reflections from a tiny village in the process of change

Muong Ngoi, Laos
Nam Ou River
Monday, Feb 15, 6:30 am

I am living again just above the river; this is what I was seeking. I awakened yesterday at 8 am after a good sleep, but not at peace sharing such thin walls, nor especially with being away from the lovely view of the Nam Ou. The night had been comfortable but so entirely removed from my setting; dark, featureless, could have been anywhere.

In the morning I went walking again downstream, as I had late the previous afternoon, looking for an available riverfront bungalow. I skipped past the ones I’d scouted yesterday, and straight on to Nicksa’s Place. These little structures looked the best I had seen yet – the nicest views, separate little bungalows; front porches with two sturdy hammocks and an inside cold-water bathroom. And there it was; one with the lock hanging open, no shoes on the veranda. Up the steps I went, peering in, just blankets in disarray, nothing showing anyone still living here. I immediately tracked down the proprietress and yes, it will be mine just as soon as it has been cleaned and readied.

Today this tiny village is having a very special event – a wedding. A widow and widower, one from my new residence, and one from the adjoining property are to be wed. And here between them is where the festivities will be held. While I go to pack up my bag, my new room is quickly cleaned. Home, at last.

The warmth of my new home is reflected in the invitation to join in the wedding reception. The cold of my old is reflected in several ways:

The Lattanavongsa was tourist-centric, estranged from the usual Laotian warmth. To start I had noted that the people in that place were tight with smiles and with greetings. Worse, when I had returned there to get the rest of my bags and to pay and check out, I found that I was being tracked down. As if I had been leaving without paying. As if any such thing might be possible, as if there was any way one could vanish in such a tiny place, linked to the outside world solely by boat.

And worse even than that, I later found out that a large tour group was booked to arrive in the afternoon and that all of the independent travelers were about to be summarily kicked out.

The structures at the Lattanavongsa were tidy and strong and clean, approaching western standards. And the attitudes were more western as well. Good riddance. Simply not what I had come here to find.

Now, as a new resident of Nicksa’s, I have a wedding to attend. It turns out that I will be able to be part of the actual ceremony, or would have been. Only elders are allowed this privilege. At the crucial time, however, I am waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for my breakfast. When I finally arrive back at my new home, the ceremony is done and the party has begun.

Every bench and every table, from the small community school, has been carried to the area between the Nicksa’s and Riverside Guest House. Tables are laden with bowls of food, most of the stools are occupied. It seems that most all the local population is in attendance. The afternoon fills easily, with food and drink and fun. A live band is set up under the trees. In the small open space between the band and the tables I watch an entrancing display of graceful Lao dancing. In one form, the dancers move around in a circle, feet moving in unison, hands gracefully arcing in little gestures. In another the participants form into neat lines and rows, again moving in unison with steps and hands, turning counter clockwise til the music pauses. Later the young people dance to more western music moving as any western crowd of twenty year olds might.

Circle Dance, Muong Ngoi wedding

Row Dance, Muong Ngoi wedding

The bride is radiant, the guests laughing and celebrating. The children watch from the edges, their opportunity to join in will be earned with age. In all, it is an utterly unique opportunity – the kind of thing one falls into by sheer luck and providence.

And today there is none of the usual shyness of cameras I have experienced here. The falangs who are part of the festivities are welcomed warmly into the party.

This place is a world of contrasts – and change. The warmth of the village I find here at this wedding celebration feels like the truth of the village and its people.

Nicksa’s is a world apart, and is exactly what I am here for. Walls of woven panels, floors of wood plank with gaps, private veranda so my door can be open to the riverine night.

Later, having spent time also in other small river villages and in villages now reachable by road, I can see the differences more clearly. One weighs the differences – better health care, more educational opportunities which means more choices of whether to stay or go. And garbage and filth, the loss of stable traditional culture.

There may be gains to the welfare of the people when the roads come, but there are just as many negative consequences – ugliness, filth, modernization in its worst sense. Having spent some time in well organized river villages which are still subsistence, as long as the food supply is adequate the quality of life seems better, the sense of peace in the people much greater.

At Nicksa’s I leave my door and windows open all night. The lights go off at 9:30 pm – running only from 6 pm til then, run by generators which are stream powered. After dark, I prepare for bed by sitting in the hammock, dreamily soaking in the open expanse of the river, backed by steep limestone hills. It is these mountains which make this place currently unreachable by road, though a road has been proposed. Heaven forbid that does happen. Everything in northern Laos is changing far too fast already. Some places should remain more pristine for the sake of the people who live here.

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