Monday 25 November
After arriving on Friday evening, it was the 3rd morning in Luang Prabang. I did not have a plan on how long I was going to stay in Luang Prabang. I only vaguely thought, ‘maybe 4-5 days’. Martina and Ethan went on a half-day trip to some river-side cave. After spending half the morning typing my blog outside the guesthouse, I walked out of the old town and went to Wat Manolom. I came back to Luang Prabang to see that guy again. The flashback of the memory still kept playing on the back. Everywhere I turned, the fading vision, what I saw in my last trip, which I now know was in 2009, was there. I remember not knowing what to say. “Can you help me?” his words spoke to me in one email. ‘What am I supposed to do?’ I struggle to even keep a steady job (I had just lost a job at that time) and how can I help this guy? What can I do? I did not know what to say, and I did not even finish the story on this blog – it pre-maturely ended when I arrived in Luang Prabang in the night bus from Vientiane.
As I write this blog post, I looked properly into my photo archive and found the folder from that trip. Well, the truth is, I did not really look into it before the trip. I did not think I could learn by looking at old pictures, that only reminded me of the guy who had no answer. I told my friends on the boat to Luang Prabang that I was looking for a man. Here is the series from that day.
I met him the day before. I was walking around the town crossing off each temple that the Lonely Planet told me was worth a visit. I would sit down in the courtyard to have a sip of water, and immediately there would be a few young novices and monks surrounding you, asking ‘where are you from?’. Some spoke Japanese fairly well and I remember being surprised. And I met him. I remember him as ‘Shiva’ (though the young ones I met on my visit in 2013 told me he was called ‘Eva’ – it could be a minor difference in their language.). He told me about himself, coming from a poor rural village, having two brothers (or siblings of some sort) and the mother left behind but he came to the temple when his father passed away. He told me he was becoming a monk the next day, and would not mind me coming back in the morning to photograph his ceremony.
We shared the breakfast – this is mostly from Alms (they walk in the morning to receive food from the town’s people), but some I think they might just go to the shops nearby. Grilled fish, simmered veges, finely chopped vege soup, eggs, fresh vegetables and fruits, with sticky rice. It was a very well-balanced meal!
‘Lede’ (prounounced more like ‘Lit’) was a young novice with friendly smile back then. I was told, in 2013, he had left the temple couple years earlier and now studying in the village nearby. When I showed this picture on my iPhone on my second visit to the temple (I had only a few images on Flickr which I managed to save at guesthouse to show the temple people) I’d missed him when he stopped by the temple the day before. People leave temple once they got up to their feet, but their ties with their temple, like their home, will never end.
People put on a formal clothes when they come to the temple, especially for a ceremony like this. In this region (northern Thailand to Laos), I noticed this cloth across the shoulder is common. Is there a similar history to how Buddha wears a cloth across only one shoulder?
If you found this view familiar, that is because you are following my journey – see this recent post, upon my return to this temple.
Back in November 2013, I was walking back from the quiet Wat Manolom, looking for something to have for brunch. Then it occured to me – I should stop worrying about Facebook and email to get back in touch, just leave the photos with them and let things take care of themselves. I looked down at the cotton strings tied around my left wrist. The monk at Wat Bupparum said, ‘Only Buddha knows’. Maybe I should not try to control things. If things are meant to be, they will be. At the same time, I was beginning to see what it is that I could do. Not just for Shiva but for people like him. There was something I could do as a photographer, something with which I could make myself useful to other people.
I sat down at the noodle shop near the temple, and was pleased with the huge volume, very tasty soup and a side dish of papaya salad – which was fresh, crisp and delicious!
At the market near the old town, I asked around to see if there is any photo printing shop. There was one just near the school, along the main street. The price was pretty cheap for the small postcard size but almost unjustifiably high on the larger prints, even at 6″x9″ size. I went back to the guesthouse to fetch my laptop, copied some photos from 2009 and a few other people’s photos from the day before into a thumbdrive, and went back to the Kodak Express shop.
I bought a set of 100 plastic bags (though I wanted more like 20 pieces) and put them into separate bags. In some of the bags I put a photo of myself, to those old friends who may or may not remember how I looked, and wrote my email, blog and facebook address on the back. If it is meant to be, it will be…
I photographed him in front of his house which stands on the street where the morning market takes place. I immediately was drawn to his presence. First I came up to be friends with his cat (which was at his feet), and asked to photograph him where he sat in the breeze. I brought this photo back and found him outside his house. Not as properly dressed this day, but he was delighted to find somebody brought back a photo for once! He was smiling and showing to his family. It made me very happy that I did something to make him smile in return for letting me create an image.
I could not find her when I returned with the print. I tried even on the morning after, but she was not there to set up her shop. I found a few other shop holders in the market who immediately recognised her, and asked – in English (which they did not get), with hand gestures (which they seem to understand and nodded several times) – to pass it on when she returns to the shop next time.
In the afternoon, Ethan and Martina returned from their tour, and were going to the bus terminal out of town to buy their bus tickets out of town. Ethan was going South, Martina was headed East. I was not sure what I wanted to do yet. I joined them for a walk. On the way, we stopped by at Wat Manolom to drop off the prints I got earlier in the afternoon.
At the bus terminal, after Martina bought her ticket and sat down to get a smoke, I flipped through her Lonely Planet and decided to join her on her way to Phong Savanh. I enjoyed her company and wanted that to last a bit longer, and I also had no idea what to do with my time in Luang Prabang, except to go to the temple every day, for no reason. I also needed to consider the increased accommodation cost after the two of them moved out of the room (we were sharing the room among the 3 of us). So I bought a ticket on the same bus with her.
That meant it was the last evening in Luang Prabang. I wanted to go to a temple for evening prayer and immerse myself in that sound of prayers, like we did on the first day. We went back to a large temple in the old town and sat down. It was a very long prayer but I enjoyed the experience.
The next morning I went to Wat Manolom to see some of the monks take off to their Alms. I did not join them, but saw them off. I took plenty of pictures last time in 2009, and that was enough for me. This trip is not about capturing the exotic, new things but focusing on my senses, impressions and my pure emotions. The alms itself was more of the show, or shark feeding, as David and Amy I think described it as. But that was true – it was a town of tourism, and they needed people to come all the way to this town in the middle of the hills, looking for seeing something they had never seen before. How they approach it, that is something that can be managed. Well, that’s where another idea came to me, about how I could make myself useful, as a photographer.
Here is another set of photos, from my last trip in 2009 – just a few of my Alms photos.
Coming from northern Thailand, Luang Prabang was an expensive place to stay. The cultural life is not as rich, with choices of food limited. There were a lot more tourism everywhere, while staying in the Old Town. And I was missing Chiang Mai and its friendly faces. But it was again the memory of the faces of people, kids playing like how we used to play when we were kids before Nintendo and iPad, and how people’s lives existed simply, around the temple, that I left Luang Prabang with. I do not know whether the boys will receive the photos, though they seem to go back to temple from time to time, and I do not know whether they would want to contact me. But it is ok. Only Buddha knows. And I am that small existence, playing on the huge palm of the Buddha – that mountain on the far end of the universe if only one of his fingers. No need to try to control all that. It will take care of itself. I just need to try to find myself useful, to make some meaning to my existence.