Instastory originally published on Instagram 12/24/14.
Laos is a remote and sparsely populated country in Southeast Asia wedged between Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China and sharing cultural similarities with all of them throughout its geography. While wholesale deforestation has been reported in places, there is still much unspoiled, natural beauty to discover here. Sights such as these natural waterfalls near Luang Prabang city are common all over the country.
While traveling in Asia, "homestays", where one sleeps and eats in the house of a local family, usually in a remote area, are an excellent way to immerse yourself in the culture. I've done homestays in China, Vietnam, India, and Laos have had incredibly rewarding experiences because of them that would have never happened staying on the beaten tourist trail.
The homestay that I did in Laos in November 2014 was in a very remote village in the northern highlands called accessible only by way of the Mekong River. The journey takes threes days on a traditional Lao river boat without electricity or other conveniences.
This is the captain of the river boat. He, his wife, and their sons live on it year round and earn their living taking travelers and goods back and forth between Laos and northern Thailand.
This disabled man was one of the captain's sons and he helped with serving meals docking the boat. He was fascinated watching me process photos in Lightroom so I took a quick snap and pulled it in to show him. I don’t think he had ever seen a picture of himself so was a little taken back by it. It was very touching. Though smartphones are becoming prevalent around the world, even in the most remote, I've been to a few places so far off the grid it's like traveling back in time. This was one of them.
Throughout Southeast Asia, religion and ethnicity is a complicated topic because of the many wars and social strife it's caused in the region. The diversity of peoples and their languages, religions, and cultural practices in this part of the world is staggering. Though it varies wildly from country to country, the treatment of minorities by the majority has been rife with mistreatment, exploitation, and human rights abuses. Small tribal groups in remote rural areas are particularly vulnerable. In Laos alone there are 160 recognized ethnic groups but the three biggest are the Lao, Hmong, and the Khmu, who account for about 11% of the population and live mainly in the highlands. The village I stayed in is called Dongchieng and is a tiny Khmu settlement only accessible coming in boat on the Mekong.
The Lao people make up in the majority of Laos and practice the Theravada Buddhism found throughout most of the rest of Southeast Asia. The Hmong and Khmu practice an ancient, indigenous animist religion ofancestor worship, shamanic magic, and the belief in nature and house spirits. These religious practices are wildly different than those of the Buddhist majority and puts them somewhat outside of mainstream society.
The communist government of Laos mostly leaves isolated communities like this one alone although it's known they install the tribal and village leadership themselves to ensure loyalty to the party. There seems to be very little human development happening here though, the livelihood coming from age old subsistence level farming practices. There is a school here so some education is available though most young people spend their time in the fields with their parents. Another problem in not just Laos but in many poor rural part of Southeast Asia is young women finding their way into prostitution.
This village was crawling with domesticated creatures - chickens, birds, goats, dogs, and everything is on the menu.
Dongchieng village is so far off the grid that infrastructure is almost non-existent. Water is from wells and rainwater catchments; their limited electricity comes from solar cells, batteries, and gas generators. This remains the only place I’ve ever been where I didn't see any cell phones or computers though someone here surely has them. If there's any place in the world that can fairly be deemed "the middle of nowehere" it's here. The only real source of income for these people is from surplus agriculture and what they can get from these homestays. They have very little; enough for their basic needs but there is always a palpable sadness in such poverty.
This is Mr. Tong, the Khmu guide on this homestay. He left a village like Dongchieng as a young person and became a Buddhist monk for eight years to seek an education. He recently rejoined the secular life to start a family and become a professional. In Theravada, the Buddhism of Southeast Asia, monks are free to leave the order and return as they please. Spending some time as a monk is part of many young men's experience in this part of the world. In Mahayana, the Buddhism of the Far East, ordination is a lifelong vow and to leave after taking vows brings enormous shame to both the individual and their family. Throughout my travels in Asia I was lucky to meet many people like Tong who were very gracious and happy to teach foreigners about their culture.