Doing a homestay at a local ethnic minority village is an experience not to be missed while you are in Luang Namtha. One of the biggest draw-cards of visiting Luang Namtha is visiting some of the different minority tribes (the other is exploring the lush, untouched Nam Ha national protected area) as this area of northern Lao is actually the most ethnically diverse part of South East Asia; a real cultural crossroads!
A homestay will give you first-hand experience and insight into how these people live in tune with the land and seasons. Also these villages have signed up for the eco-tourism project so by staying there you are supporting them financially and empowering them to understand that their tribal culture is important and worth preserving.
The best way to experience these Black Tai, Red Tai, Tai Lue, Lanten, Hmong, Khmu, Ahka (to name a few of the more major ethnic groups) tribes is to go for a complete cultural immersion and stay the night at their village! This will enable you to learn much more about the local tribe and really get an insight into their way of life. Most of these villages have been living almost the same way for thousands of years; cultivating sticky rice and gathering food species from the jungle and rivers. When you stay there you can help participate in some of the activities that the villagers are doing for that particular season for example harvesting rice or gathering river weed.
Many people who have done a village home stay in Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam are surprised about how untouched and undeveloped so many of these Luang Namtha villages are. Many villages are made up of Bamboo houses with thatched rooves and the villagers’ still use very traditional tools. This is the way they live their lives not a show they put on for tourists!
Here are some tips to help you find a great homestay experience:
- Book your homestay through a reputable trekking agency; look on the internet to find recent reviews as most of the Luang Namtha guidebooks are very out of date. Ensure your guide will be properly trained and fluent in English.
- Ensure your homestay village is off the beaten path to get a truly authentic experience; so not on a main road or very near to the town centre.
- Find a homestay village in or bordering the national protected area, surrounded by jungle (not rubber trees!) this will ensure you witness some interesting jungle food species at the same time as being surrounded by beautiful nature.
- A village located on a river will mean you can swim and bath in the river and fish with the locals, which can make the whole experience that much more fun.
- Ask to see some photos of the village and find out if you will stay in the homes of the villagers or just a hut built for the purpose of housing visitors (which is fine if you want this but bear in mind it will make you segregated from the rest of village life). Also you will want to ask what the sleeping conditions are like; there should be mattresses, blankets, pillows and mosquito nets.
- If you want to, do some research and stay with a minority tribe that interests you. There are many different minorities with different languages, cultures and stories.
Once you have chosen a tour to a homestay village here’s what you can expect from your experience:
- The villagers should be quite new to tourism thus shy and more curious about you than you are about them! Each tour provider supports different villages so there should be no chance of staying with other groups of tourists. Think of ways to break the ice with the locals; asking the adults questions (via your guide) or getting to know the kids is a great way to endear you to the village. A gift of books, a ball, a game or something else productive for the kids will be VERY well received. Also just playing a simple game with them will make you very popular and provide hours of fun for you and them.
- Standards of cleanliness and hygiene will be very rustic (and definitely not “clean” by western standards) so take some soap and toilet paper; hand sanitizer is also a good idea. You often will be staying in villagers’ homes, where they actually live, not some sanitised tourist accommodation, that said they will make every effort to make you feel welcome and provide for you with the best they have because they are proud to host you.
- A shower at the village will either mean bathing in a river or stream or washing under the communal village tap! Girls should always bath in a sarong (or similar), this is in keeping with Lao culture. Toilets will be squat toilets; usually they are kept quite clean but take your own toilet paper and keep soap on hand just to be sure.
- Food will be usually based around sticky rice with a few “dips” and other accompanying dishes of meat and/or vegetables. Dishes are communal and are meant to be eaten with small hand rolled balls of sticky rice like the Lao people do it. Many types of spices, vegetables and meat will be completely foreign to you. Try everything, the locals will not be offended if you do not like something. Many of these dishes will be prepared by seasonal species from the jungle, this may be the only chance in your life you get to eat this particular food!
So go to your homestay experience with an open mind and a big heart. Your hosts will try to please you as much as they possibly can and you will have an original authentic experience you will not soon forget!