Cultures, customs and curiosity
31.01.2012 - 31.01.2012 24 °C
This morning we set out on foot to explore the UNESCO Heritage site that is Luang Prabang, starting with one of its newest museums, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Museum. The museum is a private non-profit organisation which promotes Laos’s cultural history and traditions by dealing directly with the villagers, and explaining the history behind each item obtained. In the small gift shop (where 50% of the profits go back to the original artists), we bought a wooden mask for our collection, and it came complete with an explanation of its creation and uses.
An even newer museum – so new in fact that Khamseng (our guide) had not been there before – is the Project Space exhibition displaying a variety of modern art from local artists. My favourite was the huge bank note that the artist had painted using his own blood.
A quick walk through Dala Market (mostly Chinese tourist tat, but also some beautiful Lao fashions) took us down to the Nam Khan River. Along the way we stopped to see the dying craft of stencilling – once used a lot on the temple decorations; an exhibition of ethnic clothes; and some beautiful French colonial architecture. Khamseng is a very good guide and makes it so much more interesting by pointing out the various fruits, trees, flowers, architectural details and other things we would have undoubtedly missed on our own.
Ethnic clothing exhibition
Wat Xieng Thong – the Temple of the Golden City - is one of the most important temples in Laos, and displays the last king's enormous funeral cask. It is currently being restored with the help of UNESCO funding. Built around 1560, legend tell of a betel merchant who built a palace on this site, making himself the first king of the new capital, and founded the temple here. It was the royal temple until 1975, and used as the place where kings were crowned & granted power.
Wat Xieng Thong
Big Brother Mouse is a locally owned non-profit organisation who strive to make learning and reading fun for all children in Laos, and they design and publish their own books. Most Lao children outside the towns have never owned a book, so we bought a couple of dozen different ones to see about changing that for at least a few of the country's poorer children.
Big Brother Mouse Shop
Khamseng took us to a very nice restaurant in the old city for lunch, and also suggested some local dishes for us to try. My favourites were crispy fried river weed with a spicy buffalo-skin dip; and river fish in coconut milk soup.
Crispy fried river weed with buffalo skin dip.
This afternoon we headed out of town to the countryside, stopping first in a Lao Loum village, one of the many ethnic minorities here in Laos. 400 people live in the village, and they mostly grow rice, and cotton, which they weave into beautiful cloths. At one of the houses we were invited in to join them in some Lao Lao (the local rice 'whisky') to celebrate the birth of a new baby.
The village next door is populated by the Hmong people, and is much smaller with only 32 families. Despite their obvious poverty, there was no resentment or begging going on, and they seemed totally happy for us to explore their village and homes, and show off their speciality craft – embroidery. Khamseng explained that normally we would give the books we'd brought to the local school, but the villagers told him that in the past the teacher had sold the books to the pupils, keeping the money for himself, so we decided to give the books directly to the children. The joy and pride on their faces made it all worthwhile, and seeing a father read to his son; as well as a couple of little girls sharing a book and reading out loud in unison; made my heart melt.
At Ban San Khong village we saw the paper making process from the bark of the mulberry tree, as well as how they make the natural dyes for the cloths and paper. We also popped in to Wat Xangkhong Temple to listen to the monks' daily chants.
Hand made paper
The Baci Ceremony is an important Lao cultural and spiritual ceremony invoking the 32 kwan or spirits that make up the components of the soul. The ceremony is held for all special occasions, such as the birth of a baby, a wedding, new year, or in our case, travellers arriving from afar and is very special, with half the village is invited to take part. The local shaman leads the 'prayers' and after the spirits have been called back into your soul, each of the elders present tie a white thread (symbolising purity) around your wrist for peace, harmony, good fortune, good health and human warmth and community. You must wear them for three days at least, preferably until they fall off.
After the ceremony, the hosts laid on a beautiful spread of local foods, with plenty of Lao Lao and Beer Lao, inviting the locals to eat with us. It was a beautiful evening with a great insight into the Lao culture and customs.