I sat at the back of Wat Nong Sikhounmuang, my feet tucked underneath me. The older women seated in front of me are dressed in white, with scarves draped from their left shoulder to their right hip. They came in, chattering, booklets and meditation mats in their arms.
A hush falls over the temple as the monks dressed in their iconic orange-hued robes walked in, kneeling before the image of Buddha. It’s time for the afternoon chants.
It was a little past five in the afternoon and my blissfully massaged feet had nowhere to go. The night market didn’t come to full swing until 6pm and I was already in the main street, a good ten to fifteen minute walk away from my hotel. So I let myself wander without a purpose, walking towards Khem Khong street.
A block before I hit the street, I saw Wat Nong Sikhounmuang, a small temple being dressed up by monks. They were running around with paper lanterns, sticks, colored paper. I was drawn to the frenzy of activity – I was, after all, going to miss out on the main event. They were celebrating the end of Buddhist lent, kicking off the festivities starting on the night I was flying home. I was going to get what I can get, even if it was just watching them prepare for the celebration.
I walked in, silently watching. I threw a tentative smile at the monk, keeping my head down and silently praying I won’t make a faux pas. Monks are revered and while I am not a Buddhist, I definitely did not want to disrespect them.
I did, however, wanted to converse with them. I’ve seen so many monks, starting from Yangon until I arrived in Luang Prabang, and I just didn’t know how to approach them. Was it okay to at least greet them? How about an eye contact? Will they even acknowledge my presence? I know I’m not supposed to touch them, that’s for sure.
I think one of the monks felt this trepidation as I stood there, silently lingering and being my awkward self. He started to talk to me in a language I don’t understand, so I just said a humble “Sabaidee”, which is hello in Lao. He let out another string of foreign words and I sheepishly said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Where you from?,” he asked, a little suspisciously. He stood up from his perch on the ground, sizing me. My nationality has always been questioned, never perfectly identified by strangers.
“Philippines,” I said with a smile.
“Ohhh, Philippines.” The monk nodded his head. “I thought you were Thai. You looked Thai, so I talked to you in Thai.”
“Not Thai, sorry. I get that a lot,” I laughed.
He then told me how he’s been to Thailand and Cambodia recently, and how he hopes to visit Malaysia and the Philippines soon. And like a pop quiz, he asked me how I was finding Luang Prabang so far.
“I love it!,” I said, hoping my huge grin showed enough of how much I liked his town.
Luang Prabang moved me in a way that other destinations hadn’t. There was something special about it that I couldn’t exactly pinpoint. I only spent a week in Laos, half in the capital of Vientiane and half in the sleepy town of Luang Prabang, but the latter left an indelible impression on me.
It was cloaked in mystery, and yet it remained friendly. There was nothing to do exactly – I read about the main attractions and identified them on Google Maps and they were mostly doable in a day if you’re the kind of person who does the touch and go travel (I’m not). I honestly thought I’d be spending half of the trip sulking in boredom and wishing for my flight home, but I connected with Luang Prabang in some way that words fail to express.
I gave up explaining my sheer love for Luang Prabang when I met a girl up in Mt. Phousi who was puzzled on why I’ve been in town for three days. That night, as I ate my nth bowl of yellow curry, I chanced upon an article on thin places. I’ve encountered the term before, through this famous New York Times article, and getting reacquainted with it, in Laos, of all places, felt like fate.
According to Celtic traditions, a thin place is where Heaven and Earth are the closest to each other. It doesn’t necessarily translate to somewhere sacred, but it is a place where you experience some sort of transcendence. It’s being absolutely disarmed by a place that it opens you up and it gets into your system. You connect and commune with it in a way that you haven’t or didn’t with other places before.
As I reached the end of the article and the end of my dinner, something dawned on me then: Luang Prabang is my thin place.
Maybe it was the way I arrived in town, with no clear plans or expectations, other than just being. It was the cold mornings, the quiet stillness at 5AM before the daily Tak Bat. It was the busy streets of the night market, the scent of food permeating my hair and my clothes and the dizzying sight of prints and colors on souvenir items. It was me sitting inside Wat Nong Sikhounmuang, listening to Buddhist chants as the day dripped into night and then walking out to a candle-lit complex.
It was all these and more, so much that by the time I left the country, a part of me belonged to Luang Prabang and a part of it belonged to me.