A beautiful, dying village

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More than a hundred years old, a village in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai is home to original architectures and a unique traditional dance, but faces imminent oblivion


Potual (clowns) dance and make fun at a festival of Kon So Lal Village in Gia Lai Province/ PHOTO COURTESY OF TUOI TRE

A simple, lonely beauty. 

This is a description of Kon So Lal Village that I have heard all too frequently of late.

There is more than an aesthetic or poetic reason for the village being described thus.

Located about 50 kilometers to the north of Pleiku Town, the village, once home to nearly 100 Ba Na ethnic minority families who lived in traditional stilt houses, stands almost abandoned after its residents moved more than 10 years go to a new place about three kilometers away, into concrete houses with metal roofs, with power and water supply. 

I visited the "old" Kon So Lal a few weeks ago. 

Situated next to a forest in Ha Tay Commune, the village looked like an outdoor architectural museum surrounded by jackfruit, star fruit, and star gooseberry trees.

It has no electricity, no shops and restaurants, but more than 50 stilt houses with thatched roofs and walls made with a mixture of mud and straw that stand as monuments to a rapidly disappearing way of life.

In the middle of the village is a common house bigger than the others with a grayish roof that looks like a giant upturned boat.

According to some news reports, the house was built in 1978.

Having seen a number of Ba Na villages, I believe Kon So Lal has the most original and beautiful architectural features.

A feeling of peace descended as I stood in the village, hearing nothing but the chirping of birds, the grunting of pigs and hens cackling somewhere nearby.

But the peace was accompanied by sadness. When I visited, there were just four people aged 70-80 years living in the village.

Their children and grandchildren were living in the new place, but raised their pigs and chicken in the old village, and would visit the elders from time to time. 

One of the residents, 80-year-old Chung, was sharpening bamboo to weave baskets, with his two-year-old grandchild by his side.

When he saw me, he invited me in for a drink, and performed with the goong a string instrument traditionally used by ethnic minority communities in Kon Tum and Gia Lai provinces. The music was sad, as if the performer were trying to convince his guest to stay longer in the lonely village.

Dinh Suk, chairman of Ha Tay Commune, who is nearly 60, said he does not know exactly when the village was founded.

"All I know is that it was already here during my grandparents' time, so it must be more than 100 years old. The village used to have 85 families with 454 members, but they moved to the new village for electricity and clean water," he said.

"I feel sad about the old village, but I do not know what to do about it."

Traditions remain

While they have moved to a new place for their creature comforts, Kon So Lal residents still observe their customs and keep their traditions alive. 

If you visit Kon So Lal on the occasion of some festival, you will be treated to entertaining performances by the potual (clowns) who dance and make fun during all Ba Na's festivals and other cultural events whether it is one celebrating a new crop, or a post funeral gathering.

The potual put on a yellowish mixture of clay and water on their body, face and even hair. Their clothes are made with weeping fig roots, or old sacks.

As protagonists or extras, they are part of every cultural event because people believe that their presence helps lessen people's sadness and loss in the face of separation and increase people's happiness about a good crop.

"It is probably a unique cultural characteristic of Ba Na people," Dinh Suk said.

However, I wondered if the tradition could survive for long, if the old village is itself on the brink of oblivion.

I thought: If provincial authorities could tie preservation efforts to tourism, would the village get a second, sustainable lease of life?

We can only hope.

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