Their appearance colours the streets. If you are awake at the crack of dawn... you might even see them going around the streets to collect food offered by Laotians or fellow tourists like me. They come in groups , sometimes alone.... but one thing for sure.... these monks walk with dignity. Dressed in those trademark saffron robes, you will easily spot them walking in pairs, usually with an umbrella in hand to ward of sun rays or raindrops.
I was up very early one morning since Ton Lee ( the night manager at the Villa Treasure ) told me that one of the attractions in Luang Prabang was the Alms Giving every morning which starts at 5:30 am till 6:30am... where I will be able to see hundreds of saffron clothed monks walking down the streets.
At 5:00am....Oskie and I took a tuk tuk to Sisavangvong to witness this alms giving event. I even bought a small bucket of sticky rice and took my place in the sidewalk to wait for the monks to pass. Suddenly there is an orange line gleaming in the morning mist. A line of monks started to walk down the street... They looked like orange soldiers... in a single file... walking barefoot carrying a silver bucket where they will put whatever alms will be given to them. A line of Lao women is waiting, kneeling on mats with baskets of sticky rice, bananas and cookies. It was short after six o'clock in the morning. It is the daily procession of the monks through the streets of Luang Prabang. The women were ready to gain merits as they share some sticky rice to the monks. Merits are very important in Buddhism. Monks earn their merits through meditation, chanting and more rituals. One way women can earn merits is cooking and serving food to the monks, giving alms to them. When the monks pass by, the women take the food out of their baskets and put it on the bowls of the monks. It was indeed a magical moment!!
As they passed me... I stood up and tried to give my bucket of rice... but they didn't want to accept it... I looked puzzled at their reaction.. One Lao lady approached me and told me that I have to give a handful of sticky rice to each of the monks that passed me... I had to SHARE the sticky rice and not dump it on one of the monks... so -- I asked her if she could do it for me... while I continue taking photos of the monks.. and she obliged.
It was very surprising to see a considerable amount of very young monks ( the youngest monk I saw that morning was about 6 years old)... " They must have been found without parents to take care of them ", I said to myself.... I wanted to ask one monk if by staying in the monastery and becoming a monk was one way to pay for tribute to their survival.. and perhaps one day they will be able to better themselves when they finish their studies and find a job in the outside world....
If you pay a visit to any temple in town it is highly likely that a polite young monk-- or a group of them -- will initiate a conversation with you. Most of these curious, conversational monks are of the novice variety... they are usually in their teens still in school and not yet full-fledged men of the cloth. Many of these novice monks come from poor villages throughout Laos to live and study at the temples of Luang Prabang. Being Buddhist monks, they are focused on learning about the teachings of Buddha, but the novices also study a variety of academic subjects like English and Math. Many of the monks that I have met at Wat Mai... can understand and speak English. The monks that want to pursue their education at a university must relocate themselves to the capital of Luang Prabang which is Vientiane which has a university for monks.
I was lucky to have talked to a few monks and found out some things about them while I was in Luang Prabang. I would like to share them with you:
They shave their heads every 15 days.
They wake up at 4:00am every morning and go to the temple to pray before they start walking the streets of Luang Prabang for alms.
They only eat 2 meals a day. Breakfast and lunch. Breakfast consists of what they collect in the streets that morning and some donations from the villagers. Lunch to them is at 12:30pm.
At 6:00pm... the monks go to the temple to do their vespers... they chant verses and do some meditation afterwards. One evening I was in WAT MAI temple at around 6:30pm and I was able to hear the monks doing their evening chanting. It was so eerie !! It felt like I was stepping back into time. Can you imagine yourself sitting inside the centuries' old wats immersed in the sound of the monks chanting?? It gave me goosebumps when I was listening to them.
Between 7:00pm and 8:00pm -- they have their evening classes.
They are in bed by 9:00pm.
There are many beautiful natural attractions to see in Laos, everything from mysterious caves and pristine waterfalls to craggy mountains and raging rivers. Perhaps the attractions that sticks in most people's mind the longest though, are those charming monks in saffron robes.... I remember what one of the monks told me one afternoon while chatting with them in their temple......
" HAPPINESS ONLY MULTIPLIES, NEVER DECREASES, WHEN IT IS SHARED"...
SABAI DEE !!!