Waxing nostalgic in Laos

I AM not sure what it is but there is something providential about a line of sari-clad Buddhist monks traversing rice paddies or navigating busy city streets.

There is a certain aura of reverence and quiet solitude that inspires just about everyone into a reverie. Calming, and deeply ethereal, it is intoxicating—in a good kind of way.

This is one indelible imagery that stuck with me as I started boarding a flight back to Manila from Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, Laos.

Other images are hard to shake off as well. The crumbling French colonial buildings remind us when Laos was a French colony – a rich bygone era, I am sure, the Laotians would have preferred if not for the onset of the Vietnam War.

Although I went not as Eliane Devries, a French plantation owner, looking for Camille, her adopted Vietnamese daughter in the critically-acclaimed film Indochine, I could not help but be nostalgic of how French Indochina would have felt, smelled and tasted. No wonder the legendary Catherine Deneuve got the title role of this veritable film.

I have always sensed the French influence whenever I encounter someone from this part of Southeast Asia—either in Vietnam or Laos.

The French connection is undeniable upon seeing an elaborate monument resembling the Arc de Triomphe gracing Vientiane. Locals call it the Patuxai, which literally means “war memorial,” for those who fought in the struggle for independence from France.

It is, however, Laotian in design as mythical creatures are incorporated in the monument. I think the reference to the monument in Paris was a mere afterthought than a fact.

The bougainvillea-lined Lao wooden houses also remind one of how this country is still reeling from the collateral damage the war brought along.

Their lives disrupted, their infrastructure destroyed and traditions demonized, the Laotians take the meaning of resilience to another level. It is slowly waking up from its long and tumultuous slumber as people in this land-locked country are picking up the pieces of what are left of their tradition and reclaiming what can be salvaged with immeasurable grace and patience.

With golden roofs, embellished with intricate designs and murals depicting the life of Buddha, the wats are reclaiming its former glory and starting to take center stage once more. And Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos, which has now been designated a UNESCO World Heritage City, is a prime destination where magnificent Buddhist temples and monasteries abound.

The most prominent of these is the Wat Chom Si located on a large steep hill in the city and has become a major tourist destination. Its golden stupas stand proud against the backdrop of lush vegetation and verdant foliage— a silent but firm reminder that the Buddhist faith remains the single, most powerful force linking every Laotian from each other.

The country, ruled by monarchs for generations, has also preserved the royal palaces, the designs of which are very similar to the royal palaces in Bangkok.

Unknowingly, my group and I were there when the whole country was celebrating the Lao New Year they call Pii Mai Lao. Unlike us, Filipinos, who celebrate our own brand of New Year with the fury of fire and sound, the Laotians celebrate theirs by live-giving water and powder. Very much like our John the Baptist Festival which we celebrate every 24th of June, they drench everybody and anybody with water and fine talc.

Now, I think, I am starting to understand why I am always overcome with heavenly bliss when I see monks. It is and will always be the simplicity of everything. And its interconnectedness with the surroundings. Like the Laotians, they seem to be perpetually happy and unperturbed despite the horrors they have been subjected to.

I wonder if we need to take their lead in leading simpler lives and be happier as a result. And to think I haven’t even mentioned the Hmong people. That, I believe, deserves another article.

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