One Saturday morning in Luang Prabang with Kevin, we saw some older men having coffee at a corner shop. We sat down and ordered cups for ourselves. One of the men spoke a little English, and Kevin speaks a little Thai. (Since there is a lot of Thai TV in Laos, people recognize some of the words.) Between the two languages, Kevin was able to understand that the man was telling us about a “festival” that started today. He motioned to the road we needed to take, and after we finished our coffees, we headed in that direction.
The motorbikes that that passed us had drivers and passengers wearing colorful costumes, so we knew we were on the right track. Soon, the bikes started pulling off down a dirt road, and we followed the flow of traffic into a big open field. We found the Hmong New Year party.
The Hmong are a minority ethnic group spread throughout Southeast Asia. They face significant political and social discrimination in Laos and over the last several decades many have fled to Thailand, the United States and other countries.
After each harvest season, after performing their own household ceremonies and traditions, Hmong people get together to celebrate the new year, reconnect with families and friends from other villages, and select marriage partners. Almost all of the women and girls wear makeup and dress up in their best costumes. Some of the men and boys dress up as well, but that part of the tradition seems to have faded. That is only a simplified outsiders’ explanation of Tsa Hauv Toj, which is the name of this festival that lasts for days and the one that we were lucky enough to find.
One of the main activities of this particular Tsa Hauv Toj is a ball-tossing game called pov pod. We weren’t clear on the rules, other than you must catch and toss the ball with your right hand only. This is a way for young people to socialize and for parents to evaluate potential matches. We talked to one person who said that it was not a very serious game and anyone could play, even if you weren’t in the market for a husband or wife.
We also met and enjoyed talking with Peter, a Hmong man who is living in Minneapolis. He had an impressive video equipment setup.
One section of the festival grounds was dedicated to a long row of booths set up with a variety of large vinyl backdrops. Anyone could use them to take photos and there was also a person who was selling digital prints from his portable printer.
We were the only foreigners there that day, and drew a lot of stares. We also got a lot of photo requests, which we were happy to pose for. It was only fair.