Every morning at sunrise, the monks of Luang Prabang line up to beg for their day’s food. In a sign of respect for the monks (most Laotian boys spend time as a monk—a service that lasts anywhere from six months to a lifetime), locals kneel on mats and offer up small handfuls of warm sticky rice to the procession of hundreds of Theravada Buddhists. With over 30 temples in a few blocks’ space, Luang Prabang is a town permanently awash in saffron, no time more than in those brown pre-dawn moments.
Despite the fact that every hotel in LP supplies a list of rules about respecting the alms service, most farang (the term used for westerners throughout SE Asia) simply can’t help themselves. They break out the video cameras and telephoto lenses; they sharpen their elbows and dig in their claws; they exercise those itchy trigger fingers at point-blank range, turning what is supposed to be a silent, deeply spiritual experience into a circus act. (I hid behind a tuk tuk to snap this flick, so maybe I’m only half-guilty…) Travel photography can bring out the worst in people, and in general, the eternal quest for the perfect shot has some pretty damning implications for the world’s more fragile destinations. As incredible as it is to witness the monks’ extraordinary daily sacrifice, we left the alms service feeling pretty bummed out for mankind.
This city has changed a lot in the two years since I was here last, and with an airport expansion, a golf course, and dozens of new luxury hotels in the works, I’m afraid it’s on the brink of irrevocable “advancement”, as I heard one foreign entrepreneur refer to this development as. I hope I’m wrong, that somehow the forces of change conspire to bring out the best in Luang Prabang, but it so rarely works that way.