A monk sweeping Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang. Despite Laos being one of the world’s last Communist countries, more than 65 per cent of the population say they are Buddhist, although it is a unique form with strong roots in native animist beliefs. Almost every Laotian man will spend time in a monastery, especially before marriage, although women can only attain Nirvana after being reincarnated as a man.
Laos – Been There

What do monks in Laos think of tourists?

Photo by David Sanger

Laos – Been There What do monks in Laos think of tourists?

Monks with their alms bowls are a familiar sight in the streets of Laos, and a popular subject for the cameras of tourists. But what do the monks think of the visitors?

Julio Etchart
Julio Etchart

In Wat Chom Si, sitting atop a steep hill overlooking Luang Prabang, I meet Khen working on the statues of Buddha the monks here make for other temples in the region. He came to the temple as a novice eight years ago at the age of 12 and is now a fully-fledged monk.

“We get up at 4am and meditate,” he says in a mixture of English and French. “Then we all walk through the streets collecting alms and food. After breakfast, I come to the workshop where I spend most of the day chiseling and polishing the wood along with the three novices who assist me. Sometimes I feel like I am becoming one with Lord Buddha. Having the privilege of spending so much time looking at his physical likeness is a great blessing.”

None of the monks criticize the tourists who disrupt their morning walk. “They come from many different countries and many different religions,” one says. “It is good they are interested in the way of the Lord Buddha and it makes life in the temple more interesting. I hope they go away having learned something about our religion.”

The tourists are much more familiar to the monks, who see them every day, than the monks are to tourists, arriving with romantic ideas in their heads. Most of the young monks are from Luang Prabang and are working hard on their English skills which, with their Vinaya or monastic self-discipline, make a combination that will later almost guarantee them a job in tourism. A tour guide can earn more than a doctor or teacher in Laos but English is not taught in school.

In the meantime, they enjoy the sweet taste of the cookies that are replacing the rice in their bowls. As local people are forced out of the town center by rising demand to convert houses into restaurants and guest houses, there are fewer to give alms and fewer again with time to cook. The tourists just buy their offerings from the nearest hawker.

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A monk works on a Buddha statue on a temple in Luang Prabang. The town has 34 temples but many of the novices one sees are local teenage men who have come to get an education. With one eye to a lucrative future job in tourism, for which ex-monks are in high demand because of their higher sense of vinai, or “rules of discipline”, English is a more popular choice than Buddhism. Photo by Julio Etchart

Julio Etchart

Julio Etchart

Nikon D300

Aperture
ƒ/6.3
Exposure
1/100
ISO
200
Focal
35 mm

A monk works on a Buddha statue on a temple in Luang Prabang. The town has 34 temples but many of the novices one sees are local teenage men who have come to get an education. With one eye to a lucrative future job in tourism, for which ex-monks are in high demand because of their higher sense of vinai, or “rules of discipline”, English is a more popular choice than Buddhism.

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