Laos: Living with the Yao

Prohibited from seeing the ongoing party with government officials (Laos is socialist, remember?) , we turned our attention to the two Yao women doing some embroidery.

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I sat on a woven stool beside one of them and asked Som to ask for permission to take her pic.

“If you buy something, you can take her picture,” came the translated reply.

In exchange for  red and blue-colored hanging ornament that cost only 5,000k, I took pictures as much as I wanted to.

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Having rested our weary legs, we continued on the cemented road on the village to our lodging.  On the way, we passed by a house with a death ceremony going on.

Celebration for the Dead

I have been quite lucky with death ceremonies during my travels.  In Bali, on the way to Sukawati, we passed by a house with a gamelan  playing outside. Our car driver/guide explained that there was a funeral ceremony.  He glady stopped so I could watch the  procession from the house to the field across it where some incense was burned.

Hiking with a guide in Sapa, I also passed by a house in a H’mong village where a death ceremony was going-on.  Unfortunately, the guide, a Vietnamese and not a H’mong,  didn’t know the people in the house, so we couldn’t stay and watch.

We entered the house compound which was crowded with people eating and drinking.  Inside, an altar had been set-up along the wall of the house acorss the main door.  Scrolls with printed images of Chinese dieties were hanging from a wall on the right side and on the wall behind the altar.  Hangings made from colored-paper cut-outs dangled from one corner.  A shaman (mong mo) was seated on a chair in front of the altar and chanted from a book written in Chinese calligraphy.  The chant was plaintive and quite monotonous and sung in chest tones in medium register.  In front of the altar, a young man was dressed in ceremonial Chinese dress of blue printed with large flowers.  He had on white long-sleeved shirt on top of which was a tunic of red shiny cloth.  On his head, he wore a red cap.  His right hand held a small bronze bell which he rang rhythmically with the dance steps his feet made—-small, almost mincing marching steps on the same spot or at times moving to the side while his upper body swayed side to side.  At times, he would bend his knees forward causing his upper body to stoop forward as he dropped his arms straight down nearly to the floor and moving in a fluid sweeping motion.

Out of respect, I refrained from taking any pictures of videos but I could remember the scene in my mind’s eye as I was mesmerized with it.  There was no other sound except the shaman’s voice and the bell.  Sometimes, the shaman would stop chanting but the dancing man continued his movements.

Just as I left from my post by the side door leading to the yard behind the house to join Som and Oleg, a middle-aged woman was setting some food on a typical Lao bamboo table.  The scene and atmosphere outside was different as there were people drinking and eating and  group of men who crafting some decorations from palm strips.  Another one  had just started to weave what must be a mat.

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This was post-burial celebration for a man who had died of fever at the age of 52.

I would have wanted to stay longer and watch and observe some more but we had to make out way to another village where our lodging for the night was.

We walked along the road,hanged a left and  reached a small cluster of houses.

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A group of women were doing embroidery in front of one house while children played on the empty field around which a few houses were positioned around.

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Our accommodation was a purpose-built cottage with earthen floor, woven walls and ceiling.

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On one corner was the kitchen with its earthen stove.  A simple wooden shelf held kitchen and eating and drinking utensils.

A wall separated the sleeping quarters from the rest of the cottage.  A long wooden elevated platform that run the entire length of the cottage was laid out with mattresses.  Individual mosquito nets hung from the ceiling.  Each mattress was fitted with a sheet and we had a pillow and a thick comforter for the cold night.  Simple but comfortable.

My bed space under a mosquito net. It’s more comfortable than you think.

An outhouse had a squat toilet and large plastic drums filled with water piped from a plastic hose connected to the village water source.

There was no electricity in this village except for one house which also had a refrigerator.

Som told us that the hosting chores were rotated among the families in the village with the host receiving a gratuity of 70,000k per tourist plus expenses for the food and other stuff.

Our host was a husband and wife team who seemed to be in their 40s. They had a shy little boy with them who played around with a cat.

I had asked Som about some musical instruments and he promised to find someone who could play.  He had earlier made arrangements for a shaman to come and talk with us.  He was still in the house where there was a death celebration so I just decided to just take a nap while waiting for him.

Life as a Shaman

I woke-up mid-afternoon just in time for the arrival of the shaman.  He was not at all what I imagined a shaman to be.  For one, he was middle-aged and not old.  He was dressed in red shirt and trousers.  With Som as translator, we talked about his role in the village.

He had been a shaman for 22 years already having come from a line of shamans on his father side.  He didn’t learn his craft from his father though as he was not at all interested when he was young.  It was only after getting married that he took serious interest in it and started learning from an old shaman. Currently, he has five people learning from him.  Chants and prayers are in a Chinese language that the Chinese don’t understand. Perhaps it’s an older form of Chinese or a pidgin as the Yao settled in Laos from southern China hundreds of years ago.

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The shaman holding on to a free-reed shawm called the “phan ti.”

A middle-aged guy came in with a wooden trumpet called Phan ti it looked very similar to the Vietnamese, Thai, and Malay trumpets played in ensembles.  The reed wasn’t very good so the musician and also the shaman had trouble playing it properly, much more, producing a really good sound with it.

Another guy came in bringing with him a buffalo horn (Ngu Chong) which is played by shamans only.  When someone is sick, the shaman blows the horn to call the chief of the spirits to come and help cure the person.  Primarily used as an instrument to announce something to the spirit world, it is also played when someone dies.

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We took a short stroll around the small village while the host cooked our dinner.  Unlike the earlier village, this one was more simple as there were only wooden houses.  It was also very small consisting only of a few houses.

Back at the cottage, we were treated to traditional Yao massage that was supposed to be given to guests.  How traditional it was our how Yao it was, I have no idea.  But I laid on my back while a women and her little daughter no older than 7 years, pressed on my legs, thighs, and arms with their hands.  It felt quite good.

Seated on a traditional round bamboo table found all over Laos, we had a dinner of sauteed cabbage, green pumpkin cooked in broth, grilled chicken, and steamed rice.  The host family didn’t join us which was a shame as it could have been good to interact with them despite the language barrier.  By the way, the chicken wasn’t a freshly-killed one.  Rather, it came out of a package.  Yup.  Chicken breast fillet from a frozen grocery-bought package fresh from the freezer at the only house in the village with electricity.

After dinner, five young women, beautiful in their traditional Yao dress with intricate embroidery danced to some modern Yao tunes played on a portable mp3 player.  Nothing wrong with that.  It’s the modern age.  At least the music is Yao and not Lao.  I’m not sure how traditional the dance steps are though.

It was really really cold as I crept to my mattresses and snuggled in my comforter.  Taking a bath was a real challenge as the temperature had really dropped and the water was freezing.

The next morning, I woke-up quite early and headed straight to the outhouse.  I had woken-up really early in the morning.  Dawn had yet to break and it was freezing cold but I really had to pee.  Having forgotten to bring my torch, I had to rely on the weak light of my mobile phone.  I couldn’t open the door that led to the outhouse so I tried the main door and somehow figured how to open it (a wooden pole was set against it).  It was too dark so I just peed a few steps from the main door.

I had been hearing some drumming and asked Som about it.  Our host said it was coming from the house where there was a death celebration. Unfortunately, by the time we were ready to go, the drumming had stopped.

In the middle of a breakfast of omelette and bread, a woman came in.  She had brought the head wrap I had requested!  The Yao are known for their fine  back-to-back embroidery and the head wrap had some really nice patterns on its edges.  She showed me how it’s wrapped.

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We packed our bags and our lunch which the hosts had cooked and headed to the final leg of our hike.  We had decided on a longer trail that would take use to several Akha villages.

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