I occasionally come across reading lists about Laos, but it’s pretty apparent they’re put together generically, culled from looking at books available on Amazon, etc. What I'm doing now is putting together a list of recommended books I’ve read that I think really have value in providing important insights about Laos. The list when it is finished will be added to our tour information located here.
The first book I would recommend is Naga Cities of the Mekong: A Guide to the temples, legends and history of Laos, written by Martin Stuart Fox with photographs by Steve Northup. The book is published by Media Masters in Singapore, so isn’t on the Amazon “shelves,” though it is readily available from other resellers. It's probably about half the price if you bought it in Laos or Thailand, but even at $35 I think it's worth it. Martin Stuart-Fox has written many books about Laos, probably the most popular is The History of Laos, so he knows what he is talking about. And his passion for Laos is clearly evident in the Naga Cities of the Mekong. The book is quite interesting and is a good read and amazingly the photographs are quite good and closely pertain to the text on the page they’re displayed. I learned an incredible amount from reading this book.
On our tours we've been focusing on the two Naga cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang. The third, Champasaak is located down south near the Cambodia border and if time and money were no object, I would love to have tour participants visit Champasaak too, especially to visit Laos’s second World Heritage site, Wat Phu and the Khone Pha Pheng waterfalls on the Mekong River which stymied the French from their quest in the late 1800’s of gaining a backdoor into China. And of course I wouldn’t mind taking everyone up to the Boloven Plateau where the finest Lao coffee is grown!
As is written in the introduction, “This book tells the story of these three cities [Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Champasaak], their periods of greatness and decline, and the legends of their naga protectors. It tells of kings and peoples, and of the temples and palaces they built, may of which still remain and are described, each in its historical context.”
Of course here at Laos Essential Artistry we have a passion for the textile arts and nagas are not only one of the most popular motifs woven into Laos textiles, but they are embedded in the psyche of most Lao, including of course Lao weavers. The naga is such an important motif in Lao textiles that Viengkham Nanthavongdouangsy, one of the two sisters who are owners of Phaeng Mai Gallery, wrote a little book called Weaving Cloth, Weaving Nagas: Lao Woven Textile Motifs where she wrote that "The Naga is the most outstanding and dominant motif in Lao woven textiles, artistically created with imagination and respect. It has been so inseparably bound to the livelihood of the Lao people that whenever weavers speak of their work the term "Naga" is spontaneously mentioned first, as in the phrase 'Weaving Cloth - Weaving Nagas."
In the photo below I've outlined a double-headed naga woven into a silk textile by master weavers at Muang Vaen. Each textile tells a rich story in the motifs woven into the textile and here you can see how the nagas are joined at the tail in a diamond shape. Both nagas and the diamond shape are often considered protective and powerful motifs in the Lao cosmology and woven together like this one can imagine their significance. And since both nagas are carrying spirit/ancestor figures, their protective nature is clearly amplified.
But back to Naga Cities of the Mekong. The key word here in looking at the book is context. The book is rich in context and the outstanding photographs add more depth and meaning for the reader. Highly recommended!