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Hill Tribes on the Bolaven Plateau, Laos

A Pictorial Essay

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With negotiating assistance from Anselm, we arranged a day long tour of some of the tribal villages on the plateau with Ba, our guest house host and owner. His brother accompanied us in his pick up truck. Ba was surprised by the improvements made to Nong Khan Don Sa in the two years since he had last been there. Now there was full time electricity and the road was much improved. Nong was a sizable place of perhaps a few hundred people.

Outside of Village

Although there lives were simple, they had more than enough to eat because the price of coffee, their principal crop, had increased four fold in the past few years. Previously they had been dependent on a small wooden generator located on a nearby waterfall, now in disrepair because they no longer needed it. There was also a large water driven contraption with a ladle that once filled with water, then knocked into a wooden bowl containing rice, and separating it from the hull. This was still very much in use.


They also had an old tractor and a gas powered machine to shuck the coffee beans. In addition to making some cash with their coffee crop, the women weave elaborate cotton cloth with beaded patterns, some of which take months to complete. I felt I should buy something, but as we had purchased something similar in Indonesia, I did not. There was no pressure.


The fields were fenced and obviously well cared for.


The children, some curious, others frightened of us, were either naked or dressed in western style clothing.



This particular village had not yet seen many tourists. No one asked for money or other gifts, and generally everyone seemed friendly, perhaps because they knew Ba. Nearby we could see a cell tower and satellite dishes for TV, and yet the villagers remain animists still holding to many of their ancient beliefs. Most smiled sweetly and were pleased to allow me to photograph them, both children and adults.

Several walked around with large bamboo bongs which they used to smoke tobacco.



It was hard to stop taking pictures.




We had a brief meeting with the village elder. who told us how happy he was to see farangs visit his village and hoped that our future travels would be good, all of this translated by Ba. I replied by telling him that the Lao people are my favorite in all the world, generous and loving, and he seemed really pleased to hear this.

We stopped at a nearby market town for lunch, which was quite good.



And then continued on to another village, Kok Phuong Tha. This place was on a main road and the people were obviously much more used to tourists, but friendly nonetheless. We were greeted by a chorus of children squealing with delight and jostling with one another to get into the pictures that I couldn't take fast enough.




Girls Playing with Elona

Very young children were also smoking large bongs with tobacco.


When I asked about this Ba said that they told him that tobacco is good for you and good for the spirits all around as well. I guess the spirits like to smoke. There were piglets and puppies along with naked and dirty children, some with swollen bellies.



They grow tobacco in this village, which has been here 30 or 40 years, after a few families were relocated from an even more remote location to a place with richer soil.

Again the strange juxtaposition of old and new. Men were busy trying to construct a new house with a power saw and sander that they barely knew how to use. We saw at least one cell phone and I'm sure there were more, and yet the only medicine was doled out by the village shaman. School did not seem a high priority, though there was a new school house supposedly built with money donated from the tour groups out of Pakse. We spent over an hour in the village walking and talking to the people , but when one of the tours arrived , they barely stepped foot in town and only stopped for a few minutes to look at the new building.

Change is clearly coming fast which as always will bring good and bad. The road is newly paved and widened. Perhaps children will stop smoking tobacco, but they and their parents will no doubt want more of the same material goods that the rest of us have. For now, as in the first village, they continue to hold to their animist beliefs, and they sacrifice a buffalo upon a death or marriage. They still continue to construct their own coffins prior to age 30. though perhaps they will use power saws to do so in a few years. Upon their death, maybe not much more than 45 or 50?, they are kept in their coffins for a period of time and then cremated.

I felt privileged, as I often do, to witness the ancient ways of village life as most of it may disappear in 10 or 20 years. At the same time it seems somehow voyeuristic to do so, and even a bit demeaning to the people, though most appeared to welcome our presence. Ba said there is talk of charging tourists a few dollars to walk through the village in the future. Understandable, and yet is seems to fly in the face of their own generous culture and will further make them into a commodity. Once this is the case, they will make sure to bring out their bongs and native dress to put on a good show.

Tat lo too, has already changed a lot. Ba said that farmers are suffering as their land is sold off to make way for hotels and tourist amenities. He will probably do okay with a small guest house and restaurant though others may actually be worse off than they were in the past. When I asked how TV has changed his life he told me that when he first saw it 10 years ago, he too wanted all of the things that he saw. Before that, he only thought about having a simple life with enough food. Now he wants more for his family. Hard to blame him for that, and yet....

Modern Villagers with Cell Phone

Posted by jonshapiro 11:34 Archived in Laos

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What do you think would've happened if you explain what tobacco does?

by Natasha Shapiro

I don't think they would have understood my explanation and I think they would have been suspicious of me as an outsider who had no connection to their community. Jon

by jonshapiro

The photographs are wonderful--the children are so lovable.
I really appreciate your thoughtful writing about the privilege of seeing unspoiled traditions and at the same time your sensitivity to the people (as expressed by your feeling somewhat like a voyeur). The only way around it would be to become a participant, and....

by Natalie Nussbaum


Wow a real wow - such wonderful photos!!! You describe the life very well!! Elona

by Elona Kitron

Thank you both for your comments.

by jonshapiro

Jon: I have been reading your travellerspoint blogs with such envy; what a terrific adventure you are having with the world. your photographs are of superior quality too. thanks for sharing Hope all is well - Nancy G.

by nancy gifford

Your pictures and texts are truly worth a visit. Do you think I'll make it to this place in time to observe those ancient ways before globalization settles in?

by MariCarmen

Global culture is taking over worldwide. All I can say is get out there as soon as possible to see native cultures as they have been for centuries, but are not likely to be much longer. Ditto for the scenic and environmental wonders of the world. THERE IS SO LITTLE TIME.

by jonshapiro

Hi Jon , where are you now ,still travelling ,If have chance ,I would like to send some Chinese gift or tea to you . ;-)

by Amy0917

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