Laos: Wats & all

Off track

Potent Potions A roadside stall  selling aphrodisiac.

A week in Bangkok and I was fed up. The madding rush of traffic-clogged streets, rampant consumerist frenzy in sprawling malls chock-a-block with products that malls the world over stock, hordes of tourists crowding around each historic site, imploring pleas from painted dolls offering ‘massage’ or more — had worn me out completely. Even the magnificent Buddhist temples, each a work of art, were insufficient attraction. After visiting almost a dozen — which my guide insisted that no visitor to Bangkok dare miss — each one seemed to resemble the other.

Little wonder a tourist bill-board in an inconspicuous eatery attracted my attention. It advertised forested peaks hidden behind clouds of mist, placid lakes skirted with quaint bamboo huts, verdant islets dotting an enormous river, acres of emerald green rice fields stretching into the distant horizon interrupted by golden spires of Buddhist monasteries, and smiling people. “Welcome to the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos,” the poster announced.

I was susceptible to temptation and I yielded to it. Perfunctory research revealed that Laos is one of the world’s few remaining officially socialist countries and therefore untouched by the ravages of mass tourism. With a population of less than seven million, this former French colony is sandwiched between China in the north, Thailand to the west, Vietnam to the east and Cambodia in the south. It is one of the most heavily forested countries in the world, with forest covering 80 percent of its total land area.
At Bangkok ’s swank Hualampong railway station I boarded a train to the border town of Nongkhai to the north, a comfortable overnight journey. From there it’s an hour by bus across the border to Vientiane, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Laos, a distance of just 20 km — the bus fare: The equivalent of a mere Rs 50.

The border between Thailand and Laos at this point is the mighty River Mekong that flows from the highlands of south China into Laos and then merges with the sea in the Gulf of Siam. Crossing the mile-long Friendship Bridge that spans the Mekong, we entered Laos, and, as we sped along the highway towards Vientiane, the contrast with Thailand became strikingly evident. Rundown metal and bamboo shacks and wooden houses standing on stilts lined the road. Drab, depressing Soviet-style office blocks displayed faded signboards. Rubbish lay in giant neglected heaps on street corners.
Thirty minutes later we drew into Vientiane’s main bus station, set in the middle of a chaotic, but lively, traditional market. Getting off, I changed some money and hailed a tuk-tuk — a roomier version of the Indian auto-rickshaw — to take me to the part of town that my guide-book recommended as suitable for foreign tourists. This part of town strands the Mekong river and boasts several rows of old, but well-maintained French-style bungalows, dating back to colonial times, which have been transformed into lodges for tourists.

I approved a large double room overlooking a giant Buddhist pagoda in a delightful Chinese-owned inn that was crowded with interesting knick-knacks: Huge Chinese porcelain urns, fruit-bearing bonsai plants, red paper lanterns, bowls full of goldfish and tiger prawns, gracefully carved ebony antique furniture, fierce Chinese deities and framed fading portraits of venerable ancestors peering down from the walls. All this was provided for the modest price of 75,000 kip per day, approximately Rs 250.
Everything in Laos, I was to discover, is much cheaper than in neighbouring Thailand or, indeed, in India for that matter. And, although Laos is much poorer compared to its neighbours, its people are charming, making the country one of the most fascinating that I have visited in my travels.

Vientiane (pop. 500,000) is a modest-size city by any but Laotian standards. Mercifully, it has been spared the terrors of capitalist ‘development’, although the city’s landscape is gradually changing. The town has almost no high-rise buildings, shopping malls, a relief for the visitor just escaping Thailand, where such structures are ubiquitous even in the rural hinterland. There is little vehicular traffic, for few people can afford cars. Life moves leisurely on Vientiane’s sleepy streets, with most people either walking or using bicycles and ubiquitous tuk-tuks.

The major sights of Vientiane, as in the rest of Laos, are wats or Buddhist temples and monasteries. Most of them are set in large, neatly-tended gardens, lined with stupa-like votive structures for the dead, spirit-shrines that house doll-sized figurines and modest residential quarters for monks and students training to become bhikkhus (wandering ascetics). The main temple structure (wat) is usually a massive hall topped by multi-layered red-hued slanting roofs. Each wat is a unique work of art, housing earthly and ethereal statues, some fierce and others benign, of the Buddha in his various avatars and, in some instances of Hindu mythological figures as well.

A massive gilded image of the Buddha occupies the centre place at the far end of the prayer hall. Surrounded by several dozen smaller Buddha statues, some of them embellished with semi-precious stones. Before the main Buddha image there’s usually a wooden altar on which devotees place their offerings: Brass water bowls with fresh lotuses, plates containing with grains, little stubs of incense, and, sometimes, even bottles of Pepsi! The inner walls are plastered top to bottom with brightly-hued and delicately-crafted paintings depicting scenes from the Jataka tales about the Buddha. Friendly, ochre-robed monks sit in rows and slowly chant mantras in Lao and Pali. After prayers are over, they often practice their English with visiting tourists.

My first two days in Vientiane were spent wat-hopping, and although I visited over two dozen of them I had hardly covered half of the magnificent shrines that the Laotian capital offers.

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