Luang Prabang Highlights

Dear Luang Prabang,

I’m coming back. I hope you’ll have me.

Love, Darby

What a wonderful time I’ve had here. This has been one of my favourite places I have ever visited. Within days of being here, I felt like I was a part of a community.

On my second or third day here, I found myself hanging out in the room of a couple novice monks in the area. One of them was attending English class later that day and invited me to attend. I was soon reprising my role of assistant teacher. The class ended with some of the girls of the class requesting a song in English from me. I don’t know if this is a common request for their teachers or not, but being the fan of karaoke that I am, I obliged.

In the interests of fairness, however, I requested a song from them in return. I decided to just go with the Canadian national anthem so that they could reply with an anthem from Laos. They opted for Luang Prabang’s city song instead. After merrily exchanging melodies, they had made a new friend and I had made twelve. I guess perhaps the exchange wasn’t fair after all. But, equality be damned – I’m not giving any of them back.

Teaching English has made up a good portion of my visit. Almost every one of the novice monks is eager to chat with passing foreigners so that they might practice their English. Much like the monks at Angkor, they put themselves in spots where they have a good chance of catching the attention of a tourist. They sit near the entrances of the many monasteries in the city and either study or chat until they can catch the attention of a passer by with a quick ‘Sabaidee’ (‘How are you?’ in Laos). They’ll launch into as many questions as the foreigner is willing to answer and will cheerfully answer any queries in return just so they can get a better hold on a language that may one day provide them a stable income.

I have stocked up on so many excellent memories while here – too many to share. But, since I would like to note a few, I’ll revert to my point-form recollections to try to allow me to go to bed at a decent hour.

– The cheeky boys at Wat Sop have to be my favourites. I’ve spent a good amount of time there and had a blast talking to them all. I had already once sat in at the chanting at another temple when I was invited to sit with them at Wat Sop. At the first temple, each monk reverently went through the ritual and there was only one moment of giggling when every monk simultaneously forgot their place in the chant.

But, here at Wat Sop, the boys were chatting with each other, occasionally taking leave of their position to step outside, and writing text messages on their cell phones. The second time I sat with them, the abbot of the monastery lectured for them a good half hour after the chanting about their recent conduct, but that didn’t seem to have any effect on them. The next day, they were back to their old ways.

Their worst habit was their flirtatiousness. Not with me of course, but practically every girl that passed received particularly enthusiastic exhortations to come practice English with them. Some of the girls, unfortunately, didn’t have much knowledge about the customs and precepts the monks must follow, one of with is that they are not to touch members of the opposite sex. Handing anything to them is forbidden for women (that’s why they accept their morning alms in the bowls at their side, not in their hands) and even sitting next to them is pretty much off limits.

It fell to me a couple times to try to educate a girl or two about these taboos because the novices themselves are far too eager to push the limits of what they can get away with. Some of them strictly follow the rules and vanish when a woman appears, but at this temple, the troublemakers are plentiful. Once the rules are known, it’s usually okay and English practice/flirting continues.

For some reason, at this temple, I happen to have the nickname, Mr. Paracetamol. I’m not sure if it’s because I gave them a headache or because I was medicine for their ills. I’ll go with the latter since they seem to like me. They’re a charming bunch really.

One of the boys, (who gave me my nickname) got his own nickname from me: De (pronounced like the French de with an exaggerated d sound). A woman who had also spent some time with these young men said his previous nickname was ‘canned fish’ (his favourite food) but when he tried to explain that to her, it came out as catfish. Being an English teacher herself, she had him exaggerate the d sound at the end of ‘canned.’ Whenever he did so, he stuck his neck out like a pigeon walking along. So, I just shortened his nickname for him. I hope that it sticks and he will forever remember how to pronounce that sound.

– The flare and love for language that some of the novices have is ridiculous. I met one monk who happened to the son of a doctor from China. He had the fortune to travel and study in a few countries in Southeast Asia. What was most remarkable about him, however, was his level of English. It was as good as anyone I had met in Laos. But what was astonishing was that he claimed to have learned English in the span of two months. He locked himself in a room and did nothing but study English.

He also happened to speak Chinese (Cantonese, if I recall correctly), Laos, Thai, two or three Laos dialects, Japanese, French, and he was learning something else (I can’t even remember everything he speaks let alone remember that many languages). By the way, he was 18.

Obviously, he is an exceptional example, but the rest of the monks were tremendously eager to learn. They sponged up as much of any language as they could and helped each other learn at every turn.

– I made a couple worthwhile excursions outside of town to the Kuang Si waterfalls and to the Pak Ou caves. The former consisted of a series of impressive waterfalls where bikini-clad beauties and dirty hippies alike frolicked in the turquoise pools at the base. The latter is a cave about 29km up the Mekong river where Buddha statues no longer needed or wanted by the areas temples have been discarded. A miniature forest of Buddhas sits placidly in the darkened caves. I wish I could have spent more time there, but I only had a half hour. I’ll have to go back sometime.

– Today I almost got run over by the motorcade of the King of Cambodia. Well, not really run over, but it makes for a good introduction. Really, I just had to step to the side while his motorcade passed as he went to visit Wat Xieng Thong.

A good 20 vehicles passed including numerous police motorbikes, a media crew and an ambulance. Once inside, enough handlers surrounded him that you’d think he was liable to turn into the incredible Hulk and start smashing temples. A couple of doctors in lab coats trailed behind this healthy looking man and rounded out the strangeness of the scene. The kind himself seemed like he would be an incredibly friendly guy. He was all smiles and seemed extremely reverential in the temple. He was also more than happy to shoot smiles and waves to the onlookers who had been shooed to the side by security. I snapped off a few shots of him in a moment that will probably be as close as I will ever come to being a part of the paparazzi.

– Speaking of the paparazzi, stupid photographers really irritate me.

Every morning, the monks and novices of the monasteries in Luang Prabang sling a bowl over their shoulder and walk in precession down the street to receive alms from the locals and these days, from tourists as well. Without making the walk each day, the monks will have no food – they depend on the generosity of others to be able to survive.

It’s a genuinely humbling scene, but a beautiful one. The robed monks become an orange river slowly flowing down the street. It’s no surprise that the spectacle attracts photographers. The city is well aware of the tourist attraction the precession has become and they have posted signs all around town asking for the cooperation of the spectators so that the sacred spirit of the ritual might be preserved.

But a couple days ago, I saw a photographer do his best to break as many of those guidelines as possible. He was obviously a pro (or a very spirited and experienced amateur). Two cameras and the camera vest (even though it didn’t seem to contain much of any use) gave him away.

Since he was probably a pro, I would have expected him to maybe try to respect the ceremony a little more than he did. Among the guidelines he broke included standing in the way of the monks as they passed, using flash right in their faces and standing above them as they walked by (he got on a chair to try to get a different angle of the scene). I watched him get right up in the faces of the people there and fire off his flash and hardly move out of the way at all when a monk was trying to proceed along the path. I suspect if he had been a woman, he would have run up to the monks and rubbed his boobs in their faces just to finish off the list of don’ts.

It’s photographers like him who make my job harder. No wonder there is a lot of distrust of photographers around the world – a lot of obnoxious jerks have blazed trails that every subsequent traveler has to navigate.

Maybe he got some good shots from his insensitive technique. Maybe his flash did a better job of capturing the scene than my high ISO settings. Maybe he got a good angle from standing on a chair. But I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be the photographer who makes himself into an arrogant fool to get a shot (I mean really, I look silly enough with my two cameras around my neck). I mean, isn’t part of the challenge of getting a good shot to do it while respecting your subject and the people around you?

– Luang Prabang itself has been a wonderful break from the pace of the rest of Southeast Asia. The pushiness of the Vietnamese wore on me after a while, so being here and being able to brush off an offer for transport or goods with a simple ‘no thanks’ was a relief. The streets are almost devoid of traffic and what little there is doesn’t believe in the all-powerful horn like the Vietnamese. The result is a relative silence that makes my thoughts sound loud after being drowned out by Vietnam’s din.

The people are friendly, the food is good (though I’ve been hanging out at the Indian restaurant a lot to give myself a break from fried vegetables), the weather is pleasant even in the middle of summer and the prices are cheap. I could easily see myself living here a while if the opportunity ever arose. I truly do want to come back here and use it as a base to explore a bit more of the country. As it stands Laos may be one of the least touristed areas in Southeast Asia, but Luang Prabang is very much on the tourist trail. I would love to get out to the areas where the rut is not quite so deep. With the pace at which this place is developing, I better get back here soon.

Leave a Reply


By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.

Close