The enchanting chanting

Eight years ago I visited lovely Luang Prabang in Laos for the first time. Ever since I wanted to go back, and now I was there, for four days, as part of a month’s tour in northern Thailand, Laos and eastern Cambodia.

But things don’t always turn out as planned: I fell ill. However, this gave me ample opportunity to explore the residential surroundings of the hotel, something that otherwise might not have happened.

Just opposite the hotel there was a small temple. My guide Phak had been a novice himself in a Luang Prabang temple for two years, and knew all about daily schedules and monastic life. Not feeling like heading into town, I asked him if I could attend the evening chanting. He went inside to find someone to ask, and came back with a positive reply: I was most welcome, and I should be there just before 6 pm.

I went there a couple of minutes before 6 pm – but where was the entrance? I felt a little odd as I walked around the temple looking for an open door. There was no activity at all in the premises, there was no one around. Was the evening chanting really going to happen? And where was the entrance??

In the end I did find an unlocked door and stepped in. There was no one inside either, just the gilded buddhas.

The stillness and silence were almost overwhelming. I tiptoed around (walking didn’t seem quite adequate), observing the elaborate decorations.

It was now well past 6pm. Maybe the chanting had taken place earlier? Could it have been cancelled or moved to another temple? I was thinking of going back to the hotel when I heard a sound behind me, and there finally a monk appeared.

He gestured to me to come towards him and sit down in front of him. He found a tray filled with short pieces of yarn and started saying a long prayer while tying a piece of orange yarn around my wrist. It was a true blessing and I felt that I was really welcome.

Now finally there was some activity: it was time to summon monks and novices to the evening prayers by sounding the gong.

The evening prayers started with only three monks present.

Then a few more dropped in, and later still two or three more, while the chanting was ongoing, totally undisturbed. No one seemed to notice these late drop-ins.

Nobody took any notice at all of me, it was as though I wasn’t there, in spite of the fact that I was tiptoeing around and crawling on the floor next to them with my camera.

But I wasn’t there only to take photos, I was there to experience a small part of the monks’ daily life. And it was something very special to sit there on the floor, next to them, their chanting filling the temple.

It was an enchanting chanting.

The toothbrush and the lady

Every day in Cambodia my fantastic guide Len brought me to visit something or someone out of the ordinary.

On this particular day during our stay in Mondulkiri, a province in the eastern part of the country, Len wanted me to meet some ladies of the Pnong ethnic minority. It was a very hot day.

We didn’t have to drive far from the province capital of Sen Monorom to reach their small village. It seemed totally empty except for some pigs, but a young girl emerged from around a corner and from her we learned that everyone was out working. She showed us the way down a path towards the rice fields and the first one we saw there was one of Len’s friends.

She stopped her hard work of digging up old rice plants from the dry and dusty paddy and greeted us warmly. I handed her a toothbrush and some toothpaste that I had brought, and she looked at me, a little worried: “But I don’t have anything to give to you“.

Soon the lady’s little daughter appeared from nowhere (accompanied by two very small dogs). We had brought some biscuits to be shared among the village children, and while her mother continued working, the girl tried hard to get into the difficult packaging.

She must have succeeded though because all of a sudden she had chocolate smeared around her mouth and now she was thirsty. Whether this was a result of the chocolate biscuits or the heat, or a combination of the two, I don’t know, but the water in the plastic bottle wasn’t enough, or maybe the bottle was empty in the first place.

In any case plastic bottles aren’t the best containers for water when it’s so hot. A gourd is much better, it keeps the water nice and cool – but it’s a little tricky to hold it when you have small hands 🙂

It was now time for the midday break, but before heading back to the village, perhaps a smoke?

But nobody had matches and little did it seem to matter. I don’t think she was a smoker at all.

Although we couldn’t communicate verbally I felt very much at ease in the company of this lady. My visit had interrupted her work, but she made me feel so welcome in her rice paddy.

It’s a friend whose name I don’t know.


A morning cycling tour in Hanoi

It was a dreary morning with grey skies and some drizzle and I was to cycle 17 km, around the West Lake in Hanoi. “Would you like a helmet?” my guide Hung asked when we picked up the rental bikes, and for unknown reasons I declined.

Anyway, the ride to the first stop, the Tran Quoc pagoda, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, was quite short. The temple area is always crowded, but particularly so this morning: the Vietnamese New Year celebrations were just coming to an end and it was the day of the full moon. But people still found peace.

I felt that I was constantly in somebody’s way until I found this tranquil spot:

We still had some 16 km to go, so it was time to move on.

As we were back on the bikes, sweat broke out on my forehead not because of the physical exercise but because of what I saw that we were headed for: a very busy road with trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes galore, cyclists, pedestrians and street vendors. I had no helmet. I still wasn’t used to the bike with its handbrakes (I learned cycling on a bike with foot brakes and have used such bikes ever since). It was only my second day in Hanoi and I certainly wasn’t used to the traffic intensity, rhythm and style. And it was a bit slippery due to the drizzle.

I decided to adopt the style of other two-wheel riders I had observed: I cycled as fast as I could and looked neither left nor right as I turned onto the heavily trafficked road. It worked.

Luckily we soon turned off into a much calmer and narrower road that followed the lake shore. Still I felt a bit uneasy with honking cars in front and behind and motorbikes and scooters on my heels. As the ride continued to the north and northeast side of the lake, traffic became much less intense and I picked up confidence too. In fact, I started enjoying the ride very much indeed!

We stopped for a rest in a small café on the lake from where the view was great in spite of the grey clouds:

And the coffee, Vietnamese of course, with condensed milk, was fabulous!