Laos: Monks, Temples, and Touring



 Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos

November 2012


Highlights from our trip....



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The procession of the monks.  This ritual takes place every single day in Luang Prabang.  It is called "tak bak", or the gathering of alms.  It starts around 6 am, rain or shine.  Unfortunately, two of our mornings it was in the rain.  And I did ask the monk above if I could take his photo by pointing at my camera.  



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We were surprised at the quantity of monks.  All walking silently, single file, collecting food in their bright saffron robes.  The procession is ordered from the oldest to the youngest monk. 


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Each monk carries a large bowl, attached to a strap hanging from his shoulder.  Sticky rice is the most common food given, but they also receive fruit, crackers, and cookies.


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It is thought, that if you feed the monks, it will bring you good karma.  We both took turns feeding them, but not for that reason.  We just wanted to help.



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Locals feed them everyday.  They sit down on a mat, take off their shoes, and kneel to feed them.  We wondered if this little guy did it with his grandma every day?



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The first day D fed them from a bowl of rice we purchased from a local woman.  He was giving out pretty big fistfuls, and then we realized just how many monks there were.  He ran out very quickly.  We then watched the locals give out a tiny pinch. 



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With almost eighty temples in Luang Prabang, this adds up to hundreds of monks, who take different routes depending on where their temple is located.



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Most practice Theravada Buddhism.  Theravada is the dominant form of Buddhism in Southeast Asia and it is the "oldest" school.  



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Unfortunately, with the increased tourism in Luang Prabang it has endangered the tak bat ceremony, as many tourists view the ritual as a tourist attraction, not as a religious ceremony to be respected.   We tried to respect them and stay off to the side (the photos were zoomed in).  


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They say that Lao's officials are considering stopping the ritual as too many tourists are interrupting the ceremony and using flash, which distracts them from their meditation.  We did not use flash on our cameras.  See my dos and don't list so we can all help to preserve this ceremony.


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An interesting thing is that most of the locals are poor themselves.  We watched the monks give food back to young children and dogs.  It was a fascinating system.



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Here you can see the older monks dropping large handfuls of rice into the children's baskets.



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I love this shot with the monk looking up at us.  The ritual is done in silence; the alms givers do not speak, nor do the monks. The monks walk in meditation.


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This ritual has been going on for many centuries.  It is a symbiotic relationship between the monks and the alms givers.   Tak bat supports both the monks (who need the food) and the alms givers (who need spiritual redemption).


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I wondered if it bothered the monks to have to eat food handled by so many different people (referring mainly to the tourists).


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The dogs have become very smart and follow the monks for small treats.  D made a little friend.


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It surprised me that in such a poor country a dog would have a dress???  And then the condition of it... notice how tattered the little dress is.  Like so many of the children, she has worn her dress very hard. 


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Here is a list of "dos" and "don'ts" to help you, if you plan to visit:

 When you give alms:

Kneel to feed the monks.  Take off your shoes.  Make sure your head is not higher than theirs.  Bow to show respect.  Make sure you are properly dressed i.e. no shorts or sleeveless shirts (same rules as when you visit a temple.  Do not make eye contact.  Do not touch them.  Do not talk to them.

When you are not giving alms: 

Keep a respectful distance.  Use your camera zoom.  Do not use your flash.  You will be tempted as they walk at sunrise and there is little light.  Do not make eye contact.  Do not touch them.  Do not talk to them.



The Elephants


The other highlight was our fabulous elephant ride.  Click here to read the full post on this adventure.





The Children


We enjoyed getting off the beaten track to see how the local live.   We took several photos of the village children.  To see these photos, click here.



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Temples and Buddhas


Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia.  It is bordered by Burma, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.  Its population is close to 6.5 million .  You can trace Loas history to the kingdom of Lan Xang (Million Elephants), founded in the 14th century.


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I love the shape of the Temples in Laos.  Their architecture is a mix of French colonial and Buddhist with some influences from Thailand.  The Haw Pha Bang or Royal Palace is a relatively new structure, built in 1963.   

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Up until very recently, Laos was difficult to travel to because of war and politics.  Now, Laos is considered a hot spot for travelers.  We were walking around Vientiane for about 15 minutes and I turned to D and said I have not seen a single Laos person – I have only seen tourists.  And most were young backpackers.  This surprised us.  I love this image below.  The young monk with a cell phone!  It shows how times have changed.


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The main attractions for tourists include food, temples (wats), Buddhist culture and architecture.  Luang Prabang was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.  


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Wat Xieng Thong was built in 1559-1560 and is one of the most important temples in Laos.  During the 1960s it was completely remodeled and redecorated.  The image above shows its famous Tree of Life mosaic in colored glass on a dark red background, created in 1960 by a Laos artist.  


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It has intricate, colorful mosaic on the exterior walls.   



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Of the people of Laos 67% are Theravada Buddhist, 1.5% are Christian, and 31.5% are other.  Laos is a Communist state with the official language of the government being Laos, however only slightly more than half of the population can speak Lao, the remainder speaking various ethnic minority languages, particularly in rural areas.  



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Wat Nong Sikhounmuang (above) is one of the bigger temples in Luang Prabang. It was built in 1729, burned down by a fire in 1774, and restored in 1804.  The temple below is an older temple, off the beaten path, so it does not receive the donations like the better known ones or ones in the main part of town.  It therefore has not been restored.



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That Pathoum, or Stupa is known as That Makmo (Watermelon) because of its rounded dome


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Most of the doors to the temples have elaborate carvings painted in gold leaf.  They depict scenes from Buddha's life.


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The Naga, a mythical multi-headed snake. You see these at most temples.


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Buddha images are not just for decoration, they are objects of religious worship. 

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Touring around town......


Laos is known for its silk and local handicrafts.  I bought several beautiful scarves for gifts. It is rich in natural resources like timber, gypsum, tin, gold, and other gemstones.




These tortilla-like food objects lying on grass mats to dry in the sun facinated us.  They even put them on the roofs.


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We never did get to taste it, and I could not find anything about them on the internet.


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This was a parade of some sort - there were about 10 trucks filled with people and plants.  All singing and laughing and having fun.  The Laos people in general are happy helpful people.


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A little food and drink.....


We discovered a very modern wine bar where the inside was set up outside. 


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Sticky Rice is served everywhere in Laos and this is very different from other Asian countries.  Sticky rice cultivation and production is thought to have originated in Laos.  I really liked the sticky rice.  It is always served in little baskets and is brown.


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Grilling was very popular here.  They had a unique way of tying them up with a bamboo skewer.


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We enjoyed all of the food we ate.  They tend to eat more salads than other Asian countries.  


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Looking back at Luang Prabang from across the river.  We really enjoyed our trip to Laos, especially the visit to the elephant reserve.  


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Please continue to the next blog post to see some sweet photos of children in Laos.


Laos: Children of the villages


We love to get off the beaten track and find small villages where tourist don't normally roam.  You can tell this by the reaction of the children.  If  they ask for money to take their photo, they are used to seeing tourists....  If they are happy to just see their image in the camera... then they are not used to seeing tourists.  



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The following photos were taken in a little village just outside of Vientiane. We had so much fun photographing the children as they were so happy to see us.


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This little guy caught my eye.  I loved his handmade necklace!


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 D having a chat... the children spoke a little English.



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Their moms were nearby so we asked them if we could take the children's photos.  Notice the house in the background. 


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 As soon as you hold up your camera, they give the peace sign.  This is universal in most Asian countries.



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This was another group.


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Love this little one peeking out from behind his big brother.



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Such a little old man!



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This group was precious!  They were squealing with excitement... wanting us to take their photos, yet a little bit afraid. 



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Their mother was right by them, but they were still shy.   



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This photo deserved to be blown up to see the middle girls face - priceless!



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There seemed to be more boys than there were girls.  Unfortunately, mortality rates for children under five in Laos are the highest in Southeast Asia (70 per 1,000 births) and second highest in all of Asia, behind only Afghanistan (stats as of 12.12).


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The next set of photos was taken in the little village across the river from Luang Prabang.  We had heavy rain the day before, so the streets were very muddy.


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A beautiful child!


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Look closely at the photo below - the little girl is playing with her doll on the porch next to the family rooster.   



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D loves to buy food and give it out to the children.  Below, he is buying popcorn balls and peanuts.  He tries not to buy candy and buys from the local shops to help support the community. 



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Here he is giving out popcorn balls to children coming home from school for their lunch break.  Even the dog wants to see what is going on. 


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This yound boy is so serious.  D tried to get him to smile, but he wouldn't.  



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The pied-piper... children and dogs following D.



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Where are all the mothers?  Gambling!  We couldn't figure out what the game was, but they were busy playing it.  I love how they all are so busy except the older woman in the middle - she is watching us.


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The last few photos are of children in the main town of Luang Prabang.  The first one is one of my favorites.

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 The snack cart at recess.


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 To read all about our fun adventure in Laos, click here.




One from the bucket list - riding an elephant!



The Elephant Village, Laos 




I have always wanted to ride an elephant.  Don't know why, but I have.  My dream came true this December when we were in Luang Prabang, Laos.




This was such a fun activity and a once-in-a-life-time experience, I have documented it with many photos  :  )    Below, was my first introduction to the elephant.  I think it is funny to analyze my body language.  I am trying to get close to it, but you can see from the hunched shoulders, I am afraid.





D, on-the-other-hand, was not.  Did you know a baby elephant can weigh up to 200 pounds when it is born?  Gestation in elephant typically lasts 18–23 months and they usually birth every four to five years.




During our day at the Elephant Village we were on the elephants three times, and each time we learned a different way to climb onto the elephant.  The first was the easiest as we climbed onto her back from a raised platform. 


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Our elephant's name was Mae Kham Kun and she was 38 years old.  To help us get familiar with her, our first ride was in a seat.  But D was quick to climb directly onto the elephant's back.  If you are thinking how did we know how to ride the elephant??  The mahout is with us at all times,  he was on the ground taking the photos.






This ride was the longest, it latest about 45 minutes.  The Elephant Village is in a lush jungle valley on the banks of the Nam Khan River and the scenery all around was gorgeous.  We started out on dry land, and then went through water.





Was it scary?  Yes at times it was, especially in the beginning.  There really is nothing to hold onto as the elephant sways from side-to-side.  Check out D's tongue action and ..... well my face says it all!




The photo below was towards the end of the body is very relaxed.  I did ride on her back for awhile, but it takes a lot of leg work to hold on (let me tell you... the next day I felt muscles on the inside of my thigh that I never knew I had).  I needed a break so I moved back into the seat, which really took skill.





Our mahout was great - he took so many photos.  A mahout is the name of a person who rides and trains elephant.  Usually a boy, he starts in the "family business" at a fairly young age.  He will be assigned an elephant and they will be attached to each other throughout the elephant's life.






The elephant is the largest land animal on Earth. There are two species of elephants, the African (largest), and Asian.  The Asian, which we rode, are slightly smaller.  Adult male elephants can reach weights of six to eight tons.  To put it into perspective, most cars weigh about two tons.





Most of the elephants have injuries as they were working elephants in the logging industry before coming to the elephant rescue village.  Mae Kham Kum was injured after stepping onto a stick of dynamite.



Elephant foot



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We learned a second way to mount the elephant.  This one was a bit more difficult with very little help from the elephant!






The elephant bent her leg slightly, we grabbed her ear, and stepped up on her leg.  One mahout pushed...





and the other pulled.....






And you use every ounce of strength you have to get up on them. 






Hurray - I made it!






Our next event was a mini mahout lesson where they taught us basic commands to direct the elephant - shown below.






Elephants are among the most intelligent species, next to humans. They communicate both verbally and with body language.









We fed them bananas.  The elephant's trunk  is not only used for smelling and breathing it's also used for drinking, grabbing food, and sending out loud trumpeting noises.










We have been asked if the elephants smelled bad.  They did not.....except when his trunk came up to find the bananas.  He let out a big breath and it was pretty stinky!





 How do you get off of the elephant you ask? 

Not very gracefully!!!






They tell you to gently slide down the elephants side....

OOPS!!  I jumped






Next we took a break for the elephants to eat a little snack.  They love to eat pineapple tops.  Fun fact:  Elephants don’t like peanuts. They don’t eat them in the wild, and zoos don’t feed them to their captive elephants. 





They can reach heights over 13 feet and will eat 300-600 pounds of food per day.  Elephants are vegetarians.






The Mahout got under the elephant's chin and then told me to do it.  I tried, but this is as far as I was willing to go.  Again, that scared look on my face  :   )






What happens when an elephant eats 300 to 600 pounds of food? See below   :   )    No smell...just GIGANTIC!






This is the third way to mount an elephant.  The Mahout gets the elephant to lay down.  Much easier than the second way.






It still takes a lot of strength to pull yourself up and there was not a second Mahout pushing me from the rear.






Like human toddlers, elephants have passed the mirror test—they recognize themselves in a mirror.






Elephants may lie down to sleep.  This generally happens at night. During the day they often take short naps - standing. Altogether, they sleep about six hours per day.





The average lifespan of an elephant in the wild is 60 to 70 years.



I want to write a little about the Elephant camp we selected.  The Elephant Village is a privately owned elephant camp and tour destination approved by the Laos government and operated by International Specialists and volunteers who focus on protection and rehabilitation of elephants in Laos.  




From their web page:  The Elephant Village’s mission is to provide a peaceful home and sustainable future to elephants in LAOS.  Tourism activities contribute the elephants with the opportunity for support themselves and the neighboring local villages.  Elephant Village is managed in a sustainable and fair manner that actively benefits both, elephants and local villages.




Most of the camp staff comes from villages nearby.  The elephant food supplement is purchased from villages around the camp.   We were very impressed by this organization.  The elephants seemed to be well cared for and their program was very well done.





The last event with our elephants was a bath. 





What fun this was!  Elephants are good swimmers and they love the water.   The Mahouts said this is the elephants favorite time of day.






Slightly scared look again.... I did NOT want to step on the bottom of the river!






The elephants love to have their skin brushed.  The skin of the elephant is not very thick and is very sensitive to the sun.  They get sunburned very easily.  To prevent this, they throw sand on their back and head.






The Elephant's skin is wrinkled in appearance.  Wrinkles keep elephants cooler than if they had smooth skin.  It was dry to the touch, but still soft.





D had the elephant who loved to squirt her trunk up into the air.... An adult Asian elephant can hold up to 2.2 gallons of water in its trunk. Water is sprayed into the mouth for drinking and onto the back to keep cool.






The Mahout would tap the elephant on the rear with his foot and she would spray D.  The Mahout was having a very good time and had the elephant continuously squirting D.  My elephant never did this.





And if you have not seen enough photos of our elephant experience - here is a little video clip:





We LOVED this experience and highly recommend an elephant ride if you ever have the chance.






Laos is thought to have only 700 elephants left in the wild.  Unfortunately, poachers, dam builders, loggers and farmers are taking a deadly toll on the endangered species.  Camps and villages like this one are helping to protect the elephants and are even trying to breed them.  They certainly are a mysterious, gentle, beautiful animal.