Our Lao guide’s name sounded enough like “porn” that he made a joke out of it and suggested we all call him Porn Star. Porn made jokes about green snakes spooking him while he squatted to pee, and shook with laughter as he delivered the punchline to our packed bus: he wet his pants. And I thought this was the land of conservative behavior and modest dress.
Rather, this is the land of naked children bathing in the Mekong. They scream at you from the banks as you float by in the slow boat, but when you look over, they’re all smiling and waving. These same naked boys are at least wearing t-shirts when encountered in the tiny roadside villages, but their lack of pants still jars my Western sensibilities, a learned discomfort at child nudity that compounds into self-consciousness of my gringo priggishness. Their screams become a high pitched repetitive “bye-byes” as you float closer, with the inflection of “hello”. Maybe they’re actually saying “bai bia”, whatever that means.
They are Hill People. Or more politically correctly, the “minorities”, Laos’ famed and diverse hillbilly population that has, for good or bad, emerged as a critical tourist draw. Trekking to a “hill village” on the back of an elephant is among the most common offerings you can encounter on Luang Prabang’s tourist strip, billed on every chalkboard alongside Mekong kayaking and regional bike tours. Dozens of distinct microcultures flourish in the weird sculpted hinterland, tribes that have retained their identities for generation after generation because it is precisely a giant pain in the ass to get to them. My ass endured this pain along “boom boom” roads that wind narrowly through the countryside, never wholly paved or uniformly dirt for more than a hundred yards. I’ve never been bucked so far out of my seat on four wheels in my life, let alone in a bus with twenty other people.
Even the Chinese-sponsored freeway (i.e., the fully paved stretch near the Thai border that runs to China) was so tortured and twisty that I can appreciate why the conquering empires of yore weren’t especially thorough when it came to the backwoods here. The Chinese connection runs deeper than a self-serving road project, though. Porn explained that a number of these highland tribes are the remnants of tiny vanquished Chinese kingdoms who fled for their lives into the Laotian bush to avoid certain doom at the hands of bigger, badder armies, in the days of yore. They settled down here and, while not exactly left in peace, were sufficiently marginal to the regional fracas going on all around them. They have held out in these rugged folds of jungle, at times hiding in the cave-riddled cliffs when necessary, when people dropped bombs on them “secretly” during other peoples’ wars.
Now, in peacetime, the ubiquitous rusty satellite dishes and rows of Honda scooters under the stilted homes prove they have survived into the modern age. Thus, they are all now members of a dwindling and exclusive club of cultural outliers, not quite the Kalahari bushmen, but definitely exceptions to the one-world rule. Creeping modernity may be transforming their lives in a way that the conquering empires of yore couldn’t hope to contrive. But they’re still here. And my guide wants us to bear witness.
Porn explained, in his animated if broken English, that the Laos government requested certain villages be moved closer to these barely paved roads, ostensibly for their own benefit. We were driving on one of these roads, and we’d be making a stop to say hi. The government evidently offered free electricity as an incentive to relocate their villages, admission to the grid in exchange for easier “access”. Whether or not this mattered to the village elders, the tiny hill town we visited was one of the moved.
I tried to appreciate the scope of effort involved. Dozens of families’ homes, farms, and routines uprooted, though something tells me this was not the first time. I tried to visualize the exchange between the government agent and the local Big Man.
“You’ve got to move.”
“Because if one of you gets malaria, we want to be able to get an ambulance out there easily.”
“This never mattered before. Why now?”
“We’ll give you free electricity. And the government needs you to move your village.”
Meaningful glance. Shrugged shoulders. Done deal.
It’s so hard to tell how long they had been in the “new” location, and I regret not asking Porn for dates or historical context. It could have been in the 70’s or the 30’s for all I know. I climbed to the top of a knoll and looked for indications of newness or ongoing development. It all looks like it had been there for ages. Cute baby pigs and chicken families running around freely in modest gardens and leveled dirt yards, weathered bamboo huts alongside timeless brick barns spilling over with cobwebbed crappola and broken equipment. There were bundles of hay hanging from thatched roofs and women beating tall grass on the road to thresh it free of the tiny green hayseeds. It’s hard to believe that this was not the same town they all had grown old and died in from time immemorial.
It’s hard to dispute the fascination. And it’s hard, for me at least, to justify being there. But it was part of the package, though, and was tastefully brief and surprisingly uncommercial. Porn showed us around a tiny, desperately poor village as if it was a craft fair, yet no one offered to sell me anything. We were introduced to some village women who wove the traditional clothes and made their own paper from local bark, but I was not given the option to buy any. Mixed feelings arose, part of me wanting to advise them about tourist economies and the practical availability of my easy eager dollar, part of me wanting to beg them to remain forever poor and precious in the name of cultural preservation. They probably just wondered what I could possibly think was interesting.
Except, of course, the children, who pantlessly waved bye-bye.