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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.




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.