If I had to choose just one plant to survive on an island, it would have to be bamboo. Yes, bamboo. Aside from being one of the oldest building materials, these leafy green poles have a Universe of uses far beyond chopsticks in Asian takeout. Today I’d like to take you up to the mountainous bamboo forests of Northern Laos where villagers craft life out of it.
Bamboo is an incredible type of grass that can reach up to 30m and grow as much as 90cm in a day! A good harvesting and curing method are is crucial to make sure that it stands up against time and the elements. For centuries, Laotians managed to extend the lifespan of their bamboo products to almost 30 years by using traditional methods passed down by their ancestors. Bamboo has to be cut down during the dry season, at dawn or dusk when the sap content is lowest in starch. It's later soaked in the river to leach out all the sap. This protects it against pests, fungus, and rotting. The bamboo can be straightened or molded with fire before it’s used to build houses, boats, fences, bridges, and even fishing gears.
Back in the village, Laotians split poles into thin strips with a machete. Their nimble fingers weave out beautiful bamboo products that not only support their livelihoods but connect them to their heritage. As the workday comes to an end, the village gather to enjoy 'Molam', soulful songs about life in the country, accompanied by the tune of a ‘Khene’, a mouth organ made from small bamboo pipes. On special occasions, Laotians celebrate with a folk dance called ‘Lao Kratop Mai’, where one skips between clapping bamboo poles.
Like music, food has the magical power to bring people together. It ties us to memories, cultures, and traditions. One such dish to the Laotian is the ‘Gaeng Nor Mai’, an earthy jungle soup made with fresh young bamboo shoots, ‘yanang’ leaves, herbs, and chili. A humble dish with rural origins, it’s savored by many Laotians and their former royalty. In some recipes, the fresh shoots are switch out with a salted version. The sourness from the fermentation creates sends tidal waves to the taste buds, making the soup a surprising treat. Aside from filling tummies, bamboo has many healing powers medicinal uses too. Its shavings, sap, and leaves are used to treat for things like fevers and colds.
Without a doubt, the everyday life of many Laotians revolve around bamboo. It’s part of their tradition, cultural identity, and daily subsistence. In recent years, bamboo has been explored for its sustainability as a material. Extracted minerals aid skin rejuvenation while the pulping of bamboo can make paper fiber with UV protectant and antimicrobial properties. It’s no surprise that the product has sparked global interest and the launch of numerous bamboo initiatives. It’s hope to strengthen Lao's’ bamboo value chain that promises to bring about pro-poor growth to the people.
Cover photo by Eric Kvatek Words by Buranee Soh