Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lanten New Years Celebration - Pahka, Laos

Sunday, 31 January, was the New Years celebration in the Lanten village of Pahka. Pahka is located on the unpaved road, Lao Highway 17B, between Muang Sing and Xieng Kok. It is about 25 minutes outside of Xieng Kok.

I wanted to be there to watch the preparations for the festival, so we got up at 3:45 A.M. to leave the hotel at 4:00 A.M. for the 3 hour trip to Pahka. We went out to the parking lot and found Khun Kompak and Khun Thone waiting and ready to go. We were off to an early as well as a good start to the day. Since we were unable to purchase much food the day before, we stopped at the morning market in Khouang.

Our trip out to Pahka was highlighted by the sights of two very large bonfires on distant mountains. These fires were massive and provided golden glows to their surroundings with mushroom shaped clouds of smoke created above them. The mountains were not being cleared as part of the Hmong people's slash and burn technique of agriculture. The clearing and burning was on a large industrial scale to prepare the area for development into rubber plantations financed by China. During our flight to Luang Namtha, Duang and I had seen many of the rubber plantations. They had reminded me of the terraces used by the Incas in Peru.

We arrived in Pahka at 7:00 A.M. to find the village already heavily involved in the preparations for the festival later in the morning. Many men were squatting in a large semicircle around a large area of fresh banana leaves placed upon the ground in front of one of the homes. Piles of various parts of slaughtered cattle, hide, bones, intestines, stomach, internal organs, and so forth were heaped on top of the banana leaves. Next to each man was a thick round cutting block. Pieces of the animal were placed upon the cutting block and chopped with a heavy knife until it was turned into a thick paste - just as I had seen at some many preparations for festivals in Isaan.

Occasionally either one of the men or a woman would gather up the paste and place it into one of the large pots boiling over a wood fire close by to the men's location. Women were busy close by cooking rice, cooking soups, and preparing pieces of meat. Some of the women were multi-tasking. Besides their cooking duties they were caring for their baby who was strapped to their back. Older children were cooking pieces of liver skewered onto long pieces of slender bamboo. After cooking the meat they willingly shared with their friends and siblings. Throughout this scene village pigs, chickens, and dogs wandered about content to nibble and gnaw at the scraps at the edge of banana leaves.

After a couple of hours of intense food preparation, the villagers took a break to have breakfast. Their breakfast consisted of sticky rice that had been cooked in a very large pot covered with banana leaves. Along with the rice they ate some of the boiled meats. The food was placed on banana leaves and eaten with bare hands. Men took care of some of the small children while the women ate. Children wandered about the entire time amusing themselves anyway that they could. As is so often the case in Asia the older children looked after the younger children. Many of the young toddlers exhibited a strong sense and spirit of independence. I got several photos of groups of two and three year olds walking, sitting, and eating together fairly much oblivious to their surroundings. They live in an environment, or world very different than toddlers back in the USA or Europe. Their world still retains vestiges of trust, and innocence long purged from Western societies.

It was during this interlude that I found some of the younger women relaxing by playing a game. They were enjoying themselves by tossing a ball type object back and forth between them. The ball type object was a stuffed red, white, and blue cloth sack about four inches square with long cloth streamers of the same colors. There did not appear to be any strategy, rules, or even winners and losers in their play. They just smiled, and laughed even when they failed to catch the object. The overall feeling during the morning was a strong sense of community. Everyone seemed to have a duty and responsibility which they performed willingly as well as happily. There was one man who was obviously in charge and often was a little agitated. I joked with Duang that I thought that he "tink tink, too much" - what she used to tell me so often before. What she meant was that I "Think, think too much" - an expression of the Buddhist precept that thinking that is about wanting and desire lead to pain and suffering Although the people apparently respected him, when he started to spin out of control as often politicians do, the people basically ignored him. As he was getting all excited they walked away and continued with their work at their selected pace.

As the morning got later, vendors set up their booths on both sides of the village main dirt street. A very popular booth for the children was the vendor who sold the Lao version of snow cones. The young children congregated around the female vendor as she prepared to sell the cold treats. Other popular vendors were the balloon people. The balloon people had booths where people paid to throw three metal darts at air filled balloons stuffed into cubicles on a large sheet of plywood about 12 feet away. If three balloons were broken with three consecutive throws, the player won a small box of soy milk drink or fruit drink. The game was open to all ages - you just had to have the money to play.

The most popular booths for people of all ages were the dice games. Gambling is illegal in Thailand but very wide spread in Laos. The dice game involves placing your money (bet) on a sheet of plastic that has pictures on it. The pictures of fish, horses, dragon, etc correspond to the pictures on the faces of the dice. The dice are placed side by side at the top of one section of an opened wooden box. A string runs from the band holding the dice in place to a bettor at the foot of the open box. After the bets are placed, the person pulls on the string which typically releases one of the dice to tumble down into the second section of the open box. The second tug on the string usually released the remaining two dice. The winning bets were paid off and the losing bets gathered by the vendors. The losing bets were kept in the bottom part of the box to a certain point when the vendor hid the stash of cash under the fabric playing surface of the bottom box. The betting and payout were a combination of roulette and craps. You could bet on the actual picture that would show up at least once or you could place your bet on lines and intersections of lines for different types of payouts. The little children were obsessed with the game. It was like video games in America only with the possibility of winning money. However just as is the case with gambling anywhere in the world, the "losers" far exceeded the number of "winners" Much to the delight of the children, I gambled for awhile. I used just about every cliche used in movies about gambling to extol good luck. I blew on the dice. I talked to the dice. I patted the string puller on the shoulder. I rubbed the string puller's hands. I puffed three times on the hand of the string puller. The children loved it. I ended up wining 50,000 KIP (about $6 USD. When I quit I gave my "Lucky" string puller 10,000 KIP much to her delight. Duang then gambled on her own. It took awhile but she managed to lose the 60,000 KIP that I gave her. We had lost 10,000 KIP ($1.25 USD) but we had a great time - very cheap entertainment for sure.

We left the village when the speeches by the visiting dignitaries started. There were to be dances and music as part of the celebration but it was getting late. We still had a three hour drive to return to the hotel. I wanted to be back by sunset for safety reasons - safety in terms of "road safety" rather than crime concerns.

Upon completing our dinner, Duang and I stopped by some people playing volleyball. They were people from Thaioil that we had met earlier in our stay. They were from the same refinery in Thailand where I had worked when I met Duang. I ended up playing volleyball with them until it was too dark to play. It was a pleasant surprise to meet them again, play volleyball and most of all return to our room without any injuries or even aches and pains. It was definitely a nice way to finish our last full day in Laos (for this trip).

We were scheduled to leave the next afternoon at 12:40 P.M. but that is for another blog or two.

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