All about the Monks

Dec 19th, 2014
It’s hard to make friends with locals there. Those who spoke enough English were mostly in tourism sector and they mainly looked at your wallet while those who actually lived a typical local life outside of the tourism did not speak enough English, with one exception — monks. In Laos and several other South East Asian countries, schools and Buddhist monasteries are one. Yes! Those young monks, exactly termed as “novices” are actually students of middle school and sometimes universities. The monasteries are their dormitories, where they practice Buddhism and sometimes also their schools. They study there, live there and pray there. I personally have only seen male novices. These novices speak a certain level of foreign languages and have the curiosity about foreigners, although they will be bound by Buddhist regulations. They are the perfect people to make friends with. They are mostly gentle, polite, helpful and not criminal at all. 😉 If you compare the monks in Laos with the monks in Thailand and Cambodia, I would say that the Laotian ones are the most “real” monks. Those in Thailand have developed such arrogance because of their privileges and are even involved in drugging and prostitution. Those in Cambodia are between the Laotian ones and the Thai ones.
In Laos, especially Northern Laos, there is one more thing special about the language capacities of novices — many have learned Chinese and can speak it. The best local friends I made in Laos are all novices. After I checked in and dropped my luggage in the 5-USD/night guest house, I went around the city, visiting mainly monasteries and pagodas. It’s quite easy to escape the entrance fee of many sights. Among all the main attractions mentioned in the previous entry, the only impossible one was the former royal palace. The palace was in a big yard, with a statue, a temple and the royal residence inside. There was strict ticket checking at the entrance of the royal residence. The personel have lunch break between noon and 2pm (so far I can recall). If you arrive there just a few minutes before 2pm, when the personel are still setting up the ticket checking table, you can see the golden temple, a very beautiful one, without paying the ticket. That’s exactly what I did. Very near the royal palace, there was a monastery on the same street. There were several gates but only at one of them there was a woman sitting there, charging for entrance. I entered at an entrance near her, so she saw me but I exited from another gate far from her, so I did not pay. The buildings in those monasteries were all brightly colorful, golden, red, orange and sometimes silver. There were rich carvings and decoration on the exterior of them, with statues of dragons and Buddhas. Together with the all-time burning strong sunshine, perfect for photography.
Facing the royal palace, there was a hill in the middle of the city. On top of the hill there was a white pagoda and it’s also a perfect spot to see sunset, so everybody went there. You can enter the spot from the front side, which faced the royal palace, or the back side. Most people entered from the front side and there was strict ticket checking. I entered from the back side, climbing up the hill. I did not take the regular path. I Just made my way in the bush and rocks to avoid the entrance control. It worked!! I was 63% sure that the personel actually saw me breaking in but they were simply too relaxed or slack to stop me. In China, Cambodia and Vietnam the reactions would be totally different. I went up, saw the pagoda and had a glimpse of the beautiful sunset among the mountains and rivers, while squeezed by about 200 other tourists.
In the afternoon, when I was back to the pagoda where I slept the night before, I walked around in the hope that I would see some novices I could talk to, maybe even the one I met last night. No, I did not see any novice in the yard. However, suddenly I heard English spoken, male voices and also a female voice!! I stopped, stood there and made out the source. I went up to a 2-floor house in the yard and went up to the top floor. The door was open and there I met Mary, a western girl with glasses, and her students — about 5 novices.
–“Don’t tell me where you are from. I will guess.” I said.
–“Not the States, right?”
–“Eh… It’s the States.”
–“Ah… Not California, right?”
–“Eh… It’s California! Haha!”
–“Well, not Los Angles, right?”
–“Haha, it’s Los Angles!! and you are from?…”
–“Guess! I guessed yours, so you should guess mine.” I replied with a wicked smile.
–“China?…” She took her chance not without hesitation.
–“Yeah…… That’s right. I think my country is one of the easiest to guess…”
We laughed. I made my guess like that because I tend to meet Europeans more frequently than Americans and my own English accent resembles Californian accent (told by many native speakers) and her accent was totally different from mine. Los Angles (LA)? It’s just too typical and banal to take. 😛 I questioned about her non-Californian accent. It turned out that she was originally from Oklahoma and moved to LA for her study. She was skinny, wearing baggy pants, sitting in front of a table cross-legged. She smiled a lot and I was sure that her students adored her cheerful personality. Mary was under a volunteer program to teach English for a few months here. They were actually in the dinning room of the monastery. I came up just a few minutes before the lesson started, so they were just casually chatting. Mary encouraged her students to speak with me in English. Although their level was quite elementary, I remembered one thing they said to me — “Merry Christmas!” … because that was the topic of their recent lessons.
I left them and went back to the guest house, buying some cheap half-raw bananas on the way for lunch. Suddenly I realized that Mary must have a residence here (maybe she can host me since Couchsurfing does not work in Laos)! and she must have been living here for a while! Although she was not Laotian, she surely knew many local things! WOWO! “I could have a drink with her and get to know a lot of local things!” This idea once flashed into my mind, I went into action. I returned to the monastery about 40 min later. I presumed that the lesson would be almost done then, which was not true. I waited for about a quarter, noticing that there were also two other volunteers, a big American guy and an Asian looking girl, in the yard giving one-to-one lessons to two novices. Mary’s lesson did not finish and I was bored waiting, so I left.
I wondered how the life was as a novice, with such philosophy and religion, under so many regulations, but also with such peace and ease of life, simple but comfortable. I just must find them. Curiosity was driving me, crazy.
The next morning I woke up early to see Almsgiving and after that I followed these novices to their monastery. One of them came up to me:”Are you Chinese?” “Yes.” I replied. Then he started speaking Chinese to me.
–“I saw you yesterday, in another monastery. I was having my English lesson there. You were talking to my teacher, the big American guy!”
–“Ah! How did you learn Chinese?”
–“I studied it in a school in my hometown.”
I entered their dinning hall with him and they started to chant some prayers and have breakfast. There were all together about 50 novices. He offered me some food but I kindly refused as I was not sure if it was proper to take it from a novice.
What a waste!! Later it turned out to be perfectly ok to receive food from monks, and actually that’s one of the most important ways of low-budget traveling in SEA!!

Mary and Her Novice Students
Golden Temple Inside the Royal Palace
Golden Temple Inside the Royal Palace

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