Curious about Khmu in Nong Kiaow, Laos — Tales of a two-day trek and an overnight village homestay.
I’m sitting on a balcony of a riverfront bungalow that I’m sharing with Wynona, soaking up the last bits of warm sunshine before the cold mountain air sweeps in as it does every night here in the mountains of northern Laos. We are in Nong Kiaow, a small town nestled amongst some of the most majestic landscape I’ve ever seen — describing this view with words like “beautiful” or “amazing” doesn’t do it justice.
My muscles are aching and my heart is filled with gratitude. We just returned from a two-day trek that included jungle, mountains, and kayaking the Nam Ou River, with an overnight homestay in a small ethnic Khmu village in the foothills.
We hired a local guide, Thom, to take us on a long day of trekking through the jungle to a village where we would spend the night and get a taste of Khmu culture and traditional village lifestyle before a second day of adventure. Having studied Anthropology, this kind of cultural experience sounded right up my alley.
The Khmu are an ethnic group indigenous to the lands of northern Laos. They live in enclosed villages of stilted houses with walls of wood or bamboo and roofs of wooden tile or thatch. Agriculture is the primary activity for the Khmu, with rice as the staple crop, supplemented by corn and a range of other vegetables. They also practice fishing, trapping, and gathering. They keep small livestock, (chickens, ducks, some pigs) and weave basket-ware for trade and practical use. They have a rich oral history reaching back four hundred years; legend and story-telling near the fire is a common evening occurrence. While they borrow some elements from the Lao religion of Buddhism, their belief system is primarily animistic. They regularly perform ceremonies and rituals to pacify and please the spirits that inhabit the surrounding land and ensure good health and plentiful harvests.
One such ceremony occurred in the house of our home-stay host family, as the chief of the household was bedridden with a leg-injury. I am unclear on the details of this ceremony, as I was not invited to witness it directly, but I watched from nearby as dozens of people from the village, young and old, visited the home of the injured man throughout the early evening before dinner. Our guide Thom tried to explain that the household invited friends and family members into the house to protect the house from angry spirits so the man could have a speedy recovery.
Our Lao guide, Thom, was excellent. He stayed with us overnight in the Khmu village, where he helped with translation and informed us on Khmu lifestyle and culture where he could. He is the same age as I am, and is married with a 5-year old son. He is an incredibly warm and happy guy; full of smiles and conversation — he was eager to share local knowledge about his home region, and curious to learn about us, and the places we come from. During our jungle trek, we exchanged stories and life experiences, compared cultures, and had some good laughs. He stopped us many times along the way to tell us about the fauna and flora of the jungle, often chopping bamboo or other branches with his jungle machete, which he referred to as a pocketknife, or breaking things open to show us the insides.
As we neared the Khmu village, we walked through dried up rice paddies and other abandoned agricultural plots. I recognized these as evidence of the traditional swidden agricultural practices of the Khmu people, which I had learned about in my early anthropology courses. Also known as slash-and-burn- agriculture, swidden agriculture involves clearing forest for agricultural plots that are cultivated temporarily, sometimes even for only one growing season, before they are burned and abandoned. The farmers then shift to other plots in rotation, allowing the soil from each plot to regenerate naturally after being cultivated and burned. This technique of agriculture is considered “primitive” by western standards, as it involves manual labour with no mechanization, yields are “small” (ie not industrial-sized), and seasonal surpluses are uncommon. However, this method is relatively sustainable, and a village that employs it is usually a self-sufficient one.
The village is quite small — home to only about forty families. It took me a only few minutes to wander through the entire village. As I did so, I was greeted (and subsequently, followed) eagerly by a group of happy children running around barefoot and playing together in the dirt. I found women doing laundry in the stream next to the village, men weaving basket-ware and mending thatched roofs, and dozens of chickens, ducks, and roosters roaming about under the stilted houses. Dogs were napping and lethargic pigs were grazing. At sundown, many small fires were lit in the little lanes and spaces between the houses, where families gathered and food was prepared.
After the ceremony in our host family’s house, we were invited in for dinner. A short wicker tray table was set up with several dishes on it, and floor cushions placed around it for sitting. I had no idea what to expect from this meal or what kinds of foods I would be facing, and was pleasantly surprised to see mostly foods I recognized. The chicken, presumably a former comrade of the dozens loitering underneath the stilted house we were eating, was boiled and cut up into indistinguishable pieces, including parts I normally wouldn’t eat like the organs and the neck. It was very tough and not overly enjoyable to eat but not terrible either. I enjoyed the steamed greens served in broth, the spicy papaya salad, and of course, the sticky rice. I learned quickly by observing how to use the palm of my hand to roll pieces of sticky rice into balls, to be eaten with bites of other food or dipped into homemade chilli paste (collosally spicy).
We were so tired from our trek that after dinner and a short sit by the fire, we went to bed. We slept on a hard mat on the floor of a small stilted hut made of thatch. It’s very cold in the mountains at night, and this was not a warm sleep, but it was comfortable enough.
In the morning we were served a small breakfast of noodle soup, sticky rice, steamed fern, and banana flower salad, which was vaguely reminiscent of potato salad — it consisted mainly of boiled and mushed up banana blossom (the bulbous purple flower that hangs down from the banana tree; similar in taste and texture to an artichoke). Its appearance wasn’t exactly appetizing, but it was surprisingly pleasant to eat.
After breakfast we said goodbye and started off on our second day of trekking, which would take us through mountains, another Khmu village, and agricultural land. After a few hours, we reached the Ou Nam River, were a small boat was waiting to take us across the river so that we could visit another village and trek to a nearby waterfall. We took a break at the waterfall, cooling off in the very cold water and eating a lunch that Thom had carried in his bag from the village that morning; hard-boiled eggs, freshwater seawead chips (handmade by Thom’s wife), sticky rice, and some kind of fried green-bean concoction (delicious), all wrapped up neatly in banana leaves, tied with bamboo string. Needless to say, Wynona and I were very pleased with this :)
The last part of our journey was on the Ou Nam river, in kayaks! We kayaked and floated at our leisure all the way back to Nong Kiaow, making it back just before sundown. And boy, were we tired!
In just two days we packed it all in — jungle trekking, rice-paddy exploring, experiencing a new culture, local food feasting, waterfall resting, river kayaking. What an eye opening, heart filling, and physically gratifying adventure!