Monday, January 7, 2008

New Years in Luang Prabang

We arrived in Luang Prabang the evening of Laura's birthday. She had been wishing to be there for her birthday for at least a month. As with all of our arrivals, we began searching for a guesthouse upon arrival. San Francisco Joe and Parisian Jerome joined us on our search. Much to our dismay, guesthouse after guesthouse was full. Finally, one guesthouse owner told us that everything in town was full; our best bet was to head four to five kilometers outside to another guesthouse area. A tuk-tuk took us there and each of us spread out going guesthouse to guesthouse. Full, full, full... was everyone in town for Laura's birthday? We finally found two $20/night rooms at a shady Chinese hotel and breathed a sigh of relief. Since that night, we've talked to travelers that slept in guesthouse lobbies, guesthouse garages, and even a tuk-tuk driver's home that night. Guess we were just in time so we didn't make it the worst birthday ever.

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site nestled between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Its french colonial streets

contain active Buddhist wats interspersed throughout. Wat Xieng Thong is among the more famous Luang Prabang wats.

Along the main street of Luang Prabang is the royal palace museum. This site served as the king's palace during the early French colonial era. The palace grounds are immaculately kept and the museum boasts some nice photography exhibits.

Across from the palace is a stairway leading up to Wat Phu Si, a wat atop a mountain dividing the city of Luang Prabang. The sunset view from Phu Si is stellar.

The major tourist attraction in Luang Prabang is to wake up early (6 AM) to watch the monks collect alms.

There are numerous almsgivers to handle the large number of monks in the city. Street vendors sell tourist packages to allow a tourist to be an almsgiver for a day. By 6:30 AM, the streets are flooded with passing monks and flashing tourist cameras. By 6:50 AM, the monks have disappeared back to the wats, and the tourists have disappeared into the cafes-bakeries.

Besides the Buddhist monk tradition, we were looking forward to the one good thing the French left behind, FOOD! Baguette stands served up tuna, chicken, cheese, and other sandwiches for just 10,000 kip ($1).

Viva le France! Cafes served up french pastries, fresh bread, and hot coffee. Lao street vendors served Lao vegetarian dishes for just 5,000 kip, a great alternative to bread. Bakery stands sold apple muffins, banana bread, and strawberry crumble. After the sticky rice of Northern Laos, Luang Prabang's cuisine was so good, we stayed an extra day just to enjoy it.

Luang Prabang has a large night market primarily sporting Lao textiles and Beer Lao t-shirts. The Lao textiles have beautiful colors making for spectacular displays.

The city is complete with laundry service for all of their textiles. We found this kitten to be running the cheapest business, not sure about the quality of service.

We celebrated Laura's birthday at Nazim Indian restaurant with San Francisco Joe and Parisian Jerome. The food was wonderful after a stressing guesthouse search. We enjoyed New Years Eve dinner at a New Year's all-you-can-eat buffet that included awful Lao-lao (Lao whiskey) sangria. One thing the Lao people did not take from the French is their fine taste for wine. We washed down the awful sangria taste with Beer Lao at a riverside Lao bar while watching the New Year fireworks.

We travel to the outdoor adventure town, Vang Vieng, next.

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss Buddhist monks. When we first arrived in Thailand, we thought it would be rare to see a Buddhist monk. At Bangkok's Wat Arun, we saw young novices and stalked them to get just a single photograph. We didn't realize we'd have plenty more opportunities. The saffrom-robed figures are everywhere. They ride the bus with you. They look over streetside music vendor stands. They vie for seats at the internet cafes. So, how should one act around them?

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, we had the opportunity to do "monk chat" at Wat Chedi Luang. We spoke to a 22 year old novice about a monk's everyday life, Buddhism, and himself.

As a novice, he must follow 10 rules. Among them are do not kill, no physical contact with women, sleep on a hard surface, and don't eat after noon. He commented that initially "do not eat after noon" was most difficult to follow. Since he's gotten older, his male instincts have gotten stronger. He said "The female urge is difficult to suppress." Then, he looked at me and said, "You know what I mean, don't you?" It was hilarious to see the brutal honesty of the monk novice.

Monks have 227 rules they must follow (compared to only 10 for the novice); many of them are incorporated into society etiquette of Southeast Asia. They get up around 4:30 AM for meditation and chanting. They collect alms around 6:30 AM and eat together after that. Young novices often eat twice before noon because they cannot eat after. Most of the saffron-robed men have been young men. It seems that many of them have lost their parents and join the monkhood so their parent will have a good afterlife. Being at a wat is also a great way for these young men to get educated. Many novices will leave the monkhood prior to becoming a monk to contribute to society in another way.

So, back to my original question, how should one act around a monk? Average men should treat a monk as they would any other respectable man. Women must be more cautious. They must keep their distance to avoid physical contact. They must avoid being in a room alone with a monk. These rules are not just the females' rules to follow; monks are responsible to do their part to ensure the rules are not broken. Or, as we've seen with Catholic priests, so goes the theory.

1 comment:

Greg said...


Yes indeed stalking monks in a Buddhist country. Sounds like a good way to get known. Just kidding. Thanks for all the deals on monks. Really appreciate. your choice of the word "many" in “many monks leave before full monkhood”. Interesting that the indoctrination does not hold more than many.

Yep monks, priests, nuns, ministers, pastors are human.

A dose of civilization near-to-as-you-know-it surely must have been good for recharging the "foreign" adventure batteries. Did you see or have pommiers - aka elephant ear - Christ’s wings - French pastries. I so then I will meet you back there at the time you select.

Going to LRUHS Womens BB game with your dad tomorrow.

From still above freezing, after two inches of white stuff last night, Vermont.

Be safe - make great memories for a lifetime.
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