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In the Hmong village

This morning we had time to go to a local Hmong village before our flight back to Vientiane. It was the same group as yesterday, minus the French lady, and Soen was again our guide. As a native Hmong he knows the language and also seems to be very familiar with the villagers. No doubt this is a regular run that he makes.

We headed out of Phonsovan passing the local teacher training college and lots of young kids cycling and walking to school. After about twenty minutes we came to a small village along the side of the road and then turned off to the right along a dirt road. This road went through a small forest, past a quarry and then out into a village.

At the first house we were invited to come in and have a look. As with the village we had seen yesterday, the house was made up of four or five different buildings set within a fenced off area. The main house was no more than a bamboo hut with a compacted earth floor. It was quite large but inside it was incredibly basic. A fireplace had a few burning embers still glowing and a few low stools were dotted about for people to sit on. Above the hearth on a bamboo rack the family’s cooking pots were stored and the space was also used for curing meat. Along the back wall was a small animist shrine. The family had no possessions other than their clothes, cooking pots and their animals.  A small bed was pushed into one corner of the room.

In the wet season the dirt road from the village to the main road is impassable and the families are now moving to the main road. When they move they do not just take their few possessions with them, they also take their house. The family who had invited us in are moving next week but because they have no money they will have to walk the few kilometres to the main road carrying their belongings and their house with them. They will still have to come back to the village to tend their fields and to go up into the jungle to get the firewood they need.

They were incredibly poor. We had not realised that we would be going into people’s houses and had not come armed with gifts that we could leave for them. All we could do is promise to send copies of the photos we had taken. We had the same problem for the next couple of hours as we were taken on a tour of what turned out to be quite a large village. There must have been more than fifty homesteads in the village, each surrounded by a bamboo fence and each with a main house and a few outbuildings.

Most families had pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys running around freely and there were also some cows. Some of the pigs and cows had sturdy branches tied horizontally around their necks to stop them getting into the fields and eating the crops. Most families also had a bull. These were penned in to small bamboo enclosures and they looked like they spent most of their time there. They seemed pretty docile but Soen said that at New Year the bulls fight each other.

Under one of the houses an old woman and two girls were preparing sugar cane. The cane has been peeled, cut into small pieces and put into a large pestle. The girls stand at one end of a large plank of wood that has club shaped stump at the other end. They paddle the wood up and down so that the club mashes the sugar cane which is then fermented.

The village has grown up around a small valley. On the valley floor are fields for rice and other crops. A couple of women were working in the fields bringing in a crop which they will then sell at the market in Phonsovan. Soen offered to drive them into town but they were not ready to leave at the same time as us. Instead we took three large sacks of their crop to the main road and they walked with the rest later in the day. The sacks looked really heavy so I have no idea how they would have made it.

A boy from one of the families had earned a scholarship to study chemistry in Germany. He met a German girl there who he has now married, not easy as Laos people are forbidden by law from having relationships with foreigners. They now live in Vientiane and have children. I would just love to meet them and find out how they, or in particular the German lady, manage the cultural divide. The houses here are so basic there are no bathrooms or toilets. When Bill needed the loo Soen asked if it was just for a pee and then told him just to go wherever he wanted.

As with the villages we passed in China and the rest of Laos, even though these people are incredibly poor they seem contented with their lot. The men spend their days up in the jungle collecting wood while the women keep house and tend the fields. The children go to school from the age of six and spend ten to twelve years in school learning a wide range of subjects. We were met with friendly smiles and had many women inviting us into their houses and even to join them for a meal. They were incredibly photogenic but having a group of westerner shoving large cameras in their faces did not really sit comfortably with me and Stef so while the others snapped, and got good photos, we took a bit of a back seat.

Hmong woman and child (and tree)

In total we spent about three hours ambling around the village. I was just staggered by the conditions these people live in. Water comes from a spring down in the valley, any heat or power comes from burning trees, there is no concept of hygiene or waste disposal, rubbish is simply strewn about between the houses, and everywhere you walk you are dodging animal droppings. The smell was quite over powering at times.

We whiled away some time in the afternoon while waiting for our flight back to Vientiane. After a couple of hours waiting at the airport our plane arrived and everyone got on board. Behind the pilots is a sealed off compartment which is normally used to store everyone’s luggage. On this trip though bags and cases went somewhere else as two patients from the local hospital were laid out flat in the luggage space. The medical facilities in Laos are basic and people are usually sent to Thailand for anything more than basic treatment. They could not have had a very comfortable flight at all.

At the airport we got chatting briefly to a woman we had seen on the flight out. She is a PHD student from Wiltshire and is here trying to get work with UNESCO on projects to clear unexploded ordnance (UXO). She has been accompanied by a local man who works for the tourism section of the government. I think he has probably had a bit of a hard time with her. She is trying to explain that more and more people will come to Phonsovan to see the Plain of Jars and that there needs to be a tourist infrastructure to support it. Linked to this is the need to continue with the UXO clearance programme. She told us that MAG, the British Company that UNESCO contract for UXO clearance, have a much lower work rate than the local Laos company who are now specialists in this field. Whether the stats she was using were a like for like comparison we do not know but she certainly was enthusiastic about her subject.

Back in Vientiane we were met with a really warm and friendly welcome at the Inter Hotel. We checked into our room, enjoying the air conditioning as Vientiane is warm and muggy compared to the cooling breezes of Phonsovan. In the evening we decided to eat at one of the local places on the river. For a few hundred metres there are lots of little eateries with plastic tables and chairs, nightlights in empty water bottles and the occasional street light. The “kitchens” are simply trestle tables with a small barbecue style grill in front and a cool box of drinks. They serve up very simple but tasty food and our salted grilled fish was delicious. Being along the river they have no facilities and I watched with surprise as the lady at the table behind Stef got up, climbed over the fence, walked down the river bank, pulled up her sarong and promptly peed in full view of anyone at the tables. It is the Laos way but not the nicest of sights when you are eating your dinner!