One morning when Nina, one of the volunteers at the LGTC, went for her morning run along the Mekong River, she saw a Ferris wheel and other attraction stalls being set up. This could only mean that everyone was getting ready for one of Laos’ biggest festivals of the year, which always takes place on 18 October.
For us this meant a week(end) full of celebrations. Not only the forthcoming Lhai Heua Fai festival (“floating boats of light downstream”) was being celebrated on Thursday night, but also the ensuing two-day Boun Suang Heua or Boun Xuang Heua (Lao: ບຸນຊ່ວງເຮືອ) festival known as the Vientiane Boat Race Festival – as well as the Lao-German Technial Colleges‘s celebration of the „Teachers’ Day“ on Friday. In addition to that the following Monday was free due to the „International Teachers’ Day“. With regards to the experiences of Team III a year ago, we were curious to gain our own impressions and opinions on such an abundance of festivals and we could not wait for it to start.
The celebrations started on Thursday evening when we were picked up by our colleagues Ms Mouk and Mr Bouakham to go to the Mekong River next to the Night Market, which was twice as big as usual thanks to the special occasion: The end of Buddhist lent – the end of Vassa. When the 3-month rainy season has officially ended, rice and money are given to the temples, and banana leaf boats with flowers candles are sent downstream, to leave the misfortunes of the past year behind, to open up to fresh fortune, and to give thanks to the river spirit. Additionally it serves to pay respect to Buddha, and to honor the mother of the river for endowing our lives with water and fish.
On the back of our friends’ scooters we could feel the city’s festive vibe. We found our way through the hundreds of people who were about to send away the bad spirits with the beautiful flower arrangements called “kathong”.
On the one hand, we were overwhelmed by the huge crowd of people being in the streets, by the loud music everywhere, the shouting and yelling of salesmen advertising their products, by the different smells of many unfamiliar yet delicious looking foods, and the masses of people at the Night Market. On the other hand, seeing the excitement and joy in people’s faces, the variety of shows performed in the romantic atmosphere of the night next to the Mekong River and the fireworks coloring the sky, made all our little worries float away with the „kathong“ in the peaceful water.
The next day we were not woken up by our neighbor’s barking dog or his crowing rooster, but by loud singing coming from the LGTC school grounds right next to our bungalow, where students and teachers were singing together and holding speeches. The first thing we noticed when we entered the college site was a number of teachers preparing traditional Lao dishes in harmonious interaction in the open air. We were welcomed with open arms and were shown all the “delicious breakfast” dishes such as beef salad (Lao: ລາບ – larb), grilled fish (Lao: ປີ້ງປາ – pingpa), and papaya salad (Lao:ຕຳຫມາກຮຸ່ງ – tham mak hoong).
Certainly, we were curious to try and help prepare the food, even if it meant having spicy papaya salad, beef salad with chopped cow stomach and faeces (as some kind of marinade), and grilled fish for breakfast. Actually, we encountered some Lao food habits in terms of breakfast already in Germany, when Rebecca from team IV gave a presentation about intercultural barriers to language-learning, in this case a unit about meals in a Western coursebook. We were all astonished since Rebecca told us that her Lao students could not find any food for breakfast when they looked at the selection of (western) breakfast items that they were supposed to choose from. However, their eyes started gleaming when they found the “right” answers for the breakfast question in the choices for (western) lunch or dinner on the next page.
This seemed odd to us at the time, but now we were even more baffled when we realized with a sudden jolt that this was absolutely true!
Just to give you a little taste…
You could have taken it for regular salad, couldn’t you? Well, “regular“ salad in terms of German understanding means lettuce, cabbage, spinach, or any other vegetable. But actually this video shows Lao chopped cow stomach – Lao salad.
Ket, who works in academic affairs and is also a teacher at the LGTC, led us to the actual ceremony of “Teacher’s Day” in the Automotive Section building. The students were sitting on one side of the room facing the teachers on the other side, who were next to the speaker’s desk. When we sat down in the back of the room in between the students so as not to disturb the speech, Ba, who also works in administration, asked us to come to the front and sit with the rest of the teachers, since the separation between the two was a sign of respect and thankfulness of the students. However, Ket and us felt dressed inappropriately in our everyday clothes for this occasion, as the other teachers wore their official beige uniforms.
After the ceremony the room was rearranged to hold two large festive tables where the previously prepared dishes were served. A vivacious atmosphere was filling the room – everyone was chatting cheerfully and enjoying the brunch, and Lao beer was served. The traditional Lao music was surprisingly not played by a professional band, but rather by the teachers themselves, who spontaneously took over the microphone to sing karaoke. After a couple of pieces, a traditional Lao song opened the dance floor in the auto-mechanic hall, at 11 o’clock in the morning.
We, the ladies, were asked to line up in the front, where each one of us was greeted by their partner with the “nob”, a polite bow with palms pressed together in front of the chest. A thirty–second crash course in traditional dancing was all the preparation we had to follow along. In comparison to the European style, which involves moving the whole body to a certain rhythm, the focus of the Lao dance lies on the gentle and intricate movement of the hands while slowly walking to the rhythm of the music. In this particular dance, the couples moved side by side around a flower pot, forming a circle around it. To the great joy of our hosts and our pleasure we participated in a few more dances and even got the hang of it (or thought we did) during the last one.
See for yourself – our first attempt:
In all likelihood, the hand gestures are all symbolic Buddhist expressions of certain mythical concepts, so we are likely to have got them all wrong, but our crash course stopped before we could even think of asking.
The celebration lasted until late in the evening, but we left in the afternoon to go and see the boat race on the Mekong River, which was supposed to take place at that time. On our way to the finishing line, the beaming sun was burning down on our shoulders leaving nice tan lines. Still unbelievable…it is already October.
Arriving at the finishing line we realized that the final race must have already been over since people were leaving and the tents were about to be put down – a good example for Lao time frames, which are often less precise than German ones.
The competition in Vientiane is supposed to be the biggest boat race in Laos, with a variety of teams from all over the country who prepare themselves for about a year to take part in this contest. When we asked our teacher-friends about their personal connection to the boat race festival and about its traditional meaning, most of them seemed to see it as a social and sporting event rather than a cultural one with a traditional background. However, going back years, the mythical association is drawn to the “naga”, “the protective river spirits of Vientiane, which, according to Lao beliefs, carry away the rice paddies and return them back to the water” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boun_Suang_Huea).
We are grateful that we had the opportunity to experience these very different but unique, interesting, and abundant Lao traditions and habits within just a few days full of celebrations.
Text and photos by J. Adelberg & A. Kummetz