Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Luang Prabang Tak Bat

Lao Monks Receive Offerings from Tourists
 Life has a way of presenting pleasant surprises if you are willing to take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.  A willingness to take advantage of opportunities often requires an unabashed curiosity and the realization that even though you may believe that you have seen it all before, you most likely have not.

During our recently concluded journey to Luang Prabang in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, I was presented with an opportunity which ended up in a couple of surprises.  Our hotel was located next door to a Vat (Wat in Thai) in the Temple Historical District close to the Nam Khan River.  At 4:00 A.M. I was awoken by the banging of a bell at the Vat.  I had heard a similar sound before from Wats in Thailand as well as Vats in Laos.  I refer to the sound as the Monk's alarm clock.  The heavy walled metal tube is struck several times to notify the Monks that it is time for them (perhaps everyone else next to the temple) to awake and start the day.  For the Monks the day commences with meditation, followed by personal hygiene, and then around 6:00 A.M. their morning alms walk.

Although I have witnessed and documented the morning alms walk, Tak Bat, many times in Thailand as well as Laos, I decided to get up and watch the morning's Tak Bat.  It was a wise decision in that I was able to photograph events that I had not seen before; events that I can now share.

When I went downstairs of the hotel, my hiking boots were still lying next to my wife's shoes beneath the Christmas tree.  Both the boots and the shoes were empty.  Prior to going up to our room the night before, I had joked with the staff and Duang about perhaps Santa Claus would come early and leave something in my boots.  I guess it was too early for Santa or I have been not necessarily a bad boy but more likely a naughty boy this year for the boots never were filled.

I walked out into the very early morning darkness to observe what was going on.  Some of the local people were up and about starting small wood or charcoal fires in refractory lined cans for cooking on the sidewalks.  They were also busy setting up their sidewalk restaurants.  Several Lao women were silently walking along the street in their flip flops carrying large baskets suspended from a bamboo poles balanced over their shoulder.  Their baskets were filled with food, mainly packets of sticky rice, to be offered to the Monks as part of a merit morning ritual.

Tourists Lined Up Along Th Sakkarin In the Early Morning Awaitng the Monks
On the sidewalk that passed in front of our hotel and eventually intersected with the road that runs parallel to the Mekong River, there was a series of long sahts, woven reed mats neatly placed.  Each saht had several woven bamboo covered small containers, gon kao, that store cooked sticky rice.  This arrangement had been set up for the tourists who would arrive shortly by a wide variety of transportation.  Tourists arrived by three wheeled motorcycles called "somlaws".  Some tourists arrived by small trucks called "Tuk-Tuks".  Many of the tourists arrived in specialized Toyota passenger vans.  Some of the wealthier tourists arrived from their resort accommodations in long electric golf cart type vehicles.  It was quite a sight and also a little noisy.  The people were excited about the upcoming ritual and busy posing their family as well as friends for photographs.

Tourists Come in All Sorts of Shapes, Sizes, Nationalities, as Well As Vocations
There was on group that I was fascinated by.  I had not seen a group of Monks before making offerings to other Monks.  Several Monks had arrived and set themselves along with their plastic bags of offerings and gon kao of rice on sahts placed on the sidewalk just like the other tourists.  One of the younger Monks took great delight and interest in filming his companions.  Next to me there was a Lao tourist guide, I found out from him that the Monks that were preparing to make offerings were visitors from Thailand.  I had never seen Monks making offerings to Monks before so this opportunity in itself was worth the early morning wake up.

After a short while the local Monks appeared silently and purposefully walking along the long sidewalk of Th Sikkarin. 

Thai Monks Making Offerings to Lao Monks
I have walked with the Monks in Luang Prabang as well as in Luang Namtha on previous trips, but this morning's Tak Bat was unique.  First of all the Monks did not chant after receiving offerings from the people.  In Thailand I have witnessed and participated several times in the ritual where Monks appear to give a personal blessing to the individuals who had made offerings of food.  In Luang Namtha, the Monks did not appear to give personal blessings to the donors but instead walked a very short ways from the donors and instead appeared to give a blessing to the donor's property. Since most of the land behind the donors was actually Vat property, that might explain the absence of "blessings".

Tourists Make Offerings to the Monks

Young Boys Follow Monks In Expectation of Food Offerings From the Monks
 Another difference in this morning's Tak Bat, was the young children who accompanied the Monks or who waited along the sidewalk for the Monks.  In Tahsang Village and some of the other villages where my wife and I have participated in the Tak Bat ritual, the Monks sat on a slightly raised platform in the Wat complex.  People came to the Wat and brought their food offerings with them.  The family's offerings were then placed upon a metal serving tray and offered to the Monks; typically by a male member of the family.  The Monks would pass the tray along amongst themselves after taking what they wanted off of the tray.   If any food remained on the tray after the Monks had completed their meal it was available for the worshippers to eat.  In Tahsang Village, which is my wife's home village, the worshippers are all friends, family and neighbors so eating the remaining food becomes a festive community social event - sort of a picnic.

A Young Lao Boy Awaits A Food Offering from a Novice Monk
Monks are supposed to eat only one meal a day and it must be consumed by Noon.  They are forbidden to store food and do not have refrigerators.  The assembly line of food offerings along Th Sikkarin in Luang Prabang presents some logistical challenges.  Everyone wants to earn merit by offering food to the Monks.  The more Monks that you offer food to, the more merit that you gain.  This boils down to every worshipper wanting to offer some food to each and every Monk.  It is not proper for a Monk to decline an offering, so in a very short period of time as well as in a short space, a Monk's alms bowl is filled with way more sticky rice as well as other foods than he could possibly eat in one seating.

A Monk Tosses Some Sticky Rice Into Young Boy's Basket
 For every problem there is a solution and often there are more than one solution.  In Luang Prabang, young children follow along with the Monks.  The young children, typically boys, carry plastic bags or baskets into which the Monks place the food that they will not be able to consume during their one meal of the day.  The children are collecting food for their families.  Some of the children set up on the sidewalk and patiently wait for the Monks to pass and hopefully add some food to their basket.  There was one boy who caught my attention.  He seemed to eloquently express his condition without words but with an admirable dignity.  I spent a great deal of time observing him and photographing him - more reason to be pleased that I had gotten up at such an early hour to witness an event that I had seen so many times before.

I have titled my blog "Allen's World" but unlike Disney World or Disneyland this world is not a fantasy world.  It is often fascinating but the occupants of this world, which is as much yours as it is mine, are real people.  They are real people, many of them with many hardships and struggles to survive.  They are not actors employed for amusement or entertainment.  There is a dilemma in photographing and writing about the people and their hardships.  It could be misconstrued that my work glorifies their struggles and hardships which to me would be offensive.  There is nothing glorious or noble about hardships or struggles.  Unfortunately for many people, hardships and struggles define their conditions.  However I believe that there is a need to communicate to other people the condition of others in our world. So my intention in writing and photographing the people in our world is to express my respect as well as admiration for the various peoples and  how they deal with their individual circumstances.  I guess my desire is to speak for those who can not speak for themselves, and to share with an audience that they are unable to address.  My goal is to increase the awareness of  others to the other people who inhabit their world.

Headed Home
A young boy and his sister also captured my interest during the Tak Bat.  They were working together to gather food for their family.  After the Monks and tourists left, they were left behind to consolidate their bounty for the walk back to their home. 

Brother and Sister Consolidating Their Morning's Bounty

Preparing for the Walk Home

The little boy and girl had amassed about 12 to 15 kilograms of sticky rice along with other food items.  The boy, who was older than his sister, supervised the consolidation of the sticky rice into a single thin plastic bag.  This did not look to be a good idea to me.  I was certain that the thin bag would eventually split open spilling its contents on the road.  I got down on the sidewalk next to the children and tried to communicate my grand scheme of placing all the rice into a single bag and then to place the filled bag inside of the just emptied second plastic bag.  The children's suspicions that I was scheming to steal some of their food apparently prevented them from understanding what I was trying to communicate.  A woman who was walking by understood what I was trying to do and explained it to the children.  Even though she spoke Lao, the children remained reluctant - perhaps they thought that we were working together.  The woman got down to the sidewalk level and between the two of us with the children eventually joining in got the sticky rice double bagged.

Off to the House!

With their food successfully bagged I told them to head off to home.  They each grabbed a side of the heavy bag and walked down the street dragging the bag as they went along.  This appeared to me to be another disaster in the making.  I caught up with them and was able to communicate that I would carry the bag of rice for them.  I had developed some level of trust with them by now so they let me carry the bag.  We walked down a side street towards the Nam Khan River and then along the road running parallel to the river towards the Mekong River.  After a while we came upon another narrow street leading up from the river.  We climbed part way up and I saw where their home was.  It appeared that their grandmother was waiting so I returned the bag to the children and continued my pre-breakfast foray about the town.

Almost Home
That night Duang and I had a nice pizza and a couple of Beer Laos for dinner at a restaurant that we had eaten at two years ago.  Some hip-hop music was playing.  The irony of listening to the trials and tribulations of a young American making millions of dollars "singing" his tale of woe and defiance was not lost on me after what I had experienced and observed earlier in the morning - in the real world.

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