TAVEA TUM, THE BRAO TRADITIONAL RICE LIQUOR
It would be difficult to find traditional clothing. That’s what we were told. The local government had one full set of female clothing, and a top for the men. That was all they had been able to find over the years. You see, traditional woven outfits take time to make and have become more and more expensive over the years. Cheaper, simpler alternatives in Western-style clothing have become the norm for minorities in South East Asia. Although it is a shame to see this diversity disappearing, it is the reality.
For this project, I am actively seeking to have as many of the images as possible in traditional clothing so as to preserve as much of this culture as possible. At times it has been difficult to find. In Myanmar, we often had to search multiple villages to find a full set of clothing, and Laos was proving to be no different. That was, until we met Hame.
After being handed from one person to the next around a small village in Attapeu Province while looking for an example of the male Brao facial tattoo, we were finally told about an elderly man and his wife who were out in the fields preparing for the rice-planting season. He, the villagers said, had the facial tattoo I was looking for.
After about 20 minutes riding over terrain that our little scooters were really not designed for, we reached Hame’s shelter in the fields – all teeth still in our heads and thankful we didn’t eat a large lunch. Hame and his wife, Phor, were sitting outside boiling water and sifting rice with a woven tray. They welcomed us immediately and offered us blocks of wood to sit on. Then came the bottle.
Hame makes Tavea Tum, the Brao traditional rice liquor. He makes a lot of it. There was a pot sitting outside the shelter, rice was being sorted and water boiled to continue the production. As we sat, he quickly reached up into his shelter and plucked a bottle from inside the door. The thick, honey-coloured liquor quickly filled two cups and they were passed to myself and my guide, Somesack. We were taught to raise both hands above our heads with the cup in order to pay respect to everyone present before drinking, and then began our journey into Hame’s world.
By the third bottle of this, we were chatting about Hame’s life and his journey to where he is at now. He is now a respected elder in the village, and people seek his advice. He told us stories of his childhood. He recalled his peers laughing at him as he first learnt to weave bamboo – although now he is masterful, at that time he struggled to get the pieces to stay together. He also told us of learning to plant rice on the mountainside, and how much easier that had became once his people moved down into the valleys. As we raised our last glass of liquor, he laughed through stories of his initial attempts to hunt birds in the forest. He recalls he and his friends covering themselves in leaves in order to camouflage themselves and be able to get close to their prey.
At some point during this discussion, both Hame and his wife had changed into a complete set of traditional clothing. The very same clothing we had been told would be too hard to find. Hame and Phor had not only kept their clothing, but several traditional woven baskets, bamboo drinking straws for their liquor pot, and even a smoking pipe made from a melted down howitzer shell. The one thing we were still struggling to find, however, was a set of ivory earrings.
On our way out, we purchased a few of Hame’s weavings to say thank you for his time, and made our way back across the rice fields – somewhat more slowly than we had arrived.