By John P. Seely
We cross the Mekong and step back thirty years. The modern two lane highway with giant billboards selling fast food and instant beauty stops at the Thai end of the Friendship bridge to be replaced on the Lao side with a pot-holed, ill-defined, dusty road lined with concrete warehouses and dingy, crowded, wooden markets.
Instead of brand-new pick-ups and SUV's there are ancient jeeps, belching buses and swarming motorcycles. The girls and women shopping in the markets are wearing blouses and the pa-sin, a traditional long wrap worn like a skirt, rather than jeans and t-shirts. And everything slows down .
Inside the thick-walled compound of Wat Sisaket, two monks sit under the spreading branches of an enormous bodi tree deep in conversation with some travellers. Just a few metres away is the busy morning market, but here it peaceful and quiet.
As you look further into the temple complex more groups of
monks can be seen; some reading under the shade of trees, their trunks
wrapped in colourful, sacred scarves; others chatting and laughing with
visitors or pacing in meditation under the trees. Visitors quietly flit
in and out of the sim (ordination hall) which is surrounded by cool, dark
cloisters; home to thousands of Buddha images placed in threes in niches
in the walls. Others sit in silent contemplation in front of the altar.
The temples are the heart of the city and the best places to meet the people. The monks are always ready to talk and practice their English. You'd be forgiven for thinking "Where do you come from?" is a traditional greeting, visitors hear it so often.
As evening falls, the monks leave the grounds while at an outside classroom alongside a wall a group of young novices sit down for an English lesson with a volunteer teacher. A few minutes later two western girls wander up and cause good-humored consternation among the boys by sitting next to them and sharing their books. Monks, and that includes the youngest novice, are forbidden to touch women, even to the extent of taking something directly from their hands. If they do touch a woman, even just brushing past, they will have to undertake a lengthy ritual purification.
It's common practice here for boys from poorer backgrounds enter the monkhood as a way of getting an education. One monk said that because his parents were peasants the schooling available to him was very limited. Joining the temple was the only way out.
Once they have completed their studies many monks will leave the temple and return to a secular life. In return for their education the novices do most of the chores, serving the monks until they are 18 or so when they become monks themselves.
The more prominent temples see a constant stream of supplicants paying their respects, making merit, asking for favours and making offerings if their wishes have been granted.
a sim next to Pra That Luang, the country's most important monument, comes
the amplified sound of funeral music. At the foot of the sim large awnings
are set out with rows of chairs inside. We discover that the funeral is
for a very senior monk. His body is in coffin nearby while people come
to pay their last respects.
Aside from the temples
lacks much of the charm of Luang Prabang but it is great for a couple
of days strolling around; getting a feel for the laid back pace of Laos
before hurtling off once more. Traffic is light compared to other SE Asian
cities and so bicycling is a good way to get around and the city is easy
to learn. It is laid out in a grid along the Mekong, with the historical
centre a fairly compact area about a kilometer square in an area known
as Chanthaboury District.
offices and other official entities are often housed in the colonial buildings,
many of which have just been or are in the process of being renovated
though they all look deserted. There is no bustle of cars or people in
and out so I wonder where the governing and administration is actually
While away a few hours with a beer in the Nam Phu Fountain Circle and watch the world go by. It's a peaceful pedestrianised area in a faintly European way. Round the outer edges of the circle are some upscale French and Italian restaurants while the Scandinavian Bakery at the top does a roaring trade in sandwiches and pastries.
For a taste of genuine Lao food try the stalls along Thanon Fa Ngum along the bank of the Mekong. You can get spicy green-papaya salad and barbecued fish or chicken along with sticky rice which is all pretty safe to eat. The side plate of fresh greens though is not safe to eat. All washed down with juice from a freshly opened coconut.
food is eaten with the hands but unlike Indian dining, it is not done
to dive in with your whole hand. Instead a ball of rice is taken from
the rice basket, with the left hand usually, then smaller bite-sized pieces
are taken from that with the other hand, and rolled between the fingers
then dipped into the communal dish, placed into one side of the mouth
These stalls are pleasant places to watch the sun set over the river but if you suspect their hygiene there is a big selection of restaurants selling a variety of international and local foods in more traveller-friendly fashion on the other side of the road. This is definitely the best place to wind up after a hard day's exploration.
Hotel (pronounced lan sang)
Plaza Hotel Vientiane
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Laos
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