The Kri are 324 people, living in the Nakai District of Khammouan Province, Laos. The Nam Theun biodiversity conservation area is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet… The Kri live deep inside this place and rely almost entirely on the forest that surrounds them for their livelihood.
The acceptance of ephemerality and the cyclical adaptation of natural materials
Locational and cultural isolation presents its own set of challenges
The Kri's lives are demarcated by water but the spaces they inhabit are fluid
Influences and intrusions from Laos and Vietnam, the surrounding regions
Natural and salvaged materials are adapted for use in the home and the fields
The people of Mrka Tồồl Hamlet.
01. In Praise of Impermanence
In 2004 I made my first trip, as a field-working linguist, to the rugged uplands of Nakai District, in central Laos. I was to begin work on the language and culture of the Kri, an isolated Vietic community living near the Laos-Vietnam border.
The trip would mean a hike of over 14 hours through sometimes-rugged terrain, in one of the richest and best-preserved areas of biodiversity in mainland Southeast Asia: hills, rivers, and dense jungle. So I wanted to prepare well. I invested some of my prized research funding in a pair of €200 Lowe brand waterproof hiking boots. They were state of the art. But once I was on the walking trail, they created a distinct inconvenience that I had not anticipated.
The walking trails of upland Nakai are narrow and winding, and heavily forested. With great regularity these rough trails pass through water. Sometimes these would be rivulets. In my boots, I could step over them. But other times they would be flowing streams, and a great rigmarole would ensue. Take off the backpack, set it down, find a place to sit, unlace the boots, remove them, remove the socks, bundle everything up and ford the crossing in bare feet, only to reverse the process seconds later: sit down, dry the feet, socks back on, boots back on, stand up, pack on, and finally go. The locals I was traveling with would patiently wait. They hike in one-dollar flip-flops, and water is no obstacle. They don’t seem to notice it.
When we weren’t fording streams we were teetering over deep gully creeks, on felled trees doubling as precarious bridges. Locals would cross without flinching, their rubber-clad feet gripping the uneven deck. Me? I would pause to summon up the courage and focus to take those teetering steps in stiff boots that were like clubs on the wet, curved wooden surface. With each crossing, an adrenalin burst, and a sigh of relief upon reaching the other side without falling. The locals would look on patiently.
These inconveniences annoyed me. With each hour of hiking, punctuated here and there by another wretched crossing, my internal dialogue formulated a righteous response. There should be well-built paths and sturdy crossings, just like we have in proper National Parks. I blamed it on the Lao government: why weren’t tax dollars being spent on safe, dry, paths and crossings for the country’s citizens? I blamed it on the foreign organizations who were funding hydroelectricity projects in the area: why weren’t they living up to their moral obligation to protect local populations? And finally my indignance was transferred to the locals. The average Nakai village man can build a strong and durable field hut from basic forest materials, in short time and with a machete as his only tool: why couldn’t he take the trouble to build proper crossings, if not for his own comfort, then for his family’s safety?
In a report to the Watershed Management and Protection Authority I even wrote: ‘Access in and out of the watershed is difficult and dangerous, and needs attention (most urgently, water-crossings need permanent foot bridges).’ But there was something amiss: When I spoke to locals about this, it really wasn’t a big deal for them. I couldn’t fathom why the locals didn’t care about this issue, why they had no interest in sturdy, durable, safe paths and crossings.
As my field work progressed in Kri-speaking villages, I saw more evidence of this apparent disregard for enduring, stable structure. It was spectacularly illustrated one rainy night when a pregnant mother-of-two stepped out on to the waterlogged verandah of her home and promptly crashed to the ground as the edifice simply collapsed. I watched her husband make emergency repairs by flashlight in the rain, and my mind returned to the puzzle of the water-crossings: why were the Kri settling for such transient, flimsy construction?
The next year, when hiking to the area, I had the same experience and the same thoughts on the hiking trail. But there were two differences. The first was that I left the €200 boots at home, opting instead for two-dollar gumboots. The second was that many sections of the hiking trail were unfamiliar this second time around. We took different routes along certain sections of the way. Then a year later, even more differences. And the next year, different again. By the fourth year I had hiked in to Kri territory, the accumulated changes in the path we took meant that we followed an almost entirely different route. And where we did follow the same paths, they were sometimes unrecognizable. Entire hamlets we had passed through two years earlier years were gone, the sites now abandoned and overgrown. Open crossings where plantations had been were now over head-high in vegetation. Where there had been forests, there were now clearings. It began to dawn on me. This was a world of evolving natural forces, but I was trying to see it as a world of permanence, like the world of streets, bridges, brick and concrete I call home.
I recall the moment at which my vision changed. Arriving in Kri territory after a year’s absence, we came to the mouth of the Mrka stream. This was a place I knew well. It is located at the heart of Kri-speaking territory, and it gives the Kri village its official name (Maka in Lao). But upon seeing the place this time, I became disoriented. This place was a landmark to me, a broad and fast-flowing brook that welcomed us into Kri territory proper. But there was no flow at all—just a shallow pool. My hosts explained: the wall of the tributary just upstream had eroded and recently collapsed completely. The tributary now spilled out further upriver and no longer flowed below that point. I had viewed this brook like I viewed the average concrete-walled stormwater channel: immovable. So how could this river just move? Because this is what rivers do. Like paths, clearings, and biodegradable houses, they are, by nature, impermanent.
To me this was a realization but for the inhabitants of places like the Nakai protected area impermanence is their perpetual experience. Why not build a sturdy bridge? Because for these forest travelers, there was no guarantee they would ever come this way again.
02. Coming Soon
03. Coming Soon
The back story
This project arises from a long-term field research project (since 2004) documenting the language and culture of Kri-speaking people. This work is carried out by Nick Enfield, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney. The work that has fed into this web publication was funded by the Max Planck Society (through Stephen C. Levinson’s Language and Cognition Group), the European Research Council (through the grant Human Sociality and Systems of Language Use), and the University of Sydney (through the grants Language and Rural Society in Laos and Language and Ethnicity in Contact: a Case Study in Upland Laos).