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#4 : Miseducation of Laos & The Real Highlanders of Asia

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Imagine a population density of over 130 million people living amongst the rest of us in our globalized technocratic society, without anything resembling statehood. In fact, this large subset have consciously resisted being drawn into the hypnotic hum of bourgeoisie and consumerism. In essence, this is a diverse subculture of successful anarchists. In 2002, anthropologist Willem van Schendel studied this very phenomenon. Schendel dubbed the region Zomia.

The term Zomi is a common Tibeto-Burman word for highlander. It refers to a people who aren't divided by borders or countries and who live across certain elevated regions in China, India, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh and Taiwan. After moving to Vietnam in 2016, by happenstance I came across the concept of Zomia and became obsessed with it. I couldn't shake the idea of creating a frequency-based drone record using samples from various geographical locations and rituals within the Zomia region. Using Vietnam as a home base, I planned a series of trips to gain inspiration and collect samples/field recordings for the project.


Luang Prabang

It was mid-November 2017 and I had just landed in Luang Prabang for the first time. My T-shirt acknowledged the balmy surroundings by sticking indignantly to my upper body. Life in Southeast Asia did get a bit drippy at times, but I'd take tropical climate any day over the snowy backdrop that blanketed my hometown of Lexington most winters. My eyes scanned the sprawling expanse of palm trees competing with sizable golden effigies, all in Buddha's namesake. The Mekong, Asia's third longest river, stretched diagonally across the city's northern shoulder, gradually winding down to its delta in Vietnam, known locally as the Nine Dragons.

Prior to arriving in Laos, I did what would become a typical routine for me on my travels. I searched for decent YouTube videos and practiced the basic words/phrases for country "xyz" I was entering. Next, I took out my journal and wrote down survival phrases along with their English translation on the opposite end of the page. Numbers one through twenty, followed by the remaining numbers in multiples of ten up to 100 in the new language proved to be a handy tool, especially when trying to ask for the price of something at a night market or even grabbing late-night street food.

However, I was embarrassingly oblivious in terms of the history between my home country and Laos. This was mostly due to cherry-picked information offered by the American education system regarding the true scope of the damage wrought by the US government abroad. Walking through downtown Luang Prabang, I began to notice some very strange decorations adorning the exteriors of many bars, restaurants and cafes. Large unexploded missile casings stood upright from in the ground like ominous totems, and in some cases, missile casings had been sliced vertically down the middle and turned into makeshift flower planters.

After stumbling onto a motorbike rental shop, the first thing that caught my attention upon entering the building was a woman sitting at a desk in front of a wall that served more as an altar of war than anything else. On the wall hung an array of military grade weapons, clearly from a bygone era, ranging from grenade launchers and rifles, to magazines and a pile of unexploded missile casings. As we discussed my options for acquiring a motorbike, I mentioned my curiosity regarding the weapons on the wall behind her and she asked me where I came from. I replied that I was born in the United States. Smiling, she urged me to visit the UXO Luang Prabang Center after finishing up at her shop.

Uncle Sam wants you!

{to avert your eyes}

The UXO Luang Prabang center is an information center that aims to shed light on what happened in Laos during the Vietnam-American war. From 1964 to 1973, the CIA had been conducting a shadow war in Laos. Now known as “The Secret War”, the CIA had been funding anti communism militias in northern Laos. Specifically, the Hmong and the Khmu people. Already minorities within Laos borders, they were at a disadvantage long before the war even began. The Hmong and Khmu that didn’t want any part in what the CIA was up to, had no choice but to pick a side. In northern Laos, the CIA had set up a clandestine military base and was working with anti-communist Hmong militias. At the Eastern border of Laos, there were communist supply lines being utilized on what is known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. Weapons were being funneled into Northern Vietnam from that region in Laos, as well as some border regions in Cambodia.

Long story short, the CIA made the decision unbeknownst to anyone back in Washington, to drop more than 270 million bombs on the country of Laos. This was a horrific effort to cut off the communist supply lines running into northern Vietnam before they would be turned against the US troops on the ground. The CIA dropped more bombs on Laos than Germany and Japan combined during WWII, making Laos (per capita) the most bombed country in the history of the world. Sadly, the majority of the casualties from the mass bombing were the very Hmong and Khmu people that set out to assist the CIA to begin with.

The term UXO is an acronym that stands for Unexploded Ordinance. Basically, the unexploded American bombs that still lurk within Laos soil to this day. So much as a child playing in an open field could and has easily set off what is essentially now, a series of land mines. The United States launched more than 580,000 secret bombing missions across the country. It’s estimated that out of the 270 million bombs dropped on Laos, about 30% are still currently active in the ground and waiting to explode at any given time. This means about 80 million active bombs remain, peppered throughout the entire country. Not only am I still floored that this is not taught to Americans within our education system, it’s even more infuriating that the US government has yet to do anything in terms of righting this tragic wrong that took place in our recent history. The government is simply not revealing this dark reality to the American people. At the very least, we have an obligation to diffuse any and all active bombs in the ground that are still killing and injuring Laotian people to this day. As it stands, the UXOs in the ground have killed or injured over 20,000 people.

I began to see Luang Prabang through an entirely different lens after being confronted with this horrific reality. Just as an aside, the people of Laos were welcoming and warm, knowing full well that I’m an American. I had similar experiences from my time spent living in Vietnam. The strength, beauty and humble nature of both the Laotian and Vietnamese people lies firmly in that they are able to separate me from my government. They knew that I had nothing to do with those tragic events, nor would the majority of Americans support what our country pursues on the global stage. The US government essentially functions as the world's police force and they understood that as the unfortunate reality. Sadly, I doubt that Americans would reciprocate the same warm welcome if the tables were ever turned.

Asiatic Black Bears

& The Infinite Waterfall

For the purposes of this story, I won’t go into every detail of my time spent in Luang Prabang, but I’d like to at least shift gears a bit from the death knell laid out in the previous section. Roughly thirty kilometers south of Luang Prabang, sits Kuang Si Falls. Set deep within in a vast tropical rainforest, a gradual cascade of turquoise water lines its interior.

Reaching the start of the trailhead to Kuang Si, I was thrown yet another unexpected curve ball. Right out of the gate, Laos was proving to be full of surprises. Just to my right was a substantial adult black bear, greeting me through a chain-link fence. Its nose protruding through a hole in the fencing as it began to sniff the air, catching my scent. Shrugging a bit, as if already losing interest, it turned away to socialize with another nearby black bear. As it hobbled away, I noticed it was missing one of its front legs. Venturing to the front of the gate, I found a painted sign strung up by rope. This was the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center. A sanctuary for Asiatic black bears that had been rescued from bile farms in China. Still its own form of captivity, the sanctuary seemed to provide plenty of space for the bears to reside safely and even roughhouse with their peers on a large wooden playground. Sadly, Chinese poachers had abducted these bears from their habitats. Sedated and placed in cages far too small for them to move freely, they were taken to a secure location at one of the many bear bile farms. The poachers extract their bile and leave them for dead once they’re no longer of any use. The bear bile is then sold throughout China (legally, in some cases) as TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Apparently, there has been modern research done on the medicinal properties found in bear bile, and it does in fact have a wide range of pharmacological applications, with little to no side effects. While this has been a practice in China for over 3,000 years, it should go without saying that the process of extraction and the conditions of these animals is beyond horrific. The organization that funds the sanctuary is called the “Free the Bears Fund.” I’ll drop links at the bottom of the page to both the UXO Luang Prabang Center and the Asiatic black bear organization, if you’re interested in learning more about their work.

I left the bear sanctuary and continued on, trekking deeper into the dense rainforest. Wild pigs wrestled in quarries without a worry in the world. Fire ants fed upon the carcass of a large snake that they took down as a community. The calming stream felt more like a divining rod, leading me to its source. Eventually, I found myself standing below an imposing multi-tiered land mass, stretching up to 50 meters high (roughly 165 feet). I rested, taking in the dreamlike exhale of Kuang Si.

How to Schedule a Shaman Appointment

Sometimes, in order to get what you’re after, it’s not necessarily a bad approach to lean into something seemingly frivolous. In hindsight, many of these scenarios, whether good, bad or awkward at the time, end up being catalysts somehow directly connected with the thing. Whatever “the thing” happens to be in that moment.

The entire purpose of this particular trip was to glean inspiration and make progress with the Zomia album. There were smaller boxes to check as I made it through each day, and of course, being open to novel situations for slight course corrections should always be welcome, but ultimately this was a work trip in my mind. One night in my hotel room, I posted a photo to my instagram feed. It was a passage from a book that I had been reading about the various minority tribes living in Laos. This particular passage was regarding the Hmong people. While they have many ceremonies and nuanced belief sets, the one that really caught my eye is called Sou Khuan (pronounced Su Kwan) or Baci as it’s known by locals. A string tying ceremony that carries the English translation of “Spirit Calling.”

The Hmong folks believe that as healthy human beings, we are a union of thirty-two physical organs (seventy-eight if you ask google, but who’s counting?). Each of which needs to be protected, thus each organ should have a protective spirit attached. However, they believe these thirty-two spirits are not necessarily bound to the physical body and can be abducted by evil entities or simply lose their way from the body they aim to protect. In this case, you may find yourself short of your full thirty-two, leaving you vulnerable to illness, injury, depression or even death. In some cases, demonic spirits may swap with some of your thirty-two protector spirits and wreak havoc on you from beyond the veil. This is where Sou Khuan comes in. By tying a set of sixteen white cotton strings on each wrist and carrying out a specific series of chants, the shaman is essentially reaching into the spirit realm and fastening each of your thirty-two protector spirits back to each physical organ.

I wasn’t sure exactly how to pull off making my way into a Hmong village and orchestrating this scenario. I drove my motorbike along the Mekong on the outskirts of the city to various villages and was beginning to feel like it might be a bust for this trip. My Lao was already very weak in terms of communicating with locals, but on top of that, the Hmong people speak a dialect called Hmong Daw, which I was not at all familiar with. I decided to shove off to an area in Laos called Phonsavan. The best route would be to go by bus from what I had read, due to the quality of the roads being absolutely tragic. These bus drivers that go back and forth on a daily basis are much more used to it, versus me trying to hack it via motorbike.

I had one final day to kill in Luang Prabang, so I decided to embrace the tourist in me and I booked a “Zip-line through the Jungle” excursion. Included in the package was an optional jungle hike, so I figured why not? The location was a bit far out of the city, but I had gotten an early start, so I jumped on my motorbike and headed back out alongside the Mekong River. When I arrived at the Zip-line spot, I met a group of foreigners that had also booked the package that day. They were all from the UK and had paid a tour agency for an entire Southeast Asian trip. I don’t want to discourage this kind of approach to travel by any means, but for me, this is a nightmare scenario. Being stuck in a group of folks with a tour guide wielding a strict itinerary, dictating everything from where we eat to what we do and how long we have to explore said location. I completely understand how this takes any guess work out of traveling abroad and certainly is a safer approach in general. It’s just a bit too sterile and planned out for my taste. I want the freedom to decide last minute if I should shift gears and maybe go in a completely different direction. Anyhow, it certainly works for some folks. Again, I do see the utility in it.

The Zip-lines were located in a proper jungle. Peering up into the treetops, I could spot the various Ninja Warrior-esque obstacle courses. Large rubber tires strung together in a lengthy series, connected to rope bridges leading up to even higher elevations. No lie, I was excited. Chatting with the group, we exchanged the typical niceties and questions that foreigners tend to exchange in this type of scenario. I mentioned the jungle hike option in the package. They had all decided to opt out of the hike, only opting in for the Zip-lines. Once we all finished with the Laos gladiator obstacle courses and zipped through all the trees available, I met with Biaomin, my guide for the hike. His English was very good, and it was clear that he was passionate about his upbringing in Laos. Being that it was only the two of us on the hike, I had plenty of time to pick his brain on what I was really setting out to do for my visit to Laos. As it turned out, he is part of the Yao community. Similar to the Hmong, the Yao also migrated from China in the 19th century. They also hold an Animistic belief set and are part of the many tribes that make up the highland regions of Zomia.

I explained to him that my plan was to visit a Hmong village and work with a Shaman in a Sou Khuan ceremony. It turned out his village was directly next to a Hmong village, and both tribes were friendly with one another. He agreed to speak with some of his Hmong friends about my proposition. The villages don’t have running water or electricity, so my best bet would be to reach him though a work landline. He pulled out a small piece of paper and jotted down the number of the Zip-line spot and told me to call him in a few days. I explained that I would be on a bus the next morning heading to Phonsavan for a week. The prospect that I could possibly pull this off was already lighting me on fire, though on the outside I did my best to remain calm. Who knew the best route to lock in a ceremony with a shaman would be to go to the nearest tourist trap and Zip-line for a day?

The Plain of Jars

The next morning, I headed to the station and in short order, I was on a bus to Phonsavan. While not on the tongues of many tourists in Laos, Phonsavan should be. Within the region are multiple megalithic archeological sites, dubbed the Plain of Jars. These sites ultimately remain an enigma to those who have studied it. Dating all the way back to the Bronze Age, over ninety jar sites have been recorded thus far. With over 2,000 jars scattered throughout the province of Xiangkhoang in Phonsavan, archeologists have yet to find any tools that would’ve been used to chisel these massive stone jars. The majority of the jars were made from sandstone and some stand as high as three meters (over nine feet) tall. Originally sealed off with lids, you can easily find flat stone discs lying in between some of the jars. One remains intact with a lid still resting on its surface. It’s also believed that some may have had more perishable lids fashioned from wood that weren’t able to stand the test of time. Also, consider that these have been sitting out in the open since the Bronze Age. Surely, the first thing that humans did when coming across these ancient jars was to flip over the lids and see what valuables await inside.

In 2017, when I visited the plain of jars, it was not yet on the UNESCO World Heritage list, as it should have been. The main reasoning behind this was that there are still so many unexploded bombs littered throughout the sites. The extent of UXO in the area made it to where only three sites were safe to open to the public. The catch twenty-two of being snubbed by UNESCO was two-fold. Having the status would put the plain of jars on the map and bring in tourism, which in turn would generate funding to enable those working to diffuse the mines on the more dangerous jar sites. By blacklisting the plain of jars, UNESCO was essentially leaving the sites in relative obscurity and stifling any growth in tourism that might enable locals to raise funds and diffuse more bombs buried on the sites. The good news is that it appears in 2019, UNESCO finally decided to add the Plain of Jars as an official world heritage site.

Archeologists still have yet to uncover anything about the people who built these megalithic jars, or exactly what purpose the jars served during the time of their use. However, back in the 1930s, a pair of archeologists found a few jars with burnt bones and teeth inside. The current theory is that they used the jars as urns at burial sites. Ancient crematoriums. This is more than likely the case, but I prefer the legend and mythology passed down throughout the centuries, via those whom lived in Phonsavan for generations. One legend tells of giants that existed in the ancient times. They used the large sandstone jars to drink their Lao-Hai, a local rice whiskey. Another theory is that perhaps the jars were once used to store water, getting ahead of the dry season.

The bus from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan was rough. Imagine largely deteriorated, single lane roads, winding constantly for the majority of the trip. I personally don’t mind winding one lane roads, but when the roads themselves are that bad off, it would be better to just make do with dirt roads. The trip should’ve been roughly eight hours in total, but due to the road conditions, we had to pull over twice to deal with flat tires. Instead, the trip ended up being around eleven hours long. It was still worth it. Upon arriving in Phonsavan, I could feel a change in the air. It wasn’t that Luang Prabang was by any means, a bustling city. Yet, the more rural aesthetic of eastern Laos seemed to be where my head was at.

The next morning, I got up early to visit the jars. My photos couldn’t have possibly captured just how surreal the scene was at the three open sites. Running my hands across the surface of these prehistoric jars felt like time travel. I imagined what life must have been like during those times, before recorded human history. How brutal and tragic it must have all been. Also, how rewarding it must have been in some ways that we can’t even begin to grasp, within the technological haze of modern society. Peering into a jar, I found thick green sludge that had built up over who knows how many years. Cows silently passed through the megalithic jars while they grazed. On the way to the next site, I accidentally stepped on a random square stone embedded in the grass. Engraved in a thick font, it read MAG. Luckily, this was actually a good sign. MAG (Mines Advisory Group) is an organization that started back in the late 80s in the UK. They work with war-torn governments all around the globe to assist in diffusing landmines and other cluster munitions. The flat marker in the ground that I stepped on was there to show that the general radius had no UXO.

The following day, I awoke. Un-crumpling the small piece of paper that Biaomin had given me, I called the number. The phone seemed to ring for ages. I honestly didn’t have high hopes that the Hmong village idea would work out. Finally, someone picked up! It was Biaomin, after all. He had spoken with a friend of his in the Hmong village and the shaman was interested in meeting with me for the ceremony. Obviously, this was not a typical tourist venture. Before I had the chance to ask him how much they might charge for this, he said the Shaman asked me to pay what I felt was fair for the ceremony. Biaomin suggested that I meet with him in his village after arriving back in Luang Prabang. From there, he could join me in the ceremony for any translation that I might need. In terms of payment, he also noted just to pay what I am comfortable with. He had also never witnessed this ceremony and was curious. For the trip back, I wanted to avoid any fuckery that I’d dealt with on the bus ride over. I booked the first flight back into Luang Prabang that I could find, extending my stay in Phonsavan for a couple more days.

Spoon Village

With my remaining time in Phonsavan, I had one last destination in mind before shoving off. About forty-five minutes south of where I was staying is a village named Ban Naphia, known as “Spoon Village.” The story goes that a mysterious foreigner appeared in Ban Naphia not long after the war was over. They showed the people of the village how to melt down missile casings and turn them into spoons to sell. Using a wooden mold, they poured the silver liquid of the munitions into the mold, giving it time to cool and transform into a utensil. To this day, they still practice spoon making and even chopsticks.

I rented a motorbike for the day and put the location of Ban Naphia into Gxxgle Maps. Here’s the thing about GPS abroad. At times, it will troll you. After about thirty minutes or so, I was blasting through the red dirt roads and passing small villages. The last village that I drove through was about the length of a neighborhood block. Exiting the village into an open field, I passed a large blue sign with Lao writing on it. Paying no mind to the sign, I glanced down at my GPS. It read that I was only a few minutes away from my destination. Looking out into the flat expanse, I knew it wasn’t possible that the coordinates were correct. I turned around and drove back towards the large blue sign. On the right of the sign, there was an English translation of the Lao text. Not only had I just passed through Spoon Village, but I had driven my motorbike into an area that had not yet been cleared of UXO. This is why men die off earlier than women, I thought to myself.

Feeling grateful for not getting surprise exploded, I continued back into Ban Naphia village. Besides a lone monk on a motorbike passing by here and there, it was an absolute ghost town. Sitting in plain site, In front of a modest brick shanty house, I spotted a small metal sign. It read, “XIENG PHAENG MAKESPOON FOR SALE.”. There was fencing blocking the walkway to the house, so I stood there for a few minutes, hoping that I would catch someone’s eye that lived there. Soon after, a sweet elderly woman walked out from behind the house. I asked her if I could buy some spoons and chopsticks. Nodding at me, she went back behind the house where I then saw some molds laying in the grass. She appeared again. This time with a handful of handmade spoons and chopsticks. I thanked her and bought the whole batch.

In Laos, it’s estimated that folks live on an average of two dollars a day. This is one of the many reasons they’ve become so creative with the old munitions. Whether or not the legend behind Spoon Village is true doesn’t matter. It’s quite possible that some foreigner created that tale to take credit for their own ingenuity within the village. Regardless, I’m lucky to have been able to visit such an iconic place.

While Phonsavan had more than exceeded my expectations, in the back of my head, all I could think about was going to the Hmong village for the ceremony. The next morning, I arrived at the local airport, which was more of a hangar than an airport. A half dome with all glass panelling and a small airstrip behind it. When I walked in, there were a series of booths with various airline logos on each. The airline that I booked was not one that I had heard of previously. I approached the man standing behind the booth with the airline I had booked through, and before I could open my mouth, he asked if I was Tristin Morin. The moment I said yes, I could see he had a look of concern. He asked if I could wait a few days to fly back into Luang Prabang. Of course, I couldn’t tell him I had an important meeting with a shaman the next day. Instead, I told him I had to be back asap for business and that I couldn’t postpone the flight, unfortunately. Whatever the issue was, it couldn’t have been weather related. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky while the sun beamed down onto the small glass airport.

He explained that he understood and we would continue with my flight as scheduled. Pointing to the back of the hangar, he asked me to go sit and that my name should be called shortly. This departure waiting area made up the bulk of the airport. A decent sized space, as tall as it was wide. There were maybe two-hundred or so fold-out chairs, halfway filled with people waiting on their flights. All of us sat facing the large glass paneling at the exit of the hangar with a clear view of the airstrip. Ten minutes passed, and a small plane touched down on the strip. It looked like an old Cessna. My full name sounded loudly from the intercom above. I waited a moment for others to be called, but mine was the only name being called onto the airstrip. This tiny six-seater plane was my flight? I stood up and grabbed my backpack as a staff member opened the hangar door to the outside, motioning in my direction. It felt as if everyone in the room was looking at me. Probably wondering who this asshole is that’s flying out of here on a private Cessna? Little did they know, I was thinking the exact same thing. I walked outside and boarded the tiny plane. Inside sat the pilot and his co-pilot. That was it. I realized then, they must have wanted to postpone things because nobody else had booked a flight back into Luang Prabang that day.

Sadly, the night before, I was so exhausted getting back into my hotel that I had taken the room card out of the wall slot and laid it on the table right before bed, without thinking. It was the kind of old card slot that turns off the electricity once you pull the room card out, in order to make sure the guest doesn’t leave lights and the A/C on while they’re out and about. I had drained my power bank from the Spoon Village trip earlier that day. While I plugged both my power bank and my cell in the night before, there was no power charging them at all.

All of that was to say, that in the rush to get to the airport that morning, I realized only in the taxi ride over that my cell phone was completely dead. An absolute shame, as it was one of the most remarkable flights that I’ve had to date. Flying over vast mountain ranges and diverse jungle ecosystems, marked by massive craters imprinted into the earth. To my eyes, it appeared more like a lunar landscape teeming with life. Regardless of how breathtaking, I was seeing on full ghostly display the remnants of an unimaginable tragedy.

AI generated image

Sou Khuan

It was still morning as I touched down in Luang Prabang. Not wasting any time, I checked into my old hotel and made sure to plug up both my cell phone and power bank. In order to kill some time, I walked to the motorbike rental spot, then further down to grab some breakfast. Biaomin didn’t know the GPS location of the Hmong village, but he did tell me the exact length of time it would take for the drive. Approximately, an hour and a half drive by motorbike from where I first met him at the Zip-lines. All I needed to do was follow alongside the Mekong river the majority of the way. Eventually, I would reach a small corner shop that sold small bottles of gasoline on the right-hand side of the road. That was the entrance to the Yao village. I drove back to the hotel and packed a light bag for the trip.

Crossing over the Mekong and blasting through dirt roads alongside the river bank with palm trees overhead, I listened to an old SUUNS album as loud as my ear buds would allow. This was one of my favorite aspects of Southeast Asia. Long motorbike trips with a heady playlist and the tropical sun at my back. Making decent time, I passed the entrance to the Zip-line jungle. In all honesty, I wasn’t being as cautious as I normally would on dirt roads like these. I must have had enough adrenaline in my system to where I was driving as if it were a paved road. One of the “w” shaped turns caught up with me and I completely ate it. I had caught my front wheel in a groove, hidden in the dirt that wasn’t going in my trajectory at that moment. The bike was fine. I busted up my right knee and had some minor cuts to the elbow. The knee situation wasn’t serious, but I was bleeding more than I would’ve liked. I was more upset with myself than anything else.

Lifting the motorbike back onto two wheels, I was back at it. No music this time. I needed to focus and not miss the landmark. About twenty more minutes down the road, I spotted a small street shop on the right-hand side of the road and pulled over. Two women stood behind the front of the shop, both in similar dress. White shirts that extended into brightly patterned sleeves of red, green & yellow. Next to them was a display of bottles filled with glowing yellow petrol, just like Biaomin had described. This had to be it.

I purchased a bottle and filled up the bike enough to get me back into town later. Paying them for the gas, I asked if they knew Biaomin. They weren’t able to speak much English and weren’t sure what I was asking, so I asked them “Yao people?” They both smiled and nodded their heads, so I knew at the very least, this was the right village. I repeated Biaomin’s name to them a few times, each time with a slightly different pronunciation, in hopes that one would be correct. Finally, one of the girls shouted, “Biaomin!?” I nodded, “doi”. She pointed down and to the right, going into the village. I parked my motorbike next to their shop and went walking in search of Biaomin. Eventually I found him sitting with a friend, chatting in the street. He seemed genuinely surprised to see me. More than likely, he thought I was full of shit in terms of making my way back from Phonsavan to do the ceremony. This is not an unfair wager, as I’m sure many foreigners talk a lot, without much consistency to back it up.

He looked down at the dirt & blood caked around my knee, running down my leg and offered to help me clean it up. We walked a few huts down, and Biaomin disappeared behind one of the structures. Making his way back around to the front, he held a bucket of clean water. Gratefully, I rinsed the blood & dirt from my wounds. He suggested we leave soon. The shaman and his assistant were probably waiting for us. Motioning to me, I followed him into the next village over.

Entering into the Hmong village, I followed Biaomin inside a small hut. Opposite the entrance was a small table with ethereal tools strategically placed on its surface. In the center of the table sat a bowl of popped rice. Animal horns lay next to two small donut shaped brass tools, each knotted with bright red fabric, while a simple pair of scissors rested near a black face covering. Underneath the table sat percussive instruments. A large flat hand drum, a cymbal with a uniquely large bell and a large brass ring, strung with circular cut brass chimes. I noticed a green coffee mug filled with a clear liquid that I would later discover was not water, rather a strong pour of Lao Lao (a local rice wine). Above the table hung a small flag draped across an aged brick wall. This was not a traditional Hmong flag, but symbols signifying a subset of the Hmong tribe. Three crow feathers were adhered to the center of a golden airbrushed square on the surface of the fabric. Pink diamond shapes rested on the perimeter of the golden square, completing the design.

In walked the shaman’s assistant, carrying the shaman (or Txiv Neeb, in their dialect). Dressed in informal clothes and humble in his movements, he gently sat the village’s healer onto the ground floor. The shaman stood, wearing a loose fitting black robe with a red & yellow cloth tied around his waist, boasting symbolism of the Hmong flag. Under his robe, what appeared to be an ethereal basketball jersey was exposed, donning two black screaming skulls opposing one another. Sizing me up, he became sharply focused on my wounded knee. His face balled up in a discerning manner, then slowly he began to to crack a smile. Speaking to Biaomin in his native tongue, he let out a playful laugh. Biaomin translated back to me. “It is a good sign that you came today bearing blood. The spirits may look kindly upon you for the ritual.”

He began explaining to Biaomin what the ceremony represents and what the process for the day would be. Shuffling me to the back entrance of the hut, the shaman began showing me a series of sharp wooden daggers hung via twine above the entrance. Biaomin translated the meaning of the wooden daggers. “During the Sou Khuan ceremony, if the shaman finds demon spirits acting as part of your thirty-two protector spirits, he will use the dagger to cut the evil spirits away from the energy around your physical body. He will not cut into the flesh, so please do not be afraid.”

Apparently, one of the many functions of the shaman is to target malevolent spirits and absorb them into his dagger, trapping them forever underneath the orientation of the wooden fibers. Perhaps noticing my skeptic micro expressions in the moment, he delicately removed one of the daggers from its twine sheath, laying it onto the dirt. The four of us gazed down at it in silence. A minute or so passed and the wooden dagger began to show movement, vibrating and jerking every which way. Picking it back up, the shaman carefully hung it back on the twine with the rest of the esoteric daggers. Biaomin appeared quite spooked, but didn’t utter a word. Internally I was thrown, but remained as if nothing supernatural had just taken place before my eyes.

As I mentioned earlier, the Hmong have a strong Animistic belief set. They believe that the universe is divided into two absolute realms. While the physical realm is overseen largely by humans, the supernatural realm is populated by a vast cosmic array of invisible beings. A combination of both benevolent and malevolent spirits puppeting many aspects of what we see day to day on the physical plane. The goal of the shaman in carrying out various rites and ceremonies is to counter any imbalances that exist among the people within the village, as well as to appease benevolent protector spirits. Striking a kind of unity between both the physical and metaphysical realms.

We continued back to the table, where the spirit instruments still sat. His assistant stepped out for a moment, returning with three green coffee mugs. The mug already sitting on the table was for the shaman. Holding a large jug of room temperature Lao Lao, the assistant filled the additional mugs to the brim. I would argue that Lao Lao is basically Laos moonshine. We each exchanged glances and emptied our mugs. It was an instant head change, of course. The assistant gathered up the green mugs to be washed, returning soon after with a live chicken and a small wooden bench. They ushered me over to the table with the shaman, where he placed a fresh egg into the rice. The shaman was asking me to roll up the money I’d brought for the ceremony and place it into the rice, Biaomin explained. Common in these types of rituals, this is referred to as “spirit money.“ I brought the exact the amount that I planned to give, both for the shaman and to Biaomin, who was kind enough to translate and set up the entire endeavor. From my pocket, I neatly rolled the wad of Laos kip and placed it into the rice. Taking my seat at the small wooden bench, the shaman turned to manipulate the horns resting on the table. Realizing the opportunity in the moment, I quickly opened an audio recording app on my cell and hit record, sliding it underneath the bench. The animal horns on the table acted as divination horns. The shaman was using the horns to decipher whether the spirits were willing to cooperate in the ceremony before moving ahead. Nothing like greasing the wheels with a little spirit money.

He donned his black face covering and began with a series of short chants. Known as cantos or soul calling rites, this amounts to an alternating pair of two specific chants, allowing the shaman to enter the spirit realm. The assistant serves as the eyes of the physical realm, while the unseeing shaman journeys into the spirit world. As the cantos grew more and more intense, the assistant raised the live chicken above the ecstatic spectacle. Holding it gingerly, he ran a blade across its carotid artery, introducing fresh blood into the equation. I watched as he handed the chicken’s body to a villager peering in from outside of the hut entrance. His hands still coated in blood, the assistant picked up the large hand drum to play, placing the traditional tambourine-like instrument in the hands of the now blind shaman. Together, they wove a hypnotic polyrhythm. Steady and unchanging, the rhythmic pattern seemed to shift in ways that weren’t even percussive. I felt as if I was falling into some sort of mystical Bardo.

This continued on for another half hour. The assistant would switch it up with different instruments from the table while burning some combination of herbs. Smoke formed around us. The shaman no longer seemed human. His energy felt extremely supernatural, and the loose black robe that he wore seemed to be animated by something other than a physical body. Then the intensity began to slow in his chanting, as he kneeled over the coagulated chicken blood on the dirt floor. The assistant handed him a bundle of white cotton strings. The black veil still covered his face as he whispered quietly at me. One by one, he tied sixteen strings to each wrist. Using the cymbal with the unusually large bell, the assistant circled around my body, striking it with his thumb. This is the act of creating a barrier around the participant of whom had just reunited with his protective spirits. The Sou Khuan ritual was complete.

I reached under the bench to grab my cell phone and end the recording. Thanking both the shaman and the assistant for allowing me to be a part of the ceremony, I walked outside into the mid-day air. I overheard Biaomin speaking with the healers in their native tongue before turning to come check on me. According to his translation, I did not have any dark entities acting as protector spirits. However, some of my thirty-two had fallen out of alignment. The shaman told him that perhaps that was why I felt called to meet with them.

Biaomin joined me on the walk back through the Yao village and towards the exit. Still reeling from the ceremony, I attempted to explain how grateful I was for his help with everything and passed him his share of the money. He invited me to meet with his family and share in the chicken the assistant had sacrificed earlier, but I needed to get back into town and plan for the days ahead. I told him I’d keep the number he gave me, in case we ever crossed paths again. Nearing the entrance of the Yao village, my motorbike sat patiently next to the makeshift gas station, just as I had left it. I took my time climbing over the seat and soon thereafter was following alongside the Mekong back into town.


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