What better way to welcome the new year than joining the crowds partaking in the different new years’ celebrations in Laos during this joyous month of December? Two weeks ago, we celebrated Khmu new year and last weekend we experienced the Hmong new year celebrations. A wonderful way to learn more about the different ethnic groups in Laos, their culture and traditions.
In between the brownish teak trees, the hundreds of people dressed in Hmong traditional clothing stand out.
The Hmong have one festival, New Year or Nor Phe Chao. The festival falls on the first new moon in a 12-moon cycle. In the western calendar, it falls in either December or January. The festival lasts up to seven days, bringing people together from many villages. During the festivities, you can see people dressed in colorful traditional Hmong attire journeying in trucks, cars and motorcycles towards Ban Vang Ngern.
Hmong New Year in Ban Vang Ngern
The road to Ban Vang Ngern is however not very scenic. After 30 minutes of quite a bumpy (and dusty) ride we finally reach the teak forest where Hmong New Year has been celebrated for several years now in Luang Prabang. Even though it is a very large space, it is packed!
In between the brownish thin teak trees, the hundreds of people dressed in Hmong traditional clothing stand out. In spite of the rugged terrain, the traditional outfits meet the more modern 5 inch heels… One sure thing is that Hmong new year is very colorful. The three Hmong subgroups in Laos — Hmong Dao (White), Hmong Du (Blue) and Hmong Djua (Striped) — are distinguishable by their clothing.
All dressed up, the younger generation is standing in two rows facing each other in the middle of the teak forest. Intrigued, we make our way to see what it’s all about and are told that traditionally, during the celebrations of Hmong New Year, many couples are paired off.
A game called pov pob is played where boys and girls stand in rows throwing a ball to one another. It acts like an ice breaker. And the game gives them time to get to know each other. By the end of the week, many future couplings would have been decided.
According to Lao records, the Hmong started arriving in Laos in the early 19th century. It is estimated that Hmong people make up 9.2 % of the Lao population (2015 census). The Hmong are thought to originate from the plains of Tibet and Mongolia, moving southwards through China. In Laos, there are many Hmong communities around Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang, Xam Nua and Oudomxay.
Villages are situated high in the mountains. Their one story houses have low sloping grass roofs, usually housing more than one generation. Well known for their farming and livestock skills, they practice swidden agriculture, a system that rests the land with fallow period. Hmong culture is strong.
Even when they move down to the lowlands, their village systems remain the same. In Ban Vang Ngern during the celebrations, you can try your hand at grinding corn or pounding rice, two staples in the Hmong diet. All dressed in traditional outfits!
No outfit? Not a problem. Visitors can also rent traditional outfits and take pictures in the many (many) photo booths set up with various backgrounds. Hmong villages in the mountains or flowery backgrounds, make you pick… You can also attend activities like spinning top games or bullfighting…
The familiar sound of the khene brings us to the next booth. We’re surprised to see that it’s very different from the khene we know. Made of bamboo and wood, it is much more imposing. Even the smaller version… After giving us a demonstration, the owner explains that it is used to play music during weddings and funerals. During a funeral, the music is believed to accompany the spirit of the deceased to heaven.
Hmong people are traditionally animist. Spirits of their ancestors and the surrounding environment are an important part of daily life. Every village has shamans (Ouanung), both men and women who are called upon to communicate with the spirits, seeking their advice in times of ill health and village adversity. Every house has an ancestor spirit altar where food and water is placed to please them.
During Hmong New Year ceremonial white paper is nailed on the columns of the house and a chicken is killed in the ancestors’ honor.
Most Hmong wear amulets around the wrist or neck to ward off bad spirits. At ceremonies the shaman may advise the patient to stitch symbols onto their clothes to keep spirits away. Children have their birth animal and a guardian spirit (mother or father) stitched onto the back of their jacket.
The Hmong are known for their striking batik dyed in indigo. Until very recently, Hmong language didn’t have a written form (the Hmong language is classified as a Miao-Yien language in the Sino-Tibetan family of languages), thus textiles became a form of visual expression. The inspiration for motifs is derived from the natural environment, such as snail shells, animal teeth, ferns, cucumber, rice seeds and pumpkin seeds.