How can some people say, that there is just one way? – Mason Jennings
One morning in Luang Prabang, Erin and I rose early to witness the alms collection of over 300 Buddhist Monks. Once off of our hotel’s street, a quiet side street with guesthouses and local families, we were immediately asked by enterprising women if we’d like to buy rice for the monks. We passed with as much politeness as we could muster at this hour, and moved on.
Nearby, a tarp was placed on the ground with a tooth-strewn woman selling grubs, pineapple, and herbs, immediately next to another woman selling the same — an oblivious non-compete clause riddled with poverty. These under- or more likely uneducated farmer’s daughters, early mothers and wives, moved closer to the town to hock these goods at a pittance. Scenes like this take place in Luang Prabang while we dream of sipping Bordeaux and people-watch from one of the cafes, pronouncing the difficult vowels of French, and enjoying the good — ironically simple — life. It is an unfair reality that in one day, most middle-class Americans make more than she will in a year. Yet, without even having to ask, we know these women have families, and with Laos’ average household size at 6, it’s probably a large one. Doubtless, they do not complain and carry on every day, contributing and working, working and contributing, even for a meager mean of $1/day in profits. Unemployment in Laos is at 2.4% because of woman like this. These humble moments remind us daily just how fortunate we are.
Bearing right, we turned onto the main street, Sisavangvong, named after a prior king, who would be the second to last in the royal family to hold the throne before the USA left Southeast Asia and communism made its stranglehold complete.
Slowly walking towards our unknown destination, we passed two-story buildings in French-Colonial style — white, shuttered, balconies above, entirely classic and nostalgic — and are transported to a bygone era. Palms adorned their entrances, and
weather-worn red, green and blue shutters, still closed from the previous night’s rain, began to open from the morning staff. The smell of Lao coffee, dark, rich and strong, permeated the air from the throngs of cafes while just a few remnants of the nightly Hmong goods and food street markets still littered the street, despite the nightly sweeping. It is decidedly un-Southeast Asian here on this street — too orderly, clean, and manicured to be considered so — even having brick-paved sidewalks and sans-potholed streets. The French influence has done the center of town well, providing structure, where going only four short blocks in any direction time-warps you back 100 years further.
The morning fog, ever present during the rainy season, lifted slowly in unison with the light of day. Spotting a set of four chairs, yellow and connected, as if lifted from a stadium, we sat and waited.
Luck shone upon us at 6 am sharp when a group of 30 or so monks, identically clad in orange cloaks and two-day-old shaven haircuts filed out and began the procession before only our eyes, as other tourists had ventured further north for the show. The sight was beautiful and we decide to let it only be captured with our eyes and hearts rather than the typical knee-jerk reaction of producing a camera. Their daily ritual bespoke of times past, centuries of tradition steeped carefully into our modern times. One by one, they filed through the streets, while
locals, worshipers, and wannabes give alms, gifts, most often food, to sustain the monks for the day.
Typically, as young men, monks give up material possessions, jobs, family and their normal life to enter the monk hood, vowing celibacy and study. They sacrifice their lives for the sake of possible enlightenment, but sadly, and quite often, miss the point of the teachings of the Buddha, who sought after the individual path, blazing his own trail of spirituality to achieve Nirvana. No less, the tradition endures and countless Buddha statues and other wares, the profligate relics of worship, litter the shelves in nearly every store and home in this part of the world. This all happens regardless of the Buddha stating before his death that “relics were not to be collected or venerated.”
It is tradition I seek and regardless of beliefs, I marveled in its beauty. We walked further north on the street to join the crowded throngs of tourists, each with camera in hand, some on tripods, to catch a look. It seemed that what we had privately witnessed only a few short minutes before was happening all over this small peninsula, as now there was an endless stream of monks parading down the sidewalk towards us. We didn’t see the first monk pass and spent at least 10 minutes watching and secretly snapping a few photos ourselves before leaving, but the monks were still arriving on the corner, their baskets getting heavier.
Next, we decided to climb up Phou Si to see the temple atop Luang Prubang and enjoy the magnificent 270-degree views below. Entering the southeast entrance, we slowly tip-toed past monks who had surely just returned from the morning’s procession. A small wooden shack, barely balanced on the slopes below the walkway, seemed to be the laundry drying room. Inside hung about 20 orange cloaks, brightly contrasting the worn, rotted wood exterior. We passed more gold-painted Buddha statues along the
path, each representing the different styles: Fat Buddha – the overfed, happy, sloth; Real Buddha – what he would have probably looked like which we though was a lot like Gandhi; and the most common, Buddha Tathagata – with elongated ears (all-hearing), a bump on the head (all-knowing), and a boss in the forehead (all-seeing.)
Slightly sweaty, we reached the top, but not before passing a large machine gun on a mechanical swivel, a russet hue that I’d guess aged it about 35-40 years, an obvious tool of either the Royal Lao Army or even their successor, the Pathet Lao, which was the communist power that took over in 1975.
The temple at the summit was less than stellar, but the views of the chocolate milk-colored confluence of two rivers below, the Mekong and Nam Kahn, were worth the climb. Erin was feeling the effects of the early morning and decided to hurry home for a quick nap while I continued down a well-earthed set of stairs on the opposite side of our entry until reaching the highlight of my climb. A real, live, Bodhi tree. I had never laid eyes on one until then. It is believed that beneath a Bodhi tree, Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, achieved enlightenment and it therefore carries great significance in the Buddhist religion. Its heart-shaped leaves, if held stem down, are reminiscent of the spire often found on the multitude of Buddha statues. Circling its perimeter, I found a recently fallen leaf and placed it on the tiered wall surrounding the gorgeous tree, next to a leaf that was already biodegrading, a reincarnation of sorts, into the Earth. Happily, I retreated down the stairs and found myself sitting at my favorite noodle stand, my belly hungry for nutrition.
On a small side street, heading slightly uphill, sat four small picnic tables, each big enough for four Laotians or two Americans. Facing the perpendicular street below I had a seat and made eyes with the purveyor across the alleyway. She must not have been more than 45, looked at least 60, and had a steel-faced, stoic glare; one of those ‘I’ve seen some stuff, sonny, and you don’t really wanna know’ kind of looks. Her dark black eyes recognized mine; after all, this was the fourth time I’d been here in three days. Wagging my index finger in the air, she immediately began her duty, working as efficiently as a line-worker in a Ford plant. To her right was a covered, yet steaming, large pot of chicken stock, big enough to hold about five gallons. Inside were parts of chicken we most certainly don’t use, ducking and bobbing in the rolling boil. She placed a sizable handful of rice noodles in a large slotted spoon along with some chopped green onions and sprouts and placed them in the stock to cook. Meanwhile, in a pink plastic basket, like one of those red ones you’d find filled with fries at a burger joint, she served the following: green beans, chilies, basil, mint, turnip leaves, bean sprouts, cabbage, and quickly slicing two limes, stacked them on top. Into a porcelain, over-sized, white bowl, went the cooked noodles and some julienned pork, before two ladles of stock were added. Carefully sidestepping the uneven pavement, the bowl and basket were placed on my table, the steam rising pleasantly to my nose. I marveled in the fact that that entire procedure took less than one minute.
Here in front of me was the one area that communism got right. Surrounding each metropolitan area are farms dedicated to growing produce for that town only. Rarely will you find any produce grown in the south here in the north and oh yes, it just tastes better. Fast food in all its glory and fresh, too.
Given the nature of the morning, before diving into my breakfast, I was reminded of a book I had read years ago called, “Island” by Aldous Huxley. In his painted Utopia, on an island named Pala, Huxley writes of a daily pre-meal ritual:
Washed and brushed, the twins were already in their high chairs. Mary Sarojini hung over them like a proud but anxious mother. At the stove Vijaya was ladling rice and vegetables out of an earthenware pot. Cautiously and with an expression on his face of focused concentration, Tom Krishna carried each bowl, as it was filled, to the table.
“There!” said Vijaya when the last brimming bowl had been sent on its way. He wiped his hands, walked over to the table and took his seat.
“Better tell our guest about grace,” he said to Shanta.
Turning to Will, “In Pala,” she explained, “we don’t say grace before meals. We say it with meals. Or rather we don’t say grace; we chew it.”
“Grace is the first mouthful of each course—chewed and chewed until there’s nothing left of it. And all the time you’re chewing you pay attention to the flavor of the food, to its consistency and temperature, to the pressures on your teeth and the feel of the muscles in your jaws.”
“And meanwhile, I suppose, you give thanks to the Enlightened One, or Shiva, or whoever it may be?” Shanta shook her head emphatically.
“That would distract your attention, and attention is the whole point. Attention to the experience of something given, something you haven’t invented, not the memory of a form of words addressed to somebody in your imagination.”
She looked round the table. “Shall we begin?”
“Hurrah!” the twins shouted in unison, and picked up their spoons. For a long minute there was a silence, broken only by the twins who had not yet learned to eat without smacking their lips.
“May we swallow now?” asked one of the little boys at last.
Shanta nodded. Everyone swallowed. There was a clinking of spoons and a burst of talk from full mouths.
“Well,” Shanta enquired, “what did your grace taste like?”
“It tasted,” said Will, “like a long succession of different things. Or rather a succession of variations on the fundamental theme of rice and turmeric and red peppers and zucchini and something leafy that I don’t recognize. It’s interesting how it doesn’t remain the same. I’d never really noticed that before.”
“And while you were paying attention to these things, you were momentarily delivered from daydreams, from memories, from anticipations, from silly notions—from all the symptoms of you.'”
“Isn’t tasting me?”
Shanta looked down the length of the table to her husband. “What would you say, Vijaya?”
“I’d say it was halfway between me and not-me. Tasting is not-me doing something for the whole organism. And at the same time tasting is me being conscious of what’s happening. And that’s the point of our chewing-grace—to make the me more conscious of what the not-me is up to.”
“Very nice,” was Will’s comment. “But what’s the point of the point?”
It was Shanta who answered. “The point of the point,” she said, “is that when you’ve learned to pay closer attention to more of the not-you in the environment (that’s the food) and more of the not-you in your own organism (that’s your taste sensations), you may suddenly find yourself paying attention to the not-you on the further side of consciousness, or perhaps it would be better,” Shanta went on, “to put it the other way round. The not-you on the further side of consciousness will find it easier to make itself known to a you that has learned to be more aware of its not-you on the side of physiology.”
I started by squeezing two halves of a lime, breaking the green beans, chilies, cabbage, lettuce and herbs into smaller, stemless bites and adding them to the soup. With chopsticks, I stirred the concoction together, lifting the noodles out of the bowl, dunking and swirling it all together until it was perfect. Blowing off the heat, I took a big bite, closed my eyes, and chewed. The green beans hit first, crunchy, textured and thankfully, not squeaky. Green onion and mint hit my taste buds and the turnip leaves, slightly bitter, swirled. It was hot but not too hot, salty, and with the sour lime and spicy chilies, just right. The noodles tasted of nothing but rice and I thought of the rice terraces and the farmers whose backbreaking work brought it to my table. Chicken broth, pork, and fat, sacrifices were made for me. I am grateful. The basil, sweetly finished with the crunch of a few errant stems and what surely must have been bean sprouts, their texture unmistakeable. The water, that no matter where it came from, ultimately was from Earth’s constant cycles, cleaned and purified for my consumption. Energy wasted so energy can be gained. My forehead tingled, the sweating began. Umami. Another cycle. I was and still am thankful. I swallowed, opened my happy eyes, fulfilled, and a monk walked by on the street, a splash of orange only in view for a fleeting second. I finished my meal and payed the equivalent of $1.25 in Lao kip, said khop jai lai lai, thank you very much, and made my way home to my beautiful wife.
Soon after, walking back on the same street, alive and fully open for business now, we turned down a small side street, heading towards the Mekong, and enter Big Brother Mouse, a Laotian-owned non-profit organization dedicated to helping Laotian children learn to read, improve literacy and practice their English.
Posters and pictures littered the walls, looking like a kindergarten classroom. We were slightly late but signed in and were ushered to a nearby table where a sizable group of eager, young 18-24 year old Laotian men and women and a few felang, foreigners, were already having conversations. Immediately, conversations were struck up with us and we talk. That’s it, really. Just talk. Questions about our
families arose and we showed them pictures from the wedding. One particular young man asks Erin to explain adjectives — something we will never forget — in such a way that he must’ve been dreaming of getting the chance to ask. Most had large notebooks with pages upon pages of vocabulary words and they flipped quickly and excitedly through, knowing that our time together was limited. We learned of the three types of people in Laos, the Lao Loum, the Hmong, and the Khamu, and where they are mostly located throughout the country. We learned that they come here on their own and it’s not a requirement and most are studying to become English teachers themselves. Some hold down jobs at restaurants and hotels, where they gain exposure to Westerners, and can practice their English even more. I spent about an hour having a mock-conversation with one such front-desk employee who wanted to know “What should I say when a Westerner comes downstairs in the morning?” Time flies, and two hours passed, and that was all that we were allowed to stay. We made plans with our groups to see them the following day, said farewell, and returned to the streets. It was slightly after 11 in the morning and the sun was beginning to fade, clouds rolling in again, threatening more rain.
“Waterfall?,” I jokingly asked, referring to a popular tourist activity nearby.
“Nah,” Erin says, “let’s do it tomorrow.”
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