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hilltribe1 Within the last 150 years, the Lao Soung (Hill Tribes) moved into the high altitudes of Lao from Myanmar, Tibet, and southern China. The largest group is called Hmong and they are subdivided into four main subgroups: White, Striped, Red, and Black (according to the color of their clothing detail). Their subsistence farming consists of corn and dry rice planted on the mountainsides with limited breeding of pigs, chickens, cows and water buffalo, all of whom can be spotted walking along the paths or roads as if they are pets. Their houses are built of available bamboo sticks with thatched roofs and woven walls with dirt floors or on stilts with floors of wood (see photos).

To describe them as large baskets would suffice. They usually barter amongst themselves: money is a rare commodity. Families are large.

hilltribe2 It is not uncommon for a girl to be kidnapped at the age of thirteen by a boy and be taken for his wife. If a school is available, sixth grade is the end point. We saw youngsters at home alone while their parents were out working the crops, children as young as 5 or six with infant siblings on their backs (see photos). Villages we travelled through had received a paved road and electricity just 3 years previous (sadly there are satellite dishes weighed down by rocks) yet we saw villages as remote as could be believed.

For years the prominent crop was opium. With US pressure, this has changed the landscape and opportunities for these peoples. They are primarily animists in a country of Theravadan Buddhists. Their hardscrabble toughness made the men naturals for the CIA trained special Royal Lao Government forces in the 60s and 70s. After 1975 over 13,000 were airlifted to the States by the US militery to ensure their safety from Communist persecution.

hilltribe6 Today they are still under threat by the Lao government. As of this posting, the refugee camp in northern Thailand run by MSF (Doctor’s Without Borders http://doctorswithoutborders.org/press/release.cfm?id=2818) is in jeopardy as Lao wants the over 8,000 Hmong seeking refuge returned to them.

MSF has withdrawn support as Thailand blocks food and medicines in unity with the request for the Lao government. The culture is in danger of complete assimilation. Hill costume is rare as older clothing has been sold or pilfered for top dollar return and crafts such as weaving are not being taught as more children are sent into the fields.

Most tribal people receive no medical care. We have seen children with bloated abdomens and bare feet in cold weather and many women with goiters. Lao remains an isolated but incredibly beautiful country and we are seeking ways in which to assist the children by bringing polar fleece jackets to them through agencies unaffiliated with the US. Let us know if you can donate good used polar fleece such as Patagonia or LL Bean!

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