Dec 25, 2010

Ban Nam Hee

I don't know exactly what's up with the gates, one thing I do know is that it's a big deal and one should pay attention and not mess up. Outside the gate is the outside world, inside is the village of the Akha. The double track is from the feet coming and  going, there are no roads for many kilometers.

I asked my guide Tui if I could take a photo, then I asked the local guide too and waited for his reaction. I ask every time, who knows, maybe it's ok at one time but not another. I do know not to touch. There are a couple gates per village and they have a lot to do with keeping bad stuff from entering and good stuff staying. There is a whole rigmarole about when and how to build them. Seems like they build gates just outside of the old gates every once in a while, like two feet further out. I've seen village gates too that you aren't supposed to walk through. I kid you not, the trail abruptly turns and if you look beside it uphill there is that gate without a worn trail through it, why I don't know, but I'm careful to do as others do and walk the correct trail.

Into nature these Akha folks are, there are rules about sticks inside the village, can't throw them or can't break them or something. To be safe I don't break or throw. They leave the trees all around the village too. They only live in close proximity to big trees. The forests are diverse with hundreds of different plant and animal species, every child learns the names and uses and habits of every one of them. The use of and relations with all things is codified in the set of rules known as The Akha Way. If all this sounds like a big pain it's really not.

Many of the symbols on the gate have to do with animals, probably hoping to ensure a good hunt for the food of the forest that feeds them. On one gate Tui pointed out some sticks that actually if you looked close were a symbol of two humans doing the wild thing. It was the trunk of two small saplings with enough branches and roots in the right places to resemble human limbs, someone had carved them to add realism. Probably some sort of fertility symbol. To a people who can recite their lineage by rote memory back through the generations, having progeny is important. 

Often you see little AK-47s carved out of wood attached to the gate. Maybe to scare away evil or to show the power of the village. There is no more powerful symbol than the AK.

I've never made a study of the various rules and traditions of the Akha, I only learn what I pick up here and there over the years. I do try to be watchful of those around me to make sure I'm not missing any disaproving glances. I'd hate to be the one to enter a closed village or unknowingly break some other tradition, not only because there would have to be some sort of effort made to offset the badness but also because I know that bad luck is something that no amount of ritual can wash away. Even though many of their laws and rules might seem superstitious to westerners it's not up to me to pick and choose which rules to believe or follow, by entering an Akha village I'm accepting all of their ways. 

I'm posting a long comment up here so no one will miss it

the gates are all about keeping spirits out. 
there are 2 sets, one each at the front & back of the village.
inside the gates = human world. beyond the gates = spirit world.
Akha believe that spirits do not have reproductive organs, hence the wooden carvings of a pair of male & female humans to drive home the point that the village is not a place for spirits.

'asterisk-like' daa leow on the gate & sometimes on nearby trees too = 'do not touch' sign.
bird carvings = birds are able to warn of danger approaching.
apart fom AK47 some villages have airplane & helicopter carvings too.
new gate is built every Akha New Year (or when someone has touched it, causing it to lose its 'power' to keep spirits out) directly behind the previous year's gate.

during the H1N1 scare my friends' village in Thailand put up an additional, much taller 'gate' at the road access to their village with a dog carcass on top - this they believed would help to keep the disease out.

& just learnt a few bits more last last weekend:

the bamboo ladder leading up to the rice storage shed (& also houses) - apparently the side of the bamboo used for the rungs side is for humans to walk on, the other is used by spirits, so if you construct it with the 'wrong' (concave) side up you're inviting spirits to climb up.

same for banana leaves when spreading them on the floor/ground as 'table mats' - underside of the leaves facing up for human use...reverse way for spirits' use. all along i thought it was just because the upper side of the leaves gets all the bird poop & dust :P

& that Akha believe that cats are the children of princes/princesses - & so they are allowed into houses & are not to be eaten :)

- straycat"

and now a plug for Ms. Straycat's two blogs, which are my two favorite blogs about Lao/Thai, travel culture etc. they are over on the right called Lao Miao and The Wandering Straycat. Take a look and you'll see what I mean.

Ban Nam Hee (backwards it's Hee River Village) is a village that seemed to be doing very well for itself. Quite a few metal roofs to be seen, a sure sign of prosperity. Situated at the confluence of the Nam Hee and the Nam Fa (Hee and Blue or Sky River) the word for blue and the word for sky sound the same to me, you don't need to know what "hee" translates as. (I've been informed the "fa" in nam fa means sky and the hee in Nam Hee means not what I was thinking, my accent was off) The valley bottom widens out large enough for rice paddies and regular rice cultivation. They have water buffalo. I guess it has to be the most well to do upland village I've yet seen. 

Ban Nam Hee on Google Earth. Note the bright reflection of the newer metal roofs. Also notice the different texture and colors indicating different growth. The rough texture surrounding the village is caused by large old growth trees rising above the canopy. The Akha never cut the trees around the village, many of those trees were there before Vietnam was a colony. 

Further behind and uphill the telltale yellow of a recently harvested upland rice field. More subtly north of the village the uniform velvet of regrown swidden agriculture. Fields are rotated on a very long schedule. After growing rice or corn for a couple of years a field might well lay fallow for twelve to twenty years, each year providing habitat for different species of animals and plants until once again it is slashed and burnt. The rotation of crop lands and the circle of life continues much as it has for centuries uncounted.

Good luck with any plans  the Lao Government might have to relocate these folks, they're doing just fine right where they are. I'm sure they'd never trade their lands for some spot beside the road perched on the side of a hill.

Above the terraced wet rice fields. It's as if there were a tiny enclave of lowland agriculture plunked down amidst this land of mountain rice and slash and burn. I think these fields are the key to the prosperity of the village. Wet rice has very high yields per acre or rai which is the local measurement. One rai can support one family with high calorie sticky rice for one year.

On the way out the next morning we walked past the graineries above the rice fields. There was so much rice that the extra was stored outside in old rice sacks where the animals could get at it. There was just no more room to store the rice they had. Above you can see a new storage shed being built past the one with the sacks. Rice is stored away from the village, if there is fire there is still rice to eat.

Ban Nam Hee even had water buffaloes. You see less photos of water buffs in Asia now that the iron buffalo is everywhere, but in an upland village? Five of them! There seemed to be no one there to mind the animals, maybe a youngster heard us coming and hid. There was no second season rice to guard against them eating. Still, there are tigers and leopards in the forest, perhaps no carnivores around, or the buffalo are too big and with horns.

The village was the first one I'd seen with an electric generator. Other places had LED bulbs hooked to batteries, Ban Nam Hee had a satellite TV. In the evenings they'd turn on the generator for a couple of hours and women would have light to cook with. A dim electric bulb is a handy thing to have.

Though it took us two full days to walk to Ban Nam Hee, during the wet season the navigable portion of the Nam Fa is only three hours walk away. (six hours our walking speed). So the village floated a diesel engine and generator down the river and then using many people with slings and poles carried the heavy engine, over many days, over the mountains to their village. 

Compact Fluorescent light bulb and the view from the Naiban's porch.

In the photo above you can see that though the roof is metal, very little other things in the village are manufactured products. You never see empty plastic bags or water bottles on the ground. The fence is of sticks, the baskets of bamboo, water is carried in long tubes made from bamboo, snacks are carried in folded pieces of banana leaf, things are tied with a long splinter from bamboo. Children's and often men's clothes are store bought, but the older men wear at least a coat of the comfortable and beautiful cotton dyed black and woven on looms under the houses. Almost all clothes of the women are home made.

mixing gunpowder

Tui pointed out a guy working with a saht and coke in the photo above. I'm not sure which ingredients he's mixing together to make gunpowder but I'd be willing to bet he isn't mixing all three of them at the same time. Saltpeter is probably readily available from manure, and charcoal is of course easy, I'm not sure where they get the sulfur. 

Usually when arriving at a village I don't do much. It's already late afternoon,  and when the sun goes down it's very night. My guide points me to my place usually furthest from the center of the sleeping platform, and I swallow my daily blood pressure and cholesterol pills, chased with a couple ibuprofen and lots of warm water from the kettle.  The fatigue of walking is cumulative and I know that I'll need all the rest I can get. I mostly eat only the rice offered to me, leaving the meat. I can digest the rice easiest it provides me with the energy to burn the excess fuel I have in the form of fat. I'm positive any meat will be eaten by someone.

my photo

Left of me in the photo is one of the old style muskets with a pistol grip, they hold them far away from their face so as not to get singed from the flash of the powder. 

The naiban was as Tui had promised charming. His wife gave me a gift of an embroidered pocket which I carry to this day. I have to say I've never met a naiban that didn't seem like a very decent man. The translation of naiban as "village chief" doesn't really do the title justice. The naiban isn't appointed, he's elected by everyone in the village. The naiban is the responsible person of final resort, for every single human being in the village, every one of which he has known his entire life. I'm not sure what other duties a naiban performs. Sometimes the Naiban is the same man for years, other times it changes, lately maybe the government has some influence.

family photo

Above the naiban of Ban Nam Hee. On the left his oldest son and daughter in law, on the right his wife and youngest child, peeking from behind his back either his or his son's child. The naiban carried that kid constantly the whole time I was there. Notice the coat the naiban wears. The  oldest wife has one breast bare as is the custom, it's also convenient for suckling the youngest son. Married women have bared breasts, a tradition which dies away after much contact with staring, photo taking, outsiders. 

Notice the boards forming the walls behind the family, they are cut with a "pah-ee-toe", the long knife that is used for everything, yet they are very flat and fit together tightly. The structural parts of the house are post and beam, the floor split bamboo. There is an open fire on a hearth of dirt and ashes, the smoke filters up and out the high roof. 

Being naiban isn't all heavy responsibilities. From every wild deer or pig killed one front leg goes to the naiban and one leg goes to the house of the oldest man in the village. Also it seems of late the government gives one center fire rifle (SKS)to each head of the village. Maybe it's because the head of the village is also part of the government. 

As I drifted in the minutes before sleep that evening listening to the low murmer of the talk in the household, in my mind I reviewed where we'd come from and where we were headed. The village is on no map, the river that bears the same name isn't either. I figured we were not too far from the hard surface banked road used by trucks headed from Thailand to China, maybe twenty kilometers or less as the crow flies. The next day somehow we'd turn towards the south and somewhere cross the Nam Fa on our way to Ban Jakune Mai.
Early morning fog in the valley burning off with the sun below Ban Nam Hee. The village is still in shadow.

Dec 18, 2010

Where Dead Tigers Come From

 I don’t know what I was doing when Puan found me. Maybe I was looking at the village swing or kicking the dirt or studying the social habits of chickens. Puan had something to show me but wasn’t giving me any hints as to what had him so excited

It was a poorly preserved cat skin on a bench at the the school house. What type of critter was anyone’s guess. Markings like a leopard cat, but too large, and not at all like a true leopard. The translation from Akha to Lue to Lao to English was losing quite a bit of info if there was ever any there to begin with. Small leopard was about as close as I heard with variations of mao (cat) and sua (tiger) thrown in to the confuse the issue.
I don’t think the cat was killed for the wildlife trade, more likely as proof of some hunter’s prowess. The village of Lao Sueng is not only a long way from any roads but also in an area where the Lao Government prosecutes the trade in wildlife. The villagers were unconcerned that I was taking photos of a cat skin and Puan has known me for years.

At the time I didn’t realize it but over the next couple of weeks I’d be skirting the edges of what is now the center of the international trade in tigers, leopards and other endangered species.

Tiger head and skin for sale at Mong La the border town up in Sipsongbana (twelve villages in the Dai language) I had no idea that taxidermy was this advanced in the Shan State. Someone must have sent away for a mold for a leopard as well as teeth tongue and nose.
In the early 90s I  befriended an ethnic Chinese from New York city who used to go to Mong La regularly to purchase gem stones to take home to his uncles jewelery business in NY. I think he used to bring in the gems informally. (hidden very discreetly) He would wait on the Chinese side for the traders to come over to sell, he made a trip to Mong La every two months. I think I was the only fellow American he bumped into on his trips, it was when I lived in Dali. Even back then Mong La had a reputation of allowing things that were often frowned upon in the more Puritanical Peoples Republic.

I’m an agnostic on the hunting of cats in the land of other peoples. Not my land, not my people. I will say the upland peoples have been hunting the same cats using the same firearms (black powder muzzle loaders) for hundreds of years. It's not them who have changed.

I remember a long time ago, in my own country once I got kind of a bad feeling when I saw the skins of a few bobcats stretched out on racks for drying in the back of someone’s pickup in Utah, it just struck me the wrong way for whatever reason. Cats are an interesting family of animals. They never seem to seriously overpopulate and they spread themselves out through being territorial. In general they don’t eat carrion. I like seeing the tracks of a mountain lion despite the fact that they probably eat a deer a week. Cats hunt by stealth, so do us humans sometimes.

I thought of writing when I saw this article on the website of Radio Free Asia.

Burma up in that part of the world isn’t under the control of, well, Burma. People call it Shan State, and has been fighting Burma since forever. The Mekong separates Burma from Laos and the river is very narrow and turbulent. A metaphor perhaps. I know that other foreigners travel in the area but I’ve never seen any. The only boats I’ve seen are Chinese freighters, local shallow bottomed Lao freight boats, the fast boats I’ve ridden and once an overpowered sleek Chinese passenger cruiser.

Looking north from the landing at Xiengkok. I don’t think the barely visible bamboo pier sticking out into the eddy created by the calving of that sandbar is a pier for offloading to Keng Larb. My map from Reise puts the town 15km upriver.

The Radio Free Asia (RFA) article is taken from a report from TRAFFIC an org that monitors trade in species. There are some gems such as this one.

The extreme decentralization of northern Burma "makes the situation more difficult to monitor and control,"  Translation: There is no government and no way any of us are going there.

Another one, “Mong La and Tachilek are areas in the Shan State of northern Burma, where rebels are waging a battle for greater autonomy against the junta.” Greater autonomy translates into not having their village razed to the ground and every living thing in it killed. There are no reporters or observers to bring word of the conflict to the outside world, it just happens.

The article goes on to claim Keng Larb in Burma is the new exit point for the trade. The mention of that town is what perked up my ears. So I looked at the map. Sure enough right where that birds beak type thing sticks into Laos. The bird beak is a big old turn of the Mekong, at the tip of the beak is the tiny port of Xiengkok, Laos. That’s where the Long river enters the Mekong. The river and the ledge jutting from the hill, form a slack water big enough for boats to pull out of the current and moor. Any place the river slows down enough to actually allow a boat to stop is a real big deal on the upper Mekong. There’s a customs house. 

Lao freight boat firing up it’s engines as it enters the fast water at Xiengkok. We all watched the boat silently swing out into the current without power waiting to see what the heck was going on. The captain hadn’t started the engine so to save a couple precious drops of fuel. The engine coughed a couple of times then caught and blew out this tiny cloud of smoke. Without power a boat would be dashed on the rocks within seconds of entering the rapids. The Chinese blasted a channel a few years ago but there is still a tremendous amount of water trying to squeeze through a very narrow passage.

Xiengkok is the place the backpacker Ryan Chicovsky disappeared under unusual circumstances four and a half years ago. If anyone reading this travels to that  area, and hears anything about Ryan please contact his family as they are still seeking word of him.

I can see how the trade in tiger parts would find the Mekong along the Burma Lao border a good place to exit Burma. There is no law in Burma, the only outpost of the Lao government is the lone, very boring, customs house in Xiengkok a town known for being perhaps less regulated than the rest of Laos. The dirt road from Xienkok up to Sing and the local border crossing with China has no checkpoints before the border itself. At the border both times I’ve been there everyone has been playing dakaw that kind of cross between volley ball and soccer played with a hard wicker ball. It’s not a border for international travelers.

Further down the Mekong where Burma meats the Thai border is the town of Huay Xai with it’s hard surface road where in four hours you can drive to the big casino at Boten. The Chinese casino that is built on 25km of Laos with a 30 year lease and an option for  60 more. It would be very hard to tell where Laos ends and China begins. I saw an article recently with photos of tiger kits for sale there but I can’t seem to find it anymore.
Finally there is the possibility of going straight up the Mekong is China, with no Lao checkpoints at all. Those 3 possible routes out of Keng Lap, all very loosely regulated, offer inexpensive, quick passage to China for the wildlife trade, far away from developed towns.

An example of howe "out there" this stretch of river is, a few years ago a fast boat got shot up and a Chinese army guy killed. Something to do with the Chinese casino in Tachilek not paying it’s protection money. What a Chinese army guy was doing all that way down the river so far from the border of China just goes to show the confluence of corrupt officials, lack of any kind of government, and competing illegal enterprises.

Huay Xai is also the first place one ends up that has internet, electricity, hot water, and all the trappings of modernity. While walking down the main street I saw a store selling curios from the forest. Boar tusks, porcupine quills, exotic looking crystals, and such. Lying on the floor was this very beautiful skin from a marbled leopard.

I asked the young lady minding the store if the owner was there. He still wasn’t there an hour later and I politely asked permission to take the photo.