Index of events
Sticky rice is hard work! (December 14th, 2020) Hmong New Year celebrations are traditionally held at the end of the rice harvest based on the lunar calendar. This year the events were curtailed due to the virus, but sticky rice was still produced in Phoumieng village. In the video below Bounchan, our village coordinator, is wearing a blue jacket with his back to us at the start. His wife, Noi, is in the pink sweater on the far right. Mother Daw – in the blue top & kerchief – is helping Noi wrap rice cakes in banana leaves. Toward the end of the video son Vong is holding another young villager and is quite pleased with himself.
Bounchan and Noi spent the afternoon of August 1st, 2019 with son, Vong, gathering bamboo shoots for a family meal that evening. (August 25th, 2019)
The Hmong New Year (1) (December 7th, 2018) Starting off the New Year celebrations was a rope-loop ceremony to send away all the bad things of the old year: bad luck, bad omens, demons, negative forces, devils, etc. The intent is to protect all living family members from evil spirits. A loop is formed from a bent tree and a rope made from straw grass that is attached to the top and bottom of the tree.
Participants walk through the loop several times in one direction, and then repeat in the opposite direction. Once finished the shaman conducting the ceremony blesses participants with good fortune, health, luck, prosperity, and happiness for the upcoming year. A rooster who was part of the ceremony was not so fortunate.
The first photo shows kids arriving first as the loop is prepared. In the 2nd photo the loop appears; the bundle of plant fronds suspended above the ground will be pulled aside as people march through. Notice that the man wearing the camouflage hat is holding plant fronds in his right hand, and also a rooster dangling head downward in the 3rd photo. In the 4th photo the left, bent-over woman is reaching for an axe; it’s never good to be a rooster in such ceremonies. Notice that the plant fronds are attached by symbolic red cloth strips to the tree.
The 5th photo shows the collapsed loop, followed by one showing people bending to go through the loop under the bundle of plant fronds. Photo 7 shows people moving through the loop in the reverse direction – notice the houses in the rear. Photo 8 has a good view of the surrounding mountains as people are passing out of the loop. The woman in the indigo top is doing double duty with a baby on her back and front. The child on her back is keeping an eye on us.
There is no mobile reception in the village, but the 2 phones evident in the photos are an indication of how reasonable phones & rates are in Laos, unlike Canada where we are completely ripped off !!
The Hmong New Year (2) (December 7th, 2018) After the opening rope-loop ceremony of the New Year celebrations to banish evil spirits described above, many families have one of the village shamans perform a soul-calling ritual (Hu plig -- "who plee") in their house. Hmong believe each person to have 12 main souls which must remain in harmony for good health. If disharmony occurs souls sometimes leave the body, which can cause serious illness, and a lost soul may be taken captive by a malevolent spirit. Soul-calling returns the wandering souls to reunite with the family.
For the village adolescents there are two fun activities: the spinning top game, Tuj lub (“Too loo”), which is touched on briefly in the December 2nd posting below, and the ball tossing game, Pov pob.
There are 2 ways of playing the spinning top game: the simplest is to see whose top will continue spinning the longest, the more interesting is to knock your opponents’ tops out of the game – which leads to some intense action.
The ball tossing game is, in fact, an “ice-breaker” to promote social interaction between young men and women who are normally not encouraged to interact. It’s one way of finding and checking out a potential spouse and often leads to marriage later on. Two lines are formed 10 to 15 feet apart. Girls can toss the ball to other girls or boys, but boys can only throw to girls. It’s a taboo to throw the ball to someone of the same clan; that is, with the same last name. In some versions if a ball is dropped, or missed, an ornament or other item is given to the throwing partner which can be recovered by singing songs. The songs are traditional courtship songs, though among many expats in the US the teenagers bring their own favourite music. And even middle-aged community members join in, including widowers and divorcees.
In the photos:
Both games are visible in the 1st photo: boys have 7 tops spinning on the ground to the left (zoom in), and a mixed group is engaged in the ball toss on the right. Some traditional costumes are evident in the 2nd photo as the ball toss game is about to start. The social element of this game seems to be working well in the 3rd photo as the girl with the umbrella, and holding the ball, is sharing a good laugh with the boy behind her. Note the indigo accents on her outfit – and some of the others, and the traditional hats that all the young women have on.
The remaining photos indicate the intensity of the spinning tops game: the young man wearing the Chelsea pants and orange top is poised to blast an opponent out of the game, while the lad in the dark blue tee shirt in the following photo appears to have just made a contact. Notice the tilted solar panel to the left of the roof in these two photos. Around the corner to the right of the game are a group of future stars practicing their technique in the final photo.
Practicing for New Year's (December 2nd, 2018) A new moon will begin in Luang Prabang at 2:20 pm on December 7th which signals the start of the Hmong New Year. Celebrations coincide with the end of the rice harvest as families honour ancestors and house spirits.
Part of the New Year activities involve games of spinning tops -- called Tuj Lub (“too loo”). In preparation for the Tuj Lub games village youngsters have been busy practicing as seen in the 2 photos and 2 videos. You’ll want to zoom in on the videos to see the tops; look for a white piece of cardboard. In both videos the boys appear to be admiring the duration of the spins before gleefully succumbing to instincts to knock their rivals’ tops out of competition.
At 19 seconds in the longer video the boy on the right (light blue tee-shirt, blue shorts) skillfully lands his top on the cardboard.
Videos: 27 sec. spinning top: https://youtu.be/p2VRSuxZFmk
10 sec. video: https://youtu.be/MNLxjayltzE
A wedding in Phoumieng ! On Friday, November 9th, 2018 Ms Ma Hang – daughter of Mrs Sua Hang & Mr Chay Hang – married Mr Neng Vang. Ma will take her husband’s family name.
Village chief at the time, Xia Por Vang, signed a document to confirm that the couple were married.
One of the village shamans will visit the house of the couple on each of the first 3 days of marriage to ask the spirits for health and prosperity. (Hmong people are spirit worshippers; a later posting will describe some of their beliefs and ceremonies.)
On the banquet menu was pork soup and vegetables.
In the photos: The first 4 photos show the feast – there are some interesting details if you zoom in on your cell phone (“Ctrl +” on your PC). Unfortunately, Bounchan Her, our village contact and photographer, had to leave the celebration early to get back to Luang Prabang before the rain intensified. So, there are no good photos of the bride and groom. The 5th photo shows Ma under the arrow. And in the 6th photo Ma is dressed in black and blue under the canopy on the left, rear; Neng is wearing a black shirt and looking to the right. Notice that Neng has a blue band on his arm; blue is made from indigo leaves and is important in Hmong traditions. Perhaps this is the origin of the Western tradition of weddings: “something borrowed, something blue …” – but most likely from prized indigo from the Orient during medieval times.
Village chief Xia Por Vang is enjoying tobacco smoked in a bamboo pipe in the 7th photo; in the background, dressed in black and holding an umbrella, is assistant chief Jongjar Vang. The chief is pictured with his son in the 8th photo, and the assistant chief is speaking in the 9th photo.
In the left, rear of the 1st photo is a boy who is looking at a cell-phone (groan!! -- “Et in Arcadia ego” : Nicolas Poussin). There is no mobile reception in the village, but he apparently took some photos of the couple that Bounchan will try to get hold of.
Ma and some family members were featured in rice harvest photos posted on November 5th.
Very interesting information on Hmong textile motifs can be found at : https://hauteculturefashion.com/hmong-textile-patterns/ including the following : "According to oral history, long ago when the Hmong were still concentrated in China, they were forbidden to use their original, written language, which was made up of picture symbols. So the women started sewing the symbols into their skirts to create messages, disguising them as patterns."
(I haven't yet verified this, and will check with Bounchan's wife Noi.)
Making paper (October 26th, 2018) Now that sunny days have arrived villagers can again make paper using rice stalks or young bamboo. The young bamboo is first sliced and boiled in water with ashes until it’s soft. (The ashes must be white ash from a hot fire.) It’s then pounded and returned to a large bucket of water, and finally spread on a cloth frame to dry. The paper will only dry in the sun.
Surprisingly, the paper is not sold to Luang Prabang shops for income, but only used in the village according to Bounchan – our village contact, “for cultural activities. We use paper for shaman ceremonies, and when someone dies for funeral rites.” The paper is cut into small pieces and burned when the shaman needs it. “Sometimes when they do a ceremony, they do not have enough, and borrow from each other.” The village is proud to have 6 famous shamans.
When asked why they don’t make more for sale, Bounchan replied that “It’s just for private use, and the villagers spend almost all their time in the rice fields.” (The tyranny of the rice fields!)
A tourist-oriented activity in Luang Prabang demonstrates a few shaman ceremonies at the following link (everything is getting monetized): www.backstreetacademy.com/luang-prabang/1664/traditional-hmong-shaman-ceremonies
Photo 1 shows the pounding step, Bounchan’s youngest daughter, Kai, is beside the large bucket of slurry in photo 2, and the remaining photos show Bounchan’s mother, Daw, spreading the slurry on a cloth frame, and finally setting it out to dry. The finished product is impressively white, and thick – given how thinly the mixture was spread. A short (13 second) video at the end of the gallery shows the technique for spreading the slurry on the frame.
Earning money during the rainy season (September 27th, 2018) Besides the difficulties brought by the rainy season, the villagers do enjoy some benefits: Mushrooms can only be harvested in the jungle for 2 or 3 months during the rainy season. When dried they fetch up to 400,000 Kip ($61 Cdn) per kilogram on the Chinese market. In one of the photos a mother is describing a mushroom to a group of young girls, in another mushrooms are being dried. In context, annual school fees in Phoumieng are 50,000 Kip -- which some families cannot afford.
But, as noted below in the July posting below, there are perils to entering the jungle, especially in rainy season.
Street meat. Here’s to you,Tony! (September 18th, 2018) One way to control mice & rats in the rice fields is to trap them, which boys do. Larger mice are purchased by itinerate middlemen for between 3,000 to 5,000 Kip ($0.45 to $0.75 Cdn), and the boys can sometimes make 10,000 Kip in an afternoon, though usually it takes about a week. If they earn 5,000 Kip they get to keep it for candy; 10,000 or more usually goes to the family. (A bit of an inverse incentive not to trap more, or at least not to tell your parents!)
Grilled mice are sold in the Luang Prabang morning market for between 10,000 to 15,000 Kip ($1.50 to $2.25 Cdn). Squirrels, being larger, fetch 25,000 to 30,000 Kip. Both are also sold dried for later consumption because of a lack of refrigeration. According to Bounchan squirrels taste much better because mice live in the earth and do not have a very tasty diet!
Aside from fruit & vegetables, the morning market in Luang Prabang sells some exotic creatures: wasp larvae, beetles, Mekong river crabs, bats, mice, rats, squirrels, and other bush meat. Six of the market photos below were taken by Madi during our visit, the balance are from the internet.
Tony Bourdain visited Luang Prabang: season 9, episode 3 -- available on Netflix. Netflix also carries the remarkable “Vietnam” series by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick which references the bombing of Laos during the not-so-“secret” war.
More rainy season perils – landslides (August 30th, 2018) Rainy season lasts from late May through late October with the most rain falling in August. Landslides and erosion often make the final 8 km dirt road to the village impassable for such as the “Chinese buffalo” tractors used by the villagers, and even occasionally impossible for motorcycle dirt bikes.
Villagers clear the path with shovels & adzes; if the blockage is large the village chief will collect money to hire a plow.
The photos below (received August 25th) show a few of the landslides, and washouts. Bounchan's wife Noi is in the first photo.
As soon as the rains ease up and the road becomes passable, 15 solar generator sets will be delivered via one of the Chinese buffalo tractors – perhaps the one shown in the photo with the kids & dog.