20 - 22. February
Luang Prabang - A Unesco world heritage city
By now we had learned that all of Lao is extremely laid back. Everything moves slowly: people take their time and seem to be artists in enjoying life. The experience at entering Lao was similar to the experience here. Luang Prabang is a small town by western standards but a bigger one by Lao standards. We had heard rumors that there was only one ATM in all of Lao – which was proven false in this immediately. There were 2 here – though in working condition they were not. Regardless, this lovely place had all the other conveniences a traveler needs – internet, tour agencies, cafes, night markets and plenty to eat.
Alex was working up a cold and was not feeling well (we think it came from the unexpected cold in Chiang Rai) which led us to have a late start. In the afternoon we did a walking tour of the center, which started at the Royal Palace Museum and led us along the main road along a few smaller temples (wats) where we got a snap shot of monk life. Some young junior monks were making beautiful music on the big drums and bronxe plates while others were sitting still for their mandatory head shave. Some were playing some kind of ping-pong game (without the table) using their shoes at tables. It was one of those times you are at the right place at the write time and you could not have planned it better if you had tried.
The main road led us to Luang Prabang’s star attraction called Wat Xieng Thong. Alex read that it is considered the most beautiful temple in all of Lao and we would certainly agree. We loved the beautiful mosaics and the details around this compound that dated back to 1540 and was thankfully never destroyed during the bombing brigade that destroyed much of Lao. We walked back to the center on a side street, that allowed us once again to get a glimpse of family life – undisturbed and not intended for show. Again, it was this lovely time of day, when the light is soft and the air is peaceful. The vendors were setting up their booths for the night market, meticulously setting up each craft and trinket in the perfect way. Every night they set it up and take it down, hoping that someone will find their goods (and their prices) the most appealing.
We ended the city tour with a show at the Lao National Theater to which we have bought tickets earlier that afternoon. It was actually a very similar show to those we have seen in Bali in January. It was very interesting to see how this culture told the same story in a different way. Before the performance, each member in the audience was giving a special ceremony offering by a Lao man or woman, which was the tying of white string around both wrists. A short mantra is said and the ritual is intended to restore equilibrium and balance. The string is worn for three days and then it may be removed. (We found this out after Patrick had already removed his the next day. No bad side affects yet…) The show was followed with a massage for less then $6 and I have to say it was one of the best foot massages I have received thus far on this trip.
A candlelight procession to honor Buddha’s birth
The next morning Alex didn’t feel much better so we finished parts of the walking tour right after breakfast and then I decided to go the Tat Kuang Si Waterfall while Alex wanted more time to rest. We realized how small this town is when we ran into Emma and Jonathan (who were looking to go visit the same waterfall). They decided to join me and 30 min. later we were on our way. Before getting to the falls we saw the bear rescue center which hosted 5-6 cute bears and one tiger. The falls were beautiful with its emerald blue waters cascading down from one pool to the other. It was obvious where swimming was allowed and where it wasn’t as the locals had set up signs stating “Don’t swimming area” where you shouldn’t go in. I had a walking mate (Penny from Australia) and we actually ended up hiking all the way up to the top and took many lovely pictures. On our way back we met up with Emma and Jon again and the three of them went swimming at a pool that even had a swing (I had not brought my swimming gear, so I watched over their stuff.). A little later I was convinced to go in anyway and so I did. It was very cold water but refreshing. On the way back I actually learned that Emma was the person who made the Batman suit for the movie (Batman – The Beginning) which I thought was super cool. She also was involved with the Teletubbies and I became convinced that her boyfriend Jonathan was a Teletubby actor and that they met while she helped him get into the costume. It turns out that Emma and Jon were headed on a similar path in Lao and we started with a Traditional Lao BBQ Dinner which was a truly different culinary experience. It’s quite simple: you sit at a table that has a hole in the middle. The top tile is removed and the waiters put a big bowl of burning coal into the hole. On top of that bowl, another bowl (somewhat shaped like a Mexican sombrero) is placed with a deep ring on the outside and a raised part in the middle. The ring outside gets filled with a clear soup and tons of fresh vegetables, while in the middle part serves to BBQ the meat (we had chicken, pork and buffalo). As the meal progresses you eat the meat and drink the soup from your own bowl. It was one of the nicest dinner experiences we had in South-East Asia.
After wards we went to the different temples to observe the celebrations of Buddha’s birth as a human being (Magha Puja or Makha Busa). In one of the temples we saw little child-monks sitting behind the table collecting donations to repair the temple. We felt compelled to support the cause and offered out donation by sitting in front of the table. The monks required us to fill out a donation book, and we seemed to be the excitement of the evening (as not many “falangs” had made it to this temple and even less gave donations) and after Alex filled out the form in the book the child-monks turned around the book and started reading the text. Ahhh-leex-aaand-rah you could hear them say to each other. It was rather cute. However, without a guide and no understanding of the Lao language, we still had no idea what it was all about. Lots of candles, lots of locals (mostly women) and chanting monks at 9:00 PM at night, but why? After the ceremony was over at this temple we picked out a group of westerners who seemed to be much more familiar with the happenings. I decided to go and talk to them (actually I was sent by Alex) and had amazing luck, as I ended up talking to Tim, formerly from England and who was once a monk. So as we walked (me unknowingly) to the next temple for the next ceremony. Tim had all the patience to explain the background of these celebrations. As indicated above it was a celebration of the Buddha’s birth in this world and in fact only a pre-celebration as the true celebrations wouldn’t start until 3:00 AM the next day. At this next temple (which was again the beautiful main temple we had seen during the day) there would be a candle lit procession around the main temple building, circling it 3 times with incense and candles in the hand. Of course the 4 of us had none of these but Tim was so kind to offer me 3 incense sticks each which would allow us to join in the procession, mostly to the amusement of the (mostly Lao) other participants. When I got back to Alex, Emma and Jon, they had already been gifted a few candles, incense and flowers from 2 local young men. We found out that each person carried 3 candles – one each for your mother and father and one for you. The boys had freely given of theirs and were delighted to get a few sticks of incense back when I met up with the group. It was nice to be invited to be part of this very special moment. For the second day in a row we were at the right place at the right time.
Early morning alms
The monks wonder why Westerners are so obsessed with taking pictures of them. I suppose that makes sense, because for them it is the mundane daily tasks that we somehow find so worthy of a photograph. I am not sure if it is the bold orange robes, or their peaceful demeanor but I too am enthralled by the monks. Perhaps it is the mystique that surrounds them – the many rules and taboos that go along with being in their presence. But I suppose it is simply this – they are special beings – and the Lao and the Thai know it and show it with the very beautiful ritual of alm giving in the first hours of everyday.
In Luang Prabang it has become a bit of a spectacle, with tourists wanting to partake in the ritual. I needed to be at the street by 6:30AM, and since we had to catch an early bus, it made the wake up a bit easier. (I know, for 10 days I was getting up at 4AM, but that has not continued into the rest of our travels!) The streets were just waking up, though the vendors selling bananas and sticky rice were going strong. A very sophisticated poster hung around town stated how one is to act during this ritual, but it seemed most were oblivious to the rules. Photos were taken and bought food was handed out – and the monks simply continued, silent and in formation, graciously receiving what was being placed in their bowls.
The elders came first and then in ranking age they followed, with the youngest little guy at the end – maybe 10 years old. I was mesmerized by the colors, the morning air, the ritual. And then it was over, as fast as it had begun. I happened to follow to last bunch, as they were heading in the direction that I was, and when they turned onto our street, the stillness and the beauty of the ritual continued. The owners of the guesthouses and stores on our street were filling each bowl with a baguette or banana or fistful of sticky rice. This morning ritual, performed everyday was to bring luck. No cameras, no tourists. This is why we love to take pictures of the monks – we are trying to capture this magic.