When I started plotting out destinations for this wonderful adventure, I chose places to visit that were not on the usual touristy radar, but rather with a view to educating myself and learning about how people live in various countries throughout the world. Immersing myself in the daily lives of people who live outside of the typical tourist destinations was a priority, where it was possible to do so. Vietnam and Cambodia were most definitely on the list, however, our next destination, Vientiane in Laos never featured. That was until we spoke with some people along the way who had visited it and recommended that we stop off along our journey to take it all in in Laos. We had received mixed reports about it, mostly that it was about one hundred years behind most places in the Western World, and very different to any other country in Asia. I was hooked! Examining the map of Asia again, we decided to visit the capital city of Laos, Vientiane. Laos is a landlocked country which lies between Vietnam to the east and Thailand to the west. Its borders at the north are shared with Myanmar and China and to the south, Cambodia. Vientiane City lies on the western border of Laos, shared with Thailand. There is just one small river, The Mekong river, separating both countries. We altered our itinerary slightly so we could take a week to explore this totally unique part of Asia. It fitted in nicely as we were heading that direction anyway to visit a practically unexplored island off the west coast of Vietnam, Phu Quoc. So we threw caution to the wind and said…why not?
With flights booked and hotel prices costing less than €12 per night each, (which included a swimming pool) with top class facilities, we were soon leaving China and heading to one of Asia’s cheapest and most cheerful destinations, Laos. With a flight of just under three hours from Guangzhou in China we landed in Vientiane and were collected by the hotel’s taxi (included in the cost of our accommodation) and brought to one of the most luxurious hotels in the city, with a plaza at the centre of the resort, palm trees and an onsite restaurant. We were ready for our next adventure!
We took off the following morning to explore. The sights we saw were in total contrast to the images I had conjured up in my mind following our conversations with people who had visited it many years ago. First impressions were that this was more like a large town than a city, and in fact with a population of only 760,000 it certainly had a town like feel to it. Visually, many of the old buildings along the streets have a very Parisian look to them architecturally and there is evidence on every street of French occupation during the 19th Century. It felt like I was walking through Paris, one hundred years ago or more. Colourful buildings with French shutters and balconies create an almost hippy vibe to the city. Alongside, there are the most spectacularly colored Buddhist Temples, with blazing gold, red, orange and blues emerging from every rooftop and Temple as we walked along the streets. In total harmony with these amazing colors, Buddhist monks with bright orange sarongs were everywhere. I had never seen so many Monks in one place. It is most certainly the Buddhist centre of Asia. With shaved heads, young boys as young as ten years old were walking around gently smiling at passers by as they made their way out of their Buddhist Temples to do their daily chores. Most boys join the monasteries for part of their lives before making their way out into the world. The Buddhists are revered and respected by the community and treated with dignity and honor. The local people build their lives around helping these Monks, going to bed early and rising at sunset to bring gifts to the Temples. I have always been intrigued by Buddhists throughout the world and the positive impact they bring with their teachings and way of life. One thing that struck me as I travelled through the mainly Buddhist countries in Asia, is the lack of greed that these people have, and how happy they are to live with very little. The people of Asia who we met along our journey, who followed the Buddhist teachings, were some of the kindest, gentlest and most humble people I have come across in my lifetime. This subject was at the centre of many discussions I had with other “Westerners” who had visited Buddhist countries throughout the world, and the conclusion has always been that we need more of these respectful and kind people in our world today. Even those within the Buddhist communities that have little or nothing themselves, share with the community and help each other through the most difficult of times. There is no begrudgery of their neighbor, there is no requirement to have expensive material things in their lives and their main focus is on being kind and non-judgemental to anyone who is lucky enough to cross their path. The Buddhist monks themselves within the walls of the Temples in Vientiane live in relative poverty. They spend their day working on re-constructing and re-furnishing their Temples, meditating and praying. They also go out into the community to help those in need on a daily basis. We learned that many poverty stricken families and single mothers who just cannot afford to keep their babies often place their male babies on the steps of the Temples for the Monks to rear. The Monks do so willingly. The families do this, with a certainty that the children will be given the best of care, love and education. Not unlike our own history I guess, however there is not one shred of evidence to say that the children that these Monks have reared to date, have been anything but nurtured and cared for. Each time I met one in Vientiane they radiated goodness and gentleness as they smiled and greeted me. Their quest is to help as many people as they can on their journey through life and cause no harm to anyone. Even animals and insects are treated with love and respect by these beautiful people. This and only this is their main focus. There are however, some rules associated with greeting a Buddhist Monk that we had to know about as we travelled through Laos. Women are totally prohibited from touching a Monk, even in the form of a handshake. If a man or woman has offerings to give to the Monks, they must be placed on a cloth on the ground and the Monk will lift the cloth with the offerings and accept them, gracefully and thankfully. To get the full experience of the life of the Monks, we decided to attend an “alms giving” ceremony held at one of the more beautiful Buddhist Temples in the city, “Wat Si Muang”, which took place at 6 a.m. The Temple is named after a young pregnant woman who volunteered to sacrifice herself to appease angry spirits back in 1563 when the Temple was being built, whereby she threw herself into a hole in the ground where the building’s central pillar was to be placed. She was crushed when the huge pillar was lowered into position over her. To this day, people go to pray to her and offer gifts in her honor.
Dragging ourselves out of our beds at 5 a.m., we took the half hour walk to the Temple, with our alms in tow. We arrived just as elderly women made their way in, carrying baskets of food and small amounts of money wrapped in cellophane, and individually wrapped parcels of gifts for each of the Monks at the Monastery. The Monks can only accept alms before 12 p.m. The local people take care of them and bring daily supplies of food. On entering the Temple as the first meditation began, i joined the group by bowing my head to the chief Monk who was conducting the ceremony. I took my place on the floor beside a group of women, who had their heads bowed in prayer, with candles lighting in ceramic bowls in front of them. The ceremony lasted for about 30 minutes, and when it was over, each of us made our way to a table at the front of a large Buddha statue where small brown wooden bowls were lined up in a row. Each bowl belonged to one of the young Novice Monks who sat in silence at the side of the Temple waiting for their first meal of the day. One woman in front of me put sachets of cocoa and some sticky rice into each of the bowls. Another placed fruit on top of these and so on, until the bowls were full. Small sums of money were also placed in plastic wrapping in each of the bowls. The Monks are only allowed to keep a small amount of money from the donations offered, no more than the equivalent of €1 per day. As the ceremony drew to a close, homeless people began to gather outside the Temple, waiting for a share of the offerings from the Monks. Even the homeless women who waited patiently outside the Temple, and who had nothing to cover their shoulders with, did not enter the Temple out of respect for the dress code required. As I left, I was moved beyond belief at the generosity of the people of Vientiane towards these Monks, and in turn at the generosity of the Monks who shared their alms of the day with the poor unfortunate homeless people who came to them for help. As we left, cats and dogs who clearly had made the Temple their homes were happily playing in the courtyard, waiting for the younger male Monks to come back out to feed and entertain them.
As the days passed, we hired bicycles and cycled around visiting all of the Temples, each one more stunningly beautiful than the next. With the typical tropical climate of the “Wet Season” coming to an end, we were beginning to enjoy the warm tropical sunshine of the new “Dry Season” as we travelled around. Some local traditions that we learned of were fascinating. One of them being that when passing a seated elderly person, one must duck down when passing them making sure that your head is below them. This also applies to passing the Buddhist Monks. This apparently is the ultimate sign of respect. There is also no tolerance for public displays of affection (PDA’s). Myself and Colm could not even hold hands walking down the street as it would be highly disrespectful and as much as we were tempted, we had to consciously remind ourselves not to. Separately, when travelling around Laos, I had to be mindful of the fact that out of respect, I had to have my shoulders and arms covered and clothes to my knees before being able to enter any of the Temples. It is merely as a mark of respect and there are signs throughout the city explaining this to tourists.
While Buddhism plays a huge part in the society here, there are also statues and temples associated with the Hindu teachings, but the Buddhist society far outweighs the Hindu, and so it takes a bit of searching to find the Hindu monuments. Another Monument that we came across was Vientiane’s very own “Arc de Triomphe”. It’s called the “Patuxai Monument”, but has earned the nickname, “The Vertical Runway”. The reason being that the cement that was donated by the USA for the building of the Monument was originally earmarked to build a new runway at an airport in the US. 😁 It was built in 1969 in honor of those Laotians killed in pre-revolutionary wars. There are beautiful gardens at the rear of the Monument, and stairs that bring you to the very top of it, to enjoy the splendid views of the city.
Laos, we learned, was one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world. Between 1964 and 1973, during the Vietnam war, the USA dropped 2 million tons of bombs across the country. About 30% of these bombs have never exploded. Like Laos’s neighbors, these unexploded bombs leave most of the agricultural lands unsafe and unusable. Children who have come across them thinking they were toys glittering in the sun have been killed and maimed and they are still a threat to the Laotian people to this day.
We took a trip to the famous markets that flank the riverbank of the Mekong River, standing at the edge of the river in disbelief that Thailand was literally a swim away. The lights of Thailand twinkled invitingly across the water from us. There is only one bridge in Laos “The Friendship Bridge”, and one train (following a train trek of only 3kms) that crosses that bridge which brings you to the city of Nong Khai in Thailand. There are no other trains throughout the country. Travel is either long journeys by bus, taxi, or more locally the Tuc Tuc. Unfortunately, our trip to Vientiane was planned at the last minute and didn’t allow us the time to visit Thailand, but hey, we couldn’t get everywhere I guess. And so we rambled around the markets, hoping to spot a bargain or two. With Asian women being half my size, it was not a pleasant experience trying to buy anything to fit me. Even the shoes with my size printed on them were two sizes smaller than at home. I guess it meant I had more kips (national currency) to spend on the gorgeous French coffee and local beer (Beerlao) which came in at about €1 a pint. All local businesses, including pubs and restaurants here must close, by law, before 12 a.m. There is however a “special license” that businesses can purchase to have this curfew relaxed. It’s basically bribery and a sum of money paid to the police will get you one of these “special licenses” quite easily. I was also amused to discover that a Pestle and Mortar from a kitchen is called a “Khok”, and there is quite a bit of teasing apparently when the chef is pounding the garlic for the evening meals in these 😂😂😂😂.
Our final destination during our stay was to visit the world famous “Pha That Luang” Buddhist Temple. The main monument at the Temple takes pride of place on the Lao currency and is regarded as the most important national monument of Laos. It’s a huge gold covered Buddhist stupa. Originally a Hindu Temple, and having survived throughout all of the wars, it is now the main Buddhist Temple of Vientiane. At the Temple we came across some Lao women selling tiny birds in small wooden cages. And so we bought some and immediately released the birds once we had the cages in our paws. Hopefully some good karma will befall us on our travels as a result Another famous Monument we came across at this site was that of “the Reclining Buddha”. An enormously long Buddha sleeping on his side and a fabulous place to take some funny and amusing photos!
We eventually drummed up to courage to taste the local dishes and tried out the most famous dish of Laos. Sticky Rice! I was somewhat apprehensive about eating it, but when I did, oh wow! I had it for breakfast, dinner and tea. There is quite a complicated process involved in getting it from the kitchen to the table in its exquisite bamboo basket. It is a particular rice only available in Laos, and it is steamed in a small cylinder shaped basket made of bamboo with a lid tightly covering it. When it’s cooked, you basically dive in with your fingers and pluck a piece out and dip it in the local sauces that come with it. It is scrumptiously sweet and mouthwateringly tasty. Beef Lok Lak was another dish that became part of our daily diet. The peppered sauces mixed with beef and fresh tomatoes on a bed of rice was to die for!
Am I glad I did a de-tour to visit this country? Absolutely, without a doubt, most definitely! It was much more than I expected it to be. Its people are kind, generous and so welcoming to foreign visitors. They are so relaxed and laid back and this permeates throughout, to the point that we also chilled completely during our time here. It is like a place of retreat where one can take a break from life, rejuvenate and rest. It is very different to any other country we visited in Asia and I say this in the most positive way. If you are looking for a totally unique experience, and a “get away from it all” destination, this is certainly the place that offers all of that and more! Plus, you’ll always be in your bed before midnight ! 😂
Next stop…the newly discovered island of Phu Quoc, off the west coast of Vietnam… (No I didn’t say f**k off, I said Phu Quoc! 😂😂😂)