Thursday 26th December – Part 3: Royal Palace Museum, Monks & the Night Market

 

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Refreshed & now more than ready for lunch after separate rest-ups on twin beds, at around two o’clock we  take the short cut from the Sieng Khaen Lao guesthouse in Thanon Thon Kham through the grounds of Wat Souvannapoumaram to find the Joma Bakery’s Hoxieng Cafe in Thanon Chao Fa Ngum.

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When standing at the counter, Ben buys a spinach quiche from Phaeng, the youthful cashier.

I choose a simple croissant together with yet another scummy chocolate brownie & Lipton Tea, and  pay Phaeng 30,000 kip.

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Seated at an outdoor table we watch the activities of the charming small town of Luang Prabang tick over for others at a slow place; set as it is amongst the mountains with its ‘amusing’ French influence and Buddhist mystique; indeed it’s said ‘most Westerners fall for the Indochinese spirit of Luang Prabang, which plunges them into an idealised past world reminiscent of Marguerite Duras’s novel, L’Amant, with its old cars, fans, antique furniture, and bright colours.’

(David Berliner, ‘Multiple nostalgias: the fabric of heritage in Luang Prabang (Lao PDR)’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 18769-786 ( 2012))             

In fact as a  heritage-listed town it seems such heritage is imbued in the life, the atmosphere, the quietness, indeed, the spirit of the place. Unfortunately the town just might be losing much of its character, when temples are not treated with the same respect they may have been shown in the past; or when the charm of the place seems somewhat threatened by the assault of Asian and European
tourism: when every day hundreds of tourists stroll around the old town & thirty-nine hotels – & more than 190 guesthouses – have emerged to accommodate them, alongside sixty-nine restaurants that have blossomed along the Mekong and the Namkhan rivers to provide culinary options.

However the extent of options during our afternoon shopping spree – & subsequent visit to the National Museum – eventually proves too much for Ben. He appears rather spaced out & disinterested in anything other than staring at me, accusingly, as if I’m creating havoc in his life.

Nonetheless, presuming we can ride this storm of emotions out – with activity – I insist we enter the grounds of the former Royal Palace constructed during the reign of  King Sisavang Vong between 1904-1909, to draw the intense focus of Ben’s inspection – &   introspection – onto different external things; though mainly because I’d been to Luang Prabang before yet not found the time to see inside the complex.

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After purchasing our entry ticket from the booth to the left of  the gate

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we make our way down the pebbled pathway framed by an avenue of tall Palmyra palms, though by-passing the 16th century Wat Xieng Thong with its three-layered roof (to our right).

Otherwise focussed & forthright I lead the way; straight towards the main palatial building with its blending of traditional Lao with French beaux-arts styles. After all, if our time is to be limited by Ben’s present mood, it’s best to do the main things first.

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Already appropriately dressed in something more than sleeveless shirts or short shorts, we ascend the Italian marble steps before being directed to remove our shoes and  push our bags & cameras into a storage locker in a side room, à la gauche.

Apparently the present building – now built  of brick and stucco and supporting a steeply pitched roof, central Lao-type spire and a wide facade – replaced the rambling thatch, bamboo, teak and rosewood Lao-style palace on stilts adjacent to the left bank of the Mekong  – so visitors formally could be met there and taken directly to the palace – built after the Haw Black Flag marauders destroyed much of the city in 1887.

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Stepping into the entry hall of the former royal palace – with its  centre piece gilded dais of the former Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism – I’m reminded by an officious guard to remove my cap.

The throne room is a sumptuous display of deep red, with walls encrusted in a myriad of naive mirrored mosaic images created from a plethora of coloured glass that stretches almost from the floor to the ceiling while celebrating  the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha entering nirvana. The room also has a variety of royal paraphernalia, including elaborate swords and scabbards, the king’s personal howdah  and religious artifact, including some 15th and 16th century gold and crystal Buddhas from That Makmo, the Watermelon Stupa of Wat Wisunalat.

Beyond checking out the king’s reception room – with its  busts of the last three monarchs,  light-suffused Gauginesque canvases of Lao life (painted in 1930 by French artist Alix de Fautereau), and several fine lacquer screens by Thit Tanh (a gifted local artist) that depict the Lao Ramayana;  the side galleries filled with their collections of small Buddhas recovered from destroyed or looted stupas; and the ‘decidely-sober residential quarters’ of the former royal family ( some rooms preserved much as they were when King Sisavang Vatthana departed in 1975) – I need to keep reminding Ben to check out the exquisite items on display in the main exhibition hall, especially the gifts from other nations including a handcrafted original Queensland boomerang from Australia, and a replica of the Space Shuttle plus a piece of moon rock gifted by the United States Government – President Nixon, in fact – in recognition of universal peace on earth.

And though we’re in a relatively quiet place – in the respectful company of only a dribble of other tourists – there’s nothing that really makes an impression on a  troubled mind flooded with worrisome thoughts.

When we emerge from the main structure with its signature roof line now representative of Laos on the chests of many tourist t-shirts, I notice the fountain has been turned off & the doors of the temple closed, meaning visiting time is over for the day, much to Ben’s relief.

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Yet he agrees to wander through jewellery shops as we wend our way along Sakkarine Road;

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then toward the Mekong, & to a little beyond where it takes on the waters of the Nam Khan River,

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locating just one of the thirty-four Buddhist monasteries of Luang Prabang, Wat Siphoutthabat Thipparam; & a number of young monks (& perhaps young  novices, those boys aged under twenty, known an dip , or ‘unripe, ‘ in reference to their youth).

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I learn the brown robed monk is of the Thammayut order (influenced by Thai practices); the orange robed one is Mananikai.

To become a bhikkhu, it’s said ‘it  is sufficient to want it.’

Once the young man has acquired ‘a bowl, a set of three robes and a belt’, the future bhikkhu must ‘take the ten precepts’ thus agreeing to refrain from:

  1.  harming the life of others.
  2. stealing the property of others.
  3.  sexual practices.
  4. lying.
  5. intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
  6.  food between noon and dawn.
  7. dancing, singing, listening to music, and watching shows.
  8. using perfumes, cosmetics, and also from wearing ornaments (especially anything that bears relation to seduction).
  9. installing himself in places located on a higher level than the noble beings (or anyone older than himself), or that’s reserved for such beings.
  10. accepting or using gold or silver (metal and notes).

After that there are 227 rules to be adhered to! Mostly further dealing with piety, celibacy, sobriety, & discipline.

Before taking the robe, the new bhikkhu   (taken from the Pali word for ‘beggar’) abandons all his possessions (except for spectacles, medicines, or a toothbrush). And if he wishes to maintain other necessary items, such as sandals, books, or even an alarm clock, he must give them to someone who can re-offer them to him once he is a bhikkhu. Apparently he can explain the situation to this person but cannot demand that these things are returned to him, because a bhikkhu cannot accept anything that he has requested for himself (unless he is ill), even if he was a lay person at the time of making the request. Naturally, temporary bhikkhus are allowed to keep their possessions, but these must be put aside or entrusted to someone else for the duration of their monastic experience.’ 

Monastic life can be experienced in two ways: either as provisional  ( as a nehn, for a few days, a few weeks or a few months; perhaps seasonally, when not required as a farm worker)  or definitive (renouncing the world and all its pleasures; training ‘with vigilance and perseverance in observing the reality, in remaining mindful;  following the correct path leading to the final extinction of all suffering;  striving incessantly to improve oneself, to maintain a noble behaviour in any situation, to help others with the dhamma in the most positive manner, and with irreproachable conduct that makes one worthy to represent the saṃgha, which is the vehicle of the Buddha’s word.

Thereafter almost everything in a monk’s life is regulated : meditation, prayers, lessons, eating,  & sleeping.

‘In any case, the bhikkhu can “return the robe” and take it on again at any time. This choice is perfectly free and can be done as many times as the need is felt.’ (courtesy of  dhammadana.org; direct link to the beginning of the text)

Reluctantly women have been permitted to become bikkuni (though there is nothing strictly forbidding them from joining an order)

 

Permitted to be in his company though not to shake his hand or touch his robe, I speak with a young monk, Khen. He’s happy to field questions so as to practice his English.

‘Everyday I get up early at 4 am. I meditate and then all the monks and the novice monks walk through the streets to collect alms (food). The people wait by the roadside and give us food and this is our food for the day. I eat breakfast and lunch but monks do not eat after lunch until the next day. ‘

I sleep with the other monks in the bedrooms. I have a bag which has my things in it and I carry the bag with me. I learn dharmi and pari as study for Buddhists.

The bell summons the monks and novices in the compound to the Vat to meditate. Village people bring food to the temple as a sign of respect. During July the Monks spend the entire month in the temple meditating.

I am still a novice as I have yellow around my middle that shows I still a novice. ‘

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After exploring the grounds of the Wat,

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and    setting our thongs upon the cobblestones of quaint lane ways,

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we  negotiate a  return tuk-tuk journey though the streets of Luang Prabang to the Joma Bakery for 20,000 kip,  & then walk through to the guesthouse by way of the known short-cut.

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After another short period of rest back in our room Ben seems to readjust his thinking & his moods enough to consider a peruse of the Night Market where we find ourselves in the midst of stalls set down the middle of Sisavangvong Road.

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Entangling tourism with consumption and nostalgia in a variable landscape of heritage & culture, many hundreds of stalls literally overflow with hill-tribe weavings and woodcarvings, rich silk fabrics imported from Thailand, and delicate paper lanterns that blush a dozen different hues & shades. There are bangles and miniature Buddha statues. And of course the obligatory “Lao Beer” T-shirts that every tourist wants to take home. Yet none of the vendors is too pushy. Unlike the Cambodians manning the stalls in the Russian Markets in Phnom Penh, hard-sell just isn’t considered the local way of doing business in Luang Prabang, & indeed throughout the entirety of Laos.

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Further along Sisavangvong are several dozen eateries established on the bottom floors of old French colonial shophouses, the tables spilling out onto open-air terraces where diners can watch the evening ebb and flow around & about  the maze of kip-laden tourists strutting along the city’s main street. From fresh-baked baguettes to cheese pizza, most of the eateries offer something in the way of international cuisine, but Laotian food is what catches most eyes; dishes like papaya salad, green chicken curry, and spicy coconut milk soup flavored with lemongrass, ginger, coriander, and chili. It’s all apparently similar to Thai tastes, but subtly different. And here and there, exotic dishes like water buffalo sausage might be found on the rarest – & most degustationally-adventurous – of  menus.

We settle for simple vegetarian fare at The Coconut Restaurant.

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And after a rather full day we wander to our home-of-sorts, & crash at the guesthouse, entrenching in our hearts – amongst other things – the emotionality of memories.