Golden Reflections From Vientiane
You will most likely have seen this before. You see a picture and you are asked to identify the place. Yes, it is Arc de Triomphe. No, it isn’t Paris. It is Arc de Triomphe in Vientiane, Laos where we are enjoying a rest day. It is day 25 of the Golden Buddha Ride, and we are halfway to our destination, Bangkok.
The Arc de Triomphe, also called Patuxai Arch, is a war monument situated in the middle of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and is dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. It is hard to believe that this city, the largest in the country with population of over one million, had only 9,000 people living here less than hundred years ago. Today it is a bustling metropolis and is attracting foreign capital which is changing not only the city but the whole country. Not so long ago this was a land where Buddhist monks collecting morning alms outnumbered the cars on the road.
Take for example, the Allianz building that I passed by on my way to the Arch. Looking at it made think again of ‘the three wise men with one ear’ I mentioned in my last blog in Vietnam. Yes, here too in Laos, ‘the three wise men’ played a key role and the country has been ruled for the last fifty years by the Communist Party. As the picture indicates, communism and capitalism seem, after all the historical bloodshed, to be getting along just fine. This, after all, is the place during the Vietnam war, whose aim was to stop communism from taking over Southeast Asia, where the American military dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs, making it the most bombed country in the world. To this day there is unexploded ordnance, including cluster bombs, being identified and removed. And yes, there are victims, particularly children in the countryside.
It was then I suppose propitious that as I was taking a picture of the Allianz building, a lady who was tending a small food stall asked me if I wanted to exchange some US dollars for a better rate than the banks and currency exchange shops were offering. I smiled as I recalled my childhood in Czechoslovakia where the black market for US dollars thrived and everyone who could, would get a few dollars for protection from inflation and an unpredictable economy.
The Arch is appropriately nicknamed the ‘vertical runway’ as it was built with US funds that were meant to be spent on an airport and is decorated with mythological Laotian figures. Leaving the Arch, I headed to the nearby That Dam, a stupa that was once coated in a layer of gold. The gold apparently was stolen by pillaging Siamese in 1828, and now the stupa looks rather sad.
Across from the stupa I saw a café, ‘coffee culture’ being very popular in Vientiane, possibly due to its colonial connection to France. I decided it was time for an iced cappuccino and while sipping my coffee, a Laotian man, or so I thought, approached me and asked me in English if I was an American. No, I said, I am Canadian. With a strong Laotian accent he replied, “I am an American from Utah. You know, the Mormon state.” Our conversation turned to how a successful Laotian American with a business in US decided that he could make more money in Laos. Now, 12 years later, he proudly pointed to his shinny pickup parked in front and showed me pictures of his farm and produce. “Laos is a good place to invest” he told me, “but one has to be careful, politics.” While his wife and kids are carrying on in the USA, he is taking care of business here in Laos.
I moved on through side streets, admiring one Buddhist temple after another, each covered with elaborate religious motifs and shinning golden decorations. I also noticed in front of every home and building, ornate miniature temples. These, I learned, are dwellings occupied by the spirit guardian of each home. These spirits must be kept happy and properly fed, otherwise the household will be in trouble so one sees all kinds of offerings left in these tiny temples.
Ostensibly when the Communist Party took power, they tried to forbid, or at least limit both Buddhism and spirit worship, but soon enough they realized that if they wanted to stay in power, they better change their mind. And so the Communist Party, Buddhism and the spirit world now seem to coexist rather peacefully to the benefit of all.
It is this co-existence that I thought of as I wandered on, pondering how we humans – seems like all of us no matter the creed, religion, or race – believe with fervour and fight for one ‘ism’ or another, with all the energy and force we can muster. And more often than not, it brings us grief and tragedy. But somehow, humankind manages to muddle on into the unknown future.
As for us on the Golden Buddha Ride, shortly we will once again get on our bicycles and pedal on into our own unknown future.
Golden Buddha Ride
Join us on our cycling quest for the fabled Golden Buddha. Our journey begins in the bustling modern city of Saigon and continues up the country's...