Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve - Already?

I was planning on writing a blog today related to the two Buddhist funerals and the village exorcism that I witnessed on Wednesday of this week here in Isaan.  It was only when I sat down to commence writing the blog that I realized that today is Christmas Eve here.

To be honest, I am not comfortable writing and sharing Animist and Buddhist rituals on the eve of one of Christianity's two most holy of holidays.  Yes despite the focus on holiday sales statistics and their possible impact on the economy, the focus of Christmas should be on the reasons for the holiday to begin with.  I do not want to disrespect the holiday by detracting from the Christian beliefs.  There will be other times to share some of the unique aspects and insights of life in Isaan.

I can imagine all the husbands and fathers busy finishing up with the last bit of shopping for gifts.  Once they have returned home, they will spend hours assembling the bicycles, big wheels, and wagons to place under the Christmas tree for early morning discovery by their children.  Of course there will be some of Santa's cookies, milk, as well as some of the reindeer's carrots to sustain them until they can finally go to bed.

There are many ways to measure the passage of time and one of them for me is reminiscing about Christmas's past.  I have written about some of them before but at this time of the year the memories of Christmas's past just keep on coming.

I remember one of my father's aunts, an aunt that we only saw once a year at the family Christmas Eve Smorgasbord.  She still retained a Swedish accent and when questioned how she was doing she would reply "Well not so good you know I have been feeling kind of poorly".  Years later I leaned that she had been feeling kind of poorly since my dad was a young boy in the 1930s.  She continued to feel kind of poorly long after I had grown up and moved away.  She continued to feel kind of poorly until she died in her 90s.

As a young man and father, I celebrated New Year's Eve with special traditions.  I had been married on Christmas Eve in 1971 so for 15 years, Christmas Eve was celebrated with a special meal either at home or at a special restaurant, drinking champagne or sparkling wine purchased the year before in the Pewter wedding goblet, and after dinner I joined all the other fathers in wrapping boxes as well as assembling toys. The marriage ended and then the children were grown with lives of their own.

As life moved on Christmas Eve evolved with modified traditions and in many cases new traditions.  Change is inevitable and can overwhelm us if we resist.  However if we bend with the changes our life can be enriched and even made better.

The memories of Christmas past can provide us with comfort and solace as we move on in life.  The adapting and creation of new traditions can sustain us as we write the new chapters and assume new roles of our life.

For this Christmas Eve, Duang and I , wish that everyone is able to take comfort in their Christmas pasts and allow themselves to make happy memories for the Christmas to come.

For our Christian friends  we hope that the true meaning of Christmas remains a big part of your celebrations and joy.  Although the ideals of the holiday are often not upheld it is the constant trying to bring peace and joy to the world that must continue.  We can't cave in to cynicism for the world actually starts with each of us.  If we can bring peace and joy to ourselves the world will well on its way.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Luang Prabang - Sala Pha Bang

Altar for Displaying Pra Bang
As I wrote in a previous blog, my top priority for our last day in Luang Prabang, Laos, our stay in town day, was to go to the Royal Palace Museum specifically to check out the Sala Pha Bang.  The Sala Pha Bang, also referred to as Haw Pha Bang, is the Royal Chapel and is located in the northeast corner of the Royal Palace Museum compound.  It is not an ancient building.  In fact it is not a very old building.  It was originally constructed in 1963; Western calendar and not "1963" 0f the Buddhist Era calendar which would make it 453 years older.

Sala Pha Bang In December Late Afternoon Sunlight
The King of Laos directed that it be renovated in 1973.  With the Communist Pathet Lao taking over control of Laos in 1975, the project was abandoned.  Over the years the Communist government relaxed its restrictions and attitudes towards the Buddhist religion with the project to renovate the Sala Pha Bang recommencing in 1993.  According to my 2005 edition of Lonely Planet guidebook, "Laos", the project was scheduled to be completed at the end of 2004.  During our first visit in February 2008, interior work specifically painting, installing pieces of brightly colored reflective glass, and applying gold leaf on intricately carvings was still ongoing.  I had estimated that the project was about 80% complete at the time.

It is interesting that it appears that no matter the form of government, government projects always seem to have budget and schedule problems.  In all my years of working on private projects, some considered to be Mega-Projects, the projects were seldom late.  Of the very few that were completed late, they were weeks or perhaps a couple of  months late but never a year let alone more than 4 years late!

The purpose of the restoration of the Sala Pha Bang was to prepare it to receive and store a statue of Buddha referred to as "Pra Bang".  The "Pra Bang" is a staue of Buddha in the "Dispelling Fear" position.  The statue is most likely Khmer from the 1300s although legend has it coming from Ceylon in the 1st century.  In 1359 a Khmer King gave the statue to his son-in-law in Laos which gave the monarchy there Buddhist legitimacy.  The statue has been venerated by the Lao people since that time.

We arrived at the Royal Palace Museum at 11:00 A.M. only to discover that it was closed until 1:30 P.M.  We took advantage of the closing to pursue a dream that had come to me in my sleep the night before.  My dream was not a quest for anything spiritual or involving any mysteries of either life or the universe.  In my dream, I was eating a Croque Monsieur sandwich.  Croque Monsieur is a grilled hot ham and cheese sandwich.  Before I left the cultural rich Luang Prabang area, I wanted to eat a Croque Monsieur.  Earlier in the morning we had encountered a French woman at a French cafe near our hotel who told me upon my informing her of my culinary quest that the best Croque Monsieur was served at the the Elephant Restaurant.  We asked around and found out where the Elephant Restaurant was.  It was back close to where our hotel was.  We eventually found the restaurant and sat down in what appeared to be a 1920's French brasserie.  That should have been a tip off.  The second tip off was when I was presented a leather bound wine list - A3 size (8.5 inches x 11 inches) FOR LUNCH.  I looked at the menu and there were some very tasty items described but no Croque Monsieur!  I checked and double checked the menu.  I had Duang explain to the waiter what I was looking for and he brought the maitre d' over.  We were in the wrong place!  But we were not the only ones or I doubt the last ones who had made the same mistake.  It turns out that the Elephant restaurant runs two other restaurants one of them being "Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene" about three blocks away and almost across the street from our hotel which did serve Croque Monsieur.  We made our apologies and left what our 2005 version of Lonely Planet guide book for Laos describes as "One of Luang Prabang's most elegant Western eateries ..."

We found the correct cafe and I enjoyed my fabulous Croque Monsieur and a French fruit tart while Duang enjoyed her Thai food entry for lunch.  With one obsession satisfied we walked back down to the Royal Palace Museum.

A Side Staircase to Sala Pha Bang

After paying the entrance fee, we headed directly over to the Sala Pha Bang.  As was the situation two years ago, people were busy posing for photos in front of the building.  Many of the people were flashing the "V" sign for their portrait - definitely not something or someone that I wanted in my photos.  We wandered off to the side and back of the building to find ourselves completely alone.  This was also the situation two years ago.  People all want to see what everyone else has seen and what everyone else will easily recognized.  After getting their photos which are just like everyone else's photos they scurry off to the next well recognized venue.  However just as there are two sides to every argument, two sides to a story, there are many perspectives to a venue.  By investing more time, sometimes just a little more, and more footsteps, you can better appreciate and experience a location.  For me it is not appearing in a postcard photo but for me it is all about the sights form all angles, sounds, smells and ambiance of a location. Not that I should be complaining; for if more people shared our travel philosophy Allen's World would be much more crowded!  I am fortunate that this philosophy also works for Duang so I always have someone to share the complete experience with. 

Exterior Door At Back of Sala Pha Bang

Main Staircase At Back of Royal Chapel

Handrail Detail of Naga At Back of Royal Palace Chapel
We eventually arrived at the front of the Royal Chapel and entered.  The restoration work had been completed but the venerated Buddha was not on display.  There was a lone female attendant seated in a plastic chair in the corner of the fabulous room.  Duang pulled up a spare plastic chair and started speaking with the attendant while I went about oohing and ahhing as I took photographs.

The interior was filled with intricately carved walls, ceiling, and columns.  In many locations any flat areas were filled with pieces of reflective colorful glass.  Most of the carvings were covered with gold leaf.  We had watched the craftsmen applying some of the gold leaf two years ago.  No adhesive is utilized to apply the gold leaf to base structures.  Static electricity from the super thin gold keeps the small sheets of gold attached.  Craftsmen use very fine brushes to apply the gold leaf in place and to brush out any trapped air between the leaf and the base.

Perhaps because the Pra Bang was not on display, there were few visitors to the inside of the chapel.  During our one-and one-half visit to the Chapel, there were no more than 15 to 20 other visitors.  This made it very convenient to thoroughly enjoy the beauty and mastery of the building.  I was able to lay flat on the floor and stare up at the ceiling.  The ceiling was dark red with carved gold leafed carvings of life in Laos a long time ago.  Mixed in with the scenes of Lao life were representations of Buddha's many lives.  Some of the scenes reminded me of scenes from the "Ramakian" back in Bangkok.  I suspect that the scenes are actually from the Hindu epic "Ramayana" upon which the Ramakian is based.

One of Several Murals in the Sala Pha Bang

There are also several carved gold leafed murals on the walls that I am certain are based upon the Ramayana.  It was a feast of intricately carved figures, gold leaf, and rich dark red paint.  Inside the chapel there were several ornate columns.

Ornate Interior Columns
Group of Ornate Interior Columns
One group of visitors to the Chapel while we were there was a Buddhist Abbott, two young Monks, and a Maechi; a female who is someone between an ordinary layperson and an ordained Monk - all from Thailand.  They spoke some English so I was able to communicate with them along with Duang's Thai conversation.  The entire atmosphere was very relaxed.

Monks Visiting From Thailand
The Lao attendant convinced that we posed no threat or perhaps just bored, left us alone after awhile.  left us alone to the extent that she left the building.  After  I had been photographing  a while Duang had to go to the bathroom.  Believing that I could not get into any trouble she left me alone while she walked to the far side of the compound where the restrooms are located.  There was no need for me to show her where they were because she had used them two years ago and just prior to entering the Sala Pha Bang.  Well Duang's belief that I would not get into trouble was not justified.  As I was photographing the beauty that surrounded me two small groups of people came in.  In both groups a person touched the intricate gold leafed carvings.  I was polite but I did not suffer in silence.  As in the protection of children, I believe we all need to contribute to the protection of our heritage be it art, or natural wonders.  In the absence of the attendant I decided to take on the roll of guardian of the Lao heritage.  I informed both people in Thai to not touch the carvings that it was not good to do so.  When Duang returned, I told her and she smiled somewhat embarrassed by my activism.  I get upset when people though their ignorance, callousness, or non-thinking endanger works of art or heritage for others.  When the attendant finally returned I informed her of what happened and also pointed out to her to be on guard for others.  I felt better  but I also had the nagging suspicion that she was also like too many other government employees.

Interior Door Detail - Buddha Upon A Lotus Flower
We left to walk back to our hotel where our bag was being held and where our driver was to pick us up to go the airport.  Our flight was scheduled to leave at 5:50 P.M. so we planned on meeting our driver at 4:00 P.M.  When we were about two blocks from our hotel, I saw out of the corner of my eye a Tuk-Tuk slow down which is not uncommon in Luang Prabang.  Tuk-Tuks constantly are hustling about trying to fares.  However when this driver called out he was laughing and smiling - it was our driver.  Since we were so close to the hotel, I waved him on.  Once again he had arrived early!

Duang and I could not believe how quickly our day about town had passed.  It had been a great day for the end of a great visit.  Although we had seen all the major items that we planned on for our second visit to the area, there were still many things that we still have yet to see or do in Luang Prabang.  Many things to see and do; reasons to return for a third visit some day.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

School Daze - Luang Prabang

Lao Students Clean Their Classroom Before the Start of Lessons
On our last day in Luang Prabang, we were scheduled to leave at 5:50 P.M. so we had essentially the whole day for sightseeing.  Since we had visited three outlying villages the day before and had visited the two local Hmong New Year festival sights three times, we decided to dedicate our last day to walking about Luang Prabang.  Although we had visited the city before there were several things that we wanted to see and do.

On the top of my list was to go to the Royal Palace Museum and specifically visit the now completed Sala Pha Bang.  In February 2008 during our first visit to the city we spent a great deal of time watching craftsmen applying gold leaf to the walls.  This year we would have the opportunity to enjoy their completed work but that will be subject to a future blog entry.

The second location that I wanted to visit was the Luang Prabang Primary School.  Our hotel was located in the Historical Temple District of Luang Prabang on Th Sakkrin which seamlessly transforms into Th. Sisavangvong.  Th Sisavangvong is where the Royal Palace Museum is located and where the nightly Handicraft Market is set up.  During our stay, it was also where films were screened for the Luang Prabang International Film Festival.  Every evening when we walked downtown we would pass by the Luang Prabang Primary School about two or three blocks from our hotel.  I wanted to see what school was like for Lao children and compare it to the schools that I have visited in other countries.

Friday morning, or last day in Laos, I was awoken at 4:00 A.M.just like every other morning by the banging of the Wat's bell next door.  The early wake ups didn't bother me because, for me, it was part of the ambiance of the location and culture.  It was just like when I lived in the Muslim countries of Algeria and Malaysia. The calls to prayer from very early morning to night never bothered me.  To the contrary, I actually enjoyed them for they were reminders that I was no longer home and for me they were a connection to a distant past.  Experiencing rituals that are over 1,800 years old is fascinating to me.

Being a practicing Buddhist, the early morning wake-up was not so fascinating for Duang.  Since we did not have offerings for the Monks she was embarrassed to watch the Tak Bat without participating.  The hotel could arrange for food offerings and as I wrote earlier about this trip, roving street peddlers were all too willing to sell you offerings for the Monks.  I told her about this but she still chose to fall back asleep and get up at 7:00 A.M.  It actually worked out well, she was dressed and cleaned up for the day upon my return to the hotel.  After sharing breakfast together, I quickly showered, shaved, and we set off upon our daily trips.

I had heard that the Monks practice meditation and chanting prior to going out on their alms walk each morning.  I interpreted this as they would assemble in one of the Wat buildings to perform their meditation and chanting.  This was a ritual that I had not seen before and definitely wanted to photograph.  Since I was already awake, I got dressed, grabbed my camera bag and headed downstairs.  My hiking boots were underneath the hotel Christmas tree where I had left them next to Duang's shoes.  Each night I had joked with the staff about Santa Claus coming to fill my boots with goodies.  Each morning I feigned disappointment that Santa Claus had not taken care of me - yet.  Actually I was just happy that the boots were still there. I can only imagine how difficult US size 11 (Lao 44) boots would be to find in Luang Prabang or any other place in Laos.

I walked over to the Wat next door and found all the front gates to be locked shut.  I tried the side gates and soon found one that was not locked.  I entered the Wat compound and located a building that seemed appropriate for Monks to assemble in for meditating as well as chanting.  There was a stone bench outside of the building so I sat down and made myself comfortable to wait for the Monks. I waited and waited and then I waited some more.  It was interesting to hear the sounds coming from the street on the other side of the Wat's perimeter wall.  People were setting up sahts on the sidewalk and laying out the containers of sticky rice for the tourists.  I could hear the shuffling sound of flip flops on the asphalt as the street vendors went about their business.  Other sounds were from local residents setting up their little restaurants on the sidewalk in front of their home to prepare, cook, and serve hungry people their first meal of the day.  What I did not hear was anything of interest coming from inside of the Wat compound.  Once in a while I heard a cough or saw a door crack open as a Monk left his quarters to go the bathroom building.  I did not see any meditation.  I did not hear any chanting.  I suspect that the Monks must do both the chanting and meditating silently in the privacy of their room alone or with only the Monk that they share their room with.  Oh well just as in sports ... you may not play in every game but you dress to play every game.  I didn't get any photographs but I had tried and I was ready.

A Food Vendor In Luang Prabang

Around 6:00 A.M. the Monks came out of their quarters and started to assemble outside to begin their Tak Bat.  I joined the other tourists outside on the street. literally and figuratively.  For some shots, I actually sat in the street to get a better perspective of the scene.

An Elderly Woman Makes Early Morning Offerings In Laos
After the Tak Bat, I walked down to the Nam Khan River and watched men fishing with nets for awhile and then I walked to the primary school.  I arrived at the school at 7:30 A.M. for the scheduled 8:00 A.M. start of the day.  Some students were brought to school on motorbikes by a parent or older sibling.  Some students arrived on Tuk-Tuks.  Most of the children walked from their nearby homes to the school.

Main Building of Luang Prabang Primary School, LPDR
The school yard was a beehive of activity.  Many of the students were occupied cleaning up the school yard.  Many of the students, typically the boys, were busy avoiding work and chores.  Groups of young girls gathered to prepare for the day and get caught up on whatever is important for young Lao girls to talk about.  Some boys were busy playing a game that involved a soccer ball and a line pulled taut between two posts - it wasn't volleyball; it wasn't soccer; and the ball was too big and heavy to be kataw - it may have been just a game that they invented with what is available to them.

School Boy Cleaning the Canopy Roof of His School

School Boys Playing Before the Start of Lessons

A Teacher Supervises Some of His Students Outside of the School Yard
I entered the school yard and started to take photographs.  There were no security guards.  There were no Police.  The school yard reminded me a great deal of my elementary school days at Colonel Ledyard Elementary School in Groton, Connecticut - no play ground equipment, no rubber mats or astro turf - just dirt and rocks.  There were no security concerns just a bunch of kids burning up energy and excited about the start of the day if not about a stranger that walked amongst them.

Young Girl Cleans Up the School Yard
Some of the children reminded me of some of the people, perhaps characters, that I attended elementary school with.  It was amazing that after 50 years I could easily recognize the people that I went to school with or rather the character traits and behaviors common to my former classmates half a word and half a century away.  It reinforced a theme to my photography - "to show extraordinary people doing ordinary things. In so doing, I wish to show how different people appear, to provide a glimpse of other cultures, to celebrate the diversity of mankind, and to demonstrate that despite our appearances we are so much alike."

Student's Shoes Outside of Their Class Room
The Luang Prabang Primary School is an old building in the French Colonial style.  I suspect that it was built when most of the colonial buildings were constructed in Luang Prabang from 1920 to 1925.  The classrooms have extremely high ceilings. There is no air conditioning or screens on the windows.  In fact there is no glass in the windows.  Heavy wood shutters are open during the day and closed over the window openings at the end of the day.  The window trim exhibited many layers of paint.

Students In the Class Room Window, Luang Prabang
A wide porch on the school building in conjunction with a cantilevered overhanging roof provides protection from rain and most likely just as important - the sun.  Floors of the classrooms are tile and the walls are stucco cement.  The walls were painted many years ago and at the risk of hyperbole not washed recently.  The class rooms are mostly natural lighted with just a minimum of florescent fixtures for the darkest times.  I used high ISO settings and a flash on my camera to photograph the rooms which are much darker than they appear in the pictures. 

The Teacher's Lounge - I Think
 Some of the posters such as the "Times Tables" 2x2, 2x3, ... 11x11 ... 12x12. are printed on cloth rather than paper; much more durable.  I was very impressed with the neatness of the Lao writing on the blackboards.  The desks look they very well could have been the originals form 1925.  They were heavy and obviously capable of lasting several generations rather than mere years.

Two Boys Finishing Their "Home"work Before Class Starts

Lao Anatomy Poster

Waiting For the Last Minute to Complete His Homework

I introduced myself to a couple of the teachers and showed them the photographs that I had taken in case they were concerned or cared.  I suspect that the teachers were not concerned and didn't care.  It appeared that they had given me the benefit of the doubt and trusted me - very much like the times when I went to elementary school.  It was a much more relaxed and happier time that still exits for the most part here in Southeast Asia even in a Communist state.  I really appreciate the freedom here to photograph people, and to interact with them without suspicion and accusations by them.  To the contrary, I find that the more that interact with the people the more opportunities that I have for photographs and the more that I learn about their life as well as culture.

Lao Primary School Teacher - 5th Grade

I had expected some type of formal flag raising and quasi-military "start of the day" ceremony prior to the beginning of class room work. The start of the formal class day was actually very informal. A middle aged man dressed in dark slacks and a cotton long sleeved shirt that had the sleeves rolled up to his elbows walked on to the school yard. I got the impression that he was the man that all the children kept an eye out all the time - the PRINCIPAL. He said some things in a normal voice to a couple groups of students and all the students from throughout the playground ran off to their appropriate class rooms - just like we did when Mr. Fitzgerald appeared and spoke back during the 1950's in Groton.

I realized it was time for me to go in that I did not want to disrupt the children's formal education time but I was not done causing trouble yet. As I exited the schoolyard on to Th Sikkarin or was it Th. Sisavangvong, I encountered a class and their teacher finishing up their task of cleaning the sidewalk in front of the school. The young girls of the class were busy with brooms and large woven baskets picking up trash and debris. The two boys of the class who reminded me of two of my former classmates were busy either watching or goofing off. The boys were rather large and apparently had not missed many meals. The girls by comparison were slender and slight. The girls struggled with the basket of debris. Seizing the moment to have some fun and to teach a lesson, I motioned to the teacher that I was going to get involved. I stopped the girls who were struggling with the basket and motioned the two boys (Gary and Larry?) to come over. I admonished them in rudimentary Lao and pantomime that the girls were working very hard which made me happy but they were not working which made the foreigner sad and angry. I told them that they should be carrying the basket because they were big and strong. I then showed them the difference between the size of their biceps and the girl's biceps; which definitely got my point across. The boys each grabbed one side of the basket and virtually flew as they ran back to the schoolyard as the teacher laughed, the girls giggled, and I smiled. The teacher and girls said goodbye to me and I was on my way back to the hotel.

I suspect that my lesson to the boys will not be forgotten soon but I also am not sure that they learned anything from the lesson. Such is life everywhere - lessons may be remembered but not necessarily learned.

I was just pleased for the opportunity and freedom to learn a little about the schools in Laos.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Flying In Laos - Air Transportation

Lao Airlines MA60 On Tarmac At Lunag Prabang, Lao People's Democratic Republic
 Our just concluded journey to Luang Prabang was our second experience of flying in the Lao People's Democratic Republic.  It was our second round trip for domestic flights this year.

Two years ago we took the VIP bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang - 13 hours of which many kilometers were on unpaved portions of Highway 13.  Other than the typical for SE Asia close calls with on coming or passing heavy trucks our journey up to Luang Prabang was uneventful.  The monotony of the transit was broken up by a lunch break in Vang Vieng and several bathroom breaks when required alongside of the road.  Our return trip was more eventful.  We had a young man with an AK-47 assault rifle standing in the aisle for the duration of our trip.  The last armed conflict on Highway 13 from Hmong holdouts from the CIA's secret war of the 1970s was in 2003.  In February 2003 a bus was attacked and 12 people were killed.  Later that year in April another bus was attacked and 13 more people were killed.  Since then things have been calm along the road. However it still remains a long days journey on a rough road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.  The armed guard was not the only excitement that we had on our return to Vientiane.  As we left Luang Prabang, an attendant checked our tickets and offered each passenger a barf bag; a premonition of what was to come.  Highway 13 is a mountainous and twisty road for most of its length between Luang Prabang and Vientiane.  Across the aisle from us, a female passenger lost her breakfast as well as her dinner from the night before.  Fortunately Duang and I always travel with emergency supplies - baby wipes, kleenex, Lomatril, and toilet paper.  We gave the suffering passenger some baby wipes to clean and freshen herself up.

Another inconvenience about taking the bus for us is that we have to spend a night in Vientiane in order to catch the early morning bus to Luang Prabang.  Earlier this year when we decided to go to Luang Prabang another 10 to 12 hour road trip from Luang Prabang, the bus was not a viable consideration.  We went to the airport in Vientiane and flew Lao Airlines to Luan Prabang - about two hours away by air.  Based upon our Luang Namtha flights, we decided to fly Lao Airlines from Vientiane to Luang Prabang - 55 minute flight.

Our flight to Luang Prabang was uneventful.  Just as before, we flew on a fairly new Chinese turboprop plane - MA60.  The MA60 carries 60 passengers.  Our flight to Luang Prabang was just about filled to capacity.  We arrived in Luang Prabang, LPQ, on time.  LPQ has a single 7,218 foot asphalt runway but is being expanded to add another longer runway.  Luang Prabang's airport has one domestic gate and one international gate.  Actually the gates are more like ordinary glass doors.  To access the aircraft, you exit the terminal out of a normal ground level door, walk to the plane, and climb up a portable ramp to the aft door of the plane.

Our luggage was available in about 10 minutes unlike the 30 to 45 minute wait that seems to be typical at San Francisco Airport.

We were not part of an organized tour or staying at a hotel that had airport pickup so there was no one waiting for us as we exited the terminal.  We walked about 100 meters from the terminal to the public street outside of the airport.  Tuk-Tuks were parked along the street waiting for passengers.  We ended up sharing a Tuk-Tuk with two other people.  The airport was about 10 minutes from the center of town - nice and convenient with no hassle.

Hmong Young Men Take Souvenir Photos At the Security Perimeter of Luang Prabang Airport
On the day that we visited the three outlying villages, we passed by what I thought was a resort hotel on our way back to town.  As we drove by, I realized that it was the airport.  There was a very short road leading to a gate that was about 60 meters from a Lao Airlines MA60 plane.  I had Duang stop the driver and bring us to the runway access road.  Two Hmong boys were photographing each other as I got out to take my photographs.  As often happens over here I was invited to be photographed with them.  I do not like to be photographed but I understand it would be terribly hypocritical of me to refuse to be photographed when I take so many photographs of people.  I suck it up, agree to be photographed, and even manage to smile!

LPQ Facilities and Lao Airlines Aircraft
No one challenged us and it appeared that no one noticed us taking photos. If anyone noticed, they apparently did not care.  In fact many people took pictures outside of the terminal and in front of the aircraft upon arrivals and departures.  Perhaps with the proliferation of cellphone cameras, the authorities have given up on restricting photography at the airports.

Our return to Vientiane was a little more eventful.  Check in and security were straight forward with no complications.  We went into the waiting room, a simple room about 20 feet by 20 feet.  One of our fellow passengers very quickly caught our attention.  He was a young man about 30 years old and was your stereotypical Asian "wheeler dealer" or "lady's man"  I recognized from his language that he was Vietnamese.  He was sitting or rather slouching in a row of chairs.  It seemed that every 5 minutes he was on his cellphone having a very animated and definitely loud conversation.  I found it rather amusing but I could tell that Duang was get aggravated.  After a while a Monk came and sat across from us with his traveling companion.  The Vietnamese guy continued with his loud conversations.  I looked at the Monk and I could tell that he was annoyed too.  After a period of time another man, a Lao, from the other side of the room started a loud conversation on his cell phone.  To me it was like two dogs barking at each other and I started laughing.  Duang nudged me to stop which caught the attention of the Monk's travelling companion.  He said something in Lao to the effect that the people were not good people.

Eventually we lined up to board the plane.  But not all of us.  An airline representative came by and had the Vietnamese man leave the boarding area to speak with the Police or Army outside of the room.  An older Lao man spoke to me in English that he was glad the man had been pulled for questioning.  He also apologized for the man's bad behavior.  I noticed another Lao man, younger with eyeglasses, who kept looking at the Vietnamese man.  Duang was relieved that the loud man had been removed and not allowed on the plane.  She said that she thought that he was drunk.  I then pointed out to her that he was on the plane  and getting into his seat two rows in front of us!

The more that I observed the Vietnamese man the more I became convinced that he was high on "Yaba" - amphetamines.  He acted afraid and paranoid.  He kept leaning over the person seated next to him at the window.  Ha watch on the man.  When we landed in Vientiane, the passenger deboarded and seemed to disappear into the night.  As I retrieved our bag from the luggage conveyor (a single strip conveyor belt about 25 feet long, miss your bag and it falls off the end), the man who had spoken to me before stated that he was glad that the man was gone.

I remarked to Duang that it was reassuring and comforting to know that despite language barriers, the passengers were looking after each other's safety and prepared to take action if required.

Yes, we can and we were prepared to if we had to.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lao Fabrics and Textile Handicrafts

A Partially Completed Needlepoint Piece from Baan Xiang Hai, LPDR
On the day that we visited Baan Hat Hien, Blacksmith Village, and Baan Xang Hai, Whiskey Village, we also visited Baan Phanom which is known for its silk weaving.

We stopped at a large tourist stop facility at the outskirts of the village.  The facility is a fairly large modern facility where I assume local women set up in the front area selling the fabrics that they have woven.  The room lacks all the character and ambiance that you can find at either markets in the larger towns or at the weaver's home in smaller villages.  Seeing a couple of the organized tour vans and buses parked in front of the building was somewhat of a turnoff for me.  However having traveled to the village, I decided to check it out.

Part of the front room hard been set up for some type of celebration.  There were several tables set up as if to have a conference.  Name tags were located on the tables in front of each plastic chair.  A man was occupied setting up the public address system for perhaps speeches or just as likely Lao music.  In the room beyond the display room I could smell as well as see food being prepared.

An Idle Loom In Baan Phanom, LPDR
As Duang checked out the various textiles in the front room, I investigated the back room.  It turned out that the back room was actually an area for weaving silk and for sewing although today the room was being used for food preparation.  The weavers were not producing any fabric during our visit but were busy preparing many of the foods that I have become familiar with in Isaan for celebrations.  In a corner of the large room, women were busy preparing river algae.  The river algae is harvested from rocks in the river and dried into sheets on woven bamboo mats or bamboo trays. Seasoning such as garlic, boiled tamrind water, sesame seeds are scattered on the drying algae.  To prepare for eating, the algae sheets are cut into 3 in by 6 in rectangles, partially folded in two, held together with a bamboo toothpick, and quickly fried.  I first ate kai paen jeun at the Boat Landing Hotel and Restaurant earlier this year in Luang Namtha.  I liked it, so when I was offered some of the food directly from the wok, I quickly accepted.  It was delicious.

Striped Patterned Silk Being Woven on Wooden Loom

Silk With an Intricate Pattern On An Idle Loom
I went off to the other side of the room and started photographing the idle looms.  It was interesting to see the partially completed fabrics on the old wooden looms.  The solid colored silk fabrics were not mystery to me.  I could imagine being able to weave them with a minimum of instruction.  However some of the silk fabric had very intricate patterns using different colored threads.  Other fabrics had several different colors.  I remember reading about how the predecessors to today's computer were cards that were used to produce intricate patterns in the 1800's cotton mills of New England.  I did not see any such guides or references for creating the patterns before my eyes in the weaving room.  From my past experience with the home weavers of both cotton and silk in Isaan as well as in other areas of Laos, I know that the patterns are retained in the minds of the weavers.  They are able to imagine a pattern and take the appropriate steps in the weaving process to recreate the pattern in their woven product.

Baan Phanon Silk Weaver
After a while one of the weavers who had been preparing food graciously offered to do some weaving while I took photographs.  It was an offer that I accepted without hesitation.  I am always interested to see how things are made and our trips to Laos usually are great learning experiences.

Weaving Silk

While in Whiskey Village, Baan Xang Hai, while I was drinking Lao Lao with the distiller, Duang had wandered off and found his wife and some other women embroidering some fabrics.  Duang came over and led me to where the women were working.  I was very impressed.  The women were occupied needle pointing intricate patterns on black cotton fabric.  Throughout the village these were the only women actually working and the only people doing needlepoint.  Both Duang and I appreciate and enjoy collecting textile handicrafts from the Hill Tribe people of Southeast Asia.  We consider their handicrafts to be art and expressions of the people's culture.  The fact that we are able to witness the artisans producing articles similar to what we purchase is even more gratifying to us.

Lao Women Needle pointing and Embroidering

Two Baan Xang Hai Handicrafters
I wrote earlier that I was impressed.  Well it turned out that I was a little too impressed.  Perhaps it was the double shot of Lao Lao.  Anyhow Duang showed me a very beautiful piece - 29 inches by 37.5 inches black cotton with a very colorful section 22.5 inches by 31.5 inches with intricate patterns and birds.  The piece struck me as being similar to Hmong motifs.  I asked the woman how much in Lao.  She answered me and I immediately paid her for the work that she claimed to have worked two months on.  I made a mistake.  The woman had quoted the same price earlier to Duang and Duang had offered her 25% less.  I had interrupted the negotiations with my unbridled enthusiasm!  Well Laos is like Thailand - things have to be "good for you, good for me".  The women discounted the price that I paid by 10%; a face saving gesture for Duang but not enough to prevent me from hearing about it for a while from Duang.  I put the 10% versus 25% cash discount into cash perspective for Duang and we enjoyed a good laugh together and the matter has not been discussed since then although I suspect that she has not forgotten.

Silks and Needlepoint from Baan Xang Hai

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Give Me Some of that Good Ol' Lao Lao

The Little Ol' Lao lao Lao Maker

After we had visited the blacksmiths of Baan Hat Hien we went out to Baan Xang Hai which is refered to as "Whiskey Village".  Baan Xang Hai turned out to be a further drive from Luang Prabang than I was expecting.  It turns out that that Baan Xang Hai is 25 KM from Luang Prabang.  Many tourists visit Baan Xang Hai as part of a organized boat tour to Pak Ou Caves.

Baan Xang Hai villagers used to make the clay pots that are used to produce "Lao Hai" (Rice Wine) which is a step along the ways of producing "Lao Lao" (rice whiskey).  The villagers now focus on making the Lao moonshine, Lao Lao, and silk weaving.

Duang and I had enjoyed our share of Lao Hai, rice wine, on our previous visit two years ago to the Khmu village during their New Year Festival.  The wine is produced in small clay pots by fermenting rice.  The sweet wine is then sucked out of the jars through long reeds or very small diameter vinyl tubing with the reeds and vinyl tubing being passed from person to person seated or squatting around the clay pot.  As the wine is consumed from the pot, additional water is added to the clay pot to keep the party going.

On our last visit to a refugee camp along the Thai-Myanmar border, Duang and I enjoyed glasses of freshly fermented  Lao Hai with our friends, Khun La Mae and Khun Ma Plae.  Since there was quite a bit of rice hulls and rice debris to strain through your teeth when drinking from a glass,our preferred mode for drinking is through the vinyl tubing or natural reed.

"Process" Diagram for Making Lao Lao
We walked through the gauntlet of booths at the front of the village.  There were many stalls selling bottles of Lao Lao which also contained some type of animal or plant.  There were bottles of whiskey with small snakes some of which were cobras.  There were also whiskey bottles containing centipedes, scorpions, or geckos.  My knowledge of botany is rather limited so I was unable to identify the plants that were immersed in th the whiskey.  I have read some accounts that the plants and creatures are immersed in rice wine but I believe that the liquid is actually whiskey.  Whiskey is a much better preservative and makes for a more potent "medicine".  The various vendors told me that the bottles contained "medicine" of course most of the medicine was purported to aid sexual performance. These bottled concoctions are readily available at all border crossings in Laos and appear to be "THE" souvenir of the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

There were also many stalls selling silk cloth.  We saw several looms for weaving cloth but did not see anyone working.  We walked back through the village towards the Mekong River.  We prefer to explore the back roads and back streets of the locations that we visit.  The back locations typically present less tourist centric people and sights.  We stopped at a yard of a local home.  I am not sure if it was a front yard or a back yard - not that it matters over here.  There were two men, a woman, and three school aged children seated at a picnic table.  We stopped and joined them.  It turned out that we had found a whiskey distillery.  Besides selling soft drinks, and silk fabrics, the people make Lao Lao right there in their yard high on a bank overlooking the Mekong River.  I went to the stairs that lead down to the Mekong River and while taking some photographs I took in the serenity of the location.

I returned to the picnic table and had Duang purchase soft drinks for everyone.  As we enjoyed our cold drinks on a surprisingly warm day, we asked questions of the man who appeared to be in charge.  He said that he owned the land and paid taxes once a year to the government.  He stated that he paid 550,000 Kip ($66 USD) each year for his home and business.

A large piece of cardboard was nailed to a wood post next to his still.  Although he did not speak English the cardboard had a diagram on in that detailed the distilling process in English.  The father took great pride in showing me his distilling equipment and describing how he made the moonshine whiskey.

Clay Pot Containing Fermenting Rice
 The process first starts with making Lao Hai, "Rice Wine".  Rice, sugar and water are placed in a clay pot and allowed to stand covered for seven days.  This is how Lao Hai is produced however for making Lao Lao additional water is not added after the initial charge to the fermenting mixture.

The fermenting rice creates a thick mash of about 13% alcohol.  The thick mash from four  clay pots is removed and placed inside of the 55 gallon steel drum that forms the base of his still.   The barrel sits upon a couple of bricks above a shallow trench where a small fire is maintained by small long logs that are pushed forward as they are consumed by the flames.

Lao Lao Still In Laos

A gasket created by burlap type cloth filled with rice hulls is placed atop of the open end of the metal barrel.  A conical shaped steel pan is the placed on top of the gasket to seal off the still.  The conical pan serves as the condenser for the distilling process.  The top of the cone which is open to the air is filled with water.  Every 10 minutes the water is replaced with cool water by pouring new water into the cone and allowing the warmer water to overflow through a small tube above the normal water level in the cone.  Alcohol vapors inside of the still condense on the relatively cooler surface of the cone inside of the still.  The alcohol droplets travel along the cool surface to the apex of the cone where they drop off and are collected by a spoon like device that is attached to a pipe.  The pipe is sloped downwards and exists the still carrying the Lao Lao to fill another clay pot located on the ground at the end of the pipe.  The Lao Lao slowly drips out of the pipe through a terrycloth cloth of uncertain cleanliness and finally into the clay pot.

Lao Lao Fresh From the Still Fills A Clay Pot
After observing the process, I was invited to sample some our the man's handicraft.  Duang does not drink much and especially not Lao Lao, I was left alone to drink with the man.  He pulled a bottle out, a bottle without any critters or plants in it, from a cabinet and poured each of us a double shot.  I have been through this ritual enough times to understand what was expected of me.  I looked the man in the eyes said "Jonkiouw" and downed the shots all at once as he did the same.  The Lao Lao was very powerful and I must admit much better than the commercial moonshine that the villagers drink in Tahsang Village.  Perhaps it was the dirty towel that this man's whiskey was filtered through.

A Lao Lao Distillery in Baan Xang Hai, LPDR

I ended up buying a small bottle of his product to take back home for 30,000 KIP ($3.75 USD) - a good price for even nothing else more than the nice woven bamboo that covered the bottle.  The bamboo had writing as part of the integral woven design - "Lao Lao, Baan Xang Hai" as translated by the distiller.

While I was socializing with the distiller, Duang had located his wife and some other women who were busy embroidering.  But that is subject to another blog.

It was interesting spending time in the village.  The people were making moonshine without any government permits, regulations, licences or any harassment from "Revenuers".  This is hardly what I would have expected in a country known as being a Communist state.