Laos

I have to admit that until I arrived in SE Asia I was woefully ignorant of the fact that Laos even existed as a country! Shameful I know, but it never featured on my school geography curriculum, no major (or minor) world events have happened here to mark it in the history books thereby raising it to my attention and it has spawned no remarkable citizens. It hadn’t really registered on my radar until I came to live in neighboring Thailand. And what I treat I have been missing all these years. It is a delightful country.

If any of you are as totally ignorant as I was here are a couple of fascinating facts for you:

Laos is the only landlocked country in SE Asia. It’s proper name is Lao People’s Democratic Republic and it has a Marxist-Leninist government. The country used to be colonial French (probably why I’ve never heard of it!) and it had several wars against that ruling power until finally gaining independence in 1953. Basically the land is a conglomeration of various hill tribes such as the Hmong, Lue, Khmu and others with the Lao tribe being the largest. The currency is the cutely named the Kip.

Our first stop is Luang Prabang, a provincial town on the banks of the Mekong River (which I HAD heard of) Here we sat on the river bank in cafes and bars watching the river traffic float by. There is none of the gaudiness of the party boats on the Chao Pharaya back in Bangkok. This felt like stepping back in time and witnessing how people have lived for centuries.

Originally a royal capital (in 1353) it was named Lan Xang Hom Khao which means Kingdom of a million elephants and a white parasol (this has got to be the best country name ever). Our hotel, located directly opposite the Royal Palace, was actually the home of the King’s brother! The current name comes from the precious golden Prabang or Buddha statue which is 2000 years old and which is processed around the streets on Buddhist festival days.

(Picture from a postcard as we weren’t allowed to photograph the statue itself)

In 1975 when the communist party took over the Lao royal family moved here but the city soon fell into desolation as many fled the new regeneration. With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the 1990s Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO world heritage site and it remains the cultural capital of the country.

We had been told about the dawn alms giving at the nearby Wat and so made the effort to get up at 5am to join with the local women waiting in the pearly early morning light.

With the sounds of cock crows ringing in our ears the first monks came out of the temple bare footed and carrying their alms bowls. We each in turn gave lumps of sticky rice as they filed passed us and I noticed that all of them kept their gaze fixed downwards.

I think that I should have been sitting or kneeling but is didn’t have a mat or stool so I just stood.

It felt like the Asian equivalent of the church ladies. They each prayed before making their offerings and gave more exciting donations of vegetables from their straw bags to the younger novices

At the end the novices chanted for us all which hopefully you can hear

It was a beautiful spiritual experience that I felt privileged to have been a part of.

… and now you know as much as I do about this lovely country

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