BUD­DHIST BAS­TION:

LUANG PRA­BANG IS A SPIR­I­TUAL CENTER.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at wulip­ing@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

Those who are born and bred in Luang Pra­bang City say they en­joy the good karma of do­ing good in their pre­vi­ous lives. Their city is an an­cient one with a his­tory of more than a thou­sand years, and is sur­rounded by a pic­turesque land­scape of ver­dant moun­tains and an eco­log­i­cally sound en­vi­ron­ment.

Nes­tled on the val­ley floor along the Mekong River, it was the royal cap­i­tal un­til 1975, when the Lao­tian peo­ple gained in­de­pen­dence from the monar­chy. It is a city with an­cient ar­chi­tec­ture, the more mod­ern of which boasts French colo­nial influences from the 19th and 20th cen­turies.

The weather is pleas­ant, with tem­per­a­tures hov­er­ing around 20 C in the day even dur­ing the cold­est sea­son. The folk cus­toms are sim­ple and hon­est. Smil­ing faces are ev­ery­where.

Above all th­ese sec­u­lar fea­tures, this is a city of Bud­dhism, with more than 50 big tem­ples and monas­ter­ies, and where al­most ev­ery male cit­i­zen spends some time ex­pe­ri­enc­ing monas­tic life. More than 90 per­cent of its peo­ple are Bud­dhists.

Luang Pra­bang was listed as a UNESCO World Her­itage Site in 1995 and is re­garded as one of the most liv­able cities in the world.

We start our jour­ney from Vi­en­tiane, the cur­rent cap­i­tal of Laos, on an early morn­ing in late Novem­ber.

About 500 kilo­me­ters north, we reach the moun­tains, where the road is cir­cuitous and some­times bumpy. At dusk, it turns foggy and then driz­zles, mak­ing the 8-hour jour­ney another two hours longer. In the next two days, how­ever, we are glad we per­se­vered as we are re­warded with un­ex­pected ex­pe­ri­ences.

Luang Pra­bang City is the cap­i­tal of Luang Pra­bang Prov­ince, which is the core area of the north of the coun­try, says Kham­dua Yi­akuanoheuvang, vice-sec­re­tary of the Pro­vin­cial Party Com­mit­tee of Luang Pra­bang Prov­ince.

Oc­cu­py­ing an area of 20,000 square kilo­me­ters, the prov­ince has a pop­u­la­tion of 400,000 from 10 eth­nic groups, who live har­mo­niously in the area.

Ac­cord­ing to Yi­akuanoheuvang, tourism is the pil­lar of the prov­ince, es­pe­cially in Luang Pra­bang City.

There are 229 scenic spots, in­clud­ing tem­ples, a royal palace, moun­tains, wa­ter­falls and caves, he says. The num­ber of over­seas tourists who ar­rive are about 300,000, while do­mes­tic tourists ex­ceed 1 mil­lion.

Be­fore 1975, there were only two ho­tels in the city. “Now we have 62,” Yi­akuanoheuvang says, adding that there are more than 300 hos­tels and nearly 300 restau­rants.

We set­tled in the Phousi Ho­tel, in the center of the city.

Just out­side the ho­tel along the side­walk, peo­ple can par­tic­i­pate in or wit­ness the alms-giv­ing cer­e­mony early ev­ery morn­ing — a ma­jor tourist at­trac­tion. The re­li­gious prac­tice is a liv­ing Bud­dhist tra­di­tion of the city and has great mean­ing for lo­cal peo­ple.

The street is rel­a­tively quiet around 5:30 am. Small groups of peo­ple linger along the side­walk, wait­ing for the rit­ual.

The ven­dors of the morn­ing mar­ket sell sticky rice, a sta­ple food served in small bam­boo bas­kets or stuffed into bam­boo tubes. There are also bananas and other veg­e­tar­ian food. Sev­eral elec­tric mo­tor cars, with a trailer for 6 to 8 pas­sen­gers, break the quiet. They ferry in tourists who are stay­ing far from the area to watch the cer­e­mony.

At about 10 min­utes to 6 am, the first pro­ces­sion of about 15 monks ar­rives from the east. They are led by a se­nior monk, who wears a peace­ful smile on his face, with the young monks — seem­ingly ranked by age — fol­low­ing him. The youngest looks to be only about 15 years old.

They each carry a metal con­tainer on their shoul­ders. As they pass the devo­tees, they open the lids to re­ceive the of­fer­ings. Within 20 min­utes, another three teams of monks have ar­rived from dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, their orange robes ablaze like rays of sun­shine cast­ing light on the town be­fore dawn.

“A young man in Laos will be­come a monk at least once in his life,” says Kham­muong Ou­domhak, head of the of­fice at the Laos Jour­nal­ists As­so­ci­a­tion, and our guide.

“Some may de­vote their whole lives to Bud­dhism, but most choose to be a monk for years or just for sev­eral days. In Laos, the main aim of be­com­ing a monk is to give thanks to moth­ers.”

Be­com­ing a monk and chant­ing the su­tras will gather mer­its, and ded­i­cat­ing th­ese mer­its to one’s mother will bring bless­ings upon her.

Ou­domhak tells us he had been a monk for 17 years.

“I be­came a monk un­der my mother’s wish,” he says. “When I grew older, I felt the good­ness and calm that come from Bud­dhism.”

Al­though Ou­domhak, 64, has re­sumed sec­u­lar life for nearly 40 years, he says he has ben­e­fited from the ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It taught me the beauty of a sim­ple life,” he says. “Lao­tian peo­ple treat guests warmly and hope they can be as happy as we are.”

In Luang Pra­bang, the re­li­gious and the sec­u­lar live to­gether har­mo­niously, which we can sense from the lay­out of the city. On some streets, tem­ples are con­structed all along one side of the street, while or­di­nary houses are on the op­po­site side of the road.

The doors of the tem­ples are al­ways open, invit­ing all to share the mer­its of su­tra-chant­ing. The walls of the tem­ples are shorter than shoul­der height, all the bet­ter for passers-by to look in at the monks and how they live.

Among the tem­ples in Luang Pra­bang, Wat Xieng Thong, or The Tem­ple of the Golden City, is re­garded as the most beau­ti­ful tem­ple in Laos. It was built in 1560.

Another in­ter­est­ing build­ing is the Luang Pra­bang Na­tional Mu­seum, built upon the old royal palace build­ings that were con­structed be­tween 1904 and 1909.

The throne room of the palace is dec­o­rated with col­or­ful mo­saics on the red wall, de­pict­ing Lao­tian folk tales, cus­toms, cer­e­monies and wars. In the king’s re­cep­tion room, visi­tors can en­joy the mu­rals record­ing the daily lives of or­di­nary Lao peo­ple. There is also the king’s old study, as well as all the bed­rooms for the royal house­hold, all dec­o­rated with tra­di­tional fur­ni­ture, portraits, cos­tumes, house­hold goods and other ar­ti­facts that were used by the im­pe­rial fam­ily.

Go­ing for­ward, we visit an ex­hi­bi­tion hall with stat­ues of Bud­dha col­lected from mu­se­ums around the coun­try. Another hall shows off diplo­matic gifts from other coun­tries, in­clud­ing silk screens, wood fur­ni­ture and ivory sculp­tures from China.

Just op­po­site the palace across the street is Phousi Hill. It’s cloaked in lux­u­ri­ant green, and 328 steps lead us to the top, where we en­joy the panoramic view of Luang Pra­bang City and the Khan River. On the hill are the Phousi Tem­ple and var­i­ous stu­pas, shrines and Bud­dhist fig­ures.

In a pavil­ion, we meet a young monk, Brick.

“I have been a monk for one year, and I plan to stay another year,” he says. “I will go to a univer­sity for monks af­ter that. I take English and Ja­panese classes dur­ing my spare time and I will learn Man­darin in fu­ture since the econ­omy be­tween China and Laos is boom­ing.”

The nightlife in the city is best rep­re­sented by the night mar­ket, which op­er­ates from dusk un­til 10 pm, dis­play­ing an eclec­tic col­lec­tion of hand­i­crafts, sou­venirs and tra­di­tional clothes.

As one of us tries on a coral bracelet, we find that the stall-owner, Zhu Wenxia, is a Chi­nese from Hainan prov­ince.

“I came to Laos 17 years ago, be­cause I was laid off from work,” says Zhu. “I started a busi­ness sell­ing small ac­ces­sories. Now I buy pearls and ex­otic stones, and string them my­self. I make jew­elry with an Asian fla­vor and my cus­tomers are mostly Western peo­ple.

“They are in the ma­jor­ity among tourists here, es­pe­cially dur­ing the end of the year, which is their va­ca­tion sea­son. In re­cent years, there have been more Chi­nese tourists, mostly around the Spring Fes­ti­val. Peo­ple from Yun­nan prov­ince of­ten drive here.”

Zhu, who lives in the city with her hus­band, is happy with her life here. “The pace of life is slow, peo­ple are sim­ple and food is nat­u­ral.”

In­deed the diet in Laos is sim­ple but healthy.

“We of­ten eat sticky rice for break­fast and lunch, and rice for sup­per,” says Ou­domhak, our guide. “Sticky rice is dif­fi­cult to digest and sig­nals full­ness, and is es­pe­cially good for the poor years. Nowa­days, peo­ple eat it less be­cause sticky rice con­tains more su­gar than other rice and there is the risk of di­a­betes.”

Any­way I liked the sticky rice, es­pe­cially the way the lo­cals eat it.

It is soaked in wa­ter overnight, and then steamed for 20 min­utes. Com­pared with rice boiled in wa­ter, sticky rice is chewy with a smooth tex­ture. Cooked sticky rice is served in small woven bam­boo bas­kets where din­ers would scoop it up and squash into bite-sized balls.

There is of­ten fried chicken, pork and fish on the din­ing ta­ble, with fresh veg­eta­bles to go with it all, in­clud­ing lots of mint leaves and other fresh herbs.

“Restau­rants here also fea­ture Chi­nese, In­dian, Thai and Cam­bo­dian meals, as well as French and Ital­ian fla­vors,” our guide Ou­domhak says, clearly proud of the wide choice of cuisines.

PHO­TOS BY WU LIP­ING / CHINA DAILY

Phousi Hill is lo­cated in the cen­tral area of Luang Pra­bang City. Its peak of­fers a panoramic view of the city and the Khan River.

Monks re­ceive of­fer­ings from devo­tees at a cer­e­mony at dawn.

Tem­ples are con­structed across from or­di­nary houses.

Fresh herbs are pop­u­lar on lo­cal ta­bles.

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