Day 18 – Luang Prabang, idling and watching

Well this must be halfway through now. In spite of good intentions to get up at dawn and watch the monks’ procession I opted for my very comfortable and warm bed. There were no bananas at breakfast and I set off on a bike over the river without eating. After crossing the river on the car-free wooden bridge I quickly found myself in semi-countryside with tracks instead of roads.

My first stop was Watpakha Xaingaram which has a ruined wat which has stood in that form for over 200 years. On the same site a new temple has been recently built. I cycle up and around a few times to get comfortable with approaching the monks working there. Two are painting white the lotus bud statues. Wearing orange marigold gloves to match their robes.

Two younger monks (one a novice, I think the monks wear yellow and orange, the novice just orange) are crouched around a couple of small wood fires. On nearing I can see the novice is shaping wooden handles for the multi-purpose long thick knives they use here and heating the blades before banging them into the handles to make a complete item. The monk is wearing a yellow hat and goes to get a pan of water which slowly boils. A very young novice flits between the action neither helping nor hindering. The monk with the pan calls out hello and invites me to sit with him. His name is Won. He is 25and asks me the usual questions of an elementary English speaker: name/age/family/origin etc. he also asks for my email address (not sure why, but if he writes I can send him one of the characterful photos I took). His mobile rings: his family calling. After 20 minutes or so of pleasant small talk in the sun I move off again.

The next Wat is on top of a hill, and I approach it passing a couple of houses where women are weaving at looms outside. The wat is surrounded by a wall with 2 entrances from the forest, each guarded by a pair of stone lions, and features a tidy temple, the main steps of which are flanked by a pair of three-headed nagas, a collection of sleeping buildings, a wooden kitchen/eating area, a laundry area, a drum house with a 2 tier roof and a couple of tree-shaded seating areas. There is also a much older crumbling. almost toppling down brick stupa. Skinny kittens, brightly coloured cocks, a small dog with lop-sided ears, some pigeons hopping up the steps, a butterfly or two…

Here I spend about 1 hour just absorbing life at the wat and trying to understand the roles and interaction the novices and monks have. There is constant activity between the buildings, the monks and novices are always on the move but not actually doing very much. In the morning much seems to revolve around food. A heavily swathed young novice aged around 11 climbs the steps to the wat from the road below with a bag full of fruit, maybe mango. Later I see another novice come from another direction with another bag. Meanwhile a couple of novices are fetching water and hand washing a big bundle of robes. Another 2 are breaking up wood which they use to build a fire to heat water on. An older monk who is reading from a book moves from the heat of the sun to the shade of the temple porch. The baby of the temple (the young one) shares out some of the fruit. He is loud, laughing, joking running around, a typically unself-conscious young kid. I notice later a huge scar of about40 cm that runs from his back round to his chest just above his breast bone. He also has a 20cm scar on the back of his head, which is clearly visible through his stubbled head. I am not acknowledged but accepted, and the atmosphere is happy and relaxed. One of the novices who was building the fire appears from his lodging house and stands on the steps peeling mangoes which he produces from his robe. He has a small bowl of chilli paste which he dips them in. The others come and join in, the baby novice runs over, his robes gathered up like anppy.. I cant imagine such scenes at a Catholic monastry (that suggests solemnity, austerity, discomfort, silence, coldness). I was thinking it felt timeless with these primitive chores, but through the stillness I detect tinny rock music: it’s coming from one of the novice’s mobiles. He holds it high as he crosses the yard. Meanwhile an older monk, wearing socks, has climbed up from the forest and entered the temple building (it’s called a sim, I think). other monks appear from the sim: they must have been praying inside. Two women arrive on a motorbike, one with a jug of orange juice which she leaves in front of the sim. They cat to the monks on the porch. These monks wrap and unwrap and rehang their robes as they talk. Seems there are hundreds of ways to wear them. Lunchtime (11.30) is approaching. The baby goes into the sim and brings out his bowl that he uses to collect alms (it’s gold and looks like a drum). Another novice takes his bowl across the yard to the eating house. I gather they are combining their alms and preapring the last meal they are allowed in the day. A gong is sounded. It must be lunchtime. The monks cross to that house. I leave.

The road takes me through many bans These are villages with temples. The road is lined with dwelling houses, many with yards where women are working: weaving, making paper; old women are cooking around fires, fowl are running around. There are a few stores: open windows selling drinks, snacks and household essentials. There are cyclists, people on motorbikes, novices going to see their families, holding umbrellas against the harsh sun.

And there are many temples…I come across a yard full of corn husks orange as they dry in the sun, then the local police station which is a house with a big open door. The policemen are eating and the only signs of technology are a white board with some notes on the wall above their dining table. Their vehicles are unmarked old motorbikes. To the side, next to their cages of poultry, an officer, in his khaki uniform is cooking at a wood fire.

This road runs more or less along the bank of the Nam Khan river and I retrace it to a path which descends to a little shack selling drinks on the edge of the river right at the confluence with the Mekong. About 100m up the river is a rickety bamboo bridge which takes you back into Luang Prabang.

This is rebuilt every dry season, as the rainy season swells the river and it can only be crossed by boat at that point. On the bridge I meet the very man who built it (with the aid of 20 others, over a period of 2 weeks). He introduces himself as Mr Ton Pan, 48, 4 kids and tells me that this is his job, and he maintains the bridge too. He has a lot of missing teeth. He makes me promise to return and share a beer with him at sunset, but I have other plans.

Across the bridge I pay the toll of 5000 kip and haul my bike up the steps. At the top are some Americans umming and erring about the bridge; “Is it safe?” “I hope they get the money, not the government”…..Just cross the bridge, damn it!

I take lunch at the same restaurant as yesterday, by the river with a spicy green salad and a marvellous red plum shake. I spend some of the afternoon drifting past the more ornate and more touristy temples in the town centre, then branch out and accidentally find myself at a funeral: two coffins burning on altars under massive towers with tiered pagoda-like roofs. Then climbing a hill to visit Santi Chedi, a big gold structure which you can climb all the way to the top of the inside, each floor getting smaller and smaller and each with paintings on the ceilings of the story of the buddha.

After that I visit the mosque shaped That Makmo (nicknamed the watermelon stupa) which is grey and mossy. I watch some young kids play keepy-up and football.

On leaving, the infant school has finished nearby. Kids in white shirts and red neckerchiefs clamber the walls of the wat like the monkeys at the Batu caves as they wait for their mums to pick them up on their motorbikes.

Back to Utopia bar for a beer, read, and sunset. They have tables and flowerpots made from the casings of US bombs. Strange, macabre, fetishistic recycling…

The same market stall for dinner and a night-time cycle around the peninsular. There is a lot more to write here, but I must go…