Lost among the Buddhas in Laos

Vientiane, Laos - It's an interesting commentary on the Communist regime in Laos that just over 10 years ago it dropped the hammer and sickle from the national seal and replaced it with the image of the holy Pha That Luang temple.

An equally interesting bit of symbolism is that these days the golden temple appears to be under the charge of a uniformed officer who sits at a desk in the cloisters with the old, red hammer-and-sickle flag draped behind him.

I thought of asking if I could take a photo but his grim expression suggested I was more likely to be thrown out ... or shot. But a few minutes later he stamped off so I bravely took a picture of the flag behind his empty desk.

It all sums up modern Laos: the party has accepted that Buddhism, capitalism and even tourism are facts of life but it is still very much in control.

For instance, on the day we arrived in the capital, Vientiane, the headline in the Vientiane Times proclaimed "Laos, Russia reaffirm links", red banners across the main streets celebrated an upcoming party conference and red flags were everywhere.

But none of that stopped the regime from happily pocketing our entrance charges, visa fees and arrival and departure taxes, en route to the country's supreme symbol of that opiate of the people, Buddhism, and the ousted, murdered, royal family.

The Pha That Luang, the most revered building in Laos, is an extraordinary structure, described by Lonely Planet as looking "almost like a gilded missile cluster from a distance", and I can't think of a better image to capture its appearance.

It has an equally extraordinary history. According to legend, it was built on the site of a temple erected some 2300 years ago to house a piece of the Buddha's backbone.

Unfortunately that temple - if it existed - and many others built on the site over the centuries were destroyed by invading Thai and Burmese armies.

The present design is said to date from the 16th century when a great new temple was built by King Setthathirat to mark Vientiane being declared the capital of Laos and to house the famous Emerald Buddha.

Today, a giant statue of the king stands in front of the Pha That Luang but his temple, too, was destroyed by Thai invaders, who also carried off the Emerald Buddha which today is on display in Bangkok.

Our Lao guide explained a little sourly that the Thai Government has so far refused to return it - "they say it is too much loved by the Thai people" - but it has provided a replica which is apparently stored away from public gaze in an adjoining temple.

The present structure is relatively modern as the temple was rebuilt badly by the French around 1900, then torn down and rebuilt again in the 1930s, using sketches of the original as a guide.

Perhaps because of that, Pha That Luang is unlike any temple I've seen. Its dominant feature is a 45m central tower, surrounded by 30 smaller stupas, all sheathed in a layer of glistening gold.

I'm not sure it's attractive, and it certainly lacks the religious atmosphere of most temples, but it is impressive.

It wasn't possible to get inside the temple's four prayer halls as the entrances were securely locked, but I was able to climb the outside steps to the second level to see the dozens of carved lotus petals along the walls.

All these design details are riddled with Buddhist symbolism. According to our guide, the temple represents the growth of a humble lotus seed in the bottom of a pond into a beautiful flower, a metaphor for the development of the human soul from ignorance to enlightenment.

The temple is surrounded by a cloister wall, originally intended for protection, but is now used to house giant Buddha heads from earlier temples uncovered during renovation work.

Strangely, I didn't see any monks the whole time I was at Pha That Luang, but the two adjacent temples - one the home of the Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism - are good places to see Lao Buddhism in action.

Not only are there plenty of monks there, if you get the time right you can hear them chanting their sonorous prayers. There are also some beautiful examples of the unique Lao-style Buddha, standing stiffly upright with his hands by his sides.

In the grounds are some peculiar statues of animals, looking a little like rejects from a Disney cartoon, one of which was being ridden by a plump youth in some sort of young communist outfit. Very strange.

Monks were in short supply again at two other temples we visited, Wat Si Saket and Haw Pha Kaew, but that was less surprising as they have both been converted into museums.

They do have an abundant supply of Buddha, in the case of Wat Si Saket more than 10,000 of them.

It, too, was razed by Thai invaders and restored by French colonialists, and it now has a surrounding cloister where Buddhas recovered from ruins all over Laos have been stored in niches,on shelves or on the floor.

There are seated Buddhas and standing Buddhas, Buddhas dressed in red and gold robes or wearing nothing, Buddhas made of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood.

In one part of the cloister the Buddhas share floor space with stacked boxes of supplies for the museum shop. In another, a huge pile of broken Buddhas has been confined behind a padlocked gate, their faces staring out anxiously through the bars.

More Buddhas are in the temple hall in the centre of the cloistered courtyard, which also contains some beautiful murals depicting stories of the various incarnations leading to his enlightenment.

If your appetite for Buddha still hasn't been sated still more are on offer just across the road in Haw Pha Kaew, which is now a museum of religious art. But these are notable less for the huge numbers than for the quality of the sculpture and the wide range of poses.

A sign advises visitors that, alas, the display does not include "the emeral buddha" (sic) which has been "in the foreign abroad since 1779".

Given the extent to which Laos has suffered from foreign invaders, it is not surprising that - temples apart - the capital's focal point is a huge monument erected in 1960 commemorating all those who died fighting to keep their country independent. Given that the last foreign invaders to be expelled were the French, it is surprising that the monument is clearly based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and its name, Patuxai, means "gate of victory".

And given the historical role of the United States in the region, it is strangely ironic that it was built using concrete given by the US for the construction of an airstrip.

The detail of the structure, however, is definitely Lao and obviously drawn from traditional temple decorations.

At the time I thought the huge arch rather bizarre - though there are great views from the top - but on reflection its use of foreign materials and designs to create a nationalistic symbol is actually a very Lao exercise.