Our first day in Luang Brabang, and its dull, and rain is threatening. We walk around the town and there is a French/Canadian feel here. There are many bakeries selling pastries and cakes and the houses have intricately carved teak doors and shutters. Trees and craft shops selling beautiful embroidered and woven goods line the street. We pass a small shop by the river with some interesting glass flagons sitting out-front, filled with strange creatures and a golden liquid. An old man with pink hair sits on a stool, “buy my whiskey and you can look like me” and he proudly tells us that he is 82. It is home-made whisky decanted into vats filled with venomous snakes and scorpions… 10,000 kip for a shot, with a different kind of kick! Our guide strongly advises not to drink, as the venom still remains.
We visit the Laos ethnic and cultural centre and learn more about this country’s diverse inhabitants. Laos is a landlocked country of 6.5 million which borders 5 countries. Its outline looks a lot like a banana tree. There are 4 main ethnic groups, with around 40 sub-groups and 80 different spoken languages. It is a country rich and diverse in its culture. The original inhabitants of Laos are the Austroasiatic ethnic group, although the most populous group are the Tai Kadai people who are descendants of speakers of the Tai language. Two smaller groups also inhabit Laos; Sino-Tibetan originating from Tibet and Burma, and the Hmong people whose homeland was China. Around 67% of the people are Buddhists, however animism and shamanism is followed by the Mhong people. In animism they believe in the spirit world and that all living things are interconnected. The human body is thought to be a host for many souls, and the shaman (medicine man) serves as a medium between the spirit and physical world. Our guide tells us that just like many other parts of the world, the traditional way of life for the Lao people is changing and the centre is hoping to educate and support the next generation to continue with some of the traditional handicrafts and music of their ancestors. Later as we visit the night market of Luang Brabang, I’m impressed with the local handicrafts and I buy a beautiful embroidered table runner which will remind me of this country.
The next day we get up early (5am) for the almsgiving of the Monks. This tradition of Theravada Buddhism dates to the 14th century. Still today locals wake early to prepare food for the monks and wait quietly by the roadside to give their gifts. Before sunrise, following morning meditation, around 200 Buddhist monks depart from the temple to gather food for their daily meal. We sit with our shoes off and a small basket of sticky rice in our laps. As the monk’s pass, we place a small ball of rice in each of their bowls. This ritual cement’s the symbiotic relationship between the monks who are fed and the almsgivers who ‘make merit’ and thus receive spiritual redemption. It’s still dark and it’s a silent, sombre occasion; the saffron robes of the monks are shinning in the gloom. As the walk past there are no smiles and I wonder what the monks really think and feel about what we would consider in the West as an ‘act of charity’.
The next day we travel through the mountains of Laos, first visiting Vang Vieng and then on to the capital, Vientiane. This is the worst road I have ever travelled on and it makes for an interesting journey, but the scenery is stunning, and the blue sky and green mountains surround us. Apart from it being very winding, it is full of huge pot holes and there are large sections of road which is just rubble. Our guide tells us that the road was washed away by heavy rains in October and the government is making no attempt to fix it. In addition, many Chinese trucks trundle along the road, not helping the situation. The Chinese are building a high-speed train from China to Vientiane, which will eventually reach Singapore. There are many Chinese signs along the road, and I can’t help but wonder what impact of this railway line will have on Laos and its people.
In our last day in Laos and we visit the COPE rehabilitation centre in Vientiane. Before visiting this country, I hadn’t realised was how much it had been affected by the Vietnam war. It remains the most bombed country per capita in the world, had 4 USA airbases, and over 80 million cluster bombs were dropped here during the 9-year conflict. Millions of unexploded bombs remain, often in farmland and despite the efforts of bomb disposal teams, around 20,000 people have been killed or injured since the end of the war. As we leave Laos, I reflect on the countries struggles over the centuries, the beauty of the countryside, the diverse culture, traditions and food of its people and their resilience to survive and my hopes for them to continue to thrive for centuries to come. So, for now its “la kone Lao, khop tchaï laï laï”……. hope to see you again soon.