Our journey today was intensive but good so settle in for the long read. We began by journeying more than an hour up the mountain on an unpaved (very rocky) dirt road to visit two different indigenous villages, Kamous and Hmong.
The road was so bumpy my iPhone thought I was exercising and I got a notification that I achieved my 30-minute exercise goal just by sitting in the car. Which means I burned off so many calories I can have dessert later. Who am I kidding? I'm going to have dessert whether I fake exercised or not.
Let me preface the next many paragraphs that I obtained the history from Siphone. I googled some of the information he gave me, mostly for spelling purposes and not for fact checking. I don't mean to offend anyone, especially if my information is incorrect. He is obviously (as you will see) extremely biased.
Another history lesson: Laos is made up of three main ethnic groups-Laos Loum, Lao Theung and Laos Soung.
Laos Loums, also called Lowland Lous make up 60-75% of the Laotian people. They are located in urban low-lying areas of the country (ie not in the mountains), usually along the Mekong River and are most similar to Thai people. They are thought (at least amongst themselves) to be superior to the others with regards to education, intellect and finance. They are usually Buddhist. Siphone is Laos Loum, obviously (given the superiority comment).
Lao Theung is made of many sub-ethnic groups and is considered the most multi-cultural. The Kamous is the most prevalent. This is the village we first went to this morning. Some are Buddhist but a lot of them are animists*. Siphone said the Kamous people are lazy and their indigenous culture is well preserved because they rarely leave their land. He said they also don't cultivate their land even though they could (and should as it's very fertile), and just sit around on it, poor. Women may leave to live in the city but aren't educated so work in garment factories, in restaurants or in brothels. Their families think they are very successful because they send money home when in fact they are not. We walked through the village and true, no one was working. Everyone seemed to be sitting around talking. But hey, it was Sunday, so I don't pass no judgments. They had a Buddhist temple there for the few that are Buddhists. It was the nicest building in the village. Most of the structures were on stilts with wooden floors and thatched roofs. One door, no windows and it was very difficult to imagine the durability in rainy season. There is no underground sewage and no showers. There are no roads or streets in the village. Electricity was only established there in the last 10-15 years. The village was very very poor. Siphone said most of them are uneducated and don't go to school past 5th grade. Like any indigenous culture, they have their own language and Siphone said most of them don't even speak Laos, even though they are only 30 miles from town.
We walked up the hill to the school, which separates the Hmong from the Kamous village. After passing the young boys in the schoolyard playing bocce ball we entered the Hmong village, which was vastly different. For one, it was much cleaner and the structures were more permanent. Many of them were concrete and on the ground, not stilts. Still, it was a also very poor village. None of the homes had floors; all were dirt from the Earth. Hmong people are pure animists (think supernaturalists). Their homes have two doors. One is the front door and always faces West, with a side door to the South. The side door is always closed unless it is letting spirits out. The Hmong only choose their wives during the New Year period, which falls on the first black moon, sometime in December-January (according to the Western calendar) and are polygamous (can have 3-4 wives).
They are known to be hard workers and good fighters. While we were walking through the village we were approached by a deaf mute woman, impeccably dressed in a pink skirt and bright pink winter coat (it was about 90 degrees). She grabs the baby out of Jason's arms and motions us up the hill to her home, marching with purpose, obviously trying to sell us something. She was so convincing, Dad wants to bring her back to the US, saying she'd be successful in the workforce there and would sponsor her. We ended up buying $20 of embroidered bibs and other crafts from her selection. There was much more activity going on in the Hmong village. Many women had craft stalls set up and there were stores selling basic household items. While it was a noticeable difference, these people are also extremely poor, usually living off only a few USD/day. Siphone says the women do most of the working in the Hmong culture and also most of the housework, leaving the man a life of leisure. That, combined with the polygamy, caused Jason to say he was about to convert.
Siphone also told us that Laos people never intermarry. He said NEVER so vehemently but on further interrogation I learned that his current wife is Laos Loum and was married to a Hmong. He seemed sensitive about it so I backed off and didn't challenge him on that dichotomous statement. (I plan to give him a day and will ask him tomorrow when he's fresh.)
The drive back to down was long and arduous. Dad and I were feeling pretty carsick. Maybe that's because on the way down we passed some locals cooking a dog over the fire. "Meat's meat" said Jason, salivating. TB slept the whole time, thankfully.
We had an awful lunch of fried chicken (or was it dog?), French fries, and a mango shake (sounds delicious though doesn't it…it wasn't) and then went to Big Brother Mouse, an NGO founded to promote Laotian literacy in children. We purchased childrens' books to donate to rural villages. If you go there at a certain hour you can converse with people who come to learn English but since it was Sunday the place was empty. Dad bought a t-shirt two sizes too small and mom said he looked like he belonged in an over 70 body building competition. Gross.
Next we went to Ock Pop Tok (translates to East meets West), a silk textile factory, and definitely one of the highlights of our trip. 2 women, a Brit and a Laotian, founded it in 2000. Jo, the British woman, met us for a private seminar. Her story is fascinating. She had just finished university in the UK after getting a degree in Art. She was backpacking with her friend and came to Laos. She was so smitten with Luang Prabang she stayed to learn the craft of weaving. She noticed that all Laotian women knew how to weave and wanted to promote and showcase the art of silk weaving. She sought to create a movement in Laos of empowering women to be financially independent and to preserve the craft of handmade silk looming, and so founded Ock Pop Tok. Villages all over Laos sell them raw silk and they dye it here (using all natural dyes like indigo leaves, turmeric, teak, and betel) and weave it into beautiful pieces. It takes ten days or so to make one scarf or blanket. Jo and the other artists travel all over the world and Laotian silk weaving is featured in museums globally. Mom and dad definitely donated to the cause, buying many handwoven silk items.
Exhausted after a long day out we returned to the hotel and had a nap before dinner. Jason had organized with the hotel to have a special dinner for my birthday**, which was so sweet of him. They had a beautiful private table set up in the garden for us and we had a wonderful evening talking of past birthdays and plans for the future.
*Animists are people who worship the spirit of their ancestors and the surrounding environment. They believe all objects, places and creatures possess a spiritual essence. It is aligned with the supernatural belief that there is no real distinction between physical and spiritual. It is one of the oldest foundations of religion.
**1983, the year of the pig (according to Chinese New Year). Today I am 36 years old. I am beyond grateful for the life I lead and the family and friends I have. I am surrounded by love and am so thankful I have many years ahead. I got to spend the day with my four favorite people in the world. Truly today was one of the best days of my life and I feel privileged to feel like this almost all the time. Thank you to all of you for loving and supporting me. I hope I can return the favor some day.