There were seven jars attached to the framework in the centre of the room and as soon as the chief’s sons-in-law had arrived and hung up their cross-bows on the beam over the adventures of Dick Tracy, they were sent off with bamboo containers to the nearest ditch for water. In the meanwhile the seals of mud were removed from the necks of the jars and rice-straw and leaves were forced down inside them over the fermented rice-mash to prevent solid particles from rising when the water was added. The thing began to look serious and Ribo asked the chief, through his interpreter, for the very minimum ceremony to be performed as we had other villages to visit that day. The chief said that he had already understood that, and that was why only seven jars had been provided. It was such a poor affair that he hardly liked to have the gongs beaten to invite the household god’s presence. He hoped that by way of compensation he would be given sufficient notce of a visit next time to enable him to arrange a reception on a proper scale. He would guarantee to lay us all out for twenty-four hours.
This being the first of what I was told would be an endless succession of such encounters in the MoÃ¯ country I was careful to study the details of the ceremony. Although these varied in detail from village to village, the essentials remained the same. The gong-orchestra starts up a deafening rhythm. You seat yourself on a stool before the principal jar, in the centre, take the bamboo tube in your mouth and do your best to consume the correct measure of three cow-horn’s full of spirit. Your attendant, who squats, facing you, on the other side of the jar, has no difficulty in keeping a check on the amount drunk, since the level is never allowed to drop below the top of the jar, water being constantly added from a small hole in the side of the horn, on which he keeps his thumb until the drinking begins. After you have finished with the principal jar, you more to the right of the line and work your way down. There is no obligatory minimum consumption from the secondary jars. At frequent intervals you suck up the spirit to the mouth of the tube and then, your thumb held over the end, you present it to one of the dignitaries present, who, beaming his thanks, takes a short suck and hands it back to you. In performing these courtesies you are warned to give priority to those whose loin-cloths are the most splendid, but if, in this case, the apparel oft proclaims the man, age is a more certain criterion with the women.
The M’nongs are matriarchal and it is to the relatively aged and powerful mothers-in-law that all property really belongs. Although the women hold back for a while and it is left to the men to initiate the ceremonies, the rice alcohol, the jars, the gongs, the drums and the house itself are all theirs. It is therefore, not only a mark of exquisite courtesy but a tactful recognition of the economic realities to gesture as soon as possible with one’s tube in the direction of the most elderly of the ladies standing on the threshold of the commonroom. Wth surprising alacrity the next stool is vacated by its occupying notable to allow the true power in the house with a gracious and impeccably toothless smile to take her place. This toothlessness, of course, has no relation to the lady’s great age and arises from the fact that the incisors are regarded by the MoÃ¯s as unbearably canine in their effect and are, therefore, broken out of the jaws at the age of puberty.
A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, by Norman Lewis
London: Jonathan Cape, 1951.