Diversity is tucked into the hills surrounding Luang Prabang. Our trek took us through three distinct layers of hill tribes, culture, and life – Lao, Hmong and Khmu. Our guides patiently waded through all of our questions – from life in the villages to the American bombing of Laos in the 60s and 70s – and our group (two Australians, one Guatemalan, and two Filipinos) kept the conversation lively throughout the day.
1. Lao Village
The first village in the low-lying area was ethnic Lao, their livelihood coming from the river and agriculture. The Lao makes their lives and livlihood from the river and low-lying agriculture. The elementary school was in session and we dropped off some books from the book publishing and literacy program, Big Brother Mouse. As we did, kids curiously peered out at us from the classroom. We felt guilty for disrupting the their school day, but the teacher didn’t seem to mind…and neither did the kids.
2. Hmong Village
As we rose in elevation, we came across a Hmong village. The Hmong, descended from Mongolian nomads, have higher cheekbones and wider faces than the Lao. They are known for living in the hills and highlands, with their homes built on bare earth (rather than on stilts, like other hill tribes and ethnic groups ) in order to accommodate their livestock and protect themselves against the highland winds.
The first Hmong kids we saw when we entered the village looked at us like we were aliens. Although we were on an organized trek, the villages apparently weren’t accustomed to foreigners. One little boy started crying when he saw our group. Our Hmong guide told him in the local language that he was also Hmong and the big white creatures were OK. It still took the boy a few minutes of eyeing us to believe it and stop his crying.
Laos is a communist country, but its flavor of Communism is different than that of Vietnam where people openly complained about the goverment. Our guides would often speak in hushed tones after more probing questions, indicating that if people heard him talking about that topic he might end up being questioned by the police. He overwhelmingly praised the government and the development projects they’ve undertaken since 2000.
3. Khmu Village
The last village we visited was a Khmu village. Khmu villages are normally quite poor and most do not have electricity. The one we visited, with a new school and new houses, was relatively well-off. In contrast to the Hmong, the Khmu build their houses on two levels, with the main living area elevated on stilts. We left the remaining books from Big Brother Mouse with the chief’s wife to give to the school.
Questions About America
On our descent from the hill villages back to Luang Prabang, one of the guides started asking us about America. He explained how he gets confused sometimes when he meets American tourists who are not white-skinned, wondering how someone could be American yet not white. We tried explaining America’s melting pot origins and its diversity, drawing on similar analogies where different ethnicities co-exist throughout Southeast Asia, in order to provide a context that he might relate to. His curiosity piqued and he began asking us about the war in Iraq and politics. Always an interesting topic of conversation, it was especially so with an educated Lao to hear what information had made it into Lao news and what had been conveniently left out.
Video – Our Hill Tribe Trek – Luang Prabang, Laos
Practical Details: Arranging a Village Trek Around Luang Prabang
White Elephant Tours: Located on the main street of Luang Prabang, White Elephant advertises educational and environmental tours. The villages they go through are less touristed, providing a more realistic view into village life. The daylong trek described above is around $30 per person.