Luang Prabang is about six hours by bus from backpacker party-town Vang Vieng; a drive with incredible mountain views, but not one to be made when hungover. This pretty town is centered upon a bustling night market, bordered by the milky Mekong River, and its winding streets full of high quality bookshops, galleries and cafes. A strong French influence is visible in both the architecture and the street stalls where traditional crêpes and baguettes and prepared.
The tourists however, come for the temples. A high concentration of golden Buddhist ‘wats’ has earned the town an UNESCO World Heritage listing, and these working temples house around one thousand monks. I peered curiously into these temple grounds as I explored, wondering what those quiet souls in orange cloth got up to all day.
Luang Prabang is renowned for the procession of monks who walk around the streets in a line at sunrise, collecting alms from the villagers. Monks don’t earn money, so they can’t buy food. They rely on the villagers to feed them every day. I got up at 5.45 AM to witness this event, and so began an episode that I will refer to as ‘The Chasing of The Monks.’
I was moments too late. I turned onto the main street to see the tail end of a bright-orange snake of monks disappear around a corner. This was no slow procession. They were striding it out! I tried to cut through some side streets to end up in front of them, but only glimpsed the train, suddenly far away at the end of streets, like some frustrating dream where something is always just out of reach.
To add to the idiocy, in my sleepy state of pulling on respectful clothes in the hostel, I’d put my top on inside out, and for some reason when getting dressed I’d been convinced it was raining, so I was lugging an umbrella around with me in the steaming sun. I gave up by 6:10 AM and swear the monks had a smug look as I passed them, cool as they like, back in their temple grounds.
Try, try again. The next morning I got up earlier, at 5.30 AM, and clambered over the sleeping Lao family on the reception floor of my hostel to sneak out the front door. I made it in time to see the monks. I also saw the other tourists who lunged forward to snap flashes in their faces. I was so embarrassed to be a Westerner that I wanted to hide, so as not to be associated with them.
The conga line of one thousand monks varied in height from eight-year-old novices to old men, but all wore the same uniform: orange cloths, yellow sashes, bare feet. The villagers were kneeling along the main roads with baskets full of food; palm-sized packages of sticky rice wrapped up in banana leaf. They placed them one-by-one in each monk’s copper bowl as he strode past, quietly, without making eye contact. It’s all about respect.
Skinny, dirty kids were lined up along the roads as well. I couldn’t work out what was going on. They had empty plastic bags in front of them and were kneeling on the ground with their hands pressed together as if in prayer. Then I understood when one of the monks took a donated package out of his bowl and placed it in a little girl’s plastic bag. He was giving up his own food for her. This is a community that truly looks after one another.
Jessica Hoadley is an Arts graduate from Melbourne, Australia who has an ever-increasing list of places to visit. She is passionate about budget travel, couch surfing and learning languages.