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Sojourn in Luang Prabang

l-r: Pichet Kluncheun and Mugiyono at the Tumtum Cheng guest house

The trip to Luang Prabang was a short, interesting plane ride through scenic plains and rice paddies, the long and winding Mekong River, hills and mountain ranges. I was with the Thai dancer Pichet Kluncheun, the Indonesian mask dancer Mugiyono, and Theatreworks manager Tay Tong. I had met both Pichet and Tay Tong at the Flying Circus Project 2000 in Singapore (which, by the way, is for me the best international artistic gathering I've attended in my entire theatre career.) It was my first time to meet Mugiyono (Mugi) who later became my constant dining and shopping companion in Luang Prabang. All four of us surprised each other in the runway bus on the way to the plane at the Bangkok Airport.

women and weaves at the night market

The Tumtum Cheng guest house in Luang Prabang was the perfect welcome and introduction to what was to come—a weave of local culture, homeliness, and quiet tourism.

Unlike many other countries I've seen, tourism in the small province of Luang Prabang constitutes market stalls which sold goods in two currencies-US dollars and Lao kip. The streets are teeming with European and American tourists with a sprinkle of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. They quietly walk the streets—some biking their way around. Some go backpacking into the mountains and caves. The streets are lined with French cafés and stores selling local products, mostly woven cloth. Many stores require you to leave your shoes before entering! Occasionally, a Mercedez Benz passes obtrusively by, providing a sharp contrast to droves of orange-clad young buddhist monks roaming around, and local people in bicycles, and scooters.

night market

Evening is the most-awaited time of the day when the night market opens and a whole street block comes alive with vendors slapping paper money on top of their goods for luck, tourists eating cheap barbecues and spicy vegetables on make-shift dining tables, and buyers negotiating prices.

Everywhere around the city center you see posters reminding tourists of correct behavior. Don't smooch in public, don't wear next-to-nothing clothes, don't buy antiques, smile, don't throw your garbage around, respect nature, etc.

Farther down the main commercial center is a huge disco complex where we danced to Lao and Thai disco music, and where the local discogoers knew common dance steps akin to barn dances. We squirmed and whirled and tripped under swirling disco lights. For the briefest moment I thought I was in Davao.

But I was in a strange, strange land.

Tay Tong and Bounkhong Khutthao chat outside the Children's Cultural Center office building.

I was brought to Luang Prabang in the Democratic Republic of Laos by Theatreworks—a prestigious cultural institution based in Singapore. The trip is part of The Mekong Diaries of the Continuum Asia Project (CAP) curated by Keng Sen, dramaturged by Low Kee Hong, managed by Tay Tong, and documented by Vivien Lee. The idea is to involve various Asian artists in a series of workshop, documentation, and artistic creation processes with children at the Children's Cultural Center led by Bounkhong Khutthao, with the young members of the Royal Theatre Ballet, and with the entire Luang Prabang community as a wellspring of ideas, knowledge, and inspiration.

school girls playing inside temple grounds

This trip was the first of two trips I am to make within the year. Within the four-and-a-half days I spent two and a half walking around, observing the other workshops, absorbing the environment, taking pictures, and shopping.

On the day we arrived and after Kee Hong gave us a brief orientation, Pichet, Mugi, and I walked leisurely around the city taking cursory looks at the temples, and stopping briefly at shops to marvel but not to buy. On the second day—February 6, which I almost forgot was my birthday—I rented a bike, assumed the demeanor of a photojournalist-cum-tourist, and began a solo journey.

the young sculptor in blue jeans

That was when I met a young sculptor of Buddha statues and three young women weavers.

What struck me about the young sculptor was his youthfulness. In the Philippines, one rarely finds young men sculpting for a living. Only 32 years old, he said he learned sculpting at an art school. He spoke good English, and was quite handsome especially when he smiled, but I thought not to take much of his working time so I left him to his chore and watched quietly. Unfortunately, his name is lost somewhere in my nicotine-filled memory.

the weavers

Just across the street where he worked were the three young women weavers. They giggled when I took pictures and didn't understand when I asked for their names even as I gestured wildly with my hands and turned my head here and there. Again, it is their youthfulness that drew me to them. Much of tradition is often left in the withered hands of the dying old. To see the young carry on with these artistic traditions is an insightful inspiration.

I left the four artists in much awe, thinking that the next time I come back I'd like to spend more time with them to listen to their personal stories, and perhaps weave a story with them.

Chinese Videographer Wen Guang from Beijing facilitates a workshop in video documentation with kids at the Children's Cultural Center.

My next journey was with about 10 kids ages 7-15 at the Children's Cultural Center. I conducted three one-hour-thirty-minute theatre workshop sessions. Using image theatre sprinkled with Filipino children's songs and games, we learned together that the children do not like child labor, excessive garbage, drinking, and smoking due to the influx of tourists. In the end, they turn to unity through artistic creations and traditions as the answer to these social problems. The simplicity, depth, and contradictions of such an insight hit me. Children so young seem to understand that "development" in the form of tourism has brought in ill vices and to counter that culture, they need to cling to their tradition. How sad it is then that it is precisely the wealth of their traditions that has made Luang Prabang a tourist haven. This is a serious contradiction worth noting.

temple splendor

Still and all, the young buddhist monks outnumber the tourists. I had an ancient mistaken impression that monks lock themselves in the temples. I was so wrong! Monks sprouted in the streets like wildflowers, walking, walking, walking, seemingly with neither destination nor origin—unbound by time and place. In temples, some of them play with other kids, jump, run around. Others sit quietly, and sometimes stare into the cameras of tourists. At one time I almost felt like a peeping tom when from afar a monk stared right through the camera lens into my eye, as if saying, "Mind my world."

Monks abound in Luang Prabang

I learned that four kinds of people inhabit the temple grounds: monks, women, very young children, and tourists. The women come to worship and bring food, the children come to play, the tourists come to take pictures.

We watched the Royal Theatre Ballet perform excerpts from the Ramayana. It was a grandiose occasion. The performance opened with a traditional Lao thanksgiving ritual—I continue to wear the white prayer cord bracelets. The ritual involved eating fruits and, to my joy, drinking coke (!) in place of what would have been some traditional drink. Young boys and girls performed alongside old masters. There was a noticeable age gap. The young ones were in their teens, the old ones in their 60s and 70s. The gap may perhaps be attributed to the long period of Communist takeover from the mid '70s when many traditions were discouraged or outrightly suppressed. It is heartening to know that despite this long period of artistic inertia, many young children still find interest in traditional ways, even if the context is tourism—which is often the starting point for any attempt towards cultural revival, as in the case of the Philippines.

Chinese Dancer Wen Hui from Beijing (with blue jacket) plays with the kids at the Children's Cultural Center.

On the last day of our artistic "intervention," all the participants and facilitators gathered in the house that Theatreworks rented for the whole year. It was a show-and-tell event. The participants took turns performing/exhibiting what they have learned from their Asian facilitators. Video-showings, workshop processes, and very short performances in Indonesian mask dance, Thai classical dance, Chinese contemporary dance, and Philippine contemporary theatre were shown. It was a festive event with much joy, laughter, and inspiration.

children of the Children's Cultural Center celebrate with Asian artists and Theatreworks staff

After Wen Guang, Wen Hui, Pichet, Mugi, Kee Hong, Tay Tong, Vivien Lee, Cecily Cook (of the Asian Cultural Council), a couple of Chinese friends from Beijing, and I said our goodbyes after dinner at a French restaurant, I walked back to the guest house wrapped in the February cold, contemplating the experience. I was beginning to miss Luang Prabang. More importantly, I felt a responsibility towards helping the young people understand their context more. Pretty soon tall buildings will rise alongside small old structures—as the dollar to the kip. The weaving and the dancing will surely continue, but the invasive nature of tourism, consumerism and commercialization of culture may soon engulf genuine attempts at cultural revival. Yet culture is dynamic and should constantly change. Traditional culture shouldn't be mummified and put in museum boxes, rather it should be put out in the sun and the rain, and planted on the earth, that it may grow and find sustenance.

early morning Buddhist ritual

Every morning at 6:00, I am awakened by the sound of gongs signaling the beginning of the Buddhist monks' daily morning ritual—walking in the streets in one straight line carrying baskets to ask for rice. No matter how hard I tried, I could never manage to get up to witness this ritual. On the day we were to depart for Bangkok, I got up, drank coffee, and waited outside the guest house for the monks to walk past. An old man was sitting on a chair in the street, holding a basket of rice. As the monks were coming near, he stood up and waited. Then as the monks passed him by, he put dashes of rice in every monk's basket. I asked Kee Hong why the man only donated such a small amount of rice. He said they do that everyday of every month of every year. Imagine yourself donating rice everyday, every month, every year. It was a lesson in neighborliness and resource management.

Imagine one child learning one dance every day, every month, every year. Imagine many children. Imagine these children growing up with each teaching one child one dance everyday, every month, every year. That is what "everlasting peace" is all about—the dance masters never die and the dancing never stops.

© Ma. Cecilia Arriola

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