Well, I’m in Laos now. I have been for 9 days, in fact. For those of you that checked in to see what’s been going on, sorry for the delay. I did, in fact, write a post while I was in Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh, which I was going to add to when I got here. However, I had a little bit of trouble retrieving it when I discovered in Vientiane that the motor in my hard drive had somehow died on the flight over.
Seeing as how I shoot digital, not being able to use my computer poses a few problems for me. Problems, irritations, maddening, head scratching, cursing, foot stomping… well, you get the idea. So, I spent the majority of my first week getting my computer problems figured out and solved, finding, renting and moving into a house, getting a nice new LCD that I can optimize images on, and in general just getting situated and figuring out my way around town. Now, after encountering a few difficulties, and spending quite a bit of time and money, I’m ready to go.
I’ve been to most of the main tourist attractions in town, mostly temples, and I’ve started getting some great stock photos (like the one at the beginning of this post…), but that’s not what I want to write about in this blog. I’m going to write about the festival that just happened.
In Theravada Buddhism there are two related holidays, Wan Khao Phansaa and Wan Awk Phansaa. Starting on Wan Khao Phansaa all monks are forbidden from spending the night anywhere outside their temple. This basically translates into a ban on travel. They are also forbidden from eating after midday. This lasts for 3 months, and so for 25% of each year monks are basically required to stay home and be hungry in the evenings. Buddhist practitioners are also encouraged to abstain from alcohol, sex, and other vices during this time. Between Wan Khao Phansaa and Wan Awk Phansaa monks also do not perform any wedding ceremonies.
On Wan Awk Phansaa these bans are lifted, the monks are allowed to travel and eat in the evenings, weddings are performed again, and people who have been abstaining can now have all the booze and sex they want. So, yeah, it’s basically a big party. Down along the Mekong River front there have been lines of temporary food and product stalls, LOTS of beer being sold everywhere, a few old, decrepit amusement rides that you couldn’t pay me to get on, and some very, very simple carnival style games. For example, my favorite was one where they line up rows and rows of Pepsi and orange soda on the ground, and people stand back a few feet and throw little wash buckets at them. If you can successfully cover one of the bottles of soda with a wash bucket, you win the bottle of soda. Mind blowing. And apparently, very popular. There were also some big booths teaching people not to eat or play with dead chickens if they find them (bird flu!), and lots of other stuff I didn’t understand because I’m not yet fluent in Lao.
Thailand has a holiday on the full moon in November called “Loy Krathong”, where people make little boats out of banana tree stumps, banana leaves and flowers, called a “krathong”. They put candles and incense in them, along with some hair and fingernails and a few coins, and then put them in the river and watch them float away. The idea is that your sins from the previous year are being carried away down the river. Well, they roll that into Wan Awk Phansaa here, and so on the second to the last night of the festival people flock to the Mekong River, buy krathongs and then pay a guy about $0.25 to swim with it out into the river for them. However, I didn’t see anybody putting hair or fingernails in them like they do in Thailand, and there aren’t any coins in Laos, so they don’t put those in there either. I spent that night wandering around the riverfront, taking pictures of people and activities, and finally people with their krathongs. It had to be one of the most poorly lit festivals I’ve ever attended, and it was extremely challenging to get good photos. Out of about about 250 shots I took just of people with their krathongs I got one for this blog, and 3 others that I’ll market. The rest were crap. You try getting good, clear pictures of people lit by candlelight at ISO 800.
Finally, on the last day of the festival there are boat races. Villages from all around the country build these really long, skinny boats that hold dozens of people who all row in unison. Everybody around town has been talking about these boat races all week, and how exciting and wonderful they are, so last week I went down to the river, scoped out spots, and found the best one I could. They asked for over $50 to reserve the spot, and chalking it up to a professional investment I put down the cash. They assured me that I should be there two days, the 14th and the 15th, and this was their justification for the $50 deposit (as compared to $25). The deposit was to cover two days of food and drinks, 6 liters of beer and 3 dishes of food each day. Well, there was nothing going on down there on the 14th, just a bunch of people sitting by the river and getting drunk. I tried several times to find some people to pitch in with me to pay for my seats, and I figured it was a great deal. I told everybody I invited that they could just pay half, and then they could have all the beer. If I was going to be shooting photos, I damn well couldn’t be getting drunk. Well, I never found anybody to go in with me, and so yesterday morning I found myself sitting alone, baking in the sun in a very expensive seat, unable to drink any beer. I could have been a great big pig and tried to consume all the food that came with the reservation, but I decided that an aching, overextended gut also wouldn’t help me any. I discovered that the wonderful, open view I had was now obscured by tents and umbrellas, and the boats were so far out in the river I would have needed a 400mm lens to get anything decent. I was determined to get something, though, and I scoped out a nice view through some tree branches to my right were I could get a great shot of the boats coming through. A nice crop on the photos and they would have worked nicely, at least for my bog. Would have… until this fat old tourist woman decided to stand on a chair and hold her video camera up over her head, right into my view, completely ruining any chance I had of getting some good shots. So, I don’t have any boat photos to show you. And now I know that next year I can either buy a 400mm lens or I can pay somebody a couple hundred dollars to ride alongside the races in a motor boat. Live and learn. For now I have to settle for far-off pictures of boats next to a blurry, fat hand holding an equally blurry video camera. At least when I demanded half my money back from the restaurant manager she gave it to me. They did not, however, agree to bag up the 6 liters beer I’d paid for so I could drink it at home later that night. I bought some on the way home, anyhow…