Ethnic in Laos

One thing that does not change is the magic the old culture including the way of living of Lao people is the thing that the world tourists wish to see...

IT was the 2nd of June,2000 as I reached Nam Dath village (8 km. from Muong Sing District, Luang Namtha Province at the boundary post Pang Thong Lao-China) home of the ethnic Khor group. I was taken here today upon my curiosity in a wedding ritual among the khor group (rituals differ among ethnic groups). The ethnic Khor group once originally called "Akho" or "Akha" meaning "older brother" in Lao. The ethnic minority group khor immigrated from Nan China about 500 years ago due to war among the Han and various tribes, entering the Lane Xang Kingdom of Laos through the southwest. Upon entering Laos, the Khor group divided into  two tribes; the first tribe moved to Ta Xieng Kan and settled in Ban Som Y Khao (presently known as Moung Sing District, Luang Namtha Province). The second tribe moved to Ta Don Chai Sombankoao (presently known as Muong Sing District, Luang Namtha Province). The Khor group establish themselves within Luang Namtha and Phongsaly Province, estimated at about 58,500 (in 1995) making up about 1.64% of the total population in Laos

The ethnic Khor group is further divided into these tribes: Khor Pho Xang, Debia, Loma Eupa, Mu Kuew, Sila, Jijo, Hayi, Ker, Kampe and with the most members, Khopuly. The  main occupation of the Khopuly tribe is cultivation. They are active in agriculture; soy bean, gna potatoes, cassava potatoes and sometimes opium. They also herd cattle, raise pork and chicken. The women of the Khopuly tribe are skilled in weaving, knitting and ornamental sewing, while the men are excellent woodcrafters. the men are often dressed in baggy pants, dark brown long sleeved shirt, with silver ornaments as buttons. The women are dressed in 3 traditional costumes; a blouse bearing the shoulders with ornaments along the chest, long sleeved shirt with knitting on the sleeves and at the bottom, a sleeveless blouse with ornaments all worn with a short dress. They also wear knitted black bands around the legs, and a cap with special knitting, which differentiate children, young women, housewives, widows and divorcees.

The wooden gate entering Nam Dath village composed of weaponry including daggers, swards, spheres, muskets and the male and female genitalia all made out of wood to ward off evil spirits from entering and doing harm to the people and animals within the village. Each year a different symbol is added, creating eeriness to those who come upon it. Entering through the gate, we came upon a rather large village yard with a bench in the middle, with its leg stuck to the ground. It was where the opposite sex would meet. The relationship among couples before marriage is carried out openly in the middle of the yard, it is prohibited by tradition to meet one another at home. The village yard is also used as a place for village meeting and a place to hold traditional folk singing and dancing. Besides the yard stood a single roomed shanty with a bed, provided by the male to engage the relationship among he one he has chosen through a mutual agreement.

I met an elderly of the Khor group (who spoke Lao rather well), who I questioned for further information. In each of the many ethnic Khor village, a youth member is appointed to preside over other male and female youths. t the age of 14, both members of the opposite sex are given the right to meet one another and commit to marriage, The parents of the teenaged male are responsible for building the shanty for their son to copulate with his loved one. Once at this age Khor women rarely sleeps at home, she either spends the night with her mate or with a divorcee or widow. This is considered to be one's freewill in finding a husband. In this preliminary period, sleeping with each other gives the benefit of coming to know one another both physically and mentally, to the point where the couple agrees to be husband and wife. Or they may discontinue their relationship, if she is not pregnant. A male member from one village may seek a partner within another village by explaining his purpose to the appointee, who will then grant him permission to meet each other at the bench in the village yard (if the person he wishes to see already as a partner then he does not have to right). Other than meeting each other in the village yard, he also has the right to sleep in the shanty (whether or not a local villager will lend him their shanty is another question in mind, that person must be very open hearted). under the condition that another village enters without permission and is caught with the opposite sex, both sides will be punished and beaten.

Pregnancy is anticipated and considered faithful among Khor women (pregnancy is concluded by marriage). On the other hand, if she is pregnant and unwilling to admit who is the father of the child, she is taken away the right to give birth in the village, she must give birth in the forest. Having twins is equally impermissible. Due to the nature of tradition, both genders of the Khor group must take into great consideration about love and marriage. An opportunity to spend ones life together till death involves an enormous amount of responsibilities. Up until this point, marriage among different members of the Khor group is very rare, they only marry among Khor group members.

The Tongluong ethnic tribe of Laos is divided in 2 groups : the first one is located in Sayabouly province and the second one is located in the province of Khammouane and Boli Khamsay. In Sayabouly, they live in Bane Saphoung, Bane Kikkieng and Bane Navene, which are in the district of Phieng. There are 24 people in this group and they are called the MARABRI. In Kamou language, MARA means person and BRI means forest. Those who live in Khammouane and Bolikhamsay are called ARI, which means the forest people.

In general, the Lao call them the forest people. Tongluong and Khakankae do not wear clothes and sleep without mosquitoes nets. They are so bitten by mosquitoes that their skin appears like gecko skin. TongLuong tribes include Khamaleng, Katanoud, Navang, Thaphaibane and Khamaka. Within their own, they are know as the Arem to the Makong and Tri ethnic Phitongluong by the Thais. While the Ruk, the Chud and the Mai by the Vietnames. French researchers often identify them as the Kha PhonesoungPhone xouang, the KhatavungThaveng and the Khadanelai.

The Thongluong are the only tribes without a permanent home. They built their houses with green leaves and when these leaves become yellow, they move on. They are not cultivators nor do they breed but they raise dogs to hunt and to protect them. In Khammouane, you find them in boualapha and in Nakai Districts. In Boualapha,there are a settlement of 30 families and 96 people. They live in the mountains and in the caves in Thongkham sub-district, Khetphasong and Banggnao in Tasseng Bane Douthongsam. It takes about 7 days by foot Banedou Village to reach their village. From their village, it takes another 6 days walk to reach the Vietnamese border. In Nakai, there are only 9 families located in the jungle of Tasseng Tanoud, Songkhone, Tanoudtha and Navanhao.The families living in Tasseng Navang live in BaneSavage.  In Bane Phangdeng neua, Bane Navang and Bane Make. These villages are on the foot of Mount PhouArk and at the border with Vietnam in Bane Savang, in Bane Phangdeng neua, Bane Navang and Bane Make. These villages are on the foot of Phou-Ark mountain and at the border with Vietnam.

The eleven families living in the districts of Boualapha and Nakai have just moved from the jungle to villages. The others still live in Bane Kenglek, Bane Kengdao and Bane Nam-One in the district of Nakai. In Bolikhamsay, the Tongluong live in Gnouahong caves at the Lao-Vietnamese border of Banexieng, Nasong and Kamkeut district. They were found there between 1964 and 1967.Today, only 6 families are still living in the forests, While their relatives of 20 families have moved and settled with the Lowlanders. In Vietnam, the Tongluong live at the foot of Kuangbin-Hueting. The Tongluong usually live in a group or in a village of the same blood affiliation and they are governed by a chief. Each group has its own lifestyle and does not interfere in others territory. As they move from places to places they build a small hut of which the roofs are covered with Kho tree, Bay Seuua or Banana leaves. Members of the same family sleep together on a temporary mattress of leaves on the ground. They use knives, spades, spears, arrows and nets. They eat everything they catch in the forest or in the rivers by cooking them simply by putting a fire or in a bamboo tube that they transpose onto the fire.

During the winters, they light up a fire camp and sleep around it. Their clothes are made of the barks of Puakmong Trees. They speak a language similar to Mon-Khmer, and old Khmer language. In Sayabouly, their language is similar to Kamou and Lava. While in Khammouane, it is similar to the inhabitants of Phamouang, Phaohouane and ToumLira language, which are closed to old Vietnamese. They really have an unique culture. Kapteuam is their favorite folksong and their instruments are the Katipo, the Xo and the flute. Traditionally, their music and dance are performed during their new year festival during the worship ceremonies to their ghosts. The wedding ceremony is conducted very modestly. The young couple, once having agreed to get married have their parents organize a dinner and handmade alcohol. These is no gift of money. Once married, couples can not separate, nor remarry. In case of the death of a spouse, it is required that the widow builds a new hut and live there with the children until he/she remarries.  A remarriage must be given permission by the parents and it is impossible to marry a person of the same blood.

When a woman delivers a child, during the period of pregnancy, she has to live in a separate hut where only her husband and her daughters are allowed to take care of her. When somebody dies, the corps is buried. If the body is too heavy, then the family members will bury it in the hut and burn it. After the death of any family member, the rest of the family will move away and settle somewhere else. They worship their ancestors, the spirits of the jungle, of the earth and of the sky. They believe the spirits or the ghosts can help them find food and prevent them from disease and sickness. To worship the spirit of fire, of the bear and of the tiger, they sacrifice monkeys, squrels, kadeng or mice and give some alcohol. They believe in black magic to prevent and cure sickness, to drive a bad spirit away, to call for love and to become a good hunter. If one, can learn from 9 different teachers, then one can become a witch doctor. The Tongluong belong to the family of Negroid or Negro Polynesian. They have dark skin and lived in the island by the sea. Their height id 1.50 meters tall. Their cheeks or front head are large, with a small nose, black curly hair and eyes color discovered in Souvan-naphoum over 3,000 years ago.

" Bounchieng Pimai Phattaithaochuneneu ! "
You may hear these above words expressing best wishes from the tongues of Thai dam people during their new year days. Bounchieng Pimai begins in the first waning moon of the third month of each year. There is no any legend about Thai dam new year but it can be imagined that Thai dam gained the culture from China and Vietnam.

Speaking about the New Year Festivals, many ceremonial rites are familiar but some have its own specific characteristics. To enjoy the New Year day, Thai dam prepare the food particular, chickens, pigs and coconut cakes, jars of alcohol, white alcohol and so so. However one day before the due date, the merry night on desserts cooking is performed. It is the naught to say good-bye to the old year till the New Year. Traditionally in the new Year day, main offering food to sacrifice their ancestors, ghosts of the village and the house must be prepared by the pork, chickens. Besides these the boil rice cakes, white alcohol, desserts and other kind of food are also offered. To begin the worship, firstly they light the candles and pray to invite the ghosts to come for eating then request for the best wishes from the deads to take care of their lives as they wish.

Thai dam religion and belief is animism because their main beliefs are the spirits and the super power. They believe that the word is under the power of spiritism. The ghosts can make good and bad for instance : Phifa, Phithene and Phimuong, ghost of ancestors, forest ghost, Phikhouang and others.  Thai dam people respect that Theme god is the person who creates the people to be born. The human bodies have 32 souls. The souls are invisible but can make the bodies to be alive, can move and works. If the souls have gone to the bad ways, the owners of the souls will get sick or cannot live happily. Whenever gotten frightened or sick, Thai dam have to arrange a Baca ceremony "Sonekhuane" to collect the soul, "Hiakkhouane" to call the souls to be back to their bodies.

To perform the religious rite, Thai dam people use the priest as the organizer. The priest is the person who knows the language, procedures and traditions. In the ancient time the priest is succeeded from the "Lean" family. Old Thai dam saying " Lean hat moor Lo hat than ". Means Lean works as priest and Lo works as leader. So these families are their leaders. Old tradition noted that the chief of the district was the responsible person who appointed the head of the priests called Ongmor and two assistants called Ongchang and Onggnae to carry out the ceremonial rites. To pay respect to the ghost of the village or town to protect the lives to be in peace and happy. In the New Year day, there is Nangmodmoung the mother of the town responsible to drive away the bad luck or the evil away. After the ghost feeding ceremony, Thai dam enjoy Kabtay folk songs singing while eating and having entertainment.

At Bane Nongbouathong village, Sikhottabong district, Vientiane Municipality, Minister of Education Phimmasone LEUANGKHAMMA expressed his idea about the new year "To maintain Thai dam tradition, language, dresses, Thai dam youth of the ages over 13-14 should know to chat the girl. At the age of 13 one should know to play "Pi" the flute. At the age of 14 one knows about love. At the age of 13, Thai dam boy can play flute beautifully. Showing that they know how to play the flutes. " Pipab is Thai dam traditional musical instrument. There is also Tingtao, a one string guitar made by maknamtao fruit. This type of musical instrument used to play to invite the souls to back regard the religious rite.

After the official ceremony "Emnai" (GrandMa) an old lady sings the songs called "Xomchiengpimai" to the new generation then the Thai dam child dances "Xaetay" to music composes by the drums and gongs in the school yard. "Todkhone" the khone ball and dancing of "Xaetai" of the old and senior teams. Some Thai dam singers to sing at Bounchieng with the songs and Electone music are Bakkham Yuan, Khamvoui PHAKASITH, these two are the young songwriters to compose new Thai dam song and intellectuals who maintain the proverbs and old Thai dam songs. Both Yuan and Khamvoui will improve Thai dam literature for sustainable and for new generations.

Due to the relationship with Thai dam, I am the supporter and made album titled Khalom in 1990 played by "Khonnoum" band. Song title "Bouanenaikouangta" means "the moon is in the eyes" composed by Yuan and Khamvoui. In addition I also compose song with the cooperation with Khamvoui. This song is called "Xaetay" as its content below :

            From the day you have departed
            Since my heart is still calling
            For our past made me to think
            Enjoy links side by side merry
                   No good-bye saying you quitted
                   I knew it you were so sad
                   Cool your hearts to be oppressed
                   You got less from native land
             For New Year Todkhone playing
             Where to sing in lonely life
             Xaetay song and dance our style
             You're invited to dance with me
                    What made you boring the past
                    Poorly wait for you lonely
                    Xaetaiysong my heart thinking
                    Thai dam boy is waiting only you

On the occasion of Thai dam New Year, may I convey this song composed from my heart to relatives and friends of Thai dam people whom I know and love with best regards.

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