Two day village home stay

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

It was time to get off the beaten path a bit, so we headed for Tham Lot kong Lo cave via the small village of Ban Na Hin. Thanks to To, a gregarious 7-year-old boy with impeccable English, we were soon zooming toward Ban Nalat, a small tucked away Lao Loum village, for a two night homestay and a guided trip through the cave.

This was an unforgettable two days. Our hosts, Mr. Ken and his family, were unbelievably generous, fun, and open-hearted. We broke the ice with some Lao/English vocabulary charades - I had fun scaring the older daughter with my charade for "cobra", which they have here, and we giggled a lot working through the animals by snorting like pigs and crowing like roosters. They must think westerners are so weird. By the end of our first night, we had a whole group of young village women at our home and they kept pointing at one or the other of us and pointing at their friends to hook us up, then bursting out in riotous laughter. At one point when we kept cheerfully saying "no", the daughter finally pointed to the two of us and asked "faan?" - partner? - and, though some of you will say it's a cop out, we dodged the question this time. There's just something about being in the middle of a foreign country where you don't speak the language, in a host family's traditional wooden stilt home, with chickens and pigs running around, eating unidentifiable food, and facing a firing squad of twenty smiling young women that makes "coming out' about the last item on your agenda.

Kon Lo cave was truly spectacular. The cave is massive - 7km long and hundreds of feet wide and nearly as tall - and a river runs from one end to the other, so you view the pitch black interior by riding motor-powered wooden longtail boats and your guides point out the cave features with high intensity flashlights. Not to be missed!

When we returned to the house, Mr. Ken sat us down with some of his friends and we joked and drank lao lao together. They're always amazed when you speak the slightest bit of Lao, and they always appreciate a bit of pronunciation help with the English sounds that are difficult for them. There was a lot of laughter trying to smoothly pronounce the word "smoke," which becomes "sa-moke, sa-moke, sssaaaa-moke!"

The timing of our visit over New Years was very auspicious, as the entire village was having a massive celebration. We had managed to communicate to Mr. Ken the day before that we're Buddhists and had gone to visit the wat with him, so he was very excited to take his two falang visitors to the big ceremony.

The festivities began when the Buddha statue arrived on the back of a truck. They cut down part of the wat fence with machetes, drove the truck into the compound, then drove clockwise three times around the wat while the entire village clapped, danced, and followed with offerings of incense, food, and money.

After several meals, Buddhist ceremonies, and fundraising, the real partying began. Our host lead us to several different houses where they immediately grabbed us by the wrist and dragged us to the large pots of fermented rice whiskey. There was lots of singing and dancing to traditional songs played on bamboo pipes, and every time we sat down there was more food.

At the last home they had prepared an elaborate Baci ceremony! Two foot tall offering sculptures with candles and Baci strings were prepared, and food, drink, and another plate with a pig's head (which we'd seen them clean in the river earlier in the day!) and cooked pork were placed in front as an offering. We were apparently guests of honor, so they brought us into the front ring of the circle of people. Those of us in front put our hands on the offerings, and everyone behind us held our clothing, creating a big connected human chain. One of the elders made wishes for a good year, and everyone cheered, then began tying the baci strings around each others wrists while quietly repeating a short prayer. At one point, I turned around and someone plopped the pig's head into my outstretched palm as another person tied another string on my wrist! Farang seem to be popular at these events - Todd and I each ended up with around twenty strings on our wrists. It was such a warm, inviting experience. I found myself feeling completely welcome here, made to genuinely feel like part of this big extended family.

With our host family, there was a heartwarming transformation during our stay from being outsiders to being an inclusive part of the family. On our first evening, Todd and I were served first at a small table, and the family waited until we were finished to set their own table and eat. By the second evening, with a great deal of cheerful coaxing and motioning on our part, we were able to get them to join our tables together, eat at the same time as us, and even share some of our food, which was clearly several notches above what they were eating. The children were so excited when they got to eat some of the watermelon, and everyone looked happy to have some of the delicious stir fried beef, but they were very careful to make sure there was more of everything left than the two of us could possibly eat. On our final morning, they brought out a beautiful breakfast and we were so excited when they sat down with us! To our surprise, they did another ceremony to wish us good luck and safe travels. Mr. Ken placed a ball of sticky rice in our hand and placed a hard boiled egg on top. Then he brushed our wrist several times with a baci string, and when he finished reciting a Lao prayer he knotted the string around our wrists. It was a beautiful, heartfelt sendoff and we felt so incredibly lucky to have shared this precious time with this beautiful family and village.
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