Leveling Expectations: A Meeting of The Monks In Luang Prabang

by Monica on March 12, 2012

5:30AM. A rooster crows a few feet from my window, heralding a new day in Laos. I dress quickly, grab my camera, and head out from my guesthouse.

Having arrived to Luang Prabang bathed in yesterday afternoon’s glowing sunshine, I’m shocked how cool it is outside now in the pre-dawn darkness. Walking along the main street through town I pass by rows of French cafes, tourist offices, and jewelry shops that will soon fill with grey haired Europeans and young backpackers freshly off their tubing trip in Vang Vieng.

But for now, I only see a handful of other tourists and several women selling sticky rice. I sit on a curb in anticipation for what has been touted by countless guidebooks as the thing to see in Luang Prabang: Tak Bat (Alms Offering), otherwise known as the Morning Monk Walk.

I daydream of tangerine robes appearing from the mist, descending towards their temples, stopping only to fill their baskets with the offerings of the townspeople. The serenity of the whole practice fills me with gratitude and I pat myself on the back for sacrificing sleep to witness such a beautiful tradition.

20 minutes later my austere tranquility comes to a screeching halt.

Tuk tuks and songteaws and minivans appear from out of nowhere. Tourists clamoring to get the best viewing seats deafen the silence of the morning. I watch with horror as a group of Japanese men stop two of the women selling rice and form a rotation line, each man taking a photo with the women. Then they all leave to find the next photo opportunity, neither realizing nor caring that the women had offered their smiles with the expectation of a handout in return. No translation is needed to understand the look of dejection spreading across the women’s faces.

Sensing the enthusiastic crowd will soon transform into a paparazzi feeding frenzy, I inch closer to the sidewalk, turn on my camera, and hope for the best. Moments later the monks make their way through the masses, eyes cast downwards, no words spoken. One by one they accept the rice and candies gleefully offered by the tourists. Though they make no verbal objection to the camera’s flashing and the throngs of people pushing over each other for a closer inspection, I recognize the look of gritted determination to just get through it in the eyes of the monks, many of whom are children.

Disgusted with the behavior of my fellow camera-wielding humans, I head off the main road and round the corner where the next round of monks are sure to pass in peace. Only a handful of other people have the same idea, and for a moment I can’t help but smile as the monks round the corner, and dump extraneous food from their baskets into the bowls of children who’ve waited patiently for this part of the morning ritual.

But paparazzi are relentless, and quickly come running running! around the corner, never taking their eye away from the viewfinder.

Exasperated and with heavy heart, I put my camera away and make my way to breakfast just as the glow of morning spreads across the streets. As I nibble on my chocolate croissant, I worry that by simply being here, in Luang Prabang, I am actively taking part in destroying something sacred.

The reality of the experience was the antithesis of the experience I had imagined.

I’m still percolating on the role of the tourist while taking an evening stroll along the Mekong River. Per usual I find myself lost and I pause to inspect my map. I hear the familiar greeting “sabadei” called in my direction. Turning around I see the source: three monks sitting on a wall of a temple overlooking the road. They had been taking in the river view as well and stopped their conversation to ask f I had lost my way.

More than you know.

Ascending the stairs, one monk in particular, Sang, seems eager to talk. He asks me where I’m from, about my travels, becoming particularly interested in why I would want to travel alone. He invites me to walk around the temple at my leisure. Although this doesn’t take long (it’s a small complex and much of it is under construction), I find myself drawn to the charm of the details. Just as I’m about to take a photo of one building that inexplicably peaks my curiosity, Sang, appears out from the doorway (How did that happen? I thought he was behind me?) and laughs at my startled expression. Amused by my interest, he explains that the simple building I’m admiring is the monks’ living quarters. Seeing my camera he asks if I’d like a picture. I hesitate, remembering the obtuseness of the morning, but he smiles warmly and strikes a pose.

Well, if you insist.

But this time I don’t feel like an intruder.

Dusk descends so I say my goodbyes and continue my walk near the river.

Reflections of the transforming sky dance on the water as the sun makes its journey home. I’m about to head towards the center of town for the night market when I hear hypnotic chanting reverberating from a side road. I follow the sound and stumble upon another temple where the monks are saying their evening prayers. I pause outside the door, not wanting to disturb or disrupt.

And for a moment I don’t feel like a tourist. I’m an observer. A witness. I’m more alive, more human, because I’m not chasing after an image in my mind. I’m paying attention as life works it’s magic.

I walk to the main road, the sounds of venders selling their wares to throng of farang (foreigners) strolling the stalls, darkness once again pervading the streets.

True, the reality of the day’s events didn’t meet my expectations.

Reality, as experienced by chance, exceeded them.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Adriana March 12, 2012 at 9:44 pm

This is a beautiful post, Monica. It reminds me of the push and pull I felt while backpacking a few years ago. The pull to see and experience everything a new country has to offer, and the pushing away of my fellow travelers and the tourist MO. I guess all we can do is look for those quiet moments where we finally have a chance to connect. This is a beautiful moment that you’ve documented.

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Monica McCarthy March 12, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Thank you Adriana. And yes- connection is what makes it all worth while, isn’t it?

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Tom Bartel March 12, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Monica, terrific piece and I loved your insight, “I’m not chasing after an image in my mind.” If only more travelers got that. I always look at people who only see their travels through a viewfinder and think to myself, “You’re missing a lot by not actually taking in the moment.” Maybe they think it’s more important to look at their picture when they get home that it is to look at the actual scene when they’re there.

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Monica McCarthy March 12, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Thanks, Tom. One of the things I’m realizing lately is that (especially due to social media) we are becoming a society of “if the tree falls in the woods and no one is around, it never happened.” Of course I’m all for documenting our stories in order to better share them, but what is the point if we don’t live the tale we tell?

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Brigitte March 13, 2012 at 4:21 am

What an experience, Monica. I’m planning my own trip later this year (probably Thailand and Cambodia), and you’re giving me a lot to think about. I share your discomfort with experiencing another culture as a tourist, and yet it’s also difficult to know how to get around it.

I had an edge in Peru, because I was visiting family. They were my tour guides, my translators and gave me a sense of security. I don’t know where to begin when it comes to a country where I don’t know the language or any of the people.

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Monica McCarthy March 13, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Yay Thailand and Cambodia! And I completely agree that visiting people you know can make a huge difference. Right now I’m staying with a friend in Phnom Penh, away from the typical tourist strip, and without her I know I’d be doing the same things here as every other tourist. Having said that, I do believe it is still possible to create our own experiences- even in places like Times Square, or (heaven forbid) Disneyland.

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Christine March 24, 2012 at 9:49 pm

This was a really lovely post, Monica. I struggle with “hating all the tourists” because when it comes down to it–I am one of them. This totally summed up how I feel about so many places and experiences: often I just feel compelled to put the camera away and enjoy the moment, away from the crush of cameras.

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