Friday, July 22, 2016

The Reclusive Alu of Laojizhai

                                       by Jim Goodman

Alu woman, Laojizhai district
       Yunnan is famous for its great variety of ethnic minorities.  Altogether the province is home to 25 different minority nationalities, but the larger ones are divided into many sub-groups.  Even when they live in the same physical environments, these sub-groups may dress very differently from each other.  Nowhere is this ethnic diversity more obvious than in Lower Ailaoshan, below the Red River in Honghe Prefecture, especially Yuanyang and Jinping Counties.
       Officially, it’s Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture and the Hani and Yi are the majority of Yuanyang and Jinping County’s population, divided into several sub-groups each.  The area is also home to Dai and Zhuang in the valleys and Yao and Miao in the hills, all of them with at least three sub-groups each.  For the traveler, a big part of the enchantment of the two counties, besides the scenery of irrigated rice terraces climbing up the mountains, is the fact that nearly all the females dress in traditional ethnic clothing. 
       This makes the many market day venues in the towns particularly colorful, but also a way of finding out who lives in the vicinity.  The greatest variety is at the Sunday Laomeng market, my own favorite, south of Xinjie, just inside Jinping County.  It was here that I first spotted women in black garments, with lots of color embellishments, silver studs and multi-colored woven belts.  People in the market identified them as Alu but didn’t now if they were Yi or Hani or something else.
Duoni Hani gitls
Laowo Yi girl
       They were from Laojizhai district, up the mountain south of Laomeng.  In the company of my Hani friend from Huangcaoling, with a couple days left in my time in the area, we headed for Laojizhai in search of the Alu.  It was also market day there, but we arrived when the action had already shut down.  The last Alu family was packing up and only a couple dozen Hani were still around. 
       The remaining Hani included the headman of the nearest village, 3 km away, so we accepted his invitation and had our evening meal there.  The women of this Hani sub-group, the Duoni, dress like those of the Doko Hani of Huangcaoling, except that the girls wore the silver-studded ‘chicken hat’ worn by the Nisu Yi of Yuanyang. 
Alu Yi family
foggy morning in an Alu village
       Their dialect also differed considerably from that spoken around Huangcaoling or Xinjie, such that the headman and my Hani friend found it easier to converse in Chinese than in Hani.  The headman also remarked that night that according to their history, the Duoni are Hani.  But their customs are mostly Yi.  He didn’t elaborate, but I recalled a Hani adage I was already familiar with—“Hani and Yi are children of the same mother.” 
Alu weaver at work
Knowing the headman of the nearest Alu village, 5 km out of Laojizhai, he arranged to take us there by tractor-trailer in the morning.  Unfortunately, thick fog covered the area the entire excursion.  We couldn’t see past ten meters, so I had no idea of the landscape or the view.  But once the foreigner and his entourage got to the village, I at least got to see what the people looked like.  Within minutes folks of all ages came to get a glimpse of me, well within my ten meters of visibility range.
       Black is the basic color for practically all of their clothing components: jacket, loose trousers and headdress.  Yet it also serves as a background to accentuate all the colorful additions.  These include bands of colored strips around the calves of the trousers, piping on the sleeves, a short blue apron, appliquéd patches on the jacket sides, sleeve cuffs and the top flap of the headdress.  The women’s jackets also feature vertical sections on the front lapels comprising many rows of little silver studs.  The front of the headdress may also be studded in a similar way, while from the flaps on each side hang little red pompoms. 
       As with most ethnic fashions, variations exist in the general style.  Older women may use less color embellishment.  Younger women may wear a round cap, studded widely across the front and topped with flowers on each side.  The men’s outfits are less colorful—plain black for the older men, but for the younger generation color on the jacket cuffs, hems and pockets.
      Alu women purchase from the market most of the materials used to make their clothing.  The one item they make themselves is the multi-colored belt, 10-15 cm wide, that ties around the jacket at the waist.  They weave this on a simple bamboo-frame loom, leaning against an outside wall of the house at a 70 degrees angle. The weaver sits on a stool at the bottom of the loom and passes the weft shuttle through the warp threads at shoulder level.
young Alu woman
Alu mother and child
       It was November, long past harvest, a season when women make clothing and men build houses.  Several looms were in operation the morning of my visit.  After observing the weaving we were invited inside the headman’s house for tea and learned that the main events in the Alu calendar were the Torch Festival in mid-summer and Rhamatu, held the third day after Lunar New Year.  Rhamatu was the same name of the most important annual Hani festival, and the Alu version included the same rituals to the three stones at the village altar, representing humans, animals and crops, and involved a collective village feast.  However, it would also feature dances, in which the girls picked their boy partners.  Our host encouraged us to return for either event.
       We didn’t stay much longer, for our Duoni Hani friend had to return to Laojizhai and the heavy fog precluded any possibility of exploration.  However, my interest in the Alu already aroused, in February I was back in the area at Lunar New Year time.  Once again in the company of my Hani friend from Huangcaoling, on the third day of the year, the first day any vehicles were running again, we left Huangcaoling early for Laomeng.  Unfortunately, no bus was going to Laojizhai until early afternoon.
Alu Yi village
       However, by coincidence the Miao were celebrating their Caihuashan festival 10 km east and the fellow who informed us of it gave us a ride there in his truck.  Hundreds of colorfully dressed Miao females certainly provided plenty of photo-ops and eyeball enchantment.  Besides traditional and modern Miao dances, the program also included performances by the Laowo Yi, a sub-group also in the Laojizhai area.
       We made it back to Laomeng in time to catch the bus, but arrived in Laojizhai too late to find out anything about the Alu Rhamatu.  Our Duoni Hani contact didn’t know.  Too late to hike all the way to the Alu village, we stayed the night in Laojizhai hoping that, as the next day was a tiger day, and several Yi sub-groups held important Lunar New Year festivals on the first tiger day, maybe we weren’t too late.
       We set out early for the fog-bound village we had visited before, but the headman there regretfully informed us we missed it.  They held it on buffalo day, the day before.  The rites at the three stones took place early morning, so we would have missed that anyway.  Then came the procession of each household delivering meat, rice and alcohol to the headman’s house to make a collective feast.  After that were the dances.
young Alu Yi woman
little girl in full Alu clothing
       Anyway, he had a lot of food left over, so he invited us to a sumptuous meal.  Afterwards he speculated that since today was a no-work day in Alu tradition, dances might be continuing at the biggest of the thirteen Alu villages, 5 km away.  It was courtship season, after all.  And Alu youths are free to choose their own spouses.
       It was still early and the weather lovely so off we went on a high but relatively level road, with fine views of distant villages, tea gardens and rice terraces.  The only traffic was pedestrian, mostly young couples or pairs of couples in full Alu traditional clothing.  Our destination lay on a slope just below the summit of a hill, with a view across the valley to the west.  Except for a school and a couple government offices, all the houses were box-like, one-story, mud-brick and timber structures with flat roofs.  No utility poles stood anywhere, for the village still had no electricity.
Alu Rhamatu dance
       As the first foreigner to ever visit, I found crowds forming everywhere I went. Everyone was polite, though, and not many ducked the camera like in the first village.  My presence soon drew the attention of the local Party official, who invited us to his office.  Yes, we had missed the festival and the dances.  But he could arrange dances tonight if I would pay the same 300 yuan the local government had given them to sponsor the Rhamatu dances for neighboring villages.  My Hani friend argued that the local government had much more money than me and that I only carried enough to cover my trip in Yunnan.  He settled for 200, including meals and lodging. 
       The meal, shared with eight others, comprised the still tasty leftovers from the feast the day before.  It included a large green leaf vegetable that is an Alu specialty, one I’d see them hawking in the markets in Laojizhai and Zhemi.  Besides this, they grow rice, maize and other vegetables and a high-quality green tea, that was selling then for 200 yuan a kilo.
       After dark our host got busy making arrangements for Rhamatu Dances Part Two.  A couple tables went up, laden with alcohol, beer and cups, in front of a row of stools for the elders and the two special guests.  Masses of villagers surrounded us on all sides, full of curiosity, but not pressing on us.  Hardly any of them had ever ventured beyond Laojizhai district and had no idea what a foreigner might look like.  As for me, I totally enjoyed being stared at by people wearing such attractive apparel.
Alu women in the Laojizhai market
       Speeches preceded the start and even I had to give one, in my limited Mandarin, which probably hardly anyone in the crowd past my table understood.  Then the dances began, led by a young man playing a gourd-pipe, followed by a line of other young men.  But no girls.  Another dance, same result.  Our host then claimed it was difficult to persuade the girls to dance.  Perhaps if I gave another 100 yuan they would.  I replied that if the girls were too shy, it didn't matter. 
       But the young men were tired of dancing alone.  So they somehow persuaded eight girls to join the line and from then on it became more authentic and participation grew.  The show continued for well over an hour, climaxing with a ring dance.  We were pleased.  Next morning as we were about to depart, our host claimed I owed him another 100 yuan just because the girls had finally danced.  Not wanting to leave in a mood of acrimony, or prejudice the visit of the next foreigner, I gave it to him.
       It was Sunday now, so we were back in Laojizhai in time for the peak of market day activity.  Groups of Alu women stood behind baskets of the green leaf vegetable we’d enjoyed the night before.  Others sold maize or bean sprouts.  Duoni Hani women wore their Huangcaoling-style, side-fastened, black-bordered blue jackets and many, young and old, donned the ‘chicken hat’ as well. 
       Several Laowo Yi women were there, too, easily recognized by the bright jackets of pink and blue and their long hair braided with a woolen thread extension and coiled on top of the head, rather like the Hani in Jinping.  Altogether, it was a typically colorful Ailaoshan market day.
Laowo Yi woman in Laojizhai
Alu selling maize in the market
       I did not return to Laojizhai again but I did happen to see an Alu dance performance once more in, of all places, the newly designated Hani Cultural Village in Yuanyang County.  I was there wandering around taking photos when a Chinese tour group turned up.  After their walk through the streets full of traditional Hani houses, a stop at the village altar grounds with the three stones and a look at the Hani swing, the climax was to watch a dance performance.
       The Laló Hani living in this village have no dance tradition.  So the government hired an Alu troupe from Laojizhai to perform instead, for Chinese tourist groups expect some kind of ethnic entertainment on their program.  So there they were again for me, Alu girls in their gorgeous outfits dancing like they did the night of Rhamatu, Part Two.  Probably none of the tourists knew they were Yi, not Hani.  But were the Hani bothered by a Hani cultural tour concluding with a Yi dance performance?  Probably not.  After all, these are the people who coined the phrase “Hani and Yi are children of the same mother.”

Alu dance troupe in the Hani Cultural Village
                                                                        * * *   
                 for more on the Yi of Ailaoshan see my e-book The Terrace Builders


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mekong River Towns in Southern Laos

                                               by Jim Goodman

the port at Thakhek
       Along the portion of the Mekong River that runs alongside the western border of Laos lie several towns.  Most travelers, however, confine their exploration to just two of them:  Vientiane, the capital, and Luang Phabang, the former royal capital and World Heritage site.  If they venture south of the capital, to Thakhek, Savannakhet, Pakse or Champassak, they usually stay just long enough to catch a ride to somewhere beyond. 
       From Thakhek they head for the caves east of the town or rent motorbikes for the three-day ride in a loop through the craggy limestone mountains past the caves.  From Savannakhet they take a bus to central Vietnam.  From Pakse they either go east to the Bolavens Plateau in southeast Laos or south to the ancient Khmer ruins of Wat Phu or to the Four Thousand Islands, perhaps without even stopping in Champassak town.  While none of the four towns can arouse as much interest as Vientiane or Luang Phabang, they all have their own intrinsic attractions, individual histories and special roles played in the development of Lao history.
Sikhot Stupa
       Thakhek, a town of about 26,000, six hours drive south of Vientiane, lies opposite the much larger Nakhon Phanom in Thailand.   The town’s name means “Visitors’ Landing” and its founding dates to the 8th century.  At that time it was the capital of a state called Sikhottabong, named after its founder King Sikhot, said to have superhuman strength from eating rice with dirty, but magical chopsticks.
       To the north lay another state, around present-day Vientiane, troubled by rampaging elephants that were driving people off the land and taking over villages.  Its king offered half his realm and his daughter in marriage to whoever could rid the land of its pachyderm plague.  Sikhot took up the challenge and successfully expelled the marauding elephants.  The king kept his promise, turned over half his kingdom and gave his daughter to Sikhot to wed.
       He was not happy about the deal, though, but what to do about a man that seemed to be invulnerable?  His daughter remained loyal to him rather than her new husband and together they plotted Sikhot’s downfall.  By one means or another she wheedled out of him his secret—that he could only be killed through his anus.  When she conveyed this information to her father, the king ordered an archer to be placed in the pit of Sikhot’s latrine.  When Sikhot came to relieve his bowels in the morning, the archer shot him with an arrow through his anus and killed him.
colonial era shop houses o Chao Anou Street
       Sikhot’s ashes were eventually interred in the Sikhottabong Stupa about six km south of Thakhek and the town’s most important religious monument.   Standing 29 meters tall, it was erected in the 15th century, though the temple beside it only dates from 1970.  The state was eventually absorbed by the Kingdom of Lanexang (Land of a Million Elephants), the first Lao state, founded in the late 14th century.  This part of the new kingdom was still called Sikhottabong, included land on the other side of the river, and its governor was basically the administrator of the southern half of Lanexang.
       Thakhek’s real transformation took place after the French established control towards the end of the 19th century.  To develop its potential for commerce, the French encouraged an influx of Vietnamese, who at one point constituted 85% of the population.  After the conclusion of World War II, when in the winter of 1946 the French re-imposed their control over Laos, Thakhek was the venue for the first major armed resistance, by a mixed Lao Issara and Viet Minh force, led by the leftist Prince Souphanouvong. 
Buddhas in a private garden of a Thakhek house
       French artillery and air strikes quickly prevailed and Souphanouvong was wounded escaping by boat to Thailand.  During the civil war that convulsed Laos in the 60s and 70s Thakhek was relatively unaffected.  The fighting was far north, the bombing far to the east and the town’s casino was busy with Thai customers.  With the victory of the Pathet Lao in 1975, the casino closed and many of Thakhek’s Vietnamese fled to Vietnamese villages around Nakhon Phanom.
       Today Thakhek is a quiet and pleasant town, easy to get around on foot, with lots of colonial vestiges.  Some of the old houses could use some renovation, but the shop houses lining the riverside Chao Anou Road are in good condition and make this the most atmospheric street in town.  A walk along the river offers views of the port and Nakhom Phanom on the other side.  It is especially active during and just before full moon day in October, when rowing crews in long boats practice for the races that day.
practicing for the boat races in Savannakhet
       Going downriver, the next town is Savannakhet.  With a population of 125,000, it is the second largest in the country.  Though there are villages in the area that are much older, at this location the town itself began developing in the 17th century.  The French marched in to directly administer it in 1893 and began improving its infrastructure and conscripting laborers to build a road to Quảng Trị, Vietnam.  As in Thakhek, they also sponsored an influx of Vietnamese and Chinese, who still form significant portions of the population and have their own Mahayana Buddhist temples, in contrast to the Theravada Lao temples.
       But before that, the French had to deal with an insurrection shortly after their takeover.  In 1899 preachers in the area began predicting the arrival of a holy man who will save people from a disaster to happen the second week of April 1902, when the earth would turn dark for seven days, provided they follow his instructions, the taboos on certain foods and the use of money and made pilgrimages to That Phanom.
St. Teresa Catholic Church
Wat Ing Hang
Soon a man called Phò Kaduat claimed to be the holy man, promising a Golden Age about to dawn, the disappearance of the Thai and the French in the arnd the resurrection of Lanexang.  He urged his followers to venerate a Buddha statue he claimed floated down from Heaven and performed magic tricks that the credulous thought were miracles. 
       In November 1901 the French, growing nervous about the mass meetings, arrested several of the leaders, though not Phò Kaduat.  This action turned a millenarian religious movement into an anti-colonial, political campaign that quickly became violent.  Both sides attacked and counter-attacked, but by the end of 1902 the French had killed Phò Kaduat and suppressed the movement, though similar disturbances rocked the Bolavens Plateau until 1936.
16th century Ing Hang Stupa
Vishnu on Garuda, That Ing Hang
       Kaysone Phoumvihan, the Lao PDR leader from 1975 until his death in 1992, himself born in Savannakhet, called Phò Kaduat one of the country’s five great historical heroes.  Government propaganda extolled his anti-colonial credentials, without any reference to the ‘superstitious’ aspects of the movement.
Champassak Palace Hotel, Pakse
       Savannakhet today is a relatively quiet city with an abundance of trees in the urban zones.  Colonial era buildings still stand in the old French Quarter, near St. Teresa’s Catholic Church, erected in 1930 for the French and Vietnamese Catholics and still used by the latter nowadays.  Among the city attractions, the oddest is the small Dinosaur Museum, with a display of a collection of bones found during excavations carried out in the province in the 1930s.  The second oddest has to be the Savan-Vegas Casino on the river, drawing customers mainly from Mukdahan, the Thai city across the river.
carved shutter, Wat Luang, Pakse
       In the heart of the city is the venerable Wat Xayaphoum.  First erected in 1542 and since then renovated and expanded, it is now the largest temple in Laos.  Even more revered is the stupa called That Ing Hang, 15 km outside the town.  It commemorates an alleged visit by the Buddha, when he preached his sermon here between two trees (the meaning of Ing Hang).  The present structure is the one remodeled in 1548 and features sculptures of guardian deities and of Vishnu on Garuda between two coiled serpents.
       Flowing south past Savannakhet, the Mekong passes into Champassak province, where it ceases to mark the boundary between Thailand and Laos.  As a result of the Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1893, part of the river’s western bank became part of Laos (as did Xayaboury province opposite Luang Phabang).  In 1905 the French founded Pakse, at the junction of the Sedon and Mekong Rivers, today the largest and most important town in the province, with a population of 88,000.
      Little of the colonial era architecture remains, but Wat Luang near the river, built in the 1930s, has fine wood-carved window shutters and doors.  Next to it stands Wat Phabat, which is supposed to house a footprint of the Buddha.  In garish contrast to the temples is Pakse’s most famous (or notorious depending on one’s view) building—the Champassak Palace Hotel.  With its sort of Southeast Asian ‘wedding cake style’ it was intended to be the palace of Boun Oum, the last in the line of Champassak’s former royal family.  Construction started in 1968 but Boun Oum was forced into exile and died before he could live in it.  In the end it wound up in the hands of a Thai businessman, who turned it into a hotel.
Lao in red, Thai in blue, Pakse Museum painting 
       A little further down the road past this is the museum.  In a secluded spot just outside of town, the museum holds ancient stone sculptures from the Khmer ruins in the south, bronze drums and other items, plus a painting of a 19th century battle wherein the aggressive Lao in red thrash their Thai foes in blue.  This must have been a moment of temporary advantage, however, for according to history, Chao Anou’s attack on Thailand led to a resounding defeat and the loss of full Lao sovereignty.
Mekong RIver below Champassak
       In ancient times the province was successively part of the Khmer states of Funan, Chenla and the Angkor Empire.  In the 14th century Fa Ngun, residing in Angkor, won the backing of the Khmer emperor in his claim to the throne of a vassal state in northern Laos.  But as soon as he established his authority he declared an independent Kingdom of Lanexang and then solidified his position by defeating a Khmer army from Champassak.
       Eventually, as the Angkor regime collapsed, Lanexang absorbed the territory of Champassak.  But in 1711, due to a vicious succession struggle, Lanexang split into three kingdoms:  Luang Phabang, Vientiane and Champassak.  The former two continued periodic hostilities, sending refugees streaming south to the southern kingdom.  Champassak’s population grew as a result.  This phenomenon would continue the first decades of the following century.
fishing on the Mekong at Champassak
       Champassak could not keep out of war entirely, though.  King Taksin of Siam attacked in 1777, a year before his campaign against Vientiane.  From then on the Thai became the power brokers in Lao politics.  Champassak’s rulers acceded to a slight loss of sovereignty, but otherwise carried on unimpeded.  That changed in 1819, when the Thai-appointed King of Vientiane, Chao Anou, suppressing a revolt led by a Champassak monk, had his son Chao Nho installed as Champassak’s ruler.
     At the end of 1826 Chao Anou, deciding to re-assert Lao independence, attacked Thailand.  Chao Nho led an army from Champassak in support.  Grossly underestimating the strength of his opponents, Chao Anou suffered a disastrous defeat, including his capture and the destruction of Vientiane.  Chao Nho escaped back to Champassak but found the populace, under the leadership of one of the princes from the dispossessed royal family, had closed the gates.  Forced to flee to the forest, he was soon captured and sent to a Bangkok prison.
royal mansion at Chanpassak
       Champassak remained a Thai vassal state until taken by the French.  During World War II, as an ally of Japan, Thailand invaded Champassak and seized the lands on the west bank, including Champassak town.  After the war ended, the French reasserted control and the Thai were forced to withdraw from the entire province.
       Contemporary Champassak is the smallest of the Mekong River towns.  It is all but bereft of vestiges of its past, other than a modest mansion used by 19th century rulers.  Evidence of its former incarnation as a Khmer outpost lies at nearby Wat Phu and Chanpassak itself is basically a stopover for visitors to Wat Phu or the Four Thousand Islands further downriver.  It has its charms, though.
       The town stretches along one long street beside the river.  Restaurants, hotels and temples are mostly on the riverbank.  Fishermen in small boats come out on the river at sunrise and in the late afternoon.  The atmosphere of Champassak is much more rural than urban.  But that’s true of most of Laos.  With its alluring, unspoiled scenery, relics of history and relaxed, leisurely pace of everyday life, of all the southern Lao river towns, Champassak is the most representative of Laos as a whole.

sunrise at Champassak
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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Ambassador to the Akha in Laos

                                                      by Jim Goodman

Akha village above Muong SIngh, Laos
       My association with the Akha of Northern Thailand began when I moved to Chiang Mai in the winter of 1988.  Besides researching them for a book project, I also worked with them in handicraft production.  They made their traditional jackets, in sizes for Westerners, using their own hand-woven, indigo-dyed cotton cloth, but with appliqué and embroidery done in natural colors.  I bought the white cloth and thread and dyed it myself with plant and insect dyes, my role in the process.  So my involvement deepened.  I acquired a working knowledge of their language, attended all the annual festivals, observed other rites and practices among the three sub-groups in Thailand and conceived the ambition to visit other sub-groups in other countries.
       The Akha also reside in northeast Myanmar, northern Laos and, especially and most numerously, in Yunnan, China, their original homeland.  It was difficult to visit them in Myanmar, because traditional villages were off the main roads, sometimes in insurgent zones and foreigners were not allowed to stay overnight in a village. 
jungle setting of a a typical Akha village in Laos
       I had better luck in Yunnan in 1992, when I visited a village in Xishuangbanna housing relatives of my workers in Pamee, near Mae Sai.   I had met one of them when he was working in the litchi groves of Pamee earlier that year and he was my host in his village.  I had brought photos of Pamee people, festivals and so on, so the encounter was very positive. 
       But even after three days I had noticed how the traditional Akha way of life I had become so familiar with in Thailand was much attenuated in China.  While the political turmoil of the past, when customs and beliefs suffered fierce ideological attack, was long gone, the old ways did not all revive.  Part of this was also due to the shift from growing rice to growing tea, rubber and sugar cane as cash crops instead.    As a traveler, I had a great time.  As a researcher, it was somewhat disappointing.
Akha women near Muong SIngh
A few years later, Laos changed its rules on foreigners traveling in the country.  When going beyond Vientiane Prefecture, they no longer needed to have a government minder accompanying them everywhere they went.  I began making plans to call on the Akha in northern Laos.  This would be different from my trips to Kengtung, Myanmar and Xishuangbanna, for in both those places I knew Akha whom I had met in Thailand.  I had not yet met any Akha from Laos, or any traveler who had been to the area.  I had no idea of what to expect.
       As I did in China, I would wear one of my Akha jackets and shoulder bags when I went to visit the Lao Akha and hope it won’t be like in China, where I was practically the only one in the Akha village wearing any Akha clothing.  I prepared a bigger set of photographs to show them, especially examples of the different Akha headdresses.  I also decided to take a Dictaphone with me and mini-cassette recordings of Akha songs at the dèhâw—the meeting ground for young people in the evenings—and mournful ballads sung by elderly women at the festivals.  That decision was to have the most effect on the nature of my adventures in Lao Akha territory. 
Bukwo Akha woman
      I journeyed to Luang Nam Tha, a northern province bordering Xishuangbanna, China.  Many Akha reside there, but at that time they were rarely seen in the town itself.  The best place to find then was Muong Singh, two and half hours west, an even smaller town, surrounded by hills.  I arrived around 11:00, when the town was all but inactive, the market nearly empty and no Akha around.  I checked into a hotel and found out that the morning market, beginning at dawn and closing by mid-morning, was where to meet the Akha.
     Next morning, rising early, dressed in an Akha jacket and shoulder bag, carrying a camera, Dictaphone and several dozen photos from the world of Thailand’s Akha, I headed for the morning market.  The area was already swarming with hill people and local Lao by sunrise.  The Akha were the most numerous and to my delight virtually all of them were dressed in traditional garments; not just the older women, but the youth, the children and even the few men among them.
     As in Thailand, the women’s outfit consisted of a single-strap breast-cloth, short black skirt, pleated in the back and worn with a beaded bag across the front of it, leggings around the calves, a hip-length, long-sleeved jacket and a close-fitting headdress, decorated with beads, red pompoms, silver studs and pendants.  No two were exactly alike.  Like in Thailand, they carried woven bamboo baskets on their backs, attached to a wooden shoulder board to more evenly distribute the weight.
the Akha shoulder board
Akha woman in Muong Singh
       Young Akha men also wore fancy headdresses, unlike the simple black wraparound turbans of Akha men in Thailand.  Theirs stood high on the head, decorated with colored threads, patches of silver and almost suggested those worn by drum majors in an American high school marching band.
       I was the only foreigner there, but what caught the attention of the Akha was less that fact than that the only foreigner there was wearing a jacket that was obviously Akha, but not one from their own Bukwo Akha sub-group.  Before long Akha women approached me to examine the embroidery on my jacket and bag.  I heard them conversing, in a dialect quite close to those in Thailand, with just a few consonant differences.  So I ventured to join their conversation.
rice storage outside the village
       I followed a set pattern when beginning to talk with them.  First I made a few comments on whatever they were saying.  Then, as they were absorbing their surprise, I explained I was American, living in Thailand, working with Akha and could speak Thai Akha language.  And I bring greetings from the Thai Akha.  Then we could have a short conversation before they would return to their market affairs.  The word spread fast and soon others came forth, if only for the novelty of hearing their language spoken by a foreigner. Eventually a group of four young men started talking and soon we were off together for lunch at a noodle shop.  It was a simple but comfortable enough place, so when I heard them hesitating to order because the price was 12 baht each (about fifty U.S. cents) and maybe they should look for a cheaper place, I offered to pay for everybody’s lunch.  The mood brightened at once.
       Soon we were talking about Thailand’s Akha and not about me.  I pulled out my sets of photographs and now we had lots more to discuss.  Yes, they told me, they had the same kind of houses as the Akha in Thailand, the same boundary gates between the human world and spirit world, the same big bamboo festival swings, the same kind of farms. 
traditional festival swings
       At this point I produced my Dictaphone to find out if they had the same musical traditions.  I played the dèhâw songs first, which they quite enjoyed and then informed me they also had a dèhäw scene and I should come up to their village and see it.  I played the soulful solo songs next and they suggested I should meet their village’s best singer on the way.  She was working with other villagers building a house for a Lao family nearby and would love to hear the cassettes.
       After an hour walk across the plain we came to the construction site and all the Akha took a break to meet the foreigner.  Over tea I played the cassettes.  My own knowledge of the language was limited to certain topics where I knew the vocabulary.  I could not translate the lyrics of the songs.  As it turned out, some of the lyrics from the dancing ground sessions were rather risqué, for the crowd sometimes blushed and tittered hearing them.
girls in the mountain village
young Akha man in the market
       At the conclusion, the woman introduced as the village’s best singer announced that in return for the chance to listen to the Akha of Thailand she wanted me to record her singing so they could hear the Akha of Laos.  Of course, I’d brought blank cassettes, and as the construction noise was too interfering, we went into the jungle to make the recording.  Her songs were similar to the solos we’d just heard, featuring the same kind of quivering voice over elongated vowel sounds—the classic Akha style.
traditional Akha house
      Following this, our singer returned to her work and we headed up the mountain.  Unlike the hills in northern Thailand, where virtually every village was connected by some kind of serviceable road, here there was only a trail.  Much of the way was forested until we passed the granaries set up outside the village, a safety precaution for, in case fire sweeps through the housing area, the people would still have their food.  The cleared, settled area lay on a largely gentle slope, bounded by forest all around.  Two big swings, identical to Akha swings in Thailand, stood at the top of the village.  My new friends got me settled into the headman’s house and then I was free to wander a while.
       The village comprised about fifty houses, every one of them traditional ones on stilts, of bamboo and wood, with thatched roofs and open-air attached balcony.  It was the dry season, clear skies and a couple of looms stood beside the houses, women weaving cloth and children playing in the yard.  The girls, about 8-12 years old, held cotton bolls and spindles in their hands but stopped to stare at me.  I examined the loom, chatted with the weaver, and then asked the girls if they knew how to spin.  Yes.  Well then, the Akha girls in Thailand don’t now how.  Why don’t you show me, I’ll take a picture, show them and then they will learn from you.  They all started spinning.
Akha woman weaving beside her house
      Dinner that night was a sumptuous mountain banquet, enlivened by the music of the cassettes.  After dinner when his son, one of the fellows I met in the market, invited me to witness the dèhäw scene, my host insisted I make a recording.   We walked up the steepest path in the village to the dèhäw, already active with a few dozen youths in small groups indulging in competing activities.  We could barely hear anything distinctly, all singing practically drowned out by others singing.
       This is how it used to be in Thai Akha villages, too, I knew, but just in the beginning. Then five or six teenaged girls would show up, start organizing a ring dance and break into those songs I had on the cassettes.  And everyone would join.  Not here.  Nobody assumed any leadership of the chaos.  I made an attempt to record a few groups, but the overall clamor precluded any success.  All I got was Lao Akha cacophony.
girls demonstrating their spinning skills
       Eventually, I gave up and we returned to the headman’s house.  He wanted to hear the results, but when he did he insisted it was no good (that I already knew) and that I had to go back and make another recording.  He didn’t want the Thai Akha to have such a bad impression of Lao Akha.  He helped strengthen me for the steep walk again with a few cups of rice liquor and back up we went.
       Fortunately, by this time most of the rowdy participants had left.  In a relatively quiet corner two middle-aged women were singing, as a duet, one of those ancient and emotional songs like I had recorded in the plains earlier that day.  A few more of these and I had a successful session after all.  The headman was pleased when I returned.  Now he knew that his village’s gift to the Akha in Thailand that I would be taking back with me, songs of the Akha in Laos, would be properly delivered and warmly appreciated.
       It was, of course.  I played those cassettes from Laos dozens of times for Akha in Thailand.  They could understand the different dialect well enough and marveled at how similar were the lyrics, sentiments and manner of singing.  The photographs also fascinated them, both the differences in apparel and the village scenes that looked lifted from their own lives thirty years earlier.
winnowing grain
hornbill trophy in the house of my host
       Most importantly, my Akha friends in Thailand discovered that there was a place where the Akha Way was still intact, so it seemed to them, and that validated it, that made it good.  They were never unified in a single state, but just a myriad autonomous, self-sufficient villages.  They have separated into dozens of sub-groups, spread far apart from each other.  But they still feel an ethnic and cultural unity, proven to me on my journey.  They share a common history, common identity, the same traditional code of behavior, same way of life and outlook on it and, as it turned out, the same music.

Akha children in the mountains of Luang Nam Tha province
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