Alms and the Monks: Luang Prabang


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

The Morning after the Lao Lao Rice Whisky


I peered at my phone and, when it came into focus, saw that it was time to get up. Then I found that I was already dressed. I jammed my hat on my head instead of brushing my hair, grabbed my backpack and checked out of the guesthouse.

I slipped my sunglasses on as I went outside – although the morning was overcast – and took a motorbike taxi to the bus stop. I was the only falang (Westerner) on the bus, so I knew exactly who the driver and his friend were talking about when they kept using that word in a sniggering conversation. I hid behind my glasses and looked out the window.

It is only a couple of decades since the mountains surrounding the road to Luang Prabang were riddled with bandits; but only the cows which ran into the road at intervals held us up, and the only other people we saw were the women from the villages of subsistence farms who threshed the corn by hand at the side of the road, and the tiny children who ran out and held up dead animals for sale.


One girl had a hare barely smaller than her and a boy had what looked like a rat. I turned away, though. Nausea had been hovering in the background all morning, as it was.

It is a glorious, breathtaking route through the mountains. The road struggles up and spirals round with a surprise after every corner, be it soaring peaks, a snaking river, a deep, deep valley, or a big, honking 16-wheeled truck.

The bus pulled into Luang Prabang in the late afternoon and I shouldered my backpack and struggled off to look for a guesthouse.

© Richard Senior 2015