Wat Xieng Thong / Luang Prabang, Laos / August 2013
On the journey to Laos, temples and tak bat in Luang Prabang, and the lasting legacy of conflict.
Luang Prabang nearly derailed my plans for Southeast Asia. As per usual, I had fashioned an overly-ambitious, tightly-packed itinerary that entailed stopping in four different countries over the space of just three weeks. We reached Luang Prabang about halfway through this grand tour, and once we got there, we almost didn’t leave.
It was perhaps the way we got there that had something to do with this. In an attempt to conserve funds (and enjoy the scenery that comes with traveling overland), we rejected flying from Chiang Mai and opted instead for a complicated combination of van, boat, and bus. The first leg, a van ride through northern Thailand in daylight, was a honeymoon period of novelty and excitement. We soon reached the Thai-Lao border crossing, where just a muddy stretch of the Mekong River separates Chiang Khong (Thailand) from Huay Xai (Laos). A short boat ride later, we had full-page Lao visas in our passports and parted ways with a gaggle of gap-year backpackers all headed for Vang Vieng.1We boarded an overnight “sleeper” bus, which in theory seemed like an efficient method of transport for an eleven-hour journey. In practice, we soon discovered that the bus was not at all conducive to sleeping as our seats turned out to be the only ones on the bus which did not recline. Far worse, though, was the condition of the road. We had just enough remaining daylight to recognize that we were traveling high up along the edge of a cliff, weaving in and out of a series of mountains. All through the night the driver would floor it until arriving at a pothole (which occurred with increasing frequency), at which point he would slam the brakes so he could ease the bus forward through each deep pothole, one wheel at a time. Each pothole – and there were hundreds, probably thousands of them on that road – felt like an eternity in which the bus lurched precariously to one side and then another. I slept in fits and starts, awakening every so often in panic as we were mid-pothole, but Daniel stayed awake the entire night, eyes wide open, as if he could prevent the bus from careening off the side of the cliff by sheer force of will. So you might say that when we eventually rolled into Luang Prabang and figuratively, literally, kissed the ground with gratitude, it was like finally exhaling a breath we’d been holding since the border.
What strikes you first upon arrival is the pace of life – the town exudes calmness and serenity. Perhaps this comes from remoteness2 or being surrounded on all sides by water3 and rolling green hills. More likely, though, it comes from the high concentration – thirty-three wats, to be exact – of Buddhist temples in a small town which is only about four streets wide. As you stroll the main street through town, you will notice gilded temples, simple teak temples, and temples exquisitely decorated with mosaics.4 Luang Prabang’s rich Buddhist tradition is most evident in tak bat, the Buddhist alms-giving ceremony which occurs every morning. Just before sunrise, hundreds of monks emerge barefoot from the temples scattered across town, small bowls in hand. Almsgivers line the streets to offer the procession of monks rice or bananas. The sheer number of monks, forming a stream of saffron, and the meditative silence of the ritual, carried out in the misty dawn hours, is immensely powerful to witness. Tak bat has now become a signature “attraction” of Luang Prabang, which is on some level understandable given the beauty of the tradition, but deeply disturbing given the busloads of tourists that now loudly descend on the town every morning to disrupt a religious practice. On a quiet side street, though, it is possible to sit at a distance, out of the way and with full awareness of one’s position as an outside observer of something sacred, and be moved by this solemn hour.
The other striking feature of Luang Prabang is that the numerous wats co-exist with shabby wooden French colonial buildings.5 The overall effect is of stepping into a time warp. It would be easy to simply experience this place as an Old World Shangri-La, a magical place where you can wake up with French croissants and coffee, wander through Buddhist temples all day, and languidly drink Lao beer in colonial villas at night. But it’s hard to block out history when it is still living, breathing around you, and that is what snapped us out of the reverie. One day I learnt a fact I could not un-know, which is that Laos became the most-bombed country per capita in the world during the Vietnam War. We later rented a motorcycle and drove out to the nearby Kuang Si falls, and as we passed bucolic hills and tranquil rice paddies I thought of their lush beauty, but also of the tonnage of unexploded American ordnance which likely still lay buried beneath the fertile green landscape. This knowledge is not ruinous; rather, it brings a keen awareness to experience which is imperative for travelers (lest we find ourselves unwittingly complicit in the wrong narrative). Luang Prabang is an incredibly beguiling and enchanting place. But when indulging in the idyll, it’s worth remembering that paradise exists as a respite from the evils we inflict on one another.
And . . .