Alms Giving to the Monks

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December 2, 2015


This morning we flew from Bangkok to Luang Prabang, Laos. It was a 2 hour flight on a prop plane. We were met in Laos by a local guide, Chermous (we called him Cheers) who will be with us throughout Laos. Luang Prabang was the ancient royal capital of Laos. It is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Flying in we could see green mountains all around - a pleasant change from the flat terrain of our previously visited cities. And it was about 10 degrees cooler here with lower humidity.

Luang Prabang is a quaint town along the Mekong River with many 19th century French Colonial villas mixed with more traditional Lao-style homes. Buses are not allowed in the downtown area. Local transportation is on three wheeled tuk-tuks or on motor bikes. When we got near the city, we were transferred onto tuk-tuks and taken to lunch and then to the Sada Hotel where our luggage awaited us in our rooms. This is another boutique style hotel with only 2 stories per building in a garden setting. The rooms were spacious with the largest bed we've ever seen and beautiful teak wood floors and ceilings.

In the afternoon we went by tuk-tuk to the royal temple Wat Xieng Thong. It was originally built of wood in 1560 but was reconstructed in brick and stucco following a fire in the late 19th century.

Next to it was the House of the Funeral Carriage. This building contains a huge golden carriage with golden urns that hold the ashes of the last king and queen. It was so big it was impossible to get a photo of the whole thing. Even as impressive as the carriage and urns were, so were the walls of the house which held pictures done in glass imported from Japan. They tell the story of the daily lives of the Lao people and their king and queen.

In the evening we walked through the Night Market on the main street in the old town area. This is set up every night with vendors selling locally made handicrafts, clothing and accessories. It was a very colorful site and interesting to see them setting up their stalls. We did buy a couple things and were glad that everyone was happy to take American money.





December 3, 2015

This morning we went by tuk-tuk to visit a local village and learn about their paper and textile making traditions. First we learned how they make silk, starting from the moths that lay eggs to the worms eating the mulberry leaves and the larvae from which they get the silk fiber. They also make paper from the mulberry tree bark. We watched a woman create a design on a frame filled with the mashed up bark and water. This is then set to dry to create the paper. We even got to try our hands at a design!



From the village we embarked on a cruise on the Mekong River. It is one of the longest rivers in the world, starting in Tibet and running down to the China Sea. It supports some 90 million people who produce 54,000 square miles of rice every year. The river is also home to many species of giant fish, including 600 pound catfish! We stopped along the river to a rural village known for producing a local rice whiskey. We got to taste (and purchase) both the 100 proof variety and the 15 and 30 proof. The latter tasted like sweet wine.



We continued up the river to the Pak Ou Cave. This cave contains over 5000 Buddha statues. Every year starting in the 16th century until 1975, the king and people from Luang Prabang made a pilgrimage to the caves as part of the New Year religious observances. The king commissioned artisans to create images of Buddha to place in the cave.

After our visit to the cave, we were served lunch on board the boat while cruising back down the river to our starting point. What a wonderful and interesting day.




December 4, 2015

Today was another very intersting one. We had a 5:15 am wake up call so we could participate in the ancient Buddhist tradition of alms giving to the local monks. Each morning hundreds of monks file solemnly and single file through the streets of Luang Prabang collecting food offerings from the citizens. In turn, the citizens receive prayers for their families and friends. We sat on small stools and were given baskets of sticky rice to spoon into the monk's buckets as they filed past. Although this was the dry season, it started to rain last night and it continued all day today. Fortunately, our hotel provided each room with large umbrellas. Juggling the umbrella, camera and dolling out rice was quite a feat!

What we really like about OAT is they believe in not only teaching you about the cultures of the places you visit, but having hands on experiences. After the alms giving, we visited an outdoor market to join locals and have a typical Laotian breakfast. This consisted of some "doughnuts" made of fried sticky rice and some noodle soups. All very tasty. Afterwards we were each given an ingredient to purchase at the market using the Lao language. We were given the correct amount of Lao money so the vendor would know how much of the ingredient to give us. Ours turned out to be rice noodles. It was kind of fun - like being on the Amazing Race! The ingredients were to be used later at our home hosted lunch.

We then continued through the market looking at all the native produce and food products, mingling with the locals as they purchased their groceries for the day.



We then went by bus about a 45 minute drive up into the mountains to visit a village and school. This village has been supported by the Grand Circle Foundation (GCF). Grand Circle is the parent company of OAT and a portion of the profits from every trip goes to the GCF. Originally the people in the village had to walk down to the Mekong River to get water. GCF built a pipeline from the mountains and brought fresh water to the village. They also laid down a concrete walkway through the village to the school. Otherwise the children would have to trudge through the mud to get there when it rained. We were really appreciative of that walkway today because even with it, there was mud flowing onto it with the rain. I can't imagine what it would be like during the rainy season.

We were met by the local chief of the village. In order to be chief, you must be a 3rd generation Communist. Laos is a communist country but has an elected president. Since there is only one party - Communist - the president will be a Communist! However, people are free to own property and businesses. The chief showed us around his village, with our guide translating. The chief showed us a teak leaf which, when rubbed, produces a red stain that is used to dye silk.


Our next stop was the school where one teacher teaches 1st and 2nd graders. He teaches them Lao language, math, hygiene, manners and singing. We sat with the children as they learned the Lao alphabet. Then it was our turn to teach them some English words like eye, nose, etc. After our visit to the school, we were met by the Shaman of the local Hmong hill tribe. We learned a little about them and the Shaman played a couple of their instruments. The religion of the Hmong tribe is Animist. They supported Americans during the war and their relationship with communist authorities is strained.





We then went back to the house of the chief and his wife where we helped prepare the lunch with the ingredients we had purchased at the market. One by one we poured our ingredients into a huge wok which was heated over a wood fire. There were all kinds of vegetables and our noodles, along with some garlic and cilantro and soy sauce. A very delicious stir fry.

But it turned out that was just the appetizer. The chief's wife had prepared the rest of the lunch which included soup, fish cooked in banana leaves and brown sticky rice. Needless to say we were stuffed.

So despite the rain, we had a very interesting and informative day experiencing the life of the local people. Here's some other interesting facts about Laos. It is 75% Buddhist, 30% other - mostly Animist. Many people actually practice both! When a man wants to marry, either arranged or otherwise, he must pay the wife's family a dowry. The amount is dependent on the beauty of the girl, her abilities to cook, weave, etc. It is negotiated between the sets of parents. If the man cannot pay, he goes to live with her parents and works for them until he has enough money. The primary industry is agriculture so the work is in the father-in-law's fields.

December 5, 2015

We spent our final morning in Luang Prabang visiting the Royal Palace Museum. It was built in 1904-09 during the reign of the last king of Laos, King Sisavang Vong, and served as his palace. Today it is a museum where you can see the royal throne and other artifacts as well as his living quarters. No cameras were allowed in the museum so there are no photos of the inside.

The other building on the palace grounds was a temple housing a pure gold Buddha from the 1st century. Again, no photos of the Buddha itself but it was a beautiful building. The building was built in 1969 and the Buddha moved there from the Royal Palace.

We then took a short flight to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. To read about our time in Vientiane, go to Vientiane newsletter.

To view more photos from our trip to Luang Prabang, please go to Luang Prabang Photo Gallery.

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