Mark and I have just returned from a fantastic trip around south east Asia. Over the next few weeks we’ll be writing about some of our most memorable experiences.
The landing in Luang Prabang, Laos’ historic former capital, was the most beautiful I’ve experienced. I was expecting Laos to be lush and green, but nothing had prepared me for the panorama of undulating hills and mountains, covered in a dense layer of jungle and shrouded with mist, which surrounded us on our descent. Such was the magical setting for a great experience: the daily almsgiving, or ‘pindacara’. Mark and I were collected by our guide, Oudone, who was carrying carpets, sashes and steaming baskets of rice, at dawn, and taken to the town’s main road to wait for the procession of monks. Laos follows Theravada Buddhism – the oldest surviving form. The almsround here, therefore, happens daily – offering a perfect opportunity to witness or participate in it, whenever you’re in Laos. The basic theory is that lay people offer alms, usually in the form of food and drink, to the monks, both to show humbleness and respect and as a symbolic gesture to bring them closer to the monks, and the spiritual world which the monks represent.
A privilege though it is, it isn’t easy! The monks file along, extremely quickly, momentarily opening their metal bowls in order for you to drop in rice, or whatever else you have to offer – in our case some chocolate for the younger monks, who are apparently less traditional! Half awake, with my sash falling off, I kneeled on the carpet, trying to remember to keep the souls of my feet facing behind me, whilst bobbing up and down trying to find a ‘scoop, drop’ rhythm in order to make sure I ‘dropped’ into all of the monks’ bowls as they filed quickly along. As I’m sure you can imagine, this isn’t easy, and, inevitably, I lost my rhythm. At one point, I managed only to drop a few measly grains into a young monk’s bowl, prompting him to chuckle before scuttling on and tapping his friend on the shoulder, who shared his amusement. This moment of humour epitomises the feeling of Luang Prabang: it’s a relaxed and accessible sort of place, which manages to preserve its history and traditions whilst wearing them with nonchalance and exuding warmth.