25 August 2002

18. - 25 AUG: Udom Xai to Muang Sing

At dawn I get up and head to town. A pale almost-full moon is still high in the sky. The predictable trickle of monks drips down the one hundred or so irregular steps which lead to their dormitory at the top of the “that”, their rice baskets secured around their shoulders. Oudomxai is coming to life quickly and noisily. The market was already in full swing by the time I got there around half past six. Like the town it is part of, the market is a melting pot of cultures: Lao food is on offer side by side with Vietnamese and especially Chinese supplies. Not a few signs in fact are in Chinese. This is an important junction between the three countries, and after the end of the war it gradually came back to economic life.

The more traditionally inviting stands offered well known grilled chicken legs and wings. I was less immediately at ease with a pile of raw chicken heads, but after all they could surely make for excellent broth. Various kinds of beef and mutton were on offer, and neither buyers nor sellers seemed to pay much attention to the swarms of flies which were busy at them. In the same meat department, kebabs of aesthetically attractive, but gastronomically less appetizing (for me), lacquered whole scarabs were proudly displayed by their smiling butcher, who was more than happy to help me get a close look with my lenses. I was seriously tempted to buy a kebab and try a bite; after all, it was thoroughly cooked, everyone ate it here, and the rational thinker in me told me I could not possibly get sick from it. However, rationality lost out to disgust and I was content with taking a few pictures.

Desperate tiny river frogs, alive with their legs tied together with nylon strings, kick around on top of each other in a pathetic attempt to break free from their bucket. Hundreds of freshly fished and very large river worms, a finger thick and up to twenty centimeters long, swim around in another bucketful of water waiting for the inevitable! In yet another bucket a whole tribe of noisily crawling live scarabs made even more of an impression on my delicate Western senses than their kebab of grilled brethren had earlier in the day.

The landscape on the road from Oudomxai to Muang Sing is breathtakingly colorful, the ride nightmarishly gruelling. The van itself is a pretty new and comfortable Toyota, and our driver is outstanding. Despite his very young age – he looks perhaps 25 and most Laotians look older than they are – he must have accumulated considerable experience on these roads. He is focussed on his driving one hundred percent, one could feel he was really into it and wanted to give his best. He drew careful trajectories on the cratered asphalt and judiciously rolled his wheels on every available square centimeter of smooth surface so as to minimize discomfort. At times he was forced to slow down almost come to a halt before each of the million unavoidable potholes along the road. Yet, despite all his best efforts, we averaged less than twenty km per hour, and nevertheless after a short while began to feel as if shaken out of our bodies. To go any faster would have meant unbearable bouncing and probable damage to the van’s undercarriage.

Along the way, we stopped at several villages inhabited by tribal minorities of Northern Laos, including Houeita, a village of the Kmu; Kolong and Pang Thong, inhabited by the Hmong, and Namdeng, inhabited by the Lantan. It is impossible for me to relate the details of the differences among them. What all of them have in common is that they are minorities, very distinct from the main Lao ethnicity. Few in these villages even spoke Lao, as Somlit himself had to struggle to understand and be understood.

At Namdeng I bought some small embroideries from an old lady and a few minutes later, while I was strolling around taking pictures, a young woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, approached me and offered to sell a lovely silver necklace whe was wearing. It was a typical Hmong jewel, a simple design of a circular hoop of silver, perhaps twenty centimeters in diameter and half a centimeter thick, with an opening in the front just big enough to let the thin neck of a Hmong woman slide through. At the opening, the two ends of the loop were bent backward and pressed flat to form a sort of hook on each side. I had seen similar ones in the Vientiane morning market on sale for sixty dollars and in one of Luang Prabang’s chic boutiques for one hundred and twenty. With Somlit’s help I gather she wants one hundred dollars for it.

I am tempted to buy it, as it is a beautiful piece and buying it here probably means it is a true local manufacture and not a fake for tourists. However, I hesitate. First of all, I recall the sign at the guesthouse in Nong Khiaw, which exorted visitors not to buy old stuff from the villagers. All too often the latter sell precious family objects for a few dollars and thus quickly impoverish their village and disperse their heritage. I would not want to do that. I asked Somlit to interpret and the lady said this indeed was her family’s necklace but she was determined to sell it. Second, the almost complete lack of communication made it difficult to understand what it was that I would be buying, what kind of silver alloy, how old, what was the artistic origin of that type of necklace, and therefore it seemed to me it just did not make much sense to take it away from the village.

Did I really like that necklace? Or was it just a sort of trophy to be displayed upon returning home, a memento of this journey. Had I seen it in a different and less picturesque context, would I have been attracted to it anyway? Hard to say. In the end, I thanked the black clad lady for the offer but did not buy. She was a bit disappointed but smiled and went home.

I am not sure I did the right thing. On the one hand, yes one could argue I left behind, where it belonged, a piece of Hmong art. All too often, in poor countries, visitors buy local art for pennies, and after the pennies are quickly spent by the sellers, irreparable damage is done to the country’s heritage. On the other hand, the lady obviously needed or wanted the money, and therefore she probably sold the necklace to the next passing visitor, so chances are that by the time I am writing these notes it is already on the shoulders of some lady in the West or in Japan. Also, it is not always a bad thing to trade in art, unless of course one deals in irreplaceable ancient items of historical importance. That necklace certainly did not seem to be a unique piece, more could and probably would be made in the village. Wherever it now is, the silver lace is likely to be seen and talked about and thus will contribute to make the Hmong a bit better known and appreciated, and thereby perhaps help their lot.

We arrive in Muang Sing and are welcomed by a mellow sunset, in the distance we can see the mountains of China. After a basic dinner, we take a walk in the night. We pas by a disco, which consists of an empty room with a couple of dozen bare light bulbs of different colors hanging on the walls and some sort of (to me) unidentifiable local rock music blasting mercilessly from a rudimentary but very powerful sound system. I decided I did not really need to stay to enrich my Lao sound and sights experience and left to continue my walk along the main street. I did not go far. In Muang Sing electricity is provided only in the evening between around six and ten or so. By the time I was a few hundred meters down the main street all lights went off. Time to go back and sleep, it’s been a long day!

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