Life in Luang Namtha

Luang Namtha

We’ve had a chilled out few weeks, mainly motorbiking around Luang Namtha.  We’ve also been renovating the kitchen with new larger benches, and also upstairs in the shop, putting bamboo on the walls up there as well and getting it ready for next high season.  There’s been lots of laughs again with the builders and lots of minor mishaps that have been worked out.  We had to wonder why the guy who made the new benches brought his tape measure along and measured everything, when the benches that turned up were completely different measurements to what we needed.  In the end though we managed with a bit of ingenuity to make it fit along with the other one so everything worked out fine!

Forest Retreat Laos, Luang NamthaOur friend Shahu who owns the Indian restaurant in town and his wife San had their baby and we attended the baby party.  Traditionally when a baby is one month old the parents have a baby party which is a Baci ceremony (string tying ceremony) where everyone wishes good luck to the parents and child and asks all parts of the child’s soul to come into his/her body for the best possible start and protection in life.

Luang Namtha Baci CeremonyBaci Ceremony Luang Namtha
The rice fields are now beginning to be planted so it’s really nice to see some green returning to the area.  We’ve spent a lot of time in rice paddy huts watching a lot of sunsets over the newly planted rice, it’s really cool to see the new fields filled with water and the sunset reflecting them. We’re now really looking forward to the return of the thousands of dragonflies that hover over the rice fields once the rice has grown some more.  Living here really is so interesting and so much fun for us – the diverse wildlife and views dependent on the time of year are constantly inspiring.  We even continue to discover new fruits – we thought that now we’ve been here over a year that we would have seen all the jungle fruit, but this month there have been two new ones that we didn’t see last year – and one of them is even a little bit like feijoa which is pretty cool!  Now that the shop is running itself, we’ve also started planning our next project for Luang Namtha – this one’s going to be even more exciting… we can’t wait!

Luang Namtha rice fields and sunset

It’s all go in Luang Namtha

On arrival back in the northern part of South East Asia we were a bit worried about whether we could handle the heat again after NZ – our few days in Chiang Mai were around 40 degrees and then our few days in Chiang Rai were all between 35-40.  So after NZ, and the mountains in Indonesia, we were melting!  So when we got back to Luang Namtha we were pleased it wasn’t quite so ridiculously hot.  We got back to find out that our hotel booking had been given away – for the room that we had lived in for over 6 months already – because there was a large group that had come to the hotel.  This turned out to be a blessing, because we found that the hotel neighbouring Forest Retreat had just opened it’s top 2 floors that week, and we ended up getting a room which is brand new, cheaper and bigger and nicer than our other room.  Plus a view of the palm trees and mountains, so we are pretty pleased.

After catching up on everything that has happened while we’ve been gone (weddings, new businesses in town, etc) and had given Thong, Paet, Mona and Oudone their pressies, (Mona has played with her buzzy bee from NZ constantly this month!) we set about improving the shop more and moving closer to our vision of completion.

We have managed to get more couches and chairs for seating, sand and varnish the bar and kitchen and shelving, put up lanterns and fairy lights, get a sun/rain shelter built and have started to aquire plants.  Getting plants is not as simple as it is in most western countries, because there is no garden centre and nowhere to buy potting mix, so you have to buy pots, (2 styles to choose from in the whole town), find somewhere on the side of the road to dig up dirt, fill pots with dirt, then walk around taking cuttings or branches or digging up plants that you like the look of and planting them in the pots.  So pretty labour intensive!  Plus we have had Dre’s sister Kate working on some really awesome signs for the building and outside.  Thanks Kate!! We have managed to get Tiger Beer to sponsor us with a sign and a fridge as well.  So yeah, it’s been pretty busy!!!  We’ve been really overwhelmed by people’s repsonse to the bar also – we still only have a basic menu which will soon expand a lot – but after being open for one week, already we are getting people coming to town looking for us, who have met other travellers that have recommended us.  So if that’s one week, we can’t wait to get more organised, get the menu sorted, get the pizza oven built and start selling food also and then see how many people are coming to town to find us!  Thong and Oudone are both taking it all in their stride and are really excited by what we’ve achieved so far.

We’ve also attended a baby party, which is another sukwan string / Baci ceremony to bless the baby and the baby’s family.  This was pretty cool because by now we actually know a lot of the people who were there and our Lao language skills are slowly improving all the time so we were actually able to have some conversations with the local people and have a bit more understanding of what was going on.  The baby party involved us going on our first ever Asian road trip in a car – Thong borrowed his brother’s car and we drove there without a break down so it was very successful.  It was Mona’s first time in a car so that came with associated excitedness and carsickness.  But overall it was really fun.

We got to watch Paet’s mum and some other ladies from her village getting silk from some silk worms – amazingly they only do this for a couple of weeks a year and then have enough silk to weave for the rest of the year from this.  They take the silk worms which are wrapped up in their little silk cocoons and put them in boiling water, and then sort of spin the silk off the worms.  Then they eat all the boiled worms!  It was really interesting to see.

Karen managed to get reasonably-well electrocuted too!  Once the shelter was finished we decided to put the last string of electrical wire up to put lanterns up outside but it seems that the last wire was not lucky.  She plugged it into the socket and the whole thing exploded with sparks and flames and smoke.  Luckily she managed to unplug it and throw it on the ground but had tingling and spasming muscles through her body for the next couple of days…. apparently ‘made in Asia’ is not always best.  But she’s fine, no lasting damage done!

In other news, Mona has just got her first puppy, and we are trying to convince her to call it Mopsy but at this point in time she’s not budging from calling it Puppy.  We are teaching Mona her English alphabet and numbers, so far we are up to the letter D and number 3 but it’s a good start!

We send out a massive thank you to our new Italian friends Paul and Anna from just outside Milan.  They have given us at least 10 authentic Italian pasta recipes and about 10 pizza topping recipies as well to use in the shop.  Plus Paul taught us how to make real Mojitos so soon we will have proper food and drinks, courtesy of them!

Unbelievably, it’s visa-run time again already, plus we need to buy more supplies like Gin, tonic, coffee, etc so tomorrow we’ll head back to Thailand for a few days.   Everything is going really well and so we can’t wait to get back and make more progress on the shop!  Our photos are here.

A Lao funeral :-(

We were really sad when Thong phoned us only a few days after we arrived to inform us his mother had just passed away.  That day she had been taken from the hospital back to her home to die surrounded by the love of her family and she got her wish only a few short hours later.

The next day the funeral began.  We were quite unprepared in terms of what we should expect from a Lao funeral, and we were soon to find out that it is a 3 day event with specific things assigned to happen on each day.  On the first two days pork is the only meat consumed, along with veges and rice, and on the third day buffalo is also eaten, usually a raw and a cooked option of buffalo is available.

The first day the family build and decorate a coffin for their loved one and the body is placed inside.  This is followed by intense wailing by many who visit the coffin (mainly the women), each visit begins with throwing rice on the coffin and then lighting incense, and then a massive and loud outpouring of grief.  Then each visitor returns to outside, where the women sit in groups talking and some of them cooking or drinking Lao Lao, and the men either play cards, usually gambling while drinking Lao Lao (rice whisky) or build other necessary items for the funeral such as a roof for the coffin.

A group of monks then arrive and spend about an hour blessing the deceased and their family, chanting and basically wishing the spirit a good journey into the other realm.

Then the coffin is moved outside the house and put in a truck and taken to the cemetery and put in front of the platform for burning.

The monks then perform another blessing and the coffin is moved to on top of the platform.  All of the guests light more incense and a small candle, then walk up the stairs and throw the lit incense and candle into the coffin (which has just been soaked in petrol!) to start the fire.

All of the guests sit and watch the coffin burn, and then return to the home for more food and Lao Lao.  The next morning, they return to the cemetery and collect the bones from the fire pit and bury the bones underneath a stupa (which is essentially the same as a gravestone).

More eating and drinking takes place back at the house, and the men build a little 1.5m x 2m spirit house which the women decorate with coloured paper and money, and inside they put blankets and cushions for the spirit to rest on.  They also make ‘trees’ of money and other items such as toothbrushes, hairbrushes, face cloths, dried fish, rice and other snacks for the spirit.

The afternoon is then spent at the temple getting even more blessings, and this is followed by even more eating and drinking.

On the third and final day there is a string ceremony, to protect and bless the living, and then more eating and drinking.

All in all it was a very interesting and utterly exhausting process.  We felt so sad for Thong’s family throughout the funeral and now.  The most intriguing thing for us was that they wanted as many photos as possible taken, people kept asking us to take more photos.  Why anyone would want such extensive documentation of a funeral of a family member is beyond us, we guess some things are still lost in translation.  In the beginning we felt quite culturally insensitive taking so many photos of a funeral but every time we’d stop, the family would ask us to take more so consequently we now have hundreds of photos of the funeral.  The family even borrowed our cameras and took photos inside the coffin while it was on fire… something we really had to draw the line at taking photos of ourselves!  This was such an unexpected and intense experience that hopefully won’t be repeated anytime soon.

We are blessed!

The past week we’ve had dinners with friends and celebrations pretty much every day.  Firstly Shahu, our favourite Indian chef invited us for a special Indian dinner at his restaurant, then Thong and Paet organised a blessing ceremony for us so that we have safe travels until we meet again, and we also had a final leaving dinner at Thong and Paet’s house.

The blessing ceremony was so interesting for us, everyone brought an offering of fruit or bread and money and placed it around a centrepiece, and then we all had to touch the centrepiece while a Lao animist priest chanted blessings for us and then tied special string which had been blessed and dipped in alcohol around both of our wrists, and then everyone else at the ceremony also came up and tied a piece of string around each wrist of both of us while saying some Lao blessings.  It was so amazing to think that we have a group of people here that would go to such effort and care about us so much.  They then gave us a bowl of all of the blessings of food and money.  It was really touching.  Then a couple of days later we met a guy named Lou who spoke good enough English to explain to us what the ritual actually meant… it’s pretty hard core… the ceremony is basically to bring your soul back into your body so that you will be safe and strong on your travels – if they don’t bring your soul back into your body then it remains stolen by the animals and spirits of the dead.  It  also puts part of the persons spirit into yours (the person tying the strings) for good luck.  Hmmm.  This guy sat there explaining this ritual and belief to us for about an hour to explain all the intricacies of the  belief – it’s very detailed so if you’re interested, here is a link explaining it in detail (yes we are geeks but were both so interested about what the guy Lou was telling us that we wanted to read more!).  Need we say that we’re both so looking forward to coming back here soon? :-)