Sunday, December 15, 2013

Build a better ...

Khmu man making bird snares

There is a popular saying in the USA that states "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door"

The saying is actually a misquote of Ralph Waldo Emerson's words "If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods."

On our recent trip to Luang Prabang, Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos), we traveled broad hard beaten and dusty dirt roads not through the woods but rather the jungles of highlands to visit some less visited villages.  What we found was unexpected.  What we found was extremely interesting.  What we found was not a better mousetrap but apparently some pretty darn good rat and bird snares.

Since this trip was our third to the region, we had several places that we wanted to revisit.  However by the third day we had visited most of those places.  I knew that our guide had developed a good sense of what interested us.  On the morning of the third day, he asked us where we wanted to go.  I replied that we would rely upon his judgement as to where we would go.  He said that he knew of some villages, Lao, Khmu, and Hmong that not many tourists visited.  Sounded good to us!

We set off and were soon bouncing along a dirt road that climbed up through the cool highland morning mists.  We drove higher and higher surrounded by verdant peaks.  After a lengthy visit to a traditional Lao village we visited two Khmu villages.

Traditional Khmu Houses

There was a great deal of activity in the villages.  Rice was drying out in the sun along with beans, each on their separate tarps.  An old blacksmith was busy making a large cane knife in his foundry attached to the back of his thatched roofed woven bamboo house.  The sharp metallic staccato of his striking the hot metal with a heavy hammer on his improvised anvil echoed throughout the village.

Children skited about rolling bicycle and motorcycle tires much like children did many years ago in America.  Other children congregated to check out the strangers that had just appeared in their village interrupting the the monotony of a simple life.

Village dogs acknowledged our presence more out curiosity than any sense of duty or sense to intimidate.

Khmu Man Constructing A Rat Snare

Shortly after commencing to explore the village, we encountered a man working.  He was making homemade snares to capture rats.  The snares were to be placed on trails frequented by rats in the nearby jungle.  The snared rats would then be brought back to the village to be eaten,

It was very interesting to watch the man craft the intricate snare out of natural locally available materials other than the braided nylon string.  Tubes, rods, straps, loops, and peg components for the snares were fashioned from the readily available and free of cost bamboo.

Khmu Man Making Bird Snares
Further into the village, we came upon another man building snares.  The snares that this man was constructing were more intricate and, in my opinion, bordered on being works of art - sort of like kinetic sculpture.  Through our driver we learned that these snares were for catching birds.

Just as in the case of the rat snares, other than the nylon braided line, all components of the bird snare were fashioned from local bamboo.  To produce the various components of snare from the bamboo, the craftsman used a handmade large knife and for a vise to secure the raw material to be worked, he used his bare feet.


The craftsman was very friendly as he continued to fashion his snares next to a smoldering fire that gave some warmth against the early morning chill of the Lao Highlands.  For added warmth he was wearing a large, several sizes too large, jacket.  In addition to us he was soon joined by other people - curious children.  Two young boys interrupted their play to join the snare maker while chewing on a freshly cut sugar cane.

Sugar Cane Chewing Boys Join the Snare Maker


With gnarled and weathered fingers bearing testament to a long life of subsistence living, the snare maker expertly fashioned the components into working snares.  One reason that I enjoy visiting the peoples of outlying villages is to see how they live and to photograph how they are able to survive by exploiting local resources and relying upon themselves.  I, with my engineering degree and over 40 years of work experience, could not help but contemplate how long I could survive in similar circumstances.  I am continually amazed at the talents and skills of people that I encounter, people who lack the formal education and experience of living in technically as well as self-perceived "advanced" societies.  Whereas I would expect to survive 3 to 5 days in their situation, the peoples manage to survive, thrive and in many cases remain happy into advanced age.

Our Guide Purchases Some Bird Snares

 "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door" or rather the proper quote "If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods." was confirmed during our visit to the Khmu village.  The craftsman was not producing a better mousetrap but was making bird snares.  I don't know if they were better snares than what other people produce.  They looked fine to me and seemed very fit for purpose.  However our guide was someone who knew of these matters and had experience with those things.  He spoke with the craftsman and closely inspected the bird snares.  After a while he ended up buying five snares from the man.

Our guide said that often his family go off and have picnics.  He said that the snares would be very helpful for those family outings to catch some birds to eat.

Having completed our visit to the village we returned to that broad hard-beaten road through the jungle to go on to the next village and what encounters along with any amazement that could be awaiting us there.

Wonders and amazement along the back roads of Laos were awaiting us.

Wonders and amazement await all of us along the journey of this life.

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