VILLAGE GHOST: Celebrating The Traditions And Values Of Those That Came Before Us

By Kamphone Jot Voraphaychith





It’s another late night. My wife and kids are in bed and I’m back in the Village Ghost Lao Sato (Lao rice wine) brewing room, checking batches of wine. The yeast and microbes are doing their job as I see bubbles dancing on the surface of the sweet liquid made from sticky rice. I take a pipet to have a little taste. It’s still very sweet and gives off hints of apples and pears. The smell matches the flavor: floral with fruity notes. I’m very happy with this batch that will soon be bottled as Village Ghost Sato. Music plays in the background of both old and new collections of Lao folk music. As I listen to the khlui, (Lao flute), I look up to my dad’s picture hanging on the wall of the sato room – a black and white photo in his officer’s uniform.

He must have been around my age, if not younger. His stare is stern, confident yet playful at the same time. He was quite a handsome man at that age. As I often do in the solitude of the sato room, my mind wanders to what life may have been in Champasak Laos. Visions of fishing along the Mekong River, our home along its shores, rice fields that provided for our family for generations. Fictitious memories that I have conjured from the few old photos that my family managed to hold onto while fleeing Laos. Details of the war and our journey out of Laos have always been something that was not talked about in detail growing up. Even in a recent conversation with my mom showed her unwillingness to want to share specifics. I sensed she still feared retribution from the conflict from so long ago.

As a proud and strong Lao woman who never complained about hardship, she did not like to reveal how difficult the struggle was during that time. Now at an age close to what my parents would have been during the war, I can understand not wanting to talk about or re-live a time that was so uncertain for you and your children – abandoning all that you have built, leaving everything you know behind, and taking a leap of faith that everything would work out.

Over the years I was able to find a safe space to talk about the past. That safe space was in the form of asking questions on how to make sato. Conversations that started out with how grandma made yeast balls would later reveal more intimate details of their life prior to the war, such as how my mom as a skinny little kid would sell vegetables and snacks outside of the school my dad attended. My dad, a few years older than her, would joke to his school friend (my mom’s cousin) in front of her, “I’m going to make that skinny girl my wife one day.” As fate would have it, he fell in love with her as she grew to become a beautiful woman.

I loved hearing these details as it revealed my parents from a different lens, not as Mom and Dad trying their best to navigate and assimilate in this new country, but young people with vibrant lives and big dreams. In these conversations, I would also learn in greater detail the heavy burden, worry, and fear that Mom and Dad – like so many Lao parents – had to endure to get to the United States, so that their family could have the opportunities they have today.

The Journey

My dad, an officer in the Royal Lao Army, was forced into a re-education camp when the Pathet Lao Communist party took over the country in 1975. Many times, he feared they would kill him. Six months into his re-education, they abruptly took him on a plane. He thought for sure this would be his end. To his surprise, when they landed, he was in Pakse, near our hometown of Champassak. Having relocated closer to home, he began to plan our family’s escape from Laos. In 1981, my dad fled his re-education camp and took our family on the dangerous and uncertain journey across the Mekong into Thailand. During our first attempt we traveled to an island in the middle of the Mekong River and then in the quiet of night crossed into a village outside of Thailand that was run by Lao resistance fighters. From there we were taken at gun point by Thai police to their station for interrogations.

My cousin, who traveled with us, a teenager at the time, said that they made her prove that she was Lao and not Vietnamese by singing the old Lao national anthem and again the new communist Lao national anthem. She was successful. After staying at the station for 4 days, the Thai officers forced us back to Laos. It was later revealed to my mom that we were fortunate because a family that arrived a week prior were not as lucky and did not make the trip back home. During this time, we had to separate from my dad. He stayed back with the resistance fighters fearing that his return would be certain death. Contact with my dad and his whereabouts would go silent for almost a year. My mom recalled feeling hopelessness and despair, fearing that my dad had passed. In 1982, my mom joyously received good news. 

My dad had made it to a refugee camp in Thailand and told my mom to reunite with him. Mom planned for a second attempt to flee Laos – this time without my dad. With Mom’s strong will and determination, she got us to the refugee camps in Thailand safely. However, we had to jump between four refugee camps just that year, before finally reuniting with my dad. We immigrated to Kennewick, Washington in 1983. I was four years old.

Life In The U.S.

In Kennewick, my mom worked at a meat packing plant all the way until her retirement. My dad jumped around from various restaurant jobs and factories in the area. He later would open the first Lao market in town, which was a hub for the Lao community. It served as a spot to rent Thai movies, purchase Lao print magazines – and the daily stocking up of sticky rice and rare Lao vegetables and ingredients that could not be found in regular grocery stores. Customers would stay for hours just talking to my dad about random current events. Dad was a community leader and Mor Phon, someone who would perform the Baci ceremony, calling of the soul’s blessing. I still have people come up to me today saying that my dad was the one who married them. My parents were founding members of the first Lao temple in Kennewick. 

I remember as a kid going to look at the land with my dad when it was just a trailer on a 5-acre lot. Through the collective efforts of my parents and the community elders, the temple now consists of a prayer hall, shrine temple, and community hall; it has become a vibrant center where spirituality, tradition, and community converge, leaving a lasting legacy for generations to come. As Lao New Year approaches, my dad’s presence grows ever stronger. He was the MC at all the temple events, his voice booming over the loudspeakers. My dad is no longer with us, but occasionally I can still hear his voice on those speakers when walking the temple grounds. He still is a strong presence in all that I do – including Village Ghost.

My goal for Village Ghost is to make the best Lao sato rice wine – and to pour all of the love for Lao culture and tradition into it. Many people have asked me, “What does Village Ghost mean?” Village Ghost is a tribute to our past, celebrating the traditions and values of those that came before us. It is my hope that our collective Lao story and the secret war be told and remembered not only in the context of history, but in our own family’s history. The struggles our parents experienced during and after the war, their strength, and perseverance to create a bright future for us should never be forgotten. The strong foundation they have built in our communities within the United States is something I am so proud of and forever grateful for. They are my Village Ghost!

Cheers and Huk Pang Gun! Love and take care of one another! 

Images courtesy Village Ghost

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