I’ve written previously about the Catholic churches I attended while traveling through Southeast Asia. But in fact, Buddhism, Islam, and other Eastern religions are the main religions in this part of the world. Christianity was introduced relatively recently.
When the French set up their colony of Indochina, encompassing modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, they made efforts to convert the local peoples to Catholicism. This approach gained the most traction in Vietnam, where over eight percent of the population today is Christian. In the other countries, less than two percent are Christian.
Predicament in Laos
When I stepped off the slow boat in Luang Prabang, Laos, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I realized I had vastly overestimated the size of this city. Considering its role as an important ceremonial city for the Lao people, and one of their largest cities, I hadn’t expected the provincial atmosphere of a town that is home to no more than fifty thousand people.
Despite its small size, though, Luang Prabang has a lot to offer. It is perched on a scenic overlook in the Mekong river valley. Thriving Buddhist life fills the streets. Residents awake early to give their morning alms to the orange-robed monks passing by their homes. Dozens of shimmering temples host captivating ceremonies involving gongs and bonfires. Meanwhile, the unique colonial architecture and the cafés and night markets keep throngs of tourists entertained.
But it wasn’t just Luang Prabang’s size that differed from my expectations. As I arrived on a Saturday, I was hoping to find a Catholic church to attend mass the next day. By this point in my trip, I had found masses every weekend in numerous Southeast Asian countries without a problem. Surely, I thought, Laos would be similar. It is, after all, still in the shadow of its French colonial legacy.
Nope. There is no Catholic church in Luang Prabang. The nearest churches were in Vientiane, ten hours south by bus, and Chiang Mai, two days’ journey backwards. Neither option was attractive nor feasible. Oops. But of course, when I travel, I don’t necessarily expect every place I visit to have a Catholic church. I simply do my best to make my plans accordingly, and this time the plan failed.
An Interesting Insight
What I found interesting about this situation, though, was the reason there is no Catholic church in Luang Prabang. Because in fact it does – or did – have one.
After the Communist takeover of Laos in 1975, Christianity was heavily suppressed. Many of the churches were forced to close, and Christians in rural areas were not permitted to travel outside of their villages. Luang Prabang’s cathedral, though not demolished, was repurposed as a police station.
Over the years since 1975, the severity of the suppression has gradually declined. Christians are generally permitted to practice their religion as long as it is kept low-key. The cathedral in the capital Vientiane was not closed in 1975 and is still in operation, and there are several active churches in southern. The country’s constitution does include freedom of religion, although corruption and weak implementation mean that Laos still has a very poor human rights record.
Christians in the north, though, still face many difficulties. Until very recently, there was only one priest to minister to much of the northern half of Laos, and the bishop of Luang Prabang was not even permitted to live within his jurisdiction. That has changed, though, as the last three years have seen four new priests ordained to serve the region. This is a hopeful sign for the Christians in the north and an indication that democracy in Laos may be progressing.
And perhaps, future tourists to Luang Prabang will not be faced with the same predicament as I was!