Category Archives: Vientiane

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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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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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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Holiday Greetings from Lao Rugby

Happy holidays from Lao Rugby!

Check out the latest video I made for Lao Rugby highlighting all of their great events from this year.  I’ve loved being a part of lots of these events and taking photos of them, and am looking forward to their 2013 schedule.  In order to make all of this, and more, happen again next year (including more hilarious music videos) they need your support!

A little money will go a long way, so even if you can’t give a lot every bit counts:
$10 is enough to pay for a new rugby ball
$20 can provide new rugby boots for a Lao player
$30 can provide transportation to a training session for 25 kids
$50 can provide pitch rental and set up for a club game
$75 can sponsor one youth player’s full participation for one year
…and even more generous donations can help with admin costs, staff salaries, participation in international competitions, and more!  Donate and find out more information here.

And it’s not just about rugby…Lao Rugby’s programming also helps develop healthy living, leadership, and local capacity building.  It provides its players with access to new opportunities through their participation in sport.

Hope everyone has a happy and healthy holiday season!

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That Luang Festival 2012

First the lead-up to ASEM, then the boat-racing festival, then the ASEM meeting, then it seemed like the city would just be getting back to normal, when the cacophonous speakers, Beerlao tents, and balloon-popping carnival games simply relocated to the That Luang stupa area.
that luang
Vientiane’s frenzied fall continued with the yearly religious festival, which has, as all good religious festivals around the world now do, a more modern commercial manifestation as well.  In this case, it’s a week long carnival on the stupa grounds, preceding the religious ceremonies.  After the hubbub of boat racing, I steered clear, but the roads all around the That Luang area were in gridlock each night, so it was hard to avoid.

Unlike many other religious festivals around the world, That Luang Festival still actually culminates in a solemn ceremony.  Last year, I went to give alms for the first time, and this year I took my gold alms giving bowl off the shelf to return.
monks
The city is charming in the early morning, even when dodging an endless line of Toyota Vigoes looking for parking.  My alarm went off in the dark early hours, and when I finally emerged, sinh-clad and sleepy, to make my way to That Luang, the dawn had cast a silvery light on the city.  As I drew closer to the temple, stands popped up on the side of the road, selling alms-giving essentials for those who were unprepared, like myself.  Some chocolate-covered wafers, sticky rice, mandarin oranges, candles, and incense completed my alms bowl, and then I joined the throngs making their way toward the stupa.

For That Luang festival, monks young and old from all over the city, who normally collect alms around their own temple on a small scale each morning, gather on the temple grounds to receive alms from the thousands of devotees who come to respect the tradition.  The gray early morning light around the temple is punctuated by hundreds of brilliant orange robes, and of a colorful spectrum of sinhs.
monks alms
Last year, the alms giving ceremony was changed, but this year it was reverted back to its original manifestation.  While last year, the monks processed to gather alms from us, sitting on the ground, this year the monks sat at tables with baskets and name cards, and visitors filed by placing offerings in their baskets.  Although there was something nice about last year’s set up, this year, the temple boys didn’t have to follow all of the monks lugging their bags heavy with sticky rice and sugary snacks.

After my alms bowl was empty, I excused myself from the line.  After giving alms, the carnival was starting up already, with food and drink (mostly khao poun, a noodle soup filled with interesting meaty bits, my least favorite of traditional Lao foods), and, as the full morning heat set in, it was time for a short nap before work.

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Happy Laos Update

I posted about the documentary Happy Laos back in August, when my friends were trying to fundraise $4000 to produce the movie in order to add Lao voices to the discussion on happiness, which seems to have become a popular sociological topic recently.  After several weeks of online fundraising, the Happy Laos team managed to exceed their $4000 goal, enabling them to employ the up-and-coming Lao professional film company Lao New Wave Cinema to edit the footage (which had been collected on all sorts of devices all across the country) into a narrative.  They tried to make a documentary without an “angle,” one that simply tried to address the question “what makes Lao people happy?” and forces the viewer to ask themselves the same question.

There were several screenings of the film around Vientiane, including at the AEPF (Asia-Europe People’s Forum), where it was warmly received.  Next up is the Luang Prabang Film Festival.  Even if you’re far away, everyone who is interested can check out the 17-minute documentary, as it’s been posted to YouTube.  Enjoy!

What makes YOU happy?

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