Ban Pa Le

The sun was setting over the jagged teeth of the ridge that surrounded the remote village of Ban Pa Le. It had taken twelve hours of hard walking to get here. My legs and shoulders ached. But it had been worth the walk: I’d missed the sights and sounds of a Katu village. Woman clad in multi-color dresses scurried about to finish last-minute chores in the dying light. Many of them carried infants in simple cloth slings that hung like satchels across their backs: were it not for the occasional squirming or protruding limb, it would be easy to think that they were carrying rice or firewood. The men sat in circles smoking long pipes filled with strong homemade tobacco. Sweet-smelling smoke permeated the still air. The children darted from hut to hut chasing one another, their high-pitched giggling mingling with the slap-slapping of bare feet against the ground. The scene was charming in its simplicity.

Mr. Bun Ma, the village headman, called us in for dinner. We ate rice and stir-fried shoots. Halfway through the meal he apologized for not being able to provide protein. He said, in a low voice, so low that it was almost a whisper, that times had been particularly hard. I waved off his explanation and said that the meal was the best I had ever had in Laos. And I meant it. I wouldn’t have traded it for the finest steak in the finest Western restaurant in Vientiane. A smile broke out across his sun-stained face. After dinner he invited several family members into the hut to drink palm wine. We sat in a circle, talking and passing around the communal bowl. I asked about his family and the village. And then I asked about the animals in the region. Mr. Bun Ma called his son-in-law over and they poured through the Mammals of Vietnam guidebook that I had handed them. They pointed to various pictures and nodded: serow, sambar, muntjac were common. Small cats were routinely seen. Even leopard, said the son-in-law, were not difficult to find. As evidence he showed me an inch-and-a-half-long canine that hung from his necklace. “Sua dau,” he said, pointing to the leopard drawing in the book. I pictured the large cat prowling off the page and out the doorway and into the night. The thought filled me with delight. And what about Saola? I asked. It was the question I had been leading up to. There was a flurry of conversation. Then Mr. Bun Ma shrugged his shoulders and said that they may have been found in the area in the old days. Now, there were no more. But the son-in-law nodded, pointed to the drawing, and said “soong soor, soong soor.” My ears perked up at the Katu name for Saola. According to him, Saola weren’t found in the immediate area, but had been found recently in the lands to the east, near the border with Vietnam. That was the direction we were heading. I could only hope that a few individuals had managed to hang on.

Katu hut
Katu hut
Katu valley
Katu valley
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