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North from Bangkok


It’s Called Luang Prabang


Story by Eric Madeen



It almost goes without saying that there's much to see and do in Bangkok. But for travelers who wish to continue the Indochinese enchantment, there's Laos, right next door — just a hop, skip and jump away. Maybe this is what they mean when they talk about the global village: a place where ancient temples stand next to French palaces, the tribes of the world gather to trade thoughts and goods, and novice monks can strike up friendships that span hemispheres. Welcome to Luang Prabang.


Just out of Thailand, over northern Laos, I stared at clouds layered like streaked rock. The clouds turned into vapor over a gossamer of rice terraces. The terrain changed as the sun struck camouflage and giraffe colors in forest and brush scarred by long, thin lines of ocher road. Apart from a cluster of rusty roofs stood a temple on stilts beside a muddy pond shaped like a child's drawing of a whale. A distant field burned, wind dragging its smoke for miles. Mountains rose, their saddles offering more fenestration on the mighty Mekong. A longboat floated there like a needle. A thistle patch of palms. Crisscrossed streets. More temples. Houses. Shops. Traffic. All sprang into view as I touched down, jazzed, in Luang Prabang.


A City Saved


For excellent reasons UNESCO named Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site in 1995. There's a wonderland of temples and Lao-French buildings that make this old royal capital the best-preserved traditional town in Southeast Asia. Outnumbering cars are motorcycle hybrid vehicles and bicycles especially when school lets out. The other rush hour is just before dawn, when a handful of tourists rush after monks to photograph them gathering alms. The population is small, friendly, and multi-ethnic, with various tribal people, including the Hmong and Mien in traditional garb, selling their wares at market. There's the stunning Royal Palace Museum, or Golden Hall, built in a melange of motifs Lao and French Beaux Arts. Its throne hall boasts a wealth of treasures, from the king's elephant chair to gold and silver sabers against a backdrop of Tibetan glass mosaics over royal red walls. The food's great and reasonably priced, as are accommodations. And there's this incredible waterfall a boat trip and tuk-tuk ride away... But enough overview.


I'm on the ground now, though it feels as if my head is still in the clouds with the crown jewel of Luang Prabang temples before me. Wat Xieng Thong sits perched above the confluence of the Mekong and Nam rivers amid hibiscus, bougainvillea, frangipani, palms and banyans. Everything about it is stunning: the low-sweeping tile roofs, the exterior walls embedded with colorful cut Tibetan glass and, most of all, a mood of utter tranquillity.


Around a stone table on the swept temple grounds, under some shade trees, sits a group of novice monks. I approach smiling. Their stares tell me that I, tall, long-nosed, blond, must look as exotic to them as they to me. Before long, though, I'm sitting with the group and laying out my implements of transcription, nationality, job and so on, all in an effort to get them to open up to me.


With their shaven heads, saffron robes and religious devotion, monks, in my mind, are very serious people. These guys, though novices, seem to bolster that preconception that was partly nurtured by the seventies TV-show kung fu. There are seven of them, with numbers eight and nine meandering closer. I'm lucky; today is a Buddhist holiday. Otherwise they'd be praying, chanting and studying.


"Every seven days have holiday for Buddhist temple," explains Boun Thieng, a 17-year-old novice. He has friendly eyes, a quick smile and plastic sandals held together with bolts. Clipped to his sash are a key chain heavy with tiny padlock keys and a sports watch. "Good veder today," he continues. "So my good fortune."


Digging out a sheaf of kip, I ask the table at large what they'd like to drink.


"Beer," one novice says.


"Really?"


"No, joking, joking." Much laughter all around. I feel the kung fu ice of preconception cracking.


I watch the novice dispatched to the drink stand return empty handed. What gives? Where are the sodas? But then they appear in a plastic bag from under his robes. I'm beginning to see that this Boun Thieng has an aura about him. The bottles are slid across the table to him. Using the table edge as a fulcrum, he pounds off their caps with his fist while carrying on the conversation.


Monk Business


He'll be a novice for three years and then become a monk, which doesn't quite square with what he says later about wanting to go to Japan to earn his M.B.A. (a money degree) and then come back to Laos to help his people. But I'm a postmodern man; I can handle contradiction, especially from an ambitious teenager. He's learning his English via the VOA Laos Service and the BBC World Service on radio, at school and from tourists. His stream-of-consciousness summary of his day deserves full quotation:


"Novice and monks get up at 4:00 a.m. then pray Buddha one hour then make meditate 15 minutes until 6 then take some food on main street, many kinds of food, collecting sticky rice, cake and everythings, like bananas and eggs, oranges, like that, milk, mango, cooked beef, river fish, chicken. It's nice, collecting food. Fun. Because it's good food, nice to eat. Then come back to temple. About 7, villagers bring food. Ring bell to call monks to breakfast then go to study at about 8. Study about English and Buddhist history. In my school have 15 subjects to study. Six hours of study per day. At 1:30, study mathematics and chemistry then finish school at 5:30 then take a bath and shower then go pray Buddha again at 6 for about 1 hour then go to study about subject at school. History, geography, mathematics, English grammar until 11:30 p.m. then go to bed. Wake up at 4 or so to bell. Study Sanskrit and Buddhist history first. When I wanted to be novice, sounded interesting to be a monk. But you couldn't decide by myself. Asked parents can be okay if you want to be a novice."


At this juncture a young English lady came by. She and other backpackers had joined the photographer and me for dinner the previous night. (Note: In Luang Prabang, it's wise to limit the number of travelers you meet because you keep running into them all over town all day long.) She took "I like your accent," Boun Thieng tells her. "Easy to hear."


"See you," she says eventually, strolling off, and that was the last I saw of her.


One novice beams, exclaiming, "See you tonight!"


"If you're lucky," she says, grinning over her shoulder.


Buddha School


Much laughter all around except from one novice and me. More startled by the joke than amused, I felt the beginnings of a defamiliarization process of monk life in Theravada Buddhism. Shortly after this exchange, two novices exchanged playful karate kicks, then got into some wrestling moves. Across the table, I felt the pinprick stare from a certain novice registering my bewilderment. Fervent and almost ferret-like, his close-set eyes didn't miss much. Despite a wiry build, his voice was deep, calling the rowdy novices "naughty boys." Radiating intensity (the photographer, a Buddhist himself, later said of him, "Now there's a monk!"), Amahn was 20, that age when a novice either becomes a monk or leaves the temple. Amahn wanted to become a monk, he hoped with the sponsorship of a Laotian American in California. Then, he told me, he'd like to attend a Buddhist university in Chiang Mai. For many of the novices, the temples in Luang Prabang allow them to continue their education, which would have ended at the elementary-school level in the villages, before hanging up their robes to enter Laos' fledgling economy. Some may stay for less than a month. Nonetheless, the experience allows them and their families to earn merit.


The longer I hung out in Luang Prabang, the more I could see that there were, in varying degrees, two distinct types of novices. Seemingly in the minority were Amahn and his type. Then, at least on their day off, the equivalent of hormone-saturated teenage boys hanging out at the filling-station, swigging sodas, joking, horsing around, catcalling to the girls. A Japanese girl from Okinawa told me how a novice at the same temple came on to her with the line, in Japanese, "Ai shiteru." It means, "I love you."


I didn't know quite where to situate Boun Thieng. Maybe somewhere in between. Though later, on the steps down to the Mekong, I was amused when he struck a lady-killer pose, hand on hip and grinning from ear to ear as he backed away from a Japanese lady tour guide who moved in close as if to tickle him while saying, for the edification of her tour group, "And we can't touch you, right?" One of the 10 precepts for novices (monks must adhere to 227) forbids touching women. "No," Boun Thieng giggled, confirming, "cannot touch."


When asked about the corruption allegations against a number of monks in a certain sect in neighboring Thailand, Amahn was quick to point out, "They're not monks at all. They're counterfeit monks. People who dress like monks and get their hair cut like monks but who are not monks." Case closed. Of the novices he sees flirting with tourist girls at Wat Xieng Thong, Amahn said he reports them to the abbot, then feels free of it. In any case, I wanted to see more of temple life.


With everything being shoveled into guide books these days, and just about every other traveler toting one, usually the same one, I needed to venture off the beaten track, to get behind the scenes. I asked to see their sleeping quarters.


Home Sweet Closet


In a room not much larger than a walk-in closet lived two novices, the older one claiming the bed, his junior the mat on the floor. Nailed to the ceiling were saffron robes for, as Amahn explained, "protection from rat."


"And rain," Boun Thieng added.


Amahn overruled, "But cannot stop the rain. Maybe umbrella can."


The false promises of colorful advertisements papered over the plank walls, clashing with the austere sight of a black-lacquered alms bowl slung from a pole. One novice showed me how he carries it in a shoulder sling. When I said I wanted to photograph him, he quickly shed the sling and they all squealed and ran in place. Looking through the wooden bars of the sole window to a gold-leaf stupa under the leaves outside, I listened to Amahn's explanation. "It has bone of Buddha. To make stupa have bone or something inside, like bone of high man at temple." He raised his hand up to his forehead to illustrate importance.


As for such importance, there was only one monk higher in this wat's echelon than Monk Pheng, aged 94, before whom we now sat in a way that I quickly learned was an insult. "Please don't sit like that, Mr. Eric," Amahn said. "He is very famous."


Like an idiot, I had the bottoms of my feet pointed at him. The feet are the lowest part of the body. The head, it follows, is the highest, which explains the taboo against touching someone's head. My low bow and profuse apology were graciously accepted. But, alas, the gem of my questions went untranslated. "It's a very good question," Amahn finally said after much deliberation in Lao with his co-interpreter, "but we don't know how to ask him."


Outside roosters crowed. Aside from the odd luxury of four dusty clocks on a shelf showing four approximations of the hour (about 4!), inside things were as they were supposed to be at a monk's quarters: austere. All the way down the line, multipurposeful monk's robes, or the cloth from which they're cut, served as mosquito netting and privacy shields rising up from the foot of each bed. Brooms and fly swatters crowded a corner. Umbrellas with worn handles hung from a board. A standing Buddha figure stood as intended. This august monk sat crosslegged on a cushion, his head drooping so far below the continuous line of his shoulders that from behind he would appear headless. Enjoying a hefty chaw of tobacco, he spat tea-colored dribble into a bowl and then tilted his head like a bird to hear the questions. Raising a face much bludgeoned by time, his eyes watery from age, he answered in Lao.


He decided to return to the monkhood at 27 when his wife passed away. He teaches Buddhist history, basically to whomever comes along. No, there weren't any tourists back when he was a novice. It's good to have tourists around for learning English. At this point, I sensed that Amahn began to put the proper words in his mouth as the interpretation grew longer than his answers: "He'd like to earn merit, get more merit for another life. You do very well in Buddhism when you are a good person, then when you die you can be reborn. He earns merit everyday and always prays to Buddha."


Completing the ritual and signaling an end to the visit, he poured himself a glass of water, rinsed out his mouth then spat into the bowl.


Heart Menders


Trying to ignore the pins-and-needles pain of sitting crosslegged, I listened to Amahn explain the finer points of Buddhism, including the five precepts for lay people no stealing, lying, killing, adultery or intoxication. "When broken-hearted people come to us we can help them through meditation." A small trapezoid of light from a tiny window way up in the rafters slanted down to the floor as Amahn made friendship bands for us out of orange string and then tied them around our wrists. Demonstrating how to get rid of a mosquito in preparation for our meditation, he cautioned, "Don't swat at it but gently brush the mosquito off, like this."


I was instructed to say, in a low voice, "Satu satu satu..." over and over but the outside world kept crashing in through my sonic windows. Rupturing my meditation were scrubbing sounds, children playing soccer, some tourists trying to enter quietly but failing through the swishing of their clothes and camera bags, roosters crowing, and more. Still turning over the chant in my mind satu satu satu I felt the borders of self erode until the noises were there not so much as ruptures but as part of me, my experience. Blue was there in my mind's eye as a feathering sensation spread upwards from the base of my spine, a magical tingling. A more electric blue... A Luang Prabang moment.


"Ask him, how does he get his resonance? In other words, what gives him time out from ego business, that clawing business of the self? I mean, what brings him out of himself? What makes him forget himself and his problems? For me, tell him, it's simple things. That thud of fruit falling to the earth. The wind rippling still water. A light wind rustling through trees. The crunch and smell of autumn leaves. A hard rain on a tin roof. What about him?" What about you?


It's a Wired World


PlaNet Online is an internet cafe in an old French colonial building on Luang Prabang's main drag. You look through the plate-glass picture windows into another world. A pair of spiral staircases rise from spotless cream-colored tile as a TV flickers high on a wall. Faces of every description are bent over computers. Walk inside to the chill of air conditioning and the busy click of keyboards over New Age music. Stay long enough and you'll hear the chatter of many tongues.


A Canadian woman I first met on the corner of the Meung Market where she was calling out for a waterfall trip ("It's cheaper and more fun when you go as a group") said that she uses PlaNet Online to stay in touch not only with people from home but new friends she has made traveling. "Pauline is an Australian woman I met in Chiang Mai," she said. "We've been exchanging emails and will hopefully hook up here."


Joanne Tsung, a corporate lawyer from New York on sabbatical, said she's been using internet cafes to help document her travels in Southeast Asia for readers of her travelogue "Lawyer on the Loose" posted on the online magazine Oxygen. "I use internet cafes to submit 800-word articles with digital photos," she explained. "My readers have been following me around Southeast Asia."


Another journalist, an American man at the computer next to mine, explained that he jacks into the net to check news and send in his articles.


As for the speed, a Swedish man complained, "It's murderously slow. Hotmail is even slower here than in Vientiane."


Already in business for two years, there are three internet cafes in Luang Prabang. The staff, Somlith and Khamla, took turns explaining. "We're open 8:00 am to 10:00 pm every day. Business is good. Going well. Many, many customers, mostly tourists from all over the world. Usually they use for email. Sometimes problems, like System 10 is now down. Customers complain of slowness, slow email, getting into Hotmail. Mornings and evenings are faster. From 10 to 3 is quite slow. We don't know why. We are not technicians." When pressed, they speculated: "The modems are old and the mountains around Luang Prabang are high."


They said only an occasional Lao will come in. On that note, I asked a novice monk, seated at one of the terminals, how he uses PlaNet Online. "I email my foreign friends from America, France and Switzerland," he said. "When I press email I am really glad when I see I have mail."


Some things are universal.


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This article first appeared in Wingspan, the inflight magazine of All Nippon Airways.