LAOS. Now is the time of year in British schools when hearts are temporarily won and lost in a frantic exchange of cards and kisses for St Valentine's Day. But in Laos, schoolchildren play out an annual ritual the consequences of which can stay with them for life.
For one week at Hmong New Year, teenagers from the indigenous Hmong hill tribes join in a form of courtship "catch" in the playground that can lead to marriage.
The game, nyown mak khorn, is played by girls and boys standing in two opposing lines. If a boy is attracted to a girl, he throws a ball to her. If she catches and returns it, they will carry on playing for up to six hours a day for several days. If love still holds at the end of this endurance test, they are regarded as engaged and will marry that year.
Traditionally, the ball, mak khorn, is made by the boy, often from a discarded shirt or pair of trousers. In some places, if a girl drops - rather than avoids - a catch, she may have to hand over a valuable jewel or necklace. The boy will then return these to the family and ask for the girl's hand in marriage.
At the village of Som Sa Mai, 35 dusty miles from the Laotian capital, Vientiane, I saw the school windows thronged with students watching the declarations of love being made by their peers outside. Academic work seemed the last thing on their mind.
Two lines of boys and girls were throwing balls back and forth so gently it was obvious that they were meant to be caught. By the third day, surrounded by groups of students and watchful parents, they were looking distinctly tired.
But at least the ritual offers the girls some element of choice. It is not unknown in Hmong society for boys to capture their intended brides and lock them up for a month or two. The options then, we were told, are capitulation or, on occasions, strychnine.