Saturday, July 27, 2013

Epiphanies on a Ferryboat

Canoeman weaving his net at the start of temple stairs
A Laotian canoe man fixes his nets at the bottom of an infinite stairway up a mountain to a temple over looking the Luang Prabang valley. He sits calmly in the lotus position and doesn't look up from his work. 'Good view' he says. Pilgrims may climb atop peaks looking for enlightenment, but my sage sits calm at the bottom, by the riverbank, living in the surface of things. 

The golden lace like paint of the Mekong racing canoes, ready for their September celebrations, is a beautiful sight within each temple (Wat) I visit. But my last week in Laos, fighting through dengue, was spent learning to make, in part, and paddle the fisherman's three plank canoe at is the style of this region.

Wat racing canoe
I've been back and forth on the Luang Prabang ferry,moving slowly over the muddying Mekong waters. The ferry takes me to a village across the river where I've been working with  few villagers building their fishing canoe for the rainy season. 

Though I missed much of the build because of the dengue, I was able to help hammer on the two keel like wooden pieces which connect the two side planks to the bottom. The planks are joined flush and fastened only with nails and these keel like pieces. The inner frame including seats, partial ribs for  extension pieces, and two or three hull ribs for structure. 

Hammering a canoe
Few people in the region specialize in canoe building, rather a family builds its own canoe, paints it the color they choose. The vessels vary based on the skills of the family craftsman. with a stick or a small piece of bamboo, chunky gasoline tar is spread throughout all the cracks. In a light rain I worked with this family to spread the tar and seal their new canoe.

Putting on the joining pieces

Small bees seemed to love this tar and would swarm in places on it, bothering us not. It also seemed as if they were eager to help build the canoe and push tar deep into the cracks, sealing it for good. 

Tar sealing

A few of the canoe men shows me their paddling techniques, adjusting between bow and stern, rotating which is which while following calm sections of the fast flowing rainy season water. It's always inspiring to see the quick balance of someone whose has grown up paddling on rivers. The canoe men use the current to drift and cross the river while moving along its length.

Paddling on the Khan River where it meets the Mekong

The final time I took the ferry across the Mekong, a truck filled with more than its weight of bamboo scrapped along, rocking the boat as we laugh. The ferry men wore cowboy hats, smoked cigarettes and laughed softly. Just another day of Mekong life.

Ferry boat in Laung Prabang, Laos

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sacred Mekong

A canoe on the Khan River
To Indochina, the Mekong River, which flows from Tibet to the South China Sea over nearly 4,350 km, is the veins and heart which pump blood and life to the regions ecosystems and economies. I spent the last ten days in one place along this vast waterway, nearly in the center, Laos' spiritual capital Luang Prabang. Ive got quite a few stories to tell of Dengue Fever, teaching and learning with wonderful Buddhist monk friends, and plenty of excursions around this wonderful jungle hill area dotted with temples.

Luang Prabang, Laos
Being a river person myself, the Mekong, was like a magnet for my soul because of the ancient history of religion and cultural practices around the river. In caves along the river, some tourist laden, some not, sacred waters are paid homage to and offerings have been made to nature since before modern religions, even one as old as Theravada Buddhism. 

Celebrating a new monk, washing the head monk with sacred water (background)

The 35+ temples of Luang Prabang each have intricate carved Naga, or serpent beings said to inhabit the Mekong. These Naga can be seen protecting the front of temples, the roofs, the candle holders, and in paintings within the temple. During last week, my friend Seng became a monk after five years as a novice. During this time, everyone poured water down a silver Naga (seen above) which went out the mouth into a small enclosure where the head monk was being washed by this sacred water. 

Alms giving and canoe racing
These temples also house racing canoes (Ill unfortunately miss the race in September this year, based on the moon cycles) for their local community which are similar in style to the three planked Mekong canoes, except 15 to 20 meters long, made as dugout canoes to hold dozens of paddlers. More to come on the design of these canoes. The monks bless these canoes, giving good luck to their communities which race them on the Khan River, a tributary to the Mekong.
Wat Mai"s racing canoe, my friend Monk Seng next to it.

Yet my meditations didn't keep me from my passion of making things. I explored the Khan River by bike, looking in each community for those who were building three plank canoes. A plank, with upturned bow and stern either with steaming, force, or by adding small plank, is then given two size planks with simple nails every half foot or so. I spent sometime with one man who was patching an old canoe using a gasoline based pitch.

Patching an old canoe with globs of gasoline tar
Recently cooked, the chunky pitch took but a few hours for it to dry. A decades old canoe could be given much more life by the simple chipping of mud, rot, and resealing. The canoe I spent sometime working on had many layers of patches, making a single meter like a rainbow. Metal, different woods, plastics, rubbers, all keeping a single family's fishing vessel in good order.

One square meter of a mekong canoe

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Weaving Vietnam's Bamboo Boat Tradition

Making the connection piece for gunnels at both bow and stern
Bamboo (Bambuseae) in all its variations is among the fast growing living things in the world, reaching up to two feet in 24 hours. It is strong, light, versatile, beautiful, and it floats. It would be hard to choose another material to better serve as the symbol of Asian ingenuity.

Traveling between Hoi An and Hue on the central Vietnamese coast, it was inspiring how many styles of the bamboo boat could be found, simply based on use, needs, resources and a bit of creativity. Some bamboo boats are woven into large 10 meter long vessels with a canoe form, some are the coracle shapes, large and small. Near Hue at Thuan An beach, at the mouth of the Perfume River, I spent time learning the small woven canoe, five meters at most, using almost only bamboo.

Splitting bamboo for gunnels

Other than a woven bamboo mat for shaping, which varies in styles and weaving patterns based on the intended design, only a few pieces are needed to make the bamboo canoe of Hue. I worked with a builder who showed me to split long pieces of giant bamboo for the gunnels, both inner and out. These circular gunnels will eventually meet at the top and with a rope along the entire length, they will wrap and pinch the bamboo mat between them.

A t-shaped ( as shown in the first picture) stern and bow piece is made to hold the gunnel pieces together at the end. Bamboo thwarts or another strong wood will keep the form in place. Its likely that a builder, with but a single small grove of bamboo, could make plenty of these ingenious vessels.

Weaving a new hull

The mat is woven using thin splits of bamboo. I saw various patterns being woven along the coast. Groups of three and four were the most common, moving diagonally. A wooden mallet is needed to pound the strips into place.
Pounding the strips in place
In each of the workshops I visited, a few rolls await to be shaped. Within a day, weavers can make a fine hull mat.If you are further interested in this part of the design process and regional variations, I highly recommend my helpful friend Ken Preston's blog He has been traveling Indio-China for quite sometime, documenting these wonderful traditions with an admirable passion and determination.

Ready to be shaped
Shaping the hull can be done in different ways. Some regions use a hole dug into the ground. In Hue and Hoi An, bamboo stakes are placed outlining the intended design at the gunnels, much like that of the North American birch bark traditions, and with a little muscle, the bamboo can be worked into memory of its intended shape.

Adding the gunnels varies for each boat. Canoes do not have support ribs, the mat maintaining its natural shape, while the circular boats often have bent ribs overlapping to maintain strength.  Using plastics, nylon cord, and various other modern materials various on each person's craft. It is very much about whatever works.

Depending on size, the bamboo boat may be paddled with a single blade, a double kayak style blade, a small outboard motor, oars, or even the incredibly cool hand paddles.The are used for all types of fishing and transport activities along the coast and in the Perfume River Delta it feels as if they are the most common and important craft of all. They are the workhorses for this intricate water community.

Bamboo canoe at Thuan An Beach, near Hue
I am sad to leave the Vietnamese coast, but equally excited to spend time at my next location, the sacred Mekong River in the holy city of Luang Prabang. I will return to the Vietnamese Coast before I leave Southeast Asia. I have the same emotion as in every time on my journey its time to move on. Wishing that I had more time, Its that feeling to simultaneously be grateful for the experience you've had, but humbled by how much you have yet to learn.

Paddling at sundown

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Life in a Bamboo Basket: The Vietnamese Thung Chai

Mr. Hung and his Thung Chai
I woke up this morning at 3a.m. I put on my shoes, grabed my camera and ran to the beach by moonlight. I knew I was already late. On the water I could see the dark circles moving from the beach. "Mr. Hung!" I yelled. One turned around just in time to let me slosh into the sea and flop over its rocking edge. This was Mr. Hung and his Thung Chai, a woven bamboo basket boat, ready to start another day fishing under the stars on the Vietnam coast.

Careful hands weave a good net
My first days in Vietnam were learning from Hung just outside Hoi An. We would fish, repair and maintain his boat, and repair the kilometer long net that he drifts into his homewaters every early morning, pulling the fish in as the sun rises. The woven bamboo vessel, found throughout Vietnam in different shapes and sizes (more posts to come), is made from centermeter or so wide strips with a bamboo circular gunnel. It is coated for waterproofing in a variety of materials. Hung showed me how he applies a coconut based oil-tar. Sometimes cow dung is used while today fibreglass is becoming popular. Whatever works is the way.

Sunrise fishing. Cham Islands in the background
Paddling the Thung Chai is much like sculling an Inuit kayak. The long thin blade (also much like that of Greenland) is moved side to side patiently in the water on the side of the boat in which you are trying to go. My first attempts simply moved us in circles. Then I watched as Hung moved it, as if dancing, flipping the paddle side to side in an arch, bringing the paddle facing edge forward after each movement, all while balancing standing in the waves. The balance of strength in the strokes turns the vessel.

A basket full of one's needs
A small group of men go out fishing, each with their own vessel. I can't see their faces until the sun is up, but I already know them through their voices, passing the time with soft conversation and a bit of serene singing. It is a community of fisherman, each helping the others with their boats, observing the others catch, making the time pass easier for all. I don't speak Vietnamese, nor they English, but over time, Hung and I figure out a few things about each other and enjoy the moment. We pull fish from the net. one by one. Thats communication enough.

Lifting to shore
With the occasional swim, afternoons means repairing nets and relaxing from the sun. Hung and I sit under a tarp in his beached Thung Chai as he shows me with patience how to repair holes made by fish or the ocean bottom. We have everything we need here. Shelter, water, a bit of food, something to do. The hours pass. Now and then a motor boat rides by. Hung shakes his head in disapproval. "Hung thung chai, no motor!" he makes the movement of paddling with a big smile on his face. Thats enough for him.

Friends after a day fishing