After lunch we visited another village, this time a community of Khamu (Khmer) people. The village wasn’t as affluent, but they were still self-sufficient. The peoples of Lao are talked about as being lowlanders, uplanders or highlanders, with the lowlander culture and language being dominant and with little intermingling. That said, our Tour Leader is a lowlander married to a highlander, but he seems to come from a family of rebels.
run away, run away
The village seemed to be full of children who, when we first arrived, ran away screaming. One of our party in particular, a very tall, rather gaunt, white-haired chap only had to look at them to generate shrieks. After we’d been there for a while, however, one of the women in our group had them counting to five in English (I think they already knew how, she just encouraged them) and someone else showed them how to whistle with a blade of grass between the thumbs.
The villagers have been relocated from the highlands and their traditional farming area to a lowland region with electricity supplies etc. The government has provided them with the land for their new village and with farmland nearby. It’s not clear to me how willing they were to make this move or how much choice they had and, although there are not many signs of Lao being a communist country, some questions need to be asked cautiously if at all.
Having said that these village visits were different and didn’t carry the usual sense of being a gawker at a human zoo, I was asked to reflect on what made that difference:
It’s all down to the skill of our Tour Leader, really. First of all he was Lao, and he repeatedly, and enthusiastically, told us how he wanted us to learn about his country, meet and interact with his people, go home feeling that we’d had a meaningful experience. His contention was that if we didn’t engage with the people, we hadn’t really visited at all.
He’s an unusual bloke, with a degree in English, a part-time career in tourism and a full-time vocation as a rice farmer. He managed to be really light-hearted and intensely dedicated at the same time.
He told us before our first village visit that we shouldn’t be embarrassed or offended about questions around people’s income, number of children, and all that, that this is completely normal in Lao. (And that’s something we’ve found in other places we’ve visited. It was even an issue when I was learning conversational Greek.)
He told us what to expect, he told us that he doesn’t habitually visit the same villages or the same houses so that there is no expectation that we’ll turn up and no sense of people performing in order to earn a tip.
Obviously he had to interpret, and mostly he was leading the conversation, but it was clear throughout that his engagement was was sincere. He genuinely wanted to know the statistics and he wanted us to know and to come away with an understanding of how things work. It truly wasn’t just a photo op or a ‘aren’t they quaint’ thing.
We visited different kinds of village in different areas and he drew comparisons, making a coherent narrative of these experiences. And on a couple of occasions when people wanted to give something – a box of pens, a bag of sweets – he made sure they were handed over to an elder who would distribute them appropriately.
It was all about seeing the culture at a day-to-day level and building up a bigger picture over the course of two weeks.
— words & pictures by Elizabeth