Our first morning in Laos came early: we woke at 5 AM and our guide, Lo, was waiting at our door at 5:30. The previous day was a long and hot one, so Alex and I gave the kids the morning to sleep in. We were, however, thrilled to be joined by two new additions to the team, my mom and dad, who had met us in Chiang Mai a few days earlier. So the five of us headed off into the dust and dawn of Luang Prabang, third-largest city in Laos, which doesn’t have a single stoplight.
Lo brought us to the main street in town, sat us on four plastic stools, and handed us each a bamboo basket full of sticky rice. He told us to be ready for action, scoop quickly, but stay quiet. Alongside us, a flock of Chinese Tourists (a term we’ve heard uttered with a dismissive shake of the head many times over the past two months) took to their stools. Their baskets were full of candy and packaged snacks, which could only lead to more shaking of the heads from guides and superior travelers such as ourselves.
A few moments later, the Laotian tradition of Tak Bat was underway. As has happened every morning for hundreds of years, groups of twenty to thirty monks, each from a different temple, processed by and accepted gifts of food from those seated along the street. It has, in recent years, become a bit of a circus, with vans unloading bleary-eyed tourists to take part in what is intended to be a solemn expression of devotion and gratitude. Our stretch of sidewalk was relatively calm, but the cynic in me couldn’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable about dropping in on such an event with a very thin grasp on the significance of this tradition.
The non-cynic in me tried his best to go with the moment, and recognize the commitment that these monks had made to their calling. They were young and old, many younger than our own William. Theirs is a life of meditation and poverty among the activity of their surrounding towns and cities. In Sri Lanka, Thailand, and now Laos, we’ve seen young monks walking the streets, often goofing off or on their cell phones. Those same kids are up at 4 AM each day to begin prayers, and the food placed in their bowls on the street each morning makes up their diet for the day. It was clear that many of the younger monks were not too upset about the Chinese Tourists’ contributions.
When our baskets of rice were empty, we walked through an alley to a smaller street running parallel to the main drag. Here, we got a glimpse of the other side of the Tak Bat ritual: a handful of local residents, who likely actually cooked their own rice that morning, sat in silence and waited to give alms to the monks. Again, I felt a bit uncomfortable gawking, but this side of town proved that the simple beauty of the tradition is surviving as Laos has opened itself to tourists from places like China (and DC).
That opening only took place in 1989, which helps to explain the minor culture shock that we felt as we arrived from Chiang Mai. Luang Prabang seems downright sleepy compared to CM, in the best of ways. The backpacker and traveler scene is on a much smaller scale, and the buses of Chinese Tourists that run around Chiang Mai are replaced by vans and tuk tuks. English is much less common, and life is generally not quite as easy as it was in Chiang Mai. The balance of local and tourist has yet to tip in the way that it has in Chiang Mai. The tuk tuks here, however, can comfortably fit a family of eight.
Laos was a French colony for the first half of the twentieth century, and the remnants of that era are common. Baguettes and French Doors are everywhere, and we have been surprised to find that the food, Lao and French alike, is much better than the Thai food of Chiang Mai.
After the French came the Secret War waged by our friends at the CIA and the arrival of a communist government that is still in place today. We can’t claim to have been affected by that part of Lao life, but did pick up on Lo’s refusal to bite when my dad pressed him on the fate of King Vatthana, who was generally believed to have been shipped off to a re-education camp by the Pathet Lao in the mid-1970s. Lo stuck to the (literally) party line and pointed out that Vatthana was never a legitimate king to begin with, and we thus shouldn’t worry about him.
That’s an unironic hammer and sickle above. We’ve had some good talks about the history of SE Asia in the later twentieth century, and we hope that this will prepare the kids somewhat for what we will soon see and learn about in Cambodia and Vietnam.
The three big kids, Alex and I left the house late this morning with visions of fruit shakes and a ride into the countryside dancing in our heads. We biked through a maze of motor scooters, tuk tuks, and pick-up trucks along the way, sucking in 99 degrees of humidity and smoke as we rode. We arrived downtown around 11 AM, at which point the main street, home to the monks’ procession at dawn and the crowds of the night market, was empty save for a few pale and very sweaty tourists at each temple. The town doesn’t officially shut down for a siesta, but the emptiness of the streets reminded us of the pueblas blancas of Spain back in September. The heat dashed our plans to head for the hills, and the best we could manage was to hit every smoothie stand that we could find, sit in dazed silence while we waited for our drinks, and wonder how we would make it back uphill to the house and, more importantly, the pool.
We set out up the hill after Alex reminded us that no pool was worth the heat stroke we were risking, and that there would be no shame in pulling over and hailing a tuk tuk. Much to our surprise and relief, however, we were greeted along the way by several groups of kids popping out from storefronts and house with buckets of cold water. They doused us with the water and yelled a few “Happy New Years” as we rolled by, officially marking the beginning of Pi Mau Lao, aka Lao New Year, aka the Water Festival. The cold splash in the face was a welcome bookend to the quiet solemnity of our first morning in Luang Prabang. Tradition comes in many forms, and we were especially happy to get a taste of Pi Mau Lao this afternoon.
We would love to stick around for the festival next week, but will move on to Siem Reap tomorrow and take in the Khmer New Year celebrations there. We are moving quickly through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, but Luang Prabang is clearly a place where we could have set up camp for two or three weeks.
What it lacks in the creature comfort department, it makes up for with a welcome dose of peace and quiet, plus some genuine culture that has yet to be tainted by us loud Americans and our Chinese counterparts. That said, as I type this at 11:30 PM, a wedding party nearby has been blasting karaoke for the past couple of hours. They have made it from “El Condor Pasa” to “Hotel California,” with many stops along the way. I hope the monks are far enough away to be sleeping through it.