4.30 am – A Call To Alms!
We’d both heard stories of the saffron- shrouded Buddhist monks who walk the streets of Luang Prabang at dawn. Or rather, Andrew had heard them from me. So when a chilly, dark 4.30am came ‘a calling, we both rose – before the Lark had even considered warming up her tonsils!
We wrapped ourselves like Sherpas and hit the black deserted streets in search of this sacred, spiritual practice.
The little town resembled a cemetery ground, the odd Chinese lantern thankfully lighting our way. Somnolent was not the word.
We strolled down the ‘high street’ alone, growing colder and more concerned that absolutely no preparations for the event had even begun.
‘Are you sure they do it every bloody morning?’ Andrew rasped, fag in hand.
‘Yes’ I hissed back.
We were certainly in need of The Buddha.
We then stumbled across a temple complex – that was apparently empty. Golden, glistening palaces, all sympathetically floodlit, for no-one apparently, but us. We marvelled at these stunningly foreign creations, alone, for some minutes.
Then we noticed we had company.
A young, berobed, monk was standing in front of one of the gilded structures and raising both arms. In supplication I romantically assumed. As we got closer I realised this kid had his mobile phone and was using it to get a few snaps of his digs before the ceremony.
My pretentious deep moment was somewhat punctured.
When we got back to the main road, there was activity now.
First we were approached by village women with baskets of donations for discerning tourists to give to the monks.
1. Do not use flash photography.
As the Orange trail of holymen came into view, each carrying a large metal bowl with which to accept the alms of the devout, it was as if Diana, Princess Of Wales, had been found alive and well in Laos.
This international contingent of ‘dickheads’ flashed, popped and blinded every monk on the street – from a distance of two feet!
They made the ‘evil’ paparazzi look like a group of becalmed birdwatchers!
2. Be silent as the ceremony takes place.
Without wanting to sound anti- Gallic, our French cousins appeared to not understand this particular rule. With shouts of ‘maintenant’ and ‘vites’ as they furiously shoved sticky rice into the monks’ bowls, whilst, at the same time, making sure they said ‘fromage’ to the camera lens just to capture their ‘spiritual’ moment.
3. Do not buy rice from street peddlars to use as alms. It is of poor quality and insulting to the monks. It offends them!
Unsurprisingly, the said vendors did a roaring trade.
‘Quel dommage!’ – what a pity that a brief, rare moment of stillness and contemplation has been turned into a tourist attraction.
A frantic, early episode of ‘Rice, Camera, Action!’
To have one’s picture taken at such a moment surely makes the moment redundant; meaningless!
Even I resisted!
We did not resist stopping to stuff a quick croissant and some French coffee on the way back to bed though.
We’re not that far along the spiritual path yet.
Two hours of dodgy sleep and dreamily mulling over the interesting experience we’d had with the monks earlier, I was in darker mood.
If this beautiful place continues on this hideous trajectory, I imagine, as Ernest Hemingway once wrote, it will be –
‘A Farewell To Alms’.