The Hunting Trip
Published in Paj Ntaub Voice, 12(1), 2007.
This story took place while I was staying with my Hmong relatives
in Chiangmai, Thailand, in 1977. I was 25 then and had been doing my
Ph.D. studies in Australia. I was in Thailand to do the field
research for my thesis in a Hmong village called Khun Wang, about
two hours’ walk north of Khun Klang. This latter village was located
near to road to the top of Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in North
Thailand. It is now a very popular tourist attraction, but it was
rather quiet in those days. There was only the odd tourist bus and
pick-up taxi passing through.
About once a month, I went down to the city of Chiangmai to
replenish my food supplies and on the way back by taxi truck I would
stop at Khun Klang before taking my newly purchased goods on
horseback to Khun Wang. There was no road to the second village,
unlike today. While in Khun Klang, I always stayed in the house of
Uncle Rwg/Tru Yang, an opium addict who spent his days at home and
who could tell you all sorts of stories about the local Hmong
people. I was related to him through my wife, Maylee who is of the
Yang clan. Uncle Rwg had never married.
the time of this incident, I bought some pork from the city and
Uncle Rwg said we could use it to go on a day’s trip up Doi Inthanon
where he was going to show me the Hmong way of hunting for game.
Like many naïve students from the city, I was trying to learn
everything about Hmong life, so I eagerly accepted his offer. In
those days, the Thai Department of Forestry still allowed people to
go hunting in its forest reserves and to carry guns. Uncle Rwg took
a double-barreled gun (phom ntxaib) from his bedroom and handed me a
home-made gun, not the old Hmong flintlock, but a more modern .22
version the Hmong called “phom kej”.
With our back packs on our back and our rifles over our shoulders,
we began walking along the bitumen road, but soon got tired when it
started to climb rather steeply, crisscrossing little valleys and
small hills. We rested before continuing. After we walked for about
three miles, we left the road and went into the jungle on the
western side of the mountain. It was late in the afternoon and the
sun was setting across the horizon. Some time later, we came to a
clearing with tall elephant grass and the odd trees here and there,
interspersed with outcrops of rocks.
asked Uncle Rwg:
“Txiv/Uncle Rwg, what is here for us to hunt? All I can see is just
tall grass and some rocks.”
“Well, just be patient. I’ll take you there.”
did not want to sound dumb, so I stopped asking questions and we
only talked about the days when the Hmong first came to live in this
area covered in virgin forests and full of wild elephants, about the
good old days when opium could be grown in any quantity to sell for
cash with Chinese traders, unhindered by government officials.
After a while, we came to the bottom of a limestone cliff with a few
clumps of trees. We were on the first level which dropped about ten
yards to a second level below covered in trees. Uncle Rwg put down
his back pack and started to cut some banana leaves to put on the
ground to make some sort of make-shift bed.
“We’ll take a rest here”, he declared.
soon had his opium-smoking gadgets out and started to light the oil
lamp on which he would be rolling his little balls of opium back and
forth on a small iron stick before inserting them into the pipe for
smoking. I was used to this time-consuming chore on his part, so I
just sat there under a tree and admired the green hills that went
down and down to far below until they reached the lowlands where
Thai settlements in Mae Chaem could be seen dimly in the far
distance. What a view, indeed! It was like you were in the clouds
looking down on the beauty of life below. No wonder the Hmong loved
to live high above everybody on the highlands!
Uncle Rwg was still doggedly smoking his opium. He must have had
about a dozen pipes so far. Quite an addict but his old bones must
have been tired from all this climb up the steep mountain, I thought
to myself. I lit a fire and cooked the meat we brought with us so
we could have dinner.
the time we finished eating, it was getting dark. I turned to my
favorite view towards the lowlands down below, and I got a real
fright. Everywhere about half a mile down, it was as if people were
walking about, holding lighted candles in their hands. All I could
see was these small bright yellow lights that would come together in
line, then separated into a couple or even just a single one, then
joined up again into a zigzagging pattern. I seemed to have even
detected some human voice from down there, like someone was calling
Feeling panicky, I said:
“Uncle Rwg, look down there. What are all these lights going up and
down, up and down on top of these grass areas? It’s like they can
fly. They can’t be people? There are no villages around here, but I
swear I heard a voice.”
Uncle Rwg who was dozing off after having his hearty fill of opium
smoking, must have found my questions rather annoying. Without even
getting up and having a look, he replied from his banana-leaf bed:
“Oh, that! Just some “dab ntxaug” (fire spirits) going about their
business. Don’t worry about them.”
“Yeah? You mean, they are little ghosts carrying fire in their
“Yeah. During the day, they are little mice. At night, they become
little balls of fire. Just don’t go near them and they’ll leave you
see….”, I said back, even though I really could not see or
understand what he was telling me.
decided to put on a brave face and did not ask any more questions.
I did not want to be seen as a stupid city boy who had never heard
of ghostly mice that change to fire spirits at night. Uncle Rwg went
back to his slumber while I mused about what to do if the little
fiery ghosts came near our little camp. What would they look like?
What kind of noise would they make? And especially, what might they
do to us?
And what were we doing here, with Uncle Rwg sleeping like he had all
the time in the world, and me being scared of little mice out of my
wits in the dark? I mustered enough courage and asked:
“Uncle, aren’t we supposed to go hunting?”
“Yeah, that’s what we doing right now,” he replied weakly in his
“Here, waiting like this in the dark?”
“Yeah, don’t talk too much. Wb yuav zov nploos - we’re waiting for
porcupines. When the moon comes up, they will come out of their
holes in the cliff here and we can shoot them.”
Now I understood. OK, porcupines. Fine by me. These exotic
creatures wearing little pointed needles on their backs live inside
caves. They only come out to search for food at night, mostly any
kind of wild fruits which make their insides taste very bitter – one
reason why they are seen as a delicacy by the Hmong. My
father-in-law was crazy about porcupine meat boiled with the chopped
entrails, including some of the droppings inside. I had tried this
bitter “kua quav nploos”, but it was not for me. Yukkk…. The
concoction only made me want to throw up.
“But where are the holes they are supposed to come out of, Uncle?”,
I asked, feeling more and more stupid like the city boy I was.
“There is one here not far from me. You go over there near that
tree. There is one right under that rock. You’ll see if you shine
your flash-light in that direction.”
seemed to know the place well. He must have been here before. He
“You just sit right in front of the hole and wait. When a porcupine
comes out, just pull the trigger and shoot.”
That sounded easy enough, although I had never fired a shot in my
“But how do I know when a porcupine comes out?”
“Just listen to its sound when it is at the entrance of the hole.”
“Yeah, but I can’t hear too well with my left ear,” I said back to
“What happened to your left ear?”
“Well, when I was about seven, my big sister wanted me to listen to
the musical sound of boiling water in a bamboo pipe, and she
accidentally poured the scalding liquid inside my ear. So ever
since, I can’t hear a hundred per cent,” I explained.
“What a tragedy…”, he trailed off without finishing verbalizing his
sounded like he was becoming annoyed. I did not know if he was
referring to my bad ear as a tragedy in my life, or whether he meant
it was tragic that I could not hear porcupines coming out of their
little hole on this very important hunting trip. He made me feel
like I was just wasting his time when he had such good intention to
teach me Hmong hunting hands-on.
bent my head down, contemplating my tragic life and playing with my
torch, turning it on and off like a child with his pride sorely
tested and feeling like jumping off a cliff or something.
“Vauv, you can’t play with your torch like that. You’ll run out of
battery. It will also stop the little porcupines from coming out.
Switch it off and use your smell and hearing senses the best way you
can,” he said with finality.
Ok, hear, hear. I went to sit and lean against a little tree not
far from the hole. I started to wonder that if these porcupines
only came out to look for food in the moonlight, did they starve
during the waning of the moon? I mean, that was a whole half-month!
I should ask someone in the village, but no more questions tonight.
I must look like a moron already in the eyes of Uncle Rwg, and not
the highly educated Hmong Ph.D. student that everyone was so proud
was waiting and waiting for the first porcupine of my entire life,
not making a sound, even when my legs started to go numb and I
needed to change position. To distract myself from my sleeping
legs, I again turned my attention to the view below. Damn, those
little fireball spirits were still flying slowly back and forth all
over the place over the grassy hills down there. They were far away
enough, but they looked like they were celebrating, going away from
each other, then coming back to join hands again and again – like in
a dance. Well, maybe they knew that Uncle Rwg and I were here, and
they were holding a celebration before coming to get us, devour us,
or something. Ugggh… I don’t want to think about it.
Suddenly I heard a deafening “Boom..” from the direction of Uncle
Rwg, twenty feet away from me. He had just fired his rifle.
“Did you get it, Uncle?”, I shouted to him.
“No, I think I missed the blooming thing. I heard it making a noise,
but it must have scurried away.”
shone his torch all around the hole on his side, mumbling to
himself, but could not find any dead porcupine. I was not surprised
that he had missed, since he rarely went hunting himself and
preferred to spend most of his days lying down beside his
opium-smoking lamp, eyes closed and lost to the world. I wondered
whether he could even see in the dark. The moon still had not come
Uncle Rwg went back to his tree, and all was quiet once more. Soon
the moon was on the eastern horizon and spread its dim light all
over the mountainside. I could gradually make out where my
porcupine hole was, so I aimed my rifle back there again.
was as if I was dozing off when I heard this little sniffing noise
near the hole. Without even looking, I fired my rifle “Boooom”,
and hoped that I would not miss the “blooming thing” like Uncle Rwg
had just done. I wanted to show him that I was not that stupid
clumsy city boy from Australia he thought I was. I could be just as
good as any Hmong villager around here.
However, before I had even recovered from the ear-splitting sound of
my rifle firing, I found myself lying on the top of a tree – without
rifle and torch. The blooming rifle was shooting with such force
that it sent me flying backwards down the second level of the cliff.
Luckily, the thick branches of the tree held me back. Otherwise, I
would not have survived to tell you this story.
was in pain with cuts and bruises, as I dimly heard Uncle Rwg
calling out to me:
“Did you get it?”
What the hell was he talking about? I was dying on a tree and his
only concern was for a dead little porcupine!
“No, but it nearly got me!”, I meekly said back to him. “I am on a
“What do you mean, Vauv?”
am on a tree! The blooming rifle threw me down the cliff.”
“Ayaya…. Why weren’t you careful? Have you used a rifle before?”
“Nope… but I did not want to tell you.”
“Pride, pride… Are you all right?”
think so. I will try to climb down the tree and come up to you from
the other side of the cliff. Can you shine your torch so I can see
did and I slowly crawled my way back up to where he was, all
scratched and sore but pretending to be without any pain – a young
superman, except I could not just fly up the cliff face. After I
sat down, Uncle Rwg came to inspect my limbs and bones, and declared
that everything was indeed fine. He then went to look for my rifle
and torch which were scattered around where I was sitting before in
front of the damn porcupine hole. He was looking to see if I had
shot the porcupine, but there was nothing. Maybe, it was just the
highland wind making noise with some blades of grass, and my bad ear
told me it was a porcupine.
“Well, Vauv. I think that was a bad omen, with you falling like
that. We should leave for another place,” Uncle Rwg said after he
finished his futile search.
was so relieved. I started to hate all this dim moon light and the
little ghostly fire balls carrying on with their dancing below.
Maybe, they were only fireflies, but Uncle Rwg just wanted to scare
the hell out of me.
After I recovered my breath, we hurriedly left the cliff base, and
made our way back to the thick jungle that we walked through earlier
in the day. With my torch dead, we only had Uncle Rwg’s to guide us
through the thickets. Since I did not know the way, Uncle Rwg walked
in front of me as he tried to fend off branches while I shone the
torch at him. I tried not to look back at those flying little fire
balls below us.
After about thirty minutes, we reached a little stream. We followed
an old path upstream until we came to an old lean-to shelter in the
middle of nowhere, the kind the Hmong called “tsev pheeb suab”. It
was deserted and covered in dead banana leaves – there was a lot of
wild banana trees in this part of Doi Inthannon. Without saying a
word, Uncle Rwg put down his back pack and rifle, and started to cut
down small trees and banana leaves to build us a new hut right next
to the old one which looked very silent and spooky in the dim moon
“Why are we staying here? Can’t we go somewhere else, Uncle?”, I
“No, this is a good place. People have been here before. It means
there must be game around,” he said, steadfastly refusing to read
all the fear that was filling my poor head.
“Have you been here before?”
“Nope, but this is as good as any place we can go to,” he replied
without a worry in the world.
His words only intensified my fear which was building quickly into
all kinds of horrible thoughts. I did not want to tell him the
horror stories I recently heard from the refugees at Ban Vinai camp
where I had just returned after a visit. I had married my wife there
a few months before and had been going back and forth to see my
in-laws. While I was at the refugee camp, people had told me about
the Hmong who tried to escape the communists in Laos to Thailand and
who were killed by Lao soldiers or died from sickness and starvation
along the way. Their bodies were only put inside lean-to shelters in
the jungle because their families did not have time or the tools to
bury them. Now, this little shelter next to Uncle Rwg and me with
all the dead leaves on top of it… Urghhhh.. I don’t want to think….
I wanted to block these terrifying thoughts out of my mind. But no
matter how hard I tried, they refused to go away.
the darkened jungle, I dared not look behind me. I moved quickly
until I was about a foot from Uncle Rwg as he was cutting down a
little tree. I figured that the closer I was with him, the safer I
would feel. I did not care anymore whether he reeked with opium or
not. The tall trees around us and their shadowy canopies looked as
if they were going to fall on me. In the dark, their branches
appeared to be holding all sorts of sinister creatures in them.
“Move away a bit. I can’t work properly”, Uncle Rwg admonished.
“No, you need help, Uncle. How about I hold this end of the tree
while you clean up its branches with your knife?”, I turned my
syrupy voice on so I could stick close to him.
Soon, Uncle Rwg finished gathering all that he needed for the
shelter construction, and I was helping with all the eagerness of a
thirsty camel. I wanted us to finish the new hut so I could bury
myself inside from head to foot, and try to forget this cruel
frightful world. We covered the tiny slender structure with banana
leaves, then put some more leaves on the dirt floor where we quickly
went down with our back packs used as pillows. Uncle Rwg was soon
smoking opium again, and for once I was so glad that he was an opium
smoker. Thanks to the flickering light of the little oil lamp he
used to warm his tiny opium nuggets, I became less frightened – of
all the ghosts in my imagination, of the oppressive wild jungle, and
all the stupid crying, singing night insects around.
tried to go to sleep but I just tossed and turned to no avail. Not
only was the floor hard, but also my imagination would not leave me
in peace, so I started a conversation with Uncle Rwg.
“Do you think we could try to go back home now?”, I asked.
“No, Vauv. It’s dark and too far to the village. We should just
spend the night here and go back first light tomorrow.”
Well, no point trying to entice him to go anywhere while he was
enjoying his opium-smoking. Not even a wild tiger could move him
now. Hmm… what else could I talk to him about?
“Uncle, do Hmong people hunt alone or in a group?”
“It depends. Most of the time, they hunt alone because they don’t
have time to go together. Or they may not like to share the meat
from the hunt.”
“You mean, they go in the middle of the night into the jungle all
“Yes, nothing wrong with that!”, he said ever so calmly.
“Oh, nothing… except I wouldn’t do it, even for a million Baht (Thai
“What did you say about a million Baht?”, he asked, suddenly
“Nothing. I just said I wouldn’t hunt in the dark of the night.
What can you see, anyway?”
“Are you scared of the dark or what? You have no balls?”, he
sneered at me.
“Never. Who says? I am grown-up,” I lied. “But what can we hunt
just sleeping here in this hut, though?”, I asked, trying to shift
the conversation away from my “having no balls”.
“Well, we’ll just wait and see. Anything could turn up.”
Anything? I tried not to imagine what this “anything” could be,
while Uncle Rwg went back to his opium pipe. He soon fell into a
slumber, leaving me to face my nightmares all by myself. Some time
after mid-night, I heard a strange noise, like some thing big trying
to find its way down the stream towards us through the thick
vegetation along the banks. You could hear dry branches cracking as
it pushed through the high grass on the ground. I became so
frightened that I covered my head and my ears with my sleeping bag
and hid my head under my back pack. There was no more dim
moonlight. The moon must have gone down.
What sort of monstrous creature or ghost could this be? Get ready
to die of fright and say farewell to your lovely young wife, even if
she’s not here with you, I heard a voice in my head whispering. But
before I had time to say farewell to my poor wife of merely five
months, it occurred to me to shake Uncle Rwg awake.
“Listen, Uncle. Something’s walking around out there,” I said as
softly as I could.
put out one ear to listen intently by tilting back his head to one
side as if he, too, had a bad ear like me. He soon whispered back:
“You stay here while I go and look to see what it is.”
“It’s probably nothing, Uncle. Just stay inside here. It’s too
dark, you won’t see a thing,” I was trying to talk him into staying
“Well, I should just go and look,” he insisted.
“No, don’t go. I know it’s nothing.” Probably some giant
“No, it sounds like a big creature. Could be a “mos lwj” (deer) or
“npua teb” (wild boar).” More like a big ghost!
“Yes, but I need you to put some of that warm pork oil from your
lamp on the cuts on my neck and my back. You know, the ones I got
from falling off the cliff onto the tree early this evening? They
are really sore now and I can’t go to sleep. We need to do it right
away while the oil is still warm inside your lamp.” I played for
time and raised my voice louder and louder. I wanted to make the
creature hear me so it would go away.
Uncle Rwg decided to do what I asked, and we had a restful night.
The next day after breakfast, Uncle Rwg went to investigate the
cause of the noise we heard the night before. He was bending down
and looking carefully along the banks of the little stream.
After a few minutes, he came back, muttering:
“It was a big “npua teb” (boar), Vauv. You should have let me go
last night to look for it. I could have killed it and we would have
a lot of meat today.”
“Yeah…. I am sorry I ruined your hunting trip, Uncle. I will go
back down to the city and buy you all the meat you want,” I said
don’t need all the meat from the city. This is hunting. It’s not
It’s not the same. So true! You don’t get scared witless going to
the city. But maybe for him, it’s the opposite - with all the mad
road traffic and stupid people making racist remarks at you just
because you were Hmong wearing a tribal costume walking around in a
any case, I never went on another jungle expedition during the rest
of my stay in Thailand. I had learned enough about Hmong hunting to
last me a life time. Really, I’d rather eat only vegetables, or buy
meat from shops. I knew I lost a few of my souls at Doi Inthanon on
that frightful hunting trip with Uncle Rwg, and a soul calling
ceremony for me would have been great. Unfortunately, after we got
back home the next day I was too ashamed to ask him for one.