What an extraordinary day in Luang Prabang.
|Feeding the Monks|
The roosters were in song when I was awakened at 4:30. The guide Yik (that’s his name) met us at 5:30 a.m. to take us to a sidewalk along one of the streets, empty at this hour, the night’s festival garbage already removed, for the daily ritual of feeding the monks.
|Barbecue Laos style|
In this city there are 200 monks and novices, each wrapped in an orange robe, wearing flip-flops and a metal bowl with a top and a strap over their shoulders. The residents of this town have participated in this early morning ritual for over 700 years. Along the main streets bordering various temples the monks walk - at a pace - pass every single person kneeling or sitting on a holy rug with wicker rice baskets filled with sticky rice. One takes a small ball of the rice and puts it into each monk’s bowl and this is their meal for the day. Hundreds participate and the pots they carry are filled not only with rice, but every kind of small package of candy and chips, some fruit, and whatever nutritional generosity the devout giver wants to give. Women must wear a shawl of a sort so that their bodies are properly covered to participate. (monks are not allowed to touch women.)
|Laos Hats for sale|
|Tiny Pancakes at Market|
My old crampy fingers weren’t very fast making a ball of sticky rice and I probably gave too much. I went through four rice baskets. Well, 200 monks. Most of these monks were novices who probably won’t be career monks, but are boys who get a special education and then at a certain age will return to their families. Young and old, all the faces seem so innocent. I didn’t know if I could look at them. Street kids, who might one day aspire to be monks, brought their wicker baskets and the monks would drop their own excessive “loot” into the baskets of the poor children. That’s true giving.
|Getting pinned at the Falls|
|Cutting the rice with Laot Lee|
After the feeding, there were scattered rain drops. We walked to “My Library”, a project for youth to offer them a place to go to read, learn about art - photography, computer work, painting and run by an American organization. Two young photographers accompanied us on our walk through the morning market. We tested various “breakfast” offerings - like fried donuts, and the tiny circular pancakes, but for me, I was impressed with the variety and amount of green things - herbs, cabbages, lettuces, spinach, morning glory leaves, all fresh and fine.The special weekend market was also in force for the holiday. So balloons and Siamese dancing was already filling the air.
Next we drove about an hour into the mountainous, green countryside to Kuangsi Waterfall, a popular place for holiday families to go. Swimming is allowed. And young women in tribal dress from the local village ask for donations to help their people, then pin a symbol on your shirt. Here the endangered Asian “Moon” bear has a rescue reserve. These look like black bear but have a white half moon on their chest and have almost become extinct because of the demand for bear paws as a gourmet delicacy and their bile which has curative powers.
|Loading up the rice for a carry|
|Threshing the heck out of it|
But one of the highlights of the trip was lunch and the afternoon learning the process of rice growing at a working farm called the Living Land. Our teacher and project director, Laot Lee, was incredible, dressed in the stripes of the farmer and the proverbial triangle straw hat. He took us through a huge garden of every kind of lettuce and vegetable, including dragon seed vines, tiny green pea-like vegetables that are really eggplants, and celiac root, then provided us with an enormous lunch made from the organic vegetables. After that it was time to get to work. He showed us fifteen steps in the production of rice, and we did the work in each one of them, from plowing with Suzie the Water Buffalo in deep squishy black mud and water, to winnowing and thrashing and foot stomping a machine that pounds the rice kernels to finally turning the giant bamboo pole that turns the wooden machine that squeezes juice from sugar cane. Have you ever had fresh sugar cane juice? Delicious. All this process, which included cooking of the sticky rice (it has to be soaked, steamed not boiled) terminated with examples of what things come from rice: rice cakes, fried rice sticks, rice candy, rice wine (fermented at the farm), and even handmade rice paper. Also part of the process was watching members of the family shaving bamboo , used to make sieves and steamers, and origami animals gifted to me. We tried our hand at the antique bellows where a blacksmith made the scythes used for cutting the dried stalks of rice before they were thrashed. So many parts. Such an unique experience that even the hot sun - I hid under one of the famous Laotian straw hats - didn’t even seem bothersome.
|Plowing with Suzie|
|Villagers offer Baci spirits|
It took hours to get back through the streets of Luang Prabang, where the water war was in full swing. Then it was time to participate in the Baci ceremony, a spiritual cultural happening that predates Buddhism’s arrival in Laos. It is put on by village women and a shaman before an altar of sweets, marigolds and other images. It is considered a form of welcome and also to rearrange the spirits within you so that the bad ones have no room in the inn, so to speak. It bestows protective powers and your wrists are lined in white strings tied on by each of the aged villagers. A Siamese dance by young people follows and then I was off to another meal of pomelo salad (with shrimp) and a relaxing foot massage at the hotel.