Monday, May 19, 2014

In the Sketchbook: Luang Prabang, Laos

"Alms for the Monks"
Luang Prabang, Laos
As we neared the end of our stay in Vietnam, tour manager April prepared us for traveling to Laos and Cambodia. She said that in terms of economic development, Cambodia was 15 years behind and Laos was 30 years behind. The accommodations in Laos would be simple and pleasant. She taught us a few new words. I managed to learn hello -- "Sabaidie" - beautifully written in their alphabet, an Indic script, as ສະບາຍດີ.
After a very efficient entry at their small airport in Luang Prabang, a World Heritage town,the former royal capital of Laos, and the center of a thriving tourist industry, we boarded the bus for a short ride to our hotel. I was immediately struck by the change in architecture and alphabet, and suddenly had that aha moment when I understood we were in Indochina. Vietnam has been very influenced by China and the French, while Laos was influenced by Thailand and India. The architecture, even on small homes, looked like something from "The King and I." I wish I knew what they call the curlicues, and stacked structures. The Buddhist temples and former royal buildings were especially decorative. As we drove through town, I had one of those, "Wow, I am really here" moments.
We stayed at the Sala Prabang. I loved this little place where we filled the majority of their rooms. The room was exotically simple, roomy, done in blacks and white. The lobby was open air with a small courtyard in the middle of the buildings where we were served breakfast, a delicious affair with eggs to order, fruits, yogurts, Asian foods, and the best bread I had on the trip -- toasted over a wood fire in a barbecue kettle. Unfortunately I did not take pictures, but the link to the hotel will give you a peek. I liked all our hotel locations. Some tours will put you in nice hotels, but they are far from the action. All our hotels were right in the middle of town and sites.
Over the course of the next few days, we would visit temples and see the saffron-robed monks, and learn a bit about Buddhism. We were very taken with their approach to being a monk. Males of any age can become a monk and stay for as little as a few days to as much as their entire life. Our guide had been a monk twice, once when his father died when he young, and again as a young adult. He is married now with children. The temples housed many statues of Buddha, from the very large to small, and many do not have the girth of what I think of as a Buddha.
We had two of my favorite experiences here. One was alms giving for the monks. Around 6:00 every morning, the monks walks in single formation through the town gathering alms. I previously assumed alms was money -- wrong -- it's food that you place into their bowl as they pass silently. It is a way for people to connect with the spiritual. We were provided with sticky rice, some wrapped sweet bars, a prayer shawl, small stool, and rug. We placed the shawl over our shoulders, sat on the stool on the rug, and removed our shoes. I have to admit I felt a little like Lucy (Lucille Ball) on an assembly line. I could not get the sticky rice into the bowls very quickly.

Our second wonderful experience was visiting an elephant rescue sanctuary, and I got to be a Mahout for the elephant and drove Maecom, a 38-year-old female, across a small island while her trainer took photos. The elephants have been saved from the logging industry where they are worked to death as the land is denuded to supply wood to China under contracts with the Laotian military. The elephants have a quiet life here and give a ride a day. The females are very gentle and sure-footed, which was good when we descended and ascended a treacherous riverbank.,

I climbed out of the basket and onto Maecom's head, placing my knees behind her ears. Those bare legs you see belong to Bob! It was quite fitting that I drove and he was the passenger as that is the way things are at home -- Bob is a public transit and bicycle kind of guy. We also got to take a rustic boat across the river and visit a 7-month old baby elephant. He's gotten old enough to be naughty and now must stay in his pen when visitors come to see him and Mommy. He enjoyed our company, though.

 On our final morning in Laos, we toured the National Museum, the former Royal Palace. We saw how the last royal family lived. Their furniture and clothes remain. The guide tactfully explained they were sent to a reeducation camp when their government was overthrown by the current ruling party. They had been pulled into the Vietnam War and sided with the USA.  In an aside with our tour manager, I learned that they died in the camp, probably of starvation.
The temple at the National Museum

We had many other experiences here, including visiting Kuang Si waterfall and having a picnic lunch with everything wrapped in banana leaves, participating in a Baci ceremony to call our soul and pray for a safe journey, and visiting a Hmong village where the families wove beautiful silks and made paper. The Laotian government has a history of genocide against the Hmong and many fled through Thailand to the US. This small town is thriving. This tour was jam packed, but we had time for social hour with our tour friends and getting some laundry done. I have a soft spot in my heart for this small country.

After our museum visit, we were whisked off to the little international airport and flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia on Vietnam Airlines.


martinealison said...


Merci pour ce très joli et passionnant reportage agrémenté d'une jolie aquarelle.

Gros bisous ♡

CrimsonLeaves said...

What an amazing trip, Mary. I love seeing your photos and paintings from this time. All so wonderful!! My goodness but you and Bob look so young and fit!!

hw (hallie) farber said...

I love the photo of you and Bob on the elephant! And I love reading about your trip--interesting that monks can stay as little or long as they like. I think Buddhism offers a lot.

Barbra Joan said...

Mary! I never know where in the world you are !!!
But I see your back home. You've had some amazing experiences on this last trip and thank you for sharing the photos.
I'm lucky if I get to the next state. lol !
I can tell you that Buddhism is a religion I wanted to embrace .
And if I weren't so darn old I still might. BJ