When I pictured my visit to Pha That Luang, I pictured a bustling complex filled with tourists and monks. I imagined little available parking. I thought I'd wait in line to pay my admission. Instead, to protect against the dust that was being whipped around by the wind, I covered my face as I walked across an empty lot toward the temple. Vendors driving tuk-tuks called out for me to buy ice cream at the gates. Unfortunately, I don't think they made very much profit that afternoon.
As I completed my quiet loop around Pha That Luang, I tried, with difficulty, to imagine the festivals that cause thousands of Lao Buddhists to flock to the temple. I stopped occasionally to stand underneath sprinklers attempting to keep the gardens from wilting in the heat, and I captured a picture of a lone monk. Soon after, he called out to other monks I could not see, making me wonder what else was going on around me that I was too unobservant or culturally ignorant to notice.
I slipped off my flip-flops at the door of a smaller temple in the complex. I peered in the door, sure that I was welcome to walk inside, but hesitant in the absence of other tourists. I was greeted by a tinny medley of Christmas tunes, most notably, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and I wondered which novice monk was put in charge of that playlist.
You can find this collision of cultures in many large, Southeast Asian cities. However, you would struggle to find another one that matches the slow pace with which Vientiane should be discovered. Here is a city that invites you to explore nearly empty temples, but not too quickly, and not without an ice cream in your hand.
Pha That Luang
"You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout. I'm telling you why..."