Land of Cotton
Hongsa’s western neighbor, Ngeun District, hosts several cultural and natural attractions along with cotton weaving villages. Some are easy to access, while others are more remote, but all are surrounded by interesting histories and legends.
Vat Si Boun Yeun Temple
Locals consider Vat Si Boun Yeun as Ngeun’s most sacred temple, with a tale beginning in 1736, when Lane Xang viceroy, Jao Luang, was forced from Luang Namtha by his nephew, and moved to govern the area around Ngeun’s Ban Don Keo Village.
After four years, Jao Luang invited craftsman, Khou Ba Khamsaen, to construct “Vat Luang”. When long-living Khou Ba Khamsaen passed away, villagers built a stupa in his honor, and named it and the temple Si Boun Yeun, which means “long life”. The temple’s current Buddha dates to 1816.
Murals cover the exterior walls of the wood-pillared temple, and hanging from the rafters are patterned toung (flags), steps for the deceased to cross the “River of Death”. A small booth (haw thama) once acted as the Lane Xang viceroy’s office for giving orders to his troops.
Location: Vat Si Boun Yeun is located in Ban Luang Village in the district center.
The Golden Flea Stupa
Steeped in legend, the Golden Flea Stupa (Prathat Mudkham) is the “soul” of Ngeun’s ethnic Tai Lue, who hold an annual ceremony coinciding with April’s Pii Mai (Lao New Year). Historians suggest migrating Burmese, who had settled in present-day Nam Ngeun village, built the stupa in 1576.
According to lore, the ancient villagers saw a silver-skinned elephant walking along the river, when it suddenly vanished. They investigated and discovered the elephant had fallen into a sinkhole and was buried alive. They tried to dig the elephant out, but they reached the bottom only to find a massive swarm of golden fleas, which covered their bodies. They raced from the hole, and built the stupa to cover it.
Centuries later, thieves raided the stupa, and according to local elders, American bombers damaged the site, but villagers renovated it in 1968 and again in 1997. The district also constructed a center to celebrate special occasions and Buddhist ceremonies.
Location: Travel 3 km north of Ngeun municipal center to Ban Don Keo Village. The stupa is located on a hill on the eastside of the road.
The Earth Pillars (Saodin) have stood just outside the Ngeun District center for as long as villagers can remember. No legends exist around these tall soil spikes, and geologists have yet to explain them. Some suggest they are the result of bizarre erosion, as they rise next to an earthen cliff, and with a short hike through rice fields and brief climb up a mountain trail, you can guess for yourself, while enjoying a valley view.
Location: Head to Ban Sang Village near Ban Xai in the southern end of the municipal center. The village is easily recognized by its fish pond and large rice fields. Navigate the paddy to the far end and follow the trail up the mountain. The walk takes 45 minutes to an hour. Villagers can help point the way.
Outside of Luang Prabang, this is the only village in Laos that continues to produce pottery the traditional way. They dig the soil, creating a hole they’ll use for a kiln, and process the earth completely by hand.
Location: Ban Nangoua is about 5 km east of the municipal center.
Ban Bi Mi in Ngeun and Hongsa’s Ban Vieng Keo are cotton production hubs that bring together diverse ethnic communities to create products for purchase. Visitors can watch the entire multi-step process from cotton cultivation to woven goods.
There are two types of cotton – brown and white – with the white considered superior. The cotton is mostly grown in the hills, and brought to villages in its raw state for processing:
- Deseeding (Ginning): Feed raw cotton through a small, hand-roller and into a basket.
- Softening: Insert deseeded cotton in a special basket and beat it with a stick.
- Rolling: Roll the softened cotton with a long chopstick-like tool into cigar-size tubes.
- Spinning (Step 1): Place the cotton tubes on a wooden spinning wheel to create large spools of thin fibers.
- Spinning (Step 2): Stack some 20 spools side-by-side on a stand and combine into long braids on a 10-meter trip to pegs on a wide, multi-tier rack.
- Washing & Softening: Hand-wash the long, thick strands in a wooden box and then beat with them with a paddle.
- Dyeing: Using vats handed down from mother to daughter, women dye the threads indigo using a natural mix of bark, plants, leaves, and even ants.
- Weaving: Women working traditional looms requiring hand-and-foot movements weave long sheets of fabric, often with complex patterns.
Some say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but in northern Sayabouli, cotton weaving skills might be the better path. Each December, Sayabouli’s cotton-weaving villages hold a Spinning Ritual, during which local women sit and spin cotton around an evening fire, while young men come to woo their sweethearts.
The ritual begins by constructing a square with four bamboo benches, leaving room in the middle for a fire. In the late afternoon, the women collect firewood, and after dinner, ignite the pyre at around 18:30 and begin spinning spools of cotton fibers while sitting around it.
The village men soon descend, with the younger singles commanding the scene. They employ all types of methods to capture the female spinners’ hearts: laying down and sweet-talking, playing musical instruments, and even springing frogs or disturbing the fires to get into good-natured banter. Though the party ends after about five hours, sometimes matches are made that lead to marriage.
- Until the 1990s, virtually all lowland (Tai Lue) and midland (Khmu) villages produced their own fabrics from Asian short-fiber cotton.
- Cotton is often grown on slopes and near rivers, and no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used.
- In the past, cotton was mainly grown in home gardens, leaving no surplus for the market.
- Today, weavers produce patterned cotton textiles for local and international markets.
- The main products are home textiles and fabrics for sin (traditional skirts).
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Song taews depart from Hongsa’s morning market at around 08:00 for the 44-km drive to Ngeun. Ngeun’s border checkpoint at Muang Ngeun to Thailand’s Nan Province presents a gateway less than 5 km from the district center, and visas on arrival are available.CHECK A MAP