Today we were challenged to learn about Hmong culture by visiting their village and experiencing their ceremonies, intoxicating beverages, musical instruments, songs, and dances. In exchange, we supported the village economy with a few purchases, and put on a little show of traditional American songs. We definitely got back more than we put in.
Our morning began with a leisurely stroll through the grounds of the Mae Sa Valley Resort to the dining room for a simple breakfast of fried noodles with chicken and vegetables, and a fruit plate. Our vans then slowly proceeded up the hill from about 2,200 feet to about 3,200 feet, stopping at the village of Mae Sa Mai.
The Road North
The first thing we noticed was children formed into several lines in a schoolyard, responding to a teacher, ready to start their day. Kasma’s goddaughters met us there and took us up the hill to their father Ying’s house.
Each of us received a blessing and a spirit string tied around the wrist (left for men, right for women). We then took a shot of lychee spirits, brewed from the juice of abundant unsaleable fruit from the village lychee trees. The aroma is wonderful, but the hint of lychee flavor does not make the beverage taste less potent. I found it somewhat less delicious than on my previous trips. (A supplemental shot of corn liquor was smooth, but I still prefer tequila.)
Teams of two shared bowls of chicken soup, refilled regularly from a huge pot in the back. The meat was slow eating because it was chopped right through the skin and bones. However, this work gave us a bit of time to recover from the alcohol and prepare for a little hike through the village.
Several of the village residents had set up shop outside Ying’s house offering Hmong-made handicrafts as well as items popular with visitors that had been sourced from town. I spent much too much on some quilted panels featuring animals and village scenes. I consider it a donation. We walked around the village admiring both the scenery and the festive New Years outfits women were sewing at outdoor sewing machines. We are scheduled to return for a day-long, multi-village festival where we, too, will don this brightly colored clothing. We probably will not see the somersaulting squirrel again (look for it someday soon on Youtube). A trip member remarked on the oddness of seeing a squirrel in a cage while chickens wander about at will.
After innumerable photos of terraced cabbage patches, chickens, and pigs, and trying to coax smiles from infants, we returned to Ying’s house for a box lunch of basil chicken over rice. And a bit more homemade chicken soup. We said goodbye for now and headed back down the hill.
Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens
These gardens cover a large area on a steep hillside; you could spend a full day here. But we only have 90 minutes so we sped to the greenhouses at the top. He we found collections of flora ranging from cacti and carnivorous plants to water lilies and rainforest flowers. But it was like passing through a series of ovens, so I was very grateful that we stopped at a little waterfall toward the bottom of the hill. The air here was cool and fresh, and it was a nice photo op.
Dinner and a Show
About 90 minutes before dinner, a few of us convened to discuss the “program” for our song presentation. This involved changing the lyrics to songs like She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain (“chicken and basil” instead of “chicken and dumplings”) and choosing a sequence of presentation. There wasn’t time for a rehearsal, so we’ll just have to wing it.
The resort set out two long tables across the lawn from one another: one for the Hmong and one for the foreigners. Kasma explained that the Hmong girls, some as young as ten years old, would be very uncomfortable sitting with our large group. Of course, the “battle of the bands” aspect might also be a factor. Before the show, of course, we ate.
A heavily laden table lay between a rice server on one end, and a massaman beef curry server on the other, with several buffet stations in between. The smoky grilled eggplant salad was a favorite, as were the mildly garlicky chayote greens (Thais have little interest in the squash, preferring to pick the greens young and tender for stir fries). Hot coffee, hot tea, and fried bananas with syrup provided a sweet (perhaps too sweet) finish.
A gentleman from the village commenced the festivities with a tune on some traditional Hmong pipes. The song is accompanied by various awkward-seeming pirouette-like foot movements. I would like to provide a better explanation, but having seen this twice before, I still have no idea of the significance of the dance. Next, ten girls in their fanciest Hmong wear performed a dance to traditional Hmong music. After a round of applause, they formed a line and sang us their first song. Naturally, we had no idea what it was about, so we reciprocated with a song they surely did not know: “Goober Peas,” a song from the Civil War era about boiled peanuts. This continued, back and forth, with our side performing She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain, I’m a Little Teapot, Hound Dog, Eensy Weensy Spider, and America the Beautiful.
Soon, they sang their goodnight song and returned home without the usual posing for photos with various members of the group. There will be time for than when we return to the village for New Years.
Tomorrow we will take a long loop South and East into Mae Hong Son province, and make our way to another picturesque resort. Three years ago, I could not get a cell signal there, and it might still offer the potential for maximum relaxation.