Leaving the loving alms of Luang Prabang to find folly in Vientiane, Big Sister Mouse Kerry van der Jagt immerses herself in the generosity of Laos.
“What about the soul?” inquires my young student. Pleased to finally be establishing some rapport with my new Lao pupil, I explain that the soul is our core consciousness, the immortal part that never dies, the essence of a person. He is as silent as a wooden Buddha, clearly stunned by my knowledge of such existential matters.
Encouraged, I press on, explaining the meaning of phrases like soul mates, soul food and good for the soul. I may have even quoted spiritualist Deepak Chopra. When I pause to catch my breath, he leans forward, points to his dusty foot and whispers, “Miss Kerry, I meant, how do you pronounce the word sole?”
I’m at Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang, a grassroots literacy program operating on the outskirts of town. I’ve always been keen on volunteer tourism, but I’m hopeless at building things (my teaching skills aren’t much better, apparently) and I don’t have six months to dedicate to one cause. Big Brother Mouse offers an alternative: a daily drop-in centre where visitors can volunteer for two hours in the morning or evening to help young adults practise English.
This is my second visit to Laos in two months. Luang Prabang is the kind of dusty, dirt-track Asia I love best. On my previous trip, I started with just one English student, shy and earnest Noi. On the second day he brought his mate Kye, and by the end of the week I had a gang of four. Each morning these young men would sit and wait for me at the end of my street, hoping I would keep my promise of, “same same, tomorrow”. As I rounded the bend their faces would light up like four beaming sunflowers.
On my final day they gave me a bag of fresh mangoes as a gift and showed me around town – me on Noi’s bike, and two of the students doubling on another. We rode past golden temples framed by scarlet bougainvilleas, white-washed French colonial buildings with brightly painted shutters, and traditional two-storey Lao homes. Afterwards, we climbed the 355 steps to the top of Phousi Hill, where we slurped on mangoes and watched the sun surrender to the night.
Today, I have two pupils, students from the nearby high school, who now know more about a westerner’s musings on the human soul than the intricacies of the English language. I change tack and take our chairs out to the sidewalk, practising vowels and verbs as the daily rhythm of life unfolds around us. Our lesson is interrupted when two cyclists collide. One crashes into a tree and hits the ground. He gets up, dusts himself off and says to the cyclist responsible, “Bor pen nyang,” meaning, “I forgive and forget your actions.”
“You’ll see this patient, caring nature right across Laos, but especially in Luang Prabang,” Paul ‘Popeye’ Wager, an Australian photographer who has lived here since 2004, later tells me. Wager runs photography tours in the city, encouraging people to photograph locals with respect and dignity and to adjust their pace to Lao time. “Expats joke that Laos PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) stands for Please Don’t Rush,” he says.
Indeed, no one rushes in Luang Prabang. The following morning I wake at 5am to watch one of its most sacred traditions – the morning ritual of tak bat, or alms-giving. Dawn breaks with the sound of drums. A rooster responds in protest, indignant at being beaten at his game. A dog yaps, a baby cries. Then silence. In the distance a line of monks materialises from the darkness, unfurling like an orange ribbon, draping the ancient streets in gold. In single file they glide past, as silent as an apparition, pausing at intervals to collect alms from the faithful.
The practice of offering food to monks is common in Theravada Buddhist countries like Laos and Thailand, but arguably only in Luang Prabang, with its cluster of 32 temples (one for each village) and network of ancient streets, is the ritual so spectacular.
I avoid the main drag, Sakkarine Road, where bus loads of camera-toting tourists swarm like moths to a saffron flame, opting instead for a quiet backstreet where the jungle still intrudes and the aroma of frangipani lingers. As the light changes from blonde to gold, it becomes apparent I’m the only visitor. I watch quietly as locals kneel in rows, handing out sticky rice from their cane baskets, as their ancestors have done for centuries. It takes a village to support a monastery.
It is this willingness to help others, perhaps a result of the country’s troubled past, which comes to define my visit. After the seat of power was transferred from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in 1545, Laos was invaded by Siam (Thailand), ruled by the French, occupied by the Japanese and bombed by the Americans. As part of the Vietnam War effort, US forces unleashed more explosives on Laos than were dropped during the whole of World War II.
Today, this UNESCO World Heritage-listed town, occupying a narrow peninsular at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, is a place of beauty, gentleness and devotion. I see it in the smiles of fisherman as I take a long-tail boat up the mighty Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves. The two-hour journey meanders past misty mountains and soaring limestone cliffs until we reach a set of steep steps, which leads to the Cave of One Thousand Buddhas. Here devotees have, for centuries, placed wooden sculptures of Buddha. It is estimated there are more than 4000 all together. Some are relatively new, but many are hand-carved from timber or crafted from tree resin. Their endurance, like the villagers who hid here during the Vietnam War, is an act of grace.
On another day I take a tuk tuk to Kuang Si falls, 30 kilometres south of Luang Prabang. The series of tumbling falls and blue swimming holes is reason enough to visit, but it’s the adjoining bear rescue centre that has me enchanted.
The Tat Kuang Si Rescue Centre is run by the Free the Bears Fund, a not-for-profit charity founded in 1995 by Perth woman Mary Hutton. The sanctuary is home to 24 animals, a mix of Asiatic black bears and Malayan sun bears, all of which were victims of the illegal wildlife trade. I spend hours watching the bears at play; their lumbering forms hanging in hammocks, rolling like rissoles and sleeping like babies.
My last few days pass all too quickly. I take a cooking class at Tamarind, a weaving lesson at the Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Centre and a daily massage at the Red Cross centre. Then it’s time to bid farewell to Luang Prabang and my studious pupils to board a plane to the capital, Vientiane.
Vientiane is a pancake-flat city on the banks of the Mekong River, a stone-skip from Thailand. Where Luang Prabang is modest and understated, Vientiane is something of a cheeky and unorthodox big cousin.
There’s a victory arch commemorating Lao soldiers, built unwittingly by the US in the 1960s. The cement was intended for the development of a new airport, but the people of Vientiane had other ideas. The Patuxai arch, which looks like the Arc de Triomphe with Buddhist embellishments on top, is now referred to as ‘the vertical runway’. Then there are the peculiar shop fronts. On one block alone I spy a Cat College, Perfect Man Gym and Yummy Business Centre.
The quirks extend far from the city centre. About 25 kilometres south of Vientiane lies the Buddha sculpture park (Xieng Khuan). Occupying a ratty field on the banks of the Mekong River are more than 200 bizarre concrete Buddhist and Hindu sculptures.
Built in 1958 by an eccentric yogipriest-shaman, Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat (Venerable Grandfather), the park resembles something Dr Seuss and Tim Burton might dream up over a bottle of Beerlao. While some sculptures are recognisable (like the reclining Buddha), others, like the giant pumpkin sprouting a tree, leave me mystified. I make a mental note to ask my pupils about it when I come back. In return for all that spiritual wisdom.
AirAsia flies to Kuala Lumpur from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and the Gold Coast, with onward connections to Vientiane. airasia.com