Project Sekong 2013: Our collection of cultural artifacts helps Lao refugee families connect with the past. We keep looking.

March 24, 2013

My pack lightens quickly after I arrive here. I usually have goods such as medial supplies that I deliver to hospitals, clinics and aid programs. Once those items are distributed I travel lightly. As clothes wear out I discard them, further lightening my load.

When my baggage bottoms out I start thinking of items to carry home to add to the extensive collection of Hmong and Lao cultural artifacts that I’ve collected during sixteen trips to Southeast Asia.

An anthropologist would be hard pressed to walk through a Hmong village or rummage through a Lao home and find significant items that my wife and I have not already added to our collection. But, there is one item that I’ve pursued for years to no avail: a pack frame used by traders to transport goods by horse.

My elderly Hmong friends tell me that they once used packhorses to carry goods from village to village along mountain trails, sometimes leaving Laos and venturing into Thailand, Burma or China. I’m confident that if I had a packframe to show around, among the old timers, it would spur interesting memories. Perhaps, of horse caravans bearing a clan’s annual opium harvest. But can I find one?

There are plenty of small horses roaming pastures here but I almost never see them put to any use. Villagers all disclaim current use of horses for transport. Everyone tells me that this is a different day and age: “Why would we use horses when we have the iron buffalo?” (A two-wheeled, walk-behind machine capable of pulling a light wagon.)

I’ve only once encountered an actual caravan and attempted to buy a pack frame, but the teamster was unwilling to part with any of his gear. He had frames perfectly matched to his horses and none to spare. But I did get a photograph to document my near success.

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