Lia: And every house has a spirit. This is important. When we arrive at the village, you must not go inside any home unless you are invited. You could bring bad spirits from the forest into the house and make people ill.
L: Err….right. No. Absolutely.
D & L meet their guide, Lia, early that morning, and set off on their two day hike into the forested mountains of northern Laos. They are to spend the night in a remote Hmong village. Lia briefs them as they walk.
Lia: Hmong people are not Buddhist. Only half the Lao people are Buddhist. The Hmong people believe in spirits. And ancestor worship.
They pass a large watermelon plantation and pick their way across dry rice paddies, not yet planted for the coming season. They cross a stream and the path starts climbing through woodland and patches of rubber plantation. Lia continues his briefing.
Lia: In the village, they do not speak Lao. Only Hmong.
D: Oh. Will that be tricky? Do you speak Hmong?
Lia: Yes. My father – he was Hmong. When I was fifteen he sent me to the mountains to learn the Hmong language and culture – his culture.
L: Are the two languages similar?
Lia. Not at all. Completely different. I’ll teach you. To say “hello” – in Lao is sabaidee, but in Hmong is niaojong. To say…
They hear voices above them in the forest. They are climbing steeply through the trees on a narrow path and the cloud has rolled in leaving everything blurred and dripping. Lia stops talking and listens. A dog barks.
They catch up with a group of five men and a pack of dogs. The men each have a gun. L, D and Lia join them and for a while they all walk together, tripping over the dogs who weave up and down the procession and get under everyone’s feet. The men chat in sing-song lilting tones, musical swoops and swings of voice impossible to emulate in English.
Lia: Hmong people. The men hunt for food, and also build village houses. The women look after the children and animals, and gather firewood for cooking. You will see.
D: (whispering) Have you noticed their guns?
L: (whispering) So? They’re hunters.
D: (whispering) But have you actually looked at them?
L: (who wouldn’t know a Colt from a Kalashnikov) ????
D later explains that he has spotted an ancient World War II military rifle, several homemade muskets fashioned from a length of tube and a trigger mechanism, and an AK47 complete with bayonet. He then further explains that no, these are all quite different to anything one might see shooting pheasants in the Cotswolds.
L: What are they hunting?
Lia: (looking a bit shifty) Anything.
L: But what? Big, small, animals, birds, what sort of thing?
Lia: Anything they can eat.
They reach a clearing and pause for a drink, and the hunters, the dogs and the sing-song voices all melt away into the mist. From now the path is along a bare ridge, still climbing steeply. Lia strips a handful of leaves from a shrub and pops one in his mouth. He offers them around. They taste lemony.
Lia: Sourleaf. Good, huh?
They nod, chewing.
L: So there are three main ethnic groups in Laos, right?
L looks pleased with herself.
Lia: And no.
Lia: The government says 49. Others say 134.
D: You weren’t far out.
L: Shut up.
Lia: But yes, there are three main groups. You can see them on the money – the 1000 kip notes.
D fumbles in his pockets and finds a note. They study the three women pictured in traditional dress.
D: So who are they?
Lia: They live in different areas. In the valleys, the hills or the mountains.
He points to the woman on the left.
Lia: This is Lao Loum – lowland Lao. They live in the river valleys and grow wet rice. More than half the population are Lao Loum. They speak the national language – Lao – and follow the national religion – Buddhism.
He points to the right.
Lia: Lao Thoeng – upland Lao. They are maybe one quarter of the population and they live on the hill slopes. They are very poor – when they have no money they barter.
Lastly he points to the middle of the three women.
Lia: And this is Lao Soung – mountain Lao. Hmong people are the largest group of Lao Soung. They grow corn and dry rice, and keep animals to sell. When we arrive at the village you will see.
The ridge flattens and they emerge onto an orange dirt road. They are now above the cloud, in bright sunshine under a vivid blue sky.
Lia: The village. Ban Phatum.
They look around, but see nothing but forest and the track leading away towards a wooded pass. They follow the track and suddenly come upon fencing and a collection of small buildings. The village is in an idyllic setting, nestled into the pass, fringed by areas of cleared meadow beyond which the wooded mountain rises protectively above. The temperature a perfect mid-20s, the air is clear and the colours seem richer than before – the glowing orange of the earth, the vibrant green of the woods and the cerulean blue of the sky.
In the road a cluster of boys are playing a type of boules with spinning tops. Lia greets them and stops to join in. A carved-wood cylinder, sharpened to a point at one end, is set spinning on its point as a target. Lia takes another, winds a line of string around it and then launches it towards the target. His technique is spot on, his top hits point down and spins across the ground, but he is miles out. The boys laugh in delight.
Lia nods, satisfied. Honour is served. D&L look impressed. They walk on through the village. A group of women are squatting in the shade of a tree, chatting softly and chopping vegetables. Next to them several dogs lie panting and piglets and hens hunt for treasure in the dust.
D: (whispering) What’s “hello” again?
L: (whispering) Something to do with a game. Mah-jong. And a cat. Miao-jong. With an N. Niao-jong I think.
D smiles as he passes. One or two smile hesitantly back.
The women giggle.
It is Lia’s turn to look impressed.
The village spreads up both sides of the pass. Single room dwellings of wood and bamboo and palm thatch contain fourteen families and a menagerie of livestock. About half of the houses have corrugated tin roofs but all other building materials have come straight from the forest. They head to the far upper edge of the village, and stop.
Lia: Here is the house. You rest and I will make lunch.
Lia: And the toilet? Over there.
He waves vaguely at the undergrowth beyond the edge of the village. L looks for a latrine or outhouse building but sees nothing.
L: Where exactly?
Lia: Anywhere. In the forest. But don’t go too far.
L: Oh. Of course. Right. Because of the bombs?
Lia looks puzzled, then smiles.
Lia: No, the land here has been cleared. It is safe. There are no bombs.
They wonder what else is out there, but Lia doesn’t elaborate.
They enter their new home. Under a covered porch two small children sit on tiny stools around a fire in the middle of the earth floor. Nevin is five, but tiny, and his sister Ladah is two. L & D greet their mother, who is their host. She nods shyly at them.
L smiles at the children and waves.
Nevin stares solemnly at L, stands up, walks over to his sister and wallops her hard over the head. Ladah opens her mouth and howls. Their mother scoops Ladah into her lap, and scolds Nevin. Nevin howls too. L flees indoors to where D is unpacking.
D: Was that you? What did you do to them?
L: Nothing! I promise!
Their house has a spotlessly swept earth floor, split-bamboo walls and a palm thatch roof. It is cool and airy. A raised bamboo platform covers two sides. This is where they will sleep. L lies back. Despite the absence of a mattress it is surprisingly comfortable. Through the paper-thin wall a cockerel crows loudly. It is roosting under the eaves of their hut. Dangling from the ceiling they notice, to their surprise, a lightbulb.
Lia calls them for lunch. On a surface of banana leaves he has laid out cold pork & cauliflower, sticky rice, and a smoky aubergine dip. They are told to eat with their hands – picking up mouthfuls of pork and cauliflower, pinching sticky rice into balls and dipping it into the sauce. It is delicious. Once they have eaten their fill, the family tuck in to the rest.
L: There’s a lightbulb. So the village has electricity?
Lia: A little. Down in the valley is a waterfall which makes electricity. Enough for some of the people to have a light in the evening. You will see.
After lunch they are dispatched for a walk. Shal is an unsmiling teenager with a machete. He speaks only Hmong. They smile at him. He regards them blankly, then turns and walks off. They follow. Three smaller boys, aged about ten, tag along for the ride, each wielding a balloon on a stick. One by one, along the way, as they swipe at the undergrowth, they pop their balloons. They grin, shrug and carry on. One of them grazes continually, munching fistfuls of sourleaf from the shrubs that he passes.
The views are glorious – wooded peaks, patchworks of upland meadows and a sea of cloud blanketing them from the rest of the world below. In the fold of a valley lies another little village, spreading down the slope like a landslip. The boys spot figures on the opposite hillside, as tiny as beetles, maybe 500 metres away as the crow flies. They call across and a long conversation ensues, phrases floating to and fro, bouncing from one hill to another, as natural as a phone call, with no need for technology.
On the way back the boys spot a small fallen tree, one end about a foot off the ground. They stand on it, and it moves. Shal joins the younger three, straddling the trunk, and the four of them bounce, helpless with laughter. D & L look on, laughing with them, enjoying their delight.
L: We’re a long way away from crisps and computer games.
Back at the village, Lia is killing a cockerel.
D: Oh dear, I hope that’s not the one that lives in our roof.
They leave him to it, and wander around the village. Everywhere there are children and dogs and chickens and pigs and piglets and goats and cows roaming free. Bamboo fences separate the village from the edge of the forest. Despite all the livestock, there are no flies, and almost no waste.
D: Well, for a start, with no shops there’s no packaging. Or carrier bags. That helps.
They watch Lia hurl a bowl of scraps out of a doorway. Instantly it is hoovered up by piglets and hens.
L: And there goes your food waste. But there’s no animal mess either. Or human for that matter. All these people. All this livestock. And yet it’s remarkably clean.
D eyes up the piglets, snuffling their way eagerly around the village and into the undergrowth beyond.
D: Pigs are omnivorous. Probably best not to think about it.
Children are gathering bundles of grass to make into brooms. Toddlers roam in and out of houses, singly or in groups, some clothed and others naked, clutching sticky rice cakes which they nibble on.
D & L smile and wave.
D: Mah-jong! I mean niao-jong!
The kids grin and wave back.
A woman is weaving palm leaves to make sections of roof. She laughs and blushes with pleasure as they admire her work. Another woman and her daughters return from the fields with baskets bulging with marrows.
L: Wow – beautiful!
D: And heavy.
The girls nod shyly as they pass.
At the edge of the village, they find the community’s only water source. A skilfully crafted bamboo aqueduct channels water from a mountain spring to the edge of the village in a constant flow, allowing people to wash, do laundry and gather water for their homes. They wander back through a whirl of children and puppies chasing a blue balloon.
On the hillside behind their hut, beyond the edge of the village, is a large flat clearing. From here, they have an awesome 180 degree panorama of peaks spread out at their feet and of the sun sinking behind the mountains, washing their own hilltop in gold. It is blissfully peaceful and utterly stunning. They stand there gawping and wearing out their camera. There is a chuckle.
Small child: Falang. Oh!
Smaller child: Falang. Oh!
Two little boys, aged maybe three or four, are standing on the other side of the clearing, laughing at them. Falang means “foreigner” in Lao, and obviously also in Hmong.
Boys: Falang – oh!
She waves. They edge nearer, grinning and laughing. The smaller child is naked and holding a red balloon. Both are barefoot, oblivious to the sharp stony ground.
Boys: Falang – oh!
They dart nearer. L reaches out, but they dart back. She folds her arms and they dart forward.
Boys: Falang – oh!
Boys: Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh!
They run circles around her, chanting and laughing. L laughs with them, whirling within their circle but keeping her distance, frightened of frightening them.
D: Whatever are you doing?
L: I don’t know. I’m terrified!
D: What of? They’re children.
Boys: Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh!
At dusk they return to their home, add extra layers of clothing, and join Lia around the fire under the porch. The whole village smells aromatically of woodsmoke. There is the soft chatter of conversations around cooking fires, the wail of an overtired child, and the sound of a hundred hens.
L: There are lots of cockerels, aren’t there? About thirty seven, I’d guess.
D: One less than earlier.
He nods at the fire, over which a plucked chicken is spread out flat and cooking. Lia rolls his eyes.
Lia: It’s the only reason I don’t like staying here. I can’t sleep. You will see. Three, four o’clock in the morning – they start! Then all the village wakes up, talking and making a noise. It’s terrible!
They watch the cockerels stalking around, bossing their hens. Nearby a young man is stroking and teasing and hand-feeding a white cockerel with a long tail.
D: What’s going on there? That one looks quite different.
Lia: A fighting rooster. He’s very special.
There is a loud crow from the eaves of their house.
L: Thank goodness. He’s still alive.
Lia: And that one, he’s special too. A hunting rooster.
A gaggle of little girls sidle up to L and stand beside her. They have solemn pretty faces and are dressed in traditional Lao wrap-around skirts, topped and tailed by western style tops and leggings. One has her little brother strapped to her back, legs dangling.
D: That’s sweet. They want to be your friend.
L: I know. What shall I do?
D: How should I know? Be nice.
L smiles at them. They stare seriously back at her. She gets out her camera and photographs a hen, pecking at their feet. She shows them the photo. They smile. She points the camera at them – takes a photo. Shows them. They giggle and point at the image, call their friends over and bossily arrange themselves into a line to be photographed again.
L: There are plenty of children here.
Lia: (sighing) Hmong people don’t understand birth control. The women have six or eight children. The man can have several wives. And they do not have to marry to be together. In the valleys some Lao Loum think badly about the Hmong because of this. The lowland Lao are very strict – no sex before marriage. Anyway. All these things make a lot of kids that need food and clothes.
L: Do they go to school?
Lia: Some. Now the track is here, it is easier. Until two years ago, the only way to the valley was the way we walked today. But now they can arrive at the main road in one hour, on a motorbike.
They have noticed that a few of the young men in the village have mopeds.
L: Do they go every day?
Lia: No – it’s too far. They stay at school for the week, from Sunday to Friday. But they have to bring their own food and uniform and books and pens and paper. It’s not easy.
L: We want to help. We brought some money. To help pay for the kids to go to school. Is that the right thing to do?
Lia: Money is good. Or clothes – they always need clothes and shoes. Not toys though – nothing plastic. The people here don’t understand about rubbish. Last week a visitor gave them balloons – you can see – the kids are very happy, but now there are are pieces of rubber all over the village.
They sit around the fire in the dark. Puppies and hens tiptoe close to the embers. Lia brings out supper. There is barbecued chicken, boiled marrow, chicken and marrow soup, and rice.
D: Do people eat meat every day here?
Lia: No. Only when the hunters bring animals. Mostly they eat rice. And vegetables.
L: But all this livestock? There are so many hens and pigs. And cows and goats.
Lia: Hmong people don’t eat these animals – they sell them. Except for the spirit sacrifices.
Lia: At a ceremony, they will kill an animal. The spirits take the blood, and after that, the people can eat the body.
By 8pm it is silent, and very dark. There is no moon, but a million stars glow brightly in the utter absence of light pollution. The village is in blackness, interiors lit only by cooking fires and half a dozen dim light bulbs, and outside the occasional bobbing of a torch at the edge of the forest – heading to the loo before bed.
D: It’s so peaceful. No parties?
Lia: (laughing) Hmong people are quiet people. They don’t listen to music, only their own traditional music, and they don’t drink alcohol. Not even lao-lao rice whisky.
On their bamboo platform, they find a mosquito tent has been set up, two quilts and two pillows. They snuggle down, and sleep soundly, aware only of their hipbones as they turn over.
D: Holy crap! What’s the time?
The cockerels have started. All 37 of them. Including the one in their eaves.