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Pleading for Laos – Episode 3

 Monks procession in Luang Prabang, Laos

Today we finish the Mihai’s adventures through Laos. He returned mesmerized from this quiet, silent, unknown country. But with an evangelist of Laos travels like Mihai, soon Laos could be taken by assault by the tourists… Thank you very much, Mihai for the posts!

The most romantic image of Asia

Laos: Monks receiving alms Laos

Nothing can be more beautiful than this. An old and exotic ritual that is kept in Laos every morning. It is sublime and touching in the same time to see the locals waking up at dawn (5 o’clock in the morning), day after day, to offer piously and with humility food to the monks and to ask for blessing. For the monks this is the only meal of the day that is offered by the locals. It is impossible as a Western tourist not to empathize to the maximum with so simple and human gestures and so forgotten through other parts of the world. After what I saw in this morning, I think religion makes the people better. At least these people, the religion makes them better people.

After they take their rice from the locals, the monks return on the small streets in the temples to pray for their health. On the same time, the roads of the tourists take the opposite way towards the hotels. My way as well will be opposed to the one of the monks. They will continue every morning in the same direction, I will take the opposite way, much more disoriented. And much further.

Laos: Monks receiving alms Laos

Pha That Luang

Rome has the Coliseum, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has Big Ben.
Vientiane has the Pha That Luang.

Sights of Laos: Great Stupa of Vientiane

The great stupa and the national symbol ofLaos. Kind of a San Pietro fromLaos. A religious symbol and a symbol of national unity at the same time, taking into account that it appears inclusively on the country’s coat of arms, framed by the sickle and the hammer. Although it is a religious sanctuary.

The monument of today is actually a restoration from the last century after an original building that goes back around 1566. The original building was made on the ruins of a Khmer temple from the 13th century. In the moment in which the king Setthathirat decided to move the capital of the Lan Xang (the former name of Laos in the past) from Luang Pabang to Vientiane began also the construction of the stupa. Around 1641, a Dutchman named Gerrit van Wuysthoff was the first European that reached this part of the world and was received by the king and saw the first Pha That Luang. He was astonished by the opulence of the building plated in gold in totality that shone under the rays of the Sun. It was the peak moment of the Lan Xang kingdom.

In the 18th century, the history of these places took a tragic turn: invaded and conquered by the Burmese and the Thai,Vientiane was passed through the sword, abandoned and the Pha That Luang vandalized and left to decay.  Around 1828, a second invasion of the Thai army took place with similar tragic consequences to the temple. Around 1900, the French colonialists decided to restore the building. The result was disappointing for the local population, very sensible to this kind of subject and that did not find itself in the French made restoration. It was not until 1935 a final restoration of the monument after the original blueprints made the Laotian people content. The result of this final restoration is the building of today, what we have in front of our eyes. The daily venerated by the locals and the epicenter of Buddhism inLaos.

Look at the above image and keep reading:

The first level is a square with a 68 meter side in which there are 323 simaas. A simaa is an ornamental square that appears on the fences that guard the temples or even in the temples.

The first level represents the material world and on each side, there is a door for the entrance in the place of worship, doors through which the faithful enter the temple to pray. Two of these entrances are seen in the image of the temple from above.

The second level is a square with a 48 meter side surrounded by 120 petals of lotus. Above the lotus petals, there are 288 siimaas for level two and further up 30 small stupas, about 7-8 on each side. The 30 stupas from this level represent the 30 perfections that can be reached in Buddhism, starting with the providing of the offering towards the monks. Kind of the Ten Commandments from us, the duties of the faithful ones in order to accede towards the superior step.

The next level is a square of a 30 meters side that hosts the central stupa. And at the base of the central stupa appear the lotus petals. The four corrugated walls of the central stupa that lead to the sky symbolize together a lotus flower or sooner a lotus bud before blossoming. The significance of the whole image from this last level is the equivalence between the lotus that grows from seed and bud up to the flower on the side of the lake and the human evolution from ignorance to Buddhism illumination. Then, you reach the last stage of illumination, Nirvana. Another symbolism of the building is given by its perfect symmetry. Just like Borobudur in Indonesia, from any side you would watch it, it looks the same. The explanation according to the Buddhist faith is that in this world, nothing has a beginning or an end, but everything transforms in repeated cycles. A soul reincarnates itself in a future life.

From bottom to top there are 45 meters in height. Just like the cyclic construction of the Buddhist structures of Pha That Luang kind, this temple meant for me the beginning and the end of my journey in Laos. I started my Laos trip with Pha That Luang, visiting it in the first hours from my arrival, and I have left Laos in the last day visiting in the last evening the Pha That Luang temple again. A cycle. In the first day it was very convenient, I had the accommodation in a guest house at about 100-200 meters from the monument. After a dense rain, the sun shone shy and I was able to get out of the house and visit the stupa. The sky after rain at sunset, the calm from around, has enveloped the monument in a romantic image, full of colors and shades. It’s like I have reached in a land where time seemed to have stood still.

Festival at Pha That Lung

In the last day, I was lucky to find myself in the middle of the most important annual festival in Laos, the Pha That Luang festival that celebrates the monument. It was not as quiet like in the beginning. There were hundreds of people inside the temple and thousands outside, in the surrounding areas. For a country as quiet as Laos, this festival is the maximum of noise allowed in this country. It is the only time in a year when the party accepts social life after 12 o’clock in the night. And it is the only time during the year when Pha That Luang is lit at night. Only in the week when the festival is held. So I had a huge and rare luck to be able to take such photos with Pha That Luang lit during the night.

Temples of Vientiane: Pha That Luang

Outside the temple, there was a huge fair, equivalent with the atmosphere from the days of a provincial little town from Europe. The Party officials, merchants, cotton candy, concerts and dances on a scene, sweets, handicrafts, pirated CDs with national folk songs, Lao whiskey, beer and instead of minced meat rolls, food stalls with rancid meat, frogs, worms, locusts and other delicacies that I cannot remember.

Much more fascinating seemed what was happening inside the temple. A continuous procession, in which people came, surrounded the stupa a few times just as we surround the church and laid lotus flowers and scented candles at the base of the temple. I think it has something to do with the 30 Buddhist perfections, with the duties of the faithful ones.

Festivals of Laos: Pha That Luang

The monks were present everywhere, some of them sleeping the night around the walls that surround the temple, under the clear sky.

Other monks collected objects for the rehabilitation of the temples all throughout the country and were whishing well to the regular folk after they received money. Seriously, even if the cultural and geographic distance between Laos and us is immense, for each religious gesture of those people, we can find a correspondent in our religion. There are universal gestures applied in another religious context.

Buddhism in Laos: most important Festival

I swear to you that in all that human hullabaloo of thousands of people I have not seen more than ten foreign tourists, Caucasian, from my race. Only locals. I was a rarity, one of a kind. I paid a tax and I was given a badge in order to be able to attend the celebrations. I don’t know what was written on that badge, it was in the Lao language. Maybe something of the type “Foreigner. Lao citizens, watch out your behavior. The party is watching you”. What is sure is that I was kind of the only stranger around and I was feeling lonely in that ocean of people, in a place at the end of the world, in such an exotic business to which very few travelers have access.

I was lonely and I did not know how to react in front of the people. Is it decent to take photos of monks, people? What are they thinking, what are these people feeling now, how can I get in contact with them? All these were wandering through my head while I was staying aside on a rock. It is the moment when something miraculous happened. A monk came to me and started chatting with me. He asked me ordinary things about my life and kindly asked to take a photo with him with his camera. It was more than I would have wanted or that would have crossed my mind.

After a few minutes the experience repeated with an entire family. I was asked by a little girl to talk to her in English, to answer to some of her questions for her school homework, to take a photo with me. Everybody was interested of where I came from, they wanted to know as many things as possible about me. I was embraced by their human sincere warmth. These people did not want anything from me, they did not want to sell anything, to offer, just to know me a little and take a photo with me. Nowhere else I have received so much attention and free and sincere friendship from the people for me, the foreigner, like in this country. It was something magical, just like God would have listened to my heart and would have sent the thoughts through these people.

Images of Laos:

 Laos: Festival

Pha That Luang, most important temple of Laos

Laos: Pha That Luang Festival

Lao beer, the best beer in South East Asia

Laos is still a communist country where the kids are pioneers

Spectacular Lao Football

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