There are many well-known and frequented Buddhist Wats — monasteries and temples — in Laos, but countless more that nobody visits. The wealth and reach of a wat is dependent on the wealth and generosity of its patrons. Some are so small they have a single monk in residence, others are like small villages.
The country sees its share of visitors and the government is beginning to put money not only towards much-needed infrastructure, but also the conservation of heritage sites as it recognizes the value to national pride and in the influx of tourist dollars.
When I visited Laos last January I couldn’t walk past a monastery without taking a detour through its grounds. They’re beautiful without being ostentatious, with the exception of Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, which is the showpiece of the ancient royal city and although grand and glittery, still beautiful and a living, breathing monastery.
It’s mostly the images of daily life that appealed to me: the living quarters, laundry drying in the sun, the temple dogs — they all have at least one and they’re well cared for — monks going about the daily chores of cooking, studying, discussing, praying, helping, and always ready for a good talk with a passing tourist, the evening call to prayer on the drums that made my heart beat faster. I grew up in a family of mixed traditions and it was interesting to discover some of our traditions’ origins.
With so many monasteries to choose from it is possible to get away from the crowds, walk through a wat, stop for a chat with one of the monks, or just sit quietly on a bench until dinner calls. I recommend trying a bit of all these experiences.