Discover fascinating facets of the lives of the tribal people who make up nearly half of the population of Laos. A beautiful museum in Luang Prabang tells the story.
Mingling with tribal people who come down from the surrounding mountains adds to the already considerable charms of Laos' onetime royal capital.
But most visitors to Luang Prabang would be hard pressed to tell a Khmu from a Hmong, or guess at the use and symbolism behind the beads, jewellery and embroidery they sell in the city's markets.
For travellers who do want to know, and thus enrich their Luang Prabang experience, a visit to the increasingly popular and much-praised Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre should rank high on the list.
Housed in one of the city's many French colonial buildings - once the residence of a French judge - the non-profit museum offers permanent and revolving exhibits featuring 20 of the country's ethnic minorities, an in-house shop and even a pleasant verandah café serving otherwise hard-to-find tribal cuisine (the Akha meat balls and Hmong pork belly stewed with mustard greens are highly recommended).
"There is nothing else like it in Luang Prabang. We worked hard to create exhibitions that are really of an international museum standard, with interesting and accurate information gathered during our field research," says Tara Gujadhur, an American who co-founded the museum in 2007 with a Lao museum expert. Attendance has been increasing steadily since, with more than 10,000 visitors expected this year.
The museum's more than 300 artifacts include clothing, jewellery, religious artifacts, baskets and other domestic ware. One prized item is a full Akha headdress fashioned from over 300 pure silver French Indochinese coins. Exhibits have ranged across the lifestyles of the ethnic minorities, which many visitors are surprised to find make up some 45 percent of the country's population. A recent exhibit, built on two years of research, featured the Taoist beliefs and rituals of the Yao people.
Lanten ceremonial wooden knocker; Akha calabashes; detail of Lanten Earrings.
"We also try to emphasise that ethnic groups are dynamic and evolving,"Ms. Gujadhur says. "We show how these are real, living communities who face many complex issues in a rapidly modernising world."