|Our Really Big Adventure|
Luang Nam Tha
| We were not the first
tourists to visit the village on the riverbank, but there hadnt been
many before us. Laos is home to a huge variety of ethnic minorities, who
for the most part still speak their own languages and wear traditional clothes.
In Thailand, especially around Chiang Mai, many of these villages have become
little more than tourist zoos, with coach loads passing through every day
and children queuing up for sweets each time a group arrives. Laos is endeavouring
to learn from such mistakes, and limits both the size and the number of
groups visiting ethnic villages.
Tourism, and trekking in particular, is in its infancy in Laos. A list of trekker dos and donts aims to nip potential misunderstandings in the bud, advising modest dress, avoiding public displays of affection and other common sense courtesies. It also asks tourists not to pass straight through ethnic villages but to stop and chat, as otherwise the villagers may think they have been visited by evil spirits.
Around Luang Nam Tha itself, everyone is more used to falang, but there too we were a novelty. As we cycled around the countryside, every child would run, wave and shout Sabaidee. At times wed hear a plaintive call from somewhere behind us as a small child, worried he was missing his tourist-greeting opportunity, squealed the dee at the end.
We visited two ethnic villages, one Hmong and one Lenten. Each village was home to about thirty families. The children were shy, and at first kept away from us. With time and effort, they relaxed a little. After all, no-one could resist Rons Dutch clog dancing. By the time our boat pulled away from the Hmong village, the kids were lined up by the river doing their new dance and shouting their goodbyes.
We stopped in the Lenten village for lunch, prepared by the village chiefs wife. Our hostess was articulate and interesting, and had as many questions for us as we had for her. We learned that she was responsible not only for liasing with tourists, but also for the village health and education programmes. She showed us proudly around the village school three ramshackle classrooms with earthen floors. Telltale footprints in one of the classrooms showed that either the buffalo of the village are very well educated or there is some dual use going on here.
The trip back upriver was hair-raising as we passed through rapids and grated over barely submerged rocks. We could see why the cargo boats from the Thai border to Luang Nam Tha were not running. We arrived back at the boat landing and had time to admire the tranquil riverside setting and luxurious looking bungalows of the Boat Landing Guesthouse before heading back to the humble quarters in town we shared with our cockroach friends.
A couple of days later, we moved from the town out to the Boat Landing. We had visited the restaurant on one of our cycle trips, and discovered that luxury in Luang Nam Tha comes cheap - $10 for a smaller bungalow or $12 for the deluxe model. If we had any pangs of guilt at our extravagance, they were assuaged when Bill, the American manager, invited us to the ceremony being held that evening in the guesthouse, and to dinner afterwards.
The baasii ceremony is an important part of Lao culture and few Lao would consider undertaking a long journey or important endeavor without holding one. Laos is a predominantly Buddhist country, but the baasii and other elements of spirit worship exist side by side with Buddhism, without any apparent conflict. Bill was returning to the States for a few weeks, and his Lao colleagues wouldnt let him set off without taking the proper precautions.
We sat around a small table on which a variety of offerings were displayed bananas, sticky rice, biscuits, money and lào-láo rice whiskey. An elder recited the blessing, while everyone touched the offerings or, if they couldnt reach, the elbow of someone touching the offerings. The elder then tied a piece of string around each of Bills wrists. In Lao tradition, the soul consists of many guardian spirits that occasionally wander away from their owner. These must be called back and bound to the body to ensure a person is properly protected before any important undertaking.
Once the elder had finished blessing Bill, we all joined in, wishing him well on his journey and tying loops of string until he was wrapped from wrist to elbow. Yet more string was produced and now everyone tied string around each others wrists, whispering good wishes all the while, until the elders judged our guardian spirits were sufficiently secured and it was time to eat.
It is believed that the string must be worn
for at least three full days to ensure the desired effect, and when we
left for Luang Prabang we still wore our bracelets of white string. Looking
around the bus, we saw that we were far from the only passengers so adorned.
Luang Prabang is a big
city compared to Luang Nam Tha, and the journey a relatively arduous nine
hours. Many of our fellow passengers had made sure to summon their guardian
spirits home before setting out.