Tuesday, November 19, 2013

That Luang Festival

In the years we have been here we had never been to the annual That Luang festival – and finally this year we made it and very much enjoyed it. We would describe it as a typically Lao undertaking - simple and understated, slightly chaotic and all about the people.

It is a three day Buddhist celebration, centering around the main Stupa in Vientiane– That Luang or the Golden Stupa.  It happens during the full moon on the twelfth lunar month, this year from the 15th-17th November and people from around the country converge on the stupa and celebrate. 


In the week leading up to the festival the stalls and carnival arrived.  There were over 500 stalls selling everything from towels to cars.  Traffic around the area became chaotic and every night we heard the music playing.  We live 2km away from the stupa, so we wondered how those a bit closer survived.  On the good side, Laos regulations stopped the music before midnight each night.

Celebrating and drink driving remain a major traffic safety problem here.  There was a quote in the local paper from a Major in the police force
“a number of drivers were found asleep at traffic lights after the lights turned red.  ‘It’s good to sleep like that because it’s better than continuing to drive.  If they fall asleep while moving, accidents might happen.  However it is better not to drive in the first place…’ ”
We missed the -activities on 1st day (work commitments and all that) but managed to see parts of days 2 & 3.  It was a very Lao experience.  First off, there was no information on what time the parade on Day 2 was due to start.  We read the paper – "the parade leaves from Patuxay travelling to That Luang" – but it didn’t say when.  Googling provided next to no more information, but one year it had started at 1:30pm, so based on that we wandered over and found a parade preparing to set-off.

The checklist for a Laos celebration goes something like this…

Officials – check (wearing formal dress)


Monks – check


Ethnic representation, Music, Dancing – check, check, check

dancing girls

dancing girls2


parade girl

The whole purpose was to take the so called ‘wax-castle’ offerings to the stupa.  They aren’t really wax castles, rather they are a mix of marigolds, wax flowers and money. There was a range from larger group structures through to individuals holding their offering.  Everyone was dressed beautifully and even though it was a serious affair, people were smiling and looking happy to be involved.

big trees


As well as the streams of bank notes in the picture below, there is a roll of toilet paper – nothing surprises us anymore!


parade ethnic

It was lovely to watch and there were plenty of spectators.

In typical Lao fashion as we were leaving, having watched the parade arrive at That Luang, there was a cavalcade of about 30 parade-cars/vans just arriving.  Either they had not been able to find the parade start time either, or they were simply working on Lao-Time.  They had flags on the vehicles and drove straight to the stupa


Day 3 starts at 5am with 6000 monks receiving offerings from worshipers.  We decided to forego attending (we see this on a small scale each morning on the streets outside the apartment – if we get up early) and instead just went along for the traditional TeeKhee match – sort of hockey with a big cane ball and a large number of players on each team.  Traditionally the match was villagers vs a local government team.  Lots of spectators and no idea who won.


After the morning alms ceremony, it is customary for families to have a picnic. 

And again in typical Lao style this is the aftermath – put your mat down, eat drink and be merry and leave your rubbish – it’s all in a days fun


Everyone thinks of Vientiane being a quiet and sleepy city.  Perhaps they should see the traffic chaos after events like this (or outside schools at pickup & drop off times)


And he’s not ethnically cute, walks to beat of his drum and doesn't have any musical talent, but he does like a good parade


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Khao Lak

With a few days between contracts we headed south to the beach.  There are flights from Vientiane & Udon Thani (across the border in Thailand) down to Phuket – so it made it easy for us to fly 2 hours south.  We had been to Kata Beach in Phuket previously and enjoyed it, but it was over-run with tourists.  So this time the destination was Khao Lak about an hour’s drive north of Phuket International airport.  We arranged for a taxi to drive us there at the standard rate of 1500 baht (or NZ $60)


Khao Lak was badly hit by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.  80% of the casualties in Thailand were in the Khao Lak area, from along the coast from Phuket to the Burmese border.  The official number was more than 4,000, but was estimated to be closer to 10,000 due to the lack of censuses and the large number of unrecorded Burmese workers. The effects were worst here due to the topography of the land and the sea floor - very flat, so the wave could just keep going. In places, the tsunami reached over 1km inland.

There are many Tsunami warning signs around the village and markers showing how high the water was on Boxing day.  Near the beach the marker says the water was 5 metres high.  Since 2004 warning sirens have been installed.  In 2012 following an earthquake, there was a Tsunami warning – but luckily the tsunami didn't eventuate – however the warnings gave people two hours to get to the shelters and higher ground. 


The grandson of the Thai king was killed in the 2004 Tsunmai.  A large Thai police boat was patrolling the waters near where he & his mother were staying.  the boat was swept 1 kilometre inland and has been left there as a memorial to the event and lives lost.


We had a fantastic break on Bang Niang beach, Khao Lak.  Our hotel (Fanari) was a short walk to the beach and a comfortable 10 minute wander away from the restaurant street or night market for evening meals.  For lunch we ate on the beach watching the blue Andaman sea.


The beaches were relaxed and so uncrowded – it was blissful.

no crowds 2

The picture below is from probably the busiest day on the beach we saw – it was frantic!

no crowds

And in a relaxed manner we pretty much followed the same routine each day.  Breakfast – walk, swim – sit on verandah for an hour – walk lunch & swim,– sit on the verandah – walk & another swim – sit – dinner – sit – sleep.  Next day, do it again.

Apart from all the swimming going on, the busiest things on the beach were the crabs tunneling in the sand



We were there late October so it was the end of the low season so the prices for accommodation were a bargain pre-high-season.  The high season started 1 November. 

It rained in the afternoon 50% of the days we were there but the rain was short and sweet, and brought the temperatures down a couple of degrees.  The only exception was the one day when the rain was torrential and lasted for a number of hours.  Sadly that day an afternoon swim was not possible.

We sat at lunch one day and waited for the rain to arrive and it was all over in 30 minutes.


The torrential day was a bit wet. 

no guns

And we can confirm we encountered none of the above.

le hair

Since returning to Vientiane, Andrew's sea swept locks have been cut back into a more manageable style at his $10 hairdresser.