We arranged for a two-day bike trek from Savannakhet – biking from the city to the Dong Natad NPA (National Protected Area – wilderness preserves throughout the country), through the forest, to the village of Ban Phon Sim for a home-stay overnight and temple visit in the morning, and then back via That Ing Hang, a beautiful Buddhist stupa.
It was a package offered by the Eco-Guide Unit in Savannakhet. Being low season, we could go on our own with a guide and a local forest “specialist”, but during peak times, this could have been a group trip of up to eight people.
Roman is a bit allergic to organized, tourist-group activities, and we were excited for the trek but also braced for the possibility that it could feel a bit “manufactured”. It turned out to be really wonderful though.
Laos has opened up to tourism later than many of its neighbors in southeast Asia and has taken lessons from their successes and mistakes. From what we’ve read and experienced, it’s making a decent effort (not perfect, I’m sure, but at least it’s trying) to develop tourism in conjunction with and to support local communities.
You can read more about it here if you are interested, but certainly our experience with Eco-Guide Unit made us feel like we got a wonderful view of traditional life in the region without being too invasive. The people in the village of Ban Phon Sim seemed comfortable having us wander around and were happy to greet or chat with us; at the same time, there wasn’t a single post card for sale or eatery with food aimed at tourists – really nice.
Our guide from the Eco-Guide Unit was a young man named Pasert. He was soft spoken but opened up more as the day progressed and we had more time to talk (the shots of Lao Lao at the home stay may have helped as well. ), and was really sweet.
We rode with him from the shop in town to the stupa where we met with our “local” guide, Sodar. He was an expert on the forest we’d be biking through. He didn’t know any English and obviously we don’t know any Lao, but that didn’t stop him from talking and laughing lots – regardless if Pasert was around to translate or anyone was even in earshot. He was good fun.
Sodar demonstrating the flammability of the fuel produced by a special tree, used for torches traditionally used by the locals
The ride through the forest took up the better part of the day and was wonderful. The trees and undergrowth grew thick and the air was always humming with the buzz of insects. The flora was pretty varied – ferns and vines and smaller fruit or flowering trees grew prolifically under the cover of less frequent but totally impressive towering, ancient giants of trees. We saw no other tourists while we were in there, just a handful of locals who were foraging for edible plants and animals.
We met a small group of women gathering these plants in the forest. They were too shy to have their photo taken, but they let me try the leaves. Sticky like okra but with a lovely, fresh taste.
Even under the cover of the trees, it was very hot going and Roman and I are convinced we’ve never sweat that much before in our lives. We made pretty frequent stops, hopping off the bikes any time Sodar had something interesting to show us: termite colonies, stink bugs, dung beetles, edible (?!?) halucinigenic spiders, all sorts of amazing forest fruit, jungle vines that would yield small sips of delicious water when chopped open with his machete. Learning about those sort of things, being in the incredible nature and the exercise of biking through the muddy, sandy, rocky paths were all right up my alley – I just loved it.
A massive cicada. Sodar played with it – making crazy sound effects by opening and closing his mouth while it was inside and chirping like crazy. This was before he ate it, the first of multiple bugs he’d munch on during the trek. I’m just grateful he didn’t eat the spiders he found…
One of the types of forest fruit we got to try. White flesh around a big pit under that bright pink peel, very sour. Roman got pretty addicted to them.
We took a break when we came to some open farmlands on the edge of the reservation. We made ourselves comfortable in a simple hut on the field – a small platform a couple of feet off the ground with a thatched roof – and ate a lovely al fresco lunch. Lots of still warm sticky rice with a myriad of vegetable dishes. My favorites were the big steamed bamboo shoots (similar to artichoke) and some sort of eggplant dish with lots of cilantro. Dessert was dozing and daydreaming in the shade until we’d digested enough to move on.
Pasert unpacks lunch
Home stay magic
We pulled into the village of Ban Phon Sim in the late afternoon. We were staying at the home of the village head. We were invited to make ourselves comfortable on a simple wooden platform in the yard that functions as deck, table and lounge areas and were welcomed with traditional shots of Lao Lao. Strong stuff!
Ducks enjoying a puddle at our home stay
We had some time to relax, freshen up and explore the village before the baci ceremony – a traditional buddhist ceremony that is performed to celebrate everything from guests arriving to school graduations to the start of new business ventures – in our hosts’ home. We went for a lovely stroll around the village and some of the surrounding, peaceful farm lands. I really enjoyed cleaning up with the standard Lao shower, wrapping myself in a borrowed, well-worn sarong and cleaning myself with bowlfuls of refreshing water in the family’s outhouse.
The road out of the village, flanked by towering Eucalyptus trees
The baci ceremony began after the sun had set. A good-sized Pha Kwan, a kind of “mini stupa”, had been set up, streaming loads of perfectly white strings. Elderly neighbors arrived to join in the welcome ceremony and dinner that would follow. The oldest guest led the event, reciting traditional invocations. Everyone present reached in to either touch the Pha Kwan or touch someone who was touching the stupa as the prayers were said. Once completed, everyone removed the strings and came up to me, Roman and Pasert, tying the strings around our wrists as they blessed us, each in turn. The ceremony was simple and of course we couldn’t understand what we being said, but the gesture of blessing us individually was so heart-felt and lovely – I was so moved and so grateful.
The Pha Kwan
Family and neighbors gather for the ceremony
The dinner afterwards was simple but delicious, and again we were treated as honored guests, being served first and on a low table, while everyone else had their plates simply on the floor. Even though communication was really limited, still all the members of the family were sweet and easygoing and made us feel really welcome.
After dinner, we enjoyed some start-gazing from the platform outdoors until we were too tired to stay up any longer (the family stayed inside, watching music videos and comically dramatic Thai sit coms. Apparently this is the thing to do in Laos – we’ve seen it every where we’ve gone.).
We slept on mats on the floor under mosquito netting – until we were awakened in the middle of the night by booming peals of thunder close by and the deafening pounding of rain on the tin roof overhead. The storm was magnificent and huge and I was really glad it arrived during the night and not while we’d been biking.
The morning after
We had to get up shortly after 6am the next day; part of the experience was bringing alms to the local monastery. The mother of the house gently wrapped me in the traditional sarong and scarf – required for women presenting monks with gifts – and Roman, Pasert, one of the daughters and I headed to the temple, bowls of donations in our arms.
The lovely mother at the home stay, two daughters and one granddaughter
It was a holiday, so the place was absolutely packed. We squeezed into a small patch of open floor for part of the opening prayers, then joined the crowd as the alms – everything from fruit and sticky rice to pens, toothpaste and cigarettes to money – were placed in large bowls. A lovely experience, albeit a bit early!
We were very happy to get a strong Lao coffee at a shop in town afterwards, joining a group of amiable men from the village who were getting caffeinated and chatting before getting going on the day’s work, including one teacher who was using the school holiday as a chance to go collect mushrooms in the forest we’d driven through the day before. It was fun talking with him and the other men in a mix of English, basic French and translation facilitated by Pasert.
Back to town
After a lovely breakfast at our home stay, Pasert took us for a small bike loop through delicious smelling Eucalyptus plantations and picturesque rice paddies and along a lovely lake. We stopped back at the house to pick up lunch for the road and then headed back to the village of Ban Thad – home to the That Ing Hang stupa and Pasert.
The stupa was lovely – unfortunately though my camera had run out of batteries at this point, so I haven’t got any pictures. You can see it online though if you’re interested.
After checking out the stupa, we stopped at his house in the village, where his mother and sisters welcomed us and served us lunch – and then went back to watching their Thai soap opera. Roman was brave and tried the chicken feet on offer. I was happy with my veggies and sticky rice. Fueled up with more delicious food, we hopped back on our bikes and pedaled our way back to Savannakhet, where we arrived a couple of hours later, hot, sweaty and happy. All in all, a great experience!