In many ways, Luang Prabang has a lot in common with Luang Namtha: separated by 300 kms of jungle-covered hills and an insanely curvy and mostly-unsealed road, both are quite small towns in Northern Laos, set in a very scenic area along rivers. Although both suffered massive damage during the war in the 60’s, they seem to handle their past and present realities very differently.
For me, its these differences between Luang Namtha and Luang Prabang, both in Northern Laos, that are so dramatic. Formerly the royal seat and capital of Laos, the town of Luang Prabang was added to the World Heritage Site list in 1995. A UNESCO quote from the web explains why: “Luang Prabang is an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.”
With that significance in mind, a place like this could easily become a monument suspended in time but void of life. In fact, despite the great number of tourists, this town seems to be very much alive and well. Given the amount of damage in the war, of course now, there is alot of reconstruction of the 32 temples and older colonial buildings going on but I got the impression that the government has a good sense of how to keep things in balance.
In my 4 days there, I spent a lot of time riding around in the townsite, exploring the temples, chatting with local shops owners, some of whose English was pretty decent and tasting the offerings on the tiny streets lined with a huge array of foods, both cooked and fresh. In my usual fashion, doing what I could to meet locals, I loved the fact that I could hop on a bicycle and explore the outskirts of the town as well as areas on the far shores of the town’s two rivers. Within minutes, I felt completely removed from any tourist routines and anyone who could speak ANY English! There were still temples to visit and some handicraft villages with opportunities to shop if I wanted. (Silk weaving is a real art in LP but I managed to resist the temptation except for one scarf!) In these areas, generally, the people I met seemed to be just carrying on with their daily lives while also curious to meet a foreigner, mug for my camera or take the time to show and have me taste (gotta love charades!) the tamarind fruit that grows everywhere.
Being that there are so many Buddhist temples, obviously there are lots of monks in the temple areas as well as on the street. One of the most powerful and biggest tourist “attractions” is the 6 a.m. daily alms procession of the hundreds of monks. Throughout the town, the tourists are given clear indications that they should be respectful of the religious practices and in particular of this procession when the monks are given food from the locals to cover their daily needs. Many tourists go to see the procession but it is made clear that one should watch from afar and avoid intrusive photo ops.
If one feels particularly spiritually drawn to make a gift of some food (or money) to the monks, then you can buy some food and someone will gently let you know how to act appropriately when you place it in their bowls. The woman I purchased some rice from showed me where to sit and kindly loaned me a particular kind of sash to wear. It was a very special experience for me to give to these people who devote their lives to prayer and I felt humbled to be part of it.
What really interested me though, was the action of the woman who sold me the rice. Nearly at the end, she herself crossed the road to bring rice to place in the monks’ bowls. As she did it, I noticed that she discreetly also gave them the banknotes with which I had purchased my rice offering. Clearly, this woman’s interest was not to sell something to a tourist for her own gain but rather, for the benefit of the spiritual leadership – and her own spiritual benefit in the long term. This is very much a Buddhist attitude so she was simply living her faith with active generosity.
It was this simple action that gives me hope that maybe this unique place can maintain the essence of what makes it so significant to humanity. For me, Luang Prabang demonstrates that spirituality and secular life are not mutually exclusive but rather that an active spirituality is an integral and essential aspect of living well. I pray that this special town continues to maintain that fine balance despite the notoriety that the UNESCO designation brings with it.