“Life seems to last longer here” is what one of the main protagonists of this documentary set in a small rural village, Muang Noi, in Laos says. And there is a decidedly languid, dreamy and hazy feel to this place so beautifully captured director Daan Veldhuizen and photogenic to the extreme, with its lush rolling green valleys, encompassing the river, and its abundant wildlife – a frequent motif being large colourful butterflies shown in National Geographic style shots landing on fauna. A backpackers wet dream. Whilst village traditions are also lovingly and gorgeously filmed, the opening scenes showing what looks like a magical Buddhist candle-lit ceremony, and village members weave intricate cloth on threshes, whilst monks go about their daily routines, and receive alms, children play on the street, and families live packed together communally in small traditional thatched huts on stilts.
And like the beautiful butterflies that Veldhuizen so lovingly films you wonder if this village’s unique beauty is as fragile, how long will this unique beauty can or will last given the rate of ‘tions’: destruction, globalisation and deforestation. And given that as the film depicts tourists and electricity are starting to arrive and change is inevitable as the village has to speed up in order to meet growing demand. A demand that could diminish – here’s the catch 22 – the more tourists come and inevitably change and westernise the place, diminishing traditional ways of living that we see so clearly at the start.
At the centre of the development of this remote village into a tourist attraction is entrepreneurial friends Khao and Shai, the charming and ambitious but touchingly insecure Khao, wants to prove to his family he can be a success by setting up his tourist office in the village and making the village tourist-ready. Whilst the laid-back, gentle and eminently likeable Khao helps out by guiding tourists on treks, as happy in this new role as he is working in the paddy fields.
We see Khao deal with tourists demands by roping in locals to his enterprise, hooking up one demanding tourist with the resident ‘jungle man’ so he can get his wild nature kick. We also see how often he escapes to bars and alcohol (probably to deal with his own sense of failure/insecurities) undermining his professional veneer, and how he eventually contemplates leaving his rural idyll to live with a Western girl in a big city.
We also see the village from the backpacker’s perspectives and Veldhuizen captures the backpackers world/life with spot on and sometimes wry observation: building rafts, carrying odd novelty pigs which amuse the villagers, hippies writing pretentious, ahem, profound poetry and playing guitar, talking about their motivations for travel – ‘I don’t want to understand different cultures, I just want to see more of the world’ as one man bluffly says, and having a fine old time with the locals and children, who are adorably photogenic and clearly love the camera.
Veldhuizen cleverly balances and mirrors this with the Laotian perspective. For instance when we see two young female tourists lazing in hammocks and naively debating whether the people in the village get stressed (which they concede yes but a different kind of stress), you can also see that locals like Khao are more similar than they realise with their vulnerably human need for success and admiration. Tourists also articulate the debates, similar to Danny Boyle’s The Beach (2001), that run through the film, how they like the remoteness but hope not too many people like them find the place, or that it ends up in the Lonely Planet (it’s only a matter of time if the film gets enough showings). How they give the villagers an income but also how they change irrevocably at the same time.
The tensions of these debates are finely balanced and no side seems to definitively win (I myself would love to visit this place and yet feel bad that their way of life could be destroyed, what’s an ethically minded tourist to do?). Ultimately change is inevitable, but as the film also shows we can still revel in the sheer joyous beauty of the moment. And so I hope more people will get to see this jewel of a film, whilst also selfishly hoping many won’t.