Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Introducing...Luang Prabang Butterfly Park

Last time I went up to Kuang Si Waterfall I stopped off to visit a new eco-tourism attraction that has opened up just 300m down the road - Kuang Si Butterfly Park. At the time of my visit, the park had been open just 5 months - since December 2013 - but was already highly rated on TripAdvisor.
The park was founded and is run by a Dutch couple, Olaf and Ineke, who came to Laos for a break on the recommendation of a friend a few years ago, never anticipating that they would end up back here. Back in Holland, Olaf was an art director and Ineke an art therapist - but they had a vision to work closer to nature. After considering a move to set up in South America, their hearts brought them back to Luang Prabang and the Butterfly Park idea was born.  The area around Kuang Si naturally attracts hosts of beautiful butterflies, so it was the perfect spot to embark on their project.  Olaf drew up designs and, working with craftsmen from the local village, the park was created and landscaped with plants brought in from all across Laos.

Butterfly feeding station
"We created our Butterfly Park with all our skills and respect for nature.  We built the Butterfly Park to open up the hearts and minds of people of any country and experience the beauty of Lao nature"
Eco-tourism is defined as responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.  Which is exactly what the founders' vision set out to achieve.  The park is not just for tourists - Olaf and Ineke are very keen for the park to be as much for visitors as for the local people - with sponsored programmes for free transportation, meals and entrance for schoolchildren to encourage local interest and foster a greater appreciation and understanding of Lao nature by revealing the magical world of the butterflies.  The park also has an eco-toilet and uses water from the waterfall, which runs alongside the park, for all the bathroom facilities.

Orchid-lined path
I confess I knew little about butterflies before my visit but the 15 minute guided tour with Olaf soon sorted that out; I found out that butterflies have a powerful sense of smell (their 'nose' is located in their tenticles) which works up to 2-3km, and that they always return to the host plant where they were born.  Their scales act as solar panels and their little fluttery life spans range from a few days to a few weeks.

Local visitor at the Luang Prabang Butterfly Farm
The tour took us down alongside part of the falls and through beautifully landscaped rock gardens, with brightly coloured orchids, tropical plants and "flower feeding stations" providing a welcoming and enticing environment for these delicate creatures.  The park also has a picnic area, bakery and natural swimming pools formed from the milky blue waters of Kuang Si.

Natural swimming pool at the Butterfly Park
Apparently there is only one book in existence on the butterflies of Laos, published back in 1989.  The hope is that eventually the park will provide a homebase for researchers to study the butterflies and publish further books for use in Lao schools, government institutes and universities. Olaf and Ineke are hoping to find funding to build accommodation onsite to make it possible for researchers to stay on site and make this a reality.

Butterfly Park founders Olaf and Ineke
It's so great to see initiatives like this in Luang Prabang, and I hope that this is the route that tourism continues to take in this country - sustainable, responsible, celebrating the natural unspoilt beauty and biodiversity of Laos.

Entrance fees (includes 15 minutes guided tour):
Visitors - 30,000 Kip
Lao citizens - 20,000 Kip
Students - 15,000 Kip
Lao children - 10,000 Kip

Free parking.

For further info, contact Laosbutterflies@yahoo.com

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Education projects - giving back in Luang Prabang

Recently I came across a wonderful new education project in Luang Prabang, and it's inspired me to write about some of the special people and projects that make it their business to bring education, joy and opportunity to the young people of this town.

If you are a visitor (or resident) who loves Luang Prabang, and wants to encourage and support bright futures for its young people, then you might want to consider visiting and making a donation to the following initiatives (or volunteering at them if its appropriate).

Music for Everyone School (MES)

Director of MES, Max
The discovery of this marvelous little music school was the source of inspiration for this post. I stumbled across its website recently and, as music played such a major role in my childhood, I was eager to check it out. So I took a trip over there to find out more.

 "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music" - Aldous Huxley

The school is across the old bridge over the Nam Khan, down the road to Taohai temple.  As I entered the cooling air of the building, I was greeted by a wall of instruments, photos of smiling kids and the echoes of little Lao voices singing "You are my sunshine" wafting down the hall.  Then along came the charming director Max, who graciously gave me a tour and told me more about the school.  MES was set up by a Korean charity called Music Fun, and opened in July 2013.  It is a non-profit organisation with the aim of bringing music education and tuition to Lao children, helping local kids who love music gain access to instruments and teaching that they otherwise would not have. The school has four classrooms - 2 practice rooms, 1 study room and 1 band room - and gives basic music lessons in acoustic, bass and electric guitar, as well as ukelele, drums and piano.

Teenage girls learning ukelele
If you have music skills you can offer, the school is always on the lookout for volunteers. They also need help with fundraising and technical support, and donations are always welcome.  And if you're curious to know why music education is so powerful, and so important and valuable for kids, then you might want to check out this link


Entrance to MES, visitors welcome

Opening hours:

Monday to Friday
Morning: 8.00 - 11.00
Afternoon: 12.00 - 16.00
Evening: 16.30 - 19.30

Website: www.meslaos.wordpress.com
Email: mes.laos@gmail.com







@ My Library

Ah, @ My Library. This has a special place in many people's hearts, not least those of the many alumni (including MES director Max) that have gone on to achieve scholarships and life-changing opportunities thanks to American founder Carol's unrelenting passion, encouragement and truly holistic approach to learning. Carol set up the library in 2003.  Previously to be found opposite Wat Nong, the library recently moved to a super new location in the quiet leafy neighbourhood of Ban Aphai not far from the famed riverside bar-restaurant Utopia.  The new building is light and airy, with lots of space and a big breezy veranda overlooking the Nam Khan river where the kids can hang out, read, play games and chat amongst themselves.

Students playing Scrabble at @MyLibrary. Photo courtesy of @MyLibrary

This is not a library in the traditional sense that I have ever known, growing up in London. As well as borrowing books (there are over 3000 books, cds and videos), kids have access to computers, the internet, board games (scrabble, chess - there are some real chess whizz kids here), cameras, microscopes and much more. While the library supports self-study, occasional classes are also offered, including English language, photography, hands-on science, IT and video. Through this variety of resources and under the calm, approachable influence of Carol, the young people who come here are motivated to be active, curious, imaginative and independent learners and to develop critical thinking skills beyond the traditional rote learning at school.

A young novice checks out some historical photos. Photo courtesy of @MyLibrary


Students making use of the many computers. Photo courtesy of @MyLibrary

While users "have to be able to act 14", quiet but engaged kids can come as young as 10 and generally move on with their lives by 28 although there are a few older users. At the time of writing this, the library has on average 80 students using it per day. There is no charge to borrow a book or camera and the classes offered are also free. Many promising Lao photographers have gotten their start @ My Library and user photos and Photoshop Portraits are displayed on the walls and have been shown at international exhibitions in the US, France, Cambodia and India.

The atmosphere in this library is so positive, calm and happy, and you can immediately sense the love and energy that has gone into making it what it is today.

According to Carol, it is a continually evolving experiment in what happens when you give motivated users the materials and encouragement they need to study anything. Foreigners are welcome to chat or play chess and scrabble with users or to sit on the balcony and read the many books on Buddhism, Lao and Hmong culture. @ My Library accepts donations of used cameras for their photography programme and used laptops, to re-purpose and send out into their other libraries. They have short, fun science or math Mp4 videos in Lao, and “Bounmy has a Buffalo” for teaching English, that you can load onto your smartphone and show to kids as you travel around the country.

Opening Hours: 
8:30 am – 12:00 pm, 1:00 – 9:00 pm Monday-Thursday                                                  
8:30 am – 12:00 pm, 1:00 – 4:00 pm Friday and Saturday
Closed Sunday       

Website:         www.thelanguageproject.org 
Videos:           youtube.com/atmylibrary
Gallery:           http://laophotographers.zenfolio.com 


Community Reading Room & House of Dreams

This is a grassroots project set up by a truly remarkable young Lao man called Ken Phitsapeng who wanted to open doors to a brighter future for the children of his home village, Ban Padaeng.  House of Dreams is a  home from home for children who've left their village to continue their secondary education in Luang Prabang.  Ken's story and achievements, and the achievements of the Community Reading Room and House of Dreams, are beautifully captured in this short video.



For House of Dreams, donations are needed to assist students with basic living costs, approximately $500 per student needs to be raised per year (parents are responsible for their school fees). Small donations for books, furniture, and other resources are also welcome. 

Website:         http://communityreadingroom.weebly.com
Email:             crr_lao@hotmail.com


Other education projects in Luang Prabang you might want to check out:

Lao Kids
http://www.lao-kids.org/

Big Brother Mouse
http://www.bigbrothermouse.com/

Luang Prabang Library
http://www.thelanguageproject.org/index.php/the-libraries/luang-prabang-library

Deak Kum Pa Orphanage
http://www.togetherforcharity.se/wordpress/?page_id=18
For further information, contact Andrew Brown at andrewb@lotusvillalaos.com 

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Shopping for authentic Lao handicraft in Luang Prabang

If you're into hand-woven textiles and exquisite handicraft, then Luang Prabang is a veritable Aladdin's Cave. Passing visitors often lament the fact that they don't have enough space in their luggage for all the beautiful things they want to buy.

 Luang Prabang Night Market
The most popular shopping experience in Luang Prabang is the famous Night Market, where women from the surrounding villages have been coming to sell their hand-made and natural local products for years.

Sadly however, the Night Market has been infiltrated by modern backpacker demand for cheap holiday t-shirts, tie-dye elephant-print pants, souvenir magnets and fake antique jewellery.

Amongst the items that appear to be handicraft, it can sometimes be tricky for newcomers to decipher what are the authentic Lao products and what are cheap imported Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese rip offs so anyone looking for the genuine article can get a bit confused.

In order to combat this issue and safeguard the Lao artisan traditions, a new initiative was introduced last year by the Luang Prabang Handicraft Association to help visitors identify and select the locally produced, hand-made items. 



The Luang Prabang Handicraft Label was launched in December 2012 with the backing of various government departments, NGOs and local businesses, and a lot of hard work and organisation from Keo Oudomvilay, a local sustainable development consultant.  Vendors of merchandise that are at least 60% hand-produced in Luang Prabang province are encouraged to display the label / sticker on their products as a way to assure buyers and better market their authenticity.  So look out for the label.

But the night market isn't the only place to find authentic Lao handicrafts - there are several businesses around town that promote and sell all kinds of beautiful, sustainable Lao products - including items quite different from what you will find in the night market.

To help visitors support the precious artisan culture of Laos, I've devised a shopping route which takes in many of these businesses.  The route focuses on the area of Ban Aphai, just south of Phousi Hill, which is slowly becoming a new centre for authentic Lao handicraft shops, now that the main street rents have rocketed and the shopfronts are full of restaurants, jewellery shops, bars and tour companies.



My recommended route starts with a visit to the small but very well curated Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) to learn about the different Lao ethnic groups, and the various styles of textiles and artifacts produced in each region.


Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) 
Tuesday – Sunday, 9am – 6pm
Admission 25,000 kip per person, free for Lao citizens

Located just off Kitsalat Road, the TAEC is a non-profit museum and cultural exchange centre that was set up in 2006 to promote and preserve the cultural heritage and ethnic diversity of Laos. 

The museum has a permanent exhibit that focuses on the cultural traditions and livelihoods of four of the most recognised ethnic minority groups of Laos: Akha, Hmong, Khmu and Tai Dam.  The exhibit contains artifacts from the homes of these groups, and sub-groups within them, such as bedding, baskets, and household tools, as well as intricate hand-woven clothing and elaborate headdresses adorned with antique silver. As well as this, the museum showcases temporary exhibitions, and hosts various workshops and seminars for locals and visitors alike to learn more about the rich and diverse culture of the people of Laos. 

The TAEC building entrance
When you finish looking around the exhibits, you can find some charming hand-made items in the museum shop and have a delicious ethnic-themed lunch or a drink in the small museum cafe.






When you leave the museum, turn left and then left again at Dara Market and wander down towards the area called Ban Aphai.   About 100m down the road, you'll find a shop called Yensabai Books & Art on the right.


Yensabai Books & Art

Yensabai...(not to be confused with the one and only late night bar in town) is a bookshop with a difference, which you'll notice as soon as you enter.  The entire right-hand wall is covered with intricate handmade paper stencils.  The stencils are created by Sith, a young man originally from Muang Ngoi who learnt this art during his four years as a novice at Wat Choumkhong in Luang Prabang.

Stencils for sale at Yensabai Books & Art

Stencil art has been practiced in Laos for centuries and is the traditional method of temple decoration.  You may recognise some of the motifs from the walls and pillars of Wat Xieng Thong and other temples around town.  The stencils are made with hand-made paper, and come in all different shapes and sizes.

If you wish to have a go at stenciling yourself, the shop runs classes every day from 10am - 12pm, and from 12pm - 2pm. Classese are 120,000 kip pp (approx. US $15) for 2 hours, maximum of 3 people per class

Stencil making at Yensabai books and art
Yensabai also sells hard-wearing, sustainable Nature Bags , the Khmu natural alternative to a modern-day plastic bag.
Jungle-vine "Nature bags"

Continuing the route, turn right out of the shop and head down the road another 100m or so til you reach the Aussie Sports Bar, and a road heading off to the right. Here you'll find a little cluster of handicraft shops.


Ma Té Sai

Colourful products at Ma Té Sai
Ma Té Sai (which in Lao means "where's it from") has been running for three years, and is a member of Lao Fair Trade. Set up by Australian Emi Weir and French Clemence Pabion, they collaborate with NGOs, Fair Trade Laos and villages from all across the country to source and sometimes co-design unique handmade and natural products. 

The shop recently re-located from the main street and now have a small fair-trade coffee shop area in the front. It is great for homeware and cotton products such as scarves, jackets, table linens, bamboo baskets and ornaments (I love their Christmas tree ornaments). They also stock little pottery items from "the pottery village" across the Mekong, as well as recycled metal jewellery and some super stylish Akha belts.

Hmong reverse embroidery classes are also held here for $28pp with drink and snack included. Ma té Sai has another shop winthin Artisans du Mekong in the "Paper Village", Ban XangKhong, and you can also shop for items online at www.matesai.com.

Ma Te Sai new location in Ban Aphai

Kop Noi

Mankone's bold images of Buddha at Kop Noi gallery
Next door to Ma Te Sai is Kop Noi, a Canadian-owned shop and art gallery that opened in 2005.  The shop sells natural and handmade products from all over Laos, including whisky from Pakse, and luxury silk products from Phaeng Mai Gallery.  The distinguishing feature of this shop is the original artwork by two Lao artists -Mankone and P.Noy - in the large gallery upstairs.

Mankone's paintings of Buddhist images are recognisable by their bold use of gold, red and black.  After years of selling his drawings to small souvenir shops to fund him through school, he is now a successful artist. You can also purchase his smaller painted tiles in the shop.

P.Noy is the most well known female artist in Laos. Born in Vientiane in 1985, to a family of five daughters, her paintings are bright, bold and colourful, and illustrate the daily lives of Lao women.

Two colourful paintings by P.Noy

Yao Culture Centre


Part shop, part small museum, the Yao Culture Centre opposite Kop Noi houses some beautiful Yao, Lao and Akha products.  They have some great kids hats, beautiful silk scarves, embroidered cushion covers and a variety of interesting bags.

Hats on display at the Yao Culture Centre
They also have a nice selection of colourful handmade toys and baby carriers. In the back, they have traditional Yao wedding suits on display, as well as some day-to-day items and tools that you would find in a Yao home. This is a lovely little shop.



Phai Pradith Shop

This shop, next door to the Yao Culture Centre, specilalises in hand-made bamboo or "mai phai" products.  Bamboo has been harvested by the Lao since ancient times to create all sorts of useful, household items, such as the little baskets that sticky rice is served in.  In this shop, you can find a range of bamboo products including bins, bowls, magazine holders, mats, and hats.

Bamboo or "Mai Pai" products at Phai Pradith shop
They also stock lovely handmade lacquerware bowls, from the Mani Lacquerware Workshop in Pongkham village.  This lacquerware technique has been passed down through generations, dating back to the reign of King Sisavangvong in the 19th century, when it was popular with the households of Royal families and high government officials.  Products such as bowls and trays are made from bamboo or wood carvings before being coated with a special black wood "rubber" varnish called "yang nam kieng", that protects the products from water and moisture.


Still hungry for more?

Take a bike and head across the Nam Khan to the two adjoined villages of Ban Xieng Lek and Ban XangKhong (the Paper Village) for more weaving and to see some handmade paper making in action.

Delicate handmade saa paper drying in the sunshine in Ban XangKhong

In Ban Xieng Lek, a must-see is the fabulous Patta Textile Gallery where the talented, eccentric local weaver and owner Tadam creates exceptionally beautiful scarves, rugs and wall hangings using her own unique modern twist on the tradtional Lao patterns and colour schemes.  There is also another Ma Te Sai shop and small cafe in the Artisans du Mekong complex in Ban XangKhong.

 
Hand dyed silk drying at Patta Gallery

Handmade, raw silk wall hangings by Tadam at Patta Gallery

Or you could head west towards Phousi market to learn more about traditional local weaving, dyeing and batik techniques, and have a go yourself at the renowned Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Centre . You can also purchase their famous quality silk scarves and other handmade items at the beautiful shop onsite.



Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Learning to cook Lao food in Luang Prabang

One of my favourite restaurants in Luang Prabang is Cafe Toui.  This tiny, unimposing restaurant in Ban Xieng Mouane is on a side street between the main road and the Mekong, and is thus often overlooked.  But those who find it come back again and again, tourists and expats alike.

Photos of Cafe Toui, Luang Prabang
This photo of Cafe Toui is courtesy of TripAdvisor

As many will verify, the local Lao owner - Toui - cooks from the heart ('cook from the heart' is the motto he has painted on the walls of his kitchen!).  The food is always fresh and excellent - visitors often opting for the delicious and reasonably priced Lao set menu, while expats come for the comforting venison pasta, duck á l'orange and steak with peppercorn sauce. (see end of post for latest offerings)

Of the Lao menu, my personal favourites are the pumpkin curry, the stirfry pork & aubergine, chicken laap and the mok paa (fish steamed in banana leaf).  Take note though - on busy nights you should be prepared to bring some patience with you.  As each dish is cooked fresh from scratch, service can be slow; but if you have the time it's worth the wait. 

I felt it was high time I learned to cook some Lao food, which is not a hugely well known cuisine globally - unlike the dishes of neighbouring Thailand, China and Vietnam - but really deserves to be so.  Lao food tends to be much lighter than Thai food and uses numerous flavorful fresh herbs and plants.  Almost every meal is served up with a bamboo basket of glutenous sticky rice (known in Lao as kao niao) on the side.  More information of Lao cuisine and its origins can be found here, or in one of the books listed at the end of this post.

Anyway, rather than join a big group at one of the cooking schools, I asked Toui if he would give me a private cooking lesson and teach me some Lao recipes.

We started the day at 9.00am by heading off to the morning market to pick up some fresh ingredients, then whizzed back to the kitchen to begin my lesson. I don't wish to publicly share all of Toui's culinary secrets, but here are some photos of a few of the delicious things I made...(first he demonstrated, and then it was my turn on my own!).  I also learnt to make chicken laap, fresh vegetable spring rolls and the technique for frying up Mekong River Weed (Kai Pen) so as not to end up with burnt black crumbling flakes.

1) Pumpkin Curry  2) Fried peanuts with kaffir lime  3) Mok Paa - steamed fish in banana leaf

Cooking Lao food is easier than it looks, and immensely satisfying.  If you want to learn to cook Lao food in Luang Prabang, there are several established cooking schools where you can take group classes:

Tamarind Cooking School
WEB: http://www.tamarindlaos.com/cooking-school/
TEL: (071) 213 128 or +85620 7777 0484
EMAIL: info@tamarindlaos.com
Tamarind Facebook Page

Tamarind restaurant is situated on the peninsula by the Nam Khan river, but classes take place in Tamarind Gardens, a lakeside pavilion just out of town.  This is a very popular school, so it is wise to book well in advance during high season. Transport to and from the pavilion is provided.

Full day class (9am - 3pm, Mon - Sat) incl. market tour: 270,000 kip (approx. US $34)
Evening class (4pm - 8.30pm, Mon - Fri) without market tour 200,000 kip (approx. US $25)

Click HERE for Tripadvisor reviews

Tamnak Lao Cooking School
http://www.tamnaklao.net/
TEL: +856 71 252 525 or +856 71 212 239 or +856 205 551 6437
EMAIL: tamnaklp@yahoo.com.au

Whole day and evening classes available, taking place down a side street just behind the Tamnak Lao restaurant in Ban Vat Sene.  Min 1 person, Max 12 people.

Full day class (10am - 5pm) including in-depth tour of all sections of the market and 12-recipe cookbook: 250,000 kip (approx. US $30)
Evening class (5pm - 7.30pm) including 12-recipe cookbook: 160,000 kip (approx. US $20)

Click HERE for Tripadvisor reviews

Tum Tum Cheng Cooking School
http://tumtumcheng.wicked-web.biz/
TEL: +856 71 253 187 or +856 20 2242 5499
EMAIL: info@tumtumcheng.net
Tum Tum Cheng Facebook Page

Tum Tum Cheng restaurant is towards the end of the peninsula on the main road, near Wat Xieng Thong.  Like Tamarind and Tamnak Lao, the full day class at Tum Tum Cheng includes a tour of the local market and explanation of the local fruits of vegetables.  The school has been around since 2001 and classes can either be taken in the restaurant's open kitchen onsite, or out of town at their Garden Farm near Kuang Si waterfall.

Full day class at the Garden Farm (8am - 2.30 /3pm) including trip to Kuang Si waterfall: 400,000 kip (approx. US $50)

Click HERE for Tripadvisor reviews

Alternatively,  you could ask a knowledgeable Lao friend (or I'm sure even Toui himself for a small fee) if they would spare a few hours to teach you.  This of course gives you the flexibility to choose what you would like to cook, and have 1-to-1 attention at a time and place that suits you.

You could also head up to stay at the wonderfully peaceful Vanvisa at the Falls Guesthouse near Kuang Si for a night, where the legendary Madame Vandara (whose aunt was an assistant to Phia Sing and who co-authored Food and Travel Laos - see below) will give you a tour of her gorgeous organic gardens, share her unsurpassed knowledge on Lao plants and herbs and give you a cookery lesson.  Depending on the time of year, she also serves up delicious homemade passion fruit juice and enormous fresh papaya from her garden.  Click HERE for room prices and cookery school rates.

For those of you that are farther afield and would like to try your hand at this fresh and healthy cuisine, I'm afraid good Lao recipe books (unlike Thai) are not in abundance.  There are just a handful of Lao cookery books available in English (see some examples below).  Sadly the English version of Food and Travel Laos (which is excellent) is now out of print - it is available only in Thai.

You can also check out these blogs on Lao food for recipes, videos and more information:

Food from Northern Laos http://www.foodfromnorthernlaos.com/
Lao Cook
http://laocook.com/


Traditional recipes of Laos by Phia Sing

Over 100 recipes from the notebook of the former chef and master of ceremonies of the Royal Palace of Luang Prabang, Phia Sing.  The book was first published in 1981 by Prospect Books, a publishing house set up by Alan Davidson, who was British Ambassador to Laos in the 1960s. The book also includes an introduction on the life of Phia Sing, who was by all accounts a remarkably talented and accomplished man - 'a sort of Laotian Leonardo da Vinci', as Alan puts it.






Ant egg soup: The adventures of a food tourist in Laos by Natacha du Pont du Bie

More of a food and travel journal than a straightforward recipe book, containing anecdotes of Natacha's travels through Laos - the people and cultures she encounters, the weird and wonderful foods she discovers and the recipes she picks up along the way.









Food from Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook by Dorothy Culloty and Kees Sprengers

A comprehensive and highly visual cookery book containing 200 pages of illustrated recipes (in English and Lao language) from the people who write the "Food from Northern Laos" blog. Available on Amazon in the US, and from White Lotus Books in Asia.






 


Last but not least for all LP residents and visitors whose tastebuds need a change from Lao, this season Cafe Toui is introducing a new Western-style lunch special (selection of hearty salads and soup of the day for 35,000 kip).  Look out for the spiced mulled red wine in December and the new calorifically delicious banoffee pie dessert too.

Banoffee dessert at Cafe Toui

Monday, 14 October 2013

Awk Phansa Boat Fire Festival Luang Prabang

On the night of the full moon in October, Luang Prabang celebrates the end of Buddhist lent (Awk Phansa) with my favourite festival Bun Lai Heua Fai, known in English as the Boat Fire Festival.

Colourful glowing temple grounds of Wat Xieng Mouane on the evening of Awk Phansa
The town of Luang Prabang is a special place as it is, but on this night it becomes truly magical.  Every temple is illuminated with hundreds of colourful hand-made paper lanterns and the town simply glows.

Individual villages and temples create large elaborate boats using bamboo, coloured paper, leaves, flowers and candles which they then light up and carry along the main street in a large candlelit procession down to Wat Xieng Thong, where they are displayed and judged before being taken down the steps of the temple to the Mekong river and released downstream.

A young girl stops to admire a boat on display
Similar to the Thai festival of Loi Krathong, locals from all around the town and surrounding villages also gather along the banks of the river to release their own individual floating vessels made with slices of banana trunk that are adorned with elaborately folded banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense; some locals also release large paper sky lanterns which float gracefully up towards the stars.

It is traditional to tuck some money into the boat as an offering for the river spirits, before lighting the candles, saying prayers and then gently floating the boats onto the river. Some people also cut their fingernails or hair and place the clippings on the boat as a symbol of letting go of anger, hatred and bad luck.

There are literally thousands of these glittering small boats drifting along the Mekong and the reflections in the river makes it shimmer like gold.  It really is a breathtaking spectacle.

Local person making a prayer before releasing his candlelit vessel on the Mekong river
Young children selling their hand-decorated crown-like floating vessels
This tradition combines Buddhism with ancient local beliefs in the spirit world.  Nagas, river monsters who date back to the animistic believes of the tribal Laotians, are believed to inhabit the river, and the boats are offered both as a thanksgiving to them and to honour the Buddha.
Young local man releasing a sky lantern

This year (2013) the festival takes place on Saturday 19th October.  It can be tough to capture the beauty of this event in photographs - so I'm hoping to improve my skills by participating in a photography workshop taking place over the same weekend, led by Georges Betrand at Artisans du Mekong.  Georges will also open his exhibition, "Luang Prabang, A Gentle World" on 18th October at Artisans du Mekong.