Approximately two-thirds of people in Laos identify as Buddhist, albeit a uniquely Lao version of the religion, and a high percentage of males, perhaps 30% to 50%, at some point in their lives ordain as Buddhist monks.
Facts about Monks in Laos
In every country in the world religion is interconnected with politics and economic issues, and this is especially true in Laos. Although a communist country since 1975, Buddhism was not simply tolerated, but actively promoted as supportive of the beliefs of the communist regime. Before that, during the period of French colonial rule, a particular view of Buddhism was encouraged as the foundation of Laos society. The same interlinking between Buddhism and state in Laos goes back in time to the creation of the Laos nation in 1353 and even further back to 7th and 8th Centuries when Buddhist beliefs first started spreading amongst people living in areas which would later become identified as modern day Laos. The reason for explaining this is emphasise the important position Buddhist monks have held in Lao society for other a millennium: the Lao state and the Lao Buddhist church are closely related.
The link between economics and Buddhism in Laos is more simply explained. Overall, Laos is a very poor country. Large parts of the Laotian population live from subsistence farming in rural areas, and for the young men in these communities becoming a Buddhist monk is a way for them to receive an education and food to eat, relieving their parents of child to sustain. A common story for young Laotian men is for them to enter the monkhood at around 14 years and stay as monks into early adult life, at which point they leave to take up paid employment and raise families of their own. Older men do ordain as monks, and according to Buddhist belief this a way to attain merit, and others stay as dedicated monks for the rest of their lives, but this is very much the exception in Laos. Life as Buddhist monk is very austere, even for people from very poor backgrounds used to hardship. In Laos a monk’s day starts at 03:40, with chanting from 04:00 to 05:30. Then a monk will typically goes on an alms round collecting food for breakfast and their lunch, which are the only two meals of the day with a strict fast observed from midday until breakfast time the next day. After the alms round monks are given no real time for leisure, but follow a strict daily regimen of chores, study and meditation until they go to sleep at around 21:00. Everyday is the same with modern distractions such as television or modern music strictly forbidden, as are cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and any form of sexual activity. This is a hard monotonous life which most monks choose to leave behind when they reach early adulthood.
Western Monks in Laos
Laos doesn’t have a tradition of ordaining Westerners into the monkhood in the same way as in Thailand and India. It’s virtually unheard of, and there aren’t temples in Laos with study programmes for Western visitors. If you are interested in doing vipassana, or indeed being ordained as a Buddhist monk, then you are better of trying Thailand. What you can do, however, is volunteer to teach young monks in Laos. This is a good way to help out some very unprivileged children and also the closest as a Westerner you are likely to come to experiencing life in a temple in Laos. GVI, a UK based organisation, arranges volunteering opportunities of this nature at Buddhist monasteries in Luang Prabang.