All Wat we did today
Mar 26, 2017
Luang Prabang, Laos
As we left the hotel this morning, Ot asked us, "Wat are you going to see today?" I replied, "Yes". My wife poked me with her elbow.
She is so over my "Wat" jokes. Here's the wonderful thing: Here in Laos, a "Wat" is sometimes called a “Vat”. Vitch (I felt) allowed me to use a Yiddish accent when describing them to her as we toured each of them. For that, again, I got a poke with an elbow.
Here, then, is a list of all Vat we saw this morning:
1. Wat Pha Mahathat
This is what I like to call "the shul next door". Because it's located next door to our hotel. Our neighbourhood Wat started out as a burial chamber Stupa in 1548 and grew from there. Its location makes it very convenient for me to make it to morning minyan. Which starts at 5:45am. With bongs.
After the bongs, the monks walk in a line down the streets of Luang Prabang. At intervals and at street corners there are 5 or 6 people waiting. As each monk walks past they scoop some steamed rice or place a package of sticky (coconut) rice wrapped in a banana leaf into the bowls the monks carry or they slip a package of some other food into the big pockets on the sides of the monk's robes.
This process is called "The Alms Giving" and it is The No. 1 Thing to Do in Luang Prabang after you survive your visit to Kuang Si Waterfalls (The No. 1 Thing that will Kill You in Luang Prabang). Indeed, after surviving, it is customary to fall on your knees and pray to give thanks for your deliverance. Giving food to monks the next morning fits the bill, too.
2. Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham
Well, that's a mouthful, eh? Wat Mai (as the locals refer to it) is the home of the Sangharat - the head of Lao Buddhism. We went to pay a call to Mr. Sangharat but he was out. All of his novice monks were around, however, busy sprucing up the place in advance of the Lao New Year Festival that starts in a couple of weeks.
They were applying a fresh coat of lacquer to everything that moved. We had to be quick to avoid being lacquered ourselves.
The Ordination Hall of the Wat Mai Monastery within the compound sports a 5-tiered roof in a style that's been described as archetypal Luang Prabang. It's also been described as one of the most sumptuous in Luang Prabang.
This is saying a lot because there are 33 Wats in town. Each with their own monastery. Think back a few paragraphs now, about "The Alms Giving" each morning. Every morning at 5:45 am the monks pour out of 33 monasteries all over town and the streets are just filled with monks. It is really an amazing sight to see.
So amazing that tour companies (and hotels) all over town will happily charge you $50/person for a ‘personal’ Alms Giving experience that will include pick up at your hotel in an air conditioned van, a guide to explain what is happening and, for a nominal extra charge, a pre-packaged sticky rice packet for you to personally place into the bowl of a passing monk. In addition, they will guarantee you a ‘good spot’ from which you can take photos of the spectacle.
Or… you could walk outside your hotel and just see them wandering all around town and stuff a couple of thousand Kips into the pockets of a couple of passing monks. Take all the photos you want – the monks are okay with it. They aren’t excited about the tourists who ask them to stop in their tracks and pose for a photo with them. But other than that, they are used to being photographed.
Then, with the $49.75 you’ve got left, maybe you could wander around town a bit and find some other passing charities to help out, too, while you’re at it. I don’t know. It’s your $50 so you decide how you want to spend it.
3. Wat Ho Pha Bang
This gem is located within the compound of the Royal Palace, which housed the family of the rulers of the Kingdom of Laos until 1975, when the Pathet Lao communists abolished the monarchy.
This Wat is important because it houses the Pha Bang for which it's named. Wat is the Pha Bang, you ask? The Pha Bang is an 83-cm tall Buddha made of gold that arrived in Luang Prabang in 1512. I'm not sure if it came under its own steam or was carried here.
The Pha Bang makes an appearance during the annual Pak Mai (Lao New Yea) festival, when it's paraded around town on its own little gold gilt edged wagon. The wagon is parked around behind the Royal Palace when it's not being used so we got to check that out too.
Directly across from the Wat is a statue of King Sisavongvang, the last monarch. After we paid him a visit they closed the gates to the Royal Palace Compound, with us still inside. It was 11:30am and the 2-hour lunch break mandated by the Government of Laos was starting. The Government of Laos motto: "We may be corrupt but we know how to take a siesta like nobody's business!"
4. Wat Xiang Mouane
Your UNESCO dollars are hard at work here. At this Wat, novice monks are trained in the artistic skills needed to maintain and preserve Luang Prabang's temples. Those skills include things like woodcarving, painting, and Buddha casting.
Buddha casting, I'm told, has something to do with the metal mold process by which the likeness of Buddha in various poses is created. But in my 12-yr. old mind all I can see when I hear “Buddha casting” is a bunch of young novice monks chucking around Buddha's to each other like footballs or something.
I guess there must also be courses taught her on things like "Temple Lacquering 101", since we saw a bunch of graduates from that career path hard at work earlier at Wat Mai.
5. Vat Choumkhong Sourintharame
I know you'll find it hard to believe, but by this point my wife had told me in no uncertain terms that "This is it buster - your last Wat, so you better make it a good one!". “No matter Vat”, I added. She hit me again.
This little Wat is actually pretty nondescript in that "Seen one Wat with a ton of gilt-edged stuff, seen 'me all" kind of way. But it had something that no other Wat had: Monks who wanted to chat.
We sat down for a rest at a table in the shade of a tree with a nice cooling breeze and a few of the Novices meandered over, sat down with us, and the conversation began. They told us that were 16 years old and had been "in the profession " for a couple of years. They told us that the full training to become a monk takes 19 years before they get their smicha.
I could have that wrong and will try to double check as that seems like an awfully long time to be a disciple but I'm thinking now that might be right because you have got to see the gazillions of little tchotchkes that go into the Buddhist religion. Just learning all their names would take years, never mind understanding what the heck all those things are or you’re supposed to do with them, for them, or to them.
Anyway, the Novices were delighted to see photos of our children and the Alberta Rockies and me feeding elephants so, all in all, I'd consider this to have been a significant cultural exchange that will bode well for future Canada-Laos relations.
5 Wats down, 28 to go. Debbie said it's good for me to save something to do for when we return.
And then we had lunch.
Le Banneton Cafe serves up great baguettes sandwiches. We shared a salad Nicesoise baguette. And we shared French fries, too. And a chocolate croissant. We shared all that with a little 3-yr. old German girl named Greta who's been following us around Luang Prabang since we arrived at the airport and first spotted her being cute and all that while waiting in the endless lines for Visa and passport control.
We had shared our fries with her two days ago when she wandered over to our table to steal some and lecture us in German about how she likes mayonnaise with her fries, not ketchup.
Greta and her 5-yr. old brother Walther have been travelling around India and SE Asia for almost 5 months. And she still doesn't speak a lick of English. How is that possible? Everyone here speaks English?
Anyway, in my best German, I asked her how she intended to pay for my fries. She promptly handed me her toy giraffe. I accepted it. Fair trade, I figure.
Then she involved her big brother in the French fry caper and then I see them ferrying them across to the table next to us where their parents were watching, and happily encouraging this petty theft.
Well, 45 minutes later Debbie is on a first name basis with Greta & Walther's parents, a lovely couple from near Munich, where Gerhardt has taken a leave of absence from his engineering firm and Stephanie has done the same with her HR position in order to show the world to their children before Walther starts kinderschmidt next fall at which point the chance to just take off with the children won't be as easy.
By the time she was finished with them, Debbie had adopted Greta and now we have to babysit for her tonight, I think. I don't know for sure, my German isn't that good.
In return for humouring me all morning as we did things Wat I wanted to, we spent the afternoon at the Ock Pop Tok (East meets West) weaving centre, where Master Weavers ply their craft and teach classes, which involve alien races with names like "Warp", "Weft", "Worf ", and (I think) "Klingons".
This is a feel-good place because, as the signs and brochures remind you, the Master Weavers (think Jedi Knights except with wooden shuttles instead of laser swords) are paid a fair wage for their work. And their work is simply stunning. (Of course, they can also set the shuttles to "Kill" mode but they rarely do).
The patterns they weave, and the way they weave them, is intensely intricate. The centre includes a display featuring a Hmong grandmother & granddaughter. Well, they aren’t ‘technically’ on display but the signs hanging behind where she sits with her granddaughter, working away on some piece of art, say that Mae Thao Zuzong, a member of the Hmong Lai tribe (Striped Hmong), is the only practitioner of Hmong Batik left in Luang Prabang.
I’ll accept what the signs say as being accurate. But only to an extent. She is teaching her 14 yr. old granddaughter her craft and from what I saw, her granddaughter is pretty good at it so, from where I sit, there are in fact two Hmong Lai who have the ability. Again, I’m a stickler for accuracy.
At the centre they also dye all the silk that they use to weave, using only dyes that they themselves make, derived from natural sources, like plants, nuts and minerals, most of which are growing in their garden (well, the plants & nuts, anyway). It’s pretty neat to see the dyeing process and the loops of different coloured silk thread just hanging out to dry.
But the biggest deal of all at this place (and I am not making this up) is that they were willing to sell their dyed silk loops to Debbie. I don’t even want to tell you how big a deal this was. On the way to Halong Bay in Vietnam (that was about 14 months ago, it seems) the bus stopped at a rest centre for 20 minutes.
At this rest centre, disabled men & women were creating intricate needlework art using silk thread. For 19 of our allotted 20 minutes, Debbie harangued the sales clerks, who only wanted us to buy the finished product, until they finally relented and agreed to sell her a few skeins (see, I can two lern new words!) of the silk thread.
Since then, she’s fruitlessly harangued countless other hapless sales clerks, weavers, knitters, sewers (as in people who sew, not the street kind) and assorted village people (but not the cop, she doesn’t want to get into trouble) begging them all to sell her some of their silk thread.
Not a one of them would budge. Not at the Silk Village in Hoi An. Not at the Silk weaving centre outside Dalat. Not anywhere.
Today, however, she hit the jackpot. The mother lode. As a result, we are buying another suitcase. In this one I am putting the mulberry tree that grows the leaves the silkworms eat.
P.S. It rained tonight in Luang Prabang! I make note of this because it is the first time it has rained in Luang Prabang in 2017. Think about that. We are in the middle of a lush jungle and almost 100 days into the year before the first rain.
P.P.S. It is also the first rain that’s fallen on us since our 2nd day in Hanoi when, for about 4 minutes, a few drops fell. I think that our dry spell may be coming to an end, though, as the forecast for the next few days in Koh Samui, Thailand, where we’re headed tomorrow, is for some wet stuff. We’ll be fine. I won’t melt. I hope.
P.P.P.S. A big shout out to our friend Tony Russell, who is being honoured tonight by the Arthritis Society & Beth Shalom Synagogue at a Gala Dinner titled “The Joint Affair”. I’m certain it will be a lot of fun. If he lets his sons Alex & Mark talk it will even be funny.