The lottery of who you’ll end up sitting next to on a long distance bus journey is an almost unbearably tense game and I’m well aware that, at times, I am the person that other passengers dread seeing edging towards the single seat next to them.
On occasions though, it’s not me.
‘Is this seat taken? No, great. I’m Lars, from Stockholm, I’ve been travelling for 9 months, never paid more than $3 for a room and my stools have been runny for a week now. What about you?’
Then there’s the other thing you don’t want to hear when confined in a lengthy bus trip with an overly friendly German, ‘Ach, I love ze British humour. Zis is ein dead parrot!’
Cue many misquotes from outdated TV shows.
I had the pleasure of being sandwiched between two such fine fellow backpackers on a bus heading out of Phonsavan in Laos where we’d all taken in the amazing Plain of Jars. We were now making our way towards Luang Prabang, thankfully not the longest of road trips – a double-edged sword as I would count this route as one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
I was planning to use Luang Prabang as a base from which to launch myself in different directions around the country and this instance I was only going to spend the evening there before taking a much longer bus the following morning elsewhere. I had much to get done in the few hours I’d have free upon arrival including buying my onward travel ticket and also figuring out the best way of participating in one of the activities the city is known for.
Each morning at the crack of eggs, hundreds of Buddhist monks initiate an alms-giving ceremony in which they wind their way silently through the still-darkened streets accepting food offerings from locals and tourists alike who line the pavements with their specially-bought gifts.
If I’m honest, I had a love / hate relationship with the monks. Most of the ones I’d encountered I found to be a bit on the rude side and they strutted around with more than an acceptable amount of arrogance.
I’d seen boys as young as four being handed over in a mass ceremony by parents who couldn’t afford to keep them at home, and it was a heart-wrenching scene. I’d seen teenage monks on their i-Phones plugged into their music while they smoked cigarettes on the back of motorbikes. I’d seen middle-aged monks turf pregnant women out of their seats on buses (they’re entitled to do so as there are signs everywhere confirming they have priority) and others travelling in first class on planes.
But even though I wasn’t entirely sure about them I knew I wanted to witness this daily procession, telling myself karma would be the ultimate judge.
The minute we reached our destination I ran off to check in to a hotel as close to this action as I could, secured my onward travel for the next day and went on the hunt for food for the journey. Luang Prabang is a wonderful place for a taste of home, replete with French cafes and all sorts of delicious restaurants. Seduced, as I was, by one particular one café, I not only sat in for a lovely coffee and pastry but also went for their ‘bus trip special’.
This was marketed as being a ‘deconstructed packed lunch’ which you made yourself to ensure freshness. You chose what fillings you wanted from their deli counter, selected what kind of bread you wanted, decided on your salad and then assembled it yourself at your leisure – hence it didn’t go soggy by being pre-made.
Amazing idea, why hadn’t we thought of this at home?
My hotel was in the perfect location for rolling out of bed at 4am and falling straight into line to join everyone else kneeling by the side of the road with their offerings and await the monks. Although clearly a tourist attraction, the ceremony is a solemn ritual and completely authentic in which the monks maintain a centuries-old tradition.
Tourists were welcome to participate but at all points had to be respectful – I’d read up as much as I could and was determined to get involved as respectfully as I could.
Rice is the most common thing to donate, but it can’t be any old rice and certainly can’t be any cheap variety. These monks only accept the expensive, good quality glutinous rice – I can’t blame them, it is utterly delicious – but they’re also happy with biscuits and fruit.
The monks walk in single file carrying a metal bowl hung like a shoulder bag in which the offerings are placed.
Local advice abounds; from hotel managers in prime positions as to where best to wait, to local vendors keen to make a buck from selling perfect portions of rice – all of them vary and it’s sometimes difficult to discern who to believe. But some things are agreed:
The ritual must be observed from a distance.
Modest attire must be worn.
You must not touch the monks.
You must remain silent.
Flash photography is forbidden.
Use of mobile phones is forbidden.
All seemed fairly straight forward and like an event that, with a modicum of common sense, one through which even I could navigate easily.
I reluctantly rose when the alarm went off at 0345 and, convinced I knew what I was doing, staggered up to where I’d been advised to kneel and wait, having already bought my good quality rice. It was a good hour before there was any sign of the monks and we all fell into silent, respectful mode. Like everyone else around me, I lowered my eyes.
They got closer.
I decided that my plan of action would be to wait for a ‘worthy’ monk to come by. It could be a very young or very old one, a particularly dishevelled looking one or perhaps one with a disability. Whoever caught my eye, that’s who would get my entire portion of rice (about a kilo).
What I didn’t know was that this was the complete opposite of what one should actually do.
Apparently, we’re all equal and no-one is more worthy than anyone else – monks included. In fact, the idea was to divide your portion up between the entire line of monks and NEVER just one. I’ve since learned that they live off whatever they are given in that day alone and don’t have possessions – so anything they can’t eat they don’t keep.
What’s more, the immediate effect of one stupid tourist getting it wrong can throw that whole day’s procession into disarray – as I saw with my own eyes.
Waiting, as I was, for the runt of the monks, I ignored all of those who made their way in my direction as they didn’t look quite as much in need as I’d pictured and thought I could still wait it out, even if it meant waiting for the very last monk in the line.
Obviously none of the monks knew what I was doing and got very confused. The one leading the group stopped and put out his bowl in anticipation of his small quota of rice. As per my well-thought out plan (that only I knew about), I lowered my head and kept my rice to myself.
The monk’s bowl was thrust closer towards me.
I kept my stance.
The bowl was pushed pretty much in my face.
Jeez, I thought, this one’s really insistent. But I gave him nothing – especially as he was the first, I reckoned he’d ultimately get more than all the others being in pole position.
A bottleneck of monks had now formed around me, none of them quite knowing how to react – and neither did I. The head one simply didn’t move on and stood defiantly staring me down. I still had no idea what I was doing wrong.
Eventually he very reluctantly shuffled ahead, only for the same thing to happen with the next monk. And the one after that and the one after that.
It was very confusing.
One of the street vendors had been watching and decided to step in. The next monk that reached me was quids in as the vendor took my rice out of my hands and dumped the whole lot in the monk’s bowl, who promptly shared it round with his fellow holy men.
It was humiliating in the extreme and I was glad I was going to be on a bus out of there within a matter of hours.
Later that day, when time came for me to assemble my deconstructed lunch, I realised what a mug I’d been. I opened the package to find a dry mini-baguette, a slice of sweaty cheese and a limp leaf of lettuce. There was no plastic knife with which to cut open the bread and no butter.
Not so much deconstructed as decomposed.
Now THAT, I guess, is karma.