Party of the Dugouts, Luang Prabang - Laos

LAOS
LUANG PRABANG,
FEAST ON THE MEKONG RIVER

In Laos, every celebration turns to an actual feast. The feast can be religious or none all Laotians from all origin in the same impulse of true conviviality gather to celebrate. Feast of the pagodas or of the neighbourhoods, costumed or not, the feast has a meaning in the life of a Laotian, it is in fact a way to access a true value of the self. And just like a yearly ritual, at Luang Prabang, the feast on the Mekong river with the Pirogues celebrates the end of fasting for the Buddhists which corresponds to the end of Rain Season. The villages surrounding Luang Prabang will take pride in presenting their team for the greatest challenge on the Mekong river.

What strikes all visitors when they come to Luang Prabang is the importance the monks have on the life of the city. Every single square has its pagoda. Natural rhythm are of great importance for Buddhists of that region and because the cycle of the year rely essentially on the pace at which the Mekong runs, it is far from being a surprise to see that the religious feasts are in perfect synchronicity with the fickle river. That is why when the flow of the Mekong river rises during the month of July, at the beginning of Rain Season, the monks retire inside their monastery for three months: It is time for Buddhists to fast, and spend their time in prayers and meditation. In September, the Mekong river rises to its peak, and the monks celebrate the end of Rain Season by organising popular feasts to honour the river. The feast of the pirogues, one of the most spectacular ones, is supported by every single pagoda which puts together a team to race on the Mekong river.

Three days for one victory

At six AM on the dot, the fifteen rowers composing the team of Wat Pa Houak are gathered in front of the pagoda to receive the blessings of the older one and spend a full hour in meditation. Bearing the colours of their team, a dark purple red handkerchief on the forehead, the proud men lift the pirogue to their shoulders: for a full year they've worked on their pirogue to prepare the race, they have chosen a fifteen meter high palm tree, chopped it down, built the inside and decorated the front with yellow paint. Today, they will face ten rowing teams from their province. Twelve laps up and down the river, shovelling deep into the water to go as fast as they can. After eliminating every single adversary team they have to be first when passing in front of the old ancient palace, for if they loose they will have to fear the rage of the monks and if they win they will be praised as the new heroes acclaimed by the population and their master.

The city of the gold Buddha

When the visitor gets to the old royal capital: Luang Prabang, he/she can feel the magnificence of the country. The city of the Gold Buddha could be considered as the Laotian Rome, the « Holly siege» of the Buddhist authority. In fact, on May 27 1867 when Francis Garnier penetrated the city, he was stricken by the richness of the place which was so far from what he had encountered visiting the rest of the country: « We had not so far, encountered such richness in the other cities. In terms of beauty and number of houses surrounding the impressive Royal Palace, leaning on a huge staircase that lead to the sacred pyramid of the Laotians. »

At dawn the city is slowly shaken off sleep by the soft noise of the brooms. Every single day, as part of a religious task, monks are sweeping the front steps of their monasteries. Then they go in long procession with their red and orange robes, to walk the district according to the same old traditional path, a copper bowl in hand which will be filled with sticky rice made by the women in the neighbourhood. Once upon a time the city of Luang Prabang had sixty Vat (monasteries), today, half have been abandoned.

These thirty monasteries left, which represent quite a high amount knowing that the city has lost its past shine, with its 20 000 inhabitants is now ranking fourth place in the cities of Vietnam, are more or less in good condition. Temples with special pomp yet a great elegance are hiding in the palm trees and bougainvillea, their pointed roof running all the way down to the ground, their top in the shape of a snake, their walls and pillars in bricks and wood delicately embroidered of gold and red, surrounded by an army of stupas, reliquaries and various dependence.

They are held as the oldest and most complete form of Laotian religious art. The oldest dating back to 1560 : the Xieng thong, « the monastery of the flamboyant », was chosen by two hermits who after discovering « a hill in the shape of a heap of rice», the Phusi, saw, at the crossing of two rivers the Mekong and the Nam Kham, superb flamboyant with flowers in the brightest red colour …

Like most of the city, made in wood, periodically destroyed by ransacks, fire or the humidity of the climate, all the monasteries have been over and over refurbished and rebuilt over the centuries, and yet never lost their character. Today's sobriety is no longer a surprise.

From the French protectorate, Luang Prabang is today, keeping a certain colonial aspect with its house with columns, verandas and arches. When wandering in the small avenues you can feel the pace of a certain nonchalance. You let yourself be guided by the golden sights of a Buddha figure, or follow a small group of monks going back to the temple, and do not get impressed by the 328 steps of the staircase leading to Phusi mount for you would miss a great view of the river and a breathtaking landscape.

Yet the city can turn into a true frenzy at the first beat of the drum. For in Laos, every single life event is an opportunity to celebrate to throw a « boun », a party. Like this firework feast the « bang fay », a very old traditional Buddhist feast. Late at night, the sky of the Mekong river is crossed through by bright shooting star that are some of the best fireworks around. Laotians celebrate that way the return of the rain in May. In September, Buddhist monks come out of their fasting and everyone bring them some offerings. At night fall, they render homage to the God of the river: A multitude of floating candles, hanging on small boats are sliding in silence. When October comes: they celebrate the feast of the waters. Once celebrated with pomp all through Laos, it sets the end of Dry Season, tropical heat and strong smells.

The caves of Pak Ou

And not far from Luang Prabang, where villages are religiously watching over their master pagoda, others are turning to ruins. At Vat Tham, a cave lodged in the cliff overhanging the bank of the Mekong river, the population has stocked images and statues coming from the ruins of the nearby monasteries. At Vat Xieng Ngam, some precious Buddha statues are being eaten away by termites and bathing in a dramatic heap of dust totally neglected. And last in the sanctuary caves of Pak Ou which overhangs the river, hundreds of others seem to meditate in oblivion. Gold and bronze statues with no watch what so ever and which are in no way protected from an eventual ransacking rest in the deep black silence of the cave. These caves which can only be reached by way of boat inspired to Francis Garnier a limitless admiration, just read the following passage: «We entered the cave. Buddha statues in all shapes and forms were set in all the corners; flowers, ribbons, parasols, and ex-voto of all kinds decorating the altars.

The light of the candles lighting us was vacillating and made the shapes move in the depth of this natural temple, and even made the statue of the placid prophet Kapilavastou look funny and grimacing. Even though the cave looked quite uncanny as far as its religious decoration was concerned I wondered if it did not affect the wild aspect of the cave and I even went the length to consider that the sparkle of the stalactites would have been better than the gilded gold which had been tarnished by humidity.


Most of the religious acts are processed by the people travelling on the river, and the priests who are living on the other side, in the village of Pak where there are always flowers and offerings. When it is at high rise, the river can go up to the edge of the entrance of the cave. In 1856, an exceptional swelling of the river inundated a part of the caves, and the inhabitants have indicated the height at which the water raised, by a red line a little further down on the wall of the cliff. This line goes up to 17,50m high.
And this cave entrance is needless to say the best place in the area to watch the boat races, or even to watch the fireworks giving the tropical nights a quality of its own. »


Photo legends

Photo 1, 2 : A popular show
Every single pagoda has put together a rowing team that everyone will support the day of the race. The rowers are focused on eliminating as many adversaries as they can so as to win.

Photo 3 : The golden door of the Vat Xieng Thong
Vat Xieng Thong, The temple of the Golden City, the most important and the most beautiful in Luang Prabang, is representing the purest Laos style. The monastery of the city of the « flamboyant » has hosted the Royal funerary carriage since the XVIth century.

Photo 4 : The Mekong river
The cycle of the year is conditioned by the highs and lows of the Mekong river. When it rises, at the beginning of Rain Season, the monks retire in their temple for three months. It is time for Buddhists to fast.

Photo 5 : The caves of Pak Ou
The caves of Pak Ou are located on the side of the cliff. They are only reachable by boat and host over one hundred Buddha statues.

Photo 6 : Scenes of game playing
Children like to play in the muddy waters of the Mekong river. It is a great entertainment.

Photo 7 : The victory
The winners saluting the tribune. They went up and down the river twelve times. They have won the respect of the population and their masters.

Photo 8 : Religious treasures
Gold and bronze statues with no surveillance fill up the caves of Pak Ou.

Photos 9, 10 : Meditation
Before the race, every single team come to meditate in the pagoda where their are blessed by their master.

Photos 11, 12 : Start of the race
Bearing the colours of their teams, a red purple handkerchief around the forehead, the men lift the pirogue to their shoulders.

Photo 13 : The women
Many teams are composed of women. They follow the same rules as the one imposed to men.

Photos 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 : the race
The rowers built the pirogue themselves. Today, they must face the ten teams of their province. If they do not come first when passing in front of the Royal palace, they will have to fear the anger of the monks.

Photo 19, 20 : The female supporters
The young women dressed in the colours of their team are encouraging the rowers.

Photo 21 : A no miss show
The spectators are standing along the banks of the Mekong river to watch the rowers' battle.

Photo 22 : The caves of Pak Ou
The caves of Pak Ou are located on the side of the cliff. They are only reachable by boat and host over one hundred Buddha statues.


Photo 23, 24 : Scenes of game playing
Children like to play in the muddy waters of the Mekong river. A great entertainment.

Photo 25 : The trading
On the Mekong river, the traffic increases in summer for trading with other neighbouring countries.

Photo 26 : The caves of Pak Ou
Dig on the side of the cliff at the confluent of the Mekong river the Nam Ou river, the caves of Pak Ou can only be reached by way of boat. Over the past centuries, Luang Prabang inhabitants have put thousands of Buddha figures which have since been quite damaged.

Photo 27 : The golden door of the Vat Xieng Thong
Vat Xieng Thong, The temple of the Golden City, the most important and the most beautiful in Luang Prabang, is representing the purest Laos style. The monastery of the city of the « flamboyant » has hosted the Royal funerary carriage since the XVIth century.

Photo 28 : The prayer to the river
The Mekong river is a of great importance for Buddhists' life. The monks pray to the river very frequently. The Mekong river has help in developing a precious and fervent population.

Photo 29, 30 : The Mekong river
It is the longest river of South East Asia (4180 km), the Mekong river has its source in China. In every parts of the country the Mekong river irrigates the rice patches, carries men and feeds them.

Photo 31, 32 : The women
The women are wearing the traditional costume that they make themselves. They play a major role in the society