I love festivals. I think you all know this by now, especially if you’ve been following ON THE BRIGHT SIDE since the days I wrote from Japan. My first festival was the Fuji festival, where I first lived in Japan. One of the last festivals I watched in Japan was the Fire Festival in Fujieda (Rokusha Shrine Fire Festival). My favorite of all in Japan, though, was probably the Fukuroi Fireworks. Two hours of non stop fire works, young and old, men and women dressed in yukata…that was a very special night.
Last year, I happened to be in Laos during a special holiday called Bun Ook Pan Saa or end of the Buddhist lent. I enjoyed seeing hundreds of candles floating down the Mekong River, locals dancing in front of their homes and shops, and everyone lighting sparklers, fireworks and little whizzers and things which pop. I knew last year that I had to comeback.
This year, I was excited to enjoy all aspects of the festival. Pete and I planted our bums on the balcony of Tam Nak Lao restaurant, ordered Beer Lao and far too many dishes and waited for the procession of floats to come down the street. This is a parade and a festival in one – bonus! All sorts of people walked down the street along side those carrying the floats made of colored paper mache, and little bottles serving as lanterns all held together with a bamboo frame (bamboo, paper and fire together – totally safe!). The floats are taken to the main temple and then to the pier where they are launched into the water, even escorted by a team of people in a long boat.
The floats are all made by the monks in the temples and they are just beautiful. I’m not so good at night photography, so my photo doesn’t capture these so well, but I hope you get the idea!
What was so fun is that there are fireworks for sale everywhere you go. And everyone is lighting and shooting them off. Pete and I turned into 12 year olds and bought a butt load of poppers, cherry bombs and all sorts of other goodies. The large firework we bought, we ended up lighting in one of the temples. You see, the monks, after all their hard work to make the floats, decorate the temples and after a 3 month lent…well, they can’t really celebrate like everyone else. They are not allowed to participate. And most of them are teenagers and young men and you can see that it’s just killing them to not go out of the temple grounds. We were at the same temple where I met Bo and Kit in August, and I was able to find Bo and chat with him again before we lit the big firework. It was nice to see him again and he was glad for the visit.
We ended up hanging out with some locals…it was nice to bring our little candle to the pier among the crowds and have some little kid swim it out to a point where the current would pick it up. (We paid him in fireworks, which was completely agreeable by him!)
I just loved it. I loved the chaos, the beauty, the colors, the fireworks, the music and dancing….it was a real celebration and I am glad I made a point to enjoy it.
Today was such a special day. We got up at 5am and met our friend Sith at 5:30am to give alms to the Monks. This is a daily ritual in Luang Prabang, but today was special because it was the dawn of the day which was the end of the 3 month Buddhist Lent. Most mornings, men and women line the streets and provide alms to the monks. The offer mostly sticky rice, boiled eggs and some bags of veggies or other healthy items. But because today was a celebration for all…wow…it was amazing! I really honestly believe that everyone who lives in Luang Prabang was in the streets. And it wasn’t just adults. Kids were awake too and they were eager to participate. And in addition to sticky rice, the monks received plenty of treats and snacks. The mood was festive and upbeat and Pete and I felt really lucky to be invited to participate as a local…not just take pictures like all the other tourists.
We did feel a little funny, though, as Sith and his girlfriend lead us from one street to the next so we could give out as much as possible. At one point, we were actually running ahead of the monks so we could get in line and give out alms. Important to note that women, like the nuns in this picture, must kneel. Men can stand.
Alongside of the monks, young boys walked beside them with large baskets filled with all the treats the monks receive. You see, the monks receive so much more than usual, they need to dump their bowls in order to receive more and finish their rounds in the neighborhood.
Once the monks have finished receiving their alms, they return to their temple, divide the food up among all of the monks, keeping just a meager amount for themselves, and then prepare offering to Buddha and many gifts for the poor. All day families bring their tray of offerings to have blessed by the monks, which later they will eat at home. It’s really a special time to be in Laos, and this Buddhist holiday is precisely why Pete and I chose this weekend to visit. Just wait till I tell you about the festival!
Have a look at my photos from Luang Prabang – more than just morning alms!
On the Bright Side,
What Lao people may take for granted is the stunning beauty of their country and quaint city, Luang Prabang, as well as the intriguing sight of monks walking about the city.
I’ve had several conversations over the last two years with my Lao co-workers and friends to explain that in most other countries, monks keep to themselves and certainly don’t walk about town in the same manner as you and I. I explained that most other countries are not Buddhist, and therefore there are no temples like you find in Laos.
Part of the charm of visiting Luang Prabang is the numerous temples…some right on the main street and others tucked down side streets or off a wandering path. And along with the temples are the many monks who study there. It lends such a peaceful environment and beautiful setting for vacation in Luang Prabang.
While I’m sure the monks hate having their picture taken all the time (that’s why I took this one from the back), it really is fascinating to be walking down the street and pass by one or a few monks. Their robes are so brightly colored and when they pair it with another bold color…it’s just eye-catching and beautiful. And I can’t help but to take a quick snapshot!
We all know that I’ve had my fair share of conversations with monks. But I took a bit of time this morning to visit a few temples and was delighted to meet Somchit. He showed me the paintings and carvings he’s working on and after I bought a painting, he invited me and my friend Aeng into his room for a polite chat. HIs room is a humble swelling, shared with one other student monk. He wears an untraditional red robe, a gift from his friend in Thailand. He’s about my age, speaks decent English and will remain a monk for his life. Some men join the monastery for only a limited time in order to receive education. Somchit enjoys his life, and therefore will devote his life to Buddhism.
My conversation with Somchit came after a short conversation with two other monks at another temple. The rain had just begun, but I wanted to get some photos of the Mai Temple. I met Bo and Ki, who you can see in the photo below. Bo had the best English, and spoke rather nicely, actually. We talked about how many students in the temple, how long they had been studying, and the upcoming end of Buddhist lent, Bun Ook Pan Saa. In fact, Pete and I have decided to go back to Laos and enjoy this holiday near the end of October. I told Bo and Ki that I would probably be back, and so they asked for me to come back to the temple to see the boats they will prepare for the festival.
When I finished my conversation and took a picture of Bo and Ki, I turned around to see a few other tourists gawking at the two boys as though I had just spoken to monkeys or something. I hope if you are ever at a temple, you’ll have the courage to say hello and start up a conversation with a monk you meet. They are usually very interested to practice their English and can be a great source of information and history about the temple and city you are in! Try it!
For those of you who followed my life in Japan, you’ll remember that I am an absolute sucker for festivals. I LOVE them! It’s one of the more interesting aspects of foreign cultures. Sure, we Americans have our parades and block parties, we throw a few fireworks in the air for 20 minutes for America’s birthday. But we fail to celebrate rice harvests, the return of the spirits of ancestors, the full moon or even the seasons. This is where numerous foreign countries have us beat by miles.
I was lucky to catch just a bit of one of the best festivals in Laos – in Luang Prabang. It’s called the Bun Ook Pansaa Festival and it celebrates a the end of a 3-month Buddhist ritual where the devout are not to kill any animals, have sex, eat meat, nor eat after 12:00p.m. The highlight of the festivities are the handmade, natural-product boats, paraded down to the river, and any incense and candles on board are lit before being se afloat down the Mekong River. Similarly, little bamboo and flower boats are abundantly available and anyone who wants can buy one of these, light the candle and incense and make a wish before setting their own boat afloat.
Hand-held fireworks are everywhere! That was really fun! They have these long sticks which set off about 60 pellets and once in the air, explode into a mini starburst. We also had a few big fireworks which you put on the ground and which shoot fire in the air. So WAY cool! These would be totally illegal in the U.S., which makes it all the more fun for me!
It was so awesome to spend part of the evening riverside, watching all these people send their wishes and hopes into the river, shooting off fireworks and having a great time. I particularly enjoyed walking past store fronts, where a group of friends had gathered, blared some traditional music and were just dancing in the streets. The spontaneity of that was delightful. I’m sure there would be some ordinance that would be violated, had we tried to do that in our streets in the U.S.
And that’s exactly why I love these kinds of festivals. Laos is a communist country, but the people are so free in their everyday life and certainly allowed to express themselves and have fun when it comes time to celebrate. And I love being a part of that.
I am already planning to be in Luang Prabang next year for the same festival, as I couldn’t see all of it due to out hotel’s anniversary party. (It wasn’t me who planned them on the same night!) Next year I’ll take some better photos and even some video and really capture the spirit of the festival. It was just sooo sooo much fun!!!
OK. So here is something which doesn’t happen in the U.S. – like EVER. For our team in Laos, we’ve been looking to hire a Sales & Marketing Manager because I’m not able to do all the work in Hanoi and it’s important to have someone who connects with all the travel agents there and manages the reservation staff. We first started with a Vietnamese guy who used to work for one of our properties a few years ago. But there was concern that he would not be able to deal well with the Lao people and that ultimately, he would not succeed.
Our second option was a Philippino gal, but again, the Lao owners thought that a Lao person would be best. Finally they came up with a candidate who has had some really spot-on experience and who will be able to pick up the job nicely and easily. She finished her contract at the end of July and was planning to take two months off, one reason being to attend a human resources training course. Her start date would be October 1st. A month later than we want and need, but nonetheless we found a candidate everyone agrees on. So yaaay.
I prepared all the paperwork with her offer, we all agreed on the salary and the morning I sent her the paperwork to sign I got this e-mail message (totally a surprise and out of left field):
Thank you Shanna.
Just want to let you know that today I am be coming a nan. I will stay in Temple for two week, I will be able to access to internet very limite.
Forget the misspelling and any thought this has to do with Indian food… becoming a nun was the last thing I expected her to say. And I certainly thought she would sign her papers before she would be unavailable for two weeks! I had to clarify with the Lao owners if this was something normal, acceptable…what this was really. The answer was that it is more of a cleansing ritual, washes away all the negatives, helps you gain a clear mind and a cleansed soul so that you can move forward in your life in a positive way.
While that all sounds very nice and zen, I was still left shaking my head. These are the kinds of cultural lessons no one prepares you for. They just pop up and you have to learn how to deal with them. Me personally, I would never prioritize my life in this way, and therefore did not appreciate being left hanging. But everyone else around me seemed ok with it, enough so that it made me feel like I was overreacting. So, I took a deep breath, talked to Buddha and told him that this gal had better sign our papers once she gets out of the temple. I am still waiting for the official signature, but have at least received an e-mail from her which tells me she’s back online this Monday.
Oh the joys of working in a foreign country. Never a dull moment!