Learning from the Hill Tribes of Laos

The raggedly-dressed children were scared of us and the adults stared somberly as we passed. Mangy dogs barked at our muddy sneakers, our English commands doing nothing to quiet them.

We were delighted.

Jason and I had hired a guide for a trek, who had promised to bring us in contact with the hill tribe people of Laos, but we had initially feared we would get a Disney World experience. As we have noticed throughout our travels, it is often difficult to experience the real culture of a place because locals cater to tourists.

The main village road at dusk

Ask any backpacker and they will probably have one of these fairy tale experiences to share. For example, many towns along the backpacker route turn into a show of locals selling cheap souvenirs and enticing tired travelers to frequent their air conditioned restaurants with the promise of free wifi and Western food. While sometimes it’s a joy to stumble across a familiar meal, the traditions and culture of a place can be quickly swept away by foreign-run businesses and English-speaking touts.

The fact that the natives were not calling out to us to buy their goods or pestering us to book a sightseeing tour was a sign that they were just living their normal lives in a place where we could carefully observe and learn.

This scorpion crossed our path on the hike up to the village.

For four hours we had hiked through lush rice paddies and up rutted inclines, where no vehicles have ever passed. Giant moths and dangerous scorpions crossed our path but we trekked along to arrive at Payong. Hills rose up around us, planted with corn, ginger and galangang. We took deep sips of the fresh mountain air and walked down the dusty trail that served as the village’s “Main Street.” On either side of us were signs of ingenious natural living. There were stream water showers, giant reed baskets for trash disposal, fences made of bamboo and hydroelectricity. Women wore woven sarongs to shower in the open air and toddlers ran around naked, not a diaper in sight. As we strolled, the style of homes changed from dirt floor bamboo huts to thatched bungalows raised up on stilts. This was the first sign that two lifestyles coexisted here.

Hydroelectric power is used in the village.

This village is inhabited by the Hmong and Khamu hill tribes, who were enticed ten years ago to live together in one place. The Laos government requires a minimum population before releasing funding for a school; because of the promise of education for their children, the two native groups now live harmoniously despite their language barrier, religious beliefs and cultural differences. This shows that they value education above all else.

After a snack of local bananas, we were lead by our guide, a 24-year-old named Dith, to meet the chief. Even Dith did not speak the chief’s native tongue, but they could communicate in his second language: Laos.

Tools are fired and pounded in this shop.

As the sun dropped quickly behind the hills, we used the last rays of light to explore the school house, metal shop and watering station. Chickens and dogs clucked and howled, providing background music for this very real village experience. Children were playing everywhere, so lighthearted and free to go wherever they pleased. We began to speculate that over half of this population was under the age of 18.

Smelling dinner, we wandered over to the chief’s house and peeked in to a dark, dirt-floor room with an open fire.
After denying our advances to help prepare the food, the chief’s wife, with a traditional bun of hair just above her forehead, pulled out tiny stools. Our bodies seemed large and awkward hunched upon the wicker seats, watching the tiny natives squat in agile poses as they rested veggies inside the palm of their hands, chopping them quickly with huge blades.

I thought, “Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t take us up on the offer to help!”

The chief sits on his haunches to cut squash for dinner.

They had a tried and true meal prep system and everyone pitched in. A woman nursing a baby assisted the man over one open flame while an older lady stirred a large stock pot of broth in the opposite corner. Young women entered the room with water they had just gathered and neighbors poked their heads into the room to spy on us light-skinned, fancy clothed foreigners.

Squash and onions were sautéed in sunflower seed oil, soup with a green gourd-type veggie was ladled up and morning glory greens were fried with garlic and placed on a plate next to fresh chili paste. Finally, rice was scooped from a giant vat, where it is made every morning. Depending on the people, Hmong or Khamu, the rice is made in the normal fashion or as sticky rice, balled up in the diners’ fingers and used to grab bits of food in place of utensils. We were dining with the Hmong, so our rice was of the typical fashion.

Time to eat! Wow. If you are a camper you understand that camp food always tastes better. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s eaten outdoors, or because it’s made over an open flame or because campers are just hungrier people! This homemade, locally grown food was no exception and I guess I should have known this. We were “camping” with experts who had done this for thousands of years, after all.

The chief

Bed time comes early in the hill tribe way of life, so it was off to our dirt-floor hut where we found a raised platform, draped with a net to keep us safe from spiders, scorpions and of course, mosquitoes.

The highest pitch screeching I’d ever heard startled us awake. A piglet and a puppy were fighting over a scrap of food and the village was awake! It was 5:30 am and the roosters crowed like broken records. We had to get moving for chores!

Before setting out on this trip, we told our guide that we wanted to partake in chores with the villagers, as we feel this assists us in learning about the culture and lets the people know that tourists want to learn, too. Its also a great way to say thank you to our incredible hosts. Since we had been given a donation for “farming help,” we decided to apply the stipend here. We would join the Hmong and Khamu workers in the fields, learning about local crops and farming techniques.

Through the village and into the muddy countryside, we meandered. When we arrived at the base of a steep hill, we used hands and feet to climb half way up and were given scythes to start chopping. Local workers were already there, slashing weeds away from corn and galangal stalks. For the next few hours we cut, sweat and toiled, gaining a new appreciation for physical work in the fields. Our guide identified plants and crops to us, but he was a bit late on telling me which was the ginger plant one time! Oops! We finished The morning’s work of clearing two fields just as the sun was hitting its peak.

Women work in the fields in typical Laos skirts and hats.

The workers didn’t understand English, as it isn’t taught in their school, and they were very shy because no tourists had ever joined them in the fields. Because of this, my heart rejoiced when one middle-aged woman looked me in the eyes, saying in clear English, “Thank you.”

“Thank YOU,” I said.

We had helped them finish early for the day and they quickly disappeared down the lane in their long skirts and flip-flops, hurrying back to their families in the village.

Traditional clothes worn for special occasions.

Back at the chief’s home, we tried on his family’s traditional outfits, worn only at the New Year Celebration, weddings and funerals. He and his wife helped dress us in the many layers of brightly beaded fabric and approximately ten children sat on a bench gawking at our every move. Straight faced and in awe, they quietly watched us take pictures of the clothing. It was quite a scene for them to see foreigners dressed in native attire.

We bowed, hands in prayer, to give a customary thank you and goodbye and headed down the mountain the opposite way we came, toward a river where we’d catch a wooden boat back to Nong Kiauw.

Our boat trip back from the hill tribe visit

In our short time with the hill tribes, we were reminded how much our Western society has changed. The community lives on virtually no money, but mainly on group work. Imagine all of the things we Westerners need in life — a house, clothes, a car with fuel, food, and a steady paying job to support us. This whole theory is irrelevant with the Hmong and Khamu. They don’t need to earn money because they use their time to make the same things that we purchase. And because they don’t have to punch in from 9 to 5, they spend time working with family and friends, chatting and laughing to lighten the load. Instead of weekly shopping trips, the villagers are self-sufficient, firing metals for tools and knives, weaving blankets and simple clothes, cooking meat raised within their village and serving vegetables from their hills.

Payong is a very special place, preserved delicately in the remote hillside of Laos, and we learned multitudes from the Hmong and Khamu’s ingenuity; they lacked nothing. At first glance, seeing the dusty and ragged clothes or the primitive huts, it may seem these people are poor, but we realized while visiting that the tribes have exactly what many of us Westerners feel we are missing: quality time with those we love.

A special thanks goes out to Leon Desbrough and Candy Lami for their donation to our registry for “World Wide Farming Help.”

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4 thoughts on “Learning from the Hill Tribes of Laos

  1. I’m seriously going to start thinking about my plans to live like you guys do. I need to start constructing a new future life where I can travel AND volunteer AND still have enough money to life… Come stay with me in December so I can collaborate with you!!!!

  2. Mom

    Amazing story and pictures; thanks for sharing your experiences with us. Continue to love, learn and grow. We love our Nomads!

  3. POP "E"

    Hey!!!!! Westerner in the blue shirt!!!! BREAKS OVER!!!!!!! Get back to work and quit clowning around. Is that hair I see on your face?????? Bic shavers in the x-mas stocking this year placed neatly above the little turd????? (HA HA) Love you guys. As always, be safe.

  4. Erin
    This had to be so interesting and the work in the heat- wow!
    I can not believe they let you try on those things.
    How much fun was that?!
    Gramps just called Uncle Lee to remind him to read it.
    Gram prays everyday for both of you. Travel safe.
    Love, Gram

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