An Interview with Monk Vieng Say

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

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Sunday, January 30, 2005

He was sitting outside one of the many ornate wats here with an "English for Lao" textbook in his lap. "Hello! Where are you from?" He asked. As I have learned here in Luang Prabang this is prelude to a monk wanting to practice his English. I was much obliged.

His name is Monk Vieng Say, he is 26 years old and for almost half of his life he has lived in a monastery. Six years as a novice and six as an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk. He comes from a province in the north near the border of China, and is one of six children. Lao is his second languange, his first is a nothern hill tribe dialect. At the age of 13 he left his former life and family to take up the saffron robe and a mendicant's bowl. He quickly consented when I asked if he'd allow me to interview him. He smiled often and several times while I was writing down his responses he corrected himself and me.

What is your daily routine like? At 4:00 I wake up and chant for 30 minutes followed by 20-30 minutes of meditation. At 7:30 we leave to collect food [the monks line up outside the monastary with their bowls, which are filled with food by loyal Buddhists looking to earn "merit" in this or the next life].

What do you normally get in your bowl for breakfast? Rice. Anything really. Sometimes meats like pork or beef and morning glory.

And then what do you do? After breakfast we relax and then we eat our second and last meal of the day at 11:00. Lunch is the same as breakfast usually but sometimes it's noodle soup. Later I study English for 2 hours and then art.

What kind of art are you studying? I study drawing, painting, wood carving, and bronze casting. I've been restoring this temple and another temple for over a year.

So the majority of craftsmanship in the temples are actually done by monks? Oh, yes.

After your art studies what do you do? After school I go back to the temple at 3:30 and relax. At 5:30 we chant for one hour. Later I study English by myself and then I go to bed at 10:00 -- sometimes 11:00.

Do you think that you'll always be a monk? Yes, of course.

I've seen some monks smoking. Are monks allowed to smoke? Usually the Buddhist don't smoke. Maybe this person was being naughty.

Have you ever tried alcohol? Yes, before I was a novice.

Did you like it? [laughs] Uh, not really.

Who are your favourite tourists that you speak with? People from England.

Who are your least favourite tourists to speak with? I don't prefer to speak with the Chinese tourists. I know Chinese though -- I studied it for five years. They're not nice like the French, German or English people.

What do you think about America? America is good. It's pretty good, I think.

What do you think about George W. Bush? I sometimes watch the BBC and I heard a little bit of things bad. I think he's not so good.

Do you think that you'll always live in Luang Prabang? No. One more year studying here in Luang Prabang and then perhaps another place.

Where would you most like to visit in the world? Perhaps I would like to live in Montreal in Canada so that I can study English and French. I have some tourist friends there that I send emails with. Also I have a friend in Chicago and I would like to go there, too.

Well, if you ever come to the United States you should come to New York. I'll buy you dinner. [Laughs] I can't eat dinner!

Fine. How about breakfast? You can eat that can't you? Yes, yes you can buy me breakfast!

Bring that mendicant's bowl -- I want that thing. [Laughs]All right!

After our interview he invited me to his room where we sat on the floor while he showed me his prints and drawings. For added ambiance he proudly played me his English vocabulary tapes on his jam box. He exuded a certain charming naivete though he was well-aware of the world outside of Lao. His English was by far superior to any of the other Lao people whom I've met and he was very much relaxed with and curious about occidentals and their ways. The feeling was mutual as was the respect.

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