Category Archives: Laos

Boun Bang Fai, an Explosive Festival

After nearly three years in Laos, I’ve been to most of the major local festivals.  I’ve given alms at That Luang, tried paddling (but mostly cheering) a Dragonboat, respectfully tied baci strings for babies, at offices, and at weddings, thrown water like a champion at Lao New Year, and so on.  But the one festival I’ve been missing out on is boun bang fai, or the annual Rocket Festivals.

Not enough explosions? Take some home.

Not enough explosions? Take some home.

These celebrations are harder to track down, because they don’t just happen on one day, but could occur any time between April-June, in the transitional period between the dry and the rainy seasons, and happen on different days in different villages.  Generally they occur more in the countryside, rather than in the city-proper (which is for the best for safety reasons), and are said to have a link to ancient fertility ceremonies, which makes sense with the scheduling to signify the coming of the rains, and the beginning of the rice-planting season.  In keeping with this theme, rocket festivals can often be a rather raunchy affair, with a fair amount of cross-dressing, drunkenness (okay, well, this is true of all Lao holidays), and phallic rockets or drawings.
picnic
After two years of talking about rocket festivals, I knew I had to finally  see what it was all about, so when a friend invited me and some of our other friends out to his family’s village in Ban Naxone, about a one hour drive from the city, I was ready to go.  After a body-numbing motorbike drive out to the village with my friend Ilse, we knew we had arrived when traffic in an otherwise quiet area drew to a standstill, and loud cowbell music began to resonate in the background.  We began just with a quiet lunch at our friend’s house, with the usual fare of papaya salad, small river clams, and beef with chili sauce, before venturing out to check out the scene.

Condensed milk slushee coming up.

Condensed milk slushee coming up.

The Ban Naxone rocket festival seemed to be bigger and more official (and therefore less raunchy) than many other rocket festivals.  The currently dry rice fields were the site of a massive carnival, with stalls selling grilled meats, homemade slushees, Gangnam Style balloons, and tiny take-home rockets.  Families had picnics, and everyone flinched a bit when a rocket went off.  The rockets themselves are not exactly anything that would pass a safety inspection in the US.  These are PVC bottle rockets (homemade in the village) of varying sizes, from small (do-it-yourself) to big, to VERY big (saved for the grand finale, which we unfortunately missed).  The larger-sized ones are set off from a launching platform, and are lit by either brave or stupid men inevitably wearing flip flops, and hurtle in the air with an alarming sound that makes you want to hit the deck to save yourself.  The crowd shades their eyes as they smoke high into the air, and then begin their descent…to land wherever they might land.  It’s an entertaining festival, but one to be approached with caution.

A few heart-stopping rocket launches was enough for us, as we had to head back to Vientiane before it got too dark, but it was certainly a worthwhile spectacle.  Let the rainy season begin!

The launching platform.

The launching platform.

there she goes

What goes up, must come down.

What goes up, must come down.

Trying to figure out where it will land.

Trying to figure out where it will land.

 

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Pi Mai Redux

Last month, the country shut down to celebrate the Lao holiday to end all holidays, Pi Mai Lao, or Lao New Year.  Time must be flying here, since I feel like I just celebrated the new year…but wait…I did!

Since last Lao New Year, I have actually celebrated 4 new years, so no wonder time seems to be passing so quickly!  Last April, my friends visited and we celebrated the Buddhist year 2555 with the classic Lao water festival celebrations, which I detailed culturally, and festivity-wise in previous posts.

The details of a beautiful traditional Hmong skirt.

The details of a beautiful traditional Hmong skirt.

A girl's traditional hat for Hmong New Year.

A girl’s traditional hat for Hmong New Year.

Just when the year was starting to feel long, it was time for Hmong New Year in December, when I visited Phonsavane and Nonghet District in Xieng Khouang Province just in time for the colorful cultural parties.  With this week of feasting on plain rice and drinking lao lao out of gasoline containers barely behind me, it was suddenly time for the international New Year.

I rang in 2013 with my friends Elle (who was actually present for the 2555 celebration as well) and Ilse in Bangkok, with Mexican food, VWs-turned-bars, and a rooftop countdown that came a few minutes too late.

Fireworks over Bangkok.

Fireworks over Bangkok.

A VW turned partymobile.

A VW turned partymobile.

Just when I thought I was done with new years for awhile, it was time for Chinese New Year/Tet and the Year of the Snake, and thanks to Vientiane’s large Vietnamese and Chinese population, storefronts hung lanterns and displayed red clothing, while drummers pounded out rhythms on the way to dragon shows with their teams.  I celebrated at a Lao-Vietnamese friend’s house with traditional table settings, incense and fireworks, and the less-traditional Pitbull soundtrack and Beerlao-induced dancing.

Vietnamese/Chinese New Year table.

Vietnamese/Chinese New Year table.

And then…time for another Lao New Year!  Soon enough, a year had passed (or is it several years?) and last month we rang in the Buddhist Year 2556.  As it’s my third Lao New Year, and third Pi Mai blog post, I won’t bore with the details and description (look for that here and here).  Instead let these photos and your imagination take you to a sweltering saturated 3 days in which neons, florals, and Beerlao-yellow blend before your eyes, wigs, sunglasses, and caveman costumes get swapped from person to person, and there are no moments of silence.  By now, the city has long since cleaned up the water balloons and party debris, and I am waiting around for the next new year I can celebrate.  Any ideas?

Anything goes at Pi Mai Lao!

Anything goes at Pi Mai Lao!

Safety first?

Safety first?

Downtown Vientiane on the first day of Pi Mai.

Downtown Vientiane on the first day of Pi Mai.

It's impossible to stay dry.

It’s impossible to stay dry.

 

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Vang Vieng

I returned from the beach sunned, and with the souvenir of a sea urchin fragment embedded in my foot.  With the final weekend of vacation in January, I visited somewhere new, but much closer to home: Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is at once a notorious and beloved tourist destination.  After Luang Prabang, it is probably the most well-known and popular location for visitors to Laos.  It is both known for its stunning landscape–with craggy karst mountains overlooking the Nam Song River–and its hard-partying-anything-goes reputation.  For years, Vang Vieng has been a magnet for drunk Aussies on spring break (to be stereotypical against someone other than Americans for once…although all nationalities partake in the debauchery).  It’s known as the place where you can drunk buckets of cheap local liquor, enjoy “happy shakes” spiked with your opiate of choice, and float/jump/frolic intoxicated in the Nam Song River.  It’s a double-edged sword: it provides a good livelihood for enterprising locals in tourism, however, at its worst the debauchery is both disrespectful and dangerous.
downtown VV
During the ASEM cleanup, bars along the river were torn down, and a curfew enforced, and by the time I visited Vang Vieng in January, this cleaner face of the town was still preserved.  I had passed through Vang Vieng very briefly in 2011 on my motorbike expedition north, but barely saw anything of the town.  However, in the few hours I was outside getting dinner I clearly remember hoardes of noisy tourists in frat tanks and booty shorts walking barefoot in the roads sporting lewd day-glo body paint and Sharpie scribblings on their body.

roti menu
The Vang Vieng after dark this time was starkly different.  The streets were relatively quiet and fairly deserted, more like Vientiane or Luang Prabang, and the TVs in the Friends cafes (every other business is a restaurant with comfortable cushions and reruns of the sitcom playing on a flatscreen) and Top 40 music at bars faded by midnight.

While this version of Laos’ hedonist haven seemed much more pleasant (I was thankful not to have to watch half-naked falang spilling french fries), many vendors and bar owners bemoaned the fact that it was supposedly “high season” but certainly didn’t seem like it…and that they were forbidden from continuing to sell their liquor buckets.  Supposedly the river tubing experience has also calmed, although I have yet to try it myself.  It’s unclear how permanent the change is–things here often go in waves of strictness and relative laxity.  But hopefully in the end, some sort of happy medium will be reached, which restores the tourism and fun, but with a higher degree of safety and respect.
Vang Vieng landscape
Vang Vieng isn’t just for frolicking falang, it’s also a popular tourist destination for locals, as it’s only a 3-5 hour bus ride from Vientiane, and offers a spectrum of pleasant outdoor activities.  Waterfalls, swimming holes, and caves abound to be explored.

In my short two day visit, I wandered around town, enjoying how relaxed and walkable it is, and strolled the stunning riverside.  I headed out of town to one of the caves, which was surrounded by a well-kept park filled picnicking families and Thai tour groups.  Finally, I made sure to catch a couple episodes of Friends on a couch, and feel unabashedly touristy for a few hours.

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The Lao Nagas

Last year, a Lao rugby team, called the Lao Nagas, traveled to Hong Kong for the first time to compete in the Kowloon 10s tournament and watch the world’s most elite 7s tournament.  The team invited a videographer from Lao New Wave Cinema to join and make a documentary of the event, which has been well-received in both Laos and Hong Kong, and was featured at this year’s Vientianale film festival.

Thanks to the success of last year’s tournament, the team is on their way to Hong Kong for the second time this week, and I invite you to cheer them on by watching the full length documentary, or the 5 minute trailer version on YouTube below, which I edited from the original film last month.

Let’s go Laos, Lao sou sou!

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Hmong New Year

After spending a few days getting acquainted with Phonsavane, I traveled further west in Xieng Kuang Province to Nonghet District, quite close to the border with Vietnam.  I went there to capture some photo and video media for two local organizations running youth leadership development projects, and was also lucky enough to experience Hmong New Year in full-swing.
headwear
The Hmong are an ethnic group who live mostly in the mountainous areas of Laos (as well as in other countries in the region, like China, Vietnam, and Thailand).  They are one of the largest minority groups in Laos.  Following the United States’ “Secret War” in the 1970s, many Hmong fled to the US, which is why there are relatively large communities living in some parts of the States (mostly in the west and midwest) and I met many Hmong Americans back visiting while in Phonsavane.

Hmong is a completely different language from Lao, sounding more to the untrained ear like Chinese than Lao and Thai.  Hmong doesn’t use the Lao alphabet, but rather has a generally accepted Romanized transliteration.  Most of the older people I met could speak Lao, to varying degrees, depending on their education, as children are required to learn Lao at school.  I didn’t pick up that many Hmong phrases, but Nyob Zoo Xyoo Tshiab (Happy New Year) was usually enough to get a smile and greeting.

Hmong New Year is celebrated in November and December each year and brings together families and communities for 3-10 days of celebrations.  Young women dress in their brilliant traditional outfits and young people play pov pob, a ball tossing game, which for older children is a way to socialize and flirt with members of the opposite sex.  Younger girls line up with one another to practice and play, tossing a tennis ball back and forth and catching it nimbly with one hand (or dropping it and running after it, costumes jingling, in the youngest kids’ case).
nonghet
As my car wound through the precarious and quease-inducing mountain roads on the way from Phonsavane to Nonghet I saw brilliantly colored packs of adorable girls playing this game outside their villages, often worrying close to the unpredictable winding road.  Although narrow, these roads are becoming a main highway for massive construction vehicles and overloaded trucks coming from Vietnam, which often hurtle past the small villages flanking the road seemingly without regard to the many farmers and children passing over these routes on foot.
hmong costume
The reality of life in Nonghet is drastically different from the Laos I know in Vientiane.  The main source of income here is agriculture, and people of all ages help their families in the fields.  Houses are Hmong, rather than Lao, style, built to the ground (rather than on stilts), with packed clay floors and cool dark interiors with few windows.  Here in the mountains of Nonghet, the temperature was even colder than in Phonsavane (approximately 50s-60s F), and although the sun heated up the afternoons, evenings were cold, with no protection, except layers, from the chill.

In addition to wearing costumes and playful kids’ games, Hmong New Year, like most holidays, revolves around eating and drinking, and inviting friends and family to the house to wish you well for the new year.  Over the course of the several day festival, people drop in from house to house in the villages for food and a glass of Beerlao or shot of potent lao khao liquor.  While not working, my friend and I stopped by the many houses to which we were invited to be overstuffed with rice, chicken and broths, but unable to politely turn down a request to eat or drink.  In this case, “I just ate at the last house” is not a valid excuse, as everyone wishes to offer their own hospitality for the new year.  Several days afternoon lunch oozed into dinner time and beyond, with hours of straight eating, and I went to bed full, swearing not to eat white rice again (until I was served a plate of it the following day).
meal

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Vientiane International Rugby Championship

This weekend Vientiane is hosting its biggest rugby tournament yet–the Vientiane International Rugby Championship.  In my role as designated photographer and videographer I have been preparing several videos to introduce the visiting teams and fans to the country, sport, and Federation.  There are teams touching down in Vientiane today from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the USA (a women’s team with many players from my very own Princeton!) to compete with the Lao teams on Saturday and Sunday.  It’s shaping up to be a fun weekend!  Whether you’ll be involved or not, check out the videos: #1: Welcome to Laos-What is Laos like?  An introduction to the country for the international visitors. #2: What is rugby? An introduction to the sport to local spectators who may not know much about rugby yet. #3: Introducing Lao Rugby

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Phonsavane, Xieng Kouang

Phonsavane

In December, I finally got out of the “big city” to explore another province of Laos–Xieng Kouang.  The plane touched down on the scant runway of the capital, Phonsavane, (sometimes spelled Phonsavan or Phonsavanh), where the horizon is dotted with mountains, yet the straight, wide roads give an impression of vast flatness.  A short walk around the few downtown main streets revealed a surplus of tour operators, that seemed to far outstrip the smattering of foreigners I saw on the sidewalk, a handful of tuk tuks, and a dusty sunset.  After dinner at one of the only restaurants in town with operational Wifi,  there was not much to do in the city center, which was remarkably quieter, darker, and colder than Vientiane, but to retreat back into my guesthouse for warmth.  (With lows in the 60s, Phonsavane was just plain chilly after leaving 85-degree Vientiane).

Downtown Phonsavane

Downtown Phonsavane

Xieng Kouang is unfortunately known for being the most bombed province of the most bombed country (per capita) in the world.  During the “Secret War” in the 1970s, the U.S. barraged the Lao countryside with bombs, in opposition to North Vietnamese forces passing through Laos and the Pathet Lao movement.  More than 2 million tons of bombs were dropped at this time, many of which were cluster munitions, which scattered and littered the countryside with deadly leftovers of the war.  

"Craters" Restaurant with apt decor.

“Craters” Restaurant with apt decor.

Unfortunately these weapons have a long lifespan, so the bombs continue to affect Lao people today, as villagers are killed, blinded, or disabled frequently, most often farmers tilling fields, or children playing.  In Xieng Kouang, evidence of the war is ever-present.  Scrap bomb casings are commonly used domestically: as barbecues, stilts, flowerbeds, or decoration.  A walk around Phonsavane revealed this rusted decor of all shapes and sizes.  One Xieng Kouang village, Ban Naphia, fashions war scrap into jewelry and utensils, and a large number of local houses use these “bomb spoons” to serve food.

Bomb BBQ

Bomb BBQ

An international organization known as MAG is one of the main groups that works to clear land across rural Laos.  Their office on the main drag of Phonsavane offered both more shocking statistics, and some heartening and inspiring stories of successful clearance, and the new all-female bomb team.  It felt even more jarring here, in this part of the country, where wounds are still so fresh, to say I was an American, though not due to any ill-treatment by the locals.  For numerous reasons, this blog is not a place for me to share political comments, but the feelings of sadness about the way the war still affects ordinary people’s lives transcends any political opinions about the war itself. 

The Plain of Jars, Site 1.

The Plain of Jars, Site 1.

On my second day in town, having exhausted the scant downtown offerings, my friend and former student Souk picked me up on her motorbike to head out to Phonsavane’s most famous attraction–the Plain of Jars.  In Lao, the site is known as Thong Hai Hin, (ທົ່ງໄຫຫິນ), and it is in reality several areas with massive prehistoric stone jars scattered across the plains, several thousand in all.  Archaeological research has suggested the jars may have been a type of funerary urn or burial site, although there is not one accepted explanation for their existence, and little is known about the prehistoric cultures who created them.  As we traversed the dewy and silent morning plain, Souk told me that one of the local stories is that they were large vessels for fermentation of alcohol.  Given the modern day penchant for drinking in Laos, perhaps these indeed held a primitive precursor to Beerlao.  Here on the Plain of Jars, ghosts of the war linger as well.  The plains were famously cleared by MAG several years ago, as the telltale markers, which indicate a safe area, remind visitors.  Craters, now filled with grass, but unmistakable, scar the fields.  As we walked around the stone megaliths, Souk shared a story, seemingly a common one in Xieng Kouang, about finding a “bombie” in the school field with friends when she was younger.  Luckily for her, an adult knew to tell the kids to stay away.

A crater on the Plain of Jars.

A crater on the Plain of Jars.

After a walk around the jars, Souk and I moved on to Muang Khoun, a nearby town about 40 minutes by motorbike.  Here, a local temple, Wat Phiawat, has been preserved in its ruined state, with the Buddha poetically intact amidst the crumbling bombed-out remains of the exterior.  While at the temple, I met a Hmong-American man from Michigan, one of several I met in Xieng Kouang.  After the war, many Hmong Lao fled to the US as refugees, and they form a large number of the Lao communities in the States.  As I was visiting at the time of Hmong New Year, many Americans were back visiting family in Laos, some for the first time.  As an American living in Laos for over two years, it was interesting to imagine the perspective of a Lao-American just visiting Laos for the first time (Miss Minnesota USA, a Lao-American, is also currently in the country for the first time).

Wat Phiawat

Wat Phiawat

Descending into Muang Khoun.

Descending into Muang Khoun.

At last, back in sprawling Phonsavane, I headed to Souk’s in-laws’ house for my final dinner before heading into rural Xieng Kouang the following day.  Gathered around a lively table topped with home-grown sticky rice and vegetables and home-farmed fish, I felt at home, regardless of nationality, history, or geography.

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