Lao Culture

Trip Start Jan 13, 2013
Trip End Feb 05, 2013

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

In town by 5:00 this morning to observe silent lines of hundreds of orange or saffron-clad monks walk down the streets of Luang Prabang to collect alms. The locals were already there with bowls full of the Lao staple sticky rice to place in the monks' alms bowls.Each monk carries a large lidded bowl, which is attached to a strap hanging from the monk's shoulder. As monks file past the line of almsgivers - who were sitting or kneeling on the street - these containers are reverently filled with handfuls of sticky rice or other food.  The people wake up early to prepare a batch of sticky rice for the monks.The ritual is done in silence; the almsgivers do not speak, nor do the monks. The monks walk in meditation, and the almsgivers reciprocate with respect by not disturbing the monk's meditative peace. For hundreds of years, the ritual has cemented the symbiotic relationship between the monks and the almsgivers who maintain them - by feeding the monks and helping the laypeople make merit, tak bat supports both the monks (who need the food) and the almsgivers (who need spiritual redemption).  The monks are not allowed to cook and so depend upon the people for all of their food.  Food is also brought to the temple during the day.  As Luang Prabang has more and more tourists, this powerful ritual is in danger of being lost, as many tourists approach the ritual not as a religious ceremony to be respected, but as a cultural show to enjoy. Tourists jostle the monks, breaking their meditation; they take flash pictures of the line; and they disrupt the ritual with their inappropriate noise, actions and dress.  As a result, fewer locals are inclined to take part, because they refuse to be a part of a show for tourists. Some Lao officials are considering stopping the tradition because of the deep offense caused by tourists' behavior. 

Some tour companies are having their customers "participate" in the tat bak by providing them with rice to give to the monks - not as the very meaningful religious ritual that it is but as a tourist attraction.  Road Scholar tour guides - both our guide for the entire trip and our Laotian guide - were very explicit in their instructions regarding how we should dress and behave.  They have cautioned us to be culturally sensitive throughout the trip - which is greatly appreciated!!

The power and symbolism of tat bak is profound and I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to witness it - even if only as an observer.

 Then walked through the morning market - what an amazing sensory experience!  Farmers bring produce and other food in from the villages to sell in Luang Prabang and the people buy their food for the day.  All of i was incredibly fresh.  The market was a virtual painting of colors, textures, sounds and fragrances.  And also clearly a social event as people stopped for breakfast or to visit with friends.  I suspect hey find all of the tourists wandering around gawking at everything more than a little annoying, but everyone was, as seems to be the norm her is Laos, completely friendly.

Back to hotel for a lecture on Laos - and some very sad statistics.  After 15 years of civil war and millions of bombs dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (as the US supported the royalist government against communist forces), the country is struggling to overcome incredible problems.  Here are some of the appalling figures:
 71% of population lives on < $2 perday
 Laos ranks 138 among 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index (a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income indices)
Under 5YO child mortality is 61/1000 live births - mostly from easily preventable causes such as diarrhea, malaia and acute respiratory infections.
Infant mortality (<1 YO) is 42/1000 live births
Full immunization coverage is only 50%
40% of children <5YO are underweight
40% of populations lacks safe water
65% lack sanitation facilities
77% of workforce is in farming and forestry
only 4% of the land is arable due to mountainous terrain - 70% of Laos has a slope of >20%
Laos has 160 tribal groups and 82 distinct languages
Opium production has increased 66% in the last year
16.5% of the (4%) arable land is affected by undetonated bombs from the 2 million bombs dropped by the US during Vietnam War (1/3 of those did not detonate and 300 causalities occur each year from these bombs - 60% are children) - 20,000 people have been killed
 All of this, plus the Laotian people, make me want to come back here and help somehow!

Next we went to Ock Pop Tok and met two remarkable young women who are working to save the Lao culture and improve the lives of its women by supporting traditional textile arts. 
A wonderful and successful 10 year old non-profit that you can red about here.
Learned about Laos textile design, natural dyes and saw some of the local weavers and textile artists in action.  And contributed to the project by purchasing beautiful textiles!

Jim and I finished the day by going back into town to hear the monks' evening chanting at Wat Mai - a powerful experience that brought me to tears.
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Midwifemb on

And such gentle people.... Susan, my heart is called back someday too... let's get together on this. I worked at "Mei le Dek" (Mother and Child) Hospital in Vientiane. When there si if you can meet Dr. Sivixai (sp?) "See-vee-sigh" - a woman. We can perhaps begin some work.

Don't miss Buddha park in Vientiane! If you want to be connected with old friends of mine in VTE let me know!

susan71 on

I would love to come back - this country has totally captured my heart!!! Unfortunately, we are not going to Vientiane. Let's do talk!

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