Monks and Susan the Buffalo in Luang Prabang

20 Mar

And so to this trip´s biggest thrill. I am knee-deep in paddy water and mud while holding on to a wooden plow. In front of me is a docile water buffalo called Susan. “HUIII”. The farmer next to me shouts an instruction. But Susan is not budging.

I am twenty minutes outside of Laos´ former royal capital, Luang Prabang. This tiny city in the Laos highlands is tucked in by jungle-shrouded mountains and the brown Mekong river. Its golden temples, crumbling timber houses and hints of French architecture secured the entire city a designation as a World Heritage zite in 1995. Today, an estimated 275,000 travellers make their way to Luang Prabang, a city of 50,000, every year.

If you start your day early enough, which most tourists seem to do, you will see orange-robed buddhist monks collecting alms. In poverty-stricken Laos, joining a temple is often also moving away from poverty and gaining inexpensive education. Most monks walking around at daybreak in Luang Prabang appear to be small boys about eight to twelve years old.

A timeless ritual – at least if the Communist party has it their way. Though a centuries old tradition, the monks have recently become wary of the alms donated in Luang Prabang. Unscrupulous locals sometimes sell stale food to tourists for them to dole out to the novice monks, resulting in the young boys falling ill and becoming hesitant to continue the tradition. Being whitewashed by flashbulbs before breakfast probably doesn’t help either.

Reportedly the ‘big monk in town’, Sa Thu Keo, is two years into a project to build a new temple outside of town so that the monks may continue their tradition in dignity. “It will be out in the countryside”, Lee Laut, who manages the farm where Susan lives, tells us. “So no tourists. No camera flashes in the face of the monks in the morning”. Though as my boyfriend dryly pointed out in response, “I am warning you. We, the tourists, will come”.

Either way, tourists will be able to come to Luang Prabang in the future and see orange-robed young men. Iif Wikitravel has it right, “the government has made it clear that the monks have to continue the tourist pageant or risk being replaced with lay people clothed in saffron robes in order to keep up appearances, and thereby maintain tourist revenue.”

But let’s pull back to Susan, who outranks the monks on Tripadvisor as the premier attraction in Luang Prabang. The field Susan and I are ploughing is one of many small rice paddies of the Living Land Farm. Laut says the tourists started coming seven years ago after a hotel owner in town contacted him. Some of the hotel guests were wondering if they could come and see Laut’s farm and its organic vegetable garden.

Lee says he was perplexed. “Now, I thought to myself why would any five-star hotel guests want to come to my muddy and dirty farm? But I said yes. And at the end of their visit they asked me why I didn´t start tourism”. Today, small groups of two to maximum ten people can come along for the day to plough the fields and learn how to plant rice. But the town’s tuk tuk drivers still find the idea odd. “How crazy this kind of falang! Why? That is so boring. That is why I changed my job to become a tuk tuk driver!”.

However, as you may recall and I most certainly remember, I’m standing knee-deep in a muddy rice field. Though, let´s clarify “mud” before I go on. Because saying only “mud” makes it sound like Susan and I are enjoying a shared foot bath. But no, no, no. This is an organic farm. The farm’s four water buffalos are in charge of fertilising the area. And Susan has just stopped to pee.

Somewhat reluctantly accepting the encouraging nod from the farmer, I tell Susan a meek “huuuiii….”. And she obeys, trudging straight onward with me moving in the mud just behind.


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One Response to “Monks and Susan the Buffalo in Luang Prabang”

  1. Elisabeth 22. Mar, 2013 at 18:01 #

    Coucou, Domi et Kari!

    Sans aller très loin,vous auriez pu faire la même chose , mais sur la terre de la ferme de ton arrière grand mère à Sornay! ( on a quelques photos)
    En effet, les paysans autrefois utilisaient la charrue pour labourer les champs avec des boeufs ou des chevaux….
    Bonne route,et gros bisous!
    God bless you!

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