Among the Hill Tribes of Laos, a Sacred Meal and the Ultimate Exchange of Kindness
By Jonathan Look
I was wakened from sleep by a blood-curdling scream. It wasn’t quite a human sound, but in that middle ground, between slumber and consciousness, I couldn’t be too sure. Streaky shafts of pale sunlight were streaming through glassless windows and cracks between the planks of the wall in the room where I had been sleeping. It had been a night of strange dreams and I had to rub repeatedly to remove the crusty rheum that had formed in the corners of eyes. My mind still hadn’t quite focused and I was a bit confused as to where exactly I was.
I have been traveling for several days, in the northern Laotian hill tribe country from village to village with Viengphila Vaiyakone a.k.a. “La”, co-founder of Soap4Life; a charity dedicated to bringing hygiene education and soap making skills to the indigenous hill tribe people of northern Laos. We have been traveling on buses, motorcycles, flatbed trucks and two-wheeled tractors down dirt and gravel roads far back into the misty mountains and rolling-hills near the border of China.
I was alone in the room. Everyone else had apparently rolled up their mats and begun their day leaving me alone for the first time since this trip began. Through the cracks in the wall I could hear roosters, conversations I couldn’t decipher, the rattling of pots and a chopping sound. The room smelled of cigarette smoke, fish sauce and dust. All things considered the solitude was actually pleasant here under my floral velour blanket and I hesitated to stir too much or make sound for fear that someone would come to help me.
Privacy is part of the problem with being an honored guest in a tiny village that rarely gets outside visitors. Everyone wants to assist you in all tasks no matter how small. Reach for something just beyond grasp and three people will rush to bring it to you. Ask where something is and a posse will be formed to guide you to it. You have to be careful not to admire some trinket because these people, who have almost nothing to share, will likely try to give it to you without hesitation. It is all amazingly humbling and overwhelming at the same time. So, even though I felt a bit guilty about it, I decided to lie quietly for five more minutes to soak in the ambiance.
Glancing around I saw that the walls of this room, like so many others I have seen in village homes during this journey, were a third world vision board of family photos, inspirational posters and out of date calendar pictures. They depict things people living here hope to have, find sacred or long one day to achieve. The themes are of love, beauty, family, food and pets. It is rare to see visions of luxurious mansions or exotic cars in this part of the world. This home, like most other homes in this village, is a few ramshackle rooms constructed from a mélange of rough hewn wooden planks, vinyl tarps and tin. It would be easy to dismiss this place as inconsequential, but somehow through the poverty you can see pride and optimism. In spite of their circumstances, and all they have been through, these people have not been beaten.
Still in my traveling clothes, I sat up and stretched. The hard mat had actually done the pain in my strained back some good. Also, considering that the previous evening had been a fog of laughter with strangers enjoyed while sitting on tiny stools drinking beers and toasting life with Laotian rice whiskey, I felt pretty damn good.
While I was sitting there “Uncle” came in and, through my pathetic pantomimes and speaking a bit of Lao-lish, I asked where I could wash up. A posse was formed to escort me behind the house to the river to bathe. Luckily I had brought a sarong to wrap around me in the water so I could bathe without too much embarrassment. As I scrubbed I could see several sets of eyes, curious to see the pale giant bathe, discreetly watching me from the nearby tangle of bushes along the stream. The water was cold, but with only a minimum of shivering and muttering under my breath I managed to get washed. I even managed to do a little laundry on a nearby rock.
Feeling refreshed I gathered my things and walked up the riverbank back toward the house. I hung my clothes over a line and started to wander the dirt streets a bit. I guess the appeal of watching the “falang” was starting to wear off because my entourage had dwindled to a few five year olds more interested in playing with an old bicycle tire than in watching me. I went back to the sleeping/dining/lounge/parlor room and found everything had been rearranged. All of the nighttime things had been stacked against the back wall and a big serving tray with a few pieces of fruit and flower arrangement had been placed in the center of the room. I could smell the aroma of cooking nearby and I let my nose and the sound of clanking of pots guide me to the location.
I found some steep clay stairs that had been carved out of the hillside and discovered the cooking area. Apparently they build kitchens away from the main part of the house because smoldering coals and open flames don’t mix well with wooden construction. Inside I found a frenzy of women peeling and chopping; gossiping and laughing. Large blacken pots steamed over wood fires and an embarrassment of vegetables that I had never seen before sat in baskets waiting for their turn at the cutting board. Chickens were being plucked, singed free of feathers over the open fires and there was obviously much excitement in the air.
I left the kitchen and found “La” in an open space near the river just behind the house. There were more children playing in the dust and fish soups were being prepared on makeshift stoves. There were maybe twenty people in all; laughing with each other and smiling at me. The women added more ingredients and stirred the pots with long wooden spoons, while the men squatted on their heels, smoking cigarettes and sheepishly watching the scene.
I asked “La” (even though she is not completely fluent in English, her language skills are far advanced above mine) what was happening. She said there was going to be a celebratory feast today and all of this was in preparation. I asked what they were celebrating and she gave me a strange look that seemed to say, “How could you not know?” She went on to explain that the feast was a celebration of our visit and to wish us well on our further journeys. When I remarked how much food they were making she told me that the whole village (I would guess around 50 people) would be coming. They were very honored by our visit.
I was taken aback. All of this generosity was for us? We were in a place where many people survive on less than $1,000 USD a year and they were doing this for our benefit. I didn’t know how to react. In this place, a place where my country had done so much harm, these people had opened their hearts and their homes to me without hesitation or reservation. Without any sign of jealousy toward my lifestyle, they were freely sharing a part of theirs with me. Even though by most accounts they didn’t have enough, they wanted me to have part of what they did have.
Then she told me, “and they killed a pig for you!” I was stunned. I knew that the sacrificing of a pig is reserved for only the most special of guests on the most special of occasions. I know how precious their animals are to them and how deficient diets in this part of the world can be in protein. Now on top of everything else, they had shown in the way that to them says most clearly, how much my visit meant to them. The horrible scream that I had heard that morning; was for me.
I didn’t know how to react so I just stood there and watched the commotion. The village elders started gathering in the sleeping/dining/lounge/parlor room and “La” and I were asked to come in. We were given places on the floor near the large serving tray which was now covered with fruits, candy bars, balls of sticky rice, shot glasses filled with Lao Lao and the head of the pig and few pieces of boiled organ meat. La explained that before we had our meal, the elders were going to perform a Baci ceremony.
A Baci is a ritual that celebrates important events such as entering the monkhood, marriage, a new baby, or in the case of this one, welcoming guests of ‘importance’, combined with wishes for safe travels. It is a pre-Buddhist ritual, said to be a fusion of animist, Buddhist and Hindu traditions, practiced by the indigenous peoples of SE Asia. The ceremony begins with the chanting an ancient “kwan” (calling of the souls) led by the “maw pawn” or village elder and is meant to religiously synchronize the body’s organs. As the maw pawn began several others began to join in and recite, quietly at first, a well-practiced mantra. As they went on volume increased and as did the speech rate. I am not sure if the language was a Kamu Hill Tribe dialect or maybe Pali, but it was certainly something I didn’t recognize. After several minutes the kwan reached a crescendo and them all was quiet.
When the mantra was complete the maw pawn took my hand and placed a piece of the pig’s liver in my palm. He indicated that I should continue to hold my hand out and, while he chanted another invocation, he tied a white string around my wrist. I then ate the liver, which actually tasted quite nice, but admittedly I was a little put off by the pig’s head staring at me.
At that point many of the other guests gathered around, took my hands and began tying more pieces of string on to my wrists. The threads are meant to be symbolic of peace, harmony, good health, good fortune, and a reminder of human warmth and the community. By the time everyone finished I had dozens of threads tied on my wrists and we began doing shots of rice whiskey. Someone would say ‘tam chok’ (apparently the Laotian equivalent of ‘cheers’) and I would say, ‘down the hatch’ or ‘here’s mud in your eye’ and everyone would have a great laugh. Even though we couldn’t exactly communicate, a never-ending series of smiles and gestures said everything that needed to be said. I was having a great time and the feast hadn’t even begun.
After the food was laid out we all filed back in and took our places back on the floor near our tray. There were now several more trays and they were filled with bowl, after plate, after bowl of delicious looking food. There were mushrooms and chicken and tender bamboo shoots and morning glory and kale. There were plates of tender river fish wrapped in banana leaves and plates of tiny dried fish (which I have now discovered you are supposed to eat head, bones and all). The aroma was a tasty mix of cooked meat, garlic, fish sauce, hot chilies and other indescribable flavors. There were huge baskets of sticky rice and of course more Lao Lao.
This was the middle of a trip that — while not easy — was exactly the reason I love to travel. I have learned that ironically — comfort can be sacrifice — and only through the frame of the yen of difficult travels, can we completely know the true privilege of the yang of luxury travel. Travel like this also renews your faith that, despite some very ugly outliers, the human family is basically good. These people, who have very little to share, were doing their best to wish me luck, safe journeys and to have a happy and prosperous life. They may not be what most would consider highly educated, but they know in their hearts something important that many of us have forgotten. Life is about experiences and relationships and once the basics are taken care of, not how much you have.
About the Writer
Jonathan Look, a photographer and writer, lives by the philosophy: “Why sip life from a straw when you can drink it from a fire hose?” You can sign up for his newsletter here, visit his website at LifePart2.comor visit him on Facebook.
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