The scent of wood smoke hangs in the air. Children play in the dusty soil. Small pigs, chickens and dogs wander at will between the wooden houses. And inside one a blacksmith is at work, shaping a machete over glowing coals.
This is Phou Taen Khamu, home to some of the Khamu people, one of Laos’ minority ethnic tribes. Its wooden houses are built on stilts, for protection during the rainy season, and each has a detached kitchen building. These kitchens mark out the village as Khamu; their neighbours in the next village, who are from the Ikhos tribe, have interior kitchens.
The spirit gate
We had entered the village through a spirit gate. Like all of Laos’ minority tribes, the Khamu are animists, their beliefs shaping their way of life. Underpinning these beliefs is a faith in spirits, which they call phi. They believe that we all derive from four basic elements in the universe, earth, heaven, fire and water, and are protected by thirty-two spirits (khwan). The power of these spirits drives everything that happens in our lives, good and bad: illness and recovery, death and birth … These living forces harmonise and balance the body; each controls and defends a specific part of the body. When we are sick it means that one or more of these spirits has left us and certain rituals are needed, usually performed by the village shaman, to call them back.
Each ethnic tribe has slightly different beliefs, but the influence of the spirits and the role of the shaman are common to all. The village shaman may be a man or woman, but is always someone who has been identified as having a special connection with the spirit world. The role is usually passed down through families.
They also believe that another type of phi is created when a person dies unexpectedly through an accident or violence. These spirits are evil, haunting and bringing bad luck to people. To appease them, offerings must be made, and a ‘spirit house’ built so that the evil spirit has its own home and doesn’t harm any more people in the village. Most homes will also have their own small spirit house.
And in a similar way, the spirit gate we had passed under protects the village by holding back evil spirits and holding in the protective ones.
Many animists believe that something of the soul leaves the body when it is captured in a photo. But most of the people here, including the blacksmith, welcomed us to take photos. I wondered if perhaps they recognise the financial support that these carefully managed tourist visits provide, and also trust the local guides to ensure no one takes liberties.
The village economy
When finished, the blacksmith’s machete will be used to cut grass which the villagers dry and make into brooms. In several places we came across the grasses spread out underfoot, and in one part of the village people had gathered to work together on the brooms.
Nearby, some women were working with raffia to make hats and mats. These, like the brooms, will be sold at roadside markets down in the valley. One of the men told us that the brooms sell for 10,000 kips (roughly equivalent to €1).
In addition to these craft activities, the people rely on farming as their main source of income and also their own sustenance. The steep hillsides around and below the village are challenging to farm, but they make use of every spot that they can. The work must be arduous, as you can’t use machines on these precipitous slopes; and the farm workers walk miles along narrow tracks to reach the crops. What is a stunning landscape to us is a place of demanding effort for them.
I wonder if they, like us, take the time to admire their surroundings? I suspect that as animists, with a strong connection to their surroundings and to nature, they do.
But perhaps the blacksmith has an easier life, working here at his anvil? He is another person from around the world I am happy to introduce to you for this week’s challenge.
I visited Laos in 2020