We land in Vientiane, Laos late Saturday morning. Within hours, I’m seated on a worn pillow across from a lineup of Buddhist monks wrapped in reds, oranges and yellows. My eyes are closed, my mind is open(ish) and I’m starting to lose feeling in my left leg.
Ironically, the journey to the temple had been stressful. At 3pm, we’d read that Wat Sokpaluang offers an open meditation session to foreigners every Saturday at 4pm. So, we’d rushed back to the hotel to drop off bags and hail a tuk-tuk. It was 170 degrees. (OK, actually it was just 102. But Weather.com says it feels like 119.) The driver got confused and took us to a massage place instead of the temple and Liza and I got into ten fights because “We’re gonna be late to meditation!!” but I could sense she was also considering the massage.
I don’t know a lot about meditation, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t how you get in the mood. But then again, I’m new to this.
We finally find the temple, and it’s no joke. Monks. Chanting. Incense. The whole deal.
Laos is a very traditional country so multiple travel sites had cautioned against taboos—don’t touch anyone on the head, don’t point your feet at anyone (especially Buddha) and always ask permission before taking photos of someone. But apparently, the monks hadn’t read a single page of Lonely Planet: Laos. Because as I sit patiently waiting for the session to begin, they're unabashedly snapping iPhoto after iPhoto of me. And these aren’t stealthy snaps either—there's full sound. So with every pic, a loud “CHKTSH!” breaks the temple silence.
I wish I had pictures of this amazing incident. Unfortunately, it would’ve been super rude to take one. So, here’s an artist's rendering:
So, the session finally begins. Twenty minutes of silent meditation. I assume it will feel like an eternity, but it flies by surprisingly quickly. I try to think about nothing. Instead I end up thinking about Spotify and running and how badly I want to take a photo of the monk in front of me. (This double standard seems hardly fair.) Also, my legs are going numb.
Next part, twenty minutes of super slow, methodical walking around in circles while staring at your feet. Obviously I like this because it’s marginally closer to running than sitting on a pillow. But I also can’t help but wonder if the monks are just inventing this stuff to laugh at us—a bunch of gringos in flowy elephant pants walking in circles. We’re unable to look up and see if they’re giggling to themselves because instead we’re laser-focused on our toe hair and avoiding ants. But, I don’t hear any “CHKTSH-ing” so maybe we’re all cool.
Part three, back to twenty more minutes of silent, seated meditation. My legs and back feel pretty gnarly at this point so I decide to focus on my breathing because I’ve heard that’s a thing.
And then, a few minutes later, we’re done. There’s an awkwardly long Q&A session where the monks open the floor to questions in gentle but very broken English. One blonde tourista dressed for Coachella asks how she can “live more a Buddhist lifestyle without actually becoming a monk.” The monks are confused by this question. After conferring with each other, they tell her in fractured sentences that she needs to “focus on the teachings.” Someone in the audience informs Coachella Girl that she'll also need to devote her life to a set of 200+ principles, including no drinking or sex. Coachella Girl furrows her brow. I imagine she was expecting something closer to: “Chillax more. Maybe do yoga once a week. Also, wear more flowy elephant pants.”
Mercifully, Q&A ends, and the session is over.
We get back into our tuk-tuk and head back to the hotel. We’re just as hot as before, but possibly 1 or 2 percent closer to Nirvana. It’s hard to tell. All I can think about his how sore my legs are. I try to sneak a photo of a monk as we walk out, but it's terrible. Ugh. Enlightenment is hard.