Lost in Translation; the vanishing cultures of South East Asia.

In the more remote villages, they live in long houses, constructed of bamboo and rattan,  cook on open wooden fires, squat on the dirt floor to eat from a low table and sleep on a low wooden platform.  They wear traditional clothes, grow their own vegetables and hill rice, brew their own rice whisky, fish, hunt for game and forage in the forest for herbs, fruits and berries. The community is to all intents and purposes, self sufficient, living in a manner that has changed little for thousands of years.

And the people seem robust and healthy, the trimmed physique of the men carries not an ounce of fat, their teeth are intact, their skin not infected with sores. The women are strong and bear healthy infants at their hips. 

The children are infinitely curious, open and engaging.  They want to know about everything and are fascinated by my equipment; camera, glasses, binoculars, books, pencils and especially postcards.  I show them how to draw and how to play noughts and crosses.  They pick up the idea very quickly. They go to school in the village until they are about 11 and then help in the fields.  Some girls, who couldn’t have been more 12 pass with baskets on their back and machetes on their belts, heading for the creek.  An hour later they return, their burden of firewood supported by the wooden yoke across their shoulders and a band of rattan around their foreheads.

But Northern Laos is a land in transition. Even in this village, one of two young men have a moto, a small fifty cc motorcycle, there is a rusty satellite dish outside one house servicing the village’s sole television that is powered by car batteries, and there are two solar panels outside another house, from which emanates as from some magic cave, the multicoloured winking lights of mobile phone chargers. A UN team is doing a survey to work out how they might build a proper latrine and pipe in water from a reservoir in the hills.     

This village is lucky.  The changes that have taken place have not changed the basic structure and function of the community.  The community is still run by a committee of village elders.  The government has had little impact, yet!  

Elsewhere, the changes are more drastic.  The communist government has devised a  policy of moving rural villages to the main roads. The new houses are based on a traditional design, but more are made of wood and brick instead of bamboo and rattan. They have lost their soul; their identity. People work in the new rubber plantations that have grown up along the deforested hillsides. Others take a moto or tuk-tuk to work in town.  Community is being eroded; individual expression is more the rule.  Under one house, a toddler was careering around in a fancy baby walker,  in brand new pink baby suit and flashing new trainers.  And the Chinese are coming.     

There is a big school in the roadside village. The children gather from miles around and play on ‘the green’, the big area of hard dirt in the centre of the village. It was like a painting by Pieter Bruegel. There were home-made whipping tops, a hopping game of tag, a game where children took it in turns to hop down a track balancing a bean on their free foot. There was a game of skittles played with big beans that skimmed along the concrete floor outside the classrooms, there was a skipping game where the rope was held very high and the girls had to reach up and pull the rope down with their foot. Older boys played boules and a few kicked a football about.  Sinoy, one of the local guides, made a small square shuttlecock by weaving strips of banana leaf together into a box and inserting a stick topped with a leaf or a bit of plastic in the top. It flew perfectly and we played endlessly batting it to each with hands, feet, knees and forehead. It was great fun! Games reinforce companionship and community and are all the more important at a time of such rapid change.  

But people seem less open and friendly, the nearer the village is to the road.  Maybe they sense danger.  Strangers stop and buy food from stalls set up at the roadside.  It’s easy to see they might soon be stopping for sex; perhaps they already do.  The proprietor of the guest house is the local Mr Big, a swaggering, obese young man dressed in a bright red top emblazoned with the Manchester United logo, long French football shorts and brand new trainers. The children eat sweets and have pot bellies and a permanent dribble. Every young person has a moto and a mobile phone; it’s obligatory. There are more satellite dishes and most houses are supplied with electricity. This was not just a village in transition; the whole culture is in transition; in fact the whole developing world is changing, fast.  Traditional ways of life are disappearing or retained as window dressing for the tourists. Eco-tourism is big up here, only don’t look too carefully.  The cultural reality of it is disappearing before your eyes, managed by fat boys in designer gear who marshal groups of ethnics for photographs.

Of course, it does not do to romanticise this too much.  The forest can only support a small number of people and there are nutritional and infective risks if population levels increase.  An expanding population is going to need more intensive farming and access to town.   

In Hanoi, a wonderful Museum of Ethnography has been created for people to understand their vanished ethnic heritage. It feels infinitely sad that it is necessary to create a museum of a way of life was quite viable and wondrous in its diversity.  Yes, progress cannot really be halted but progress is a kind of meaningless unification.  Piped water, electricity, television, motos and other labour saving services and devices may make life easier, but what they take away is invaluable; the identity and meaning of a culture that has evolved over thousands of years.           

Most exploit the change, of course; they have to, but it doesn’t always bring happiness.  Our guide, Pon, is a sharp young man caught between cultures.  He clearly loves trekking through the jungle and knows ‘everybody’, bring medicines for the shaman’s stomach ache, cigarettes for his male friends, smiles and love songs for his girl friends and the occasional T shirt for the children. He enjoys his role as envoy between cultures.  But when we visited him in his home with his lovely wife and cute son, it was clear that he is  not happy. He has been exposed to a western way of life that he can never have. He has the expectations of western lifestyle, but his salary as a guide is limited and he is too dependent on meaningless charm to exact additional large tips from his clients.  His wife does not speak English.  They live with her parents. He can’t travel, see the world, he can only look at the television.  He is trapped!

The same dichotomy was all too apparent on the coach that took us from the sprawling dust of Phnom Penh to The Cardamom Hills along the highway built by the Thais in 2008.  The video played endlessly showing images of young men in sharp suits, driving long shiny black sports cars (sometimes a sports car is just a sports car but often it’s not), and picking up pretty young girls, whom they transport to a moonlit lake to sing their songs of romantic love. The story is always the same; if you want the doe-eyed girl of your fantasies, don’t be a loser and work in the fields, but get yourself sharp clothes and a smart car. Cambodia is still dreadfully poor, but these videos purvey an impossible dream, a dream that makes every young person feel like a loser. London was never paved with gold and Cambodia can never be Beverley Hills! That’s the reality.