Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Morning Monks of Luang Prabang

Sometimes you want to sleep away the morning during your travels, but sometimes you simply must wake before the dawn and greet the sun. That's the photographer's life, but more so when in Luang Prabang. The ancient capital of Laos is the monastic heart of the country and every morning countless monks go through the streets collecting alms.

Shortly before sunrise, the monks gather at the courtyard of the various monasteries and temples as they prepare for their walk. The younger boys mill about, passing time making sure their fellows' robes are twisted and draped properly. The air is cool at that early hour, but they are all barefoot and uncomplaining.

On the street, meanwhile, individuals and small groups gather on the sidewalk. They roll mats on the pavement and kneel, or just bring along a low stool. With a basket of rice beside them, they await the arrival of the monks.

Back in the temple grounds, the monks line up in single file. On some signal I failed to witness every time I witnessed the event, the monks quickly walk from their gates to meet the waiting offerings. As they file past the locals, they open their begging bowls to receive a small portion of rice, barely a mouthful. While seemingly a meagre amount, the number of offerings soon grow. With tourists taking part in the offering ceremony, most monks are actually overburdened and pass much of their collected food to someone who distributes it to the needy.

The tourists certainly do get involved. The main rode is practically clogged with kneeling foreigners, traditional sticky-rice provided by their tour leaders. An army of photographers also greet the procession.

The tourists can hardly be blamed for their enthusiasm. There are some terrific photo opportunities here.

Although the most interesting background, the white wall, is on the main road, the side roads offer fewer crowds to get in the way.

Once they finish their tour through the town, the monks return to their monasteries. Within sight of their home, they visibly relax, no longer walking stiffly, but almost ambling the final few hundred paces to the gates. They finally break the silence of their march and begin to talk quietly but animatedly among themselves.

They have a bit of free tie prior to their morning studies. This is the best time to get photos of the young men. Many of them find a quiet spot to meditate before attending class. I surprised more than a few as I explored some of the areas around the various temples. Of course, it's not all seriousness for these fellows. I would often meet boys eager to practice their English skills. These make particularly good photo subjects because they're all too happy to pose.

A few years ago, I managed to get a nice shot of two monks in front of their temple. On the off chance I would run into one of them, I packed the photo with me. Sure enough, some of the monks at the monastery identified him and searched the buildings until they found him. He was a bit perplexed over the image. I wasn't sure if he'd ever seen himself photographed. When I finally made clear to him that the photo was for him to keep, he was quite pleased. I handed out a few more photos during my trip, but most of the people I sought could not be located.

With morning break over, the monks settle into the classrooms. The younger ones study, the elders and laity teach.

See plenty more photos of the monks of Luang Prabang here.

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