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Laos Luang Prabang to Phonsavan

Through the hills and woods; villages of many sorts

Luang Prabang to Xieng Khouang 15th August

It was the day of our long drive to Phonsavan, so we set off in good time at 8:15. The car drove us quite quickly on Route 13 out of Luang Prabang and up towards the hills. Our guide explained about villages, towns, districts and provinces in Laos.
We rapidly began to climb and it was only 1⁄2 an hour or so before we could look back at Luang Prabang, the rivers and the valleys. We stopped at a useful vantage point, the Khmu hamlet of Houi Hei, where there was a small “cafe”, lookout post and a family with chickens, songbirds in cages (I don’t like this personally) and a tame macaque (he’d been rescued as a baby, rehabilitated to the jungle and decided he was having none of it).
We continued for another couple of hours looking at the green scenery, the hills and passing the small (mainly Khmu) villages/ hamlets en route. The hills/ mountains were surprisingly well farmed- there were many quite steep cleared areas, which were planted with “upland” rice. We saw how they caught birds and bats to eat by trapping them in nets in large fields overnight when they roost. Rats are also common as a food source, though only those varieties that live off rice.
There are many varieties of rice. In the Far East there is a preference for softer and stickier varieties. Rice is normally grown as an annual, although in tropical areas it can survive as a perennial for up to 30 years. The rice plant can grow to 1–1.8 m. The edible seed is a grain (caryopsis) 5–12 mm long and 2–3 mm thick. Rice cultivation is well suited to countries and regions with a high rainfall, as it requires ample water. However, rice can be grown practically anywhere, even on a steep hill or mountain area with the use of water controlling terrace systems. The traditional method for cultivating rice is flooding the fields while, or after, setting the young seedlings. Rice is classified as long-, medium-, and short-grained. The grains of long-grain rice (high in amylase) tend to remain intact after cooking; medium-grain rice (high in amylopectin) becomes stickier. Medium-grain is used for sweet dishes. Some varieties of long-grain rice that are high in amylopectin, known as Sticky rice, are usually steamed. Short-grain rice is often used for rice puddings or sweets. There are 40,000 types of rice in four major categories: indica, japonica, aromatic, glutinous. The different varieties of rice are not interchangeable, either in food preparation or agriculture, so each major variety is a completely separate market from other varieties.
We discussed Lao education- most people, apart from the very poorest, have to pay for their children’s primary education (which is mandatory) as well as purchase their books, pencils, text books, etc. You can choose your own school, but the good ones cost more, so inequalities remain. There is no concept of school transport- you are responsible for your children getting to school. This inevitably means the poorest children have to walk, sometimes quite long distances. Generally there is a local village (or villages) school at primary level (5- 11), but secondary schools (11-15) and colleges (15-18) are usually only in towns, so many poorer children (especially amongst the hill tribes) drop out, which of course continues to limit their horizons. The Laos government is very aware of this and taking steps to remedy it. Laos has 4 major cultural/ linguistic groups made up of between 68 (official number) and 120 ethnic groups. They are roughly divided into Lao-Loom (Lowland Lao) who speak Laotian Tai and live along the river valleys (2⁄3 of Laos population), Lao-Theung (Mid Hill Lao) who live c.700m and Lao-Soung (Hill Lao) who live c.1000m (10% of population). The groups are:
● Lao Loum: Lao, Phouan, Leu, T’ai (Dam, Deng, Khao, Meuy, Neua), Yung, Seak.
● Lao Theung: Khmu, Samaed, Bid, Phong, Puak, Yru, Phounoy, Kaseng, Doy, Phai, Makong, Katang, Pakoh, Lawain, Lawae, Nyahern, Trui, Soo, Sapuan, Sok, Trew, Taliang, Taoy, Aluck, Katoo, Yae, Suay, Cheng, Darkkung, Lawee, Lawuck, Oy, Tongleuang, Kado, Thin, Sarmato.
● Lao S(o)ung; Hmong, Yao (Mien), Akha, Dao, Shan (Tibeto-Burman), Lua (Khmuic).

After a wind through the green hills we arrived at the small (by our standards- not so much for them) Khmu village of Sala Ming Ban Kiu Kam Pone (Khmu village), which is based around the River (Nam) Ming (a tributary of the Nam Khan). First up, I did chuckle at the proud sign next to the village sign, proclaiming the Lao Womens Committee Awards over several years!
The village architecture was a transitioning mix of old and new. The older buildings were typical Khmu with woven bamboo walls, simple doors and palm leaf roof, whilst newer ones were of breeze block or concrete.
The people we met were mainly women involved in craftwork, especially sewing, or cooking things to sell at market. Mainly people were dressed in ordinary clothes, though a few older ones were more traditional. The people we spoke to had basic English and understood commerce- they were clearly involved in buying and selling (in contrast to other ethnic group villages we visited). They still practised farming and fishing, but were very clued on to the commercials- we saw lots of huts along the journey selling fruit, veg and meat (they were almost exclusively Khmu and became less frequent as we moved into other ethnic group areas). In the main they had mod cons (fridge, freezer, washing machines etc) and did not look poor. There were quite a number of trucks in each village and fewer animals than later. The children were being taught, even those of 5 or 6 to carry wood or vegetables to road stalls to sell and help with working the fields.
The Khmu (Khơ Mú, Khamu, Kemu, Khammu) inhabit large parts of Northern/ central Laos (88% of Khmu live in Laos), Vietnam and Thailand. Khmu refers to themselves as ‘pru’. In Laos, they are the main Môn-Khmer ethnic group (11% of population) and the 2nd largest group in Laos. Most live in North Laos- Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang, north of Vientiane. This minority is divided into subgroups: Môn-Khmer, Ou, Lu, Rok, Me, Keun, Kheng, Khouene, Klong, Khongsat. Khmu Me and Khmu Ou live around Luang Prabang (Nam Bak). Khmu Ou and Khmu Rok are the largest groups.
The word Khmu stems from kymhmu=people/ khmou=person. Their dialects are mutually understandable, and they use the Latin alphabet to write (unlike the Lao). Stories in Houn district show the Khmu Rok have lived in the region for over 400 years. Khmou are one of the oldest inhabitants of northern Laos, arriving early first millennium AD from Burma.
● House roof covered with wooden tiles/ thatch
● Enclosed village with storage houses grouped outside the village
● Basket ware very important: self-usage or exchange, baskets woven by men Jun/ Aug Hunting, picking and iron smith's activities are important
● Silver tobacco smoking pipe
● Some old people have full tattooed bodies
●Upland dry rice cultures
●Special rice storage houses on pillars protected from mice and rats
●Legends and stories are told during evening time, near the fire.
● Ceremonies for epidemics or natural disasters: buffalo sacrifice occurs exceptionally
Khmu prefer valleys of average altitude on forested slopes, 400-800 m with a slope-basin favourable for grub culture and settlement. The most desirable resource is a large quantity of biomass, which is burned to enrich the soil of an area large enough to provide for a village of 30-150 families. A river and a large territory for upland (dry field) sticky rice growing are the main criteria. They also grow cassava, maize, peanuts, vegetables and tobacco. Traditionally, land was left fallow for 15 years, but now it is 3-5 years (sometimes with slash-and-burn). The Khmu always settle near a river where they can bathe, get water, fish and hunt frogs. During the dry season they harvest seaweed (river algae). In the past, small livestock was raised for consumption and exchange; nowadays, it is an important source of income. Rodents are hunted in the fields. Big livestock (buffalo or cow) are rare. Khmu visit other ethnic minority villages to barter and look for work. Seasonal jobs with Lao and Lue communities are part of the system for many Khmu. Khmou buy cloth from the Lue or Phuan. The festive dress of the women is a dark vest, long sleeved with a dark sarong with embroidered motifs. Usually they wear ordinary Lao sarongs and bright blouses. They like silver and copper bracelets. Older women cover their hair with a headscarf. Traditionally men wore a loincloth and embroidered long-sleeved jacket. The village has a communal house where the young boys live and family houses on low wooden stills with walls of woven bamboo with no windows. There are two rooms; the inner room for the adults, with fireplace for cooking rice; the outer room with a separate fireplace for guests (although it is forbidden to enter without permission). The inner room also has an altar to the house (ancestor) spirits. During daytime, it is taboo to carry raw meat to the house without wrapping it first. After festivals, Khmu restore and maintain their houses or build new ones, after which they celebrate with rice wine. Khmu hold animist ceremonies to ensure spirits of the district, spot and forest were pacified. Khmou are animists (belief in spirits- the house spirit (hrooy gang), water spirit (hom), forest spirit (hrooy prri) etc. Hrooy poop and suu are feared because they can possess people, so every village has a spirit master. The Khmou also practice ancestor worship. Their clans are patrilineal; each named after an animal or plant such as tiger, firm tree, etc. It is taboo to touch, kill or eat the creatures that represent the clan. If you do, bad things may happen such as your teeth fall off. All members of the clan must assist each other, no matter how far away they are. Courtship is fairly open, and they chose whom they like as mates. The elders give names to newborn babies according to the day, month, and year they are born. A pig is sacrificed by the shaman unless it is born feet first (considered unlucky). The Khmou have a short ceremony for the dead. When a person dies, a pig is killed using a rice pestle to hit its head at the foot of the house’s stairs. Bamboo covers the body, which is carried by bamboo sticks to the gravesite by men in loincloths. A close male relative carries a sword. To confuse bad spirits that may follow the funeral party back to the village, the people return by walking in circles.
sala-ming-village-laos_48885877861_o.jpg Nam Ming river
Having walked through the village we rejoined our car and continued our drive up to the highest point in the hills (and a good lookout) where we stopped at a huge (but totally empty) restaurant for coffee and toilets. Nice Laos coffee- strong and condensed milk sweet but very basic hole-in-the-ground (and 1000 kip) toilets. Dok Khoun Restaurant on the main road through town is a simple type of restaurant but does a great job in satisfying appetites. The menu offers Asian and western food and the set menus are real bargains.
While we drank our guide told us about what was being done to stop the drug trade in Laos. Of course traditionally people have always grown opium poppies in this area (mainly for their ceremonies and medicinal use), but in became part of the Golden Triangle in the 80s (the CIA “Secret War” may have had some culpability here). Our guide said the government had done a lot to stop the trade and he felt had made big progress, but some people (like his now rich cousin) were still involved, though based in Vientiane). He felt the biggest improvement was better education and therefore
more opportunities for people and he’s probably right.
I was also surprised to discover that polygamy was not illegal, but could only happen if the first wife gave her willing consent. Our guide said it had become quite rare however, as women’s rights had improved.
We set off again to get to the intersection of Route 13 and 7 (about 130km from LP). One branch went down to Vang Vieng, the other (ours) to Phonsavan. As you’d expect a small town had built up around the intersection with its own (highly regarded) food market. We decided to stop in the town, Phoukoun, for lunch. A small cafe- restaurant was offering basic Lao food, so we had a lovely soup while sitting on huge, heavy, redwood chairs.
After lunch we went for a market trip- wow. Behind the shed facade was a whole dirt packed street of a market with all the fruit, vegetables and meats you could think of! We saw locusts, grasshoppers, silkworms, pickled bees and rat-on-a-stick to eat, all fried and crispy. In chunks of beehive we saw huge wiggling bee grubs, which were cooked in front of us. Further on was worms, crickets, even chrysalis, crab paste, freshwater snails, honey... The town and farming area here is always cool and damp, so the food quality is excellent (which is it’s reputation). The banana flowers and banana leaf wrapped spring rolls were especially nice. Our guide bought us some juicy red fruit a bit like a lycee (he was a vegan). Like Vietnam, foreigners can buy/ own buildings but can only lease the land it is built on.
Our driver said when a new village was started the plants would be planted in the order of
1. coconut
2. mango
3. tamarind
4. banana
After an interesting time in the market we had to leave. It was still pleasantly cool, if not with a slight damp feel to the air. I asked if it was because it was nearly wet season, but was told that this was typical for the area, which is why Phoukoun market was so famed for its fresh produce. Almost everything grew better here, mainly without any chemicals, and many people came on day trips to buy. Commonly in markets in the area there was a rush to buy before work (around 6 am), then it would be very quiet until a lunch rush again, and a lesser bulge around tea time (more often this would be to eat at the market stalls which issued loyalty cards!)
We turned left onto route 7 to continue our journey, very quickly rising to 1500m outside Phoukoun, which was the highest we reached. We passed through mainly Khmu areas (seeing quite a number of their stilt rice store houses to deter rats), moving into predominantly Hmong areas. After another few hours we stopped at the Hmong village of Ban Tajok, Ban Son Boom (Hmong village), again based around a river (the Nam Ming). The difference between this village and the last one was marked. Ban is the Hmong for village. Ban Tajok is MUCH poorer, with smaller houses, more traditional clothing, obvious subsistence farming. The first “house” we went to was a widow with 4 children- little more than a 1-room shack. She spoke no Lao and no English, and we had no interpreter, so it was an odd conversation! She was slicing bamboo stems, which she was then going to boil with some tiddlers (she showed us her small throwing net which was drying) and vegetables to make a soup/stew. The youngest child (a girl of about 4/ 5) was cutting the smallest stems into tiny pieces to use as a glue to help strengthen the walls. The other children were looking after the chicken and her chicks. A goat around the back MAY have been theirs (I wasn’t clear). Inside the house was no furniture beyond roll-up beds and an ancient radio playing Hmong songs (rather nice melodies).
We later found that many TV programmes in the area are transmitted dubbed into Hmong or with Hmong sub-titles (it helps that they are a large ethnic group in Thailand where most regional TV comes from). We carried on over the river and up the slope the other side to say hello to some men (with hunting guns behind them), some younger girls helping each other with homework, or teaching younger sisters to write and some women with babies having a chat. Shockingly this village is not even considered a “poor” one!
The Hmong are originally from Tibet, forced south through Yunnan to Laos by the Chinese (Qing Dynasty). They form 7% of Laos’s population. Their oral language is Hmong-Miao (Iuw Mien Yao family). There are tales that they used to have a writing system, but that while fleeing across the river from the Chinese they strapped their scrolls on their backs and they were washed away (other stories say they laid them to dry and their animals ate them). Another story says that women sewed their alphabet in their cloth (paj ntaub or flower cloth) and that they learnt their oral stories by the cloth of writing. Nowadays they use the Latin alphabet to write their language. Hmong means person and all Hmong groups understand each other. The main Hmong groups in Laos are White (Khao), Striped (Lai) and Black (Dum). Another main group, especially common in Vietnam, are the Flower Hmong (after their bright clothes).
Hmong live in the uplands (1000-1500m) in villages of about 50 family houses, arranged in circles of 7-8 with a leader’s house in the centre. The rectangular houses are made with green bamboo walls (split and tied) and palm thatch roofs. Due to the cold the houses are windowless. The main door opens to the stove (for cooking, heating and making pigswill) and seating for visitors. A mortar or millstone for rice, corn and soya is nearby. Further in is a partition to the left for family sleeping. To decide on a village site rice grains (1 for each human and animal) is put in a bowl and left. If it is there the next day they build there. They practise slash-and-burn of dry rice and maize, as well as growing vegetables. Their livestock is pig, cow, buffalo, goat, dog and chicken. The women embroider and knit, whilst the men are skilled in carpentry and metalwork.
There are 18 Hmong clans (xeem/ takoon) in Laos, mostly with Chinese surnames (Li, Wang, Xiong, Kue, etc). Clan members are considered brothers and expected to help each other. Children take the clan of their father and women join their husband’s clan. Laotian people (including the Hmong) do not change their surname on marriage. Outmarriage (exogamy) is strictly observed- you may not marry in you clan unless you are a widow marrying your husband’s brother. To arrange a marriage a boy will give a girl a gift before ritually kidnapping (zij) her. Her family may save her if a gift has not been given, otherwise his relative will visit the girl’s family to arrange the marriage and dowry price. The marriage is celebrated twice- once at the groom’s and again at the bride’s. The new couple live next door to the groom’s parents. Divorce is rare, but consensual- both parties have equal right. Polygamy is considered immoral.
Most Hmong are animists, believing in spirits (phi) of ancestors, household and village as well as spirits (dab) of forest, river, sky, etc. Spirits of ancestors are believed to keep the family safe and are offered food (often boiled rice), drink (often tea), spirit money and incense on a family altar. A specific ceremony- Eat New Rice- is a time to offer rice to the spirits. Male ancestors are supposed to live in the house pillars. The village shaman (along with the clan leader) is responsible for major rituals and structures. An important part of the village is the spirit gate- these are built at the village entrance and over paths from the forest. They are designed to prevent evil spirits entering the village and bringing illness. They are never taken down, but refreshed every year. Many have figurines, animal parts, carvings or wooden statues next to them. If you enter a gate it is considered good luck to enter at least one house, asking the household spirits for permission of course! Inside the gate is protected; outside are the spirit lands. In sacred areas the shaman will hold rituals to appease these spirits, offering wine to spirits of the forest. They believe everything, even objects, has a spirit and that people have 3-7 souls. These souls may get lost, or stolen by spirits, leading to illness. A shaman will undertake rituals to help find a soul and return it to its body. At birth a baby’s placenta (black jacket) is buried under the house centre post (boy) or bed (girl) and it is here that a soul will return after death. Another soul will go to heaven, another stays to guard the grave and the last one is reincarnated.
Hmong groups are differentiated by details in their clothing. The general dress is (men) long shirts with embroidered detail, baggy trousers and a sash with (women) wearing dark pleated skirts with embroidered front panels and dark blouses. Both wear belts, often hanging at the back. Hairstyles and covering often show which group a lady belongs to.
Our guide was keen to claim the Shan people of Burma as belonging by culture/ language to Laos. These are a Tai ethnic group who founded the Kingdom of Lan Xang.

Lao-Tai, which includes Black and Red Tai (the colour of the women's dress), live throughout the country, especially at higher elevations. Lowland Lao language and customs are the same as the Thai people, having a common origin. The Lao Tai traditionally eat things raw, including game meat, buffalo, fish, vegetables, herbs, grasses, leaves, and roots. This is due to the forested mountainous character of their environment. Laotians eat sticky, or glutinous rice, by kneading a small handful into a ball and dipping it into a dish of condiments. Sticky rice is served in reed baskets with a tight fitting cover that slips on and off. When Lao go to work they hang at their side a small version of these round woven baskets to carry their sticky rice, and a small amount of fish or meat as a mid-day meal. The most ubiquitous sticky rice dish is pa dek, a highly pungent fermented fish sauce commonly seen fermenting on the back veranda of a Lao peasant's house an earthenware jar. In the Plain of Jars area, the most numerous are lowland Lao, Hmong, Black Tai, and Kammu. The Puan people, the Lao of the Plain of Jars, are a group of lowland Lao whose language and customs are slightly different to Lao Loom in other regions. However, in modern times, they have been assimilated into the mainstream Lao, and their language approximates common Lao tongue, with some vocabulary and tonal differences. A distinctive dish of the Lao is tam som (tam makhoong), a salad made of strips of unripe papaya, chillies, pieces of crab, little eggplants, and pa laa, another form of fermented fish. And then there is laap- made with fish, chicken, duck, pork, beef, buffalo or game meat. The meat and innards, often raw, are finely chopped and spiced with onion, chilies and other herbs such as mint and lemon grass.
We left the village and drove towards Lake Nong Tang (Muang Souy), stopping briefly at an Akha village. Nong Tang (Lake Tang: Nong = Lake) is a karst landform on Highway 7, 48km northwest of Phonsavan, the new capital of Xieng Khouang province. The lake overlooks Phukood district. James McCarthy, a British surveyor employed by the King of Siam passed Nong Tang on his way to Xieng Khouang Province in 1884. We did not stay long in the village and around the pretty lake before we needed to leave. The village by the lake was very quiet with only a few grazing buffalo and the odd fluttering butterfly. As we drove towards the last hour the landscape became flatter- more hills and less mountains.

The Akha (Kor/ Ikor) moved from China during the 16th century Haw raids to live in the high hills of North Laos. They speak Akha, a Tibetan language, with no alphabet/ writing but a rich oral history. They represent 1.4% of Laos and are divided into 20 groups, including Ooma/Iko Loma, Nukui, Luna, Iko Eupa, Mochi/ Iko Mutchi. They follow the Akhazang (Akha Way), which dominates how they live their lives. They have many taboos, such as: do not remove your shoes, do not take raw meat through a spirit gate, do not sing or dance, do not allow pigs to give birth in the village, etc. They are animists, believing in good (house, village) and bad (forest, water) spirits. A shaman and clan leader manage the rituals, looking after the spirit gates (2), village swing, water source and spirit places. Water spirits are especially to be propitiated, as they are particularly powerful. Lower spirits can be prayed to by anyone, but upper spirits are limited to shaman. After death a person is transformed to spirit so they will be buried and the grave never visited, but after a year a ceremony will call the spirit to become a household spirit and protector. Akha boys and girls have sexual freedom and choose their own spouse. On marriage the couple will live next to the groom’s parents until they die, when they will inherit the larger house. Twins or malformed children are considered unlucky and may well be stoned to death (as attested to by our guide). Akha men rule the family, either father or eldest son. They can have up to 4 wives.
To choose a new village the shaman digs a small hole and drops an egg in it. If it breaks the spirits have agreed the site. A typical village is on a hillside cleared of trees at 600-1000m. It has 40-50 houses. These may be built on stilts or the ground. The floor is earth covered with wood planks or bamboo mats. Walls are woven bamboo and the roof is thatch. Due to the cold there are no windows, but two doors. Inside the house is divided into an area for men and one for women. Akha practice slash-and-burn with their main crops of dry-land rice, maize, cotton, vegetables, peanuts, spices and tea. They traditionally grow opium poppies. Akha are skilled foragers. They use traps, crossbows and old muskets to hunt large and small game. They breed cows, buffalo, pigs and chickens. They use a back basket with forehead and shoulder straps.
Akha women have the most colourful costume in Laos. Elaborate headdresses are made of a series of bamboo rings covered with straw, silver balls and coins (piastres), with coloured threads at the sides. Colourful short skirts are worn with tight-fitting jackets and leggings. They spin cotton while they walk and add weaving, embroidery, feathers, beads and coins. The men wear modern clothing; or traditional blue loose-fitting trousers and blue jackets over a white vest. They have limited outside contact.

I asked about worries the local farmers might have about unexploded ordnance. Nowadays the local government gives metal detectors out when farmers open up new land or extend their fields/ farms so they can check for mines/ bombies and if it pings they can call the local district to send a bomb disposal team out- apparently it’s speeding up UXO removal. Being safe around UXO is also taught as a school subject. http://www.maginternational.org

It wasn’t long before we rolled into Phonsavan (about 5:30pm)- a small town based on a crossroads. Our guide pointed out a large hotel on our left (only for government conferences, he said) and some good restaurants. I spotted the MAG offices on the left, just before we turned left to our hotel (Anoulackkhenlao). The ONLY hotel in Laos that didn’t care about our passports! It had HUGE redwood table and chair. I was a bit concerned when I read the Lonely Planet comment it was the only hotel in Phonsavan with a lift that had a separate generator.
We said goodbye to our guide and went for a shower before we went for dinner. For dinner we went right and right to the main through road and found a small cafe- the owner cleaned the plastic table-clothed tables and made us a simple but tasty meal (later a huge local family came it and ate, so we knew it was a good choice). Phonsavan is a Hmong dominated town, so the food we chose were Hmong specialities- stuffed mushroom, clear noodles with pickled meat, tofu chicken, sweet caramelised pork.
A stroll around town, time to read and bed.

Posted by PetersF 14:25 Archived in Laos Tagged trees hills village lake rice laos christchurch akha hmong lao animist phonsavan khmu houi_hei ban_tajok phoukoun sala_ming nong_tang muang_souy Comments (0)

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