Mass Tourism – Tourism’s Evil Twin

In recent years, travellers have had to take one more factor into consideration while planning their trips, especially if the destination is a popular tourist attraction. ‘How to avoid crowds’. Well, travellers aren’t the only victims of mass tourism.

Protests against mass tourism by residents of Venice and Amsterdam mark a sea change from the earlier attitude of tourism being good for the economy, good for growth etc. Albeit over the years the focus has gradually shifted to ecological burden on certain fragile sites, the overall consensus appeared to be in favour of tourism.

Now, more and more articles are appearing about how certain tourist sites have lost their charm due to overcrowding. Writers on culture in media are also increasingly talking about UNESCOCide – the death of the character of a city once it is awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status. While the recognition entails better conservation and protection for monuments and local architecture, and also boosts revenues and jobs, the resultant surge in tourism might not always be good for a heritage city.

Luang Prabang, which I recently visited, received its UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1995. Already, there is grumbling about damage to the character of the city. The as-yet pristine city is surrounded by luscious green hills and located on the Mekong-Nam Khan confluence. It was awarded the heritage status for its amazing mix of ancient Lao architecture and French colonial architecture, and is considered to be the best preserved in Asia.

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The Wat Xieng Thong dates to the 16th century.

Nevertheless, some aspect of commercialization is evident. The main road, along which most of the picturesque Buddhist temples are situated, is lined with touristy cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and convenience stores. By 5pm in the evening, the area transforms even more into a tourist hub with red and blue tarpaulin tents stretching over a km for the night market.

Moreover, with increasing tourist arrivals, the government feels pressured to offer a ‘unique’ experience to tourists. This often leads to destroying/commercialising the very thing that is supposed to be unique. For instance, the Lao government has often been criticized for opening up the tak bat ceremony to tourists.

The traditional ceremony involved monks solemnly walking through the town at dawn as its residents lined up to give them alms. However, now busloads of tourists are dropped off before the ceremony, and they buy over-priced sticky rice from stalls to donate to the monks. The ceremony ends up becoming a spectacle as tourists vie with each other to get the perfect shot, sometimes walking right up to the monks and using flash photography. No amount of flyers put up in the temples has been able to discourage this unruly behaviour.

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Tourists rush to take pictures of monks. Credit: AP/David Longstreath; taken from http://sea-globe.com/19355-2-luang-prabang-tourism/

In the age of social media, and instant gratification, people are ready to do anything for the perfect selfie, not bothering to take permission before clicking away. Incidents of tourists dying or causing diplomatic embarrassment for the perfect picture are sadly becoming common.

Mass tourism has led to such unsavoury experiences that tourist websites and travel writers have specifically started advising travelers about how to avoid crowds. So, does this mean that we should all stop travelling and just stay put where we are? God, no! As an avid traveler, that is the last thing I would suggest! But then, how do cities find the right balance? Between ensuring that the residents prosper financially, but do not get pushed out of their own homes? Between ensuring that a city welcomes tourists, but maintains its culture and character too?

A partial solution to the ill-effects of mass tourism could be to actually engage with visitors and encourage them to meet and positively contribute to the lives of the residents. Volunteer tourism has apparently become very popular over the last decade.

In Luang Prabang, a not-for-profit called ‘Big Brother Mouse’ welcomes tourists to visit their facility at specific times to help Laotian children practice their English conversations. The centre is located in the heart of the heritage site, making it easy for tourists to stop by and pitch in.

Laos ranks among the poorest ASEAN countries in terms of GDP per capita and also has the unfortunate distinction of being the most bombed country in the world. So, any efforts to improve the lives of its citizens, while not completely giving in to globalisation, are likely to bring many benefits to Laotians.

Big Brother Mouse appears keen on maintaining this balance. Its mission statement says that Laos, as a country, doesn’t read, and that they have taken it upon themselves to turn Laos into ‘a country that reads for fun!’ College graduates and enthusiastic students have put their heads together to come out with fun, easily readable fiction in Lao language. They have adapted well-know fairytales and stories for children to the Lao context and kept in mind reading ages as well.

The organisation publishes books, distributes them (sometimes for free) and holds ‘book parties’ in rural schools, so that children can experience the joy of reading. They have also opened a school – Big Sister Mouse – in a rural area, where they take visitors for a day trip to play with the children, teach them, and share a hearty meal. Here are some heart-warming pictures from their website:

Due to time constraints, I could not participate in any of these activities, but I helped some students practice their English at Mt Phousi. We also met an enterprising 17-year-old monk in saffron robes, who spoke English quite well. He told us that he had made it a habit to come to tourist places and speak with visitors so that he could polish his English.

He had many questions for us, especially about India, and it was a genuine heart to heart encounter that I will never forget. He told us that the school in his village wasn’t good, so his parents made the decision of sending him to Luang Prabang to study in a monk school. I could only imagine the hardships of his parents back home, and how he must be living here all alone, driven only by his dream to make something of himself. He told us he wanted to learn English so that he could open his own restaurant someday.

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Speaking with him made me wonder about the kinds of opportunities available to girls and women in rural areas. There are no equivalent nun’s schools in Laos. This 2012 report states that:

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 93% of women who participate in the labor force in Laos are employed in agriculture.

I wish I had time to find out more. There are also many initiatives to preserve the traditional knowledge and way of life of the Lao people, while also affording them dignity and fair wages, like Ock Pop Tok and the TAEC (Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre). I was particularly impressed by my visit to TAEC, awed by the displays that showcased the histories and geographies of different peoples, where they might have originally come from, and differences in their livelihoods and lifestyles. Through text and imaginative displays, the museum curators also showcased unique aspects of the Lao culture, like the hand-crafted whistle which is used on social occasions and also to show interest in a potential partner. It was also a joy to see the different costumes worn by women of different ethnic groups.

There was an interesting display of various furniture items and utensils made of bamboo for uses like separating husk, smoking chillies, drying grains, and as lamps, hats and baskets for various purposes. Sort of like how cane is used in India for a variety of purposes.

The signboards accompanying the displays also mentioned that silk making and weaving was a traditional activity and that women in many groups wove clothes, scarves and items of bedding for their entire families.

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I loved this rural bed setting, all hand-crafted. Notice the off-coloured cones hanging upside down in the middle? They are actually cocoons!

There was also this elaborate section on Job’s tears seeds that explained where these seeds came from and what they were used for. They are also available in Africa and naturally have holes on both ends, making it easy to string them into funky headgears or jewelry! They are sewn into clothes to make really beautiful patterns and are almost as hard as plastic.

The centre mentioned though that with globalisation, plastic beads and materials were gradually replacing natural materials, as artisans moved to bigger cities for better opportunities. While the increase in tourism has revived interest in these traditional artforms, would it be sufficient to really preserve them is something that remains to be seen.

So, we can blame governments and commercialisation for mass tourism, but the biggest power is with us, the tourists, and the choices we make, that can either save or destroy nature, culture and the lives of our fellow human beings. From now on, I determine to be a responsible tourist!

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Cruising the Mekong River

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A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the earth itself.
Laura Gilpin, author and photographer

There is something uniquely joyful about standing at the confluence of two rivers, watching them rush unheeding towards each other to merge into one. The waters meet with some resistance, holding onto their identity, colour, consistency, for a little longer, before finally losing themselves in each other.

On our last day in Luang Prabang, we cycled to the confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River. Up till this point, I had only passed by rivers on roads, or over bridges. I hadn’t even given much thought to them, except for wondering if that is where my drinking water came from. But as I stood at the sacred confluence, watching the Nam Khan River drain into the Mekong, but not without resistance, so that you could make out the different waters even half a km away, I went into a peaceful trance.

The lush green hills in the backdrop soothed my eyes, and the gentle tinkling of the waters, my soul. I think I stood there for hours, or maybe it was just minutes. I felt a quiet elation, realizing how small I was, but feeling my spirit envelop the entire cosmos.

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The confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers

At the point where I stood, the waters of the Mekong River had already journeyed a staggering 2,000kms, birthing in the Tibetan plateau in China, flowing through Myanmar and Thailand before entering Laos. The twelfth longest in the world, the river had as much more to go, passing through Cambodia and finally emptying into the South China Sea via Vietnam. Its total length is 4,350km, almost double the length of Brahmaputra, the longest river in India. For landlocked Laos, it is a boon.

If only the river could tell me her journey. She’d have happy stories, about meeting many people, helping them with their daily lives, nourishing them with the fish and seaweed in her waters. But she’d also have horror stories, of giant rocks being thrown in her path to block her way, making her change her course, restricting her identity, endangering the very people she cares for.

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The muddy brown river, rich with minerals, has evoked the imagination of many who depended on her for their subsistence. Academics say, as Buddhism is the predominant religion of people living along the Mekong River, many folk narratives centre around Buddha creating the river.

The Laos version, which I heard during Garavek theatre, had a different theme. It went something like this: There were once two kings, who were very close friends. They visited each other often and exchanged gifts as a mark of their friendship. On one occasion, they presented gifts of meat to each other.

However, the gifts were unequal in size, and one of the kings got offended at the perceived low value of his gift. Their legendary friendship soured into rivalry, and the two kings soon declared war on each other.

The war was intense and went on for many days, as both sides were equally matched. Finally, the Gods took mercy on the living beings quivering in fear and dying, and released the Mekong River, dividing the two friends forever.

Another version of this story says that the gods cast a supernatural spell on the two kings to make them stop fighting, and then ordered them both to construct rivers as penance – one of them being the Mekong.

I pondered over the story and the many lives that the river shapes as I journeyed up the Mekong river in the Nava Mekong cruise. Villages hidden behind seemingly endless lush green hills lay on either sides, and once in a while, we came across a river-facing shrine. I stood on the uncovered deck, taking in the gentle breeze and the splendid views.

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Cruising down the Mekong River in Nava Mekong

Luang Prabang has a rich history of river boat racing. As a matter of fact, almost every temple we went to had a pair of long boats in their sheds. The races apparently take place during off-peak seasons, and people from nearby villages eagerly participate. However, the races take place in the Nam Khan river and not Mekong, which is considered dangerous due its speed and uneven river bed. Our boat, too, cut a zig zag course across the river, avoiding the spots with high layers of rocks that were marked with stone markers.

On board the Nava Mekong, we had our first introduction to authentic Lao food. For appetizers, we were served fried seaweed, and for the main course, it was Mekong fish steamed in herbs, and a tangy, colourful Mekong fish salad. I was quite skeptical about the kaipen, or fried seaweed, but once I tasted it, I couldn’t stop eating it like chips! Here’s an excellent article by a travel writer about how kaipen is made by villagers. I definitely have to plan a food trip to Laos!

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Kaipen – fried seaweed. Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Incidentally, the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia is on the Mekong River at the Cambodia–Laos border. But that’s a trip for another day. Luckily for us, there is another majestic waterfall just an hour’s drive from Luang Prabang. There are, in fact, three such waterfalls nearby, but the biggest one is Tad Kuang Si.

The one hour drive through nearby villages was the perfect prelude for the natural beauty to come. Rows and rows of paddy fields with quaint little houses dotted the countryside. And the hills! From emerald green to dark blue in the distance, they were a nature photographer’s delight!

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We did not visit the butterfly park en route (as we have a pretty dashing one in Penang 😉 but did pass through the bear sanctuary at the foot of the falls. About five or six bears rescued from poachers were snoozing in the wooden play area fitted out with hammocks. It broke my heart to see these wild creatures living in such a restricted manner.

Our hotel manager told us that the bears will soon be moved to a bigger enclosure. Poachers capture the bears and extract their bile for use in Chinese medicines. It appalls me that we have enslaved every species on this planet for personal gain.

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At the bear sanctuary near Kuang Si waterfall

Our first glimpse of the waterfall made me do a double take. Blue, so blue! Tad Kuang Si is a 50-m waterfall and has multiple levels, each one more beautiful than the last. At the penultimate level, the drop is the largest, making for a very picturesque spot and a free shower! The water rushes down with such force that it jumps back out and sprays its many admirers taking selfies in front of it.

We hiked all the way to the top, hoping for a magnificent view, but the waterfall is surrounded by jungle, making it impossible to see all the way down. I could see about 40 feet down, and in the distance, the omnipresent green mountains. It sort of felt like standing at the precipice of a valley. Suddenly overcome by the thrill of adventure, I yelled out, ‘I’m ON TOP OF THE WORLD!’ For a split second of euphoria, I felt my voice rise up and lose itself in nature. It felt bloody awesome!

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At the Kuang Si Falls

We then made our way back down to one of the pools formed at the lower levels for a dip. I imagined myself sitting in a corner, like in a Jacuzzi, letting the cool waters wash over me, refreshing me. That’s exactly how it didn’t happen.

First, the water was freezing cold. And by freezing, I mean, FREEZING! Second, the floor of the waterfall was covered with sharp, pointy rocks and algae-covered slippery stones. The strong force of the water made every step perilous. One slip and you’d be flailing to come back up and possibly injure yourself in the process, too. I think we took a million baby steps to finally get all the way in.

After about half an hour of stepping and waiting and stepping and waiting, I got the courage to try to swim. I started with a languorous breast stroke towards source of the mini-waterfall. After about 15 strokes, I turned around to see how far I had come and saw that I was right where I started! The force of the water was amazing!

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Daring to swim in the waterfall!

I then took a deep breath and did some freestyle, finally managing to cover about 10 m, but I panicked, sputtered, did an about turn and came flailing back. Oh well, at least I tried!

Refreshed and aching in all the right places after the experience, we made our way towards ‘Carpe Diem’ a restaurant situated along one of the waterfall routes. I cannot quite describe in words what it’s like to dine next to a roaring waterfall, but it was something I’ll never forget, that’s for sure!

I did so many things on this trip that I had never imagined I would! Stick around, I have many more such awesome stories and experiences to share!

Luang Prabang – The Royal Buddha Image

A few years ago, I was surprised to discover that Buddha is considered to be the ninth incarnation of Vishnu in Hinduism.

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Naga Buddha in a Luang Prabang temple

But I found something even more interesting during my recent visit to Luang Prabang, Laos. In a series of 16 paintings on cloth hung on the walls of the Royal Palace Museum, I came across the story of Prince Wesantara, a Bodhisattva considered to be the penultimate reincarnation of Buddha.

I did a double take when I saw the panel hung next to the first painting mentioning this. As a practising Buddhist, my curiosity was piqued, so I went online and found that the story of Prince Wesantara is actually a Jataka tale originating in India, and it is celebrated as part of an annual festival, not just in Laos, but also in Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Cambodia! I was amazed that I hadn’t heard of this before, and very happy to have stumbled upon another folk tale with a looong back story!

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The Royal Palace Museum, Luang Prabang. Photography is prohibited inside.

The cloth paintings looked well-preserved and depicted the key points of the story vividly. With the central themes of exile and kidnapping, the story went as follows: A woman gains much merit through countless good deeds and her prayer is answered when she gives birth to Wesantara, a Bodhisattva.

Soon, Wesantara comes of age and inherits his father’s kingdom, but as he is a Bodhisattva who freely shares or gives away his wealth and belongings, his subjects begin to question his capability as a ruler. One day, he gives away a magnificent white elephant to a neighbouring kingdom. The residents of the kingdom worry about their future and, deeming Wesantara to be an unworthy ruler, ask his father to banish Wesantara and rule instead.

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People are angry at Wesantara. By Denchai Pin-noi, kunstschilder (painter), Phitsanulok, Thailand. – Muurschildering op de binnenmuur van de sala van tempel saphan saam (brug drie), Phitsanulok, Thailand., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48400135.

The former king acquiesces, and exiles Wesantara, his wife and children, to the forest. Wesantara leaves willingly and enters the jungle with his family, where many perils await them. At every step of the way, however, the Gods step in and protect them.

One day, an evil Brahman named Jujaka, looking for slaves, tricks Wesantara into parting with his children. Being a Bodhisattva, Wesantara bids his children to follow Jujaka even though his wife warns him that their children might be harmed. Jujaka makes off with the young prince and princess, treating them cruelly, but the Gods watch out for them, protecting them from the dangers of the jungle.

Eventually, Jujaka takes a wrong turn, and reaches the erstwhile kingdom of their parents. The king recognizes his grandchildren, and joyfully accepting them, sends for their parents, paving the way for a happy reunion. The neighbouring kingdom returns the white elephant, and Wesantara is crowned king once again, with the town rejoicing.

Moved by the story, I read up more and found that each temple in Luang Prabang has a copy of the entire set of 16 paintings, which the monks proudly display on the external walls, or inner part of the roof. Many temples also had paintings depicting scenes from Buddha’s life.

The history of Luang Prabang is intricately intertwined with the advent of Buddhism here. Luang Prabang literally means ‘Royal Buddha Image’ and gets its name from the Phra Bang Buddha, an 83-cm high statue of Buddha covered in gold leaf, that is believed to have been made in Ceylon in between the first and ninth centuries, and gifted by the Khmer kingdom in the fourteenth century.

The Phra Bang Buddha is enshrined at the Wat Ho Pha Bang temple next to the Royal Palace Museum. This temple is actually a photographer’s delight. I took pictures of it every time I passed by (which was a lot, as it is situated in the main tourist area), and I swear, this temple looks good no matter what time of the day it is!

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Wat Ho Pha Bang hosts the Phra Bang Buddha, from which Luang Prabang gets its name

Luang Prabang, like Penang, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with its over 30 magnificent Buddhist temples, called ‘wats’, and old-style French colonial architecture (France annexed Laos in 1893). Theravada Buddhism is more popular here, and often, visitors are greeted with the sight of orange-robed monks, young and old, walking barefoot or in simple slippers across town, or in the numerous temples dotting the city. The city is famous for its alms-giving ceremony that takes place at dawn, where the residents of the town line-up on the streets and give alms to the monks as they pass by in procession.

We visited many wats here and were delighted to find similarities and unique qualities among each of them. The Wat that truly took my breath away was Wat Sensoukaram – the ‘temple of 100,000 treasures’. With its rich, ruby red coloured walls depicting the Buddha and animal motifs in gold leaf, it is just so beautiful! The popular belief is that the temple got its name from the 100,000 kip donation made for building it in 1718, but others say that the place of worship was built with ‘100,000 treasures’ or stones from the Mekong River – the lifeline of Laos.

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Wat Sensoukaram

We leisurely moved in the spacious courtyard, taking our time to notice the lotus motifs on the columns, and the beautiful patterned motifs on the facade. Feeling somewhat like an amateur archeologist, I observed that the ornamented columns on the windows resembled those of Angkor Wat. The temple is said to have been built in the Thai style architecture and it was restored twice, in 1932 and in 1957.

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The side wall of Wat Sensoukaram.

Since many of the temples are located within walking distance of one another, we saw quite a few that day. Most of the wats we saw were functioning temples, so although they could trace their origins back to the sixteenth century or later, they looked new, probably due to constant upkeep and renovation. Almost every temple had a doc so faa, a line of spires that looked green-coloured from a distance, on its roof, depicting a row of parasols or miniature pagodas. Denise Heywood, in her excellent book on Luang Prabang, says that the spires are considered symbols of the universe and of the mythological Mount Meru.

The naga motif, in particular, caught my attention wherever I saw it. I couldn’t help drawing constant comparisons between the Nagas I had seen in India, and the ones in this part of the world with, what I think, are Chinese influences. Disconcerting and awesome at the same time!

We saved the best for the last: the Wat Xieng Thong! Built in the 16th century, the Wat is considered an architectural marvel with its steeply sloping roofs, impressive ‘tree of life’ motif on the external wall, and intricate gold-leaf paintings in the interiors.

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Wat Xieng Thong

I had heard so much about this temple, that I almost didn’t make it there. The day we stepped out to see the temples was, like, the hottest day of our entire trip. Wat Xieng Thong is situated almost on the Mekong-Nam Khan confluence, and we had started our journey about more than a km away.

At the last temple that we saw before Wat Xieng Thong, I was seriously dehydrated, about to get a headache, and physically exhausted. Yes, you can pity my poor husband for marrying a whiny baby 😛 Nevertheless, after some coaxing with good food, airconditioning, fluids and a promise to ‘take us everywhere by tuk tuk’, we made our way to the Wat.

Here’s photography 102: The hottest days make for the best photographs!

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Side view of the Wat Xieng Thong

As we took off our shoes and made our way in, I am sure a fly or two must have rushed into my mouth as I looked agape at the opulent gilded doors, intricate gold leaf details and the magnificent architecture. The temple housed an imposing, roughly two-storey high statue of Buddha with partially closed eyes seated in the meditation posture, along with many other smaller Buddha statues.

I was awed to see that almost every inch of the interior was painted in gold leaf depicting patterns, motifs, Jataka tales and scenes from the Buddha’s life. Even the crisscrossing columns and beams were painstakingly detailed with flower motifs and other designs. The gilded doors with the dancing apsaras were a treat for the eyes.

The temple had an aura of peace, and many tourists took the time to just sit inside and meditate, or take a break. Even I found the short rest refreshing, as I gazed at the almost 30-ft high structure painted throughout with black laquer and gold leaf detailing. When we stepped outside to admire the much-famed architecture of the temple, I was suprised to note that even the exteriors were painstakingly detailed with gold leaf. I read somewhere that this temple was the deciding factor for UNESCO to award the ‘World Heritage Site’ status to Luang Prabang.

The UNESCO website says:

Wat Xieng Thong, which dates from the 16th century, comprises an ensemble of the most complex structures of all the pagodas of the town. It is remarkable both from the archaeological point of view, and from the Lao iconographic and aesthetic viewpoint.

The colourful tree of life motif at the back was particularly enchanting, as were the other structures in the courtyard. We spent more than an hour here, marveling at the craftsmanship, ingenuity and faith of those who built and decorated the structures, and who continue to pray there everyday.

We were so impressed by what we saw that we set aside another day to see more temples. During our visit, I realized that I had never paid much attention to the various poses in which the Buddha is depicted in statues. I was only aware of the seated Buddha (meditation pose) and the sleeping Buddha, but in Luang Prabang, we came across Buddha statues in many more poses. It was in the Pak Ou caves, situated along the Mekong River, that I finally discovered the various meanings behind the poses.

The Pak Ou Caves are located in picturesque limestone cliffs and host thousands of Buddha statues brought there by lay people. At one time, the caves held Buddha statues made of gold and silver, but these were stolen over the years, a local guide told us. Most of the Buddha statues we saw were made of clay or wood, and plated with gold. It was surreal to see so many Buddha statues in one place, in different poses, in all sizes, and some kept even in the higher reaches of the caves.

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Buddha statues in the Pak Ou Caves.

A signboard at the site mentioned that the caves are a popular pilgrimage site for locals and get very busy in April during the Laotian New Year, when locals journey up the two caves to wash and attend to the images. They must have really strong muscles, as I was bushed climbing all the way to the top (60 m above river level)! But it was worth every step.

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The silhouette of a Buddha statue in ‘No Argument’ pose in the lower Pak Ou cave

The lower cave had natural sunlight filtering in, but the upper one was more concealed, so we had to make our way in with our phone flashlights on. It was cool, quiet and very dark in there, and it made me wonder how many countless devotees had made their way up there, and what thoughts, dreams and aspirations they must have had while tending to these Buddha images.

I left Luang Prabang, completely amazed by how religions, cultures, and stories travel, moving people’s hearts and invoking their ingenuity every step of the way, in an endless drama of human interconnections. Instead of fighting over our differences, if only we looked deeper for all our similarities. I am so not done with Luang Prabang, so until we meet next time!

Phralak Phralam – Ramleela, Lao style!

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After coming to Malaysia, I have been amazed by how widespread the popularity of Ramayan is in Southeast Asia. First, I found out that many stories of wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry, borrow heavily from the Ramayan. Then, I came across this article recently, detailing how Muslim artists in Indonesia consider the Ramayana a part of Javanese culture. In Cambodia, scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharta are etched on the walls of Angkor Wat.

Therefore, it should have come as no surprise that Phralak Phralam – the Laos version of Ramayana – is staged every alternate night at the Royal Palace Museum theatre, the most popular tourist destination, in Luang Prabang, Laos. But surprised I was!

Phralak Phralam is actually Phra Lak – Lakshman – and Phra lam – Ram, a musical depicting the abduction of Nang Sida (Sita) by evil Thotsakan (Ravan) of Longkha (Lanka) and her rescue by Phralak and Phralam, with the help of Hanuman and his army of monkeys. Sounds familiar?

Phralak2Well, there’s also Ongkhot (Angad?) and Jatayu, as well as lesser known characters (whose names have probably been distorted beyond recognition) – Phragna Khout, Somphouphanh, and an eagle named Sampathy (Jatayu’s elder brother).

The performance itself was highly unique and engaging – with all the male characters wearing beautifully carved and painted masks, and all characters wearing gold-embroidered costumes. I especially enjoyed Hanuman’s performance – who is shown in this particular iteration with a touch of whimsy and mischief. The show is less drama and more of a musical, with dialogues rendered as a song in a woman’s voice, or with dramatic music.

Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8T5hMF-85s

The Phralak Phralam website helpfully mentions:

The Lao Ramayana differs from the original Indian version of the Ramayana. The Ramayana reached Laos late, around the sixteenth century, brought by Buddhist missions. The original Indian epic adapted to the geography, names of figures and regional languages. Consequently, all the story in the Lao Ramayana is situated in the valley of the Mekong, the grand royal city is called Chanthabouri Si Sattanak, while Lanka remains an island far from the heart of the kingdom, inaccessible and dangerous.

Particularly mesmerizing were the fluid movements of all the protagonists, especially of the women in the Nang Keo dance, and the live folk music accompanying the show. I managed to get a closer look at the traditional instruments and noticed that many of them were lovingly painted with pretty motifs. I also feel that Thai influences were evident, especially with the spires on the headsets, but would love it if someone familiar with the topic could confirm my hunch!

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Nang Keo Dance

The website says that this version was choreographed in 2003, and that the Phralak Phralam was earlier performed in various Luang Prabang palaces, usually during the Lao new year called Pimai. I would highly recommend watching this video for the theatre’s history and painstaking preparation of the beautiful masks.

Since the actors were all wearing masks, I initially felt that their work must be easier, as they didn’t have to manage their expressions, only their movements. But as I looked closely, I could feel them emoting with all their being, and the effort was evident when their masks came off. They were literally embodying the characters they were playing, and the masks made no difference as such. There were also teenagers and preteens playing the monkeys in Hanuman’s army and they were a joy to watch, remembering to scratch themselves occasionally and bringing fun and a light touch to the show. Loved it!

The Phralak Phralam adaptation of Ramayana is pretty close to the actual one. But I have noticed that stories, especially old ones, have a life of their own. They travel, mutate and adapt to the local context, revealing the ingenuity of all those they come in contact with.

Wonder what I’m talking about? Well, fancy this: One day, Sita was pining for some mushrooms. Yes, you read that right. Mushrooms! So she asks Hanuman to get some for her from Lanka. This is a story I heard at Garavek – a theatre involving a traditional storyteller and an old musician playing the khem (wind instrument made of bamboo). It apparently explains how Mount Phousi (a favourite sunset point) in Luang Prabang was named after Sita.

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View from Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang

So, with some coaxing, Hanuman flies from Luang Prabang to Lanka for Sita’s mushrooms, but when he gets back, Sita says she wanted another variety. So he flies back again, and gets another type of mushrooms, but Sita refuses these ones too. This happens many times, till Hanuman gets fed up and asks Sita, ‘What is the name of this type of mushroom that you crave?’ Sita, apparently, cannot answer this question, because the variety she wants is called ‘monkey’s ear’ and she knows this will upset Hanuman.

Finally, Hanuman uproots a mountain from Lanka and brings it back to Luang Prabang, leaving Sita free to choose whichever mushrooms she wants. And this is how Mount Phousi got its name!

Imagine Hanuman flying a mountain from Lanka to Luang Prabang so that Sita can eat mushrooms. I can’t stop laughing! At the same time, I am amazed at the creativity of storytellers in the sixteenth and later centuries, as this tale must have been passed on from generation to generation. It’s interesting that Ramrajya is anywhere (India, Laos, Thailand), but Lanka is only one! Kind of a human habit to believe the good in ourselves, but evil to be far away.

I have many more such amazing stories about Luang Prabang, so watch this space for more!

Puppetmistress part 3

My next introduction to puppets was at the amazing George Town Festival, 2016. The month-long international art and culture festival had some great live shows and exhibitions on offer, alongside two genres of puppetry – glove puppets Potehi and the ginormous Snuff Puppets. Much like the Teochew opera, till recently, Potehi was performed for the Gods in temples, but is now being revived for contemporary audience.

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It was heartening to see young people taking an active interest in reviving this art form. Most of the members of the Ombak Ombak Studio were in their twenties. The actual performance involved a 10 ft X 5 ft window (approx) with colourful screens acting as backgrounds and artists crouching out of sight behind the window, and extending their hands encased in the glove puppets in the window. They were also mouthing dialogues via headsets. Music is an integral part of this artform, and a band of musicians performed live folk music on the side with traditional instruments.

At the GTF performance, Ombak-Ombak studio performed The Adventures of the Monkey King – a beloved tale of a monk’s journey to the West looking for Buddhist scriptures. During his long and arduous journey, the monk is attacked and kidnapped, and thereafter saved by the Monkey King. While the puppeteers spoke in Hokkein, English subtitles were projected on the black portion of the screen too.

The costumes were magnificent, and the overall experience was very immersive. At the end, when the puppeteers came out from the booth, all bathed in sweat, I couldn’t help but marvel at their stamina, courage and skill!

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From palm-sized puppets to giants! From the Liliputan world of Potehi, I moved to the giant Snuff Puppets. Snuff Puppets is an Australian puppet group that uses the artform to break rigid moral boundaries with tongue-in-cheek mega-sized puppets that shock and awe visitors. For creative and wacky use of art to challenge social mores, you have to check out their website!

The team came to Penang for the festival and collaborated with local artists for a more local flavor of their art form. The result was a cute and funny story called Love Stinks, based loosely on Malaysian folk tales, about a farmer, his wife and two tropical fruits, a durian and a mangosteen.

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The durian is in love with the mangosteen, but his stink keeps her away (durians do really stink)! The farmer’s wife has a propensity to fall under evil spells, and during one such disaster, the durian brings her back to her senses with his stink, thus saving the day and winning over his love. The puppets were more than twice the normal human size and animated by real people! When the artists shucked off the costume, they were drenched in sweat – obviously by the arduous task of puppeteering in a giant costume!

Puppetry looks like child’s play, but it actually involves a lot of hard work, just like any other performance art. As the world goes more digital (and my eyesight weakens), I think puppetry is a legit entertainment that provides avenues for storytelling, creativity and good, old-fashioned fun!

Puppetmistress part 2

My second tryst with the world of puppetry was more traditional in nature. During one of our jaunts to UNESCO World Heritage Site George Town, my husband and I came across this puppet museum nestled in a corner of Armenian Street. It was called Teochew Opera House and had an entry fee of just RM5. Intrigued, we stepped in to find this:

The shophouse in which the opera house was located was worth a visit by itself! It was narrow and long, reaching across two streets and had a beautiful sun-lit courtyard right in the middle! A very helpful guide showed us around, telling us interesting details about the puppets, their costumes, performing traditions and how the artform had made its way to Penang all the way from China by a feisty opera performer. Her daughter and granddaughter were mainly responsible for keeping the tradition alive with live performances in Penang.
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The artform is called Teochew puppetry, as Teochew stands for iron rods; the puppets are made of wood and fitted with three iron rods for control (two hands and one at the back). This gives the puppeteer better control over the puppets. The heads are made of clay, while the body is made of wood. The costumes are made of silk and the paint used for their faces is organic.
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Many of the stories in the performances revolve around the the hero, the heroine, the court jester and a chief strategist. There are also many supporting characters in different roles. I was thrilled to see the beautiful, silk costumes and funky headgears for the different characters.
Our guide told us that traditionally, the artform would be performed in temples to appease the Gods. The puppet show would be held first so that any evil spirits lurking nearby would be absorbed by them. This would then be followed by the opera performed by trained actors and actresses. I could not catch a live show, but managed to practice some puppetry and cosplay myself!
Music also plays a key role in the live performances. These are the instruments used in a typical performance:
On the left is the Malaysian version of the zither. The gongs pictured on the right are used to signify different situations in the play like ambush, celebration, arrival of a new character etc. Fascinating stuff!
With tourism increasing in Penang, demand for Teochew puppetry is also on the rise. In fact, our guide told us that in certain seasons, the puppet opera is performed exclusively in temples due to high demand and no shows are scheduled at the opera house we were visiting. That’s a good sign, right? Hope I see a live performance soon!

 

The Puppetmistress

In the age of Netflix and an unending stream of good-quality shows, who has the time for a childish pastime like puppetry? Or so I thought, until I happened to catch a showcase of wayang kulit – a traditional Malaysian puppetry show – in George Town. That show turned out to be my first tryst with Southeast Asian puppetry and I have seen many more forms, from puppets the size of my hand (Potehi) to puppets two times taller than me over the one year I have lived in Penang. Apparently, it’s not just for kids!

Any artform is a veritable window into the local culture of a place and wayang kulit, literally, shadow play, is no exception. More popular in Kelantan state of Malaysia, wayang kulit can be understood as wayang, meaning “theater,” and kulit, meaning “skin,” referring to the leather puppets used to portray shadows on a white screen. The puppeteer, or tok dalang, sits behind a screen and presses the intricately carved leather puppets onto it, creating shadow play. Here’s the amazing part: in every showcase, a single puppeteer animates ALL the puppets and voices ALL of them! There could be around 40 characters in a play, but the tok dalang will single-handedly manage all the puppets and animate them!

Music is a big part of the performance; the tok dalang is always be accompanied by traditional musicians who perform the opening song, in-between melodies and background score. They usually sit on mats behind the master puppeteer and play accompanying music with traditional Malay percussion and wind instruments, like barrel drums, gongs, cymbals and a traditional oboe. The performance often starts with a tree of life motif (with two giant leaves being pressed repeatedly onto the screen) and the troupe playing a traditional song.

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Tok dalang animates leather puppets behind the curtain. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

From what I understood, wayang kulit is most popular in the villages of Kelantan state if Malaysia, where interestingly, there is wayang kulit festival held every year. In fact, even the performance I saw was by a troupe from Kelantan. Interestingly, the wayang kulit of Kelantan most often tells stories of the Hikayat Maharaja Wana, an oral epic poem derived from Ramayana.  The main story is about two brothers, Seri Rama and Laksmana, who are the sons of a king. Instead of either one becoming the next king, both brothers along with Rama’s wife, Sita Dewi, are banished from the kingdom. Maharaja Wana (Ravan) then kidnaps Sita Dewi and takes her to Langkapuri (Lanka), from where Seri Ram, along with the help of the brave monkey warrior Hanuman, must rescue her.

Sounds familiar? Well, if you are imagining a Ramleela type of unfolding of events, you are sorely mistaken! Wayang kulit has taken inspiration from Ramayana but adapted it completely to the local context. The dialogues, for instance, are in Kelantanese and the supporting cast often includes local characters like monks or court jesters. What’s more, to attract Gen Y, puppeteers have started introducing minions, Star Wars characters and Mickey Mouse! Talk about adaptations!

The puppets are also painted in various hues, adding another layer of creativity and dynamism to the ancient art form.

Wayang kulit has an interesting performance tradition. In the rural villages of Kelantan, the puppet show often starts in the evening as a form of entertainment and perhaps goes on the entire night! The audiences sit on both sides of the screen, chat amongst themselves, step out to buy some essentials, have a meal and mill around – becoming an active part of the performance, instead of a mere passive audience. The puppetry show acts as a communal activity, wherein the audience isn’t expected to merely sit and listen, but move about, and perhaps even interact with some of the cast members as the performance goes on.

The performance I saw was held at the Hock Teik Sein Chin temple in UNESCO World Heritage Site George Town. The temple has a square courtyard and a stage where the troupe Wayang Kulit Seri Warisan Pusaka performed that night with members aged between 13 and 70; five among them were from a single family. Like many traditional art forms, the skills have been passed on from generation to generation within families.

What I really found interesting was how the puppetry show was a communal activity (even in its modern avatar). The concept of a ‘moving audience’ intrigued me. As it is, every person experiences art differently, and to add another dimension to that experience by encouraging audiences to move about, get different perspectives and go backstage, made the experience richer in my opinion.
And this is just one experience! I have many more to share with you. Like I said, puppetry – who knew!!