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We always grill a steak for our Lao guests when they come to San Francisco. Steak is very different here than in Laos. We usually serve it with rice and wasabi seaweed (stand-ins for Lao sticky rice and Mekong seaweed) and put out several hot sauces, from Tabasco to Sriracha (stand-ins for Lao hot sauce, jaew). And add salad, corn-on-the-cob and squash (another vegetable not readily available in Laos). And for dessert we try to have fresh fruits that are not grown in Laos-apricots, strawberries, cantaloupe, and Bandith’s favorite-cherries.

Our friends from Laos are always up for trying new foods and that definitely includes Bandith. However, he did not like hamburgers the first time he tried one at a McDonald’s. We told him those weren’t really hamburgers and took him to a restaurant we knew would have a great hamburger. Here he is with all the trimmings, and slathering on the ketchup, per our advice. Now that's a good American hamburger.

Going to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market brought another new cuisine to taste. Christmas chile, combining both the red and green chile, sopapillas, guacamole, and tamales. Tacos, especially off a taco truck, was another new food. This is the taco truck in the Plaza in Santa Fe, NM that serves fantastic tacos, cooked over a flame, along with their homemade salsa.

Bandith did not believe us when we said there are hot sauces and salsas in the U.S. that are as hot as what he likes in Laos. He’d taste the various condiments put out and deem them to be nothing. Then Mark roasted some habaneros for him, the taste of which, has been burned into his memory because now he takes a little taste of the hot sauce before spooning it on his food.

Julie
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We are coming into the summer months when flies are more prevalent in San Francisco. (Yes, we do have warm summer days once in a while!)

After one particularly maddening bout of flies, Mark brought home a fly swatter he'd been talking about that is used in Laos. I was thinking it would be similar to the fly swatters we grew up with, having maybe a larger surface but the one he showed up with is the new, improved Chinese-made version of a fly swatter.

Buddhist though they are, we’ve been told this is used throughout Laos. The fly swatter electrocutes the fly as it passes through the smiling face grate. Not only that, you hear the snap of the electricity as the fly is being electrocuted so you know you actually killed the fly. It's very disconcerting and feels like a lethal weapon when you hear that crack. And it looks a little scary, plugged into the wall socket, gathering strength for the next swarm of flies.


Julie
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Whenever we meet someone who has traveled extensively or worked in Laos, we ask if they have read any of Colin Cotterill mystery books that take place in Laos. It’s kind of a secret code - we exchange a knowing look. He has captured the Lao temperament and charm – everyone recognizes someone they know in Laos. It all made sense after reading one of his books.
 
The books are steeped in his deep knowledge of Lao culture, beliefs and mysticism. The spirit of the country comes alive. Adding another layer to the books, they are set in Laos in the late 1970s, after the Communist takeover. The Pathet Lao won their long-fought revolution and Dr. Siri Paiboun,the septuagenarian protagonist, comes in from the jungle, hoping to retire. Instead, he is appointed national (and only) coroner of Laos. At this point in his life, he looks at life with a healthy dose of humor and disregard for authority.
 
Colin Cotterill acquired all this fascinating information and insight into Laos while in a Lao hospital recovering from Hepatitus C. In trying to learn Lao, he recorded interviews with people he met, who inadvertently gave him fascinating stories of the years before and after the 1975 Communist takeover.
 
After getting hooked on the first book, “The Coroner’s Lunch”, Mark diligently searched for each book to complete his collection and on his last trip to Laos, he came back with the most recent book, “Slash and Burn”. It is set in the Plain of Jars where, during the Vietnam war, the U.S. dropped thousands of tons of bombs that are still there, unexploded. Each book builds on the previous one and I unfortunately did not stack the books in the order that they should be read. But, there’s a little mystery for you to solve.
 
I’ve included a photo of Mahosot Hospital, where Dr. Siri works, taken on my last trip to Vientiane. And below is a blog post from Colin on the inspirational talk the Director General of the Ministry of Information and Culture’s Publishing Department gave on Lao Printing Day. 
 
SOCIALISM AND THE ART OF WRITING  <http://www.internationalcrimeauthors.com/?p=901>
 
Posted by Colin Cotterill on August 16th, 2010
 
"I was at my lowest ebb. The book I thought I was writing suddenly started to write me and I had no control over it. I was suicidal. All those Shakespeare impersonators had it right. They used a quill. If the writing didn’t work out you just span it round and impaled yourself on it. But how do you even begin to kill yourself with a keyboard? I tried smashing myself over the head with it but all I got was a headache and ‘qwerty’ engraved down my forehead. Where would my next idea come from? Where could I go for inspiration? And, as always, the answer was, Laos.
 
The Director General of the Ministry of Information and Culture’s Publishing Department, who shall remain nameless because it’s got more letters in it than Paris Hilton’s mailbox, gave an inspirational talk on the occasion of Lao Printing Day. I usually send a card but this year I’ve been a little tangled up with a bloody book that wouldn’t let me write it. The director general should know how to get us stuck writers over the hump because he’s written over fifty poems some of which became songs. (I imagine any poem could become a song if you sang it.) His key points were;
 
1. “Reading is one of the many ways in which we can improve our knowledge, but books containing useless information are a waste of readers’ time.”
 
There you go. Right off the bat he got the nib square in the solar plexus. The DG was talking about me. He was killing me softly with his song which had originally been a poem. I wasn’t writing anything to improve anyone’s knowledge. I WAS MAKING IT UP. Nobody could trust me. I wrote it down. ‘write knowledge.’
 
2. “In addition, they (writers) should be clear on their own standpoint and national policy when they write a book.”
 
Oh my word. Got me again. Where was my standpoint? I tell you, it was in the ideology toilet. MAKE ENOUGH MONEY FROM THIS BOOK TO PAY FOR DOG FOOD. I didn’t have a point, either erect or reclining. And I hadn’t even considered my national policy. I wasn’t even sure where my nation was. I wrote, ‘write to conservative party.’
 
3. “One way to support the Party’s strategy on national development and economic policy is to write more human interest pieces, especially profiles of successful businesspeople, which would act as an example for others to follow.”
 
Exactly. Where has my head been all this time? The public doesn’t want to read about losers. People who spend all their time reading novels are already losers. THEY WANT TO READ ABOUT STINKING RICH PEOPLE. It’s just like all those country people addicted to TV soaps about hi-so philanderers in Bangkok. I wrote, ‘forget everything the Lao communist Party used to believe in. It’s so passé.’
 
4. “A good book should make readers laugh or cry while they are reading it.”
 
There you have it in a nutshell. It’s the readers who are supposed to be crying. Not me. The only time I ever got sobs out of my readers was when they reached the end of a book and referred back to the price they’d paid for it. I discovered that in 1968, the DG had written a book entitled, It’s Very Easy to Learn the Lao Language. And I bet you generations of readers have been laughing and crying through it ever since. But DG’s point here is quite simple. Don’t take it personally. IT’S THE STORY THEY’RE LAUGHING AT, NOT THE AUTHOR. I wrote, ‘Stick in a few jokes.’
 
I thought I had all the inspiration I needed, but the greatest uplift to my saggy self-esteem goolies was yet to come. And it arrived, not from the Ministry of Information and Culture, but from the Ministry of Education. Somebody had decided that Lao university graduates compared unfavourably with those from neighbouring countries. So, what did they do? THEY CANCELLED UNIVERSITY ENTRANCE. Really. All the kids who’d forked out for a corsage for this year will have to put it back in the freezer cause they all have to do another year of high school. That’ll teach ‘em. And, you know? It taught me the best lesson of all.
 
IF IT DOESN’T GO RIGHT – START ALL OVER AGAIN.
 
If you’re on the flight from Bangkok to Surat around now and you look down and see a rather large bonfire, fear not. That’s just my first draft. Kop jai, Lao."
 
 
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On one of the legs of our road trip we spent a night in a town deep in tiger country. Laos has the highest concentration of tigers in Asia and the center of it is where we stopped. People don’t walk around much at night. I don’t think you’re in big danger unless you strolling through the area's virgin jungle. But it sounds like there is a long history of attacks on the trails in and out and so it's name. Our guide said they come down from the jungle peaks during the rainy season. Probably slide down the hills, as muddy and steep as the terrain is there.

A small guest house in the 3 block town was all that was available. Power would only be on between 7 and 9 pm, so we plugged in all we could and hoped the twisted wires would hold up.

Lush rice fields here for the time of year–it’s a two crop town with the river for water and warmer temperatures in the dry winter.

I went for a steamy rinse in the local hot springs. The locals line up at dusk to wash clothes, bodies and even boil eggs in the hotter pools. Best hot scrub I’d had in a few days and a good remedy for 7hrs of rolling back and forth on twisty roads.

We got up early the next morning for the wet market. Little ladies from different ethinic tribes bring their fresh harvest of herbs, produce and eatables to a candlelight opening at 6am.

We caused a cackling scene among the women there with Julie buying a skirt (sihn) right off a produce vendor. She had seen Julie eyeing it and made her an offer. Fortunately she had an under skirt as the Lao are very shy and proper about things like that. We’d noticed that the old sihns they wore were a finer quality with more traditional and interesting patterns than what we were seeing woven for the market now. We saw many we would have liked to buy off the wearer, but it’s a bit awkward buying that way.

We walked around town before hitting the road again talking to weavers working their looms under each house and stringing the warp threads to hang on the loom for the next run of a pattern. They said they can get 20 sihns per warp. It was good to see so many weavers working and finding ways to sell their products. It seems sustainable as long as Lao women wear their sihns.


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On our last trip, to get to where we were going in the North, there were some 7 hour days on the twisty one lane roads through the mountains and valleys of Xeing Khouang and Houaphan. These roads are only safe this time of year, it’s the dry season. Even dry, the road hazards keep you at 35mph on a good stretch. We got used to the near misses and corner drop offs. You get anesthetized rolling back and forth for 7 hours. But every evening we’d be reminded that we should be thankful when the guide would call his mother. His first words were always, “It’s OK I’m still alive”.

Make sure you’ve got a good driver if you do this kind of trip. You need two people, a driver and guide when you do this. You don’t want the driver talking on these roads, just driving. If you’re interested in a road trip we can put you in contact with Loc, who can pull all the pieces together and recommend the places to visit.

We were a rolling classroom actually. As you go, you learn to tell the different ethnic villages by their home construction, or how they carried their foraging basket. Two straps for highland Lao, one strap over the forehead for midland Lao and one over the shoulder for lowland Lao are how you sort things out. Different tribal groups would fall into this classification system, there are over 50 groups in Laos. No matter what kind of straps, you’d see the women carrying their weight in wood home for the cooking fires. We also learned about the plants and their uses, and some personalized language lessons. I haven't made much of an attempt to learn the language aside from courteous pleasantries, I figure it's better for them if I teach English than speak juvenile Lao.

We were also able to see how things are changing in Laos. Power lines being strung through cleared virgin jungle, villages being relocated to the roads by the government for better access to education, healthcare, power and water. Over the last 5 years the few main roads got paved. Good things for quality of life, but the beginning of homogenizing the ethnic groups. The next generation of village youth will be very different from the last.

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After last years Santa Fe Folk Art Market, we were back in San Francisco sorting through the maximum amount of things Bandith could legitimately haul back to Laos. He had brought twice the limits of luggage because you can coming this way. The Asian airlines are used to massive packages of all sorts of things when Asian people travel–gifts and items to sell usually. We had to make sure he’d get through the limits and screening of our TSA going home.

It had been a great visit by Bandith and his family and at the Market, but we had sensed a concern that he felt he wouldn’t be coming back next time. It's a juried show with no guarantees, but something else was bothering him.

After dropping Bandith off at the airport we found his investment in the future. The Lao believe that if you want to return to a place, leave a little something behind, usually money.

I noticed the first bill right away, then found the rest of the offerings over the next couple of days. I didn’t go seeking them all out at first, just let them reveal themselves as I puttered around.

It seemed to work, we’ve been invited back to Santa Fe for the 2011 Folk Art Market. Bandith will be reunited with the friends he made there over the last 2 years. We’re making the travel plans now.

You should too. Santa Fe is an exceptional Folk Art market, and has been called “Best in the World”. I’ve never seen such high quality indigenous artisan work in one place, and who doesn’t like Santa Fe.  http://folkartmarket.org


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Just as we think about the possibility of losing centuries of handcrafts in Laos, Martin is concerned about the music of Laos. During a recent visit to the Bay Area, he was telling us his experiences with some musicians he met in Luang Prabang. I was immediately transfixed and wanted to know more. He has graciously written the following blogpost for us and sent the sound file and CD cover.

Martin is a man of many facets (not least of which is baker of zucchini bread). We met Martin through my cousin, Sandy and her husband John, (all from Seattle) who visited Laos with us in 2008. Back then, Martin was developing his since published, Lao-English phrase book called "English for the Masses", because during his first visit in 1998, students told him they wanted so much to study English. Books are rare in Laos and people are always looking for new books, especially those in both Lao and English.

Getting a book published in Laos is a difficult business. Martin is not only the researcher and author, designer and photographer, he has had to find and fund the printer and then peddle the books door-to-door. He has since published 12 other books and has been teaching English in schools in Luang Prabang and southern Laos. He is teaching English, but also introducing a new method of teaching called "Action English", which engages students and aids them in memorizing words and phrases quickly by using Lao Sign Langauge. To make this possible, Martin is currently learning as much Lao sign language as he can and trying to help standardize and publish more collections of this neglected language.

But, that is another blogpost. Back to Martin's experiences with the Royal Lao Music...

You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone

Imagine that the Goldberg variations were never transcribed and the last person who knew anything about them was soon to die. This cultural heritage would be gone forever. Luang Prabang in the north of Laos is a UNESCO designated World Heritage site. The sidewalks are paved with handmade bricks and real estate has skyrocketed, but the true intangible treasures are quickly disappearing.

Bicycling home late at night, I could hear the sounds of drums, gongs and the Lao xylophone coming from behind a storefront. Out of curiosity, I finally stepped in to listen. Trained in Western music, I found the sounds confusing at first. No chord progressions or codas. Nothing seemed to follow a score and nothing seemed to begin or end at the same time. Then, I begin to just absorb the sounds.

The piece they’re playing, I’m told, is a processional played for when the king exited the palace. It is slow and stately and you can imagine the glittering mosaics and rustle of heavy silk brocade. It was obviously a spectacle.
I was told that in times of the royal court, every neighborhood ("ban" or village) had an orchestra that performed music for ceremonies and festivals and music was an integral part of daily life. The meaning of each song was common knowledge and most likely anchored the patterns and significance of communal life. Many say up to 90% of the population left Luang Prabang after 1975. The social role of music changed drastically under the new government. It is only recently that there signs of a nascent revival. A wealth of musical tradition has been lost in Luang Prabang.

The young musicians I heard that night, come to practice every evening after school. I had never encountered such artistic integrity anywhere before and I decided to invite them to record at the local radio station. In the studio, they showed that they were professionals. Listening to the test recording they’re put their ears right up to the speakers or make comments just looking at the sine waves on the computer. At one point, they could hear that the air conditioning was drying out the drum skin and took emergency measures to save the sound. At noon, they told me apologetically that they didn’t like the timber of the Lao zither. They wanted to record again. They were talking about quality and about their own high standards. How could I refuse? After several more hours, they felt satisfied and after all the formal playing was done, they suddenly broke out into an exuberant jam session.

To make a CD cover, I wanted some background information to the songs. The musicians didn’t know the details so I searched Luang Prabang for someone that knew. Finally, I was referred to someone who is said to be a descendent of the last king. He was there when the processions were played and he could name each song after hearing the first few notes. He pulled out other CDs and complained that nothing was complete. He was familiar with each piece and explained that no comprehensive recording has been done. The basic repertoire includes more than 60 pieces. Now in his late 70's and of failing health, all will be lost when he passes away as there is no formal system pass to on musical knowledge in Luang Prabang. Recording this repertoire of classical Luang Prabang music is of the utmost importance.

I don’t have the resources to do a complete recording myself, but I tried with a few pieces they chose. The CD covers have been printed, but unfortunately track 5 doesn’t press so the project is on the back burner. I still think about it as it simmers. Why is this magnificent cultural treasure overlooked? Nobody seems interested in recording it. It could take close to $20,000 to make it happen. My concerns are about cultural heritage in Laos, but Lao people need to know and value what they’ve got. That takes education and that’s why my main efforts are in publishing and teaching. It’s a monumental task, but someone’s financial gifts could make wonderful things happen in Laos?

Please refer to: www.momobooks.asia         www.momobooks.blogspot.com
or directly contact Martin Momoda at momobooksforlaos@gmail.com


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Our shipments are not big enough to fill a container on a ship so we have been trying different methods of getting our handcrafted items safely to the U.S. In exploring freight costs and services, we decided to try the Lao Postal Service for a shipment of bamboo basket containers that we didn't need in the next month or two or three.

Bandith constructed a shipping box from two smaller boxes, filled it with the bamboo baskets and had the school van take him and the box (almost as tall as he is) to the post office in Vientiane. Less than a week later, the box showed up in our office in San Francisco, plastered in what I calculated to be $190 worth of beautiful Lao stamps.

Mark called Bandith that night to let him know that the box had surprisingly arrived (and in time that could give the U.S. Postal Service a run for it's money!) Bandith replied,  "Thanks the Gods!" with a big sigh of relief.

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After 28 hours of travel to Vientiane I was rewarded with the intense experience of the That Luang Festival. On a full moon day in November there is a pilgrimage of thousands from all over Loas to the golden stupa for blessings and offerings of reverence to Buddha. The stupa, the national symbol of Laos, was built by King Sayasetthathilath in 1566.

This is a multi day event with worship at local Wats, then processions of wax “castles” festooned with Kip notes are brought to the stupa accompanied with traditional musicians. The worshipers circle slowly 3 times clockwise in a solemn sutra led by monks chanting the ancient words of Buddha.

To reach the inner court where the stupa is located you walk the mile through a gauntlet of food and offering vendors, and in recent years the loud music of the CD stalls and groups selling cheap Chinese clothing. Just a few years ago there was no commercial aspect to the festival to sully the atmosphere, but things are changing here.

There are stopping points along the way to offer prayers and acknowledgments to people and deities important to the Lao culture. The last gate allows entrance to the inner court where the music fades and the atmosphere become thick with reverence.

The next morning alms are given to the monks by such a crush of crowds, the older Loa are passed overhead through the gate into the temple. Unfortunately the jet lag from arriving the day before didn’t allow me to wake at 4am to see this part, so I’ll have to go back next year.

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We were fortunate enough to be invited to the Santa Fe Folk art Market this year. The most amazing handcraft show on the planet, http://www.folkartmarket.org. We were excited about the show, and the chance to bring Bandith over to the US to man the booth with us. He’s our main contact in Laos and manager of the group, Saoban, we’re helping build there. This was his first time in our Western world so we wanted to show him San Francisco, and decided to do the drive to Santa Fe, a road trip in my old Westphalia. Bandith had always dreamed of touching snow, and he’d never seen desert, we saw a lot of that.

It was his first chapped skin experience with the heat wave we went through, 114 degrees in a vw van with no aircon. We had to keep the windows closed, seemed a bit cooler. At one point he said “if they give me Nevada, I no take”. I’d agreed with that.

We found our snow at the top of Yosemite on the way back from Santa Fe, a nice break from the heat. All downhill to San Francisco from there, it's a long drive going home.

It was interesting to see what he saw and took note of along the way. It was also good to see he saw what he liked about Laos and the lifestyle challenges we have here. He was happy to go back at the end, missing his Mom’s papaya salad. But he went with the hope of returning next year. We'd like that.
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We were so excited to receive an email from Saoban, our partners in Laos, that the first Lao Fair Trade radio show was recently broadcast and already posted to Youtube! In the first show, the host explained the concept of Fair Trade and the benefits it can have for Lao producers.

Part I
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaE8gpyLARw  

Part II
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FW7kT_fyxpA

The show will be broadcast every Tuesday, in Lao, between 9:45am and 10:00am on Lao Army Radio (99.7FM). The airtime is being donated by Saoban, the handcraft division of the school in Laos.

Each week will bring an interview with a spokesperson from different Fair Trade companies. We'll let you know when Bandith's interview about Saoban's efforts supporting fair trade is scheduled!


Jose 9/24/2012
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The first time I met Takeo is was at the Lao festival in Sebastopol, CA. Over the next couple of days as we were exhibiting together I got to learn a bit of her background and the work she was doing to preserve Lao traditional weaving. As we packed up our booths Takeo offered to give me a tour of her weaving museum and house on my next visit to Vientiane. I was curious to see the old weavings she had rescued and the process she had developed to recreate these masterpieces.

 

A few month later I was dropped off in front of Takeo’s house and shop. The shop was loaded with precise duplicates of old traditional pieces and updates of patterns for scarves and wraps. The museum held the real masterpieces that inspire her work. Here is where Takeo began her story.

 

Saravan Province where she was born has always been known for it’s weavings of cotton and silk. Tribal groups created every stitch of clothing for the familes daily life, funerals and wedding dowry. Takeo’s father was a revered teacher who focused on raising the education level of the ethnic tribes in the region. He became well known and caught the eye of the Royal Government who brought him to Vientiane to become a member of Parliment representing Saravan.

 

Takeo’s mother was a known master weaver, and when she wore her handmade sinh skirts and blouses to Royal functions, everyone noticed and gave appreciation for her talent. Takeo had little interest in weaving at that time. She was focused on her education and living the lifestyle expected in a family considered well-to-do in Laos. She was looking to Paris and college for her next phase of life.

 

You can imagine the pleasure the French men had as young Takeo sauntered down the Champs-Elysees in her traditional Lao garments. She also embraced the mini skirts of the time and attended embassy parties in tradition attire and the nights on the town in her mini skirt. All was comfortable and exciting in Paris. Not so in Laos as the war was starting to grind in earnest, her life was about to change.

 

Takeo’s father had left the government before the real fighting had broken out. He was fortunate to not be put on the black list and pushed into exile or worse. The door shut quickly on Laos and Takeo had to struggle to get home to find and help her family.

 

Their house in Saravan was gone, burned to the ground, and all their possessions had been lost except for some books her father had buried. They had to flee with no money or posessions to Vientiane to eke out a new life from the ruins. Takeo started by raising chickens to sell and growing food in a plot next to their meager dwelling. With her background education in France she eventually found work teaching the children of administrators in the French embassy. This created enough revenue to feed the family, buy a small rice field and to build a modest house they could rent to visitors of the government. In 1982 she became a tour guide and noticed the attraction of foreigners to the woven Lao sinhs (skirts).

 

All during this time Takeo saw many exceptional traditional weavings being sold on the street and in the market by destitute people trying to survive. Takeo started buying these traditional relecs and found a passion and a hold on some of her past memories of pre-war Laos.

 

She still had no knowledge of how to weave, but as her collection grew, she ran into weavers who had moved to Vientiane to escape the war that had the skill and dying knowledge to rebuild the patterns. This inspired Takeo to start her weaving gallery and textile preservation efforts in earnest, it was 1984.

 

Starting a business was not easy in Laos, the government forbid any private business ownership. Takeo was one of a few women entrepreneurs who started weaving groups that eventually changed the way the government viewed private enterprise and opened the path for others. Takeo traveled around Laos collecting information on old natural dying processes, recreating the colors she saw in her masterpieces and sometimes working all night long to get a certain color just right. She also built a group of weavers with the high level of skills needed to decipher the old patterns and recreate them. Her house is now stuffed with these re-usable patterns, some taking 1000 rods to create.

 

Today Takeo is world renowned. She travels to Europe and the US for exhibitions, and produces many woven products for Obis and other ceremonial garments for Japan. The collectors that flock to her museum and store are mainly from Asia and Europe where there is a higher appreciation for exceptional hand woven products.

 
When Takeo first showed the government officials what she was doing they offered no support or appreciation, now years later they are pleased she had the fortitude to follow her passion to preserve the heritage of Laos.
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On my initial visit in 2001 we took our first evening stroll along the Mekong to watch the sunset and goings on. There were a group of makeshift stalls serving various local foods and the ubiquitous Beer Lao. It was wonderful food, cheap, and with an ambiance that was otherworldly. Fishermen plied the Mekong, lumber boats heading South full of teak, monks chanting evening prayers from nearby temples and the lights of Thailand coming up on the other shore all accompanied with a golden, steamy sunset.

I learned later that the government would bulldoze these stalls every few years, it was still outside of the law to have a private business they didn’t approve of. But as the tourist trade started to increase they, officials saw the value and have let these businesses develop. The number of proprietors has increased from 6 or so options to over 50. Their structures are becoming more permanent and the fear of bulldozers have become a thing of the past. Today you wouldn’t call them food stalls with their wood floors and platforms, substantial kitchen improvements and running water. The menus are printed and the decorations there to stay.

My favorite meal is fresh Mekong tilapia, rolled in salt, stuffed with lemon grass and grilled over cocoanut husk charcoal. A side of spicy stir-fried morning glory and a watercress salad with dried buffalo make the meal complete. Beer Lao is still the beverage of choice and goes so well with that steamy sunset. A full meal and big Beer Lao is still less than $5US. Priceless.
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Spirit City, as the Lao name Xieng Khuan infers, displays the fantasy and focus of Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a Lao monk with a vision. Buddha Park, the name given by tourist guides is an easy excursion from Vientiane.

Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather) was a priest-shaman who integrated Hinduism and Buddhism into his work. The 200 plus statues are made of cement and are ornate, and sometimes bizarre, in design. The statues appear to be centuries old, though they are not, the park was started in 1958. There are numerous sculptures of Buddha and characters of Hindu lore. There are also sculptures of humans, gods, animals and demons. One notable sculpture resembles a giant pumpkin. It has three stories representing three levels, Hell, Earth and Heaven. You enter the mouth and climb the staircase through the three levels and worlds. On top top, there is a vantage point where the entire park is visible. Another sculpture, an enormous 130ft high reclining Buddha is also a park attraction and muse. At one end of the park is the "Savan" or Heaven where the spirits of good Lao are known to reside and bring harmony to the land.

Any taxi or Tuk Tuk will take you there. It’s around 30-40 minutes out of Vientiane along the Mekong. You’ll pass the Friendship Bridge to Thailand and go through some beautiful rice fields and small towns. The more adventuresome way to reach the park is to take bus number 14 from the main bus station from Talat Khoa Din next to Morning Market. Tell the driver where you are going and he will notify you at the right stop. Don’t be afraid to ask twice.

Luang Pu went on to other monuments and visions. With followers he fled from Laos to Thailand after the revolution of 1975. There he created another fanciful sculpture park, Sala Keoku in Nong Khai.
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Laos for young children is a bit of pristine wonder and tragedy, such as life. The wonder comes from days romping through a beautiful natural environment. Diving into the river, bonding with the family of water buffaloes, or enjoying the easy fishing with an uncle. The family structure is fully intact, and every child has a deep layer of family and community of adults who watch and care for them. They are treated as a precious gift, cherished by the family. You’ll see them running through every village path playing with whatever suits their fancy. No video games needed or safety requirements for their toys. Children are taught the cultural traditions of weaving and handcrafts at a young age and the joys of being industrious in the fields and village. All hands are needed in supporting the family and these skills make them a valuable entity to future partners and to the community at large. You see the smiling faces and warm greetings and try hard to forget that 25% of the children you see in the high land villages will not live to be an adult. Malaria and other health related issues take a toll on the young ones. Education and healthcare can be hours away by steep mud trails through the jungle. It has always been that way in the tribal areas and the lowland parts of Laos that lack paved roads. We’re working with PADETC to help change this fact with the villages in our group. Just $2 extra income a month for a family to afford a child’s education. Healthcare is improving with the infrastructure. It will be a good day when we watch the children play without considering the potential peril they face.
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The village of Phonxong has for centuries been know among the Lao for the baskets it produces.  There is a forest of special bamboo that they use and have been practicing sustainable harvests as far back as is recorded. The bamboo is only cut during certain seasons, and then the stalk is cut into weaving widths and the skin pealed off the stalk. It’s the skin that is used in the weaving. The baskets take many shapes and forms for storage, steaming rice, for fishing and foraging in the jungle. This village is known for its “lifetime” baskets. These are given at weddings, used for storage and foraging, and are built so well they are expected to last as long as the user will use them. Smoking the baskets over coconut husks strengthens the material, keeps it bug proof and for me adds a nice aroma to the room. We use them to deliver the Orijyn products. It’s fascinating to sit with the villages as they prepare the bamboo and weave the baskets. Hands move quickly and without visual guidance as the rustling sound of weaving accompanies the conversation. It seems so therapeutic. It’s like watching a master piano player who is able to carry on a conversation as they play, and not need to look at their hands. I get a sense of how tight a group they are as they spend every day together working the bamboo and weaving. It makes me want to sit with them as long as I can.
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2/27/2008
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I’ve always loved elephants. They seem like they could make good friends. Knew what you might be thinking! Never really had any experiences with them…it just seemed that way. On my last trip I had put together a hike through the jungle to visit some tribal villages. There is beautiful scenery along the way, a difficult muddy trek up and down a mountain path with half of the trail in the middle of a small stream. We talked with villages about the tigers that came down from the mountains once in awhile to steal a goat, about the difficulties of dry ground rice farming in the mountains, and about the leeches on the trail. But I mostly wanted to know about the resident elephants.

After hours of slogging along toward the waterfall to wash off the mud and sweat, I got my wish. Off in the forest were a mother and daughter calmly munching on their jungle surroundings. I just had to get closer, so I inched my way through the bush to get the shot. They were both obviously used to seeing humans and aside from huddling a bit closer together, were content to watch me take a few nervous photos. Off in the distance was a large bull ripping down trees limbs for his dinner. Once I got over the attraction and amazement, I started to realize that I was only a charge away from some potential damage. The commotion the unseen bull was making didn’t build any confidence.  I’d been around large farm animals most of my early life, but this was different…so I made my retreat to the waterfall.
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2/15/2008
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I grew up fishing still water for bass and blue gill, later moving to streams and trout when I went West. It was for fun, not sustenance; I release everything I catch now. But sustenance is what fishing is all about in Laos: serious business, a main source of protein for the family. The Mekong and its tributaries are flush with all kinds and forms of fish, including rays, tilapia, shrimp, python eels and the awesome 9ft catfish. I’ve never seen so many ways to catch a fish. All forms of basket traps and corrals in the river get tended morning and night. Dipping nets are owned by many, and this form of fishing has been the most entertaining and surprising for me. It is usually a 6-8 square ft of net spread by 2 crossed bamboo poles and lifted in and out of the water by another main pole controlled by the fisher person. You lay it down in the shallow water, wait a few minutes, then lift it up with your catch. During the high water season, the Mekong floods its banks and flows into the rice fields, ditches and yards of the villages.  The fish flow with it. These fish can be in such abundance that you can sit and watch a person pick dinner from the net without having to sit very long. I’ve seen people using the dip nets in the rice fields and ditches all through the countryside, filling their basket with the catch. One time I saw a family sitting on their front steps fishing in their yard. It doesn’t take that many steps from the water to your pot that way.
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An email to new friends I met on the trip:

The day you left the owners of the bar had to go to the police station to pay a fine and get a good finger wagging. The owner in typical bad judgment brought his crazy, vocal brother along which only increased the fine and the finger wagging became two handed. That evening the crazy brother decided to arrive and, as a show of support for the bar, kill a bottle of Jack Black and be as loud as possible. By the time I got there he was looking like someone you skirt on the street or send off to war. The owners were too accommodating to send him home, which of course would have been the smart thing to do. I saw a good movie in the making so placed myself in a good vantage point, with a quick escape plan if needed. Surprisingly no police arrived, the volume reached a level we hadn’t seen before. Around 11:30 the guests had their first revolt with some insults lobbed over the wall. This was of course encouragement for the brother who decided to bring his car in front of the bar and turn the Loa pop music to full volume. This brought more insults and threats from the guests along with a volley of soap bars from the Germans. The owners were looking terrified but couldn’t seem to come up with any plan other than hold their heads and hide in the back. The crazy brother was reaching his maximum blood/alcohol level and started this swaying shuffle around the car barking at his visions. Finally he did a face plant in the street and wet himself. All the while the music played. I suggested to the owners that it might be a good idea to first, turn the music off, then throw him in the car and drive him home. And that was the way things ended.

Next day the breakfast crowd at the hotel were gnashing their teeth over the incident, some checked out. One guy asked, “And what were those @#*! drums at 4:30 in the morning.” I told him it was the monks, they get up to pray every morning at that time, always have.  “@#*! monks” he said.

I received a wonderful gift the next day. I was packed for the airport and was getting ready to settle up. Ot says, “You no leave till tomorrow.” She was right, it was a dyslexic calendar moment for me. So I got a bonus day, such a treat. You don’t get many of those in life. Took a 15k walk-about North along the Mekong passing through many villages. There were no tourists, no cars and such friendly people along the way. A nice massage on the return, one last great meal and a gentle evening with the bar owner's friends and family to celebrate Valentines Day. Perfect.
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Mark and I have backpacked through many countries together and always try to go to the marketplaces to see the handcrafts. We both had majored in art and Mark had been picking up textiles here and there ever since his family went to Mexico when he was in the 8th grade and we both enjoy them for their artistry.

 

Our first big trip together, we went to Java and Bali in Indonesia because I wanted to see the Borobudur. We strapped on our backpacks and learned to jump on and off the buses, as they never fully stopped. Indonesia, we went to the night markets in the little towns to see the handcrafts. And wandering around Solo, we stumbled upon a family creating beautiful batik fabric and stayed the rest of the day watching them.

 

In Bali, we moved up to a little scooter-scaring ourselves while driving on the left side of the road, dodging the stray chickens and dogs. One rainy day we went to Tenganan, an ancient Aga village, to try to see the magical double ikat weavings that are woven in that town. The town was high up on the mountain and misty with the rain. We were able to see a beautiful example of a double ikat weaving.

 

While traveling through Guatemala to experience Semana Santa (Good Friday and Easter) in Antiqua, we enjoyed going to the markets to see the colorful clothing. Each town dressed in a specific way and after awhile, you could identify the town they came from by their clothing. The huipiles (blouses) were extraordinary with bright, bold colors and beautiful flowers embroidered on them. We went to the town of San Francisco, which has the largest market in the country. We searched down every row and under tables to see the many beautiful and colorful huipiles (blouses) and textiles.

 

Turkey was a place I had wanted to go to for decades. After studying the Haggia Sophia in art history courses and had a taste of the exquisite Islam arts, we were We had decided when we went to Turkey that we could not buy a rug as it wouldn't fit our budget and small apartment. But our last day in Cappadocia, in the middle of Turkey, where Christians hid in caves and decorated their churches with beautiful Byzantine paintings, we came across a rug shop owned by a woman who had been a part of the hippie trail, coming from Australia through the Khyber Pass and stopping in Turkey. She learned about the rugs being made by nomadic tribes and started to buy and sell them.

 

While passing time with her and one hour before our bus out of Cappadocia would arrive, we fell in love with a carpetbag, then a kilim and then a rug that overwhelmed me when I saw it. I had to have it. The rug was magical-I was mesmerized by it. Standing next to it, I felt as I did when we’d backpack into the Sierras and stand by a lake at night the water sparkling with the reflection of the stars. A whole other world by my feet. It was made by a nomadic woman in Iraq who followed her instincts - each day deciding which color yarn she would use, which motif she’d weave in for that day. We had to quickly repack our bags to accommodate the 3 rugs and rush to meet the bus!

 

So, during our first trip to Laos in 2001, OF COURSE we went to the markets and were struck by the exquisite, intricate weavings. When we’d visit a village, we’d inquire about any weaving co-ops. Ban Phanom, a weaving village outside of Luang Prabang, had a marketplace for their weavers in the middle of town. We liked to go there by scooter each day, taking side trips to pass through lush, verdant rice fields surrounded by palm trees and mountains.

 

During that same trip, we went to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to experience Angkor Wat, another sacred place we’d wanted to explore. It was a memorable trip as we had a last minute change of transportation. The landing strip was out of commission and would take a couple days to clear so our cab driver suggested we take a boat-one of the wood boats that leave from Phnom Penh on the Mekong and travel across Sonle Tap, the largest lake in SE Asia. Our cabbie got us seats in the boat, which was not quite high enough for me at 5’4” to stand up, but the alternative was worse-sitting on the roof in the heat for 5 hours.

 

Angkor Wat was amazing. We were fortunate enough to have the buildings and grounds pretty much to ourselves for the 3 days we were there. For two days we walked the temples with a wonderful guide who not only told us about the history and the artwork, but explained the herbs the monks were harvesting, the life of his village and how they all tried to survive. While there, Mark searched out an organization trying to resurrect Cambodian weaving and textile patterns. Though in it’s infancy, we could see the uniqueness of the Cambodian ikats.

 

We were staying in a guesthouse across the dirt road from the marketplace where we’d wander around, acquainting ourselves with Cambodia motifs and colors. People told us of a restaurant, a former teak house, that had some older textiles on display–we went there twice-for the textiles as much as the superb food.

 

Of all the countries we’d visited, Laos stayed in our minds long after we came back-an exotic country with wonderful people, a culture rich in traditions and art.

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The national drink in Laos is Lao Lao, a rice whiskey they’ve been making for ages. Some towns specialize in the production, but you’ll see many backyard stills throughout most of the country. I’ve tried it a few times and have had good results. It is used as an ice breaker when we lunch in the weaving villages, and as a hospitality gesture at business meetings or the corner gatherings of men in the village as part of a bonding ritual. It goes great with dried buffalo.

The Lao also use it for medicinal purposes. Drop in a scorpion-it’s good for the kidneys. Turtle will heal the stomach, and centipede will cure the spine. A cobra makes an old man virile again; can’t say it works yet.

You’ll see vendors with these different concoctions on the street or in shops. All are part of the local lore and healthcare program that must have some basis in its abilities to help a person. I’ve been “helped’ by Lao Lao a few times, but haven’t needed the centipede yet.
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