Life as a Buddhist Monk

Greetings from Luang Prabang, Laos!

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. Internet has gotten to be a much more precious commodity the farther that I’ve gotten into Laos. I’ve got several posts that are handwritten in my journal that I need to get busy transcribing onto the computer, so expect a more vibrant blog the next few days.

I got into Luang Prabang 5 days ago, after a very tense bus ride that included the transmission literally falling apart in the mountains between Vang Vieng and here. It was a 6 hour bus ride that ended up being 12.

No problem. We'll wait.

No problem. We’ll wait.

Luckily we got picked up by another bus that was coming through the mountains, which then led to an even more tense 4 hour bus ride on a double decker that was double loaded. The fact that there were no guardrails on the road only added to the adventure, but I was quite happy that I had a Valium in my bag to try to calm down while I saw my life flash before my eyes. Transportation here is always an adventure, but the views were absolutely unbelievable.

View from a broken down bus

View from a broken down bus

Once we got to Luang Prabang, we headed down to the vibrant night market to get something to eat. There were stalls down an alley, which had a buffet of fried rice, 10 different kinds of noodles, fried banana, tofu and every vegetable you can imagine. $1.25 a plate and if you wanted to get really luxurious, you could add a grilled skewer of chicken breast for another $1.25. I washed it all down with a delicious 16oz $1.25 Beer Laos, and ended up having an absolute feast for all of $3.75. Tough to complain about that.

While in the food stall, I spotted a flyer asking for volunteers to teach English at the library. Every day at 1:00, a group of novice monks meets at the library to learn English. I ambled in, and met the delightful girls who worked for the charity running the program, an American girl named Yuwen and a Frenchwoman named Clem.

The monks were all a smiling chattering bunch, outfitted in their flowing saffron robes with their shaved heads. They ranged in age from 13 to 19, and were all incredibly grateful to have another person to help with their studies. The fact that I was a man was also a benefit, as we’ll see when we get to the rules.

I immediately fell in love with the kids. They reminded me of the old days at the Boys Club, and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience.

The novices after class. The guy in the back must've been unimpressed

The novices after class. The guy in the back must’ve been unimpressed

After teaching the difference between “how much” and “how many” we played a few word snake games using country names (they are better at geography than the majority of kids back home.)

After class was finished, I spent another hour sitting around talking to them about their lives as monks. The novices are mostly poor children from the area who have come to the temple to continue their education. As evidenced by their English skills, it seems to be a fine system. Most of the novices will someday “disrobe” and re-enter regular society after they complete high school. A few will go on to become full fledged monks, but that appears to be less than 5%.

One novice, nicknamed Nam, really took a shine to me and asked if I’d be back. I told him that I’d be gone for the next two days to go to an elephant camp on the banks of the Mekong, but when I got back on Friday, I’d come back and help again. He graciously asked if I’d like to come to his temple with him, and I immediately took him up on the offer.

I was reminded of my friendship with Man, back in Hoi An, and how graciously he offered to show me around his homeland. The people here really are a different breed. Kind, caring and generous to a fault. Their simple way of live and the happiness with which they live is a true testament to the human spirit. It also makes me take a critical look at the life I live back home.

I always said I either want to be the richest guy in the bar or the most interesting. Seeing how happy the Laotians are really makes me doubt the worthiness of the first goal. Also makes me think that there is an awful lot to see in the world, and very little of it resides in bars.

I spent about 5 hours with the monks at the temple on Friday afternoon. They showed me where they slept, ate, prayed and studied, and then I got to take part in their prayer/chanting ceremony at sundown. It was a surreal experience.

Nam told me that before he got to the temple, he’d never had electricity before. His mother died 4 years ago, and she had never had power to her home before she died. I thought back about my own family, and realized that even my great-great grandparents had power to their homes before their deaths. The massive gap in standard of living was truly striking.

Nam also showed me a large picture book of famous Laotian monks. It was interesting to hear about the hierarchy of Buddhism, which seems to vary wildly from country to country. Seeking to find some common ground, I told him that the Dalai Lama’s brother lives in Bloomington, 30 miles from my home in Bedford. He looked at me blankly, and asked who the Dalai Lama was. I finally found enough internet down the road to load up a picture on my phone, and he still didn’t know who he was, but Nam immediately recognized the fact that he was a Tibetan monk by the colors of his robes.

In return for their room, board and education, the novices work around the temple doing various tasks. They rise every morning at 4AM for prayer, then collect alms and food from the villagers at 6AM and then make breakfast for themselves and the monks. After breakfast, they work on their studies, some going to classes like I helped with, and other going to night classes at various schools in the area. At sundown they pray again for around 45 minutes, then complete their studies before turning in around 10.

Nam also told me the 10 rules of being a novice monk.

1. No killing of any living thing
2. No stealing
3. No touching women (they can’t even hug their mother)
4. No lying
5. No drinking or gambling and no drugs
6. No eating after noon
7. No exercise
8. No perfume substances on the body and no jewelry
9. No sitting or sleeping higher than the monk
10. No taking anything from the hands of a woman

As you can see, they were quite excited to have a man helping with the class, because I could actually physically interact with them instead of the somewhat tetchy interactions that they have to have with the women due to the no touching/no taking anything from the hands of a woman rule. I could pat them on the back, pull their notebooks over to me to check their progress and shake their hands when we left.

It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had on the trip so far.

I gave Nam my email address, and he promised that he would email me as soon as he gets onto a computer. He’ll probably be disrobing sometime in the near future, and I would like to help him financially to get on his feet as he continues his studies. I’d imagine that even $100 would make an absolute world of difference as he re-enters the secular world, away from the quiet, aesthetic life that he has known for the last 4 years in the monastery. Charity is great, but being able to make a significant impact on the life of someone you’ve actually interacted with is even better.

The High Cost of “Getting There”

As we walked past the cracked windshield and torn up grill and onto the ripped vinyl stairs of the bus, I just started laughing hysterically.

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The unicorn themed sticker display surrounding the driver’s seat and TV, combined with the hideously fabric used for the window and stowage coverings were just too much. I sat down in my seat, where the air was completely still and the outdoors were approaching 100 degrees. My ass immediately started sticking as if a whole bushel of chewed Bazooka was cleverly disguised as the ripped red leather seat that I would call home for the next 150 miles.

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The bus driver said 3 hours, which is Cambodian for 5. The seats did have the luxurious option to lay down to a wonderful 140 degree angle, fantastic for pinning your shoulders between the window and the seat next to you in a manner that would cause Houdini to feel claustrophobic.

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Fear not though gentle traveler, the person in front of you is a ¾ replica of the average Western man, so he can lay his seat right down into your lap with no issues at all.

I looked gratefully at my last minute decision to grab another 1.5 L bottle of water, and tucked in my headphones for what I knew was going to be a long bumpy ride down another wonderfully unpaved stretch of the Cambodian countryside.

You’ve got to laugh, otherwise you might cry. Otherwise I might have started thinking about the fact that I’ve spent the last 73 nights of my life in no fewer than 35 beds.

Maybe I’d remember that I haven’t been properly dry since landing in Hanoi 34 days ago. I’d probably think how great it’d be great to just have a nice simple hot dog on the grill, complete with MUSTARD and a soft bun. Or how I’d love to be bullshitting with my buddies at a fraternity brother’s wedding this weekend. I might remember the fact that there won’t be cars on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for another 345 days.

Here's your toilet

Here’s your toilet

Hell I’d give just about anything to have my own deodorant back, as opposed to the underarm Russian Roulette I’ve been playing to find a replacement in a series of pharmacies smaller than the standard supermarket aisle. Brushing my teeth with tap water is yet another luxury I’ve not had in months. Hell, having a shower curtain in Siem Riep was a cause for real joy of the non facetious variety.

I’ve had mornings where I woke up and said, “Hell I can get another job and go home. 71 days is more than enough. What’s a 1 way cost out of (fill in the blank) airport?

Then I get in a tuk tuk and drive straight up a mountain where I came to a view that afforded me the opportunity to see the horizon drop in the distance. I walked into massive caves and could still hear the spectral sounds of babies crying before they were dashed on the rocks and thrown into the pit.
I got the picture of a lifetime, a man praying for his family killed in this very cave 36 years ago in front of an altar full of skulls beside a full Buddhist temple in the middle of the caves where so many lives were lost.

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I wouldn’t have had a conversation for 2 hours the day before about the rise of autism in Canada or talked Roman history with a German named Marius while drinking beers and playing ping pong in a bamboo hut.

Wouldn’t have sat overlooking the river as the sun rose, working on writing when the familiar fingernails of a beautiful, honey skinned British girl started raking down my scalp and neck.

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Probably wouldn’t have discussed the EU Parliament elections and upcoming World Cup in a rooftop bar in Phnom Penh where the beers were $.75. And I certainly wouldn’t have had monkeys steal the cutlery off the dirty dishes next to me and drop them down the mountain.

I wouldn’t have drank weasel shit coffee or swam in isolated waterfalls without another person for a half mile. Certainly wouldn’t have gotten my Dorothy on while walking through acre after acre of pristine flower farms.

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

I also wouldn’t have ridden on a bamboo platform at a breakneck 40 MPH over the most warped and winding rails the French ever laid.

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I wouldn’t have done all those things because the pile of reasons “I can’t” became bigger than the “Christ that’d be amazing.” I’d go back to everyday life and talk about what I’m going to do in that elusive “next year,” putting off for tomorrow what I was too (busy, lazy, broke, scared, etc) to do today.

The problem is, next year becomes today. Then it is 5 years down the line, and the responsibilities are too great to ever get this done. Then instead of “next year” it is “when I retire.”

It never gets done. Those dreams you said you had once, never got closer than the mountain of reasons ”why not” to reality.

Then you never drink your coffee and watch straw hatted Vietnamese pole down the river to cast their fishing nets or get escorted to a scuba dive site by gunboats because you’re mere miles away from an international conflict.

You have your coffee at Starbucks and head into work. Your last 72 days looked a lot like the 72 before those.

Mine were full of miserable bus rides, ineffective deodorant and toilets flushed with a bucket of water.

But Lord Almighty was there something to see once you arrived.

Vietnamese agriculture

Vietnamese agriculture

Sleeper Buses and Hooker Swarms

And I’ve gotten behind in my blogging since we got to Nha Trang. No worries, plenty to write about.

We got to Nha Trang Saturday morning via a “sleeper bus.” This was my first foray into this…economical means of transportation. Ben and I, along with our friends Claire, Lydia and Josh, all piled into the back of a 40 person sleeper bus for the 14 hour drive from Hoi An to Nha Trang. We managed to get the back, which was basically a 5 coffin cave with about 2.5 feet of headroom for each of us. To say we were close was a slight understatement. I didn’t exactly inherit my mother’s claustrophobia, but I was pretty close.

We did plan ahead though, as Claire had taken this means of transportation before. Since prescription drugs are more of a do-it-yourself free for all here in Vietnam, we got ourselves some Valium all had a modified “desperate housewife.” We joked and horsed around in the back of the bus for the first 2 hours, but by the end of my whiskey and coke, I was down for the count, and managed to wake up just about a half hour north of Nha Trang.

Thank god, because it would’ve been a tense 14 hours otherwise.

Upon arriving in Nha Trang, I thought that the Valium had put me down for far longer than 14 hours. It appeared to be as Russian as anything. Apparently there are direct flights from several locations in Russia, including Siberia and Irkutsk. Russians, being the warm cuddly types, tend to flock to vacation spots together, so someone after the Vietnam War realized that Nha Trang was a beautiful place to escape a Siberian winter, and there have been massive flocks ever since.

Ben and I tried to check into our hostel, Mojzo Inn at 7AM, only to be told by the most delightful trio of Vietnamese women you could ever hope to meet that our room wouldn’t be ready until 2. So we dropped our bags and went in search of breakfast.

Just around the corner from Mojzo Inn we found a large bar which was playing the NBA playoffs and the Bruins-Canadiens game. They had large English breakfasts on the menu so we decided to go grab a seat. We were basically the only fools around, other than an older gentleman at the end of the bar. He saw that I was trying to watch both games and asked if I wanted the TVs turned. I noticed his Minnesota Twins polo, and away the conversation went.

Turns out that he was the proprietor of this bar, known as “Booze Cruise.” A process engineer by trade, he was sent by his employer to Saigon 7 years ago. After spending 6 months, he flew back to Minneapolis and told them he quit. He then moved back over to Saigon, married his Vietnamese girlfriend, and went about trying to start a business.

They started out in Saigon, where his wife was finishing her masters, but came up to Nha Trang for a weekend getaway. After 3 days, John looked at his wife and told her to head home and finish her degree, but he was going to start a business in Nha Trang. He started networking, and combing the beach for backpackers to talk to, and realized that there was a seriously underserved need in this town full of tourists and backpackers. So he rented a boat for $25, filled it full of booze, charged $10 a head and the “Booze Cruise” was born. He made $500 on his first cruise, and has been building an empire ever since.

Those humble beginnings are now the root of a 5 bar empire, completely with several apartment buildings. He goes “home” to Minnesota once a year for about a month, but he said that when he is there, he starts getting the itch to get back to Vietnam. John and the bar are the center of the Nha Trang expat community (at least the Western delegation) as he has every Western sporting event you can imagine, from Aussie Rules, to soccer, to NBA to tennis.

I’ve taken my breakfast over there every morning since we got here, blissfully able to watch the Pacers (until this morning) and watch my Blackhawks advance against John’s Minnesota Wild.

Getting to talk to John every morning has really opened my eyes to a few more issues in Vietnam that I was unaware of. I can now identify the classic Vietnamese “hooker swarm” pickpocket method, as well as which Nha Trang bars are most likely to serve the old “roofie-colada.” Beyond helping me safely navigate a city which certainly has a seedy underside, we broached more serious issues of geopolitics.

John told me that he hasn’t been able to have a booze cruise in over a year since the Chinese started encroaching upon Vietnamese maritime rights. He’s got the bars, so he’s fine financially, but it is just another case of foreign aggression against this land. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also been a big issue here given the large Russian expat community.

John was able to put me onto Ocean’s 5, a dive shop here in town run by Westerners where I decided to get my SSI Open Water certification. I figure since my brother is a Navy diver, it couldn’t hurt to be able to have another activity to share if we ever get on vacation together.

Today was my first day of open water diving, and again I was shown the real world ramifications of the Chinese aggression. Our boat, along with a few fishing boats, were escorted from the Nha Trang harbor out the 8 km to the diving locations. China has declared all water further from 10 km from shore to be theirs, mostly for the oil and gas rights, but they are encroaching on the traditional fishermen of Vietnam as well.

My dive instructor Will, had been working out of Nha Trang for 2 years, and had never seen destroyers be dispatched to escort boats like ours. He was amazed, but at the same time I could see the worry etched on his face. Events like this are most certainly not good for business.

This is yet another instance where Vietnam is realizing that the lack of American influence in the Far East is making a place where the rule of law counts for less and less. America has made commitments to many countries in this part of the world, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines coming to mind first, and if we don’t peacefully project influence through both diplomatic and naval power, China will continue to run roughshod over its less powerful neighbors.