Sunday, February 24, 2013

Wandering the streets of Luang Prabang

An arrangement of paper umbrellas
Luang Prabang grew on us - we opened our senses and took in what was around us. We walk along the Nam Kham and Mekong Rivers and checked menus at the numerous eateries perched on the banks of each river. The main street is easily walked, similar to Hoi An in Vietnam but without aggressive merchants and tuk tuk drivers.

Along the street were travel agencies (many offering elephant adventures), restaurants and cafes, food stalls, handicraft shops, mini-marts, a few art galleries, an elementary school, the library, the palace (now a museum) and wats. In short, a walk down main street covers culture, consumerism, and cravings.

Stalls selling crepes were common
A unique stall - we took a pass on this.  Out of view -
sign assuring customers that the snack is "good"
The library was buzzing with activity. On the grounds we watched the rehearsal of a puppet show. It was to teach about hygiene. The library recruits volunteers to have English conversations with young people. An apparent challenge isn't so much the English vocabulary as it is handling with accents from all over the globe. Pictured below are two rooster puppets we saw on the palace grounds - not part of the puppet show but this feels like the right place to include them.

Along the streets in Luang Prabang and Vientiane are spirit houses, where the household spirits dwell. Each house is different. It may have food, drinks, and other objects to keep the spirits happy. These spirits seem to have settled for devotional objects.

This fish cage was in the courtyard of our guest house. If money flies in it will never leave.

Less seen are beggars. They never go beyond making gestures that they want money or food. During our 2nd stay in Luang Prabang when most of the Chinese New Year tourists had left we were approached by young children selling nondescript trinkets. With the wave of hand, indicating "no," the children moved on.

Boy with his wares
We were in Laos during dry season. The entire trip we were impressed with how dry and dusty everything was. Wet or dry, day to day life in Laos can be a challenge. Pictured below is a bamboo toll bridge across the Nam Kham river. The bridge disappears during rainy season and is rebuilt during dry season. We didn't cross river - so no details about the toll.

The next picture is of the Mekong River - people walk across the sand and eventually link up with a boat to ferry them to the other side.

Buddha with arms down - asking for rain
(I just noticed figure on the left -  I have no idea)
Finally, here are some things that made up smile.

Not what I imagine wearing to a Lao wedding
What's a chea?

I guess that we are straying around the world

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Observing Monks in Lao

I have concluded that the best way to learn about monks in Lao is to ask a tour guide if he was ever a monk. Chances are that he was - 2 of our 3 guides had been monks. The father of one guide had been a leader in the Pathet Lao and had done “bad things.” His son shaved his head and became a monk for a week to earn merit for his father (so his father could be moved to a better place in his afterlife). The other became a monk for three weeks after completing his studies. By being a monk he would earn merit for his very alive mother. Clearly being a monk is does not necessarily assume a life long commitment. A monk may return to “normal” life even after he has taken his vows. To do so a ritual is performed that takes just a few hours.

Both men reported that they ate two meals a day. Dinner was not eaten to control sexual desires. One man said that the hungry monks would be too tired to think of sex. The other claimed that if he ate dinner specific parts of his body would become "itchy." One man said that the hardest part was learning how to mediate. He said that his mind would jump from one thing to other - an experience that is probably universal. Here is a blog posting where one man shares the details of his 10 days of being a monk.

The young novice monks were said to come from poor families in the "north." At the monastery they could study and have more life opportunities. In Bhutan young boys may have been sent to a monastery if they did not show an aptitude for studying. As far as we could tell their education mirrored that of madrasas; although we were told that the education at large monasteries were better. A fellow traveler on this trip, who conversed with some monks, suggested that in Lao the monks were getting a reasonably good education.

When we walked into a wat in Vientiane we were surprised to see no evidence of monks beyond the hanging robes. Throughout the day and into the night in both Vientiane and Laung Prabang we saw one, two, or three novice monks walking along. We had little idea of how they spent most of their days. We did see a few monks doing work in the wats, e.g., planting flowers or helping with renovation.

Commonly seen drying robes - suggest a nearby monastery
A knot of monks - apparently studying
We had heard about the morning walk of the monks through Laung Prabang where devotee would put sticky rice in their alms bowls. The guest house had posters asking tourist to respect this tradition.Web sites remind tourists that this is "not a photo op" and Lonely Planet advises "if it is genuinely meaningful to you, you may take part in the ceremony."  (A blog posting and its comments summarize the ceremony and the mixed feelings of observing.)

We had decided not to seek out the procession; we assumed that we would be part of the problem. Unexpectedly as we waited for a tuk tuk to take us to a bus station along came a group of monks. We tried to be discrete, but I have to admit we gave into the temptation and grabbed a camera.
Basket on road so monk can discard unwanted food such as cookies

Devotees put a few grains of sticky rice in each alms bowl

Apparently the collection of food varies. One guide told us that in his village half of the families provide monks with food in the morning and half in the afternoon. We visited a Lao tribal village which had a drum house, stupa, temple, and monastary. The drum is beaten at festivals and to announce important events. Only 3 monks live in the monastry. They were from the village and sent to Laung Prabang to study with the expectation that they would educate the villagers when they returned. Rather than go out with alms bowls in the morning a window is opened to let the villagers know that they can bring food.

Drum house to the right of stupa

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Touring Vientiane

To avoid missing the highlights of Vientiane we booked a one day tour with Green Discovery Laos. Our guide, Noy, willing answered our many questions. We learned so much from him I am writing more about what we learned than what we saw. If my comments are wrong or not quite correct – it is my fault (bad memory or misunderstanding), not Noy's.

At Wat Sisaket, the oldest surviving temple in Vientiane, we talked about the difference between Lao Buddhism and Bhutanese Buddhism. Absent from the temples were prayer wheels, prayer flags, butter candles and flowers, and cash offerings in front of the Buddhas, nor could one circa-ambulate most altars. When I saw the joss sticks and numbered cubbie holes filled with papers, I assumed that the papers had standard prayers (similar to the prayer flags). Wrong. The chop sticks had numbers. So a devotee would mix them up, draw one, and get his “fortune” from the numbered box.
On right hand side - numbered chopsticks and cubbie holes
On left (toward back) altar to burn papers & burn joss sticks

Stupa at Wat Sisaket

Some stupas had embedded photographs. The stupas contained the ashes on the pictured couple. In Lao Buddhists are cremated. Unlike India, where the oldest son lights the funeral pyre, a selected attendee lights it. The next day family members return to the cremation site and gather the bones. The remains may be put in a stupa or elsewhere, perhaps a family garden.

The niches pictured below contain over 2000 images of Buddha. Among the large seated Buddhas some have pointed head coverings and others don't. The pointed coverings were removed by invaders or vandals, who believed that gems were hidden in the Buddha images.

More Buddhas - More Merit?
Our next stop was Ho Prakeo “image of the Emerald Buddha.” We heard more about Lao’s history, a history filled with wars primarily with Thailand, including Laotians being used as slave labor in Thailand. The Emerald Buddha was stolen and is housed in Bangkok. On the grounds is a jar from the Plains of Jars – we learned that only 3 areas in the Plain of Jars can be visited because of unexploded landmines and unexploded cluster bombs, which still kill or maim Laotians.

Noy told us that this father had been in the Pathet Lao where he met and married Noy's mother. She had joined the army when she was 14 and was trained as a nurse's aid. Noy said members in the present Laotian army where boys who had not finished school. Primary education is free, but secondary education isn't. In the rural areas, where we assume may students do not go beyond primary school, marriages typically take place among 15-16 year olds. In the cities couples will often wait until they are in the 30s. Marriages are love matches and at least some, if not all, ethnic groups prohibit marriages between people in the same village.

Our third, and last temple, of the day was Wat Si Muang. The temple was filled with worshipers, so we spent our time on the grounds. The linked video suggests that we need to revisit the temple and go inside. Devotees were carrying flowers, making offerings, and circa- ambulating the temple. We saw a display of Linga, the symbol of Shiva. Noy’s description of the linga as representing Shiva's power, lacked the scatological presentation of our guide at My Son near Hoi An Vietnam.

Selling birds for release - a harmful practice

Corridor filled with linga

Monkey making an offering to Buddha
Weaving is a major Laotian handicraft. We stopped at Carol Cassidy's shop/studio. Ms. Cassidy is an American designer who has been in Lao for 20 years. As we were wandering around we eavesdropped on a tour she was giving. Until recently she was marketing to museums and collectors, but now with an easing of visa restrictions she also has included retail items. `The Vientiane studio hires local women who learned to weave at home. The weavers work from patterns designed by either Ms. Cassidy or another master designer. She has also has a major role in Weaves of Cambodia, which employs disabled women (including land mine survivors).

Weaving from a pattern
Having glasses can add years to a weaver's career
After lunch we drove over a "dancing road" to the Buddha Park. It reminded us of Tiger Balm Gardens (now Haw Par Villa) in Singapore. Tiger Balm Gardens were created to teach children traditional Chinese values. Buddha Park was created by a Lao mystic who wanted to unite Buddhist and Hindu faiths. Why similar to Tiger Balm Gardens? Our first impression of both was that they were bizarre. Both seem delapidated. The structures at Buddha Park are 55 years old, to me they seemed much older.

Back in Vientiane we went to the Patuxai, the victory gate. It was completed in 1968 and built with the American-supplied cement used to construct the airport in 1958.
The Patuxai
View from Patuxai - note the light traffic about 4:00 p.m.
During the day we traveled by tuk tuk, a major form of short distance public transit. Climbing in and out was a challenge and our heads were bumped nearly every time. We would have welcomed an auto rickshaw.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Cooking in Vientiane Lao

In keeping with our recent tradition of culinary lessons in each country we visit, we joined the staff of Lao-Experiences for a half day tour of the morning market followed by a cooking lesson in a villa garden on the banks of the Mekong River on the outskirts of Vientiane. Among the various options we picked a cooking school based upon a brochure in our hotel, The Hotel Khamsongsa. We wondered over to the Full Moon Cafe, several blocks away and made our reservation...for the next morning at 8 am.

After a full breakfast (the light french option at our hotel consisting of filtered coffee, banana smoothie, fresh croissant, jam, butter, yogurt with honey, and fresh tropical fruits), we walked the short 4 blocks to the cafe and arrived just before our hosts, Nook and Morgan.  Morgan is assisting Nook to establishes her business.  We traveled to the morning market in Vientiane. As we got closer we observed police directing traffic. At shortly after eight we were late to the begins at 3 AM!

Rice Merchant with multiple grades of rice

The Market Tour

We began our market tour with the rice dealers. We viewed the various grades of rice: A, B, & C. Color, size and the amount of broken grains influence the cost. For regular white rice the difference in price of the grades is great ( from 6,000 Kip to well over 11,000 Kip per kilo). The better grades have a nicer aroma, and cook quickly, but the lower grades can cook for hours without becoming soft and palatable. Although represented by one bin out of 15 or so, sticky rice is the staple food of Laos.   Sticky rice is cooked over steam rather than in a rice pot of water or rice cooker. Most sticky rice does not make it to the market but remains in the village. With the exception of one bin of black rice, all was polished white rice. No brown rice was available.

Inside the market we saw tubs of Lao fish sauce (a brown sauce containing the fermented remains of various local fish), not the clear Vietnamese fish sauce or the slightly darker Thai sauce. Each of the different sauces are intended for specific dishes. We saw a wide variety of vegetables.  Most were familiar and available in SE Asian markets.  The herbs included multiple varieties of basil, dill, tarragon, mints, onions, garlic ( including garlic chives), gingers (new, old, turmeric, and galangol), and the SE Asian standby....lemon grass.

Lemongrass, pepperwood, eggplant, and galangol

 Fruits included multiple varieties of bananas, papaya, multiple varieties of mango, durian, and jackfruit. Ever present at this time of year are mandarin oranges, big and small.  Most you will never see in North America (to our great loss).

Tubs of Lao Fish Sauce

Ant Larvae anyone?

Chicken was available (fresh and butchered in plastic bags), as well as all sorts of fresh water fish. Also available were dry season protein supplements: ant eggs, and various larvae. I watched as shoppers walking along sampled larvae from baskets. I did not sample.

Kung's Lao Cafe

We then traveled to Kungs Lao Cafe (at one time featured in a NY Times travel article, can currently has inspired a recipe by Luke Nguyen in his book Greater Mekong) where we had local coffees (Liz chose black coffee with no milk or sugar, while I chose traditional Lao coffee with condensed milk at the bottom of the glass). Tea was served as a chaser. We also sampled sticky rice pancakes with papaya and honey. Some older expats wandered in and were greeted as old friends. We left  satiated, and we still had a full meal to prepare.

Kung's Lao Cafe Menu

Back at the Full Moon Cafe we picked up two additional participants. They were the parents of a French woman teaching at a local university. They spoke minimal English and we spoke even less French. But they were lovely, and equally adaptable.

About 15 minutes later we arrived at the villa. Flowers covered the trees, butterflies abounded, and birds filled the air with sounds. A small dog greeted us, knowing she would end up with droppings from sloppy chefs.

Kung's Kitchen

M. Kung of Kung's Lao Cafe

The Cooking Class

The class started with a review of Lao cooking implements. A woven steamer is a multipurpose device, primarily used for cooking sticky rice. After the rice has soaked it is rinsed and placed in the pre-moistened steamer. Failure to pre-moisten will result in a truly sticky mess. The steamer is placed atop a large boiling pot of water and a woven conical hat is placed over the rice. We were given two sets of timing: gas burner powering the boiling water, or the more traditional charcoal stove. The gas is more reliable, but not a useful in a village and does not impart flavor.

Preparing the stoves

We then made the mat pa (Lao steamed fish and herbs). We chopped herbs, pounded herbs, added salt, fish sauce, and other Lao flavorings. Give it all a quick mix and you are ready to prepare the banana leaf steam packets. Starting with squares of banana leaf, we slightly charred them on both sides over the grill, just enough to make them pliable. We put single servings of the fish pieces in the center and learned how to fold and seal the packets. Properly sealed and identified they were placed in a steamer and set top cook: 25 to 60+ minutes depend upon the heat source.

Liz all decked out and ready to cook!

With the main course prep completed we prepared the tomato and eggplant dip. The tomatoes, garlic, shallots, and eggplant were skewered and roasted until soft over the coal fired stoves. Back at the prep table we squished and peeled the charred vegetables, added herbs, and pounded until it was smooth.

Our fish all wrapped up and ready for the steamer

A green papaya salad was made. We chopped ingredients while the chef assembled them, doing the heavy chopping of the papaya. No squeezing out of moisture from the papaya. I will need to talk to my fruit vendor in KL to get an appropriate papaya.

Our feast, our chef, and our classmates!

Food cooked, it was time to eat. Under tropical trees, with red hibiscus blooming and attracting butterflies, we sat down to a scrumptious meal. But the cooking was not done. Dessert needed to be made. We reduced fresh coconut milk to a thick syrup and poured it over sticky rice and a half fresh mango. We were thoroughly satiated as were gave the chefs our thanks and were driven back to our hotel. On a hot day, after a full meal, a nap was most appropriate.