Feasts and Friendship in Khmu Villages

We’ve been talking about how to write about this ever since last month. Because it was probably the most memorable and humbling experience we have had this year, we decided we’d just write a short summary and let the pictures speak for themselves. We’d love to tell you all about it when we see you again, but at least for now, words simply fall short.

Bus station map


We met Jena, another fellow traveler, back in Pai. We knew she was heading over to Laos soon and thought we might meet up with her at some point. One morning while we were eating breakfast in Luang Prabang, Jena just happened to walk by. She stopped to talk for a bit and told us about a monk that she befriended when she was traveling through Laos last year. We were soon invited to join both of them to visit his families in their Khmu villages for the next four days. We said yes.


Overloaded tuk-tuk at Luang Prabang bus station

Another monk joined us, and after a three hour bus ride and a three hour hike on a dirt road through the mountains, we found ourselves at the monk’s mother’s village. The following morning was another two hour hike and half an hour boat ride to his father’s village. At both villages, we were overwhelmed by welcome and generosity.

We were fed mounds of sticky rice and many versions of untranslatable vegetable mixtures that the monk simply called “jungle salad.” Between our arrival and the new year celebrations, the local animal population dropped slightly. A few young chickens were boiled, an entire goat was roasted (with no part wasted), and a cow’s brains made it into our soup. Our bad luck was erased and our good luck was ensured with multiple baci ceremonies. With great insistence from our hosts, our bellies were warmed with Lao Lao (home made rice whiskey) from the time we woke up until our evening bath in the Ou river. 

Jena, Tony, Monk K beginning the hike

Mountain scenery

The newly-bulldozed road

arriving in Monk K's mother's village

Village kids playing on a bike

Little boy using a large knife to carve a toy rifle

Little girls in a straw mat fort

Monk K's mother's village, Ban Pha Yong

The mother's house

Monk K translating

Village chief leads the baci ceremony

Monk K and his mother during the string tying

The baci table

Tony, Alicia and Jena during the baci ceremony

Tony, Alicia and Jena ceremonially

The baci ceremony for Monk K and his family

Ceremony spectators

Boiled chicken, two

Sticky rice steamed in banana leaves, coconut sticky rice, sweet potatoes

Jena in the morning

Village school

Learning about trees - village school

Boy looking out the window of his classroom

One of the classrooms

Monk K and Monk P

Village baby

Monk K's sister holding a baby

Same baby after a costume change

Woman weaving a bamboo mat

Monks cooking our breakfast

Breakfast of omelette, steamed bamboo shoots, boiled greens

Huge basket of sticky rice

Starting the hike to Monk K's father's village

Hike to Monk K's father's village

A village along the way

Nam Ou - the Ou River

Monk K and Monk P on the boat

D's (Monk K's dad) boat

D's house

Lunch: fish soup and another

View from D's front porch

Getting the boat ready in the morning

Bottom of D's boat

Chilly morning on the boat

Misty jungle

Visiting a weaving village upstream

Thread for weaving

Weaving loom

Little girl pretending to use the loom

Little boy playing with a ball

Shy little girl hiding behind weaving display

Duck and mystery jungle vegetable for lunch

Assembling sticky rice with banana to be steamed in banana leaves

Butchering the goat

The most important and special parts of the goat reserved for guests and important men: intestine, testicle, foot/hoof, knuckle.

Man from another village, D, Monk P eating at the goat barbeque

Congealed goat blood with cilantro and chilis

Everyone watches you take the first bite.  No pressure.

Pouring Lao Lao (homemade rice whiskey) into the goat's horn

Cringing after drinking the Lao Lao

Tony's turn for the Lao Lao

Goat horn, bananas and sticky rice on the table\

Boiled goat with herbs

Another baci at D's friend's house

String tying portion of the baci ceremony

D at a friend's house, ready for the second goat feast of the day

The second feast for the day: boiled goat with herbs, sticky rice

Another baci, this time at D's house

The baci table at D's

Village woman tying strings on Tony's wrists

D and village chief tying strings on Jena's wrists

Congealed chicken blood with peanuts, chili and cilantro

Boiled cow liver and other mystery organs

New year cow brain soup (the broth was delicious!)

Trying to talk with D using our Lao-English and English-Lao phrasebooks

LP Lao phrasebook

D looking through the

D (Monk K's father) and his wife M

Village man wearing an Obama hat

Breakfast: grilled fish, roast new year cow, mystery soup

Breakfast: New year cow intestine

Our breakfast host

Lao Hai in the making (sweet, thick rice wine)

Hen in a basket with a chick perched on top

Chicken coop baskets

D's dragon tattoo that he got in Thailand when he was young

Alicia playing Kator with village girls

Village kids on D's porch

Girl and boy on D's porch

One day, the monk’s father took us in his boat to see some caves that had served as shelters during the U.S. bombings. One still had bones in it.

Back on the river

Monk K leading the way through the jungle

Tony and D checking out the cave entrance

Large chamber inside the first cave

sparkly rock formation in the first cave

Heading back down the river to the next cave

Strange red insect

Hiking to the next cave

Ammunition box hinge

Entrance to another cave

Entrance to the bombed cave

Large spider's eyes reflecting the light

Broken bowl in the bombed cave

Bones in the bombed cave

Arriving back in the village

When we arrived back at the village after exploring the caves, there was a shiny boat tied to the bank that we hadn’t seen before. As we drifted up next to it, the monk’s father pointed and said, “Made in USA.”

Bow of the UXO canoe

During and after the Vietnam War, between 1964 and 1973, there were 580,000 US bombing missions that dropped two million tons of ordinance on Laos- equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. Up to a third of the bombs did not explode. Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO (unexploded ordinance) in Laos since the bombing ceased.

And they still want you in their homes. And they still want to feed you. And they still want to tie dozens of strings around your wrists as a symbol of how much they want only good things to happen to you in the coming year.

Village chief tying baci bracelets

Want more? Watch our short video of our December adventures, which include motorbiking through Mae Hong Son, floating down the Mekong, and traveling through northern Laos with monks.

Jan 2013


Jan 2013



Tsa Hauv Toj – Hmong New Year

Lao coffee

One Saturday morning in Luang Prabang with Kevin, we saw some older men having coffee at a corner shop. We sat down and ordered cups for ourselves. One of the men spoke a little English, and Kevin speaks a little Thai. (Since there is a lot of Thai TV in Laos, people recognize some of the words.) Between the two languages, Kevin was able to understand that the man was telling us about a “festival” that started today. He motioned to the road we needed to take, and after we finished our coffees, we headed in that direction.

Road to the festival

The motorbikes that that passed us had drivers and passengers wearing colorful costumes, so we knew we were on the right track. Soon, the bikes started pulling off down a dirt road, and we followed the flow of traffic into a big open field. We found the Hmong New Year party.

arriving at the festival

Giant bouncy house

boy with shark balloon


boys gambling

Ice cream vendor

grilled chicken feet

The Hmong are a minority ethnic group spread throughout Southeast Asia. They face significant political and social discrimination in Laos and over the last several decades many have fled to Thailand, the United States and other countries.

Woman and baby

After each harvest season, after performing their own household ceremonies and traditions, Hmong people get together to celebrate the new year, reconnect with families and friends from other villages, and select marriage partners. Almost all of the women and girls wear makeup and dress up in their best costumes. Some of the men and boys dress up as well, but that part of the tradition seems to have faded. That is only a simplified outsiders’ explanation of Tsa Hauv Toj, which is the name of this festival that lasts for days and the one that we were lucky enough to find.

young and old

young and old - h


Mohawk guy

One of the main activities of this particular Tsa Hauv Toj is a ball-tossing game called pov pod. We weren’t clear on the rules, other than you must catch and toss the ball with your right hand only. This is a way for young people to socialize and for parents to evaluate potential matches. We talked to one person who said that it was not a very serious game and anyone could play, even if you weren’t in the market for a husband or wife.

Pov Pod lines

Girl in green

ball toss - girl in neon

girl in pink

Tony and Kevin tossing the ball

We also met and enjoyed talking with Peter, a Hmong man who is living in Minneapolis. He had an impressive video equipment setup.


One section of the festival grounds was dedicated to a long row of booths set up with a variety of large vinyl backdrops. Anyone could use them to take photos and there was also a person who was selling digital prints from his portable printer.

tiny girl in photobooth


Girl adjusting hat

Kids playing with a costume

teens in photobooth

Photobooth backdrops

girls crowding the booth

girls in the woods

group photo

sparkly shoes

Kevin showing his group photos

little girl posing

We were the only foreigners there that day, and drew a lot of stares. We also got a lot of photo requests, which we were happy to pose for. It was only fair.

Boys staring

Kevin sharing photos


Alicia with Hmong girl

Jan 2013



Temples, Waterfalls and New Friends in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is on a peninsula at the convergence of the Khan and Mekong rivers and is full of heavily decorated temples and orange-robed monks and golden Buddhas.  The days were sunny and warm and the evenings were cool and quiet (most of Laos has a midnight curfew which enforced to varying degrees).

LPB riverbend

Golden animal statue in the evening

man napping at a wat

Yellow chedis

Monk laundry

Golden nagas

Sunset from Phousi

Sunset from Phousa

Wat Siphoudthabat

Wat Siphoudthabat

Cow hide stretching for drums

Buddha at Phousi

Buddhas at Wat Xieng Thong

Handmade stencils at Wat Xieng Thong

gold stencil mandala

Lotus at Wat Xieng Thong

Buddha inside Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Xieng Thong door

hungry guy

old chedi

LPB street

Night market

Moped ferry

Big red ants

One afternoon at our guesthouse, three ladies who owned shops in the neighborhood showed up with shot glasses, dice and bowls. The shot glasses weren’t for drinking; they were for rolling the dice to play Ludo, which we later learned is a Vietnamese game similar to Parcheesi. We observed for a few games and tried to figure out the rules. They played fast and groaned and smiled at each others’ luck and misfortune.

Ludo ladies

Ludo board

Ludo from above

Alicia asked to join and did her best to not slow down the game. She was no match for the pros and in the end the ladies took her for about 30,000 kip ($3.75). You don’t need a common language to laugh and enjoy an afternoon together. (Watch a clip from the Ludo game here.)

Ludo payout

We also got to hang out more with Kevin and our boat buddies from our Mekong trip. We were spread all over town in various guesthouses, but got together for dinner a few evenings and negotiated with two tuk-tuk drivers to take us to a local waterfall for one afternoon.

Boat buddies out to dinner

Josh and Ashley

The Kuang Si falls are the prettiest we’ve ever seen. And we have seen. a lot. of waterfalls. this. year. We jumped off the lower falls into the ice cold water.

Kuang Si swimming hole

Lacey jumping off waterfall

waterfall jump

Trail at Kuang Si

small waterfall


Wait, we haven’t even shown you the prettiest part yet.

Kuang Si waterfall

Kuang Si waterfall

Kuang Si vertical

Christmas was approaching, and we noticed a few decorations around Luang Prabang, but it just felt odd amidst palm trees and golden temples and jungle waterfalls. Our guesthouse put up a tree next to the household altar a few days before Christmas, and on the 24th and 25th day, a few people wore Santa hats around town. We went to our favorite “noodle lady shop” for Christmas breakfast and had a nice quiet day together.

Jaliya Christmas tree

Christmas noodles

Santa hat

Christmas was actually our second-to-last day in Laos, but we had a few more adventures before then…

Related Videos:
Northern Thailand and Laos (in December)
Ludo in Luang Prabang

Jan 2013



Slow Boat Down the Mekong

Longtail ferry at the border

Ferry carrying large trucks

On the very last day that our Thai visa was valid, we got our exit stamps and ferried across the Mekong River to the border town of Huay Xay, Laos.  We loaded up on essential boat supplies: water, Pringles, chicken sandwiches wrapped in banana leaves, mandarin oranges, oddly flavored sunflower seeds, butt cushions.  We needed some local currency, too, and became millionaires when we found what might have been the only ATM in town and withdrew 1 miiiillion kip (about $125).

Alicia all ready to go

Boat supplies

Chicken sandwiches

Choco-bacon seeds

Maggot in love

Juicy friend animal land

We found the pier and bought our tickets for Luang Prabang.  There are three public transportation options to get to Luang Prabang from the Thai/Laos border.  The cheapest option is a 12 hour bus ride.  The fastest and most expensive (and potentially lethal) option is putting on a helmet and crouching in a wooden speedboat for six hours.  The other, much more appealing option is a two day boat journey down the Mekong River.

Huay Xai pier

Green boat at Huay Xai pier


Two days on a boat is perfect for reading.  One of my favorite quotes from Thor Heyerdahl’s Fatu-Hiva, related Thor’s feelings as he and his wife were caught in a rainstorm while hiking through the jungle on a South Pacific island.  “[We were] uncertain of whether we were suffering or whether we were having a grand time.”  That is a perfect way to explain some of our days this year, but the boat trip was definitely much more of the latter.

Fatu-Hiva quote

small burn

Mood smoke

Mood smoke + rocks

Looking back upriver

Loading rice

Riverside settlement

Fading light

Side of boat

People on sandbar

Rock silhouette

After the first day, we unloaded at Pakbeng.  Here we are having dinner with a bunch of our boat buddies.  Our group was from Sydney, Brisbane, Toronto, Alabama, California, Amsterdam, and Thailand (via New Zealand).  You may recognize the fellow with the moustache.  It’s our friend Kevin from Chiang Mai!  He decided to join us for the trip and we were glad to see him again so soon.

Boat buddies


There is not much to Pakbeng other than restaurants and guest houses ready to receive people halfway through their boat trips, so we were more than ready to go when 9 a.m. rolled around.

My wife is a very good cook

Alicia and Kevin at Pakbeng

Pakbeng pier

While we were waiting for our boat to be loaded, we saw some elephants working on the far bank.

Elephants at Pakbeng

We also saw a Pakbeng resident giving his goat a bath.  How sweet!

Pakbeng goat bath?

Pakbeng goat bath? 2

Not a bath

Day two on the boat was much like the first.  More jungle, more villages, more giant sandbars and goats and water buffalo.  Someone brought out a guitar and two Australian sisters, Jemma and Ruby, serenaded us.


massive sandbar

Cliff near LPB

Boat interior

Boat engine


back of the boat

green and brown



Late in the afternoon, Luang Prabang’s pier came into view and we were ready to look for dinner and a place to sleep.  We later met other travelers who had been placed on boats with bad seats, loud engines and twice the amount of passengers.  We were fortunate to have a perfect two days on the river and to have made many new friends along the way.

LPB pier

colorful boats at LPB pier

Our pretty boat

LPB pier

(Watch our short video of taking the slow boat down the Mekong and motorbiking in Northern Thailand.)

Jan 2013