The day continued with a hot dusty cycle to Pha That Luang: a park with a neighbouring Soviet monument that features a statue shrine of King Setthathirhat wearing a Davy Crocket hat, a crumbling Wat to the south with a wall lined with pointy stupa and an incomplete cement reclining Buddha, a pristine wat to the north with a cluster of Buddhas ringing a tree, and the centre piece – the symbol of Laos, a walled golden multi-teared angular stupa representing an opening lotus flower (awakening of knowledge) enclosed by a cloister. There are groups of cute little school kids running around and I watch a solitary Laos boy solemnly position his little camera on a small tripod to photograph himself standing in front of each monument. More of a chore and a proving of being there than experiencing the place.
I’m also becoming familiar with the tourist photographers. They wear big cotton sunhats and red numbered vests. They shoot your portrait as you pose in front of the monuments then print and frame on the spot. I guess the ubiquity of cameras hasn’t reached here yet, or that this is a special souvenir.
It’s rush hour, but no big deal. I grab a shake which I partially spill in my basket, and head for the Mekong for sunset. Here I bump into Marie once more, then I catch the eye of a cute novice monk who is walking the promenade. Suddenly he is in front of me asking if I am here for the sunset. He is so gracious, has a charming modest smile, sweet and calm, simple and serene, neat and clean in his orange robes and blue sash, and we ask each other many questions. He walks the river sometimes in the cool evening hoping to find somebody to practise English with. His name is Sombath and he comes from Pang Hong District. He is now 16 and comes from a poor subsistence farming family with 6 children. At the age of 11 on finishing primary school his parents suggested to him that he enter a monastry as a novice, as they could not support his education. He tells me it was not a difficult decision. For the last 5 years he has been rising at 4 and praying, collecting alms (food, but not pork), eating breakfast and building the library. After lunch he prays and studies Buddhism and English. He rarely watches TV, just the news, and has no internet, but wishes to save and one day get a laptop. He rarely sees his family but has a mobile to contact them. I ask him if he has friends, but he says not close ones. The ones he have from his home village are richer than him and not novices. He has never seen the sea.
I’m suddenly aware that behind him (he declined my invitation of a seat on the steps) there is a beautiful pink sky as the sun goes down on the river. I ask him to pose with the sky behind him for a memorable shot and souvenir of an eye-opening meeting and insight into another world. It makes me reflect on what the typical 16-year old in UK is like. I hope to meet him again. There is a lot more I’d like to find out.
I spend the evening with Marie drinking Laos Beer and eating Indian. we chat about this and that then get back at around 10.30 to the hotel.
A night of disconcerting dreams ensues. I’m being pursued endlessly.