Celebrating the ordinary

Buddhist countries around South East Asia are currently gearing up to one of the biggest – if not the biggest – festivals they have, the Buddhist New Year. Here in Laos, temperatures have been rising steadily in the lead up to Pi Mai Lao that turns the country into a massive, week-long water fight. Pi Mai Lao is officially a three-day holiday, fixed in the calendar at 13-15 April but celebrations tend to start early and carry on for days after the official holidays are over. Now, a week before Pi Mai we have already seen the first Beerlao-fueled parties and heard the karaoke that goes on into the early hours. Come the weekend and early next week, I’m mentally preparing myself for the chance that people fail to fight the urge to hose down passers-by as I innocently make my way through town on my blue little bicycle. But before I give in to the water fight, I want to spend a moment celebrating some of the more ordinary aspects of life over here.

First off, coffee. On my recent trip to the south I bought a few bags of coffee grown in the region on the Bolaven plateau. I noticed the prices had risen since my previous trip last year, but figured it was still worth it. I picked up some beans for a couple of friends as well, and couldn’t but smile when I witnessed their ecstatic appreciation of the coffee once they had tasted it. It’s that good.

The coffee "sock", traditional method of brewing lao coffee. Picture taken at a small lao restaurant near my house.

Secondly, crafts. On a recent work trip to Sangthong district in Vientiane province, some 2,5 hours drive north of Vientiane Capital, we visited a village where most of the women are engaged in weaving traditional lao sin fabrics with a hand loom. The high quality silk with its intricate patterns woven directly into the fabric is simply a form of art. I was gutted that there were so few finished fabrics available for buying, and none of those colours really made me tick. There were so many gorgeous ones still tied up in the looms, see for yourself. Finally, food. In particular, street food. I’ve recently had an amazing omelette-filled baguette from a tiny stall set-up in a street corner on a motorbike, and last night I found myself overeating (again) at a night market that was set up near the Mekong here in Vientiane not too long ago. On the menu: neem khao, a deep-fried ball of sticky rice mashed and mixed with peanuts and fresh herbs (a veggie version without shredded pork skin); laap paa, one of my favourite lao dishes of finely chopped fish with chili and fresh herbs such as mint and lemongrass; stir-fried mixed vegetables and papaya salad, the spicy mix of shredded green papaya, not-yet-ripe cherry tomatoes, peanuts, lime juice, chili and fresh green beans. I think after Pi Mai it’s time I head to a cooking class myself…

Whilst writing this: Easter is here and while it is not celebrated in Laos, I hope my friends and family back home (and elsewhere where Christian holidays warrant a few extra days off work) enjoy the extra light in the evenings that daylight saving time has given us and take the opportunity to relax.

Currently reading: Having finished Shantaram, I’m on such a bibliographic high that I’m not sure what to pick up next as part of me is worried I will simply be disappointed with just about any book. I shall take some time this weekend to select a book or two to read over the holidays.

Silk and needles

I’ve recently had various new experiences that have opened my eyes in many ways. Life really is full of surprises that widen one’s horizons if you let them. The two stories below feature silk and tiny, barely visible needles.

First, I saw with my own eyes where silk comes from, after literally stumbling across some silkworms. This is what some of the worms look like:

Silk worms eating mulberry leaves

They are also super soft when you touch them, just like the silk they produce. Each worm spins itself a protective cocoon from one single strand of silk that can be as long as 1,5 km. The cocoons are mostly white or yellow as in the pictures above. The cocoons are put in hot water and somehow the ends of some dozens of silk strands are collected (I failed to follow this part as I was simply staring at the process in amazement) and spun together to create the silk thread that is used to weave the fabric. Below is a picture of the process through which the cocoons turn into a skein of silk. 

From what I’ve seen elsewhere, the weaving is the hard part as it takes hours and hours to create a few inches silk fabric with a hand-loom. Suddenly I have much more appreciation for the art of silk making as well as the craft that turns it into all the beautiful clothes!

The second new experience I’ve recently had was acupuncture, part of the ancient world of Eastern medicine. I tried this in connection with a cold I developed after the boat racing festival, after I had lost my voice for four days. Two hours and some 30 odd needles later, I could speak again. I took two more sessions and experienced how I could suddenly breathe through my nose again. During these sessions I was also treated for allergic symptoms, unhappy tummy and poor circulation in my feet and hands and at least the tummy problems and itchy eyes have since been absent. Remarkable.