Laos - land of enchanting sorrow

December 19, 2015  •  3 Comments

The Lao resemble the Buddha.

Not the laughing, big-belly Chinese type - but the elongated, closed-eye, meditative figure - the image of serenity and peacefulness.

It's a beautiful face, one that reflects a soft-spoken, sweet-tempered, fair-minded people; a Zen-like face born from years of isolation and tranquility within the secluded forests of Southeast Asia, you would think.

And you would think wrong.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic -- and the many kingdoms that once comprised its territory -- never had it easy.

Tough neighborhood, for eons.

Never strong nor populous, Laos has been dominated in one form or another, by one overlord or another. Landlocked by its powerful neighbors - Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia and (gulp) China – Laos has been the proverbial pawn on the Indochinese chessboard for centuries. When the Western colonial era began in the 19th century, followed by the rise of Communism in the 20th, the geopolitical squeeze only got hotter.

Then came the Vietnam War. And the collateral damage on Laos.

Consider this:

From 1964 to 1973, American warplanes dropped over 2 million tons of bombs over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions, the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours-a-day, for 9 years.  

You might want to re-read that paragraph, because it boggles the mind.

That’s more bombs than were dropped on Germany and Japan combined in WWII – making docile, charming little Laos one of the most heavily bombed places on earth.

Who knew?

At that time, too few.

It was called the Secret War. Technically, Laos was neutral following the Geneva Convention and the US did not publicly acknowledge waging one of the most intensive bombing campaigns in the history of warfare. The intended target was the North Vietnamese, and notably the Ho Chi Min trail that snaked through Laos into South Vietnam.

When the war finally ended, not only was Laos very literally blown to bits, but it's educated class - who in large supported the royalist anti-communists – were either neutralized or had fled. Brain drain, money drain, land drain. In 1975, Laos officially kicked out the monarchy and became communist - realizing America's fears of having the red hammer-and-sickle fly over the nation.

My apologies for this glib nutshell of history.

It’s against this backdrop that travel in Laos comes into focus – at once enchanting and disturbing. It’s a place of wonder and humility, where feelings of awe and shame tug at your heartstrings. And so while I marveled and succumbed to the mystique of Laos, I also shuddered a lot.

I loved renting a scooter and riding out across suspension bridges, following dirt roads flanked by rice fields and limestone hills, stopping at hidden temples and isolated hamlets, where homes have dirt floors and meals are cooked in blackened kettles over wood fire, where weaving looms are as common as satellite dishes and the air is pierced by the screeches of schoolchildren playing during recess.

I hated that 80 million cluster bomblets (about one-third of those dropped during the campaign) failed to detonate and remain buried in the countryside, maiming and killing hundreds of people each year, a generation after the horror ended. Bomb casings and shrapnel are so common they have been turned into artifacts, pieces of jewelry, road signposts and souvenir trinkets.

I loved strolling aimlessly in the towns, admiring colonial architecture, photographing everyday scenes that to me seemed magical, and meeting locals with a Sabaidee, which was always returned with a warm smile. I’ve rarely been among more gracious, unassuming people.

I hated how tourists, entitled and immodest, made a circus out of tak bat – the monks’ solemn morning collection of food and alms – breaking the dawn light with their frenzy of camera flashes and loud ignorance, and turning a ceremonial way of life into a gaudy spectacle..

I loved the ingrained, almost mythical beauty of Luang Prabang, a gem of city once the seat of the Kingdom, spared from destruction 50 years ago mainly because it inhabited the American allies. I regret how it has become a tourist magnet, but alas, that’s the fate of progress, and the cost of repute. Fancy restaurants, flourishing markets, adventure tours, boutique hotels – the secret of Luang Prabang is waning.

Most notably, LP is home to about 30 golden temples and one thousand monks. In there bright saffron robes, they are iconic to the fabric of the city, and are often very eager to meet foreigners in their courtyards.

It’s here, at Vat Sop Sickharam in the old town, that I made new friends in young novices: Nark, Mong-ki, Throng, and Alien, so nicknamed by the others because he was, well, a peculiar prankster.

Nark is 17 and has been at the Vat for 7 years. He hopes to stay another 5, then be accepted to a monk university, a highly competitive privilege which leads to more opportunities. Nark is ambitious, he craves to practice his English, as many do, but his eagerness is resolute.

I spent a few mornings with him over the course of my week in Luang Prabang, going over the difference between “For” and “Since”... explaining to him as I formulated it to myself.

We practiced verb tenses and read paragraphs from a book he was given by a foreigner, Nark using his busted-glass smart phone to look up new words, relying on the spotty Wi-Fi signal from a nearby hotel.

We chatted about meditation, having conviction (his word), the “merit” lay people earn by delivering food to the temple, and his wish to return to his village one day to help others learn English.

Other novice monks, young boys in orange robes, came and went about us – making jokes, carrying laundry, playing games, casual and unhurried in this morning lull between tak bat and school. These encounters brought me as much pleasure as it did them.

I asked Nark if he followed world events, through his smart phone or whatever. He did not. But he liked to watch American movies, to hear the language, if the Wi-Fi was strong enough.

I asked if he knew about the history of Laos, what had happened in a past not so very long ago. I was conflicted asking this, wondering if I was being indecent, as if sullying his purity with the dirty truths of humanity. But no, he did not know. He heard there was a lot of fighting, but not much more.

Oddly, I felt envious. Here was the very embodiment of ignorance being blissful. And I wasn’t about to upset that.


Comments

Judith May(non-registered)
Wonderful. Thank you for sharing this , Armand. I lived there for two years, 1968-1970 during the war working for the U.S. information Agency. At night, in my little house in the American compound, I would hear the bombing; the thuds that sometimes seemed to shake the ground. It was our pilots bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail. In Vientiane, we felt somewhat safe because the Pathet Lao also lived there, patrolling the Morning Market and always seen around town. Then it was just a village with one main dirt street and a lot of small one lane dirt roads leading off it into neighborhoods. There were few cars and many bicycles. After returning to the U.S., in the mid 70's I sponsored a Lao family of 16 people: a family of 2 parents with 8 children, plus the grandmother, plus a widowed aunt and her four children. I am still in touch, and visited many of them recently in Florida where they moved to be near other Laotians. They have a Laotian life style in a large Laotian community, there is a Laotian Buddhist temple, they celebrate all holy days and Lao holidays and obey religious requirements for their sons to live with monks at the temple for part of their growing up years to be educated in the ways of Buddhism . Such a wonderful culture. I thank you for the amazing visit I have made to Laos via your photos and posting. This coming year Michael and I are plan to visit Laos. The grim darkness in all of this is the fact of unexploded cluster bombs. What can be done?
Judith
Tim(non-registered)
This made me cry for many reasons. Thank you for sharing your experience. I loved reading and learning about this place in our world.
Christopher Kirkland(non-registered)
Informative, well crafted, engaging prose as ever. Thanks for the pleaures of your blogs and photos. Best Wishes, Chris & Monnie
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