"Live on the hills, die in the valleys" Khoueng Louangphrabang by mke1963

Khoueng Louangphrabang Travel Guide: 1,090 reviews and 2,775 photos

A Hmong village at New Year

As the low cloud evaporated with the morning sun's heat, the hillsides start to harden: the shadows and colours of the rocks, cliffs and trees take form and shape. On a small grass plot, four girls stand in a line opposite four young men. All are dressed in traditional Hmong clothing, blues, blacks and reds. Silver and aluminium jewellery adorns the girls' clothes and hair. Four small soft balls are tossed backwards and forwards between each partner. The ball is caught and lobbed gently back again. Nearby, several older women, their faces worn with time and labour, concentrate on the courtship rituals being performed. If mutual interest develops sufficiently, the young couple may disappear for three days to a special building to further explore their compatibility. Parents and siblings patiently await their return, in case the romance is announced as an engagement. This would be followed by a wedding of elaborate traditional ceremonies. This morning, no-one leaves the line, and the little balls continue to arc between the two lines amidst small talk and chatter.

Just up the road a few metres, some of the older men gather round two burning logs. It is not cold, but the flames dispel the cool dampness from fingers and hair. They mutter to each other, as older men do everywhere.
This village of just 200 people has been moved from the hilltop ridges above the eastern bank of the Nam Ou river to this roadside location on the west bank of the valley. Ostensibly for their protection from bands of roving bandits, it is seen more as an extensive programme to assimilate the Hmong into lowland Lao Lum society, and cut the links, rapport and sympathy with the bandits.
Over many generations, the Hmong have lived on the hilltops, as they continue to do in Laos and Thailand, and in China in Yunnan and Guizhou (where they are known as the Miao). An old Hmong saying suggests that "if you want a hard life, stay in the hills; if you want to die, stay on the plains". Originally this referred to the incessant military incursions across the plains and valleys of Laos, for during the last 300 years every one of Laos' neighbours have swept across the country sacking, burning and murdering the population. Now, though, death comes from lowland diseases, especially malaria.

Did the village move here willingly? The men look evasive. They exchange a few words between themselves. "The land is not as good as it was before, but we get many good things from the road", one says. At that moment, a heavily-loaded truck roars past to reinforce the point. There is silence. I have stirred memories. Or perhaps resentment. I regret my clumsy intrusion into their small world. Eventually the oldest man nods up at the ridges across the valley and says "The view is not as good now". His friends nod in agreement. Up there, the villagers would farm how they have always farmed, and live as they have lived for generations. A few hectares of forest would be burnt, then planted for a few years, before being left to regenerate. Every few generations, the village would move to a different nearby ridge, moving around a small land of familiar territory over a long time. These techniques do not work in the valley, and the adaptation is painful. Now they need different tools, different plants and different routines for unfamiliar soils and climates.

A little girl arrives carrying a soft ball. She throws it to her father who catches it awkwardly. It breakes the melancholy and everyone laughs. Thoughts return to the New Year and the courtship. As we part, all I can say is that I hope one day they will get their hills back again.

The village lies on the road from Louang Phabang to Pakmeng in north-central Laos. I don't want to name it.
Hmong New Year lasts, I believe, about six days in any one village, and starts between the end of November and the end of December, depending upon the (dry or mountain) rice harvest activities.

Photos have been taken from villages in the area, not necessarilty the one I write about.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Getting to the heart of Lao people and landscape
  • Cons:Getting to the heart of Lao politics
  • In a nutshell:Beauty on the surface, but don't scratch
  • Last visit to Khoueng Louangphrabang: Dec 2003
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Comments (1)

  • Dec 28, 2007 at 10:59 PM

    Beautifully written. Only if peace and harmony still strives today. See: youtube.com, hunted like animals. :0(


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