Travelling anywhere in Southeast Asia, you will experience similar things. However, if you step off the tourist trail, you can encounter something unique.
On a recent trip to Laos, I discovered a whole new aspect of Southeast Asia – a way of living I had never seen before. Living in Indonesia for the past five years, I’ve noticed the way people live but I tend to stay within the expat zone, rarely interacting with local Indonesians or the villages intertwined in the city.
Laos opened my eyes to the life of local villages and people. Spending four days in a village located in the mountains approximately a six-kilometre hike and a 40-minute drive from Luang Prabang in the centre-north of Laos was definitely an experience I will remember forever.
The hike from the city to the valley took nearly two hours. Considering the scorching sun and aching muscle pains, I can easily say that it wasn’t the most comfortable walk. It’s amazing how the children of the Khmu ethnic group village hike through that valley every Monday morning and Friday evening to get to and from boarding school.
Four days spent living in a Khmu families home introduced me to the reality of the community of Houay Phaeng. Most adults kill and cook their own food as they rely on their traditional skills for meals. The majority of what they eat is rice and meat, mostly piglets and chicken. There is one “mini mart” in the village which is a small section of someone’s home, selling soda, cigarettes and rice crackers.
Not only is nutritional health an issue, but hygienic health is difficult to manage as well. Imagine a raised concrete floor with a bamboo wall. Pigs and chickens on the other side of the wall grunt at you when you enter and the whole time you are inside this “box”. This is your toilet. A shower is essentially a propped hose and concrete floor. With your whole body exposed to the community, it can be uncomfortable and hard to enjoy. Most women wear sarongs over their body when showering, keeping them from falling at all times.
Playing the role of a local, I used the freedom to my advantage, waking up early to watch the sunrise. This was a time to take in the beauty of the world before commencing my day of service work.
In honour of letting us stay in their beautiful village, we built an extension room to the common meeting house centre of the village. As a service contributor, I mixed cement, painted the interior of the meeting house, and laid bricks to build walls. Many locals sat and watched us as we started the job – with the older fathers oftentimes lending a hand. In the end, I am very happy with what I accomplished for the community. This experience introduced me to the beauty of service and how it can change the appreciation I have for locals and the locals have for us.
Text by Beatrice Cook