Laos 05 p3

Hilltribes, monks and aspiring artists

With a young guide and his cousin, who seemed to have come to do the talking, I went trekking through the mountains of the area. The plan was to visit several villages along the way. A minivan dropped us off at a village half an hour from Luang Prabang; there we crossed a river in one of those boats I had sworn never to step in, and stepped onto a narrow trail that snaked up the hill. The morning mist was dissipating fast and soon the sights were stunning me hard. The hike would take us through fields, up mountains, then back down to a brook, through a forest so thick I felt I was underground, and ultimately to what the locals call "waterfall" but is really a place where the river flows down a series of rocky steps, so that it gathers in pools where one can swim, if brave enough to take the cold (much like Jahiliyeh in Lebanon). Every half hour or so, we arrived at a village or farmstead. Small children stared with round eyes or waved "Sabaidee!" excitedly, depending on whether they had ever seen a foreigner. Young men considered us gravely but without hostility. The women, all occupied at some chore or other, kept a straight face until I greeted them, which made them reply with a smile. The first was a Hmong village, and among the people we passed on our narrow path I had noted men in back tunics, with a belt that hung in fringes in front and a dagger in bamboo sheath at the side. I must say I was impressed, in both countries, not by the omnipresence of these utilitarian knives, but by the number of children, including very small children, I saw handling large blades to clear a path, cut wood etc. As kids start participating in the daily chores early on, I suppose it makes sense that they would understand the use and danger of a knife and not play around with it. Yet I can only imagine the reaction in our cultures if a toddler was seen running around with a butcher's knife!

A Lao village
The only way to get anything to the villages is to carry it up, no matter how heavy.

Hmong man demonstrating the qeej, a traditional instrument.

The Hmong emigrated from China about 3 centuries ago to settle over a territory spanning China, Viêt Nam, Laos and Thailand. One of the main ethnic minorities in those countries, they are divided into groups that are named according to the clothes they wear: Black, White, Flower, etc. They are, traditionally, mountain-dwellers, and even in Laos their homes are built on the ground, as opposed to the Laos' characteristic stilts. In a Hmong village you'll see corn hanging from beams to dry, and cute black hogs running around freely (or more likely, napping around) as they don't pen any of the animals they breed (and that includes horses and poultry). The resulting pork meat tastes much better, and I expect it's much less fatty.

Save for the men's fringed belt, no costumes were worn in any of the villages I visited that day, but the western-style clothes they wore were the only sign that they had come in contact with the modern world at all. It was the beginning of the festival season as all the rice had been harvested and the villagers could take a break for a few months – and make lao-lao with some of the rice. So it was we came upon a Khmu farmstead where the large family was finishing lunch, and a few were crouched around a communal pot from which two straws stuck out. I was invited to try it, so I suspended my standards of hygiene and grabbed one of the straws. The pot was full of rice and the water in which it had fermented. The "rice whiskey" was surprisingly tasty and very mild. 

The family ending their meal

My first taste of lao-lao

Hog family also ending their meal

Our last stop was this natural feature where tourists come to swim and I could dip my tired feet.
I wasn't fast enough to catch this little girl with her tame parrot. The other bird was a guest at my guesthouse.

After a few hours of walking, I was glad to be back and able to relax while watching the evening rites…
Neither the photo nor the illustration completely did justice to this mesmerising scene, so I'm posting both.

I spent the next morning going from wat to wat, and as usual my sketchbook served as a great passport for conversation. I had a long talk with a young monk who impressed me with his culture and his deep serenity. His English was unusually good for that part of the world. He had been studying it for a few years, but said first he had had to study Lao (it not being his mother tongue), and Chinese when he was sent to China for a time. He was now learning Spanish and tutoring himself in French, which he wanted to go to Montreal to learn properly. He taught art, bronze casting (learned in Nepal) and Photoshop at Unesco workshops, but his dream was to teach English. He loved being a monk, which he had been since he was 5, but was facing the necessity of having to care for his parents, who were farmers without any education and could not move closer to any of their children because sitting into any vehicle made them terribly sick – they had never been in a car.
I had noticed monks often wore tattoos, and wondered if they had a ritual significance, so I asked him. He said they were all from "before": "Before ordination, naughty… bad boys!" he said with an indulgent smile. He then showed me one on his wrist, a Bali protection for travelling, as he did a lot of that. He had kept it hidden from his parents for 10 years, but they finally noticed it during his last visit to them: "They were very angry. They said You're not a Maori!" Thoughtfully he went on: "In my next life no tattoos… Body is too nice. Your parents make a beautiful body, they wash it and take care of it for years, then you break it… Not good."

Young monks studying hard!

At the wat next door another young monk invited me in, eager to show me "his" wat. The latter's courtyard was full of monklings sitting around with books, looking very serious. "Tomorrow history exam", he explained. He said that this wat was high school level, and they studied a variety of subjects besides Sanskrit and the Dharma. He got a key and led me into the sim: "Sorry about the mess." – apparently they sleep there in turn, and there were blankets still lying around. I was finally able to get all the details of the sim and altar explained to me: he was very eager to share what he knew.

There were definite Frequently Asked Questions wherever I went: Where are you from? How is the climate in your country? What's the population? Are there any temples there? How long have you been in Laos? What did you do? Where are you going now?

Eventually I made it to a distant wat, past the footbridge on the river, where they obviously didn't get a lot of visitors so 3 young monks jumped at the chance to have a bit of conversation and practice their English. Again I was led into the sim, the inside walls of which were covered, entirely, with sequential frescoes of Buddha's life – the illiterate's scriptures.
They showed interest in my sketchbook. I already knew monks are not allowed to touch a woman, and I had found out they hesitated to take an object straight from my hand, so I put it on the floor for them to pick up. My sketches of monks amused them immensely. They had to run for the lunch bell was tolling, and I returned across the river feeling those orange robes meant even more than I had thought.

The closest thing Laos has to a franchise is the Scandinavian Bakery. The obvious question is "why??", Scandinavia being everything Laos is not. I could be way off but I suspect it might have something to do with the fact Sweden is one the country's three great financial helpers, the first two being Japan and Australia.

Anyway, I was sitting outside the Scandinavian Bakery that afternoon, my watercolors spread on the table, coloring the day's sketches and observing a little seller girl innocently fleecing a tableful of Brits despite their best efforts to bargain. A little later, another girl showed up with her box of trinkets. She saw me drawing and immediately went for my sketchbook. She grabbed a brush, dipped it in paint and carefully dabbed it on the paper. A delighted snort escaped her when the brush left a mark. She looked at me and her eyes asked: "Yes?" I pushed the colors towards her and gave her a pen in addition. She immediately, avidly began to draw a woman in Lao dress, which she then colored. Her "colleague" from earlier returned then, and joined in. Here they were, side by side, drawing as if pent-up creativity was gushing out at last, and filling my sketchbook with women carrying flowers, farm animals, a flag on what looks like a tank (!) and a whole village on stilts. Their names are Hnu and Wantida. Hnu is a cheeky, quick girl and though her English is weak and she's smaller, she's the decision-maker. Wantida is more reserved and quiet but her English and drawing skills are better. When Wantida finished a drawing Hnu would enthusiastically volunteer to help her colour it, and it was obvious Wantida thought "Uh-oh" but patiently let her friend spoil her lineart, showing me how she felt with a resignated smile. Soon they were teaching me Lao words from their drawings. The trinket-bearing boxes waited forgotten for over an hour. The encounter was one of the highlights of my trip. As I returned to Laos three months later and gave them both printed copies of their photos, I like to think that it was memorable for them, too.

Hnu's drawings
A joint venture
 It was December 2, Laos' National Day, but other than fireworks at night the population didn't seem much concerned. Either way it was nothing in comparison to what was waiting for me on December 3.