Contemplating Laos

Should you kill an ant that’s crawling up a monk?

Can 10 folding chairs under a shade tree be an airport?

Are 14 karate chops to the face a massage?

Laos was a land for contemplation.

We took our cue from the many monks who roamed Vientiane's wide, dusty boulevards. They were regal in their billowing saffron robes, stately under their shade umbrellas, and clearly deep in thought.

Were they pondering how Laos became the most bombed country on Earth (the U.S. dropped an average of one planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, from 1964 to 1973)? Or were they thinking about their tally of deeds that Yama, the 12-armed guardian of hell, writes on tablets of gold if good and rotted dog-skin if bad? Maybe they were wondering why the government keeps an albino elephant in town as a symbol of its power, as all rulers have done since the mid 1300s.

Our first day in Vientiane, while visiting the golden stupa Pha That Luang, we met Monk Gath, age 20, and his novice Bounlour, 15. They wanted to practice their English, and offered to act as our tour guides for the next few days. They were sweet and kind, a mix of innocence about worldly and Western ways, and knowledge about otherworldly life and rebirth. They also giggled a lot.

The more time we spent with Gath and Bounlour, the more dilemmas we encountered. For instance, how do you thank monks for their hospitality? We thought we'd take them out to dinner, but they told us monks eat only once a day, at sunrise, when they go out to seek alms. Then there was the question of would we endanger our karma if we refused the tap water they offered us. When we visited their temple, Gath poured us each a glassful out of a silver pitcher and waited expectantly for us to drink. Should we (to be hospitable), or shouldn't we (parasites)? Lastly, there was the problem of the large red ant crawling up Gath's robe. Was he unaware of its presence, or aware but unable to squash a fellow living creature? Would it be OK if we killed it when it crawled toward us?

It was an awful lot to think about.

After three days in Vientiane, we moved north to Luang Prabang. This town of 16,000 at the confluence of the Khan and Mekong rivers has been called the "refuge of the last dreamers" due to its 30 gleaming temples and secluded mountain setting.

We could travel 10 hours by bus or 30 minutes by air to reach it. We chose the latter, and boarded a shiny Lao Aviation propeller plane. A flight attendant walked down the aisle and offered us a moist towelette and a Hall's cough drop. A man with a badge that read "Flight Instructor" left the cockpit. And was that smoke seeping in from the ceiling?

At this point we decided to suspend our contemplations, because there are times when it's best not to think.

A half hour later the plane dove out of the clouds and pulled up on the runway next to 10 folding chairs under a shade tree. The airport, we assumed, until a bus arrived and took us a mile over to the terminal, a nice new building with a radar tower (one of two in the country).

Luang Prabang is a lovely place, slow-paced and temple-dotted, and set up around a mini-mountain named Phu Si. We strolled around for a few days, and thought and dreamed and hung out in air-conditioned discoteques.

Then the electricity went out. Boom. Just like that, all over town. No one seemed to mind, though, and they all had a ready supply of candles on hand, which added to the air of timelessness. The power still wasn't on when our flight left 24 hours later.

Back in Vientiane, what better way to boost our meditative efforts than through a steam bath and massage? Sure, every day's as hot as a steam bath in Southeast Asia, but what would happen if we took a steam bath within a steam bath? Could we get any hotter? Would we implode? We tuk-tukked over to Wat Sok Pa Luang to find out.

A scrawny old man in an undershirt and wrap-around skirt stoked a stone furnace underneath a house on stilts. He had the strength of 10 elephants, and heaved wood and assorted herbs onto the fire. A pipe ran up into the steam room, a six-foot by three-foot box filled with 10 sweating Laotians of both sexes.

After we had gone in and out a few times, dripping until our hearts were content, we lolled over to get a massage. The masseuse, a compact bruiser in his late 40s, had set up a wooden table right outside the sauna. For two bucks for 40 minutes, he worked us over like a wrestler. He twisted and cracked our necks, punched us in the stomach, karate-chopped our face, pulled our hair, and contorted us into a position resembling a Figure Four Leg-Lock. Somehow, this felt wonderful.

We left Laos restored, refreshed, a bit more thoughtful, and a bit more wise. Though, we found, serenity and wisdom don’t last long when faced with 6-inch, flying Vietnamese cockroaches.

May 6 - 12, 2000

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