by Le Quynh Anh
|Relaxing: Vientiane lures tourists with its laid back lifestyle. VNS Photo Trung Hieu
Nam Pou Square used to be a public park in the heart of Vientiane. Now, just a few months later, it has been transformed into an al fresco outdoor dining area for a brand new Western-style restaurant called Mix. The restaurant owner has capitalised well on the large space available, with a beautiful new fountain at the centre which presents quite a spectacle at night with its dancing lights.
The immediate area is packed with restaurants serving a wide range of Western cuisine: from French cassoulet to German sausage to Scandinavian pastries. One evening, I sat down at a warmly designed restaurant called Le Provencale to try their thin-crust pizza, freshly baked in a wood-fired oven. Having tried an authentic pizza in Paris three months earlier, I have to say that this one was just as superb.
The square has become a favourite corner for expats and tourists to go to in the evenings and chill out at, because it offers a vibrant vibe in an otherwise drowsy and quiet town. The Western lifestyle enjoyed here is immediately obvious: an acoustic band play their own versions of international hit songs on the central stage, fashionable women sip colourful cocktails and sway to the rhythm of music, couples enjoy a candle-lit a-la-carte dinner, young buddies having share stories over a glass of traditional beer of Laos in the patio.
Nam Pou Square is a prime example that the outside world is creeping into Vientiane. Walking around, you can see more evidence of globalisation's touch on one of the world's poorest countries. Credit cards are now accepted in many places while in street markets vendors are happy to trade in the dollar or euro as an alternative to the kip (the national currency).
Although a majority of roads in Vientiane are relatively narrow, they are now filling up with cars, especially popular brands such as Hyundai and Toyota. The number has increased at such a rate that even sacred temples have been adapted into temporary parking areas, and I was surprised to discover many cars lying around inside every temple I walked in.
As Laos is opening up to the world – with it notably becoming the newest member of the World Trade Organisation last month – it is inevitable that it will begin to change. There was a time when foreigners flocked to this tiny, land-locked country out of pure curiosity; a desire to learn about a lesser known former French protectorate in Indochina. Now they have another reason to visit – to explore business opportunities.
While opening up the economy offers the prospect of better living standards, there are certain people finding such development to be unwelcome. They are afraid the imminent economic boom and all its ramifications may disrupt the slow and relaxed pace of life – an attraction that draws tourists to Vientiane in the first place so that they can be away from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives.
If you happened to be in Vientiane earlier this month, you may have been surprised to see gun-toting, stony-faced soldiers patrolling every street in the city, yet do not let appearances fool you. The heavy security was made necessary due to the presence of State and Government leaders from Asia and Europe who gathered here for the 9th Asia-Europe Summit – the biggest event the country has ever hosted. At its core, Vientiane is a city of peace and that has much to do with Buddhism, the religion that is widely practised here.
You can tell Buddhism is dominant here as soon as you set your foot into this city. The signature saffron robes of the monks are ubiquitous, while every 500 metres you walk you bump into a temple or a monastery (known by the locals as wat).
The unique design of a wat – with their multiple open gates on different sides – epitomises the open concept of Buddhism practised here: monks can stay in monasteries for as long as they see fit, and are free to leave at any time. There is no strict requirement for a life-long commitment.
This is just one of many differences I observed in the ways that Buddhism is practised here compared to my home country Viet Nam. Another difference involves their dietary rules. While Vietnamese monks are strictly vegetarians, their Laos counterparts are allowed to eat anything offered by laymen, as long as they have their meals before 11am. Their life is really very different. No wonder my jaw dropped when I saw one novice drinking from a Pepsi bottle before joining his fellows for a game of football in the courtyard of a small temple.
Visiting temples is such a pleasant experience. Each wat is surrounded by luscious green foliage, offering visitors a cool place to escape from the scorching sun. The interior design of wats tends towards a minimalist style and most of the inside space is for prayers. Wats are never crowded to a level that may detract from their tranquillity, time seems to stop altogether and a feeling of serenity washes over you.
Worshippers can either communicate with Buddha via the act of making an offering at the altar and praying in front of a Buddha statue, or they can sit down and talk with the monks.
Visit a wat
When I visited Wat Ong Teu, a well-known wat with a huge bronze centuries-old Buddha statue in the ordination hall, I saw an Australian businesswoman of mixed Vietnamese-Laos descent deeply engaged in a quiet conversation with a monk.
After the ritual, she told me in Vietnamese: "When I was in Laos many years ago, it was part of my family's routine to visit a wat every seven days as other devout Lao people do. Now that I am living far away from the land, on every homecoming visit I always make time to come here."
"Talking to monks helps me restore my inner peace, and it really works when my mind loses its balance," she said.
During my wat-hopping experience, I saw many foreign tourists entering the hall, taking pictures and even talking to the monks and novices. I myself really enjoyed having a chat with a novice called Somphone who gave me some very interesting insights into how Buddhism is practised here.
The delightful Somphone told me in fluent English that, as like many other novices, the motivation for him to enter the monastic life was because he wanted to have better understanding of Buddha and to spread the Buddhist values to as many people as possible.
Somphone also hinted at a more personal reason for him becoming a novice: it was a way for him to flee from the hardship of life as the youngest son in a poor family of 10 in a remote province. "At least here I have something to eat, some money to spend (from offerings), and I can study."
When asked whether he would become a life-long monk, the eighteen-year-old boy grinned and said: "I really don't know about the future, but at the moment I want to fulfil my studies so I am eligible to teach Buddhism."
"So what are you going to teach?" I asked, and he replied: "There are many things but the most important is do not make others sad."
Perhaps even these traditional temples are embracing globalisation too. Monks and novices have an even better command of English than normal people. Somphone said he and many young novices studied English so they could speak to foreigners when they saw more and more of them visiting.
Walking along the Mekong River at sunset for a stunning view of the big orange orb slowly disappearing past the green line of the trees, I once again found myself noticing the cosmopolitan scene around me. Two Chinese guys were taking photos of the sun, a Nigerian man was taking a leisurely stroll, and a French girl sat on a nearby bench pondering a Laos guide book.
The world is definitely coming to Vientiane! — VNS