My trip in Laos took an interesting turn when I found myself lost in the town of Nong Khiaw, looking for mama.
You see, I’d heard the best food in town could be found at Mama Alex restaurant. But I couldn’t find it and I probably looked quite confused, because a friendly stranger passed me by asking if he could help. And… he just so happened to be heading there himself.
What I didn’t yet know then that this guy — his name was Jack — would end up being my unofficial guide over the next couple of days.
At first, I assumed he was local because of his Asian appearance, but it turned out he was Australian. Nevertheless, he was quite the local expert: on our way to the restaurant, he told me he’d been coming to Laos for many years, often to volunteer. His passport was plastered with Laos visas and he even spoke a fair bit of Lao.
We had dinner at Mama Alex along with another traveller from France, who I’d met on my minivan ride into town earlier that day. Jack was a super excitable fellow with a ton of local knowledge, so when he offered to take us around to some local places the next day, I didn’t hesitate to take him up on it.
We met again early the next morning, before 7 a.m., the air still awash with a blue morning hue. At Nong Khiaw’s morning market, we got a little peek at Laotian life that you might not usually see — at least, not if you sleep in.
It was interesting to stroll the markets along with someone who could speak the language. There were plenty of familiar fruits and veggies but also many curiosities. I saw a dead squirrel for sale. Live eels still wiggling in their buckets. River weeds. Some jars filled with dung beetles. There were even a couple of dead rats. One stall sold buffalo hides, which were burned on a fire until the hairs were gone and then mashed with a hammer.
While you wouldn’t be served rat as a tourist in Laos, many locals are very poor and so almost anything with calories is fair game. The thought of this is not so strange, but these ingredients are of course still strange to me. Although I must confess that I skipped the dung beetles, I did have a filling noodle breakfast for 8,000 kip (about $1) and had a delicious soy milk and fried banana snack.
After breakfast, we took the morning boat to a riverside hamlet called Muang Ngoi Neua. From there, we hiked together past jungles and pokey karst mountains, until we reached a tiny village that Jack had wanted to show us.
This village may have been the most primitive place I ever stayed. Its location was unmarked on any map; it barely had any electricity and no running water. A handful of families lived there mainly in stilted bamboo huts alongside a few pens for chickens and pigs. A few of the villagers worked as traditional weavers.
Our homestay cost 10,000 kip (about $1) to stay the night. If you’re wondering what sort of swanky abode this will get you, well, it was an unlit bamboo cabin just large enough to fit a single mattress with a mosquito net. There were no toilets or showers, just the nearby river. Still, it was fine.
If I had come here on some kind of ‘tour’ I might have felt awkward and probably like an intruder, but with Jack acting as our informal guide and translator, it felt like a casual and appropriate sort of visit. In places like this, I do find it essential to put the camera down as much as possible. (Surely, no one wants a bunch of intrusive tourists in their village.)
During the afternoon, we walked around the area and played with some of the kids. At night, we had some great food and drank lao-lao with the village chief and a friend, chatting in a mix of Lao and English. They said they were excited to have a road now — not a paved one, just the dirt track leading to the village. It was a real game-changer, as they could now get to the nearest town much more easily. There was a set of solar panels and one guy even constructed a house made of bricks, a first for this village. He paid for it by working a job in Bangkok for several years.
The next morning I woke up far too early, around 6 am, probably due to some overzealous rooster. I got out of my bamboo prison box and sat on my little front porch. In the early morning mist, I saw a villager arrive with a big sack on his back and carrying — to my amazement — a gunpowder musket.
I quietly observed as this hunter lit a campfire, opened his sack, and took from it a whole bunch of rodents, which he stacked into a pile. One by one, he roasted them on a stick above the fire, carefully burning their hairs off and pre-cooking the meat. He then pulled a pheasant from his sack, which he chopped some parts off and hung outside of his hut. He slung the musket back on his back and went off to his hut.
The scene quietly played out just across from my hut, like a little diorama. I just sat there and watched this guy do his thing, feeling humbled by his ability to gather food in this way.
When we headed back out after breakfast, I honestly felt — setting aside here all the cliches about ‘culture shock’ — that my perspective had changed a little. I know full well that not everywhere in this country is equally developed, yet I still found it instructive to see this different side of Laos. A whole world away from all the cute restaurants and boutique hostels in a tourist hotspot like Luang Prabang, there also exist villages like this, where people hunt rodents in the jungle in the dark of night.