With nearly 7 million inhabitants, Laos counts over 100* ethnic groups which can be grouped into 4 families, each speaking its own dialect and having its own customs and religious views.
Even though a lot of agencies organize visits to various hill tribe villages, I decided to look for a more authentic, less touristy experience. Locals told me I should visit Ban Kok Phung Tai, a Katu village, 90 km (56 miles) east of Pakse, the second largest town in Laos. I knew two things: the village was within a coffee plantation surrounded by beautiful nature; upon arrival, I had to look for Captain Hook. What awaited me was culture shock.
The adventure started at 8:00 AM at the reception desk at my hotel in Pakse.
“You need to get a bus from the local (emphasis not-added) bus station”, the receptionist explained to me. “The local bus station? Isn’t it one for everyone?” I interrupted him. “Of course not,” he answered amused, “We’ve got two bus stations. One – for tourists. One – for locals.”
I put my 15 kg backpack on, went out on the street and waved at the first tuk-tuk I saw. After a 20-minute dispute with the driver who was trying to convince me I was a delusional tourist who had nothing to do at the local bus station, he finally gave in and drove me to the station.
“Come,” he said after he saw the lost expression on my face. I followed him like a toddler follows his mother. As we were passing through the crowd, many gave me a what-the-heck-is-she-doing-here-smile. “This is your bus,” he pointed at a blue bus that at home we would have described as “vintage”. Before I knew it, my backpack was on the bus’s roof. I bought a ticket and got in. What followed was hours of waiting. People were coming and going, leaving anything from suitcases and bags to baskets full with fruits and veggies and cages with chicken. They fit all of that onto the bus as if they were playing a game of Tetris.
Once the bus was packed as tightly as it could physically be without falling apart at the seams, we left. After a three-hour dirt road ride, complete with dust clouds coming in through the open door and windows of the bus, we reached Thatheng. Someone had to pick me up from here.
“Valeriya?” a local guy with a motorbike approached me the moment I got off the bus. “Captain Hook is waiting for you,” he continued, “I hope you aren’t afraid of riding a bike. The village is 10 km away from here.”
I hopped on the bike behind him. When chicken and pigs started to cross our path, I knew we were close. We stopped in front of a wooden sign that read Captain Hook’s Coffee Plantation and Tour.
LIFE IN THE VILLAGE
I was greeted with a cup of homegrown coffee in a handmade bamboo cup and a large bamboo bong. I accepted the coffee and kindly deferred the bong for the evening. A few minutes later, I realized that everyone around me was smoking, even the kids. “Oh, snap!” I thought, “Did I just break a social norm?” There wasn’t anything on the subject of “Social norms among hill tribes” in my thick Lonely Planet guide. So I asked. Lee (meaning Dark skin), relative of Captain Hook and one of the few that spoke or understood any English, told me that “smoking tobacco”, as they call it (later in the evening I found out it was actually a mixture of weed and sugar cane), was a habit good for two things – chasing the bad spirits and the mosquitoes away.
Sitting at the corner of a small wooden table, I waited for Captain Hook to return from a tour in the coffee plantation. Everyone around me was minding their own business seemingly unperturbed by my presence.
“So, tell me about your village,” I finally broke the silence, eager to learn more about the people I was going to spend the night with.
Lee, who was roasting coffee at that moment, stood up and came closer to me.
“We are Katu people. ‘Ka’ means mountain. ‘Tu’ means river. ‘Ka-Tu’ – people living in the mountain by the river. We have our language. Not Lao language,” he was reciting like a first-grader recites a poem in front of proud parents at a school event, “We are animists. We follow rules and if someone breaks a rule, we kill an animal.”
“Wait, what?” I interrupted him, “Animists? What’s that?”
“Animism is the oldest religion. We believe everything on Earth has a spirit. The rock has a spirit, the grass has a spirit, the house has a spirit, everything,” he continued reciting.
“Even non-living things, you say?” I asked.
“Yes”, he confirmed.
Apparently, for them there is no hard boundary between the physical and the spiritual world.
“What about the animals? Why do you kill them?”
“We make sacrifice to chase the bad spirits away. If you break a rule, you bring bad spirits to the village, so we have to kill an animal. For example, if you knock on a house, you bring bad spirits.”
When it comes to social structure, Lee explained to me that three important people governed the village: the shaman, the guru and the medium woman. In Western terms, I suppose, that would be the doctor, the mayor and the priest (the intermediary between the human world and the spirit world).
I was astonished by the level of English he spoke as I understood schooling was not only disregarded but also thought to be something bad depriving people from enough time to work the fields or in the coffee plantation. He learnt English only through communication with the tourists. Quite impressive! His motivation? Surprisingly, laziness – it was far easier to learn English and talk to the foreigners, than to do field work. With formal education almost non-existent, many believe that the Earth is flat; that cameras steal souls; that white people are white because they don’t work and drink a lot of milk; that through a handshake you can transfer black magic; that making a plan for the future would bring bad fortune.
Being such a closed community, most of them would never dare to explore further than the outskirts of their own village.
BAN KOK PHUNG TAI
Around 700 inhabitants live in a little over 30 houses in that rustic village with no infrastructure. That’s about an average of 23 people per house with the largest house holding 69 people! That’s no surprise since polygamy there remains a common practice, with children being married as early as 16 – 17 years of age (before it used to be 8 – 12). They draw the line at 5 wives per man.
Now, when I say 69 people living together, don’t imagine a huge mansion with 30 bedrooms. They live in five by seven meters wooden shacks build on stilts above the ground. The interior is divided into one or two sleeping rooms including a common area for visiting and eating, and a separate kitchen area or side porch.
The household furnishings include mats and blankets for sleeping on the floor, mosquito nets, few pots and plates for cooking and eating. There is no sewage system and hardly any electricity.
Just when I was about to conclude I was in the middle of no freaking where, travelers started to come looking for Captain Hook.
WHO IS CAPTAIN HOOK?
Mr. Hook, or Captain Hook, is somewhere within the age of 32 – 35. He is not exactly sure as the Katu people don’t follow the Gregorian calendar. Instead they measure time using natural signs (such as the passing of the seasons) to determine their new year. He is an interesting character, the renegade in his small community. To his parents’ disappointment, he is among the very few who had left the village. In his late teen years he went to study in Vietnam. Unfortunately, he couldn’t complete his university degree as his parents tricked him into an arranged marriage. They told him his grandma was dying and he had to come home to say goodbye. When he returned he was welcomed by his perfectly healthy grandma, a bride and a wedding ceremony waiting for him.
“I was trapped”, Captain Hook shared with a little regret in his eyes, “I got out of two arranged marriages. The first time I convinced my brother to marry the girl. The second time – my cousin. The third time,” he paused, “there was no way out.”
He ended up getting married to a woman he didn’t love, who was at the same time very much in love with another guy from the village. A plot, I would say, comparable to a Latin American soap opera.
The happiness of his parents didn’t last long. Captain Hook’s free spirit made him take occasional trips to Vietnam, where he had sex with other women. According to the village laws that was equivalent to something like stabbing a person in the chest. When the guru found out about his infidelity, his family had to pay the highest price: to sacrifice one buffalo, one pig and one chicken in order to chase the bad spirits away. As a result of his continuous mischievous behavior, his family was left with no animals and he was forbidden to ever leave the village without permission.
His desire to communicate with foreigners combined with his reluctance to work the fields like everyone else in the village, led to the birth of the Captain Hook Coffee Plantation Homestay and Tour.
“You know what they say, if the mountain will not come to Muhammad”, he paused, then continued with a grin on his face, “then Muhammad must go to the mountain.”
Despite the annoyance of his fellow villagers, Captain Hook had put Ban Kok Phung Tai on the traveler map and his tour started to gain popularity among the people motorbiking in the Bolaven Plateau.
The tour included a walk through the village, the coffee plantation, and the surrounding forest. The deep connection the Katu people had with nature was evident. From treating mosquito bites and stomach pain to washing their hair and whistling a signal to their sweetheart, there is a plant for any occasion.
Harvesting coffee is the main source of income for the community. Captain Hook walked us through the whole process. Unfortunately, Laos does not have the money to promote itself as a coffee producer. For that reason the coffee is exported first to Vietnam and later to Japan and Europe, branded as Vietnamese. A kilo of organic coffee is sold for as little as 20k kip (or 2.02 euro). Captain Hook shared that an average family of 30 people live with around 6M kip or 617 euro a year.
When we reached the forest, he warned us to follow only the designated paths, as the land was still contaminated with unexploded ordnance from the bombing of Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s, referred to as America’s “secret war”. The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Up to a third of those bombs did not explode and are taking lives to this day.
Now I understood why I got those unwelcoming looks from the local community – for them the notion of a “nation” was unfamiliar, they associated my white skin with being an American, to them – an evil person who destroyed their land.
THE WEST MEETS THE EAST
It was late in the afternoon when we finished the tour. The few tourists that had come especially to see the plantation, bought a pack of coffee and a pack of “tobacco”, jumped on their bikes and hit the road. I stayed. Captain Hook’s wife (one of them) showed me my room. I had a private hut, right next to Captain Hook’s elevated wooden shack, where over 30 people lived. When she saw that I was staying overnight, Marie, the daughter of a French family doing the Loop together, got the guts to ask her parents to let her stay with me. They agreed.
When the sun hit the ground, we moved inside the shack to have dinner. On а rug on the floor in a space that was at the same time a living room and a bedroom, we sat around a sticky rice basket, two bowls of chicken soup with cabbage and a plate of fish. The chicken was a treat bought specially for us. As we were eating, people were coming and going. Some joined us for dinner, while others sought privacy behind curtains serving as room dividers.
When they saw us, Doen (Moon) and Eim (Full), relatives of Captain Hook, flocked to us like bees to honey. Doen – a cheeky girl with beautiful long dark hair. Eim – an attention-seeking boy with playful eyes and a big smile. Both – around the age of 12. They couldn’t speak much English but were eager to talk to us.
“You like to wear lipstick”, I said indicating to Eim’s reddish lips.
“Yes”, he said smiling, “You like?” he winked at me.
“I like.” I paused. “Where do you get the lipstick from?”
“I ask tourists to bring me from the market. Everyone wants but only I have,” he chinned toward Lee and Doen.
He continued, “I like red. Red is my favorite color.”
After dinner it was smoke-a-bong-time. I don’t know what it was – the closeness in the smoking circle, the relaxed sensation from the weed or the peace evenings bring, but we started dwelling on topics such as happiness and the meaning of life. Despite all our cultural and social differences, some of our core longings were the same – family, community, love. We all wanted to belong.
We had one big disagreement though – the importance of formal education. For them (except for Captain Hook) it was viewed as a nuisance, a mere impediment to work on the field. That’s not to say the Katu aren’t curious. From where we lived and what we ate to what snow looked like and what our languages sounded like, they asked us various questions throughout the night. It was just that education hasn’t become socially acceptable yet.
Before going to bed, I went to my hut and dug out the Sephora red lipstick I took with me in case I go out to some place fancy. I gave it to Eim. The joy on his face was heartwarming.
PERSPECTIVE IS EVERYTHING
Two days later, in my hotel room with a hot shower and a comfy bed, I was skyping with my mother. She couldn’t believe that I had not only stayed in such rustic living conditions but also paid for it.
“Why did you do that?” she asked perplexed.
“I was looking for an adventure, I guess,” I answered not quite convinced.
It’s true. I love adventures. I feel tremendous pleasure in exploring and learning about people and different cultures. And with my occasional solo trips I try to push my comfort zone a little further every time. But there was more to it this time.
I traveled 8 000 km (5 000 miles) to an isolated village in Laos only to feel what’s like to get away from the high pressures of city life to a place that had no expectations of you. I thought I had it all back home – a decent job that allowed me to travel, family and friends that adored me. But somehow I was emotionally drained from living in a community that was bound to chasing things like a high status job, fame, the perfect partner – societal norms that I’ve been fed since childhood. I was feeling like a square peg in a round hole – miserably failing to live up to the high expectations of others. “Maybe”, I thought, “if I go back to the basics, I’ll find an alternative that’s socially acceptable.”
Little did I know that “back to the basics” was governed by different social norms – working on the field, getting married by the age of 16, spending your life in the village. And right there, among the Katu people away from the influence of others, it hit me. There isn’t an alternative. There isn’t a silver bullet solution to finding your way in society. Everywhere you go there will be expectations and societal norms to pressure you. They’re there to provide guidance and make it easier for the crowd to live together. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only nor always the right way.
Captain Hook showed me that it’s OK not to live up to the expectations of others. We can be content with life even if we don’t fulfill the socially predefined image. The key is to work things out for ourselves, stand bold to the criticism of others and act against all odds.
*Info defers depending on the source.