29 August 2002

22. - 29 AUG: Exit Indochina

Monks alms procession

On my last day in Luang Prabang one of my goals was to be at sunrise on top of the Phousi mountain to take a few good dawn shots of the city and its surroundings. I had set the alarm clock for a quarter to five in the morning, but as it often happens to me when something important is at stake I woke up just a few minutes before it went off. How our internal clock can be so precise it is difficult for me to fathom. Be that as it may, I was immediately awake and fully alert. I was not tired, despite the early hour and the long transfers of the previous days. The sky was heavily clouded, not the best photo weather at all, to put it mildly. I realized there would be no chance for the Phousi I had been planning for, it will have to be on the next trip to Luang Prabang. I was disappointed, and the temptation to go back to sleep and wait for a civilized eight o’clock breakfast was a powerful one. However, I was up now and when I heard the irresistible call of the gong from the Wat Xieng Muang next door my mind was quickly made up and I decided to go look for the monks doing their begging rounds, a daily routine but always an intense moment to witness. In a minute I was out in the street and began looking around and listening...

Sure enough, the moment I stepped on to Sisavangvong I was just at the head of a long line of orange robes which stretched as far as the eye could see in the direction of the temples at the far East of the city’s peninsula. They walk in a formation of two distinct groups that are separated by just a few meters so in the distance they actually look like just one very very long line. Each goup is disposed in a precise hierachical order, with the senior monks at the head, followed by progressively younger ones, while the novices trail at the end. They walk in unison, at a brisk clip but with no hurry. The older monks look serious, almost solemn as they lead the way. The younger ones are more relaxed, some even let out a smile or two.

The monks follow an itinerary that runs down from the various temples in the East along Sisavangong, then right at the Royal Palace toward the river and right again along the Mekong left bank all the way back up to the temples. Every twenty or thirty meters, small groups of faithfuls, in twos, threes, or fours, kneel down by the roadside. Each holds a cane basket full of sticky rice. As each monk or novice steps up and lifts the lid of his bowl, they drop a fistful of rice in it; the lid is then replaced until the next drop. The spotless bright orange robes radiate an almost incandescent shimmer in the tenuous early morning lights, at a time when everything else is still under a patina of gray mist.

My impression is mixed. On the one hand, the coreography is highly suggestive of religious mystery and impenetrable tradition. On the other hand, this is one of the most routine procedures in the Buddhist world, done time and again in countless cities and basically just a way to collect rice for the monks’ simple diet. It is special for us foreigners, but not for the Lao.

Despite the early hour, I was not the only foreigner who came to see the procession. About a half dozen of us, armed to the teeth with cameras, telephoto lenses and strobes, buzzed around each way-point on the monks’ itinerary and flooded the scene with camera shutters clicking, motorized winders whirring and electronic flashes blasting each time a fistful of rice is dropped in a rice bowl. As the two groups move along, the photographers ran ahead of them (and of each other) to take positions ahead of the next rice drop. Sometimes I had to walk awkwardly backward to try to get that perfect monk shot. Once I climbed dangerously on the fence of a large house, others jumped on top of benches to get a higher angle on our orange subjects.

During the high tourist season, in Winter, the number of photographers could be approaching that of the monks! Sometimes I wondered whether it would make for more interesting pictures if it were the monks taking photos of visitors rather then the other way around. In fact, I did not just wonder, I did take some photos of the clumsier ones among my peers, and I think I would have been pretty funny myself if anyone had bothered to notice.

A critical eternal romantic told me Christians would not appreciate being photographed during Mass, and in fact many churches forbid it. He argued we should likewise respect the monks and leave them alone during their begging rounds. I thought that parallel was not warranted. For one thing, the begging round is not a sacred ceremony, though undoubtedly a serious observance. But I believe to refrain from taking photos would be an excess of self-criticism which one often finds in Western eternal romantics, part of their general attitude to leave the world alone as much as possible, even if it means reducing mutual contacts and knowledge. The monks clearly did not object to photographers; actually, the younger ones on a number of occasions displayed a curious interest and smiled at the lenses. They could object if they wanted to, they could let it be known that this was not on and that would be that.

The rest of the day was peaceful in Luang Prabang. Tiime to reflect on the Mekong and its people, the jungle, the markets, the boats, the monks. Time for some last minute shopping, a few more pictures. Then, in the afternoon, off to the airport for our flight back to Thailand, our link to the world we came from. Not sure what to call it. Thailand is not "Western". It is modern, like us. It is tecnologically advanced, like us. It is secular, like us. Somehow, flying to Thailand, a countruy I have never visited, feels like going home.

End of the trip

I was sitting at a window seat in the forward section of the plane, on the left hand side of the aisle and just forward of the big eight-bladed propeller. Ever since I began travelling by air I always asked for window seats, even if it often not the most comfortable. It is my curiosity to begin the discovery of the upcoming trip already in flight; of course, most of the time the view from outside the plane is nothing to write home about, but once in a while a good combination of weather, landscape and flight trajectory reward my perseverance. The last glimpse of Laos we are given to enjoy could not have been a more appropriate one.

The late afternoon sun was shining and casting a warm, gentle light over the jungle. After take-off, the plane made an almost completerly full circle before settling on its South-Westerly course toward Bangkok. As it loops around Luang Prabang’s peninsula, the Mekong showed up one last time, its sinuous turns seemed to wave us off. I could easily make out the Pak Ou Caves and the suburbs of Luang Prabang, which we had cruised by on our way to Nong Khiaw. The narrower Nam Ou appeared as well, to the North, with its steep rocky cliffs marking its last leg before it feeds into the Mekong.

The turboprop might as well have been a space-craft, or a time machine, because balmy Luang Prabang, muddy Pakse or run-down Vientiane do not belong to the same planet, nor to the same era as Bangkok. Stepping out of the airplane one had the definite impression of having fast-forwarded back into the XXI century.

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