A Morning Offering In Luang Prabang
The country of Laos makes a striking first impression. The flight into Luang Prabang introduced us to this landlocked Asian country, often described as ‘Thailand before the tourists.’ We witnessed jaw-dropping vistas of a city set 700 metres above sea level surrounded by sweeping, unfriendly mountain ranges. It looked like the most uninhabitable place on earth - and the truth isn’t far off. Luang Prabang was not accessible by road until just before the 20th century, and it felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere.
Our hotel, the Luang Say Residence, was located close to the main heritage area. Despite being a small city with a population of around 50,000, Luang Prabang is of such colonial, religious and cultural significance that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, just six years after the city hosted its first tourists. It is a holy place with 33 temples, a Royal Palace and a number of Buddhist festivals and customs being celebrated and observed at any one time.
We spent our first day cycling around the city, which wound its way beautifully around the hills with the Mekong River on one side and the Nam Khan River on the other. Traditional Lao wooden houses co-exist with French colonial architecture, and the extremely clean and well-preserved streets are lined with restaurants and chill-out bars. The city felt restful. Luang Prabang is a place where spirituality flourishes, so it is no surprise that many visitors choose to attend the early morning alms giving to the monks, a ritual known as Tak Bat.
We rose early on our third morning to experience this tradition. Our hotel provided us with pre-prepared offerings - baskets of steamed rice for the older monks and some chocolates to give to the novices. When the procession began just after dawn, the atmosphere was exquisite. The monks walked past us in single file, from the most senior at the front right down to the younger boys, everyone clad in their mustard and orange robes and deep in a meditative state. It was captivating to witness such a mass of people so completely silent and focused.
In the Western world, there is so much talk of mindfulness, yet we rush about our daily lives without taking a minute to rest and contemplate the present. Yet these men are dedicating their lives to a selfless way of living, without materialism or superficial needs as they are satisfied to experience the natural wonders of the world.
As I kneeled on one of the cushions that lined the roadside procession and served a scoop of rice into each monk’s outstretched bowl, I felt humbled. There was an incredible atmosphere of awe and respect and I made sure to withdraw my hand quickly each time so as not to touch the monks and to avoid eye contact, as I had been told. The worries and pressures of life fell away and everything felt calm. It was an honour to have this opportunity to achieve spiritual redemption by the monks’ acceptance of my offerings.
War & Peace
Later that day, we climbed to the peak of Phou Si Hill and the Wat Chom Si temple to look at the stunning views over the city. The walk to the top was 328 steps of pure beauty - the handrail was shaped into a serpent with ornate detail and colourful decoration and there were golden Buddhas nestled in the grass, gleaming in the sunshine. We stayed at the peak until sunset, reflecting on our day. Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the entire world and one of the poorest. To have experienced such a serene and humbling ritual in a country that has seen so much turmoil was all the more striking.
Photo credit: Alli Caulfield
That night, we ate a traditional meal which saw the waiter bring us our very own barbeque to the table; we broke an egg over the top and heated chicken and buffalo meat over the flames, while adding vegetables and noodles to the broth that bubbled round the edges: It was delicious.
To make the most of this neighbourhood, stay at the boutique hotel, Luang Say Residence, Luang Prabang