Well, today I decided to wander about town, visit the craft shops, and do the mandatory museum/temple tour. I discovered, not to my enormous surprise, that the vast majority of textiles shops are selling tourist schlock, and that very few Lao shopkeepers speak English well enough to authenticate the “real” pieces for me.
However, I did find one gem in the batch: OckPopToc (or whatever the name *really* is), a Lao natural dyed textile cooperative run by a Brit woman. I had a long talk with her on about a million topics, and am commissioning a sampler piece tomorrow. This piece will contain as many weaving techniques/patterns, and as many natural dye colors, as they can fit in esthetically–basically, a summary of Lao weaving. I have no idea how much this is going to cost me, but I think it will be worthwhile…I am also going to try talking her into letting me play on the shop loom.
I’ve also discovered that Lao silverwork is *exquisite*–better than in Thailand, Cambodia, or Vietnam. I’ve seen five or six different techniques so far, including all the Vietnamese/Cambodian/Thai styles, plus some distinctively Lao ones. They also have the most *gorgeous* swords–three foot long numbers with elaborately worked silver scabbards and hilts. The blades are hand-hammered in the knifemaking villages. They’re out of my league at the moment ($200-400 depending on length) but very very beautiful.
(Mind you, they’re not very good swords–blades aren’t sharp and won’t hold an edge, etc.–but they’re impressive feats of silversmithing.)
Opium weights are also popular–small cast animals in silver or plain metal (usually elephants or water buffalo), in varying sizes. Supposedly they’re used to weigh out small quantities of opium, but these days they’re mostly sold for tourists. Opium pipes are also all over–etched bone, carved soapstone, elaborate silver. (You can’t tell that opium is a major cash crop up north, can you? 😉 )
I also went by the Royal Palace. It’s, um, confused. Imagine, if you will, a nice colonial French villa. Now, make about half the rooms simple, understated French colonial, and the other half bright red walls overlaid with glass mosaic people and covered in gold leaf, a la Chinese temples. (Some rooms are mixed, which is every bit as horrifying as you think it is.) Stick a nice crystal chandelier in the middle of the most Asian room (the throne room). That’s the Royal Palace.
(Curiously, they have a series of paintings set along the walls, telling the story of an ancient Lao prince. Apparently, as a young boy, while handing out away alms, he gave the country’s sacred white elephant away to beggars. This incensed the people, who demanded his exile, so he was sent into the jungle with his family to live as a hermit (giving away all his belongings as he did). After many years of this, his wife dreamed that a merchant came by to steal both of her children, so begged the prince to take extra care of them while she went out to the jungle.
Sure enough, as soon as she was gone, an evil merchant who wanted slaves for his household turned up, and asked the prince for his children. Despite his wife’s plea, the prince promptly gave away his children (the kids ran off and hid, but the prince made them go off with the merchant). When the wife came back, and found out the kids were gone, a supernatural being turned up, and asked the prince to give away his wife. The prince promptly offered his wife to the being, who then returned her, and rewarded/blessed them both.
Meanwhile, the merchant lost his way, wound up in the capital city, where the king recognized his grandkids, acknowledged them, and sent out an order to bring the prince back from exile. The king resigned, the prince became king, and they all lived happily ever after.)
I suspect some part of this story got lost in translation. 🙂 Either that, or it’s one of the weirdest stories I’ve ever heard. I mean, do you *want* a guy like that running your kingdom? –but, oh well. This *is* Laos…
That’s about it on the royal palace/museum; it’s full of some really bizarre things, like three copies of the keys to Tokyo, the key of Los Angeles, Washington DC, etc.–whichever keys were handed over to whatever visiting prince. It also has two moon rocks presented to the people of Laos, both by Richard Nixon, both in the early ’70s. This seems *really* bizarre considering that the U.S. was carpet-bombing Laos at the time.
Speaking of which, it turns out my guide can’t go to Luang Namtha with me: his mom, as it turns out, was wounded by shrapnel or something during the American bombing, which embedded in her kidney. so now she has kidney problems, bad enough that she’s in the hospital. they want to do surgery on her to remove the embedded object (they saw it on an X-ray), but they can’t afford surgery, so they gave him a list of medicines for her. they can’t afford the medicines either, so he’s going out into the country tomorrow to look for medicine for her (I think medicinal plants–pharmacies are in the city).
So anyway, he can’t go, but he’s giving me contact info for a friend of his (who can act as guide), and a list of weaving villages near Luang Namtha. Sounds pretty cool to me…
Oh yeah: and I tried snake soup today. Apparently they drink it to improve their health: I certainly HOPE it improves their health, because the stuff tastes like, umm….let’s see…ditch water/raw sewage mixed with dishwashing detergent and quinine. I mean *really* vile. Rat and scorpion both taste a lot better.
(I have *no* idea what they put into it…snake is supposed to taste like chicken, so I suspect some bizarre spices are at fault.)
Today in the night market I also saw them selling roasted pig…with the head neatly flattened and set out, next to the legs, which included the curled-up hooves. All roasted to a nice appetizing, crispy-looking brown…I took some photos in the afternoon light, they were beautiful. I did not, however, eat any of the pig’s head, nor did I try the entrails, which were also for sale. Experimentation does have its limits… 😉
And that’s it for today’s report. Tomorrow, I’m poking around Luang Prabang a bit more, then taking the night bus to Luang Namtha, where I’ll poke around some villages, then spend four days rafting to Thailand.
off to bed–