Blacksmith crouching
Culture & tradition,  Just One Person,  Laos

A village blacksmith in the Lao highlands

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.

Evil spirits

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.

Bird's skull on a wooden stick
On a spirit house in neighbouring Phoe Taen Akha
The spirit gate

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.

From the track up to the village

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

26 Comments

  • rkrontheroad

    I’m glad to read that these are carefully managed tours. One worries about the impact from too many visitors. Loved the photo of the (grand?)mother and baby and stories of the artisans and spirits!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Ruth. Yes, the lodge where we stayed and who organised the tour is run on very ethical lines so we trusted their judgement on this 🙂 Definitely a grandmother, looking after baby while mum works in the fields or making the brooms perhaps?

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Thank you for sharing this, your photos are so reminiscent of our trip to Laos last year. It is such a wonderful country. We spent part of our time in Nong Khiaw which is just stunning. We would love to explore more of this country one day 🙂

  • wetanddustyroads

    Ahh Sarah, I really love your photo’s ❤️. That little one on the ladder and the other little one’s face … that is just so gorgeous.
    Someone said in an earlier comment that there is a real calmness in your photo’s and that is so true – you’ve done it … once again 😊.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Margaret 🙂 Yes, we were keen to visit this northern region of Laos. I find seeing how people live in a country is often as interesting as seeing its big sights – and often more rewarding too 🙂

  • SandyL

    Good background & photos Sarah! Have you read the Dr Siri novels by Colin Cotteril? These are fun set of mystery novels set it Laos , with an unconventional hero – Dr Siri – a 72 year old coroner & post revolutionary from the war. It’s very well written and gives character to the people, places and history of the country. I had great fun reading the stories and remembering my visits there.

    https://www.goodreads.com/series/49714-dr-siri-paiboun

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Sandy! I don’t often read mystery novels (oddly, as I like a good mystery on TV or in film) but I’ll certainly check those out as they sound interesting 🙂

  • Suzanne

    There is a sense of calmness via your photos, Sarah; there is indeed much to be said about living a more simple lifestyle. I have yet to visit most of Asia. However, I have had numerous conversations with my Vietnamese sister in law of life back in Vietnam and her travels around those parts. My nephew and niece went back to Vietnam regularly with their parents, and having a dual heritage is wonderful.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Suzanne 🙂 There is indeed a lot to be said for living a simpler lifestyle but I wouldn’t want to give the impression that these people have had an easy life. Like a lot of minority groups everywhere, they haven’t always had the support they need. They have faced discrimination from the lowland population in the south and from the Communist government, although today some villages, including these, receive government funding. And this part of Laos suffered particularly badly during the Vietnam War when the US forces bombed it heavily to cut off communist supply lines into Vietnam.

      • Suzanne

        Sarah, yes I did realise that life would not be easy for people living in Laos. Though what I wanted to acknowledge is the concept of an simpler life would perhaps have some good benefits even if it’s not always practical. Thanks for highlighting the history of this area.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Indeed, their lives may be tough compared to ours but this is what they know and I think most of them have an acceptance and even a contentment with their lot

  • maristravels

    The hill tribes right across S.E. Asia seem to share the same beliefs and life-styles. Animism is very strong in Thailand although 95% of the population is Buddhist and in the highlands of Vietnam. They Thais (with whom I’ve spent more time so I know them better) seem easily to combine the two, even my well-educated Buddhist friends will still pay respect to the spirits daily and will make requests of them and give thanks. It’s a fascinating part of the world. I enjoyed reading about your blacksmith.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Mari, I’m glad you enjoyed this 🙂 I haven’t been to Thailand but I know there are a lot of similarities between the tribes of Laos and Vietnam – after all, they settled here long before modern national boundaries were created. I’m always fascinated by cultures who have successfully blended traditional beliefs with more established religions, like the Native Americans for example.

  • CadyLuck Leedy

    Oh my gosh! How interesting……..do you think they are wearing masks or social distancing? Or just trust the phi to protect them…..at all times?…..Do they even know about COVID? This was a great post as always! I think their life is much simpler and less complicated in a lot of ways!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh yes, they will certainly know about COVID! They may live a traditional lifestyle and the location looks remote but they aren’t cut off from the modern world. The hotel we stayed in, in a small town about an hour’s drive away, regularly brings guests here and supports the villages, as does the Lao government. In fact, the pandemic was just starting when we were there (February 2020) and there was a sprinkling of cases in Laos, although we didn’t really become aware of it until we moved on to Vietnam about a week after these photos were taken. But like many countries in that region they dealt very firmly with the danger from an early stage and seem to be coming out of it relatively lightly: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/laos/ I imagine the worst damage done will have been to their tourism industry which is very significant.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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