Luang Prabang, Laos - Just by coincidence, Olay, my monk friend appeared across the street just as I was leaving my dinner table last night, magically materializing just as he had the previous day, just by coincidence, as I was leaving the coffee shop, and yet again as he coincidentally had last night, standing at the top of the temple stairs with a group of fellow monks, awaiting an evening English lesson. Nobody set any times for these encounters.
“I was just thinking about you,” I said, crossing the market intersection.
Today is a Buddhist holiday, and they will all have their heads shaved. “How will I be able to recognize you?” I asked as we sat on concrete benches around a concrete table, and they all laughed. At the end of our class, I asked them if they liked life at the temple, and the said they did.
In this city, there are 48 temples, putting a distinctive imprint, the Buddha’s if you will,* upon the city and its atmosphere, and putting a lot of monks out on the street. Monks are everywhere. The place is thick with them.
Luang Prabang is a city with a rich and deep spiritual tradition, sitting here on the Mekong, nestled within the mountains carved out by the river. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and I have been here several times, and never brought a camera.
As a photographer, as everybody in the world with a cell phone these days is…as a photographer for forty years, it is wonderful to capture an image and share it with others as a visual art or memory, but sometimes you go into places such as here and the rez, and it’s best to leave the cameras at home.
Learning to capture an image through a viewfinder, reducing three dimensions to two, can foster paying attention to the world, but it can also be reductive and constrictive in a way of viewing the world.
Whereas the photo is an opportunity to seize a moment in time, it can also hamper one’s ability to fully experience that moment in its entirety, making instead the photographer the captive, seized by the image.
I stopped carrying cameras, as a daily habit, about fifteen years ago, maybe going on twenty. They can be terribly intrusive, and sometimes serve to impede, rather than aid communication and perception, seeing the world through a viewfinder.
You’ll just have to capture that sunset in your mind. Like, really pay attention to all that is there, fully engaged and absorbed by the moment in time.
At the New Year’s fireworks in Vientiane, which is a big show, given that it is the nation’s capital, and the birth of gunpowder is just up the street, dozens of people with a grand view from a second floor balcony across the street stood, arms extended with cell phone cameras, transmitting the dazzling show to families in the sticks, while I stood empty handed, engrossed with awe.
I’m sitting here on a low seawall running the length of the riverfront, overlooking the river. Except for this and a few other open stretches of one hundred yards, the parallel street is full of riverside restaurants on stilts, across from mostly guesthouses, and a few personal properties, a few vacant lots, and a few lots of rubble. There are boatmen selling tours up and down the river in small boats, longer covered boats with deck seating, and big houseboats.
On the street, dozens of vendors sell oranges on the ground in large quantities, their scales right there. A man had a truckload of goats he was trying to sell. Tuk tuks seem to have blossomed a hundred-fold in two years. Mini van shuttles to the airport work from dawn until arrivals of the last flights of the day, then return to the hotels and guesthouses.
I’m amazed at how tourism has swamped this place. UNESCO declared the entire city a heritage site, thus all the new construction everywhere, in a distinctively traditional Lao, but sadly repetitious architectural boredom. They’ve been fully booked for weeks. Solid with tourists. People are making their money while they can, because there’s a low season, as well, for sure.
A guy just made arrangements for personal tutoring tomorrow at five, and four young Lao, two guys and two girls, about, oh, sixteen, are sitting just here to my right, talking and laughing. They’ve all got bicycles.
There’s trash and plastic strewn around, leading downhill to a pole bean patch, and on down to the river and a half dozen flat bottom fishing boats, about twelve feet long. I should find out what these guys catch.
There’s six Lao men in a twenty-foot boat with a large basket puttering by, downstream, close to the shore. I should ask these kids…they don’t speak English.
A Frenchman, an old one, like the one who sat across from me at the intersection buffet, would tell a different story. “I was here twenty years ago, and it’s not the same. I don’t like the cit-tie any more,” he said. You can hear his French accent.
“Nothing is the same as it was twenty years ago,” I responded. “You’re not the same man you were twenty years ago. Want to arm wrestle?”
We all had a good laugh, him and the two from New York, just outside the city, they said, sitting just at the next table. She had to know everything, and quickly told her story, their story, while he pretty much just sat there with his arms folded across his chest, and let her do the talking. Most of it.
He did, engage the Frenchman, however. They had been to France a couple of times, and enjoyed excitedly talking about a shared familiarity and the cities he knew. Butofcourse.
Wow. Those kids, law students, they said, just left, after a very limited conversation. They used what little English they knew, and what little Thai I know to tell me the fishermen are catching little fish. And the one who approached me, stood here over my shoulder during the composition of the last two graphs, then his friends came over.
They are studying basic conversational English, no doubt from a Lao teacher, using the same Lao/English grammar book that I told Olay he should throw away. I took one look at it, and it already gave me a headache.
“Learn to communicate first,” I suggested, then add reading and writing, and then the complex rules of grammar.” Maybe that’s not right, but it seems like it, at street level.
How about you? Did you find joy in grammar class?
Like one of my last classes, at Digger’s suggestion, I employed art, and Mickey Mouse stickers for completion of a simple assignment, using conversational English. That’s what they wanted. ‘How can I communicate with the farang?’
‘Where are you from? How long will you stay? Where are you going? What is your name?’And enunciation, mostly.
The reason you never see Asian people in motorbike accidents is because they’ve been riding them all their lives.
You see the mom or dad, driving one-handed with the baby in their lap in a one-armed hug, baby can’t even hold its head up yet. Trying, but cannot.
From there, they go to sitting on the seat itself, in front of the parent, between the parent’s knees, and then, learning to stand on the frame and grasp the mirrors as soon as they are old enough to stand, but still unable to walk.
As soon as they can hold on without falling off, about the time they are walking, they sit behind the parent, tightly grasping the parent’s clothing, and from there, they go to riding to school with three other bigger kids, and from there, to driving the bike itself. So, by the time they gain control of the bike, they’ve already had a lifetime in the saddle.
Just by coincidence, I ran into the Frenchman, Jacques, last night, where the 78 year-old man was in an animated conversation with one of the Lao staff there. I just wanted to sit riverside, watch a full moon come up, and for reason to be there, ordered a beer Lao I didn’t want and took a seat at one of the tables.
Jacques broke off his conversation, approached, and we both said, “I had dinner with you last night.”
For the next hour, and I finally had to break it off because I needed to go find a place to piss, I listened to Jacques pretty much berate America for over-consumption, pollution, producing worthless consumer products, pursuing a war for control of oil, torture, and general debasement of water and the environment.
I wanted to have a smoke, too, but he was against that, too.
Yeah, at one point it seemed his criticism of my country was a bit over the top, and during a pause I softly asked, “Jacques, where did they develop the internal combustion engine?” y’know, just to put the breaks on a runaway train, but I couldn’t really argue with him, for two reasons; one, because what he was saying was true; and two, I couldn’t knock him out because after all, he was a 78-year old man.
I just sat there, listening, mostly, although he was a good listener as well, and two thirds of the way through one of those Beer Lao bigs, I had to excuse myself for the evening. To his credit, he was concerned primarily about the environment, and what kind of earth we are leaving to our grandchildren.
I’m sitting in the dirt, just above a washout, ten feet above the Nam Khan River, just upriver from its intersection with the Mekong, the junction of which is the foundation for this ancient city. I’m on the far side, having paid the nickel to cross the bamboo footbridge. The two New Yorkers said it was a worthwhile trip.
Four kids came running down the embankment, terraced with private plots of corn and greens, leading right down to the water. One of them could say ‘Hello, how are you?’ grinning, shaking my hand. Today is the second day of the Buddhist holiday, of which there are four a month, following lunar cycles, so there’s no sa-kool, no school.
Sitting here along the footpath, I’m almost in their way. Two, then three fishermen came through here, each grinning a greeting, and I had to make sure my big feet weren’t in the way. Yeah…there’s a washout RIGHT HERE…but these guys in their flip-flops are as sure-footed as mountain goats.
A five-man crew, using only long bamboo poles for steering, just floated by in a rudderless 60 ft. flat bottom boat, carrying three Lao passengers, one of the men wearing a green pith helmet, going with the flow. They’re going to hit big water, right around the bend. There is a fisherman just below me, bailing water from his short boat. He said something to them as they floated by. He grins and we exchange greetings as he comes up the footpath. I’m making sure my big feet aren’t in the way.
Regular flights roar in and out of the airstrip, cascading a wave of momentarily overwhelming twin-turboprop noise. Lao Airlines. You can be from the airport and at your accommodations in ten minutes, maybe five. All kinds of Air America and Royal Lao Air Force guys crashed into these mountains back in the day, where the fog doesn’t lift until ten, sometimes noon, sometimes not at all, some days. This is peak season. The place is packed with farang. Blue skies.
You really have to resist not buying a beautiful hand-woven scarf for a sun dance sister for five bucks, especially if you’re the first customer of the day and they’d sell it for four.
Went over to the wat last night at the invitation of Olay, who said he’d be playing the drum at 4 pm, first watching the bigger boys hitting the drum at the adjacent wat, Huongxieng, which is right there on the same grounds, then over at wat That Noy where Olay and some of my English class were hitting the big booming drum, sending the sound out over the city, each novice taking a turn until their arms could no longer keep up the beat. Some of them could switch hands, hitting the drum twice on a downswing, and a light brush stroke on the upswing, accompanied by a guy standing there playing large hand cymbals, keeping the beat.
Afterward, we met for an hour of class, just talking mostly, but stopping them on their pronunciation, getting them to use what they knew, and to continue to develop their vocabulary, like two of them already were, like the quiet guy, intellectual type, who has mastered ‘R’, and showed me his incredible list of words, many of which we were using.
The young boys had only been at the wat for two or three months, the older guys, two, three, four years. I encouraged the older guys to encourage the younger guys, in their English development, and life, like big brother.
I enjoy being English teacher with monk. Those guys are amazing in their discipline, open hearts, and clarity.
“Any luck? Any luck today? Chok dee wan ni mai?”
Just now, those two fishermen came up the embankment, grinning and showing me their catch of small silver river fish, in a small woven basket with a conical lid. There you have it. Little fish.
*One of several Bhuddas footprints, atop Mt. Phousi temple, overlooking the city. More like, on the way up…or way down. I think there’s more than one, like, his relics are said to be in stupas everywhere. In any case, there’s some promotion about it…’see Bhudda’s footprint.’ I checked it out, and…gee, it’s anybody’s guess…like looking at a cloud and saying, ‘I see an eagle.’
I asked the Lao guy, a tour guide I think, with a farang customer, sitting here at the restaurant where I’m now editing the above essay, a tour guide I think, with a farang, “Buddha didn’t climb Mt. Phousi, did he?” and he just laughed.