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reveals a shufing saron column o monksand novices on their daily alms procession. The townspeople treat this ritual with greatreverence. The streets are lined with locals andoreigners who wish to participate in this mostspiritual o ceremonies. I bought some stickyrice, ruit and biscuits enough to eed quite aew monks, as I placed the products in theiralms bowls as each monk approached. Thecost o the ood was negligible compared tothe satisying sensation I gained rom the almsgiving. For 200,000 kip or S$32 it is possibleto suciently supply provisions or two orthree days. Remember though, that this is asolemn ceremony o devotion and strict ruleso behaviour apply. The serenity and spirituality o the earlymorning ceremony provoked a strong senseo inner peace and contentment. As the silentprocession was over, I walked back to myhotel in time or breakast only to reect onthe dierence between the West’s ingrainedconsumerism and the simple lie in a Buddhisttemple where meditation and denial promotesa higher sel-awareness.Indeed it may be that the adherence toBuddhism by the monks have stabilised thecountry through the turmoil o colonialism, war,destruction rom the sky and communist rule.Because Buddhism has been the Laos’past,present and surely its uture, it will continue tobring certainty o a better lie ater the tumulto the today.Rested and rereshed, I retraced my steps to theNational Museum, ormerly the royal palace.Built at the turn o the 19th and 20th centuriesduring the French colonial period, the museumwas the ormer royal palace until 1975 when thelast Lao king Sisavang Vatthana and his amilywere overthrown and placed in captivity to diea ew years later in unexplained circumstances. The museum is a treasure chest o art décorurniture and displays over 50,000 arteacts andpersonal possessions o the royal amily. Thequality o the diplomatic gits presented tothe King displays the importance o his court,especially to the Americans who were thenghting the Vietcong. A cabinet holds a silverpen rom President Kennedy, a loving cup romerstwhile Secretary o State Dean Rusk, a redag and plaque presented by President RichardNixon. An identical cabinet standing oppositeit holds similar items rom the communistregimes; such was the nature o cold wardiplomacy played not only with guns andbombs but trinkets and insincere compliments.During the Vietnam War period, the countryhad the very dubious status as being the mostbombed country in the world. The claim stillstands to this day. In the same room, a largedining table is set out in western dining styleready or the next state banquet that will nevercome. Just as poignantly in the king’s bedroom,his bed is made up as i waiting or his spectreto settle in peaceul sleep. The museum is open every day except Tuesdays,and entrance ee is 30,000 kip or S$ 5.50.Wearied by the early start and templemeanderings, I waited until the sun set overthe mountains then walked to the large andvibrant night market. What a sight greetedme. Ablaze with light and colour the vermilion-canopied stalls lined the road side or whatseemed like miles, selling everything rom reshruit to smoothies, Laos silk shawls and scarves,colourul original paintings and hand cratedcarved wood, silver and pewter objets d’art.I dislike haggling but tried my skills on oneunortunate vender who wanted an outlandishprice or a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt. I wassurprised at my bargaining talent when I paidless than hal the asking price. I smiled and hereplied not with a grimace but a broad smilethat seemed to say, “You win, this time.”I return early to my hotel or I take a three hourboat trip up the Mekong to a Kamu villageretreat the next day. I make my way down tothe banks o the mighty Mekong and board avery long motor boat; two other intrepid ladiesare already settled onto the wooden slattedseats. We pull away rom the makeshit pier andstart the cruise. The sediment-thick waters glidepast as massive limestone clis and the jungleo multi-green hues sedately sashay beore us. Towering blue-green ruggedly peaked distantdusky mountains are set against a blue sky. Wepass shermen and boat builders and childrencavorting in the cooling waters.We eventually stop at the Pak Ou caves, a shrinelled with Buddha statues too many to count.I look at one in a no conict pose and notice acoronet o guano, another whose tiny robes arecaked with the dirt o ages and yet more weredusty and candle wax smeared, some werestanding on one leg, others had no arms, a ewno heads all blindly staring at the lie-givingriver. The Buddhas seemed like an allegoryor the country; maimed and ravished by timeand history but now standing in peaceulcontemplation o the present and uture. The serenity was shattered when approachedby a tourist ocial who asked me what touristswanted. I replied with a simple sentence:“Nothing more than this.”Ater a short while, we continued on our journey to the Kampu Village Lodge, where wewere greeted by an excited gang o village boys,shouting the traditional welcome “Sabaidee”.An elephant and its mahout appeared rom aOnce the capital o the French colony andKingdom o Laos, Luan Prabang is today is ano the track tourist gem.I stood on the steps o an ancient templelooking at a stream o motorcycles roar past,accompanied by the odd tuk tuk (or jumbo asthey are called in the town) and an occasionalJapanese pickup. Fiteen minutes later thestream had slowed to a trickle and peace yetagain reigned in this ultra laidback town. That,I thought, must have been downtown LuangPrabang’s rush hour. Turning my back on the straggling throat-clearing motorbikes, I wandered through awhite washed arch and saw a sight that mademy jaw drop and eyes widened at what laybeore me. This was a gleaming Buddhisttemple prayer hall part o Wat Xieng Thong,Luang Prabang’s oldest and most magnicenttemple.I climbed the two ights o stairs to the prayerhall. Removing my shoes, I am urther awedat a large elevated throne protected rom thepopulace by a gold lea-covered magnicentlycarved screen o Buddhist angles surmountedby serpents. Beyond the screen a throne risesmetres rom the oor and is rooed by a vetiered canopy. The throne, the walls and the supportingpillars are sumptuously decorated with ruby-hued mirrored mosaics that are decoratedwith gilded ornate ligree. The columns aresupported on golden bases and topped withcapitals o carvedwoodpalm leaves again glowing with burnished goldlea. The eect on me was o overwhelmingopulence. Although buddhist temples areopen to all at all times, sitting on the oor o thissite o grandeur were two amilies enjoying anindoor picnic obviously proud o the heritagebut unmindul o what surrounded them.It was dicult to leave so much beauty, andI wanted to stay and revel not just in thelavishness o the interior but to marvel at theskill and workmanship preserved or hundredso years. Tearing mysel away, I emerged romthe coolness to the searing heat o mid-aternoon, blinking at the strong sun allowingmy eyes to adjust to the light.Looking back, the temple is just as magnicentoutside as on the inside, as the entire buildingglinted and sparkled in the sunlight. Again therichness o gold lea-covered ligree decorationwith inll o deep emerald green mosaicscovered the whole surace o the building. AsI wandered around the grounds, I came acrosstraditionally decorated shrines and Buddhas invarious poses. The temple also houses the royal barge house,where the barges were once used to processdown the Mekong or special occasions andauspicious ceremonies.It is not possible to walk very ar in LuangPrabang without stumbling across an ancienttemple. It is this well preserved heritage, alongwith the spectacular sceneryand the Mekong, one o the world’s greatestrivers, thatpersuaded the UN to bestow the coveted statuso World Heritage on the town. By all means,visit the amed temples but also linger in theless amed, poorer and less visited templesthat abound in this town. I wandered into thecourtyard o one undistinguished temple onlyto nd temple boys at their lessons, earnestlystudying the Buddhist scriptures, Maths andEnglish. Bright saron robes uttered limplyon a washing line strung between two monkscells. Younger novices taking a break rom theirlessons ran and pranced between the robesplaying an impromptu game o hide and seek.Spontaneously, they ran up to me to shyly say,“Hello, how are you?”Walking urther into the temple yard, a youngmonk was explaining the Dharma to a smallgroup o teenage girls, who listened intentlyto him. Seeing my curiosity, he called me overin perect English and we chatted while thegirls giggled and dgeted. In ten minutes, Ihad heard his lie story and he part o mine. Aswe parted, he gave me a blessing and a smallamulet or good ortune.I walked through a bougainvillea entwinedarchway and passed a seated monk stroking acat with his right hand and holding a Buddhisttext in the other. I thoughtully kept the smartphone and cameras in my pocket so as notto disturb the beauty o that moment. A ewmore steps and I returned back to reality. The next morning, I rose very early and walkedto the National Museum to participate in whatmust be Luang Prabang’s most amous activity.As the sun rises rom the jungle and mountainsthat encircle the town and dawn slowly, it
Once the capital of the French colony and Kingdom ofLaos, Luang Prabang is today an off-the-track tourist gem.