Luang Prabang, the old Royal Capital of Laos, has always been known as a jewel amongst the already beautiful landscape of Laos. I’d always wanted to go, but I would honestly have to say that it’s not quite what I expected. The first chance I had to walk around this UNESCO World Heritage City, I honestly thought I was back in New Orleans. I stepped out of the guest house early in the morning to see the alms giving to the monks (Thak Baht), and was immediately approached by people asking me to buy food items to contribute. I declined the first wave, but then 3 people just bum rushed me, and I reluctantly purchased some water lily blossoms for 20,000 Kip, which is equal to two bowls of Pho, or a bunch of Longan or mangoes, or 20 fried banana fritters. So you can see my morning started off not so good, losing a chunk of my per diem to nothing that really contributes to feeding the monks, or me. 🙂
The tradition of early morning alms giving dates back centuries and it’s estimated that several hundred monks walk their rounds in Luang Prabang, getting their lone meal from the kindness of parishioners. Lao monks can eat and drink most anything, but they are limited to just a few meals a day, and only before noon. It was sad to see the number of citizens were so few, having to give food to so many monks, and novices. One of the biggest and almost insulting trends is the tourist impact on essentially one of the most intrinsic aspects of being a monk, alms giving. With my photography, I do know that respect comes first, with my culture or just any culture. With my zoom lens from a distance it was sad to see tourists, just foolishly standing on the street corners, with their pocket digital cameras blasting flashes at the monks with no regard. Even if you don’t believe in a cultures’ religion or customs, you are still treading in essentially their home, and it was sad to see this happening for quite some time now. I know it’s pretty, exotic, and a sight to behold, orange robes set against the misty landscape of Laos, but please, just turn off the flash next time.
During the daytime, it literally was New Orleans, with every other building a guesthouse or hotel, and the restaurants serving not Lao food, but shakes and sandwiches that cater to people not even willing to partake in the real local cuisine. The street mess was awful, with the city gearing up for the dragon boat race. It was a mirror image of a festival in New Orleans, foreigners and tourists just wandering in the street, seemingly using the city as disposable entertainment. This attitude and relationship between the locals and tourists had an affect on me as well. Being Lao, I can speak the language well enough, and I was disheartened to see that they locals didn’t really care about an artist going on a sojourn in the country where he was born, but just another tourist to sell something to. I don’t blame them, it’s a much better living than farming, and who cares where the money comes from right?
I was also ill at the fact that you had to pay 20,000 Kip/person just to see one of the temples in Luang Prabang.