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Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads

LAOS--Part 1


The trip through the countryside from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong in northern Thailand was an uncomfortable one, though scenic -- while the landscape is beautiful, farmers were setting fires everywhere to prepare their fields for planting before the rainy seasons starts a couple of months from now. The smoke was THICK. I was glad when we got to Chiang Khong to see the mighty Maekhong (Mekong) River, and Laos on the other side. This sign announced our near-arrival into a new region within Southeast Asia, "Indo-China" -- the part the French colonized, which includes Lao, Vietnam and Cambodia. ("Lao" is increasingly becoming recognized as the appropriate name for the country, by the way, rather than "Laos", which is based on a mis-reading by the French.) I never really thought before about that term, "Indo-China", and how it indicates this is an area right on the cusp between Indian and Chinese influences.

The first thing you do when you get into any new country is exchange some of your money for the local currency. In Lao, it's even more bizarre than what I showed you in Myanmar, because the biggest bill is a 5000-kip note -- which is worth about seventy-five cents! (And even THOSE are hard to find...) The lovely woman in this photo is holding up a wad of cash worth well over -- SIX whole dollars. WOW! I can't imagine what I'll do when I have to change a hundred dollars at one time; maybe I'll just borrow a wheelbarrow to cart around all my cash. (See my Expense Log to get a sense of what things cost on the road.)

This post office in Huay Xai is like a mini-lesson in Lao political history of the past century and more. The sign is written in French, a reminder of the fact that Lao gained independence from colonial rule by France only fifty years ago. The red flag with hammer and sickle is the international symbol of Communism; next to it (and behind the sign) is the Lao national flag. These two together reflect the past fifty years of Lao's history, during which the present Communist-led government (controlled by the LPRP, or Lao People's Revolutionary Party) gained power through constant struggle and war. That fighting included the "Secret War" waged by the United States and its allies in the 1960's and 1970's, which I'll talk about in detail later.

We decided to spend an extra day in Huay Xai to visit some of the nearby villages within ten miles of the town. That doesn't sound very far, but it took us over an hour to travel that distance -- once we got to the edge of the city, we were on bumpy dirt roads the whole way. At one point, we had to stop for five minutes waiting for a herd of cows to pass by; at another, a speeding truck laden with hewn teak logs kicked up so much dust we were forced to stop again.

But the ride WAS beautiful. We passed by newly-planted terraces of rice, and through primordial jungle full of trees covered with beehives. Just after the dust storm incident, we drove through a dense cloud of butterflies! And all along, we passed by village after village of simple, yet beautiful, stilt houses. The houses in each village were a bit different in style (especially in the railings along their front "balconies"), but all were made completely of wood and blended in perfectly with the scenery. Even the temples were simple wooden structures, except for two we saw that stood out dramatically because of their colorful, Thai-style architecture.

After the first leg of our ride, we arrived at a village of the Lenten tribe named Ban Nam Chang. The Lenten originally lived in Mongolia, but were kicked out long ago by one of Genghis Khan's grandchildren. After stopping in Tibet for, oh, a couple hundred years, they made their way eventually to Lao. Throughout those years of travel, they have kept many of their ancient ways and traditions, such as living in multi-family longhouses like this one...

...and building altars inside to worship their ancestors and the spirits of village, sky, forest, earth, water and birds. They mix this animism with Taoism as well, which reflects their Chinese history, and the Chinese writing you can see on the altar provides further proof of their origins to the north.

We were invited into the headman's house, where his wife was preparing cotton for spinning. She would take the raw cotton, its seeds already picked out, and place it around the taut metal string of this "fluffing" tool. When she struck the string with a wooden mallet, the cotton would be fluffed out into a form better suited for spinning. The "ping"ing sound that resulted could be heard coming from houses all around the village.

Here, the headman's mother is spinning the cotton into thread on a traditional wheel. The women of the village then dye the thread with indigo (which is made by boiling the leaves of a plant easily found locally) and weave the threads into the Lentens' characteristic blue fabric that you can see her and her daughter-in-law (the "fluffer") wearing. The women also pluck their eyebrows at the age of fifteen, and (you can't see it very well here) wear a coin tucked into the part of their long black hair.

The second village we visited was straight up into the mountains, and only accessible by a four-wheel-drive vehicle. It was much lager than the Lenten village, with over four hundred people living inside its boundaries. This was a Hmong village called Huay Xa La. The people of this village share their homes with the chickens, goats and pigs they raise. In the valleys nearby, they farm vegetables like corn, rice and potatoes...

...and hunt, as was this villager who was just leaving for his day's rounds as we entered. In the forests live wild boar, deer and bear, all worthy targets to the Hmong and prized for their meat, skin and bones (which make good tools).

The villagers were extremely friendly, especially when they learned I'm a teacher and have had several Hmong students in my classroom. (To learn more about the story of why many Hmong people came to the U.S., click here.) One boy invited me into his home, where he lives with his mother, father, and six brothers and sisters. They have one bedroom for the parents, and the rest all sleep on a raised platform in the main room. Here you can see the kitchen area, which is set off to the side of the main room. If you look carefully at the area above the fire pit, you can see hanging bags full of cooking spices, an elephant bell, a wooden cowbell, two woodwind musical instruments called khaens, and bamboo covers used to smoke meats and fish.

Outside the house, a group of women were embroidering cloth using traditional patterns of the Striped Hmong. (Other Hmong tribes are called Red, Black, White and Green, which refer to particular characteristics of their clothing.) The more colorful traditional clothing is saved these days to be worn only for special ceremonies, like New Year's celebrations or funerals,...

...or, at least in part, to go to market. As we left Huay Xa La, we saw these women returning from a day's trip to the nearest local market, having walked the same distance it took us an hour to drive in our four-wheel-drive (over six miles each way)!

On the way back to Huay Xai, we passed by a school house to the side of the road. While most students walk to the school, we found out, some come from longer distances and ride their bikes.

With our guide translating, we were able to enter the school and ask some questions. It turns out this is a junior high school, which in Lao covers grades six to eight and includes students generally of ages twelve to fifteen. We arrived on an "off-day" before the weekend, so that instead of having regular classes...

...the students were holding an election for "class leader". This class leader takes responsibility for assigning tasks to be done around the school, from cleaning the blackboard to sweeping the floors to taking the garbage out to be burned. I like their system of counting votes by fives using a square and slash -- it's a little different from the one I'm used to with four vertical lines and a slash, and actually a little easier to read, I think. The writing on the board also shows that fifty-six of the sixty-one (!) students enrolled in this class were present on this particular day.

At sunrise the next day, we went to Huay Xai's morning market. It's not very big, and looked like most other small-town markets I've shown you in other Southeast Asian countries -- but I thought it was interesting how the butchers stood behind fencing to serve the people waiting in line. I guess some people REALLY like their meat (and might TAKE it if given the chance)!

Above the town stands Huay Xai's main temple complex, Wat Jawn Khao Manilat. As in Thailand and Myanmar, Buddhism is the chief religion in Lao, and boys are often ordained to become "monks-in-waiting" at a young age. These adolescent disciples were working on a building project with the help(?) of a friend. Actually, most of them were juggling stones off to the side of the work site, but they'd scatter whenever I tried to take a photo.

Look familiar? Back down at the river, I saw these bamboo cages that remind me of the fishing done at Inle Lake in Myanmar. But these are different: they're stationary (they stay in one place), and they're set up so that the fish wander in and get stuck. You just check them every once in a while (like at the end of the day) to see if you have a catch. Right now, these particular cages are out of the water because it's the hot season and the river level is very low, so that water is left only in the deepest part of the channel. Even when the monsoons come and the water level rises a lot, these will be in a relatively shallow part of the river -- and that's where they work best!

With only a couple of weeks to get around as much of Lao as I could, I was itching to hit the road -- which, in this case, was the river. I ended up getting into a boat destined for Pakbeng, halfway to the next big city, Luang Prabang -- but not without an adventure. Read about that adventure:

Diary Entry: March 21, 1999


My guide book said it would be easy to go to the pier in Huay Xai and find a cargo boat willing to take passengers to Luang Prabang. This "slow boat" would be quiet and cheap, and while it would take two days to make the journey of two hundred kilometers, that would allow plenty of time to observe life along the river. (That may sound like a long time to go only a bit over a hundred miles, but going by road would have taken three full days of torturous driving over rutted dirt roads.) The alternative on the river was to take a speedboat, which the book advised to avoid at ALL costs: they go too fast to see anything, are about as noisy as a lawnmower might be if you were to mow your eyebrows, and for all that pain, they even cost more. Most important, though, they're dangerous, cruising at fifty miles per hour of faster even over rapids. Several people have died in recent years after being tossed out of speedboats and cracking open their skulls on the rocks -- and with the water level really low, and rocks jutting out of the water everywhere (or lurking just below the surface), the risk seemed even higher than usual.

I showed up at the pier intent on finding that slow boat. Within a half hour, a dozen other people had shown up as well, all with the same idea. Unfortunately, we kept getting the same story: NO SLOW BOAT TODAY, you'll have to wait until Monday (two more days!), or take a speedboat today." "Why?!", we all asked, figuring they were just touts who'd make a few kip by steering us onto the death traps. "No government officials work on weekends to give you your official stamp (which you need when you arrive in a new province); we'll get in trouble." "But why can speedboats go, then?!", we asked in reply. No good answer.

We waited and waited; several people gave up. Eventually, my friend and I decided to hire a speedboat and pay extra for the driver to go at half speed. I did NOT want to stay in Huay Xai another two days; on the other hand, I sure didn't want a cracked skull, either. This seemed like the best compromise.

And, as you'll see in part 2, it was a good decision.

Part 2: Along the Maekhong River

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