Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Forest Cemetery - Laos - Still Day #3

27 January, Wednesday, although a rest day for us on this journey turned out to be a busy as well as a productive day for us. Besides our visit to the Lanten village of Baan Soptud, the Khmu village of Sopsim, and the Tai Dam (Black Tai) village of Ban Pasak, we or more accurately I visited a Tai Dam forest cemetery.

On our way back to the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant we stopped at a forest cemetery between Ban Mai and Ban Pasak, another Black Tai village.

When Tai Dam people die, they are buried in the forest beneath small raised houses. The houses are about five feet above the ground. They are miniature replicas of actual homes complete with porches, porch railings, windows, and either a corrugated metal or wood shingle roof. The houses are about 6 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet high. They are located inside of individual plots of land in the forest. The plots are about 12 feet wide by about 20 feet long with a narrow drainage ditch around the perimeter. A fence constructed of woven strips of bamboo surrounded the plot very similar to the homes in the nearby village. The fence as well as much of the houses were succumbing to the ravages of the forest environment. The fences were falling down, Vegetation was attacking the structures. Rain and sun were bleaching and breaking down the house walls and roof. Inside the houses, outside the houses were items that the deceased would need in the afterlife - baskets, bamboo stool, fishing nets, plates, cups, candles, articles of clothing, and some decorative items. There were remnants of offerings around the houses.

The cemetery that I visited had two of these miniature houses. I had read about these forest cemeteries and wanted to see one up close. This burial practice is not related to Buddhism but originate with the Animist beliefs of the Tai Dam. Many of these beliefs are retained by Lao Loum people in Isaan. The strong belief in "Pii" ghosts or spirits was sufficient motivation for Duang to remain in the taxi truck parked on the edge of the road alongside the forest.

The burial houses that I visited were located about 300 feet inside of a heavily forested area bordering the dirt road. The forest, considered to be a sacred forest by the Tai Dam people, separated some plots of rice that had been harvested back in late November. The forest floor was covered with many varieties of small plants. Sunlight form the late afternoon sun was filtered and diffused by several species of tall trees. Vines ascended from the forest floor high up into the tree canopy. There were a couple of large spider webs with small spiders on them along the narrow trail to the houses. I did not see any snakes despite looking - looking very carefully. I really did not want to find any so I was not disappointed. I did find some large red ants scurrying up and down a hanging vine in the center of the very narrow footpath. Based upon my unpleasant experience with red ants in Isaan a year ago (blog entitled - "Ants In Their Fish, Ants In My Pants"), I gave them wide berth, preferring to risk an encounter with an unknown snake than repeat with known red ants.

At the end of each of the burial plots, there was a sort of tombstone. Both of the stones were rather weathered and rapidly advancing into a decayed state. One of the stones had a photograph of a man attached to its surface reminiscent of the tombstones that I saw being carved in Hanoi where an actual photograph is incorporated into the stone. Burial sites are marked to indicate the sex of the deceased. A single flag flown from a tall pole signifies a man's grave. A circle of flags signifies a woman's grave. At one site I found the remnants of a very tall bamboo mast with attached flag that had collapsed the ground. At the other site I found what appeared to be several flags with poles laying on the forest floor. I was curious to investigate further but out of reverence I did not. I am fairly certain that there was one male and one female grave. On one the end of one of the houses, some one appears to have written the birth and death date of the deceased. It had been less than two years since the burial.

Now that I look back, my decision to risk an encounter with an unknown snake rather than the known red ants was consistent with decisions in my former career. Once in preparing to do a project in California, I learned that the Site Manager was hiring a person that a former client, years ago, had requested that we remove from the job, which we should have done without their direction. I reminded the boss of that incident and he responded that he knew this person and was familiar with his performance (lack of performance?). I said that rather than repeat a mistake, I would rather go to the bus station and hire someone new. I believed that I could pick some one there and obtain better performance than rehiring the "familiar" person. In the end the familiar person performed poorly and the Site manager had to explain and apologize to the client why there were 2 surplus 30 inch valves. The familiar person had needed one valve but had ended up requisitioning three valves over the course of the 3 month job. It is so important to take responsibility for the direction of our life. I made a conscious decision to avoid the ants at the risk of the unknown. The unknown is not always to be feared or avoided. Embracing and exploring the unknown as well as the unfamiliar leads to education and enlightenment. This trip like so many other trips taught me a great deal about cultures, people, and about myself - a journey into the unknown, - the unfamiliar but so rewarding.

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