Laos is often referred to as the “Land of a million elephants”, because the majority of Laotians are obese.
I’m kidding. The complete opposite is true.
Laos is one of the most undeveloped countries in the world, and many Laotian children suffer from malnutrition. Excess calories and XXXL clothing remain our North American privilege.
However, in non-metaphoric terms, Laos wins out.
Elephants in Laos were abundant in the 11th Century, and were often bedecked with gold decorated saddles and used as modes of transport by the Royal family.
While there are tourist packages available to see and ride them today, their numbers are not what they were, largely a cause of human encroachment or industry (slight as it is) and while not cited as a direct cause, I can’t help but think that 2 million tons of dropped bombs had an effect on their habitat.
So, given their declining numbers, I thought of tweaking Laos national motto to reflect a view, albeit limited from two cities: Vientiane and Luang Prabang, of the most common sights we saw: “Land of a million Buddhas and Butterflies”.
Both are ubiquitous. The majority of Laotians are Buddhist (60%) and it’s expected by many young men to spend time in a monastery before they enter the world or decide to stay on with the order.
The result is that on the streets of Vientiane (and in Luang Prabang – which I’ll get into in a later post), we passed tons and tons of monks, wearing their orange robes, who, after staring at them in awe, wondering what mystical journeys they were on, we later found out, were just on their way to school, the dentist or any other errand that you and I have. Even the path to enlightenment crosses banal street.
Regardless, this didn’t dampen Rose’s love affair. Whenever we passed any of the many Wats (temples) in the city where there were crowds of the orange robed savants, Rose would almost squeal with excitement staring at them while extending her hand out to me, able only to say one word: “Camera. Camera. Camera” or “Look. Did you get it.” asking me to take a picture:
Some of the most popular Wats were a couple near the national emblem; a stupa named: Pha That Luang – which also included a museum where we sweat in silence, next to a series of Buddhist statues, big, small and doll-size:
Then, outside the stupa, a huge Buddha, sitting how Rose and I wished we could, given the heat and our diminished electrolytes:
Still unsure what the dominant religion was? Hey, what’s on your left:
Confused, still? Even this cat was happy to give us a big hint:
Through the course of a day here, it felt like living inside a Buddhist kaleidoscope. Wherever you look, there he is:
Now, that brings us to the other side of the new motto: butterflies. Also, along with Buddha, they are a majority, as it seemed, any vista or view of the middle distance contained a fleet of the erratic bunch of flyers in all colours: monarchs, white ones, brown ones.
While, I did look closely, I didn’t spot anyone painting butterflies with a hammer and sickle. They appear to fly naturally, free of outdated propaganda.
The effect of Buddhas and butterflies everywhere, kind of created this blissful worldview, where I wandered around in a semi-dream state, half-expecting to see a unicorn gallop across the road.
Unfortunately, it turns out, we came across something much different.
On our trip, I’ve learned that I have a talent to use my imagination to sabotage any peaceful scene: (i.e. while enjoying a quiet day in a cafe in Laos listening to birds chirp I said to Rose: “Ya know in the Vietnam War this would be the kind of cafe in Saigon where a guerilla fighter would run in and drop a few grenades”).
So, I was having one of these peace busting moments, walking down a stretch of road, and I thought to myself: “Ya know. In Borneo, there were vipers in trees. There must be snakes here”.
That moment, I heard a big clang across the road, turned and saw a guy throwing a rock at the wall.
At first, I thought he was a local nut, but then I looked, and in an insane coincidence, saw he was throwing the stone for a reason, (though a very unBuddhist-like reason) to kill a snake:
Apparently, it had fallen out of a tree above, and the guy thought it better to kill than let it go free. After employing another burgeoning talent, miming, I asked him through hand gestures and acting if the snake was dangerous, and he nodded vigorously.
Okay. Shit. There’s snakes:
And, as Rose will agree, that pretty much set the tone afterward every time we sought shade under a tree, went to a public bathroom, or, in my paranoid case, got into bed in our hotel room.
Thankfully, this was the only appearance of a snake in the flesh, though versions of serpents appear all over Buddhist temples:
I still preferred butterflies.
Next stop: Luang Prabang where Rose continues her crush on Buddhist monks, and we drift away the days between the cities two rivers: the Mekong and Nam Khan, and good coffee and croissants.
I understand that snakes are eatable, even a delicacy to some people.