After spending a month racing through Vietnam, Ankur & I flew into our next country, LAOS, in the city of Luang Prabang. It was time to slow down as we had unfortunately become consumed with beauty and the lifestyle of “Everyday is Saturday“ resulted in taking much for granted.
“Those who are slow to know suppose that slowness is the essence of knowledge”
Once we landed, we made a conscious decision to spend more time in each location, immersing into the culture more, and being okay with not seeing every location.
Laos, and specifically the city of Luang Prabang (LP), was the perfect spot to start this way of travel. The country of Laos is extremely devotional and the name of the country itself “Lao PDR” is nicknamed as “Lao, Please Don’t Rush” (instead of Lao, People’s Democratic Republic).
In an attempt to slow down and relax, I thought a decent massage was due after trekking in Sapa, Vietnam. I found a well rated Blind Masseuse Institute where the money directly funds a school for the blind. After getting the location on TripAdvisor, I started walking around the relaxed streets of LP glittered with dozens of young monks (novices) walking to and from Wats (temples).
After 30 minutes of searching for the massage institute, I found nothing. I started walking back and crossed paths with a monk. I glanced and offered Namaskara and he smiled. We then struck up a conversation after confirming that he spoke English.
“Is there a temple or monastery that teaches or offers meditation?”
“Yes,” he said. “You can meditate at our monastery near the mountain,” he pointed in one direction. “I can show you.”
“Great! What is your name?”
“My name is Phan, nice to meet you.” I could tell he had been practicing that line.
“I’m Dev, nice meeting you, too.” We started walking down the road together. The clouds cleared and the sun was beating down more intensely at the high altitude (~1000m/3000ft). Phan opened up his large umbrella and shared some shade as the road started going uphill. I spent the next few hours at the monastery learning about the devotional culture of Laos. To my surprise, over 80% of men from Laos spend at least three years during their late teens or early 20s as monks after which they return to a regular lifestyle. And as a monk, they continue their education by teaching themselves with little guidance. Phan had a passion for languages and was learning English, Japanese, and French in addition to Lao & Thai which he already knew.
I also received as many recommendations from him about various Wats in the area that might give some instruction as there were no senior monks there at the time. With Vipassana meditation (a day 10-day silent course) on the horizon, I was eager to get a head start on the practice and various techniques. I set off with a list of places to see and one person to find, Monk Sengdao.
The next day, Ankur & I rented cycles and began a Wat-hopping trip around the town. The fresh mountain air and fiery hues were striking to the senses. Set along the Wats were the rest of the buildings of LP which were completed as French-styled villas. Since France had colonized Laos, much of the country had been influenced by their culture. I had arrived into maybe the most beautiful city in all of Southeast Asia.
We next started looking for Wat Pa-Phay (h is aspirated after P, so P-hay). After finding the location and Monk Sengdao, he offered to join their chanting and meditation at the early hours of 4am or in the evening at 6pm. The evening hour was definitely a better option and we joined them later that day. Sitting for one hour in lotus position proved to be difficult, but I found the more pain (benign) my legs were in, the easier it was for me to remind myself of breathe (in an attempt to ignore the discomfort) and get into a mental calm. Something was wrong with me.
The most interesting experience in LP actually occurred during the morning alms ceremony which happens everyday, and has become a large tourist magnet. It is actually an age-old tradition where the monks of the local region walk in procession on various roads with a bowl, and collect offerings of food to eat for the rest of the day. I had spoken to Phan earlier about his thoughts of foreigners being present and taking pictures. He mentioned that it was fine for the foreigners to be there with their cameras, but to avoid using flash. He encouraged me to go, too.
So there I was at 5:30am, and a feeling of overall uneasiness came over me. Young and old monks were walking down the streets as locals kneeled on the curb offering food. I had caught eye with one local before she offered obeisance and food. I suddenly felt like a burglar. It was as if I had taken something away from her moment of devotion and compassion. And in a sense, I felt my presence was doing the same for everyone else. I immediately stopped taking pictures and started inquiring within myself.
Later on, the uneasiness was still present along with some intrigue. I was even more curious about the practice of meditation and the desire to find a monastery was even stronger. In this quest, we went to another Wat situated in the hills of Luang Prabang.
Although we did not find any senior monks, we found a nice quiet space to meditate which later ended with a drum & bell session performed by the monks. The experience was surreal and yet my mind was focused on the quest. And as that focus grew, so would the potential of something foreboding. Stay tuned and enjoy the pictures…