises that it is basic and not what we are used to. Some of the people in our group have never encountered people living so basically before and feel a bit upset, but our guide explains that the people here are very happy and that it is their way of life. Women give birth here in the village and people rarely leave. Everyone works together. Everyone helps each other.
In the evening, we experience a traditional Baci Ceremony. A Baci Ceremony is performed to welcome new people, wish people safe travels if they’re leaving the village and at important events. We file into the village hall where an offering with candles and flowers has been set up in the middle of the room. We sit around it on the floor and the elders of the village sit around us. They are dressed in their best clothing. The women look soft and delicate in their silk blouses and long skirts.
As the Chief prays, we put our hands on the offering in the centre. When he finishes the women start moving around us, offering us sweet sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, bananas and shots of traditional Lao whiskey. The whiskey keeps going around until the bottle is finished. We turn to face the outside of the room. One by one, the village elders move around us. They each tie a piece of string around our wrists and wish us good fortune, good health and safe travels. They thank us for coming to Laos and bless our futures. We are to keep the blessings on our wrists for at least 3 days.
Feeling warm from all the blessings, kind words and the whiskey, we smile at each other and at the people of the village. Suddenly someone gets out a drum and others start clapping. It’s time to party Laos-style! The villagers sing a song and then it’s our turn – it’s a ‘Song Off’! We sing “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”, “In the Jungle” and the crowd favourite: “The Hokey Tokey!” A 60-year-old Laos woman surprises us by shaking her hips and dancing along with us.
We’re all smiling and yawning as we make our way to our host families’ homes for the night. We fall asleep on mattresses on the clean tiled floor, under mosquito nets, covered with fluffy, freshly laundered blankets that smell amazing.
This experience has bought us together, slowed us down, softened us and made us appreciate what we have and how happy the simple things in life can make us. We’ve had no wifi for 24hours. The world has gone on, but in fact we haven’t even missed it. While we thought that we were a valuable link to another world the people of the village would otherwise never know about, it seems even more pertinent for us to have experienced their world.
If you would like to visit the Mekong River Homestay for yourself, choose one of Stray’s Laos Tours.