While the full moon was waxing lyrical over Thailand for the Loi Kratong festival, there was another festival happening in Vientiane, Laos. The Buan That Luang festival is a once a year extravaganza where the Laos countryside comes to Vientiane to celebrate the country’s largest Buddhist festival.
A one-hour bus ride from Udon, then we reach Nong Khai. Harassed by the tuk tuk drivers, I sour very quickly! As soon as we arrive in Laos, on the kip system, the rules of engagement change. I am at the whim of Loa tuk tuk drivers, who have every excuse under the sun to extract what they can. “Oh, petrol price high!” We hired a Lao tour guide from the Thai side of the boarder, for 200 baht each, and he took us into Vientiane. But it all went down hill after that. Or did it?
Ms. Anderson was here to really get the taste and flavor of this amazing festival. She was even crying. She had coaxed me into Vientiane by pulling out $30 and telling me it was for the visa. I was to be her ad hoc translator; I speak Thai and Lao language is very similar. “ Cheapest translator in the southern hemisphere,” said Ms. Anderson, who knows a bargain when she sees one.
It’ s four pm, and I want a beer. “Only one,” says Miss Anderson. She has an important date tonight with over 200 000 the Laotian Buddhists who will converge on That Luang to pay their respects for the rice harvest which I am told has been very bountiful, if attendance numbers are anything to go by.
Marthe Bassenne, who wrote In Laos and Siam, had described the same festival, in another century and another city. She wrote that that That Luang temple was “…a strange and gigantic, religious, rather well conserved, monument some kilometres away from Vientiane-the That Luong. ..” which she added was a ” challenge thrown at death, at nothingness.”
Actually Marthe had attended the festival in Luang Prabang when that was the capital of Laos. And this festival was no less amazing. “Golden spires rise around a golden dome, topped with a finial thanks to French overhaul of the temple in 1930, ” explains Ms Anderson, who is a big fan of that 19th Century French travel writer.
At the festival, Ms. Anderson tires later in the evening.
“Listen, take some pictures!” I suggest.
“No I can’t, I can’t,” she moans. She’ s in need of more M150 energy drinks.
We spoke to an old monk who’d spent nine years at the temple. He was as eyeing off our cigarettes, which we were chain smoking. I had shamelessly lured Ms. Anderson to the dark side of Phillip Morris tobacco.
A few minutes into the conversation the monk cuts to the chase. “You couldn’t spare some change for a packet of cigarettes.” Immediately Miss Anderson pulls out 100 baht note (US$ 3) and gives it to the monk. The monk also said he had a daughter in Australia, “It’s improbable, he didn’t even have money for cigarettes” laughs Ms. Anderson. (In her defence, I made up the last quote –she really isn’t that mean!)
“Upon entering the temple, ” wrote Geraed Wusthof of his voyage into Laos in 1641, “The Lao made offerings, burning candles…Then-…in accordance with the land’s custom- we each took two candles” Not much has changed over the years. A walk, three times, around the That Luang temple, will secure your merit into the after life, according to Somchai, who sold us lotus flowers, and incense and candles. I didn’t make it into the inner sanctum of the temple, but left it for Ms. Anderson the following night.
After hours of roaming in a sea of followers and watching devotees paying respect to King Xetthathirat’s statue, the 16th century Lao King, we headed back to our hotels. I still had to find a room, and most of the hotels were booked out for the festival. But Ms. Anderson had the common sense to book a room in advance.
After walking around the back streets for a few hours, because my sense of direction is lousy, we did a full 360 back to the temple. We were shagged. Ms Anderson found the first corner shop where the tuk tuk drivers were drinking beer Lao like it was going out of fashion and invited herself to drink their beer.
While drinking the tuk tuk drivers said,” We don’t want you to pay money. Only pay what you can.” Where have I heard that before – the red flag was raised. Two rides later, at prices that had us both blanching; I ended up at a hotel waiting for a Lao couple to finish their boom boom. The Lao really bend over backwards to make you feel at home.
One night at the That Luang Festival is such an intense experience — walls of Laotian shuffling slowly towards the statue of their King. But the side shows to the main attraction, can be just as enriching, and bound to etch a unique impression on you.
“Laos does that to you,” said Ms Anderson, who has written her own impressions of this wonderful and enchanting land-locked country.