How did I get interested in Laos? I first learned about Laos while trying to learn about the Hmong and Mien cultures of my students when I was teaching in the Thermalito School District in Oroville, CA beginning in 1992. One of the driving forces for wanting to learn about their cultures was that I felt very frustrated when I had parent-teacher conferences and I had to have one of our bilingual aides translate for the Hmong and Mien parents attending conferences. There seemed to be something lost in the translation and I felt I wasn’t connecting with them like I wanted to. Another important factor was that I had begun to spend some time with one of the Hmong families of a second grade student I had in 1992, Mai Moua Thao, and I was fascinated with the stories her parents told about their life in Laos. Eventually this led to my enrolling in the Southeast Asia Summer Studies Institute at the University of Oregon in the summer of 1998 where I studied Hmong full-time for nine weeks! Even then, Laos was on the periphery of the center of my attention. But before I left for SEASSI I attended a presentation from a retired professor who led tours to this distant and mysterious land. After SEASSI, though I hadn’t learned Hmong like I thought I might, I finally realized that to really understand Hmong and Mien cultures, I needed to learn more about their homeland, Laos, and signed up for a three-week tour in November 1998.
Laos captured my heart, soul and imagination. When I tried to explain to family and friends how it felt when I was in Laos, I told them it was like having all the pores in my body wide open and I felt this incredible high the entire three weeks. It was like I was in a super-sensitive state and thankfully my photography was the perfect way to capture what I see and felt. But then again it all could have been the result of eating Lao food with hot peppers! Spicy is an understatement in Laos. And if you’ve been to Laos and wandered through markets or where people are eating, you’ll hear this constant hissing sound, which comes from everyone inhaling through pursed lips to cool their tongues after eating something that was really spicy/hot.
But I digress. In coming to Laos another one of my goals was to try to locate the village of Ban Phu Leuy which is the Hmong village where the grandmother of Mai Moua lived. Mai Moua’s mother, Mai Vang, hadn’t seen her mother in fifteen years and was concerned about her since she was over seventy years old. All Mai Moua’s family could tell me was the village was somewhere in Luang Prabang Province. On the tour I really didn’t have time to locate the village and when I went to Laos again in the summer, I had more time to spend in Luang Prabang and ask about where the village might be. I finally found someone who thought they knew where it was, but said it was almost impossible to get up to the village during the rainy season.
Although I didn’t know the saying then, the Lao like to say step by step, and so it was going to be in trying to get to Ban Phu Leuy. But after getting back from my summer visit, I talked with a friend of mine, Tim McClure, the Deputy Superintendent at the Butte County Office of Education and he was able to find some funding to help support my going to back to Laos in November (1999) to create a virtual tour of Laos for students in Butte County schools. With this funding I was able to help fund one of the Hmong aides at my school to travel with me to interpret as needed.
This time we were able to find a vehicle and secure the services of a Lao official who we were told must travel with us to this remote Hmong village. To find this official we had to travel to a Lue village on the Nam Ou river which we had to cross in a small boat. This official was holding an open-air meeting with the village to discuss whether they would be willing to move the village to another spot on the other side of the river which the main road ran along. The village had been there over a hundred years and it was very picturesque and where their homes were established. But, during the rainy season when the river was raging, they were cut off from the main road and students couldn’t get to the high school. The government, although not forcing the village, was encouraging them to move to the other side of the road and then they wouldn’t be cut off during the rainy season.
We waited for about half an hour and then the official joined us to travel up to Ban Phu Leuy. We had to backtrack towards Luang Prabang about fifteen minutes and then took a gravel road to the left. The road was quite good for about a half an hour and then for the last two hours the road became narrow and rutted, was quite steep at points and had to traverse several stream beds. Luckily since it was the dry season the streams were fairly low and with some rearranging of rocks in the stream bed we were able to cross fairly easily. And since we left at 10:00 in the morning, we arrived in the village of Ban Huey Ot around 12:30. Since the official with us had traveled to these villages many times everyone knew him and he knew how we had to get to Ban Phu Leuy, which meant hiking up a trail for about an hour. The trail cut through scrub for the first part since this land had previously been slashed and burned. After trees are cut and then burned, the resulting ash helps fertilize the land and for about three to four years the land will be productive, but then needs to lay fallow for about ten years. We were hiking through land that had probably laid fallow for a good six years and the brush and small trees hid the fact the land had been previously used for farming. But when you fly over land where swidden agriculture is being practiced it’s easy to see the various stages of fallow land.
After cresting a hill we came down to a stream and could hear the sounds of roosters and village life. It was then a short hike up the other side when we came to the first house. This was a pretty exciting time for me because I really didn’t know if Mai’s grandma was alive and any other relatives we might meet. It ended up that Mai’s grandma was living with her oldest son whose house was perched on the hillside to the right of us. Mai’s grandma was home and with a couple of younger men. Since I was traveling with my Hmong friend/aide from school, he was able to explain who I was and Mai’s grandma came up to me and put her hands on my face while saying that to have me there was just the same as if her daughter and grandchildren were there. I think they must have written to her eldest son that I was hoping to try to come to their village and so it wasn’t a complete shock, but when she said that it sent shivers down my back.
We were invited into the house, squeezing by 50 kilo bags of rice stacked at least five feet high. It was a traditional Hmong home with beaten dirt floor and a cook fire in the middle. As we came in the house altar was on the wall opposite the door and to the left was a wooden platform piled high with all sorts of stuff that Mai’s grandma eventually began clearing because that’s where she wanted me to sleep. To the right were the closed off sleeping quarters. If you browse through the photos in the gallery different shots will give you different perspectives of what the inside of the house was like.
When we arrived the word had been sent to Mai’s uncles who were working in their mountain farms that I had arrived and they showed up about an hour after I arrived.
They then caught a chicken which they boiled, along with some mustard greens, pounded some Thai chilis with some salt and that was our meal. Most rural Lao, including the Hmong, don’t usually have meat with their meals. And if they do, it’s small fish they’ve caught in streams or rice paddies, frogs, or small wild game. Chickens, pigs and cows are usually reserved for ceremonies/weddings/funerals where they may be “sacrificed” and then eaten.
That first day we could not spend the night, even though Mai’s grandma had cleaned and swept off the wooden platform (check out the photo in the blog). I had brought money from Mai’s mother and father to give to her uncles and grandma and now that I knew where the village was I could make plans to come again on my next visit.
My next visit was about a year later, Christmas 2000, and a majority of the photos in the gallery were taken during this visit when I spent two nights at Ban Phu Leuy. This time I came with a Lue friend who used to live at the same Lue village where we went to meet the official who accompanied us to Ban Phu Leuy the first time. His name is Kham Fan and I met him when we was working as a hotel clerk at the Phousi Hotel when the tour group I was with stayed there the first time I came to Laos in 1998. Kham Fan speaks good English, is very friendly and he made it clear he liked to guide on the side and so when I moved to Laos in October 2000 I made arrangements with him to go with me to Ban Phu Leuy and we got the same truck/taxi driver to drive us up.
By going in December we knew that since Hmong New Year is celebrated at different times by different villages during December there was a good chance that we would be going during their New Year’s celebration. And as it turned out, as we hiked up the trail on Christmas Eve, both Ban Heuy Ot, where we parked the car, and Ban Phu Leuy were just beginning their celebrations. Perfect timing!
When we arrived in the village they were expecting us because I had gone to the Hmong radio station in Vientiane and paid them to announce the day that we would be coming up to Ban Phu Leuy. Most people, even in remote villages like Ban Phu Leuy without electricity listen to portable radios to the Hmong radio broadcast and that way Mai’s uncles could stay home, rather than go to work at their mountain farms, which can be a one to two hour walk.
To arrange transportation and some kind of guide service isn’t easy, but I’m glad that I took the time, because as it turned out, within two years, Mai’s grandma and two uncles died…
I’ve created two photo galleries about Ban Phu Leuy since I selected 162 photos and iWeb will only allow a maximum of 99 photos in one gallery so there are 81 photos in each gallery.
In the first gallery the first ten photos show the drive up to Ban Phu Leuy ending in our arrival in Ban Heuy Ot where we had to park the truck/taxi. During the dry season this road is passable, if not a little rough. But let me tell you, we tried to go up this road in July 2002 when it was raining and we couldn’t even go half way before having to turn back. The next group of photos shows our hiking up the train and arriving at Mai’s grandma’s house. Following are arrival are shots taken in the house including when everyone gathered round to watch the video, on my video camera, that Mai’s family had shot at their home in Oroville. This was the first time that they had seen most of Mai’s children, as they all, except Mai, had been born in Ban Vanai in Thailand or in the US. There is then a short sequence of Mai’s grandma going down to the creek to get water. I can remember how we were sitting inside, when I saw Mai’s grandma go over to get the basket and water jugs and Kham Fan, friend and interpreter who accompanied me, asked what she was going to do, and when he told me I immediately got up and said we needed to document her going to get water. There was so much I wanted to photograph, but their “protocol” was that since I was an honored guest, I should go from house to house in the village for special meals. I appreciated that, but after an hour or two sitting on a six-inch high stool in smoky interiors, I was desperate to wander about and document the life in this very traditional village. This was one opportunity I wasn’t going to pass up!
She went with one of her good friends, there were other ladies Mai’s grandma’s age that were best friends and on the way back up the trail with loaded jugs, you can see the other lady talking with Mai’s grandma in the video I took. She is talking very loudly because Mai’s grandma is very hard of hearing and her sight was not that good either. But from that video you can see she was still very independent and in good spirits.
After the groups shots of Mai’s grandma and friends there are shots of the village ending with a shot of Mai’s youngest uncle’s house and then his family portrait. It was clear that his older brother, where Mai’s grandma lived, had much more stature and importance in the village and that his life was more difficult. It was hard when I learned of Mai’s grandma’s death and then the death of her oldest son, but it was almost too much to heard that this uncle died too, all in a span of about two years.
Following her uncle’s family portrait is a sequence taken of the taking down and cleaning of the family altar. This was done by Mai’s uncle’s oldest son and his wife and is something that is done during every New Year’s celebration. And then, I can’t even remember which house this happened in, it the traditional pounding of steamed sticky rice that is made into pancakes, cooked over a fire and then eaten with some kind of sweetener, like honey or sugar cane syrup. I saw this done in Oroville, very much the same way by Mai’s relatives and also in Luang Prabang.
After these shots are the beginning of a sequence for the preparation of the tree ceremony. As I’m writing this blog, there’s a lot that I forget that Mai’s mom and dad told me about the meaning of this ceremony and all that is going on, and hopefully in a month or so I’ll update this portion of the blog to give a more complete description of everything that is going on. In the beginning Mai’s uncle and other young men and boys are making a rope that people will walk under and rings out of thatch that people will carry as they circle around the tree. There are then shots of people gathering round the tree, which is a young papaya tree that was cut with the lower branches stripped. From what I know this is the time for people to walk around in one direction shedding everything bad from the past year, then reversing the direction and welcoming in the new year. And the whole time, an elder, in this case Mai’s uncle, waves a rooster overhead and chants a blessing for everyone. After the ceremony the rooster is sacrificed and his blood scattered at the base of the tree.
I really, really wanted to photograph the whole ceremony from the “outside” but they made it clear they wanted me to join in with everyone in walking around the tree and so the shots in this album are reflect an inside perspective.
And the first gallery finishes with shots of Mai’s uncle performing a ceremony for their house. He was requested to visit many houses where he brought his gong and you can hear it in the first video clip that was taken in the early morning when I videoed the children playing on the other side of the village. And the last photo is of a mother dressing her daughter for New Years.
The second gallery begins with shots taken during the day when there was some ball tossing (pob pov) and boys playing katow, a kind of volleyball game played with the feet and head. You don’t see any teens tossing ball and I would guess that they have left the village to visit bigger villages celebrating New Years where the pool of eligible male and females is larger. Tossing ball has evolved as a way for Hmong teens to socialize and find a mate since during the rest of the year they are too busy to take the time to find a boyfriend/girlfriend who they might want to marry. Plus, if they’re coming from a small village then any eligible mates may be of the same clan and it’s taboo to marry anyone from the same clan. But the young girls love to toss ball with friends and you’ll often see adults watching close by.
Then there is a portrait of a family, with a shot of the mother and daughters and a shot of the father and sons, and another one of three sisters.
Following is a series of a shaman in the village. They are all taken at the altar in his house where he’s performing a ceremony and you can see his assistant in a couple of the shots. The last photo is taken when the shaman is performing a ceremony for a mother and her young son. I have a video clip of that ceremony on the Video Insights page.
After the shaman series is one of an altar outside a house and I wish I could explain the altar’s significance. Anyone help me?
There’s then a series of boys playing tooloo. As is written in Hmong Folk Life by Joe Bee Xiong & Paw Moua, “The tujlub (pronounced "tooloo") is a wooden spinning top that is usually played by Hmong boys and men. It was popular in the villages of Laos and the sport has been continued in the United States. Tujlub was played all year around in Laos, but during the Hmong New Year tujlub competitions were always a part of the celebration.
In the United States, tujlub is not played as often, but the game is slowly gaining popularity. Now that the tops are manufactured commercially, tujlub are easier to find. Also, there has also been a revived interest in the game by Hmong boys and teenagers. New teams are always forming, often through church or neighborhood groups. The teams get together to practice and play each other.
If a team feels ready, it may compete in one of the more serious tujlub competitions often found in large cities. At the 2000 Fourth of July sports tournament in St Paul, Minnesota, there were sixteen teams from all over the United States who tried their hand at winning the $600 first place prize.
Traditional tujlub were carved from a very hard wood called Plooj Hlis (pronounced blong hlee) or Ntoo Kub Twm (pronounced dong ku tu). The best wood to use was Ntoo Kub Twm because it was the hardest of all the woods in Laos. Ntoo Kub Twm can be translated to mean Buffalo Horn Tree. It was as strong as a buffalo horn and would not split. However, it was difficult to obtain in Laos because it could only be found up in the mountains. Here in the United States, new nylon tops are popular. They come in different weights and sizes and are almost indestructible. They will not split like some of the hand carved wooden tooloo. The art of spinning the Hmong top is as follows:
There is a cotton string wrapped around the top of the tujlub. The string is tied to a long, thin, stick two to three feet in length. The tujlub is powered by jerking the stick in one direction and hurling the top in the opposite direction. As the string unwinds, it sends the tujlub spinning. Once you have mastered spinning the tujlub, you may want to play a game. There is no universal set of rules. Each village in Laos had their own rules. This is sometimes a problem at the competitions here in the U.S. All visiting teams must play by the rules of the home team. Of course, this puts the home teams at an advantage. The rules of the game can be rather involved, but here are a few basic rules. l. Any number of people can play tujlub. For safety reasons, all players stand behind a starting line. Flying tops can be dangerous! 2. Let's say there are four players, two on each team. To decide who goes first, one player from each team spins his or her tujlub. The team whose player's top spins the longest goes first. Let's call that team Team Turtle. We'll call the other team Team Crocodile. 3. All the players on Team Crocodile set their tops spinning about 10 feet in front of the starting line. For safety reasons, they should stand behind the starting line when they throw their tujlub. 4. All the players on Team Turtle throw their tujlub and try to hit Team Crocodile's already spinning tops. Once a top is hit, the player whose top spins the longest is the winner. If any of Team Turtle's tujlub don't hit an opponent's top, that player is out. If any of Team Turtle's tops fall first, that player is out until the next round. 5. Keep playing until everyone on Team Turtle is out, then change positions. For a more competitive game, points can be awarded. Or to make the game more challenging, the players can throw their tops further from the starting line.”
Boys and young men will play this game anytime during the dry season, but especially during the New Year celebration. And it’s even become one of the contested games at the Lao National Games.
Back to the photo gallery. After the tooloo shots are shots of children I took while I stayed at Ban Phu Leuy. My favorite is of the four girls huddled together. Their eyes I think are mesmerizing.
Being a teacher I had to see their school and a small group of students took me to the school perched on a small hill towards the top of the village. It’s about as small of a school as I’ve ever seen and I can imagine by looking at the roof that when it’s raining, forget it. Education in a small village like this is minimal, to say the least and a remote school like Ban Phu Leuy is lucky if they even have a high school graduate teaching school. But many of the Hmong students are tenacious and work out ways to escape the village to go to larger schools closer to Luang Prabang. One such student, Thongby, who’s right hand was blown off by a bombie when he was a young boy, has now ended up in Vientiane and has been studying English thanks to the financial support of my friend, Jim Harris. Since he lost his hand, his parents knew he wouldn’t be any good with farming and so focused on helping him do the best he could at school and figured out a way for him to attend a boarding school close to Luang Prabang when he was of high school age.
In the photos in the gallery I like the one of the students standing on the bench, and by the way, the older, taller boy on the right arranged them by height from smallest to tallest!
The school and student photos are followed by two photos of the naibon (village leader) and then a series taken when they had a special meal and bacci ceremony in honor of my arrival in the village. The Hmong, like the Lao, believe in lost or wandering souls, though the Lao believe each person has 32 souls and the Hmong believe there are either 3 or 5. As is written in the Field Guide to Hmong Culture produced by the Madison Children’s Museum,
“The spirit is often referred to as the soul, and, while it is usual in the West to believe that each of us has one soul, the Hmong believe that each of us has either three or five souls (according to different opinions). Some Hmong believe that one soul occupies the head area, one the region of the torso, and one the leg area. Other Hmong believe that a person has five souls; each of them named after an object in nature: reindeer, running bull, chicken, growing bamboo, and shadow.
In any case, according to Hmong tradition these souls, acting in harmony, produce a happy, healthy life. However, when even one of these souls begins to exhibit a lack of harmony with the others, trouble follows and life may become unpleasant and unhappy. Indeed, illness may be the result, and even, in extreme cases, death. Thus, we can see that the harmony of a Hmong’s souls is very important, and when this harmony is lost it must be restored quickly.
In fact, the Hmong believe that one or more souls may sometimes not only fall out of harmony with the others, it may even decide to leave the body altogether and go elsewhere. This “soul loss,” or poob plig, as it is called in the Hmong language, is a serious situation and requires measures to call the straying soul back. These measures are collectively known as “soul calling,” or hu plig. The missing soul may have wandered away to someplace nearby, or it may have wandered far – even to the spirit world, a place similar to our world, but inhabited by spirits and other disembodied beings. In such a case, calling back the soul may be a problem.
This soul calling, although it sounds very difficult, is, in fact, a fairly common ceremony with which all Hmong become familiar at an early age. Although required when an individual falls ill, soul calling may also be performed to prevent illness and promote good health; a soul calling is performed three after the birth of every new Hmong baby. In addition, at the time of the Hmong New Year celebration, a soul calling ceremony is performed for the entire family. A soul calling ceremony will be held for a newlywed couple on the third day after their union, and may even be performed for a family member who is about to undertake a long journey or who has just arrived home from such a journey. When a Hmong is ill, however, or has fallen, or merely become frightened, a soul calling ceremony is most often performed. For that matter, in any instance in which it is felt the individual may have lost one or more of his souls (sometimes even without knowing it!) a soul calling ceremony will be performed. This ceremony may be performed by any individual who is not shy and knows the method; however, it is usually performed by an elderly person, by a Hmong shaman, or by another variety of medical professional or healer.”
After the bacci ceremony photos there is a series taken in the village of village life, from feeding pigs to grinding soy beans. I remember going into the house where the young women had just finished carrying the heavy bags of soy beans from a garden far away to keep in the bin inside this house. You can see the sweat on the back of the one woman’s blouse and when we asked them about what they thought of life in Ban Phu Leuy all three stated they much rather live closer to Luang Prabang and didn’t like the heavy work they had to do…
And then there is a group photo of myself with Mai’s grandma, uncles and all the other relatives, a photo I really treasure. And then my last portrait of Mai’s grandma followed by her grave. I guess she felt some pains in her stomach which quickly got worse over several days, and although they did take her to the village of Ban Phu Leuy, they didn’t take her to Luang Prabang and she died within a week of when she first felt ill. I think both her sons died under similar circumstances the following year, which was harder for me to understand since they were probably only in their forties. But, the average life span in Laos is only 55 years old, so Mai’s grandma beat the odds, while her uncles didn’t meet them…
The photos at the end of the gallery show when I hiked back to Ban Heuy Ot after spending three nights at Ban Phu Leuy. The naibon and security chief had attended the special dinner and bacci up at Ban Phu Leuy and although I remember them inviting Kham Fan and I to visit with them after we arrived in the village, after not bathing for three days and feeling grungy, I was looking forward to getting back to Luang Prabang. But as we came down the trail and turned on to the road that led into Ban Huey Ot I could hear a lot of people and as we rounded the bend, there were all these people dressed up in their New Years clothes and as we entered into the village Hmong girls came up to me and handed me bouquets of flowers. The first two photos in the sequence, aren’t really photos, but stills taken from video footage that Kham Fan took. We were quite surprised to be greeted so royally and if you look at the clips you will see that Kham Fan had to catch up to take the video and it’s a little hurky-jerky, but better than nothing. The security chief, not only of Ban Huey Ot, but for a total of six Hmong villages had a rare two-story house and the bacci ceremony and meal were served “upstairs.” One of the two girls serving the lao-lao (lao whiskey) was his daughter.
He really put a lot of effort into this and what he wanted from me was some kind of helping improving the education of children in this village. When I left I told him I would try to think of ways to help and two years later in the summer of 2002 when I was leading a tour to Laos, I had two Hmong University of Wisconsin students, who were sisters, and very much wanted to meet with him and I thought they might be able to help raise money in their Hmong community for this village. But although he was able to come down to Luang Prabang and meet with the girls, the big meeting that was planned in Ban Huey Ot didn’t happen because when we tried to drive up there, it was raining hard and the road was just too bad. And ever since I’ve never been back up to Ban Heuy Ot or Ban Phu Leuy.