A Postcard from the People’s Democratic Republic of Lao
It’s been raining heavily for the past few hours, and it has done so most days for about a week now. The cold season is over and the life-affirming rainy season is upon us.
The start of the Thai year, Songkran, is timed to coincide with the start of the rainy season. That was last month. I’m not a great fan of Songkran: young adults put oildrums full of water (often dirty khlong water) on the back of pick-up trucks and drive around town throwing bucketfuls over all and sundry. Children have to make to with supersoaker water guns. And, of course, farang are a prime target. So usually at Songkran I leave the country. This year I went for a short break in Luang Prabang, Laos’ second city and its spiritual heart.
I’d not taken into account that the Laotians have their own version of Songkran which, if anything, is wilder than the Thai form. It lasts four days. I lost count of how many times I was soaked over my brief stay, but it was many dozen.
Songkran was originally a more refined affair. Monks cleaned their temples,
and laity brought sand to replace the grains they’d taken away on the soles of their shoes throughout the year. Children would return home to pour a little scented water over the hands of their parents and other revered elderly people as a mark of respect. How it became the mad, water-chucking frenzy it is today is unclear, but the same transformation has taken place not only in Thailand, but also in Laos and Burma. (In Burma the trains don’t have glass windows, just metal bars, and they travel very slowly. Many a bucketful of stinky, slimy water came through the window as I travelled from Mandalay to Rangoon.)
For me, the attraction of Luang Prabang isn’t getting soaked, but its graceful temples with low-sweeping roofs. There are dozens of them. (There used to be many more, but the Americans did a pretty good job of bombing many of them out of existence during the Vietnam war.)
(Apparently, the “lay-oss” pronunciation of the country was created for Richard Nixon because he didn’t want to call the country “louse” when he finally confessed to some of the US atrocities against the country on TV.)
And in the mornings the monks emerge at dawn to receive alms from the local people. There weren’t the groups of 90 or 100 monks that I saw when I was here last – perhaps no more than a dozen at a time – so I wonder if the temples are in decline (though it could be a seasonal thing).
In the centre of town the process of alms giving has become unpleasantly commercialised, with organised tour groups and touts selling food to tourists to give to the monks. Sadly, some of this food is stale or otherwise tainted, and many monks have become sick as a result of eating it. The situation got so bad that the monks threatened to stop tak baht. Cynically, the Lao government resolved that if the monks stopped their daily rounds, it would employ actors to dress as monks so as not to impact the tourist revenue.
The local scenery is also beautiful. A lot of tree cover remains, unlike Thailand which has largely been denuded. (In the 17th century Ayutthaya was in the middle of a vast forest with elephant, deer and tigers. Today it’s surrounded by a flat landscape barely punctuated by the odd tree.)
One day I took a boat trip to a pair of sacred caves where the Lao people take their old and broken Buddha figures. There are thousands of them there in different styles and sizes.
Because it was Songkran the caves were packed with people washing the Buddha figures.
I also visited a park with a series of waterfalls. I cooled off swimming in a pool under one of the falls; the water was icy cold.
Some young daredevils took a more energetic approach.
Apart from that, I enjoyed the local food. It’s not as spicy as Thai and, perhaps, not as refined, but still very tasty: coconut-milk based curries, salads with coriander and mint, and simply grilled fish and meats.
Luang Prabang is still quite a sleepy town, but has changed a lot in the ten years since I was there last. There are now classy restaurants and boutique hotels where once there was only simple, open air restaurants and basic sleeping quarters. And the number of tourists has swollen. I do wonder how much longer before Luang Prabang becomes Disneyfied.