Friday, 10 February 2012

Luang Prabang: monks procession at dawn

Joyce at Wat Xieng Thong. Having lost my camera memory card in January,
all these photos were taken on a return trip in October
© Andy Brown/Laos 2012
Luang Prabang is like a city adrift in space and time. The old royal capital of pre-communist Laos, it now feels like a cross between a suburb of Paris and a rural Thai village. It occupies a peninsular between the Mekong (see part two of this blog) and Nam Khan river, which takes a hairpin bend off the larger waterway. The main roads are lined with French restaurants, cafes and bakeries in colonial era buildings: brightly painted villas with wooden shutters on the windows. French tourists cycle lazily around between the cafes and sights, conversing in Gallic tones.

Yet just a step back from the post-colonial villas are a warren of packed-earth side streets, just wide enough for a bicycle or small motorbike to get down. Here, there are Thai-style wooden houses on stilts, many with the Laos and communist party flags hanging outside. Women cook food without electricity on coal stoves and chickens peck around in the yards. Here the locals still use traditional addresses, based on ‘villages’ named after the local temple.

As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang is off limits to larger vehicles and there are relatively few cars. We spent three days exploring the town by bicycle, visiting various wats (temples) and the former royal palace. On the first day, we rode our bikes over the old wooden bridge and into the centre of the old town. From here, we walked down small pathways through the villages to Phu Si, the hill in the centre of Luang Prabang.

Stairway to heaven

The view from the summit of Mount Phu Si in October
© Andy Brown/Laos 2012
The path to the peak passed through Wat Thammothayalan, a temple perched on the hillside with views of the river Mekong winding away into the distance, perfectly framed by square stone windows. Orange-robed Buddhist monks sat reading on the stone ledges of these windows. One of them closed his book when we passed and exchanged a ‘sabai dee’ greeting with me. “I think he wanted to talk to you,” Joyce said afterwards and I was annoyed at myself for missing the opportunity. As an aspiring travel writer, I need to get better at spotting them.

I returned to the temple on the way back down, but the moment had passed and the peaceful viewpoint was now filled with French tourists examining a dip in the rock face which, with considerable imagination, had been designated as the Buddha’s footprint.

Just below the summit we passed women selling incense and, bizarrely, small bamboo cages filled with tiny birds. The cages were shifting and shaking on the ground as the agitated prisoners tried to release themselves. I asked one of the women what they were for. “You set them free at the top of the hill,” she explained. “It’s good luck. You want to buy?” I shook my head. “No, but can I take a photo?” I asked. “No no no!” she said waving her hands in alarm.

Presumably this activity is considered good karma by Buddhists, who revere all animal life on the sensible grounds that it could be you next time round. From an economic point of view, however, buying the caged birds simply creates a supply-and-demand situation where more of them will be captured, caged and sometimes killed, a subtlety that was evidently lost on the customers, although not necessarily on the vendors.

A woman selling caged birds on Mount Phu Si
© Andy Brown/Laos 2012
At the summit of the hill was a stuppa called That Chomsi, home to a few Buddha statues and sweeping views out across the Mekong valley to the imposing mountains further south. The slopes of the hill were littered with the ash from incense sticks – and lots of small empty bamboo cages.

The next day we came back in the evening to see the view at night, climbing up the steep steps with a torch. The tourists had all gone and the viewing platform was full of Lao teenagers hanging around and listening to music on their mobile phones. A group of young Buddhist monks cast sly glances at the teenage girls. There wasn’t much too see in the end as the view was obscured by harsh floodlights that lit up the stupa from afar, with clouds of insects swarming in the brightly lit air above them.

Morning call

One of the best experiences I had in Luang Prabang was watching the monk’s morning procession to collect alms from the local villagers. Every day at dawn, hundreds of orange robed monks file through the centre of town collecting rice for their daily meal. This is not primarily a tourist attraction however, and both the Lonely Planet and various notices in cafes around town advise tourists how to watch responsibly. This involves staying on the other side of the street to the monks, sitting or crouching down, and only taking photos from a distance. You can also wear a scarf over your left shoulder, as the locals do.

Monks set out on their morning alms procession
© Andy Brown/Laos 2012
Sunrise was about 6:30am but I got up at 5 to be on the safe side. One of the hotel staff was sleeping on a camp bed in reception and I felt a bit guilty waking him up to let me out. We were staying in a village on the far side of the Nam Khan river and I walked up the road in the dark. The only noises were the loud crunch of my feet on gravel, the distant gurgle of the river and the occasional premature crow of an over-enthusiastic cockerel. There was only one other person up at this time, an old woman sweeping out her yard.

I crossed the river on a rickety bamboo bridge, clambering down the slippery mud bank by torchlight. Across the river there was a bit more activity. Street vendors were getting into position to sell (low quality) rice and fruit for tourists to give to the monks. I stopped at the only open coffee stall, sitting with the vendor by a coal stove to keep warm. I was the first customer of the day and he turned on a cheap stereo which ended the quiet of the pre-dawn with an unlikely mixture of US bragger rap and Thai rock music.

Just before sunrise, the other tourists and monks started to appear. Interestingly, many of the monks arrived by song-tau from other monasteries. Some disappeared inside, while others sat in a row outside the monastery wall. Local women knelt before the monks to give them gifts. All the locals had a scarf over one shoulder but I was the only tourist to do so, having borrowed one of Joyce’s for the occasion. Despite the notices about photography, several tourists walked up to the monks and pushed their cameras rudely in their faces. That said, several of the bussed-in monks were also taking photos of each other, and the event seemed a bit more contrived than I’d been led to expect.

Monks collecting alms from villagers in the back streets of Luang Prabang
© Andy Brown/Laos 2012
At 6:30 a drum started to beat inside Wat Sen with a deep boom boom boom and a long line of monks started to emerge from the monastery gates. They filed past the waiting villagers, barefoot and holding ornate copper begging bowls at their sides. As each monk walked past, the locals would put a handful of rice into his bowl, the hard uncooked grains tinkling against the metal interior.

I watched for a while, then crossed the peninsular to see sunrise over the Mekong. A river boat was tied up on the bank and a teenage girl was washing a pair of shoes in the river, a sarong tied under her arms. Older women shouted to each other from boats along the river and in the distance I could hear the sound of motor engines starting up. On the way back, I passed the tail end of the monks’ procession, heading back to the monastery through a smaller side street. There were no tourists here and I sat for a while on the opposite pavement taking in the scene.

Three elderly women sat on wooden stools outside the last few houses, carefully dropping rice into the monks’ bowls with gnarled hands, their lined faces studiously looking at the ground in subservience. I wondered how many decades they had been here, doing the same thing every morning. Over a hundred monks moved past the women in single file and down the road towards the monastery. The only sound was the clang of metal lids on begging bowls, the swish of robes against legs and the soft padding of bare feet on the unfinished road. Once the last monks had passed, the women raised their hands in prayer, quietly packed up their things, and disappeared back into their homes.

Read part four of this blog »

Joyce and me having breakfast at one of the French-style caf├ęs
© Andy Brown/Laos 2012


  1. Nice. This makes me want to see the place for myself!

  2. This is a beautiful write up. I am so glad I read this before seeing it this morning. Thank you for your thoughtful observations!

  3. For some great photos, similar to the one's I lost in Vientiane, see Haley's blog here: