Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Blending the Buddha and the Benzhu in Bai Religion


                                                        by Jim Goodman

Guan Yin Temple near Dsli
       If you ask anyone of the Bai ethnic minority around Dali, in western Yunnan, who is their most important deity, the answer will be Guan Yin.  Also known as Avalokitesvar, Guan Yin is the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion.  The Bai are nominally Mahayana Buddhist, and the cult of Guan Yin is an essential feature of this brand of Buddhism.  But the Bai also venerate Guan Yin because of an ancient legend that credits her with repelling a Han Dynasty invasion of the Dali plain two millennia ago.
       Accordingly, when the Han army arrived in Dali, Guan Yin disguised herself as a frail, old woman carrying a huge boulder strapped to her back.  Beholding this phenomenon, the Han soldiers worried that if this people’s old women were this strong, their male warriors, men the same age as that of the invader’s troops, must be something like super-human.  So they fled.
Guan Yin frightens the invaders
        In gratitude, the Bai erected a modest temple to Guan Yin over the boulder and originally called it the Huge Stone Temple.  Several buildings were added in the Ming and Qing Dynasties.  The compound lies at the foot of the Malong Peak of the Azure Mountains that rise above the western side of the Dali Plain, on the main Xiaguan-Dali road, five km south of the old city.  Two tall, seven-tiered iron pagodas flank the compound’s entrance gate.  Within the yard are temples, smaller pagodas, pavilions, recitation halls, corridors full of images, a small fish pond, a vaulted stone bridge and scores of potted flowers.
Bai villagers worship their benzhu
       While individual worshipers may come here at any time, on the 19th day of the 3rd, 6th and 9th lunar months the temple is especially active, for Bai villagers come in groups to pay homage to Guan Yin.  And on the 29th day of the second lunar month the temple hosts its annual grand festival, augmenting the rituals with dance programs and a holiday market.  The large crowds that attend this event clearly demonstrate Guan Yin’s enduring importance to the Bai people. 
       However, if you were to ask who is the most important deity in their own village, the answer will not be Guan Yin but someone else, a deity whose name will be different from village to village, for each Bai settlement has its own protector god.  Known by the Chinese term benzhu, this is the village patron, the guardian of its territory, who may be a deified ancestor, warrior or other leader from the past, around whom local legends and myths have differentiated it from the deities of every other village.
       The Bai adopted their tradition from the classic Chinese cult of the city god.  This was usually a local hero associated with the city, charged with advancing its fortunes, and if it failed in that respect, city officials might berate, chastise or even ‘punish’ the god for its failures.  The Bai didn’t adopt that part of the custom, but did transfer the city god to the village god, with the responsibility of insuring the continuity of the land and its inhabitants.  All major life cycle rituals take place in the temple of the village benzhu, further emphasizing the tie between the benzhu and its village devotees.  And the benzhu is the first deity appealed to for good fortune, bounteous harvests, expulsion of evil spirits and the hope of bearing children.   
    
buffalo-headed guardian
horse-headed guardian
        The cult resembles that of another Chinese-influenced civilization—the Vietnamese.  Villages in Vietnam also conscript a deceased hero as their protective deity, although in their case the guardian spirit is usually a warrior who fought Chinese invaders.  The Dali area was not the venue of so much warfare over the centuries as northern Vietnam, so martial heroes are not as prominent among the ranks of the Bai benzhu personalities, who are more likely to be famous ancestors from the time the village was founded, as well as noted officials, exceptionally filial sons and even virtuous women.  Warrior spirits serve as guardians to the installed benzhu image, but they could as easily be mythical animal-headed soldiers rather than historical figures associated with the village protector deity.
procession for the benzhu
       Every year Bai villages honor their benzhu with a festival.  The dates vary according to each village, but it generally takes place in the spring.  Villagers slaughter pigs and sheep and hold a collective feast.  Entertainment includes traditional dances and songs, perhaps a classical orchestra performance, plus lion and dragon dances. 
       The climax of the occasion is a long procession, the dance troupes part of it, with the image of the benzhu, either as a sculpture or a portrait, carried in a special palanquin.  In some cases, two or three villages with strong kinship relations may share the same benzhu.  Then the procession will proceed to one of the villages sharing the deity and spend the night there.  Villagers living close to a major town like Dali or Xichou may take their procession there and afterwards return home.  Or the procession route may be just all around the farms of the village and back to the temple.
carrying the benzhu's portrait
       Male elders wear Chinese-style silk jackets and caps.  Younger men may dress in the traditional Bai vest, jacket and turban.  Women dress in the Bai style, the older generation in blue and black, the younger ones in white-sleeved blouses with red or pastel-colored vests.  The women carry small percussion knockers that they beat rhythmically while they march.  The procession often stops for brief performances of the dancers and generally lasts several hours altogether.  More than just a religious festival, the event binds the villagers together in a shared, very localized identity.
       While benzhu celebrations are strictly village affairs, another major Bai festival, incorporating many of the same themes, features the participation of Bai people from all over the Dali Plain.  And for most of them it is the biggest social event in the year.  Called Raoshanling in Chinese, Gweusala in Bai, Visiting Three Spirits in English, it occurs every year from the 23rd to 25th days of the 4th lunar month.  Three different villages successively host the event and the most devout participants will spend a night in each of them.
traditional Bai dance in the procession
       Ordinarily, this is the period between the end of the wheat harvest and the transplanting of rice seedlings.  But the weather patterns are never entirely predictable and in some years there might be some of either activity going on when the festival falls due.  Having evolved from its original concept of honoring an ancient king who defended the land from Burmese invaders, the traditional purpose of the festival is to promote fertility, both in terms of the coming rice crop and the fertility of the women.
Bai dragon dance
       In the past, this was also a time for romantic liaisons in the woods, made easier by the custom of overnight stays in three different places.  Entertainment in the daytime programs, with openly suggestive dances and very risqué song lyrics, enhanced the atmosphere for sexual dalliance, not to mention the underlying fertility theme of the festival. 
       Because of these aspects, puritanical Chinese Nationalist officials tried to ban Raoshanling in the 1930s.  Though the festival was strictly a Bai affair that Han Chinese never attended, their view was doubtless influenced by their preconceptions of ’barbarian’ sexual mores.  The Bai ignored the edict and continued to celebrate it the old way until the Cultural Revolution.  Fanatical Red Guards then transformed it into a political event.  Visiting Three Spirits became a celebration of the Three Constantly Read Articles—Mao’s ‘Serve the People,’ ‘In Memory of Norman Bethune” and “The Foolish Old Man Who Tried to Move the Mountain.”  Red Guards organized mass rallies to recite one of the articles in turn at each of the three festival sites. 
to an from Qinglong for Raoshanling
       That aberration didn’t last long, though, and the festival has been back to normal since the early 80s.  While there may not be so many romantic escapades in the woods these days (plenty of other venues for that, anyway), some of the mildly licentious festival atmosphere persists in the disheveled clothing of the male dancers, feigned drunkenness, erotic dance gestures and suggestive singing.  And much like the benzhu celebrations, the program includes both rituals and entertainment.
        The opening day is above Qinglong village, at the foot of Wutai Peak.  In the past people came here the evening before, in processions that stopped briefly at various benzhu temples and shrines to nature deities like the Mountain God and the Dragon Deity of the Lake.  This is the biggest day and the path to the temple is lined with market stalls, food shops and vendors selling the paraphernalia of the festival--tassels of grains and flowers, cloth pendants of hearts and figurines and the round stickers of the Eight Trigrams that people affix to their brows.  Inside the temple devotees offer incense and prayers, bring trays of food to be blessed and form groups that chant sutras.
preparing messages to the gods
       At the entrance to the temple courtyard a few older men act as scribes to write prayers to the gods for the devotees.  These are done on yellow paper, with the donor's name and address at the bottom.  The prayer is placed into a rectangular paper box.  The devotee takes this to the courtyard and sets fire to it by lighting it from the top.  If the flames crackle while the box is burnt that indicates the god has already acknowledged receipt of the message.
       Inside the temple Bai women in rows chant prayers and beat clackers, punctuated by a woman drummer and a male horn player standing next to the altar.  Another group of women sit in the courtyard outside the temple entrance.  These sessions can last a couple hours, after which the women take a break and then resume.  They dress in their best and cleanest traditional jackets, ornamented with pendants hanging down the front and the back.
       Most visitors spend less time with the rituals and enjoy the fair.  They check out the numerous stalls in the markets, have a meal on the grounds, quaff a few drinks and watch the occasional traditional dance performances.  The crowd only starts thinning out in late afternoon, when most go home, though some may head for Xichou to spend the night and catch the next day’s event.
ornaments worn over the back
       The second day's venue is Hesichong, a small village below Xichou.  Market stalls line the street to the temple again, but of a more modest size and fewer in number. The activity within the temple is the same as the previous day's, but this day has one additional feature--a procession through the streets of Xichou.  Some participants wear funny masks, false noses and the like.  But the groups always include several women singing and dancing.  They periodically stop to perform, making a ring, some twirling batons, others rhythmically knocking their hips against each other.
       On the third day, smaller still, but perhaps the most enjoyable because of its intimacy, the host is Majiuyi, a pretty lakeside Bai village 6 km northeast of Dali.  Throughout the morning, while devotees from Majiuyi and nearby villages make offerings at the temple, an 18-member Bai orchestra plays classical dongjing music.  There is no vocal accompaniment, but a spoken prayer precedes each tune.
Bai musicians at Majiuyi
       At mid-morning a procession winds through the village and performs in the temple courtyard.  A troupe of middle-aged Bai women, wearing dark glasses with their traditional clothing, dances in loops or in pairs, wielding decorated staffs and bumping hips together.  After that they gather in front of the orchestra and a pair of older women, in high-pitched, quivering voices, sing call-and-response songs.  The smirks on their faces and the sniggers and smiles of the audience indicate the raunchy nature of the lyrics.  Following a couple more tunes by the orchestra, the show concludes and the last act of the program is the collective feast for the musicians and performers.
       In these modern times, the traditional Raoshanling retains its popularity.  While Chinese tourists may show up to watch the dances, it is essentially a festival for Bai participants, with special Bai characteristics that serve as a proud assertion of the Bai ethnic identity.  Religiously, too, it’s still relevant, adding the protective power of the Three Spirits to that bestowed by Guan Yin since her personal intervention on behalf of the Bai two millennia ago, the intercession of nature gods, Buddhist and Taoist deities residing in the area’s many temples, and the vigilance of their own village guardian benzhu.  That’s a lot of allies to help face any potential misfortune in life.  Spiritually speaking, the Bai feel secure.

rituals for Rashanling
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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Dai Ways in Yunnan’s Red River Counties


                                                             by Jim Goodman
 
Laomeng White Dai village, Jinping County
       Sprawling southeast of Kunming all the way to the Vietnam border, Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture comprises two distinct parts.  The landscape of the counties north of the Red River, high plateaus and rolling hills, resembles that of central Yunnan.  Famous old cities like Shiping, Jianshui and Mengzi lie in this part of the prefecture.  While there are districts here and there dominated by Yi and Miao, the Han make up the majority north of the Red River.
       The four counties south of the river—Honghe, Yuanyang, Luchun and Jinping—are famous for the irrigated terraces that line the slopes of the Ailao Mountains that dominate the land from the river to the Vietnam border.  Here the Han live only in the towns and cities.  Most of the population consists of minority nationalities, particularly the Hani, but also Yi, Yao, Miao, Zhuang and Dai.  All of them have sub-groups, too, including the Dai, with differences not only in traditional apparel, but in lifestyle as well.
Dai La, Huangmaoling
       The sub-group of Dai occupying the Red River valley in Honghe and Yuanyang Counties call themselves the (Dai) La.  Like their neighbors and cousins the Huayao Dai upriver in Yuxi Prefecture, they live in villages of 50-60 mud-brick, flat-roofed houses.  They are wet-rice cultivators, but the sugar cane stands that speckle the valley upriver are here replaced by fruit orchards, particularly banana groves, which lie in abundance all around the rice fields and up the lower slopes of the Ailaoshan foothills. 
       Dai La villages along the alluvial plain obtain two rice crops a year from their fields.  Those living higher up, above irrigated terraces, get only one crop annually, but supplement their income with, besides bananas, mango and litchi groves. They engineer water from the nearest mountain stream to flow through the village first and then into the terraces fanning out below the settled area.  They set traps in this stream to catch eels and small fish, part of their regular diet, and go fishing in the river with both traps and nets.  Women use the river to do their washing, farmers bathe their buffaloes there and beneath big leafy shade trees on the bank the children come to splash and play.
Dai La woman
ginning cotton in Huangmaoling
       Other people in the area often refer to them as the Black Dai, after the dominant color of the women’s traditional outfit.  It consists of a headscarf, a side-fastened, short-sleeved jacket, plain black, calf-length sarong and leggings.  The jacket fits loosely and hangs to just below the waist.  Basically black, it is trimmed with silver studs around the neck and in a broad strip along the lapel, bordered by bright, narrow bands of appliquéd silk or embroidery.  Color bands also go along the right side and the hem all around, while the sleeves consist of a broad strip of bright color, like red, pink or orange, and narrow bands of contrasting colors.  Beneath the black skirt they wear tight black leggings, lavishly cross-stitched with bright patterns, no two pair alike.  They also carry a shoulder bag with the same lush embroidery.
Dai La embroidered leggings
       Women tie their hair in a bun and wrap it with a narrow strip of black cloth.  The end, featuring a block of embroidered designs, is tucked into the scarf along the right ear and the decorative end left to dangle.  They do not wear much jewelry, but many still tattoo the backs of their hands with an auspicious symbol that looks like a cross with a V on each end.
       The preference for traditional fashion still dominates the daily dress of Dai La women.  Even the younger generation wears it, though they may opt for a shorter, knee-length sarong with a band of embroidery and appliqué around the hem.  In the slack time of the year, when agricultural activity is not so demanding, in Dai La village lanes girls may gather in a group while they embroider shoulder bags and leggings.  And in another house an older woman may be ginning cotton, spinning thread, or weaving cloth on a narrow loom.
Dai woman from Qimaba
       In the southern part of Yuanyang County the Dai La also inhabit the upper Tengtiao River valley down to Huangmaoling on the main Yuanyang-Laomeng route.  Dai La villages lie next to and around this township, which holds its market day on Saturdays.  But in Laomeng and the rest of Jinping County the Dai are the White Dai sub-group, while in Luchun County the only resident sub-group is the one in Qimaba, unrelated to any other Ailaoshan Dai.  This large township of over 200 houses lies in the center of Luchun County, 65 km southeast of the main Luchun-Jiangcheng route from the turn-off in the western corner of the county.
      All the county’s Dai live in Qimaba, an isolated township in the most forested and least populated section of the county.  Its residents migrated here in the late Qing Dynasty from their original homeland in Shiping County.  They call themselves Dai Neu-a, the same appellation as the Buddhist Dai in Lincang and Dehong, though they are animist like most other Ailaoshan Dai.
       The population lives in two-story houses of mud-brick, with tile roofs and an adjoining open balcony.  The roofs do not cover the entire house but leave an open space in the middle, directly above the sunken courtyard on the ground floor just inside the entrance.  This space, roughly 20 meters square, holds the household’s water tanks and has a drain in the center to convey the waste water outside into the channels that run through all parts of the town.  Here families do their washing and bathing.  The kitchen lies behind it and the dining area to the side.  Two bedrooms lie adjacent to this, while other sleeping and storage quarters are upstairs.  In back of the house are the sties for pigs and pens for ducks and chickens.
in the terraces of Qimaba
       The town lies above a broad fan of stone-reinforced terraces, on a gradual slope of around twenty degrees gradient, reaching all the way to the edge of the cliff above the river.  Water flows from one terrace into another.  But the Dai have also cut channels throughout Qimaba’s neighborhoods and directed the water to flow alongside almost every stone path.  No house is far from running water and for most households it is right outside their front doors.
       Most of the women in Qimaba, young and old, wear their distinctive Dai outfit, comprising a heavily embroidered bodice that reaches to the hips, worn under a waist-length, black long-sleeved jacket with colored sleeves, fully embroidered on the back, and over an ankle-length tubular skirt.   These components are the same for all ages, though younger women embroider the hem of the skirt as well.
White Dai house in Laomeng
       The headdress differs, though.  The younger women and girls wear a black cloth on the top of the head, the front trimmed with rows of silver studs and old silver coins.  Long tassels of pink woolen thread cascade down either side.  On older women the black cloth rises up over a frame at the back of the head, decorated with silver coins, triangles of studs and embroidery.
       Almost all the Dai of Jinping’s Tengtiao River valley and its tributaries, from Laomeng on downriver into Vietnam, belong to the sub-group called White Dai.  They live in medium-sized villages beside or just above the rivers, raising mainly rice and vegetables, supplemented by fruits and sugar cane.  In Laomeng, their first settlement in Yunnan, they also cultivate vegetables in the dry season on the sandy banks of the Tengtiao, which here changes its name to the Laomeng River.
White Dai woman, Mengla district
       Unlike the flat-roofed, mud-brick dwellings of the Dai La, White Dai houses resemble those in Xishuangbanna.  They are made of wood and bamboo, sit 1.5 to 2 meters above the ground on stout wooden stilts and have roofs of thatch.  An open balcony extends from the front entrance, used for drying crops, hanging laundry or strips of dyed cloth on the rails to dry, for spinning and winding thread, or just for sitting in the sunshine and fresh air.  Interiors are capacious and cool, with a central hearth and a couple of walled-off bedrooms in the far end.
       In the back yard may stand a small ancestral altar—a bamboo cubicle with a thatched roof about 1.5 meters off the ground.  Usually a large group of these stands together in one area of the village.  In addition, villages also have a large shed housing the ceremonial drums, which are beaten throughout the New Year festivities.
       The men dress in modern style, but most women prefer their traditional outfit of blouse and black sarong.  On special occasions the women also don a long-sleeved, front-fastened jacket in solid pastel colors, fastened with silver butterfly clasps.  They often wear these jackets on market day in Laomeng and further east in Jinping and the largely Dai district of Mengla in the south.
Dai Lu in Mengla, Jinping County
       Besides the White Dai, residents of three villages near the hot springs a few km south of Mengla are Dai Lu, immigrants from Xishuangbanna a few decades ago.  Their women dress like Banna women and they are the only Buddhist Dai in all of Ailaoshan.  Buddhist proselytizers never reached this area and all the rest of Honghe Prefecture’s Dai are animist.
      Dai villages all have a spiritual leader who conducts ceremonies on behalf of the community, mainly at annual festivals. Employed more often is the mogung, the specialist handling affairs of the unseen world, such as expelling evil influences, or calling back wandering souls and directing the souls of the deceased to the world of the afterlife.  The role is similar to that of ritual specialists among their neighbors in the hills.  The Dai also share the hill peoples’ taboos, domestic etiquette and life-cycle ceremonies, including most aspects of the all-important funeral ceremony.
       Where they differ is in the concept of the afterlife and in their attitude towards the faults, misdeeds and the darker side of the personality of the deceased.  For the Dai the afterlife is similar to the current life, in that people who were farmers or teachers or something else in their life will be doing the same work in the afterlife.  But a few differences exist.  Elders will become children again.  Children will take on the roles of adults.  Daily life and work will be characterized by complete harmony and happiness.  Those who have had a full life, meaning they created descendants to carry on the family line, will all enjoy this kind of afterlife.  Those without descendants will have to make do with another place, called Li in Dai, a sort of limbo, somewhat less comfortable.  But it is not an unpleasant place and the idea of Hell, so prominent among the Buddhist Dai, has no place in the animist Dai conception of the afterlife.
White Dai New Year
Dai Lu festival dance
       The unique part of the Dai funeral ceremony takes place just before the coffin is removed for burial.  Usually this is three days after death, but no one may be buried on a monkey day or on the animal day on which they were born.  After the lamenting, the visits of relatives and friends, the condolences and feasts, the last act is the Song for Sending Off the Dead.  A mogung, or anyone familiar enough with the deceased to want to do it, takes a seat beside the corpse and begins a long song that narrates the life of the deceased, his or her achievements, virtues and memorable good actions.  All faults, misdeeds, even crimes, are ignored, for once a person dies, everything is forgiven.
drumming for the White Dai New Year
       As for public events, each sub-group has its own festivals.  Places like Nansha, next to the county capital of Yuanyang, and Mengla stage a government-sponsored one-day Water-Sprinkling Festival.  The Dai Lu celebrate it with the performance of dances by the young women in each of the three villages for three nights. Near the end of the second lunar month the Dai in Zhemi host the Men’s Festival, commemorating a time in their history when the men were all off at war and missed New Year.  When they returned late the women staged a new festival to compensate them for missing the other one. 
       All Dai in the area mark the Lunar New Year with celebrations that begin the last morning of the old year and conclude three days later.  Ritual bathing, feasting, processions, rituals and noises expelling evil spirits and drumming are the festival features, details varying from valley to valley.  But whatever the event, it is done with gusto. The Dai know how to make their rituals enjoyable events.  These are people who perceive life as Heaven on Earth and the afterlife as Earth in Heaven.
young Dai women in Qimaba, Luchun County
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                    for more on the Ailaoshan Dai see my e-book The Terrace Builders






Thursday, November 5, 2015

Exploring the Rivers of Luang Phabang


                                       by Jim Goodman

Luang Phabang
       To the people of Laos, Luang Phabang is the capital of the first Lao kingdom in the mid-14th century and the home of its royal family down to 1975.  To practically everybody else, it’s a World Heritage Site, full of classic Lao temples, colonial-era buildings, traditional lifestyles, a place reeking with culture with one of the most beautiful locations in Southeast Asia.  As a consequence, it has become a favorite tourist destination in the region.  At high season in the winter, it seems more foreigners are walking the streets than local residents.
air view of the peninsula between the rivers
       There’s no denying its scenic setting, though.  Luang Phabang lies on the left bank of the Mekong River at its junction with the Nam Khan River, which flows down from the hills behind the town.  On its way to the Mekong it is blocked by Phousi Hill and has to make a right turn around a long peninsula to reach the Mekong.  Thus, the city has two parts.  On the other side of Phousi Hill lies most of the city:  the markets, boat landings, administrative buildings, residential neighborhoods, chedis and temples.  The peninsula between the rivers, which by the way run in opposite directions, contains the former royal palace, old shop-houses, colonial-era homes and several wonderful temples.  At the end of this peninsula the Nam Kham passes between two boulders, believed to be the resting places of mythical serpents called nagas, before it empties into the Mekong.
the Nam Khan River behind Phousi Hill
       Certainly there is much to appreciate within the confines of the city.  But excursions beyond Luang Phabang can be equally rewarding, exploring the rural beauty of the rivers and streams of the vicinity.  The easiest is to follow the Nam Khan from the peninsula northeast of the city as it winds in the general direction of the airport towards the hills bounding the valley.  It can be done on foot or bicycle, over a path along the modestly sized river, with views of the hills always ahead.
       After a few kilometers the river passes by Wat Pa Phon Phao, standing on a large mound near the river.  Unique to the Luang Phabang area, this golden temple stands on an octagonal base, with a chedi on top, instead of the usual angled roofs.  The temple is also noted for its interior murals, with some graphic depictions of the fates of sinners in Hell.
fishing on the Mekong
       Just beyond this temple is the famous weaving village of Ban Phanom.  The inhabitants here are Tai Lu, originally from Muong Singh in the far north.  In pre-colonial times the Court in Luang Phabang relocated them to this location to produce textiles for the royal family.  Eventually the village expanded its production to the commoner class and today, while not the only weaving village in the vicinity, it is the most famous and most productive.  Virtually all of the wonderful silk sarongs with the brocaded borders worn by Luang Phabang women come from Ban Phanom.
       The road continues along the river, but out of view of it for the most part.  A few km later, about 10 km from the city, a sign marks a trail to the grave of Henri Mouhot, the 19th century French explorer, the first to record in detail the ruins of Angkor Wat, who unfortunately died from malaria in Luang Phabang in 1861.  He was just 35, but had stayed in Luang Phabang long enough to write the earliest description of the royal capital before it became a French colony. 
Wat Pa Phon Phao
       When the French Mekong Expedition passed by here in 1756, its leader Doudart de Legrée had a simple tomb built over the grave and left a dedication inscribed in stone. The jungle consumed the tomb area, which was just above the flood line of the Nam Khan, and only in 1990 was it accidentally rediscovered.
       A little further upriver a tributary stream passes over a series of rock terraces to form the Tad Sae Waterfalls.  The stream tumbles through a heavily forested slope, so even on the hottest, most humid summer days this is still a refreshingly cool spot.  The water rushes down from a few different branches, sometimes cascading into round pools.  Trails ascend a little ways upstream, but are soon blocked by the jungle.  But there are plenty of big, smooth boulders to sit upon and listen to the sounds of rushing, splashing water.
Ban Phanom weaver
       None of the cataracts here are more than a few meters high, though.  For a more ‘proper’ waterfall, one that gushes over a perpendicular precipice of one kind of another, the destination is Kuang Si, about 25 km southeast of Luang Phabang.  Visitors can take a boat downriver most of the way, then switch to a jumbo for the last few kilometers.  But a road also leads there from Luang Phabang, so most people hire a motorbike or vehicle for the journey. 
       The water tumbles over a precipice about 200 meters above a pool, splitting into several separate streams, spilling over huge boulders interspersed with dark caverns.  This arrangement gives the falls an unusual, surreal, even anthropomorphic look near the bottom.  Just above the pool the water, boulder and cavern combination resembles a person standing in a downpour and wearing a raincoat with a peaked hood.
       Easy to reach from Luang Phabang, endowed with several restaurants and ample picnic grounds, Kuang Si is more popular than Tad Sae and not only with foreign tourists.  Lao families come here to spend the day and children from the nearby villages go swimming and bathing in the creek that leads out from the waterfall to eventually reach the Mekong.  In the rushing waters of the creek and its forks in the vicinity stand several small hydraulic mills--water-wheels that operate grain pounders.  The village houses are the traditional stilted, wooden structures, the fields and gardens well maintained, and the whole area is a representative example of rural life in Laos.
Tad Sae waterfalls
       North of Luang Phabang, the most popular excursion is up the Mekong River 25 km to the Pak Ou caves.  It is possible to go by road up to the village across the river from the caves and then take a ferry across.  But on the boat, one has a view of some of the finest scenery on the Mekong, especially opposite the caves, where limestone cliffs rise beside the confluence of the Nam Ou River with the Mekong.  The boat also passes by a small, wooded island with an abandoned temple near its southern shore, all but obscured by the jungle.
anthropomorphic portion of Kuang Si Falls
       The Pak Ou caves have been a Buddhist place of worship for a thousand years.  They are in a sheer limestone cliff right next to the river, the lower one fifteen meters above the waterline.  In pre-modern days the journey here was both arduous and hazardous, a true merit-making exercise.  Pilgrims brought with them a Buddha image to leave at one of the caves.  Thus, over the centuries, the Pak Ou caves have amassed a huge collection of images.
       They are of all different sizes and quality, in stone, bronze, clay and wood, doubtless reflecting the wealth of the donors.  The majority are small, but even some of these can be gilded, exquisitely sculpted, obviously the work of a master.  Many of the larger statues, in their fine molds and intricate detail, are equal to the best temple sculptures back in the city.
       Most of the images, especially the larger ones, are in the lower cave, which is adjacent to the cave mouth and so much better lit.  Devotees in the past carved tables and altars from the rock and filled them with images.  Other small statues they placed in various niches and on the tops of boulders.  Larger ones stand beside the stone staircase that makes a steep ascent to the upper cave, darker, with no opening to the outside.   A gilt chedi stands atop a multi-tiered altar at the back of the cave, each level loaded with small Buddha images.
view from Pak Ou
the lower cave
       The Nam Ou River, which makes such a spectacular merger with the Mekong across from the Pak Ou caves, begins in northern Phong Saly province near the China border and runs for 450 kilometers.  It is one of the major rivers of Laos and the only one besides the Mekong navigable by large cargo boats.  With the building of good roads in recent decades, commerce on the river has been much reduced.  While it is still possible to hire a boat to go upriver, most travelers take a bus to Nong Khiaw, on the river northeast of Luang Phabang, and the starting point for the best scenery on the Nam Ou.
Buddha images left by pilgrims at Pak Ou caves
       From here upriver the pleasant rolling hills that characterized the river valley give way to dramatic karst landscapes, with oddly shaped limestone mountains with steep vertical cliffs jutting up from the land all around.  Ferries from Nong Khiaw transport passengers on an hour’s ride upriver through the jungle to Muong Ngoi.  A row of bamboo and thatch houses lines the bank next to the boat landing.  An administrative office, exchange bureau and a small Buddhist temple, home to several monks who make their regular morning begging bowl rounds in the village, stand near the boat landing. A road running behind the riverside houses is full of shops, restaurants and villagers’ homes.
       With its admirable scenery, laid-back atmosphere and pervasive peace and quiet, it is hard to imagine this ever being a war zone.  But it was.  The evidence is the empty artillery shells that decorate gardens and the signs warning children not to pick up or play with any strange object wedged into the soil.  However, it’s been over forty years since any bombs shattered the silence around Muong Ngoi and today it is a spot where the most popular activity of its guests is sitting by the river, watching passing boats and enjoying the tranquility.
morning near Muong Ngoi
       About 75 families live in the village and just about all of them are involved in the tourist business to one degree or another.  Many of them run guest houses, restaurants and drink shops, while nearly all the village homes have signs posted beside them offering services as guides to Hmong and Khamu villages, boat rides further upriver and kayaking to nearby riverside caves.
       The easiest adventure, which requires no assistance, is a hike out the trail past the village’s sole road junction into the fields and jungles beyond.  After about a 45-minute walk the trail reaches a small cave full of stalactites on the left and a shallow stream on the right.  Near the shore men wade in the water and use electric stunners and spear guns to catch fish.  Others use nets cast from pirogues gliding in the stream.
monks on their morning rounds in Muong Ngoi
       Even as its popularity as a tourist attraction grew, Muong Ngoi still seemed like a village suspended in time.  Electricity only came here a couple of years ago.  But its recent prosperity faces an uncertain and probably negative future.  The government, with the assistance of a Chinese company, plans to construct seven dams on the upper reaches of the Nam Ou River.  This will disturb some of the most unspoiled, pristine natural environments in the country and severely deplete the fish population in the river. 
       Reports on the environmental impact of these dams (assuming they’ve been made at all) have not been released.  Altogether 89 villages will have to relocate.  Muong Ngoi is not one of them, but it is likely to be affected ecologically, threatening its reputation as a place to get away from development sprawl and revel in nature.  But that’s the trouble with modern times.  In any contest between the preservation of nature and its conquest/transformation in the name of development, the latter always wins.
       In the meantime, Muong Ngoi is still thriving, still beautiful, and still on the list of worthwhile excursions out of Luang Phabang.  The city is a World Heritage Site for its historic and cultural monuments.  But it is also blessed with superb natural and rural attractions in the vicinity.  Even if Luang Phabang had no temples, palaces or colonial architecture, these sights themselves make the time and effort spent quite satisfying.
the Nam Ou River at Muong Ngoi
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