Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) | Mekong | Luang Prabang – Laos High
There is a quietness in the country air that gets hotter and hotter and hotter, until a thoughtful thunderstorm decides to unleash its burdensome clouds washing down on the jungle villages below. A quickly accelerating breeze and a rushing sound that might last for two or at most twenty seconds starts before the downpour. When youve heard that sound once, you know it means one thing rain refreshing and cooling rain.
My arrival in Luang Prabang on New Years Day was very smooth. Having already arranged a thirty-day visa in Bangkok, getting through immigration went without a hitch and soon I was on my bike headed for the town. Being the New Year, accommodation was tight, but I looked at a few places before settling on a new private room in a family run guesthouse.
Venturing outside, drums are beating in the streets and people are chanting as they walk with the sing kohn, large red-faced female and male heads with lion coloured hair down to the ground. They are the grand spirits, the great ancestors of the Laos New Year and take part in all the processions. Downtown Luang Prabang at New Years has its share of foreigners crowding into the various bakeries and restaurants that echo the former French colonial times, as do the abundance of fresh baguettes and Café Lao.
On the second day of the New Year celebrations, monks, members of the major ethnic groups that make up the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos, the Sing Kohn with their accompanying dragon like creature, the Sing Ka, and the beauty queen contestants, will proceed down the main street from one temple to another, only to return on the following afternoon. The preparations seem to take an hour and a half for the brief ten-minute procession. Still, the crowds are pleased and after watching the festivities, go back to their own celebrations.
I mentioned in my last post, that I was coming to Laos in part to hopefully do some start-up work with a foundation. I had been in correspondence since October of 2003 with representatives of, and directly with an expat American who was wanting to sell and donate the proceeds of a collection of Bhutan Textiles to among other things, assist in UXO removal and infrastructure improvement in rural Laos. The plan was to produce a promotional video/DVD about the project and its aims as well as document the process for further exposure in the future. So after two days in Luang Prabang, I was off to Nong Kiaws sister village Ban Suphoun, four hours away by bus to meet with this individual.
The sleepy village of Ban Suphoun was anything but sleepy. Each night around sunset or sooner, the rice whisky Lao Lao was brought out and the drinking, drumming, eating, and singing began. The village had at least one or two of these parties going on and possibly one or two other karaoke parties going until well into the night. Even intermittent power outages did nothing to dampen the spirit or volume of these celebrations. Still the drumming and the chanting were peaceful and sleep inducing. Many times I was invited to join in a drink of Lao Lao and on one occasion to celebrate with Lao Hai. Lao High, as I like to call it, is a fermented rice drink that is made and served in a traditional or antique pot at weddings and other special occasions such as New Year. Two or four bamboo straws pierce the rice, and drinking water is continually added to the pot making for an endless Lao High. Turns at the straws are taken with the traditional toast Suuka Pop Keng Heng wishing strength to those who are drinking.
During my four or five days in Ban Suphoun, the air would become so thick with smoke from the slash and burn preparations for the summer gardens that it was a welcome relief to have the rains come early, not only clearing, but also cooling the air. It was during these four or five days that I had numerous meetings with the individual I mentioned, and apparently due to some resurfaced hurt feelings from an unflattering article in the Wall Street Asian Journal of 2001, and after months of expressing enthusiasm and willingness to participate, had now had a change of heart and did not wish to participate in any filming. It also turned out that he was no further ahead in his efforts to disburse of the textile collection than he has been for many years. I also have a number of concerns about the sincerity and genuine goals of this individual. Hopefully, I will be proven wrong in the long run, but I doubt it. Perhaps the smoke was indicative of the unknown murky climate around this project. I also managed to pick up (hopefully only) some kind of stomach ailment on my last day in Ban Suphoun, before I headed to Luang Prabang to do some emailing and other business.
I was sick for the last few days with some food poisoning, but I wont go into the details. I mean that. Thank you so much to the tri-lingual pharmacist with a heart of gold and a penchant for under-medicating rather than throwing piles of pills at you.
On a lighter note, I’m feeling better today and went to a local market for a bit of a bike ride and tour. While wandering by the meat department (I think you can call it that), a lady picked something up and shook it at me, which sent the rest of the vendors into peals of laughter. I looked again and she had a pig’s cock ‘n balls in her hands. And then there’ the many people riding bicycles and driving motorbikes down the streets while carrying open umbrellas – it’s just another one of those things that’s different from home.
Luang Prabang has plenty of amazing restaurants ranging from traditional Laos places on the river with live music, to fancy French eateries, to Pizzarias, to three or four Indian restaurants. I haven’t been to a bad one yet, but some of my favorites are the Scandanavian Bakery, the French Teahouse “L’etranger” along with its very funky Hive Bar, and the Maklan Pub. There’s also a new cheap guesthouse called the Phousie Guesthouse located just off the main street and it is right across the street from the royal palace museum and Wat. It also has a good family run restaurant.
I will be back in Ban Suphoun after loading up on baguettes, whole wheat bread, pingles potatoechips, New Zealand Cheddar and other small luxuries for the road ahead. Then it’s ‘back on the bike’ (as Simon from World Surface would say) from there to the Plain of Jars and points south before going heading to Thailand to help on some bona fide projects. Till then, may you all keep well! Rose and Christine – hope you had a great one!
By the way Lynne – I had my worldsurface t-shirt packed, but (and this is embarrassing), I had to take 19 pounds, or almost 8 kilos out of my luggage at the airport because my ‘trial packing program’ went to the dogs. Maybe I’ll try and get one made when I am back in Bangkok.