Thanks to the enthusiasm of its 37 cockerels, the remote Hmong village of Ban Phatum, tucked into a wooded pass in the mountains of northern Laos, wakes early.
In the indigo pre-dawn light, children potter sleepily around the village chewing sticky rice cakes, piglets scamper into the undergrowth, and the hens peck around the cooking fires looking for scraps.
D & L stand on a plateau above the village, toothbrushes in hand, swigging water from a bottle, and spitting minty freshness into the undergrowth. If anything, the views are even more astounding at dawn. Yesterday’s blanket of low cloud has returned, snugly wrapping the foot of the mountains from the early morning chill, leaving a hundred black peaks jutting through to greet the sun, whereupon they glow gently, turning hues of pink and gold.
Their guide Lia whips up rice, salty boiled greens, and omelettes and joins L & D for breakfast.
L: It’s so beautiful here. The lifestyle is still so traditional. It’s pure.
Lia: Yes, it’s poor.
L: No – pure. Their culture is uncontaminated.
Lia: I understand. But also, it’s poor. The government have tried to make them move. But they don’t want to go.
D: Why? I mean why should they move?
Lia: The government want all the ethnic people, the hill-tribe people, to move down from the mountains. To be closer to schools and hospitals and markets to sell their produce, to have electricity, water and toilets, to find jobs. Any village smaller than 50 houses is asked to move. To make life better for them.
D: But Ban Phatum said no?
Lia: They said no. They like it here.
L: I can see why. But they’re not hiding.
Lia looks startled.
L: From the government.
Lia: (sounding polite but confused) No. They are not hiding. Now, we must get ready to leave. We will go at 7.30am.
D steers L back into the grass-walled, palm-thatched house where they had slept.
D: Have you gone mad? What are you talking about? ”Are they hiding?” Why would you even ask that?
L: Because of the war. I read about it.
D: What war?
L: The Vietnam War.
D: But that was forty years ago!
L: I know. But during the war, the Americans were helped by local people in Laos. Those locals were Hmong. They were the ones living in the area. They knew the terrain.
L: And when the war ended, the communists took over not only in Vietnam but in Laos too. The Hmong had fought against the communists. They were on the wrong side.
L: So they weren’t the new government’s favourite people. A lot of Hmong fled to the US or over the border into Thailand. Lots more were sent to re-education camps.
D: But surely that’s all water under the bridge by now.
L: Mostly, yes. Several generations on, most Hmong now live peacefully in Laos. Like here in this village. But several thousand of them are still in hiding in the mountains, in areas like this, afraid of reprisals.
D: Hasn’t the government forgotten about them after all this time?
L: It seems not. Apparently they’re still being captured and killed for being bandits and rebels.
D: And are they? Being bandits and rebels I mean.
L: Maybe a few Hmong do still have guns left over from the war, but I’ve seen reports that most of them are unarmed. That they’ve got no reason to fight. That they’re just frightened families unlucky enough to have had fathers or grandfathers who helped the Americans. And that they’re starving – eating roots and bugs – because they have to keep on the move, to stay hidden, so they can’t grow any crops.
D: In that case, why doesn’t anyone do anything?
L: The UN are aware of it but say they haven’t got enough proof to step in. And Thailand is sending thousands of Hmong back to Laos, saying there’s not enough proof to give them asylum.
D: The ones who’ve come back from Thailand – are they OK now?
L: I don’t know. But a lot of them seem to live in huge restricted camps. Which doesn’t sound ideal.
It is nearly 7.30am. D & L emerge from the house with their rucksack, ready to go. Lia looks surprised. He’s obviously not expecting them to be on time. L takes a last look at the village, sad to leave, and sad to compare this seemingly tranquil lifestyle with those of other Hmong, hidden elsewhere in these mountains.
They set out in silence, waving goodbye as they go. D tries to lighten the atmosphere.
D: How long has Ban Phatum been here?
Lia: Since the 1950s. This village is linked to a bigger one down near the road. The village chief lives there.
D: So there’s no chief up here?
Lia: No, but there is a group of elders. I will tell you what happens. Remember that most village people don’t speak Lao, they speak only Hmong. So they choose a chief who is educated and can speak Lao and so can talk with local government. But every village also has the elders, and the chief must listen to them.
D: So the elders look after the village?
Lia: And the shamans.
Lia: Yes. The village has two or three shamans who take care of the spirits and any illnesses. The shamans are not chosen – it follows from father to son. If someone in the village is sick, they don’t go to the doctor, they go to the shaman. Only if it is very serious they will go to hospital.
The path contours around the hillsides, climbing gently, heading towards a higher pass. The grass is damp.
Lia: Watch out for leeches.
D: Really? Excellent! I definitely want to be bitten by leeches. Like a proper adventurer.
L: Really? I definitely don’t.
They pause for a drink. The slopes in all directions have long ago been cleared of trees, and now the forest is reclaiming them. Lia waves an arm expansively.
Lia: This area here? All opium garden.
D: Interesting. Until when?
Lia: Maybe 10 – 15 years. All the mountain people used to grow opium poppies. Especially Hmong people. It was very difficult for them when it stopped. They had to learn to grow other things. But they don’t make money like before.
L: Why did it stop?
D: I remember this. It was international pressure. A few countries were given huge aid incentives to put a stop to it – Laos must have been one of them. But one or two of those places now grow opium legally for medicine – selling it to the big pharma companies. Does Laos do this?
Lia: No. We grow no more opium.
They continue on up the narrow trail. At the pass they pause. The way down is drier, on the sunny side of the mountain.
Lia: Check for leeches. I have one – here.
L: Yuck! None. Hurrah.
D: None. Dammit. I so wanted a leech.
It is a long, long descent through the forest, and increasingly steep. They walk slowly, using their trekking poles to lessen the impact on tired knees and feet, and avoid slipping on the greasy mud underfoot. They are overtaken by two women and a girl, stepping sure-footedly down the mountain in rubber sandals, the baskets on their backs loaded high with marrows.
Lia: Heavy! 30 kilos!
A little way on, they stop for a rest. The women are also resting – their marrow baskets on the ground beside them. D walks over to lift one of the baskets. It is as immovable as a rock. He checks if the straps are somehow hooked, and tries again, his face turning red. Lia grins.
Lia: Heavy! 30 kilos!
D: At least!
L takes off her shoes to massage her feet. D feels envious and does the same. There is blood on his sock.
D: A leech! I have a leech!
L: Look – you have three!
D: Hurrah! Let’s get them.
The socks come off. There is nothing to show, except for the blood.
D: Oh. Never mind.
L: Are you happy now?
D: Oh yes. Fantastic. Look, they won’t stop bleeding!
He pauses, the elation in his face fading and turning to concern.
L: Are you alright?
D: D’you think they’ll get infected?
L: I doubt it.
He continues to frown at his feet.
D: D’you think I might bleed to death?
L: No. I really don’t.
The last hour into the valley is tough. They pick their way slowly down the steep, slippery wooded path, step by step. The women with their 30 kg baskets are long gone, chatting happily as they move three times faster in their flapping sandals.
Lia: All the falang (foreigners) fall over on this path.
D: Thanks for that.
Lia: Then they cry. Women, men, they all fall over and cry.
D: We’ll do our best then.
Lia: But today is easy. Not so slippery.
L: Is it. Is it really.
They creep their way down to the valley floor, without falling over. Or crying. Despite being falang. Lia looks a little disappointed. Before they leave the forest, he thrashes about in the undergrowth, emerging with two large palm fronds. As they emerge into bright midday sunshine, he hands them one each to carry over their heads, giving them shade.
L: This is fantastic. It’s perfect. I love my jungle parasol!
D is certain that he looks like a twat, but carries it politely, nevertheless.
The approach to Ban Phayong village is through a lush, flat, well-watered landscape, with the mountains forming forested walls to each side.
They arrive at an immaculately shorn green meadow on which sits a collection of traditional woven-leaf houses with palm thatched roofs. There is electricity to each house. They pass several blocks of public toilets with water points nearby and larger, brightly painted buildings of blockwork with tin roofs. Livestock are tidily contained in pens. Berries are spread out to dry on a grass mat in the sun. It feels a little like an authentically themed holiday park.
They smile and wave at people as they pass, but are mostly ignored.
D: (whispering) It’s the parasol. How can they take me seriously with a massive leaf on my head?
L: (whispering) Don’t diss the leaf. It’s my favourite thing.
They reach the chief’s house, where they are given coffee and herbal tea, and sit under his porch in the shade. A group of French walkers arrives and settles nearby, outside a sleeping hut for guests.
Lia explains the village set up.
Lia: Ban Phayong has 68 families. Hmong people and Khmu people share the village. This is the Hmong side.
L: So where are the Khmu?
Lia: They live separately. On the other side. They have different cultures, different languages. Khmu are Lao Theung – upland Lao, not mountain Lao like Hmong people.
D: So why do they live together?
Lia: It is easier, to have a bigger village. They have electricity, and a school – right in the middle, between the two sides. The lessons are all in Lao. I told you – the government wants the smaller villages to move closer to towns and roads, to make life better for the people.
D: But why put people of different ethnic origins together like this?
Lia: So that they become more Lao – they learn the national Lao language and culture. It is better for everyone.
D: Cultural assimilation. Aren’t they losing their own traditional ways of life though?
Lia: They still live separately. Traditional life is strong. You will see.
Food emerges from the house of the Hmong chief. They tuck into chicken soup, pumpkin, omelette and rice. The French group are also here for lunch. Children in traditional dress parade past slowly, in case anyone might want to photograph them.
Lia: This chief – he is Hmong. He has done many things for the village, for more than 10 years. Everything you see is because of him. The electricity, the toilets, the tourists, the guest house. Many tourists come here, every day, bringing money to the village.
After lunch they walk through the village and admire the chief’s hard work, and his networking, noticing that several of the public facility buildings bear plaques showing sponsorship from overseas. They pass the school, a smart new building standing alone on a hillock in no-man’s land.
They cross an invisible line and continue through the Khmu part of the village. The contrast is striking. Some houses are built of wood, others of bare blockwork with tin roofs. They are raised off the ground, and are smaller than those of their Hmong neighbours. There is no grass, more dust and litter. People sit in their doorways in the shade. They smile and wave and two small boys shout “Hello!” and “Happy New Year!” to them in Lao. Here the authenticity comes with a smile and a stark absence of holiday park trimmings.
D: So much for cultural assimilation. The two halves could be ten miles apart, not ten metres. None of the Hmong chief’s work has crossed the line to the Khmu side at all!
L: You’re right. There’s just two completely separate communities sharing a name and a school.
Lia is silent on the matter but has a story to tell about the Khmu people as they amble through the verdant valley landscape towards the river and the end of their trek.
Lia: After this, you are going to Angkor Wat, right? In Cambodia?
Lia: The greatest temples in the world!
Lia: Built by Lao people!
D: Really? Umm…I’m not sure I’d read that.
Lia: (emphatically) It’s not in the history books. But yes! Lao people. Khmu people.
Lia: And the Plain of Jars – have you read about that?
D: Yes, hundreds of stone jars in the fields in Eastern Laos, thousands of years old, and none of the historians or archaeologists know who left them there or what they were for.
Lia: Ahh. But I know.
Lia: (proudly) Yes. Khmu people.
D: Right. I’m not sure I’d read that either.
Lia: It’s not in the history books. But I will tell you.
And so, as they walk, Lia reveals the age-old secrets behind the origins of the Plain of Jars and the founding of Angkor Wat.
Once upon a time, in the first or second centuries, the ancient Khmu people lived happily in Eastern Laos. They made a lot of lao lao rice whisky, which may be why they were so happy. The lao lao was very important to their culture and they drank it whenever they could. Festivals, ceremonies and battles were all celebrated with the drinking of great quantities of lao lao. All this whisky needed to be brewed and stored. It is obvious that the hundreds of mysterious stone vessels spread across what has now become the Plain of Jars, are whisky jars. So that solves that one.
Now, the first king of the Khmu people was a strong and powerful king called Khun Jung. The fame of his strength spread far and wide and lots of his people wished that they could be as strong as him. The people thought that if they could only eat a little bit of the king, they would gain his strength. Khun Jung was no fool, and he told his people that if they killed and ate him they would become weak, not strong. He told them that they too could become strong, by following him and learning from him. This worked for a while, but eventually the people killed him, popped a skewer into his bottom and out of his mouth, barbecued him, and had themselves a feast. However, eating Khun Jung did not make the Khmu people strong after all. Instead it made them argue and fight amongst themselves for three hundred years, until in the 5th century, some of them split off, headed 500 miles south to Champasak in southern Laos, and founded the magnificent temple of Wat Phu. Here they settled, but continued to argue and fight amongst themselves for a further six hundred years, until in the 11th century, some of them split off again, and headed 300 miles south west. Here they settled and founded the even more magnificent temples of Angkor Wat. Which is over the border in Cambodia. Where the people are Khmer. And the language to this day is Khmer. Khmer – Khmu. D’you see? The original Cambodians and builders of Angkor were Khmu people. Lao people.
And so concludes the revelation that the greatest temple complex in the world, Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, was in fact built by the Lao. According to Lia. But it’s not in the history books.