Thailand and Laos 2017

Thailand and Laos – Big Brother Mouse

This blog post comes to you courtesy of Clare.

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Big Brother Mouse’s motto is ‘Books that make literacy fun!’. It is a organisation that supplies books to children in Laos, that otherwise would never get a chance to read, or would only read dull textbooks. Laos used to be a country where many people were illiterate, and because there were hardly any books published in the Lao language, many children in remote villages had never even seen a book.  By writing, publishing and distributing books written in the Lao language, Big Brother Mouse has changed people’s ideas surrounding books and reading.

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We first heard about Big Brother Mouse on an episode of ‘The Mekong River with Sue Perkins’. During the episode, we saw Big Brother Mouse distributing books to children in a remote Lao village. During our stay in Laos, we heard more people mentioning the organisation, and their program in Luang Prabang that gets tourists to help students practice speaking English.

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During our first morning in Luang Prabang, we decided to go visit Big Brother Mouse and help some students practice English. We were quite surprised when we arrived by the number of novice monks that were there. After some conversation with the monks we learnt that many of them had come to Luang Prabang from remote villages to get a better education, as there was no school in their villages and becoming a monk meant they got to be educated.

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We visited Big brother Mouse each morning, and talked about the differences between Lao and Australian life. We would introduce ourselves, and sometimes stop there if the student still had limited English, but continue share information about ourselves if the student was capable of doing so. I learnt a lot about the education system and culture in Laos, and the students enjoyed listening to my dad explain complex concepts, and learning about different ways of life. It was a very interesting, educational and enjoyable experience.

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For further information about Big Brother Mouse and their literacy programs – and how you can help – see their website here.

Thailand and Laos 2017

Thailand and Laos – day twelve (Luang Prabang, Monday)

Each morning I’ve been up earlier than the rest of my family to watch the monks process back to the temple. There is something about the routine that I am drawn to. Up just before dawn, watch the monks silently walking past – many of them only around Stella’s age, I suspect – and then I return to sit and enjoy coffee as the dark vanishes and light takes over. As nice as it is to be in a comfortable bed, starting the day early is highly appealing to me. Especially when it is not starting it early to the sound of an alarm clock then a closely timed getting ready for work routine.

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Yesterday morning the alms ceremony started a little later than usual, so I was able to take phone photos in better light.

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Fresh spring rolls for breakfast – delicious! The family started the day with a visit to Big Brother Mouse again for more conversation. Some of the same people are there every day, so there are some continuing conversations. I also feel that it is a way that we can contribute to the community.

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Our plan for the afternoon was to take a trip to the Ock Pop Top Living Crafts Centre to do some classes.  It’s not far out of town, and we travelled by small tuk tuk.  Stella enjoys the differences between the types of transport – this was a small tuk tuk, just for local trips, in contrast to the large one that we’d taken up to the waterfall the other day.

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As with the Ock Pop Tok shops in town, the Crafts Centre is absolutely beautiful.  The grounds are beautifully manicured, the displays of a very high standard, and unsurprisingly textiles abounded.  The location was spectacular, with the centre set on the banks of the Mekong.  It’s incredibly peaceful yet activity abounds.

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Clare and I had decided to do a half day weaving class.  Each of us needed to choose colours for the background and for the central pattern – and there were two choices of pattern as well.  Clare chose pink with silvery white, and I chose orange with gold.  Both of us decided on the Naga pattern.

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The first step was to wind the silk from skeins on to bobbins.  We needed four bobbins full.  The winder and swift were very light and wound quickly and effectively.  I’m glad that I’d had some experience in winding wool from skeins into balls of yarn at home!

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Another class on offer was a bamboo weaving class.  In Laos bamboo weaving is used to make all types of utensils.  Bamboo weaving is predominately a male occupation, whereas fabric weaving is the province of women.

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The design in the weaving is formed by following a pattern attached to the warp threads.  The photo below shows you one of the patterns.  There is considerable skill involved in setting up the warp threads on the loom – the actually weaving part of moving the shuttle back and forth is the easy part in many ways!  So although Clare and I “wove” a placemat each, really the master weavers did all the work!

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Clare got the hang of moving the shuttle back and forth quite quickly.  Right pedal down, shuttle in from the right, left pedal down, beat.  Left pedal down, shuttle in from the left, right pedal down, beat.  And so on, and so on, and so on.  Then we got to the part where the pattern began.  We were working from the wrong side of the design.  Each time the master weavers assisting us would move warp threads up according the pattern design, we would insert the appropriate colour shuttle under instructions, and so on.

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In the meantime, Dan and Stella were doing a natural dyes class.

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Dan was tie-dying his t-shirt with deep blue indigo, in a fairly random pattern determined at whim.  Stella wanted to dye hers light green, so she collected fresh leaves from the garden and pounded them to make light green indigo.  She made the pattern with triangular metal shapes that were clamped together before immersing in dye.

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It didn’t take very long for Stella to finish the dyeing process and leave her t-shirt drying on a beam.  So then she was determined to weave, and I was forced to surrender my spot to my nine year old.  We’d just finished the pattern, so Stella finished off pretty much all of the solid orange.  Apparently Lao women start at about Stella’s age (or earlier if watching over mum’s shoulder) so I suppose that her aptitude wasn’t surprising!

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Actually, both girls were pretty good at it.  Clare helped the master weaver with raising and lowering the warp threads to make the pattern on her place mat.

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While Stella continued to weave I was able to tour around the Centre and examine the exquisite batik being carried out by Mae, a Hmong woman.  Wax is applied to hemp fabric in intricately detailed patterns, then the fabric dyed with indigo.  It can then be later embroidered over parts of the batik design, and pleated into tiny fan pleats to make traditional skirts.

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The weaving shuttle are smooth to hold and the bobbins turn freely in them as the shuttle is passed from side to side in the loom.

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There are a multitude of weaving methods used to produce a wide variety of patterns.  Watching the master weavers at work is really rather incredible.  The amount of time, experience and knowledge that goes into producing these hand spun, hand dyed, hand woven textiles is astounding.  I’ll be going back to Ock Pop Tok to buy a piece or two before we leave Luang Prabang.

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We received comprehensive information books about the crafts done at the Centre.  There is plenty of information on the Ock Pop Tok website as well.  There were others doing one, two or three day dyeing and weaving courses.  It’s a wonderful place for anyone interested in textiles (and those who hadn’t really thought about them much before, like my husband!)

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From the Ock Pop Tok website: Village Weaver Projects are a series of initiatives that create economic opportunities for artisans in rural locations. We help develop ranges of handicrafts that combine craftmanship and tradition with artistic creativity and market knowledge. Our team of weavers, dyers, designers and tailors transfer their skills to aid artisans make a better living from handicrafts. Currently this work takes place in 11 provinces. Combining a passion for these deep-rooted cultures and the handmade traditions with our business saavy we are able to create thriving village enterprises. In most cases we work with a government or NGO partner.

The benefits: 

  1. The majority of textile artisans are women for whom textile production is only one aspect of their daily life and income. Supporting the businesses of women has been found to have significant benefits to their families thus reducing poverty more effectively.
  2. There are limited income generation opportunities in rural areas, therefore the strengthening of textile production businesses provides rural people with the opportunity to choose to stay in their community to improve their income rather than being forced to leave and reducing the amount of money that stays in the village.
  3. Textile production is a “value added” product that provides a much better financial return than selling the raw fibre commodities. Keeping this value adding within the villages strengthens their industry and income.
  4. Textile production in Laos has strong cultural significance. Much of the technical and esoteric knowledge is passed from generation to generation within the village and often has a distinct character from group to group. This means that there is a strong geographical link to preserving the cultural integrity of Lao textiles.

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We had dinner at the Ock Pop Tok associated Silk Road Cafe back in town after our class.  My meal was delicious – that a Long Island Iced Tea and lemongrass stuffed with herbed chicken mince in that photo.  Then it was back to the villa for a relatively early night.

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Clare has been on the edge of a migraine for the past day (she occasionally gets these) so needed some rest and ibuprofen.  It seems to still be there this morning so fingers crossed that she improves soon.  One of her holiday achievements so far has been to successfully swallow medicine capsules rather than needing the liquid!

Thailand and Laos 2017

Thailand and Laos – day eleven (Sunday, Luang Prabang)

Tak Bat is the morning alms giving rounds.  In Luang Prabang this appears to have become a major tourist attraction.  The monks process down the main street then return along another block and then down the street that passes Lotus Villa.  In the main street, there are many vendors selling tourists the alms to give to the monks, with enterprising stallholders setting up seats for the tourists on the footpath and providing what they need at quite a price.  If there is an opportunity to make money, people will find it.  This procession begins at around 6.00am – the monks have been up since 3.30am – and takes around half an hour.

Unfortunately poor tourist behaviour has got to the point where there are signs and websites posted with the following guidelines (the bonzes are the monks):

How to respect the Tak Bat

  • Observe in silence and only make offerings if, for you, they correspond to a religious step that you can take with dignity.
  • Buy your rice in the market, preferably early in the morning rather than with the stallholders on the path of the bonzes.
  • Remove your shoes to give your offerings; women must stay on their knees and ideally wear a scarf over her shoulders.
  • If you’re not making an offering, stay at a distance, in a respectful manner. Don’t hamper the procession of bonzes and the donations of the faithful.
  • Make sure you are decently dressed, with your shoulders, body and legs well covered, especially if you are giving any offerings.
  • Don’t take photos of the bonzes from too near; the flashes are most disturbing both for the bonzes and the faithful.
  • Avoid any physical contact with the bonzes.
  • Never position yourself so that you are in a higher position than the bonzes (on a wall or on steps, for example) its very disrespectful : the bonzes must always be on the highest points.
  • Large buses are strictly forbidden in the protected area of the World Heritage, and create serious problems. Don’t follow the procession by bus. You again risk being higher than the bonzes, which in Laos is a lack of respect.
  • Participate in the ceremony for the bonzes quest, by protecting its dignity and its beauty. The population and the authorities of Luang Prabang thank you in advance for your cooperation.Normally, make sure you’re dressed in town, but especially in the temples, making sure that you do not show your knees or shoulders, and especially anything in between.To bow (even slightly) in front of the bonzes is recommended, and appreciated. It’s a mark of respect followed by all Laotians, a tradition to which you must conform.

    Women must absolutely not touch the bonzes. Men may, even though physical contact is unseemly.

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On our street, when the monks are returning to the temple, they walk more quickly and most of the alms giving is by local people rather than tourists.  It feels very peaceful and I can appreciate the spirituality of the ceremony.

Of course, it’s a little incongruous writing about tourist behaviour and tourist impact when I am also a tourist…

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We have a terrific breakfast at our villa each morning, served at tables in the central courtyard – in my case, a table immediately outside our room.  It means that I can enjoy multiple cups of excellent Lao coffee while I work my way through the menu.  Yesterday was an omelette, but today was delicious fresh spring rolls.

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It seems that a visit to Big Brother Mouse has become a regular daily activity for my family.  We’re enjoying conversation with the young people that are attending.  During the week most of the young people attending are novice monks, keen to improve their English.  On the weekend there was a large group of other teenagers as well.  Dan handed over his camera yesterday so that the monks to talk photos of one another.  Another tourist had his fiddle with him and played beautiful music in addition to the general conversation.

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The monk in the photo above has very good English and is keen to expand his general education as well.  Dan has been chatting to him about physics and mathematics and other related topics.  The monks are teenagers – some leave their villages to go to temple when they are as young as ten years old.  The novices we were speaking with this morning were between sixteen and nineteen years and had all been at the temple for quite a few years.  I cannot imagine leaving my family at such a young age.  We are still trying to find out more about the lives of teenage girls in the villages.  We are already aware that many get married very young – from about age 15 or 16 – unless they feel strongly otherwise and are more interested in expanding their education.

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This is our closest wat, and it’s extremely beautifully decorated.  In the grounds were a classroom and photos of novices learning traditional arts and building crafts that in the future will maintain wats like this one.

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Now it was time for a massage!  We found a place on the street by the river for me to have a head and neck massage (that also included back and shoulders) and the rest of the family to have a foot massage.  It was wonderful!

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Stella had especially requested that we return to La Rosa restaurant for wood fired pizza for lunch.  We’d gone there for dinner on our first night but sadly Stella was still unwell at that stage and the pizza did not remain in her stomach for long.  This time was much more successful – our meal was absolutely delicious!  It’s nice to take a break from local food every now and then and eat something more familiar.  From there we wandered down the streets toward the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC), taking in more sights (and more food) as we went.

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From the website of the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre:

Founded in 2006, TAEC collects, preserves, and interprets the traditional arts and lifestyles of the country’s many and diverse ethnic groups.  The doors opened in July 2007 with professional exhibitions on the ethnic cultures of Laos, and a museum shop promoting handicrafts from village artisans.

The Centre has expanded to include a growing collection of ethnic minority artefacts, a small library, and the TAEC Cafe space for special events. In July 2014, TAEC opened the TAEC Boutique, a stand-alone shop featuring the finest hand-crafted items from ethnic minority artisans in Laos. In its first five years, TAEC welcomed over 55,000 Lao and international visitors, and has rapidly emerged as a regional leader in cultural heritage management and community development.

Today, the Centre is engaged in a broad range of community engagement activities, reflecting our commitment to supporting living ethnic minority communities to preserve and promote their cultural heritage while looking towards the future. Explore our website to learn more about our work:

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This is a relatively small centre that is beautifully maintained and all exhibits are presented at a very high standard.  There were activity sheets for the children, excellent information boards at each exhibit, and a lovely gift shop where half the proceeds of the handmade goods are returned to the craftspeople who made them.  The toilets were in excellent condition – always a huge plus when travelling in South-East Asia when your intestinal system often needs recalibration – and even the fittings had little explanation tags.  The toilet roll holders were made from wooden weaving shuttles; the light shades were hand-woven cane baskets; the handtowel was from cotton grown and processed and woven in a particular region.  No detail was left unattended to.  TAEC is clearly a very important resource for Laos.

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From there we took a walk up Phou Si Mountain.  Surprisingly, this rather tall hill is right in the middle of town.  We walked up the back route, since we were coming from TAEC, which took us through some of the less fancy parts of the town.  It’s easy just to see the UNESCO listed buildings if you stick to the main streets, but head off down the side streets on the side of the mountains and you come across much smaller buildings with peoples lives very much on display.

The views along the way are spectacular, and we made the most of the fancy camera with zoom lens.  The mountain is 150 metres above the centre of town, and once you eventually get to the top there are views in every direction.  It’s worth climbing up all those steps – around 350 I think!

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Wat Tham Phousi is half way up the side of the hill, and has a number of gilded Buddha figures in a variety of positions, many nestled into the rocks.  There is a multiplicity of praying opportunities if you are so inclined.

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Once at the top we briefly explored That Chomsi before settling down to wait for the sunset.  With what appeared to be another couple of hundred tourists.  It definitely was beautiful, but certainly not a peaceful spiritual experience as long lenses and selfie sticks jostled for space on the narrow viewing platform around the temple!

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We descended the staircase on the other side of the hill to find ourselves straight in the centre of the Evening Market.  Colour, light and people everywhere!

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Many of the stalls sold essentially the same items, probably out of the same factories.  Hand-made is not terribly hand-made at this market!  It didn’t take us long to do a circuit of half the market before deciding that it was time to return to the villa.  It had been quite a long day out – we’d left at about 9.00am and now it was after dark!

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There were a few stalls like the one below that had signs up explaining that they were selling items made from aluminium scavenged from UXO.  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  Part of me says it’s great that they are able to find a source of income from something terrible – another part questions if they really ARE items handmade from UXO (since there were a few stalls selling what looked to be identical items, although I suppose that if they are using moulds then things would be the same – and yet another part of me screams “get away from that UXO and don’t try to fiddle with it to salvage anything – it might explode”!  As if often the case here, competing thoughts and ideas and lots of questions.

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We had a light dinner at the unnamed restaurant on the corner near the villa that we have been frequenting whenever we want something small, local and cheap.  Mango and sticky rice, yum!  The middle-aged (or older?) lady running it doesn’t appear to speak any English other than the words for the items on the menu, and shows us the final price via a calculator.  She is quite entertained by our clumsy attempts at speaking Lao.

Back at the villa plate of Lao sweets was waiting for us.  Each evening the villa leaves us a little gift when they turn down the beds.  The first night it was a scarf; the second a packet of local coffee.  I wonder what tonight will bring!

Thailand and Laos 2017

Thailand and Laos – day ten (Luang Prabang)

I am at that stage of our holiday where I have to count off dates to work out how long we have been here and to work out what day of the week it is!  As I type this it is Sunday of day eleven – so we’re pretty much half way through our holiday.  However, this blog post is all about day ten, yesterday.

Stella really still wasn’t 100% better.  She’s such a slight thing that she really doesn’t have many reserves if she gets a vomiting illness.  All things considered she’s done really well to be still enjoying most aspects of our holiday!  Fortunately when she woke this morning (Sunday) she promptly pronounced that she felt better, and jumped straight onto her electronic device to play some games and hum along as she did so.  Much more like Stella!  But yesterday morning she really still wanted to just lie on her bed (while playing games of course).  I elected to stay at Lotus Villa with her while Dan and Clare headed around the corner to spend a couple of hours in English conversation at Big Brother Mouse.

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Big Brother Mouse is a Lao based, Lao owned organisation that specialises in publishing books in Laos.  Literacy has been very poor in Laos, and up until recently most people had not even seen a book, let alone been able to read. But as their website says: We’re not just a publisher. We give hands-on experience to young people as they learn new skills: writing, editing, translating, computer use, and organizing events. We’re also developing effective new ways to distribute books in a country where currently, there’s no good system for that. And we’re building toward the day when publishing books is a self-sustaining enterprise: We ask villages that can afford to do so to pay part of the cost of their school’s reading program.

Many people in Laos are keen to learn English.  Big Brother Mouse publish many of their books in both Lao and English.  They also run English practice sessions at their Luang Prabang location, where foreigners are encouraged to come along and speak English with local young people.  There are two two-hour sessions each day – and the room was packed!  There were plenty of monks among them too.

Clare has offered to write about her time in the English practice session, and she is also keen to attend another one, so stay tuned for a special guest blog post from her later on.

The staff at the villa offered to watch Stella so that I could go out for a brief explore around the surrounding streets.  I very quickly came across Ock Pop Tok‘s second store.  I think it’s destiny.  The universe keeps on leading me there.

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It wasn’t long however before mother guilt overtook me and I headed back to the Villa.  However there are always more things to see on the way!

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These photos are of our local wat, Wat Nong Sikhounmuang.  The monks who were at Big Brother Mouse were from this wat.  They’ve invited Dan to come for chanting one evening. This wat shelters one of the largest pagodas in Luang Prabang and is richly decorated with stencils and colour.

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Wanting to take advantage of the stunning weather – apparently previous days had been full of rain – we asked the Villa to arrange for a tuk tuk to take us to Kuang Si Falls. This is close to an hour’s drive from town. Stella was still feeling peaky but was keen to come along. It was so worthwhile! As always we enjoyed the vignettes of daily life that were spotted from the back of the tuk tuk, and it was lovely to see countryside and mountains. Everything was very lush. There was a fair bit of rubbish in little piles at designated points along the way. There is not coordinated system for rubbish disposal in Laos.

Once we were deposited at the village at the base of the waterfalls, we discovered that the pathway up to the falls ran alongside the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre. This centre cares for bears rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. From their website:

Asiatic black bears (Moon Bears) are an endangered species targeted by illegal hunters for use in the traditional medicine trade, restaurant trade or as exotic pets. Young cubs are often targeted by hunters after the mother has been killed because they are easy to transport and conceal. They are often malnourished and frightened but are given a second chance and able to live out the rest of their lives comfortably in the Tat Kuang Si sanctuary.

The centre houses more than 20 rescued bears, and they enjoy large forested enclosures, cool fresh water streams fed by the nearby waterfall, and lost of play and enrichment items to keep them fully occupied. Increasing environmental awareness is of particular importance and one of the most recent projects is a nature discovery trail within Tat Kuang Si Park, primarily aimed at local communities and school children. Through this they are able to highlight the threats to forests and wildlife, and are working to support educational visits from local and international schools over the coming years.

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Then we came across the Kuang Si Falls. They are spectacular – I think that the many photos I am about to deluge you with speak for themselves.

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Stella was a tourist attraction in her own right.

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We arrived back at the Villa just in time to head a short way down the street to the Children’s Cultural Centre.  The Children’s Cultural Centre provides after-school and weekend activities for Lao children and youth to learn about Lao culture and traditions. Through participation in traditional music, drama, storytelling, singing, and a variety of arts and crafts activities, Lao children learn about their roots and develop skills that encourage healthy lifestyles, good stewardship and cultural preservation.

We were privileged to attend a performance that included participating in a Baci ceremony, watching an Epock puppet show, and watching five different ethnic dances.  The teenaged performers did an superb job.

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The Baci ceremony: “Baci” meaning “calling of the soul” is an important ceremony practiced in Lao culture and Northern and Isan Thai culture. Baci is a phi ritual used to celebrate important events and occasions, like births and marriages and also entering the monkhood, departing, returning, beginning a New Year, and welcoming or bidding etc. The ritual of the Baci involves tying strings around a person’s wrist to preserve good luck, and has become a national custom.

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I was up early enough to watch the monks receiving alms this morning – but will write about that tomorrow!

Thailand and Laos 2017

Thailand and Laos – day nine (Vientiane to Luang Prabang)

I assumed that because it was primarily a travel day, there wouldn’t be much to blog about.  I was wrong!  It’s easy to forget sometimes that it’s in the everyday activities that you find interest and fascination.

Fortunately Stella was much better on Friday morning, although not yet completely well.  We enjoyed our last breakfast at Jungle House with Mike before suddenly remembering that we had a flight to catch!  I had the opportunity to take some more photos around Jungle House before we left, admiring the detail of the decorations and furnishings. Every piece tells a story.  Actually, Mike is a walking repository of stories – his life really does need to be a book!  I particularly like the polished eggs, all in different stone types.  He has quite a collection.  For me they are extremely tactile, and I love the colours and patterns in them, but they also remind me of my paternal grandfather who was a great rockhound and used to collect and then polish rocks in his workshops.

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Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

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Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

It is difficult to adequately express our thanks to Mike and Xoukiet for providing such wonderful hospitality and I think even more importantly for giving us true insight into life in Laos – not just the tourist version! I know that we have learned a great deal more than we would have if we’d just been staying in standard hotels. They introduced topics and issues that I had barely thought about before, and caused me to think more deeply about the world we live in and how it operates. I have a whole lot more thinking to do!  Nothing was ever too much trouble.  Lifts into town and back as needed, washing done, gin and tonics poured, the dinners cooked by Xoukiet were local foods cooked and presented beautifully, and overall I think it was an experience that the whole family will continue to treasure. Jungle House really does deserve it’s number one Vientiane B’n’B spot!  Thank you for welcoming us into your home.

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Off to the airport!  This is the domestic terminal of Vientiane’s airport.  Things are certainly rather simple as compared to the domestic terminal in Melbourne – which is what you’d expect with the difference in the country’s wealth and population size.  Everything worked very smoothly.  I’d booked our flights online and paid for them from home, we presented the printed confirmation, and our bags were smoothly checked in and so were we.  While waiting to board we enjoyed looking at what was available for sale in the snack shop.  Note that the cigarettes were less than the price of a box of Pocky.

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

And on to the plane!  I’d told the girls it would be a propeller plane, and it was.  We walked across the tarmac and climbed up the ladder to get inside.  It’s a very short flight between the two cities; around 50 minutes.  The plane seated 6o people, and they even managed to deliver us water and a snack mid-flight.  We were above clouds for much of the flight, but it was quite exciting once we began to descend and could see the hills and the river below.

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

We had originally hoped to take a day-long bus trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, but that idea was scuppered by a combination of Clare’s motion sickness and a travel advisory warning for the road from Van Vieng up to Luang Prabang that would have invalidated our travel insurance.  We were disappointed not to have had the chance to see the countryside through the bus windows for a day.  Only visiting major cities gives a skewed perspective of daily life, I suspect.  But that’s just the way it had to be!  As it was, we had a great flight experience instead.

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Once we’d arrived we were collected at the airport and delivered to our boutique hotel, Lotus Villa. It is beautiful! The girls have an adjoining room to Dan and I. The rooms are fitted out beautifully and open onto a courtyard.

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Stella was feeling pretty delicate and tired by this stage, so we took it in turns to go out and explore the local area. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO listed world heritage town, and unsurprisingly it is absolutely beautiful.  There is an interesting article on the unintended effects of UNESCO listing on towns like this one here.  The area does appear to now be predominately full of accommodation, cafes and restaurants, shops, travel desks and other tourist related businesses.  I wonder how much is left here of “normal” Lao living?

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9  Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

It only took me about two minute to run across Ock Pop Tok. You’ll be hearing more about it later on, and those of you who are into textiles are possibly already familiar with it. In the meantime, look at these beautiful textiles!

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9  Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

Vientiane to Luanf Prabang day 9

I can tell that we’re still going to have to pace things for Stella’s benefit.  She is quite perky for a few hours, but then needs to rest again.  Not certain yet what today will bring, but I do have plenty of ideas!  At the moment Clare and Dan have headed off to help with English language conversation at Big Brother Mouse, while Stella rests some more. There will be lots of tag-team activities.

I’m really glad that we went to Vientiane before coming to Luang Prabang.  I feel that if we had only visited here we really wouldn’t have gained much insight into what the rest of Laos is like – I suspect that Luang Prabang could be a slight aberration.  To me it has parallels with Ubud in Bali, or with Noosa or Daylesford in Australia.  In different ways, of course, but I see similarities as well in terms of there being loads of tourists in a beautiful environment.  We’re looking forward to our time here, but feel even privileged to have had our experience in Vientiane with Mike and Xoukiet.  Sure, Vientiane is chaotic and dusty, but it has sparked so much learning and interest in the country of Laos.  At the same time, we’re really going to enjoy the beauty and calm of Luang Prabang.

Thailand and Laos 2017

Thailand and Laos – day eight (Vientiane)

We needed to reconsider our plans for Thursday because Stella was clearly not well enough to be doing anything much.  Although she wasn’t vomiting any more, she was definitely still sick.  Dan decided to spend the day in our cottage so that she could alternate between watching something on youtube and sleeping – and apparently she mostly chose sleep.  I will update (Friday morning) that she slept really solidly last night other than waking briefly at 1.30am feeling extremely hungry, so I think she’s close to being better.  It’s always hard being sick (and watching your child who is sick) and even more so when in an unfamiliar country.

So the day’s adventures were all for Clare and me.  Mike kindly dropped us off at Talat Sao Morning Market.  This is an old market that borders a new shopping mall on three sides (the shopping mall with carparking on top but no way to access it).   We were on a mission to buy some Beerlao t-shirts for my husband and his three fishing buddies (so classy, we know – between the four of them they are gathering beer themed t-shirts from around the world; it’s become the compulsory souvenir.  They originally told us they were wearing them “ironically” – I think that they just like the beer, actually).  Unsurprisingly, we didn’t have much difficulty finding them and think that I made the vendor’s day with the price I was happy to pay.  From there we wandered the lower floor of the morning market – especially the silks section.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

The morning market is really much for the locals than it is for tourists.  Yes, there are things sold that are directed at the tourist market, but most of the wares for sale are for the Lao people.  Small stores, packed from floor to ceiling, sit side by side essentially selling the same things as their neighbours.  None of the stalls appeared to be busy.  Although this is currently high tourist season, there’s not all that many tourists around either.  Actually, some local people we spoke to earlier in the day assumed that we were living/working in Laos – I suspect that because I am travelling with the family (and we haven’t seen many other family groups at all) that it is a fairly reasonable assumption.  Most tourists don’t have their kids with them.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

I really love the riot of colour in the textiles area of the market.  Everything that you need to make fabrics is available.  Actually, this section was a little busier than the section selling ready made clothing.  I rather like the national dress of the long straight skirt (with embroidery at the bottom) known as a sinh, paired with a fitted blouse.  Well, I wouldn’t like that on me, but it looks wonderful on the local population.  I’d rather like to get Clare into an outfit as well.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Of course I found sewing machines!  They were close to the sections selling fridges, washing machines, and other household appliances.  The market groups stalls selling similar products together.  There are plenty of mobile phones available too.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

The above photos were taken in an area where offerings and other religious items were for sale.  This included offerings for the monks in ready assembled packages for people to buy and take to the wat.  As the monks aren’t permitted to buy anything themselves, they rely on people making appropriate offerings, so the pre-packaged bundles include non-perishable food items, clothing, toiletries, umbrellas, and any other requirements for daily life that the vendor deems appropriate.  They also sell candles in a staggering array of sizes.  But I think that my favourite stalls were the tiny hairdressers and pedicure places that were squeezed in between clothing and religious item stalls, such as in the photo below.

Vientiane day 7

There were other sections selling dried items that to my untrained eye were either foodstuffs or medicinal.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Plenty of DVDs available, aimed at the local population.

Vientiane day 7

There were a few stalls selling hairpieces and hair accessories.  None in the colour of Clare’s hair, much to her disappointment, but plenty in shades of brown, reddish brown and variations of black.  The ones on the counter are buns that can be pinned on.

Vientiane day 7

We did spot quite a few book sellers as well.  None of these were selling books or magazines in English, other than those that were educational texts to teach it.  Not many of the Lao population appear to speak English at all.  It’s considerably less common than we found it in Thailand.

Vientiane day 7

Collar drafting instructions!

Vientiane day 7

Although the market doesn’t provide any car parking there is plenty of parking for your motorbike.  Many people drive large twin-cab utes here, yet there is little if any public parking available.  New buildings aren’t required to provide any parking at all.  So large cars and trucks squeeze in to any available space they can find.  Every car trip is an adventure here.

Vientiane day 7

From the market we walked into the centre of town for a bite to eat.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Don’t you love it when you have the option of paying your bill in three forms of currency?  I’ll need to do a currency audit of my purse a few days before we leave Laos, as you cannot exchange the kip back to any other form of currency once you leave.  It is only useful within Laos.

Vientiane day 7

Our afternoon’s excursion was to Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre.  We’d decided to take a short class in natural dyes to make a tie-dyed scarf each.  We were shown laminated photos of different patterns options, that we were then able to pair with a variety of colour options.  Our guide, Khammy, and her helper showed Clare and I how we needed to fold our silk scarves and clamp and tie them in order to produce the pattern we were after.  We also made a third scarf for Stella.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Once we had our scarves all appropriate folded and tightly tied, it was time to visit the dye vats.  I had chosen to make a green scarf for myself.  Clare was making one in purple, and we’d decided on blue for Stella’s.  We were shown the different materials used to produce each colour then proceeded to the indigo dye vats.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

The staff made us work hard!  The scarves were immersed in the vats then the dye rubbed in to every available area of the fabric.  Each colour took at least ten minutes of swishing and rubbing, depending on the desired intensity of colour.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

After indigo, Clare rinsed out her scarf then put it into a red dye that came from the sap or gum of a tree.  She softened up the dye and crumbled it into the pot, and repeated the process of rubbing in the colour.  It then got a stir and boil for another ten minutes.  I did a similar process with yellow dye produced from the dogwood tree.  A bit like cooking dinner, but with a different aroma.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

There was a Cambodian woman there who had been undertaking a course at the centre for a number of weeks.  She was experimenting with colour intensities on different fabric types.  Apparently she was hoping to learn as much as she could then take that information back to Cambodia to train others.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

And the finished products!  Clare’s purple scarf, Stella’s indigo scarf and my green one.  It took numerous rinses to get the indigo out of the fabric – maybe five changes of water?  That stuff is persistent!

Vientiane day 7

While our scarves were drying we were shown the weaving looms and the work that the women at the centre are undertaking.  This woman was weaving a long length of plain silk, in the most beautiful colour.  The selvedges were perfect – she was highly skilled in her work.  Others were making scarf widths or specific patterns for sinhs.  And incredible amount of attention to detail.  Threads used varied from cotton to silk, and also variety in thickness.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

There were goods available for sale in the shop attached to the centre.  I bought the scarf on the right in the photo below.  Just my colours!

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

The objectives of the Houey Hong Centre are:

  1. To provide training for various skill levels in weaving, dyeing ad tailoring for women from rural areas who are disadvantaged, poor and/or who have a disability
  2. To revive and support Lao’s traditional crafts, such as natural dyeing and traditional weaving
  3. To introduce other suitable skills, such as tailoring, to women who have little education.

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

There is so much more I could write, but I am definitely pressed for time this morning!  If you’re interested in more information about the centre there is plenty on it’s website.  Clare and I had a wonderful time there with highly individualised attention.  It was an excellent experience.

Then it was time to meet up with our host Xioukiet, who is the national project coordinator on the United Nations trafficking project in Laos, and get a lift home.  (This article also discusses the vulnerability of Laos to human trafficking.)

Vientiane day 7

On the way home we stopped at the local market for some provisions, in the same way we’d stop off at the local supermarket in Australia.  Find a park out the front and nip in for some banana crisps and fresh greens.  The main difference is that it is open air and has narrow pathways to walk along between the stalls.

 

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

Vientiane day 7

It’s Friday morning as I type this, and shortly we’ll be heading to Luang Prabang.  We’re really going to miss Vientiane, and especially our wonderfully intelligent and stimulating hosts.

Thailand and Laos 2017

Thailand and Laos – day seven (Vientiane)

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

We headed into town in the morning to change some money, buy some more Colin Cotterill Dr. Siri mysteries – I figured that buying the entire series here in Laos would keep some of the profits here – and to wander a little around the main streets.

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

We spent some time at Wat Sisaket.  It is a Buddhist wat, built in 1818.  It is built in a Siamese style rather than Lao style, and was spared the destruction that took place to most of the rest of Vientiane in 1827.  It is possibly the oldest wat still standing in Vientiane, and has been restored twice in its history.  There were more interior restoration works to temple frescoes and decorations going on inside when we visited (funded by a German program).  The cloisters hold over 2000 ceramic and silver Buddha images.

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

We presumed that the couple in these photos was having wedding photos taken.  When we spoke to Mike about it he said that traditionally there will be many photos taken of the happy couple prior to the actual wedding ceremony.  These photos, taken in a variety of locations with a variety of backdrops, are then on display at the ceremony.  I thought that they looked stunning – especially the fabrics in the bride’s outfit.  I need to investigate traditional Lao clothing further.

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

A significant and recurring topic of conversation during the course of the day and the evening was around foreign aid and its effectiveness in the country.  I have been mulling this over most of the night, and include some links here for my own reference and for any of you who may be interested.  So much of the money that is donated never makes it to the intended recipients.  Without proper oversight and accountability, cash is continually siphoned off along the way by people who are involved in the projects.  It seems that if there is money to be made, people will make it.  Cultural value clashes and differing government priorities add to the complexity of the issues.

How can those of us in wealthy countries NOT help those who need assistance?

But how can we help others effectively without inadvertently causing harmful longer-term consequences?

My priorities are around health and education – to me, without these being addressed, how can a nation effectively manage the needs of the people and build their skill base?  How many huge concrete buildings that are basically empty does a country need?  When at the same time it doesn’t even have doctors with internationally recognised qualifications?

Jeepers.  This is difficult stuff.  Further reading:

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

The Victory Monument, Patuxai, was built between 1957 and 1968.  It was built using American funds and concrete – which was actually intended for a runway at the airport.   The government of Laos clearly had different plans, and this was the result!

Thailand Laos day seven Vientiane

Poor little Stella was the first of us to fall victim to a tummy upset, and spent from 8pm to 2.30am vomiting every hour or so.  She seems to be very much on the improve this morning though.  One of the reasons we have chosen to spend a number of nights in each location is to accommodate any illnesses that might arise.  We figure that with four of us contacting new-to-us germs and even just with the change in food types and daily routines and rhythms, some minor illness was inevitable.  Fingers crossed that we’re all fairly well from here on.