Since we started our adventure there was this thing I had to do, this thing I always wanted to try. I had to try a homestay in Asia. In Sapa, our first homestay turned out to mainly be a simple stopover before going on with our trek so I decided that, one way or another, I would find the perfect homestay, something allowing us to share people’s daily life, I didn’t want to just pass through anymore, I wanted to really understand my surroundings. Months of research later, I found online an advertisement on an eco-tourism board for local homestay in Northern Thailand. While expensive, it looked exactly like what I wanted. I just had to pick one of the tribe, Akha or Yao, and make it to the town of Muang Sing…
It turned out that after my time in Northern Thailand and meeting the Mien (a part of the Yao tribe)I developed a high interest for those individuals. With a costume with hints of the Chinese tradition and a history that sure did make me curious, the Yao had my attention and I naturally decided to opt for a homestay with their tribe. So as a birthday present, I treated us to a 2 nights homestay with the Yao near Muang Sing in Laos.
A bit of history :
Before we start with this tale you might want to learn a bit more about the Yao. They are one of the minority group recognized in China and Vietnam. They can be found in Northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and China of course.
Their story started in Hunan more than 2.000 years ago where they were rebels against the Ming Dinasty. Quickly chased away, they moved around the country in the highlands and countries like Laos where you can still see them. Unfortunately it wasn’t the end of their sad history. Informers for the US and recognized as a « friendly force » during the Lao Civil War, they were quickly targeted by the government and some of the Yao moved to Thailand.
Funny fact : in China, the word Yao used to mean « Jackal », it was then changed in to a new symbol meaning « Precious Jade ».
The Yao culture :
Yao are usually Taoist or Animist. Houses are made out of wood and are rectangular, the women cover their head with a black turban or a red scarf (mainly seen in Vietnam) and wear embroided tunics that tend to be black with a red collar. This tradition is still kept by many elderly woman but a lot have long given up on the tunic, far too hot for the local climate.
The homestay in a Yao village:
Now that you know more about the Yao it is time to tell you a bit more about our homestay and the village where we stayed. While this village is only small (12 families live there), it is very close to 2 over Yao villages and one hour from a big Akha village.
On our arrival we went for a walk in the heat, appreciating our surroundings and meeting the locals. While very reserved, the Yao there welcomed us nicely. On the first night we only spent some time with the family taking care of us for that time before an early night. A bit confused, feeling excluded, I sure didn’t expect the second day to be such a highlight.
Woken up at 6.30am by the heat and the chant of the cockrel, we were informed that we were going to work with the local families at the rubber plantation. While the heat and the hard work of digging rubber trees got me out in less than an hour, Robb still made it for 2 hours before returning. Clearly not used to such hard work we then watched, a bit ashamed, the families digging plants while the constant heat was only getting worst. Thankfully the next step of our working day was my moment, my time to shine ! Consisting in trimming the bottom of the rubber tree to be able to plant it again, I took the task at heart and worked for a while. After one or two mistakes, some good laugh (trimming with a machete the wrong way around sure doesn’t make you go far but brought a friendly laugh from the group), couple of hours of work, I felt that we finally made it, we earned the respect and interest of the locals. We weren’t just the tourists anymore. (well still, but less)
While enjoyable, the exercise was hard and we left for a walk to the nearest Akha village. In the heat I kept dreaming of a bottle of ice cold water while Robb had his mind focus on a possible bottle of beer. Mistake he would regret later.
Entering through the Spirit gate of the village (Akha are animists and a shaman builds a Spirit gate at the entrance of each villages, they are suppose to keep bad spirits outside), the difference between the two tribes did hit me very quickly. While the Yao seem to have around 2 children per family, the Akha have a minimum of 5 kids ! And while our hosts were very reserved, the people in this village were much more exuberant. The kids were a perfect example.
In our village the kids seemed to keep a little distance, observing us mainly and while on the first day they wouldn’t have sat next to us, they opened up a bit more on the second one, still very shy.
In the Akha village it was a very different experience. While sitting with my camera on a bench, a group of kids came to us and started a funny game. I would show them my camera and they would run away in a scream, coming back to play some more before getting their photo taken. And when being showed the photos, a big scream came out of their mouth. Those kids had clearly never seen themselves on a photo before and were ecstatic. Calling their friends around, the game kept on going and while we left, they walked along us, one of them holding my hand.
We came back to the homestay with me thinking that this day couldn’t be better before a group of guys living in the Yao village came to invite us for a drink. This is probably when Robb must have started to regret the beers he had and the Lao Lao whiskey he shared with our guide around a poker game.
While I thought it was maybe a usual invitation, our guide told me I was wrong. One of them had seen Robb playing cards and drinking with him and thought « Well, that guy can drink, let’s invite him tonight ! »
The evening that came after that is still pretty blur. While we came to the house we were offered beers, started to play silly drinking games and ended up having to finish the crate. And while the evening ended I kept telling to myself I just didn’t want to leave anymore.
Is it for everyone ?
While that homestay doesn’t involved much trekking (only a couple of hours really), it’s hard to recommend it to everyone.
A western toilet and shower are available but you’re better off using the bucket shower. And for the beds : you’ll sleep on a thin mattress on some bamboo. If you need your comfort and don’t like the local wildlife you might not enjoy your night there.
But I would say : man up ! That’s a once in a lifetime experience and you have got a very big chance to be the only one staying there.
Should I bring something with me ?
Books, pens are welcomed gifts for the local children, try to give them directly to the school or to the person in charge of the village, they will distributr them equally. Avoid candies, something useful is a much better gift.
To get a better idea here is a gallery of photos taken at the homestay. See more on the following link: Muang Sing
Where is Muang Sing ?
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