The country of Laos has one airline. The airline has six small propeller planes. We took the one with capacity for 60 passengers to fly from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, the former capital of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (the Land of a Million Elephants). When we landed we walked on the tarmac to the terminal while the porters hand-carried our luggage. The terminal had two rooms. In the first room we applied for a visa and received it in about five minutes after paying the one dollar issuing fee. [photo essay]
The air outside smelled of farmland. The two-lane paved road to our hotel meandered through farms and ended a few miles before we reached it. We continued on a dirt road. “Ninety percent of the Lao live about six kilometers from a paved road,” our guide said. “And remember, the word is Lao and not Laos or Laotian. It is the name of the people, the country, the language, the music, everything.” Everything looked quaintly simple as that!
A “spirit house” from the old animistic tradition stood before the entrance to our hotel (Villa Santi Resort), to ward off evil. From the veranda of the hotel the vista was purely pastoral. Rice paddies stretched to the mountains in the distance. A water buffalo grazed freely in the fields, while an elderly man limped behind. Several women and men were clearing the irrigation channel, cutting overgrown bushes with primitive tools.
In the restaurant of the hotel, we shared a meal of “sticky rice” with chicken and pork in spicy tomato sauce with a noisy group of Frenchmen. They sat in the veranda, enjoying the gentle breeze that tempered the heat, just as their countryman, Henri Mouhot had prescribed. He was the first European to reach Luang Prabang in the mid 19th century. Presently, a group of Italians arrived in the lobby of our hotel. This place was clearly favored by Western tourists. We saw no Lao guests.
Our hotel was owned by a man who personified quite a bit of Laos’s modern history. Santi Inthavong was the son of Dr. Somphavan Inthavong, a sometime Minister and Auditor General of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. When that Communist regime decided in the 1990s to allow such things, Santi was among the first to establish a privately-owned hotel in the Lao PDR. His partner was his wife, Princess Sawee Nahlee Savang, the daughter of the last Crown Prince. The Crown Prince along with the King and Queen and several other Royals had perished, probably in 1980 (nobody knew for sure), in a remote re-education camp to which the Communists banished them in 1975.
The “Lao Royal Family” consisted of the ruling family of the country from 1904 to 1975 and close relatives of the founding monarch. These relatives were also allowed to use royal titles. It was one of them, Prince Souphanouvong, who overthrew the Royal Government and became the President of the new Communist Republic. Even before that, his brother Prince Phetxarat, then acting as the Prime Minister, had deposed the King’s father in 1945. The French colonial forces soon reinstated that monarch, but for the next thirty years those two Princes, along with yet a third brother, Prince Suvannaphuma, were the key political players in Laos.
Many of the Royals have fled from the Communists to France where some have been working to change the regime in Laos. Princess Sawee Nahlee remained in Laos and married Santi Inthavong, who had returned to Laos after spending “many years overseas” and being educated in France and Thailand. The couple opened their hotel in the former residence of the Princess’s mother in Luang Prabang. They called it Villa de la Princesse, but changed that name soon thereafter to Villa Santi. Some say this was because the Communist government “pressured” them. The politically incorrect name, however, survives in the hotel’s “Princess Wing,” “Princess Balcony,” and “Princess Restaurant”. I noted that there is also a “Royal Wing” in the hotel.
When several years later, Santi decided to add a bigger resort to the hotel, he simply called it Villa Santi Resort. Nor did he need the royal inheritance. He was given a loan by the International Finance Corporation in 2001. The amount was $1.15 million, but because of the IFC loan the local banks provided the additional $1.61 million needed to complete the project.
The Lao Royal family is remembered in the statue of its founder, King Sisavang Vong, in the garden of his former royal palace in Luang Prabang. However, the palace, now called the Royal Palace Museum, is more noteworthy because it houses the precious golden parabang Buddha sculpture. That revered Buddha image is the namesake of the city. It also became the symbol of the Lao kingdom after being brought here by the Buddhist teacher of King Fa Ngum who established the first Lao state when he was crowned in this city in 1353.
Mekong river valley
My room had a mosquito net over the bed, allowing me to leave the windows open. Roosters awakened me in the morning. We set out early for a boat ride on the upper Mekong River. The graceful long-tailed boats were locally designed; our guide did not know of a specific name for them. They ran on a regular service all the way to the “Golden Triangle” -- bordering Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and near the Yunnan province of China --, which took two days. The Lao first arrived in this river valley from South China in the middle of the 8th century.
The water of the Mekong was muddy. The boatman maneuvered to find the running stream in the shallow river which was only two to eight meters deep. In the rainy season (May to October) the river would flood. Now, in February, the fertile soil of the exposed banks for about ten meters hosted crops of beans, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, and peanuts. There were also water buffalos in those narrow fields, and even a few elephants.
Our destination was the Pak Ou Caves at the mouth of a Mekong tributary called Ou, an important local Buddhist pilgrimage site. Even before Buddhism spread to Laos, as the official sign at the Caves said, these caves were used for religious purposes by the local people who “worshiped Phi, or the spirits of nature.” The Pak Ou Caves were “associated with a river spirit.” By the 16th century, these caves had begun to receive the special attention of the Royal families of Laos who had adopted Buddhism. Until 1975, the sign continued, the King and the people of Luang Prabang “made a pilgrimage to the caves as a part of the New Year religious observances. Sculptures were commissioned by the royal family.” Reports describe those pilgrimages as dazzling candlelit processions. There are many Buddhist carvings in the Caves dating from 18th to the 20th centuries. The piles give the impression of a warehouse of unwanted Buddha sculptures.
Our boat next stopped at a nearby village on the Mekong where street vendor capitalism ran rampant. While men lounged and looked, all women and children had been mobilized in the sales force. Age was no limit. Elderly women and the smallest children were engaged. At one stand there were three generations. The school teacher used our visit to arrange a makeshift fund-raiser. The “mercantalized” kids were summoned from the street to sit behind empty desks in the bare class room, making funny faces while we took pictures and the teacher talked. When it was over, they rushed to their selling stands pushing trinkets. Some pedaled a special offering: for one dollar you could buy the right to let free a bird from the cage they held. This was to “make merit” in the Buddhist tradition. Alas, the wings of the birds were clipped in advance so that they could be recaptured for the next tourist.
A special person sat near the school room with a big smile, some papers, and white strings tied around his wrist. As the school teacher explained, he was the government official who had come to register plots of land belonging to the villagers. The strings were baci tied so as to prevent spirits from escaping his body.
Back in the hotel lobby they had organized a full baci ceremony for us. As my guide informed me, among Lao it is more commonly called su khwan, meaning “calling of the soul.” Spirit worship remains the dominant non-Buddhist belief system in Laos. “Lao believe that everyone has 32 spirits, known as khwan, each of which acts as a guardian over a specific organ or faculty. Khwan occasionally wander away from their owner. This often happen when a person is about to embark on a new project or journey from home. Then it’s best to perform the baci to ensure that all the khwan are present.
We made a circle in our chairs around two “village elders (maw phon)" who sat on a carpet facing a center piece (pha khwan) on a white cloth. This was a canonical-shaped arrangement of banana leaves, flowers and fruit. It had about eight sticks all with white string hand bands. The maw phon began a long Buddhist mantra to call in the wandering khwan. Just behind them sat several women who formed a chorus with their chants and clapping. Further back there were seven musicians with traditional Lao instruments. They were all male and seemed to be in their teens. Subsequently, several dancers came and performed the local version of the Sanskrit Ramayana saga (Pra Lak Pra Lam), in which the hero Rama is portrayed as an incarnation of Buddha, not Vishnu, although the demon king is still Ravana.
After the dance was over, led by the maw phons, several of the women from the chorus came around and tied the white cotton strings around our wrists, warning us to keep them for several days lest the spirits leave us. “If they leave, you risk dying,” we were told! Some of us kept the bands for the duration of our stay in Laos. To close the ceremony we were invited to sit with the maw phons on the floor. We accepted with difficulty as our leg muscles were not accustomed and we had to be careful not to direct our toes toward the pha khwan which is considered disrespectful.
The merits of alms
The folk religious elements of Laos are embraced by many of its monks. Lao Buddhism is a unique version of Theravada as it is often closely tied to animist beliefs and belief in ancestral spirits, particularly in rural areas. This was pointed out to me by a fellow traveler who was a scholar of Japanese Zen Buddhism. His curiosity about Lao Buddhism was infectious. I benefited from his learning which inspired me to learn more by using the sole computer in our hotel with its often interrupted connection to the internet.
In Laos there is a difference between the practices suitable for a lay person and the practices undertaken by ordained monks. The possibility of significant enlightenment by laymen is deemed considerably less. The lay people have been traditionally occupied with “merit making” activities which comprise offering food and other basic necessities to monks, making donations to temples and monasteries, burning incense or lighting candles before images of the Buddha, and chanting protective verses from the Pali Canon.
Merit making has been called kammatic Buddhism. Kamma (karma), more than devotion, prayer or hard work, is believed to determine one’s lot in life. Theravada philosophy is a continuous analytical process of life, not a mere set of ethics and rituals. It focuses on the Four Noble Truths, described as the problem (suffering), the cause (craving), the solution (detachment) and the pathway to solution. The Noble Eightfold Pathway is sometimes stated in a more concise version, known as the Three Noble Disciplines. These are known as discipline, training of mind, and wisdom. Meditation which means the positive reinforcement of one's mind is the key tool. “Scholar monks” undertake the path of studying and preserving the Pali literature of the Theravada (Tripitaka). The “meditation monks,” on the other hand, are expected to learn primarily from their meditation experiences and personal teachers.
In Luang Prabang lay persons made merit daily by giving alms to monks. The monks accommodated them by coming out to the streets first thing in the morning and passing by their houses to receive alms. We left our hotel at dawn to participate. A thick mist that lurked overhead made the air cold. In the alleys of the old town women sat on the ground waiting for the monks with their offerings ready at hand. A crowd of tourists was also present. In fact there is a fear that this is a tradition in danger of becoming a tourist production. Luang Prabang’s authorities have posted notices with instructions to the tourists: ”take part in almsgiving ceremony by protecting its dignity and its beauty, … contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you, ... observe the ritual in silence, … (cover) shoulders, chest and legs, ... do not make any physical contact with the monks.”
The monks came in processions beginning around 6:40 in the morning. Their arrival was heralded by the beats of drums. Most wore saffron colored robes, but some wore red and some brown. They all dye their robes themselves. Therefore, the color differences are related to their age, as the colors of the older monks’ robes have darkened. The monks were all male. In the groups that day many were in their teens, some as young as eight. Most were “temporaries.” They came from up country to the monastery for free food and education. They leave the robes after acquiring an education.
The monks were silent and looked serious as they approached us in single file. They had bare feet and one bare shoulder. When they were next to us, they lifted the lids of their bowls so that we could put our offerings in them. We offered them sticky rice which our guide’s sister had made that morning. The monks then disappeared by entering into a temple (Vat Nong Sikhounmuang) near where we were standing. They would eat once and spend much of the rest of the day meditating, we were told.
The Buddha of rain
Laos has had a small population, now 5.6 million, scattered in a land of mountains. These mountains have further disrupted communications by rapids which interrupt navigation on Laos’s sole waterway, the Mekong. Correspondingly, Laos’s contribution to culture and arts has been modest. Textile designs from Laos, especially by its highland tribal minorities, are noteworthy. We were driven to a dusty village near Luang Prabang where textile shops had those designs on display. While the visitors seemed to be all from the United States and Europe, curiously, the largest store here had only a framed picture from the visit of the “Vice President of Vietnam” on its walls. A neighborly gesture, one might think. The caption under the frame awkwardly identified the dignitary as “the woman in the picture.” Next door fresh elephant dung was on exhibit in a demonstration of how it was used in a mixture with leaves of mulberry tree to produce traditional Lao paper.
The traditional art and architecture of the lowland Laos are mostly religious in nature. To see them we went to Laos’s most traditional Buddhist temple, Wat Xieng Thong (the Temple of Golden City). It was built around 1560 on the bank of the Mekong where the Nam Khan, a smaller river runs into it. This location is believed to be where two hermits had founded Luang Prabang. The site was sacred because of the union of the two guardian water spirits (nagas). Wat Xieng Thong is a complex of chapels (sims) with steep, low roofs and a four sided, curvilinear stupa (thaat). On the eastern gate of the compound stands the royal funerary carriage house with the carriage inside. There are also several urns for the various members of the royal family, all reminders that this place was where important state ceremonies, including the king’s coronation, were held. To the mix of Buddhist and royal arts here, in the 1950s were added colorful glass mosaics on the buildings’ walls, depicting popular folk tales and daily activities of a Lao village.
The temples were full of Buddha images in uniquely Lao mudras, or gestures, such as the one calling for rain. This was a standing image with a rocket-like shape and hands held rigidly at Buddha’s sides, fingers pointing towards the ground. Also unique to Laos was a highly valued reclining Buddha here that dates from the construction of the Wat, a pose showing Buddha lying down and welcoming death, after which he would achieve Nirvana. Finally there was a Buddha image with his hands facing up, preaching reason.
Wat Xieng Thong has a living quarter for monks. Its temples are daily visited by the believers. On the day of my visit a woman was genuflecting in the temple before a big and several small statues of Buddha all sitting in the meditation pose. In successive moves she stood, went down on her knees, put her hands under her head while it touched the floor and her feet were crossed. She did this in silence. She repeated this ritual with exactly the same sequence of motions for over fifty times. Our guide said that she was from South Korea. “Lao don’t do that many, we are less energetic!” There are no Buddhist nuns in Laos, unlike Korea which has an Order, descended from the Order established in Sri Lanka by Emperor Asoka’s daughter in the 3rd century BC.
Luang Prabang with its 60,000 inhabitants is a town in transition. It gives a glimpse into the Lao traditional life. You may still see a monk in his traditional dwelling (koutis) through a hole shaped like a lotus or buy recordings of classic Lao music. However, the graceful residential buildings in the old town’s “protected zone” are fast turning into hosts of stores, and its two main streets are full of restaurants and shops catering to tourists, especially backpackers. They could get their laundry done for a little more than one dollar for a kilo, after a kayaking trip, hiking, or elephant riding. A hand written sign for a longer such back country group adventure was typical: “February 22, need 2"
Not that the capital city of Laos, Vientiane, is much different. One early morning there I walked on the near empty major street where the “Lao National Cultural Hall” is located. A plaque at the entrance to this museum oddly commemorated “Polio Eradication 2000". Next to it was a big sign advertising the country’s most famous libation product, Beerlao. There were very few cars or motorbikes. The driver of a parked cyclo just smiled and said sabai-dii (Hello). The driver of a tuk-tuk was even more laid back; he was taking a nap in the hammock hung inside his vehicle. Next to him was the sign for the “Relax and Dream away Guesthouse”. In the park nearby, at the bank of Mekong River, I heard soothing music. This was from an all Lao women Tai Chi class. Behind them, a boy was kicking a soccer ball. A disheveled French man was looking at Thailand which was across the river. Backpackers, three women and two men, were up and planning their day. Ali’s Restaurant was open for “Indian fusion cuisine.” Three Monks were sweeping the sidewalk in front of a temple.
When the Communist regime came to power it banned senior clergy from preaching. As a consequence, the chief monk, the Sangharaja of Laos, fled to Thailand in 1979 by floating across the Mekong on a raft of inflated car inner tubes. Since then the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge has been built just a few miles south of Vientiane. Now many Thai tourists come across because the food is good and cheap here and there are many religious sites.
Under the Lan Xang Kings in the 17th century, Vientiane (Viang Chan) became a great center of Buddhist scholarship with many temples. Monks came from Siam (Thailand) to study in those Wats. The most important memorial of that era in Vientiane is the gold-colored Pha That Luang (Great Stupa). The construction of its original building began in 1566, but it has been destroyed several times. The latest version was built by the French in 1931. The Stupa is a symbol of both the Buddhist religion and Lao National sovereignty. Its image appears on the national seal. There is another important monument of Vientiane which is also a legacy of the French colonial rule: a replica of Arc de Triomphe. Its incongruous prominence in the post-colonial Laos is baffling. One could not help but muse that the French once considered this still seemingly innocent land a backwater of their empire.
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