A truly disgusting spectacle

There is a rooster living somewhere close to my guest house in Luang Prabang who is either insomniac or completely confused. It seems to think that dawn comes at half one in the morning, then two, then three and so on. Believe me, if I ever find the exact whereabouts of this foul fowl, insomnia and confusion will be the least if it's problems and laap gai will definitely be on the menu for tomorrow.

As is so often the way in these parts, and I do not wish to become too philosophical, there was a brighter side to this. Being wide awake just before six due to the attentions of said bird, I decided to get up and watch a remarkable ritual which occurs every day as it has for centuries namely the giving of alms by the local people to the numerous monks who inhabit the very many wats in the city. I saw this last time I was here and I was quite entranced by it.

Basically, the local people get out of bed at an appallingly early hour and sit at the side of the road with alms, generally in the form of rice. The monks, mostly the younger novices process barefoot and in silence through the streets stopping whilst people place their offerings in the bowls they carry on their shoulder and make obeisance to them, thereby gaining merit in the Buddhist way of thinking. I think I mentioned previously that Luang Prabang, although not the administrative capital is, to many Lao, the religious and cultural heart of the nation.

I went to the end of the street I am staying in (slightly out of town) and watched from the far side of the road as elderly ladies swept the streets in front of the boy monks and others sat on the side of the road reverently placing the gifts in the bowls and praying. At this tme of morning and this time of day the light was not good enough to take a photo without flash (see below) so I watched in awe as it unfolded before me.

This city is rightly proud of it's heritage and history and is very much at pains to explain politely to visitors how to behave both in wats and at this daily ceremony which is, after all, a religious service. Any guidebook will tell you how to behave in a Buddhist country, what to do and not do especially in respect of monks. I try, as best I can, to observe these things, although I am sure I am sure I transgress unintentionally on occasion. I hope not. Several of the strictures, if you are not aware, are these. You always act respectfully in the presence of a monk, women do not touch a monk or his robes, if a monk is sitting you either try and get your head lower than him or, if you are tall like me, hold your hands in a praying attitude to show respect. These are holy men / boys. Several of the specific things mentioned in the excellent Tourist Information Centre are not to get too close to the monks and not to use flash photography.

I decided to walk down to the centre of town where I knew there would be a lot of monks as the main concentration of wats is there. What I saw there disgusted and angered me in about equal measure. This solemn religious observance has been turned into a circus by bloody tourists with no more concern for the sensibilities of the local populace than getting a good holiday snap to "show the folks back home". It was one of the most appalling things I have ever seen. It was like a papparazzi scrum on Oscars night and as one who has faced the papparazzi (ask me about it sometime, I was not the star attraction obviously) it was frenzied, and I use the word advisedly. Germans jostled with Japanese and Australians elbowed the French to see who could stick their huge lenses furthest into a 12 year old novices face and fire off a professional standard flash gun. It was nauseating.

I will upload the photo, which isn't very good, taken without flash and from a distance, to show the kind of thing these poor young men must have to endure every day. I am not a religious man although I find much in Buddhism to admire but I found this profane in the extreme. I would like to believe that these people are ignorant of the local customs but that would be niaive. Everyone here has a guidebook and damn nearly everyone has visited the Tourist Information Centre. What it is is not ignorance but sheer damned bloody selfishness and a total lack of respect for what are our hosts. Not wishing to profane the ceremony further I said nothing although I would dearly have loved to show some of them the error of their ways.

I have a message for any of htese people in the unlikely event they may stumble upon this blog, learn some respect. It is not difficult and the people of Southeast Asia will forgive a lot as long as you make the effort. If you are not prepared to make the effort stay at home, your own countries probably deserve you more than the people here.

Ask yourselves a question. Would you wander into Canterbury Cathedral and stick a camera into Dr. Williams face when he was preaching? Stroll into a mosque in an Islamic country and point your Canon into the face of the Imam? Decide to go sightseeing in Jerusalem and start snapping the Chief Rabbi in the synagogue? I don't think so, and the consequences may be a lot more serious than with these basically peacable people. Think people. This ceremony a mere seven years ago was a much different thing. I appreciate that the Lao people want, indeed need, the tourist dollar but are we going to destroy the very things we came to see in the process?

I have a message for you ignorant, arrogant nobodies, stay at home. Your respective countries obviously deserve you much more than does this essentially religiously tolerant place.

I am sorry to have ot p0st such a depressing thi8ng, but the rest of the day got much better as I will post in due course.

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