Wats, or temples, are to Vientiane what Starbucks are to American cities – ubiquitous, walk-in affairs that are religious experiences for some of their visitors. Provided your offensive shoulders and knees are covered, anyone is generally free to wander through any wat. While I have found my wat-exploring to typically be a peaceful, solitary affair, these temples are incredibly lively during religious festivals. Our first chance to experience this was a recent Thursday, for Boun Khao Phansa.
Boun Khao Phansa is the start of Buddhist Lent, or the “rains retreat.” During this time, Buddhist monks study and mediate at their own temple, and are prohibited from traveling. Devout followers may abstain from alcohol, meat, lying, and other acts deemed “un-virtuous” by Buddhist teachings. This retreat was supposedly declared by Buddha when he heard that his followers continued to wandered during the rainy season, damaging rice fields and small creatures.
We woke up early and made our way to That Luang, the city’s most iconic stupa (more on that in a later post). A handful of colorful carts were lined up outside the wat. We purchased small snack cakes, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, and bundles of orchids as offerings before proceeding into the temple. The temple floor was full of people kneeling on the ground, praying along to the monks chanting in Pali. We joined the line at the center of the temple, positing the offerings we purchased and 1000 kip bills at the bowls and plates. Walking past a table full of plates and bowls with food prepared for the monks, we found a spot on the floor to join the kneeling masses. We were careful to point our feet back, away from the monks, as feet are viewed as the most unclean part of the body.
All the Lao women present were dressed formally, in beautiful sinhs and matching sashes. Even though we were the only falang present, and wore much more casual attire, we didn’t feel out of place, greeted with cheerful “Sabaidee!”-s as people walked by, crouched down. From our position in the back of the temple, we got a clear view of the majority of the ceremony. For the most part, it was largely laid-back. Periodically, everyone would bow – the Lao at the instruction of the monks, us following the example set by the locals. In between, though, families chatted casually and took selfies. The atmosphere was relaxed yet peaceful and provided us with the chance to admire the elaborate geometric paintings that were splashed along the interior of the temple and to reflect about our time here so far – and gave me a chance to thank whatever divine being let my computer survive after I accidentally dropped it about 7 feet from my lofted bed in the guest house the night before. (!!!)