Bill and Sue-On Hillman: A 50-Year Musical Odyssey


Arrival ~ Hotel ~ Market ~ NY Basi Ceremony ~ Utopia
Luang Prabang: After two days on the Mekong River we reached Luang Prabang, the “big city” in Northern Laos (population: 50,000).  Luang Prabang, a beautiful town which was once the Royal City of Laos, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is known as the centre of Buddhism. They claim that it is the home of more monks than anywhere else in Asia. In the distance we observed one of the major landmarks in the city -- Mount Phou Si, a 100 m steep hill. At the summit of the hill, overlooking the town and surrounding countryside, was a tourist favourite - the Buddhist temple, Wat Chom Si.

Treasure Hotel: Upon docking, young porters carried our bags up the shore's steep climb to our Songthaew (local bus) which took us on a 30 minute drive to Treasure Hotel. After a cold shower and a rest we strolled down the street to drop off laundry. Since we carried all our clothes and necessities in our backpacks, Sue-On did much of our laundry in our hotel rooms, but there are nearly always small laundry services close to tourist hotels. We found one just a few blocks away (8,000 kips/kg ~ 5 kg = US$5).

Jo Ma Cafe: Later in the day Beam led us to a Western-style restaurant on the main street: Jo Ma Bakery and Cafe. It was a bit of a novelty seeing a "Western food" menu after the many Asian meals we had enjoyed since our arrival in Bangkok. The dining area seemed to be a favourite among young backpackers.

Night Market: The next stop was the Night Market. The sprawling Luang Prabang Night Market was one of the best we visited in Indochina. There were numerous long rows/alleys of sellers hawking their wares: local crafts, textiles, carvings, clothing, scarves, jewelry, artwork, bags, wall hangings, tea, coffee, liquor, and endless souvenirs. The food market contained dozens of stalls selling popular Lao dishes: noodles, vegetables, dumplings, crepes, fruit, grilled meats, pot stickers, fruit shakes and quite a few exotic items like deep fried insects, roasted pork heads, skewered rodents, etc. Most sellers carried hand-held calculators on which they could do instant conversions to other currencies.We bought a few small things, always keeping in mind that we had many days ahead of us and that we had limited carrying capacity in our backpacks. 

Basi New Year Ceremony: Group CEO Beam arranged for us to visit a local home for a Lao New Year (Songkran or Pii Mai, April 13-16) celebration ceremony and meal. We had seen related celebration since we arrived in Bangkok - mainly involving young people dousing passerbys with water. We didn't quite know what to expect on this home visit but hoped that we weren't in for a major soaking. We took a fairly long walk through the town to join the local family for an evening meal which involved their New Year celebration ceremony. Actually the ceremony we participated in is called Basi - a tradition ceremony that has been practiced for hundreds of years.

This type of ceremony was also done to celebrate other important events such as weddings, house warmings, homecomings and births. Our group sat in a circle on the floor of the family's living room which appeared to double a hair salon through the day. Three elders (each over 80 years of age) sat in the middle at a low table topped with a handmade marigold pyramid (Pha khuan), spools of white yarn and a selection of snacks. We started by putting a hand on the elders' shoulders and they connected all to the offering table. Then the elders slid around the whole group to bless us and tie a string of yarn on both of our wrists while giving a religious chant. Each of us ended up with three strings on each wrist. When they completed their rounds they offered the snacks: fried stuffed banana and deep fried rice cakes. We then all connected by placing hands on shoulders -- a final blessing -- then the elders left.

The daughter of the oldest elder was our chef. She spoke quite a bit of English. Our group formed three circles - we sat with Jim, Yoko and Tom. The young ladies sat together and Bonnie, Roy, Ronnie and Beam formed the third cirdcle. Matt and Steve had done this before so they hadn't come along. The meal came out on three bamboo circular tables called toks. We each received a small basket with sticky rice. They are quite unique as they have a lid and a long string handle. When collected they are gathered by the strings -- a lot easier to manage than bowls. The food was very good: stir-fried shredded bamboo shoots, deep-fried egg plant, local sausage, chicken in coconut milk, laab and a fabulous salad (water cress, mint, lettuce, cukes, tomatoes, etc.), We were able to buy Beerlao and bottled water. The dessert was mango slices, green sticky rice and a purple-coloured custard (the purple colour is from butterfly flowers) This was served on a basket tray made from bamboo leaves. Near the end of the ceremony we were given a bamboo basket-making demonstration.

Utopia: Beam then took us on another night walk to a favourite drinking spot and restaurant - The Utopia. To reach it we followed her through a maze alleyways. There were many smells from the grills of small cafes along the way, as well as from lines of food stalls and numerous gardenia bushes. We finally arrived at Utopia and enjoyed its dark tropical decor seating under the stars on a choice of lounges or small low stools. The seating areas were on different levels, all of them close to the 15 metre drop to the river. The most unusual bit of decor was the old bombs dropped by the US warplanes during the Vietnam War. These were bombs that hadn't been released on targets and had been dropped near here before the planes returned to base. Some exploded, some did not. Lao is one of the most bombed countries in history.

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Desert and Bamboo Basket Demo
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Copyright 2015
Bill and Sue-On Hillman