We were splashing in solitude down the Nam Khan River in our kayaks when Muang, our guide, abruptly forced us to paddle to the shore and asked us to get off.
“I have a surprise,” he said.
My husband and I were just outside the UNESCO world heritage town of Luang Prabang in Laos and all we could see before us was a steep bank covered with trees. This is how we wanted to explore the town –away from the tourist watering holes – but what surprise could await us behind those trees?
Curious, we followed Muang up the slope till we reached a clearing in the woods where a grey statue of a bearded man stood next to his white grave.
This surprise-in-stone turned out to be the legendary Henri Mahout, a French explorer famous for popularising Angkor Wat to the west. He had died of malaria in the jungles of Laos in 1861 and his grave had become overrun by vegetation until its accidental rediscovery in 1991.
Around the same time communist Laos itself was being discovered as a tourist destination. Tourism makes up 18% of Laos’ GDP today but it still didn’t prepare me for the fine restaurants and new resorts coming up in an otherwise very poor country. The side-effects are evident in a small town like Luang Prabang.
On Sisavangvong Road, the main high street that runs through town, we had seen signs urging tourists to “protect our culture.” But we hadn’t realised exactly why until we headed down there early one morning to observe the Buddhist ritual of giving alms.
Orange robed monks appeared in the first light of dawn from the wats around Luang Prabang, gliding silently past kneeling tourists and townspeople who were dropping alms of sticky rice or bananas into the monks’ baskets. According to Buddhist belief, giving alms is ‘making merit’ or reducing the negative consequences of one’s bad deeds.
Unfortunately, marching alongside the monks on Sisavangvong Road was an army of tourists wielding long, intrusive lenses. The calm of the morning was shattered by flashes as they tried to capture the ritual from every angle, doing exactly what the notices were urging them not to.
To observe the ritual quietly, we retreated with the monks down the inner streets all the way back to their wats by which time most of the camera battalion had thankfully dropped off.
Later that day I wandered into Wat Nong Sikhounmuang and found a young monk, Kham Souk, standing by the window. I couldn’t resist asking him if he thought the morning ritual had been debased.
I expected him to echo my concerns but instead he said, “The tourists come from different religions and different countries so they don’t know. It’s okay.”
He must’ve attained nirvana, I thought to myself.
Kham Souk headed off inside to prepare for the evening prayers and soon the monks raised a hypnotizing chant. The tourists sat still at the back. Watching the monks at prayer made it feel okay after all.