We had never been to Laos before… So our expectations were high. After all, there’s nothing quite like discovering a whole new country. Getting it under your belt. Deciphering their customs, and feeling its pulse.
Well. I am not quite sure what we had expected from Laos, but commercial tourism and happy hour galore were not part of the picture we had painted.
Buddhism in all its golden glory, on the other hand, was something we expected. In fact, it was an element we were hoping to be immersed in. And immersed we were. Luang Prabang is well known for all its Buddhist temples and monasteries. The name itself means ‘Royal Buddha Image’. And I am not exaggerating when I say that the monks in their striking orange robes are everywhere! In internet cafes, in tuktuks, on bikes, walking the streets, and of course, hanging out around the temples where they live, eat and pray.
I don’t know about you, but I have always thought of monks as quite solemn people. I don’t know why, but I have also always thought that they don’t laugh much. And I have certainly always had a feeling that they don’t bother spending much time with ‘normal’ people. After all, they are dedicating their lives to religion, so why would they bother entering into conversation with someone like me who doesn’t really have a religious stance, and certainly doesn’t know much about Buddhism.
Much to my surprise the monks in Luang Prabang had all the time in the world for us. They were never in a hurry to end the conversations, and when one of them let my eight year old son teach him stone – paper – scissors, I started realising just how normal these young monks are.
Thanks to the monks we met and their willingness to share their lifestyle, I started realizing that being a monk in Laos is something completely different from having the vocation of becoming a monk in Europe. It turns out, most young men in Laos will spend some time during their life in a monastery, studying Buddhism and dedicating themselves to Buddha. It is considered ‘the thing to do’, something that will ensure their ‘credits’ – also known as good karma.
Our stone – paper – scissors monk had already spent four years in the temple. He was planning on leaving by next summer. Some stay for one year, others a decade, but very few dedicate their whole life to monkhood. During their time there, they learn about Buddhism, and they also spend a lot of time in prayer and meditation. They are taught geography and English which they are very eager to practice with tourists who stop by.
More than anything else, our stay in Luang Prabang allowed us to get close to the monks. I think many tourists don’t approach them in fear of disturbing their religious activities. But all it takes is a friendly smile, a question or two, and you will find yourself teaching them English, showing them where you’re from on your phone and maybe even learning a thing or two about their religion. I never knew they had to shave their heads and their eyebrows. And I didn’t know that they were not allowed to do any physical workout. They are not allowed many earthly possessions, and can only eat between sunrise and noon. Because they do not have money (it’s against their beliefs), they depend on people offering them alms. This happens at around 5.30 – 6.00 am, and is probably the most picturesque moment of everyday life in Luang Prabang.
It looks something like this:
This is the Laos I had hoped to discover. And this is the Luang Prabang I will remember. Not the noisy bars and the oh, so touristy main street.
Want to see more monks doing what monks do best, have a look at our previous post ‘Monk’s Business’.