I think one of the most common things people get wrong in life is to do something for the sake of doing it. That’s not to say that it’s not good to be spontaneous or adventurous, nor to do something just for the pleasure of it. But I think far too often in life we do things for no real reason other than it is what is expected, or simply because it is what everyone else has done.
Particularly when I’ve travelled, I try to take the time to do something a little different, a little off the beaten track each time. To take an extra day or two in a place to relax and enjoy it, to see something that isn’t on Trip Advisor’s “Top 10 Things To Do” when I can, and to try to learn something new about each place I visit.
When travelling down the Mekong from Thailand to Laos, I got to visit the village of Ban Pak Nguay. Most travellers break up the 1-3 day journey to Luang Prabang from the Thai Border towns of Chiang Khong (Thai side) or Houay Xai (Lao border side ) at a small hotel based on the banks of the Mekong, or further south in the town of Pak Beng. While these places looked lovely when we passed them the next day, I was certainly glad to have had the experience I did!
When our boat docked, there were already beaming faces. We were welcomed with flowers by village elders, and led up to the road (which they proudly explained had only been built a year or so before) to be shown around the village. We played with the kids, ate delicious food, swam in the river, tried to join in with their dancing (and failed miserably), and sipped some extremely potent home brewed rice whisky.
The most magical part of the night was the Baci ceremony. This is something that is honestly hard to put into words. The ceremony itself is usually reserved for special occassions, such as marriage or in our case, welcoming guests into the village. Everyone sits around a central tabel with prayer offerings, with the guests of the ceremony closest to the centre. After introductions and a few prayers, we were gestured at to turn outwards to face the villagers. Each village elder had several pieces of string ready in their hands. Then, after a few smiles and giggles at our slightly confused and unsure faces, one by one they shuffled around to wish us well, and tie their blessings on our wrists with a piece of string. At times there were two to three people tying these blessings on me at once. Other times someone was adjusting and neatening them for me, gesturing how I should better align the knots. The room was humming with murmurings of good will from fifty or so strangers, letting us glimpse into their lives, while they all made they way around the circle.
But that’s just the process. That’s just the details. The hard empirical evidence of this was the photo I took of my wrists the next day, and the one band I’ve still managed to keep after we cut them off on the third day as ritual dictates. The experience we had – well, that was something else. I think everyone shared it differently, and I think it was a very personal one for most of our group. For me, I found it to be an almost spiritual experience, a beautiful human-to-human sharing of kindness. There was an overwhelming sense of openness and unabashed generosity, all from a simple sentence or two and some string. And though we couldn’t understand the words they spoke, as each person took our hands and looked at us in the eye, you just knew it was something positive. Later, we were told that most of the blessings were welcoming us into their village, and wishing us a good stay, safe travels, and a long life. To have that repeated forty or so times is a wonderful feeling! I suppose it was like being complimented once, and then a second time, and then continually for the rest of the day. Perhaps you’d have brushed off the first, maybe even the second, but by the tenth the day has certainly been good, and by lunch time nothing will bring you down!
We slept that night on the floor in their houses. As I lay down, I noticed my cheeks were slightly sore from having smiled so much that afternoon. I was glad I’d come here and not taken the hotel option just fourty or so minutes down river. And I was thankful I spent as much of it being present and simply enjoying it.
I had the pleasure of travelling with Stray Asia in November 2015, who take pride in their local homestay experiences across their network. Read about swimming in the Mekong at the village of Ban Pak Nguay here! http://blog.straytravel.asia/2016/03/14/swimming-in-the-mekong-river/