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 matters...one 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.

10 comments:

Snap said...

What wonderful photos and insight into the Akha Village. Thanks for sharing them.

Somchai said...

Thank You so much I just posted it. There are many people very knowledgeable about the traditions of the Akha, I'm not one of them. I just learn little bits as I go. I think there are good orgs out of Thailand or I usually just search through the Boat Landing web site.

Nice folks the Akha, and nice villages, great people.

Christay2009 said...

Truely excellent read. Hope to be back in Laos later this year (fingers crossed).

I am looking forward to some laap kai like you wouldn't believe - the funny thing is i wasn't sure i even liked it when i was there.

Keep posting.

Kees5 said...

Great tale! I know exactly how you feel, sitting there at night, almost too tired to eat. How many hours do you trek on an average day?
My very first trek (also to Akha villages), at the end of the second day I didn't think I'd be able to walk the next day, I was so exhausted..
Next trek, I trained a few months ahead, bought some decent trekking boots (instead of sandals), and cut a good bamboo stick, to help with balance on steep paths. And lowered the weight of my pack...

somchai said...

Might be late this year for me if better half not in school yet.

Anywhere from 8 to 12 hours Kees. The relocation of villages has increased the distances. It's not like when there are regular companies and they've had experience with thousands of westerners of all abilities. I've hiked on into the night too often.

Anonymous said...

great post & observations incl the google earth pic.

any higher resolution photo of the gates?

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 matters...one 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

Shelley said...

We are off to SE Asia again mid-January. Should be in Laos by the first week of Feb. and trying to decide if we should go back up to the Namtha area...its been since 2007 and then we were there only a couple of days. We've gone by boat from Houayxai twice but don't know if we want to do 2 days on the river again...have you gone by truck? Sigh...I want to do it all and more and can't wait to get back. We'll be posting on our blog...shelleymz.blogspot.com I love reading your blog so much...thanks!

Somchai said...

Shelly I'm extremely envious. I'm intent on heading back with entire family next winter. Should cost a small fortune.

WSC thank you so much. I'm going to go ahead and repost up in the body of my blog post so no one will miss it hopefully, and for anyone reading this comment I can't suggest strongly enough heading over to Ms. Straycat's two blogs lao miao and the wandering straycat, they are over on the blog list right side of my blog. Great commentary and insight into Akha and Buddhist life in Thailand and Laos. A different perspective than I've ever read elsewhere. My favorite blog on all things "Tai".

CK said...

Amazing post & photos. Getting deep into it. Thanks - and Happy New Year

Anonymous said...

thank you somsai. remember you are the one who wrote something on a forum (after you read the initial posts on lao*miao*), that s-purr-ed the cat to write more about what it observed in Laos. & your own observations & comments continue to remind the cat about all the things that it 'takes for granted' as 'understood', but aren't necessarily obvious to people from different cultural backgrounds.

- straycat