As we wind down the Year of the Nak, and approach the Year of the Snake, 2556, Little Laos on the Prairie wanted to take a moment to put it into perspective.
For Lao American communities, we should remember we celebrated Year of the Snake in America only three previous years: 1977, 1989, and 2001. Or, using the traditional Lao calendar, 2520, 2532, and 2544.
How should we celebrate this fourth time?
In Minnesota, it’s also the 30th anniversary of the Lao Assistance Center serving the community. There are many other milestones and events being planned ahead including the International Lao Studies Conference (April 19-21) and the 4th Luang Prabang Film Festival in winter.
As an interesting bit of trivia, depending on the system you use, this is also the Year of the Black Snake or the Year of the Water Snake. Many traditional Lao think snakes and snake-like beings that dwell in the waters are lucky, or at least, should be respected and not trifled with.
The first major Year of the Snake of clear significance for Lao might be 1896, which was the foundation of Lan Xang by Fa Ngum in what Europe and America consider 1353. This year marks the 660th anniversary.
The most recent Year of the Snake was 2554 or the year 2001, which was a year that changed many things for everyone for reasons I shouldn’t have to elaborate upon. Keep in mind that in the year before, the world was afraid of Y2K and various apocalypse prophecies and still recovering from a very close, contentious presidential election in the US. It doesn’t take much to see some familiar themes between then and now. It may be interesting for some to know that 2001 was a Metal Snake year.
Historically, we know in 2184, the first Europeans reached Viang Chan in what they record as the year 1641. Three hundred years ago this year, in 2256, or the year 1713, Lan Xang finished splitting into 3 distinct kingdoms until the end of the 19th century.
When it was the Year of the Snake, 2436, the French seized Lao territories east of the Mekong, which were ceded by Siam. That was 1893. We can also see that in 2484, or 1941, one outcome of the Franco-Thai war was the loss of Lao territories on the west bank of the Mekong river.
By 2520, or what is more commonly considered 1977, almost 10% of the Lao had left Laos as refugees.
We think you’ll agree, during snake years, pretty big things often happened to the Lao that redefined who we are and could be. Of course, there were also snake years that went by without much fanfare, so please don’t read too much into this.
From a naturalist’s perspective, there are at least 9-12 venomous and potentially life-threatening snake species are found in Laos, and new ones discovered regularly in the wilderness.
Among the most deadly snakes of Laos are the Green Pit Vipers (including the White Lipped Pit Viper), the Malayan Pit Viper, the Mountain Pit Viper, the Malayan and Banded Kraits, at least 2 common cobra species, the King Cobra. As of 2010, at least 3 in 100,000 bites are estimated to be fatal, although statistical reporting is still very hard to obtain.
You can also find the Reticulated Python, Tiger Python, Oriental Whip Snake, Golden Tree Snake, Copperhead Racer or Rat Snake, the Laotian Wolf Snake, Indochinese Rat Snake, and the Checkered Keelback. These snakes play a vital role in the Lao ecosystem, and most don’t attack humans unless threatened by their territory being encroached upon.
Unfortunately, there are also traditional herbalists both in the US and abroad who are superstitiously convinced many of these snakes have medicinal properties. As they turn these snakes into drinks, snacks and other remedies, they’re contributing to the unhealthy disruption of the Lao ecosystem without considering the real environmental impact.
That being said, companies like Snake Bomb Coffee are working to increase access to antivenom kits in Laos to address the nearly 16,000 people who are estimated to die each year in Laos from snake bites. They are also using proceeds from their sales to support UXO clearance there, which remains a persistent problem.
There’s not much on file on the differences between Lao astrologer’s interpretations of the personalities of people born in the Year of the Snake. But traditionally in China, those born in the snake years are considered the wise sages of the community. They are seen as being particularly clever, aware, private and not prone to showing their emotions.
Traditional Chinese felt those born in the Year of the Snake who give in to their darker sides can be prideful, vain and even vicious. So parents were encouraged to discourage that. But at their best, a snake was considered a good omen because that meant your family wasn’t going starve.
The snake was a symbol of being a good mediator or business person, or willing to be generous and sacrifice from their personal holdings to ensure their family prospered. Others point to the the snake as a being who is capable of shedding their skins and evolving into something bigger than what they were before. From a Lao point of view, we think there’s a lot to relate to in that interpretation.
Those born in the Year of the Snake are said to get bored easily at work, and don’t like stress and hectic, noisy atmospheres. They like to work alone. They are reputed to get get along best with Ox and Roosters, but not Tigers and Pigs. It would be interesting to hear about your experiences.
However, this overview isn’t presented to encourage superstition or corrosive fatalism.
As we prepare for the Lao New Year in April, we should keep in mind what we’ve believed and experienced, and judge for ourselves as individuals and as a community where we want to go. The next Year of the Snake won’t come around again until 2568/2025. But over the last 660 years, Year of the Snake has often suggested we can’t be afraid of almost earth-shattering change, if we keep adaptive and enthusiastic about pursuing wisdom, enlightenment and education.
What are you looking forward to in the Year of the Snake ahead?