I wanted to title this post Save the Monks but that would maybe be too provocative. Even if it would better describe my feeling about something that is happening in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Prior to going into my personal sentiments and reasoning, let’s begin with some facts about Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang, a Unesco Heritage Site since 1995, is an Exquisite small town, with a capital E. Unesco website introduces this former capital of Laos like this: “Luang Prabang is an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.” (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/479).
It is going to be difficult for me to properly express my admiration for Luang Prabang, especially since I already nominated Vientiane the cutest capital in the world and used so many superlatives to describe it. So, let me just say this: I believe Luang Prabang will be the Next Big Travel Destination. I truly believe honeymooners will soon be putting together a trip which combines some precious time between Luang Prabang and Thai (or other regional) beaches. Luang Prabang is very romantic, surrounded by lush mountains and located by the Mekong River, and one can even arrive in Luang Prabang by boat.
Contrary to Vientiane where the future and the past meet and compete, Luang Prabang is a town where time has stopped. It would not be fair to stay Luang Prabang lives in the past, as it has all modern facilities any traveler would want from upscale hotels to hip bars, but there is something so old school (in a good way) there. In fact, what makes Luang Prabang so special is the wats (temples). And the monks that live in them.
32 temples remain today in Luang Prabang and according to estimates, some 2000 monks inhabit them. At least until recently, it was very common for parents to send their son to a monastery where he would receive free education and free food during few years. As everywhere in the world, the world is changing, and not every son goes to the monastery, but in Luang Prabang the time seems to move slower. Wherever you go, you can see monks and some of them are very young (not even 10 I reckon). They seem content, composed, calm and those who looked at us, smiled. It is very uplifting to watch them: one rarely sees such inner calm in the big cities in the West.
The problem, if I may call it so, is that these monks are very charming and photogenic. I would even say cute and I don’t mean this in a patronizing or sexual way (and I certainly hope no one does!). But it is very pleasant to observe them. They transpire beauty and you become tempted to kidnap one to take home with you (half-kidding now).
In order to get a glimpse of their life without too much interference, we decided upon some basic rules: we would try not to look at them too much, and if we did, we would try to do it from the distance. We would not approach them unless they made the first contact. If they did, it is only then when I would ask for a permission to take a photo. As you can see, I have only very few photos of their faces, and now you know why. After all, they are living an ordinary life, and I just don’t believe someone should be there all the time harassing them. I would not want that for myself…
Temples and monks are surely one of the top reasons why a tourist comes to Luang Prabang, and it was one of ours, too. And to add even more charm to all this, there is something called tak bat that Luang Prabang is also famous for. Tak bat is an ancient Buddhist ritual, where hundreds of monks walk in a line, silently of course, and receive alms (food) from local people (usually elderly women). Normally the monks start walking around the town at 4 in the morning and finish around the sun rise.
Before we traveled to Laos, I consulted a dear friend of ours, a very cultivated, intelligent and respectful Hindu woman. Together with her husband, she is also one of the most-traveled person in the world I know. She had been to Luang Prabang one year earlier and this is what she had written to me about tak bat: “Just before sunrise, the monks from all the monasteries walk the main street asking for alms. You can buy cooked rice and dry biscuits (sold on the streets itself a bit earlier) and offer it to them. I had bought a big basket of cooked sticky rice and you put a large spoonful in each monk’s bowl as they walk past you.”
Needless to say, we were excited to wake up one morning to witness this ritual. But as soon as we walked into the event, we were shocked. It was still dark (after all it was 5 in the morning) but hundreds of camera flashes used by tourists made it look like a day. Tourists were literally chasing the monks, like one chases animals in a safari in Africa. The only thing missing was a guide yelling “look at this monk, run this way to take a photo”.
I felt sorry for everyone. For the monks as surely this conflicts with the monastery ideology (they are supposed to be meditating!). For the tourists as some of them obviously had no consideration. Some of the tourists placed themselves right in front of the monks (blocking their path), right at their face, to take a closed-up photo to bring home. Ok, I am going to stop here because otherwise I don’t know what I will say next, but what were those tourists thinking? Imagine yourself getting married in a church and the priest giving you his blessing, and then suddenly a tourist walks in and comes right to your face to take a photo of you without asking your permission (and even if he did, you would certainly say no). Imagine that.
In fact every single Laos guide book talks about tak bat and they also tell you very clearly how to behave should you want to observe it or even participate in it. There are very strict rules: for example, no flash should be used, and a woman should not touch a monk and should kneel. When you walk along Luang Prabang streets you will surely see some notice boards put up by travel agencies who educate tourists about responsible traveling. What puzzles me is that most of the tourists come to Luang Prabang from very literate countries, but obviously their reading skills are not put into use.
(I found a blog writing that talks about this bad behavior, and I found it quite interesting to read: http://www.travelblog.org/Asia/Laos/West/Luang-Prabang/blog-479534.html).
I didn’t begin this post with Save the Monks title, but I will end it with a plea: please, do respect the local culture and don’t let your egoism to destroy this centuries-old tradition. Buy a post card (in many cases the photo will be much better than any of your amateur photos taken in dark) or take photos from distance.
Well said Miia. It happens all over the world where tourists have no respect for the local customs, etc. God save the Monks!!
Maybe I should have used the initial title… It still upsets me to think about it. What is going on in ppl’s brains?
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Totally agree with your point of view Miia. It is embarrassing act by tourist. I have to say it happens also with diving, that some popular species get “harassed” by tens scuba divers with camera or snorkelers. I could not stand it and feel sorry for the subject..Perhaps the local government has to play role on this like protecting the area on certain hours to honor the monks. Is it changing now?
Hey, thanks for commenting. Have you been to Luang Prabang? Did you see Tak Bat? Yes, probably the way to go would be to have the local authorities define the rules PLUS have someone to take care of the implementation. E.g. in this case, there was nobody to stop these inconsiderate tourists. (fyi. Tak Bat only last for about 30-60mins)
I agree that some “blue safaris” can feel the same…. “Hey, there is a dolphin, let’s all jump in” and by all I mean 10 different boats each carrying at least 10 tourists….. To go further, visiting some tribal villages can feel the same, too. I think Andaman has had big problems with this “tribe watching” phenomenon.
It is sometimes difficult to draw the line. Even if I personally think that “I respect them well” it may not always be enough….