Alms Ceremony

Every morning at dawn, the monks make their rounds.  They walk barefoot through the streets, carrying their alms bowls, and collect sticky rice, crackers and fruit from local people.  In theory, the giving of alms connects the people to the monks and gives them the opportunity to earn merit for their next life.  Buddhist monks all over the world practice this alms ceremony, but Luang Prabang is especially well known for it.  This owes to the sheer number of monastaries and monks in the city – there are several hundred monks on the streets every morning making the walk through town.

Since the ceremony is so impressive it has become quite the tourist draw.  Most of the people giving alms now are tourists, and the roads are full of travelers with cameras documenting the event.  Unfortunately, many of them are invasive and disruptive to the process, getting quite close to the monks to snap photos and chatting when they are supposed to be silent.  (I realize the irony of me saying this, given the photos I took, but I stayed across the street and did my best to be unobtrusive and respectful.  I did not use a flash and I took all of four photos.)

There appears to be quite a bit of controversy about the alms ceremony because of its tourism component.  I can’t imagine the monks enjoy having their photos taken day in and day out, but the government reportedly keeps them performing the ceremony because of the tourist draw.

During our five day stay in Luang Prabang, we only watched the alms ceremony once.  It was a cool opportunity to see the various ages and faces of all the monks (some are very, very young), and the sea of saffron robes is a sight to be seen.  John even participated for a bit.  But it felt a little weird to contribute to the glut of travelers in the streets.  So for the rest of our days, we skipped it.  It felt more respectful.

Luang Prabang

The entire city of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, brimming with temples and monasteries.  We had five days to spend in this town, and three of them were heavily compromised (I’ll get to that later), meaning I didn’t make it to all of the beautiful temples – or wats as they are called here – that I wanted to see.  Nevertheless, I think I saw enough Buddha statues to satisfy my needs.  At least for a little while.

The city is set in a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.  The area is surrounded by green hills, but there is only one hill in town, Phou Si.  If you climb the staircase to the top there are several statues, a temple, and what is reported to be Buddha’s footprint.
A reclining Buddha.This Buddha is very tall….…and appears to have Dutch style footwear…The view from the top of the hill is supposed to be spectacular, but because it is burning season in Northern Laos most of what you can see is smoke and haze.  Locals are burning farm land and underbrush to prepare for the upcoming farming season.  It smells like a nice campfire when you wake up every morning and the air is still chilly, but when the heat of the day hits it becomes a bit oppressive.Elsewhere around town you can’t walk two blocks without seeing a temple.  Literally.  And every one of them is ornate and beautiful.There is such detail on the doors, and inside the temples the walls are completely covered with painted murals.  Seeing as there are several monasteries in town, there are also hundreds of monks.  They do much of the upkeep on these temples themselves.  On more than one occasion I witnessed monks painting temples, climbing on roofs to make repairs, and working with power tools on various projects.Wat Xieng Thong, the oldest and one of the most important Laos monasteries.  Inside there are hundreds of Buddha statues and ornate paintings.  The outside of other buildings on the grounds have beautiful tile work.We’ve become familiar with a few variations of tuk tuks from various parts of the world, but this is a new one for us.  It is driven like a motorcycle while passengers sit in what is essentially the flat bed of a truck.  Not as bumpy as you might imagine.
I don’t think I’d be willing to sit in this old school side car, though.More temples…seriously they are practically everywhere.I love seeing the bright saffron robes hanging out to dry outside the monks quarters.  Such colorful laundry.Boats on the Mekong River.
We walked across a bamboo bridge similar to the one below at night, and it did not feel very stable.  But the locals walked across them fearlessly.  I guess we’re just wusses.


My first meeting with Hanoi ended badly.  Arriving at the train station fresh off of an overnight train populated with mice, which arrived four hours later than I was led to believe, left me in a sour mood.  Haggling with a taxi driver about the appropriate price to drive 2 kilometers from the station to our hotel put me on edge.  Arriving at said hotel to discover our room didn’t have a window deflated my spirit.

After a few hours spent wandering the streets in search of delicious street food, settling for subpar pho, and feeling generally overwhelmed by the craziness exploding from the streets around us, I retreated to our hotel room to hide for the rest of the afternoon.  My lovely husband sought out a take-out pizza and chocolate mousse somewhere in the city and brought them back for us to eat while watching an animated movie.  It was that kind of night.

Fortunately, we left for Halong Bay the next morning.  After 24 hours chilling on a boat in beautiful, wide open space, I returned to Hanoi feeling refreshed and ready to face the bustling city again.  Only then did I start to see the charm in the chaos that had greeted me the first day.

(By the way, there is something seriously wrong with the above map.  If Vietnam was that large I certainly shouldn’t have had to spend so many hours on flights from Australia…)An iconic image from Hanoi, this is the red bridge leading to Ngoc Son Temple in Hoan Kiem Lake.  Me, John, and some amazing pineapple purchased from a street vendor posing with the bridge…There are women on bicycles selling everything from fresh cut flowers and produce to carpets.A Hanoi outdoor restaurant, similar to the ones in Saigon.  At lunchtime the small tables and chairs spill out onto the sidewalk and into the streets, full of patrons slurping noodles and drinking tea.  This shot is from after the lunch rush, when the restaurant was quiet.Another streetside restaurant.  John, by the way, looks hilarious eating at these tiny tables.  His knees come up to his armpits and he’s totally hunched over trying to scoop food into his mouth.  He is seriously a cartoon character sometimes.  :)They start them young on those motorbikes…I don’t know how this guy balances with all those carpets, but somehow he was planning on moving.This cannot be the most efficient way to roast a chicken.  Maybe she’s just putting the finishing touches on it?The parade of rickshaws at night – they are all over the city pushing tourists through the streets.We had just one last day in Hanoi, and then our tour of Vietnam was over.  Onward to Laos!

Jenny Whaley - April 8, 2013 - 11:21 am

Hey Tracy

Welcome to Thailand – hope you have a wonderful time in Chiang Mai. Love reading about your travels, you are such a great writer. Sorry to hear you have been sick but I am sure all the wonderful food in Thailand will be agreeable – just stay away from the Durian.

Jenny Whaley

Halong Bay

A cruise in Halong Bay is like freshman year in college: you spend hours sitting outside, chatting about life with a bunch of Canadians and drinking cheap beer while some guy strums an acoustic guitar.

Okay, so that’s not exactly how my freshman year in college went, and it wasn’t exactly how our entire cruise went, either.  But it had that laid back, life is good kinda feeling to it.  The scenery was just better.  (At least for me.  Mid-Missouri is no Halong Bay.)  And there was totally an acoustic guitar.

There are dozens and dozens of boats cruising the bay every day.  They used to be dark wood with unique embellishments, but now they are all required to be painted white.  I think the gist of it is that the government decided it looked nicer this way.  They were wrong.  All of the boats look cooler in their pre-whitewash photos.

This was our boat – the Galaxy Cruise.  We spent two days and one night on our cruise, sailing around the bay with its 2,000 limestone islets.  Our cabin was super nice (minus the mildewy smell that happens on boats,) and the top deck was perfect for watching the views.

After a few hours cruising around, we stopped to check out the Surprise Cave.  It’s massive.  This is just one part of the inside.After the cave we kayaked for a while.  (That is not us in the photo by the way – we did not magically transform into Asian girls.)We were on the water for the most beautiful and picturesque part of the sunset.  I didn’t bring a camera, and just enjoyed it instead of photographing it.  Just trust me, it was gorgeous.  These shots are from after we got back onto the boat, when the sun had faded quite a bit.Still gorgeous.
It’s hard to grasp the beauty in photos, but it literally looks like a watercolor painting.After hours of hanging out on the deck of the boat with the aforementioned Canadians and one night sleeping on the boat, we woke up for more cruising around the bay.It’s so hard to encompass the beauty in one image, but here’s my attempt at a panoramic.  It really looks like a watercolor.
You’re used to this view of us by now…But wait – there’s more!  Windblown and zoomed out!I’m totally making good on my goal of taking (and posting) more photos of us, by the way.  Have you noticed?A floating fishing village, where the people basically make a living selling fish and pearls to tourists.

This might have been the high point of our Vietnam trip, which is saying a lot since we loved so much about this country.  Which is a lot more than I can say for freshman year in college.  Acoustic guitar or not.

The Imperial City at Hue

Hoi An had so much charm and allure that we stayed a day longer than we planned, cutting our stay in Hue in half.  As it turned out this, was no big loss, as Hue had very little of interest to us.  The city’s main cultural draw is the Imperial City in the Old Quarter of the city.  Much of the complex was badly destroyed during wars with the French and again with the Americans, and there is still much construction and restoration work being done.

If I hadn’t been to the incredible Imperial City of Beijing, China, I might have been more impressed with what Hue’s Imperial City had to offer.  Then again, John wasn’t all that impressed either (and he hasn’t been to China.)  Of course the smoky air might have just been bringing our mood down.  It’s hard to get excited about something when it’s obscured by thick haze.The Imperial City has a few cool architectural details, but too not much going on.  Inside the main building is a gold throne that supposedly was used by emperors, but it’s incredibly lackluster and unimpressive.  It’s no wonder they won’t allow you to photograph it – you might reveal that there isn’t much to see here after all :).I honestly don’t know why elephants were here.  Probably just so that people could pay to ride them, though no one seemed to be doing so.One day proved long enough to explore the historic sights and a few temples, and we weren’t disappointed that it was time to leave Hue.

We boarded our second overnight train in Vietnam, heading for Hanoi, that night.  While our first overnight train (from Saigon to Danang) had been pleasant and clean, this second train was of a much lower quality.  Everything felt dingy, the bathroom was horrific, and there were mice crawling around in our car.  As we arrived in Hanoi the following morning, I was grateful that there were no more overnight trains in our immediate future.  I’m just getting a little too old and picky for some things – I guess eight months of travel will do that to you :).

tracy - March 27, 2013 - 2:33 am

Hey Chris – thanks for the note! The Royal Tombs were too far out of town for us to do them and the Citadel in our one day in Hue, and we chose the Citadel. I’m sad to see we might have chosen poorly. Maybe next time. I hope you enjoyed Vietnam as much as we did!

Chris - March 26, 2013 - 8:56 pm

Have been lurking around your photoblog cos I think it’s a great read, not to mention aesthetically amazing.. Anyway, just wanted to ask why you skipped the Royal Tombs. There are quite a few of these around Hue and I quite enjoyed them and the forest landscapes when I was there.