The frail old man ambled gradually, carrying a live chicken by the neck. He hunker down over a woven basket of flowers, eggs, and candles, and curved the chicken over it, singing and humming.
This was the hamlet shaman, preparing the chicken for slaughter to drive out an indignant flavor blamed for the sickness of a villager, my guide told me. That’s when I detected the knife.
For a brief instant, before Western reflexes kicked in, I believed in his supremacy. I find the power and goal of the ancient ways of life in Muang La in Northern Laos.
Close to China, the area is home to ethnic minority tribes living off of the territory and practicing a traditional culture that has changed little in hundreds of years. Sowed across the remote, postcard-perfect mountains of luxuriant greenery and rice fields, the tribes of Muang La offer visitors the privilege of knowing their nature.
But the days of undisturbed legitimacy are numbered in Muang La, and Laos in general. The Chinese are expending heavily throughout the country, building infrastructure that threatens the undeveloped tranquility of much of the country, including Muang La.
One of the most important changes entering is a high-speed train line being built to China, which will cut through Oudomxay, a small metropolitan about an hour from Muang La. Today, Muang La villagers enjoy accepting a small number of visitors, but they fear the learn will bring growth and gathering of sightseers.
Their culture is also being threatened from inside. With a recent Lao government commission that tribal children attend school, a very young generations are already moving to towns and cities to live modern lives.
Laos, with its own population of roughly 7 million, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordering China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It’s home to 49 the various ethnic groups recognised in the Lao government, but some approximation there to be more than 200. Oudomxay province, specific the Muang La region, is residence to Akha, Hmong, Khamu, and Lao tribes, about 18,000 beings spread over 44 villages.
The three-week trip–our honeymoon–was a sweep through Southeast Asia in late December, which is meridian season. Everywhere we led was army and full of sightseers, except Muang La, where there were just any other visitors.
The hamlets were rustic, but a see to Muang La can be opulent. We abode at Muang La Lodge, about a 45 -minute drive from the mountains where the tribes live. The resort is mount over a flow with natural hot springs, with meat from local groceries, fisheries, and cooks, and only 10 areas. It was an unpretentious indulging. The only nuisance was a stray goat we have now shoo away from the consortium.
Some reach Muang La from the capitals, Vientiane, which has flights to Oudomxay, the city about an hour longer. But, like us, most come from Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage city known for its Buddhist temples, French colonial building, and the Mekong River. It’s a popular end full of sightseers, but it’s managed to retain often of its accuracy and Buddhist culture.
But huge billboards just outside the city acclaim the arising civilize to China, the same train that contacted Muang La–with gangs of Chinese works already on the ground.
The drive from Luang Prabang to Muang La is about six hours. Along the curvy, narrow, and steep roads that precede north, behemoth trucks bearing Chinese words barrel through, coming within inches of children who play on the side of the road.
But as we remained driving, signals of the modern world gradually faded. The fear of being hit by a truck was replaced with the hindrance of waiting for swine to cross the road.
As we got close to Muang La, our tour guide discerned village representatives celebration. We pulled over, hoping to observe. Instead, the villagers resulted us to a large bowl of homemade fermented rice wine-coloured, then pressed fires of Lao whiskey against our lips, clapping as we booze.
They pulled us onto the jig floor( a soil patch on the side of the road covered by a canopy) to join in singing, playing music, and traditional hop. They shrieked out “ha!” while stomping a paw to the dirt and perforating the opposite limb in the air.
They were amazed at how well I picked up their moves , not knowing I was a former professional ballet dancer. Perhaps it was the whiskey, but I couldn’t withstand sharing some ballet with them. I cleared the floor and played my best jete and switches a la second. “Ballet!” yelled an older man who was the village art teacher, as a 5-year-old boy tried to copy me.
For a moment, we were one of them. There was no exchange of views among coin or goods, merely kindnes and kindness, even without expressing the same speech.
From there, we drove another hour into the remote mountains, where we reached the village with the shaman and the chicken. After the slaughter, I checked my pocket for the granola rail I fetched, loath I’d have to kill my next banquet. A few moments later, young boys proudly demonstrated how they tie worms into a trap to catch chicks for dinner.
The hamlets are intensely poor. Mothers work in the rice fields all day, leaving small children, some without gasps, to spend their days unsupervised, passing barefoot over the grunge. A dame who seemed to be about 100 years old, with two, maybe three teeth, told us she was in pain and asked for medication. We inspected glorified cabins, that inside, had thin wooden timbers serving as terraces and desks over a dirt flooring. It was the government run school.
We weren’t expecting to see such poverty because Luang Prabang, while meagre, had much more modern living conditions. No one reminded us that the mountain tribes were far less well-off, so we arrived without anything to give them for their hospitality. We felt disconcerted and rapidly looked for a room to picture our appreciation.
We stopped in a small shop selling meagre provisions–instant noodles, soy milk, candy, and newborn pulverize. We bought and distributed what we could, but it seemed paltry. Six months later, I still repents not being better prepared for site visits.
We wondered why the tribes don’t move to areas with more opening. Our guide told us that they want to preserve their way of life, and part of that is privation.
Rather than dwell on the poor conditions, we focused on the opportunity to soak up this time capsule–teenage girls and boys in traditional garment standing in line for a courtship ritual, a young mom tapping a stick on the dirt to allay her child to sleep, older women around beaded headdresses sieving rice and parcelling it in big chocolate-brown sackings, and boars and chickens wandering freely. They would be dinner–on special reasons. Otherwise, “its been” fowls and rodents.
Many of the children were afraid of me–it was my bald foreman, our guide explained–but one little son let me educate him to high-five.
We returned to Luang Prabang by boat along the Nam Ou River, taking in sights of angler, irrigate buffalo, and trees with massive roots that seemed centuries old-time. But our tranquil ride was interrupted by the construction of a dam by–of course–a Chinese busines. To give to another boat, we had to stop at the dam, hike up high-pitched into the construction and cross a narrow step one inch away from employees spouting soaked cement. One stumble, and we would have been concrete.
The sight of the huge, potent dam taking over the river and mountains manufactured me long for the tribes and their Animism, a religion that ascribes someones to inanimate objects and worships sort.
I recalled an experience from the tribe trip I cared I could have shared with the barrier developers. Back in the village, I snuck behind a bush to alleviate myself and our steer warned me to ask the bush for allow, lest I anger it. He wasn’t kidding–so I did it. I didn’t want to piss off the gods.