Alms and the Monks: Luang Prabang

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The gong sounds at 5am and the monks rise and gather in the prayer hall and chant. As the sun comes up, they leave the temple and walk, barefoot, with alms bowls hanging from shoulder straps towards Sisavangvong Road.

Each of the city’s thirty-three temples disgorges its monks and novices and they converge on the main street and join the long line –a few hundred strong – of bright orange robes, shaved heads and alms bowls.

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The locals, and often Western travellers, kneel along the side of the road to await the procession, shoes slipped off respectfully. As each monk passes, he slides the lid from his alms bowl, wordlessly and without expression. A woman, making sure to keep her head below the monk’s as tradition demands, tosses in a ball of sticky rice and he slides the lid back on. The city is silent except for the padding of bare feet on the pavement and the scraping of the lids on the bowls.

Luang Prabang, with its fairytale name, is embraced by the mountains of northern Laos, and scored across by the broad Mekong River and the sinuous Nam Khan. It is the fourth largest city in Laos but that translates to the scale of a small town in Europe with half a dozen major streets and a population below 50,000.

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It is compact enough to see in a day, but absorbing enough to be worth staying for several. It is calmer even than Vientiane, but not so soporific. The main roads are lined with colonial buildings with porticos, balconies and shutters; the side streets with traditional wooden houses. Bougainvillea bushes explode over walls, palm trees stoop towards roofs.

The monks glide in and out of view. The smell of incense wafts from the temples. The gongs sound, the monks chant. There is a gentle thudding of drums, a clash of cymbals, a howling of lutes and plinky-plunk of xylophones.

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The swooping roofs of the temples are stacked three-deep and topped by horn-like finials formed into the shape of nagas*; the facades are gilded and intricately carved, and there are glass mosaics telling epic stories of birth and death, work and play, town and jungle, hunters and fishermen, elephants and tigers.

Luang Prabang is an established stop on the Banana Pancake Trail, and increasingly on the mainstream tourist trail, as well. But the Western interlopers have not taken over in the way that they have in Vang Vieng.

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There are agents all along on the main street, offering mahout training, bike tours and transport across the border to Thailand. But just a few steps away, there are buffalo sausages drying on racks, chickens scratching in the trash and street markets which make no concessions to tourists with raw fish laid out, right next to vegetables, on sheets on the road, smaller fish twitching in bowls of water and blood running down the street from the meat stall where every bit of the pig but the squeak is piled up for sale.

It is noticeable, though, that quite a few businesses are run by falang** as if they arrived, years ago, with a backpack and the idea of staying two or three nights but could never quite bring themselves to leave. It is that sort of place.

© Richard Senior 2016

*River serpent

**Loosely “Westerner(s)”. Cf. Thai farang and Khmer barang.

A Fresh Look at Bangkok

The fruit vendor woke me up as she drove her van down Soi Rambuttri, calling out through a megaphone attached to the roof. The brush seller came after her on a motor tricycle with a putt-putt engine and hee-hawing horn. He had bottle brushes, paint brushes, wire brushes, flue brushes, and every size and every colour of sweeping brush. But no one was buying brushes that morning.

The shopkeepers had rattled up the shutters a few hours before; the barmen had dragged the chairs and tables back onto the street. Travellers sat at a few of them with coffees, cigarettes and Lonely Planet guides; the rest were empty as yet. Tuk-tuk drivers were massing outside the guest houses, like reporters at the home of a shamed politician.

An early ice cream man pedalled past my window on a tricycle with an icebox slung from the handlebars and a tinny chime which suggested a theme from children’s TV. Dee-de-dee; dee-de-dee; dee-de-diddly-dee-de-dee. Behind him was a man with a hundred year-old pushcart piled up with watermelons, who dinged a bicycle bell on the handle as he shoved it down the street. No one was buying watermelons either.

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The street food vendors had claimed their pitches along Rambuttri, around the corner and down the next street. The pad thai, the spring rolls and satays are familiar enough to the travellers passing through, but the rest is new and not all of it welcome, least of all deep-fried crickets and bamboo worms. Thais like them well enough, but if you tell them we eat snails in Europe, they are disgusted.

By the middle of the morning, the roads were an anarchy of honking buses and beeping cars and crazy, fearless motorcycle taxis darting around them; and the pavements were crowded with people and everybody was constantly in somebody’s way. But there were none of the hundred explosions of temper which punctuate every British day, and too readily end in a whirl of fists and knocked over tables. No one seemed to mind very much if someone bumped into them or stood in their way for a moment. And it is easy to say something glib about Buddhist serenity, but it is as much about keeping face.

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The soaring eaves and gilded stupas of Wat Phrakaew and the Royal Palace shimmered in the haze at the other side of the Sanam Luang public gardens.  There are something like 500 temples in the city and monks are as much an everyday sight as nuns in Rome and estate agents in London.

There is a long stretch of pavement near the most important temples filled with dozens of stalls selling amulets. The devout believe that they keep them safe or bring them luck. There are effigies and statuettes, medals and coins, bracelets and pendants, stones and used false teeth. Collectors peer at them through magnifying glasses. Groups of monks browse the stalls. Travellers stop and finger the amulets and pretend that they know what they are looking at.

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A few blocks away, there is a street on which the shops sells nothing but Buddhas. There are tiny Buddhas and enormous Buddhas and all sizes of Buddha in between; there are sitting Buddhas and lying Buddhas, fat Buddhas, thin Buddhas; Buddhas made of plastic and Buddhas made of steel. Then, next to that is a street on which every shop sells policemen’s caps. Elsewhere, there are workshops crammed with boxes and drums, bicycle frames, engine parts, pieces of wood and old bathroom fittings, and right in the back there will be an old man engrossed in repairing a pocket watch or stripping an alternator down. Who knows what his business is? There is never a sign (even assuming you know a ช่าง from a ช้าง) and it is often hard to see any connection between the things inside; much of it looks like junk.

I know that, a couple of miles downtown, there are forests of office blocks which could be in Manhattan, and malls which might be anywhere in Europe, and all your favourite multinationals; and I know that the younger Thais might speak idiomatic, American-accented English, and eat at McDonalds, and stream the same movies and listen to the same music as us. Yet travellers are way too quick to write off Bangkok as ‘Westernised’. So many people said it to me, so automatically, that it was obvious it was no more a view they had come to themselves than when the man in the pub recites something he read in a tabloid about the economy.

For all that is familiar, there is a great deal that is not; and plenty is all but unfathomable for the average farang traveller.

© Richard Senior 2015