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Hmong Refugees; Cocao, French Guiana

Hmong Refugees; Cocao, French Guiana

The story of the Laotian refugees is not told of tragedy but rather triumph, perseverance and strength.

When the Hmong people were forced to flee Laos in the 1970s some were relocated to Cocao, French Guiana.

Since then they’ve worked hard (VERY HARD) to rebuilt their lives and form a Laotian community in French Guiana.

Brief History

The Hmong (pronounced Mong) people are an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous regions in South East Asia.  From the 1960s to 1970s during the Laotian Civil War, many of the Hmong communities rebelled against Pathet Lao, the communist leader.

When Pathet Lao took control of the Laotian government in 1975, more than 100,000 Hmong lives were at risk and they were forced to flee to their neighboring country Thailand in search of political asylum.

From Thailand, thousands of Hmong refugees were relocated to the United States, Australia, France, Canada, South America, and French Guiana.

Credit: truth82
Credit: truth82

Laotian Refugees in French Guiana

In 1977, the first Laotian refugees arrived from France to an unwelcoming crowd of Creoles, an ethnic group descended from African slaves.  They were not keen on immigrants, just as themselves, getting special treatment including a few dozen francs per day.

Over time the Hmong refugees saved their money to invest in agricultural supplies to begin to movement to self sufficiency.  They formed enclaves in CacaoJavouhey and Régina and the tension between the Laos and Creoles also diminished.

The Laotian Refugees Today

After nearly 40 years of being separated from their homeland, the Hmong have rebuilt a new life and thrived in French Guiana.  They now produce roughly 80 percent of all the fruits and vegetables dispersed to the region.  Many of the refugees have earned large homes and automobiles over the years.

Today, as you walk the road of Cacao you’ll hear the Hmong dialect mixed with a little French.  Some women and men wear traditional Laotian attire and hand-make traditional Laotian crafts.

The scent of traditional Laotian dishes such as kaeng kalee (curry), mok pa (fish steamed in banana leaf), khao piak sen (noodle soup) fill the air.

In the article From a Hinterland, Hmong Forge a Home conducted by the New York Times, Ly May Ha a Laos refugees says, “Our life is in this place, where we are free to be ourselves.”

Credit: Nickolas Nikolic
Credit: Nickolas Nikolic

Activities from Cocao

In addition to visiting with the Hmong refugees, there are also boating, canoeing, and kayaking excursions up the Comte River or jungle trekking in the area.

When To Go

The best time to visit Cacao is from June to September during the high season when the weather is more ideal.

Climate

From June to September, the average high temperatures range from 87 to 90°F (31 to 32°C), low temperatures range from 71 to 74°F (22 to 23°C), and precipitations ranges from 13.7 to 1.6 inches (349 to 40mm) each month.

During this time June is the wettest month and September is the driest.

Getting There & Around

Cacao is located in the northeastern region of French Guiana.

The best way to get to Cacao is to fly into Cayenne International Airport and take a bus miles 47 miles (75km) southwest to Cacao.

Average Costs

  • Mid-range accommodations: $75-125
  • Meals: $15-20
  • Bottle of beer: $2

Do’s

  • Visit Cacao on a Sunday when the market is in full effect where you can buy Hmong handcrafts and eat traditional Laotian food.  Try to arrive early before 10am when other travelers arrive on tour buses.
  • Bring insect repellent, water and rain protection if you plan on hiking.
  • Hike the 11 mile (18km) Sentier Molokoi de Cacao trek that leads deep into the jungle forest and can be done independently.

Don’ts

  • Miss Le Planeur Blue to see a local arachnid and butterfly exhibit.
  • Expect a large town.  There’s just the basics for this small community.
  • Bring large bills so you can work with the market vendors easier.

Fun Facts

  • The Hmong refugees fled Laos in the 1970s.
  • In December the Hmong celebrate the new year for three to four days.
  • The Hmong believe that people have more than one soul.

Feature Image Credit: Jean-Louis POTIER

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About Darcie Connell

As the founder and CEO of Trekity.com, Darcie Connell is a world traveler and a writer who's been featured on Forbes, The Huffington Post, The Next Web, LifeHack, LearnVest, Mint, and GoAbroad.  With a degree in Marketing and over two years experience traveling the world consecutively, she co-wrote Business In A Backpack and loves sharing her advice and experiences on Trekity.

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