After a lovely two-day cruise down the Mekong River, with an overnight stay in Pakbeng, we arrived in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site that offers all the charm and excitement for a first time visit to Laos. Some travelers have told us that they don’t consider Luang Prabang to be the “real Laos” given that most of the country is very poor, and while we could easily agree, Luang Prabang connected us with wonderful people, tasty cuisine and beautiful sites. In addition to visiting many wats, we conquered one of the main sites: Kuang Si Falls. This waterfall offers visitors turquoise colored pools to swim in along the hike, and a slippery if not dangerous, trek up the side of the falls to the water source. However, the main attraction for us, and the one that brought us pure joy, was an overnight homestay at The Living Land Company, a community-run organic farm that supplies fresh vegetables, herbs and rice to local restaurants and hotels.
The farm was founded by Mark, a Brit who we were fortunate enough to meet during our stay, and is operated by Director Laut Lee and Manager Sia Lee. It was started in an effort to promote organic farming in lieu of the traditional slash and burn culture and overuse of pesticides, and it currently employs seven families from the local village. Living Land offers overnight homestays, a half day (morning or afternoon) “rice experience” tour, as well as cooking classes. It also welcomes volunteers to work on the farm in exchange for free lodging, depending on your length of stay, etc. We opted for a one-night homestay and spent 24 hours learning about the farm, the locals and how to make sticky rice.
We started the adventure with a 1pm tuk tuk pickup from our guesthouse in town and a 15-minute ride out to the farm. Sia Lee greeted us and showed us to our room, a converted rice barn with mosquito netted beds, and pointed to the communal bathroom down the road (cold water only). We were then introduced to our guide for the afternoon, farm manager Vixay (pronounced “Sy”). He speaks excellent English and started us off with a tour of the organic farm, showing us all of the crops, including tobacco which is combined with citronella to create an organic insecticide. On our walk to the local village, we met a 95-yr-old gentleman chopping bamboo for Khao Lam (sweet purple sticky rice w/coconut stuffed in bamboo and roasted) – according to our guide, he was bored in retirement and still enjoys working to help sell this delicious dessert to the local markets. In the village, we met another 95-yr-old gentleman who explained to us via translation with Sy that the secret to such a long life is not having chemicals in your food. Nearby, a 96-yr-old monk was happily watched this discussion take place. On our way back to the farm, we walked through Mark’s house, or “big boss” as Sy refers to him, and saw a neat view of the farm and surrounding land from his beautifully landscaped garden. Now it was time to put us to work!
With Sy’s help, we planted our own produce (lettuce, rocket, arugula, carrots, parsley, and basil) by taking the seedlings from the seed bed where they’d been germinating, transplanting them to the main vegetable bed, giving them a few cans of water and covering them from the sun for their first few days of growth. Afterwards, we picked ripe vegetables (lettuce, arugula, rocket, radishes, and mint) for the salad we would enjoy later that night with dinner. Sy brought us back to the main building and introduced us to Long Lee, a remarkable second year student at the Agricultural College of Luang Prabang who has lived on the farm now for seven years. He took us upstairs to meet about 25 village kids (ages 10-15) who were ready for their daily English class, and we were surprised to be introduced as their teachers for the next hour. They asked us very good questions, drew pictures and asked for their English words, had us read from their workbooks, and play hangman, all the while writing down all of the new words they were learning. Danica gave them a nursing lesson, and one very bright 15-yr-old drew a picture of a uvula because he wanted to know the English word – and his picture was spot on (off to medical school we hope!). At the end of our hour with the kids, they sang us a song in English, and we wanted to hug every one of them goodbye. We asked Long Lee about sending supplies and he told us items such as composition books, English workbooks and writing utensils are always welcome (if you feel compelled to send something, send me a message and I’ll get you the details).
After English class, we headed downstairs and enjoyed a little Beerlao with farmer Tia and chef Vone, who was cooking up our dinner with brand new chef Khamla (it was her first day at the farm after completing her culinary training). Next up was a trip to the fish pond for our pre-dinner outdoor Lao massages, which were provided by two blind men from the local village. We were informed by Long Lee afterwards that there is a program in the village specializing in massage training for the blind and deaf, a common training we’ve seen throughout South East Asia. To be honest, Laos massage is not our favorite – it’s more like acupressure – and the mosquitos were starting to bite, so we were relieved when the hour was up and it was time to eat dinner! Joining us at the table were a few members of our new farm family: Long Lee, Khamla, Sy and Chi Lee, who teaches English to the older students and is also a second year college student (and even though he is the same age, he is actually Long Lee’s uncle and the brother of Laut Lee – they explained to us that many Lao families have 10-13 children because they are not educated on birth control, and that it is unusual for both of them to be unmarried with no children at 22). Our dinner – the best food we had in Laos – consisted of Mekong riverweed, sticky rice, a local pork stew, a vegetable stir fry dish, a salad made with our fresh picked ingredients, and fruit for dessert. We had previously learned that the Lao people typically don’t drink with their meals, so we assumed that’s why we had the Beerlao before dinner and it wasn’t on the dinner menu. With full bellies and warmed hearts, we headed to bed after cold showers and fell asleep to the croaking frogs and chirping crickets.
We woke up rested the next morning for 7am breakfast and ate a hefty portion of fried pork, fried eggs, riverweed, sticky rice, some sort of tasty tomato and ground pork stew, and more fruit (with coffee of course) before the rest of the group arrived for the morning “rice experience” tour. We spent the next four hours learning from Khamla (another guide, not the new chef) and Long Lee how to make sticky rice from seed to feed in 13 steps. We rolled our pants up and eagerly stepped into the muddy rice fields to pick our seedlings and replant them, and to cut down some bushels of rice that were ready to harvest. We also got a chance to ride Rudolph, the farm’s water buffalo, whose sole purpose is to plow the rice fields (and of course, take pictures with tourists!). We shook the harvested rice bushels until the shells fell out, danced around them with a large fan to separate the rice shells from the bushels, crushed the rice shells with a two-person mortar & pestle, separated the rice from the shells, and ground the rice into flour. The few minutes we spent on each step was hard work, and now we understand how the Lao farmers stay so fit. The grinding “machine” takes your whole body and is a bit of a sway from side to side that would give anyone who spent a few hours on it each day a killer six pack!
We refueled with a glass of liquid sugar squeezed fresh before our eyes from stalks of sugarcane, and were shown upstairs to a table filled with tasty rice treats, including a spicy chili paste with buffalo skin that paired perfectly with sticky rice. Khamla presented us with certificates that said “I planted rice in Luang Prabang” and told us to come back in three months to check on our rice.
Around 1pm, we packed up our bags and begrudgingly left the farm to head back to town. Sia Lee offered us another night’s stay, but we had to decline so that we could fit in the other sites in town. We truly had an amazing experience at Living Land and did not want to leave. What they are doing for their community is truly life changing. Teaching free English classes to the local village kids, offering free vegetables, herbs and rice to the locals in exchange for work on the farm, offering scholarships to the Agricultural College, and the list goes on. This is not just a great place to visit, it is a community of people trying to improve their lives and their future. Check out all of the pictures from our homestay and Kuang Si Falls on Flickr!