Frank Burnaby

Khmu

Khmu

By Frank

The bow of our boat slid onto the muddy river bank under a shabby row of bamboo stilted structures. That was all of Pac Beng at the time, but for a few guest houses for overnight layovers. In the morning our boat would continue up the Mekong toward Tachileik on the Burmese border, but unbeknownst to me I would not be on it. I walked up a rutted dirt track to one of the eateries hanging over the river. At a small table at the entrance, a big shouldered, big jawed man with long greying hair about my age glowered at me as I walked in. I recognized that kind of guy right off. Like those I met in my twenties on the road travelling in Afghanistan or India in the late 60’s, often German or French. Guys that had a fierce-eyed outsidedness to them, who were either looking for cheap drugs or had escaped their culture like a hooded eagle from his master’s wrist. Here he was, back on the road like me, or he’d never left it, sitting here like a local out in the middle of nowhere. I asked him if he lived here in Pac Beng. He scoffed at my question, blowing his breath out like smoke. Then he asked in a heavy French accent as if to challenge me, “You leave on the boat tomorrow?”

I nodded.

He shook his head angrily. “Crazy! Stupid!” He twisted himself in his chair and glared at me. “The real Laos is right here. Fucking rich with culture. Right here in these mountains. No one fucking ever looks for it. Such bullshit.”

I nodded again, thinking just another crazy motherfucker on the road who hasn’t been able to fit in anywhere. I took a seat a few tables away from the ruffled Frenchman at the door, still glaring through his cigarette smoke. Distasteful as he was, he did have a point. Why was I hurrying off by boat in the morning? Just to be out of Laos by the end of the day. This trip had been mostly about Angkor Watt downstream, a so called 7th wonder of the world which to me reeked of ancient empire, impoverished inhabitants, and gruesomely treated slaves building monuments, and then the French colonial town of Luang Probang with all its western style espresso café’s. Somewhere up in those mountains that had been sliding by on the Mekong, I imagined villages of people living the old ways of the forest. From my slow local boat, I had been sickened to see blade-shaped speed boats with a couple of tourists in shiny safety helmets being shaken crazily about. Boats that screamed past like chainsaws ripping the mountain stillness apart. These tourists were of the new wave of travelers on the Mekong, posting wild-ride videos on Utube. Years later I watched one of those videos of two tourists who slowed their boat to make a very disrespectful video of a dead man’s body in the river. A bloated Laotian man floated naked on his back with his penis engorged and erect, a darkened root that had lost ground from somewhere. Another human being like you or me totally vulnerable and exposed by some circumstance. Instead of bowing, saying a prayer, or doing something about it, a male voice off camera said with disgust, “Nobody seems to care.” Then they sped off.

A young man came to my table to take my order. I asked him if there was any way I could get out into the mountains to a Khmu village. His face brightened, and in good English which he said he learned working in Siem Reap, he offered to take me on his motorbike in the morning. That was it. All of 3 minutes had passed since the Frenchman had thrown his thunderbolt at me, and I was on my way.

The next morning the young man named Sampone and I sped off on his motorbike. Just barely outside Pac Beng, the forest closed back in upon the winding road like lush green skin over a wound. On the other side of the road a rushing river cut under the bank of invading asphalt. The jungle covered mountains rising up into the soundless blue had long since consumed the drone of American planes, bombers that had dropped more bombs on Laos than anywhere else in world history during the Vietnam War. Some miles outside of Pac Beng, we slowed to wend our way through tribespeople tending large mats of rice drying out in the middle of the road. Pigs meandered back and forth over the center divide, trotting reluctantly out of the way of our motorbike. Woven bamboo silos stood alongside the road like large postal packages on stilts to protect the rice from mice and rats. After more than an hour winding deeper into the mountains, we still had not passed a single other vehicle or dwelling. With not a sign of human habitation anywhere, Sampone suddenly swung off the highway. He let me off the back of his motorbike, and drove into a narrow crevice of a cave under a ceiling of rusty brown crystals. I walked in and collected a few of these crystals and put them in my pocket. Even as I did so, I thought of my sons someday, long after I had been gone, unfolding a cloth with these dusty gold shards in my belongings and wondering whatever trail I had been on.

I followed Sampone across the road and down an embankment through the forest to several logs laying river-thrown over large boulders with the force of the current thundering between them. On the other side was a tributary stream descending steeply from a jungle slope. There was no indication of a trail, no footprint or beaten track to suggest this was the way to anywhere. Sampone balanced agilely across and waited on the other side as I slowly short stepped my way over. He turned and we began climbing the streambed up the mountain. Along the way he proudly picked herbs and wild vegetables to taste, peppery plants used with chilies in Lao meat dishes called Lap. I had my mind more on watching out for deadly snakes, as we climbed over huge roots and pulled ourselves up watery ledges. After a while, I noticed that the logs spanning deep or fast moving water, and the exact stepping distance between large stones at necessary crossings seemed conspicuous. Further upstream I examined a water blackened notch in a vertical log wedged in the boulders, just exactly foot-sized and at the right height to ascend to the next level. That first notch and others confirmed we had been on an invisible trail.

We climbed for almost two hours before the dark green gorge shallowed, and we walked out onto an open plateau under the surrounding mountainsides. The cracked earth of abandoned rice paddies crunched underfoot. This was the ancient Khmu practice of shifting agriculture, leaving exhausted fields fallow. Then when new fields became too distant, the entire village would relocate. At the end of the valley a mountain gorge descended through mist, floating the thatched shapes of houses in an almost unrecognizable reconfiguration of the vertical jungle. These were the original inhabitants of Laos, here living just as they always had.

Trying to assemble a sense of the place, the stillness suddenly curdled into a blood chilling wail. Sampone stopped ahead. Another agonized wail, and another followed by a chorus of long haunting cries that resounded from the mountainsides, the most grief stricken human howls I have ever heard, mournful as wolves howling in an empty wilderness. “Someone has died,” Sampone said. “Families working up there on the slopes are crying. If one person cries for a sad memory, even a memory from years ago, the rest of the family feels the sadness. Everyone cries together.”

Under the grief-stricken sky, my eyes were surprised by the appearance of a wooden oxcart, bumping along a track across the abandoned fields. An old man pulled to a stop beside us. There, cowed in the back of the cart like a prisoner was a young animal-eyed boy in a sarong with skin soft as wood smoke. Beside him was an earthenware jug lashed to the railing. Sampone began speaking with the man in Khmu, which was the first I realized Sampone’s origins. Then he turned back to me and explained that the man was taking his son and that jug of rice wine to his son’s wedding. With that, the man and his son in the ox cart proceeded unceremoniously on their way, as if we had been secretly vetted by the spirit gate keeper of the village up ahead in the mist.

We climbed the gorge to the entrance gate of a small group of thatched bamboo homes over a creek. The gate was part of a ritual fence around the village, as there were many gaps through. Some men were undistracted by us, lashing what looked like a banged up old truck generator with paddles to a bamboo structure across the creek. An electric wire ran to one of the thatched homes not far away. Soon as we walked into the village, I saw lots of sick children. Children with runny noses, snot dripping chins, and heads balanced on distended bellies with insect scarred legs, their toe nails broken as if they had already worked a lifetime barefoot. When I approached people, most turned their faces away or to their tasks at hand.  Only the unseeing eyes of the elderly in a weathered memory of better times looked right through me, as if I were a vapor. Avoiding outsiders was certainly justified, I thought, considering that for nine years without stop, the skies had rained American cluster bombs upon tigers, langurs, sambar deer and the Khmu alike. Eighty million undetonated bombs still lay about, blowing up mostly children every year. Maybe because of that times had changed for the worse.

I stopped and looked into a cooking pot over an open fire. A large animal’s head lolled to the surface with a jawbone full of teeth. The women sitting there offered me a cup, but I politely turned my interest to a pile of tobacco leaves. An old woman emerged from the pile and rolled me some tobacco in a leaf as precisely as a praying mantis twirling its prey. She struck a match for me. I had not inhaled more than two puffs when dizziness and nausea closed my fingers tightly around a post over the animal head soup. That instigated the first laughter I had heard in the village.

Sampone approached and told me they wanted to know if I was married. In all honesty, I told them I needed a wife, that I had just lost one. A number of people quickly pointed at an old lady approaching the animal head soup. She had a small pot in one hand and a large comb chopped down into her top knot like a hatchet. They said her husband had died. She stopped walking to listen to what they were saying, and I am not sure what possessed me, but I stepped up and spontaneously threw my arm around her shoulders, as if we were a couple. Her flesh quivered wild as a surprised animal’s but in the instant of her surprise I held on, before she could lunge sideways. The crowd erupted in more laughter. Sampone took a photo, me squeezing my unsuspecting bride, with an irrepressibly sweet smile on her face.

I felt a bit more comfortable and took some photos of emaciated children gathered at the entrances to their homes, mindful of the pigs standing about eyeing me suspiciously like security guards at an airport. But I noticed that Sampone also looked nervous. At the time I was unaware that a Khmu house, the village, and its surroundings were considered places endowed with spirits, sacred with deep seated taboos and vengeful consequences for intruding.  I had gone as far as I could go. Sampone gave me the leaving look.

Back at the main gate, where a plank led across the stream, there was an unusual hut I had not noticed on my way in. Unusual because it was the only one without walls, where several women lay like seals with their children on the plank floors, as if waiting for a bus that would never come.  I looked closely and realized these were very sick and dying children. Flies crawled on their parched lips and crusty eyes. They were pale and listless, limbs or chests wrapped in banana leaves with bunches of herbs protruding. Their mothers lay waiting for them to die, or miraculously heal from the spirits watching over them. There was no other alternative in their world. I walked on, feeling disturbed, not so much by what I saw but by who I was in that moment. Just like the thrill-seeking tourist who made a video of the corpse in the river, it did not occur to him that the floating man had anything to do with his life. But right in his path that distressed soul had been, just as the children were now on mine.

Money was the only thing I could think to give. I walked back and placed some folded bills amounting to about 10,000 kip or 1 dollar into the armpit of each child. Sampone waited in the distance until I caught back up with him. I plodded along behind Sampone, listening again to the crunch of dried up rice paddies underfoot, feeling sick in my stomach, struggling with the meaning of this encounter. Clearly money was not what the children needed. That crazy Frenchman spoke the truth. Being genuinely engaged with the moment of your life may be disturbing, change everything. I had my own expectations and privilege to protect just like the tourist on his fun ride down the Mekong, speeding away from a fellow human being in distress, floating in the water. I never thought of myself as arrogant or above others after a lifetime of travelling, or that I could not be trusted to do the right thing, or that I was not a loving family man who adored his children. But no reasoning or justifying indifference could erase the fact; I had just turned away from dying children.

When we got back to Pac Beng, I asked Sampone to show me to the only medical clinic in town. We found one Laotian doctor in a very rudimentary facility, that otherwise appeared empty. We sat down in front of him and explained the situation. His reply, as Sampone translated, was that no, I could not bring the children there. He could not begin treating Khmu patients if I were not going to be there to pay for it. The doctor looked openly back at me, undisturbed by the everyday practicalities of life and death in Laos. Practicalities accepted here by everyone, including the Khmu. Those mothers were not weeping or begging or hysterical, nor were they waiting for the healing that would never come. Not one of them even looked at me when I put the money under each child’s arm. Nothing in their faces sought permission or help from anyone. In their world of taboos and magic, watchful animal spirits and gods of harvest, life and death is out of their hands. But I had grown in a society fierce to get what it wants. Fierce to be in control of our fate. To save ourselves by our own hand no matter what the cost. A society that insisted on preventing death, especially the death of children when simple treatments existed. Leaving token money wedged in the armpit of a dying child was an insult to the Khmu, and also to my upbringing of challenging death at every turn.

Sampone and the doctor spoke for a moment before Sampone turned and told me that the doctor had advised us to go see the French Doctors without Borders. That they had set up a temporary clinic in Pac Beng, and would be here for 2 weeks. We left the clinic in high spirits up, and hurried down to a small white washed bungalow over the river. We found three French doctors, two men and woman with a Laotian nurse inside a room crowded with local people, who were silently in line out the door and down the concrete balcony. One of the doctors, bearded in his 40’s with lovely soft and tired eyes, leaned up from his patient to hear what I had to say. In English not much better than my high school French, he told me they did not have the resources to travel to tribes up in the mountains, but that I could bring the children there for treatment.

Sampone and I rushed out excited to be armed with a solution. Sampone led me to road side food stalls where he emerged with a young woman. She had a pickup truck she used as a taxi with wooden bench seats in the back. When Sampone told her our plan, her surprise formed a smile, and she instantly agreed to help. The next morning we sped back up the highway and hiked back up the stream to the village. We walked up to thatched roofed platform where the mothers lay beside their children, unchanged from the day before. Sampone told them our plan, but there was no reaction; no one moved.

We walked to the center of the village where Samphone spoke with some of the people. Then he stood aside, and told me to wait. Again there was no apparent response from the villagers. It was if our rush of energy had hit very deep water. Villagers moved slowly about their business, unshouldering wood for cook fires, stirring food in pots, and mostly elderly carrying babies as the parents were away at work in the hills.

In the small bamboo hut behind me I became aware of some activity. I glanced discreetly over the top of the ladder inside the room. It was barren of possessions and light glared through the woven bamboo wall slats. A naked large bellied boy child toddled over and stared blankly at me with his nose running. Behind him a woman was packing a very large sack full of stuff. More bundles appeared outside as villagers milled about. Then a huddle of villagers approached Sampone and I, kneading a small very pale man ahead of them. The man just stood there looking down like a piece of clay statuary with a dull glint of a sadness peeking from his eyes. Sampone told me that the villagers wanted us to take the sick man with us.

I wasn’t sure who was coming or how many. The crowd merged at the front gate of the village and several women peeled off carrying children and balancing their bundles on their heads. The sick man started out carrying two children in his arms. On our way across the fallow rice paddies, I turned and counted our troupe: four very rugged women, one sick man, and five limp children, ten in all. We turned down the mountain stream with its slippery stones, and waterfalls, all its steep and precarious negotiations. Much as I tried to keep up, the cracked heels in worn out flip flops outdistanced me in a weightless and sure pace downstream. I leaned over ledges to take photos of them, all in line like leaf cutter ants weaving back and forth with their bundles from bank to bank among the boulders and foliage. By the time Sampone, the taxi girl, and I had reached the big river, crossed the log bridge, and climbed back up to the highway, the Khmu were assembled at the back of the truck, patiently as stones rolled down stream in a long ago flood. We all loaded into the dark shade under the roof in back. I sat opposite the sick man at the end of the bench, holding on as we sped off.  The jungle rushed behind the shoulders of the mothers who steadied the milky eyed heads of their children, no one made eye contact or said a word.

The French doctors spent quite a while with each of the children. Fulfilling prescriptions, hydration packs for diarrhea, antibiotics, antibacterial skin creams, injections, and other procedures. Something was wrong with the scrotum of one of babies. I didn’t know what. After a few hours, they were all done. Each mother was instructed by a Khmu translator, and walked out with a full sack of drugs and medical supplies. The pale Khmu man emerged looking quite relieved. I asked the bearded doctor about their illnesses. From what I could understand, all of them had diarrhea but probably not dengue fever which is the hemorrhagic fever fairly common in Asia. The older man may have had malaria. I was so grateful, but the Frenchman shrugged off my thanks. Doing what we were all doing was not voluntary or heroic. It was simply being a human being, caring for our community as we were born to do. I said goodbye and followed behind the last mother and child as they walked out, but I stopped a few meters behind the truck, realizing my job was done.

As I waited for the truck to leave, the Khmu in our group sat gazing the direction their seat was facing or attending to their children. They were right. I was not a physical reality in their world. I had swooped in by plane and would soon be off again. Much later I read that the Khmu believe their families are under the protection of a totem spirit, especially an eagle that watches over them. As the truck dug in its back wheels in a cloud of exhaust, one of the mothers turned and looked back at me for the first time. The flat of her hand slowly raised up to say goodbye. And suddenly, the crazy Frenchman I met when I first arrived didn’t seem so crazy anymore. And neither did I.

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