In the news today, I read this article about Sheng Thao who was recently elected mayor of Oakland, California. Sheng is the daughter of Hmong refugees from Laos.
The article reminded me of the time I visited the hill tribes of Laos in 2016. I wasn’t aware then, of the Hmong history in Laos but I had sensed disdain by our local guide towards them. The New York Times article shed some light on that.
Laos has over 160 ethnic groups in the country but the majority of the population belongs to the Lao group. The Lao people traditionally lived in the low lands along the Mekong delta, while many of the other ethnic minorities lived in the hill country.
The Hmong are an ethnic group that has faced a history fraught with conflict, persecution, and betrayal. (During the Vietnam war …) they were recruited as part of the ‘Secret War’ by France and the United States to fight against the communist Pathet Lao army and forces from North and South Vietnam.
After the 1975 communist victory, thousands of Hmong political refugees were rendered homeless, fleeing Laos and mostly ending up in America, France, and a few other countries around the world. Today, there is still tension between the government of Laos and the Hmong population.–Ethnic Groups of Laos. People from Laos are not all Lao People.
In current day Laos, Hmongs are about nine percent of the Laos population. They live in isolated mountain villages and seem to keep mostly to themselves. As an under-represented group in their home country, it must be gratifying for older Hmongs to see the political ascent of their children in America. Such is the dream of every immigrant, to have a better life for themselves and their family.
After reading this article, I looked up an old post about the Hmong in Laos. Here it is.
Hill Tribe People of Laos
Although northern Laos is mostly mountain side and green, the villages are stripped bare to the ground. Footpaths and passage-ways are packed earth and mineral rich dust paints everything a dull red brown. Flashes of colour from costume and clothing worn by the local children are a visual relief. The elaborate clothing are not everyday wear and I get the impression that this child was hurriedly dressed, just in time for our visit.
Most of the houses in the hill villages are made of weathered wooden planks or woven bamboo walls. On the way to Phonsavon we visited a Khmu village which had one house freshly painted in vivid purple and brilliant blue. This young fellow was minding his siblings but he obligingly posed for me.
Our guide Vong, said that school is mandatory and as we drove through the lower regions of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, we certainly saw a lot of schools and teacher colleges.
In the remote hill areas though, I suspect that the schools are not as readily accessible. All too often, we saw young kids taking care of younger kids while their parents worked in the fields. This little girl looks barely eight years old. She carries her baby brother on her back and wears an expression far too old for her age.
Kids grow up earlier here. According to Vong, the Hmong kids grow-up even earlier. We stopped at a Hmong village which stalls of hand-embroidered textiles for sale. Girls dressed in traditional costume posed for pictures and encouraged us to buy. According to our guide, this young girl who looks about thirteen, would be married next year. Thereafter Vong said, she’d have babies of her own to look after.
Despite this photo collection, Laos is not inhabited entirely by children. Although, with a median age of 19 years, Laos does have the youngest population in all of South East Asia. Less than 4% of the population is over 65. This has more to do with Laos history than its average life expectancy of 62 years.
But to prove my point, here is my final and favorite shot.
An elf of an old man was sitting in a huge chair staring at the farang (foreigners) passing by. When I clacked the wooden cow bells at his stall, he hurried over to show his collection of traditional Lao medicine. Bottles of snake and scorpions pickled in whisky. I demurred on purchasing but with his permission, captured this photo.
I visited Laos in 2016