The Hunting Trip: Have You Ever Gone Hunting for Porcupines at Night?
By Gary Yia Lee
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.
At 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.
I 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.”
I 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.
He 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.
By the time we finished eating, it was getting dark. I turned to my favourite 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 at me.
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 hands?”
“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 alone.”
“I see….”, I said back, even though I really could not see or understand what he was telling me.
I 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 opium-induced stupor.
“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.”
He seemed to know the place well. He must have been here before. He continued:
“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 life.
“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 him.
“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 verbalising his thoughts.
He 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.
I 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 of.
I 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.”
He 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 up.
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.
It 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.
I 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 tree.”
“What do you mean, Vauv?”
“I 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?”
“I 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 my way?”
He 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.
I 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 light.
“Why are we staying here? Can’t we go somewhere else, Uncle?”, I asked.
“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.
In 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.
I 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 alone?”
“Yes, nothing wrong with that!”, he said ever so calmly.
“Oh, nothing… except I wouldn’t do it, even for a million Baht (Thai money).”
“What did you say about a million Baht?”, he asked, suddenly interested.
“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.
He 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 with me.
“Well, I should just go and look,” he insisted.
“No, don’t go. I know it’s nothing.” Probably some giant monster!
“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 shamefacedly.
“I don’t need all the meat from the city. This is hunting. It’s not the same.”
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 Thai city.
In 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.