The Land of a Million Elephants

Laos — pronounced with ‘s’ silent — is sandwiched among buzzing tourist destinations in Southeast Asia like Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. Therefore, the attention it commands from a global traveler is predictably dwarfed. Yet any tourist who chooses to put this country on his/her itinerary is sure to be enthralled by this picturesque place. Juxtaposed by the aforesaid countries, along with China, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic sits landlocked from all the sides, with the lifeline provided by the 4350 km long Mekong river that originates in China. Besides providing  drinking water, irrigation and fishing avenues, the river is also a main source of income for the country from the production of electricity and its sales to the neighboring countries.

A fisherman operating gill-net in the Mekong River:

Symbolic of the ancient kingdom of Lan Xang, the people of Laos consider the elephant to be sacred in that it stands for wisdom and brings prosperity to the country. It once abounded in elephants though it’s rapidly dwindling now. Laos is a small country with a population of 7 million. Formerly a French colony, Laos became independent in 1953. The French sourced cheap labor from Vietnam and settled them in Laos during the colonial era. This explains why 40% of Laos’ population is of Vietnamese ethnicity.

I visited its capital city Vientiane – pronounced as Vindhian – in September 2013. It is a small, less populated city and is safe for a visitor at anytime of the day or at night. Tuk-tuks are omnipresent and fairly light on the pocket. If one wants to soak in the ambiance of the place taking in the sights and sounds, walking is the best option.
The iconic “Victory Gate of Vientiane,” known as ‘Patuxai’ in the Laotian language, is a tourist-magnet. Architecturally magnificent, this magnificent seven-storey structure was built as a war monument in the center of the city. The construction lasted for eleven years and was completed in 1968. The Patuxai commemorates the memory of the brave soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for the nation’s independence from the French colonial masters.

There is a water fountain beside the edifice, and the surrounding area is a recreational place for the nationals as well as tourists.

One can take the steps built inside the pillars to climb to the top of this edifice and savor a birds-eye view of the city.

The entire Southeast Asia was practicing Hinduism before Buddhism arrived in 250 BC. In Thailand, I had seen Buddhists actively participating in Hindu functions. Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, built in the 12th century, was initially a Hindu temple which was later converted into a Buddhist complex. Scriptures of Hindu Gods adorn this temple. Similarly, Patuxai’s scriptural drawings and sculptures offer a rich tribute to a pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses.

In the evenings, the city‘s street-side food scene is reminiscent of the same in some Indian cities with roadside mobile-eateries and other restaurants selling Indian cuisines. I had food from one such roadside shop run by an youngster from Chennai, India. It is a version of “Thattukada” as we call it in Kerala. I had very delicious “Parattas” from the eatery.

Buddhism is the predominant religion of Laos. The cityscape is peppered with lots of regal Pagodas. It feels like a world conjured up by a magician armed with a pot of gold and a paint brush. These pagodas spell resplendence in every frame.

Statues of stunning Apsaras and Gandharvans adorn the premises of the pagodas:

A real “Apsara;”

Statue of a sentinel at the entrance of a pagoda.

The Buddha in various postures from meditative to relaxed and sleeping postures  and other pious souls etched in golden splendor. They radiate an aura of tranquility.

Buddhist monasteries offer five-year ascetic programs/courses for an aspirant to become a monk. Many Pagodas have monasteries adjacent to them.

Monks at the premise of  a monastery:

A monk preparing for the examination:

Big pagodas have tombs built at their premises. Mortal remains of not just monks but any Buddhist can be cremated or buried here. Buddhism permits both mummification and cremation.

This is a city that treasures it’s past and takes pride in preserving and showcasing them to the world. Vientiane has more than ten museums. I visited the Wat Sisaket museum which has maintained the original structure without doing any modifications. It is famous for a wall marked with thousands of niches, each containing an image of Buddha in various mudras, crafted in wood, ranging from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

An intricately carved wooden-snake that looks like a snake-boat from the museum:

An elegantly etched wooden door at the museum:

Laos is a synergy of the urban and the bucolic; the ancient and the modern carry on a peaceful coexistence here. It offers pockets of quietude and hums a soothing melody of the rhythms of life.

The blog is authored by Linet Placid.

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