And now, let’s cast our minds back to Laos for a bit! I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – I am not a morning person by any means. Few things can motivate me to get out of bed early, and if the sun’s not out? You might as well forget about it. Yet for many Lao people, the day starts long before dawn. In the wee hours of the morning you’ll witness tak bat, an everyday ritual that involves the offering of food to the monks. On this particular day a special one was happening at Wat That Luang, and that was something we just couldn’t miss. So that’s how we found ourselves heading to the temple, surrounded by pitch black darkness.
Monks aren’t supposed to handle money, hence the need to collect donations from the people. Tak bat actually happens on a smaller scale in Australia – on special occasions, it’s usually carried out as a sort of payment in return for blessings from the monks. However, I’d never seen anything like this before! It was really quite amazing to see traditions I never used to understand being played out, in this day and age. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen so many monks in my life. Naturally, we quickly ran out of snacks to offer them.
How cute is this trio of girls! Many local kids just like them help out at the temple, and carry around baskets waiting to be filled with food offerings. After all, the monks themselves can only hold so much in their bowls.
Later that day we stopped by Wat Xieng Thong, which is famous for its intricate mosaics. If you visit one temple in Luang Prabang, make it this one! Dating back to the 1500s, this temple is one of the most historically significant ones in Laos. Not to mention, everything here is so beautiful and ornate. Each wall of mosaics actually tells many folk stories within them, but sadly I don’t know any except the one depicting the Tree of Life. My aunty knows much more about it than I do – after all, she’s written a whole book about it.
These Buddha statues aren’t usually seen by the public – for the most part they’re locked in a tiny room, away from the eyes of tourists. Nevertheless, it does get opened at the request of locals who want to pray and make offerings. A monk did just that for us after my grandmother asked, haha. The more you know!
One last wander around the morning food markets, where you can literally find anything and everything. Tropical fruits, bags and scarves, fully cooked meals… there were even live crabs and frogs being sold, eek! Of course, we couldn’t leave without getting our hands on some khanom krok, which is basically a coconut pudding dessert. When it’s freshly made, this stuff is incredible. It’s not too sweet, and amazingly hot and gooey on the inside.
And that’s about it for my time in Laos! Luang Prabang in particular is such a relaxing place, and has such a slow, pleasant way of life that I could languish in forever. But as much as I loved it there, our stay was bittersweet. Who knows when I’ll see my grandma again, since she doesn’t actually live in the country. And despite the familiar sights, smells and sounds, the fact remains – Laos is a place my family can no longer call our own. Whether it’s in Australia, France or America, my whole family is scattered around the world. But after seeing it for myself, I don’t think I’d prefer if I’d been born there anyway. Despite more tourists than ever, Laos remains stagnant. Underdeveloped. It reminds me of the reason my relatives fled during the war in the first place – they saw the first signs of a system that is broken, and unequal. Even now, this ‘paradise’ faces new problems. The touristy appeal of Luang Prabang being some untouched haven could be the very thing that undermines its authenticity.
Long story short, the Laos my family loved and knew is gone, for the most part. Even while I was there, it was pretty clear that we were outsiders, and will always be treated that way. It’s not such a bad thing though – like so many other immigrants, my family has grown roots in new places and adapted to survive, as we always have. Even if our culture eventually fades into oblivion, we’re still here and we have each other. Isn’t that the most important thing, after all?