Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Laos Day 7 - Corporate Generosity

After completing my walk with the Monks in the mist, I returned to the hotel. Rather than wake Duang from her sleep by entering our cottage, I stopped at the reception/dining area first to have my breakfast.

As I ate my breakfast, I was joined by Khun Thone. We talked about our stay and discussed Duang and I returning at some time in the next year. Duang and I had enjoyed all aspects of our trip and look forward to coming back at another time of the year to experience a different perspective. Mr Thone indicated that he wanted to take us to two different area that we had not visited to photograph some of the other minority peoples of the region.

After awhile, we were joined by Khun Kreiengkrai Nakapong from the Thaioil group that I had played volleyball with the previous night. He was the leader of several Thaioil employees that were traveling together through Laos.

My last project in Thailand, was at the same refinery in Sriracha where Mr. (Khun) Kriengkrai is a Shift Manager. Even today, three years after I left that project, Duang surprisingly and peculiarly in my opinion when she introduces me to Thai people proudly points out that I had worked at Thaioil. Just as surprisingly and peculiarly are the people's reaction. Invariably they are very impressed. I can not imagine a similar reaction in the USA if a person was to be introduced as having worked on one of the major oil company's projects. I would expect that polite people would ignore the comment and less polite people might comment as to the major oil company's performance in regards to "corporate responsibility", "environmental stewardship", "social responsibility", and so forth through the litany of today's politically correct issues. Admiration for being associated with such a major corporation would be a definite shock.

During our conversation we were joined by the Village Headman of Ban Khone. He had arrived for a special ceremony outside of the hotel. I found out that the Thaioil employees were not on a holiday but were actually on company business for their travels through Laos. Thaioil, through its "Thaioil Group Without Borders" campaign had donated school supplies, treats, and sporting equipment for Lao school children. The Thaioil employees were distributing the items to the preselected villages.

As our conversation was wrapping up, I noticed many small children arriving at the hotel grounds. Most of the children were walking organized by class groups but some arrived in small farm wagons that are so common in the area. The children were bundled up in heavy jackets to ward off the morning chill of 60F (16C). The children were well disciplined and had an air of expectation about them. Khun Kriegkrai invited me to join in the ceremony. This was an opportunity that I did not want to miss. This was an opportunity that I wanted to share. I raced back to our cottage , a short ways away to fetch my camera and to bring Duang to witness the event. After getting dressed, she joined the celebration and enjoyed watching the children's joy at receiving some much need items for the school life.

After the formalities were completed, candy as well as some other food treats were distributed to the children. The children then went up to the tables heavily laden tables to inspect the school supplies and sporting equipment. The children were just as excited at receiving notepads, pencils, ball point pens, crayons, and erasers as they were about the edible treats that they were busy eating.

The sporting equipment - volleyballs (one slightly used, futbol balls (soccer balls), kataw ball, badminton birdies, and badminton rackets were divided up and hauled away by representatives from each school.

Duang and I said goodbye to the Thaioil people and wished them a safe return back to Thailand when their work in Laos was completed. They still had school supplies and sporting equipment to distribute and kilometers and kilometers to travel as well as promises to keep before they could sleep - back in Thailand.

I now had an insight and appreciation for why people in Isaan as well as other parts of Thailand are impressed to learn of my former association, as minor as it had been, with Thaioil. I had seen a corporation help improve the lives of children. I had witnessed the generosity of a major corporation - a generosity that transcended national borders and political divides.

I left Laos proud to have worked with Thaioil and perhaps a little disappointed that I had not actually worked for them. I now understand that their widely held esteem and reputation has been well deserved and earned.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Another Isaan Funeral - "Same Same But Different"

Yesterday, Monday 22 February, my plans and intentions for the day were interrupted. It was my intention as well as plan to complete a blog about our experiences on our last day in Laos during our recent trip to Luang Namtha. However, we needed to take care of family business and obligations. One of Duang's uncles, 82 years old from Tahsang Village, had died three days previously and his cremation ritual was to be held at 13:00 yesterday afternoon in Tahsang Village. Duang and I were going to go out to the village after I had my lunch at 11:00 A.M., but we got a call early in the morning from her cousin asking why we had not arrived so we ended up leaving our home earlier in the morning. Duang had 23 Aunts and Uncles but they are all getting to the end stage of this life. This was the second funeral for a close relative that we have attended in the very recent past. Another Uncle has been in the hospital three times in the past week and a half so we suspect that there will be another funeral soon.

I have written about Isaan funerals twice before so for this blog I will focus on the generalities and unique aspects of this particular ritual.

Upon arriving at the Uncle's home, we were greeted and invited to sit down. Food from the the outside kitchen set up in the side yard was brought to us as well as all other guests upon their arrival. The loudspeaker system announced the offerings that each guest had made to be given to the Monks as part of the merit making ritual associated with the funeral. Next door and up against a low cinder block wall, in a neighbor's weed strewn yard, a group of 10 people were busy gambling. The gambling was similar to the game that we had observed in Laos late last month. It was a combination of roulette and dice. However in this game the dice were not released to tumble down in an open wood box. For this game the dice were placed on a plate and covered with a small woven reed bowl. After all the bets were placed on the plastic pictorial betting sheet, an elderly woman shook the plate-bowl assembly once, placed it carefully back on the ground, and slowly removed the bowl to reveal the results. The action was hot and heavy. One woman had won 3,000 baht the previous day - almost $100. Although gambling is illegal in Thailand, according to Duang everyone plays cards (gambles) in Isaan at a funeral and the police do not complain. I asked her why they gamble at funerals and she told me because there isn't live music. At the anniversary of a person's death, there is typically a stage show and at those occasions there is no gambling. If people gamble and it is not a funeral, the police will arrest or "fine" the people. Just as many aspects of religion, this can not be fully explained, or fully understood. It is what it is and you are left to accept or not accept it.

This was the first Isaan funeral for a man that I have attended. Funerals for men and women are structurally the same however most differences are related to the social and economic status of the deceased. People in Isaan buy life insurance. When a person dies, the insurance company immediately pays the proceeds of the policy - typically around 100,000 baht ($3,000 USD). The money is used to help pay for the funeral. Besides paying for the rental of the refrigerated coffin used for the three days that the body lays in state, the money pays for food, drink (alcohol and soft drinks), cash offerings to the Monks, and other offerings to the Monks such as robes, blankets, candles, and the ubiquitous plastic pails filled with personal hygiene and personal care items for Monks. Some money is also placed in envelopes for selected guests to offer to the Monks in the name of the deceased thereby making merit for themselves as well as the deceased.

Duang's Uncle had quite a bit of land so there much more offerings given than I had witnessed at the previous two funerals. During this ritual, approximately 30 orange hand towels were to be offered to the Monks as part of the ritual. The towels along with other offerings were placed on a table at the foot of one of the stairways leading up to the furnace entrance of the crematorium where the closed coffin was placed. The ritual was overseen by the man's cousin who is an Abbott of a local Wat. For protection from the strong sun, the Abbott carried a large silver umbrella which had "Some people know the difference". "Some people know the difference"? A Buddhist mantra? A Buddhist belief? Noooo ... it was a marketing statement that was related to the logo on the other side of the umbrella - "Jack Daniels No. 7". Just as Thai food is a melange of taste, textures, and sensations, life in Isaan is also a melange of opposites juxtaposed to create a vibrant mosaic. In this case a pious Monk carrying an umbrella advertising an international brand of liquor while participating in an ancient merit making ritual.

As a person's name was announced, they went up to the table, where a granddaughter of the deceased man presented them with a towel placed on top of a pressed metal ceremonial bowl. The recipient performed a wai (Thai sign of respect), accepted the offering, and walked up stairs to the coffin. They then placed the towel along with the previous towels on top of the coffin. A couple of the deceased man's sons ensured that the towels were laid out in an orderly fashion. There were also three dignitaries at the merit making ritual. The head man of Khumphawapi Province is related to the deceased so he attended along with the No 2 man of the province. A third dignitary was the headman from another village. After the close family members had presented the towel offerings, the dignitaries were given other offerings rather than towels to present. I know that one offering was a large box containing two intricately carved yellow candles to burn in the Wat.

Some of the guests, both male and female, wore what appeared to be military uniforms. They were not members of the armed forces but were teachers. Apparently on Mondays and Fridays, teachers wear their uniforms. All this time I had thought that Thailand had a huge military! It also turns out that many civil servants also have formal military style uniforms that they wear at certain occasions. However this was not the end of me learning something new for the day.

After the offerings had been placed atop the coffin, they were removed by some of the approximately 32 Monks that participated in the ritual and brought to the area where the formal offerings to the Monks as well as chanting was being performed.

The formal merit making ritual lasted two hours. I wandered around taking photographs of whatever I pleased. This may sound strange to other cultures - a stranger, let alone a foreigner, talking photographs of a solemn family event, but I have grown accustomed to the Buddhist and Isaan attitude towards death. Death here is a life milestone not all that much different than birth, marriage, ordination, or moving into a new home. Yes, it is restrained, and dignified. But it is not overly somber and definitely not emotional. I was not the only photographer at this ritual. The deceased man's grandson spent most of his time documenting the event using his camera flash much more than I was comfortable using mine.

After the offerings had been removed, the other guests went to the table at the foot of the stairway to pick up woven bamboo and paper objects, talisman, to place on the closed coffin. After the last guest had placed their talisman on the coffin, several were removed and distributed throughout the furnace on its floor. The remainder of the talismans were placed on the pile of the Uncle's personal possessions on the bare ground outside of the crematorium to be burned in an open fire as his body was cremated.

The thin top of the coffin was removed so that family members could say their final good bye to their loved one. This was also the time for the family to pour coconut water and scented water on the corpse. The corpse had its hands in a wai position but unlike the previous funerals there were no candles, joss sticks or other offerings in his hand. After awhile, a young man came up to coffin with one of the heavy knives used for cutting sugar cane and for chopping meat into paste. With extreme care and reverence, he used the knife to pry the hands apart. He and another man then pushed the corpse's hands to the side of the body. I had not seen this before during Isaan funerals. The justification for this unexpected action became quickly apparent. Family members as they poured the coconut water or just as they finished pouring the water, grasped a hand in a final lingering farewell gesture. Other members gently and affectionately touched the decease's forehead or cheeks as they poured their portion of either coconut or scented water on to the corpse typically on the face.

Whereas death seems to be an embarrassment, a fate to be largely ignored and definitely an event to dread in western cultures with funeral guests often uncomfortable as to how to behave or how to react with the decease's family, here in Isaan it is a community gathering, one of many opportunities to make merit. It is an milestone that people understand and accept without reservation. They know that it will come. They plan on it coming. All members of the community young and old participate in the very public funeral rituals.

This funeral was very similar to the other funerals that I have attended but there were some unique aspects to it which merited the common Thai expression of "Same Same but different"

The Lao Loum family and community structure in Isaan basically eliminates the concerns for the survivors. The youngest daughter is always responsible for supporting her parents so widows or widowers have a certain measure of security. Children are loved and cared for not only by the members of the large families but also by the other members of the village. Older siblings understand their responsibilities, duties, and obligations to their younger brothers and sister.

I learned my last new item of the day as we were leaving the Wat, I noticed a woman with a heavily bandaged thumb. Duang spoke to her and determine that part of her thumb had been amputated - amputated when one of the cattle that she was tending decided to take a run while the rope leash was wrapped around the woman's thumb.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Laos - Monks In The Mist

On Monday, 1 February, I got up at 5:30 A.M. It was our last day in Laos and I wanted to accompany the local Monks at Ban Khone on their Tak Bart (alms walk). I had accompanied the Monks in Luang Prabang last year but I did not take many photographs. The camera that I was using at that time needed a flash to be able without unacceptable levels of noise in the photograph. Although I had a flash with me at the time, I did not want to use it out of respect for the solemnity of the ritual. I have a new camera now that is much more versatile in low light conditions. As was typical for this trip, there were low light conditions in the morning not completely attributable to the early hour. Once again there was a heavy fog bordering upon being a light mist blanketing the Luang Namtha valley. Just as in life this was not an ideal condition that presented itself. Just as in life this non-ideal condition when accepted and embraced, the fog offered opportunities for success. The fog provided a soft diffused light, although diminished in intensity, which eliminated harsh shadows that natural light often causes. This morning there was no problem of the sun always being in the wrong place which I had experienced so often in the afternoon on this trip.

In Thailand the Monks set out on their Tak Bart when there is just enough light for them to see the lines on the palms of their hands. Typically they have completed their alms walk between 7:30 and 8:00 A.M. In Luang Prabang, the Monks had set forth on their Tak Bart starting about 6:00 A.M. I retraced my walk from my previous morning excursion to the Vat and arrived at 5:45 A.M. During my walk along the dirt side street and paved main road, I experienced once again the sights, sounds, and smells of village life. People walking, squatting around small fires, riding bicycles or motorbikes, and passing by on small farm trucks smiled and said good morning as I walked along. I could sense the spirit of community that binds the people in their daily activities.

Since it was a Monday, schools were open which increased the traffic on the main road. High school and college students joined the typical traffic headed for the new town. Students rode bicycles and motorbikes as well as walked amongst the women and men headed to markets or work. Many carried an umbrella to ward off the early morning fog and mist. Just as in Thailand the students wear uniforms. Unlike Thailand the female students wear a modest mid calf to ankle length "phaa nung" (sarong- literally "one cloth" in Lao) rather than the more provocative skirts worn in Thailand. The phaa nung for students is typically made of cotton. Adult women wear phaa nung made from either cotton or silk depending upon their status or event. Phaa nung for the students that I saw were solid dark blue with a band of lighter colored embroidary at the bottom. The girls wore the same light blue freshly pressed simple light blue cotton shirts. To ward off the early morning chill on their journey to school they wore sweaters - a concession to individuality and personal style.

Back at the Vat not much was happening. The roosters were stirring and greeting the morning. Hens were flying from their roosts in the trees on to the ground where they were sometimes vigorously pursued by a rooster intent on starting off his day right. Occasionally I could here sounds emanating form some of the small huts where the Monks sleep. I began to suspect that I was too late for the start of their alms walk for the morning. I did not see any Monks out and about. I sat on the wide rail of the Vat to take the heavy load of my backpack of camera gear. Once in awhile I walked around the grounds to find nothing going on. I also popped my head out of the entrance to the Vat and looked both ways down the main road. Traffic was building with more and more bicycles, motorbikes, farm wagons and pedestrians but not a Monk to be seen. At 7:00 A.M., the loudspeaker mounted in a large tree inside the Vat compound alongside the main road came to life. The broadcast started with a instrumental rendition of a typical mahlam lao tune. Then an announcer gave a short introduction - "Good Morning Laos!"? Afterwards it seemed like the announcer read the morning news. I didn't pay much attention because in addition to not understanding Lao, the Vat was coming to life! Monks were coming out of their houses and headed for the bathrooms. Having brushed their teeth and taken care of whatever else they needed to do, the young Monks started milling around prior to heading out on their Tak Bart. I approached a small group of the Monks and through my limited Thai and pantomime jokingly let them know that I had been waiting since 5:45 A. M. and I was wondering where they were. We enjoyed a hearty laugh and at 7:07 headed out the gate on the Tak Bart. There were about 32 young Monks so they split up into smaller groups to go off into the villages. I went with a group of 5 Monks that turned right as they exited the Vat onto the main road headed away from the new town.

The Monks walked silently and barefooted in a single file along the paved road travelling in the same direction as the road traffic. Up ahead in the fog, we could see people kneeling barefooted alongside of the road patiently waiting for the Monks to approach. As the Monks approached the people, the people lifted up their offerings to a prayer like posture and position. The Monks, barely slowing their aggressive walking pace, opened their bowls for the people to place their offerings in each bowl. When necessary for the people to properly place the offerings into the bowl, the Monks would slow down or even stop for only the time necessary to complete the offering. The offerings were made and accepted in silence. The Monks did not acknowledge or thank the people for their generosity. It is not that the Monks are rude. It is the belief and attitude that the Monks are only the vehicle and instrument through which the people can make merit. They are not purveyors of the merit or blessing but are necessary participants in the ritual. In Thailand as part of the merit making ritual, the Monks recite a mantra or chant some blessing or prayer to the people as part of the merit making ritual. Here in Luang Namtha, the Monks after receiving the food offerings, walked past the donors a short ways, stopped, faced the donor's home or business, and chanted in unison what I believed to be a blessing. It was very tranquil as well as calming watching and listening as this ritual repeated itself during the day's tak bart. There was a connection with the ancient past, the chanting was in Pali, the original language of Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism of Sri lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. The daily merit making ritual precedes Christianity by centuries.

By 7:45 A. M., the Monks had completed their Tak Bart and returned to their Vat to have their single meal of the day. I bid farewell to the Monks. Having worked up and appetite as well as a sweat, despite the crisp morning, keeping up with the rather brisk pace set by the Monks, I gladly trudged back to the hotel to shower and have breakfast.

It had been a very interesting and fulfilling morning for me but the day had not even begun for some people yet. Duang, exhausted from the long day before at the Lanten village, was still asleep.

There were still events to experience on this our last day of this trip in Laos - subjects and topics for the next blog.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lanten New Years Celebration - Pahka, Laos

Sunday, 31 January, was the New Years celebration in the Lanten village of Pahka. Pahka is located on the unpaved road, Lao Highway 17B, between Muang Sing and Xieng Kok. It is about 25 minutes outside of Xieng Kok.

I wanted to be there to watch the preparations for the festival, so we got up at 3:45 A.M. to leave the hotel at 4:00 A.M. for the 3 hour trip to Pahka. We went out to the parking lot and found Khun Kompak and Khun Thone waiting and ready to go. We were off to an early as well as a good start to the day. Since we were unable to purchase much food the day before, we stopped at the morning market in Khouang.

Our trip out to Pahka was highlighted by the sights of two very large bonfires on distant mountains. These fires were massive and provided golden glows to their surroundings with mushroom shaped clouds of smoke created above them. The mountains were not being cleared as part of the Hmong people's slash and burn technique of agriculture. The clearing and burning was on a large industrial scale to prepare the area for development into rubber plantations financed by China. During our flight to Luang Namtha, Duang and I had seen many of the rubber plantations. They had reminded me of the terraces used by the Incas in Peru.

We arrived in Pahka at 7:00 A.M. to find the village already heavily involved in the preparations for the festival later in the morning. Many men were squatting in a large semicircle around a large area of fresh banana leaves placed upon the ground in front of one of the homes. Piles of various parts of slaughtered cattle, hide, bones, intestines, stomach, internal organs, and so forth were heaped on top of the banana leaves. Next to each man was a thick round cutting block. Pieces of the animal were placed upon the cutting block and chopped with a heavy knife until it was turned into a thick paste - just as I had seen at some many preparations for festivals in Isaan.

Occasionally either one of the men or a woman would gather up the paste and place it into one of the large pots boiling over a wood fire close by to the men's location. Women were busy close by cooking rice, cooking soups, and preparing pieces of meat. Some of the women were multi-tasking. Besides their cooking duties they were caring for their baby who was strapped to their back. Older children were cooking pieces of liver skewered onto long pieces of slender bamboo. After cooking the meat they willingly shared with their friends and siblings. Throughout this scene village pigs, chickens, and dogs wandered about content to nibble and gnaw at the scraps at the edge of banana leaves.

After a couple of hours of intense food preparation, the villagers took a break to have breakfast. Their breakfast consisted of sticky rice that had been cooked in a very large pot covered with banana leaves. Along with the rice they ate some of the boiled meats. The food was placed on banana leaves and eaten with bare hands. Men took care of some of the small children while the women ate. Children wandered about the entire time amusing themselves anyway that they could. As is so often the case in Asia the older children looked after the younger children. Many of the young toddlers exhibited a strong sense and spirit of independence. I got several photos of groups of two and three year olds walking, sitting, and eating together fairly much oblivious to their surroundings. They live in an environment, or world very different than toddlers back in the USA or Europe. Their world still retains vestiges of trust, and innocence long purged from Western societies.

It was during this interlude that I found some of the younger women relaxing by playing a game. They were enjoying themselves by tossing a ball type object back and forth between them. The ball type object was a stuffed red, white, and blue cloth sack about four inches square with long cloth streamers of the same colors. There did not appear to be any strategy, rules, or even winners and losers in their play. They just smiled, and laughed even when they failed to catch the object. The overall feeling during the morning was a strong sense of community. Everyone seemed to have a duty and responsibility which they performed willingly as well as happily. There was one man who was obviously in charge and often was a little agitated. I joked with Duang that I thought that he "tink tink, too much" - what she used to tell me so often before. What she meant was that I "Think, think too much" - an expression of the Buddhist precept that thinking that is about wanting and desire lead to pain and suffering Although the people apparently respected him, when he started to spin out of control as often politicians do, the people basically ignored him. As he was getting all excited they walked away and continued with their work at their selected pace.

As the morning got later, vendors set up their booths on both sides of the village main dirt street. A very popular booth for the children was the vendor who sold the Lao version of snow cones. The young children congregated around the female vendor as she prepared to sell the cold treats. Other popular vendors were the balloon people. The balloon people had booths where people paid to throw three metal darts at air filled balloons stuffed into cubicles on a large sheet of plywood about 12 feet away. If three balloons were broken with three consecutive throws, the player won a small box of soy milk drink or fruit drink. The game was open to all ages - you just had to have the money to play.

The most popular booths for people of all ages were the dice games. Gambling is illegal in Thailand but very wide spread in Laos. The dice game involves placing your money (bet) on a sheet of plastic that has pictures on it. The pictures of fish, horses, dragon, etc correspond to the pictures on the faces of the dice. The dice are placed side by side at the top of one section of an opened wooden box. A string runs from the band holding the dice in place to a bettor at the foot of the open box. After the bets are placed, the person pulls on the string which typically releases one of the dice to tumble down into the second section of the open box. The second tug on the string usually released the remaining two dice. The winning bets were paid off and the losing bets gathered by the vendors. The losing bets were kept in the bottom part of the box to a certain point when the vendor hid the stash of cash under the fabric playing surface of the bottom box. The betting and payout were a combination of roulette and craps. You could bet on the actual picture that would show up at least once or you could place your bet on lines and intersections of lines for different types of payouts. The little children were obsessed with the game. It was like video games in America only with the possibility of winning money. However just as is the case with gambling anywhere in the world, the "losers" far exceeded the number of "winners" Much to the delight of the children, I gambled for awhile. I used just about every cliche used in movies about gambling to extol good luck. I blew on the dice. I talked to the dice. I patted the string puller on the shoulder. I rubbed the string puller's hands. I puffed three times on the hand of the string puller. The children loved it. I ended up wining 50,000 KIP (about $6 USD. When I quit I gave my "Lucky" string puller 10,000 KIP much to her delight. Duang then gambled on her own. It took awhile but she managed to lose the 60,000 KIP that I gave her. We had lost 10,000 KIP ($1.25 USD) but we had a great time - very cheap entertainment for sure.

We left the village when the speeches by the visiting dignitaries started. There were to be dances and music as part of the celebration but it was getting late. We still had a three hour drive to return to the hotel. I wanted to be back by sunset for safety reasons - safety in terms of "road safety" rather than crime concerns.

Upon completing our dinner, Duang and I stopped by some people playing volleyball. They were people from Thaioil that we had met earlier in our stay. They were from the same refinery in Thailand where I had worked when I met Duang. I ended up playing volleyball with them until it was too dark to play. It was a pleasant surprise to meet them again, play volleyball and most of all return to our room without any injuries or even aches and pains. It was definitely a nice way to finish our last full day in Laos (for this trip).

We were scheduled to leave the next afternoon at 12:40 P.M. but that is for another blog or two.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Laos Day #6 - The Rest of the Day - Silk Experience

After our lunch in Luang Namtha on Saturday, 30 January, we wandered around the "new" town searching for the bakery and a place to buy some supplies for the next day's journey to Ban Pakha for the Lanten New Year celebration. "New" town? After the war ended in 1975, the Pathet Lao moved, or more accurately rebuilt, the market and government buildings north of the original town site in 1976. The "old" town where we were staying is subject to flooding in the rainy season so the decision was made to move to the higher ground to the north.

The new town consists of three wide parallel streets, one of them being the main highway - Highway #3 with a small number of connecting streets. Luang Namtha is the capital of the province but is essentially a rural backwater. There are several guest houses and a large hotel is under construction. There are a few restaurants catering to tourists and even fewer bars. There are several tour company offices offering treks, and when the water levels are sufficient, boat tours. The town is the jumping off point for treks into the minority people villages and the NPA wilderness.

There are supposed to be 35,000 people in Luang Namtha, but that number must include all of the adjacent villages in the wide area around the town. Based upon my observations, I would say that the actual "new" town has around 5,000 inhabitants. There was very little traffic on Saturday afternoon and even fewer people on the streets. It was so empty that we found only two booths on the sidewalk - a young girl selling fruit and an older woman selling some clothing - unbelievable for southeast Asia. After talking with several people, most who did not know about the bakery, we found out that the bakery was closed on Saturday and Sunday. Undeterred with bought some fruit and resigned ourselves to having to make an early morning stop at the market in Kouang, a small village past Muang Sing, to have breakfast.

We returned to the hotel - Duang to rest and I to write in my diary. As Duang rested, I sat on the porch overlooking the Nam Tha River, and took photographs. Several children, two girls and four boys, were busy exploring the opposite river bank as well as the river itself. They were having a grand time as only 5 to 8 year olds can. The boys were dressed only in the jockey style underwear. One girl was topless and the other girl around 5 years old was stark naked. Two of the boys climbed a tree stump and jumped into the river. With that demonstration of bravado the group waded across the river to our side, put on their dry clothes that were cached midway up the river bank, and walked back to their village.

After about two hours I checked in on Duang to see if she would like to go for another walk. She agreed so we walked to the bridge that spans the Nam Tha River and leads to Ban Pasak. Ban Pasak is a Tai Dam (Black Tai) village that we had visited earlier. During our previous village Duang has purchased a beautiful silk scarf from a local weaver.

We walked to the home of the village weaver and found the family involved in another aspect of the silk process that we had not witnessed before. The grandmother was working in front of a large wood frame that had been set up outside of their home. The woman's daughter or daughter-in-law assisted her in her task. An older grand daughter cared for her younger sister and baby brother. Her son or son-in-law supervised and helped as required to keep the work going.

The wood frame reminded me of the wood curtain frame that my mother used in the 1950's to stretch out and dry freshly washed sheer window curtains. The frame in Ban Pasak was about 4 feet wide and 8 feet long. Along each of the two long sides of the frame, 16 shiny metal tubes, about 6 inches long and 3/4 inch in diameter were fastened. At the bottom of the frame, two similar tubes were attached. The top of the frame was a wood board with a series of notches cut into it's upper edge. The bottom cross member at the back of the frame had approximately 20 slender wood rods. On the day of our visit, 10 of the wood rods had short blue PVC pipe bobbins placed over them. Each of the bobbins had a mass of brilliant gold colored silk thread spun around them. The older woman was busily occupied taking the 10 individual threads in her hand from the bobbins and looping them around the 34 shiny tubes. In a continuous and fluid motion she wound the threads up and down and up and down through the tubular maze. Her motion only occasionally interrupted when a thread was broken or came to an end. She stopped and waited as her son or son-in-law tied the two ends together and gave them a few twists necessary to essential make the knot invisible. It was remarkable even when I removed my glasses and got extremely close to the knot that I had just witnessed being made I could not see it. The end result of the afternoon's efforts will be a large skein of golden silk that will be placed above the hand loom located underneath the family home which stands about 6 feet above the ground on stilts. The skein is then incorporated into the fabric that is woven my the woman's daughter. On our previous visit, we watched as the daughter wove similar golden silk thread into a piece that she was weaving. It was extremely beautiful - the gold silk iridescent within the intricate design of the finished fabric on the loom.

Since Duang and I typically are not part of any tour or organized group, we remain masters of our time. We are able to stop and if not to smell the roses, to talk to the local people and learn much more about their life as well as their work. We both share the same passion to learn and understand the world outside of our home which makes our travels so much more enjoyable. In our travels we have found that two of people's favorite subjects for discussion as well as sharing are their life and their work. Our visit with the village silk weavers was no exception. As Duang and the villagers were busily engaged in conversation, I wandered around. I noticed two long pieces of PVC pipe straddled across the back of the family's Chinese farm truck. The middle of the pipes were covered with heavy paper - locally produced bamboo paper I suspect. I asked about the pipes through Duang and the man came over to show me what they were. He removed the paper covering from one of the pipes exposing a mass of shiny gold silk threads. Removed from the constraints of their paper restraint, several ends, I believe 8, of small skeins of thread dropped from the pipe. The family had recently completed dying the thread gold and the finished product was drying around the PVC pipe. Eventually the dried threads will be wound onto bobbins for subsequent processing on the frame close by.
Also spanning the pick up truck's bed was a wide bamboo tray covered by a large piece of silk obviously covering many objects. We learned that the fabric was covering special structures along with silk worms. The man's wife came over to me and brought me to an area underneath the house where many objects were stored. The objects were a dome type very open lattice created from woven rattan. From the woman, we learned from the woman that at the proper time, silk worms are selected and placed beneath each dome, 10 worms to a dome. The domes are then covered which encourages the worms to commence spinning their cocoons. using the dome to support their work. She then took us to a screened room underneath the house.

The screened room was about 10 feet by 10 feet and had a vestibule with two doors as and entrance. Inside the room was a large framework made from lashed bamboo which served as shelves. Many low side woven bamboo trays rested on the shelves. The woman removed one of the woven trays and placed it on the floor. It was filled with wiggling silk worms and mulberry leaves. She squatted and commenced to sort through the mass of worms. She selected the fat ones that had a yellowish tinge. The selected worms were placed into a plastic bin. These are the worms that are placed underneath the rattan domes to spin their cocoons. She was joined by her young son who readily pitched in to select the worms. Her young daughter was not put off by the wiggling and squirming creatures but was not willing to give up her guard with a falang (foreigner) in such close proximity!

After completing the day's sorting operation, the woman went up into the house and returned with a large bag filled with dry cocoons that had been previously harvested and boiled. The dry cocoons would eventually be turned into thread, dyed, and woven into fabric. It was very informative and interesting to learn how the family produced as well as controlled the entire process of creating silk fabric. Every member of the family contributed to the process and it appeared that the family was successful. Although the family was currently living in a typical Tai Dam elevated wood house, next door a three story concrete and brick replacement home was being constructed.

The family had a baby son who had a cleft lip. Fortunately his palate was fine. He was able to feed without difficulty and just about upon cue in response to my query about his ability to eat, he started to breastfeed. The family told us that when the baby got to be 10 kilos (22 pounds) he would be able to have his lip repaired for free. I took a father and son photograph in appreciation for the family's time and kindness. I promised to send a copy to them by way of the hotel. Two days ago we mailed the photos to Laos.

After seeing and learning about the entire silk production process that the family used to produce the silk scarf that we had purchased, we have a greater appreciation for the piece and a much greater respect as well as admiration for the people who created it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Laos Day #6

Saturday 30 January started off very cool. The temperature during the night had gotten down to 14C (57F). It made for a very refreshing start to the morning. Duang chose to remain in the relative warmth of our bed underneath the comforter and a special Chinese blanket. The Chinese blanket was the same type that we had seen used in some of the minority people villages. The blanket was made out of a felt type synthetic material and about 5/8" thick - making it very heavy. The blanket was also decorated with very garish colors - predominately reds. All told, I was even glad that we had that blanket the previous night.
I left our cottage at 7:00 A.M. and walked to the Vat (Wat in Thai) in Ban Khone which is close to the hotel. There was a fog bordering on being a light mist. People were congregating in small groups outside of their homes getting warm from small wood fires built on the bare ground. Once again my morning's walking experience gave evidence to the open and friendly disposition of the Lao people. People walking, riding bicycles, riding on motorbikes, and squatting around their home fire gave me smiles and "sabai-dii" (Lao "Hello"). Walking provides so much more dimension to travel. The slow pace of walking exposes you to the sounds, smells, as well as the intricate details of the area through which you pass. You also are exposed to more intimate contact with the local people. Travel by truck, car, motorbike, or bus will cover more ground and cover the ground more quickly but it doesn't seem like you have been there unless you put your boots or, as is so often the case here in Southeast Asia, put your flip flops on the ground.

I arrived at the Vat, Buddhist temple, after most of the Monks had apparently left on their daily alms walk. Several young Monks ranging in age from 15 to 20 years old milling around in the fog. The chickens and roosters that live on the Vat grounds were busy greeting the morning and leaving their roosts in the many trees and shrubs that grow throughout the compound. At 7:00 A.M. the Lao public radio started broadcasting on the large speaker mounted in one of the large trees of the Vat. There was some ethnic music and what seemed to be a reading of the daily news. Shortly later two separate groups of younger Monks returned with food offerings from their early morning alms walk. I assume that the older Monks had finished their walk prior to my arrival at the Vat. However, I did see one of the older Monks look into a very young Monk's bowl to see what he had brought back - sort of like checking out a younger brother's trick or treat bag on Halloween night.

The Monks were shy so it was not easy to get meaningful photographs. Some of the older Monks were doing morning chores - sweeping out their houses, and carrying water to the outhouse. Most of the Monks were occupied keeping an eye on me, trying to figure out what I was up to,and ensuring that I could not photograph their face. Two Monks, about 8 years old, were busy playing a game with a woven rattan ball - perhaps Takawh without a net. I often find it ironic that these "holy men" quite often can be seen behaving just like so many of the other young boys of their same age. In Laos, and to a lesser extent, Thailand, the Vats and Wats offer an opportunity to poor boys to obtain a higher education for free. One of our new Lao friends, had attended the same Vat from when he was 9 years old until he was 18. At the side of the Vat grounds was a fairly large two story building - the Vat's school.

I wandered around the Vat grounds and eventually made my way to the village outside of the back gate to the Vat. Upon my return on to the Vat grounds, I heard some voices. I peered over a bamboo fence and saw several Monks huddled around a small fire. They were trying to get warm and in deep conversation - perhaps theology? I said "Sabai dii" and asked their permission to photograph them. They indicated that there was no problem. I took several and I am optimistic that this aspect of a Monk's life is not often seen.

I returned to the hotel, showered with plenty of hot water from the solar water heating system, and enjoyed breakfast with my wife. The hotel manager was not there so we made arrangements with the receptionist to hire Mr Kpmpak and his van for the next day so that we could attend the Lanten New Year celebration in Ban Pakha. Just as in Isaan, news travels quickly and far in Luang Namtha, Duang and I returned to our cottage - Duang resting in the bedroom and I writing at the desk in the front room. I heard a voice letting us know that someone was coming - a sing song type lilt used by peddlers when they are making their rounds through Baan Chorada where our home is located. It was Kuhn Khone, and his 11 month old daughter, Soolani. She was all bundled up against the morning chill and clutching a large balloon from the local festival. She was just too precocious in her little pink hat with ears at the sides to ignore so I hauled out the cameras and started taking photographs. She was a very easy and willing model. We all had a good time. Khun Khone had heard that we were traveling to Ban Pahka the next day and inquired if he could accompany us. Without hesitation we gladly agreed. He had been so helpful and kind to us that we were happy to help him out.

After his visit, Duang and I headed out on our first walk of the day. We first stopped at the rice milling "plant" to the right of the Boat Landing Guest House towards the Acrow style bridge spanning the Nam Tha River. The miller has been busy with all sorts of rice deliveries to the mill. These are not huge shipments but are deliveries from local people - deliveries by motorbike, push carts, the ubiquitous Chinese farm trucks 5 HP and 10 HP variety and some of the more modern small farm trucks - approximately 1 to 2 ton rated capacity. Often the farmer's family will accompany him on the trip to the mill. I was able to take several photos of "The Farmer's Daughters" as they waited in their 10 HP Chinese farm truck. The people wait their turn. When it is their time, they dump their rice out of their bags into a square hole in the floor. A vertical conveyor elevates the rice to the top of the milling machine where gravity is utilized to feed the grain through the process. The hulled rice exits the bottom of the milling machine on to a short horizontal conveyor that feeds another enclosed vertical conveyor that fed a chute which dumped the finished product into an awaiting grain bag - the same bags that were used to bring the grain to the mill. just as in Isaan where the rice thresher is paid with a certain percentage of the finished product, the miller kept his share. In the back and side of his milling room (plant?), there were high stacks of filled 100 Kg bags of milled rice. The milling plant was extremely interesting - it was filled with many large cobwebs that had captured the dust generated by the milling process and nearby dirt road for unknown days, weeks, or perhaps months or longer. Exposed drive belts offered a constant source of potential accidents. Standard safety equipment and practises often required in similar American facilities were no where to be seen. This was a down to the basics, one person facility - minimally fit for purpose. A facility where a local person was providing his neighbors with a necessary and valuable service. About 4 kilometers away alongside the main road into town, I saw another similar milling plant. No doubt there would have been more of these small independent plants if I had looked more carefully and more widely.

From the milling plant, we walked back to the paved main road and a very short ways towards the new part of Luang Namtha to Ban Khone where the Vat I had visited earlier in the morning. The Monks were now accustomed to me so photographing them was much easier. Unfortunately the Vat was locked and the Monks we spoke to did not have the key. We grabbed a passing taxi truck and rode into town. After having lunch at a local restaurant, I withdrew 700,000 KIP from my bank account back in California. The world has changed so dramatically in such a relatively short time.

In 1973, I obtained an American Express card for the sole purpose of making foreign currency purchases by credit card during my first overseas trip - a trip to Europe. At the time the only alternative was to carry Traveler's Checks. Today I am able to be in a small town in northwest Laos, use my American ATM card to get funds from my account in California, and check the current balance of the US account - a small town that was leveled during the Second Indochina War, 1973 to 1975 - amazing!

So ended our morning of our sixth day in Laos. The day was one-half over with a full afternoon remaining but that will be subject of a different blog.


This content is not yet available over encrypted connections.