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The Guns of Lo Manthang

“If you want to come somewhere really on the edge, why don’t you come to Upper Mustang with me?” said Raj – well something like that and, of course, after the third or fourth glass of red wine I was up for it!
So, with our guide Hemraj, we three ( that’s Raj, Cameron and me) traveled from Jomsom by jeep up the Kali Gandaki gorge to Upper Mustang and the Kingdom of Lo.

Now, that trip was something else! More a four wheel drive test track than a road as it wound up the deepest gorge on earth (yep – makes the Grand Canyon look like drainage ditch) higher and higher to reach Lo Manthang at nearly 4,000 metres.

The road to Lo Manthang up the Kali Gandaki, Nepal

The road to Lo Manthang

We had come to see the yearly Tiji Festival – a Buddhist ritual over three days which has been celebrated in Lo Manthang for hundreds of years.

Now Raj was right – this place is really on the edge of the modern world. It was only opened to visitors in 1992 and even now only about 3,000 tourists visit per year and that really only in the warmer months. I say warmer rather than warm because even in summer, once the sun has set the temperature drops rapidly and gets cold enough for what little moisture there is in the air to drop out as snow crystals only to be buffeted by the constant cold wind from the south. With the wind, the dust, the cold, the glare and the elevation, this is probably the most challenging environment I have ever experienced – and that’s summer!

Tiji Festival, Lo Manthang, Nepal

The Tsowo leads the dancing

I have lots to say about the Tiji ceremony, but now, I want to tell you about the last day – day three.

We were lucky enough to score a homestay with Mr Gumbo and Mrs Yutin Gurungs and Mr Gumbo had a team of ponies. So, in the morning of day three we decided to ride up to Chosser to see some temples and to get out of town to soak up the atmosphere.

Riding a pony to Chosser, north of Lo Manthang, Nepal

Allan on route to Chosser

I expected that Mr Gumbo would ride with us, but instead he walked alongside his team of horses constantly talking, singing and whistling to them. The horses were his team. They listened to his instructions and got annoyed if we tried to do anything Mr Gumbo had not told them to do. Rather than riding them, we found it easier just to sit there and let Mr Gumbo call the shots. Besides, we had enough to do just to open our eyes and drink in the astounding topography of the high Himalayas.

The most extraordinary thing was the light. I must admit I am struggling to find a way of describing it. At these elevations, nearly half the atmosphere is below us – making the light unfiltered. It’s so white! And it is so direct.

Cameron in death mask mounted on a brown pony at Chosser near Lo Manthang, Nepal

Cameron (Charlie) ready to go

The one patch of skin that Cameron left bare, just above his goggles and below his cap, soon turned bronze – but a colour he never goes. In fact, when we examined our skins there was a redness to them that I have never seen – before or since.

Cameron’s bronze bit didn’t last, in fact it rolled off within a day or so but without leaving sunburn – strange….

So we sat on the colourful rugs that covered our saddles and soon the constant tinkling of the ponies’ bells faded from our consciousness.

Cave monastery at Chosser near Lo Manthang, Nepal

Cave Monastery at Chosser

When you are in an environment so different it’s like another world (Alice through the Looking Glass stuff), where your eyes focus not on the car bumper in front but on the mountains and valleys in the far distance. Your mind relaxes and becomes still. Perhaps it has something it do with the lack of oxygen (we learnt not to start a long sentence), or the light, or the tinkling of the bells or Mr Gumbo’s singing, but time seemed to pass us by – and then we arrived.

Leaving the horses we set off through the barren landscape to see the local temples and this is where the plans went astray.

For the last couple of years I have traveled with a small Cannon camera (the S100 for those who care). Not an expensive camera but one with which I could take a decent picture and it shot 1080p video. I either put it down somewhere or missed my bag putting it away. I retraced my steps numerous times (which required me going up and down a steep stair) but could not find it – some-one probably saw it and carried it away. Anyway, by the time I called the search off we were running late and needed to return to Lo Manthang to catch the finale of the Tiji Festival – and I’m glad we did.

The gunmen arrive as the procession leaves the city of Lo Manthang, Nepal

The gunmen arrive at the procession

As we dropped our things back at our lodgings we could hear the signature noise of Day Three – the loud explosions from ancient muskets. Hem was ready first and left before us and thank goodness because he made it to the square in time to leave with the monks, musicians, dancers and gunmen. We were caught in the crowd but as the procession left we took a chance and spying some likely lads scurrying off in a different direction through the fields, we gave chase – and it paid off.

We arrived in the field just as the monks were setting up and the musicians were placing their massive trumpets on timber stands. As the monks began their ritual, the group of gunmen arrived, distinctive in their fur lined hats and golden scarves – not to mention the great muzzle loading muskets they carried.

At a certain point in the proceedings, they moved to one side and as they touched lit tapers to the black powder in the breach of each weapon the guns went off with a big bang and a huge puff of blue grey smoke.

The guns are fired as part of the Tiji Festival, Lo Manthag, Nepal

The guns are fired

The setting was extraordinary. While the field in which we stood was in shade, in the far distance the naked mountains were in bright white light. The land at the edge of the filed dropped away and so there was no middle ground – just our field and the distant mountains.

The dancers in animal masks danced and waved their swords. They also took charge of the crowd and their crowd control was intense – but very effective.

Again and again, the big old guns boomed as the monks chanted and killed off demons. The crowd groaned at the misfires and cheered when the guns boomed but as the sun dipped, the ceremony came to an end and the monks lead the way back to the shelter of the town’s walls.

Mustang Gate: 3 hours in no man’s land

“Where are the photographs?”

Even before I write this, I can hear you saying “If this encounter was such a big deal, where are the photographs?”

There are photographs and quite nice ones (if I do say so myself).

Kali Gandaki Gorge - The jeep stop at Mustang Gate

The jeep stop at Mustang Gate

“No.” you reply. “What about inside the tent?”

Well, in my defence, all I can say is that sometimes you have to choose to be a participant rather than an observer. In some situations, pulling out a camera  completely kills the delicate balance of the dialogue – and in this dim tent, huddled from the wind behind a set of stone gabions, sitting cross legged on ancient carpets, a camera would have killed the moment.

Let me first explain how we got there.

 Jomsom Airport

The plane waiting at Jomsom Airport

We three, that’s Raj, Cameron (known as Charlie in Asia because he can’t bare to watch his friends struggle to get their mouths around the name!) and myself, first flew from Kathmandu to Pokhara, stayed overnight and then left Pokhara by air early in the morning bound for Jomsom. All the flights must be in the morning because the wind is too severe after lunch.

Now this is amongst the strangest flights I have ever taken. The plane, the people the airports are all fairly predictable – but – from Pokhara to Jomsom, you only fly up. There is no down. Even on landing, there is no down. The plane simply levels out and it’s on the ground – like it has flown up a giant bookcase and just made the highest shelf.

Jomsom, Nepal, Raj and Charlie

Raj and Charlie walk through Jomsom

Anyway, at Jomsom, a small town of rough stone and mud brick that clings to the edge of the airport, we awaited our guide, Hemraj, who, despite his best efforts, due to breakdowns and flat tyres had missed the first flight – but he managed to get a seat on the second – the round trip is not much more than an hour. So we had a meagre breakfast in the Marco Polo hotel and awaited his arrival.

Now it’s true that we had been wrong about the travel arrangements to get us to our goal, Lo Mantang – well, we had made assumptions based on our previous experience of traveling in isolated parts of Asia – which were wrong. However, it became clear later that Hemraj was also operating under a misapprehension based on previous experience of traveling this same road (I call it a road only for ease of expression – more a two day four wheel drive test track).

But upon Hemraj’s arrival, we donned our packs (two each for Cameron and myself – we shared out the tripods to our companions) and in high spirits walked for ten minutes or so through the village to the jeep stop. After the usual sort of argy-bargy our belongings were hurled into the back of a Mahindra jeep and we were on our way.

Now the details of that ride are scrambled in my head. The constant bumping, lurching and crashing of the jeep as it picked its way over the broken, boulder strewn path, ground up dizzying heights and rounded hair-pin bends with certain death on both sides rather upset my normal computer-like recording of the events around me (Have you ever been inside an industrial washing machine on spin cycle rolling down a mountain?). So, with your permission, I will leave that description for another time. Suffice to say that after a day and a half of slow upward progress, the jeep ground to a halt at the base of a huge clay cliff, at the edge of a wide gravel river, at the mouth of a small pedestrian bridge that led to the barren, uninhabited other side.

Kali Gandaki Gorge

Looking down the Kali Gandaki Gorge at Mustang Gate

This spot is called Mustang Gate. I presume the name reflects the fact that this is the end of one jeep mafia’s territory and the start of another and it’s here that the passengers must be transferred from one mafia to another. This is also the spot that Hem (that’s short for Hemraj) finally worked out that the rules of the game had changed. There should have been a jeep waiting for us – but there was none. Worse, from this spot, there were no communications, only hearsay, guesses and the dogged optimism that flourishes when your only alternatives are abject misery and defeatism or stubborn optimism against all reasonable logic.

So we settled our belongings on the stony ground, planted ourselves in the brown plastic garden chairs that sat incongruously on the barren river bend and set our backs against the cold constant wind which was growing in intensity on its route up the gorge to Lo Mantang. And here we sat for some time discussing the possibilities. If a vehicle had left from this spot at the time the locals said, well, it would have already turned around and would be back with us in a couple of hours. This, they clearly would have done because, despite them deciding that they would not take bookings, indeed would not even honour those already taken, they had been made aware of our planned arrival and would surely come back rather than leave us in this exposed situation – surely. We studiously avoided any discussion of Plan B – no-one wanted a Plan B – actually, no-one had a Plan B.

Sheltered behind gabians, the Didi Bahani restaurant

Sheltered behind gabions, the Didi Bahani restaurant

Now, I have said that this spot was uninhabited, and on arrival that’s certainly how it appeared to us. But it’s interesting how time and circumstances can fundamentally change your perspective. As the wind grew stronger, to the extent that if you stood your chair was blown from under you and clattered across the stony ground to be wedged against a rock or become trapped in one of the many riverlettes that carved their way through this island of flat land, and the cold began to creep over us as the sun began to sink, the little ragged tent started to look most inviting. Now, not merely a tent, we realised that this welcome shelter was actually the Didi Bahini Restaurant of Mustang Gate and the owners had sent Hemraj out to invite us inside.

So, we grabbed our camera packs and with the wind in our ears, crunched our way across the stony ground to stoop low and enter the dimly lit tent.

Now, standing erect, I’m a very observant fellow. But, crouched and bending from the waist, struggling with ten kilos of cameras and moving in from the unfiltered glare of the sun at 3,000 metres to a dimly lit tent, my powers of observation were severely compromised.

As my eyes adjusted to the gloom inside the tent I saw my companions already sitting against the wall of the tent on narrow carpets behind low rectangular tables. They had left a spot for me next to Raj and as I stumbled forward I aimed my but at the space. As my backside hit the carpet I realised (too late) that the space was not wholly unoccupied. Something stirred beneath my knees and then as I turned my head a huge Cheshire Cat smile exploded in my face. Our noses were close enough to touch. Her legs were beneath my knees. Our companions laughed as we untangled ourselves – the two young ladies lying on mats at the back of the tent, the man with the intriguing Asian face and the permanent backpack, the man in the grubby blue coat as he shoveled dal bhut into his mouth with his hand, my two friends and the lady dressed in black close by my side as she settled herself next to me.

“She wants to know if you are married” Hem translated for me and knowing the marriage practices of the Lopas I emphatically announced that I was very married. More laughter.

“She says she doesn’t mind if you have another wife.”

I remained silent while Raj and Cameron grinned at my discomfort.

Then one of the young ladies chipped in with “Hey, how come she gets to choose?” and she laid claim to Cameron.

“What am I?” said Raj. “Just the left-overs?”

“Don’t worry” said the other young lady, “I’ll marry you and you can take me to India.”

At least, that’s what I think happened but since they all spoke Nepali and/or Hindi, we two westerners were left guessing what exactly they were saying.

Some-one new entered the tent and after a few words one of the young ladies climbed over a small table and set about making a meal at the low table and single gas burner.

As she set about her task, pausing to add her voice to the conversation I became mesmerised by her.

Now beauty is a difficult thing to define. Tall, flowing hair, tight bum, long legs, thin waist and big boobs – well that is a kind of beauty but the beauty that gets me owes its existence to character and this young lady, dressed simply, operating a kitchen in one of the least populated and most remote parts of the globe glowed with the beauty that comes from within.

An intense listener, her head pushed slightly forward, her lips parted a little, she gave 100% of her attention to the person speaking. She did not rush to respond, interrupt or talk over her companions. She waited for the full stop, straightened her back, took a breath and with her response, her face, her body and her hands moved with effortless grace.

A broad sweep of expression flowed across her face, playful and coquettish, serious and mock serious, now a warm smile and now a frown all the while her hands, arms and body moving in a graceful theatrical manner. This small space, this shelter from the wind and the cold was her stage and she the warm glow at its centre.

So despite our predicament, marooned in an isolated and inhospitable spot with our future unknown, we were happy to sit and not think about when or if a jeep would arrive to take us on the next part of our journey. If worse came to worse, this happy crew would surely have given us a solution.

But it didn’t come to that. Eventually we heard the grind of a four wheel drive differential as it bumped down the dirt track to our sanctuary.

A quick exchange of passengers at Mustang Gate

A quick exchange of passengers at Mustang Gate

Now there were people and noise. People climbing down from  the jeep, their packs and belongings being unloaded and ours being loaded at the same time. Side deals being done to transport packs of Coca Cola on to the next town, locals negotiating a lift (at much less than the tourists pay) and before we knew it we were wedged in our seats with packs between our knees and bags upon our laps and headed upwards into the cold, pale afternoon sun to Lo Mantang.




A Galic Breakfast in Luang Prabang

Excuse me for being a bit self indulgent here, but breakfast can either make or break a destination for me.

I’ve eaten in some pretty nice places (the Sheraton on Jimbaran Bay, Bali is nice) and some not so great places (a hotel that turned out to be a brothel in the mountains of Turkey is one I’d like to forget) and Luang Prabang has one of my favourites.

Cafe Ban Wat Sene, Luang Prabang, Laos

A quiet breakfast at the Cafe Ban Wat Sene

The Cafe Ban Wat Sene in the main street opposite the school doesn’t look much different to many of the others but it has everything I look for.

A few small tables sit out on the street and one always has a reserved sign on it. Here, each morning, the same old European guys meet to read french newspapers, drink coffee and chat about the state of the world. You could be in a provincial town somewhere in France – except here its warm.

As you sit, you can hear the pleasant sound of the kids in the junior school across the road, playing, sweeping (they do a lot of that all over Asia) and reciting their lessons (just as I used to do back when the world was young). You also see the tourists as they shuffle into the main part of town to hook up with buses or minivans or rent bikes from the bike stand just up from the school (Luang Prabang town is flat and, with the exception of Pi Mai (Lao New Year) in April is an easy place to get around).

La Grande Set

La Grande Set


My favourite table (well actually it’s a small timber desk) for two is just inside one of the three doors. I prefer to be inside ’cause there’s less chance of somebody I don’t know speaking to me (as friendly locals and tourists are apt to do). I’m not much on speaking until I’ve had my breakfast.

Now there’s lots to choose from but I go straight for “La Grande Set” – with coffee. That’s poached eggs, bacon (not a lot but its good), bread, croissant, baguette,  jam and fresh fruit salad. Filling, and because its served on a small table you do need to use some method in its eating. For me, that’s a plus. I love method – a lot of guys do. You know, this goes here, that goes there, this is eaten first, that is left to last. The kind of thing that drives others mad but makes sense of the day for me.

Once done, I signal one of the incredibly thin young men who go about their duties as if in church to bring the ridiculously small bill and I’m ready for the day ahead.

Hajimi Robot Restaurant, Bangkok

The first thing you need to know about this place is it is new, and when I say new, I mean new.

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Ka Bin La Phom, Luang Prabang’s god of the sky

I am fascinated by cultural stories of non-western people and one fascinating story is the one in Luang Prabang, Laos about the four faced god, Ka Bin La Phom.

Not only does the god personify a whole value system, he also features very prominently in the lunar new year celebrations each year.

Ka Bin La Phom, Wat Mahathat, Luang Prabang, Laos

A statue of Ka Bin La Phom at the top of stairs leading to Wat Mahathat

If you walk up the stairs leading from the main road into Wat Mahathat you will pass through a gateway featuring the god’s head on the top of the ornate gate posts. In his four faces are four guiding principles which people believe gives guidance on how to interact with people – especially your children.

The four things exemplified in Ka Bin La Phom’s four faces you should use in any interaction are:

  •  Loving Kindness,
  •  Compassion,
  •  Sympathy, and
  •  Neutrality.

Sounds good to me and from my interactions with Lao people, I think they take this lesson fairly seriously.

Entry Doors, Wat Mahathat, Luang Prabang, Laos

One of the beautiful entry doors to Wat Mahathat

But, Ka Bin La Phom plays a strong part in Lao New Year, or Pi Mai. Yes, I know there is a lot of water throwing and mud smearing and drunkenness too, but there is a serious religious side to the festival and the parade through town and the blessings at the Pac Ou Caves are serious affairs – featuring Ka Bin La Phom.

Let me tell you the story as it was told to me by our friend and guide Lathasak Manilatsamy.

Ka Bin La Phom created the world and its people and remained the god of the sky. It was the custom for people to ask his advice to solve problems or to grant them their wishes. But the people started to favour asking a learned man called Tamaban to solve their problems. Tamaban had studied a lot and had actually learnt to speak the languages of the birds and beasts of the forest.

Ka Bin La Phom is carried by the current Miss "Lao New Year" at Wat Mahathat

Ka Bin La Phom is carried by the current Miss “Lao New Year” at Wat Mahathat

In time, people started to forget Ka Bin La Phom and he became jealous and angry. So he decided to set Tamaban a problem to show the people who was the smartest. So he came down to earth in human form and showed himself to Tamaban and the people. He told Tamaban that they were now in a life and death struggle – after the competition either Tamaban or Ka Bin La Phom would die.

To save himself, Tamaban had to answer three questions:

  • Where is the sin of the people in the morning?
  • Where is the sin of the people in the afternoon?
  • Where is the sin of the people in the evening?

Ka Bin La Phom told Tamaban that he would return in seven days to hear his answers – expecting that Tamaban would not have the answers.

With Ka Bin La Phom at the front of the float, the daughters take up positions on and under a Garuda

With Ka Bin La Phom at the front of the float, the daughters take up positions on and under a Garuda

And he would have been correct because Tamaban did not have any idea what the answers were. For six days he thought, asked people and prayed for the answers – but they did not come. So, in fear of his life, on the sixth day, he ran away into the deep jungle.

He clambered for hours through the dense jungle and becoming very tired, he lay down under a huge tree and as he lay resting two large eagles landed in the branches.

Crowds arriving at the Miss Lao New Year Competition

Crowds arriving at the Miss Lao New Year Competition

Not realising that Tamaban could hear them, Mrs Eagle said to Mr Eagle “I am very hungry. Will we get anything good to eat tomorrow?”

Mr Eagle replied “Tomorrow we will have a treat. The god Ka Bin La Phom has asked a man called Tamaban three questions and if he does not give him the answers tomorrow, Ka Bin La Phom will cut off his head and we will have days of feasting on his flesh.”

The daughters of Ka Bin La Phom sprinkling holy water on Buddhas at Pac Ou Caves

The daughters of Ka Bin La Phom sprinkling holy water on Buddhas at Pac Ou Caves

“That’s good news,” said Mrs Eagle, “But what are the questions and do you know the answers?”

“Listen, and I will tell you the questions and the answers,” said Mr Eagle – and he did, while hiding below them, Tamaban listened intently. When they were finished, Tamaban ran back to his village.

On the seventh day, Ka Bin La Phom returned and confronted Tamaban.

“Well, do you have the answers or shall I cut off your head?” he asked.

“I have your answers” said Tamaban boldly.

“The sin of the people in the morning is on their faces so they wash their faces before they start the day.

The sin of the people in the afternoon is on their bodies so when they come home from the fields they wash the sin away and refresh themselves.

In the evening, it is on their feet so before going to bed, they wash their feet.”

Some of the Buddha statues inside the caves at Pac Ou

Some of the Buddha statues inside the caves at Pac Ou

“You are correct!” exclaimed an astounded Ka Bin La Phom, “and as I promised, I will now cut off my own head instead of yours. But, this will be very dangerous for human kind and you must follow my directions or the world will come to an end!”

With that, he called his seven daughters to him and explained to them what they needed to do. He told them that once his head was cut from his body it would be very dangerous. If it was placed on the ground, the earth would catch fire and burn to dust. If it was placed in a river or stream, all the water in the land would boil away and if they threw it into the air, the air itself would catch fire and all life would perish.

To make the head safe, it would have to be placed on a golden platter and kept inside a cave – except for once a year, when it must be brought out to be venerated and washed in holy water.

And this is the ceremony that takes place every Lao New Year.

The seven daughters are picked in a huge contest for their looks as well as their character and intellect. They bring the god’s head out and venerate it in a building inside Wat Mahathat. It is then carried in procession from Wat Mahathat to Wat Xien Thong where it can be worshiped before returning it to its resting place.

The seven daughters also visit the ancient caves north of Luang Prabang which overlook the Mekong just where the Ou River flows into the Mekong.

Here, the daughters sprinkle holy water on the hundreds of Buddha statues crowded into the caves .

Worshipers leaving Pac Ou by canoe

Worshipers leaving Pac Ou by canoe

The Prabang’s Big Day Out, Luang Prabang


Pra Bang, National Museum, Luang Prabang, Laos

Approaching the Palace gates (Image: Lathasak Manilatsamy)

It’s difficult to express the significance  to the people of Luang Prabang and Laos of the Pra Bang. For Luang Prabang, this small gilded statue, after which Luang Prabang is named, marks the beginning of written history, the formation of the Lan Xan Empire and the Lao identity and the coming of Theravada Buddhism as the state religion.

It’s a small statue of the Buddha (in the “calming family quarrels” pose) that’s believed to be the protector of Luang Prabang.

It arrived as a gift to the king of the new Lao empire from his father-in-law, the King of Angkor, around 1353. (Is it the real one or is the real one in Vientiane or Moscow? Is it pure gold or a bronze that’s been gilded? Does it matter?)

It’s had a difficult life. The temple it was in was burnt down (Wat Visoun), it was stolen by the Thais (twice) and the last thirty years or so have not been its happiest.

The Pra Bang is carried through the gates of Wat Mai, Luang Prabang, Laos

The Pra Bang is carried through the gates of Wat Mai

When the communists took over in 1975, they aimed to destroy the old feudal order. And the Pra Bang featured strongly in the melding of religion and rule. So, it and the ceremonies that went with it were not well liked by the new Government. But it has remained a constant in the long history of Luang Prabang which has seen wars with the Burmese, Thais, Vietnamese and amongst themselves as well. It has survived wars, fires and theft to remains a powerful symbol of Luang Prabang and Laos.

It currently lives in a wing of the old palace, now the museum, where you are able to view it but not photograph it.

But, once a year, during Pi Mai (Lao New Year around April), it comes out to be carried down to Wat Mai where people are able to venerate it and pray to it for a day or so. It’s quite a big deal.

A large, ornately carved, gilded wagon is parked in front of the palace. Prayers are said both inside and outside the building. The little statue is carried by attendants wearing white gloves down the stairs of the palace and up into a palanquin atop the golden wagon. Despite its small size, it’s obviously very heavy and the guys who carry it clearly show the strain.

Once standing in its place atop the wagon, a priest carries out a ceremony to bless and cleans the statue. His little pointed hat is put in place and with the orchestra playing and conch shells blown it starts its creaking journey out of the palace and down the road to Wat Mai.

It’s quite a procession with orange clad monks, silk and satin clothed officials and VIP’s carrying their best silver bowls, a band of young men in white jackets sounding conch shells and then the Pra Bang, high above the heads of the crowd.

The wagon is pushed and steered from behind and out the front walks one old man carrying a baton as the crowd joins in behind singing and sounding gongs.

Pra Bang at Wat Mai, Luang Prabang, Laos

Wat Mai – the Pra Bang is ready

It’s only a short distance to Wat Mai where the attendants take him down from the wagon and carry him to his new position under a large temporary roof structure erected in the forecourt of Wat Mai.

Here, he is placed in another mini temple surrounded by flowers and covered by an ornate gilded roof.

On either side of the enclosure are wide timber stairs leading up and down (there are helpful signs to tell which is which). From the top of the stairs spanning the short distance to the roof of the Pra Bang’s mini temple are things called “hanglins”. These are in the shape of nagas (mythical snake-like creatures) with their rear end at the top of the stairs and their heads over the roofed structure under which the Pra Bang stands.

A young couple pour holy water into the hanglin

A young couple pour holy water into the hanglin

Devotees climb the stairs carrying large silver bowls filled with scented water. They say a prayer and empty the contents of their bowl into the back of the hanglin. The water runs down a channel inside the naga, falls through an opening in the roof and showers down over the Pra Bang.  This aspersion brings a blessing to the person carrying out the ritual. As the water hits the floor of the Pra Bang’s structure, it is channeled away and collected to be used on Buddha statues in people’s homes.

Despite the religious significance of this ceremony, I found myself very welcome – in fact, when attendants saw that I was trying to photograph the statue while respectively staying at a distance, I was ushered down to the front (mind you kneeling on the thin mat on top of rough concrete was a bit painful – but, you know – must suffer for art!).

The two spirits of Luang Prabang, Pu Nyer and Nya Nyer, bring water collected from the Nam Khan river at the home of a naga called Kham La and pour this over the Pra Bang in a marriage between the old animist religion and Buddhism.

The Pra Bang is left there for a full day and then the whole thing is done in reverse to bring the Pra Bang back to its place in the palace.

Here in Luang Prabang, this ceremony and many others are still carried out much as they were hundreds of years ago. But here, the scale is small and the people accommodating. As an outsider, you are welcomed into the mix and can get close enough to really feel a part of the ritual – at least for an hour or so.

A Bit of the Real Bali

Galungan Banner CS_2716

We last visited Bali during the major Festive of Galungan and Kuningan (23 October to 2 November 2013) which is one of the biggest in the Balinese calendar – well one of the calendars anyway – they have three: the Gregorian (the regular one); the Pawukon (210 day calender with ten different weeks running simultaneously) and the Saka calendar which has 12 months each of 30 days – yeah, confusing huh?

Anyway, we were lucky enough to be invited to go back to our friend’s villages to celebrate with them.

That’s how we found ourselves at Kusamba Village for Galungan.

One of our young companions, ready to go.

One of our young companions, ready to go.

Our friends taught us how to pray the Balinese way

Our friends taught us how to pray the Balinese way

We first had to learn how to tie on our sarongs, a long one covered by a shorter one. Etiquette demands that the men wear white shirts, preferably long sleeved. On the head must be the traditional Balinese hat – which takes a little time and care to tie just right.

This day is very family orientated – like most things in Bali. There’s a fair bit of praying as well.

It starts at home, at the home shrine. It seems most Balinese houses have a shrine, some small and some large and elaborate. Then, its off to the family shrine where all the uncles and aunts, siblings and cousins meet up. Then, if you’re up to it, it’s off to one of the major public temples for a blessing and a bit more praying.

Once all of that is over, its time to sit with friends, drink a little arak or beer (or both at the same time which tastes a little like scotch) and relax.

Kusamba Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Kusamba Beach

On Galungan, we trooped down to Kusamba Beach, a black beach with headlands at both ends and a view out to sea.

It seemed that people came from all over Bali to this beach and it was crowded.

Kids love having their picture taken

Kids love having their picture taken

Still, it was relaxed and easy going. There were many stalls selling food or toys or trinkets. Hawkers walked the beach selling balloons, coffee, saté, drinks and much more.

Kids (and adults) flew kites and model aircraft and paddled on the shoreline.

The mood was gentle and respectful. No alcohol, no musclemen, no bikinis just a gentle onshore breeze and the laughter of the kids as the played in the water.

Our little group were the only white faces in the whole throng, and we felt at peace as we sat in the black sand, turned our faces to the breeze and took in the view.

As the sun began to dip behind the mountains at our backs we walked back up into the village where I got to achieve one of my long held ambitions.

We get to hang with the boys

We get to hang with the boys

As you enter a Balinese village you will always pass a group of men sitting cross legged in a small covered pavilion at a strategic street corner.

Galungan, it's a family thing

Galungan, it’s a family thing

They sit and smoke cigarettes, play cards, gossip and generally watch out for the village. I have always wanted to be one of those guys and back in Kusamba Village, I got to be one.

We sat, chewing the fat, drinking beer and arak – I watched them smoke cigarettes – and watched the village troop by.

Incredible Balinese Cremation – the cremation of a Queen

In Ubud, all roads seem to lead passed the palace and in the street in front of the palace we spied an enormous purple bull and a very tall and elaborate tower under construction behind it.

Queen's sarcophagus, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Queen’s sarcophagus in the afternoon sun

Knowing a little about Balinese customs, we guessed that this was for an important funeral and our Balinese friends confirmed that.

The wife of the heir to the throne of Ubud had died in October and her cremation was to take place on 1 November.

Over three or four days, the enormous tower took shape along with a huge ramp beside it.

At almost the very top of the tower was a section that looked like a throne – and it was there that the coffin of the Queen was to be placed. After a ceremony in the palace, the body was to be carried up the ramp and placed on this lofty throne.

The Tower en route to the cremation site

The Tower en route to the cremation site

At the base of the tower and the bull was a grid made from hefty sections of bamboo and it was into this grid that a succession of teams of men would climb to carry them both the kilometer or so to the cremation site – about 300 for the tower and about half that for the bull.

In preparation for this, on the day before the ceremony, all the electric wires that crossed the one kilometer of street to the cremation site were removed – meaning that all the businesses on that side of the street either went without electricity or used a generator.

Many of the ones that did use a generator clearly did it regularly because they had a permanent point on the front of the shop into which the generator was plugged,  leaving the generator ticking over on the footpath.

Of course, we took the opportunity to film it.

Ceremony at the Palace

Ceremony at the Palace

On the morning of the cremation, we went to the cremation site and secured a camera position inside a stand close to the raised platform on which the bull would be placed. Cameron and one of our Balinese friends stayed there to keep our prime position while I walked the kilometre to the palace.

At the palace two very richly dressed priests sheltering under a specially erected canopy were reciting prayers and giving blessings.

A crowd of both locals and tourists milled around the enormous bull and the colourful tower while the royal gamalan orchestra played in a pavilion next door.

gamalan orchestra, Ubud Palace, Bali, Indonesia

Earnest concentration from the gamalan orchestra

This orchestra was quite large and while to our ears there is not a lot of structure to the music, if you sit and watch for a while you can see how complex and demanding this music really is.

As I watched I decided that one bespectacled thin man at the front of the orchestra was the leader.

He wielded a couple of large hammers on a set of metal tongues laid out in front of him like the keys of a piano.

What made me think he was the leader was his very studied concentration and the flourish with which he would wield his hammers – as if he were giving timing signals to the rest of the orchestra behind him.

Small enough to ride, this bull was for another cremation

Small enough to ride, this bull was for another cremation

When I detected movement at the Palace, I took up a position down the road where I would be able to film the advance of the bull and the tower.

I was lucky to reach an intersection just as another burial parade surged into the road.

I found myself standing in a large and very noisy mobile gamalan orchestra.

Lead by two young men who stood surrounded by the orchestra, the music was fast, joyful and powerful. The two leaders wore harnesses across their shoulders from which hung a frame holding two large gongs lying flat in front of them.

Band Leaders in action

Band Leaders in action

These they beat frenetically with what looked like two steel and gold pestle ( as in mortice and pestle) . These they spun on the air with the flourish of a band major signalling to the other band members who crowded around them beating gongs and cymbals and drums of all sizes.

For this funeral, the bull and the tower were much smaller than the Queen’s. In fact, the bull, which in this case was white, was small enough to carry a rider who clung on while the men carrying it span it around and rocked it like a carnival ride.

This was followed by a large throne, big enough for two guys to stand on as fifty or so men span it and danced it through the intersection.

Next came the Queen’s procession.

Now I expected that when the Queen’s parade was to come along the road, with such heavy loads and with so many people carrying them, that progress would be slow and measured – especially since the base of the tower barely fitted in the roadway.

But I was wrong!

More than 100 men run passed carrying the bull

More than 100 men run passed carrying the bull

Once lifted, the men began to run down the road at an astonishing pace. Before them ran police and other men shouting and waving frantically.

It was immediately clear that there would be no room, even on the footpath, for me!

I did the best I could to get out of the way and only managed it by climbing over a motorbike parked on the footpath – you will see a couple of bits in the image where the camera stalled – I think that’s me stumbling over the motorbike –  but I managed to keep the camera rolling.

The tower followed by a densely packed crowd

The tower followed by a densely packed crowd

The bull made it through without mishap, but as the tower came passed it collided with festival poles in the pavements bringing them down like a falling tree.

As it passed, I joined a densely packed crowd following the procession.

At this point, the heat became intense.

Up to the low 30’s (Celsius that is), I’m OK. But inside the crowd, the temperature was much higher than that – and there was much worse to come.

I followed along behind the tower as it made its way to the cremation site – pushing hard through the crowd to get close enough to film.

It turned sharply and moved up the small incline to the cremation site.

20 metres in the air, the coffin is carefully passed from hand to hand

20 metres in the air, the coffin is carefully passed from hand to hand

From his vantage point, Cameron was able to film its entrance to the square as it lined up to the huge ramp placed there to transport the body to the ground.

I muscled myself into a position where I was able to look up at the attendants transferring the coffin from the seat of the throne to the top of the ramp.

Here, much earlier, a fire truck had thoroughly whetted down the blacktop and with the heat of midday the water turned to steam which floated up through the dense crowd.

Now the temperature must have climbed into the 40’s and I was feeling it!

But, looking up at the throne and coffin and ramp it was obvious that there had been a miscalculation.

The coffin, which protruded from the seat of the throne almost like a diving board was higher than the ramp. So high, in fact, that the attendants could barely lay their hands on it!

Minutes passed while men prepared a kind of sling made from long pieces of white cloth to be used to hold the coffin while it was edged out into space.

Other men standing twenty metres in the air, straddled the gap between the ramp and the tower, their arms stretched high to catch the coffin as it was carefully lowered.

The bull is set alight by members of the royal family

The bull is set alight by members of the royal family

A cheer rang out when the coffin suddenly dropped half a metre and was caught on the fingertips of these men.

While this was going on, to the music of another gamalan orchestra set up in the stand, a team of men had lifted the bull onto the podium beneath a tall canopy.

The coffin was paraded three times around the podium before being hoisted up and inserted through the rear of the bull and into its belly.

A traditional guard (of old men) dressed as medieval soldiers carrying shields, spears and Balinese swords (called a Kris) also marched around the podium.

More prayers and then a group of men, members of the family, climbed up onto the podium and with flaming torches, set fire to the bull.

Royal Cremation, Bull on Fire

The bull was soon engulfed by flame

The orchestra played while the crowd watched the flames eagerly lick their way up, over and into the bull.

After a short time, the coffin fell from the bull’s belly and into a screened trough under the bull.

Now men with what looked like thermic lances approached the podium and aimed their incendiary long poles into the trough.

There was the roar of burning gas from these lances as they incinerated the coffin beneath the bull.

We watched as the bull was burn away to a frame with a bulls head while the men stood beneath the bull aiming their lances into the trough.

Explosion at Royal Cremation, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

But there was one last surprise

Suddenly, the bull’s head began to lower. Slowly at first and then it fell freely in an arc. Men scrambled out of the way as it collided with a lance sending an explosion of fiery gas into the air.

With this crescendo, calmness settled on the scene and the crowd began to dissipate.

By this stage, we were all about to suffer heat stroke and we packed up our gear a looked for the nearest cold beer.

Once the ashes had cooled, members of the family would have sifted the remains from the ashes, washed them in milk and the next day would have rowed them out to sea for a final burial.

Over the next couple of days, local people would dismantle the tower, bit by bit, and burn it.

As we left the cremation site, gangs of men were already restringing power lines along the street.

Within a few hours, all would return to normal – well, normal for Bali.

See more videos on the Robertson Guides YouTube Channel






Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer – the Ancestors

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer on the steps to Wat Aham

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer on the steps to Wat Aham

The religion in Luang Prabang is Therevada Buddhism which also includes the spirits of the land and water, the Nagas, and also the tutelary gods of Luang Prabang, Pu Nyer and Nya Nyer (with their stepson the lion named Singkow Singkom).

The story goes that when the king of the gods came to earth, before there were people, he brought with him two helpers who cleared the jungle for him as he moved west.

Those helpers were Pu Nyer and Nya Nyer.

When they came to the spot that is now Luang Prabang, Pu Nyer and Nya Nyer decided to stay.

They came to an agreement with the 15 families of Nagas that already lived here and they settled down to grow rice. Their rice fields were close to the current location of Wat Visoun and Wat Aham.

They became the ancestors of the Lao people and they are still venerated in Luang Prabang.

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer lead the New year Parade

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer lead the New year Parade

Their masks and costumes are kept in a small building alongside Wat Aham where there used to be an alter to them for people to make offerings.

Each year, after a ceremony to bring the spirits of these gods back to their costumes, they play a feature role in important ceremonies.

For example, they march at the head of parades and they collect holy water from the rivers to use to wash the most sacred Buddha statue, the Pra Bang during Pi Mai.

You will find miniature versions for sale right across Luang Prabang.


The Boat Racing, Luang Prabang

The boat races have a deep religious meaning both Buddhist and Animist. But it’s also one of the best natured picnic races I have ever been to.

In the weeks leading up to the races, the teams practice on the Nam Khan (river) and the Mekong. You can hear them chanting in the rhythm of their rowing in the early morning and the evenings.

Practice in the rain

Practice in the rain

The canoes are big – carrying more than 40 rowers. Each temple has at least one racing canoe. In the quiet of Luang Prabang, the chanting floats for miles up and down the river.

Small crowds gather in the evening in the street overlooking the Nam Khan to watch the rowers practice.

One of my favourite things to do is sit drinking a gin and tonic and watch the river traffic. On the Nam Khan, that’s racing canoes and small fishing canoes. On the Mekong you will see everything from canoes to floating hotels!

Racing on the Mekong

Racing on the Mekong

Before the main racing is held in the old city, another meet is held a little south of the centre on the Mekong near the mouth of the river that is the traditional boundary to Luang Prabang. This is the home of one of the Nagas that feature in the mythology around the races.

The crowd getting excited

The crowd getting excited

This race is much less formal, the canoes are smaller and it’s quite a carnival. Not so easy to find. As you head south out of the city, you cross a bridge then immediately turn right and enter a temple which then leads you through the food stalls and down to the Mekong.

It’s worth the trip. You will probably be the only westerner there!

There are also two carnivals. One held on an expanse of land between the main road and Wat That Luang and, on the day of the races, a street fair that takes over the main highway leading into town.

Jumping Castles at the Night Carnival

Jumping Castles at the Night Carnival

The night carnival has the biggest array of jumping castles I have ever seen. It also has food and games and bargain shopping for the locals.

The daytime one is also huge and as well as food there are so many shops selling so many goods it shard to remember them all.

We stayed in a hotel on the street above the Nam Khan so we didn’t have far to go and so we could watch the races from our balcony.  But not wanting to be left out of the fun, we were able to hire a table at a restaurant looking down on the river just by turning up mid-morning.

Pushing to the finish line on the Nam Khan

Pushing to the finish line on the Nam Khan

For the length of the race, there are restaurants set up on the banks overlooking the river and you can sit at a table, drinking cold beer and ordering food from the many stalls along the route. Both sides of the Nam Khan are crowded with people. The noise is something you have to experience to understand. There’s a race caller on a race wide PA system. Each stall plays its own music and add to that a screaming crowd, and groups of drummers and…well it’s load.

It’s noising, good natured fun – with lots of food and beer.