Week 13 – Weaving in Two Birthdays

18th – 24th November 2013

Mixing it with the locals – Birthday and Baki

This week we’ve spent time deepening our friendship with some of the locals we’ve met long the way.

On Monday, we took up an invitation to a local children’s birthday party.  One of the tour guides who routinely visits OPT on business was kind enough to invite us to his daughter’s third birthday celebrations in the village of Ban Phou Xang Kham, just north of Luang Prabang’s recently modernised airport. We arranged for a tuk-tuk to take us and meet and follow our host Mr Siththai at the airport.  Having arrived by boat this caused some confusion – travelling up the airport road, we first encountered the old airport terminal, and asked the driver to stop there.  Turns out the freshly minted terminal is just up the road.  Fortunately Mr Siththai found us.  We turned off the road and drove into the dusty village, apparently its unsettled feel is because it was shifted, lock, stock and barrel to make way for the runway extension.

Inside the house we were warmly welcomed with conversation and smiles.  As the boys made friends with some local small children, teaching them peek-a-boo and other games, several local families gathered.  Soon a cake arrived, and in the Lao fashion, several repeats of “Happy Birthday!” were sung.  Next followed a baki ceremony, wherein offerings of rice  are made to the Buddha, prayers are uttered for the birthday child, and she and all us Sabretoothed Chickens were blessed with lengths of string, tied enthusiastically around our wrists.  Traditionally these are to be worn until the cotton thread frays and the fall off of their own accord.

It was an honour and a privilege to partake in this humble ceremony, administered by the smiling, weatherbeaten faces of the older men, learned long ago in some past novice-hood.

After the ceremony, we shared in a feast of rice, cooked potato, eggplant mash with taro crisps, larp muu (minced pork salad), and fresh fruit smothered in sweetened condensed milk. We boarded the waiting tuk-tuk home nourished in both stomach and with a warm heart.

The food theme continued the next day.  An impromptu post-dinner party gathered in the quiet street outside our guest house – friends from Prunella’s work at Ock Pop Tok – we munched on barbequed buffalo skin, crispy toasted mushrooms, dried whole fish, more larp, sticky rice, bowls of tiny Thai clams in lemon-chilli sauce, all washed down with a battery of big Beerlaos and laughter and conversation.  It’s a tough life on the road.

Weaving Some Memories

On Wednesday, we treated Sabretoothed Chicken Lucas to a half-day weaving course at OPT.  After a pleasant breakfast, we presented ourselves at the open-sided platform used for the courses.  Several of the traditional wooden Lao looms sit in the cool shade, high on the river bank as the brown Mekong waters flow past below.  In the background, the ever present jungle-covered mountains complete the picture, a source of inspiration.

With a kindly smile the weavers settled Lucas in front of a silk spinning wheel with his choice of colours.  The dyed silk skeins are spun onto bobbins on an elaborate bamboo wheel into the fine threads used for weaving a 40 x 60cm cloth.  We all had a turn at this task – seemingly simple, but clumsily performed in our novice hands – a tricky task requiring coordinating foot, eye and both hands to operate the wheel.

Taking a basket of bobbins, Lucas was seated at a loom, found a footing on the pedals, and slowly but steadily picked up the rhythm: slide the shuttle, press the pedal, beat the thread, slide the shuttle….  This process, gradually picked up, builds up the basic cloth, thread by thread, a square of indigo silk emerging before our eyes.

Eventually the required 21cm length of cloth is built up, and one of the weavers sits down, and with practiced hands, arranges the bafflingly intricate pattern of strings which will lift the warp threads in the various combinations required to achieve the traditional pattern.  In modern manufacture, this task is accomplished via complex computer controlled processes, but here we see a time-honoured manual process, as fascinating as it is detailed.  With each pass of the shuttle, the pattern of lifted threads is adjusted, and, slowly, a design of the like seen on many a sindad Lao skirt, is picked out from the indigo in crimson thread.

The smile on Lucas’ face as his hands (and those of all of us Sabretoothed chickens, as we dipped in for a turn at the loom) build up the cloth is a rewarding sight.  This is the stuff of the Lao weaving tradition – one which in a mere half day we can but glimpse – but gives us an insight into the skill, ingenuity, and imagination it takes to work beautiful silk from the materials of the rain forest.

A Birthday On The Road 

Saturday was Graham’s Birthday, and we celebrated by ‘completing the set’ of Luang Prabang’s three waterfall excursions.  We chartered a tuk-tuk for the 12km trip to Tad Sae waterfalls, several long loops up the Nam Khan River.

We departed early, once more arriving before the crowds, and took the short boat ride from the car park to the place where the falls tumble out of the forest and into the river. Like its cousins Tad Thong and Kuang Si Falls, Tad Sae forms a series of shallow, light turquoise pools among the trees.  A series of wooden bridges and walking trails permit exploration of the area, and a pleasant selection of stalls and restaurants provide relaxing refreshment.

Tad Sae Waterfall
Tad Sae Waterfall

We eschewed the elephant rides and zip lines which enterprising locals have added to the menu, and simply wandered the paths.  Graham took a quick dip in one of the pools, before declaring it both too deep and, more importantly, too cold for the younger Sabretoothed Chickens.  We wandered back to the boat/tuk-tuk stopping along the way to enjoy shakes, Beerlao and a whole grilled fish.

Back in town for Graham’s choice of baguette stall lunch – we were fortunate to arrive at the same time as a fresh batch of the rolls, still warm and crusty from the oven…heaven.   A lazy afternoon followed, before we crossed the Nam Khan for the second time in a day, to our favourite Luang Prabang Pizza restaurant.  A great way to celebrate 39 years!

On Sunday we rounded off a week of work -and socialising – by joining our friends Moonoy and Mimi in their newly rented house.  A host of other guests gradually trickled in, and soon we were all sitting on the small but neat lounge room floor, swapping tales, laughing and generally warming the house.  Graham was genuinely surprised when a icy white cherry topped cake appeared, for a very well appreciated addendum to the previous day’s birthday celebrations.

Thanks once again to our Lao friends…


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