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Luang Prabang

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step back in time

The three novices emerge in their spanking new robes and follow the abbot over a carpet of human bodies and back up the steps into the temple. “It’s good luck,” says one of the local onlookers when I ask about the people who are being stepped on by the monks. “They think it will cure whatever troubles you.”

About an hour before dawn on a cool, crisp November morning, I find myself tumbling out of a motorized trishaw onto a dusky street near the center of Luang Prabang. A stray dog meanders along the sidewalk, but there isn’t another person in sight. And in the pitch dark I slouch onto the wall in front of the 18th-century Wat Mai temple, with its fabulous golden bas-reliefs, and wait for tak-bat—the ritual collecting of alms that unfolds at the crack of dawn each morning along the streets of this oldest city in Laos.

Out of nowhere, on silent feet, a teenage girl appears with a bucket of food for those who have not brought their own alms. Twenty thousand kip ($2) buys me a small basket of sticky rice and six banana-leaf “wraps” filled with a paté-like substance that actually looks quite tasty. Without uttering a word of English (or me a word of Lao), she shows me how to kneel down and offer the alms to the young monks who will soon pass this way. Then she quietly wonders away, searching for other customers.

But I am not alone for long. Within minutes I am surrounded by local devotees, people of every age and social strata, many of them tak-bat

“regulars” with stools or carpets they arrange along the curb on either side of the street. Nobody speaks, but there is a palpable sense of anticipation as the hour nears. A drumbeat rises from somewhere on the temple grounds, and one by one the monks begin to appear from the darkness, clad in flowing orange robes and holding a small brass alms bowl as they make their way toward the street. They spill out the front gate, accept their morning sustenance from those of us arrayed along the sidewalk, and without a word file back onto the temple grounds, where they will wash and then eat.

I figure that’s all there is to the morning alms round. But oddly, the locals sit tight. And I seem to be the only one who surrendered all of his alms to the Wat Mai monks. Everyone else is holding something back, which clearly means that more monks are on the way. One of the followers informs me that the main event is still to come—a huge alms procession that kicks off at dawn. Hundreds of monks from all around Luang Prabang making their way in single file along the Mekong waterfront, around the legendary Wat Xieng Thong temple complex and down the middle of Sisavangvong Road before the shaven-headed faithful melt back into their temples and monasteries.

A spectacle that becomes even more profound when you consider the fact that local monks have doing this since the late 7th century, when Luang Prabang was founded by a powerful hilltribe warlord—more than half a million daily processions. That’s an awful lot of alms.

Sprawling across on a thumb-shaped peninsula between the Mekong and Khan rivers, Luang Prabang is in many respects the Havana of the eastern hemisphere-preserved in an almost pristine state by a combination of politics, poverty, and perhaps just dumb luck. But I think Bangkok is a better metaphor—a small glimpse of what Thai capital must have been like before the age of superhighways and shopping malls. An exotic tropical city replete with golden stupas and riverside palaces, where the mulchy aroma of the surrounding jungle blends with the sweet smell of incense drifting from dozens of temples, and where bare feet are still a far more common form of transportation than the internal combustion engine.

The die was cast in late 19th century, when the French moved their colonial digs downriver to Vientiane, which soon evolved into the country’s most important city. This ended Luang Prabang’s 1,300-year reign as the political hub of Laos, but it inadvertently saved the city from the conflicts that ravaged so much of Southeast Asia during the 20th century. It just wasn’t strategic enough for the CIA’s secret army or the opposition Pathet Lao rebels to attack or destroy. Another fortuitous event—although it didn’t seem so at the time—was the fact the current Communist regime had neither the funds nor foresight to develop Luang Prabang into a modern city when they took over in 1975.

 

This, the ancient and royal capital of Laos passed into modern times as a sort of hermitically sealed relic of the past, a fact that UNESCO recognized in 1995 when it declared Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site, deeming it “the best preserved traditional town in Southeast Asia.” That little bit of publicity was enough to spur a small but steady flow of travelers curious to see what all the fuss was about. This in turn sparked an advent of guesthouses, eateries, and handicraft boutiques, many of them concentrated along Sisavangvong Road in the middle of town. Enough action to give the place a trendy air, but not so much to spoil the city’s intrinsic charm, so much of it grounded in Buddhism.

The cadres may have ousted the last of the royals (who now live in European exile), but they couldn’t bring themselves to quash the city’s spiritual gravitas. Faith remains the city’s heart and soul, and monks its most conspicuous inhabitants, most of them bright-eyed youngsters lured from the countryside by the prospect of a free education, a solid roof over their heads, and three meals a day. Most seem to view their stint in a monastery as a temporary gig rather a lifelong duty. And while faith is no doubt the primary motivation, their sojourn in Luang Prabang is also a coming-out party—their first experience with the world beyond their village and their first contact with foreigners such as myself. And they are not shy when it comes to practicing their English.

Sidling up to me in front of Wat Sene temple is Boun How, a 20-year-old monk with a head full of astonishing facts and figures. Not about Laos, mind you, but my own homeland. “Do you know how high is the Statue of Liberty?” he asks.

“I really couldn’t say,” I answer.

“Three hundred and fifty-four steps!” he declares, clearly chuffed that he can tell me something about the United States that I don’t already know.

“How do you know that?” I ask, wondering if there’s a local version of Trivial Pursuit.

“Lao people living in New York City send me books about America. Did you know they have very big red trees in California? Very old and very special…”

And so went the week, in one monastery after another, conversations with monks who had an astonishing command of English and remarkable knowledge of an outside world they have rarely (if ever) seen. And these casual encounters, ephemeral as they seem at first, often lead me into deeper, richer encounters with local culture, like the initiation ceremony that I am invited to attend in the dazzling Wat Manorom on the city’s southern edge.

 

The ceremony kicks off with a dozen older monks—and three young novices who look barely out of their teens—chanting at the base of a 2-ton golden Buddha, the city’s largest religious figure. With the prologue finished, the families of the novices crawl forward along the marble floor and present new orange robes to the abbot. But before they can don their official monk attire, the novices must be purified in a sacred hoth song (water room) outside the temple. Stripping down to their skivvies, the would-be monks disappear into the small wooden structure. Family members and friends dump buckets of water down a wooden flu into the hoth song. Moments later, the three emerge in their spanking new robes and follow the abbot over a carpet of human bodies and back up the steps into the temple.

“It’s good luck,” says one of the local onlookers when I ask about the people who are being stepped on by the monks. “They think it will cure whatever troubles you.”

I run into more young monks at L’etranger, a combination bookstore/teashop on the backside of Mount Phousi in the middle of Luang Prabang. They are browsing English language “rental” books which you can borrow for a couple of hundred kip per day, and they invite me to visit their school. Next morning we hook up on the grounds of the Buddhist High School at Wat Siphoutthabat, its modest classrooms filled with eager learners with shaved heads and bright orange robes.

“They learn normal things,” says their chemistry teacher, his polo shirt emblazoned with a hammer and sickle. “Like mathematics and the history of Laos, but also how to read and write Sanskrit, and how to speak English. They have to pay for their books, pencils, and paper, but they don’t pay any tuition for their education.”

Knowing that most of them come from poverty-stricken backgrounds, I ask how they paid for their school supplies.

“They get money,” the teacher tells me, “from sponsors both inside and outside Laos. If the people are local, they go and pray at the home of their sponsors. If they are far away, they make offerings in the temple.”

Rising from the rear of the school is Mount Phousi, a rocky peak covered in thick woods that functions as a sort of theme park for locals and visitors alike. Sacred caves and jolly Buddha statues, ice cream stalls and snack counters, trained monkeys and the street urchins who tease them. The main attraction, which I reach by scaling 355 cement steps, is a terrace that looks out over Luang Prabang and the Mekong valley, one of the most memorable views in all of Southeast Asia, especially at sunset, when the entire city basks in a golden glow.

Coming down from the mountain, I find myself in the midst of a night market that has suddenly risen down the middle of Sisavangvong Road opposite the old Royal Palace. Hundreds of stalls overflow with hilltribe weavings and woodcarvings, rich silk fabrics imported from Thailand, and delicate paper lanterns that blush a dozen different colors. There are bangles and miniature Buddha statues and the obligatory “Lao Beer” T-shirts that every tourist seems to take home. But none of the vendors is too pushy. That just isn’t the local way. Buy if you like or just look—karma way is good karma.

Beckoning along Sisavangvong are several dozen eateries on the bottom floors of old French colonial shophouses, the tables spilling out onto open-air terraces where diners can watch the evening ebb and flow along the city’s main street. From fresh-baked baguettes to cheese pizza, most of the eateries offer something in the way of international cuisine, but Laotian food is what catches my eye; dishes like papaya salad, green chicken curry, and spicy coconut milk soup flavored with lemongrass, ginger, coriander, and chili. Similar to Thai, but subtly different. And here and there, exotic dishes like water buffalo sausage and something called “day meat smashed style” that I was not inclined to try.

Next morning I was back along the same strip, wandering through huge metal gates onto the grounds of the old Royal Palace, one of the city’s few secular landmarks. The garden could use a bit more tender loving care, but the palace itself has been meticulously preserved to the point where it feels as if the last monarch might have packed his bags and fled just yesterday. It was actually 1975 when King Savang Vattana was forced to abdicate and the Pathet Lao finally took control of the landlocked country after two decades of civil war. The king disappeared without a trace, a captive of the new regime, and his palace was transformed into a showcase of royal debauchery-or elegance-depending on your point of view.

Removing my shoes on the terrace outside, I step inside the whitewashed structure, the marble floors cool against my bare feet. It is a time warp, room after room that seems little changed from 30 years ago when the royal family called this home. Built in the decade before World War I, the palace blends French Beaux-Arts and traditional Lao design, European-style columns and murals offset by Oriental spires and a steeply pitched roof. But even here, you can’t escape the faith that underpinned everything in Laos, even the Western-educated monarchy, for the palace contains an elaborate glass mosaic of Buddha achieving nirvana and an impressive collection of religious statues, including the priceless “Prabang Buddha,” cast around 2,000 years ago in Sri Lanka.

“If you were the king this would be your bedroom,” says my English-speaking guide as we stroll through the royal living quarters. Dominating the room is the huge Erawan Bed—solid teakwood decorated with a three-headed elephant that symbolized the Lao monarchy. “I love this bed,” he smiles, “but I would have no space for it in my house.”

What I find most intriguing are the small things, the various ways that members of the last royal family amused themselves. In the music room I come across an old Victrola, a Pablo Casals gramophone “disque” perched on the turntable and presumably ready to play. Skimming shelves in the library I notice books by Voltaire, Zola, and Plutarch. Best of all is the palace garage, off-limits to the general public but the space between the doors wide enough for me to sneak a peak at the royal fleet—a red speedboat, a Ford Edsel sedan, and a white Lincoln Continental limousine from the late 1950s.

A few days later I’m back at the palace complex for a performance at the former Royal Theatre, one of the newer buildings in the city but perhaps the one most in need of an extreme makeover. A stark Soviet-era structure with drab maroon curtains, lumpy red velvet seats, and conspicuously absent ceiling tiles. But a dazzling show—a Lao version of the Ramayana (called the Phralak Phraram) performed several times each week by the national dance troupe.

After the revolution, the old Royal Ballet was dissolved and the dancers told to seek other employment. “This is a part of our culture that was almost lost,” says 72-year-old Onh Keopanya, who alternates between master of ceremonies and lead singer. “But in the late 1990s, the provincial government decided to revive the ballet and dances. It wasn’t easy. Many of the famous teachers and artists were no longer around. We trained our young people to take their place.”

Their performance is nothing short of stunning, a feast of fabulous costumes, astonishing music, and crisp choreography—especially Hanuman’s Monkey Army—forever snarling and scratching with simian fury, fighting one another with kung fu moves, obsessively grooming themselves and then eating their imaginary lice. And a grand finale that features several dozen female dancers whirling through an exotic waltz called the “Nang Keo,” composed for an ancient princess and first performed seven centuries ago.

Despite secular distractions like the dance troupe and the lively night market, everything in Luang Prabang eventually comes back around to the monks. At dinner at the chic Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel (former home of the Laotian crown prince), expatriate Frenchman Francis Engelmann discusses some of the unexpected (and rather odd) hazards that novices now face as a result of tourism and increased contact with outsiders.

“How do I state this delicately?” he asks. “There are a number of Japanese girls, who know each other from the Internet, who have made it into some sort of game to travel to Luang Prabang for the purpose of seducing young monks.” Responding to my look of disbelief, he quickly says, “Yes, this is true. Several young women have been deported from Laos and several monks expelled from their monasteries after they were caught together.”

Even without such high jinx, Englemann worries about the recent influx of foreigners and material goods. “Luang Prabang has changed a lot just in the last year,” he laments. “You now see cell phones and satellite dishes and new vehicles instead of the old Soviet cars barely hanging together. You cannot deny people the ability to raise their standard of living. But there are ways to channel development in a direction that doesn’t necessarily have to include casinos and loud nightlife. And that’s what we are hoping to do here in Luang Prabang.”

 

The cornerstone of that hope is World Heritage citation. Following up its words with solid deeds, UNESCO commissioned Englemann and others to create and implement an urban development plan that severely limits new construction and shoddy renovation on the peninsula that harbors most of the central city. High-rise construction is forbidden in the closer suburbs and the plan also created a “natural protection zone” along the lush Mekong River shoreline opposite Luang Prabang, a deep green backdrop for the city’s exotic skyline.

UNESCO has supplied a steady stream of funds over the past decade to restore the city’s Buddhist shrines, remake the streets with bygone brick paving, and assemble wrought-iron lampposts similar to those that graced Luang Prabang in colonial days. Private enterprise has also done its share, the conversion of dilapidated colonial villas into modern guesthouses and decrepit shophouses into hip restaurants, cyber cafes, and art galleries that pander to the slow but steady growth of tourism.

The city’s architectural integrity assured, Englemann hopes that visitors will help preserve Luang Prabang’s spiritual essence to by dressing modestly, interacting politely and taking the time to immerse themselves in Buddhist tradition, if only for a few minutes.

“Experience the harmony of the evening prayers of the monks,” he recommends. “Go to a temple around sunset. Sit outside on the steps of the sanctuary in silence. Close your eyes and listen to the monks chanting. Feel the peace overwhelming your heart.”

Seeking even a deeper sense of tranquility the following morning, I hop a barge to the Pak Ou Caves, about 16 miles upstream from the city, a sacred spot where the royals came to worship on the Lao New Year. The massive limestone caverns are a stark contrast to the guilt temples of Luang Prabang, but in their own way just as moving. Locals believe that no journey along the Mekong should commence before beseeching the river gods who are said to dwell in these caves for good fortune. At almost any time of day you find people clambering off boats, along the jetty and up steep steps into the caverns.

Over the last 500 years, devotees have placed more than 4,000 Buddhas in the caves—on shelves hewn from the raw stone, small brick altars and just about every level floor space. A handful of larger images are the first thing that catches my eye, but most of the statues are no more than a meter tall, made from wood or resin and covered in black lacquer or gold leaf. Some are dressed in miniature monk’s robes, while some look so old and fragile they might crumble at the first touch.

Some of the other visitors have brought fruit, flowers, and bottled drinks to place before their favorite Buddhas. But once again, I have come empty-handed. Not to fear—for even here in the middle of nowhere there are vendors. I buy a couple of joss sticks, set them in a pot of sand beneath an altar with several dozen figures, and sit cross-legged on a rattan mat with a view of both the cave and river. Curls of smoke drift toward the stony rafters, stained black after five centuries of veneration. Deep green moss and spider webs add an eerie effect to the ambience, giving the cave a creepy yet awesomely spiritual feel.

Thinking about what Engelmann had suggested the previous night, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. No chanting this time, just the gentle flow of the river in yet another ancient tradition that has stood the test of time in Luang Prabang.

In Asia – Episode 3 – LAOS from Vincent Urban on Vimeo.