Week 8 – Sabretoothed Chickens’ Fireboat

14th October – 20th October 2013

Day 50 started like many. Breakfast at the Bakery Cafe, to have their now beloved home made granola with fruit and yogurt. But little did Graham know that soon one of his small coffee dreams would come true. After the owner delivered Graham his first cup, he approached with another and suddenly Graham was asked to give his opinion. Graham was thrilled to put his love of coffee and many years of experience into action. At last report by the owner, they are still serving Graham’s choice.  A small victory for Graham the coffee connoisseur.

The Art of Archery

Our recent visit to Kuang Si (re: Week 7), yields more than breathtaking views. Despite the “injury warnings” from Graham, we purchase a superb set of three child’s bamboo bows with an arrow each, from a tiny jungle stall. (I assure him they will be used under close supervision and yes, I realise we will probably have to leave them behind at some point). Having denied the boys the pleasure of sling shots, I couldn’t resist these fine weapons. (Little did we know, the fun that would ensue – sport, science, research and even an arrow decorating session by the Mekong).

On this day, the boys have big smiles on their faces as we set off, with bows slung over shoulders and homemade targets, to the nearby Children’s Cultural Centre for our first archery practice. Priceless.

In archery we have something like the way of the superior man. When the archer misses the centre of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself – Confucius

Practice plods slowly with much frustration but after many tries and much persistence, success starts to build. Lucas skims a distant tree and even Felix manages to let one fly. Suddenly there is a flurry of lost arrows as skills peak. A short search finds Lucas’s and Felix’s but Reuben’s is nowhere to be seen. There is a long period of thrashing small shrubs, parting long grass and pacing inches of ground but no result. Even some boys from Children’s Cultural Centre join in the hunt. We thank them and are about to call off the search. Alas, all seems lost…

Graham has a sudden burst of zen and stops – “Let the arrow come to me” – he visualises. He glances into the distance. Then spies something… a staggering distance away, further away than any of us would have believed…    Reuben’s arrow!

Build up to the October Festival

This weekend in Luang Prabang and throughout Laos, big things are happening.

Boun Awk Pansa
This day marks the end of Buddhist Lent. In the evening there is lighting of candles in and around the temples and the lovely ceremony of Lai Hua Fai or fireboats, where small “boats” made of sections of banana tree trunks decorated with flowers, and lit candles are floated down the nearest river. It is believed these small boats will take away any bad luck and bring good luck.

This is the day that the Naga (mythical water spirit) is supposed to send fireballs into the sky from the Mekong and its tributaries has become a big attraction for many people who flock to the river banks to try to sight these elusive fireballs.

Boat Racing Festival 
It is celebrated along the rivers all around the country, although not always on the same day, and involves boat races in traditional racing boats. – Laos Guide 999

As the week draws on we see an increasing frenzy of activity. Luang Prabang is filled with the hub bub of family teamwork. Bamboo frames are built for star lanterns, then covered in coloured paper and foil tape. Houses become lumious. Bamboo boats in various stages of construction and decoration – frame, coloured paper, foil, candles, flowers and foam or wire narga heads. The transformation of banana tree sections with flowers. Houses are swept. Age old traditional masks are constructed and painted. Monks work in industrious groups till wats are lit by the twinkle of fairy bulbs and candles. A Tourism Expo and Handicraft festival area replaces the Baguette stalls. A stage is thrown up in front of the Museum. Music starts to waft through the streets. Slowly the beautiful town by day transforms its quiet, night time, suburban gloom; emerging as a multicoloured, magical jewel. The excitement and anticipation builds.

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The Royal Palace

This week saw us finally visit the Royal palace and grounds. The Royal Palace or “Haw Kham” was built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong and family. It was occupied by his decedents until 1975 when the Royal family was overthrown by the communist government. Who turned it into the present day National Museum. We paid the 30,000kip entrance fee, rented some Lao traditional clothing as a sign of respect, put our possessions in a locker, our shoes on stands and entered the mixed Lao / French abode.

We really enjoyed walking in the footsteps of Luang Prabang’s kings. Seeing the trappings of the royal families everyday life, made them more real. We were astonished by the souvenir room, including highly intricate ivory carvings and even a moon rock presented by Nixon from the Apollo11 mission. But I was most enthralled by the mural room, painted by French artist Alix de Fauntereau. This depicted Luang Prabang in the 1930’s as it was and each section is meant to be seen in a different time of day. The night jungle scene is luminous, a lone man stands in the moonlight shadows, playing the traditional “Khene”.

The Khene has become especially close to our hearts whilst in Laos. Not for it’s unique, haunting music, as you might imagine, but for the way locals look at our three boys adoringly and liken them to the descending stepped pipes of the Khene. We are honoured that our boys are seen in this light and bring thoughts of a traditional instrument which is so close to the heart of the Lao people.

We perused the Royal Car exhibit. Our favourite being the 1950’s Citroen DS – A classic. Then browsed the “Floating Buddha” photographic exhibit, fed the bubbling Koi in their huge circular pond, passed the Theatre and sat in the lush gardens, overlooked by the huge statue of King Visavang Vong.

Then a brief look around Wat Hwa Pha Bang. This wat is relatively new being completed in 2006 but once housed the budda statue which gave Luang Prabang it’s name – the Pha Bang. Then a treat for the boys, from our favourite pedlo icecream lady and our regular seat at the foot of mount Phousi, above the night markets. A sweet, well earned rest.

Boat Races at Champasot Village and Xiang Muak Village

On Friday, whilst Prunella volunteered, Graham and the boys set off for the short hop across the river via public ferry. They joined the throng at Champasot Village for the boat racing. Crowds lined the dusty Mekong riverbanks to watch pairs of brightly clad crews, furiously paddling a one kilometre course towards victory. Meanwhile local families enjoyed the festive holiday with snacks, balloons and carnival games. The boys enjoyed being part of the fun.

These festivities continued on Saturday when Prunella and boys take a tuk tuk twelve kilometres from town to Xiang Muak Village. (A friend from OPT kindly recommended this visit today, to her village). This time the racing was up a hill at a reservoir. The streets are lined with food stalls. This time of year everyone snacks on “Mak deuy” or Job’s tears. These are sold in large green bouquets, the small seed pods broken off and opened to reveal a small white nutty-flavoured kernel. We buy a very light lunch of grilled sausages and meatballs on sticks and sit behind local families to watch the fun.

After watching a few heats, with blaring commentary we wander into the village. The main street leading to the village is packed with motorbikes, cars, people and stalls. We stop to buy a large green pomelo for 5000kip. This village is famous for it’s watercress and we see the bamboo sectioned river, each containing the lush green commodity. We deviate down a quiet side street to the village wat and then through an opening in the fence to the school. The boys play on the playground, then we eat our pomelo watching an enthusiastic soccer match. This is followed by a short swim with the locals. Then protectively shadowed by our tuk tuk driver we purchase animal balloons and turn heels for home. A fantastic day out.

Lai Hua Fai (Fire boats)

This festival morning the boys were treated to free Laos print T-shirts from our kind guesthouse owner. By shear magic she chose them in each of the boys favourite colours – Blue, purple and green! They were thrilled.

The boys spent two sessions over two days constructing their own fireboat. Encouraged by the locals, we scrap built the boat from found natural objects. This Sunday morning was spent with finishing touches such as, collecting fallen flowers for decoration. It was certainly fragrant and colourful.

Soon the time approached for the festivities to begin. We showered, doned our best clothes and set off with the local crowds to the main street. Excitement filled the air as we walked down to the parade start point. With three fruit shakes, a variety of delicious filled baugettes and a bottle of Lao Beer, we perched on the wall at the foot of mount Pousi. This gave us the best views in the house, over the light filled National Museum and overlooking the lantern filled streets. Whole villages paraded down the street, proudly towing their vilage boat creations. Music, singing and dancing. Candle lit Naga and Hong floats. Magic.

We then followed the ebbing parade down towards the wat. A generous local gave us a huge floating lantern for free. “I make these for my friends”, she said with a beaming smile. Slowly all headed down to the banks of the Mekong. We picked up our fireboat on the way and ended up where our Luang Prabang journey began, at the slow boat pier.

First we all held the floating lantern and after we felt it struggling to leave our fingertips, let go to watch it gracefully drift upwards to join the others in the sky. The night sky twinkled with lantern starlight.

Slowly we edged to the far end of the pier where our boat would have the best chance of making it into the fast current. And with best wishes our candle lit creation drifted away with all the other offerings. We all sat and watched till we could no longer see it’s distant glow.

Who knows? By now it could be heading for Cambodia…

Releasing our fireboat into the Mighty Mekong.
Releasing our fireboat into the Mighty Mekong.

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