Published: November 9th 2010November 9th 2010
Arriving in Luang Prabang was a breath of fresh air. It took two days on a boat and two nights in kooky stopover towns that seems to exist only to feed and house travelers on the way to somewhere else. The front desk clerk of one hotel didn't care about taking our names or passports, but he was adamant that we pay NOW. In dollars.
It was on the boat where I got my first taste of "Laos time" when we left two hours late. But the scenery more than made up for it--lush, primordial forests, gardens of Eden flanking both sides of the river, almost burdened with growth. Laos' most important resource is forest, and it's easy to see why in this landlocked country surrounded by China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, everyone is trying to get a piece of the action. Let's just hope good sense and moderation prevails in this case.
In contrast to the pristine beauty outside our boat was a young, pudgy Swedish guy who was playing social director on our 6 hour boat ride. He was orchestrating a booze cruise scenario and goaded everyone around him into playing complicated drinking games involving cards, warm beer, a lot of hooting and hawing. His voice had a way of carrying over the din of the engine and the wind in our ears. He and his entourage were impossible to ignore. I shot him glances filled with icy contempt, hoping he would get the message, but he never did. Fortunately we were spared his services on the second day and even managed to leave a bit early. And while I found myself drifting off quite often, I at least had the presence of mind to buy provisions before leaving town, otherwise I would have been stuck with something called "man cheese sand wich."
So after two long days on the water and another book finished, we made it to Luang Prabang. Everything I had been led to believe about this place is true. The streets light up with lanterns and fairy lights at night, the people are friendly and easy going, and the pace is slower than the Mekong river. The town is sprinkled with glittering temples, bakeries, and stalls of fruit shakes and crepes. And while this is easily my favorite place yet, I get the sense that it is not quite the undiscovered jewel that perhaps it once was...
Case in point: I woke up before dawn on Sunday morning in order to view the monks receive offerings of food from the townspeople. We had been told that this was a MUST DO activity here, and I think every other tourist had been told the same thing. They came in droves and got right in the faces of the young monks, using flash, snapping away. It played out like a zoo or a freakshow, not a gesture of selflessness and piety. And although I did my best to stand at a distance and snap a few discreet pictures, there is no getting around the fact that I was part of the spectacle.
I was a bit disgusted with it all. And I was disgusted that I was disgusted because that meant that I was also, ironically, being holier-than-thou, which is perhaps more disgusting. But unable to keep my mouth shut, I turned to my travel buddy, Chris.
"I bet they hate coming down this stretch," I said, motioning to a woman who was shoving her lens up a monk's nostril.
"I don't think monks can really hate anything," he said.
"Okay, I'll phrase it another way: don't you think they would prefer taking a different route?"
"I don't know," said Chris, snapping a photo of a long line of tangerine robes, "they sure get a ton of food from these guys."
He had a point. In addition to the photo opp, you could also pay for food which you would then hand in incriments to the passing devotees. "Traditional" mats and scarves were also available for purchase. It was a business transaction. And judging from how many people chose to "participate," it was a lucrative enterprise.
I started thinking harder about what I had seen. Maybe I was being too harsh. Maybe it wasn't all as corrupted as I wanted it to be. Maybe the folks I observed just craved a new experience or a great story to tell at cocktail parties. A real live Eat, Pray, Love moment. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I had seen this before. And at last it came to me how terribly similar it all was to kissing icons in the Russian churches. I remembered how those who were not Russian Orthodox were moved to do as the true believers and kiss various portraits of Mary, Jesus, and all the saints. I visited dozens of churches and saw this act repeated thousands of times, but I could never bring myself to do the same. Had I kissed the icon or offered food to monks, it would have been an empty act for me, devoid of meaning. A sham. It occured to me that perhaps I was reacting not to other people but to an insecurity within myself--that I would be labeled a phony, or seen as disrespectful. And was I the only one who felt this way? At any rate, this is not the forum to start psychoanalyzing myself. I did feel the need to talk about it at length, however, and Chris (bless him) let me drone on and on.
The monks, meanwhile, said nothing about it.
After all the offerings had been collected and the ritual complete, I strolled the streets alone watching the town wake up. Shops were setting up for business, waiters brought freshly cut roses to linen draped tables, and vendors lay out loaves of bread, fruits, and meats on their tables. I am rarely up at such an hour with nothing to do, and I found it all rather refreshing as I watched a different kind of morning ceremony unfold. With the streets almost empty and the locals busy at work, I felt unnoticed, unobtrusive, and I could simply melt into the background again.
I guess this is a good time to say that if any of you, dear friends, have participated in these religious ceremonies, I hope you know that I don't look down upon your experience or doubt your sincerity whatsoever. I'm sure you acted with much more thought and grace than some of the people I saw. I guess I was just surprised at my own visceral reaction to the event, and learned a bit more about myself in the process. 'Nuff said.
I should also say that none of this tops the guy who, from the window of our minivan, took a picture of a car accident on our way back from a day tour.