Prior to the start of our official trip and the arrival of the remaining participants, I had a day of leisure in the beautiful Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city centre is located on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is full of temples. Consequently, many monks in their orange robes were in evidence. It is also well geared for tourists with a plethora of souvenir, clothing and gift shops lining the main street. A night market operates each evening, full of embroidered cloths and clothes, some of which have been handmade locally whilst the rest are imported manufactured replicas from China.
A vast choice of restaurants and cafes cater for all tastes. Many have been influenced by Europe, particularly the French who colonised the country in the early twentieth century, but there are also local, fusion, Thai, vegetarian and other international ones interspersed.
On that first day, I went with Jenny and Marilyn to Saffron cafe overlooking the Mekong for coffee. It was to become a favourite for me for iced lattes. Here we sat and chatted and got to know each other before wandering off to explore.
We discovered the Bamboo Bridge crossing over the Nam Khan and, for a small fee which they put towards re-building the bridge after each monsoon, we crossed to the other side. Its stability was precarious! This was a very different side to the city and after walking to the next bridge, on which cars were prohibited, we marvelled at the volume of motorcycles and scooters. The bridge did not look inviting, and we returned to the bamboo bridge where we had lunch at a cafe overlooking the river before crossing back.
In the evening, when everyone arrived, we had welcoming drinks and snacks at the Belle Rive restaurant, which was more upmarket than our cafe of earlier. It also had a view of the Mekong and was the perfect place to watch the sun go down as we chatted.
The following day was a day for temples associated with women. Korn, a delightful local business woman and friend of Sally’s, joined us and guided us in the temples. Our first stop was a short boat trip across and up the Mekong to Wat Ha Siel. We were privileged to go there as it was unusual to meet the gentle nuns who looked after the monks. Once they had finished their meditation, they were happy to chat. Several monasteries have nuns who cook and clean for the monks. Whilst these nuns undertook those tasks, they had a more elevated status in this monastery than in others in part because the Head Monk was the son of one of the elderly nuns. They were all married but their husbands had “freed” them to become nuns. They all had phones and tablets and communicated with the outside world and their families and much preferred the life of a nun to the hard work they would have had to endure if they lived outside the monastery. It was an entertaining and informative chat!
Whilst this was the highlight, we also visited the long meditation hall which was a dark, narrow corridor in which the monks meditated when it was too wet in the garden. In the grounds, they were building an enormous temple which when completed, will hold 1,000 monks for Vipassana. The gardens were large, and immensely peaceful. All of us would have liked to have stayed longer.
Back on the other side of the river, a minivan took us to Wat Phon Phao or the Peacefulness temple, which is octagonal. As we had overstayed our time chatting to the nuns, this temple was already closed. (This happens when the monks are meditating.) We walked around outside, admired the view and didn’t miss seeing the gruesome murals that adorn the inside. This was another monastery in which the nuns looks after the monks and two or three of them were preparing lunch. They were more subservient than those at Wat Ha Siel and were uncommunicative. Here, they get up before morning prayers, which begin at 4am, to sweep the leaves so the paths are clear for the monks and then spend the day cooking and cleaning.
Our last temple on the agenda was the recently restored Wat Visoun. At the front, stood the sparkling white Watermelon Stupa, so called because of its shape, which the king’s wife had requested in the fifteenth century. It resembled a woman’s breast but, as it would have been offensive to refer to it by that name, it became known as the Watermelon Stupa. It is the only one of its kind in Laos, being more typical of stupas in Sri Lanka. Inside the temple was an array of old wooden buddhas of varying sizes. These had originally been covered in gold leaf but few traces remained. The roof had been re-built; the walls re-plastered, and the pillars painted in the original red colour. It was a work in progress.
Later, Jenny, Marilyn and I joined the monks meditating in a temple near the guest house. There were few other members in the “congregation” and about 6 monks, one or two of whom were only 8 or 9 years old. Boys may enter the monasteries from as young as 7. The chanting was beautiful to listen to and a dog who wandered in for a short time also appreciated it!
I added to my temple experience later in the week when I observed the morning alms giving. This has become a commercial activity in Luang Prabang with local people setting up stools and selling containers of sticky rice for tourists to give to the monks as they file past. I observed two or three children, encouraged by their mother, begging from the monks who obligingly gave them some of their offerings. According to one informant, this could well have been re-sold the following day to unsuspecting tourists.