A Memorial, a Proposal, and Lessons in Kao Thom

Recently, Mom told me that the well in front of my grandfather’s stupa is caving in.  That well has been a part of Wat Dongpalan since before she was born.  No one dares go near it, let alone try to repair it.  If the whole thing collapses, the stupas lining the wall in that corner of the temple grounds, including the one that houses my grandfather’s ashes, will be sucked into oblivion.

The well in 2006

10 – 11 November 2006

I mentioned before that the main reason we went to Laos, aside from it being my mother’s lifelong dream to show me the country of my ancestors, was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of my grandfather’s death.  Thus, much of the first month in Laos was spent purchasing and planning.  There is a lot involved with planning a boun: invitations, food, offerings for the temple, and all the items necessary to ordain 7 monks.  Among these items are basic necessities and 2 sets of robes: white, representing the lay person who has not taken oaths; and orange, for the newly ordained. When someone dies, it is customary for several male relatives of the deceased to honor him by spending a finite period of time as a monk.

I met Pau-Thou Bounmy when I was 10 years old.  He brought his second wife with him – my grandmother passed away when Mom was 14 years old.  Thou Bounmy came across a bit prickly, and I remember his lips were usually pressed into a thin line of disapproval.  His hugs were even more rare than his smile (I don’t think he ever hugged me).  Mom explained that he had always been like this, a stern disciplinarian.  However, I could tell from the way she catered to him every waking moment that he meant the world to her.  I also got the sense that she would never stop trying to earn his affection and approval.

He lived with us for about a year before returning to Laos.  When Thou Bounmy died, my mother mourned for 100 days.  She wore black every day during this time period.  As for me, I felt the loss of my last living grandparent; I mourned all the wisdom and memories that were permanently locked away.

Kao Thom

The night before the ceremony, dozens of women showed up to help prepare the food.  They recruited me to help make a treat called kao thom.  It is a semi-sweet concoction of sticky rice, coconut milk, and sugar, all wrapped neatly in banana leaves.  One version contains black beans, but banana slices flavored the variety we made that night.  When the kao thom are steamed, the rice becomes glutinous and infused with the aroma of banana.  The process is labor intensive, particularly when you have to make hundreds of little packages.  Someone cleaned the fresh banana leaves; two others cut them into the right shape and size; someone else grated and milked the coconut; and still others mixed and seasoned the rice filling.  Then all hands were needed to help with the wrapping.  Making the packages look neat was challenging for me, but it got easier with practice.  The older women found my efforts rather entertaining, and I felt proud to be part of this community and a tradition that went back countless generations.

While I was absorbed in my kao thom endeavor, my cousin’s husband, Sak, informed me of my first marriage proposal.  A few days before, I had gone to the furniture store with him to pick up a hutch that Mom needed.  I waited in the bed of the truck while Sak went inside the shop.  I was oblivious to anything but the heat.  Evidently, a young man passing by had walked into the store and asked Sak if I were available for marriage.  “You’ll have to ask her mother,” he replied.

I’m glad Mom decided it was a bad idea to pawn me off to the first person who asked, even though I was already an old maid by Lao standards.


The morning of the ceremony, we picked up three of Mom’s siblings at the Mittaphab Bridge.  They had arrived from all over the world:  Pa Tom from France; Loung Saung from Canada; and a brother from China whose name escapes me now.  My Chinese grandmother raised her first son in Yunnan Province. He decided to stay there, and she later had my mom and 7 other children in Laos.  He did not speak Lao or even Thai; Loung Saung, however, spoke both Mandarin and Lao, so he acted as translator.

Left to right: Chinese uncle, Loung Saung, his wife, Mom’s two aunts on either side of her, Pa Tom

The memorial lasted all day.  After the morning blessing at Pa Hom’s house, we walked in a train behind the novices  (naak), all the way to Wat Dongpalan.  People trilled and sang, showering one another with coins, flowers, candy, and rice.  After the ordainment ceremony, which seemed to last hours, we finally got to eat and catch up with our relatives.  I noticed that my Chinese uncle was very quiet; even to Loung Saung, he spoke only a few words.  Mostly, he listened to his siblings, his gaze fixed on some distant point.  His expression was unreadable.  Then, to my surprise, tears were streaming down his face.  I looked at Mom, who started to cry as well.  I fought to hold back my own tears that bubbled to the surface, so unexpectedly.  No words had been exchanged between the three of us, but they were not necessary.  I was witnessing the first meeting between two siblings, these two strangers of the same blood, separated by thousands of miles, by native tongue, by time.  These were tears of joy and tears of sorrow for years lost.

My grandfather’s death brought us all here.

There are some moments that change us forever.


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