Laos is one of those unassuming countries that nobody knows a lot about. So I set out to know the country not only through my camera lens but I wanted to know the country through its people. Unfortunately most Laotians are shy and reserved besides I don’t speak their language, it became almost impossible. However, one fateful night while I accompanied my friend for dinner at the night market, a friendly guy approached us and started chatting with us. He told us that he’s a student and wanted to practice his English. So I seized the opportunity to have a chat with him.
Q: What’s your name and how old are you?
A: My name is Anong and I’m 20 years old.
Q: Are you from Luang Prabang?
A: No, I’m from Pak Sim village, a bout 85km northeast of Luang Prabang. But I’ve been living here for 3 years now.
Q: Do you go back often? And tell me a bit about your village.
A: No, not very often, maybe once a month. Well, it’s a Khmu village, with about 150 people. Most people there are farmers and fishermen.
Q: What do they farm?
A: They farm rice, pumpkins, cucumbers, corns, sweet taros, sesames and job’s tears. Most of the rice are planted in the mountain or near small streams. They practice slash and burn to clear the land for farming.
Q: And what kind of fish do they catch?
A: Mostly catfish and some other small fish. They fish during the day and night. Sometimes they leave the nets near the river bank at night then collect them in the morning.
Q: What kind of danger do they face?
A: All kinds. For example, there are lots of snakes, big snakes, especially at the source of rivers. There are poisonous centipedes, pangolins, etc.
Q: How do you like living in Laos?
A: It’s a good country, small and peaceful. There are no pollution and people live in harmony.
Q: Tell me more about the people of Laos.
A: In the past, we are categorised into Lao Lum (lowland Lao), Lao Tai (midland Lao) and Lao Soung (highland Lao). But now the categories are Lao, Khmu and Hmong. The Laos are from Lao-Thailand, the Hmongs are from China and the Khmus are the aboriginals of Lao land. Currently there are about 60% Lao, 25% Khmu and 15% Hmong.
Q: Are there any discrimination among the people?
A: Well, there’s no outright social discrimination. But When a Khamu marries a Lao, they’ll teach their children Lao language rather than Khmu language. Sometimes, Lao people make fun of the Khmu when they speak Lao language. On top of that, some Khmus who live in the cities are ashame of our language and culture, so that’s why the Khmu language is slowly dying. I think we should preserve our language, like the Hmong with theirs.
Q: What’s the Khmu culture like?
A: Khmus believe in Animism. But our belief can be mixed with Buddhism. We go to temples to get merits by giving donations. Our festivals are connected to our harvest. After each harvest, we cook a meal and make lao-lao (Laotian liquor) and offer them to our ancestors as a gesture of thanksgiving. And during these festivals, the men play a Khmu traditional musical instrument while the women sing. Young boys and girls use these opportunities to meet. While the young people tease each other with songs, the older ones sit drinking their lao-lao.
Q: That sounds like fun.
A: It is. Khmu culture is traditionally passed down by the recital of stories around evening fires, and during these festivals, old people’ll pass down these stories to the younger generations.
Q: Can you tell me some of the stories?
A: Sure, I’ll tell you 2. First one talks about why Khmus have darker skin as compare to the Loas and Hmongs. Legend has it that there was once a couple who has a box. One day they made a black spear and pierced the box. And out came Khmu, then Lao then Hmong, in that order. Coloured by the blackness of the spear, that’s why the Khmus have dark coloured skin and the Hmongs are the palest of the three.
Q: It’s a nice story.
A: The second story is about why Khmu doesn’t have a written language. Long long time ago, the heads of Lao, Khmu and Hmong had a meeting with the King. The King gave a language to each of them to go back to teach to their own people; So the head of Lao went and taught Lao to the Laos and the Hmong did the same. But the head of Khmu was lazy to keep the language, instead he ate it. So that’s why Khmu has no written language but has oral tradition.
Q: Wow! That’s an interesting story! I read somewhere that Khmus practice magic, is it true?
A: Not anymore. The Laos’ law prohibit us from practicing it, so it’s almost lost. However if you go to the north of Loas, the Khmus there still practice magic. They have prayers that can counter the spirits of the jungles.
Q: Do most of the Khmus still lives in the jungle?
A: Yes, most of the Khmus still live in the jungle but they are slowly moving to bigger towns and cities as well.
Q:So you have been living in Luang Prabang for 3 years now. Do you like it here or do you prefer the countryside?
A: I like it here so far. I came here to study and I’ve just finished my study in tourism. I hope to find work so that I can stay here.
Q: What kind of job are you looking for?
A: I want to be a tour guide. And I have a dream of opening a travel agency when I have the experience and money.
Q: So what’s your plan now?
A: I’m going back to my village for a few days. Then I’ll come back to Luang Prabang to look for a job. I have a part time job, as a receptionist in a hotel, so I’ll continue to do that and maybe find another part time job while I look for a full time one.
Q: Are you happy?
A: Yes, very happy. I’ve just finished my study and I love where I live. So I’m happy.