I briefly visited Laos in 1993, immediately before going to Wat Nanachat. My mum was taking a year to work there training teachers in English, so I spent some time with her before being ordained.
When I told the teachers at my then-monastery, Wat Ram Poeng, about this, they gave me a mission. They had a substantial collection of different editions of the Pali canon, and wanted me to see if I could get a copy of a Laotian edition for them. I think we were only interested in translations. Well, I failed, but it gave me a good excuse to visit a bunch of monasteries and chat with the monks. I had the good fortune to be accompanied by one of the teachers who my mum was training, who had spent twenty years as a monk. He told me he had never meditated in this time.
I visited the Sangharaja, who had an imposing, if somewhat spartan, building at the top of Vientiane. He was a nice monk, who we enjoyed chatting with. He acknowledged that Buddhism in Laos was quite backwards, and expressed the wish to catch up with Thailand. I guess that, in his official role, he was unable to say too much about the position of Buddhism in the country. In any case, he told me that there was no Laotian translation of the canon, but they used the Thai.
At another monastery, I learned more about the persecution under the Communist government. They had not only crushed the Sangha and the outwards forms of the religion, but had smashed or defaced most of the Buddha images, and even went so far as to ban meditation. However, by the time I was there, this was obviously in the past, and the monasteries were operating freely. One monastery we saw had a yard full of broken old Buddha images, which the monks were repairing.
At another monastery, I was told a rather disturbing story. This monastery was considered the foundation temple for the city. Apparently it was established when the city was founded. There is a pillar there, something like an Ashoka pillar, to commemorate the event, which was, I guess, a few centuries ago. Anyway, the story goes that at the inauguration, a young man and woman leaped under the pillar before it was lowered, and were crushed beneath it. Their bones still lie there. So it seems, human sacrifice was not completely abolished under Buddhism, even in the fairly recent past.
Another monastery we visited was known as the local “forest” monastery, although it was really just a fairly normal Wat, but in a quiet area, and spread out with a few trees. Apparently they had meditation classes there. We met a young monk, who unfortunately spent most of his time hinting about how much he needed money to go study in Thailand.
Like the Thais, the Laotian people love their Buddhism, and showed a lot of respect for those who practice. However, it was clearly a broken tradition, and showed little signs of vitality. I didn’t get the chance to visit the regions, but I am sure there would be many fascinating stories to be told there.