Greetings from Laos, the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, and the most laid-back. There is a reason that this placid, easy-going nation has a reputation as “Laid-back Lao” – most everything is very peaceful and slow, with very little hassle from vendors or touts. Most of the populace are Buddhist, with about 60% of them being Theravada Buddhists. And there is certainly no shortage of Buddha statues, wats (temples), or the saffron-robed monks glided quietly amongst them.
“Baw pen nyang” – or “no problem” – could easily be the national motto here in Laos. Nothing seems to faze the Lao people, and they can make Thais and Cambodians (themselves very calm and peaceful) look almost hyper.
This national psyche of calm is largely defined by the Theravada Buddhism, introduced in the 13th century and an earlier, less corrupted version of more Eastern or Himalayan schools of Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism embraces nirvana as its ultimate goal, like all Buddhism, and stresses the doctrine of anatta: the principle that there is no part of our changing, impermanent world that can be said to be me or you or God; it is all interrelated.
As the Lonely Planet Guide to Laos states, the Lao people commonly express the notion that “too much work is bad for your brain.” It is a cultural norm to avoid any and all stress. Sounds pretty good.
Luang Prabang, where I began my time in Laos, is a particularly easy-going city. It’s not a party place; it’s quiet, and everything shuts down tight by 10 pm. There is quite literally a wat on every corner, sometimes several on a block or right next door to each other. Bicycling is a terrific way to get around the town, which has retained its French-Asian charm despite the vastly increasing number of tourists here.
As Keith said: “There’s a whole lotta Buddha going on here.”
Biking along while stopping at wats along the way is an exceedingly pleasant way to pass a morning. And one of the most memorable, magical experiences of all is the dawn procession of monks walking along the streets of Luang Prabang, receiving their daily alms of rice, fruit, and other food from their neighbors.
Unfortunately, this enchanting morning ritual, called Binthabhat, has become a tourist attraction, and some unbelievably obtuse, rude, or simply uncaring visitors snap photographs right in the monks’ faces – or even worse, try to “participate” in the alms-giving ritual simply for the photo op.
I witnessed this happening as I stood across the street watching the monks’ procession; it had already been going for 20 minutes when a tuk-tuk pulled up, two tourists jumped out with their baskets and knelt down on the ground next to the locals, while the monks were proceeding past. Giggling while they did so, the pair threw a few bananas in some monk’s bowls while their guide snapped photos – then they jumped back in their tuk-tuk and were gone.
I was embarrassed for them, and the fact that they were seemingly oblivious to how rude this was. Snapping photos up close of the monks, or walking into a wat and taking close-up photos of monks without asking their permission, is also insensitive; akin to someone walking into my yard or home and proceeding to snap photos of me going about my daily business.
At Wat Sensoukaram, there is a board posted that gives some tips on how to witness, and even photograph, the morning monks procession for alms in a way that does not offend or infringe on this religious ceremony. Our hotel, 3 Nagas, also provided a sheet that explained how the procession was in danger of being obliterated by the “tourist sideshow” and how to witness the ceremony without offending. 3 Nagas also is an excellent place to watch the monks’ procession unobtrusively from a room balcony (as I did my first morning there) or the hotel patio; and they provided bikes for us to cycle around town.
In the capital city of Vientiane, a much busier and larger place than Luang Prabang, there is also no shortage of wats or Buddhas. Though some of the wats here are much newer and glitzier.
There is just something so peaceful and accepting about Theravada Buddhism, and the Lao people in general, that makes this a place that one can never want to leave.