Luang Prabang, Laos

Posted on February 28, 2011

The drums wake you up, it's a low percussive thumping sound, one drummer hitting one drum. Hear it for the first time and you'll recognize in it a powerful sound, yet one without menace. It's the monks from one of the 24 temples. Pass the temples during the day and you can see the monks hitting the drums. Not unlike wine barrels, but 3 times as large and hung horizontally, played by a mallet wielding monk striking the drum. You see the muscles of the monks arms and shoulders work as they pound, and the fact that they tire and need hand over the mallet to the next is some indication of the effort exerted. Most of the monks are novices, which means beginner monks, come from small villages where physical activity has been part of their lives since learning to walk, and now at the temple for a few years, they are provided with food and education, both spiritual and secular, and while athletic activity is prohibited, they are the construction workers at the temple, so lead an active life

Each morning at 6:00 the 1000 monks from the 24 temples in Luang Prabang take to the streets in a procession. Single file out of their respective temples they converge on main street in one long orange stream. Their 3 separate garments, a lower robe, falling to below the knee, an upper tunic, exposing one shoulder and a robe that drapes, twists and folds, then hangs with gauzy elegance are all flourescent orange. (On you or me this color would look garish, on the monks, perfection). All barefoot and holding a lidded basket at belly level, both hands clasped around the basket, whose strap goes around the neck. They appear to float along the street, an illusion helped by the soft light of early dawn. The purpose of this parade is to collect alms, from the towns people who kneel in the sidewalk, white prayer shawl across their shoulder and with quick and deft movements drop bits of food into each basket, quickly opened and closed hundreds of times, the procession of monks seems never to slow or stop as both parties know the centuries old drill and the choreography of the event is smooth and fluid.

Can a place be loved to death? If so, this might be such a place.

This will be the only food the monks consume, and they eat but twice a day, the first meal will be upon returning from the alms giving ceremony, near to 7:00 a.m. They will have been awake for 3 hours and tell me they are not hungry until this hour has arrived. Personally I lack the spiritual fortitude to make it this long without breakfast.

The ceremony is lovely, and understanding even the rudiments of its sprititual essence makes it all the more special. It occurs in Luang Prabang, as this is such a holy city, a Mecca or Vatican City or Jerusalem of Buddhism. Though much more low key than any of those and no sense here that non co-religionists are unwelcome. Elsewhere in Laos there are not the concentration of monks, so contributions are brought to the temple, providing the same purpose but not the same spectacle. And here's the rub: Luang Prabang awoke from a dark period of war and communist rule in Laos about 20 years ago. The town had been largely depopulated during this time. Though early in the 20th century the French colonizers of Laos found it to the the most lovely of all Lao settlements, so this peninsula of a town, the Mekong River to one side, the Nam Khan River to the other side, all of 4 blocks wide and 15 blocks long grew from a village of temples into a bigger village of 2 and 3 storey buildings, the style of each building hybrid Lao and French, stucco, concrete and wood, sloping tile roofs, wood shutters and verandahs, with some early Art Deco concrete building thrown into the mix. Harmony and tranquilty reign in the colonial era buildings and they mix easily with the aesthetic of the temples. In a word, this town is lovely. And waking up from its long slumber, outsiders are again finding lots to love in this town. It's my 7th visit, and my favorite place in all Asia, (well, excepting Bhutan, and that's another story, so stay tuned).

Can a place be loved to death? If so, this might be such a place. The early visitors, say 20 years ago were mostly back packers and other low budget types. They were happy to experience the place without fancy amenities. What they got were 5 dollar a night guest houses, excellent meals for less than a dollar, interactions with some of the friendliest people in the world (hyperbole you wonder, just come and you'll see), and a place whose vibe resonates profoundly into our non-Bhuddist souls. In a setting so atmospheric you just want to wander and let it seep into your pores. It's hypnotically tranquil and beautiful.

Fast forward to 2011 and Luang Prabang is UNESCO World Heritage site, and the NY Times named it destination of the year, 2008, and the place still happliy accommodates low budget travelers, it also has several 5 star hotels with rooms up to $800. a night and there are plenty of visitors who crash the alms giving ceremony and stick their giant cameras in the faces of the monks, flashes exploding in this most solemn moment. This would be cause for a fatwa to drive non believers out of other holy places in the world. The non violent and non confrontational Bhuddishts tolerate it. The monks I talk with (and they are a fascinating and friendly group) say they do mind when tourist misbehave, but it is not their religion or culture to protest. Which makes me feel even more kindly towards Bhuddism, knowing how many other religions would take extreme umbrage at such actions. While I see more development with each visit, one of the saving graces of being a UNESCO site is that all building must adhere to the existing style, so that new hotels, shops, wine bars, bad pizza places and a brand new Japanese fusion restaurant (really who needs fusion food?, never a successful idea in my book), are housed in buildings that if not old, look old, so strict is the building code. Despite the influx of some obnoxious tourists, along with plenty of decently behaved high and low budget types from across the globe, you'll learn your first word in Lao within hours after arriving, SABADEE, as people greet you with big face splitting smiles (try saying it, better than 'cheese' to provoke a smile) from the moment you arrive. Changed it is, ruined not, (in my opinion), and whether it gets to that point is not something I can divine. I'm pleased I've known the place all these years.

I've been yakking to Richard about Luang Prabang for years now, and for various and sundry reasons he's been unable to accompany me until now, this time he's joined me and his conversion was swift, painless and complete