We spent a couple weeks in Malaysia this spring. Most of that time we stayed in the classic tourist destinations: Georgetown and Melaka for their rich layers of Dutch, Portuguese, British history.
We tried to see some of the incredible nature, too. My personal highlight was Sarawak on Borneo. We went to the UNESCO global geopark on Langkawi Island and took a bus inland to the tea country of the Cameron Highlands.
Everywhere we went, I was struck by two things. The first is that in a predominantly Muslim country it can take a while to find alcohol. Evening mealtimes for Uwe and me are when we want to linger over a glass and talk about what we saw during the day. In Malaysia we’d peruse the menu at the front of a restaurant and turn the pages to the very back where the drinks were listed. If it didn’t serve beer or wine, often we’d smile and say thank you, and head further down the street feeling slightly like jerks.
The second thing I noticed is that in every place we visited, streets in Malaysia contain the houses of worship of different religions. Muslim mosques, Christian churches, Hindu, Buddhist, Tin Hau and Chinese temples, one next to the other line a street. Everywhere.
We explored many of them and I was delighted and calmed by the sweet atmosphere in these roads. The world feels more and more divided. But the Malaysians we talked with are proud of the religious tolerance and multicultural blend that makes up their country.
And that’s a concept I’ll gladly raise a glass of wine to….
We’re enchanted with bodies of water. Yes, the Amazon River is definitely on our wish list…. We love them all, from the impossibly old cultures and antiquities found along the banks of the Nile River in Egypt to the remote beauty and haunting calls of loons on the back trails of lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks, to the ever changing scenery along the Mekong.
The Mekong River defines Laos in many ways. Laos is a landlocked country, but visitors forget this fact because the river runs the length of the land. When it reaches the southernmost border to Cambodia, the Mekong River divides up into a landscape of fast-running parallel streams.
It’s a quiet region, frequented mostly by nature lovers and stoners (see the first half of this post for some details on thataspect of travel).
Locals still go fishing in what looked like awkward and probably highly dangerous but effective fashion.
The Mekong River is wide and sleepy in places up north. Here, though, the river definitely rolls and tumbles. This method of fishing is surely the smartest way to work with the force of the waters and guarantee a good catch.
Here are some reasons why you should visit Southern Laos: the sweetness of a part of the world that isn’t in a hurry and has spectacular scenery.
The chance to get into areas that are still relatively untouched by mass tourism.
The natural world: biologists and botanists continue to discover new species. And the flora and fauna that Laos contains are beautiful.
Plus you never know when you’ll sail into the middle of a local festival. We literally did just that as we headed down river from Pakse to reach 4,000 Islands. A long boat race was going on, and Uwe and I didn’t need to be asked twice if we wanted to stay for a while and watch.
We booked our trip with a gentle young guide and a variety of boats. The infrastructure is simple compared to Germany or Hong Kong, but with cell phones and patience it all went smoothly. When you’re in a place as lovely as Laos is, it’s all good.
When we visit the temples in Laos, we often see monks tying special white cotton strings to the wrist of a person’s right hand. Sometimes the monk ties connecting strings to whole groups of people. What are they, and what was the significance? The answer, it turns out, varies in the different regions of Laos (as well as the Sipsong Panna autonomous prefecture of the Tai Lü in the extreme south of Yunnan, China, and Northern and Isan Thai cultures) and depends on time and place….
The strings are tied in the Baci ceremony, and the meaning depends on the occasion. Take weddings, for instance. According to an old Laotian legend, the cotton threads are tied to ensure a happy marriage. We each have a tree in the heavenly garden, and that tree has branches intertwined with your predestined partner. When our trees come to this earthly existence, the cotton threads binding them are cut and we’re born separated and alone. If you can find your soul mate again after searching for him or her, at your marriage you are rejoined by retying the thread.
But in Laos, threads are also tied on newborn babies and their mothers , or on people going home or departing from home, which explained the many men, women, and children with these bracelets we saw at airports. The ceremony is performed for specific events in a life: success, health (both for the cured and the sick), and annual festivals like the sacred Wax Castle Procession in Vientiane (we witnessed a high number of Baci ceremonies during that time).  The ceremony is done after a death, too, to bring back any wandering, missing spirits and reinforce the harmony of the surviving family members.
The entire ceremony is rich is symbolism. The white color means purity, and the strings are believed to bind the 32 kwan, organs or parts to the soul, to prevent them from wandering away. (The Baci ceremony is also known by the term su kwan, “calling of the soul”.)  When kwan wander away from your body, this creates an imbalance in the soul that may lead to illness and bad luck.
The ceremonies take place in Buddhist temples, but kwan and the Baci ceremony predate Buddhism.  I’ve had strings tied to my right wrist in Buddhist and Hindu temples from Thailand to India, but have never taken part in a Baci ceremony. Regardless, the white bracelet should be worn for at least three days. Then the threads can be unknotted or allowed to fall off on their own, but should never be cut.
NOTES:  A Baci ceremony for new mothers and their babies is performed to welcome the baby, and to recall any kwan that may have wandered off from the mother during the birth.  The Wax Castle Procession falls on an especially auspicious lunar calendar date: the full moon of the seventh lunar month.  Concept of Kwan: Kwan are components of the soul but have a more abstract meaning than this. The kwan have been variously described by Westerners as: “vital forces, giving harmony and balance to the body, or part of it”, “the private reality of the body, inherent in the life of men and animals from the moment of their birth,” and simply as “vital breath”. – Pom Outama Khampradith, Bounheng Inversin, and Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith, writing for Lao Heritage Foundation.  Check out my posts about the Rocket Festival we saw on our first trip to Laos!
P.S: Baci in Italian means kisses, and it’s an awesome chocolate candy that contains a whole hazelnut at the center.
Laos’s most important religious festival opens with a parade led by monks and government officials, accompanied by musicians in ethnic costumes.
The faithful follow, carrying colorful, decorated structures (wax castles, or phasat).
These are high towers built by hand to resemble castles. But such castles! These beautiful structures are covered with yellow wax flowers, especially scented with honey. Offerings of money and gold paper further decorate the towers, which are carried three times in a clockwise direction around the stupa. The procession is led by the temple’s monks, who are chanting Pali verses. Then the castles are placed on the stupa, and on the ground candles and incense are lit to ask for Buddha’s blessing.
To place castles at this event brings extra-special merit as they are an especially worthy offering. According to legend, a monkey offered the Buddha honey and was rewarded with a human incarnation. The honey in the yellow wax flowers is a symbol of this great honor.
Monks are available to receive offerings of money and place the towers (sometimes precariously!) on the stupa.
The festival brings everyone together, regardless of ethnic group or social standing. The procession shows solidarity among communities as people from all walks of life take part in the festival. Everyone dresses in their best clothes, and people from all over the country attend. Groups across Laos try to bring at least one wax castle to the stupa. The stupa itself is the country’s most important religious edifice, believed to contain a sacred relic of the Buddha.
We spent a long time on the grounds, quietly watching the comings and goings. People laugh and talk and play music as they make their offerings, but the solemnity of the procession made me sorry I didn’t have on a skirt or dress, or pay to rent a sarong for the event. Tourists are welcomed but there is nothing touristy about this sacred ritual. It was an overwhelmingly, intensely Laotian celebration. As always: I feel honored and lucky that Uwe and I were there for that full moon, and that we continue to get to witness the wonders of this precious world.
NOTES: “November 28, 2012 Wax Castle Procession” Vientiane Times, The First National English Language Newspaper
As my readers know, Uwe and I are devoted to travel. One of our favorite regions is southeast Asia. We keep going back, in love with the countries, the food, the cultures and the people. Each time we go, we’re lucky enough to plan on – or stumble onto – a local celebration.
If it’s a religious festival, taking part is a way to gain merit. After so many years visiting the area, I’d like to think that visiting is a way to gain merit as well….
An especially charming festival is the annual That Luang Festival, or Wax Castle Procession. The festival takes place in Laos’s capitol Vientiane. Uwe and I were in Laos one year when our visit to the city coincided with the fest. Of course, we had to see it!
The festival is a holiday honoring Buddha at the That Luang stupa, Laos’s most sacred religious site.  Traditionally, the festival occurs during the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (November).
A gigantic traditional trade fair had opened six days earlier, with booths, rides, food, and ear-splitting speakers blasting music…. There was no way you could miss where the festivities were! Families sat everywhere, either picnicking or taking a break from the sights. Special areas had been set up on the grounds for male and female monks to rest.
There are booths selling special foods, rides for kids, and items both sacred and practical for sale.
In the afternoon, everyone watches the traditional game tikhy, played with a ball and long curved sticks, similar to hockey. We missed the game – which gives us an excuse to go back again someday.
Within the stupa walls the atmosphere was devout. Outside the walls though, people were having a loud and lively time. We left as the full moon rose over the That Luang stupa and lights went on. Even more people were streaming in as we made our way back to our hotel.
Part 2 will post next week.
NOTES:  The That Luang stupa is depicted on both the kip (Laos paper money) and the att coins (no longer in circulation). Some information on the festival taken from “November 28, 2012 Wax Castle Procession” Vientiane Times, The First National English Language Newspaper
This is a brand new feature for this blog: I’m transcribing selected entries from my old travel journals. Currently I’m working on a batch of new posts set in Laos. I hauled out the journal I kept on our first visit to make sure that my memories match up with the facts. My descriptions from that trip are raw. I use a travel diary to record first impressions and get down the details to go over later (like now, years later). I’ve decided to post some of them here for your amusement. — Jadi
“13 March. The heat and humidity are too huge to move quickly. Despite them we’ve kept up an ambitious sight-seeing program.
A 1,000-year-old site we visited with our guide on yesterday’s tour:
Buddhas in the Angkor Wat style carved out of boulders in the jungle. And, not twenty feet away, a spirit altar by a tall tree. 
No one’s allowed to build anything on or near the site. But the locals come there for ceremonies and celebrations. It had a rather hushed and holy air as we stood on the jungle (forest) floor in the welter of the afternoon heat at Vang Sang. An elephant graveyard was once found nearby!
90 kilometers north of Vientiane we stopped for a boat trip on Ang Nam Ngum, an artificial dammed lake.
A long boat of Laos with packages waited on the adjacent boat docked there. They were from one of the many islands and had come in on a once-a-week boat trip to do their shopping.
The buildings all high on stilts for the rainy times. We had my favorite meal so far in this trip: a soup with fresh Chinese vegetables and tofu and vermicelli noodles – it may be the freshest ingredients in a soup of this kind I can remember. And a lake fish grilled whole with garlic and ginger and lemon grass and cilantro; and it was all just too delicious for words.
… I’m quite intrigued with the very old spiritual energy this country possesses. Little spirit houses beside trees. Sticky rice offerings on tree trunks.…
Now we’re down at an open pavilion-style café on the Mekong River. It’s receded with the dry season, almost to Thailand. Weird to think Thailand is so close. The river’s so low you could practically walk there.”
I just made my second trip to Myanmar. Or Burma, as the country was once known. My sister Pam and I spent a grand weekend exploring just a few of the thousands of temples at Bagan. [1, 2] Most date back to the 11th – 13th Century.
Along with the temples that seem to grow out of the ground everywhere you look, Bagan is a major center for traditional art forms including lacquerware, sand paintings and wood carving.
On previous trips Pam has purchased hand carved figures from a local artist. We went in search of his shop, and a figure known as a spirit guide accompanied me back to Germany.
Khim Maung Zaw creates and sells from a small shop. He graciously signed the sandalwood figure I wanted, and allowed me to photograph his art.
I am delighted to recommend Mr. Zaw and his beautiful carvings.  His shop’s address is:
I hand-carried lacquer ware and my spirit guide for the long 24 hour journey back home. When I removed all the bubble wrapping he seemed surprisingly alive. I gently unwound the cloth strips, feeling anxious.
I was delighted that he’d survived the trip intact. A spirit guide now stands in my home, pointing the way towards the path to enlightenment.