Pre-dawn, awaiting the arrival of the Buddhist monks of Luang Prabang
My final two days in Luang Prabang (LP) are spent getting myself back to near enough 100% whilst mopping up on a few of the key points of interest that have so far passed me by.
One morning I set my alarm super early to be out on the town streets by 5.30am. I am hoping to witness the daily Buddhist ritual of Tak Bat. This is the time honoured tradition of the monks and novices moving through the town streets to receive offerings of food; alms from the inhabitants of LP. Traditionally this is how monks sustain themselves in Buddhism, their two permitted meals a day (breakfast and lunch) being derived from the generosity of the local people.
This means a monk can not refuse what is offered, and so whilst some monastaries strictly prohibit the consumption of meat, technically Buddhism is an omnivorous religion as in rural or river-based communities where meat is the most available food source this will be offered and not refused.
Standing at the crossroads of Setthathilath and Chao Fa Ngum roads by the Post Office, myself and a few other expectant camera-crew tourists stand and wait for daylight to filter through. On the far side of the street a few alms givers have laid out their mats to kneel on. Their woven pots of sticky rice and bowls of bananas and other fruit ready to be distributed amongst the monks . Tourists too can and do go along with offerings for the monks.
Safron robed monks carry their alms pots through the streets of Luang Prabang to receive offerings of sticky rice, bananas and the like.
This is acceptable, the various local info will tell you as long as done ‘respectfully’. The thing that surprises me when the saffron shimmers of monks start to lace their way down the street in either direction, is how few, few people seem to be out here at all to offer alms. Locals, tourists or otherwise. Maybe just a slow day for charitable feeling. Either way the monks make their picturesque procession along the main roads, lifting the silver lids of the food pots strung across their shoulders. The younger novices run to catch up with their pals; “naughty naughty”,
Buddhists are not supposed to run. Only ever to walk. It’s true!
‘Tak Bat’ has become the iconic visual moment associated with LP.
Beautifully shot photographic prints, postcards and paintings are inescapable throughout the city’s shops; indeed throughout Laos. However, standing watching today I can’t help but feel that the charm and serenity of this millennia long tradition is suffering under the pall of modernity as with so much else that is ancient and attempting to live on. The act of giving remains true and unharmed, and ultimately this is all that ever matters. All other considerations are superficial. Hoped for and imposed by the observer. The tourist. But there is something for me a touch sad about watching the monks scurry along, almost marginalised by the noisy awakenings of the mechanised inhabitants that they now share their cities and towns with.
Tuk-tuk drivers seem unsually active at this time of morning, noisily roaring up and down the roads for trade, honking horns all the way. The first buses of the day chug past and belch their fumes, whilst occasional mini0vans pull up right by the monks to vomit our their gaggle of rather less subtle package tourists who seem today to have little courteousness walking straight up to a line of monks and shoving flash photography right in their faces. Not polite. Not good. I feel a little for the monks who probably can’t wait to get back to the simplicity and serenity of their daily tasks and learnings within the temple grounds.
Later in the evening Pong, director of the Spicy Laos Hostel will give his excellent 2 hour weekly lecture on Buddhist history, religion and practice and place in modern society.
It really is good. Of the many strains of Buddhism that exist in the world today, it is the oldest and purest form, Theravedic Buddhism that is practised in Laos (as well as Thailand, Burma/Myanmar & Sri Lanka amongst other countries). There are no longer any female monks within Theravedic Buddhism although once there were. Now only the status of a nun can be achieved. Males can join from any age and must first be ‘novices’ until they reach the age of 20. At this point they must choose whether to become a life long monk or to leave the fraternity. Acceptance of monkhood confers 227 rules for living hat must be adhered to as originally dictated by Buddha. He apparently added that certain rules could be amended/ removed over the years, but having not stipulated which ones, Theravadism assumes it’s easier just to keep the lot and stop the debate.
Curiously when there were female monks they 311 rules to stick to. “Tsk! Ain’t that just typical inequality ladies!”. Whilst Buddhist monks are famous for their bright orange/ saffron coloured robes there is actually no rule dictating this and they can be of any colour you choose… again from materials donated to the monk. The prevelance of orange owes its historical presence to the fact that the rags and fabrics originally acquired by Buddhists in India would be reclaimed from the bodies of the deceased as they lay in open-air funerary locations. The cloths would be in need of re-dying and the wood of the Jack Fruit tree was the most abundantly available, this natural dye turning things orange. Nowadays I guess you just get the Buddhist equivilent of playground bullying if you dare to be a little different and turn up to prayer in a red polka-dot or luminous pink robe… so orange is the colour.
A ginger religion. No complaints from me!
Anyho, what else did I do? Well I walked aways from the Old Town for a bit more of the ‘real’ local life and headed out a few kilometres to the Phosy Market. This is the main market for LP. Mostly undercover and shaded. Piles of all sorts of the usual wares. Clothes, fabrics, shoes, snacks and pharmaceutical products. Further in the food stuffs pile high. Onions, garlic, mounds of green and red birdseye chillies, herbs and vegetables. Tables covered in bloody, gored hunks of darkened red meat, either entirely abandoned to the flies or still festooned in them despite the lackadaisical wafting of plastic bags on sticks by bored young girls and their mothers.
Stupa pinacle to Phu Si Hill.
I grab myself a disappointing haircut at a street barbers on my way back to town.
On one fine day, I found one fine way to take in a sunset whilst in LP is to make your way to the top of the large Phou Si Mount/ Hill that sits in the middle of the old town. It is apparently the ‘Holy Mountain’ of LP. Walking up a long winding stairway, or approaching from the east you can wend your way up through some quaint little residential alleyways, once you get near to the temple at the top 20,000 ($2.50) Kip is required to go further. At the summit of Phou Si Hill are many large golden Buddha statues (1 for every day of the week, amongst others). One of Buddha’s footprints is believed to be on this hill too (?!). Sat at the very summit of the Mount is the 20 metre high Wat Chamsi Stupa.
A slightly shonky looking affair in my opinion. Gold pinacled but largely constructed of dirty white wash steps and surrounded by railings. The main reason people come up here though, sad to say, is rather an act of pilgrimage for the sun. Up here unquestionably the best views of the LP area in any direction are offered. We all stand and watch as the setting sun turns the distant waters of the Mekong into a burning, shimmering ribbon of gold and light. Very pretty indeed.