Re-discovering the Artisan in me

Trip Start Aug 26, 2012
Trip End Dec 22, 2013

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, September 7, 2013

After hearing about the horrendous bus rides from Hanoi to Luang Prabang mostly due to the small mountainous roads that encourage a decent amount of travel sickness and a host of different bribes to get across the border I decided to pass on the experience and opt for the painless one hour flight. The only hitch on my arrive into town was that I was dropped off at wrong guesthouse although my tuk-tuk driver insisted it was the correct place and took off before I had confirmed what I already knew by the staff were I was dropped off.   I was close enough by about a 15 minute walk which turned into about 25 minutes as I passed by the hotel the first time as it was not on the main street but up an alley.  After finally finding it and arriving at reception I was told there was a booking error and I had to go to their sister guesthouse.  Not thrilled and felling very hot and sweaty I requested free transport to the new place and they thankfully obliged. My original place was on the river which was my main reason for booking it but the new place called Villa Sayana was still a stone throws from the river and ended up being a decent spot.  I quickly learned as I got acquainted with my surroundings for the rest of the afternoon, that location is relative here as it is such a small town and quite easy to get around on foot.   My other immediate observation is that the pace of life in Laos is much different then all three of the neighbouring countries of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.  From the traffic on the streets, to interactions with the people and just the general feeling in the air it's almost like you are in one big resort where the time doesn’t really matter.  There is actually an acronym for this in the guide books; LDPR which means Lao Please Don’t Rush.   So in the spirit of this, my afternoon was spent lounging at JOMA Café, for a decent cup of coffee including a free refill, then on a whim popping into a massage place (as it had been since Thailand that I have had a massage) and decided to try out a Lao massage.  The Lao technique is definitely much gentler then the Thai, making for a much more relaxing experience though the after effects are not as great.  But this all could be because my massage was given to me by what looked to be a 10 year old boy.  I’ll have to have another one while I’m in Laos for comparison purposes of course.  Taking the road that follows the river back to my guesthouse  I could see that they were setting up for something to happen likely the next day based on their pace of activity and it wasn’t until talking to some guests that I learned that there was going to be a boat festival.  Not sure exactly what that meant but would definitely check it out.

To start my next day, I had full intentions of walking up to see the alms ceremony at dawn were the locals give food to the monks (the only meal of the day) but did not hear my alarm and woke up to music and drums thinking it was the ceremony.  Turns out it was the opening ceremony for the boat festival, unfortunately accompanied with heavy rains.  I tried to wait out the rains in the morning and when it lightened up at bit I head out into to town to check out the festival.  There were hundreds of people milling the streets around the river and the streets had been transformed overnight into one big market selling anything from food to t-shirts, flip flops and toys.  This seemed close to a national holiday judging from all the kids and people around and the fact the majority of the tourists places and stores were shut down.  The riverside was an amazing sight as there were boat races going on in heats of two teams at a time.  I’ve never seen such an enormous wooden boat and there had to be at least 50 guys paddling and up to 5 guys steering from the back of the boat throughout the race.  They were so low in the water it’s a wonder how they didn’t swamp their boat during the race.  Towards the end of the day, the teams were walking their boats through town causing quite a stir and lots of hoots and hollers from their supporters.  But come sun down and with the rains the old quarter slowly returned to its sleepy former self and all that was left was us tourists wandering around the town and night market. Over the past day and a half I had been trying to find a cycle tour that would take me to the Kuang Si waterfalls and the one I was hoping to do with the same company I used in Angkor Wat was not to be as the guide was in the hospital with Malaria.  There were others on offer but included a stop at the Elephant park which is not something I wanted to participate in again.  So in the end I relented to joining one of the many mini-vans that take twice a day trips out to the falls.  In hindsight this was a smart move as the rains continued from the day before and upon seeing the roads we took with some parts flooded out, I’m glad I wasn’t on a bike.  Heading out of town it became clear where all the locals from the boat festival went for the evening as we passed by this huge area with lots of tents and the ground completely strewn with garbage with just a handful of crew slowing starting to clean up.  Upon arriving at the falls our guide lead us inside the park after we paid our entrance fee and took us by a decent size enclosure that houses about 6 sun bears that have been rescued from poachers.  They looked very healthy and happy, though a bit bored or just as tired of the rain as I was.  Then we made our way up the path to the last cascade of the waterfall and one of the few places you are allowed to swim.  The water was very clean and shall I say crisp and cool; but no one was swimming because it was raining; I find that always humorous. Having a couple of hours to explore, I decide to continue up the path to get to the base of the main fall.  I was dubious about seeing yet another waterfall but was told this would impress and it did indeed.  The roar and spray from the falls was reminiscent of being close to Niagara Falls though clearly not on the same scale.   Pointless in trying to stay dry under an umbrella I packed it away and decided to continue on up to the top of the falls.  I should learn by now not to trust the travel agents when they say flip flops are ok as it was a treacherous muddy climb up to the top.  Because of the steep vertical drop of the falls, there wasn’t too much to see from the falls perspective but the surrounding view was breathtaking.  Not particularly looking forward to going back down the way I came I learned there was another path on the other side so waded through the top of the falls and eventually found the other path heading down.  It was slightly better than the one I came up thanks to a series of stairs that ran down along the side of the falls which actually was apart of the falls due to the amount of water from all the rain.  I was pretty proud of myself for not having slipped and land on my ass but I guess I got chuffed to soon as I slipped and fell twice on the stairs; the second time trying to get up from the first.   Back down on more or less terra firma as the path was pretty much a big mud , I made my way back down towards the swimming area and opted just to put my feet in the water as I was already wet enough from the rain.  On our return journey we had somehow brought on board a leech that tried to make friends with my foot and after shaking it off and flicking it to the back of the van with my flip flop spent the rest of the way home with my feet off the floor.

For my final two days in LP, I had found something completely different to do and that was to take a 2 day silk weaving course offered by an organization called Ock Pop Tok ( ).  Both days we were picked up in town in front of their main store and taken a small distance out of town to their weaving centre on the river. Each day we passed the boat festival party grounds and with each day a little more progress had been made on the cleanup with the final day seeing the tents down and garbage gone.  On the first morning after a lovely cup of mulberry tea we had a lesson on silk worms and how silk is made.  Then we had a quick visit where the weavers and master weavers were working on various pieces of art on their looms.  It all looked very complicated and the four of us on the course all looked at each other as if it say  "how the hell are we going to do that?" But before we had to worry about that we were then taken and shown the various natural elements (except for the rusty nail!) they use to dye the silk a surprisingly wide range of colours.  After choosing three different colours we then walked around the gardens to collect some of the material we would need to dye some silk for us to take home.  Once again in the rain, we collected teak leaves, fresh indigo and turmeric to name a few and the different woods we would need were already collected.  Then it was off to the dye house to mash the fresh indigo and turmeric into a paste and boiling the various ingredients before dipping the silk in for colouring.  It was a really interesting process and the colours we choose all turned out great though a slight variation of the samples we were shown, due of course to length of time in the dye and the amount of ingredients used for each.   Next up was for us to choose the colours we would like to use to make our scarf, before sitting down to a traditional Lao meal to fortify ourselves for an afternoon of weaving.  We were each paired with a master weaver (Phang was the name of mine) and they had already set up our silk on the looms where the pattern for the scarf had been pre-set and they had started our projects in an effort to save some time.  After a 2 minute lesson from our main instructor who spoke English as the master weavers spoke none, I was sitting down at my loom and got to work.  There is a method to it and it took some time to get my brain, hands and feet all co-ordinated but I was starting to get the mechanics of it.  However this was just weaving with one colour and before long it was time to introduce the second colour and start on the pattern which added another level of complexity.  Phang took care of changing the pattern for me which is via a series of strings that you move both up and down  and then showed me how to use the paddle, a third element to introduce the second colour.  It was a slow process and I wasn’t doing well with the “beating process” as my line was getting more and more crooked. But through hand gestures Phang kept showing me how to correct my work but at one point took over to get me back on track.  Finally getting through the pattern it was back to just working with one color and managed to weave a good 10 cm before it was time to call it a day.  I’ve always had an appreciation for crafts and those that can create such handiwork. And now having spent approx. 4 hrs on a loom and completing just shy of a quarter of a length of standard scarf, and the complexity of it all, I have a new found appreciation and will look at scarves in a whole new way.  Believe it or not it’s tiring work and many of these weavers go home and after getting dinner ready and family off to bed, continue weaving late into the night on projects they are working on at home as a means to supplement their income.  With the rains finally having stopped, I spent the evening at the night market, making some souvenir purchases as most of the items where handmade, of good quality and most importantly unique.  Back at the weaving centre the following day we eased into the day by having another cup of mulberry tea before getting back to our looms.  For once since I’ve arrived the sun was shining and made sitting and working by the river just that much more enjoyable.  Around us we could watch fishermen catching fish, workers of the centre collecting materials for dying, and lying out freshly dyed silk for drying.  It seems the weaver fairy, aka Phang had done some work on my scarf as it was considerable longer when I had left the night before and much straighter.  So the morning was spent weaving one colour and slowly but surely continued to build on the length of the scarf and finally mastered the art of “beating” straight,  which I think Phang was proud of me or maybe just thankful she didn’t have to fix my work anymore.  Just before lunch we started on the pattern and this time Phang motioned for me to move the pattern string up (or sometimes down) and to re-position the paddle based on the new pattern. I guess I had somehow graduated to the next level.  After a leisure lunch of another Lao meal it was back to work and before long I was finished with the pattern and back to weaving one colour to finish the scarf off.  Then Phang took over and I watched as she set up the loom for the next student by weaving a few rows of about 20 cms from the end of my scarf.  Then she cut off my scarf and finished both ends using her leg to roll the silk down and up to make the tassels.   Either we had good teachers our we were good students because we actually finished early by about 1.5 hrs and after  a couple of photos, saying “Khawp Jai” (thank you) and goodbye  we were dropped off back into town.  With the sun still shining I decided that I should really visit one of the many temples in town and so made my way to Phui Si, the temple in the middle of town but 100m up on top of a hill. It was a series of steep steps along a winding path to get to the top from the entrance of the main street in town but the views were so worth it, though the temple and stupa itself were not so much which was disappointing, because the view of the stupa I have from my balcony is stunning.  Making my way down the other side was a series of much steeper and longer set of steps leading you down to the road that fronts the river.  Dotted along this path were various golden sculptures of Buddha in all of his positions.  Then it was off to the fame café/bar Utopia set along the river to pass the time as day turned into night, use the wifi and watch the locals all turn out to play volleyball in the sand court. This has been one of the places in my journey were I’ve stayed for such a long time and I honestly couldn’t think of a better place to “chill out” and appreciate what it means to be on “Lao time”.
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Janene Tice on

The photo of the start of the Kuang Si waterfall is one of your prettiest. Love your blog.

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