Huayuan Art showcases Silk Road murals and Suzhou embroidery at Artexpo NY

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Beyond Chinatown (by Andrew Shiue):

You can see treasures from China’s cultural heritage that typically are not seen in museums and galleries at Artexpo New York at Pier 94 along the Hudson River.  Huayuan Art, an offshoot of an organization founded 23 years ago in Gansu, China and devoted to the cultural development of Northwest China brings to the fair elaborate replicas of the Silk Road Buddhist murals and a live demonstration of Suzhou’s silk craft.  Additionally, Huayuan will display other created through specialized craftmanship:  lacquer paintings, Nepali Thangkas, multi-layered paper cuttings and traditional Chinese paintings.

Huayuan will display 29 cave painting replicas based on murals from the famous Mogao Caves and the under-the-tourist-radar but equally exquisite Yulin Caves (榆林窟), and Maijishan Grottoes (麦积山石窟) that were hand-painted by Chinese artists Gao Shan, Shen Yongping, Liu Junqi, and Shi Dunyu.  These caves, with their exquisite wall paintings and sculptures, bear witness to the intense religious, artistic, and cultural exchange that took place along the Silk Road—history’s most famous trade route linking East and West.  The replicas are painted with traditional cave painting techniques, and authentically represent the current state of the caves, without hiding damage and conservation efforts.

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The replicas also show the lacquer painting techniques which are typically associated with Chinese and Japanese lacquerware.   In one highlight, Acolyte Bodhisattva on the North Side of the Buddha, artist Ma Ke uses natural lacquer, along with gold, silver, and other mineral pigments, to portray a standing Bodhisattva statue from the Mogao Caves with an elegant composition and lustrous finish.  With a slight smile playing upon his delicate face, this bodhisattva is one of the most distinctive and oft copied images from the caves.

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In addition to these frescos, other sacred art on view includes Huayuan’s collection of thangkas, Tibetan Buddhist paintings on fabric that depict deities, and mandalas and visually describe a deity’s realm.  Traditionally, thangkas are hung in monasteries or upon family altars, and are carried by lamas in ceremonial processions.  Originally designed to be portable mediums of spiritual communication and guides for visualization of deities, thangkas still hold great spiritual significance with Buddhist practitioners.  The name thangka is derived from thang, the Tibetan word for ‘unfolding’, which indicates the ability to be rolled up as a scroll when not in use, or for transport.  Every piece is hand-painted by Nepali lamas, with natural mineral pigments on fabric, each taking several months of meticulous work to complete.

Finally, Suzhou embroidery, the most celebrated style of Chinese silk art will be showcased through the works and a live demonstration by nationally recognized master artist Wang Lihua.  This art form is one of four main regional styles of Chinese silk art and is renowned for its use of the finest threads, elegant colors, dense stitching, and smooth finishes to create incredible detail and subtle lighting effects on stunningly realistic images reminiscent of oil paintings by the Dutch masters.

Billionaire Buddhist priest/entrepreneur reveals his 5 greatest tips for success

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Next Shark:

Japanese billionaire entrepreneur Kazuo Inamori is the founder of electronics company Kyocera, the Honorary Chairman of Japan Airlines and a trained Buddhist priest.

The 83-year-old philanthropist also founded the Inamori Foundation which awards the annual Kyoto Prize, Japan’s version of the Nobel Prize, that honors individuals’ “extraordinary contributions to science, civilization, and the spirituality of humankind.”

From his 1995 book, “Passion For Success”, he shares his philosophy on success in life and in business.

1. Know what your true motives are.
Zen, the Japanese word for ‘good,’ means being universally virtuous in anybody’s eyes. I cannot achieve something worthwhile by considering only my own interests, my own convenience, or how I may appear to others. The motive has to be good for others as well as myself.”

In whatever passion you pursue, if your motives aren’t just, you will surely fail. The most successful ideas and businesses today have flourished because they positively impact the lives of billions.

“If your motivation and methods are virtuous, you need not worry much about the result.

2. Make a habit of being a perfectionist.
“When it comes to work, I am a perfectionist.”

Perfection isn’t just something that is achieved, it is something that is practiced until it becomes your second nature.

“It is extremely difficult to begin demanding perfection of yourself in everyday life. However, once it becomes your second nature, you can easily live that way. Aerospace engineers know that it takes tremendous energy to launch a satellite against gravity. But once it is in orbit, the same satellite needs very little energy to remain there. A business leader must pursue perfection as an everyday habit.”

3. Think optimistically, plan pessimistically, execute optimistically.
“The most important factor in starting any new project is having a dream and the passion to achieve it. In setting your vision, you need to be ultraoptimistic. You must first believe that you have unlimited potential. Continue telling yourself, ‘I can do it,’ and believe in yourself.”

“Once you begin making your plan, however, you must become a pessimist. You should review your concept conservatively. By this I mean that you must recognize every potential difficulty, and plan for all contingencies.”

“Equipped with such an ultraconservative plan, you should then move to execute it optimistically. Pessimism at this stage would prevent you from taking the bold action necessary to succeed.”

4. Your life or work = Attitude x Effort x Ability
“The outcome of our life or work is the product of three factors: attitude, effort and ability. Effort and ability range from 0 to 100 points. As these two numbers are multiplied rather than simply added, it means that persons who exert unbeatable efforts to compensate for their only ‘average’ ability can accomplish more than geniuses who rely just on their ability while making only a minimal efforts.”

But effort and ability are nothing without the main driving force that every successful entrepreneur has mastered:

“Depending on our attitude, the outcome of our work and our life can change by 180 degrees. Thus, while ability and effort are important, it is our attitude that counts the most.”

5. Always aim higher than what you think you can achieve.
“When choosing a long-term goal, I purposely select something beyond my ability. In other words, I choose a goal which is impossible for me to accomplish at the present time: no matter how hard I struggle now, I will not be able to reach it. Then I set a date in the future by which time I shall have achieved it.”

You really don’t know what you don’t know, and that applies for what you will be capable of in the future. With the right motivation, spirit and attitude, you almost can’t imagine what you are capable of until you finally achieve it.

“A person who wants to accomplish something new and worthwhile must assess his or her own ability from both present and future viewpoints.”

Japanese Zen Buddhist temple starts selling instant vegan soba and udon noodles

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RocketNews 24:

Upon coming to Japan, a lot of people are surprised to discover just how difficult finding vegetarian food can be. Many people imagine Japan as a country that eats very little meat, and while that’s definitely true in comparison to North America and western Europe, the flipside is that you’ll find at least a little bit of meat in just about all dishes, including salads and vegetable stews with surprising frequency.

Things get trickier still if you’re trying to stick to a vegan diet. Even something as simple as noodles are generally out, since almost all broths are made with meat or fish stock. But if you’ve got an aversion to meat coupled with a craving for soba or udon, you’re in luck, with two new types of vegan instant noodles produced by a Zen Buddhist temple.

As a temple of the Soto sect of Zen, Yokohama’s Soji Temple is primarily concerned with nourishing the souls of worshippers. The institution’s newest venture, though, is more concerned with your physical nourishment, as evidenced by its name, Zen-Foods.

Many devout Buddhist monks in Japan adhere to a strict vegan diet called shojin ryori. In recent years, the cuisine has obtained a somewhat chic status, bolstered by its healthy image and connection to temple lodges that have become increasingly popular places for travelers to stay.

Under the supervision of Soji Temple, Zen-Foods has produced two types of instant noodles, both completely animal product-free, in accordance with the rules of shojin ryori.

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The Gahomen Soba buckwheat noodles, despite their elegant background, are made like any other instant variety. Open the lid, sprinkle on the soup powder, add hot water, and wait three minutes for everything to cook. Once it does, you’ll have a bowl of soba, swimming in a kelp/soy sauce broth, topped with soybeans, fried tofu, kikurage mushrooms, and an assortment of chingensai, warabi, and zenmai greens.

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Meanwhile, the Gahomen Udon wheat noodles’ has a vegetable broth seasoned with salt. While soba and udon toppings are largely interchangeable in Japanese cuisine, Zen-Foods gives its two types of noodles completely different accompaniments. With the udon, you can look forward to lotus root, green beans, and taro, among other veggies.

The udon does require a little more patience, though, as its cooking time is listed as five minutes. Looked at another way, though, that’s two more minutes for quiet meditation, self-reflection, or simply looking forward to your hot, healthy meal.

Gahomen Soba and Udon can be ordered here, directly from Zen-Foods, in packs of 12 for 3,600 yen (US$30).

Many of Japan’s 16 UNESCO World Heritage sites fly under the radar

RocketNews 24:

Did you know that Japan has 16 locations on the list of UNESCO World Heritages? Could you name them all with any sum of money on the line?

Survey Research Center, Co. Ltd. conducted a survey that showed that most people could not. When asked whether they were interested in Japan’s world heritages, 67.8% of those surveyed responded affirmatively. However, only 4% of respondents knew all 16 Japanese sites.

See how many you can name before looking at the list below:

1. Yakushima [Kagoshima Prefecture]

2. Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) [Hiroshima Prefecture]

3. Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Ryukyu Islands [Okinawa Prefecture]

4. Itsukushima Shinto Shrine [Hiroshima Prefecture]

5. Shiretoko [Hokkaido Prefecture]

6. Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land [Iwate Prefecture]

7. Ogasawara Islands [Tokyo Metropolis]

8. Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama [Gifu Prefecture]

9. Himeji-jo [Hyogo Prefecture]

10. Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape [Shimane Prefecture]

11. Shirakami-Sanchi [Akita and Aomori Prefectures]

12. Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area [Nara Prefecture]

13. Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) [Kyoto Prefecture]

14. Shrines and Temples of Nikko [Tochigi Prefecture]

15. Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara [Nara Prefecture]

16. Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range [Nara, Wakayama and Mie Prefectures]

How did you do? You might have noticed that both natural locations and manmade structures can qualify as world heritages.

The survey also showed that over half of Japanese tourists add the option of visiting a world heritage site when they take a tour on vacation.

Find out more about world heritage sites by watching “The World Heritage” on TBS at 6 a.m. on Sunday, November 27. The first program will focus on natural heritages, and the program that airs on Sunday, December 4 will deal with cultural assets.

Watching these shows and learning more about world heritages will surely enrich your mind and deepen your appreciation of Japanese history, and they may even give you some ideas for your next trip within Japan.

Source: TBS “The World Heritage”

Kumiko: The exquisitely delicate side of traditional Japanese woodwork

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RocketNews 24:

A few weeks ago we introduced you to the world of traditional Japanese woodwork, a technique that uses no nails or hardware, just precise joints, to keep furniture and even buildings together. This technique is also used to create intricate, wooden, functional artwork, known as kumiko, which is used within Japanese style-rooms to create a stunning atmosphere.

The traditional handicraft has been passed down for centuries, however, the trade is sadly dying out. In response, artisans are taking the age-old concept and applying the designs to more modern-day household items, such as chairs and lampshades. The results are nothing short of exquisite!

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According to Tanihata Co., a kumiko workshop in Toyama Prefecturekumiko has been around since the Asuka era (600-700 AD). The craft was originally used almost exclusively for sliding doors, room dividers and ramma (the decorative wooden piece above many doors in traditional Japanese buildings). While providers like Tanihata still make these products, modernization has brought a decrease in demand for such traditional room components, so craftsmen are broadening their horizons.

Ramma, the decorative section above doors and walls

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Regardless of what they are making, the time and care put into each piece never changes. If you thought making buildings and furniture in the traditional Japanese style was painstaking, prepared to be wowed.

Just like furniture-makers, kumiko artists are very particular about the wood they use. While, it’s easier to use mass-produced particle board, you lose the ability to be as precise, the elegant atmosphere of real wood, and of course, the great smell! When choosing wood, they prefer to use that of coniferous trees, namely cedar and cypress, because they grow straight and the wood has a high-quality fine grain.

▼ Kumiko is often made of wood from tall, thin, Japanese cypress trees.

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Once the wood is picked out, cut and planed, they make the frame for the piece, whether it be a coaster or a ceiling lampshade. Next comes the difficult and intricate part of the process, which makes kumiko what it is. Hundreds of small pieces of wood are thinly sliced and shaved with a variety of tools, such as old-fashioned knives and saws, plus new machinery too. These tiny pieces have to be precisely cut down to the micron (1/1000 mm) or they won’t fit together perfectly! Once cut, the pieces are carefully assembled by being slid into place in an elaborate design within the frame.

▼ A variety of machinery and hand-tools are used to make and assemble the delicate pieces.

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The designs for kumiko pieces aren’t chosen randomly. In fact, many of the nearly 200 patterns used today have been around since the Edo era (1603-1868). Each design has a meaning or is mimicking a pattern in nature that is thought to be a good omen. The designs are not just pretty, they also distribute light and wind in a calming and beautiful way.

▼ The Shippou design. In Buddhist scripture, shippou refers to a set of treasures (which includes gold, silver, lapis lazuli, quartz, coral and agate), and the never-ending, circular design represents harmony.

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▼ The goma design is suggestive of nutritional and abundant sesame flowers, which are thought to promote longevity. This design is often used for ramma.

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▼ Sanjyu-hifu is a design that utilizes thin strips to create diamond shapes. It’s thought to mimic very fertile water plants, a good omen for prosperous offspring and good health. With this is mind, sanjyu-hifu is often used in hotels and wedding halls.

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▼ The Asanoha pattern takes after the hemp leaf. Hemp plants are known for growing quickly and straight-up, as well as for being sturdy plants. For this reason, the design has come to be used commonly with baby clothes too.

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▼ These are some of the more common designs.

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As we mentioned earlier, artisans are turning their focus to bringing their trade to the modern world, while still sticking with the traditional roots of kumiko. With this in mind, they have been creating beautiful art that can be used on a daily basis in any home.

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▼ You can even get kumiko chairs!

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Due to the drop in demand for traditional Japanese interior decoration, such as ramma,the kumiko trade has also seen a decrease in the number of young craftsmen. But hopefully, with the technique being applied to modern living, more young people will step up to the challenge and carry on this intricate and beautiful craft for future generations.

CT scan of 1,000-year-old Buddha statue reveals mummified monk hidden inside

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Colossal:

What looks like a traditional statue of Buddha dating back to the 11th or 12th century was recently revealed to be quite a bit more. A CT scan and endoscopy carried out by the Netherlands-based Drents Museum at the Meander Medical Centre in Amersfoort, showed the ancient reliquary fully encases the mummified remains of a Buddhist master known as Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School.

While it was known beforehand the remains of a person were inside, another startling discovery was made during the scan: where the organs had been removed prior to mummification, researches discovered rolls of paper scraps covered in Chinese writing.

The Liuquan mummy has since been transported to Hungary where it will be on view at the Hungarian Natural History Museum through May of 2015.

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Two Japanese prefectures are completely void of historical temples due to anti-Buddhist movement during the Meiji Restoration

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RocketNews 24:

Japan is often praised for its ability to preserve traditional customs and architecture while still functioning as a modern society. There are few other places in the world where you can be in the middle of a buzzing metropolis, only to turn a corner and be face-to-face with a shrine that has stood for centuries. But did you know that there are actually entire prefectures that do not contain a single old temple?

Join us after the jump as we explore two such places and explain exactly why architecture that was hundreds of years old disappeared.

The first place we’ll take a look at is Kagoshima Prefecture. There is plenty of evidence that Buddhist temples existed in the area, as numerous ruins are protected to this day. Let’s take a look at a few:

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Honryuu-ji

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As you can see, there are lots of ruins, but no ancient temples to be found. In fact, Japan has an average of 1,600 Buddhist temples per prefecture, but Kagoshima only has 485, all of which have been built within the last 200 years. What’s even more surprising is that at the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868), there were exactly 1,066 temples and 2,964 Buddhist monks, by 1874 there were none.

A similar story unfolded in Kochi Prefecture. Aside from also having a disproportionately low number of temples, Kochi is the only prefectural capital in Japan without a Pure Land sect Buddhist temple.

Of course, Kochi is a part of Shikoku, the site of the most well-known temple pilgrimage in Japan, the Shikoku JunreiHowever, taking a look at a map detailing the locations of all 88 temples on the pilgrimage trail shows something surprising:

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Kochi (the southernmost area on the map) is the largest prefecture in Shikoku, but has the least amount of temples along the pilgrimage route. So what happened?

The answer is haibutsu kishakuan anti-Buddhist movement during the beginning of the Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912). Triggered by the new government’s official policy of separating Shinto and Buddhism, and heightened by lingering anti-Buddhist sentiment, violence, rioting, and the destruction of Buddhist temples was common during this time.

▼ Here we see temple bells being smelted for bronze during the haibutsu kishaku.

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▼ Here we see the burning of sūtras during the haibutsu kishaku.

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Hardest hit, as you may have guessed, were Kagoshima and Kochi, where haibutsu kishaku was most fierce, leading to the eventual destruction of all temples in the area.

However, as Japan continued to modernize and Buddhism became widely accepted and treasured, reconstruction efforts began. For example, Daiji-ji in Kagoshima was built in 1340, destroyed in 1869, and reconstructed in 1879.

▼ Daiji-ji in Kagoshima

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Zenraku-ji in Kochi was destroyed at the beginning of the Meiji period, and was reconstructed in 1929.

▼ Zenraku-ji in Kochi

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The fate of Kochi and Kagoshima’s temples is unfortunate. Although centuries of historical architecture was lost during the period of haibutsu kishaku, we’re fortunate to still have many fully preserved temples to visit throughout other parts of Japan.

7 things that surprise a visitor to Laos

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RocketNews 24:

If you are visiting Laos, this is probably not your first rodeo in Asia, so I’ll skip the squat toilets and fleets of bicycles and get to seven things that this little Southeast Asian gem has to surprise even seasoned travelers.

1. How dirty the air is

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This is the one item on the list that really doesn’t have any redeeming charm, so let’s get it out of the way first. Laos is still a largely agrarian society, with little manufacturing and a whole lot of untouched jungle, so I was anticipating filling my lungs with crystal clear, if muggy, air, but instead spent most of the trip cleaning black gunk out of my mucus membranes. Even in the nature reserves of the far north, where the nearest town of any size is several hours’ drive away, the sun was almost completely obscured well into the afternoon most days.

This might be partly due to the time of year I visited, as March turns out to be when farmers burn brush off their land in preparation for planting. Throughout my travels, I often saw plots of land smoking from a controlled burn. It creates so much haze in the air that sometimes flights are grounded! Even if it is only temporary, for someone to whom air pollution is associated with heavy vehicle traffic and manufacturing, the degree of congestion in Laos was shocking.

2. The dearth of domestic products

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To be clear, I mean manufactured domestic products here. There is plenty of domestic produce, handicrafts and the like available, but the vast majority of value-added manufactured goods are imported from neighbors Thailand, China and Vietnam.

This isn’t something I normally pay attention to, but after a local trekking guide mentioned how many daily necessities have to be imported, I began looking for domestically produced goods in the shops. The only one I found during my travels was the ubiquitous (and tasty) Beerlao pictured above, itself started as a joint venture with foreign investors. The rest of shelves were a sea of Thai, Chinese characters and the odd romanized logo.

3. The stubby-legged guard mutts

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I detected something a bit different about the dogs here compared to their rangier, wilder cousins I tried to pet in neighboring SE Asian countries. For one thing, the dogs I saw in Laos were not strays. They weren’t the pampered handbag pets of Tokyo either, but each seemed to belong to a particular home or shop, and although I can’t remember ever seeing a veterinary office, I rarely saw dogs with any obvious health problems. Most seemed well-fed and properly socialized.

Surprisingly, during the day, they would sit out front and be friendly and approachable, but if you passed by the same dog after business hours, you would get an earful and possibly a solid bite if you didn’t move along fast enough. They seemed to know when they were “on duty”.

The other thing that cracked me up about dogs here is that an unlikely number of them had little stubby legs like corgis!

Look at those little things!

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4. Monks with mixed messages

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Clearly monks are deeply revered in Lao culture. Buddhism has a long and rich history in Laos and you can’t go far without running into a wat (temple), all of them completely supported by the generosity of the neighborhood. And what’s not to admire? The monks take on a ascetic lifestyle, focusing all their energies on study, prayer and community service.

For a foreigner, this image of the self-sacrificing ascetic seems quite noble, but the reality sometimes jars with the romantic image. Once, while prowling the wats of Luang Prabang, my friend and I rounded a corner to see a young monk, smoking a cigarette and shimmying to music on his very own iPod. Hardly the image of purity and self-negation!

It’s important to remember that, despite the revered place of monks in society, not everyone joins due to some higher calling. For some, it is a temporary arrangement to garner good karma for themselves or their family or to do penance for misdeeds. Most Lao men will enter the monkhood at some point in their lives, prior to a marriage or after the death of a parent, for example. For young men from poorer villages without access to schools, it can be a way to get a free education, which is why Laos has relatively high literacy rate for its level of development.

5. Children, children, everywhere!

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Everywhere I went in Laos, from remote jungle villages to the bustling streets of Luang Prabang and everywhere in between, it seemed like there were always hordes of children running hither and thither. Every lady in the market seemed to have a baby strapped to her back, every river seemed to have groups of shrieking, giggling toddlers playing in the shallows, and every road seemed to have packs of school-aged kids on their way to or from class.

Turns out this was not just my imagination. About 35% of the population of Laos is 14 years old or younger, and it has the youngest median age in all of Asia at 19.5 years (2010), far below the worldwide median of 28.4.

6. Multilingual Laos

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Laos is incredibly diverse. Ethnic Lao make up slightly more than half of the population, there are Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese minorities, and numerous “hill people” tribes, such as the Hmong, Dao, Shan, Yao and Tibetan-Burmese people. It’s almost shocking how many languages this brings into the mix. Although most of the adult population can speak Lao, it’s not the mother language for many, who grow up speaking minority languages. Add to that regional dialects and some people end up speaking one language at work, one language with a spouse, and yet another when they visit their home village! Somehow they manage without getting things too mixed up, though.

And that’s just the homegrown languages. Laos was once a French colony, so French is still widely used and also taught in schools, but since the country joined ASEAN and the WTO, English has become more common too. Talk about your linguistic melting pots!

7. You can keep your kip

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The official currency in Laos is the kip, with an exchange rate of about 8,000 kip to the US dollar at the moment. The combination of those big numbers, some similarly colored denominations and the use of Lao numbers make kip a bit unwieldy for new arrivals. But you might not even see many kip during your travels because most places accept and even prefer other currencies, in particular Thai baht, US dollars and euros! This is technically illegal, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone. Even roadside fruit merchants were happy to take my baht.

This can make paying for things a confusing mishmash of currencies and exchange rates. With so many different rates to factor, it’s enough to make your head spin, but the Lao are unwaveringly honest, so there is no need to fear that you are being cheated when they make complex currency transactions faster than you can even find the right bills. In fact, many people give up on trying to follow at all and just open their wallets to let merchants take out the correct amounts. Try that anywhere else in SE Asia!

Have I missed anything you found surprising on your Laotian adventure? If so, tell us in the comments. And if you haven’t been to Laos yet, get moving! It’s a charming place I can’t recommend highly enough. Here are a few more photos to whet your appetite:

A Buddhist wat in Luang Prabang

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A friendly local “lends a hand” in mounting an elephant

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The lovely karst mountains in Nong KhiawIMG_5598

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Sunrise in the Bokeo Nature ReserveIMG_5461