Here is how I set about travelling in Laos. After a number of days in Vientiane, my companion and I flew to Luang Prabang, a lovely little city set in the mountains, about halfway between Vientiane and the Chinese border. It is a magical setting, with Wats everywhere. The town is a Unesco World Heritage site. Young novice monks are a common sight, clad in orange robes, usually barefoot, and often carrying umbrellas to guard against the sun. Most Lao boys will temporarily ordain as monks for anywhere from a number of weeks to several years, with many choosing to remain for the rest of their lives.
In the mornings at around 6:30, the monks walk in silence through the streets to receive food from the locals and tourists alike. It is quite a sight to see, hundreds of monks, some look as young as 7, parading barefoot, single file, carrying baskets slung over their shoulders to receive their alms. Vendors sell bundles of cooked rice, wrapped in banana leaves, to the tourists, so that we have something to give to the monks. The locals just use their hands and toss handfuls of cooked rice into the baskets. The only source of food for the monks is donated and it appears that it is mostly rice. I wonder how a person could survive just eating rice.
The guesthouse where we have been staying is right next to a Wat, so we can hear the morning and evening gongs, which is the call to prayer. 4 times a month the drum is also sounded, and that is what we woke to this morning.
We visited a Wat and a young monk struck up a conversation with my friend, who is male. I stood back until the monk spoke to me, as I was not sure if it was allowed for a woman to converse with one. I know that it is not allowed for a woman to touch a monk. This young man, Nordiaw (pronounced Nodio), is 19 and has been at that temple for 5 years. He enjoyed speaking English with us and he opened up the Wat for us and answered all our questions. He was very sweet and we spent about an hour with him. He laughed when I answered that I had no children, because in Laos that is almost unheard of. We read some of his English homework and I wrote some things in his book to help with pronunciation. Th and sh sounds are foreign to the Lao tongue. Nordiaw then exchanged email addresses with us!
He mentioned that foreigners are welcome to the Wat during prayertime and invited us to attend that evening. I was incredulous and knew I had to grab this opportunity. I felt intimidated about just strolling into a Wat at prayer time, although I knew I would not be judged and it was the right thing for me to do. I also knew it would likely be the chance of a lifetime, so I took it.
As soon as the prayer gong was sounded I entered the temple and I was all alone, so I knelt and meditated for about 15 minutes before about 14 monks came in together. After their initial prayer, they reverted to chanting. The one old monk, kneeling at the front, would sing one line, then the rest of the group would respond with a very long verse. Their voices filled my body and my spirit, as I knelt with my eyes closed and got lost in the sensation.
This was such an uplifting experience, I only wish I could have sung along with them. I left the temple at exactly the right moment, I believe, because as soon as I walked out, they stopped chanting. The sun had just set and the pathway was lit with lanterns. This was an hour in my life that I will never forget. I have come away from this experience with more questions than answers, and I know how lucky I am. Kop chai lai lai (thank-you very much).