Sailing the Khong from Houei Xai - Luang Prabang is a very popular tourist activity in Laos. These are usually a two day trips with a night in Pak Beng, a place that used to have a terrible reputation for a dump of a town on the banks of the Mekong. Pak Beng has improved a lot over the years, but if you're doing the Khong by boat then IMHO opinion the only way to go is with your own boat & in a day. Put your bikes on board & sail down the Khong in style, eating & drinking as you go. No phone calls & no emails to answer - a totally stress free relaxing day.
it had been a few years since the last one & with proposed dams for Pak Beng / Luang Prabang still on the cards I thought it's time for another one before it is all gone.
The Mekong is a magnificent river with amazing changes of scenery & riverside village life that has not changed for generations.
But you need to pick the right time to go.
1. Wet season is no good - too much water, with maybe rain & low cloud cover so you can't see anything. The problem with too much water is that the river floods to the muddy forest clad river banks & you don't see any of the amazing rocks & rapids on the river.
2. Cold season is not good because there is often too much fog on the river, making navigation slow & dangerous. With reduced day light hours & a slow speed you can't do Houei Xai - Luang Prabang safely in a day. It is a 2 day trip; & for me 2 days gets a bit boring.
3. Hot season sometimes there maybe not enough water & too much smoke again so you can't see anything.
So the optimum time to go is usually sometime in the last week of Feb - the first week of March.
And so it was.
Bungy, BrianBkk & TonyBkk have already submitted reports.
but now we've got it down pat & it looks like this
the boat can seat 40 people, but the plan always is to have less than 15 on board & not more thahn 10 bikes absolute max.
Anymore bikes or people & it gets crowded on the boat.
This trip was 8 bikes & 13 pax - pretty much perfect.
Early morning departure
you haveto get away early - on time - at 7AM to beat some fog that comes around 9AM at some rapids downstream.
Don't get away early & you get caught in the fog, can't negotiate the rapids, & have to tie up to wait for the fog to clear.
Then there's the danger of not reaching LPQ before dark & having to sleep on the boat somewhere.
The new bridge at Chiang Khong
The viewpoint on R1155 overlooking the Khong
The pic with the Snail below was taken at the viewpoint just a few weeks earlier.
The boat stops at Pak Tha, to check in with the police, before carrying onto LPQ. You get to take a quick break here & take some pics on the rocks in the river
Thank you David for putting up photographs of good memories, after your excellent organization and coaching of the trip. All of us had a good time … some took more pictures, others had more beer … all had great fun and delighted in the privilege to smoothly cruise down the Big River in a breathtaking and ever changing panorama.
Most participants have posted a selection of nice images, while I feel bad to be very late. However,as the trip is now well documented, nothing is really missing and friends, who were not on board, can also rejoice by watching the published material.
Days 3 - 7. hanging out in Luang Prabang, one of the places I always find hard to leave.
Luang Prabang has been a world heritage town since 1995
Luang Prabang is an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.
The town is situated on a peninsula formed by the Mekong River and its tributaries in a clay basin surrounded by limestone hills that dominate the landscape. According to legend, the Buddha smiled when he rested here for a day during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful capital city. Another legend attributes the choice of the site to two hermits, attracted by its natural beauty, who gave it the name of Xieng Dong (or perhaps Xieng Thong).
It was known under this name at the end of the 13th century AD. A few decades later it became the capital of the powerful kingdom of Lan Xang, whose wealth and influence can be attributed to the location of its capital at a crossroads on the Silk Route, as well as the centre of Buddhism in the region. It remained the capital until 1560, when this title passed to Vientiane. It was at this time that it received a new name, Luang Prabang, the name of the famous Buddha image brought earlier from Cambodia. The towns in Laos conformed with the European urban of defended royal administrative complexes with adjacent temples and monasteries. Around them clustered a number of distinct village communities, supplying their needs but not integrated into a single administrative entity. The villages acted as commercial centres, not the town as such, which did not have the large mercantile communities to be found at the time in Thailand or Cambodia.
On the death of King Sourigna Vongsa at the end of the 17th century a serious political crisis ensued. The Lan Xang kingdom was divided first into two independent realms, those of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and then into three, with the creation of the kingdom of Champasak. Luang Prabang retained its role as the royal capital until 1946, when Vientiane took over as administrative centre.
The political and religious centre of the town is the peninsula, with its royal and noble residences and religious foundations. This is defined by a defensive wall built from one river bank to the other, sealing off the peninsula at its base.
The majority of the buildings are, following traditions, built from wood (part of the temples are in stone). The colonial element of the town is characterized by one- or two-storey terraced houses built from brick: they often have balconies and other decorative features in wood.
The commercial buildings are grouped along the Mekong, interspersed with private houses. The temples and royal residences line one side of Avenue Pavie, which runs the length of the peninsula, the other side being occupied by traditional and colonial houses. The administrative buildings are for the most part at the crossroads with Rue Gernier. The monasteries generally consist of: the cult buildings (shrine, chapel, library, stupa, stone post), ancillary buildings and buildings for inhabitants or visitors (monastic communal buildings, cells, refectory, etc.). Most are simple shrines with three aisles and a single porch. Their interior furnishings comprise a pedestal or throne for the main Buddha image, a pulpit, a terrace and a lamp. Most are elaborately decorated with carved motifs but the wall paintings are relatively simple. The Luang Prabang chapels are simple structures for housing images; they may be open or walled.
The traditional Lao wooden houses are basically divided into spaces: the private rooms and the public terraces. They are usually raised on wooden piles, giving a space beneath for working and for shelter for both men and animals. Walling may be of planks or plaited bamboo on a wooden frame. A developed form of this house makes use of brick, following the French introduction of this material, but conserving the general layout and appearance of the traditional house.
Finally there are the administrative buildings, which more or less successfully blend traditional elements with European materials, techniques and uses.
Its always worth taking your time in LPQ & going for a stroll down the narrow streets & along the river.
Wat Xieng Thong (built c. 1560 onward)
Wat Xieng Thong (Xieng Thong Ratsavoravihanh, or Volavihan, the "Golden City or Golden Tree Monastery") is the most historically significant and impressive of Luang Prabang's many wats. The low sweeping double-tiered roof (the front portico actually forms a third tier) and the rich interior and exterior decoration of its sim create an exceptionally fine example of the classic Luang Prabang style. The various chapels and other buildings make the entire monastery complex an architectural gem.
Xieng Thong is situated on an embankment above the Mekong near the juncture with the Nam Khan River and often served as the gateway to the town. Visitors from Siam, which long controlled the region, would end their journey at Ban Xieng Mene on the right bank and be ferried across to the city at the river entry of the monastery. This was also the entry point for the king-designate on the eve of his coronation after his three days of prayer and meditation at Wat Long Khun . It was the site of coronation of Lao kings and also the center of numerous annual festivals honoring the Buddha and various folk spirits.
An early legend about the origin of Xieng Thong suggests that two hermits settled on a site (and set the boundary stones of the town and the monastery) near a notable mai thong, or flame-of the-forest tree (the tree is depicted on the rear faï¿½ade of the sim). The sites were also near the home of two of the city's powerful nagas that lived at the juncture of the two rivers.
The monastery had its origins in the 16th century. King Setthathilat, or Sai Xetthathilat, (1548-1571) founded it in 1560 to commemorate the memory of the Chanthaphanith (8th century AD?), a betal merchant and the legendary first king of Luang Prabang. The sim was built at this time, as doubtless were the kuti, or monks' quarters. A number of gold on black stencils inside the sim recount the story of Chanthaphanith and Jataka stories from Buddhist cosmology. Setthathilat's direct association with the monastery was not long, however. Shortly after he founded it, he moved his capital to Vientiane (Viang Chan); the exact date of this move is uncertain.
From its beginning until 1975, when the monarchy was terminated, Xieng Thong was under royal patronage. The king, his family, and others, built, embellished and maintained its many structures. It is impossible to know its original form, since doubtless there were numerous changes to the original buildings through the centuries. Fortunately it was spared destruction during the Chinese Black Flag maurader invasion of the city in 1887, when part of the city and many of its monasteries were damaged or destroyed. The leader of the invaders, Deo Van Tri (Kham Oun in Laotian), was in his youth a novice monk at the wat and used it as his headquarters.
A number of restorations have taken place in the twentieth century, included a notable one in whch the French participated. In 1928, when the French Governor General visited Luang Prabang, the King Sisavangvong successfully demanded that the French share in the cost of restoration. Major projects took place in the 1950s and 1960s, when the funerary carriage house was built, and especially in more recent times to repair the damage brought by years of neglect because of wars and neglect. As Luang Prabang has become more accessible to outside world it has become a major attraction for tourist and pilgrims alike. The seasonal changes in temperature and moisture necessitate continual maintenance and refurbishment.
Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most important of Lao monasteries and remains a significant monument to the spirit of religion, royalty and traditional style of a fascinating city. There are over twenty structures on the grounds including shrines, pavilions and residences, in addition to its gardens of various flowers, ornamental shrubs and trees. Many of the structures are notable, in addition to the magnificent sim, several deserve special attention.
Text by Robert D. Fiala, Concordia University, Nebraska, USA
For me, one of the big delights of LPQ is food - wining & dining in the fresh air, plus Sunset happy hours by the 'Khong
Many people love Joma for brekky, but for me it the Scandinavian
less crowded & noisy in the street than the Joma area.
this is the 3rd location for the Scandinavian & each time Sune moves because they try to double or triple his rent when the lease is up.
Interestingly I understand that Joma's lease is soon up & they too are looking for another property.
My fave riverside restaurant in LPQ is still at the Soudaphone location, but now called he Phak Dee Bakery.
Jurgen & Fai enjoying dinner at the Phak Dee
The big trees by the river are truly beautiful
It's incredibly relaxing, chilling out by the Khong watching life & the river slowly go by.
A new "discovery" this trip was the Viradesa Sunset restaurant.
We met here most days for happy hour.
another happy Ambassadorial pic
Miss Noi, daughter of Viradesa Sunset
whose Mum speaks good English, having gone to Russia as a teenager to learn to driver cranes. Those were the revolutionary days. When she came back from Russia there weren't many cranes in Vientiane / LPQ, so she went back to Russia again to learn some business management. A lovely tale & a lovely Mum & daughter.
The LPQ night market
The LP Wine Bar was another cool spot to hang out at night in the main street, but passed the walking street night market, & so its a lot quieter & more relaxing.
Hospitality rocks in LPQ with friendly easy going care free people.
I endeavoured to return the hospitality at the Oudom Souk, sponsoring a staff lunch one day.
Second in command, just after the boat's captain, our 'fearless leader' (Tony and Brian dixit) safely sailed the modern 'Mekong River Expedition' (the first one was in 1866) through turbulent waters and particularly rapid flows of 'Beer Lao'.
Thank you again David for organizing this masterpiece of a trip.
Wat Mahathat (built 16th century, 20 century onward)
Wat Mahathat or Wat That, officially Wat Pha Mahathat or Wat Si Mahatat, is the "Monastery of the Stupa" and is one of the more attractive of Luang Prabang's wats. It was founded by King Say Setthathirath (ruling from Chiang Mai) in 1548; the king also erected the imposing Lan Na style 'that', or stupa, that graces the ground in back of the sim. This stupa-prasat style has a tiered square base surmounted by the stupa with square, octagonal and round tiers above. The northern Thai influence can be seen in the golden umbrellas at the peak of the stupa and in many other places in the wat.
The wonderful sweeping stair and entryway from Thanon Chao Fa Ngum Road and its silver colored seven-headed naga is reminiscent of the more colorful and elaborated longer stairway at Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The adjoining wat to the northeast, Wat Ho Xiang, has similar decorative design flanking its stairway.
The present sim, or viharn, was rebuilt between 1907 and 1910 by Chao Maha Oupahat boun Kong to replace the one that collapsed during a typhoon that struck during evening prayers in April 1900. Many lost their lives in the tragic event that destroyed many other buildings of the wat. The sim, in Luang Prabang style, was rebuilt in 1910, and then restored beginning in 1963; more recent work on it (from 1991) has created a most attractive and ornamented faï¿½ade with decorated rosette columns. There are interesting relief murals in its frontal portico and decorations depict the legends of King Thao Sithoanh and the Nang Manola, the kinnari (divine half-woman/half-bird reputed for its frolicsome kindness) in addition to stories from the Phra lak phra lam (the Ramayana). The popular Laotian legend is of Khmer origin and is very popular. The sim has a double-tiered roof with a magnificent fifteen segmented "Dok So Fa" (or nhot so fa), a metallic ornamentation at the center of the roof beam. The Dok So Fa symbolizes the universe and Mount Meru and is found on most Laotian sims. This particular Dok So Fa consists of a series of pagoda forms.
There are statues of the Earth Goddess, wringing water from her hair, that recall the story when the Buddha was threatened by the army of evil spirits and called on her. The water, accumulated from the meritorious deeds performed in his previous lives, drowned the entire Maran army.
Wat That had long served as one of the more significant wats in Luang Prabang. During the Laotian New Year, leaders of traditionally important Luang Prabang wats (Mai, Xieng Thong, Aham and Vixun) had solemnly visited it by palaquin. It still remains an important element of the religious structure of the city. Within the confines of the wat also are the ashes of the revered Prince Phetsarath (believed by many to have had magically invincible powers as a half-deity, half-royal khon kong), who declared Laos independent after the Japanese surrender in 1945, and Prince Souvanna Phouma, his younger half-brother, who served as prime minister and sought to retain Lao independence in negotiations with the Pathet Lao.
Text by Robert D. Fiala, Concordia University, Nebraska, USA
Wat Mai (built late 18th century, 1821, and onward)
Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham (Si Souvanna Phommaram, Mai Souvana Phoun Ram), or Wat Mai (The New Monastery), is one of the largest, most picturesque and most photographed of the wats of Luang Prabang. Located along the popular night market street of Sisavangvong and adjoining the compound of the National Palace Museum, it is important for both its religious and its aesthetic beauty.
The wat, founded by King Anourout (Anurat, r. 1795-1817) perhaps in 1796/7, dates mostly from the 19th century. Restoration of the wooden sim possibly started in 1821 or 1822 during the reign of King Manthatourat (r. 1817-1836), when it was given the name of The New Monastery. The double colonnaded porch in front and a similar, though less elaborate, porch in the rear were added at that time. Work on on the sim, library and other ancillary building it continued until the 1890s. A number of other structures are from the 20th century. There were major restorations in 1943 and 1962, as well as in more recent times. The sim is built in the traditional Luang Prabang style with added porches on the two sides.
The monastery has special significance for a number of reasons. It served as a temple for the royal family and long has been the residence of the Pra Sangkharat, the highest Laotian Buddhist dignitary. As a result of the Chinese Haw raiders that ravaged much of the city in 1887 (the wat was spared, perhaps because of its beauty), Wat Mai became the repository of the city's palladium, the Prabang. In 1947 the 50" gold statue was moved to the royal palace, now the Royal Palace Museum. During Pimai, the mid-April Laotian New Year, the Prabang is ceremoniously brought from the museum to a temporary pavilion in front of the sim; for three days there is ceremonial washing of the image and opportunity for the faithful to pay homage.
The abbot of Wat Mai also played a role in the opening of Luang Prabang to the world outside of Asia. In 1887 Auguste Pavie, who had a strong admiration for the region, arrived in Luang Prabang as the first French (and European) vice-consul in Laos. At the time the city and region was under the Siamese; they tried to isolate Pavie and his group from the king, Oun Kham, and interfered in a number of ways. The abbot, however, a confidant of the king, served as a conduit for messages between the king and Pavie and invited him to stay at the monastery. French influence grew and by 1893 Siam was forced to recognize the French protectorate over Laos and its incorporation into French Indochina. Pavie was also allowed to examine the extensive palm leaf manuscripts of the monastery and used them to write the first extended early Laotian history in a European language.
The monastery's sim is most noteworthy. Its five-tiered roof (including the sections over the side porches) is a most magnificent sight. Its expanse is readily viewed from the adjoining elevated sidewalk on Thanon Sisavangvong. Its front veranda extends across the width of the nave and protects the gilded bas relief on the front faï¿½ade and other decorations. The magnificent relief dates from the remodeling of the late 1960s. The cement reliefs were first covered with a black lacquer and then gilded. The entire relief stunningly depicts scenes from the Ramayana and the Vessantara-Jakata, the Buddha's penultimate reincarnation, within the villages and flora and fauna of the world around Luang Prabang. The large and majestic red interior nave with gold stenciling on the columns, beams and walls together with the variety of gilded Buddha statues and tables at the altar and the large Buddha statue provide evidence of the religious, aesthetic and architectural importance of Wat Mai.
It is during the three day festival of Pimai (the Laotian New Year) that the faithful outnumber the tourists and provide additional evidence of the centrality of Wat Mai, not only to the residents of Luang Prabang, but also to the Laotian people.
Text by Robert D. Fiala, Concordia University, Nebraska, USA
Wat Wisunalat (built 1512 or 1513, 1896-98)
Wat Wisunalat (Vixoun, Visounnarath, Vixunhalat, Wisunarat) was originally built during the reign of King Wisunarat (or Vixoun, 1501-1520) in 1513 (some suggest 1512) and represents the earliest style, sometimes referred to as Luang Prabang Style I, of Lao temple architecture. This style also includes the sims of Wat That Luang and Wat Mai. Wat Wisunalat is Luang Prabangï¿½s oldest operating temple. As with the sims of most Lao wats, there are multiple roof structures. In the Style I form the first and second roofs extend around the entire perimeter of the structure. Except for the sim at Wat Mai, which was embellished by two additional gable roofs and two roofed side galleries, the style evokes simplicity, since the sim employs neither the high peaks of the gable nor the dramatic low sweeping roofs of many of the other sims of Luang Prabang. Located and adjoining Wat Aham to the southeast, it was probably built on the rice fields of the guardian spirits of the city (devata luang), Pu No and Na No (Phou Nheu and Nha Nheu). The sacred Prabang image was housed in the sim from 1513 until it was taken to Vientiane in 1707.
The original highly ornate wooden sim was a spectacular example of Lao craftsmanship at its finest and was one of the most imposing religious structures of old Luang Prabang. It had a double roof with the upper roof raised high above the lower roof. It was over 118 ft. (36m) long and 59 ft. (18m) wide; perhaps 4,000 trees were used in its construction. Each of the twelve pillars supporting the roof was almost 100 ft. (30 meters) high. There were twenty-one windows with turned wooden balustrades. Louis Delaporteï¿½s engraving of its appearance in the 1860s is included in the series of photographs that follow on this site and shows the unique character of the sim. Most of the partitions of the original building were carved wood, and the exterior, as portrayed in the engraving, made it one of the most beautiful in Luang Prabang. It also housed a major collection of rich religious objects and other objects dï¿½art. Much of the sim and the city were destroyed during the invasion of the Chinese Haw Black Flags marauders in 1887.
The sim was rebuilt between 1896 and 1898 and during the reign of King Sakkarin Kamsuk (r. 1894-1903). The style was somewhat to the old sim with its numerous massive wooden beams, window placement and style of the roof, albeit the major part of the structure was brick and plaster in place of the wood. The window balustrades attempt to capture the flavor of the older turned wooden balustrades of the original sim. The sim today continues its existence as a valuable of museum religious art with numerous centuries old Buddha statues in bronze and gilded and unadorned wood, ordination precinct stones and other religious objects.
Another important and prominent feature of the wat is its unique That Pathoum, or Stupa of the Great Lotus, in the front and northeastern side of the sim. It is known more popularly as That Makmo, the ï¿½Watermelon Stupaï¿½ because of its rounded dome. The dome stylistically reflects a Sinhalese influence and is the only stupa of such a shape in Laos, and perhaps even in Cambodia or Vietnam. Originally erected between 1514 and 1515, it was destroyed during the Haw Black Flag incursion in 1887. Inside were numerous ancient Buddha images. Many were destroyed; a number are in the National Palace Museum, and some are in the sim itself. Its reconstruction was not seriously undertaken until the late 1920s, over thirty years after the reconstruction of the sim, and was completed in 1932. The stupa sets on a number of different square tiers and has a Lao-Buddhist style Usnisa crown at its top.
Text by Robert D. Fiala, Concordia University, Nebraska, USA
Wat Aham (built c. 1818 onward)
Wat Aham, the "Monastery of the Opened Heart" ("Le Monastï¿½re du Cï¿½ur ï¿½panoui") much of the time is serene, except when children from the near-by school are passing through the grounds. The serenity is also in contrast to its sometimes contentious past when it served as a mediating, or perhaps meeting, ground between the animist religion of spirit guardians and Theravada Buddhism.
The wat lies adjacent to Wat Wisunalat and that monastery's uniquely impressive That Makmo (the Watermelon Stupa). The date of the founding of Wat Aham itself is not known, though there was a wat on the site before King Manthatourath (r. 1817-1836) constructed the fine present Luang Prabang style sim in 1818 (some suggest 1822 or 1823). The sim has a relatively simple form with similar porches on the southeast and northwest faï¿½ades; there are no external lateral galleries. Stylized stucco tigers guard the front entry steps, and statues of temple guardians Ravana and Hanuman (central figures of the Indian Ramayana epic and its Laotian counterpart, the Phalak Phalam) stand at the southern and eastern corners of the frontal porch. Unlike a number of other Luang Prabang sims, there is no external decoration on the walls of the porch at the frontal faï¿½ade. The sim has a triple layered roof with two segments above the primary roof structure. There are a number of mildewed stupas on the grounds as well as two large and quite significant Bhodi (banyan or Bo), trees where there is a shrine of the royal spirit protector, Haw Phi Khon.
The interior of the sim is bright and colorful. Structural elements of pillars and beams are painted in reds and gold, while the interior walls are covered with murals depicting Buddhist theological precepts, scenes of a variety of torture and suffering experienced by those who inflicted evil on others, as well as elements reflective of the historic past of the city.
The site on which Wat Aham presently stands has historical and cultural importance that stem in part from religious conflicts and tensions in the sixteenth century. The founder of the Lan Xang kingdom, Fa Ngum (r. 1353-1373), a Lao prince raised at the Khmer court at Angkor, established here a tutelary shrine for worshiping the guardian spirits of Luang Prabang (devata luang), Pu No and Na No (Phou Nheu and Nha Nheu). Fa Ngum also made Theravada Buddhism the state religion. Beginning in 1527, however, the devout ruler of the Lan Xang kingdom, King Photthisarat (r. 1520-1548) began a concerted attack on the worship of the guardian spirits. He banned religious ceremonies in their honor, destroyed their shrines and erected a Buddhist monastery on the site of the former spirit shrine (this was an earlier, not the present monastery). Some discrete worship of the guardian spirits continued despite the ban. Shortly after the attacks on the guardian spirits the city was beset by a number of crises, including disease, drought and crop failure; in the popular mind the destruction of the shrines had brought the disasters. After King Sai Setthathirat (r. 1548-1571) moved the royal capital to Vientiane in 1563, the spirit shrine was rebuilt. The spirit gods and Buddhism lived together until the mid-twentieth century, when the spirit shrine was destroyed. The spirits of Pu No and Na No, by this time had achieved embodiment in the two large banyan (bodhi, or bo) trees that stood on the monastery grounds. Such trees are usually identified as symbolic of the Enlightenment of the Buddha.
For much of the nineteenth century, before Wat Mai succeeded toward the end of the century, Wat Aham served as the residence of the Sangkhalat, or the Supreme Patriarch of Laotian Buddhism; at the same time it also remained the center of devata luang worship. There is a small structure on the grounds that continues to hold ancestral wooden ritualistic masks associated with the guardian spirits. During Bun Pi (Mai Pimay), the Laotian Lunar New Year, the masks are taken from their storage (in gilded chests suspended by ropes above the ground) to play an important role, the "Dance of the Masks" in the pageantry of the festival.
Even though Wat Aham no longer is at the very center of the city's religious activities, it remains vitally significant to the heritage of Luang Prabang with its combination of intertwined guardian spirits and Buddhist practices becoming especially visible during festival periods. It thus continues to serve as a significant religious center of Luang Prabang.
Text by Robert D. Fiala, Concordia University, Nebraska, USA
Wat Manorom (built 1372?, 1491?, 1972 onward)
Wat Manorom (Manolom, or, popularly, Vat Mano) Sattharam is located just outside the remnants of the old city walls south of the city. Most agree that the monastery is located on the site of one of the earliest Khmer Buddhist missions to the area, although authorities disagree about the date of its founding. Perhaps it originated with Sam Saen Thai (1373-1416), the son of King Fa Ngum in 1372 or 1375 (before or after he became king or during his reign). Others suggest a founding date of 1491/2, during the reign of La Saen Thai. That it was an important shrine can be demonstrated because it housed the Pra Bang, the cityï¿½s paladin, from 1502 until 1513, when it was moved to Wat Wasunalat. The sim was reconstructed in 1818, but was destroyed by the Haw mauraders in 1887. The present sim, rebuilt in 1972, is one of the tallest sims in Luang Prabang. The grounds of an earlier wat, Xieng Kang, are behind the sim.
Although the sim is of recent construct and pales in comparison with a number of other historic religious edifices in Luang Prabang, it has a most attractive sim, and it continues to play a significant role in the community of Luang Prabang. One of its most important features is the great Buddha image that forms a focal point in the nave. The statue was cast in bronze in the 1370s during the reign of Sam Saen Thai. Its style was in Sukhothai-Thai rather than Khmer, which had been the dominant Buddhist element prior to this time. And its form became one of the most important bases for the Lao style of sculptural art. The sitting statue, weighing over two tons, is in the Bhumisparsha Mudra of touching the earth or earth witness and victory over Mara. The oldest large Buddhist statue in the city, it is about six meters high; some parts of the bronze are 15 cm. thick. For much of its history it sat outside the sim. It was heavily damaged during the Haw invasion in 1887 and during the Franco-Thai fighting in the late 19th century, when its arms were destroyed (apparently they were carried off by the French, though their boat sank in the Mekong). Part of a forearm, however, was left behind and can be seen at the base of the statue in the sim. When the sim was rebuilt in 1972, the statue was enclosed in the sim and the arms were remade from cement.
The monastic community of the wat has the largest number of monks and novices of any monastery in Luang Prabang and also has a primary school. A new wall encircling the grounds of the wat was completed in 1995.
Text by Robert D. Fiala, Concordia University, Nebraska, USA
The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre is a museum in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. It is the only independent non-profit museum and resource centre in Laos dedicated to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of the traditional arts and lifestyles of the country’s many and diverse ethnic groups.
TAEC was founded in 2006 and opened its doors in July 2007, featuring professional exhibitions on the ethnic cultures of Laos, a Museum Shop promoting handicrafts from village artisans, and Le Patio Café. In its first four years, TAEC welcomed over 38,000 Lao and international visitors, and has rapidly emerged as a regional leader in cultural heritage management and community development.
Today, the Centre is engaged in a broad range of museum and community engagement activities, reflecting its commitment to supporting living ethnic minority communities to preserve and promote their cultural heritage while looking towards the future. Explore our website to learn more about our work:
· Developing engaging and professional permanent and temporary Exhibitions;
· Fostering learning and awareness through Education and Community Outreach;
· Documenting masterpieces of material culture in our Collection;
· Supporting sustainable income-generation opportunities through our Advocacy and Livelihoods programmes; and
· Conducting and facilitating Research in and with ethnic communities.
To become a centre for learning and exchange on the ethnology and artisanal heritage of Laos that promotes appreciation for the cultures and skills of Laos’ peoples, stimulates investment and preservation of their crafts, and supports their sustainable livelihood development.
To promote pride and appreciation for the cultures and knowledge of Laos’ diverse peoples, support ethnic communities to safeguard their tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and promote their sustainable livelihood development.
There are so many different ethnic groups in Laos it is often confusing to know who is what.
A visit to the TAE Centre in Luang Prabang helps understand what you are riding through sometimes.
The centre is well worth a look & see.
Ock Pop Tok - Lao Weaving Exhibition Centre in Luang Prabang
Ock Pop Tok, meaning east meets west, was started in 2000 by a local weaver and an English photographer. Blending a passion for textiles and a driving force for positive change we are about bringing people together through textiles, exchanging knowledge and ideas to make our world a better place.
The philosophy behind Ock Pop Tok was and continues to be, to empower women through their traditional skills, as well as promoting the beauty of laotian textiles across the globe. Our mission statement following the principles of fairtrade we aim to; advance the artistic, cultural and social development of lao artisans and increase the appreciation of lao’s diverse textiles and communities through educational activities.
This two fold mission statement is achieved through a number of activities and practices. Our ethical trade policy is the basis for our success.
Visit our living crafts centre on the banks of the Mekong in Luang Prabang.......the Ock Pop Tok experience comes alive where east meets west and some say where heaven meets earth....
Learn. In April 2006 Cck Pop Tok founded fibre2fabric a non-profit gallery focusing on handcrafted textiles as a way to explore and explain Lao culture.
Create. Take one of our classes and make your own lao textile, bamboo basket or bamboo paper (coming soon).
Shop. Our 3 stores present the work of the Ock Pop Tok weavers and village weaver projects. The f2f gallery and our main shop is in the old quarter, there is a lifestyle shop on the main road and the living crafts centre showroom is on the banks of the Mekong 2km out of town.
Stay. In October 2010 we opened the doors to our villa, a textile design themed residence featuring contemporary Lao design and sustainable living style.
Eat. The Silkroad cafe dishes up a blend of the east and the west.
In depth description:
Ock Pop Tok is Laos based social enterprise working primarily in the field of textiles, handicrafts and design. Ock pop tok, meaning east meets west, was started in 2000, by a laotian weaver and an english photographer. Following the principles of fair-trade we aim to: Advance the artistic, cultural and social development of lao artisans and increase the appreciation of lao's diverse textiles and communities through educational activities. The philosophy behind Ock Pop Tok was and continues to be, to empower women through creating opportunities for their traditional skills, and promote laotian textiles across the globe.
In 2005 we opened the living crafts centre, a weaving and dyeing studio, craft school, and exhibition space. Set in a tropical mekong garden it serves as a resource centre for learning about textiles, crafts and culture. On site there is also a café, shop and small guesthouse.
In town, we manage 2 fair trade shops selling the items made from the weaving studio and village weaver projects.
Village weaver projects:
Working in conjunction with the lao national tourism administration, development agencies and the lao women’s union we train artisans from remote areas in refresher natural dyes and weaving skills, product design and business related skills. Craftsmanship and tradition are combined with artistic creativity and market knowledge. Village based production is found to have significant benefits as a whole.
In April 2006 Ock Pop Tok founded fibre2fabric a non-profit gallery that focuses on handcrafted textiles as a way to explore and explain lao culture. The gallery is dedicated to documenting, exhibiting and upholding the social role and tradition of textiles in the Lao pdr.
So join us and...learn, create, shop, stay & eat.....
Ock Pop Tok has an excellent weaving display - information
Lao textiles are as diverse as the people here that make them. Laos is a landlocked country with a population of 6.3 million people, the country consists of 49 officially recognised ethnic groups. These groups can be divided like this: Lao-Tai 55%, Khmu 11%, Hmong 8%, other 26% (Katu, Akha, Lanten, Lisu, and other minority groups) (2005 census). Traditionally textiles are made by women, the preparation of dyes and the actual dyeing is done by women and it is women that more often than not still proudly wear the cloths that they make. Materials used in textile creation are home grown; from hmong hemp in the cool mountain air, to silk made from ravenous worms munching mulberry to the organic fields of cotton that produce yarns for soft cloths.If you like textiles then you will love Laos, if you appreciate hand crafted goods then you will have a field day, if you want to see age old traditions and lifestyles then get here quick. Lao textiles are such an important part of lao cultural diversity, but times are changing and its now that we need to secure the place for Lao textiles on the world platform.
The Tai can be traced back to the Yunnan area of China, where they were known as Tai-Kadai-Kam-Sui. In 8 A.D due to expanding Chinese dynasties they started migrating southwards into Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. With them they brought the arts of silk making and weaving. Weavers work on floor standing looms, they use a 2 shaft system with a supplementary heddle. The subgroup known as the Tai Daeng excel in the use of this supplementary pattern heddle, weaving intricate weft motifs.
Tai means ‘people of’, so the word following usually states which area they are from. Nowadays one will often hear Lao people refer to themselves as Tai-Vieng for example meaning they are from Vientiane. In Huaphanh Province there are many communities of Tai Daeng and Tai Dam, meaning red and black respectively. Their origins can be traced to the Red and Black Rivers in Yunnan that flow southwards towards Vietnam. Other subgroups include: Tai Phuan, Tai Lue, Tai Moei, Tai Waat, Tai Nuea and Tai Khang.
The Lao-Tai are traditionally shamanic people with a strong belief in the afterworld. Nowadays Buddhism is becoming more popular and links to animism or shamanism are looked upon as old-fashioned, thus Buddhist beliefs are increasingly used to interpret icons. Usually textiles depict stories of ancestors' spirits travelling to the afterworld, stories of Nagas and their influences on life around them, Siho – the half lion half elephant figure and motifs inspired by nature and daily life. These motifs appear in various forms of the many different sub ethnic groups of the Lao-Tai and using a number of techniques.
Girls weave items as a dowry, giving her groom’s family the items. Traditionally the woman would move to the man’s family house. A weaver in Muong Vien told us that she wove fabric for 40 floor cushions, 12 matresses, 2 blankets, 2 long pillows, and a curtain to separate the newly weds space in the house. This took her 12 months to complete.
Pha Khan Mon; Girls would also weave small items and give them to boys they sought the attention of. The most common form of love gift was a small handkerchief; in some areas girls wove and made red bags. During the American/Vietnam war, girls wove small pieces and gave them to soldiers for good luck.
Sihn are still worn on a daily basis. The fabric is tailored with a waistband and darts are added. Lao women are very proud to wear these skirts. The patterns vary according to ethnic group, for example: Tai-Lue wear sihn with horizontal stripes, ikat and tapestry.
The Hmong are thought to originate from the plains of Tibet and Mongolia.
Records indicate they started migrating to Lao in the early 19th Century. Their language called Hmong, is classified as a Miao-Yien language in the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, and until recently had no written text. There are a three sub groups; the Hmong Dao ‘White’, Hmong Du ‘Blue’ and Hmong Djua ‘Striped’ distinguishable by their clothing.
Villages are traditionally found high in the mountains. Their one storey houses have low sloping grass roofs. It is common for more than one generation to live together in one house. Hmong are well known for their farming and livestock skills, they practice swidden agriculture, a system that rests the land with a fallow period. Hmong culture is strong, even when they move down to the lowlands their village systems remain intact. There are many Hmong communities around LuangPrabang, Xieng Khouang, Xam Nua and Oudomxai.
Hmong Du and Djua practice indigo resist batik; their skirts are decorated with this fabric. Traditionally Hmong Djua have bands of fabric stitched on the sleeves of jackets. Hmong Dao don’t practice batik, their skirts contain plain white bands of hemp on which they embroider, they are renown for their needle skill.
Hemp comes from the cannabis sativa plant, just one of several different varieties of cannabis. Most people are familiar with the rasta and indica varieties which are known universally as marijuana, derived from the Mexican slang. Both these varieties are high (all puns intended) in THC, the active ingredient needed to get 'high'. Cannabis varieties that contain THC are illegal in Laos and many other countries.
Hemp does not contain THC. It has been cultivated the world over for more than 12,000 years. The latin name for hemp, sativa, means useful. Hemp can be used for many things such as fuel, cloth, paper, food, oil, rope and sail canvas. It is widely regarded as the crop for the future because it has such a low environmental impact. It can be grown and processed without any chemical treatments and yields three times more raw fibre as cotton. Oil made from the seeds can be burned as fuel and has fewer emissions than petroleum.
What is hemp used for?
Daily Clothing - trousers, shirts, jackets, head scarves, hats, protective leggings, belts and shoes.
Household Items - Blankets, bags, string.
Ceremonial Use - Funeral clothing, and new year's clothing: highly decorative jackets, skirts, trousers, sashes and shoes. Strips of fabric as banners in shamanic practices.
VILLAGE WEAVER PROJECTS
Village Weaver Projects are a series of initiatives that create economic opportunities for artisans in rural locations. We help develop ranges of handicrafts that combine craftmanship and tradition with artistic creativity and market knowledge. Our team of weavers, dyers, designers and tailors transfer their skills to aid artisans make a better living from handicrafts. Currently this work takes place in 11 provinces. Combining a passion for these deep-rooted cultures and the handmade traditions with our business saavy we are able to create thriving village enterprises. In most cases we work with a government or NGO partner.
OMA WEAVER PROJECT
Ethnicity: Oma. Language Group: Sino-Tibetan
Province: Phongsaly Project start date: May 2002
The Oma are one of Laos' smallest ethnic groups, with only a few villages in Phongsaly province. Cotton growers, indigo dyers and exquisite embroiderers result in their traditional clothing being both colourful and unique. The remote locations of their villages make trade difficult, but since early 2002 when the Lao Women’s Union invited Ock Pop Tok to support the purchasing of their handicrafts we have maintained a creative and financial input into the production of their handicrafts.
Headscarves and jackets that are still made and worn on a daily basis by the Oma can be found in the gallery. One woman, Amee, travelled to Luang Prabang on a few occasions to work on product designs that she in turn has taught to her fellow compatriots. Have a look for bags and purses that show off their incredible needlework.
LUANG NAMTHA WEAVER PROJECTS
Ethnicity: Khmu, Lanten, Akha. Language Group: Mon-Khmer, Mien-Yao, Sino-Tibetan
Province: Luang Namtha Project start date: 2004
Veo’s brother, Dr. Phouvieng, is a doctor based in Luang Namtha. Working in the field, he realised that there were mutual opportunities for the remote communities and his sister’s enterprise, Ock Pop Tok. Dr. Phouvieng starting buying a variety of handicrafts; tapestry cotton skirts, jungle vine bags and bamboo paper, and sending them to us. In turn we sent back comments and requests, could the bags be bigger, the paper wider and so on.
Jungle Vine: a non-timber forest product (NTFP) is an eco friendly product, its grows wild in the fields' fallow year and although the process to make yarn is laborious the finished product is an example of great resourcefulness.
Look for the jungle vine bags in our shops.
KATU WEAVER PROJECT
Ethnicity: Katu. Language Group: Mon-Khmer
Province: Salavan Project start date: Jan 2010
The Katu, skilled weavers and cotton growers needed some help re-introducing natural yarns and dyes back into the production of their textiles. As with many communities that have little access to secure markets, the incentive to work with costly materials is low, and weavers turn to cheaper and easier options and start using synthetic materials. Many of our projects start by re-introducing natural fibres and dyes, we buy the product and thus demonstrate that there is value in working with high quality materials.
By invitation of the LNTA our team journeyed to the south to embark on a series of trainings that would build skills and confidence in working with natural yarns and dyes.
Check out the beaded scarves, skirts and home-wares……..uniquely these communities also weave with banana tree fibres…….
AKHA WEAVER PROJECT
Ethnicity: Akha. Language Group: Sino-Tibetan
Province: Phongsaly Project start date: 2003
Cecile Pouget who had moved to a small village with her husband, an EU worker, and their two young sons set project Akha Biladjo up 7 years ago. Cecily needed to do something that was both fulfilling for herself and entertaining for her sons. Working with the Akha women in a nearby village they collectively started stitching kids toys and books out of local fabric. The designs took off and local markets were found, thus was born the Akha Biladjo project a self sustainable way of using traditional skills to generate good steady income. Cecily now lives in Cambodia but the project is self-managed and is one of the success stories of handicraft development in Laos.
The product range continues to grow with initiatives likes Ock Pop Tok requesting new designs and working with the women on new product ranges.
Check out the dolls, necklaces, key chains and other fun fabric animals ……..
TAI DAENG - TAI PUAN WEAVER PROJECT
Ethnicity: Tai Daeng, Tai Puan. Language Group: Tai Kadai
Province: Huaphan, Xieng Khouang Project start date: October 2001
Every now and then a textile so exquisite, so unique shows up on our door step, the first of these was back in 2001, when a trader from Huaphan Province brought to the gallery a long cloth of ikat and supplementary designs. Veo a textile connoisseur was rendered speechless. Ethnologists write that Lao textiles can be traced back to specific villages because the design is so representative of that unique culture or family. We decided to put that theory to test. 5 of us set off for Huaphan, textile in hand looking for the woman that had made this cloth. To cut a long story short we did indeed find that artisan, the connection had been made with a remote community and together we started working on reproducing textiles that took in some cases 6 months to produce. This was how the Village Weaver Projects started.
Now working with dozens of villages in Huaphan, Xieng Khouang Provinces you can see the fruits of these looms….on the walls of our galleries ……see if you can find the reproduction of the textile that set the whole project off………..
HMONG WEAVER PROJECT
Ethnicity: Hmong. Language Group: Mien-Yao
Province: Huaphan, Xieng Khouang Project start date: June 2005
Hemp an almost magical fibre, (the Latin cannabis sativa means useful), is cultivated by the Hmong peoples of Laos. The bark of the plant is used to create cloth and the seeds to make oil. In 2006 we decided to tell the story of hemp in an exhibition at our Fibre2Fabric Gallery. Research trips took us to some of the most isolated mountains in Huaphan Province where we found Hmong communities farming hemp. Using melted bees wax darkened with indigo paste the women draw intricate designs that are then dip dyed in indigo vats to create striking blue and white cloths.
These cloths form the basis for stitch work resulting in cloths that are used for skirts, baby carriers and all manner of items. Here at the gallery you will find the love balls used in the New Year game of pov pob, skirts and repurposed items like pillowcases.
To learn more about hemp visit our Living Crafts Centre, meet Mae Tow Zu Zong a Hmong batik artist.
TAI LUE WEAVER PROJECT
Ethnicity: Tai Lue-North West. Language Group: Tai Kadai
Province: Bokeo, Oudomxai, Sayabouly Project start date: 2009
The Lao National Tourism Administration (LNTA) hired the Ock Pop Tok team to develop handicrafts in their target tourism development villages. The first part of the training is to demonstrate a demand for homespun cotton. The Tai-Lue are experts in cotton growing but skills are waning due to lack of viable options for selling their products. We lead natural dye training programmes followed by product diversity development. The local tourism offices sell their products and often a local market place is created for visiting tourists to stop and support their work through purchases. As you travel around Laos, make a point of stopping in at the local tourism offices to see what activities are being promoted and how you can support the production of local handicrafts.
The fruits of these labours can be seen in items such as cotton elephants from sayabouly, tapestry love gifts and rugs from oudomxai or bags and skirts with colourful motifs from Bokeo.
TAI LUE WEAVER PROJECT
Ethnicity: Tai Lue – Nam Ou. Language Group: Tai Kadai
Province: Luang Namtha, Phongsaly Project start date: February 2001
The Tai Lue of the Nam Ou and Tha waterways are masters of the indigo and stick lack dye (blue & red respectively). Back in the early days, Ock Pop Tok was looking to expand its repertoire of natural dyes and had heard of a village in Nam Bak district, Ban Na Nyang that may potentially be able to help us in that area. On arrival it was instantly apparent that the journey was going to be worth it. The village is a model of traditional cultural life, set in a lush river valley the elegant stilted houses stood over looms, cotton ready for spinning spilled out of baskets and colourful yarns dried in the sun.
Lue villages like Ban Na Nyang posses incredible weaving and dyeing skills but lacked market opportunities, now Na Nyang is a thriving cotton weaving village with many hotels and businesses placing orders. Ock Pop Tok has taken the weavers of Na Nyang to many provinces, their story is inspiring for other weavers to hear.
Look for lengths of naturally dyed fabric or scarves or bags…
PHOU TAI WEAVER PROJECT
Ethnicity: Phou Tai. Language Group: Tai Kadai
Province: Savanakhet Project start date: Jan 2010
The Phou Tai cotton farmers are masters of the ikat technique. Using natural dyes weavers obtain contrasting motifs. Traditional skirt fabric is re-purposed to create home-wares adding diversity to the products range securing better market placement.
TAI MOEI - TAI CHAI WEAVER PROJECT
Ethnicity: Tai Moei and Tai Chai. Language Group: Tai Kadai
Province: Khammouan Project start date:
Tai Moei and Tai Chai weavers in Khammouan keep their traditions alive weaving colourful ikats and ceremonial cloths.
Far far away on the southern borders of Laos and Vietnam Tai Moei and Tai Chai women weave highly colourful and intricate designs. Traditional silk skirts showcase complex ikat motifs with detailed supplementary borders. The ceremonial cloths are unlike any other in Laos, as they are made on 8 pedal and 2 warped looms. These are some of the most remote communities in Laos, weavers produce for barter markets in both Laos and Vietnam. Cloths are influenced by both national cultures with some textiles featuring the Vietnamese language.
Working with Mrs Hua we are developing commercial uses for the unusual ceremonial cloths. Traditional monochrome silk motifs are being made on wider looms creating more potential for new markets and steady cash income. Look for these in the gallery as either hangings or home-ware items. The skirts are impossible to miss……hues of pink, purple and red…
If you get up at 5.30AM & hurry down town you can catch the Luang Prabang monks doing their morning alms round.
The event is one of the highlights - tourist attractions of Luang Prabang,
Guide lines for respecting the Tak Bat in Luang Prabang
Observe in silence and only make offerings if, for you, they correspond to a religious step that you can take with dignity.
Buy your rice in the market, preferably early in the morning rather than with the stallholders on the path of the bonzes.
Remove your shoes to give your offerings; women must stay on their knees and ideally wear a scarf over her shoulders.
If you’re not making an offering, stay at a distance, in a respectful manner. Don’t hamper the procession of bonzes and the donations of the faithful.
Make sure you are decently dressed, with your shoulders, body and legs well covered, especially if you are giving any offerings.
Don’t take photos of the bonzes from too near; the flashes are most disturbing both for the bonzes and the faithful.
Avoid any physical contact with the bonzes.
Never position yourself so that you are in a higher position than the bonzes (on a wall or on steps, for example) its very disrespectful : the bonzes must always be on the highest points.
Large buses are strictly forbidden in the protected area of the World Heritage, and create serious problems. Don’t follow the procession by bus. You again risk being higher than the bonzes, which in Laos is a lack of respect.
Unfortunately it has become a bit of a circus for most of the year.
However it is still worth getting up for once or twice.
DAYS 9 & 10
Phonsavan was the next stop & unfortunately it rained for the 2 days I was there.
The master plan for checking out all the new Plain of Jars Sites was washed out - it was a cold 14 Celsius & raining. Yuk!
The Tourist Office was the first stop
Lots of good info here too now about the attractions of Xieng Khouang & Phonsavan.
It's all about the bombing & UXO & The Jars.
There are now no longer sites 1-3, but sites 1-7!
Of the 90+ identified jar sites. jar junkies can investigate seven, from large clusters near Phonsavan to less visited Ban Songhak along the Nam Ngum river in the province's north east.
Experts have been trying to unravel the mystery behind the mysterious Plain of Jars since French Geologist Madeleine Colani uncovered one in a cave in 1930. Nearby, she dug up coloured glass beads, burnt teeth, and bone fragments, which spawned the Iron Age crematorium theory.
The jars waited for more than 60 years, during which they weathered a decade of bombing, before Japanese Professor Eji Nitta and Lao archaeologist, Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy, mapped Sit 1 near Phonsavan in 1994. Their find also unveiled surrounding graves as old as the jars, prompting Professor Nitta to consider the urns as monuments to the dead.
Mr Sayavongkhamdy returned with Australian Peter Bellwood, and the reckoned the jars date to the late first or early second millennium BC, and were cremation vessels of family heads circled by lineage.
In surveys from 2004-2005 and again in 2007, UNESCO archaeologist Julie Van Den Bergh, added a twist to earlier theories: possibly people used the jars to "distil" bodies and finally cremate them. Lao legend holds that giants brewed rice wine in the jars, while practical locals believe early traders crisscrossing Xieng Khouang collected rain water for drinking in the jars.
Some other info Ive been able to pick up the jars.
According to Henri Parmentier, a French archeologist who made a brief visit to the Plain of Jars in 1923, the urns were brought to the attention of the Western world in 1909 by a French customs official named Vinet. Parmentier wrote that local villagers had plundered the site in the intervening years: "Adults look at for carnelian beads, which they are able to sell, and children find other baubles they can play with." He added that many of the jars had been broken by such "untimely excavations."
Parmentier identified three types of jars at Ban Ang: squat-shaped ones, slender ones, and others that were "almost sections of squared or rectangular prisms, with well-rounded corners." And he was able to form an idea of what a typical jar contained before it was disturbed: one or two black pots, one or two hand axes, "a bizarre object which we call a lamp," often a spindle weight of iron, glass beads, drilled carnelian beads, earrings of stone or glass, bronze bells, and frequently the debris of human bones.
Then came Madeleine Colani, a pioneering fieldworker who combined the roles of geologist, paleobotanist, archeologist, and ethnographer. Born in 1866 in Strasbourg, Colani, the daughter of a Protestant biblical scholar, decided at the age of thirty-three to move to French Indochina, where she secured a post as a natural history teacher with the geological service. She earned her doctorate in Hanoi, at the age of fifty-four, with a thesis about fossil Fusulinidae, a family of microscopic marine organisms.
A few years later, Colani began collaborating with Henry Mansuy, whose discoveries of polished stone tools and pottery in northern Vietnam (known at the time as Tonkin) pushed the archeological record in Indochina back to about 5,000 years ago. In 1923, working with Vietnamese guides, Colani discovered an enormous cache of prehistoric human remains and stone tools in a cave in Tonkin. She loaded up four dozen baskets with bones and artifacts and transported them back to Hanoi. When she arrived, Mansuy at first accused her of having raided as modern graveyard. Three years later while excavating twelve cave sites in Hoa binh Province, she made the first discovery of a hunting-foraging culture that we now know dates as far back as 18,000 years ago. She called this ancient stone-tool industry the Hoabinhian, the name still used by archeologists today.
Colani was accompanied in all her fieldwork by her sister, Eleonore. With their porters and guides, the two intrepid women traveled all over French Indochina, almost until their deaths, a few months apart, in 1943. The gossip among French archeologists is that Madeleine Colani made Eleonore do all the hard work, on occasion lowering her into a cavern on a rope and not letting her come back up until she found something. The human remains and artifacts the Colani sisters amassed were a landmark contribution to the study of prehistory in the region.
By 1931, when Madeleine Colani began exploring at Ban Ang, much of the jar’s contents had already been looted. But by excavating around the jars, she uncovered a great quantity of objects, including bronze and iron tools, which she believed were used to carve the jars. In addition to beads made of glass and carnelian, she also found some she described as "having the appearance of baked earth," painted with bold geometric designs. Other artifacts included cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells. Colani interpreted these artifacts, as well as those found by Parmentier, as burial offerings, theorizing that the urns had contained cremated remains.
Adjacent to ban Ang is a limestone hill with a large cave. Colani excavated there and found evidence to bolster her contention that the human remains placed in the urns had been cremated. The cave mouth is at the level of the plain, and the chamber extends straight up to two natural chimneys, which were formed by the water that eroded the cave. Colani observed that the northeast wall was heavily blackened from smoke, and in her excavation of the cave she found what she believed were cinerary vases in which the corpses were burned.
While Ban Ang is the most widely known jar site in Laos, similar stone urns are found throughout Xieng Khouang Province. Another important site, which Colani named Champ d’Aviation de Lat Sen, after a French-built airstrip that existed there at the time, lies just six miles south of Ban Ang. The road there is so poor that it took us nearly an hour to cover the distance by car. At Lat Sen we observed about eighty jars, some of which had been broken apart by fig trees growing alongside or within them. Others were filled with stagnant water in which ferns and algae were growing.
Pioneering archeologist Madeleine Colani speculated that the Plain of Jars lay on a caravan route stretching from the Vietnamese coast, near Da Nang, to the North Cachar Hills of India.
The Lat Sen jars were situated on the tops of two steep hills, which were separated by a narrow gully just wide enough to accommodate the road. At the foot of one of the hills, we met a woman gathering firewood with her young children. As did other people we encountered, she gave us the popular explanation for the jars: the tale of military victory and celebratory wine. She also said that the jars were molded from a mixture of sand, sugar, and buffalo hide—a traditional view disproved by mineralogical analysis. Luis Gonzalez, a sedimentary geochemist at the University of Iowa, has examined a thin section of a Lat Sen sample under a microscope. He describes the material as a natural sandstone consisting mainly of grains of quartz, potassium feldspar, and muscovite mica, cemented by a clay matrix.
A third, more distant site we visited, which Colani called Ban Soua, lay in the middle of rice fields, at the foot of wooded hills. Several large bomb craters bordered the site, and after consulting Colani’s map, we concluded that a few of its 155 jars must have been destroyed by the explosions. Judging from the sites we visited, however, most of the jars cataloged by Colani, survived the war, suggesting that they were spared whenever possible.
Wanting to see some of the jars further off the beaten track, we pored over Colani’s monograph at our guest house in Phomsavan, taking advantage of the two hours of electrical light provided before the generators switched off at nine o’clock. We settled on the village of Na Nong, where Colani had found thirty-four jars. The next morning we set off on what proved to be the roughest road yet. When we stopped an old woman to get directions, she explained that the village had been entirely destroyed by American bombs during the war—along with every vestige of the jars.
We drove on through the plain to the edge of the jungle and stopped at a little village called Ban Hin. It was a bustling place, filled with children playing games, and strutting turkeys fanning their tails. There, a man told us that he knew a place, about a two-hour walk into the jungle, where there were some large jars different from the ones at Ban Ang. Our curiosity aroused, we immediately asked him to lead us there.
The path from Ban Hin was well-worn, and we saw many people on it as we climbed through steep, rocky ravines. The shady canopy of towering teak trees was filled with colorful birds that flapped and shrieked high overhead. At the top of a heavily wooded ridge a group of girls were carrying huge bundles of firewood on their backs. They had also gathered a sackful of grubs for their lunch. Farther along, a hunter appeared with a brace of birds shot with a rifle he had made. These chance encounters brought home to us the importance of hunting and gathering for the people of Laos.
The inhabitants of Xieng Khouang Province represent a number of Laos’s ethnic groups, including the dominant Lao and such hill tribes as the Thai Dam, Hmong , and Yao. Like the overwhelming majority of the country’s 4.3 million inhabitants, they rely upon subsistence farming for their livelihood. In contrast to other Southeast Asian nations, Laos is sparsely populated, with a density comparable to the state of Maine.
We stopped for a rest next to a fruit-bearing bush our guide called a mak kok. Its small, green fruit tasted bitterly astringent at first, but with a swallow of water from the canteen, the taste became refreshingly sweet.
The forest was filled with defused American bombs, some still sticking nose down in the earth. Among them was the device favored by U.S. forces in Laos: the "daisy cutter," a cluster bomb with a long casing designed to scatter tennis-ball-size bomblets over a 3,000 square-yard area. The bomblets (which either exploded on impact or remained on the ground like mines) were not usually big enough to kill a man, but quite adequate for maiming adults and killing children. The woods around the Plain of Jars are still full of these hideous devices, which the people of Laos call bombis. As many as ten people die every month from stepping on them. But the inhabitants of Xieng Khouang put the bomb casings to good use. Most of the houses in the vicinity of Ban Hin are built on top of bomb-casing stilts, and fences made from the casings enclose many pigsties.
We finally reached the site where the jars were located, clustered around a small clearing next to a mossy ravine. Our guide was right: unlike the sandstone jars, these were carved from a hard, dark red granite. At the site were two intact urns, one very well crafted and another that had fallen into the ravine. We also examined several broken jars off the path, but we didn’t stray too far into the jungle, lest we add to the bombi statistics.
Colani’s monograph does not seem to include this site, although it does identify two sites near what we think was the same village, whose name she transcribed as "Ban Him." Colani described the jars at these two sites as being made of sandstone, a point about which she was not likely to have been mistaken, especially since she did encounter some granite jars at other locations. We may have been the first trained observers to record these particular jars. That would not be so surprising, for there has been very little fieldwork in Laos since Colani’s time.
A two-week excavation carried out by Japanese archeologist Eiji Nitta is a recent exception. In 1994, Nitta dug four test trenches around one of the stone jars at Ban Ang, exposing a carving of a human figure on the side of the jar, the first anthropomorphic image recorded at the site. Nearby he also discovered, eight to twelve inches below the soil surface, seven flat stones, each covering a pit. Six of the pits contained human bones and the seventh contained a two-foot-tall burial jar with small pieces of bone and teeth inside. The jar’s brown lacquer surface was incised with decorative designs. None of the human remains Nitta discovered had been burned, and he found no charcoal in the trenches.
In his correspondence with us, Nitta states that the seven pits were secondary burials, a practice in which the bones of the deceased are dug up and ritually reburied. He concludes that the entire Plain of Jars was a cemetery of secondary burials. He also contends that the burial pits are as old as the jars or even older, while the jars themselves may not be as old as Colani suggested. Still, it may be premature to question Colani’s interpretations. After all, she did find charcoal and burned bones in her excavations. Perhaps people placed stone urns with cremated remains in hallowed ground they knew had previously been used for secondary burials.
Then who created the Plain of Jars? Colani, who was more willing to speculate than most modern archeologists, suggested that the sites in Laos were part of a far-ranging Bronze Age culture. She pointed out that some stone jars discovered in the North Cachar Hills of northeastern India, more than 600 miles to the northwest, had roughly the same design and dimensions as the urns in Laos. J.P. Mills and J.H. Hutton, the English scholars who discovered the Indian urns in 1928, found fragments of human bones in them, which they concluded were human remains. They noted that cremation was still being practiced by some of the Kuki, a people who had lived in the North Cachar Hills for centuries.
Colani also called attention to Sa Huynh, a site south of the city of Da Nang, Vietnam. There, urns of baked earth containing some human remains were found buried in the sand dunes along the shores of the South China Sea. Although these remains had not been cremated, the objects interred with them—including ceramic vases, small bronze bells, and beads—resembled those discovered on the Plain of Jars.
"If our interpretation is correct," Colani proposed, "we are in the presence of three links from the same chain: the ancient monoliths of Cachar, the stone jars of Tran Ninh [Xieng Khouang], and the necropolis of Sa Huynh." According to Colani, prehistoric salt traders had followed a caravan route from Sa huynh to Luang Prabang, located near the northwest edge of the Plain of Jars. Perhaps, she concluded, that route once extended all the way to the North Cachar Hills, and the people who lived along it shared a similar culture, burying their dead (cremated or not, depending upon local custom) in megalithic jars. Colani even drew a map with a line connecting the three sites, and suggested that explorers venturing along this line would find yet more jar sites.
Most scholars, including Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy, the Laotian government’s director general of the Department of Museums and Archeology and the country’s only trained archeologist, assign a tentative age of 2,000 years to the stone urns of Xieng Khouang, with outside dates of 500 B.C. to A.D. 300. By the latter date, complex societies based on Indian models were already prospering in the coastal regions and along the major rivers of peninsular Southeast Asia. The rise of the great kingdoms of Angkor (in Cambodia), Champa (in Vietnam), and Pagan (in Myanmar), which reached their zenith by A.D. 1000, long prevented Laos from becoming an independent power. The first kingdom of Laos was established in 1353, with its capital in the uplands at Luang Prabang. By then, the stone jars scattered over the nearby plain belonged to a forgotten past.
Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James. The University of Iowa.
The day before I started the trip I got a tip off that the new road south from Phonasavn - Pakxan was all asphalt with all the bridges complete - no stream crossings.
Too good to be true? I changed my plan to ride out to Xam Neua & back via Viang Thong - Nong Khiew - Oudom Xai.
Lets check it out & see......
The weather was still cold & wet when I set off from Phonsavan & a nippy 14 Celsius.
Some happy drizzle snaps on the way
The start of the new cut through the mountains west of Mouang Khoune
a good road, but a shame about the weather.
The big new dam site on the Nam Ngiap?
Part of the old asphalt road
all good fun on a smaller bike, like a 250, but on a bigger bike you have to work at it.
The bumpy, narrow step & winding old road lasts for about 25? kms; unfortunately I lost my all GPS track & photos for the last 3rd of this day's ride,
But I left Phonsavan about 10AM, arrived in Pakxan around 4pm & was in Vientiane about 5.30PM from memory.
Now I reckon if you want to do a northern Laos loop use the Pakxan - Phonsavan road to head north & return to Vientiane via R13 & Vang Vieng.
3 Cheers for the fast improving road network in northern Laos.
Amazing report David !! Sure you all enjoyed it too much & had a lot of fun !! Filled with envy myself for not being able to come with you.........
Like especially the Mao-Lao parked tuna-can in front of the temple, seems also to have loads of Somchai's there too.
Food at the Bamboozle looks mouthwatering both the Happy Hour one and the Brekkie. Keep 'em coming, cheers, Franz
What a fantastic trip you guys have experienced. The boat trip would have been a ripper.
Great report David. It shows that with all the change in Laos, there’s still so much of its old traditions untouched.
As you say, with that section between Phonsavan to Thasi all finished, there is now some great loops possible for the road bike riders.
Thanks for all the updates (food, Roads etc) in this informative report.
The road network is one of the big changers. These photos were taken only 8 months ago when I rode the road from Phonsavan to Thasi.
The first big river crossing heading south.
And there was only one way to get across.
The second river crossing had a bridge on to the bridge.
3 nights (days 12-13) in Vientiane. I count the nights in Vientiane because that is my party town to end my Laos rides in.
Once upon a time in the early 70s before the communists took over Vientiane was the party capital of S E Asia, & slowly but surely the night life is coming back.
And for me Vientiane rocks at night time. Good food, Pubs, restaurants, discos, karaokes.
The Nam Phu fountain - the new controversial night spot in the centre of downtown Vientiane.
Ms Ning Nong is the singer with her Felicia band; & what a good powerful voice she has.
a captivating Beer Lao PG at the Nam Phu.
The Nam Phu fountan area is supposed to be an open public park, however a lease was given to a Chiang Mai company (owner of Mix? Pub & Restaurant) to redevelop the site & turn it into a night spot.
Their original plan was to have a two storey circle of shops around the fountain, but such were the protests that they were only allowed to do one storey, & then they were kicked out / lost the contract & no financial refund.
However an extremely influential person / group took it over & still redeveloped the site into a private business - pub. All the owners with pubs & restaurants around the outside of the fountain are furious, that they have lost their view & now only face a shoddy concrete wall - tunnel. The Kopchaideu even lost their private car park..... sorry we will have that.
the number one draft beer Laos seller in Vte.
They have a totally new 3rd floor "cocktail lounge" with a sensational view of the KCD & street below.
with Inthy owner of KCD & GDL
Wind West is my other favourite nightspot, & where I end up most nights.
Miss Tukta is the sensational bartendee & one of the highlights of Wind West
Miss Pat is one of the singers
an alluring couple together when at the bar & I was the last one to leave Wind West on more than one night.
Vientiane always rocks for me.
Day 14. Vientiane - Vang Vieng
A slow potter up the road to chill out central the ex backpackers heaven.
The Vientiane - Vang Vieng road was a mess last trip, & not at all enjoyable, but it is just about all fixed now & not a problem.
Only the busy traffic the first 40 kms getting out of Vientiane is a nuisance.
The Nam Lik river at Hin Hoeup
The view upstream to the old bridge
I had a pillion, an NGO working for Save The Children Fund in Laos. A smart intelligent lady, supervising funding for their projects.
We got on well together, discussing the economics & social structure of Laos; & especially over dinner that night with her gaggle of UN executive lady friends in Vang Vieng for the long weekend celebrating International Women's Day. I lost all the debates, & they still drank my whisky. Ho Hum. Ok, I surrender..
I hung out in LPQ for another 3 nights.
There was one final Viradesa Sunset dinner, with the boat skipper planning another Mekong boat trip.
It rained the first day while there & I was a bit concerned about riding the Versys out through the road construction LPQ - Sayabouly.
However the weather cleared & the last day was fine.
R4 Xieng Ngeun - Sayabouly
The start at the R13 end
a breather with the school kids at lunch time
more of the good stuff
and I don't think I would have liked riding the Versys on some of this after a day of rain = snot!
New asphalt towards Muang Nan & the Mekong
The Mekong & the Tha Deua ferry crossing
note the new bridge in the background.
The river has two distinct - high & low - seasons here, although this will all disappear with the new dam being bult.
When the river is low there are wide stony shores.
in the background a road going over the mountain - to the Sayabouly dam site.
Lets go have a look
and just round the next couple of corners was as far as I was allowed to go.
Closed of - no entry, unless you have permission.
Oh well. Good idea.
Now wouldn't it be a good idea to take a boat through the damn site while you can?
That would be history...
A second comment - bis repetita placent -I just enjoyed every bit of this story, partly as souvenirs, partly as an enticement for future rides. The Mekong river cruise was a wonderful experience and your pictures are great documents. Just waiting for the next departure
Let me also add a picture from Phonsavan Tourist Office: