May 31, 2007
Adrift on the River (or why make clay figurines)
Looking North from Boyee Sang Mai.
After fifty miles or so there is the place where the Nam Ou curves back to the west, then after another long way it goes to the border of China, then after who knows how far there is a road.
Ban Wa Tai
Above is a photo of the Nam Ou in Ban Wa Tai above Hat Sa. The river is quieter up here, it sees a lot less traffic, everyone headed for Phongsali jumps out at Hat Sa. At the time I took this photo I was very happy to be headed downstream, in retrospect I should have been headed up, ever further up the river as Kurtz would have it. I was on the last day of a 5 day walk in the mountains drained by the Nam Ngam, Nam Long, and Nam Ngay, the last of which I had been crossing back and forth the day before. The thought of hot showers and clean sheets filled my mind. I was also looking forward to Chinese food and fresh coffee at the Phongsali Hotel.
How quickly we grow to miss our creature comforts. A few days in some windy hills and I go rushing back to the relative comforts of a remote Lao provincial capital. I had been spending the nights on the ridges, so it was nice and warm to be in a valley.
The Nam Ou I was leaving winds many miles upstream without a guest house, English language menu, or bus schedule in sight. Also no roads or cars or busses. Electricity, what there is of it, is by small generator. The river first heads north through the Phou Den Din NBCA a place I’ve never heard anyone talk about. It’s not as if the Den Din NBCA backs up against any population centres either, just Lai Chau province Vietnam. After the Ou leaves the Conservation Area it curves west and then north again to Ou Tai then straight north another hundred or so kilometres to Bosao and the border with China. China just stretches on and on forever with even bigger mountains and valleys and more mountains that no one has ever heard of. It’s Yunnan province, without the hype.
I should have turned around and headed on upstream. There are boats, it is a river, I can communicate after a fashion. Heck I can even talk more easily to the folks in Ou Tai than in Phongsali. Ou Tai people are Thai Lu. I should say most the townspeople are Thai Lu, I saw plenty of ethnics I didn’t recognise. Phongsali people are Phou Noi. Pasa Thai Lu is plenty close enough to Lao or Thai, Pasa Phou Noi is like no language I’ve ever learned to howdy in.
I started out this posting thinking about Thai Lu, and Thai Lu culture, (more later), my thoughts just kind of drifted on up to Ou Tai. I’m fascinated by the town. I know some other people that have been there, but I don't know anyone who has gone for a walk. A police man and a career army guy (party members?) offered to take me around, but by the time I got there I just wanted to go home and hang out with my wife and kids. It was the end of a trip not the beginning.
Crags across the river Ma, Muang Long
What started me thinking about the Thai Lu was I found some notes I took from my second trip north last winter. The notes were about a kind of religious offering I wandered into while going for a walk outside of Muang Long, another Thai Lu town, on the other side of northern Laos, over by the Mekong.
I had to kill a day while waiting to go for a guided walk, so I walked across the river to the crag. I crossed the Nam Ma and then a narrow, but almost deep enough, tributary. I was happy to keep my flip flops from being washed away. I wanted to get a view of the good sized hill above town I would be walking up the next day, and also I just wanted to get out of town for a while.
There was an irrigation ditch close up alongside the crag and I found the little woven mat below with the figurine made of clay. I knew immediately that I was looking at some kind of folk religion type thing. I was unsure how it had gotten there. Surely it couldn’t have floated down the irrigation ditch. The woven matt looked like a small raft and the woven horse with rider and figures made of clay had been carefully crafted. It seemed as if the clay figure even had a bed or blanket to lie on.
Are we too originaly of clay.
I of course touched nothing but saw no harm in taking a photo. I have my eyes open when walking and hadn’t seen anyone. When I got back to town I showed Tdui, the tourism official, my photos. He was very excited to see what I’d found, and explained that when someone is sick or has troubles they make the figures and the raft as I call it, to draw away the bad spirits. A shaman is consulted and he says words and tells them where to leave the raft. The figures are kind of sacrifices to the bad spirits.
laomeow asked some Thai Lu monks she knows. They confirmed that the figurines are used to draw away bad spirits. The name for the figurines is “Sataong”
I believe the “transferring” of bad spirits away from oneself into the body of a third thing is a common theme throughout cultures.