Luang Prabang was formerly the capital of Laos. Now it is a tranquil mountain town where Buddhist monks peacefully go about their way – until the tourists come rushing in.
Laos’ Route National 13 is a wide ribbon of smooth but dusty tar shadowing the Mekong river on a narrow strip of plain edged by highlands to the east. The trucks and buses on it also flow northward. The road was the first highway in the country to be paved.
In Luang Prabang, set back from Route 13 high in the north, the only evening activity is the night market where the hill tribes sell their crafts but it is shut by 10pm. The town awakens again at dawn when booming drums summon Buddhist monks from its many temples. Padding silently on bare feet, they pass in long lines through the streets, their orange robes bright in the early morning light.
Women kneel in wait, placing handfuls of rice or pieces of fruit into the copper bowls each monk carries. Such alms brings the giver merit to offset any bad one might do in daily life. The monks, who are forbidden to cook, learn humility. Both sides gain. The monks pause only to give some of the food in turn to kneeling street children: a cycle of goodness. There is little eye contact and holy silence rules.
The tranquility of this scene is broken only by the scrum of tourists whose cameras flash as they battle for the perfect shot. Although many do stand respectfully at a distance, absorbing the spirituality of the scene, others stand, a just-bought offering in one hand, camera in the other, as if this were feeding time in a zoo. The many signs saying “Protect our Culture” are impotent. The quiet ritual is in danger of becoming just a tourist attraction, with the monks mere performers on a stage.
The Lao people call Luang Prabang “Falang City”, “falang” originally meaning French but now any western foreigner. The number of travelers arriving from Europe, the US, Australia or the rest of Asia goes up every day. Route 13 has started a process of change that cannot be stopped.
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