About Carol Rolnick
Carol Barbier Rolnick grew up in Japan and Southeast Asia, traveling extensively as a child through Asia, the Mideast and Europe on family vacations. Travel has continued as a priority through raising kids and continuing into retirement, extending adventures through the Americas, southern Africa, Asia, and repeat trips throughout Europe. Carol and her husband, Michael spent four summers based in Utrecht, The Netherlands, which has become like a second home. They are (still) aiming towards Australia-New Zealand and Antarctica to round off their continental travels.
Latest Posts by Carol Rolnick
Tuk tuks, covered carts attached to a motorcycle, are a major and relatively inexpensive form of transportation in Cambodia. Variations of the tuk tuk can be found throughout most of southeast Asia and are equally popular. Finding ourselves with an unplanned day in Phnom Penh, our guide suggested an excursion to Mekong Island (Koh Dach) for some touring off the beaten path. Always up for an adventure, we eagerly put ourselves in the capable hands of Sam, our guide.
Our day began with a short cruise up the Mekong River (a childhood favorite of mine), passing river huts and “marinas” in the shadow of Phnom Penh’s booming tourist hotels.
While we disembarked, Sam swiftly negotiated a half-day tuk tuk excursion, and in the three of us climbed. Koh Dach is one of several islands in the Mekong just north of Phnom Penh where silk production was once a major cottage industry. However, we experienced quite a bit of island life that day, way beyond our 1 hour visit to a silk “farm.”
A tuk tuk driver rests in his hammock at siesta time, chatting with another driver.
First stop was a new temple complex. But what caught my eye was the house next to the temple. Most Cambodian abodes look similar to this:
Most Cambodian village houses are simple structures on stilts. The raised abode has a dual purpose of keeping varmints out (think snakes & rats) as well as providing a shady place for livestock.
The house that caught my attention was this one:
A monk sits in meditation surrounded by clever mobiles of…used cans and bottles. Repurposing as an at form — how clever!
Completely surrounding the porch perimeter, some clever artisan had turned soda cans and water bottles into decorative, hanging works of art. Take a closer look:
I’d seen similar but smaller and less complex recycled art at home, but nothing quite as elaborate as these pieces.
Continuing on, our next stop was even more amazing. Sam, always on the look out for the unusual, called out “Stop!” to the tuk tuk driver and ordered him to turn back around.
Female cow, on the right, is unenthusiastically awaiting her bull, the large humped bovine behind her. Assumedly, the third animal is her calf, but whether there just to help keep Mama calm or for instructional purposes wasn’t clear.
A gaggle of villagers, all men, were trying to “encourage” a bull to do his natural mission of impregnating the cow in front of him. She, being kept in place in a form of “stocks” by a nose ring and tether was having none of it. She lowed and shook her head, the calf lowed and strained at his rope, and the bull — well, he looked completely and utterly clueless. After over five minutes of standing poised with camera in my face, I lowered the camera to give my arms a break and — FLASH!! — you guessed it — the bull had mounted and dismounted the cow in less time than it’s taken me to describe their mating. All of 3 seconds. Flat. I think some old fashioned “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am” encounters have lasted far longer.
Afterwards, the bull looked a little less clueless and perhaps just a bit smug. The cow, on the other hand, was still lowing miserably.
Continuing on our way, we passed through a few hamlets, with the road gradually deteriorating from paved-with-potholes to a dirt road — a very dusty dirt road. Sam once more hollered for the driver to stop when he spied an on-going Buddhist wedding in one village. He urged us to join the party, saying the couple would be very pleased and honored to have Americans join them. I demurred as I thought our uninvited presence would be intrusive and distract from the ceremony. Besides, I didn’t really feel comfortable being a “wedding crasher.” On we went.
The next stop — a silk farm — was fascinating as their production was truly from soup to nuts — or worms to silk products. (Skip this first picture if squeamish.)
Silk worms — caterpillars — feeding on a basket of mulberry leaves.
The silkworms are placed in bunches of hanging branches where they spin their cocoons. Once the moths have emerged, the cocoons are collected for extraction of the raw silk fibers.
Dyed silk thread against a nest of cocoon fibers or raw silk.
Raw silk fibers after being unwound from the cocoon.
After the silk fibers are cleaned and dyed, they are woven into cloth for various types of silk garments.
Michael trying his hand at weaving.
Some of the finished product: colorful silk scarves.
Always a cottage industry, the techniques for silk production, especially weaving, have been passed down from mother to daughter over the centuries. However, silk production, once a mainstay of Cambodian life and local economy, has faltered in recent years. The reasons are multiple and interactive: overuse of pesticides in farming have killed off huge numbers of moths and silk worms; these same agriculture practices have made small-hold farming more lucrative, drawing off silk weavers and others to support family farms; many silk workers have left for more lucrative pay in factories as Western markets have increasingly shifted production to the lower wage Asian markets. This siphoning off of skilled or potential weavers has, in turn, exacerbated declining silk production. Initially, dying off of the silk worm population resulted in importing cheaper and more available raw silk from other Asian countries. However, in recent years, the cost of these imports rose while simultaneously the cost of the finished silk goods declined.
Cambodia has struggled mightily to correct decades of both layered, institutional corruption as well as the murderous, decimating rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s and other repressive government since. Recently taxes on raw silk imports have been lowered, and some subsidies instituted for silk production, but model silk “farms” such as the one we visited have not been able to offset the steady decline of this craft. The allure of higher paying manufacturing jobs, as well as the more productive family farm, have siphoned off much of the next generation of silk growers and weavers. It remains to be seen whether silk production and weaving in Cambodia will survive the 21st century.
By the time we left the silk farm, we were getting used to Sam’s exhortations for the driver to stop immediately and perform a whiplash-inducing U-turn in the road to go back to whatever Sam had just spotted. This also meant that as we turned 180 degrees, we immediately were covered by a cloud of dust churned up by our tuk tuk just moments before. But it was always worth it.
Home brewed palm wine. Who can resist?
One such road reversal took us back to a tiny one room house where an enterprising young couple sold home-brewed palm wine. People — mostly men — would enter the hut with doubled or tripled plastic bags and emerge with a bulging sack of palm wine. The couple welcomed us into their abode, and offered us a sample of their brew. Trying not to think of how many people had imbibed from the same cup, I told myself a little bacteria can only make my immune system stronger. I sipped, Michael guzzled. We declined to buy; I really wasn’t keen on palm wine, I discovered.
Michael samples the palm wine. Sam looks at me saying, “Your turn!” I had to do it….
The lady of the house — who was drop dead gorgeous — could not have been more than 18 but already had several children under foot. Michael immediately fell in love. I think his ardor cooled somewhat when he sniffed out the other home brew she had going: teuk trei, or fish sauce. Very pungent, stomach-churning, fermented fish sauce. We declined this purchase as well.
The hut was no more than 12 by 6 feet for a family of (what looked like) five. One corner was the cooking area. The upper left corner above shows the concrete pan fire place where the palm wine (and fermented fish sauce) were cooked. Two of the bowls contain small river fish waiting to be added to the pot.
We had a few more neck-wrenching U-turns, all of them interesting. We came upon a second wedding, and Sam almost persuaded us to join the matrimonial fun. Images of The Wedding Crashers kept kalaidoscoping in my head so we chickened out. But the last stop was the best of all.
“Stop!” hollered Sam, followed by a torrent of Cambodian, he was so excited. “Cow! Giving birth! Come!” he finally managed. So we scrambled out of the tuk tuk and ran to where a half-dozen men were playing midwives to a cow. By the time I was able to get my camera focused, the calf was halfway out. We watched through the entire process:
Two men gently help pull the calf from the cow, who looks on impassively.
At this point, the calf was not yet breathing and the umbilical cord is still attached.
One man gently wipes mucous and placenta from the calf’s body.
The calf’s face and nostrils were carefully cleared and it began to breathe on its own.
The calf was placed before the mother who proceeded to first smell and bond with the calf, then lick it clean.
So that was our day: breeding cows, re-purposed porch art, un-crashed-weddings, attempts to weave silk, palm wine sampling, and witnessing a calf’s birth. Certainly an off-road day, and one to always be remembered.
Têt, the days-long New Year celebration, is by far the most important holiday in Vietnam. Based on the Chinese lunar calendar, Têt falls on a different day each year. Preparations begin weeks in advance. Homes are first scoured to remove any bad luck from the previous year, then lavishly decorated with “good luck” colors of red and gold, bedecked with colorful flowers, miniature kumquat trees, and families begin to welcome home far-flung relatives as the majority of Vietnamese return to their ancestral homes for the holidays.
Têt can last for several days, beginning days or weeks ahead, with preparing traditional New Year foods, and ancestral altars are cleaned and refreshed with heaps of foods and gifts for the family’s ancestors. The emphasis on honoring one’s ancestors is an important ritual of Têt, especially for those who’ve passed away that year. The various offerings are meant for the departed to use on their journey to (hopefully) heaven.
We were honored by an invitation from our young guide, Quan, to join his family for a New Year Eve’s dinner at his apartment. “Happy,” as he liked to be called, was newly married with a 5 month old daughter. Like most young Vietnamese, he lived with his parents, an uncle and his grandfather in a Hanoi apartment building.
We brought a traditional gift of candies, as well as a large bottle of beer. (I’m still not sure if beer is a traditional Têt gift, but Happy said his grandfather liked beer at the holidays, so beer it was.) Happy introduced us to his wife, baby, and mother, who had been laboring in the kitchen preparing all the wonderful foods eaten at Têt.
Happy proudly showed us the family’s magnificent ancestral altar, laden with various Têt foods as well as gifts. We then sat on a straw mat with his family to partake of the modest feast his mother had prepared.
In addition to plain rice, we were served Vietnamese sausage, mung bean pudding, red sticky rice, Banh Chung, or steamed rice cake (shed of its banana leaf covering), and Western-style mini hot dogs (which although certainly not traditional, Happy specifically liked and asked for).
About halfway through the meal, Happy’s grandfather arrived, bowing and smiling in greeting before joining us on the mat. Grandfather Ca, in his eighties, formally introduced himself with Happy as his translator. After the introduction, the first thing he said was, “I am so happy our countries are friends again. War is a terrible thing, especially among friends, but now our countries are at peace. This makes me glad.”
I knew from what Happy had told us that his grandfather, now in his late eighties, had been in the North Vietnamese Army, and admired Ho Chi Minh (whose bust was on the family altar) but Happy said Grandfather Ca had always wanted Vietnam and America to be on peaceful terms. And this despite an awful, bloody war which saw, among other deeds (on both sides) massive U.S. bombings of swathes of Hanoi and other sections of then North Vietnam. Grandfather Ca ended his speech by giving me (because I had lived in pre-war Vietnam) a specially printed Têt card inscribed with a poem he’d written, and good luck wishes for the coming year. Happy explained that Ca and his friends would write these special poems and greetings every year to exchange among themselves and to give to family members and close friends. We felt quite honored.
We left after dinner for a short nap before making our way to the central lake in Hanoi to watch the fireworks that would usher in the New Year at midnight.We were intrigued by many of the altars set up on the sidewalks or roadways in front of shops to honor the shopkeepers’ ancestors. All had similar foods and gifts as had Happy’s family altar, but with the addition of a whole boiled chicken — head, cockle, beak and all — a special offering to the ancestors.
Due to my dawdling over these fascinating altars, we never made it to Hoan Kiem Lake where the fireworks were held. Caught at midnight in the streets with dozens of others, we gazed from a couple of blocks away at the fireworks as they exploded over the rooftops. The Vietnamese love fireworks, but at Têt they have a special function, to ward off any evil spirits as the new year begins. Children ran about, setting off long tubes of small fireworks and whirling noisemakers, making as much noise and bangs as possible to scare off the evil spirits. It was quite a display.
Returning to our hotel, we saw many people carefully burning their paper offerings that had earlier sat on their altars. Symbolic gifts are made of paper, such as (fake) money, cars, miniature houses, floral bouquets and wrapped (empty) boxes, to be burned as the new year begins to speed these offerings to their ancestors.
I’m not sure what is done with the chicken.
But I can definitely say that this Têt celebration in Hanoi was one of the most memorable celebrations I can remember.
Têt in 2016 in Vietnam will begin February 8.
Chuc Mung Nam Moi!
Vietnam is the birthplace of the unique and unlikely religion of Cao Dai. A mixture primarily of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, Cao Dai also imports teachings of Muhammad, Jesus, and Laozi, among others, along with some Catholicism (they have a Pope and a Holy See) and a bit of spiritualism thrown in. The primary temple (Holy See) is in Tay Ninh, in the heart of the Mekong Delta in southwestern Vietnam. Above photo: Worshipers inside the Cao Dai Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh, Vietnam.
Suppressed by the Communists in 1975, Cao Dai was reprieved by the government in 1997 and has flourished since in this corner of Vietnam. Government estimates indicate at least 4.4 million declared worshipers, whereas the religion itself claims upwards of 6 million believers. Given Cao Dai’s long-time criticism of Communism — they also opposed French colonial rule and USA-backed President Diem — I’d guess these official numbers are an under-representation.
The Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh, 90 km northwest of Saigon.
Cao Dai believe in dual deities followed by a pantheon of saints and other holy figures. The ubiquitous, omnificent male Supreme Being, representing the yang, and the Holy Mother, representing the yin, create the balance of heaven and earth. Several historical persons are included in their panoply of revered souls, including, among others, Julius Caesar, Victor Hugo, Sun Yat-sen, and, inexplicably (in my opinion), Joan of Arc.
The Divine, All-Seeing Eye of God.
Cao Dai is rife with symbolism, the most important being the All Seeing Eye, also known as the Divine Eye. Represented as the left eye of God, this symbol is a reminder that God is omnipresent and sees all.
The Holy See is a spectacularly gaudy display of color and opulence. The decorations of the columns and windows are so colorful and elaborate they reminded me of the rococo stylism of 18th century Europe. The three colors of Cao Dai — yellow, red and blue — represent the the three religions from which form the belief systems of Cao Dai. Respectively, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.
Worshipers inside the Cao Dai Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh, Vietnam.
Red represents Confucianism, and blue Taoism.
The Holy See during a service. Lay worshipers are dressed in impeccable white, and the three priests in yellow, blue and red (just left of center).
Cao Dai beliefs and principles fundamentally stress the “oneness” of each individual with God and the universe. There is the focus on perfecting oneself, but also strong values placed, in this order, upon the family, society, and mankind. As in many religions, Cao Dai professes a form of the Golden Rule. However, they take this precept of acting well and empathetically to another level, urging adherents to do good deeds to earn merit and a better position in the next life. Another principle that I found interesting was the emphasis on wealth and materialism.
Additional precepts in Cao Dai are also somewhat universal: do not kill, do not perform adultery, do not steal, do not get drunk, and do not sin by word (i.e. do not slander or be verbally abusive to others).
Cao Dai followers participate in four services per day at a temple with a fifth conducted at home. We were lucky enough to observe the service above from the balcony at the rear of the temple. Also in the balcony were about two dozen worshipers seated or standing around a circle of musicians.
The cloth-covered wire headdresses of the two women in the right foreground indicate that they were in mourning for a loved one. The four men are playing traditional Vietnamese instruments, and the women in the left top corner formed a chorus of sorts, sometimes singing softly, other times chanting. Our guide explained that this small group of worshipers were conducting a separate “mourning” ceremony preceding the main service on the main level of the temple.
Each Cao Dai temple displays in its facility some rendition of the Divine Covenant of the Third Amnesty. The three figures represent three of the more important saints. From the left: revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, revered for rejecting oppressive rule in China; Victor Hugo, for his compassion and humanity; and Nguyen Binh Khiem, a 16th century Vietnamese leader, poet and teacher.
Visiting the Cao Dai Holy See was a bit of an overwhelming experience in that the gaudiness of the decor visually clashed with the plainness and simplicity of the worshipers. The theology, as well, struck me as overly complex and almost regulatory, yet the devotion of the Cao Dai worshipers was unquestionably yet quietly fervent. Certainly, the religion is complex in both belief systems and structure. This posting is but a small attempt to introduce a fascinating minor religion.
Some Interesting Facts:
- Cao Dai is considred a monotheistic religion with a Supreme Being or God, yet professes the male/female balance, or yin yang, by having dual male & female deities. Additionally, there is a pantheon of saints that are worshiped as well, among them:
- Joan of Arc
- Julius Caesar
- Louis Pasteur
- William Shakespeare
- The Bodhisattva Quan Am (Guan Yin in Chinese)
- Kim Phuc, a 9 year old girl ran naked in terror and pain after surviving a napalm attack in 1972, and was raised in the Cao Dai faith. Her village of Trang Bang, was mistakenly identified by the South Vietnamese Air Force as a Viet Cong stronghold, then hit with napalm bombs. Some members of her family were killed in that attack. As a young woman, Kim was used by the communists as a propaganda symbol. She later sought asylum in Canada, where she continues to live. Kim started a foundation to provide medical and psychological help to child victims of war. She is also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations.
The Old Hotel Continental, the mainstay and watering hole for journalists and diplomats during the Vietnamese War.
I was 10 when my family left Saigon in mid-1962. For me, Saigon and Vietnam had been home for 4 years, a pretty significant chunk of my childhood. During our four years there, we’d lived through at least two coups and several rebel skirmishes; I’d seen bombings — been in bombings — my father had been shot in the neck & nearly killed during one coup; tanks or jeeps with mounted light artillery seemed to be on every corner, every day. During a lull in the fighting during one coup, I escaped our house, tired of crawling on all fours for 3 days so we wouldn’t accidentally get shot, and instead, climbed up our 20 ft. water tower to check out the fighting. It wasn’t pretty, out in the streets. What I saw served to squelch any rebellious curiosity and I stayed in the house, crawling around on all fours until the revolt was over.
And, this was all before there was a “real” war in Vietnam, before American troops openly were deployed by the thousands to fight the North Vietnamese Communists.
Fifty-three years after leaving, I returned to Vietnam for the first time. My husband was afraid I’d have a lot of negative flashbacks; whatever anxieties I had were over by the time we landed in Saigon.
First & foremost, no one called the city by its “official” name of Ho Chi Minh City. It seems the southerners are stubborn in retaining the old name, although we found even in Hanoi and the far north, the Vietnamese called HCMC Saigon.
Downtown Saigon — banners every 50 feet proclaimed the triumph of Communism and the upcoming Tet celebrations.
Obviously, much had changed: Saigon was a modern, if developing, city. Thousands of motorbikes had replaced bicycles & cyclos (bicycle-propelled 2 seater buggies). Dozens of sky scrapers dwarfed some of the old areas and historical hotels and buildings. And everywhere — despite all the incredible and crafty entrepreneurship — were reminders that Vietnam was solidly a communist country.
First, 2015 was the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Communist Party in Vietnam, as displayed on the banner below.
Secondly, year-long 2015 was celebrated as the 40th year since the fall of Saigon in April, 1975, and the Communist Party could lay claim to the entire country.
Lastly, all of Vietnam was gearing up for THE major national holiday, Tet, the Lunar New Year. So, the streets streamed banners and strands of colorful lights, and the city hummed with anticipation.
We had a private guide and driver and thus the inescapable, crushing, cacophonous traffic was sub-bearable, as opposed to overwhelming. No one paid attention to stop lights or designated lanes. To cross a street, you held up your hand in the universal “stop” signal and waded in among the thousands of motorbikes, taxis and cars. It didn’t matter if you were at a corner or the middle of the street. In fact, stepping off a corner was far, far more dangerous as kamikaze bikers swooped and screeched around corners at full speed.
Most commuters wore masks or scarves wrapped tightly around their faces to ward off the persistent smog and bike exhaust. Many women also wore gloves and socks along with long sleeves to keep their skin from darkening.
We found that many Vietnamese, especially women, were fanatic about protecting their skin, as fair skin tone is very prized. We actually found this prejudice for fair skin pervasive among both men and women, as both sexes strove for skin as fair as one could achieve it, often chemically. (Billboards all over Saigon advertised facial whitening creams and treatments.) We had a couple of male guides tell us they would not marry a dark-skinned woman, the thought was just too repulsive to them.
I did recall this love affair with fair skin even as a child, but paid it no mind, except for one encounter when I was about seven. We were boating with another family in the northern part of South Vietnam, and the father of the boat captain, an elderly Vietnamese, had never seen a child with platinum blonde hair and very pale skin. Unsurprisingly, he wanted to touch my hair and face to see if I was real, and, of course, I freaked. My father came to the rescue and resolved the situation without causing a diplomatic incident, but I had to tolerate a lot of hair petting and arm examination the first couple of years there.
The former Presidential Palace, now the Reunification Palace. Enter a caption
In addition to seeing a lot of temples, our lovely guide, Hoa, made sure I saw some of the buildings that remained from my childhood. The old Presidential Palace was gone, destroyed by bombs while we were there, and the mid-60’s constructed replacement is now the Reunification Palace. It was amazing that so many of the old landmarks had survived the coups & revolts, the bombs and shellings that Saigon suffered through. A few, for the memories:
The Old Post Office
The still-elegant Opera House, where Michael and I attended a cultural performance.
I’ve alluded to temples, and will cover some of those in a later posts, hopefully, along with photos from other parts of Vietnam.
But one place we saw held such a special meaning for me, the beautiful house my family had lived in for four years. Through the determination of our guide and driver, and despite several street name changes over 50 years, we found “my” house. I was quite surprised, because so many of the old colonial style houses had been torn down or converted into unattractive apartments. Ours had not — it was even more beautiful than I remember; obviously someone had chosen to restore the house itself, probably 100 years old at this point, and also beautifully landscaped the yard.
Like most diplomats, we had rented a house that had belonged to a French colonial who’d given up on Vietnam and returned to France. Like all such foreigners’ or ranking Vietnamese houses, the house was enclosed by a tall wall and a locked gate. Our guide would not be deterred, and long story short, she talked us past the locked gate about 10 feet. Stunned and unashamedly overwhelmed to be seeing “my house” again, I flubbed half of the pictures I took, but here are two:
The driveway leading from the gate to the portico; the main house stands to the left.
The stucco was new, as the shutters over the huge windows, and the grounds beautifully landscaped. The renovations were meant to ensure privacy, with views into the house blocked by both a high wall and these tall trees inside the wall & gate.
As it turned out, ironically, the entity that had expensively restored the house and grounds was the Communist Party of Vietnam, and one of their high-up officials now lived in our old house in relative luxury. How things do change!
There were three aspects of “modern” Saigon that I noted were entirely new in this new century. The first was the incredible amount of air pollution, mostly from vehicular traffic. There are millions of motorbikes in the Saigon area.
From the air: a blanket of smog between the airport and very nearby downtown Saigon obscures the buildings of the city.
The other two observations were interesting, if not whimsically more appealing.
One of the recently built skyscraper in downtown Saigon, a beautiful and unusual building. Note the round platform projecting out of the building: a helipad. Business in the 21st. century!
And, finally, Amway comes to Vietnam.
Amway in Vietnam. Who’d have thunk it? Communist country or not, the Vietnamese definitely have the entrepreneurial spirit!
This first stop back in Vietnam held several surprises for me: the physical growth, the ubiquitous air pollution, the energy of Saigon. Two other aspects struck me: how happy — genuinely happy — people seemed to meet Americans, and how friendly so many of the people were. During our 2+ weeks in Vietnam, I came to realize that for the Vietnamese, the “American War” as they call it was a small blip in the overall history of the Vietnamese people. And while we were shown kindness and assistance by many people on our trip (outside of our guides and drivers) it clearly is the younger people, those under 30, who hold a deep fascination for all things Western or American. Still, along with the drive to modernize and even Westernize, the people we met also demonstrated a deep and satisfied pride in their own very ancient culture.
Inle Lake in Myanmar is notable for its beauty and unique way of life. One of the most distinctive practices on the lake is their method of fishing. Men balance on one leg on the stern of their long, narrow boats, using one hand, aided by the other leg, wrapped around a long oar, to propel the craft, while holding a cone-shaped basket in the other hand, as in above. Once positioned where they have spotted fish, the man thrusts the woven basket into the shallow waters, capturing fish within the barrel of the basket. There are several variations, all performed with such effortless skill and symmetry that you can believe you are witnessing a unique ballet.
But as anyone who’s every attempted to stand on one leg can attest, this form of fishing requires immense strength, balance and control. And as pictures really can show far better than words can tell, I’ll simply share some of my pictures taken on the lake.
A synchronized ballet.
Heading out into the early morning mists.
A contemplative moment — or prayer.
Inle Lake lies in the center of Myanmar (formerly, Burma) in the hills and heart of the Shan State. While only the second largest fresh-water lake in Myanmar with a surface area of about 45 sq. miles, Inle is unique: many of its native flora and fauna are not found anywhere else in the world. However, as the recently “opened” Myanmar attracts increasing numbers of tourists, Inle’s fame rests these days more on its indigenous people and their crafts than on the rarity of certain fish species. During our recent visit to Inle Lake we were continually amazed at some of the indigenous crafts of the lake’s denizens, as well as the sheer beauty of the lake.
A visit to a local lotus fabric work shop absolutely stunned us. We’d never known you can make actual thread and cloth from the fibrous threads of a lotus plant. With Inle so shallow (7-12 ft. depending on the season) lotus plants abound. The long interior fibers of the stalk are stripped from the tougher husk, worked together into a thread, then spun onto a bobbin or reel. While men do the most of the reaping of the lotus plants out on the lake, the processing of the lotus fibers is done exclusively by women. The tradition and techniques of creating, spinning, dyeing and weaving the thread are usually handed done from one generation of women to the next.
Young girl strips fibers from the husk of the lotus stalk.
She cuts the usable portions of the fibers and blends them onto a spool of raw fibers.
Woman blending several spools of fibrous thread into a thicker, stronger thread for weaving.
The entire process is exceedingly labor-intensive with almost no mechanization. A small scarf can take over 4,000 lotus plants and a month to make, from stripping the fibers to the finished garment. The three robes of a monk (about 30 meters or 100-plus ft. of fabric) can require 220,000 lotus stems and months to process from raw lotus fiber to dyed thread to woven fabric.
The spun, washed thread in its natural state is a dark cream to beige color, and nearly all of the thread is dyed before being woven into fabric. Historically, the women used natural dyes derived from flowers, fruit, bark, and other materials. These days it seems more expedient to use commercial dyes.
Shanks of un-dyed lotus thread. Note the tubs of dyes below.
The dyed thread is hand-spun onto large spools, then the warp threads are affixed to a loom, and the actual weaving – the interlacing of the weft threads across the warp – is completed by an experienced weaver. The resulting fabric could be a solid maroon color, appropriate for the monks, or intricately patterned multi-color fabric. Very often the lotus thread is intertwined with silk thread to provide a smoother, finer fabric.
Weaver at work.
At the time of our visit, our guide told us lotus cloth weaving originated at Inle Lake over a hundred years ago: a woman wanted to perform an act of reverence for a local, prominent Buddhist abbot, so she spent months creating lotus thread, then spinning and weaving the cloth into robes for the monk. During her travails, she enlisted the help of female family members, teaching them her methods of spinning and weaving the lotus fabric. The abbot who received the robes was so impressed with the woman’s skill and workmanship that he blessed her with the name of Madame Lotus Egg. The woman continued to teach her female children and grandchildren the art of spinning and weaving the lotus thread, and thus the craft continues on at Inle today.
In researching for more in-depth information about this craft, I found this tale came from a 19th century Buddhist text, and is oft-cited by the Burmese to explain the origins of their craft. However, it seems that lotus weaving began far earlier than 100 years ago, and was once wide-spread throughout Southeast Asia. Today, this craft can be found in regions of Thailand and northern Cambodia as well as in Inle Lake.
That the lotus itself is one of the most important symbols of Buddhism, there is no doubt. In fact religious reverence for the lotus actually pre-dates Buddhism as the lotus plays a role in one of the Hindu creation myths. In most sects of Buddhism, the lotus is tied to the Buddha’s birth: upon emerging from the womb the Buddha began to walk immediately, and blooms of lotus appeared with each step he took. The lotus flower also represents to Buddhists that each living being can surpass his or her origins and condition, and reach their potential and strive for enlightenment, just as the lotus flower grows from its mud-bound roots and blooms on a stalk above the waters that give it life. Thus, while the craft of lotus-weaving may now exist in only a few areas of Southeast Asia, the lotus symbol can be found virtually everywhere, carved into temples and stupas or depicted in paintings and temple murals. Throughout our travels we saw several statues of the Buddha standing on a lotus blossom, or sitting on the flower meditating in what has become so well-known as the “lotus position.”
The cheroots are made from various herbs, both with and without tobacco. This enthusiastic saleswoman is displaying one of the mixtures, as well as the finished product.
While any smokable item with tobacco in it usually turns my stomach and has my lungs screaming for air, a visit to a cheroot “factory” was a rather interesting and aromatic experience. A friendly woman with a great sales pitch explained the particulars to us.
Star anise leaf used for the “skin” of the cheroot.
The dried leaf of a star anise plant is filled with an assortment of dried herbs and plants and usually just a touch of tobacco. These “fillers” can be a wide variety of fruit or herb leaves, some sweetened with honey, ground cloves or aromatics, and rolled into thin cylinders. From watching the women work, it seemed they used multiple leaves overlapping one after the other to create cylinders several inches long.
Rolling the cheroots. Note the tubs of herb mixtures in front of each woman.
The final product.
The cylinders were cut into cheroots of about 6-8 inches long, and the tips snipped down at both ends. And voilá: a cheroot. The taste (yes, I tried one) was fruity and mild, but not something I’d care to puff on a daily basis.
One of the more interesting crafts was a black smith who used varying types of scrap metal to form tools, knives and ornamental metal wares. The day we visited, the smith was using steel parts from the underside of a car to shape into machete-like knives. At the time of our arrival, the smith had already melted and hammered strips of metal into a machete-like shape. Several of these blades lay in or next to the open flames of the furnace.
Melting vehicle undercarriage parts for re-use as knives or machetes.
The “furnace,” an open fire within a stone and mortar pit, seemed to use wood or a type of long-burning charcoal as fuel. Periodically, one of the smith’s assistants would pump up the flame with a hand bellows.
Reheating partially shaped knives for the next step.
The most interesting part of this operation was the pounding down of the thick metal pieces into thinner, knife-shaped forms. The process then required three of the assistants to hammer the glowing blade with sledgehammers. The chief smith used pincers to hold the red hot blade against a small, silo-shaped anvil as the young men swung and hammered rhythmically. Somehow, each kept within an alternating rhythm that delivered a maximum number of strokes to the glowing blade without braining each other with the hammers.
A ballet of rapid hammering the molten blade into the desired thickness.
Once the blades had cooled and been fitted with wooden handles, the smith hand-sharpened the blades with a primitive looking rasp. The result, large knives and machetes honed to a wickedly sharp edge. Look out Henckels!
Honing the cooled blades to a razor edge.
Silver Smith Workshop
In days of yore, a silver smith would incorporate all the phases of silver production from extraction of the silver from ore, purification of the metal, fortifying the pure silver with alloys, its casting into ingots or bars, hammered into sheets, or “pulled” into wire, and, finally, the crafting of the metal into jewelry, coins, ornamental and service ware, utensils, or other objects. These days, it seems that most silversmiths work their craft from spools of wire, pre-fabricated jewelry parts, or silver sheet all mass-manufactured elsewhere.
The smith’s wife walked us through the process, demonstrating the small stove and tools her husband and apprentices used to melt down and extract the metal from ore. Unfortunately for us, the smith wasn’t smelting that day; it would have been fascinating to watch the process.
The woman explained that the extracted, molten silver is poured into molds that cooled into ingots of varying sizes. Depending on what the smith planned to make ultimately determined how much copper and other alloys were added to strengthen the silver, one of the softest of metals. This particular smith specializes in fabricating certain jewelry items as well as the beautiful silver bowls used by local monks to collect alms or placed by worshipers on altars with offerings. Each bowl is created by hammering silver sheets, then shaping the bowl to a decorative mold. Although alms bowls used by both monks and worshipers are more often made from lacquer ware or pottery, silver bowls are very popular during festivals and special occasions — and a favorite tourist purchase.
The smith smelts the silver into small ingots.
The smith hammering and flattening an ingot as a young apprentice looks on.
At the time of our visit the master smith was demonstrating to an apprentice his own technique in hammering and shaping silver into alms bowls.
The smith’s various tools. Note the several completed silver alms bowls and the bowl in process on the mold (at top center of picture).
Another apprentice was hand-pulling silver wire through increasingly smaller holes of another mold to prepare wire thin enough to be used in filigree and in the coiled wire earrings that are another specialty of this workshop. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see how the initial preparation and thinning of the wire take place; the apprentice was working with wire that had been hand-pulled earlier from thicker strands.
The mold for shaping the silver wire as it is hand-pulled through.
Pulling the soft silver wire through increasingly smaller holes can shape and thin the wire to the desired thickness.
In a different section of the smith’s shop, artisans worked with small beads, wire, chains and small lengths of hammered silver to craft earrings, bracelets and necklaces.
Various small pieces of silver, both cast and hand-formed, to be used in jewelry making. Note the coiled wire earrings which are a trademark of this smith (bottom,center on the business card). Also note the bead mold at far left, center.
One-legged Lacquer Painter
While we are big on learning local crafts and watching artisans at work, we are definitively not browsers and shoppers. Unfortunately for us, the entrance way to nearly every temple we visited throughout Southeast Asia was lined with hawkers displaying their wares, usually cheap touristy souvenirs, but occasionally genuine crafts. On our way up a very long hill to the Shwe Inn Dain Pagoda we spotted this man painstakingly painting using his one and only limb – his left foot – to paint simple designs on lacquer ware.
The sight brought both of us to a dead halt. I’m almost embarrassed to admit we probably gawked. Our guide explained that this man had been born with only one leg, and had taught himself how to paint these simple border designs on trays. The blank trays and more intricately painted lacquer ware came from elsewhere in Myanmar, probably near Bagan, but the man supported himself by painting borders on the trays and selling the other lacquer objects.
This artisan paints with one foot what most of us are incapable of doing with two hands.
Fascinated, we asked him how long it would take him to paint a specific design on a tray for us, and with a shy smile, he told us he could have it done in about 20 minutes. When we returned from visiting the temple, our little tray was ready for us. The price? The man shyly proposed a price of only $7 USD — and we were truly dumbfounded for the second time that day. We gave him $10 and I still felt like we were taking advantage of him. Below is a close-in picture of the decorated tray, followed by a picture of how we are using the tray, as a display stand for my Cambodian Buddha head – an appropriate pairing, in my mind, of art, religion and culture.
The tray, as painted by the artisan.
The tray now displays my Cambodian Buddha head. Together, the display brings tranquility and smiles to a corner of our house.
Luwak eating coffee berries
Part of the fun of traveling is to experience new foods and beverages. Part of the mystery of Asia is to discover exactly what it is you’re consuming, as the name may be misleading.
Take kopi luwak, for instance. A luwak is a civet, a member of the weasel family found in Indonesia. Normally weasels’ major contribution to humanity is small rodent control or fur (think minks) but in Indonesia, luwaks are prized for their feces. Yup, those little nuggets of luwak feces are as valuable as gold. Kopi luwaki is a highly praised and tasty coffee made from the fecal pellets of coffee. I know because I’ve drunk it.
The nocturnal luwak dines on ripe coffee berries. Somehow the civets’ digestive process gives the berries a robust, tasteful flavor — once the berries have been separated from the fecal matter and roasted, that is.
How did weasel shit become a worldwide phenomenon? Short History Lesson (SHL) #1:The Dutch controlled much of present day Indonesia for centuries. Among the spices and foods that made the Dutch East India Company the richest conglomerate in the world was the discovery of coffee. Soon coffee plantations sprouted all over Indonesia, and the natives, who formerly enjoyed cups of this tasty beverage while relaxing in the sun were transformed into near-slaves working the plantations while their Dutch masters enjoyed their coffee in the sun. In order to maximize profits, the Dutch forbid the Indonesians to consume any coffee.
At some point the workers noticed that luwak poop contained partly digested coffee berries which they collected, cleaned, roasted and brewed into a delicious tasting coffee. Kopi luwak or weasel coffee was born. Now it is an industry in Indonesia, Vietnam and other areas of Southeast Asia.
Nocturnal animals, luwaks snooze most of the day.
Kopi luwak is not without its production issues, however, not the least of which is animal abuse. In order to maximize their profits, Indonesians began to capture and keep luwaks in cages in order not to have to waste time searching for those small weasel pellets in the jungle. Often these cages are highly restrictive and the luwaks are forced to eat nothing but coffee berries, sparking a rash of protests from animal rights activists. From the natives’ point of view, caging luwaks is expedient.
Besides, there are poisonous snakes and other venomous creatures out there in the jungle, just waiting to nab some poor guy scooping up weasel poop from the jungle floor.
For the average Indonesian, luwak poop is a highly profitable commodity: one cup of this brew can sell between $30 to $100 in the U.S. Roasted and bagged for sale in the Western markets, the beans can sell for as much as $650 a kg (about $340+ per pound).
A pile of luwak feces with partially digested coffee beans. The beans are separated from the fecal matter, cleaned and roasted and are ready for brewing into “cat-poo-chino.”
Roasted coffee beans
Thankfully, the voices of activists have been heeded and many luwak coffee “growers” are providing more humane treatment of their captive luwaks or just plain harvesting the coffee dung the old-fashioned way.
One of the plantation’s luwaks awake near dusk and rarin’ to go…
Putting aside my scruples, however, I drank a cup of luwak coffee in Bali after forking over $5 USD, what is in Indonesia an outrageous sum. Yes, it was tasty, but so is a cup of well-brewed French or Italian roast coffee. The coffee plantation workers who were leading our tour and hawking the various coffees to us were somewhat amazed that any of these weird white folk were actually drinking weasel fecal-processed stuff, but hey: they were the ones pushing “Cat-poo-chino” as proclaimed on their T-shirts and menus.
Personally, I thought “Crap-pu-cino” had a snazzier ring to it but hey, I’m the consumer, not the marketer.
Egg coffee at Coffee Long in Hanoi
A more innocuous, coffee-based drink is the egg coffee consumed in northern Vietnam. While in Hanoi, we drank this delicious concoction. I’d expected coffee with curdled egg mixed in it, kind of like a a coffee-based egg-drop soup. Thankfully, the egg coffee was far more pleasant – very rich and sweet.
As recipes go, it couldn’t be more simple: brew some good, strong coffee, let it cool slightly, add sweetened, condensed milk and one egg yolk, and stir: egg coffee. Loved it.
Snakeskin fruit or salak in Bali
Snakeskin Fruit, Durian, Dragon fruit and Vietnamese Glutinous Wine
In the past five weeks of our Southeast Adventure, Michael and/or I have tried various other local delicacies. I ate some snakeskin fruit (salak in Indonesian) in Bali. The name is derived from its formidable looking skin which does resemble that of a brown snake. The cream colored wedges inside taste both sour and sweet at the same time with a nice crunch, not dissimilar to a slightly unripe pear.
Dragon fruit is upper left fruit in this Buddhist altar offering, Hoi An, Vietnam
Clockwise from top left: orange, dragon fruit and passion fruit
Dragon fruit looks quite formidable, earning its name. Inside, dragon fruit is white with tiny black seeds and a sweet, soft crunch. I eat it for breakfast almost every morning, along with passion fruit, if available. Passion fruit is a bit more of a visual-taste challenge. The seeds are encased in a glutinous jelly that reminds me of frog eggs. Once I got past the image, I could eat the pulpy mess which also tastes both sweet and very slightly sour.
Fresh durian with processed durian chips.
Durian is a challenge I’ve never mastered. People either love it or hate it. The majority of westerners fall into the latter category, but it’s worthy of note that Singapore bans open durian from any form of public transportation. When opened, durian stinks to high heaven. Processed into candied fruit bites or chips, however, it’s palatable.
Vietnamese “glutinous wine” causes pause when first encountered on a drinks menu. However, it’s just rice wine; whether it has a milky or glutinous quality depends on how well it has been distilled. Home-brewed rice wine will be both milky and quite glutinous with characteristics I really didn’t like to contemplate and that I’m sure were never in the glossary in a sommelier’s curriculum.
Cooked rice dumped out on a tarp before distilling in a Hoi An shophouse.
Home still for brewing “glutinous” (rice) wine in Hoi An, Vietnam
We actually sampled the rice wine from this still, then allowed ourselves to be “persuaded” to buy a bottle. I was a bit perturbed when the shopkeeper fished a filthy plastic bottle out of a bucket of other used bottles, then filled it for us from the still, but we paid the one dollar and took it. I fed the fishes with it later.
And I thought that home-brewed plain old glutinous rice wine was revolting…
Snake wine: cobra and other snakes fermenting in rice wine. Blood from the snakes give this wine its reddish-brown color.
The one local product I absolutely refused to sample was snake wine. The preferred snake in this type of rice wine is cobra, but smaller snakes usually are added to the brew.
Our guide poured snake wine fro this teapot after filling it from the jar of snake wine behind her.
Michael, however, was game. Quite honestly, I could barely take the pictures, but to the guide’s amazement, he downed the entire cup she poured for him.
As it turns out, Michael didn’t just drink snakes-fermented-in-rice-wine. He had “snake blood wine,” where the snakes’ bellies are slit to allow blood to seep into the mixture, giving the liquid that reddish tinge.
Michael drinking snake blood wine.
And, no, Michael didn’t go puke in the bushes afterwards. He wanted to buy some. I threatened divorce. (I think he sneaked some into his back pack so look out, friends.)
As we head off to Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Korea, I can only imagine what additional gustatory challenges await. But I know one thing: if it’s reptile, I ain’t touching it. Michael, go for it, babe!
Komodo Island, famous for its giant monitor lizards, is one of the thousands of islands comprising the Indonesian archipelago. Whether it is one of 1,700+ or 1,300+ Indonesian islands depends on if you’re including uninhabited islands and atolls in the count. Nevertheless, the ratio of inhabitants to dragons on Komodo is about 1:1, with the dragons winning because they’re allowed to occasionally maul and/or kill a villager whereas the hapless human inhabitants can’t touch the dragons: they’re protected by the Indonesian government as an endangered species and “national treasure.”
The majority of Komodo Island’s 300+ square kilometers is a National Park. Most of the park beyond the village and nearby Pink Beach is fairly rough terrain but is hikeable. Park and government regulations require that all visitors must be part of an organized tour led by an officially-approved guide, and no one is allowed in the park without at least one of the rangers to lead the group.
Tourists make their way to Komodo for one or both reasons: see the dragons and/or go scuba diving. Unfortunately, we were unable to go diving as our cruise’s allotted time in port wasn’t sufficient. But, I did organize a combined “dragon trek” and snorkeling tour which was a lot of fun. The guides and Komodo National Park rangers were very knowledgeable and great to talk to, and we learned a lot about the dragons and island.
For starters, the majority of the islanders are descended from convicts exiled to the island in the 19th century by the sultan of nearby Sumbawa. The dragons live here naturally, as well as on the nearby islands of Flores and Rinca. This small area of the Pacific is the only area in the world where the Komodo dragons naturally exist. The islanders are a mix of Muslim, Christians and Hindus. The dragons have no known religion, other than cannibalism…
Dear old Mom
In fact, these giant monitor lizards are not great parents. The female will lay about 15-30 eggs once a year; gestation is about 9 months. Like many reptiles, the female alone will guard the eggs initially, but once the young dragons emerge, the hatchlings have to take to the trees to avoid being eaten by Mom and her relatives.
Dragon hatchlings live the first couple of years up in the trees to avoid being eaten by more mature dragons. They hide out in holes pecked out by birds.
The first written recording of these giant lizards was about 1910 when Dutch sailors reported seeing fire-breathing monsters of up to 7 meters long (about 23 ft.). An exploratory expedition by the local Dutch Colonial Administration established the lizards were usually about 2 meters long, and could find no evidence of them breathing fire. The largest dragon on record was 3.1 m. (10.3 ft.), but these days the average male dragon usually measures much less than 2 meters, and the females are slightly smaller. While they don’t truly breathe fire, their saliva is toxic and can kill a good-sized human. They have an exceptionally keen sense of smell and can particularly hone in on blood. On board we were repeatedly warn not to shave the day we landed in Komodo, and menstruating women were not allowed on the island. (How that applies to villagers somewhat baffled me.)
Ironically, the first Komodo dragon I saw was at the ranger station, just about 100 feet from the beach – and it was trying to get away from the tourists as quickly as possible. I managed to snap this photo before it disappeared under one of the local’s houses.
Another fascinating feature about the dragons is their digestive process. They eat their prey whole, or at least in large chunks if it’s big enough, but their gastric juices are so powerful that they can digest almost everything, including the bones. Thus, in their scat, all you see is a mucous-like puddle with some whitish congealing which is all that’s left of the bones.
Dragon scat with dissolved bone material
Another major attraction in Komodo is Pink Beach, whose sand is a mixture of ground white and red corals from off-shore – which gives you an idea of the beauty of the coral and other underwater sights. Our snorkeling expedition off Pink Beach was a bit daunting do to an unusually strong current. However, there was enough coral and fish to make the effort worthwhile. In all, a unique island to have visited.
Especially the dragons.