My hosts for 2 days in Phoukhoua village, Laos.
There’s Dad – his name is Home and he is 42. He stays at home now because he has bad lungs from smoking and chewing tobacco on the sticky rice farm.
There’s Mum, Khamphanh – she’s 36. She works on the sticky rice farm and keeps the house.
And Sak, their oldest son, aged 20 – the creative writer, student teacher and guest house worker I met in Luang Prabang.
There are also Sak’s three younger brothers: Joy (17), Tatia (11) and Luen (7). They’re out hunting when we arrive.
The Philapongs live high up in the mountains of Xieng Nguen district, Laos.
It takes 3 hours by motorbike to get there from Luang Prabang.
Sak and I stop off for water and bananas on the way. We take a rest from the midday sun in a bamboo shelter overlooking the mountains and valley.
We share our bananas with these cheeky boys.
The last 15 kilometres of the journey takes as long as the first 45 kilometres – the road becomes a lane, then soon we are snaking up a mountain dirt track.
Between 8 and 11, Sak walked to school everyday along this track.
‘For go to school, I start walking at 4 in the morning. I walk 26 kilometres each day – but it’s okay, it’s very fun time with the other children. Water, we get it from the stream. And we play hide and seek on the way. The best place to hide is inside the tree.’
Arriving at Phoukhoua village...
Sak and I arrive early afternoon in Phoukhoua village (population 234). Sak’s family are happy to see him after 6 months. They had no idea he was coming home.
It’s lovely to see Sak with his Dad – Home talks and smiles at his oldest son. Sak listens and nods his head.
Sak’s Mum is always busy – mostly steaming, rolling out and storing sticky rice in baskets.
‘Sticky rice is the highlight food for us,’ Sak explains. ‘It is duty of the oldest to feed the family. When the weather is not good, we don’t have sticky rice. The oldest have to go up to the city to get the money to eat.’
That’s why Sak’s in Luang Prabang – to help take care of his family.
And I make a number of personal discoveries in Phoukhoua village:
1) Crickets don’t taste like chicken
Roasted crickets are a three-way taste combination: pork scratchings + soil + that burnt stuff you get in oven dishes.
And they crunch like charred toast.
The day we arrive in the village, Sak’s brothers have caught hundreds of crickets at the stream. The hunting method is to spread sticky rice on bamboo at the river, then wait for the crickets to get stuck to the rice.
In the kitchen, children pull the legs and wings off the live crickets. They buzz and crackle in the kids’ fingers.
Then Sak’s Mum roasts the crickets on skewers in the fire.
We eat crickets and sticky rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner – dipped in dried chilli and salt.
The villagers are more surprised I like the chilli than the crickets.
2) Oh, the relief of a fluffy tail
Each meal of crickets and sticky rice is accompanied by a small bowl of a meat or fish.
Breakfast, we have deer stew.
Lunch is very crispy fish.
Dinner is rat stew, Sak tells me.
‘Brilliant,’ I say and manage a smile.
But later Sak corrects himself – it’s actually squirrel stew.
I’m sure I say ‘phew’ out loud.
3) Bad drawing is a winner with kids
I’m the only ‘falang’ in the village.
Falang is the Lao term for foreigner. It actually means French (Laos was a former French colony).
As soon as I arrive, from the corner of my eye, I see little faces peek through gaps in the door and heads pop up at the open window.
I look round and the faces disappear.
I hear whispers of ‘falang, falang, falang’ and giggles.
It takes an hour or so to make a breakthrough.
I take out my notebook and pen and draw a lousy picture of a pig. The boy (pictured) recognises it and laughs. I give him my pen. He draws a picture of a chicken. Everyone laughs. I draw a spider. He draws a smoking man. I draw a butterfly. He draws a crab.
Thirty villagers gather round to watch and laugh at each drawing.
4) Can I kill for my dinner?
It’s never been put to the test before.
The chicken is brought into the house by its feet. The kids gather round and pluck the feathers from its neck. I’m surprised the chicken is so calm as they do this. Does he think he’s getting a Lao massage?
Sak hands me the knife. As the guest of honour, I’m supposed to cut the chicken’s throat.
I take the knife.
I’m suddenly very aware of the dry gulp in my throat.
The children look at me, as if to say: ‘what are you waiting for falang?’
I crouch down and look the chicken in the eye.
And then I have a flash of what it would feel like to have a knife cutting my throat. Then all the blood drains from my head. My body is empathising with the chicken - I guess vegetarians will understand this.
I hand the knife to Sak’s mother and she cuts the chicken’s throat. The blood pours out into a white bowl on the kitchen floor.
So no, I can’t kill for my dinner. No surprises there really – I can’t even kill spiders.
4) Chickens' feet have meaning
The Basi ceremony takes place in my honour – it’s about celebrating the joy of life together.
Sak’s family are animists – they believe in spirits. It’s believed here that the body has 32 parts – each part has its own wandering soul. During the Basi ceremony, those souls are called to return to the physical body.
Sak’s Mum brings through the tray with the chicken, rice, champa flowers, candle and pieces of thread.
She lights the candle and the ceremony starts.
We all place our fingertips around the Basi tray. Everyone chants.
Sak translates throughout. His family and very pleased to welcome me to their village. They wish me good health and long life.
The villagers crowd round and chant louder. They tie white thread around my wrists.
A couple of days later, when I first see this photograph (below), I wonder is that a spirit shadow on the wall behind me.
Next, we eat chicken and sticky rice.
Mr Khong studies the chicken’s feet for meaning. He says they are curled inwards. This means there may be danger ahead.
5) Who needs language when you’ve got laughter?
This is Jhar. He’s 80 years old and he has lived in Phoukhoua village all his life. He lives in a hut by himself.
He is deaf mute. His name, Jhar, translates as ‘Dumb’.
‘What, you actually call him ‘Dumb’?’ I ask Sak.
‘Yes, that’s his name,’ Sak says, totally matter of fact.
Sak and I laugh at each other.
Jhar enjoys the Basi ceremony.
He also enjoys the Lao Lao whiskey.
In fact, Jhar seems to enjoy everything.
Sak tells me Jhar is always smiling. He does have the best laughter lines I’ve ever seen.
Jhar points at me. He points at my camera and then himself. He wants me to take his picture. With pleasure.
The best part is showing Jhar the picture. He touches the screen with his finger. He laughs with all his face and body – but no noise comes out.
I think he agrees I got his best side.
6)There’s a game you can play with a New York Yankees cap and a village full of children
My friends and I invent it.
The rules are:
- I take the New York Yankees baseball cap from my bag.
- The kids watch me for any sudden movements.
- I run for a kid
- I try to put the cap on her head.
- She laughs and runs away.
- I chase another kid and plant the cap on her head.
- Everyone laughs
- The kid with the cap then chases everyone around until she passes the cap on.
7) There’s something very comforting about sleeping in a room with 6 other people
I haven’t done that since having slumber parties as a child with school friends – staying up late, eating chocolate, watching Chuckie and Omen and Nightmare on Elm Street films behind a pillow.
In Phoukhoua, I sleep in a room with Sak’s family.
We all sleep on thin mattresses on the floor – Sak’s Mum and Dad are separated from us by a hanging sheet.
Night Mum. Night Dad. Night Sak. Night Joy. Night Tatia. Night Luen.
8) I can understand animal language
Ok, no I can’t.
But dawn on a farmyard reminds me that animals across the world make the same noises.
Hunt dogs bark.
Cocks doodle do.
Goats – what do goats do? Bleat?
The air is full of these familiar and comforting sounds at 5am.
I get up from my mattress and go outside to see the animals.
I’m most entertained by the pigs and a runaway chicken.
Good morning Phoukhoua.
9) People in power make some odd decisions
Sak’s family tell me that the District Leader has informed the head of Phoukhoua village that all huts must have a corrugated iron roof within the next 6 months, otherwise the huts will be taken down. The families who live in them will have to leave the village.
‘And live where?’ I ask Sak. ‘In the forest?’
Sak says that people aren’t allowed to question the system.
And there isn’t any district money to help pay for these roofs.
Houses like this bamboo hut with a straw roof will have to go.
Mr Jhar’s house is one of them.
10) When language and cultural reference points are taken away from me, I become a child again
And this is the greatest gift of my visit to Phoukhoua village.
Play and laughter become the best way to communicate.
I did have some lessons in Lao language from Sak over the two days.
The most useful phrase was ‘Coy mak jak jan lai kyon nyo’ – I love crickets and sticky rice. I say this at every meal and it makes everyone laugh, including Mr Jhar who can’t hear me.
Back to Luang Prabang...
Sak and I return to Laos New Year celebrations.
A week-long waterfight. Soaked through everyday when I step out the front door. The most playful New Year’s celebrations I have ever seen.
There’s music and breakdancing on the streets.
We join the Lao people on Mekong Island.
We watch people of all ages build sand stupas along the riverbank.
Water, flour and coloured paint are smeared over heads and faces, arms and legs. It’s a way of saying Happy New Year.
And I thank Sak for the experience in Phoukhoua.
And this is where words fail me completely...
I tell Sak on the morning I leave Luang Prabang that something has changed for me after our visit to Phoukhoua.
I am aware of a new feeling inside my body that I cannot name yet – a seed of something to come maybe.
So it’s a thousand thanks to you Sak – I hope you like this article.
With best wishes from your falang friend