Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Coffin Makers of Luang Prabang

A Lao Coffin Maker

On our journies throughout Southeast Asia, Duang and I in addition to seeing the tourist highlights, we like to break out and break away from the crowds in order to meet local people on their terms.  We both particularly enjoy talking to the people about their life and observe them gong about their life.

On our first day in Luang Prabang on our trip two weeks ago, we spotted an interesting sight on our trip from our hotel out to the sight of the Hmong New Years Festival.  Along side of the road we saw a workshop where men were working on a very elaborate coffin.  The coffin was a tapered pale yellow box unlike the simple rectangular box of the consummable coffins used here in Isaan.  The coffin was also resting on top of a stepped pedestal that ran the length of the coffin.

In addition to the coffin, there were several special spirit houses, "Baan Pii" or "Basahts".  Baan Pii or basahts are special houses constructed for Buddhist funeral rituals typically the "Tamboon Roy Wan" ("Bone Party" or "One Hundred Day Ritual").  As part of the "Bone Party" after the cremation of a Theravada Buddhist, small houses are built and filled with items that are necessary to habitate a small home - woven reed mats (sahts), candles, toiletries, towels, pots, plates, spoons, rice, and pillows (mons).  People offer these items to the spirit of the deceased person.  A ritual is then conducted where the basaht and associated items are offered in the name of the deceased to the Monks.

The next morning on our way to the Hmong New Years Festival, we asked our driver to stop at the workshop.  When we arrived, the ornate coffin was no where to be seen.  Although "just in time delvery" of materials is touted as a modern and efficient manufacturing technique, it has long been practiced out of economic necessity by many cultures.

A Coffin Under Construction

Although we were unable to view a completed coffin at the shop. there was a coffin that was under construction.

Worker Moves A Partially Completed Basaht

The workers were busy working on making basahts.  The basahts are simple structures framed with approximately 2 inch square lumber and sheathed with roughly one-eighth inch plywood.  The two outermost beams of the basaht are extended to serve as handles for transporting the small house.

Cutting Lumber For Basahts

While men were working outside in front of the work shop, measuring, marking, and cutting the plywood - five sheets at a time into components to assemble the basahts, a young man was busy cutting the lumber to be used for the basaht framing.

Installing the Basaht's floor

From the owner of the shop, we learned that it was a family business.  They typically make four coffins and 5 basahts a day.  A coffin typically costs 4,000,000 to 6,000,000 Kip ($500 to $750 USD).  I was surprised at the high cost of the coffin.  I was expecting it to cost more around $50 to $100.

Do you know the easiest and quickest way to become a millionaire?  Go to Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, Laos, and exchange roughly $130 into Lao currency, Kip.  However if you exchange roughly $300 US dollars be prepared to walk around with a bulge in your pants.  I carry my wallet in my front pocket so my fat wallet made quite a bulge in the front of my pants - I don't know if it made any impression on people but I did feel like a multimillionaire.

The owner took some time to show the coffin to me.  I marveled at small the coffin was - built to hold someone around 5'2" and roughly 125 pounds.  I joked with the owner if he could build a coffin for me.  As a good businessman, he said that he could build a bigger for me.  I told him, through Duang, that I was glad to hear that because I would not want to be split in half to fit in the standard coffin.  He laughed.

Acessories to Decorate Coffins
The platform upon which the coffin rests is actually a sort of optical illusion.  Viewed straight on, the coffin appears to be resting on a solid base of a four step platform.  However upon closer inspection from above reveals that the steps are just a facade - hollow frames.

The owner pulled me aside, bent down, lifted up, and showed me a rectangle of soft rubber.  The rubber had several pins in it and had been intricately cut in the shape of reflective decoration on the side of the coffin support structure.  The owner then proceeded to show me how many folded reflective foil was placed on the rubber template and cut to create long chains of reflective intricate shapes to place on the coffin and its support structure.

Next to the coffin was a pile of plastic decorative items.  They were the same items used to decorate coffins in Isaan - thepanom (thep phanom) "angels" and garuda, mythological creatures of the Himmapan Forest.  The plastic sculptures will be spray painted gold before being nailed to the sides of the coffin.

Closer to the center of town, on our way back to the hotel, we passed quite a sight.  In front of a home there were 10 basahts lined along the sidewalk along with the ubiqutous awnings sheltering tables and chairs associated with a funeral ritual.  This was obviously a very important person who had died.  I have seen two basahts before but never ten.

From our visit at the coffin workshop, we went on the the Hmong New Years festival a little further up the road.

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