Written by: Matthew Mayer
After our delightful stay In the lovely town of Luang Prabang, we set off to spend a week in the traditional Hmong and Khmu Village of Pou Nong Kuay in the Highlands of Northern Laos. The Hmong and Khmu are terms used to describe two individual sets of ethnic groups that live in Southern China and Southeast Asia. The Hmong and Khmu peoples are believed to be some of the first inhabitants of the aforementioned areas. Most of the traditional mountain villages in Laos consist of both ethnic groups living together in harmony. We booked the stay through fairtrek.org. Fairtrek is an organization that allows visitors to have an immersive cultural experience in a traditional Lao village while utilizing the funds from the booking to provide income to the village to supplement that which they receive through farming and handmade textiles such as weaving and basketry. As part of the agreement between the village and Fairtrek, we would stay in the village and eat each meals with a host family while using our time to explore and get to know the people and customs. We were very excited to get underway.
The Fairtrek team picked us up at our stay in Luang Prabang in a smaller version of the mini-busses that we had become accustomed to during our transitions from city to city. The village is situated about an hour south of Luang Prabang. Once we had traveled a short distance away from the city the mini-bus turned onto a small dirt road that weaved up through the foothills of the mountains. As the van made its way up into the mountains, the quality of the road began to worsen dramatically. Due to the heavy rainfall during the wet season, the dirt roads had formed deep furrows that ran down the length of every stretch of inclined roads. The driver of the mini-bus took a painstakingly slow course up each treacherous stretch as to avoid getting stuck or damaging the suspension of the vehicle that had no business driving on such terrain. As we made our slow ascent up and over mountains and through small villages, the guide passed the time by giving us a run-down of the history, customs, and daily life of the village and surrounding areas.
After around forty-five minutes of traversing the rugged roads we made it to the village of Pou Nong Khuay. Nong Khuay is a very small village of only forty-seven families. Twenty-two of these families are Khmu and twenty-five are Hmong. The structures in the village are comprised of living structures, storage barns, two little shops, and one school. Only the School is made of brick and mortar with only a handful of the living structures being constructed with cinder block and metal roofing.
Each domicile is generally made up of a living quarter for sleeping and eating, and a kitchen complete with a fire that is kept smoldering between meals to be built when it was time to cook.
The village is surrounded on all sides by tall limestone mountains and deep wide valleys filled with patches of bamboo and rice paddies.
We would be staying in what is called an Eco-Bungalow by the Fairtrek team. The Eco-Bungalow is an open air structure constructed with clay and bamboo by a collaboration of villagers and foreign students that came to work in the village for educational purposes. The dwelling has one room with a bed and a wet-bath. As with the rest of the village, with the exception of electricity and running water, there did not exist many other amenities.
During our stay in Nong Khuay we could completely immerse ourselves in the experience as we would be without wi-fi or cellular service for the duration of our stay. After we unloaded our things in the bungalow, our guide showed us around the village. He introduced us to the chief, whose name is Khamdee, and introduced us to the Her family with whom we would be eating our meals during our time there.
Our time in Nong Khuay was the definition of laid-back relaxation. We spent our days, eating meals with the Her family, interacting with the ever-so-friendly villagers as they relaxed after a hard days work, hiking around the surrounding areas, or relaxing in our bungalow while we read or wrote about our travels thus far.
Sometimes while we would sit at the bungalow, the inquisitive children would stop by after school to see what we were up to. As there was a language barrier, we could not hold a verbal conversation but we could exchange names and give them the candies and treats we brought along for just such an occasion. The crowd favorites among the kids were US coins that we brought along and our camera. We would take their pictures as they made silly faces and then show them the photos. Each day they would come back to look at pictures and show us that they still had their coins. As Lao currency is predominantly paper, the coins were more than likely viewed as interesting trinkets only.
When it came time to leave the village, we knew that we would miss our time there. The people of Nong Khuay are so very warm and hospitable and the surrounding areas are as beautiful as they come. It was also very refreshing to exist in such a peaceful and isolated place. We will always cherish our time there as one of our favorite stops in Laos.