Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Luang Prabang

Look to the left
Look to the right

This is a town that is changing rapidly. Simple village housing is being replaced by hotels and guest houses. Dirt alley ways are being paved with bricks. Street food is being replaced by tourist food (spaghetti bolognaise is always a bad sign). Come and see it now before it changes anymore.

Silk is everywhere. Very little of it is made in Laos. Most of it is from China. Nonetheless, it is lovely and it is very, very cheap. The night market is filled with acres of sameness. If you ask who made it, she will say “I did” … but she didn’t.

But this is not to suggest that the town lacks charm. It is a three street town. The main street runs down the middle of town. The other two run along one of two rivers : the Mekong or the Nahm. It is these side streets that capture the charm of life in Luang Prabang. Tonight we ate at a Lao restaurant along the Mekong … everything came to $16. It was basically a street place, but it was a romantic setting along the river with a wide selection of menu items. Earlier today we wandered along another side street and saw rack after rack of tortilla like items out to dry. We bought a bag and it turns out it is a kind of banana flat bread … lightly sweet and delicious.
Early this morning I awoke to witness one of the morning rituals of this town … the offering of food to the monks. On the whole I would say that the practice is still pretty pure. The faithful gather with fruits or vegetables or rice and when the monks approach with their bowls, they place the food into the bowl. There is a fair collection of tourists who come to watch and for the most part they are respectful. There was also a busload of tourists who came to make offerings to the monks. They were pretty loud as they were waiting, but when the time came, they were respectful of the moment.

I had done the same thing when I was in Chiang Mai. There the practice is more practical and less touristic. The monks carry their bowls mostly as a symbol, but basically they move among the market stalls well before sunrise and return to the Wat with plastic shopping bags filled with yesterday’s produce that has been offered by the market people. I did see one interaction where two women had brought food they had made at home, and they were kneeling in front of the monks as they made their offerings. Offering food to a monk is a way to “make merit.” When done in the proper spirit, it is an act of humility.

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