Going beyond the must-see sights, and without the comfort (or distractions) of a travelling companion, Iga Motylska delved into cultural exchanges that allowed for authentic interactions with locals in Asia.
The rain had abated, and I was at Phonsavan bus station in northern Laos – grateful. It had been raining when I had arrived a few days earlier. My plan was to explore the Plain of Jars – the country’s third and newest UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Better to do it without the rain… Legends on the lips of locals tell stories of how, in centuries past, the region was the homeland of giants, who left behind a countryside beset with thousands of humongous Lao Lao (rice whisky) cups carved from stone.
As an open-top cardboard box of chicks was packed into the back of the minivan, I took my seat near the front, next to a man who introduced himself as Laut Lee.
The 265km journey along the mountainous pass to his hometown of Luang Prabang – the former royal capital, now a UNESCO World Heritage Centre characterised by orange roof tiles and shop fronts – was to take eight hours. Enough time for a palette of conversations between naps and our lunch stop.
Following The Life Cycle Of Rice
For 90 days I travelled, mostly solo, from northern Vietnam through southern Cambodia, following the compass needle to Laos and onwards to Thailand. This way, I found myself more likely to indulge spontaneous cues from locals and travellers and could mould my itinerary to their suggestions.
I wanted to travel beyond fancy hotel bars and hostel lounges, where it’s easy to clutch onto familiarity, so as to have authentic interactions with locals and to try to understand their culture beyond mere stereotypes and must-see highlights.
Two days later, I was sitting cross–legged on a wooden platform among carpets of rice paddies eating rice noodles with Laut’s family. At his family-owned farm (Lee 7 Farm), I followed the life cycle of rice – from ploughing the paddies knee-deep in mud with the help of Nah, Laut’s water buffalo, to squeezing our noodle dough into a pot of boiling water atop a fire.
The noodles were served in a sweet-sour tamarind sauce with an organic harvest of tomatoes, chillies, eggplant, rocket, morning glory and edible flowers that we picked from his farm.
Floating on The Mekong
With spontaneity as my inspiration, after a few days in Luang Prabang, I acted on the recommendation of another traveller. I decided against the 17-hour night bus to Thailand’s Chiang Rai – another popular leg along Asia’s Banana Pancake Trail.
Instead, I boarded a two-day, open-air slow boat along the Mekong River towards the border town of Huay Xai.
We floated past caves overflowing with Buddha statues, while stilted wooden villages and corrugated iron roof clusters appeared and disappeared around river bends.
Boys kicked up sand as they dribbled a ball along the riverbank; families waved farewell to those embarking at various stops; supplies from Luang Prabang were hastily offloaded; men untangled fishing lines and inspected their bamboo-woven traps, while children came to collect water in orange 5l plastic bottles. This was reality: unedited for the tourist gaze.
Immersed In Everyday Life
While, in Ban Dong – a dispersed Thai farming village of 1 100 in the north-western highlands, which creates a triangle between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son – I was immersed in the everyday life of a farmer.
My Lawa family hosts, Paem and Vitoon, woke me at sunrise to join in the almsgiving ceremony, as the village monk and his novice walk from door to door. Followed by a breakfast of rice, morning glory, dried fish and omelette, we got an early start to the day.
We did this to escape the oppressive heat and humidity which drove us beneath the shade of a wooden shelter, overlooking their land, for lunch.
I took a drink of water from the ‘rice farmer starter pack’ that Paem had assembled for me. It contained a garden glove, natural tree bark sunscreen that one smears over the face, a scarf and my portion of cooked rice wrapped in a banana leaf and tied with a reed.
There was something very rewarding about surveying our progress. Laid out in front of us, we viewed small rice seedlings in terraced paddies.
“You’re only the second westerner to stay in Ban Dong,” translated my Thai LocalistA guide, Tinnachat Uthairat. He helps interested hill tribes establish homestays and community-based tourism initiatives which offer authentic experiences and showcase everyday village life without added frills.
Not only does the initiative encourage a cultural and language exchange, it also helps farming families earn an alternative income when rains are late.
I was satisfied as we walked back to the paddies. Tinnachat winked at me… “Paem asks if you’ll be back for the harvest?”
While there are various accommodation options from five-star hotels to guesthouses, Airbnbs and hostels, try a verified homestay.
Avoid cultural villages with dressed up locals reciting rehearsed lines and re-enacting rituals for tourists’ benefit, with little financial profit for them.
Rather try a more personal experience through a community-based tourism initiative with a local family that offers insights into their way of life and also provides direct financial support.
By the local guide…
Empower yourself with knowledge and research from various sources, such as guidebooks, official tourism boards, blog posts, online forums and apps.
Be open to suggestions from locals and other travellers you meet along the way. Ask relevant follow-up questions and do research to determine if their suggestion is suited to your travel style.
Get travel insurance. Research the details of your home country’s embassy and consulate, in case of an emergency. Upload certified copies of your travel documents to the cloud or email and keep hard copies on you.
Carry a dummy wallet with a few notes and loyalty cards posing as credit cards. Regularly check in with family and friends – share your plans with them and enable your smartphone’s tracking services. A local SIM card can help with on-the-ground research, last-minute bookings and provide peace of mind.
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