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By Donna Yuen
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)

I step out from the dark alley into the dimly lit street. The pavement is still glistening from last night’s rain as I make my way towards the main road. Here in the UNESCO town of Luang Prabang, the day begins early. It is only 5:30 am, and the locals have already started to gather on the sidewalk. The people are on their knees with their prepared food ready to give alms. They are silent or quietly praying as they await the arrival of the monks. In the distance, I see movement up the street. Out of the darkness, the monks appear. There are hundreds of them, and they approach single file, barefoot and clad in orange robes to receive the food. I am humbled witnessing the respect and kindness that characterizes the daily ritual in this town.

Photo 4. Novice Monks from Wat Aphay

Photo 3. Novice Monks Cross Bamboo Bridge

While exploring the ancient town, I cross the famous bamboo bridge with hesitation. The bridge is reconstructed annually as it has few chances of surviving the rainy monsoon season along the Mekong. A couple of young monks pass by me pausing only to smile. With monks everywhere and numerous temples and monasteries throughout the villages, the spiritual energy is undeniable.

Photo 2. Monks Receiving Daily Alms

I wander onto the temple grounds of Wat Aphay. A novice monk approaches me telling me about the temple. His English is surprisingly good, and he invites me to stay and attend their evening prayer session. There are four monks and 17 novice monks, and I am the only woman and non-Buddhist present. I believe I was invited because they saw that something inside me was spiritually broken and needed healing. I kneel at the back of the temple as they begin their prayers. The sound of their chanting echoes and reverberates inside my chest. Their chants grow in crescendo as I close my eyes and feel the resounding love and energy in the room. I welcome and embrace the spiritual healing offered to me through their prayer.

Photo 1. Monks Praying Inside Wat Aphay

After a week of daily prayers together, it is time for me to depart. I attend the Wat to say farewell and thank them. They advise me that instead of attending the Wat, I should have gone to visit the Tat Sae Waterfalls for my last day. After a few inquiries, I discover that transportation costs to the waterfalls are the same for one person or an entire truckload of people. I invite the novice monks to join me. Six of them accept my offer, and we all board the truck to make our way to the falls.

Photo 5. Tat Sae Waterfalls

The waterfalls are a popular tourist destination, and by the time we arrive, there are dozens of people swimming beneath the falls. One novice monk says, “Sorry Donna, we cannot swim with tourists as we need to disrobe. We swim at another waterfall at the top of the mountain. Can you climb?” I nod, and he hands me a stick of bamboo. The seven of us proceed up the steep mountain.

Thick green foliage contrasts their brilliant orange robes as make our way through the forest. After an hour of hiking, we finally reach the top of the mountain and another majestic waterfall. I wait in the shade of the trees as the monks disrobe to enter the waterfall. At their invitation, I join in. I climb over the rocks fully clothed and eager to enjoy the invigorating water. The cold rushing water cascades over my head; the sensation is refreshing after our long hike. I look toward the waterfall above me, and four novice monks are sitting in the water and smiling down at me. The two monks below me are bathing and praying. We are all happy as we enjoy nature’s cleansing powers. I close my eyes to meditate and focus on purging and releasing everything that ails me physically and mentally. As I look around at my spiritual bathing companions, words are not needed as we sit back in silence and allow the water to purify and cleanse our bodies and souls.

With an early departure, I enter the taxi while it is still dark. We drive past the main road just as the monks are approaching to receive their alms. I watch through the rear window feeling an overwhelming sense of good fortune for my brief and precious glimpse into a novice monk’s life. As the scene recedes behind me; I leave smiling to myself, feeling something has changed within me; as I carry with me their gift of spiritual healing.


PHOTOS by Donna Yuen

1. Monks praying inside Wat Aphay

2. Monks receiving daily alms

3. Novice monks cross the bamboo bridge

4. Novice monks from Wat Aphay

5. Tat Sae waterfalls

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