Money spoils everything.
It’s at once an evil that changes everyone it touches and yet we all need it in order to travel to these far flung magical places, so beautifully illustrated in glossy magazines.
I’m always a little sad to visit “minority villages”. They’re inevitably a shell of the real thing, presenting tourists with a hollow cookie cutter image of what we expect to see, rushed through a few mumbled words on the history of the people who live / lived there, making sure to leave the bulk of the time for the all-important souvenir shopping at the end. I’ve seen this scenario played out a million times, from the hill peoples of Dalat, Vietnam to the Karen long neck tribes of northern Thailand. The one exception was probably the captivating Himba village in Namibia, most likely due to its remoteness.
In Luang Prabang, the ethnic hill tribes that dot the province have learned the basics of Marketing 101 well. Twice, I stopped in on minority villages that looked more like town-sized craft shops devoid of anything that could be considered life.
Every house was a shop. Cement walkways provided convenient paths for the tourists to walk a gauntlet of embroidered aprons and handwoven scarves. The van had barely rolled to a stop as children hastily donned traditional outfits over muddy t-shirts and tattered shorts.
Nowhere were people actually seen going about the activities of daily life. Grandparents herded kids to makeshift souvenir tables singsonging the exact same jingle, something along the lines of, “You buy from me, only five thousand.” It was impossible to haggle with these impossibly cute faces, with grandma waiting in the wings to take over negotiations should any frugal travelers dare show themselves immune to little girls in beaded headdresses. But I had to wonder: Where were the housewives? Where were the menfolk?
These tourist villages dot the landscape, especially in high season. In the low season, with no one to sell to, they revert to actual working communities. It’s hard to come to Luang Prabang and walk away unscathed from visiting at least one of these villages. Our van driver on the way back from the Kuang Si Falls automatically stopped by one. And on another morning, as I took a lazy slow boat 25km up the river to see the Pak Ou Caves, a collection of hundreds of Buddha statues crammed into two limestone caves, one almost completely dark, the boat stopped briefly at a whiskey making village conveniently perched along the banks of the Mekong. Thankfully, there were only two of us on the boat, both happy to speedwalk through the village, preferring instead to glide by children playing football along the muddy banks, terraced home vegetable plots and fishermen casting their nets.
Happily, my concierge was able to point me to a cluster of artisan workshops about 20 minutes outside of Luang Prabang, along dirt roads with absolutely no signage. Equipped with a photocopied map and half a tank of gas in my rented motorbike, I made my way to the tiny village of Xangkhong. It was here that I finally found the Real Housewives of Luang Prabang, starting with Bangone Douangdala, the matriarch behind Lao Textile Natural Dyes. Along with two of her children, she opened a small workshop in the early 90’s, promoting Lao textiles, all dyed from natural ingredients. Her son, who now manages the small shop, took me out to the yard, where silkworms were busily spinning their gauzy cocoons and barks and berries were being turned into dyes. And even though I obviously have no panache, I ended up buying a gorgeous handwoven scarf for when I want to look like a gritty yet fashionable traveler (I have yet to wear it in public).
Further along the dirt road, families were busily making paper and other crafts.
Yes, this was small-scale commerce. But at least it didn’t try to hide what it was or cloak itself in frilly headdresses and memorized pitches.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around dusty lanes, getting lost in these villages that weren’t on my map, soaking up life as it happened.
The base for my exploration was the gorgeous 24-room Kiridara Hotel, nestled in the hills above Luang Prabang. Far enough from the historical old city to have a swimming pool (and an infinity pool, at that), Kiridara was a luxurious retreat, with breakfast served out on the deck overlooking Mount Phou Si with its golden Vipassana temple. Maidu hardwood floors, teak furniture and stonewall finishes in the room brought nature indoors as if I could have ever forgotten, looking out my window onto the surrounding Champa forest. Doubles start at USD160 including breakfast.
I very much appreciated Chef Deinla of Phu Doi taking the time to explain the basics behind Lao cooking with its kaffir limes, coriander, galangal and lemongrass flavors. The Luang Prabang Sampler was the perfect introduction to local fare: deep-fried pork encrusted with sesame seeds, stuffed lemongrass with pork minced with coriander and herbs steamed then battered with egg and deep-fried, locally made sausage (which I would’ve been too scared to try, seeing them hanging up all over town) and green papaya salad (with the addition of shrimp paste, making it slightly more salty and pungent than its Thai counterpart), along with a shooter of sweet chili sauce with lemon and chilies.
Without his prompting, I probably would’ve missed also out on the traditional oh lam stew, a hearty concoction of beans, eggplants, gourds and black mushrooms, all thickened with sticky rice. It reminded me of something satisfying we’d have in the winter, with an extra kick of heat from the star ingredient, sa kan, the woody stem of a wild vine meant to be chewed, releasing the astringent, almost peppery menthol oils, and then spit out. Mango with sticky rice beautifully presented in a coconut was the perfect way to end the meal.
With a brand new airport set to open in 2 years, Luang Prabang as we know it, may go the way of Chiang Mai – still charming but nonetheless changed, an inevitable consequence of easier access.
For more on my trip to Laos, catch my article “The Nature of Laos” in a recent issue of Oi Vietnam magazine.