Homestay in Ban Namai

The next morning we drove many hours north to the village of Ban Namai where our guide Silasak had grown up. We’d be spending the night at his brother’s house – our first homestay.

Ban Namai: small, but organized

a typical Tai Leum house (with typical satellite dish)

The residents of Ban Namai are ethnic Tai Leum minorities, and by the look of their homes, fairly affluent farmers. Most houses were large, one-room wooden structures raised a full floor off the ground on stilts (they use the space underneath as an all-purpose area where they spend the hottest hours of the day). There was no plumbing except for a river-water cold tap outside, and the outhouse bathrooms had forced-water squat toilets. The village had been wired for electricity a mere three months earlier, but satellite dishes were common.

our hosts’ house with “the best outhouse in the village”

Silasak’s brother’s household consisted of himself and his wife (pictured above, cooking), their teenage daughter, and his wife’s sister and her daugher, all living under one roof. A three-quarter-high wall with a door had been erected on one end of the house to give the husband and wife a little privacy, but other than that, it was one big space. The cooking was done on the opposite end over a wood-fed fire, and aside from a pantry cabinet where food was kept, a small linen cabinet, a small table and an even tinier refrigerator, there was no furniture. The center section of the house was covered with numerous tatami mats for people to sit on.

supplies stored in the rafters

After we dropped off our luggage, Silasak took us on a short walking tour of the village, which included the local temple where he’d spent time as a monk-in-training. (Most Lao Buddhist boys are expected to train even if they don’t plan on becoming monks – it brings honor to their families. They’re supposed to spend at least three months at a temple before they’re 20 years old in order to receive “credit,” but To told us that these days, boys will often spend as little as one week there. When I asked Silasak how long he’d lasted, he wouldn’t give me a straight answer. Hmm.)

the village temple on a hill

the happiest Buddha in all of Laos

We also met some village people. This guy was making one of those cone-shaped “rice patty” hats out of bamboo strips. He was embarassed to have his picture taken, saying he wasn’t “good looking,” but did show us his homemade knife which was made from the metal of an exploded mine. The gold band around the handle had been a bullet casing.

recycling in action

A little later, we passed a big group of villagers watching a young guy pull coconuts down from a tree with a 15-foot pole. They handed each of us a whole fruit to try.

from the tree to my straw

We also met Silasak’s uncle, a jovial Santa who showed us his tattooed legs (another Tai Leum tradition). As he was pulling up his pants, his wife kept shouting, higher! higher! Apparently, he was tattooed from the waist to the knee.

Back at the house, we made an effort to clean ourselves up via a bucket and some cold cistern water in the outhouse. (The locals bathe in the river or next to the tap outside, but you need a modesty sarong in order to do that, and we didn’t have one.) When we returned, the women were cooking the evening meal: they caught, plucked, drained and chopped up a chicken, made soups and stir-fried freshly picked jungle greens. Silasak told us that a special ceremony would also be performed in our honor that night, and when the guests started arriving – 25 in all – we got the feeling it was going to be no small occasion.

Here’s a little of what happened:

The elder’s chanting was performed in Pali, an Indian Buddhist-scripture language, and while it was happening, we had to place our hands face up on the table around the centerpiece so bits of sticky rice and banana could be placed in our palms. Then, each guest took two pieces of string and tied one on each of our wrists, chanting as they did it. Apparently, the ceremony was meant to gather together our 32 wandering khwan spirits (everybody has them) and restore the balance in our mental and physical selves. It is often performed for travelers and the very ill.

The feast afterward was, my god, so good: chicken soup with bitter greens; whole roasted bamboo shoots (which tasted nothing like the bland canned version you get in U.S. supermarkets); deep-green pureed river kelp; roasted chilies and chili dip; spicy chicken stew; and the biggest baskets of sticky rice I had ever seen.

my “soul strings” – not to be removed for three days

That night, we slept where we had eaten, on futon-like mattresses hand-stuffed with local cotton under an enormous, purple mosquito net.

It had been a good day.

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