I recently submitted the featured photo for a contest on EyeEm titled “Youth of Today.” This photo captures a toddler who is snacking on crackers along side his grandfather in a Khmu village outside of Luang Prabang, Laos.
Out in the jungle with just my sister and I and our guide Sii, we started off our one-day trek through Tiger Trails with a 30 minute sickening tuk tuk ride outside of Luang Prabang. After a short boat ride down the Mekong, a hike through an “elephant sanctuary” (judging by their shackles, I wouldn’t call it freeing), and crossing several small streams, Sii announced we had arrived at Houayfay, a Khmu village.
The collection of straw houses had street signs, house numbers and various facilities. The only thing missing was people. It was a mystery where everyone was. Then, we saw our first greeters, four small boys sitting outside of a house.
The youngest of them all was disturbed by our presence. He saw my camera and started to cry. The older boys giggled and pushed him a little. I can imagine how odd it must feel to have groups of tourists filing through your ten house village. They don’t speak your language, they don’t look like you, and they have massive machines in your face.
While many adults were absent because they were working in the rice fields, others must have known we were coming and avoided us altogether. With the exception of only a few adults, the only locals we saw in our tour were young children. There is a fine line because treating locals like zoo animals and encouraging cultural exchange.
Sii lead us to the dining room of one of the families-a covered area with dirt floors and a wooden bench. There, we sat with an older gentlemen and two of his grandchildren he was looking after.
I tried to utilize Sii’s language skills to make the situation less uncomfortable. After all, we were sitting in this gentlemen’s dining room and staring at him and his grandchildren. This family also had a spare room where tourists who do the two-day tour sleep. They had experience with foreigners.
“Is there anything that Westerners do that you find weird or odd?” I asked the grandfather.
He laughed and shook his head. “We are just all so different,” he responded through Sii’s translation. “We have different customs.”
While the female grandchild was comfortably perched on her grandfather’s back, a precarious little boy was ready for the camera. By the way he posed and looked at me, I could tell he enjoyed the foreigner’s camera and liked the attention.
Notice his shirt saying “Wold Cup 2014.” Counterfeit?
I’m not entirely sure what he was screaming or why he was posing the way he was, but he gave us a good laugh. After feeling a bit odd walking through someone’s home, it was nice to have someone appreciate the attention.
After saying goodbye to the grandfather and his grandchildren, we took a quick walk around the village. There was a girl sifting through a 15 x 15 tarp of rice. She was shy, but smiled and showed us how to break the rice and eat it. As soon as we approached her, three children came running in from the jungle.
They were visible dirtier than the other children, with disheveled hair, mud on their skin and green, dried-up snot coming out of their noses. The most noticeable aspect about them, however, wasn’t their unkempt look. It was the huge knife they carried, swinging it up and down like a loose leaf piece of paper. (This wouldn’t be the first group of children we saw with extremely sharp objects. Later on that day we saw a boy playing with a long knife that had a live bird attached to it. He was throwing it around as his parents laughed from behind.)
“HELLO HOW ARE YOU!” they screamed. One of the girls wore shorts that had “Paris Hilton” embroidered on the back pocket. I would love to investigate how and why some clothing, counterfeit brands and odd sayings become popular abroad. How, and why?
We continued on our hike. Later, we passed through a Hmong village. There, we didn’t see anyone except one massive family with at least eight kids. They sat on a bench and watched us as we ate our pack lunches of fried rice. They laughed as the piglets, birds and apparent ravenous dogs fought for our handouts.
We finished out the hike in the humid air, jumping through creeks, stepping in wet undergrowth and passing through valleys. As Sii got increasingly annoyed with our inability to walk briskly in such adverse conditions, I thought more and more about how accepting children are. If our trip through the villages solidified anything, it’s that children are special creatures.
What else happened in Luang Prabang? Jennifer and I felt left out. Read about it here.