Laos: hide and seek among the Buddhas
There are some countries that seem to have an indefinable pull and for me Laos has long been one such country. Perhaps I saw a photograph somewhere, or buried deep in my mind an overheard remark. I arrived late one night and headed down the long road – lined almost entirely with dental offices – that leads from the Thai border into the heart of Vientiane.
The city is a mad rush of people and flashes of tricycles, long looping overheard wires and crumbling facades – and perhaps the intensity could be overwhelming if not for the vast expanse of promenade that edges the Mekong and provides a space, an opening, away from the incessant clamour.
“Sometimes, it is okay to be left with more questions than answers.”
Sometimes, it is okay to be left with more questions than answers. I think these people were shooting an advertisement; I think there was a Laotian idol involved. Perhaps it was the emergence of a new film industry – could ‘Lollywood’ be the Next Big Thing heading to the world’s cinemas?
The promenade is where the city’s residents gathered every evening. Groups of women on bikes offered manicures, ice-cream vendors tempted with black bean and buffalo milk flavours, and monks passed by in flashes of flowing saffron.
Vientiane has its very own Arc de Triomphe, built in 1962 but never completed due to the country’s turbulent history. An official sign on the arch declares in perhaps overly honest tones, ‘From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.’
“The US dropped onto Laos the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, every day, for nine years.”
Bright tricycles whisk people around the city – it is a glorious bright, colourful chaos that is somehow both addictive and abhorrent.
It would be wrong to write about Laos and Vientiane without mentioning COPE, the organisation created to help those damaged by the land mines that litter the country. The US dropped onto Laos the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, every day, for nine years. Almost 30% of these are unexploded. It took until 2016 for the US to provide any funding to help in finding these bombs.
The unexploded bombs are disturbed by farmers tilling their fields, by women sitting in the shade of a tree, by children playing in the street. There was a power cut when I visited the centre in Vientiane but the assistant let me peer at the dim displays, the hanging prosthetics made even more eerie by the darkness.
“A train line will soon appear, bringing with it such notions as ‘Progress’ and ‘Prosperity’.”
Vang Vieng is four hours north of Vientiane, and the bar-filled heart of the city has become something of a certainty on backpacker trips. To the south, though, I found peace alongside the homes of the fishermen – and far away from the main road being pounded by trucks from China. A train line will soon appear, bringing with it such notions as ‘Progress’ and ‘Prosperity’.
The villagers live off the lake, the nets lowered at night with lamplight used to lure thousands of tiny fish. The indigenous people, driven from their original homes by the Americans who created an airbase during the Vietnam War, adapted their skills to lakeside living. Now, they are being forced from there too, for being an inconvenience in China’s pursuit of development and progress.
Vast blue canvases are stretched beneath the sun. The dried fish are then sold alongside the road, eaten in handfuls with the dirt and dust kicked up by passing cars.
The lake offers an idle retreat, a place for learning about the minutiae and lingering over sunsets.
“The Mekong and its tributaries wrap themselves around the city…”
The old motorbike bridge in Luang Prabang is not for the fainthearted, with fully-laden mopeds (and in Asia, fully-laden can mean five family members and a prize pig) zipping across the wooden planks. The Mekong and its tributaries wrap themselves around the city, with bridges linking streets of corrugated iron shacks to those graced with fading colonial mansions.
Bamboo bridges are constructed every year, with the old ones washed away by the rising Mekong in the rainy season. Tiny structures – barely three square metres on a muddy slope – serve as toll booth and home to the families that build these footbridges. Sometimes they are in place for as many as eight months, sometimes as few as three.
All boys in Laos are expected to spend at least a period of time as a Buddhist novice; many young boys from poor, rural areas are sent by their families to Luang Prabang – one less mouth to feed, and one more child assured of a decent education. The novice monks may be dedicated – but the children can still be spotted playing hide-and-seek among the Buddha statues.
“The poorer the country, the greater the value placed on education.”
Some photos should not be taken – they can be as intrusive as they are intense. I snapped this one of young girls just outside Luang Prabang and wondered if it should ever have been taken let alone shared. But there is so much here: the crisp uniforms of little girls who have emerged from tin shacks, and the naked bodies of those whose parents can’t afford to send them to school. The poorer the country, the greater the value placed on education.
The influx of tourists means old traditions become new industries, creating souvenirs for the masses. Artisans use their techniques to make paper products in Luang Prabang – Saa paper made from the bark of the mulberry tree. The stretched sheets are left to dry in the sun on bamboo canvasses before being shaped into notebooks and lampshades, parasols and strings of fairy lights.
Half the population of Laos earns less than US$500 a month. Nearly 25% live below the poverty line. When the cities are left behind, these facts are starkly displayed in rural villages.
Kuang Si Falls are 30km outside Luang Prabang. It is also home to a bear care sanctuary, with Asiatic black bears rescued from bile farms.
“Laos is a fragile and precious place, and I will be forever grateful that I was there before it was robbed of its magic.”
I have never seen so many roadside baskets of drying goods as I did in Laos. I spent hours on a tiny bicycle riding along the potholed streets, seeing everything from vegetables to strips of intestines drying in the sun.
Every morning, the monks of Luang Prabang walk slowly to their temples. It became tradition for the people of the town to provide offerings of simple rice cakes. Tourism is in danger of destroying this silent, solemn procession; signs everywhere remind people to be quiet, to refrain from taking photographs, to not touch the monks. Why is it that tourists so often destroy that which enticed them in the first place?
The shimmering gold and vaulted, sweeping temples are some of the most memorable images of Laos. The Royal Palace is now a museum; when the monarchy was overthrown in 1975, the royal family were taken to re-education camps. The buildings are now a glorious glimpse into a perfectly preserved past.
The mighty Mekong identifies the southern border of Laos and snakes up through its very heart. The river is to the country what the Ganges is to India: the defining spirit. Today, the Chinese are moving in with designs on hydroelectric dams. These will destroy the vital fishing opportunities, force the resettlement of tens of thousands of people, and benefit only outsiders. Laos is a fragile and precious place, and I will be forever grateful that I was there before it was robbed of its magic.
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