And on the fourth day, Luang Prabang created an exhaustion of possible inexpensive activities. Plus every once in a while a break from “having to do things” is needed, so we took the day to relax in our cockroach (waterbug) infested room.
Around midday I started to get bored and Cely said she was heading to the town library to help locals that wanted to learn and practice English, so I asked to tag along. When we got there, the majority of the students were novice monks (those under 20, studying to be a monk) who all had a pretty damn good grasp of the English language. We ended up sitting with one novice who was chatty and seemed very comfortable around westerners – even women, with whom he was forbidden to even shake hands with for fear of being tainted. Evil creatures we are and all.
As the novice and I were talking, I realized this would be a great opportunity for him to learn English, but also for me to learn about a part of Lao culture I’d probably have no more than an instagram interaction with otherwise. He explained to me that novices were able to join the monastery as early as eleven years old where they would be clothed (in orange robes), fed and given an education. His typical day involved waking up at dawn to the sound of the drums and going to collect alms, followed by a breakfast of rice and chilis. After that they either go to classes or during the rainy season they were working on building a wall to protect the temple from the river. At the age of twenty the novices are given the option to pursue full fledged monkhood or to return to their families.
We also had more casual conversations.
Novice: What do you do?
Me: Umm…I’m a bartender. I make drinks, but it’s sort of like being a chef with only liquids
Novice: Can you cook?
Me: Of course
Novice: Good, women should be able to cook
A while later his other English teaching friend he had been texting showed up. Yes, novices can have cell phones and use the internet.
Novice: I was online and they had a question and answer page for novice monks. One of the novices asked the monk if it was okay to use the internet. But he was asking on the internet. I don’t think it was a trap.
The girl that showed up was from Georgia (state not country) and had been practicing English with him while she was staying in Luang Prabang. As we were all talking Georgia mentioned that we seemed like “kindred spirits” a term we explained to the Novice – which I counted as my good deed of vocabulary teaching for the day.
At some point Georgia and I got to talking about using the internet, and I mentioned that the wifi in my hotel would go in and out, to which she responded, “first world problems.” Which of course the Novice was curious about. It was definitely an awkward moment to explain to a teenager in one of the world’s poorest countries what a “first world problem” is, which we ultimately summed up as, “a problem that really isn’t a problem at all – like not having air conditioning or wifi, so basically we really shouldn’t be complaining about it.” We also considered explaining the hashtag to him but after seeing his blank expression, we thought better of it. I counted this as my “being an asshole westerner” deed for the day.
The next morning, it was time for the Stray bus to come pick us up and bring us to Vang Vieng which is the city formerly known as the biggest party in Southeast Asia. But first, the group of us agreed to wake up at the ass crack of dawn to see the monks come around and collect alms. We were also alerted to a few etiquette points we should be aware of.
1) Stay kneeling because you should never be higher than a monk
2) Don’t buy the food for yourselves at that time as prices are lowered to ease the cost of donating
3) There are a lot of monks, you don’t have to give everything to the first one you see
Other than that, general guidelines were basically, just be respectful. It was actually a really unique experience to get up at that time (which I never would have done normally) and see a local tradition – which gets infringed upon by westerners that are either
a) trying to have a spiritual experience because it would be cool to talk about or
b) genuinely interested in the culture
…although more often than not I think it was just something good to do if you were up at that time and had some money to give.
After the spiritual (or faux spiritual) experience, we headed back on to the bus with our new tour leader, who was awesome and one of the few people I met that had a genuine interest in learning everything he could about a new culture. Our other Stray tour guides had told us that he was the best guide you could get for a cultural and informative experience – while others had more of a specialty in reckless endangerment, which is generally more my speed.
En route to Vang Vieng we made a pit stop at the “loo with a view” which was a huge rest station perched atop a mountain. I have never experienced a more beautiful urination on a squat toilet.
Once we arrived in Vang Vieng, I was hoping that the rumors of the partying coming to an end were untrue. What I had previously heard about Vang Vieng through my boss at Party Earth was this…
What we got was this:
And while I wouldn’t say it was a bad experience, after hearing the rumors of the crazy parties, floating calmly down a shallow river wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. The bars were basically empty except for a few straggling partiers trying to make it happen. I felt my inner Regina George coming out, “stop trying to make this party happen, it’s not going to happen.” The bars that had once housed drunken madness were now mostly deserted, and the remnants of the ziplines and water slides over and on the banks of the river served as a reminder of the fun we weren’t going to have.
On the other hand, if I hadn’t heard about the parties, the ride was relaxing and scenic – so at least there was that.
After tubing, we headed back to our hotel which promptly ran out of water pressure from the 10 of us trying to shower at once, and then it was off to dinner and a bar with the new Strays we had met. Fat Monkeys AKA the bar you will see everyone in Southeast Asia wearing a singlet from, was a good time, lots of cheap drinks, beer pong tables, and Nitrus Oxide (AKA laughing gas) balloons from the bar – and of course a free tank top with alcohol purchases. I ended up drunkenly befriending a eighteen year old English girl from Brighton who I bonded with over our discussion about the necessity of makeup and heels in your suitcase no matter how impractical they are, and of course judging girls that go out in heels and then walk around barefoot when they can’t handle the heels anymore. #firstworldproblems indeed.