ADVENTURE RETIREMENT IN LAOS
Adventure retirement doesn’t normally come with the smell of freshly baked baguettes and crispy croissants in the morning air. In Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia it used to be the smell of napalm.
No more. In today’s wonderful world of Laos, you have to pinch yourself that you are not in the back streets of Paris some decades ago. The sense of the French colonial period - the food, the architecture and the style - lingers.
Laos is raw and laid back and extremely affordable. Food, beer and rent are around 80 per cent lower than in the West. This is a destination for the adventurer – if you are looking for the Double Bay, the Mayfair or the Bel Air of Asia, forget it. It is not big on comfort. But it is safe and it offers a totally new retirement experience.
The most sophisticated town in Laos is Luang Prabang. It seems to have its own unique rhythm – and that’s about the pace of a snail.
Luang Prabang was the old royal capital. The official place of residence of the Royal family before they were deposed fifty years ago by the Pathet Lao – the communist force that seized Laos in 1975.
The capital of Laos is Vientiane, but that’s laid back as well. Try drinking a Beer Lao on the banks of the Mekong River at sunset to see how stressed you get.
Luang Prabang, now heritage listed by UNESCO, sits at the confluence of the giant Mekong River and the Nam Khan River. It nestles on a point, a promontory, and whichever way you walk you hit a river gliding by.
Buddhist temples dot the town. Monks in saffron robes wander the streets. Life revolves around alms giving, an afternoon sleep and a dinner in the tropical warmth of the evening as the river slides by.
Ben, originally from Arizona but now a Luang Prabang resident, ties the story of Laos and America together beautifully. Ben encapsulates the modern Laos story – at least for the Westerner.
Ben’s father worked for Air America. Air America was a massive airline conglomerate operating around the world. At one stage, it was in terms of the planes it owned or had at its disposal, the largest airline company in the world. It was the CIA’s airline group.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s Air America focussed on Southeast Asia and there, the interest centred on Laos, especially on the HoChiMinh Trail - a supply route during the Vietnam War for the North Vietnamese.
A secret war was underway in Laos. Any discussion of the war in Laos never mentioned the actual country. Instead the war there was referred to as “The Other Theatre” – other than Vietnam that is.
From 1964 to 1973, more bombs, including cluster bombs, were dropped on Laos than were dropped on Europe throughout World War II. This leaves Laos, a country approximately the size of Utah, the most heavily bombed country in history. And this was a ‘secret’ war.
So Ben had a serious history in the region.
After going to school in Bangkok (Laos had no educational facilities for foreigners and was too dangerous anyway), Ben returned to the US for university, married, had four children and worked in Flagstone Arizona as an anthropologist for 30 years.
But life changed with retirement. He divorced, the children were grown and happily settled. He started dreaming of Laos and especially Luang Prabang, where his father took him as a child.
‘I thought, where will I go. All I remembered about Luang Prabang, is that it had a lot of temples. And that was my goal. To come to a temple. So I came to Luang Prabang in 2005 and spent a year in the temple. There had not been many foreigners in the temple.'
‘I was taken in and looked after. I had my head and eyebrows shaved. And I did that for a year. Then I just fell in love with the place – the people, the gentleness of the Lao people. So I just stayed.
‘What I like is the peacefulness. The rhythm of the place. The people. The gentleness of the people. How they treat their old people. How they treat their children. There is an appreciation of all life, not just human life; of trees and all the things around them. Of course there are people all over the world with this capacity. It is that here, in Luang Prabang, there are many more people like that. There is more gentleness and the pace is slower.’
This is part of the Laos story. But what makes Laos very special is its transformation after the terrible 1960s.
Sixty years ago, during the Vietnam War days, Laos was a war zone. In dramatic contrast, today Laos is one of the most peaceful places on earth. This could only happen in Southeast Asia. Whether the extraordinary renewal is due to Buddhism or the spirit of the people to simply look forward and not back, is impossible to fathom. But it has happened.
The French colonialists used an expression to culturally define their territories in Southeast Asia, “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice grow – and the Lao listen to it grow.” This may partly explain how the Lao people have so convincingly thrown off those desperate years of war.
But also, the Lao are largely Theravada Buddhists and believe that there is no point in becoming too excited about anything. They believe that whatever happens, will happen anyway and you cannot do anything about it. They believe that life is directed by kamma, a force over which one has no control.
Cambodia and Vietnam have similarly recovered miraculously.
Luang Prabang is an especially peaceful part of the country. It was the old royal capital. The official place of residence of the Royal family before they were deposed 50 years ago by the Pathet Lao – the communist force that seized Laos in 1975.
Luang Prabang, now heritage listed by UNESCO, sits at the confluence of the giant Mekong River and the Nam Khan River. It nestles on a point, a promontory, and whichever way you walk you hit a river gliding by. It is one of, if not the most, laidback place on this planet and has become a magnet for tourists.
Buddhist temples dot the town. Monks in saffron robes wander the streets. This adds to the peace and tranquillity of the place.
There are almost 80 temples throughout Luang Prabang. Because of the gleaming gold that adorns these temples, Luang Prabang was referred to as Muang Xieng Thong – the City of Gold.
Each morning at 5.30 hundreds of monks walk silently through town to collect alms – rice and any other food offered by the people.
The locals are ready for them. They come with the food and sit or kneel to give the food to the monks as they pass.
This is not seen by the donors as an act of charity. Instead it is seen as an act of charity by the monks, because it allows the almsgivers to benefit spiritually by way of their gift.
Each monk carries a large lidded bowl attached to a strap hanging from the monk's shoulder. As monks file past, the line of almsgivers - who are usually sitting or kneeling on the street – fill these bowls with handfuls of sticky rice, bananas and all other sorts of food.
Ben, who became a novice in the monastery for a year, participated in this ceremony each morning and said he was delighted one morning when someone placed a slice of cold pizza in his bowl.
The procession is silent. The monks walk in meditation and the almsgivers respect this with silence and reverence.
This ritual is known as Tak Bat and has been occurring for hundreds of years all over Laos.
But in Luang Prabang it seems more important, as the relationship between the people – the alms givers - and the monks seems to be closer, almost symbiotic.
Tak Bat is a primary part of life in Luang Prabang.
For the westerner it is normally awe inspiring and spiritually uplifting. This may be because Tak Bat is the antithesis to many aspects of life in the West. Activities and values in the West are often centered on taking and winning and competing and creating wealth, not giving.
But Luang Prabang offers a lot more than the gentleness of Buddhism. It is ‘cool’ as well.
Cafes, restaurants and guest houses, many that are converted grand old French colonial homes, French government offices or homes of the now deposed Royal family, are scattered through town. Tuk tuks putt and the pace of life is slow, really, really slow.
Ben, our American monk, has never left. ‘It has been 8 years now. I live on my retirement savings, a couple of US pensions.
And he says that today you can live in a place like Luang Prabang and not feel isolated.
‘You can live remotely these days because of the internet. I can sit in my rice paddy and talk to my son on the subway in New York city.’