Launch of the New CERS Research & Education Base in Lao PDR

By Dr William V Bleisch, Luang Namtha, Lao PDR


As the small twin-engine prop plane touches down at Luang Namtha Airport, I wonder what to expect. After all, the China border is just one hour away, and there were several hundred Chinese overseas workers there just two weeks ago before Spring Festival, most of them from central China. They come to work building the high speed rail line that will someday link Kunming and Vientiane, or to erect the new modern apartment towers in Moding Special Economic Zone on the China-Laos border. Although inside Lao PDR, the currency of Moding is RMB, the phone signal is China Mobile, and the most common language is Putonghua. The last time I passed through Moding, on my way back to China in December, construction was going on at a feverish pitch.

The plane hits the tarmac with a bump. Although all the passengers arrive wearing masks, the airport greets us all without so much as a forehead temperature check. No one outside the airport wears a mask. The air is hot. The traffic in the city is still noisy with motorcycles. Birds call from the trees outside my room in the guesthouse. With no cases of CoVid 19 reported, and no signs that anyone is taking any precautions, Laos seems disarmingly safe. I gradually relax – at least there is no chance of my worst fear; of being locked down in a city with the internet blocked - no information and no escape.

I have come back to Luang Namtha in order to attend the long delayed house-warming party, the official launch of the new CERS Lao Research and Education Base. The construction began back in December, but even before that, the CERS team put tremendous effort into arranging the permissions, drafting the agreements and contracts, and visiting all the relevant powers to get their final blessings. When construction finally began, it went relatively quickly, as all of the villagers turned out to help, collecting and curing bamboo, weaving the walls, levelling the grounds and digging the post holes. Even the village children pitched in, carrying stones from the river for the foundation.

On Feb. 10, I join the CERS Lao team to attend a meeting with the entire village of Ban Houeyleud to discuss plans for the launch party. I am the only one wearing a mask. There is a consensus that it should be on Monday Feb. 24, an auspicious date. We will invite 130 persons, including 30 from the city, and 100 from other nearby villages. The ceremony will be left to the villagers and the food will be in traditional Khmu style. CERS will purchase fruit, sesame, rice, and a small cow, and the villagers will prepare it all. They will also collect and prepare rattan shoots, banana flowers, and other wild vegetables, and make sticky rice, beef laap, steamed vegetables with spicy jiaow dip and orlam, a stew of forest vegetables with wild herbs. While I keep expecting the government to cancel the get-together at the last minute, no one else seems to have the least concern. At any rate, by the date of the party, it will have been more than three weeks since I left social isolation in Beijing and the vicinity of any reported cases of the virus during my quick trip through China to Laos.

The Centre looks great, but plastic trash and bits of construction debris litter the yard in front. There is also still a lot of last minute clean up work needed to get the building and the grounds in shape for the opening party. While we all chat, one woman patiently crochets a traditional Khmu carrying bag from black polypro string. In the past, these sturdy net bags were made from braided twine twisted from the fibres of a special wild vine. She can make one large shoulder bag in 5 days. I wonder if there would be interest in buying them overseas, now that the ban on single-use plastic bags is spreading to cities around the world. I wish the ban would come to Luang Namtha. The streets and roads around Luang Namtha Province are also littered with plastic trash of all kinds. Just for fun, on the next Saturday, I take a kayak down the Nam Tha from our village to below the village of Ban Hatnyong. The river is very low, so we must get out and drag the kayaks over many of the rocky stretches, but it is good to see the forest again, the big trees on either bank stretching out to shade the river even in the heat of noon. We stop for a picnic lunch on the bank. Mr. Sai, our guide, points out mai bong bamboo, good for making baskets and good for eating. This is just one of a dozen species of bamboo, each of which has its distinct uses. The trekking guides here are all walking encyclopaedias of indigenous knowledge like this.

Mr. Sai quickly and expertly prepares a bamboo fire and lays out our meal. He has brought sticky rice and chopped beef laap, and he roasts three large fish on bamboo skewers over the fire. Before any meal in the forest, we must offer prayers and bits of flavoured sticky rice to forest spirits, the lords of the place, who are often the spirits of people who died a violent death. It reminds me of similar Burmese traditions for making offerings to nats, but Burmese spirits often reside in elaborate temples, not remote forests.

I ask Mr. Sai about other ceremonies for the spirits. He reports that every year in the fall his family must kill a pig for a spirit festival, held after the harvest. This is a necessity, in order to gain a blessing for the home. As the eldest, he must buy the animal. Each clan seems to have different practices. Mr. Sai has to buy a pig each year, but his father in law, who is from Ban Hatnyong nearby, only has to pay for a chicken. Mr. Sai thinks it is not fair.

Mr. Sai tells us more. One must not speak the name Tiger while in the forest. One can hire someone to counter spells cast by enemies, which can cause sickness. Or to cast spells to make someone love you, but these relationships will often end early with the death of one of the partners. The knowledge of spells is dying out, because Khmu shamans are not teaching young people.

We are all back in Ban Houyleud village the next day to supervise and help with preparations for the house-warming party. The house entrance, the driveway and all of the house pillars are already decorated with bamboo poles shaved in such a way that the shavings are left attached and curled so that they look like giant imitations of rice flowers.

After preparations for the next day’s feast have finished, there is dancing over bamboo poles in a foot trapping game. Two bamboo poles are placed on the ground about 2 meters apart. Then four pairs of women bring another four pairs of bamboo poles. Each pair of women kneels and holds their two bamboo poles laid perpendicularly across the original pair to form a ladder-shaped obstacle course of bamboo. The music begins and the women noisily slap their pair of poles against the two poles below and against each other in time to the beat. Slap slap close… slap slap close. Dancers in teams of four now stand at the ready at each end of the obstacle course. They touch their toes between the pairs of moving poles. Touch touch lift…. touch touch lift…. lifting just in time so that their feet are not caught by the closing jaws of the bamboo traps. Then suddenly, the dancers are floating lightly across the course, coming from each side at once, missing the oncoming dancers by a few inches, stepping between the poles and leaping on just ahead of the snapping bamboo jaws. The dancers move effortlessly and lightly, but I can see intense concentration on many faces. An occasional misstep is punished by a cruel slap on the shins.

After dark, the women of the village, wearing traditional Khmu costume, perform a dance in a circle accompanied by elephant foot drum, cymbals and gong. They are holding shaved hollow bamboo containers, like the containers used for carrying water or for cooking in the forest. They bang the containers on the ground with each beat, tilting them from side to side as they turn to face each other, first one side, then the other. A man comes out onto the dance floor and dances alone with two wooden swords, imitating the moves of a warrior. As a second male dancer finishes his sword dance, the women return and crowd in, dancing around him before he departs after leaving the two swords on the ground. Finally, the elders leave and children fill the dance floor imitating their elders’ moves.

On the morning of the auspicious day of Feb. 24th, I am invited to attend the offering ceremony for the spirits, to gain their blessing for our newly opened Research and Education Base. One by one, all the senior village men and CERS male staff are offered lao hai, pungent rice wine made from fermented unhusked rice in large earthenware jars. As each person one by one sips the wine through a bamboo straw stuck deep into the jar, another man pours water in the jar to keep the level steady. In this way, everyone can watch and judge to see how much each person drinks. I guess I am being treated as the “owner” of the house, since I am asked to drink first. I realize that this is when the wine is at its strongest. A gentle hand pushes my hand lower so that the straw rests directly on the bottom of the jar, where the wine is at its most concentrated. The taste of wine is pleasant; the after-effects later - not so much.

When all the males have drunk at least once, we are invited to sit around an alter with two towers made of folded banana leaves and marigold flowers. As prayers are recited, a small rattan table is passed from hand to hand around the circle of participants seated around the altar. A freshly killed boiled chicken, boiled eggs, rice, oranges and other offerings are set on top. This is the pa kwan or peun mal in Khmu. I ask our CERS team the meaning of the ceremony and prayers, but no one seems quite sure. The villagers of Ban Houeyleud appear to be Khmu Koene, but Mr. Deang is Khmu Roc Krung, from the banks of the Mekong, while Mr. Air is Khmu Roc Nalae. And Ms. Ladasone is Samtao, not a Khmuic group at all, although also an Austro-asiatic language. I am only beginning to appreciate the tremendous cultural diversity of this region.

Next, there is the tying of basi strings on both of our wrists by each member of the village. This ceremony I know well – it seems to be universal in Laos. When the ceremony is over, all of the CERS staff have thick bracelets on each wrist made of up of dozens of white cotton threads, each tied one by one.

Soon after, the guests arrive, including the Director of the Information, Culture and Tourism Department, Sivilai Pankeao, and the former Director, Mr. Phonsavahn, and the Director of Tourism, Mr. Somsavaht. These are our hosts and supervisors in Lao PDR, and they have been immensely helpful. The Manager of the Discovering Lao Tourism Company, Mr. Wan Xai and his wife, are also here. They are our partners for the future management of the new Center.

The obligatory but thankfully short speeches, including my own, are followed by a huge meal. The final preparations for the feast were made very early this morning, before 4:00 AM, when I was awoken by the sounds of pounding outside the house. The women were already awake and chopping the roasted beef to make laap that is now being served. The food is accompanied by drinking of course, and the drinking by dancing. The former Director has brought a case of Malacca plum wine. Strong lao lao distilled rice liquor and bottled Bia Lao lager flow generously.

The villagers keep partying until the wee hours, long after I have retreated to bed. At long last, our new Centre has been officially blessed and we have been welcomed into the heart of village life. The spirits have been appeased. Worries about disease, both to the body and the economy, seem millions of miles away.

Author’s postscript: As we go to press in mid-May 2020, the events described below seem to be from another time and another world. The decision to hold a party late in February seems risky, even fool-hardy, knowing what we know now. Since that time, I have remained in social isolation in the village in Laos, living at our new CERS base. Of course the Centre will not be hosting student groups anytime soon, and tourists have disappeared from Laos as well, devastating the local economy. Luckily, the province and the village have been spared otherwise from the disease itself, and life goes on as usual in the village. Indeed, in the whole of Lao PDR only 19 cases of Covid 19 have been reported, the last one in mid-April. Ironically, the village seems to have been wracked by a different mystery disease, which suddenly killed one young girl of 14 and left an old man partially paralyzed in the same week. The villagers blame the “phi,” malevolent spirits, but I think Japanese Encephalitis Virus (JEV) is the more likely culprit, judging from the presentation of high fever, headache and seizures, and the abundance of Tiger mosquitos since the rains began here. Ironically, a vaccine exists for JEV, but vaccination is still not widespread in Lao PDR. JEV takes a horrible toll each year. Worldwide each year 15,000 people, mainly children living in the tropics and subtropics, die of this preventable disease, and more are disabled for life by it.