Painless penance in Luang Prabang, Laos
In temples across Laos Buddhists have tried to teach illiterate lay people about the principles of life through paintings and murals. The general message is always the same – the afterlife is divided into two levels. On the bottom you have hell, full of heathens scampering up trees to escape rabid dogs and men fighting dragons with whips. On the top is heaven, packed to the seams with men and women in bejewelled headresses folded double in prayer, worshipping Buddha all the live long day. I always thought that hell looked like more fun. Who wants to spend every second of their afterlife in prayer when they could be out galavanting with dogs, dragons and men with the heads of elephants?
Luang Prabang is a bit like that – the heaven to Vang Vieng’s hell. Or if you are a horny twenty year-old male, the hell to Vang Vieng’s heaven. For culture buffs though, its always love at first sight with the UNESCO World Heritage city.
For every sandwich stand in Vang Vieng there are two temples in Luang Prabang making the city a patchwork quilt of shining golden spires and colourful glass-encrusted walls. Traditional wooden shopfronts line the quiet streets where chattering monks amble in pairs, bundled up in their saffron robes with sun umberellas swaying in their wake. Washing lines on every corner feature long swaths of orange cloth flapping in the breeze and tourists that wander off the beaten track often find themselves in the courtyard of a school where wooden benches are lined with baby monks jotting notes about religious customs or reciting english verbs with their teacher.
In a word, Luang Prabang is monks – big monks, small monks, wrinkled monks and fresh-faced monks. So what better (not to mention more beautiful) place to do your penance after a week of sex and alcohol-fuelled hedonism in Vang Vieng?
Your detox starts at 5.30am when you dress and hurry down to the marketplace to join the hoards of other tourists settling themselves onto kerbsides with the air of an audience awaiting the opening of a show. A gong sounds and the sun, obeying its command, begins to rise. The crowd goes quiet and digital camera screens blink into life. It starts quietly with a dozen or so performers lining up, heads bowed, studiously ignoring the flashingcompact cameras that have been thrust in their faces. They shuffle out of the temple and patiently wait for the pushy photographers to let them through. As they move towards the crossroads similar groups of monks can be seen working their way from every direction.
Eventually they converge politely at the junction where devoted locals have been sitting cross-legged for the last hour, awaiting their turn to give the monks their offerings of sticky rice in return for a blessing and hopefully another day of happiness and good fortune. As they sit patiently waiting for the monks to file past, westerners jump in front of them, blocking their outstretched hands in their quest for that one iconic shot of the monks taking their alms.
Meanwhile you sit outside Joma Bakery marvelling over the good grace of the monks and lamenting the destruction that irresponsible tourism can cause to ancient customs. Never fear though, as we found out, Luang Prabang does have more to offer than temple-hopping and a relaxed cafe culture.
After visiting Buddha’s footprint and more temples than you could count on two hands Gary, Laura and Joe (who happily were still with us after forgoing a 9th day of tubing in favour of the bus journey from hell) were getting pretty fed up of having to follow me around as I preached at them about the significance of this shop front, that shrine and those statues so we decided to use our last day together (sob!) to visit the waterfall nearby.
Unwilling to pay double price for a tuk-tuk (the driver quoted us 50,000 each, we countered with 35,000 and he said “Okay, 30,000!”) we ended up with the reject of the bunch and spent the next hour choking on carbon monoxide, trying desperately not to vomit while clinging for dear life to the handrail as our drive rounded corners on two wheels and challenged every passing motor to a race.
It was worth it though when we arrived to discover that the waterfall is also home to a bear sanctuary which you can visit for free and watch huge black asian bears swing in hammocks, munch on branches and wrestle with their siblings. The waterfall was uninspiring at first as we tramped up a hill to find drops of around 3m leading to rock pools full of barckpackers. The further uphill we climbed the better it got though, finally culminating in a huge waterfall whose path you could trace to the very top and the last few metres of which had to be scaled from inside the waterfall.
The following day we said a teary goodbye to Laura, Joe and Laos and boarded the slowboat to Thailand. Two days, 20 hours onboard a boat, three border towns, one kilometre onfoot, 30 minutes of coughing up dust on a tuk-tuk, one great Tikka Masala, one ferry, one argument with a tuk-tuk driver, one new friend and six hours in a minibus later we landed filthy and exhausted in Chiang Mai.
Note: Signs around Luang Prabang ask visitors to wear longsleeve tops and trousers when watching the alms, not to use flash photography and to keep an appropriate distance from the monks and alms-givers if they are not participating in the ceremony. Visitors are welcome to attend the alms, they say, but are asked not to give alms themselves unless the ceremony has personal value for them. Giving chocolate, as we saw one westerner doing, is not particularly respectful.
More pictures from Luang Prabang are available in the gallery