Saturday, July 15, 2017

Change and Continuity in Luang Namtha

                                    by Jim Goodman

bridge over the Tha River to the Tai Dam village
       After the first Friendship Bridge opened at Nong Khai in April 1994, connecting Thailand with Laos, the Lao government eased restrictions on individual travelers in the country.  Previously confined to Vientiane Prefecture, they could now go anywhere they wished (except Hua Phan for a while), without being part of an organized group or having a government minder along.  I took advantage of this a year later to visit Luang Namtha in the far north, mainly to meet the Akha minority, with whom I was working and doing research in Thailand, but also to see a part of the country I was just beginning to explore.
main commercial street in Luang Namtha
       Luang Namtha province lies adjacent to the southern part of Xishuangbanna prefecture in Yunnan, China.  In time, it would become a popular stopover for those on their way to or from Yunnan, but in 1995 it was not yet in the budget traveler’s consciousness.  Luang Namtha city was more of a small town, the commercial area stretched along the main road and residential quarters about three blocks deep on either side.  Only a handful of hotels were available, two of then Chinese-owned.  They were nearly all unoccupied and I was the only foreigner in town.
       I didn’t see any Akha around and learned a better place to meet them was Muang Singh, 58 km away.  Eventually I did go there and satisfied my research ambitions, but as I was not in a hurry I opted to first take a look at an unfamiliar part of Laos.  The first thing I noticed was the lack of temples.  By then I’d been to Houey Xai, Pakbeng, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Phon Savan and Luang Phabang and they all had temples.  But not Luang Namtha.  Were the Lao here totally secularized?
trapping fish in the Namtha
       Or was it because of the influence of the Tai Dam (Black Thai), who are animist and whose villages dominate the valley?   I never answered that question, but a Tai Dam village lies just across the Tha River, which runs alongside the southern suburbs of the town.  A bamboo bridge on piles spans the river and in the forest next to the village stood a stilted shed with thatched roof housing an altar.  Beside it was a colorful tall spirit image of some sort.
       The village sprawls out from the riverbank, the houses spaced a little apart from each other, neighborhoods connected by paths with lots of intersections.  People then lived in stilted houses of wood and bamboo, the roofs thatched, occasionally tiled, within a fenced yard.  Beneath the house they kept their looms, thread-winders and big tools.  And as it was dry season many of the looms were active.
Tai Dam woman dressed up for a city visit
Tai Dam village spirit shrine
       The Tai Dam traditional women’s outfit comprises a plain black sarong, a colored, long-sleeved blouse with vertical rows of silver clasps, and a long black headscarf, fully and brightly embroidered on the lower end.  No one was wearing it on my visit, only ordinary, printed Lao sarongs and blouses.  It was only years later that I finally saw a Tai Dam lady dressed that way for a trip to the market.
winding thread in the Tai Dam village
mother bathing her child in the river
The village’s fields spread out next to the residential area, mostly used for growing glutinous rice, the main filler.  Small vegetable patches lie around the houses.  Pigs and chickens roam the yards.  Villagers also supplement their diet with small fish trapped or netted in the river.  Most of the year the river here is very shallow.  People wade through it to set their traps and bathe in it late afternoons.  But during the monsoon the river swells and rises, occasionally even covering the bridge.  Strong currents make wading into it a little risky. 
Hong Loueay Yao village
       Luang Namtha’s market back then lay close to the bridge to the Tai Dam village, comprising a couple rows of thatched sheds and various tables and stalls on the street between them.  There was no special market day, but it was active every morning.  A couple of Hmông turned up while I was there, and on a subsequent visit I met a few Akha, but the most exotic folks in the market, looking very different from anyone else in town, were the Yao.
       The local people refer to them as Lao Huay, the River Lao, because, like the Tai Dam, they site their villages along one side of a river.  Actually, they are a sub-group of the Lantien branch of the Yao, who also live in Yunnan and northern Vietnam.  The Yao in Luang Namtha province have been here over 150 years in over twenty villages and are regular visitors to the city.
young Yao woman in Luang Namtha 
drying paper in Hong Loueay 
       The women dress in long-sleeved, hip-length black cotton coats, tight knee-length black trousers and white cotton leg-wrappers around the calves.  From girlhood they shave their eyebrows and upper forehead and wrap their hair in a tight coil on top, secured by a fancy silver clasp with coin pendants.  They weave the cloth themselves on narrow vertical looms and dye it in an indigo bath numerous times until they obtain the desired depth of color.
the new hilltop chedi in Luang Namtha
       The Yao visiting Luang Namtha most often come from Hong Loueay, about 5 km west on the road to Muang Singh.  As bicycle rental shops hadn’t come into existence yet, I took a bus bound for Muang Singh and got off as soon as I spotted the village.  It lay on the other side of the river, which was so shallow in the dry season that villagers simply crossed it by walking through it, rather than using the rickety bamboo suspension bridge.
       They live in rectangular houses that sit on the ground, aligned with the river, made of bamboo wattle with thickly thatched, angular roofs.  The roof beams on each side intersect at the ends, forming a row of several v’s along the top.  The houses are usually 5-6 meters wide and 8-25 meters long, depending on how many families live in it.  The walls are 1-1.5 meters high, without any windows. 
cooked food for sale in the new covered market
       The interiors consist of a single room, one space reserved for the kitchen and one area for sleeping on mats rolled up and stored in the corner during the day.  Except for a bamboo tray over the hearth, used for curing baskets and smoking meat, they have no furniture other than small stools.  They keep tools, baskets, traps, guns and sundry other items next to the exterior walls underneath the overhanging roof.
       A patch of forest stood beside the village and the farms lay beyond this.  They grew rice, of course, as well as cotton, and opium, too, which was still legal then and dried pods were on sale in the market.  This was dry season, so while the men were busy in the poppy fields, the women were mostly in the village, involved in winding thread, weaving or making paper.  Several racks held drying slabs of paper, but on this visit I did not witness the process.  People were shy, but polite and friendly.
market shop selling items made from bamboo
       I returned to Luang Namtha a few months later for a brief stop, in the middle of the monsoon, long enough to notice the bridge to the Tai Dam village was under water.  My concentration then, as well as another trip a year later, was on Akha villages around Muang Singh.  By my third trip Muang Singh had become a backpacker hangout and about a third of the Akhas in the market were there to beg money from foreigners.
       A decade and a half later I passed through Luang Namtha regularly, to or from Xishuangbanna while doing extended research in that prefecture.   Changes had taken place, of course, such as a paved road to Houey Xay that reduced the travel time to five hours by bus, compared to the twelve hours or more in the past on a dirt road by old station wagon.  A new covered market just off the main street replaced the riverside venue.  The most impressive addition was the new chedi on a hill just outside of town.  The style resembles one in Vientiane and no monastery compound exists next to it.  The area is animist (or atheist), so it is difficult to see what purpose it has other than as a symbol of the national identity of Laos as a Buddhist nation. 
Yao women in Luang Namtha
       Luang Namtha wasn’t much bigger, but was now more oriented towards the tourist industry.  An up-market hotel had opened next to the new city market, but there were several moderately priced guesthouses as well.  Most of these were clustered around the new Night Market.  This was not very extensive, with only a few stalls there selling handicrafts, mostly run by Akha who had moved to the city, and a few Akha women wandered around the market, like in Chiang Mai, selling trinkets they didn’t even make themselves.  The market hadn’t lured any Yao.
        Most of the stalls in the Night Bazaar were selling cooked meals.  Duck was a local specialty, for Luang Namtha has thousands of ducks and only dozens of chickens.  Since my first journey to Laos prices for food had risen enormously, but here a half a roast duck was the same price as a half a roast chicken in Thailand, even though the sticky rice filler was twice as much.
traditional p;aper-making in Hong Loueay
       With the increased tourist traffic, enterprising Lao residents had set up offices for excursions to minority villages in the mountains or destinations along the river, like caves, waterfalls or even an all-day boat ride to the junction of the Tha River with the Mekong, several km south of Houey Xai, the border crossing to Thailand.
       On my trips to or from Xishuangbanna and Thailand, I stayed two nights in Luang Namtha each time, just to slow down the journey, and amused myself by checking out the changes.  The Tai Dam village was still roughly the same.  Some houses were new, of wood instead of mostly bamboo, with metal roofs rather than thatch, but still in the Thai style, stilted, with the loom, etc. underneath.  The bridge across the Tha River was still in place, and if the villagers were less forward in engaging with the foreigner, well, thousands of foreigners had passed through the village since my first visit, so my presence was barely noticed.
Yao girl in Phin Ho
       The expanded tourist industry now also had motorbikes and bicycles for rent.  Since the Yao villages I intended to visit were just several km from the town, I opted for a bicycle.  After having to push it up a couple of steep hills on the way I nearly regretted that choice.  Soon enough, though, I arrived at Hong Loueay, still in the same riverside location, still with the same traditional style Yao houses.
       When setting out I’d wondered if it were still in place.  Since the beginning of the century the Lao government had made opium cultivation illegal and undertook a campaign to eradicate its cultivation.  Most of the time this just involved destroying the poppy fields and ordering the people to raise a different crop.  But in some cases, especially remote hills and faraway, secluded valleys, the government relocated the village to somewhere more accessible for monitoring.
       Hong Loueay wasn’t relocated.  The villagers stopped growing opium but stayed where they were and carried on every other aspect of their traditional lifestyle as they’d always done.  It was early February, the same month as my first visit years ago, and everything I saw was like a replay of that initial trip.  The women wore their traditional garments and engaged in winding thread, weaving and dyeing cloth and making paper.  As before, everyone was polite and friendly.
winding thread in Phin Ho
       Bamboo fibers, of four different kinds, are the raw material for paper.  Yao villagers crush the fibers, place them in a hollow trunk with quicklime in between each layer, fill the trunk with water and let the fibers macerate for several weeks.  Afterwards they remove the material, squeeze it dry, wash it in the river and boil it to make pulp.
       I observed a few women at this work.  They stretched a white cloth across a large frame, placed horizontally above the ground.  Using a gourd dipper, they poured the pulp carefully and evenly across the surface.  After allowing it to dry a few minutes, they moved the frame to the yard, and propped it up near-vertically facing the sun.  After three or four hours they removed the dry paper leaf from the fabric and cut it into smaller sizes.  They will use it for letters, cards, religious paraphernalia and packing and sell the surplus to the Hmông.
       This was not a craft specialty village.  A few km further on, the Yao village of Phin Ho was also engaged in the process.  Making paper from bamboo is a Lantien Yao craft specialty.  It’s something they’ve been doing for centuries, another part of traditional life that persists unchanged in spite of whatever modern influences might be emanating from the growing city just a couple of hours walk down the road.   Around Luang Namtha, continuity is as common as change.

Hong Loueay Yao village at paper-making time
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