Day 20 – Luang Prabang – Magic moments

This is 3 days out of date: long haul journeys and holidays keeping me away from a computer.

30 December. Woke at dawn, up at 5.30, thinking it was 6.30 and onto the deathly quiet and empty street in complete darkness. Like passing ghosts an apparition of novice monks in orange robes, barefoot passed by in single file their alms bowls around their necks, and then gone again into the blackness. A second line passed right by me on the same side of the street, in descending height order, sleepy and looking like they would rather be in bed. An old woman, crouching on a cushion, with a bowl of sticky rice, waiting for the next contingent. I thought about climbing the mount to watch the sunrise, instead, I did a circuit of the peninsular, So still, so quiet. A couple of locals offered me some rice for the monks (for sale)… On reaching the main road, the one lined with the spectacular temples and guest houses and cafes, a few mini-buses and tuk-tuks were arriving and discharging their cargoes of tourists with cameras ready for the “performance”. I really didn’t want to be part of this. Light was slowly coming. The street busying with those taking vantage points either to give alms or take pictures. I wandered the fresh food market, Women cooking and preparing over fires in big pans their dishes, Men browsing the vegetable stalls, some with torches, some apparently with night vision. I couldn’t even make out what the produce was, let alone the quality. Back on the main drag, I sensed then saw the next troop of monks and I watched from a respectful distance. On a side road I chanced upon another, where an old woman, head bowed was dropping a handful of rice into each monk’s bowl.

As they turned the corner onto the main street through the half-light there was a series of dazzling flashes, Like media stars being ambushed by paparrazzi the monks’ daily chore was rudely disturbed. This happened with the next 2 groups of monks too. These assholes with flashes obviously haven’t read any of the polite notices asking tourists to desist from this kind of disrespectfulness of what is a solemn ritual. Or, he thought it doesn’t apply to him. What does he think when he takes then looks at those pictures? A special moment? A moment ruined for those giving alms, those collecting and everyone else observing with dignity. I decided I had experienced my own special moments and didn’t want to see any more. Zoo animals and people offering us (the zoo visitors) bamboo shoots to feed them. Most sights are raped of their magic by idiots with camera or phones. Those who think a picture is worth a thousand words. The point is they wouldn’t even have 5 words to say, so little do they actually engage and reflect on their experiences. Cameras make us lazy and give us something to hide behind.

I enjoy the first light at the temple near the guesthouse and witness the bizarre sight of an over-dressed man in his thirties wearing a red and blue shell-suit jogging circuits of the grey stupa.

I take a little sleep and dream of sitting in a cafe at a window with a woman. In the street outside is a procession of high-powered super cars, some with big spoilers.

I have breakfast at the Mekong and watch the long boats ferrying monks, locals their baskets empty, now they’ve sold their produce and other folk on some kind of business over the river.

I visit the library where you can swap books to replenish the stock, Here, the Children’s Library, which relies on donations is managed. They collect clothes and other recyclables. Most importantly they encourage people to but books from their stock to give to local remote communities, where books are a a scarce commodity, and schools are to few. Children by law only need to attend school to the completion of primary level. Some villages have no teachers. Distances are great and travel across the mountainous areas is hard. This organisation also has a river library which is trying to spread reading habits and increase the availability of materials to the harder to get to places. Books are a luxury. I think about all the stuff we throw out in UK. I think about all the books we threw out at Regency.

I do my bit. I buy a couple of books. They are are cheaply published and do not look fun to learn from. I’m touched by the plight of kids here. On the one hand I don’t like being a tourist, but on the other hand tourism brings money to this country. As the volunteer worker told me, all kids should learn English  as they need to connect with the outside world.

On my bike I cross the wooden bridge, over to the rural side of the town, and end up once more at the ruined temple (incidentally I just got an email message wishing me a happy new year from the monk i met there). I was drawn there by the large group of people and a spectacle. I was at another cremation. Opposite the altar, which stands beneath a tower are 2 shelters, one for the men and one for the women (they are dressed up in white, the men are slightly less casually dressed than usual), I summise.There is evidence of a kind of feast/picnic, but now the proceedings are quite advanced. On the altar stands a big cream gilded coffin. This is lowered by monks with newly shaven scalps into a hole on top of the altar. There are some set-piece photos. A group of women, a couple quite elderly pose before the altar, one ( a sister of the deceased) holds a framed photo of an old woman (must be the coffin recumbant). This is watched by a solitary standing old man. The sole man there who seems moved by the gravity and dignity of the moment. As the women return to the shelter area, I notice the old woman has tears in her eyes. This is the only show of sadness seen. Everyone else is quite sociable and jolly. A fire is lit under the coffin and a huge ball of fire engulfs the coffin. The monks stand in a group for a photo and video opportunity before the fire, then begin to take their leave. A could light cigarettes. The crowds disperse quicky with the pyre still burning. Strange there is no smell.

I cycle into the compound of Wat Phan Sa-At which is high above the Mekong and take my time to take in the view of the 2 rivers converging, framed nicely by a small group of novices and some shady trees.

I follow the road through the Bans with the textiles and paper workshops, til the road comes to an abrupt blockage: an open-sided marquee straddling the road where some party is taking place. There are some young guys playing a keyboard and the microphone rotates between a number of others. Laos pop, strangely soothing and up-beat. I’m spied from the wings and invited to sit, and a beer is poured. Beer Laos with ice. Then I’m beckoned to the swelling dance floor where both old and young (I don’t mean kids) are jiggling, moving, rotating in a merry way. The girl who invites me insists on my downing countless BeerLaos in one. Soon lots of people want to dance with the falang, Everyone smiling at me, laughing, and Beer being our common vocabulary. One of the PA speakers falls over, the numbers dwindle, then there is a second wind.

By 4pm we are all drunk, and I decide the time is right to retrace my path. I’m drawn back to the Wat by the river for sundown and am entranced, almost hypnotised by the chorus of novice voices led by an older deeper monk voice chanting in the prayer hall as dusk descends. A special moment.

I roam the night market and to my deep joy discover several stalls selling bountiful cheap and delicious veggie buffets. I eat at the first place I see, but really should have browsed first, as each one along the same lane looked better and better. I stymie my excitement by buying a takeaway box from more stalls for my long journey tomorrow. Here I bump into Marie, once more. Somehow it didn’t surprise me. We meet up later after i have done some souvenir shopping (I didn’t want textiles, so I bought a painting of a tree with some Laos text on hand-made paper). Marie and I go to Utopia bar, with its little winding paths and coloured lanterns it feels like some kind of fairy land. By the river we drink. The 1/2 hour of reclining chat and stargazing is eventually disturbed by a large loud sweary drunk group of British (some) backpacker types. Shouting at each other about cliques, hostels and beer.

I have many calming dreams this night.

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