A Visit to the Protected Areas of the Akhas in Thailand

By Alann De Vuyst

Deforestation for rubber plantation in Houana area This is the sequel to the story I began with my brief stay in Luang Nam Tha, and I returned the same afternoon to Muang Sing. This small village was going to be my base for meeting more tribal people, either the Hmong or the Akha. But first I had to witness the rocket festival, which I had remembered as loket, not knowing that the locals meant to tell me in English what the name was. Being unable to speak the letter ‘r’, I should have known what they were saying. Anyway, it ended up being a very interesting festival, shooting giant arrows into the sky, to unleash rain from the rain gods. At midday I went for a walk through a field, which now lay bare, just in front of the balcony in my new guesthouse. It used to be a rice field, and was now awash with stubs left over from the last harvest. It was too hot for me to hang around for hours, but I had an urge to see the bustling of the people who were setting up their make shift stalls, selling anything from juices to balloons and snacks. Others went for real spicy meals like som tam, crab with cabbage drenched in chili sauce and eaten with sticky rice. Most of these vendors were either Khamu, Phu Noi, Hmong or another ethnic minority.

Buddhist novices, clad in strong orange colored attire, loitered around, and jealously observed how the local kids jumped naked into a brook, filled with mud colored water. Towards the end of the field, in the left corner, stood a huge construction of a bamboo tower, the launch pad for the rockets. Here were small rockets, which you could shoot from your hands, but those that were going to take off from the tower, were giant ones with lots of power in them. They were brought in by boys and men dressed in traditional but stunning colors to the open field. Some were really gaudy and sported the colors of the rainbow. At last I saw a rocket, which had a kind of rain deity, a phallic doll strapped onto the rocket. Then a person, who I think was a shaman, arrived on the scene. I believe he delivered a speech to the rain gods. All onlookers, sheltered under a thatched roof, wore cowboy hats, which gave me the feeling I was on a rodeo show or some other Wild West show. Children, young ones, dressed in traditional silk costumes whirled about and were extremely shy for foreigners. After a nap, I involved myself into the whole scene with more appetite, and discovered how the local gents enjoyed the cheap whiskey, and the loud noise of every rocket going for the rain. The biggest ones were to be fired after 4 pm. By then I had been invited to sit down with Akhas and Hmongs in a friendly way. Meaning, that some of them actually invited me, so they could have more Lao whiskey to drink, for which I would pay for of course. When I realized this, I made enough excuses so that I could do my own thing, like taking pictures or striking up a conversation. The mayor and other big wigs were carried on elephant chairs by a group of young men. Everyone partied until very late. For me the noise and drunken people was too much to bare, so I not sit down with youngsters, who would have offered me food and drinks in return for the usual questions of, “How are you? Where are you from?, What’s your name? This would have been followed by silliness. Time had become too precious to me, and I preferred my own company in the middle of the field, where I could see the hued mountains on the horizon, with the stars as my ceiling. Next morning I found myself anew at the market and bus station, hoping to find a little twoseater pick-up and drive back to the Akha village I had visited three days before. But alas, no pick up was ready to go there, or simply there were no passengers. Another one was filled up with cheery college students. Did they go to the Paysang village? “No,” they said, but they were Akha too, and would I like to come along to their village? I jumped in and introduced myself properly. Some of them were students; one was a Lao who taught English at the Akha village.

That’s how I ended up in an Akha Puli village. Yes, they have different clans: The Puli, the Kofen and the Chesou. Of course I didn’t know these names from the beginning. It was only by the time I left that village I came to see the differences between them. It was about an hour’s, drive and when we left the paved road we drove up on a dirt track, leading past the army barracks, and a golden Buddhist stupa. There were lots of watermelon

Houana village

plantations and scorched or burned land to be seen. A bumpy track led us to halt in the village itself. The students left quietly, and I was beckoned to climb a wooden staircase leading up to a veranda of a wooden house on stilts, a typical Akha house, on which I encountered boys of all ages sitting and lying around. They were eager to find out who I was, and one adolescent, about 18 years old, who spoke a bit of English, interviewed me about my coming here. Water was given to me, and a big piece of watermelon. Then I passed by a shed underneath an Akha house, where they were making fermented rice into kind of balls. They gave me two of these. They were so hot; I could barely keep them in my hands, and kept them for when I would be hungry later. Half an hour later Nolo had introduced me to his uncle and aunt, with whom I could stay, he said. That is what I did for the first three days: staying with them, observing them and eating three meals a day. Those meals consisted out of brown, unpeeled rice, and forest veggies with fish, venison or Chinese noodles and an egg, topped off with palm shoots, (which are very bitter). The village was quite big, about 400 people lived there. I did my best no to take pictures straight away. I wanted to become friendly with them first. Of course with my host family it didn’t take too long before I eternalized them, on my cheap digital camera. The family had five children, the youngest was Saküe, six years old, then Sanket, nine, Santu, ten, Sonti, thirteen, and Samüe, fourteen. All were strong healthy boys. All of them were dressed in rags of T-shirts and trousers like dad, who I found out was a nai ban (village head), sharing it with another, who was only thirty something, and whom I rarely saw around. Yasso, the father, was a good-humored man who owned a TV and satellite dish. His wife Peun Cha, was really impressed with my presence and could not do enough to please me. Every night his house filled up with the young and old of both sexes, who had come to watch a Thai Eastern, that had blood and rape scenes, dripping from the screen, pretty much to the amusement and awe, or should I say shock, of the little ones. Men of all ages carry the babies on the back or chest, just as much as the siblings or the mothers do. It was so endearing to see them carrying a young baby, and it doesn’t harm their male ego. I was rather disgusted to find out about the soap, having said this I thought about writing a letter to the Bangkok Post or to the new organization for the Preservation of Thai Culture, to let them know how far their stupid soaps harm the ethnic minorities across the border. Of course those soaps are not in the least bit censored.

Boys, men carry the babies The European Union seemed to have done its fair bit by channeling water, so the village possesses four different washing places. Nolo, the young man who had brought me to Yasso’s home, came by every day or evening and showed me a swollen left foot with two punctures in it. I thought of snakebite, but he denied

saying it had appeared out of the blue, and he couldn’t recall any animal having bitten him. His job was that of a tourist guide for an agency in Muang Sing called, Exotic Trekking. He was paid a mere forty dollars, per three-day trek and even that wasn’t something he was asked to do every month. So he had to work in the paddy fields like everyone else, if he wanted food on the table. The Akhas of the villages outside the protected area, in which Nolo and Yasso live, are desperate for food. The government is not really doing much for tribal communities; they have been offered incentives, and the promise of new perspectives, by Chinese investors, who have told them to burn down the forests, and plant rubber trees. The view is horrific. Every morning and evening, I saw plumes of smoke over mountain ridges right across Yasso’s house. I made comments about it, and Nolo admitted that it was grave, and should be stopped. Even on the Akha radio station they were told to stop hunting protected species, and stop the burning. But they need money to pay for fuel, even the fuel they need to run the tractor engine that provides energy for the two TVs in the village. The other person’s TV, when Yasso’s TV is not on, is some fifty meters from Yasso’s house. Only there, that guy asks an entrance fee, like 5000 kip, which is half a Euro. Yasso also has a little shop, with goods from Muang Sing to sell to the villagers. All the small pieces are for sale, to make money for his big family, as Samüe and Sanket go to school every day in Muang Sing. It is in fact a boarding school that they attend, and only Samüe has a bicycle. All the other children walk daily, a trip of, about 20 km up and down. The French organization, Action Contre la Faim (ACF), has also built a school with two class rooms within the village, which is where one of the college students I came on the bus, is teaching. So there is some progress or aid of some sort. But the fact is that these people are still hunters and gatherers, and believe in spirits. There is a spirit gate for coming in and out the village, and no one is allowed to go through it. Furthermore one can see small spirit houses near the family homes. I was intrigued by them, and hoped one day to be able to speak to the local shaman. Word went round that I was a doctor, just because when I had tried to take care of Nolo’s foot. Not that he would listen to advice, like put your foot in a tub of water with salt in it. I did apply Shipibo medicine from the Peruvian jungle once, but he then claimed that his aunt would apply Akha medicine. “Good” I said, “I rather have you do that”, because I was pretty sure that their knowledge of jungle medicine was still intact. Twice she applied a bundle of wet green leaves on his foot for two consecutive days. In the mean time I entertained the kids with songs from my childhood, and occasionally they listened to my Walkman, on which I played music from Moroccan Gnawas, or ‘Missa Criolla’ from Argentina. But the music they were most interested in was disco music, and of course their own ancient Akha music on tape, which I listened to in the night, when Yosso tuned into a

program on the Akha radio station. A few nights he made me listen to the Voice of America, and Thai or Chinese news.

And the kids enjoy it... The squeaking radio didn’t last long, and soon my Walkman was used for the purpose of listening to Akha music. His mother came by and used to sit with us, and asked for medicine for her back pain, then a friend of hers had stomach ache which she wanted cured. During the next few days I had children coming to listen to my tapes, and see me dance, or I had a waiting room, full of patients with ear, eye, throat or any other infections. Nolo’s cousin Peun Taey, a young guy who had two wives and three children, took me to his home, and to other homes, where I was offered deer or wild boar. Usually it turned out to be a stew with rice, the usual forest vegetables, and bamboo shoots served with Lao whiskey. On one occasion we sat with about thirty people at a banquet, and ate at a low table, from a plate on the wooden floor. Below us were the domesticated black pigs, which would always scrounge around for anything that was pushed through the slits of the wooden planks that made the floor. I hated to drink that whiskey, but it was almost unavoidable and I surely didn’t want to offend my hosts, when for them, this was the most expensive, and the best that they could offer me. By now I had become pretty used to the environment, but not to bumping my head or skull against the roof posts of my host’s home. I got several deep cuts in no time. So far it hadn’t

been raining much, and the men and women got up about five in the morning to feed the pigs, by six they were off to the slash and burn fields, and then to the rice fields, where they may have started in, or simply to the forest to hunt game. It dawned on me that I should do something, other than just lazing about in the village watching people, what they eat or bring in, or how they watch TV or play takrow (a ball made of rotan is knocked over a kind of volley net, by either the head or by the feet). I was asked by Nolo if I fancied a trek in the forest. Of course I did, but where, how and when? He introduced me to a friend, called Kosso, who had never been a guide of any one, but who knew the forest well. He was young like Nolo, but Nolo was not fit to take me, with a foot like he had, so, I accepted. The next day, I packed my red bag; in went the necessary clothes for a forest climate, my rain poncho from Peru, my medicine kit, digital camera and binoculars. Kosso was very handsome. Had I met him in Thailand, I would have taken him for a Thai. I found out he watched the Thai soaps, and even adopted the latest hair fashion, which the Thais have copied from Manga cartoon characters, like Goten or Vegeta. Not only had he embraced the Thai way of hairstyle, but he also had learnt a basic Thai, which was excellent, as mine was basic too, and had I only spoken English, I would not have had the chance to communicate with him at all.

We were going to trek for about three days. He didn’t know that, but I made it clear that that was what Nolo had in mind for me. Our fist port of call would be a village of the Cheso Akha. The trek was stunning, not only did we get across Akha farming land, and slash and burn fields; I also got to see fruits and taste them, which only Akha knew of. Some of the slopes were so steep; I had to pause every five minutes. Clearly I had had days with more stamina, way back in the Andes, but that was nearly 5 months ago. Pattaya had spoiled me with too many cream coffees, and too much heat with no action. I swore I was going to change that upon my return. But now there was no need for such resolve, even the last stretch of half a kilometer, I had the sweat rolling into my underwear and Kosso waiting for me like a stoic. Yes, though he looked like an Olympic god in face and body, he was not much of a speaker or ‘explainer’ to me. I had to virtually pull information out of his mouth. I had tasted some wild but succulent berries, when we stumbled upon a party of four Akha hunters. They sported Chinese soldier caps, and ditto jackets, but it was the long musket like arms they carried that intrigued me. I had never seen anything like them before. I am not an expert in weapons, so I will not try to guess what they were, but they sure looked like they were made two centuries ago. When I guessed which country they came from, Kosso said that the Akha had made them. Then I saw the prey they had on display on the path. They were actually smoking meat, but some of the meat was still intact; a buzzard, a parrot, smaller birds, a kind of furry animal that looked like a rodent, but had the body of a coati with along black tail and enough skin to

The trek

fly from tree to tree. It was a nocturnal mammal I would say. From the buzzard I got some feathers and its feet.

Parting the meat Having left the rolling landscape and thick forest behind us we arrived at the village of Namaou. This was after five hours of trekking, to near exhaustion on my part. It lay very high up on a hill, surrounded by fields and lush forest. The people had not expected us; many of the women had their entire traditional dress on and something peculiar like a round little tower on their forehead, which was actually a hat with coins on it. They love the French colonial piasters of silver. The children here were shyer than the ones in my village, but what upset me more were the hordes of wild barking dogs. Every house had one snarling from verandas, and running toward us from sheds below the houses. They certainly defended the village and household. In short, the welcome was not really what we had expected, and even though we were invited up into a man’s house, I wasn’t sure Kosso liked it. He remained ice cold and unexcited about the whole drama of two men arguing over something. Was it about us? As usual the veranda filled up with the curious, children and women. It turned out to be the house of the nai ban (village chief). Just like in my village, this one had TV and all the riches. Soon he ordered us inside the dark but cool living room, if you can call it

that. A long space with a fire in the middle, pots and pans and other utensils lying on a shelf, which hung suspended from the ceiling. Lao was ordered as soon as I had coughed up 7000 kip for it. I secretly mixed it with tea, in which I had poured honey. Kosso refused to drink any Lao at all and laid down peacefully after the initial drinks. He soon got into some kind of conversation with thenai baan, a slim sinewy man in his mid thirties who was in charge of it all. I have no idea what they talked about but slyly, Kosso told me he didn’t like the man, and didn’t like the village or the clan, and he would not drink the Lao whiskey. He secretly poured it away through the slits in the floor. Some things I never got used to were the domesticated boars coming after me from behind big leaves or scrubs when I was defecating. They looked like ugly monsters, and stared straight into my eyes: “Are you nearly finished”? They seemed to ask. I shooed them away, but they patiently waited until I moved. By then I had two or three big and small pigs fighting over it. Usually the big one got his way and gobbled it up, as if it were marzipan or pudding. Yuck. I will never eat pork again, I thought. There was this irritating personae trying to sell me heads (there were three), of hornbills, for only 60 dollars or for me 30 dollars a head. When I took a particular picture he told the youngster to ask for money or for me to give him 5000 Kip. I hated this kind of merchandising of the visit. I gave the youngster a necklace instead. I found that more appropriate. Kosso wasn’t much involved.

A hornbill head for sale in Namaou

By the evening, when we had to eat, I got away from it all, when I needed to go to the loo outside again, behind the bushes. I decided to find their spirit gate. It was immense, and just like ours, it also had a huge swing before it, something that I had seen years ago in, when staying with the Gurungs. But dogs from allover came running after me, threatening me once more. I only had a few pictures left and I was lucky in that the TV generator at Houana had given me ample opportunity to use for recharging my camera batteries. But in those five last hours I had shot most of my potential, so that in Namaou, I had not enough energy left, or space for storing them on my camera memory card. The night came swiftly, and people came around the bed, which Kosso and I were lying on. The father, our host, was well served by his young daughters, who were professional in their ability to massage, something I had been pampered with in my village. Everybody, boys and girls, young and old, gave massages, but it was said that women and girls were best at it. The evening was fun; it was pure magic for exchanging ideas, songs and checking each other’s boundaries. Just like in Houana, I did my puppeteering game, simply using my hands in mimicking two cobras, or two dogs fighting each other, including making the sounds they make. The cobras, in the end, lurch at some of the children watching it. It was great fun, in so much that most of the children in every village I visit, have started playing my puppeteering performance for themselves. It has become the children’s favorite request in whichever house I go to. A teenager sang real traditional Akha songs for me. Kosso was nearly asleep; he couldn’t be bothered to watch what I did. Basically he hated being there, with these people, who he found to be uneducated, unruly and dirty. He claimed that in Houana they wouldn’t do this or that, and I agreed, adding that no one had ever dared ask me for money for food or whiskey. When everyone had left, Kosso and I were ready to close our eyes, but before I did I saw my host readying his pipe with opium. He asked me if I wanted to try, but I declined. He offered a second time, but again I said no, too afraid that I may get hooked for life and besides I wasn’t interested in using a drug without any spiritual meaning or ritual connected to it. The smell of it turned my stomach inside out, and I stuck my nose under the bed sheet. Next morning at dawn we got up, and again the breakfast- rice had chewy smoked venison in it, deer I guess it was. I wanted to leave quickly, but we were not allowed to, as some children were engaged in a Shamanic ritual with the shaman, near a little brook we had to cross. Kosso had never been as far as this village, and from now on he wouldn’t even know how to get to the next village called Suee. He got directions from the nai baan, telling us to go down over the brook, in to the forest, and down to the river, where we had to cross and look for a big tree and follow in that direction. A big tree, they had told him? Yee gods, I hope he finds that particular tree.

I observed the ritual in its last stage through my binoculars. I was sad I was not allowed to see it from a close to. The man, who was with the shaman, was somebody I recognized, as the one who had insisted that the boys should ask me for money for any picture I took. I have no clue whether he was an assistant, or a shaman himself. The boys with them were not older than ten and they were eating some special food.

Our food in Namaou

Again a young boy tried to sell his beautiful hornbill head. I tried swapping it for my stainless steel switchblade knife. They all had a look at it, but in the end they preferred cash, baht or Kip, or even dollars. Then all of a sudden we could go. Kosso had to take extra care of me, because it had poured with rain the whole night, and as I slept with earplugs in, I had not heard it. But soon I would feel what rain does, as I kept skidding dangerously down the slopes and nearly broke my ankle. I had once again to break a branch from a tree, and make myself a walking stick. The Reebok jogging shoes, in high tech, failed me after one day of trekking; both soles had come loose the next day. No, Reebok certainly were not made for trekking, Leonardo! But rest assured, they are in good hands now, and lead a second life in Houana with my host Yousso. At the river in the valley I followed Kosso who looked puzzled. Where was that special tree? When we finally found it, we marched on eastwards, to the village of Namayè. Again we roved through a big patch of land with burnt trees or what was left of them. Half an hour of constant blows on my knee joints had taken a toll on my flexibility. Kosso had asked me if I could walk in his Chinese sneakers, which seemed good enough for a city walk, but not for this jungle. Or could I perhaps go on bare feet? I thought if I do that, I would be surfing down the slope down to the river. So it was a big relief to see that for some time I would have to walk on flat land. We walked until we stood by another river, which we had to cross. It was rising in level, and had giant stones in it, but not enough of these to cross the river. Kosso threw a few more of them in, and made a land bridge. He offered to carry me over it, as I was still quite wobbly on my legs. He carried me over to the other riverbank. Then we moved up a slope, yes another one, through thick bamboo forest, and lots of tropical wet undergrowth scrubs. In no time Kosso’s feet were infested with leeches, sucking the blood from between his toes, and I had some of them crawling up my shoes. Normally you need to rub them in, and soak your socks with tobacco juice, but I had been unaware we would get in this mess. We had moved up about ten meters high, when Kosso realized that the paths we had followed were indeed former Akha paths, but that they led nowhere. We had to retreat and cross the river again. Following the river round the bend, there was a path which he had been told would lead us to Namaye, where he had a brother and sister living, and where we would be very well treated and received. The soil was flooded with water from rains or river but we found it at last. There I took off my shoes, and crossed on bare feet to the other side. From there on we followed different paths, sometimes they ended up in a wedge, but we followed our instinct and nose, and arrived after two hours of criss-crossing thick humid forest, into the Akha farm land where we had a break in the river. The river teemed with dragonflies and butterflies. I couldn’t resist diving in the shallow river, it was cooling and exactly what I needed. Kosso had enough with water on his face, and when he couldn’t any longer bare the

sight of my naked bum, he asked me to get dressed, and we moved on. By three am we arrived at Namayè. There indeed, we were made very well. Here too, the European Commission had a water tap installed, the stars of the EU log quite visible but fading. I think EU sponsored it but the organization that did it was the French ACF again. I had a shower under it, attracting of course many children, who came to watch this white skin visitor. Just as with the Chavante, and earlier on with visits at the Hmong village and other Akha places, children were extremely cautious and didn’t know whether they could trust me. Kosso’s sister and his brother in-law had a baby and two toddlers. The fire in the house was cooking meat from the forest. By the evening, and after I had washed and dried my clothes, I took a stroll through the village, and again saw a different spirit gate, all the way up the village, yes it wasn’t really too flat. The spirit gate stood on a slope. It started raining, here and soon we all ran for shelter. That’s where Kosso, for the first time, offered to massage in true Akha style. Which is where the legs and arms are pressed down and squeezed, and once I lay on my belly, got a nice twist and joint treatment, then he cracked my toes and like wise the fingers and thumbs. God, did that do me some good? In the morning, the hut was smoky with food cooking in different cauldrons, and others just smoked alongside or over the fire. My clothes dried there too. Clearly here too there was need for money, as it was hard to sell anything to the city. I was offered at least three hundred grams of Marihuana, and some handicraft, all of which I had to decline, because I didn’t want to buy any more stuff that I didn’t need. The marihuana was only 20.000 kip, compared to fifty grams an Akha woman wanted to sell me for 50.000 kip, which is five dollar. I could see why they resorted to selling drugs, as not many people bought their handicrafts, and it has been grown and used for decades. I couldn’t blame them; I would do the same. Poverty, and lack of any resources, would not eradicate its sale, no matter what they tried to push the Akha into. A boy, of about fifteen, came and grabbed my hand, and asked me to take him on my trekking and for me to take him home. He took me to his home instead, while Kosso was fixing one shoe, stitching with an average sewing needle through the hard sole. When he finished one I realized we’d better stitch up the other shoe as well. The boy laid his head on my lap, and on my shoulder, while caressing my hand from the inside. Kosso said, the boy had told him that he thought I was very handsome; he liked my blue eyes and white face. I left them with a heavy heart, as it I had known them all my life. Just at the outskirts of the village we ran into little boys, with catapults, and a few little green birds with a red ass in their hands. Their game and food they had brought for their families. I realized my binoculars were missing; someone had maybe taken them out of my bag while I was taking that shower. Kosso went back and quickly came back with them, after half an hour of waiting. I didn’t want to ask him whether somebody had stolen them, that’s why I just said: “they are missing”. So, they could save face.

There were more slopes up and down again. Before we reached the village of Suee, where we would not stay, as he didn’t know anybody there, we had climbed some higher forestland, which was much drier. Here we observed and listened to birds, and Kosso started humming Akha song. He was a good lad, helpful and worth his money. I was going to pay him the forty dollars that Nolo would get from the agency. My shoes wouldn’t last a day longer, Kosso said. But we still had to walk another seven hours before we reached our final destination, the village of Sumaè. True, Suee was quiet, and yet together with Namayè, I found it the most beautiful traditional village. Only dogs barked at us, and only one man showed us the way out. We walked through the spirit gate. I made objections, but Kosso said, it doesn’t matter, and he was already through it. This village was built on hilly land, a reason for Kosso to hate it; his ideas about beauty are quite different from mine. A flat land with a village like Hoauana is the most beautiful for him. We moved fast, though my left foot was aching like hell because of a small pebble that had been pressing against my small toe for more than a day. I never have pain, Kosso said. Soon we ate more fruit, climbed uphill, where we met some children who had bags full of unripe and very sour rambutan fruit. At last we arrived in the open with a vast vista of mountains and valleys and the horizon from where we had came from. “There lays Namaou”, Kosso said. I couldn’t believe I was already four hours on the march and that that village lay so far behind us. Then we reached men working at widening the road, so that they could have motorcycles, cars and their mini tractors using them. Rust colored walls of earth were going to be our path for the next three hours. The men looked at me, and within the shade of the wall we all conversed with small talk. I left my name in the wet earth of that wall, next to the name of the road and its year, which they had already engraved themselves. Again they told Kosso how handsome I was. The feathers in my ears appealed them, as they did in the other villages. They called me Khun Nok (in Thai and Lao language), meaning Birdman! We slouched or rather; I slouched, as Kosso was not getting tired at all. He was young and healthy; he was going at a much slower speed, just for me. We came across more road projects, this time I saw the Lenten and Hmong and tribes who were Akha related. On my last stretch I ran into a camp of people who were kind enough to hand us Khao suay, (beautiful rice in Thai, sticky rice is khao neeaw). This, and the regular water we took from rivers and brooks, kept me going. Our last companion was an Akha woman on her way to Sumaè. By then I had decided to walk barefoot. I managed to walk like this for about five kilometer. It was a great feeling, to have my feet treading on that rusty colored earth. That’s where a man on a motorcycle sped by. He stopped, totally surprised to meet a foreigner on this trek. When he heard what I done, he said I was a strong man. He worked for ACF, and we exchanged some of our views on acculturation, the burning of the forests for rubber, and the influence of the Chinese market.

“They will find out for themselves, sooner or later, which TV programs to watch and which not. We also give them advice and try to stop them burning the forest, but it is a project of long breath”, he said. I was completely shattered, and so Kosso said that we could go on a truck to Muang sing, which was still very far. Suamaè looked more like an organized village; it had more corrugated tin roves, and information at the nai baan’s home about STD. A poster with all sorts of infections on male genitals was simply stapled on his door. I could bathe in one of the ACF showers and take a rest. “Are we going by bus tomorrow”, Kosso had asked me, coming down from the hill. I have managed so far on foot, I thought. I am sure that I can do the other bit as well in the same way. But after I had bathed, eaten a melon and a very nice rice meal, I slept sound and deep. But not before I enjoyed a massage form Kosso’s relatives. This time I was to pay for it, Kosso insisted. I slept under a mosquito net, on one big bed, and woke up with a different feeling. It was very grey and drizzly outside, kind of a Belgian autumn weather, and so we decided to hitch a ride or take a bus. The children didn’t mind the rain, and they flocked to the river, with their catapults and had fun. When a vehicle did arrive, it was not a bus instead it was a truck. It was wet as we stood in the truck, having the wind and rain lash our faces. Luckily I had my Peruvian poncho. I took us an hour ride, and Kosso pointed out all the Akha villages by name. Had it not rained, we would have visited them, but I thought I had seen enough, and knew what Akhas looked like now, and what kind of life they lead. Arriving in Muang Sing, I had to discharge my memory card on the trekking agency’s office. I had told Kosso not to tell that he had guided me, as I had seen a poster somewhere before in a restaurant, that said that it was not allowed for tourists to trek alone or to go with an unofficial guide. The foreigner could be jailed and fined it stipulated. I tried to explain all this to Kosso, but alas, he had not understood. So when the guy from the office asked him and me where we were from and what he or I had done, he innocently told him everything. This resulted in a warning or a threat that Kosso could get in trouble with the police. This reminded me that I was still in a communist country where human rights are yet not so certain. The Hmongs are still persecuted like rabbits, for their aid to the Americans in the Communist war in the sixties and seventies. But what, I thought, about the Akha’s situation? Or was it in fact, the risk that a foreigner could bring out the news of burning forests, instigated by Chinese corporates, with whom Laos is in cahoots? I do not know, but we got on the first little truck that I could charter for about 30,000kip, all the way back to the village of Houana, where everybody cheered when we walked in there. I spent another three days in Houana, where I did nothing but listen, observe and treat patients, or played with the children. Nolo’s foot had healed with Akha medicine. The whole skin had come off, from his foot joint to the toes, and it was now as pink as a baby foot.

Anyway it was good to be home, because that’s what it felt to me, I was home. I had the happiest time of my life here with people I had barely known for three days. How strange and yet, they all loved me. I soon got back into eating regularly, and the amounts of water melons that flushed through my throat were a delight every hour, because it was steaming hot here as well, even though we were on about 1900 meters, or that’s what I guessed. The next day I got invited for a Shamanic ritual, and I was allowed to take pictures where they initiated the ceremony. Just as in Namaou, the shaman sat with a few children, actually three men dressed in black and one wearing a hat with a broad brim. He culled a rooster in broad daylight. Then after that, in single file, they went to one of the houses where everyone had gathered, from the very elderly to the younger women and men. One girl, I learned later, suffered from epilepsy, and around her wrist everyone tied a black yarn thread with a bill of 500, 1000, 2000, 3000 or 5000 kip attached to it. I too was asked as the last one, and since I had no spare change on me, some one volunteered to give me a bill of 5000. He claimed it back for himself two days later, as it was only advanced for me to give to the girl. We drank Loa of course and ate deer stew with forest vegetables.

Dear deer I was really honored, because this invitation meant they really accepted my presence in the village and as a senior member. That started from the beginning with Yasso and Peun Cha, who I think do not have too much money to raise their kids, and formally I was asked to move to Peun Taey’s house, after two nights staying with Yasso’s family.

I realized that I could not stay on these people’s hospitality without contributing, and even thirty dollar was very welcome, as most don’t even earn that in a month. After that there was no more talk about me moving to another house, and I was constantly served with good food, or a Red Bull or lacto soy milk from the family’s shop. In the night I would gather with the youngsters, and have fun with teaching them songs in English, including the songs known in Belgium. They preferred the English ones I had encountered on my travels, and in Pattaya, such as “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”, and “Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes”. These were smash hits with about 40 youngsters, in the dark, who also stomped their feet when I asked them to in “If you’re Happy and You Know it Stamp your Feet.” The last day was going to be a big trial, it was celebrated on the same day the Lao government celebrates the war they won against the USA. I decided when they, Yasso and his boys, asked me to come to sing where they stood. I would have to drink Lao again, and I did not want to see again how they cut the throat of a huge black hog. Hence, I decided to stay on the veranda and sing and dance on my music. However, it was not possible to maintain my isolation from the men, as they came to fetch me again, it was noon by now. I gave in and slouched through the scrub in the nearby forest at a foot of a hill. The whole male Akha world was there. They sat on palm leaves, boys with men and men with men. On the spirit house lay a goat’s head, and I think the two huge cauldrons behind, were boiling pig fat and blood. They scooped it out spoon by spoon, while another was stirring the stew and making a performance for my camera. Three men gathered, I recognized the shaman from the last ritual, and they pointed out the young village chief for me. Incense and prayers were dedicated to the spirit of that ceremony. I was asked to put in money, and once again I had none on me, so Yasso, improvised it for me. “You just put it there,” he whispered. The shaman wanted me to pose in front, after the ritual had been completed, and it was a dead serious business, because at the start I was not allowed to photograph what they had put in the spirit house. I had to turn down the fat I was offered by one man, and got liver instead. Finally we sat down in two long rows facing each other and ate from the coagulated cooked blood stew, and drank some amber colored Lao. The shaman and the elders were all happy to eat with them. The young boys ate separately. The party didn’t last longer than an hour. Each and everyone returned to their homes. That same day about nine men gathered on the veranda with Yasso and drank and drank so much Lao. I knew it would not take long before tension rose. Peun Cha saw it coming too, and subtly made me understand it was better for me to leave the visitors.

Within an hour, when I was returning from a stroll through the village, I heard shouting, and soon I saw some fist blows from a man, who I had noticed earlier as an aggressive talker, he ran down the stairs, seemingly furious about some humiliation. He wanted to run back with some arguments, but his kin kept him back, and then of course the one who had been insulted came down too. People were really anxious and worried, especially the women. The one guy who was most intoxicated ran to his home, only to come back with a Kalashnikov rifle, which he shot once in the air, to shut up the one who has started up the fight. Soon it died down, but there was still apprehension in the air. The guy, who had started it, had run to his home shouting something like, “I will be back, I will kill you.” But he never did come back. Instead of stopping the Lao drinking, they picked up their glasses and had a few more. I felt the negative energy in the air, and some spirit told me I had to cleanse the house of these remaining evil vibrations that the old man had stirred up. I took a few puffs of Santa Maria weed, grabbed my Fulni-ô Indians’ rattle from Brazil, and shook it in all directions, from wall to wall and side to side. It drew the people to the performance. I wore my Txucahamei warrior featherhead dress, and sung to my father Sun, and implored to him to soothe the angry feelings with love. I spoke to the people who had come to listen to my chants, about how this village should stay united and not divided, and how liquor harms the spirits within themselves. They smiled and nodded. Not long after, still in a very high state of mind, I entertained young and old within the main room of Yasso’s house. Children and women got to sing with me, and enjoy my last day of staying with the Akha. Peun Cha had been very worried in the evening, but the men all laughed it away. Then Peun Cha asked me a pill for a headache. Poor woman, she was totally upset. In my last days I visited adjacent villages such as Pouyè and Eulaa. Accompanied with all the youngsters who liked me we went to Eulaa, which was about half an hour walking distance like Pouyè. I found out that my fame as a doctor had spread to Eula, as an old woman asked me to treat her grandson’s tooth abscess Next morning, Yasso had bought four bottles of Singha beer, and offered me one. He opened up a bottle of Red Bull, offered it to me, together with and lacto soymilk. The soup came after and that was not all. He had two boiled eggs for me. I thought that was quite enough for the breakfast, until I was asked to sit outside with more guests, including the village head chief, the shaman and the Kalashnikov man. There was meat and beer enough and eggs for everyone. Very quickly, Peun Cha and her mother in-law were weaving something together in fluorescent green and orange yarn, which turned out to be for a special goodbye ceremony for me. Eight of the people, who were present, tied round my wrists, a black yarn thread and lots of money with it. It was followed up with toasting of good health, and all of a sudden, Peun Cha came from behind my back with two boiled eggs, each one sat in a woven small bag attached to a long string. Both these eggs, in their bags, were then put over my shoulders, and another six

eggs were put in my hands. An elderly man, whom I assume was another shaman, made Akha prayers for me, that was my blessing for my trip and good health, I suppose. Two young neighbor women called me to take pictures of them in their traditional dress, but alas I had no more memory on my chip, because I had shot the last ones of Yasso and his wife, she in traditional Akha Puli outfit, and he with Santu and Sanket in normal western clothes. I saw Peun Cha in her splendid clothes and recognized the shirt she had me once worn for my pictures. She then had said that it was women who wore it, because at the time no one had any of the male Akha outfits for me, except for a white cloth with special embroidered design on it, which only they understand. They all wanted me to come back, they said and soon. Whenever I’d come I would be welcome. “And we will travel with you to Vientiane and Luang Prabang”, Yasso and a friend of his added. “Deal”, I said. I was driven to Muang Sing main road on a small tractor, passing by the children in the school, who cheered me on and said goodbye. On the main road, Yasso and I hopped on a pick up, in which we got to the bus station. Along the way we saw his two sons Samüe and Sonti, and others children who had come back from school. I did not cry, for I knew I would come and see them again. We were far too early, so Yasso then made a social call at his nephew’s house. Ten minutes later he and I ran to the bus station, spurred on by watermelon. He left me there, but the bus refused to leave, as I was the only passenger. Two hours later I was on my way to Luang Nam Tha, where I decided to stay in more comfortable guesthouse just for one night. I took the time to look up my new friend and Hmong, Pou Cha, and give him the extra 20.000 kip, which his father had wanted for the information he had given me weeks earlier. I decided Pou Cha was going to need it, and as he has a brilliant mind to use at school, I wanted him to get somewhere. We had dinner together and ate fish in garlic sauce, yummy. He confessed he had never in his life eaten this fish. I was supposed to get back to the border next day in a crummy bus for a 6-hour ride. Unfortunately, the next morning the bus had left one hour earlier than scheduled to, as it was already full. This is Lao, as one would paraphrase it, (from “This is Thailand”, often heard in Pattaya). When things do not work the way they are supposed to. I went back, changed once more to another guesthouse, as there was too much noise around the one I was booked into, and was not bearable at the night. The whole floor shuddered with every move of a truck a bulldozer, tarring the road next to the guesthouse, which was real shame; because for one it was built in teak wood and it had very spacious, comfortable rooms and a double bed. Next day in order to catch the bus; I got up three hours before the real hour of departure, to be sure to get a ticket. Who did I find myself sitting next too? A Flemish compatriot, who had just graduated in the arts in Ghent; We had lots to talk about, and the journey was over

before we knew it, including eating some smoked bats which were sold to the passengers on the bus.

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