PATHET LAO 2019-04-11T23:21:57+00:00

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LAOS IS THE LESS DENSELY POPULATED COUNTRY OF SOUTH EAST ASIA

A MULTI ETHNIC COMMUNIST COUNTRY WITH A LUSH VEGETATION

LANDLOCKED IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GREEN HILLS

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The Mekong, Green Hills and Tribes ? Could not refuse…

Laos counts 7 000 000 inhabitants for 236 800 km2 (24.7 Inhabitants/ km2) scattered in the forests, on the top of the hills and along the rivers. The Mekong river flows all over the country and has hundreds of tributaries. A country with 70% of forests, lots of caves, waterfalls and a multi-ethnic heritage culture.

Around 100 different ethnic groups and sub-groups are represented in Laos classified nowadays in 4 main families:

· The Austroasiatic, arrived first from the South,

· The Tai-Kadai, arrived second from the west and represent 65% of the population,

·  The 2 last groups, the Hmong Yao & Sino Tibetans arrived 2 or 3 centuries ago from the North.

As many groups and sub-groups with as many way to live. Sharing the same land, they all carry their own culture, system of value and beliefs, social organization, celebrations, traditional clothing, craftsmanship, housing style, cultivation style and spiritual practicesSince few years, with the arrival of the development (roads, electricity, school, clinic) people started to move down to the valleys, villages to merge and population to be mixed. In the time it was easy to classify the ethnic groups, the Lao Seung – on the top of the hills, the Lao Theung -on the middle of the hills and the Lao Soum – from the valley.

A bit simplistic approach but, the Austroasiatics were the first to settle on the riverside by far the easiest place to make a living, but at the arrival of the Tai-Kadai they fled upper in the hills. Arrived last, the Hmong Yao and Sino Tibetans got to stay on the top of the hills. But now that everything is a bit more mixed, they opted for this 4 ethnolinguistic groups approach focusing on their origins and languages instead of place of living.  Mix-weddings tend to happen more often than before when it was totally inconceivable. The culture in change…

Since the middle of the 14th century, Buddhism became gradually the official religion, step by step temples and Buddhist pilgrimage where built over the spirit houses and animism worshipping places. Nowadays, 40% of the population is still purely animist, practice shamanism and worship spirits and ancestors. The other 60% are Buddhists (Theravada) but still have strong animists beliefs, they practice baci ceremonies and still build and make offerings to little spirit houses in the garden.

There is always a good reason to make a baci or something to celebrate in Laos. Lots of “Boun”, celebrations, over the year, most of the time linked to the Buddhist, moon, monsoon or harvest calendar. Sunday as a day off, is an occidental invention. In Buddhist countries, it is “Buddha Day”. Every moon stage correspond to a Buddha day: the new moon, first quarter, last quarter and full moon. Lots of people have their day off still based on the moon and especially, manual workers.

Laos has an very interesting culture and quite eventful history. Former Kingdom of Thousand Elephants and White Parasol fighting with its neighbors, 60 years of French protectorate, late unification, struggle for power, advent of the Lao People Democratic Republic in 1975 and highspeed railways in 2021.

Did you know that Laos was the country the most bombed in the human history. Half tone of bombs per inhabitant were dropped by Americans during the Vietnam War, for 9 years, a bomb every 8 minutes.

Find more about Laos history and Culture, here

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LAO WAY TO SAY HELLO

#SIMPLE TIPS TO TRAVEL Be aware that, it is a very quiet country, the motto could be “Bor hou, Bor peniang, Sok Dee deur” something like “I don’t know, No problem, Good Luck”. Ones you understand that, you might adore the place. A timeless destination where you never raise the voice for any reason, enter a temple/Vat with shoes, uncovered shoulders or knees may you be man or a woman. A place where woman should not touch or smile to a monk and Non-Buddhists should abstain to make offerings during the “Tak Bat” morning ceremony. A place where you got to understand that the feet are impure and should never step over or point someone or something, so pay attention how you sit in the temple. On the other hand, the head is holy, so avoid touching children heads. To be respectful, be quiet, wear a clean attire, do not walk without shirt or drinking a beer in the streets. Do not steal or buy antiquities, neither drop any garbage in the floor. #BASICS

ΦLOPS’ERA

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Laos, a very attaching country where 75% are still farmers, living in remote villages only accessible on foot or dirt roads. People deal with their environment, their houses are generally made with what they can get around them , such as wood or bamboo. Their life follows the rhythm of the rice or corn crop. Some villages still live in total autarchy reliant on their environnement and the good will of the spirits. Crafts are still widely produced and used in the daily life to cook, carry, hunt, cut and fish. With the lack of electricity, the night coming down all the year in between 5 and 6 pm, the inhabitant have to live by the rhythm of the sun. 

LUANG PRABANG

Luang Prabang is little town nestled in the middle of the luxuriant hills, the first capital of the former “Lan Xang” Kingdom, the Land of the Million Elephants.

A peninsula delimitated by the mighty Mekong and the Nam Khan river with the sacred Mount Phousi standing at its heart.

The Legend says that this hill arrived in the middle of the town when, the king asked Hanuman (Monkey-God hero of the Ramayana) to get a specific mushroom on a hill of Sri Lanka (where Buddhism was born) to fix the queen’s health problem. The Monkey went forth and back so many times without finding it, that he just decided to rip the hill and drop it in the middle of the town, telling to the king to figure it himself.

Luang Prabang became a Buddhist university since the arrival of the Buddhism in the country, around 14th century. Since then, the life of the town is subject to the Monks Life, people wake up early for the Tak Bat and most of the businesses close early at night (earlier than in the rest of the country) not to disturb the Monks rest.

The Tak Bat, is a daily routine and ritual. During sunrise the monks and novices walk out of their temples and collect food from their neighbors. It can be considered as the holiest moment of the day as the Monks give the blessings to the people offering the food. It is a Buddhist thing.

You never saw a place with as many living temples as in Luang Prabang. Every 50 meters, you find one. The temple life and monks are the cement of the society, they provide education, bread and lodging to the most deprived, they give support and faith to the people when they need it, it is kind of a city hall.

The Monks survive thanks to the donation of their neighbors, their daily meals and the money needed for the restauration of the temples.

Support the “Sangha”, Buddhism in Luang Prabang.

One of the most amazing temples of the town is the Vat Xieng Thong, the temple located almost at the very end at the peninsula not far from the confluence of the two rivers. This temple was donated by the King to the town, because at that time they decided to move the capital of the Lane Xang Kingdom to Vientiane, after repetitive Burmese attacks and destruction.

This temple was what decided the UNESCO to add Luang Prabang to World Heritage listing in 1995. 

If you have the chance to stroll in the streets of this timeless town, you will easily understand what seduced the UNESCO committee.

Just on the Mekong riverside, a huge religious complex with an amazing mixed architecture with local, colonial (French) and foreign influence (Japan, Chinese, Vietnamese, American…).

More here.

#TIMELESS

MEKONG, THE MIGHTY RIVER

You can’t talk about Laos without mentioning the mighty river that flows over 1800 km in the territory. Host of the ancient protectors of Luang Prabang, the Nagas (Kind of water snakes dragons) it is also the nurturing mother of the country. Surrounded with tons of legends, this river nourished the first explorer’s imaginary.

The Mekong is one of the biggest rivers in South East Asia and in the Top 10 of the longest rivers in the world. The river starts in Tibet at 4 875 meters altitude, then flows over 4300 km through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia before to pour into the South China Sea. The Mekong hosts more than 1200 species among which the endemic Irrawaddy Dolphin and the Giant Cat fish. After the Amazon, it is the second biosphere in the world.

The Mekong is the main artery for population, transport and food production in the country. Many villages are located on the Mekong and its tributaries banks, ideal for fishing and growing vegetables on the soils enriched by the risings and floods stilts deposit.

Nowadays, the rivers ecosystems are alternated by the construction of the dams aiming to propel Laos as the biggest South East Asian hydroelectricity provider. 

Also nurturing mother of Cambodia (via the Tonle Sap) and Vietnam (on the Mekong Delta), those alternations of the river are impacting the economy and way of life of the Mekong Basin.

#MIGHTYNURTURINGMOTHER

FESTIVALS IN LAOS

In Laos, the most important things are food for the people, enough water for the rice, ancestors worshiping and Buddhist life. All the traditional festivals are linked to all of those elements and to the moon.

It is also important to know that in Laos you might celebrate New Year a bunch of times. When arrives December, you need to get ready to celebrate New Year over and over. You generally start with the Hmong New Year, followed by the Kamu, the International New Year on the 31st of December, then comes the Akha, Chinese, Vietnamese and some other ethnic groups celebrations, to finish mid-April with the Lao National New Year… Most of the New Years mark the end or the beginning of the harvest and for the Lao New Year in April, it corresponds to the new Buddhist year based on the Buddhist calendar. A counting that started in – 543 B.C. when Buddha reached the Nirvana thanks to its enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree (the Parinirvâna of Buddha).

2019 Gregorian year corresponds to the Buddhist Year 2 562.

Find here, some of the main Lao events.  

#CELEBRATIONTIME

BOUN OK PANSA AND BOUN LAEU HAI FAI

In Laos, during 3 months, the monks will enter in a monastic seclusion to concentrate on meditation. This Buddhist retreat “Khao Pansa” starts during the full moon of July and ends on the full moon of the 11th month. During that time of the year some devotes will join the lent and follow to the letter the 5 major Buddhist precepts (Do not Kill, Do Not Lie, Do Not Steal, Do Not Drink Alcohol, and Do not indulge a sexual misconduct).

The end of the Vassa or the end of the Theravada Buddhist retreat and the light festival are the most magical moments of the year, especially in Luang Prabang.

A 3 days festival, when all the temples and houses will be decorated with enlightened handmade paper decorations, mostly stars, symbols of joy. It is also to pay tribute to the Lord, in commemoration of its return from heaven after passing his teachings to his mother.

On the day three, during full moon, it is time to celebrate Boun Laeu Hai Fai to pay tribute to the river’s spirits. The villagers release kratongs (floating offerings with incense and candles) letting go all the sorrows together with handmade bamboo and paper boats or nagas. It is also time for competition between the Luang Prabang villages as a price is given to the best creation.

A magical moment, really!

#MAGICALMOMENT

BOUN BANG FAI

One of the most crazy and impressing festival; the Rocket Festival! From far my favorite, where helmets should definitively be mandatory!

During the full moon just before raining season, on the 6th month of the lunar calendar, it is time to call for rain and celebrate fertility launching self-made rockets towards the clouds. Men generally dresses up like women and wear phallic symbols behaving like you will never see a Lao behave out of this festival. The idea, make the gods crazy and get thunderstorm and rain as a punition. It is a “muniu mania*” moment! (*Merry mess in Lao)

Back in the time, the rockets were made of bamboo. Today you will see flying in the sky, blue water pipes rockets stuffed with gunpowder weighting from 5 to 500 kilos.

The rockets are decorated, blessed, inspected and categorized before the take off. There is a price to win for the best one, in case the rocket fails or explodes, the team will have to drink muddy water and lao lao (rice whisky)

It is a bit worrying when the 500 kilos rocket is lighted but it does not take off from the wooden launching pad, lot of smog is going out of it, you can barely see around you but you know it is the moment to run!

End of the day, the beer lao still flows abundantly, a tip, this is the moment you should be a bit more on your guards and get ready for a run!

#ROCKTHEROCKET

ELEPHANT FESTIVAL

Held in February in the Xayaboury province (2/3 hours from Luang Prabang), the Elephant festival is a quite recent festival as it was initiated in 2006 by an NGO to raise awareness about Elephants in Laos among local people and was taken over by the government in 2012.

This majestic animal was the emblematic animal of what was the former “Kingdom of the Thousand Elephants”. Nowadays, the country counts a population under 1000 among which 480 are captive and around 400 wild. They are endangered and their situation is pretty critical, if it was not for the work of some organizations, they might already have disappeared. 

Find more information about the amazing work of one organization here.

The Elephant festival gathers around a thousand of person every year. People coming from all over Laos during 3 days to enjoy the shows, parades, entertainments and market fairs. Generally, more than 50 elephants are present during the event, strolling in the streets of the town and the festival area.

It is quite impressive to be playing darts and realizing an Elephant is just next to you observing your game. You want generally to show off in front of the animal and play like never, but sometimes you end up being so impressed that you miss all the targeted air-balloons and you will have no teddy bear to comfort you.

Lovely moments and festivities surrounded by those majestic creatures.

#NATURESHOULDTHRIVE

Akha Wonderland, in the Lao Highlands, at the boundaries of China, Thailand and Burma. 

Akha people live almost in complete autarky and still widely wear the traditional costume. Women are easily recognizable with their emblematic headdresses covered by silver coins dating back from the French colonial era which can say a lot on their societal (amount of silver), marital (kind of ornaments) and clan (shape) status.

Akha villages are very peculiar as you might find dogs, black pigs and chicken running all over the place. Spirit gates will be encountered before to enter any village as they separate the human world and the spirit world and keep bad spirits, thieves or wild animal away. Inside the villages, on the side, there is this strange wooden swing, mostly used during the September swing festival that marks the start of the harvest. The perfect moment to worship ancestors and the spirits of the nature making sure they would do everything to bring enough food for all the village. This ceremony also symbolizes a ‘rite of passage’ for Akha girls passing into womanhood.

Akha people have a huge respect towards ancestors, elders, people and the fauna and flora in general. All their code of conduct is summarized in the Akha Way or “Akhazan”, a complex way of life passed down orally from generations to generations to make sure to adopt the right behavior and a sustainable existence.

Akhas are animist and every village possesses a shaman that takes care of the spirits of the living and the dead. They make sure that the balance between the two worlds is kept. They have tons of beliefs among which one that says that twins are evil and should not survive as they might bring bad luck to the whole village and shame on the family. Shaman is also the village doctor that will know which medicinal plants to get from the forest to treat pains and sorrows.

Very active during the opium trade (which brought them lots of Indochina coins ;)), they nowadays changed their crops and found another source of medicine. Today, only some elders might still consume opium for addiction or medicinal reasons. Elders also continue to chew betel nuts to protect their teeth even if it seems it has a contrary effect and stains teeth in red.

AKHA WONDERLAND

Akha people slash and burn the forest to grow wild rice and other vegetables and practice hunting and gathering.

The land used for the slash and burn is normally left in fallow to restore the soil fertility during 4 to 7 years which means the landscape and trekking path will change from a year to another.

Nevertheless, Akha villages are nowadays submitted to a huge pressure from outside development or neighbouring countries which has an impact on the Akha Way.

Today, they might be pushed to rent the slash and burn fields to non-Akha people to get a complementary income. The land will be used after the rice harvet to continue to grow rubber trees or any other kind of crops, not letting the time to the soil to renew and decreasing step by step the available lands to grow their food.

These changes are also visible in other domains, as for the election of the he chief of the villages that was formerly selected considering the values he carried and his empathy for the whole community. Today, the government is involved and might select the one to be most likely to apply the party instructions. 

A Heritage Culture in change… but with still a strong living culture and identity.

Akha people are from far one of the most impressing and fun tribe to meet in the North of Laos.

Living in the middle of the hills far from the civilization, they have a really wild way of life and still make almost everything out of the forest: water and food, houses, clothing, daily tools, traps and also distill their wild rice to make the famous rice alcohol …

They continue dogs and birds sacrifices if need be, generally when an animal died in a suspect way or when the rice got infested by insects or epidemic.

Amazing people living in the middle of impressing landscapes carrying a very powerful heritage culture. Let’s hope that the Akha Wonderland will resist as long as possible to the development pressure and cultural smoothing.

#HERITAGECULTURE

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The Mekong, Green Hills and Tribes…

Chilled on the Mekong, strolled in the timeless streets of Luang Prabang, hiked in the hills and met the Akhas, Hmong, Yao, Lanten, Katu and Lao communities!

A great adventure with unforgettable encounters. A developing country with a strong living culture and a strange relationship to time and glitches.

 “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice grow, the Lao listen to the rice grow” said during Indochina period, it remains so true. If you travel to Laos you will have to let it go and slowdown the pace!

Even if development started and arrives everyday quicker it is just the prémices. Timeless country, even the capital is drowsy, the less busy and noisy South East Asian city.

If you like nature, tribes, culture, traditional festivals, crafts and old-fashioned places, you need to go right now to Laos and go out of the beaten tracks.

Book a trip with one of my friends, contact me.