Most people thinking of “getaways” have images of beaches in their mind – yet Luang Prabang is one of the most serene and relaxing places I have ever been to… and it is not one of the places you hear everybody recommend…yet…
My way to Luang Prabang led through Vientiane, the capital of Laos. As far as capital cities go, it is about as relaxed as they come. I sure wouldn’t have estimated it to have a poluation of 250,000. Luang Prabang is one of those places you come home to, the first time you visit. The center of town is on a narrow peninsula, formed by two rivers. You’ll walk down the main street and find coffee shops and restaurants, see faces from around the world. But as soon as you walk down a narrow alley, and you meet locals who will be friendly, just because they are. Young monks living in one of the many wats, Buddhist temples, studying and going about their lives, will come up to me to have a conversation, just to practice their English and to hear about my world, and they always leave you with a smile. A narrow boat, wide enough for two (locals), but long enough to seat 16-20 people, powered by an outboarder takes us across the river, into a different world. Rarely does one river mean such a world of difference. There are no more tourists, no coffee, no brick houses, no kids on motorcycles,…just sandy paths winding up the riverbanks, past bamboo and grass huts, yet the same friendly people.
Luang Prabang has more than 30 wats. They are active and inhabited by more than 500 monks and novices. Most young men will spend anywhere from a few weeks to a few years (or their life) in a wat, to study. They are studying Buddhism, languages and practical skills, but they are learning a lot more.
At 6:00am the drums of a nearby wat wake us. The people of Luang Prabang are gathering along the main streets. They are sitting along the sidewalks with rice in leaves and other foods. And then I can see the monks in their bright, orange robes, coming down the street from their wats, in a long row. All they own while living in the wat are their robes and a food bowl. Whatever they need to live, they receive as alms every morning at 6:00am from the people living in town. They proceed down the streets with their bowls and the locals will put a little rice, food or daily necessities into their bowls. The monks bless the people in turn.
I watch the long line of monks walk down the street and some street children are running along. One of the young novices must feel that he has received more than he needs for this day – and passes on some of the alms to one of the street children.
It’s one quite humbling experience to observe people who have so little to still be so giving. And it is very encouraging to see a community to take care of each other so well.