My Favourite Things About Laos
Laos was one of the four-and-a-half countries I visited this past August (note: the half country was the 12 hours I spent in the South Korean airport, Incheon. If an airport could ever be called special, this one would be indeed. Parades of the royal family, chamber orchestra concerts, world class shopping and take-home art projects of traditional Korean handicrafts were just a few of its splendors I experienced!).
I chose Laos with the thought that it would be much like my enchanted time in Cambodia (which I did not write about as my time there ended literally moments before I learned of my Dad’s death. The time and months after weren’t conducive to much writing)…yet even more undiscovered.
I didn’t get either right.
Frankly, it likely never had the chance to rise to the “enchanted” level the minute my tuk-tuk driver in Vang Vieng almost killed a young girl on a motorbike. And the “undiscovered” part probably fell to the wayside for me when I felt that prices seemed to be double what I experienced in both Cambodia and Vietnam, not to mention the inordinate number of South Koreans I kept running into. Regardless I was happy to experience this county which is considered the heart of the Indochinese peninsula.
Here are a few of my favorite moments:
This sleepy capital city of Laos was the perfect introduction to the communist country and a much appreciated change in level of street chaos from what I experienced in Vietnam. Remarkably I was able to cross the street in the downtown without fearing for my life nor waiting 7 minutes on the curb for a semi-break in traffic.
Each evening on the walk home I would get obsessed by one of the carnival games set up near my charming French colonial style boutique hotel, Hotel Khamvongsa. The first night I was just an observer, but the second night I sprung for the Lao equivalent of .80 cents to try my hand at popping balloons with 3 darts. My first attempt resulted in one missed ballon, but by try two I had honed my skills enough to pop a balloon with each dart which won me a choice of a bottled beverage! I chose a local orange drink…it matched the balloons.
Vientiane is known to have the most important Buddhist temple in the country, but I didn’t go visit it. I find temples, much like churches, start looking all the same, and having seen quite a few of both during my travels there wasn’t much compelling me in the Southeast Asian heat to go find it. However, I did go out of my way to find the monks who led a sitting and walking meditation once a week on Saturdays at Wat Sok Pa Luang.
I arrived 45 minutes early to the 4pm session as I was told the monks like to practice their English prior to meditation. Most were fairly shy, but I enjoyed learning some of the basics of their lifestyle. For example in the picture above, the ones in orange are considered novices and the one in brown is an actual monk. Every morning they get up at 3am to mediate for 2 hours and then meditate again in the evening. Also, novices don’t have to become monks. In fact my now Facebook friend, Khoun (the one who is talking to the monk in brown), has been at the temple for 10 years. He is now in the process of deciding if he wants to continue this life or pursue one with a wife and family outside the temple. (As an aside, having a novice monk as a Facebook friend must give me some clout when it comes to determining my incarnation in the next life…right?)
The session was 20 minutes of sitting meditation, 20 minutes of walking meditation and then another 20 minutes of sitting meditation. An interpreter helped us with the introduction and taught us a mantra to aid our Vispassana meditation. The point, he detailed, was to train our brain to go from thinking to knowing.
The monks started the mediation by chanting and then it was silent. I sat eyes closed and legs crossed and did my best not to fidget too much. While I did fairly well, I definitely need more practice. Most of the meditation I was thinking about what a poor meditator I was, and during the walking mediation my mantra included not to step on an ant.
Nirvana for me will not be achieved any time soon.
I don’t know if Zumba is just a thing in the capital or if it is pervasive country wide, but each evening in the main plaza next to the Mekong huge speakers would pump loud music while teachers on raised platforms would breathlessly give instruction to a small army of mostly pink clad zumba-ers.
Enjoying the sunset over the Mekong and contemplating the inception of the seemingly bizarre activity happening next to me was one of my favorite things to do in Vientiane. And when I got tired of the contemplation next to the river, I went up to a bar with a view to do the same with a glass of wine.
Vang Vieng, located a 4 hours bus ride north from Vientiane, is mostly known as a tourist destination for inner tubing the Nam Song River, cave exploring and eh, drinking Beer Lao at one of the many bars. None of that interested me as I can do all without crossing several oceans (well, minus drink Beer Lao). However, what did interest me was spending time learning about how the local Hmong and Kamu, both ethnic groups in Laos, lived in their nearby villages. The concept of wanting to learn more about the local culture and people completely delighted the owner of my bungalow hotel who clearly wasn’t use to such a request, and with one phone call she set me up to experience rural Laos in the morning.
The Hmong have their own language and many of their own villages. They use to live in the mountains, but in the last 30 years have come down to take part in a much easier lifestyle than their once remote mountain one.
Village exploring was a highlight during my time in Laos and completely recuperated me from the tuk tuk traumas that happened the day before in Vang Vieng.
My final stop in Laos was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang.
The architecturally stunning old town uniquely preserved its French colonial heritage and seamlessly integrating with numerous nearby Buddhist temples and monasteries. Sitting at the sacred confluence of the Mekong River and the Khan River, I found it and its surrounding parts to be a feast for the eyes.
Not having any knowledge of Lao cuisine, I did take a cooking class in Luang Prabang (thankfully for this class we weren’t required to buy toads or maggots at the market). Our class of 8 had to choose to make 6 recipes from a list of 31. It wasn’t complicated cuisine, but it did take A LOT of prep (so many herbs).
A highlight of my time in Luang Prabang was meeting a local Aussi ex-pat, John. He briefed me on ex-pat life, local gossip and the idiosyncrasies of living in an underdeveloped, communist nation. The above shows us at one of his favorite spots, a very, very local bar (I had to drink a blue drink cuz I don’t drink beer…the only other beverage they served) which made us quite the curiosity to the patrons who weren’t use to seeing white folks there. We were also older than everyone at the bar by a minimum of X2…which may also be a reason that John loves it so much (if you get my point).
When John wasn’t showing me were the local 21 year olds hung out, he did introduce me to some of the best restaurants in Luang Prabang. Cafe Toui, featuring local cuisine, and Tangor, a French fusion restaurant, being two of them.
While I am not a morning person, there was no way I was going to miss the daily tradition of the Buddhist monks’ morning collection of food through the streets of Luang Prabang (which was also a great excuse to stop drinking that blue drink at the barely 21 bar the night before).
At 5:30am they silently started to file out into the streets, oldest first, carrying their alms bowls in front of them. Laypeople (and us curious tourists) waited for them, sometimes kneeling, to place a handful of sticky rice in each of their bowls.
The line of saffron-clad young men doing something so unique to me was beautiful to witness…although I couldn’t imagine eating all that fondled rice for breakfast after.
The ritual is done in silence; the almsgivers do not speak, nor do the monks. The monks walk in meditation, and the almsgivers reciprocate with respect by not disturbing the monk’s meditative peace. This practice supports both the monks who need the food and the almsgivers who need spiritual redemption.