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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

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.

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.

Fire Boat Festival, Luang Prabang

We loved the Fire Boat Festival.

Fire Eater at the foot of Mnt Phousi

Fire Eater at the foot of Mnt Phousi

This is when many of the villages in and around Luang Prabang make large illuminated boats which they parade through the old town to Wat Xieng Tong.

We were introduced to the people at Ban Na Luang who were building their boat on a large verandah on the edge of their Wat overlooking the street.

Their boat was the size of a large canoe – about six or eight metres long. We filmed them as they fashioned the boat from bamboo, timber and cardboard and attached decorations made from banana stems, flowers and moulded wax.

They fed us green mango salad with lots of chilli and invited us back to the pre-launch party.

Lao-style Line Dancing

Lao-style Line Dancing

So we arrived with a case of warm beer and our Loa friend Mr Bee to translate. The Laos do know how to enjoy themselves! Although, nobody seems to worry about industrial deafness – the music is SO LOUD.
If you want to mix with the locals, you need to get used to drinking your beer over ice and eating lots of chilli.

Floral Offering for sale

Floral Offering for sale

On the day of the parade, the boats are loaded up onto trailers and pushed into town.

They gather at a large intersection just to the south of the old town and wait for dark.

On the days leading up to the parade, the temples are decorated with lanterns and lights and boats are built outside some of the businesses and the large hotels.

On the road above the Mekong, stalls sell floral offerings which people buy to light up and send out onto the black Mekong.

School Children, faces lit by lantern

School Children, faces lit by lantern

As night falls, the people light up the many oil lamps that illuminate the boats and head off down the main road, passed the official party at the foot of Mount Phousi and on to Wat Xieng Thong.

Between the boats are entertainers, like fire eaters, and groups of school children dressed in their best carry lanterns as they walk along with the boats.

At Wat Xieng Thong, the boats are blessed and then carried down the steep wide stair that leads to the Mekong.

Gaint Fish, Light Festival, Luang Prabang, Laos

The Fish is lowered into the Mekong

Here, they are gently lowered onto the water and towed out into the main current to be let go.

Hundreds of people line the stairs and the banks of the river, some just watching, some letting of fireworks, some sending hot air balloons off into the dark sky.


The mood is happy but respectful. This is a family affair and very charming.