If you are planning a trip to Luang Prabang – apart from visiting its temples and night market – how about signing up for responsible village tours outside Luang Prabang as well?
In case you wonder what a responsible village tour is…firstly, the concept responsible village tour is not about visiting a village to take photos of the village and its inhabitants, a tour around the village for thirty minutes and then leave. No, responsible village tour is essentially having an experience interacting with them and learning about daily life in the village. You can enjoy mingling with them over lunch or watch and learn about their traditional skills especially weaving.
Secondly, you might feel reluctant to leave the comforts of staying in town or your beautiful resort, but villages in Laos are unique from a historical and heritage perspective – the latter showcasing their heritage uniquely in their arts and crafts which I personally found, different from other Indochina countries.
Thirdly, there are many tours out there promoting responsible village tours but some may not provide adequate insights about the village or proper translation for guests. On the media trip to Ban Nayang village in July, we had guides from Trails of Indochina who were incredibly good – they were able to explain well about the village, its people, their crafts, history, culture and everything else that we wanted to know.
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Here are some of the activities that we experienced on our village tour to Ban Nayang:
Ban Nayang village is located three hours’ away from Luang Prabang. Driving up towards north-east on Highway 13, we passed the ochre-coloured Nam Ou (Ou River), tribal villages and rice plantations. Ban Nayang is home to the Tai Lue community whose forefathers originated from Yunnan, China.
Upon our arrival at the village, we were introduced to the baci ceremony which is a Laotian custom of blessing, calling spirits to bring good luck to family, friends and guests. Lao people believe that everyone has spirits to protect them but these spirits sometimes wander outside the body, causing imbalance of the person’s soul which might lead to illness or bad luck. Therefore, the baci ceremony involves calling the spirits to return, holding the spirits in place by symbolically tying white cotton strings to a person’s wrists while wishing the person good luck, abundance and prosperity.
The centerpiece of the baci is a marigold pyramid surrounded by a plate of sticky (glutinous rice), sweets (and a few packets of chips!), flowers and local whisky. We sat on the floor in a circle, ensuring that our feet do not face the centerpiece – this means you have to sit elegantly with your legs folded on the side (no, I couldn’t sit like this for long!). The village headman uttered a couple of words which I presumed was calling upon the spirits, sprinkled water on us (holy water maybe) and then, he asked us to hold one end of the thread connected to the marigold pyramid while he blessed us with good luck.
The baci ceremony was short but what’s interesting at the end of the ceremony was every villager tied strings to our wrists, wishing us good luck. It didn’t matter that we already had one string tied on each wrist but they believe, the more strings are tied to our wrists, the more good luck we will have – and I welcome good luck, abundance and prosperity ANYTIME! (Dear Universe, I hope you’re listening!)
The baci ceremony is very important for the Lao people and they typically have this ceremony before major events such as weddings, births, travel, house-warming, starting a new business or when welcoming friends/guests.
After the baci ceremony, we were served lunch – simple food but oh so delicious – pork, chicken soup, veggies, bamboo shoots and omelette.
The population of Ban Nayang village is approximately 500 people, and their main sources of incomes are derived from rice and tobacco farming and cotton weaving. In between farming, the villagers weave cotton, producing beautiful colourful scarves, stoles, table runners and blankets of various colours and accents. Each household has two or three weaving looms, and the women weave, spin and dye cotton underneath their houses which are built on stilts.
Apart from Ban Nayang, you can also visit the Ban Lue Handicrafts Centre that offers classes on weaving and indigo dye.
If you’d like to bring home handmade textiles as souvenirs for family and friends, I would recommend that you purchase directly from the villages. This is because the textiles are hand-spun, hand-dyed and hand-woven, and the prices are a third of what you pay at the night market in Luang Prabang. At the same time, the money earned from the sale of their textiles goes directly to them rather than to middlemen. By having more tourists to visit their villages, that money earned becomes sustainable income for households when they are not working on the farms.
Note: Do remember to bring the local Laotian currency ‘kip’ when buying these crafts, for the villagers do not know what to do with foreign currency. While we may think foreign currency especially USD is useful, the villagers do not understand the concept of foreign currency exchange. For them, money means kip and kip means money.
Preserving local craft
There are many benefits in having responsible village tours. For the villagers, such tours bring real opportunities for them to earn an additional source of income, aside from farming. At the same time, introducing local weaving to tourists, for instance, preserves local craft and traditional skills.
And as for us tourists, we get to experience a different kind of holiday – a more interactive and rewarding experience – learning a different way of life and gaining a different perspective of different cultures. And of course, we get to bring home lovely hand-made scarves and table runners as souvenirs from the trip 🙂
*Our visit to Ban Nayang village and Ban Lue was part of a media trip sponsored by Luang Prabang Tourism, Destination Mekong and Mekong Tourism. All opinions expressed in this post are my own.
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