Indochina Day Nine
10.02.2020 - 10.02.2020
Orchid in the garden of Wat Siphoutthabath Thippharam
Another early start today as we were up before 5.30 to see the traditional ceremony of Tak Bat, or almsgiving. This isn't unique to Lao, or even to Luang Prabang, but has become particularly associated with this town because of the sheer number of temples in a concentrated space. Every morning the monks leave the temples to walk the streets, carrying a pot in which local people place food, usually sticky rice. In this way the monks have food to eat and the people receive good karma and blessings in return for their giving.
In recent years Tak Bat has become a bit of a tourist spectacle with, as I understand, many of those tourists not always behaving appropriately - getting in the way of the monks, taking flash photos, giving to the monks not out of charity but in order to get a 'selfie'. We didn't want to risk getting caught up among any of that so we decided to watch from the relative peace and quiet of the street just in front of the Villa Chitdara rather than on the main street, with only a few other respectful tourists joining us alongside the locals. But before that we took a walk around the corner to our nearest temple, Wat Pa Phai, where we saw the monks gathering before heading out on their walk around the town.
Gathering for Tak Bat at Wat Pa Phai
Lee explained that while men or boys may stand to give to the monks, women must always be lower than them, so they bring small stools to sit on or simply crouch at the kerb. He also told us that other people take food directly to the temples – meat, soup etc. The rice given at Tak Bat is in part a symbolic offering, as well as being a staple part of the monks' diet.
There were a couple of large baskets beside the road too, into which the monks sometimes dropped rice that they had been given. These baskets are used to collect food for the poor; the monks donate the surplus that they have been given.
It was really too dark for photos, but I tried, perhaps capturing the atmosphere if not the detail.
Tak Bat in Luang Prabang
When all the monks had passed, from the eight or nine local temples, we went back to the hotel to get ready for the day and for breakfast.
After breakfast we were picked up by a guide from MandaLao, an elephant sanctuary near Luang Prabang. They take elephants from camps that offer riding experiences, and from logging camps etc., and give them a new life where they don't have to work. Tourists who visit can interact with the elephants but on their terms. The philosophy is, don't train elephants to entertain people, train people to entertain elephants. It is managed by a Thai man who is passionate about reversing the decline of Asian elephants in his home country and elsewhere.
We picked up another couple at their guesthouse, Julie and Larry from California. These tours are limited to a maximum of four people so as not to overwhelm the elephants with attention. Chris and I hit it off with our companions and enjoyed sharing the experience with them
Driving out of the town we passed an area where a high-speed railway is being built by the Chinese, which will link Kunming to Luang Prabang and Vientiane, and on to Thailand. The Lao government clearly believes this will be a positive development (presumably because of the Chinese investment and boost to the economy) but people locally aren't happy about it. Some have had to move out of their homes as their land was compulsorily purchased, and there are fears it will bring too many visitors to Luang Prabang and result in over-development – large hotels, casinos etc. It also made the road very bumpy (I read a silly Google review of MandaLao which marked the experience down just because of this road!)
Sign at MandaLao
Arriving at MandaLao we were served coffee and met the Thai project director, Prasop Tipprasert. He chatted to us for some time about how he came to be running this camp. He used to work with elephants in Thailand, using them on his tree farm. Then he became aware how quickly their population was declining and realised that he wanted to do something to help. Because so many people rely on the elephants as a source of income, he knew it would not be easy to convince those people to simply to stop using them for tourist rides, logging etc. He had to devise a way in which the elephants could do what he described as 'friendly work' – work that didn't interfere with their natural needs to eat and walk as those tourist-pleasing activities sadly do. Riding, for instance, restricts their ability to search out the foods they need for a varied diet (ideally, he told us, they should eat 200 different plants) and also makes them far too hot and puts too much weight on their backs. By simply meeting and walking with tourists the elephants can continue to search for food themselves, as is natural, and can keep walking, which they need to do for their digestive system to work properly. So that is the set-up here – elephant encounters on elephant terms!
MandaLao pays riding camps a rental fee to bring the elephants here. If they bought the elephants outright the chances are that the owners of the other camps would simply buy new ones to replace them, but by renting them they give the camps an alternative income. The aim is to model to other elephant camps that it is possible to earn money while not requiring the elephants to do anything that doesn't come naturally to them - mainly to walk in the forests and eat a wide variety of foods. And it is working – a nearby camp recently stopped offering elephant rides and now operates in a similar way to MandaLao.
After our chat with the manager we were given special boots to wear (we were to find out why later!), sun-tan lotion and insect repellent to use if needed, and aluminium water bottles in carriers. We walked down to the riverbank and were ferried across in a small wooden boat.
Crossing the Nam Khan
On the far side we met two of their 13 elephants, a mother and teenage daughter. They had been separated after the daughter was born and sold to two different riding camps. MandaLao acquired the mother, Mahn, a couple of years ago and the next year managed to bring her daughter Mohn to join her. They recognised each other and are now together most of the time. Eventually however the team at MandaLao hope that Mohn might be able to be released into a national park, as she is probably young enough to learn new ways and will hopefully breed and produce babies to help grow the population.
Bananas for breakfast
~ the fence is to ensure the elephants don't get over-eager, not to enclose them
We helped to give the two elephants their breakfast treat of bananas and then set off across the fields to the forest, followed by our new friends.
The path to the forest
We then hiked with them through the forest as they hunted for food, had dust baths and later drank at a pool.
Enjoying foraging in the forest, and a good scratch!
Among the trees
Dust bath fun
The mahouts never use sticks here. As the manager had told us, they don't use a carrot and stick system, only carrots, or rather bananas and sugar cane, to reward good behaviour. So the elephants set the pace throughout our walk, and we simply went along with them - stopping when they stopped, walking when they walked.
At a waterhole
Mohn and Mahn
~ you can see who has been in the water!
Our time with the elephants
This was a super experience and I hope their ambition of setting this example will produce results, as it seems to be doing.
After a couple of hours we said goodbye to Mahn and Mohn and left them to continue their walk with just the mahouts for company. We made our way back to the river, wading through several streams to get there (hence the need for the borrowed boots, I realised).
Our path back took us across farmland where our guide showed us a grass with a soapy sap which produces bubbles when broken and lightly blown over.
Farmland near MandaLao
Guide blowing bubbles
Funnel web spider
Once back at the main building we were served a delicious lunch cooked mainly from produce from MandaLao's organic garden. It was a chance to relax and reflect on the morning, and we also had a nice chat with Julie and Larry who had been excellent company on our walk.
Collecting temples in Luang Prabang
We were then driven back to Luang Prabang and dropped off at the hotel. After a bit of a rest we decided to go for a stroll around this part of town. We had already had a brief look at Wat Pa Phai, our nearest temple, earlier in our stay but I took a couple more photos in passing. The temple’s name means the ‘Temple of the Bamboo Forest' but the bamboo forest, assuming it once existed, is long gone, although the gardens are pretty. The decoration on the front of the sim is stunning, with, among other features, a relief in gold at the top showing the Buddha preaching under a tree to listening men and animals, and a beautiful door depicting Rama in front of lions.
Wat Pa Phai
We carried on, going straight over the main road and down to the Nam Khan River with its bamboo bridge. It's possible for a small fee to walk across the bridge but we didn't bother as we thought the photos would be better from above. The bridge is only here for six months of the year, and is removed during the rainy season as it wouldn’t be safe.
The Nam Khan
Retracing our steps we turned in at Wat Siphoutthabath Thippharam, at the foot of Mount Phusi. I haven't been able to find out much about this temple (other than that its name means the ‘temple of Buddha's marvellous footprint’) but I rather liked it. It seemed not to have had the same level of restoration as the others we visited and as a consequence I thought had more character. Inside I found dark wooden beams, columns painted in a worn red and gold design, and a beautiful Meditation Buddha.
In Wat Siphoutthabath Thippharam
Outside there were lovely flowers, worn stupas and views over the hills around Luang Prabang. The temple, like many in Luang Prabang, has a school for monks attached to it.
Stupa and monk, Wat Siphoutthabath Thippharam
We walked straight past the turning to our hotel and carried on another block to reach the Mekong. The old town of Luang Prabang is situated on a peninsula formed by a bend in the Nam Khan just before it joins the Mekong, so you are never more than a couple of blocks from one or the other of the rivers. We stopped for a cold drink at one of the many small restaurants that line the Mekong – a lovely shady and breezy spot from which to watch the river traffic for a while, including the car ferry which people here rely on totally for crossing the river, as there is no bridge in this region.
The far bank of the Mekong
Ferry across the Mekong
After our drink we walked a little further along the river road and then turned to loop back through an alleyway and along the street to our hotel. We passed two more temples on the way. The sim of the first, Wat Choum Khong Sourin Tharame, was closed but there was plenty to see outside. The temple is sometimes simply referred to as Wat Choum Khong, which means ‘Temple with the heart of a Gong’, apparently, but this longer name was on the sign outside, so I assume is the ‘official’ name. The reason for the ‘heart of a gong’ moniker is that it is said that the sim’s central Buddha figure was made in part from the raised boss in the centre of a bronze gong.
This temple was constructed during the reign of King Sukaseum (1836-1851) and has been renovated several times. The decoration was entirely re-done in 1962 and it shows – the gold really gleams!
Sim of Wat Choum Khong, with door detail
I took some photos of the various golden Buddhas, in different poses, dotted around the grounds.
These are modern, but either side of the stone staircase leading to the sim are a couple of much older statues. They were inspired by Chinese design and were given to King Chantharath (1850-1872) by the Chinese ambassador of Kunming, when he visited Luang Prabang. They represent two of the principle bodhisattvas (or enlightened beings) of Chinese Buddhism: Vajra, (lightning or a clap of thunder), representing masculine principles, and Ghanta representing a bell, or feminine principles.
~ I am not sure which is which, since both appear to be male!
I also took a very quick look at Wat Xieng Mouane, almost next door and built in a similar style, but rather later, during the reign of King Chantarath (1851-72).
Wat Xieng Mouane
I didn't linger here however, as by now Chris had seen enough temples and Buddhas, and in any case we wanted to get showered and freshened up for the evening.
Another lovely evening in Luang Prabang
We decidedly that after our large lunch we didn't need a full dinner, so we went in search of somewhere offering lighter options, and found it at Tangor, a cool bar/restaurant featuring international dishes with an Asian twist. We chose a table on the terrace with an elevated view of the street, and I had a wonderful cocktail they called Fragrance of Peking, with gin, rose liqueur and lychee juice, while Chris had another of the dark Beer Laos we had discovered yesterday. Then we chose three of their eclectic tapas dishes to share – chicken satay, spring rolls and goats cheese toasts. More beers for Chris, and a Beer Lao Gold for me with the food, and the bill came to around $28 – a great evening for that price!
Interior of Tangor
Tapas at Tangor