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Step Inside Laos for A Match Made in Hmong New Year

Date: April 25, 2019 | By: Deborah Kilcollins | Category: Travel Blog

Nina Boys is our guest blogger for the second time. Nina is an avid explorer and passionate traveler whose journeys have taken her across five continents to some of the world’s most beautiful natural and cultural wonders. She has served as a judge for the National Geographic World Legacy Awards, honoring the planet’s sustainable travel visionaries, and has a knack for finding unique travel experiences wherever she goes. She is known to seek out up-and-coming art scenes, local delicacies at street food stands around the world, and opportunities to scuba dive on vibrant coral reefs, all while blogging about her off-the-beaten path adventures for publications including, Huffington Post and Roads & Kingdoms.


Southeast Asia journeysWhoosh! A cloth-covered ball whizzes past my face, just grazing my cheek. Jolted, I spin around to a row of giggling young women wearing dazzling multi-hued outfits and ornate strands of sparkling coins that jangle as they teeter precariously on Crayola-colored heels. Completely absorbed by the festivities all around, I had inadvertently walked into the Hmong matchmaking game of pov pob around which their New Year celebrations revolve.

Originally from China, the Hmong (pronounced: mong) migrated to Laos during the 19th century and today are among the most prominent of the nation’s 49 government-recognized ethnic groups. Travelers often visit their villages spread throughout Laos’ lush northern hills on guided treks, but those looking for a truly authentic cultural experience can do no better than attending a Hmong New Year party where their unique traditions are on full display. Participants prepare all year for the multi-day celebrations that begin in individual villages before snowballing into larger parties where normally isolated communities gather to socialize, perform – and perhaps most importantly – court romantic partners outside of their own clans. One of the largest of these takes place in the outskirts of the nation’s former royal capital, Luang Prabang, which draws nearly 1,000 participants from across the region at the end of the twelfth lunar calendar month. Earlier that morning I watched the Mekong’s espresso-tinted currents swirl lazily past the majestic city – until the sharp horn of a truck full of locals ready to party snaps me back to reality. Summoned to join the caravan, I hop in the back as we set off along dusty roads leading to the city’s outer limits where a sparsely populated forest has been decked out with stages, carnival games, an impressive array of homemade photo booths, and numerous al fresco food stands. I beeline for the low plastic stools that all but guarantee a delicious meal in Laos and am not disappointed when a steaming bowl of aromatic noodles laced with lemongrass is ladled from the large metal cauldron simmering atop open flames and passed my way. The Hmong harvest season has just ended and the fruits of their labor can be savored in a variety of traditional dishes here, including the chili-spiked sausages sizzling on the grill beside me, just waiting to be paired with homemade rice whiskey or the beloved national Beerlao.

the HmongWhile the crowd continues to grow, the first of many performances featuring traditional dancers, musicians playing handcrafted khaen bamboo pipes, and beauty queens gets underway. Caught admiring all the women parading their finest decorative garb, which has been painstakingly sewed from colorful swaths of psychedelic patterns that vary according to region, a grinning patron leads me to a booth where I am motioned to try on the traditional garments for myself. Emerging in full Hmong regalia, I am crowned with a neon tasseled cap and encouraged to pose against fluorescent backdrops of sprawling countryside scenery complete with soaring eagles. While New Year is a time to honor ancestors, uphold cultural traditions and relax after a long work year, travelers are more than welcome to join in – especially if they’re up for an over-the-top photoshoot or two. But amid all the lighthearted fun, the most important New Year activity by far is the pov pob matchmaking game played primarily by adolescents looking for love. Standing in two parallel lines, impeccably-dressed singles shyly toss a cloth-covered ball back and forth in a courting ritual central to their way of life. Coupling within one’s own clan is prohibited, so these gatherings offer an important opportunity to meet potential suitors and future spouses through the casual icebreaker. Having accidentally found myself in the middle of one such mating match, I dodge yet another ball before ducking out of the line of fire and leaving them to it. After all, no respectful guest meddles with the time-honored tradition of Hmong speed dating.


Explore Laos as well as Cambodia on our Cambodia and Laos section for exceptional Southeast Asia journeys.

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