Hit travel reality show ventures abroad to Laos

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After school classes finish, 17-year-old Khan Sing usually heads to Xinhua School in Luang Prabang, Laos, for his usual Chinese lessons, but today is different. The class welcomes two special guests — Chinese actor Deng Chao and rapper After Journey.

The duo teach the students to sing the Chinese song Tomorrow Will Be Better, with some of them quickly learning to sing it fluently.

Khan also has an arm-wrestling match with 45-year-old Deng and wins. "I think Deng was stronger; he was letting me win. Interacting with him was incredibly exciting and made me very happy," Khan says.

This Chinese program is part of the fourth season of the outdoor travel reality show HAHAHAHAHA.For the first time, the show has ventured abroad with Laos as its first stop.

Guests traveled along the China-Laos Railway, visiting Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane, the capital of Laos. During the trip, they explored morning and night markets, went rafting and diving, interacted with backpackers from around the globe, chatted with local Chinese merchants, and played basketball with local students learning Chinese.

The show premiered in March on Tencent Video and iQiyi, with weekly updates, and will conclude in June. It features the journeys of actor Deng Chao and Chen He, singer and actor Lu Han, comedian Wang Mian, rapper Dong Baoshi, and former soccer player and coach Fan Zhiyi, as well as occasional guests.

The Laos segment has already aired, and the show topped the Guduo Media online variety show popularity index in April, making the places that guests visited in Laos popular hot spots for young tourists.

Khan saw his interaction with Deng on the show and recalled the class as an unforgettable one. He has been studying Chinese for two years and is working hard for a chance to study in China.

Although he hasn't been to China yet, Khan hopes to study international business at Wuhan University in the future. "I hope to return to Laos after my studies and work in China-Laos trade," he says.

Khan learned about Xinhua School from his older brother, who, after learning Chinese, started working with Chinese people locally.

"Since the China-Laos Railway started operating, many Chinese have come to Laos for business. I've also taken the China-Laos Railway from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. It used to take six to seven hours but now takes just over an hour, which is very convenient," he says.

Xinhua School has five international Chinese volunteer teachers from China, who are teaching Chinese through a program by the Center for Language Education and Cooperation of the Ministry of Education.

One of the volunteer teachers, 27-year-old Li Linlin, is teaching in Laos for the second time. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in Chinese international education from Anyang Normal University in Henan province in 2019, she spent a year teaching Chinese in Luang Prabang.

Last year, as she was about to complete her master's degree in Chinese minority languages and literature at Kunming University in Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, she decided to return to Luang Prabang.

The first time, she flew from Kunming to Luang Prabang. This time, she traveled by the China-Laos Railway.

Li recalls that, in 2019, few people in Laos spoke Chinese. In 2023, when she walked down the street, people greeted her with nihao, which means hello.

She's found that locals are eager to learn Chinese and she teaches students from diverse backgrounds — lawyers, nail technicians, masseuses, cafe owners and others.

"Some are in their 30s or 40s, supporting their families. Speaking Chinese can significantly boost their income, sometimes doubling it or more," she explains.

In addition to teaching Chinese, Li and the other teachers organize various activities to familiarize students with Chinese culture, including food festivals and riddle games.

"The school offers students plenty of chances to interact with people from China. They all want to communicate with Chinese people and to understand China better. They also hope to boost trade between China and Laos and bring back what they've learned," Li explains.

After the show aired, coinciding with the Water Festival in Laos, Li observed more Chinese tourists in Luang Prabang, with some visiting the Chinese language school.

April marks the first anniversary of the China-Laos Railway's international passenger train services connecting Kunming with Vientiane in just 9 hours and 26 minutes, making tickets high in demand.

Last year it served 700,000 passengers, significantly boosting tourism. Of these, about 180,000 passengers, hailing from 87 countries and regions, crossed the border on the railway, according to China State Railway Group.

Like Li, the show's guest team also traveled on the China-Laos Railway, starting from Mohan, Yunnan, and heading to Luang Prabang as their first stop.

Yang Chaoyu, a Chinese train attendant on the China-Laos Railway, noticed that Laotians often use bullet trains for travel, medical treatment and schooling.

"We have many tourists coming to Laos, especially from Thailand, who prefer our railway line. We also have tourists from South Korea, some European countries and the United States," Yang adds.

Yang mentions that this railway line has also boosted economies along its route. For example, Laos' mangoes can now be transported via the China-Laos Railway to Kunming and then distributed to other cities in China.

Director of HAHAHAHAHA, Li Lin, traveled on the China-Laos Railway with her colleagues several times before filming. "Apart from Laotian signage, attendants and announcements on the train, it felt just like riding a high-speed train in China," Li Lin recalls.

Impressed by the railway's convenience and the stunning scenery and friendly locals along the route in Laos, she decided to make it the first stop of the new season of the show.

According to Li Lin, HAHAHAHAHA is all about exploring unique locations. The team's first trip to Laos for scouting happened in September last year. "Once we got to Laos, it felt like time stood still," she says. "Unlike domestic tourism, where we often find similar things in different places, Laos offers plenty of fresh, undiscovered spots."

Li Lin finds Laos to be incredibly relaxed. "Take Luang Prabang, for instance. It's small, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with no traffic lights. You can stroll around freely and the absence of big malls makes materialism seem to disappear."

She is particularly struck by a tiny village they visited in Vang Vieng. "It's astonishing to see so many young people from all over the world enjoying themselves, seeing it as a utopian paradise.

"It's an ideal destination for recent college graduates to explore abroad without breaking the bank. Laos is relatively unknown, offering a unique travel experience," she says.

As the fourth season of the show aired, Li Lin noticed from audience feedback that it is funnier than ever. With the same cast as the third season, the guests in the fourth season are more familiar with each other, making their travels more relaxed and enjoyable.

"Their bond is really strong. They have fun together during filming and even hang out during breaks. Audiences can feel their camaraderie," she says.

In the show, encounters with people and visits to shops happen spontaneously, without prior planning. In Laos, the guests met many Chinese businessmen.

One businessman from Hunan province even invited them to his restaurant, sharing the story of Hunan businesspeople entering Laos. For over 20 years, a lot of people from the area have come to Laos for business. Today, businesses and shops from Hunan are found all across Laos, dealing in sectors such as infrastructure, steel, automobiles, telecommunications and hardware trading.

"I hope the show spreads some goodwill. I want the encounters between guests and different people to reflect the relationships between individuals," Li Lin says.

Peng Kan, a lecturer at Beijing Normal University's School of Arts and Media, notes that the travel shows HAHAHAHAHA and Divas Hit the Road have focused on the Belt and Road Initiative in the past two years. This proves that as outdoor travel reality shows resume global journeys, they're also taking on bigger social roles.

Compared to studio-based shows of the same theme, outdoor travel shows offer a more relatable platform, Peng says. For example, following HAHAHAHAHA's guests from Yunnan to Laos via the China-Laos Railway helps viewers understand the project's impact and learn about the Laotian culture.

Content with both Chinese and international elements is popular with overseas audiences because of its intimacy and inclusiveness. The show's influence has even reached overseas, getting local media attention during filming and gaining fans abroad, Peng says.

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