Window on Southeast Asia:
Listening to the Rice Grow: A Journey Up the Nam Ou River in Laos, Part 2
This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.
In Part 1 of this article, I talked about my journey up the Nam Ou River of Laos to Muang Kwaa where I and a German couple I had met arranged to go on a trek with a local chemistry teacher to a hill-tribe village. We met the chemistry teacher early the next morning at the bus station, actually a flat area with gravel and tuk-tuks (Thai open-air taxis). We boarded the one to Udomsai, which started climbing into the mountains immediately. As we did, we passed several villages. Our guide told us these were Khammou villages. He said that the Khammou were closely related to the Lao and that they had pretty much assimilated into Lao society. After about an hour we reached a village at the crossroads, where one road went to Muang Kwaa, another to Udomsai to the west, and the other to Pongsali in the north. It was a natural place for villagers from all around to meet and stock up on the Thai and Vietnamese goods which were available at roadside stands. We sat down for breakfast at a small restaurant of sorts. As we sat there eating noodle soup, two girls wearing richly decorated blue clothes walked by carrying bamboo poles with a flat rattan basket on each end over their shoulders. On the baskets were huge green vegetables, the size of small watermelons. Our guide, Mr. Khmman, bought one and gave it to a lady to cut into slices. When she brought it to us sliced, we realized that they were gigantic cucumbers.
Mr. Khamman explained to us that we were going to an Akha village. The Akha are a people that prefer to live in high elevations. They are only distantly related to the Lao or Thai. They moved into the hills as the Lao and Thai (and their brothers the Shan in Myanmar) were moving into the valleys, around the 5th to 8th centuries AD. (I should point out that there is some debate about the exact dates of the migration of the Thai groups to southeast Asia. It is pretty certain that they were there by the 8th century.) They were never "Indianized" like the Thai and Lao so their society is very different. He pointed out a couple of Akha women walking by with their children as we sat there. The first thing you notice about Akha women (and men to a lesser extent) is the amount of silver, coins, and elaborately woven fabrics they wear. They almost seem to be walking art galleries. That's how they like it. They are fond of art but prefer wearing it to hanging it on the wall. That became clear when I saw the first rather dull interior of an Akha house, which can only be described as functional. The only thing that could be considered decorative is the ancestor altar, where the first three stalks of rice harvested are placed to honor the ancestors.
The Akha Village.
As we sat there the conversation turned to the situation with Afghanistan. Mr. Khamman said that most people in Muang Kwaa supported the bombing, saying that they knew Laos would do the same thing if they were attacked. That led me to ask him if he was old enough to remember the American bombing. He said that he was. He remembered that some of the neighboring villages were destroyed after they had lit cooking fires outside, so the residents of Muang Kwaa learned to hide their fires and to keep them burning as little as possible. Thus, Muang Kwaa was never bombed. I always wondered why the Lao found it so easy to forgive us for the bombing while many Arabs are so angry at us. Between 1964 and 1973 the US sent out 177 bombing missions over Laos every day, dropping more than 2 million tons of bombs. Often the intelligence used was so weak that villages were bombed because it was assumed that the cooking fires must have been camps for Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese troops. Sometimes the orders were so vague that pilots went to the province or district they were ordered to bomb and simply dropped their bombs on anything that looked like an army camp. Often they were villages. No one knows how many Lao civilians died but the number is assumed to be in the tens or hundreds of thousands. The dying hasn't ended yet. Most of the bombs that were dropped were cluster bombs that released 600 tennis ball-sized bombs each. Many landed in muddy rice fields where they remain buried until a farmer steps on one. To this day between 60 and 80 people a year are killed by unexploded bombs. Forty percent of them are found by children who play with the little "ball" they discover in the fields or in the woods.
After lunch we started walking down an American-built road toward the trail head. On the way we passed some Akha children. They giggled when I said "Sabai Dii" and took off when I took out my camera. Mr. Khamman said that when he brought the first group of Falangs (foreigners) to the village, the children all ran and hid the moment they saw the strange foreigners. After walking on the road for about 20 minutes, we started a grueling 2 hour walk along a trail straight up a hill. We were mostly in the jungle but occasionally we found ourselves in rice fields with incredible views of the mountains and valleys below. Along the way we passed brilliantly dressed women and men carrying large loads on their heads and backs. They stopped to rest on covered bamboo platforms along the way. Finally, as it seemed we would never reach the top, we started to hear what sounded like drums. A few minutes later I caught a glimpse of several village houses at the top of a hill. Upon entering the village, we learned that the thumping was the sound of rice being pounded. Our guide showed us inside one house where rice was being pounded. It was with a device that looked like a see-saw with a handle on one end and a block of wood on the other. Below the block of wood was a wooden mortar where the rice was placed.
I didn't have to go way out to the far northeast of Laos to trek to a hill-tribe village. There are plenty around Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Hordes of tourists go there every year and visit the hill-tribe villages which are so used to tourists that they make their villages look the way the think the tourists would want them to look. They pose for pictures with the tourists (then ask for money) and do whatever they think the tourist would like. It's a great human zoo, but if you want to see what life is REALLY like, you have to get pretty far off the tourist trail. Well, this village was just that. Not that they hadn't seen tourists before, but they were so unused to them that the children watched us only from a safe distance. When we got close, some would run off and a few would stay. We were taken to the chief's house first, which wasn't quite what I expected. Palatial it wasn't. In fact, it was hardly different from any other village house. That, I would learn, had to do with the fact that they were never "Indianized" like the other southeast Asian peoples.
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