So we really like our Laotian guide! He is just an endearing human being! Just what you think of when you think about Lao people! Patient and kind and gentle. Happy. He has a three year old daughter and a 26 day old baby. We FaceTimed her just a few minutes ago! 😀. As we were heading in to visit one temple, we sat on a bench in the shade while Laing shared with us the history of this special place. His English is very good but he talks slowly as he finds the right words. Felt like we were in history class . . . . Then we visited the most important stupa in Vientiane. Outside most of these temples is a walkway with lots of Buddha’s and posters explaining the restoration as well as the history of the stupa. It was hot and humid and Laing was many paces behind us and we all wondered where Tom was when we really needed to pick up the pace! 😀.
Anyway – we had a delightful breakfast at the hotel! Jojo began her breakfast with crepe brûlée! Imagine that? It was delish but made it difficult to eat much more . . Like eggs and fruit and real breakfast items! 😋. We checked out of the hotel and then walked down the road to fit bicycles! Not our typical bikes! Fat, squishy seats, three speeds, straight handlebars – even a kickstand! And then we took off – in the traffic, amongst motorbikes and cars and pedestrians. No rules of the road – just off we go! Martha and Doug haven’t ridden bikes for many years . . . But they are in good shape and they managed really well! No helmets. No bike shorts. No even shorts because we were visiting temples and one must dress conservatively! The boys, however, could wear shorts! What’s up with that? So we just rolled up the pant legs so they wouldn’t interfere with our biking . . . 😀. We looked pretty cute!
First stop was the Kings quarters. Originally, this temple housed the Emerald Buddha but the Thai king stole this Buddha many years ago. Then they came back and destroyed all the temples and important buildings. They burned all of Vientiane. For 100 years, there was nothing there. Eventually, they rebuilt the city and asked for the Emerald Buddha back. The Thai king constructed seven Buddha’s exactly like the Emerald Buddha and said that if they could pick out the real Buddha, they could have it back. So they prayed and prayed to Buddha for many days and they did manage to choose the right one! However, it was a no go! No way were they getting it back! So – they prayed hard for bad things to happen to the Thai government! 😳. Laing thinks these prayers have worked since the government in Thailand is not doing well these days. The politics of it all. His opinion . . .
OK. Our second temple of the day . . . We do get a bit tired of the temples at times . .but we totally understand! We are visiting their country and they want us to know and see and understand what is important to them and their culture . . . This temple is the only one not destroyed by invading countries. In the temple and courtyard, there are 10,136 Buddha’s! Hard to imagine. Buddha’s everywhere!
And then – our last temple of Vientiane! Built originally in the year 307 BC. This stupa houses one bone from the Buddha! It’s a very important and sacred place! So – on the full moon in the month of December – all Laotian Buddhists must come to this holy place to pray for good things to happen in the next year. All of them! Every year! They used to come on horseback and on elephants, before there were cars and roads. And it might take them a month to get here from where they live. But they come! The leaders use this time to make plans for the country for the next year . . . We saw some posters of these folks, all dressed in white, on their knees, praying . It must be an impressive sight!
So – at one point in our time there, as we sat on the bench listening to Laing, he was pulled away by the authorities! Laos is a communist country and he had to prove that he had the credentials to be leading our tour group. It’s the first time that it’s been obvious that things are different here . . .
We learned some interesting stuff about the monks. They are always around at the temples we visit, dressed in orange or yellow wraps. There are a few different life experiences that encourage young (or old) males to become monks. If they are born to a very poor family that can’t provide food or support. So, at this point in time, they are considered novice monks. They will get food and shelter and a chance to get an education. They can become true monks when they reach the age of 20 – as long as they can chant well! 😀. Or – if a man becomes fed up with his family – there’s a lot of fighting and unhappiness – he can become a monk and be done with his family! 😳 Or – if a very close relative passes away, the man in the family can become a monk for 6 or 7 days. And this will guarantee his loved one a good experience in the afterlife. Then this monk can go back to his original life. He can do this back and forth bit three times only!
There are five musts for monks
- No killing any life form. (Including things like bugs)
- No dinner – only breakfast and lunch
- No alcohol
- No lying
- No touching of females
Last bike stop was at the victory gate, erected to celebrate the end of the war. Then it was back on the bikes – to the bike shop – and off for lunch. We are now in the van on our way to Vienvang. Here for two nights! Yeah! It’s about a four hour ride because the road surface is not good! Broken up in places – dusty – watching life happen as it does in this part of the world . . . Children in uniform on their way home from school. Cows munching greenery by the side of the road. Chickens and roosters just wandering around. Tractors doing their work. Lots and lots of stuff being sold out of rudimentary shops. Dust everywhere!
Driving through the mountains. Lots of huge trucks hauling materials for,the construction of a train. 400 kilometers. Starting at the border with China – To Vientiane, Laos, and then on to Thailand. The only problem is that they are not hiring Thai workers. Rather, they are bringing in Chinese workers to do the work. Billions of dollars borrowed from China! Imagine that? The Lao Government wants to become the “battery of SE Asia.” Building lots of dams to create hydropower. They can then sell this power to their neighbors.
Did I mention that it was 90 degrees today? Wowsiers!
So we talked some with Laing about life here in the mountains of Laos. The only jobs available are government jobs. These are really not available to ordinary folks. Only those with connections. These government workers will get a pension to live on after they have retired. Regular folk get nothing! They must depend on their children to help them out/take care of them, as they age . . . There is no such thing as health insurance. If one gets really sick and needs to go to the hospital, he/she has to sell a cow or a pig to get the money to pay the bills . . .
I asked Laing if he had traveled outside Laos. He said – no. There was no way he could afford that . . (And he picked us up right on the border with Thailand). It costs $100 to get a passport and his living is basically subsistence living. . . When he isn’t working as a guide, he goes back and lives with his family of origin in the mountains. They work around the property, hunt for birds , fish, and work the soil in order to live. He gets paid very little by the companies he guides for. By the time he pays for his hotel (cheapest one available) and his food for the day, he makes about $12 per day. Imagine that! This young man is smart and informed. He speaks incredibly good English and he has a wonderful sense of humor. Yet, his life is hard scrabble with little chance for much else in the future. I think about our friends and family and all that we have in our lives . . . All because we were born on the other side of the world . . . It’s pretty humbling . . . Doesn’t seem right. Laing will get a very good tip from this group!
OK. You all would not believe the trip up here to the mountains. We left Vientiane and drove on reasonable roads for a couple of hours. Passing small villages here and there. And then – we left the reasonable roads for incredibly bad roads. All broken up. Rust everywhere. Very slow going . . . Lots of trucks on the road, mostly carrying materials for the train construction. Our driver was amazing – trying to avoid the worst of the ruts and passing the trucks at every possible opportunity. We were definitely on mountain roads! Eventually, we passed through a fishing village. Stopped to see the fish market and sample some of the fish products.
And then, we truly headed up into the mountains! Amazingly beautiful mountains on three sides of us. Junk along the roads but such majestic scenery everywhere. Crazy! Honestly, the poverty everywhere is startling. And then we hit this city! VangVien. It’s a backpackers paradise. A really cool place. Reminds me of the city of El Chalten in Patagonia. Full of people. Full of fun. Out here in the middle of nowhere. We checked into this great hotel, had drinks on the banks of the river, and then a great dinner in their outside dining room. So awesome! Tomorrow we hike in the countryside to some famous caves . . Looking forward to activity! 😀