“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
For me, one of the highlights of traveling in Southeast Asia has always been chatting with the monks at the Buddhist temples found around almost every corner. Without exception, I’ve found them to be friendly and open, and just as curious about Western customs and my personal life as I was about theirs’.
Of all the SE Asian countries, Laos is my favorite travel destination. I first went there in late 2004 while I was teaching in China. This first introduction was so pleasant that it encouraged me to begin the search for a job in a region where the gentle, laid-back vibe contrasted sharply to the rushed pace of the large Chinese city where I was working.
At that time, Laos was a place seemingly frozen in an earlier era, where locals would readily offer help to a traveler without expecting anything in return. This same spirit of openness was embodied by the young monks at the many temples in the old capital of Luang Prabang, a place I’d read about and was keen to visit.
It was in this historic town that I met a monk named Viengsay who was in his mid-20s, older than the many young charges he seemed to be mentoring. Sitting just beside the main temple building under a thatched straw roof to protect himself from the sun, the monk was reading intently when I entered the temple grounds. I later realized the book he was reading was an English text book.
We exchanged greetings and chatted for a few minutes and I commented on his excellent English skills. He beamed a big smile and insisted on giving me a personal tour of the temple complex, where he lived along with a dozen or so other monks.
After the tour, we sat and chatted for about 2 hours, as many of the younger monks gathered around to listen and occasionally interject their thoughts. As a teacher I enjoyed giving them some language learning tips, but I also learned a great deal from them.
When I asked one of the younger monks how often he got to visit his family, he described the long 11-day journey to his remote village in the northern mountains of Laos. According to the young monk, the first 2 days involved riding a series of buses to a point where all roads end. He said the remaining 9 days were spent hiking up and over mountain ranges before finally reaching his remote village. I looked at the other monks in the group–questioning the validity of this story–but they all agreed it was true.
That kind of isolation and lack of infrastructure was something I just couldn’t fathom. To me, such a long trek across high mountains and through tropical forests seemed unimaginable, but the matter of fact way in which the young monk delivered the directions let me know such journeys were considered quite routine.
I suppose there must be a natural ease that comes from giving up all possessions, devoting oneself 100% to spirituality and being constantly surrounded by a community that takes care of all your physical needs. That and spending hours of time meditating each day seemed to bring a calmness to these monks that would surely irritate many type-A Americans.
For me, it was a gift to see the happiness that existed within these young men even though they had none of the things we prize so highly in Western cultures. Is it any wonder we often refer to the ‘trappings’ of wealth and power? As I constantly remind myself, if you’re not happy with having enough, then you’ll never be happy.
An Invitation I Couldn’t Resist
Over the next few days, I stopped by the temple to visit Viengsay each afternoon and help him with his English lessons. On the third day, he asked if I’d like to go with him to visit a secret Buddhist cave just outside town. It sounded like a great adventure so I immediately said ‘yes’!
On the following morning, I met Viengsay at the temple and we headed to the Nam Khan River. This river forms a U-shaped peninsula at Luang Prabang as it meets the mighty Mekong River. We navigated down the steep hillside to a spot on the bank where local fishermen in their small boats would stop to pick up the occasional passenger and transport them across the river.
The opposite side of the river (at least back in 2004) was completely undeveloped and I followed as Viengsay searched for a path that led into the forest. Always being one who likes to know a little about what lies ahead, I asked several questions–‘how far was it to the cave’, ‘how long would it take us to get there’, and ‘should I be aware of anything while we were hiking through the forest.’
As a nature lover, I had read about certain trees that shouldn’t be touched in tropical rain forests, the many kinds of deadly snakes found there and assorted other cautionary tales. After each question, Viengsay would calmly respond, “Just relax; everything will be fine.”
We walked for about 20 minutes on a narrow path through the dense jungle until we came to a clearing where a small weathered building sat. We stopped just short of the door, which was ajar, and Viengsay began to speak in Lao directing his voice at the door.
A little old man with a long gray beard and hunched shoulders appeared and greeted us. Viengsay talked with the man for just a moment before the old guy scurried back into his house. He emerged only seconds later with something in his hand and passed it to Viengsay.
As we walked away from the clearing down a different dirt path, the monk held the key up for me to see as if it really would open a door into another world. What I saw was more than just a large piece of old worn metal. It was an important prop right out of a J.R.R. Tolkien novel.
We walked for another 20 minutes–up hill this time–until we came to a rock cliff with a doorway carved into the base. Viengsay pulled open the outer metal gates and then, using the special key, slowly opened the double wooden doors. He motioned for me to follow and I was quite shocked when he flipped on a light switch which illuminated the stairway and cast a dim glow onto the Buddha statues and other objects that had been placed on shelves carved into the stone walls.
While these unpretentious Buddha figures didn’t compare with their finely carved golden counterparts I’d seen in temples, their simplicity was completely appropriate for such a humble, natural space. Viengsay explained that the cave was a special place where a monk could come and meditate for long periods in complete solitude. He knelt and quietly said prayers while I stood, trying to visually absorb my surroundings while also wondering how being alone in such a place must feel to a young Buddhist monk.
As soon as Viengsay had finished, he stood and said, “let’s go.” And that was it. All the way back to town, I kept thinking how lucky I was to have had such an experience. I wondered as well if Viengsay had taken other travelers to this special place, but I wasn’t about to ask and in the end it really didn’t matter.
The most rewarding travel to me is about collecting new experiences, regardless of whether you’re the first or the last person to have reached a certain destination.
Although I haven’t kept in touch with Viengsay over the years and I’ve visited numerous Buddhist caves in many East Asian counties since that time, I will always be grateful for his generosity of spirit and for sharing an experience like no other I’ve had.