Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Bridging Gaps, Gorges, Streams and Rivers in Yunnan


                          by Jim Goodman

crossing a river at Pula, Gongshan County
        With much of its topography characterized by steep mountains, deep valleys and swift flowing rivers, Yunnan has always been a difficult place to get around.  That’s not so obvious today, for paved roads have penetrated the most remote areas, tunneling through the mountains when necessary, and modern bridges span many points on the rivers.  Such things didn’t exist in ancient times, though, when fissures in the rocky landscapes and streams that were too dangerous to cross on foot or swim through and migrants or even hunters had to devise a way to get to the other side or be restricted to a limited environment.
       If it were a very narrow defile, and climbing down the cliff to cross the stream, even if one could wade through it, was just too much trouble, one could solve the problem by felling a tree on one side to reach the other side.  If it were to be on a permanent route, then folks would anchor it more securely on each side.  Or they might substitute a few sturdy bamboo poles lashed together, wide enough to walk upon, with a cable of some kind on each side to hang on to and not fall.
bamboo plank bridge above Gongshan
riding a rope-bridge in Nujiang
       Another primitive kind of bridge was a rope made of vine, tied to tree trunks on each side, over which people crossed by hand.  These couldn’t have been very long, but the concept evolved into a more sophisticated kind of rope-bridge, especially employed in the canyons of the Three Rivers region (Nujiang, Lancangjiang and Jinshajiang) of northwest Yunnan.
Lisu women crossing the Nu River near Lumadeng
       These usually came in pairs, with the starting point higher on each side than the landing point on the opposite bank.  Hence, they were called ‘tilting ropeways.’  The ropes were made of plaited split bamboo, the same kind used to haul boats at the ports on the Yangzi.  To make them people stripped off the outer layer of the bamboo, 3 mm wide, planed the strips to make them smooth and then plaited them. 
       Bamboo is a very special and strong plant.  These split bamboo ropes had a tensile strength nearly equal to that of steel.  They never broke.  To ride one across the canyon, one sat in a rope harness attached by hooks to the cable rope and hold one hand on a slider on the rope, to keep the hand from getting singed holding onto the cable.  The passage proceeded at a moderate speed, but sometimes the momentum would give out before reaching the other side.  Then riders had to haul themselves by hand the remaining distance.
suspension bridge at Dulongjiang
early 20th c. Nujiang trail (from the Morse family archives)
     Another quality of the bamboo ropes, valued by the boat-haulers on the Yangzi river, was that, instead of deteriorating under water for prolonged periods, the immersion actually strengthened them.  While the rope-bridges in Yunnan were never under water, they were certainly subjected to monsoon rains.  Though they never broke, under long heavy stress, like the passage of a caravan, they began to sag and had to be replaced.  (The government replaced split bamboo ropes with wound steel cables in the 1950s.)
Duoyi RIver bridge, Luoping County
       Nujiang Canyon, in western Yunnan’s borderlands with Myanmar, experienced many of these caravans in the old days.  With no suspension bridges in place, they had to cross the river by rope-bridge, with all their cargo and animals.   This could be very time-consuming, especially for a large caravan, and might require two or three days.  Also, the rope-bridges would probably begin to sag partway through the crossing, when animals would be stuck on them before they reached the end.  Then men had to slide down and pull the frantic animal the remaining distance.  Inevitably, a major caravan crossing required replacing the ropes at least once.
bamboo bridge, Menglian County
       According to the Nu minority nationality in the northern part of the canyon, their goddess Areng created the rope-bridge.  She was pining for a lover on the other side of the river and to get to him she fired a rope from a giant crossbow to land on the opposite bank and then scampered across the rope.  That’s the mythological explanation, but it’s still a mystery how people installed the rope-bridges in the first place.  Most of them crossed rapids, so people couldn’t block off the flow of the river to cross on foot, take the rope with them and then secure it on the other side.
       For smaller, less turbulent streams, folks could temporarily dam up the water flow and transport the building materials.  Bamboo served the purpose in most cases.  Some would consist of bamboo poles lashed together for the part to walk across, with long bamboo poles on either side to hold on to.  Long bamboo poles on each side could intersect in an arc over the center, to contribute to the stability of the bridge.
bamboo bridge, Luchun County
       Bridge-builders could also cut the bamboo into planks or plaited strips and lay them horizontally over the walking part, or deck, supported by long cables that were anchored firmly to each side.  Such bridges would sway a little bit when people crossed them, especially carrying heavy loads or leading animals, but they always had poles or, later, iron cables on each side to grasp and keep one’s balance.  Quite sturdy and durable, they are still in use in various parts of Yunnan.
       With the introduction of iron as a construction element, suspension bridges grew more sophisticated.  Iron chains lay under the wooden or bamboo planks of the bridge and were fastened to iron anchors at each end that were encased in stone.  In some cases there were no planks at all and people crossed by walking carefully on one of the chain links, hanging onto the guardrails on the side.  This called for some balancing skills, and animals never used such chain link bridges, but apparently people preferred this to negotiating on foot through the boulders and torrents below.
Yunlong Bridge,Yangbi
modern suspension bridge in Jinghong
       Iron-reinforced suspension bridges could bear a heavier load, so these were built along the main trade routes—the Southern Silk Road and the Tea and Horses Road.  These could support the passage of a hundred baggage-laden animals and their handlers and the crossing could be done in several minutes, rather than the two or three days required in Nujiang, which didn’t have any suspension bridges over the Nu River until after the mid-20th century.  Moreover, the iron cables didn’t sag from continual use, so didn’t have to be replaced.
Belt Bridge, Black Dragon Pool Park, Lijiang
      Highways have replaced the ancient trails and trucks have taken over from caravans.  But a few of the old bridges remain.  The most accessible is the Yunlong Bridge in Yangbi, on the other side of the Cangshan Mountains, west of Dali.  Yangbi was a stop on the old Bonan Road north to Shaxi and Jianchuan and west to Yongping and Baoshan. 
       Built in the Ming Dynasty, 53 meters long, 2.3 meters wide and 12.9 meters above the Yangbi River, it consists of nine iron cables, with wooden planks over them, cables on the sides and blockhouses at each end.  The bridge is still in regular use by local villagers, who bring their animals when coming to Yangbi for market day.  Caravans ceased using it decades ago.  The new commercial highway passes south of Yangbi and does not run over the old Bonan Road.  This probably spared the Yunlong Bridge from being replaced by a more modern suspension bridge, like the kind constructed al over the province in recent decades, both for vehicles and for pedestrians only, supported by iron cables sling between towers over pillars below the deck. 
the Old Stone Bridge in Dayan, Lijiang
       Such suspension bridges are common throughout the world and in some cases are tourist attractions (Golden Gate in San Francisco, for example).  But another kind of bridge, made of stone, with arches and a rounded walkway, was also associated with China.  When the French Mekong Expedition in the 1860s crossed into China in Xishuangbanna, they didn’t really feel they were in China proper until they left Xishuangbanna, went north to Simao (now renamed Pu’er) and saw an arched stone bridge.  Ah, that was an image of China they were familiar with, expected to see, and confirmed that they were now in the China of their imagination.
       The Expedition’s chroniclers didn’t comment on any other arched bridges, but the phenomenon existed throughout the province.  Besides spanning rivers, they were also used to connect to pavilions or shrines in temple ponds.  In the latter case, with the round arches reflected in the water, the viewer sees an aesthetically pleasing row of circular images.  The pathway on the bridge could be straight or slightly higher in the center, with the biggest arch in the center and arches of diminishing size on either side.  A good example is the Belt Bridge in Lijiang’s Black Dragon Pool Park.
arched stone bridge in Shaxi
       Lijiang’s other famous bridge, also arched, spans one of the streams running through the Dayan old town.  Called the Old Stone Bridge, and one of the very few original structures left in the old town, it dates to the early Ming Dynasty.  Kubilai Khan is supposed to have pitched his camp here when he arrived after his army crossed the Jinshajiang on Naxi-supplied goatskin rafts.  Naxi communities then lived further north in the plain and Dayan grew up beside the Old Stone Bridge only after the Khan’s departure.
       Folks in the towns and countryside also built arched stone bridges over their streams.  Usually they had but a single large arch that made the center of the bridge two or three meters higher than the entrances on each side.  Supposedly, this was to allow small boats with sails, or more likely rafts with people standing up in them, to pass under the bridge.  Some of the highly arched bridges had a kind of staircase to use.  The stone bridges were generally wider than suspension bridges, often with stone guardrails on the sides and animal sculptures at the ends.
Double Dragon Bridge, Jiamshui County
       Such bridges are still in use throughout the province.  Where they exist in or near towns they are especially active on market days.  People carry their goods and lead their animals across them and because of the high arched middle, vehicles like cars, motorbikes and even tractor-trailers usually avoid them.
       Multiple-arch bridges also used odd numbers, like three, five or seven.  This was especially necessary, aesthetically speaking, if the middle of the bridge rose higher than the ends.  Then the largest arch was directly in the center and an even number of arches had to flank on each side to give it overall visual balance.  The bridges were, after all, a kind of art form, and had to be guided by principles of harmony.
covered bridge over the Yongchun River, Weixi County
       Of all of Yunnan’s classic stone bridges, Shuanglongqiao (Double Dragon Bridge) in Jianshui County, has the most arches.  Originally constructed in the late 18th century with just three arches and a three-story central tower, because the river started getting wider and the bridge couldn’t cross all of it, the local governor had it expanded to seventeen arches, with an additional, smaller tower at one end.
       Today it’s difficult to imagine why the extension was necessary.  Except after the heaviest monsoon rains, the river is so narrow and shallow it only passes under a few of the arches.  Under most arches the land is dry and local people walk under the bridge more often than over it.  While the location is not far from Jianshui, it is not near a heavily populated rural area and seems to have been of limited commercial value.  Nevertheless, it is one of the most beautiful bridges in the province.
covered bridge near Chongxin, Yunlong County
       Other arched stone bridges featured a tower over the center, a place to shelter in a sudden storm, a feature that may have inspired another type of Chinese bridge:  the Wind and Rain Bridge (fengyuqiao).  This had a roof over the entire span of the bridge and wooden walls along the sides.  They were so named because they provided protection against wind and rain, not just for people who happened to be traveling that way, but undoubtedly for farmers who were in nearby fields.  They even had benches installed inside and racks to put loads or baggage.
       Centuries after their construction, many of these are still in use, especially in the west.  Weixi, Yunlong and Tengchong Counties have several along some of the main routes.  Sometimes the covered bridge spans such a small stream, where there are alternative routes to get to the main paths, that one wonders why they even built it.  Maybe they just wanted something beautiful in their environment, a landmark that reflected their pride and aesthetic taste.
       Covered bridges service communities that are remote, off the beaten track, not part of important commercial networks and not in areas targeted for development.  Therefore, they won’t need to be replaced by something bigger, sturdier and more modern looking.  They will remain standing in the countryside as a testimony to the ingenuity of Chinese engineers, with their special aesthetic touch.

coming out of the covered bridge at Baoluo,Yunlong County
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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Vang Vieng Before the Flood


                                   by Jim Goodman

bathing hour at VangVieng, 1994, when people still used the river
       Shedding its notorious image as Southeast Asia’s prime backpacker partying venue, the once sleepy town of Vang Vieng, 150 km north of Vientiane, is assuming a new identity.  Fancy hotels are going up, sometimes blocking the view of what was always Vang Vieng’s main attraction—the Namsong River flowing alongside the town, with a backdrop of picturesque, rugged limestone hills.  These hotels cater to the new breed of tourists coming to Vang Vieng:  Koreans inspired by the Korean reality TV show Youth over Flowers, which staged several episodes here in 2014, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and older Westerners, mainly Australian.
rural scenery near Vang Vieng
       Local people may not be too happy with the transformation of their town into a conglomeration of big concrete buildings, but they prefer the new clientele.  Few regret the passing of the dozen years or so from the beginning of this century, when hedonistic, culturally clueless Western youth swarmed into Vang Vieng, outnumbering the residents, bent on enjoyment, from pleasures on the river to all-night parties with loud music and lots of alcohol and drugs.
       I missed all that, but had an inkling of what was to come on my last visit in the spring of 2000.  The place had quite charmed me several years earlier and I wanted to relive my initial experience.  I knew it had just recently become popular with the backpacker set, so I expected some changes, like more guesthouses and restaurants, but nothing so drastic as to spoil my appreciation.
Namsong River in 1994
       The route from Vientiane was flat all the way, but with numerous stops it took five hours.  As soon as I disembarked, several Lao youths surrounded me, but not for offering accommodations.  “Opium?  Opium?  Opium?”   Looking totally uninterested, I managed to disperse them.  But that was new.  The last time I came the only drug offered me was local rice liquor.
       As for a guesthouse, I had a range of cheap choices:  $1 for a room with a mat on the floor and $2 for one with a mattress on the floor.  Shared shower and toilet, of course, so I opted the mattress.  I didn’t require much comfort.  I just wanted to stroll along the river again. 
the only resort in town in the 1990s
       That wasn’t possible anymore. Thanks to the burgeoning tourism business, many of the houses along the river had turned part of their premises into restaurants and bars and so had constructed walls around their compounds that extended right down to the riverbank.  Some space still existed between the compounds, but not very much.  Anyway, though I did see a few boats on the river, nobody came to bathe in the late afternoon.  Whether that was because they had piped water to their houses now or because they didn’t want to bathe in front of so many tourists I didn’t find out.
       Next morning I took a bus north to a Hmông village, but it was a resettled village right next to the highway, therefore not very traditional.  Not even the older women wore Hmông clothing and so no looms were active, no hemp thread being prepared.  I returned to Vang Vieng for a walk around the town, but nothing really captured my attention.  I left early next morning.  Other than the drugs and bar scene, and that everything was cheap, I couldn’t understand why people came here.
novices at leisure on the river
silversmith at work
       Several months earlier, however, something happened to transform Vang Vieng’s scene entirely, and it was just getting started when I made my last visit.  The manager of an organic farm a few kilometers north of the town bought a bunch of inner tubes so that his workers could enjoy floating down the Namsong to get back to the town.  Someone got the idea tourists might want to do this and so a lucrative business was born and the transformation of Vang Vieng began.
bridge below the entrance to Jang Cave
       The tubing experience, touted all over the Internet, soon flooded Vang Vieng with budget travelers.  From dozens of visitors a day, the number within a few years reached thousands.  At its peak, around 800 tourists a day rode tubes on the Namsong River.  By the end of the decade 150,000 backpackers a year came to Vang Vieng.  They were not big spenders, but with that many of them they were a great boost to the local economy.
       Local people took advantage of this influx to set up businesses catering to all the foreigners’ interests.  The riverside restaurants became rock and roll bars and stayed open long past midnight.  Besides cheap Lao beer and rice liquor, they also sold meals laced with opium or psychedelic mushrooms.  Some 1500 households formed a cooperative to handle the tubing business.  They even added new adventures on the river by constructing ziplines across it and huge slides into the water.  Unlike the tubing, these were free. 
cave temple along the river
       So Vang Vieng became the ultimate Southeast Asian party scene.  Foreigners could enjoy various thrills on the river and in the evening get as drunk and stoned as they desired and listen and dance to the loud rock and roll they loved.  The townsfolk benefited enormously from the flow of money, but the business boom had its downsides, like women in skimpy bikinis in the town, boisterous drunks and the open consumption of drugs. 
       Not only were the backpackers oblivious to the conservative norms of local Lao culture, they were not very careful indulging themselves.  Around two dozen of them died each year from drug overdoses or river accidents, like riding down a slide and slamming head first into a boulder.  (The slides soon earned the nickname ‘death slides.’)  Vang Vieng people stopped all their customary activity on the river—fishing, boat transport, bathing—because they were convinced, due to all the deaths, the river was haunted by evil spirits.
sculptures adorning a small riverside cave
       Yet since they were making money from tourism they took no steps to redress the problems.  Finally, after Australian newspapers in 2012 featured stories on the Namsong River deaths, the Lao government closed all the riverside bars, dismantled the ziplines and slides and banned tubing for a year, after which it resumed, but at a reduced scale and tightly controlled.  Nowadays a few bars are permitted, but a midnight curfew is in effect as well.  The backpacker scene died, but Vang Vieng’s prior pristine identity could never revive, for the river that was so much part of the town’s life and culture has lost its role.  Post-backpacker deaths, people shun it.
chedis containing the ashes of Vang Vieng monks
       Vang Vieng dates its foundation to 1353, established as a way station between Vientiane and Luang Phabang.  It was never an important town, though during the Vietnam War the Americans built an airstrip and base here.  After the war Laos closed its doors to visitors until the end of the 80s, and then only allowed tourists under certain conditions.  They could travel freely anywhere within Vientiane Prefecture, but anywhere beyond they had to be part of an organized group of a government agency or travel with a government minder.
       I made a few short trips to Vientiane in the early 90s, mainly to get a new Thai visa in a fresh destination that was closer than Penang.  I didn’t stay but two or three days each time, exploring the temples and other sites of the city, as well as a jungle resort a couple hours outside the city.  Eventually, since it was within the prefecture, I took a trip to Vang Vieng.
farmer woman heading home
typical limestone hill near Vang Vieng
       At that time the town had only two hotels, next to the small central market.  Rooms, with toilet and shower, were $4.  Other than that, a small resort with several individual cabins at $12 a night lay on the riverbank south of the town, near one of the better-known caves.  The hotel room was comfortable enough, but three times a day, including once in the middle of the night, the ice truck came and dumped blocks of ice into a grinder across the street that spent half an hour breaking up the blocks at an incredible noise level.  After two nights of this I moved to the resort.
casting a net in the Namsong River
       I was the only foreigner in town then, but not the first they’d seen.  Folks were friendly, all smiles and children quick to shout “Bonjour!”  Most of the women, even the young girls, dressed in traditional style, with hair tied in a bun. In the suburbs I saw several looms at work, with lots of extra heddle sticks used to create the complex inlaid patterns on the cloth.  I also watched people making fishnets and silversmiths incising intricate designs on bracelets and pendants.
       The town has a couple of old Buddhist temples, originally constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries.  One is just south of the resort and I watched novices come up to the riverside just below the Jang Cave to rest on the rocks and swim below them.  A wooden bridge crosses the river here and leads to the staircase for a short climb up to the cave.  It has a lagoon inside and enough space alongside that it was used as a base by local resistance to the renegade Chinese Ho invasion in the late 19th century.
paddling a pirogue on the Namsong
       Other caves, big and small, abound in the area, some along the river with lagoons inside, others adorned with religious sculptures or partly turned into a temple.  Usually the decorative sculptures were depictions of Buddha and perhaps kneeling devotees.  But they could also include such oddities as a man holding a huge fish or a parrot-headed creature with a little gremlin that look like they were statues of beings from another planet.  
       Temples and caves made pleasant pauses on my exploration of the environs.  The real pleasure, though, was wandering along the river and into the rural area on the other side.  Limestone hills popped up at intervals from a perfectly flat plain.  Some had cliffs that rose straight up from the ground at a 90-degree angle.  Next to this might be a lone stilted house, with its fields spread out in front of it.  As I kept walking I had a new vista every ten minutes.  I had no map, but I couldn’t get lost, for I had the singular shapes of certain hills to guide me back to the river.
water-wheel connected to a rice pounder
       Mornings and especially late afternoons were the most active times on the river.  These were the best hours for fishing.  Boats taking people to villages up or down the river were also busy then and in late afternoon it was bathing hour.  The boats were wooden pirogues, narrow and of various lengths, long for transport, short for fishing.  A few were outfitted with outboard motors, but most used paddles or poles to convey themselves along the waters.
       For fishing, they could go in pairs, with one sitting in the rear paddling and the other standing in the front to cast the net.  Or an individual would wade out into the shallow river and cast his net.  Whether standing in the water or riding a boat, they then dragged the net some distance and then checked to see if they caught anything.  Others set traps near the shore and periodically examined them, thrusting any fish caught into a split bamboo basket they had tied to their belts.
       A few water-wheels were in use along the river then. Large ones, a few meters high, funneled water to riverside gardens.  Smaller ones operated rice-pounders, a good example of the ingenuity of ‘primitive’ technology.  Buffaloes wallowed in the river for much of the day, in water up to their jaws.  (A surprising number of them were pink.)  Children and dogs splashed around in the shallow parts.
buffaloes wallowing in the river
       The most charming time on the river was the last hours of the day, when people came to bathe, both themselves and their vehicles.  Trucks, buses and tractor-trailers drove right into the river and their owners used buckets to douse them with water.  Upstream people of all ages, male and female, bathed in the shallows, the men stripped down to shorts, the women tying their sarongs just above the breasts, the very old and very young completely naked.
       Women tied their long hair in a bun to keep it dry while they submerged up to the neck.  If a woman intended to wash her hair she entered the river backwards, sat, lifted her hair and lay on her back in the water spreading the locks out evenly in the stream so they didn’t get tangled.  For an observer, this was the most charming vignette in the scene.
       For the participants, it was also a social occasion, an opportunity for a leisurely chat with friends and neighbors.  That’s all gone now.  People bathe at home.  Nobody goes fishing or playing in the river.  It’s there strictly for organized and controlled tourist activities.  The river is no longer an integral part of the people’s lives.  The Vang Vieng of last century, gone forever, is just a memory now, but in my own case, one that remains firmly, fondly and permanently implanted.
vanished vignette:  girls bathing in the Namsong in the early 90s
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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Change and Continuity in Luang Namtha


                                    by Jim Goodman

bridge over the Tha River to the Tai Dam village
       After the first Friendship Bridge opened at Nong Khai in April 1994, connecting Thailand with Laos, the Lao government eased restrictions on individual travelers in the country.  Previously confined to Vientiane Prefecture, they could now go anywhere they wished (except Hua Phan for a while), without being part of an organized group or having a government minder along.  I took advantage of this a year later to visit Luang Namtha in the far north, mainly to meet the Akha minority, with whom I was working and doing research in Thailand, but also to see a part of the country I was just beginning to explore.
main commercial street in Luang Namtha
       Luang Namtha province lies adjacent to the southern part of Xishuangbanna prefecture in Yunnan, China.  In time, it would become a popular stopover for those on their way to or from Yunnan, but in 1995 it was not yet in the budget traveler’s consciousness.  Luang Namtha city was more of a small town, the commercial area stretched along the main road and residential quarters about three blocks deep on either side.  Only a handful of hotels were available, two of then Chinese-owned.  They were nearly all unoccupied and I was the only foreigner in town.
       I didn’t see any Akha around and learned a better place to meet them was Muang Singh, 58 km away.  Eventually I did go there and satisfied my research ambitions, but as I was not in a hurry I opted to first take a look at an unfamiliar part of Laos.  The first thing I noticed was the lack of temples.  By then I’d been to Houey Xai, Pakbeng, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Phon Savan and Luang Phabang and they all had temples.  But not Luang Namtha.  Were the Lao here totally secularized?
trapping fish in the Namtha
       Or was it because of the influence of the Tai Dam (Black Thai), who are animist and whose villages dominate the valley?   I never answered that question, but a Tai Dam village lies just across the Tha River, which runs alongside the southern suburbs of the town.  A bamboo bridge on piles spans the river and in the forest next to the village stood a stilted shed with thatched roof housing an altar.  Beside it was a colorful tall spirit image of some sort.
       The village sprawls out from the riverbank, the houses spaced a little apart from each other, neighborhoods connected by paths with lots of intersections.  People then lived in stilted houses of wood and bamboo, the roofs thatched, occasionally tiled, within a fenced yard.  Beneath the house they kept their looms, thread-winders and big tools.  And as it was dry season many of the looms were active.
Tai Dam woman dressed up for a city visit
Tai Dam village spirit shrine
       The Tai Dam traditional women’s outfit comprises a plain black sarong, a colored, long-sleeved blouse with vertical rows of silver clasps, and a long black headscarf, fully and brightly embroidered on the lower end.  No one was wearing it on my visit, only ordinary, printed Lao sarongs and blouses.  It was only years later that I finally saw a Tai Dam lady dressed that way for a trip to the market.
winding thread in the Tai Dam village
mother bathing her child in the river
     
The village’s fields spread out next to the residential area, mostly used for growing glutinous rice, the main filler.  Small vegetable patches lie around the houses.  Pigs and chickens roam the yards.  Villagers also supplement their diet with small fish trapped or netted in the river.  Most of the year the river here is very shallow.  People wade through it to set their traps and bathe in it late afternoons.  But during the monsoon the river swells and rises, occasionally even covering the bridge.  Strong currents make wading into it a little risky. 
Hong Loueay Yao village
       Luang Namtha’s market back then lay close to the bridge to the Tai Dam village, comprising a couple rows of thatched sheds and various tables and stalls on the street between them.  There was no special market day, but it was active every morning.  A couple of Hmông turned up while I was there, and on a subsequent visit I met a few Akha, but the most exotic folks in the market, looking very different from anyone else in town, were the Yao.
       The local people refer to them as Lao Huay, the River Lao, because, like the Tai Dam, they site their villages along one side of a river.  Actually, they are a sub-group of the Lantien branch of the Yao, who also live in Yunnan and northern Vietnam.  The Yao in Luang Namtha province have been here over 150 years in over twenty villages and are regular visitors to the city.
young Yao woman in Luang Namtha 
drying paper in Hong Loueay 
       The women dress in long-sleeved, hip-length black cotton coats, tight knee-length black trousers and white cotton leg-wrappers around the calves.  From girlhood they shave their eyebrows and upper forehead and wrap their hair in a tight coil on top, secured by a fancy silver clasp with coin pendants.  They weave the cloth themselves on narrow vertical looms and dye it in an indigo bath numerous times until they obtain the desired depth of color.
the new hilltop chedi in Luang Namtha
       The Yao visiting Luang Namtha most often come from Hong Loueay, about 5 km west on the road to Muang Singh.  As bicycle rental shops hadn’t come into existence yet, I took a bus bound for Muang Singh and got off as soon as I spotted the village.  It lay on the other side of the river, which was so shallow in the dry season that villagers simply crossed it by walking through it, rather than using the rickety bamboo suspension bridge.
       They live in rectangular houses that sit on the ground, aligned with the river, made of bamboo wattle with thickly thatched, angular roofs.  The roof beams on each side intersect at the ends, forming a row of several v’s along the top.  The houses are usually 5-6 meters wide and 8-25 meters long, depending on how many families live in it.  The walls are 1-1.5 meters high, without any windows. 
cooked food for sale in the new covered market
       The interiors consist of a single room, one space reserved for the kitchen and one area for sleeping on mats rolled up and stored in the corner during the day.  Except for a bamboo tray over the hearth, used for curing baskets and smoking meat, they have no furniture other than small stools.  They keep tools, baskets, traps, guns and sundry other items next to the exterior walls underneath the overhanging roof.
       A patch of forest stood beside the village and the farms lay beyond this.  They grew rice, of course, as well as cotton, and opium, too, which was still legal then and dried pods were on sale in the market.  This was dry season, so while the men were busy in the poppy fields, the women were mostly in the village, involved in winding thread, weaving or making paper.  Several racks held drying slabs of paper, but on this visit I did not witness the process.  People were shy, but polite and friendly.
market shop selling items made from bamboo
       I returned to Luang Namtha a few months later for a brief stop, in the middle of the monsoon, long enough to notice the bridge to the Tai Dam village was under water.  My concentration then, as well as another trip a year later, was on Akha villages around Muang Singh.  By my third trip Muang Singh had become a backpacker hangout and about a third of the Akhas in the market were there to beg money from foreigners.
       A decade and a half later I passed through Luang Namtha regularly, to or from Xishuangbanna while doing extended research in that prefecture.   Changes had taken place, of course, such as a paved road to Houey Xay that reduced the travel time to five hours by bus, compared to the twelve hours or more in the past on a dirt road by old station wagon.  A new covered market just off the main street replaced the riverside venue.  The most impressive addition was the new chedi on a hill just outside of town.  The style resembles one in Vientiane and no monastery compound exists next to it.  The area is animist (or atheist), so it is difficult to see what purpose it has other than as a symbol of the national identity of Laos as a Buddhist nation. 
Yao women in Luang Namtha
       Luang Namtha wasn’t much bigger, but was now more oriented towards the tourist industry.  An up-market hotel had opened next to the new city market, but there were several moderately priced guesthouses as well.  Most of these were clustered around the new Night Market.  This was not very extensive, with only a few stalls there selling handicrafts, mostly run by Akha who had moved to the city, and a few Akha women wandered around the market, like in Chiang Mai, selling trinkets they didn’t even make themselves.  The market hadn’t lured any Yao.
        Most of the stalls in the Night Bazaar were selling cooked meals.  Duck was a local specialty, for Luang Namtha has thousands of ducks and only dozens of chickens.  Since my first journey to Laos prices for food had risen enormously, but here a half a roast duck was the same price as a half a roast chicken in Thailand, even though the sticky rice filler was twice as much.
traditional p;aper-making in Hong Loueay
       With the increased tourist traffic, enterprising Lao residents had set up offices for excursions to minority villages in the mountains or destinations along the river, like caves, waterfalls or even an all-day boat ride to the junction of the Tha River with the Mekong, several km south of Houey Xai, the border crossing to Thailand.
       On my trips to or from Xishuangbanna and Thailand, I stayed two nights in Luang Namtha each time, just to slow down the journey, and amused myself by checking out the changes.  The Tai Dam village was still roughly the same.  Some houses were new, of wood instead of mostly bamboo, with metal roofs rather than thatch, but still in the Thai style, stilted, with the loom, etc. underneath.  The bridge across the Tha River was still in place, and if the villagers were less forward in engaging with the foreigner, well, thousands of foreigners had passed through the village since my first visit, so my presence was barely noticed.
Yao girl in Phin Ho
       The expanded tourist industry now also had motorbikes and bicycles for rent.  Since the Yao villages I intended to visit were just several km from the town, I opted for a bicycle.  After having to push it up a couple of steep hills on the way I nearly regretted that choice.  Soon enough, though, I arrived at Hong Loueay, still in the same riverside location, still with the same traditional style Yao houses.
       When setting out I’d wondered if it were still in place.  Since the beginning of the century the Lao government had made opium cultivation illegal and undertook a campaign to eradicate its cultivation.  Most of the time this just involved destroying the poppy fields and ordering the people to raise a different crop.  But in some cases, especially remote hills and faraway, secluded valleys, the government relocated the village to somewhere more accessible for monitoring.
       Hong Loueay wasn’t relocated.  The villagers stopped growing opium but stayed where they were and carried on every other aspect of their traditional lifestyle as they’d always done.  It was early February, the same month as my first visit years ago, and everything I saw was like a replay of that initial trip.  The women wore their traditional garments and engaged in winding thread, weaving and dyeing cloth and making paper.  As before, everyone was polite and friendly.
winding thread in Phin Ho
       Bamboo fibers, of four different kinds, are the raw material for paper.  Yao villagers crush the fibers, place them in a hollow trunk with quicklime in between each layer, fill the trunk with water and let the fibers macerate for several weeks.  Afterwards they remove the material, squeeze it dry, wash it in the river and boil it to make pulp.
       I observed a few women at this work.  They stretched a white cloth across a large frame, placed horizontally above the ground.  Using a gourd dipper, they poured the pulp carefully and evenly across the surface.  After allowing it to dry a few minutes, they moved the frame to the yard, and propped it up near-vertically facing the sun.  After three or four hours they removed the dry paper leaf from the fabric and cut it into smaller sizes.  They will use it for letters, cards, religious paraphernalia and packing and sell the surplus to the Hmông.
       This was not a craft specialty village.  A few km further on, the Yao village of Phin Ho was also engaged in the process.  Making paper from bamboo is a Lantien Yao craft specialty.  It’s something they’ve been doing for centuries, another part of traditional life that persists unchanged in spite of whatever modern influences might be emanating from the growing city just a couple of hours walk down the road.   Around Luang Namtha, continuity is as common as change.

Hong Loueay Yao village at paper-making time
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