As a general rule I’m not one to book myself onto tours. This isn’t because I subscribe to that strange belief which some insist on with a derisive sniff â€“ ‘I’m a traveler, not a tourist’. It’s rather something simpler â€“ it’s because they are typically too high in price for my long term traveler budget but perhaps more to the point, I have a horror of getting stuck with the kind of fellow tourist who thinks that talking at me for hours constitutes a conversation.
However, on this occasion, while traveling through southern Laos in South East Asia, there was somewhere I particularly wanted to get to and it was impossible under my own steam. So, this time I laid down my money and signed up for a tour which took me to the series of remote waterfalls I was so anxious to see while also offering me a rare connection visit to an isolated Katu village, with an otherwise impossible glimpse into the life of a minority tribe.
What are the Buddhist Laos?
Predominantly Buddhist Laos has many such minor ethnic people and tribes â€“ each with their own language, traditions and dress, many of whom practice animism â€“ a spiritual belief system which pre-dates Buddhism in which spirits (benevolent and malevolent) are believed to inhabit everything animate and inanimate. I’ll admit I was curious but also a little uncomfortable; unsure how I felt about this kind of voyeuristic tourism. Was it okay to parade through a village where the people must know we had come to gawp at them and peep intrusively into their private lives and homes?
Was this experience, viewed through our privileged Western eyes, actually little more than a desire to gaze upon strange curiosities in a live human exhibition show? And if so, what kind of dignity did that rob them of and what did that make me?
Visiting Katu Village
Wrestling with my confused conscience and sweltering inside the mini-van transporting myself and my fellow tour takers (blissfully of the lovely variety and not my worse fear kind) we were deposited at the entrance to the village. Here we were greeted by our tour guide â€“ himself a villager, which went a little way to reassure me that this village was not being exploited solely for tourist money but was itself a voluntary and willing participant.
The village was effectively a series of large bamboo huts raised on stilts. Each hut housed several families and, as each man typically had about six wives complete with the whole tribe of offspring which inevitably followed, living conditions were cramped while privacy was a totally unknown concept. Little would have changed here had I come across the scene a few hundred years ago.
Enormous, sleepy-eyed pigs lay in hollowed out dust bowls underneath the houses, grunting occasionally, while running around in the dirt were tiny naked children; sometimes held by the hand or trailing after slightly older, partially ragged-clothed children, sometimes chasing the dogs and chickens which roamed freely. Hair styles tended towards the dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards variety and all of the children exhibited varying stages of caked in dirt. Some of the bolder, more curious children of varying ages followed us around while others gathered in doorways, eyeing us suspiciously through tangled hair as we passed, with disconcerting gazes which looked far too old for their young faces.
Girls Married At 13 and Children Introduced to Smoking at 3 or 4!
Perhaps growing up quickly is necessary here. Girls are married as young as thirteen, assuming full adult roles of every type from that time, having been pledged to their husbands in most cases from a very young age.
Smoking â€“ a mixture of tobacco and sugar cane juice – is a big part of this village’s traditional culture and children are introduced to this custom from the age of three or four. While our understandably shocked tour group was digesting this piece of information we were led around a corner where, underneath an overhanging bamboo and thatch roof, were piled sacks full of grain. Slumped and draped on top of these sacks were several children passing around a Â¾ metre long bamboo pipe from which they each inhaled deeply, causing the water inside to bubble loudly, before surrendering it to their nearest young neighbor. Unfocused eyes, belonging to these individuals, in varying stages of obvious intoxication, gazed at us languidly and disinterestedly.
There was plenty of work going on everywhere â€“ preparing vegetables, cooking, washing, drawing water from the pump, carrying water to and fro, tending small plots of plants and vegetables â€“ but all of it was carried out by the women and children. Not a man was in sight anywhere â€“ all, we were told, were resting inside their huts.
We passed an old lady, working in the midday sun, hefting a giant wooden pestle and rhythmically pounding the rice grains inside an oversize mortar. She beckoned me and then passed me the pestle to try my hand. It was solid, heavy wood â€“ I could barely lift it. She smiled at me as I passed it back with an exaggerated grimace which left me wondering how on earth she found anything to smile about at all.
We were regaled with other facts â€“ some which begged a thousand questions, some which fascinated such as the details regarding the village Shaman’s role in curing illness, some which just simply shocked – such as the information about the sacrifices to appease the spirits. Various animals were sacrificed in a variety of ways, the water buffaloes being speared to death for example, but dogs came in for something else entirely. They were tied to a pole and the villagers took turns in kicking them to death.
At the beginning of the tour I took a series of photographs along with everyone else but as we progressed I found myself packing my camera away with a multitude of uncomfortable questions banging around my head. Why was I taking these pictures? So I could post them on Facebook later with frivolous captions which might just as well have said ‘would you look at this strange thing I saw today’?
Returning Back With Unsorted Emotions & Many a Realizations
The group that traipsed back to our mini-van was strangely subdued – each person locked in their own private thoughts and no doubt wrestling with a range of, as yet, unsorted emotions â€“ me included.
In my world ramblings I try very, very hard not to impose my Western beliefs, ethics and standards on the experiences I have….the things I witness, behaviors which differ considerably to my own accepted ones; a lesson taught to me early on in my travels while visiting SriLanka less than a year after the devastating 2004 tsunami which claimed so many lives.
I realized then that doing so is a form of arrogance, a type of heavy treading disrespect and besides I have no right to judge peoples and cultures in countries where I am a guest. My views and morals, while perhaps having a place in a privileged Western world, are not always as black and white or appropriate in other lands. But today, that resolve had been tested to its very outer limits. Part of me wished I had never come here, that I had remained ignorant of some of the disturbing things which I now had the knowledge of.
Later that day, alone again with my own thoughts I began to sort through some of my feelings before realizing it was impossible and, that actually, that was okay. Traveling isn’t just about witnessing marvels, gazing at beautiful things and having fun. Sometimes it is about being uncomfortable, being tested, having more questions than answers and sometimes it is about being shaken to your very core. I am a Westerner, it is okay to have personal beliefs of what is right and wrong and to be muddled and confused about where those lines begin and end and it is to be expected that some questions will never have answers. Black and white may indeed be more clearly defined when viewed from the comfort of a British home but under the light of different cultures, different environments, different circumstances the colors, after all, become blurred shades of grey instead.
What I Learned from this Experience
I had learned something here today. I had of course learned some factual things about a small, strange (to me) corner of the world but of course that wasn’t the crux of it â€“ I could have learned that by reading a guide book. Most importantly I had learned something about myself. The questions my visit had raised had really forced me to think about things and in so doing I have gained some emotional tools which will help me as I travel in the future and probably just as I stroll through life. And like a slap in the face it had struck me that I will always be learning. You may think this doesn’t sound like any great revelation – you may often hear people saying they learn something every day. But how much do they really believe that and embrace it……let it push past all their firmly held, long-term beliefs……allow it to change them…….help them grow? How much do they feel that what they are continuing to learn has true value and power? For me at least, before today, the answer to those questions would have been mostly in the negative. But here, today, for the first time in perhaps my entire adult life, I truly and completely understood â€“ I WILL ALWAYS BE LEARNING and some of the things I have to learn will be challenging, some of it will be fascinating revelation and some of it will equate to extra baggage I now must carry from here. It’s OK – I’m ready.