Monday, November 03, 2008

271206 bindabaat - Luang Prabang version part 1

The high density of temples within the old city area of Luang Prabang means that the alms routes of nearby temples overlap, & that they depend on the same few households for alms. Going on bindabaat at separate timings would require householders to spend quite a bit of their mornings waiting along the streets. All temples in the same area thus go at the same time, with the monks & novices of one temple forming a single line that joins the tail end of a neighbouring temple's line, which in turn follows the end of the line from yet another temple further down the street, & so on...forming what has become a major attraction for camera-toting tourists, both Buddhist & non-Buddhist.

Many of the tourists who come from non-Buddhist countries find it fascinating. Even for most of the visitors who come from countries where Buddhism is a major religion, or even other parts of Laos, bindabaat on such a scale is a rare sight, only seen in certain places (e.g. in Burma) &/or on special occasions (e.g. taak baat dok mai on Wan Khao Phansa in Saraburi, & Songkran in Songpheenong, Suphanburi) & mega merit-making events.

Quite a few have chosen to express their fascination like this, this, this & this. Some have also tried to be a part of it by participating like this & like this. It seems as if the freezing mornings of the cold season, when the smaller novices are allowed to drape an extra robe over their bare shoulder, would be the only time when certain tourists would be willing to dress to cover up plunging necklines & bare shoulders & thighs. As a result, this multilingual sign has been put up at many temples, guesthouses & restaurants:

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Every morning at 6:15AM, monk Tata Young-fan & his wat-mates go on bindabaat in their relatively quieter section of town. They emerge from the back entrance of the temple next door, joining the tail end of the line formed by their neighbours:

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Monks DT, BP & Tata Young-fan walk behind their abbot & a more senior monk, & they are in turn followed by the novices including SS, DKS & AOT, DT's younger brothers ST & CT, & BP's younger brother. Their line later passes by the main entrance of their own temple, crosses the road to the morning market, & passes by the rear wall of Wat Mai before crossing back & returning. Late risers will lie in wait near the main entrance hoping to try & catch up with the line from there, but if they discover that it has moved on 'beyond the point of no hope' they sneak back indoors & wait for the rest to return :P In some temples, novices take turns to skip bindabaat & remain behind to guard the temple - many of the Buddha statues contain gemstones & other precious items within them, & are targeted by thieves & highly prized by private collectors & museums.

Bunching up & traffic jam starts...

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...as the early bird paparazzi closes in on them further ahead nearer to the old city section of Luang Prabang...

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...& they hafta find openings in between the paparazzi & vendors hawking rice to tourists in order to cross the junction towards the market without accidentally bumping into anyone, especially women. One good thing about the saffron traffic jam is that it gives the few clubfooted novices who usually trail far behind their wat-mates a chance to close the gap.

The cat was asked to take these photos to show Reebok-cap, who had been a novice in Wat Saen & walked the 'high-action' alms route through ground zero for the past X years, how things were like for his fellow villagers & childhood friends in their relatively calmer section of town. It was also asked to take another set at the other end of town - Tata Young-fan & his wat-mates were curious about the 'action' that Reebok-cap & their other friends & classmates living in ground zero had told them about. They had never had a chance to check it out since they had to walk on their separate route every morning.


At 7:00AM, at ground zero outside the primary school, neat rows of mats, little blue stools & tip khao baskets of steamed sticky rice lined up along the pavement for paying tourists to participate in taak baat...the crowd at this end of town was quite a sight in itself:

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Many of the tourists chose not to remove their footwear & not to kneel or sit on the stools, but to stand with their heads higher than those of the monks. Few wore scarves. As for the photographers among them, some walked alongside the monks, some stood behind the alms givers, some stood in front of, in between, beside, or behind the monks to capture individual profiles, while others knelt in between alms givers, trying to capture shots of hands reaching for alms bowls. Many took photos using flash, all trying to take millions of photos of what millions of tourists have taken millions of photos of before. Further down this road, more tourists leaned over from the second storey balconies of their guesthouses.

As for the locals, everyone left their footwear aside (not on the mat). Most except the youngest of kids wore scarves pha bieng style like a sash (diagonally across the body on one shoulder & tied at the waist), including men. Only some older men (those who had been ordained before?) stood while giving alms. Most of those who sat on low stools were elderly women (with knee/mobility problems?). The rest knelt on mats, with their heads lower than that of even the smallest novices. Many raised each handful of rice to their foreheads before placing it into the alms bowl. None ever walked alongside the monks. If anyone had to cut across their path, they waited for a suitable gap & crouched low, keeping their head down as they passed, just like how one walks past other worshippers in a temple.

There were also many street vendors selling rice to tourists to offer to monks, most of whom the cat observed remained standing as transactions were carried out right beside the monks. A few who saw the cat's camera came up to ask it in Thai if it wanted to buy some. Most could recite the English phrase 'buy-food-give-monk'. Some sell just rice wrapped in banana leaves, some sell rice by the basket, some offer a full package with stool + mat + scarf + tip khao included. There have been claims that certain vendors sell food that has already gone bad, causing monks to fall ill, like in the warning on the wikitravel entry for Luang Prabang.

Reebok-cap roared the loudest when we all viewed the photos together ;) Perhaps there was no need for the cat to take any photos at all...we could have just gone to the nearest internet cafe & browsed the results of a Flickr or Google image search or Youtube video search. Internet connections were down during the cat's 2006 visit due to the Taiwan earthquake damaging undersea cables, or else one or more of them might have found their own faces in the search results - CT appears in one of the photos linked in this post, while Tata Young-fan has been captured in two travelog entries & together with SS in a photographer's online portfolio.

The cat wonders how monks from out of town feel when they see how bindabaat is like in this part of Luang Prabang (there's a lot more to the town than mapped out in travel guidebooks, where things are saner). Not surprising that the monks & novices here do not stop to chant any blessing for the almsgivers - the result would just be a massive orange traffic jam lit up by a fireworks display of camera flashes? Rainy days are slippery but saner, due to the wet season lull in tourism, lousier lighting conditions & effects of moisture on expensive cameras.

No wonder senior monks of the Luang Prabang sangha don't seem too happy & were said to have considered putting an end to bindabaat - the late former abbot of Wat Saen & chief monk of the northern provinces walked into a daily onslaught of camera flashes while leading his line through ground zero every morning, & had his face captured by hundreds of rolls of film & SD, CF & XD memory cards. However, local authorities were said to be against this for fear of the potential negative impact on tourism figures...

Now monks in ground zero temples are starting alms round only much later at about 7:00AM, apparently in hope that brighter conditions will mean fewer tourists blinding them with camera flashes while taking photos? A few claim that it is to cater to tourists who can't wake up before dawn...either way, it leaves the novices & junior monks who attend the morning sessions in primary/secondary/high schools much less time to finish breakfast & walk to school, while laymen almsgivers hafta leave later to for work/school. To be continued...

5 comments:

Blackwych said...

You have reproduced my photo at the link to the word flash. I should say that I was mortified when my flash went off - I thought I had it switched off. At the time, I was kneeling on a mat, with my shoes off, in line with other alms givers. I took care to make sure my feet did not point towards people. Afterwards, I apologised profusely to Soon, the lady who was caught in the flash. This was the only photo I took, for the rest of the bindabaat I was, like all around me, giving sticky rice that we had bought beforehand in the market. I decided to post the photo on Flickr because after it had been taken, there was little to be gained in withholding a good photo. I hope that, despite the flash, it captures the reverence of the occasion.

straycat said...

Blackwych - thanks for sharing your experience. Do you happen to remember where this photo was taken, was it somewhere along Chao Fa Ngum Road, outside Phousi Hotel, opposite the Post Office?

Blackwych said...

I think that sounds about right. I have been on to Google Earth to try to jog my memory (I gave away my Lonely Planet). As I kneeled facing the road (the main road through Luang Prabang), the market was on the right and on the left the road widened and had traffic islands. There was a white wall behind us. I'm afraid I can't remember about the post office, but you could be right.

straycat said...

Sounds like that place, the road widens on the left at a fountain (Nam Phou)...there are familiar faces in the photo, which is a reason why it was linked :)

Blackwych said...

Well, if you know the monks in the photo then I hope you would pass on my apology for the use of a flash. I can understand how annoying it must be. In fairness, my group was well briefed on how to behave and if we transgressed, it was inadvertent. I'm a believer in sustainable travel: both visitors and those visited can benefit from the experience but it is a delicate balance to reach. You are right to highlight the times when the balance is not being reached.