Often overlooked in favour of its better-known neighbours, landlocked Laos remains one of Southeast Asia’s most beguiling destinations. Caught in the middle of the two Indochina wars and long isolated from the rest of the world, the country retains a slow, rather old-fashioned charm, and its people – incredibly laidback and friendly, even by Asian standards – are undoubtedly one of the highlights of any visit.
Laos’s lifeline is the Mekong River, which runs the length of the country, at times bisecting it and at others serving as a boundary with Thailand; the rugged Annamite Mountains historically have acted as a buffer against Vietnam, with which Laos shares its eastern border. Most people visit the country as part of a wider trip in the region, often entering from Thailand and following the Mekong further south. However, Laos alone rewards further exploration, and with a little more time it’s not hard to feel like you’re visiting places where few Westerners venture. Stretching from the forest-clad mountains of the north to the islands of the far south, there’s enough here to keep you occupied for weeks, and still feel as though you’d barely scratched the surface.
For such a small country, Laos is surprisingly diverse in terms of its people. Colourfully dressed hill tribes populate the higher elevations, while in the lowland river valleys, coconut palms sway over the Buddhist monasteries of the ethnic Lao. The country also retains some of the French influence it absorbed during colonial days: the familiar smell of freshly baked bread and coffee mingles with exotic local aromas in morning markets, and many of the old shophouses of its larger towns now (appropriately) house French restaurants.
The effects of the wars, and of its communist government, are unmistakable – it remains completely inadvisable to strike out into the countryside without following paths for fear of UXO (unexploded ordnance) – and the country remains heavily dependent on its neighbours for all manner of products; indeed in some parts of the country, the local markets stock more Chinese and Vietnamese goods than Lao. However, whether you’re riding through the countryside on a rickety old bus crammed with sacks of rice, more people than seats, and blaring tinny Lao pop music, leisurely sailing down the Mekong past staggeringly beautiful scenery, or being dragged by a stranger to celebrate a birth over too much Beer Lao and lào-láo, it’s hard not to be won over by this utterly fascinating country and its people.Read More
Markets remain a mainstay of daily life in Laos, crammed full of stalls selling everything from pigs’ heads, congealed blood and pungent pa dàek to bamboo baskets for sticky rice and imported toiletries from Vietnam. They’re also a great place for a quick meal – even in the smallest you’ll be able to find someone selling fõe (Vietnamese-style noodles) – though you’ll generally need to get there early to see the best of them.
Wat is that?
Wat is that?
The wat, or Buddhist monastery, is the centrepiece of most villages populated by ethnic Lao. A contingent of monks and novices lives in each wat, providing the laypeople with an outlet for merit-making. The wat also serves as a hub for social gatherings and, during annual festivals and Buddhist holy days, a venue for entertainment.
Sometimes referred to as a “temple” in English, a wat is actually composed of a number of religious and secular structures, some of which could also be described as a temple. The sim is usually the grandest structure in the monastery grounds, as it houses the monastery’s principal Buddha images, as well as being the place where monks are ordained. The that, or stupa, is generally a pyramid or bell-shaped structure which contains holy relics, usually a cache of small Buddhas. Occasionally, a that will be the reputed repository of a splinter of bone belonging to the historic Buddha himself, while miniature stupas, or that kaduk, contain the ashes of deceased adherents. The haw tai is a solid structure, usually raised high off the ground, for storing palm-leaf manuscripts, and kuti are monks’ quarters. Because the latter two buildings are not considered as important as other religious structures in the monastery grounds, they are not as frequently restored, and are thus most likely to exude that “timeless Asia” charm. Minor buildings sometimes found at a wat include a bell tower and a sala, or open-air pavilion. Many monasteries also have a venerable specimen of a bodhi (Ficus religiosa), a wonderfully shady tree of spade-shaped leaves that is said to have sheltered the Buddha while he meditated his way to enlightenment.
Because the wat and resident monks depend on adherents for support, the extravagance of a monastery’s decoration is directly related to the amount of cash flow in the host village or town. In poor villages, the wat may consist of just a sim, which will be a large but simple hut-like structure, raised on stilts without any ornamentation. The only clue to the outsider that this is a monastery will be the freshly laundered monks’ robes hanging out to dry alongside a piece of junk metal or war scrap, such as an old artillery-shell casing, which when struck serves as a bell to wake the monks or call them to assemble.