Vientiane, Laos

As my bus reached the outskirts of Vientiane, Laos’ capital and largest city, I realized it was the first time I’d seen a traffic light in the entire country.  It took me a minute to figure out why the bus had stopped in the middle of a perfectly good road.  There weren’t any cows in the way…  What else could it be?  The possibility of a red light didn’t even cross my mind.

I planned to spend a few days in Vientiane before flying on to Cambodia.  Somehow I’d managed to hurt my lower back so I thought I’d take it easy and just wander around the city.

One of my first stops was Patuxai, a monument that provides some insight into Laos’ national psyche.  In the 1960s the United States gave Laos a bunch of cement for the construction of a new airport runway.  The Laotian government gratefully accepted the gift but promptly ditched the runway plan and instead used the cement to help build a massive arch that memorializes the country’s struggle for independence.  Given that Laos won its independence from France, it seems like either irony or parody that Patuxai so strongly resembles Paris’ Arc de Triomphe.

 

Patuxai Blue Hour

 

Patuxai at Night

 
I assumed that Patuxai would be a source of pride to the Lao people, but a sign at the monument hints at a more nuanced story.  “At the northeastern end of the LaneXang Ave. arises a huge structure resembling the Arc de Triomphe.” the sign says.  “From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.”  Can an entire country be self-deprecating?

 

Patuxai Sign

 

Vientiane from the Top of Patuxai

 

I also checked out Wat Si Saket, Vientiane’s oldest temple, built in 1818.  At the center of the Wat is a square cloister that displays over 10,000 Buddha statues.

 

Wat Si Saket

 

Buddhas at Wat Si Saket

 

Sitting Buddha at Wat Si Saket

 

Line of Buddhas at Wat Si Saket

 

Leaning Buddha at Wat Si Saket

 
When I was about to leave the Wat I noticed a monk at the entrance.  Eager for an opportunity to photograph the monk in his bright orange robes as he contemplated the Buddha statues, I took out my camera and sat down on some steps to wait for his next move.  It turns out his next move was to walk over to me and introduce himself.  He said his name was Diamond.

(To give you a sense of how far my noisy mind is from demonstrating Buddha-like clarity and serenity, here’s a quick summary of the thoughts Diamond triggered when he told me his name:  That’s odd.  Is Diamond just a name he gives tourists?  Is it normal for monks to change their name to something related to their practice?  I know there’s a Diamond Sutra, but I think that’s Mahayana, not Theravada.  Would Diamond be impressed if I told him my name is Adamantium?  What was the name of the rare metal in that Avatar movie?)

Diamond became a novice in 1998 and was ordained as a monk in 2005.  For the past few years he’d been studying in Thailand, but recently he returned to Laos to recover from a health problem that sounded a lot like tuberculosis – congested lungs, dramatic weight loss, coughing up blood, chest x-rays, warnings about infecting others.  “I almost died,” he said.

I asked Diamond what the Lao people think about the French and the Americans.  “We don’t like them,” he answered bluntly.  “My grandfather fought the French.”  Diamond’s parents died when he was young, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents.  Diamond’s grandfather told and retold harrowing stories about his experiences in the war for independence, his animosity towards the French losing none of its intensity over the years.

In 1996, when he was 13, Diamond was alone with his grandfather when the old man suddenly died.  Diamond ran to tell his grandmother, who was washing in the river.  “Good,” said his grandmother.

“Your grandmother was glad her husband died?” I asked.

“Yes, she hated him,” Diamond said, expressionless.  I asked if Diamond was sad that his grandfather died.  “Very sad,” he said.  “My grandfather loved me the most.”

Diamond told me the monks in his temple follow five precepts:  no killing (at least no intentional killing; you’re OK if you accidentally step on an ant), no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no drinking alcohol, and no talking about personal experiences of Heaven (Nirvana).  The Five Precepts form the basic ethical code for most Buddhists, but Diamond’s description of the fifth precept was interesting – the sources I’ve read include “no lying” in the Five Precepts and don’t make any mention of Nirvana.  Most likely I misunderstood, but Diamond was clear (no pun intended) that he was forbidden from sharing stories of his own personal enlightenment.

Diamond and I were still talking when the Wat closed.  He let me take a few photos of him and then adopted a very serious look as we walked to the exit.  He appeared to want to leave me with some important words of wisdom.  “When your body is sick, you take medicine,” he said.  “But when your mind is sick, medicine does not help.  When your mind is sick, you need the Buddha.”

Uh, OK…  Diamond was probably referencing his own health and spiritual issues, or maybe he was making a general comment about the psychological benefits of Buddhism.  But how cool would it be if he had some kind of secret monk-sense that alerted him to the presence of a long-running wrestling match with the existential dilemma?  I briefly considered joking with him that all my meaning-of-life questions had already been answered by the Angel Moroni’s golden plates, but both the reference and the sarcasm would have missed their mark.

 

Diamond at Wat Si Saket

 

Diamond with Buddhas at Wat Si Saket

 
I liked Vientiane, but a few days there felt like enough.  On Thursday (9/16) I took a tuk-tuk to the airport, said goodbye to Laos, and hopped on a flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.