The food-fest that is Laos continues but there’s something completely wrong, so horribly wrong. I have a tray of sticky rice and some sort of interesting little treats wrapped in vine leaves but I can’t eat any of it, it’s arrayed in a wicker basket for me to give away, yes give away; the horror. It’s five minutes to six in the morning and a woven mat cushions my knees from the worn pavement footpath that hides centuries of stories, plain sticky rice never looked so good but I dare not. From my left a surging rage of calmness presses forth and past me in a never ending stream of orange, my fingers pinch a ball of sticky rice from my wicker basket and still I restrain somehow. A young monk, just one of the orange tide glances down at me, this boy of no more than fourteen opens the drum at his hip strapped over his shoulder to receive my alms. Gratitude pours from his eyes leaving nothing for a voice to do.
And so the procession marches on this day like all others in Luang Prabang, this spiritual town akin to Kathmandu exudes a calm passivity to replace the fervent vigour of Kathmandu’s clamour. There’s more temples than one could poke a stick at and this means there’s monks by the orange robe-full. While in Asia I’ve been mulling over where buddhism places in my own negative bias to religion and indeed if it’s a religion at all. One defining gripe I have with religion is the heavy sales pitch of the big monotheisms, in my line of work there’s a saying: if someone’s selling they’re selling a better deal for them, if you’re buying you’re buying a better deal for you. The religion or non-religion debate is a circular quagmire best left for drunken pointless debates with no hope of a resolution, getting to the crux of my bias though Buddhism in three countries and through many examples doesn’t sell. Turn up if you want, buy it if you want, give if you want but no one rains down fear, obligation or pressure.
In this simple act of alms giving I wanted to do this to have the experience, I had to seek out how to do it, to pay for it; the monks are available and I am choosing to buy. When I’ve unloaded most of my tray to the endless stream of thankful eyes I pick up the remainder of my givings and leave not with judgement at my back but stubbornly persistent gratitude. From more traditional churches who sell a useless equivalent of spiritual travel insurance all he way to televangelists who outright strip the livelihoods from people who often can’t afford it there’s always some form of sales pitch, a better deal for them. From giving alms I’m not necessarily spiritually uplifted, I haven’t found a higher plane but I leave feeling genuinely warm inside from a beautiful experience and a wordless interaction that speaks so loudly and lingers so long. I bought, and in crass terms I got a good deal, I guess we all did. Buddhism for me edges carefully ever further away from stigmatic theism.
Now I’m all about generosity but this whole ‘food food everywhere but still bloody hungry’ business is just pushing it a bit. If there’s a place where buzz and calm are the same thing it’s the morning market of Luang Prabang, more food hops, swims, squirms and clucks than lays still in this narrow lane come market. Mountains of fruit and veg nestle in among barbecued meats in both forms; post barbecue on skewers and pre barbecued often still on skewers but still wriggling. What a visual feast and still not a grain of rice has passed my lips, the helplessly hopping frogs or the bound goannas don’t dent my appetite as I buy a parcel of black sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf, this madness has to stop. Sweet coconut flavour mixes with pandan leaf to make a breakfast triumph I’m not happy about sharing but Charlie isn’t one to let his half go by as we all know; but giving food has always been a show of love.
Back on the bike, you’d think we had enough cycling in China but no, we’re off into town for a poke around and a baguette. With French colonial history croissants and baguettes are a tradition here and although we always call them Vietnamese rolls at home here it’s a little same same, a necessary gluttony tick-box. From a rickety street market stall more like a primary school fete we collect our Lao and chicken with egg sandwiches to accompany the ginger and mint juices. Light fresh flavours of coriander, chilli and lime burst to life combating the relentless heat; they are slightly different to the Vietnamese ones we have at home but every bit as delicious. So often street food is the true pulse of a culinary culture and from this tiny stall this little piece of magic gets replicated the world over and it’s easy to see why, who needs a big kitchen when you’re a genius?
After correcting the food version of driving the wrong way down a one way street it’s back to luxury heaven before absolutely needing a beer, it’s a need not a want. Beer over the river again and a cheeky gin in a cool pocket bar creates the guiltily spirited mix of new place experience with a home town ease, soaking up the sights and tasting them all is just so simple in Luang Prabang. When it comes to soaking up sights in this town the temples can’t be ignored, elegant curved roofs tier upon one another sweeping close to the ground wrapped in more ornate gilding than seems possible. Not just impressive visually these temples have centuries of stories to tell as they take their place as an integral part of this town that seems so effortlessly unique.
Wat Wisunarat dates back to 1513 while Wat Xieng Thong, merely build in 1560, is more like a complex of breathtaking structures formed with impossible detail. Again the religious comparison, there’s no doubt that the grandeur of the buildings forms as a branding exercise for the spiritual sect, in this respect Buddhism does replicate religion as we know it. However where as the grand churches of the world take up whole city blocks or more in imposing huge architectural wonder these temples are often little bigger than a small suburban house. In place of quarries worth of marble, pure gold and massive fresco’s here there are hand pained stencil patterns, tile mosaics and timber carvings. The result is no less impressive but wholly without the hypocritical show of power and wealth, I started this trip feeling that Buddhism was well and truly a religion but the pendulum continues to swing as I continue to miss the sales pitch. And I’m a salesman.
I have no idea now how we ever survived latin America, it’s barbecue time in this world that needs no clocks, we just need to know which of the six or so meal times it is. In a humble open air space that feels a little like a lawn bowls club at home we have our table centre loaded up with glowing hot coals and the dome grill has some pork belly chunks placed on the crown to ooze down the sides for our cooking oil. We have no idea how this all works so we collect vegetables, slices of lean meat, crumbed fish, noodles and whatever else we can find and as long as no one stops us we start cooking. Heaven is not a temple or a church, it’s eating in Asia as more of the food we see goes correctly into our mouths than elsewhere as this day goes on. Add the fishy, hot, sour sauce sitting on our table and everything is delicious, we ride home satisfied but not bloated from all this flavour that doesn’t come at the cost of being healthy. We’ve given food, we’ve eaten food, we’ve felt spirituality all in one day and I can only apologise for the tautology, food is a spiritual experience as we all know.