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PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 October, 2010, 12:00am
 

I know I will get on well with novice monk Palitha as soon as I discover he's never heard of Lady Gaga.

I had been sneaking around Wat Siri Moung Khoung, a Buddhist temple in the northern Laotian town of Luang Prabang, looking for a saffron-robed monk to include in my photograph, when I found him. As I composed a picture, I noticed through the viewfinder that my subject was beckoning me nearer. 'How long are you in Laos for?' he asked in fluent English, much to my surprise. As I replied, I noticed the thick volume on his lap didn't contain Buddhists texts but was an English grammar exercise book. He smiled and politely asked if I could help him with his tenses. It's not often you get the chance to offer enlightenment to a monk.

There are a limited number of ways to reach remote Luang Prabang. Flying in from Bangkok, is without doubt the easiest. The two-day boat trip along the Mekong River from Thailand is the most adventurous and then, for masochists or enthusiasts of the Laotian public bus system, there's the bone-shuddering 12-hour journey up from the capital, Vientiane. Purely for research purposes I opted for the bus.

Aware that space would be limited, I arrive early in the hope of getting a seat. The best spot, however, seems to be on the roof, clear of jostling elbows and the tinny din of the sound system. I clamber up, imagining myself reclining on a comfy sack of rice, the wind in my hair, enjoying the elevated views. Two minutes before we leave, a dozen pigs in bamboo baskets are hoisted up and wedged between the grain, rusty power tools and boxes tied with bits of string and tape. I settle for lower class.

It's a good idea to break the arduous drive north with a stopover in Vang Vieng, a town in that transitory stage of being no longer a well-kept secret nor quite in the tourist big league, yet. River rafting and canoeing amid the serrated limestone pinnacles tempt thrill-seeking visitors. Clean guesthouses, internet cafes and video bars have arrived, though there may be a bit of a wait for top-end hotels and scenic helicopter flights.

Fully refreshed after two days in Vang Vieng, I board another overcrowded, overloaded bus, which wheezes along the ominously named Route 13. The endurance-testing ride is dramatic, with mist-cloaked mountains hemming us in on all sides. I might have appreciated the scenery even more were I not wedged on a plastic stool in the aisle with chickens pecking at my ankles.

Lethargic Luang Prabang is a real gem. Shaven- headed monks glide along in slow motion. The Mekong River loops around the historic district, giving you the impression of being surrounded by water, or caught out at high tide. Watching the sunset from the temple on Phou Si Hill is a great way for new arrivals to get their bearings.

In 1995, the town was designated a World Heritage Site on account of its distinctive blend of French colon- ial, traditional Laotian and religious architectural styles. Preservation is the name of the game here. Locals are proud of the town's citation, so hopefully there are no unsightly concrete and stainless-steel structures on the drawing board.

Not much gets done in a hurry in northern Laos. With a pace of life as sluggish as the muddy Mekong, and snoozing evidently a national sport, it seems wholly appropriate that the national currency should be called the kip. The only people dashing about are tourists on whirlwind itineraries, trying to fit in waterfalls, caves and the royal palace.

The secret, though, is to take a leaf out of the locals' book and slow down. Give yourself an extra day or two. You'll stumble upon delightful monasteries tucked away down cobbled side streets that you didn't notice the first time you rushed past. The most magical time to explore is at dawn. Groups of monks sleepwalk through the mist, silently accepting alms. Locals gain merit by offering food, so the rice bowls soon fill up.

During my stay I go back to chat to Palitha each afternoon. One time I find him hunched over his grammar book, studying the passive voice, fittingly for a monk. I help out where I can but am so curious about his way of life that I ask more questions than I answer.

Despite being a communist state, religious freedom is respected in Laos. Every male is expected to spend time as a novice monk. Some serve as little as a week, others give their lives. For many poor families, the wat offers an education that would otherwise be unaffordable. Some don the saffron robes and begin that education as young as 12. Palitha is an old hand at 15.

My new friend says he's not fond of the early starts but he drags himself out of bed at 4.30am, when the resonant thump of temple drums provides Luang Prabang with its early morning call. His day begins with chanting and meditation. Then he sets off around the streets to see if he'll receive his favourite sticky rice for breakfast. The remainder of his day involves studying, writing out Buddhist transcripts, perhaps a little dormitory maintenance and, of course, chatting to foreigners. Palitha hopes to become an accountant one day.

Talk of sticky rice leads me to the many cafes and restaurants that line Sisavangvong Road; the main gathering place for a diverse international crowd. Fast-food franchises have yet to reach this corner of the world. (Nazim's Curry Restaurant has three outlets nationwide, but that's about it.) French colonial influence extends to bakeries and bistros. For a snack, try a baguette filled with pat? or cheese and a delicious cup of local coffee that remains dark, no matter how much milk you add. Find yourself a roadside table, relax and watch the Buddhists go by.

Often described as the Forgotten Country of Asia, landlocked Laos is a place you're likely to remember after even the shortest visit. Although its one of the poorest nations on Earth, the inhabitants remain patient, good natured and ready to smile. Presumably they don't spend much time on public buses.

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