The Curious Things About Monks

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, January 29, 2005

In Lao as in many Buddhist countries the majority of males will be ordained as monks. For most however monkhood is temporary and was never intended otherwise. Here in Luang Prabang you can't turn a corner without seeing a saffron robe under a matching parasol glowing in the midday sun. They are mostly young novices studying at the monasteries and you see them normally walking in pairs or lounging about the many wats in town. They carry satchel bags embroidered with the name of the various monasteries from which they hail -- some as far as Thailand. Once you've acquired one of their bags and it hangs from your shoulder you get a lot of curious smiles and greetings of "saw bai dee" or "Hello!".

Today after breakfast I walked to the center of town and started the arduous ascent up to the highest point in Luang Prabang. There at the top is a deceptively small golden stupa that can be seen virtually throughout all of Luang Prabang. It is the most famous landmark here and its image is on many postcards and at night its illuminated golden glow shines through the trees. It's a rather unspectacular site in person however but one doesn't really climb all the way up there for that -- you go for the views but you stay for the monks.

I had to pause several times but once up top just as the guidebooks said the stupa was underwhelming but the view was spectacular. I turned a narrow corner by the railing and there sitting on a bench alone was a monk gazing out across the mountains. He immediately greeted me in English and asked where I was from and then without hesitation asked what I had planned for the afternoon. I told him that what I had planned I was already doing. He invited me to sit with him for a chat.

We spoke for about 10 minutes before I headed down the other side of the hill mainly about what I was doing but I did get in some questions of my own. His parents are farmers near the northern border of Thailand and since he's the only son he's expected to join the monkhood for a while at least. He's been studying for three years at a monastery here but is quickly growing restless and prefers practicing his English with westerners. During the end of our conversation a few local school boys crowded about and he clammed shut. One of them said something to him followed by a smirk that I assumed was typical schoolboy ribbing. I asked the monk what the boy said and he told me, "They're jealous because I can talk to you and they don't speak English." We sat and stared at the view in silence while the boys milled about curiously though not menacingly. After they left he spoke more about himself. I asked if he always wanted to be a monk and the answer was no. "Someday I want to get married but first I have to learn English so I can get a good job because I don't want to be a farmer." I asked him what he liked about being a monk but the only thing he could think to tell me after thinking pretty hard about it was, "I like living here and I don't want to be in the countryside." To lighten things up a bit I told him that at least orange is a beautiful color and he smiled "Yeah, maybe that's the best thing -- orange."

The sun was straight above us and the sweat was pouring down my face so I said goodbye to him and headed down the other side of the hill. It was a cool shady descent and halfway down I stopped for a refreshing Fanta and admired a beautiful golden reclining Buddha. At the base was a monastery and as I neared the end I a saw a temple and maybe 30 novice monks. Lining the last few steps were two monks sitting legs apart smoking cigarettes. Across from them a monk chatted on his cellphone.

"Where are you from? How long you stay in Luang Prabang? You travel alone?" Within the next fifteen to twenty minutes I was asked this so many times that I decided to turn the tables. "Where are you from", one of them would begin and I'd ask instead "Where are you from?" For some reason they thought this was hilarious and they especially loved, "Are YOU traveling alone? Where's your husband?" I asked at one point if I could take the chattiest one's photo and he consented. I turned the camera around afterward and showed him the shot and zoomed in on it. "I look like a bad guy" he laughed.

A very young novice monk came around with the most beautiful lavender satchel bag. I had to have it. I've seen them carrying orange ones, burgundy ones, cobalt blue ones but lavender? I asked the self-proclaimed bad guy monk to be my interpretor. "Tell him that I'll give him four dollars for his bag if he can sell it." He laughed because he didn't believe I was serious until he saw me reach for my money. I offered a bit more than what I thought it was actually worth since I felt being niggardly to a monk wasn't very attractive. Several more monks came over to see what was going on and once one of them was told what was happening he piped up and laughing said, "No, five dollars!" I countered with "Four dollars and 5,000 kip [50 cents]!" I took my money out and the novice started taking out his books and laying them down smiling. Because it's forbidden to touch a monk he placed the bag on top of a foo-dog statue and I placed the cash on top of that. He took the money and I took the bag.

Later on tonight after dinner I was heading back to my hotel through the night market and spotting my bag a monk smiled and cheerfully bid me a "saw bai dee!" I love my bag but the joy of being greeted by a smiling monk from across the street is really the best thing about it.

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