Laos: Legacies of War and a Promising Future

Riding through the countryside of Laos’ remote Xieng Khouang province, we spied verdant rolling hills, villagers of all ages escorting livestock on the dusty roadside, and giant craters disfiguring the landscape. For an instant, these cavities in the red earth evoked images of sand traps on golf courses. However, with Laos’ unfortunate distinction of being the world’s most bombed country per capita, not much golf is being played here.

Guided by a local father-and-son team, we had embarked on a day trip to visit the country’s mysterious archaeological treasure: the Plain of Jars. We would also visit two villages: Ban Naphia and Ban Tajok, nicknamed ‘Spoon Village’ and ‘Bomb Village,’ respectively.

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A Morning Almsgiving or Tak Bat Ceremony in Phonsavan, Laos

In Laos, as in other Theravada Buddhist countries, it is customary for monks to go on early morning alms runs, known as Tak Bat. They do so with almsbowls in hand, donning their traditional saffron robes and pounding the pavement or dirt roads with bare feet. Devotees place food – such as balls of sticky rice or bananas – into the monks’ bowls. Afterward, the monks chant a prayer for them.

In tourist mecca, Luang Prabang, visitors flock in droves to witness the morning almsgiving run. These images were snapped in Phonsavan – a more remote environment in northeastern Laos. Though the setting is less-picturesque than that of Luang Prabang, the scene is more authentic than that which we witnessed in Luang Prabang. Unfortunately the spiritual component there has been overshadowed by commercial ventures and aggressive tourists.

Buddhism maintains that the more one gives – and the more one gives without seeking something in return – the wealthier he or she will become. The almsgiving ritual then, allows Buddhist followers to take one of the requisite steps towards achieving Nirvana.

The Enduring Buddha at War-Ravaged Wat Phia Wat, Laos

Wat Phia Wat and its focal point — a war-scarred Buddha statue — are only 30 kilometers from Phonsavan. Given Laos’ rugged dirt roads, we were not eager to hop into a tuktuk and endure more bumpiness to get to this now-destroyed Laotian Buddhist temple. During an all-day tour of the Plain of Jars just a few days earlier, we’d felt like human kernels of corn being tossed in a popcorn popper! Nevertheless, to better understand the so-called American Secret War in Laos, Shawn and I felt it was important to see this Laotian region’s former capital city in Muang Khoun. (It was previously known as Xieng Khuang.)

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