DESTINATIONS Travel

Peace on earth in Luang Prabang, Laos

To be yourself is not a matter of force but of flow. Lessons from Luang Prabang.

The phrase ‘peace on earth’ proliferates the social media today, Christmas Eve. Scrolling through a Twitter feed early this morning as I was waking up with the first cup of coffee in Ubud, Bali, seeing that phrase again and again reminds me of an episode from the X-Files when a genie is unrolled out of a carpet and Mulder gets three wishes. His wish is “Peace on earth.” The genie makes the magic for his wish to come true…and he runs out to the streets and finds all people have disappeared.

Mulder is appalled and yells at the genie. She merely answers him, “It’s all about specificity.”

Specifically, the peace that we long for is a construct in our mind. In Adlerian philosophy, it is the meaning a person attaches to something which gives that something its meaning.

[A great read for Adler’s philosophy is Ichiro Kishimi’s book The Courage to be Disliked]

So ‘peace’ as a concept to you or me is influenced by our mental image of what it means; for some of us, it is surrounded by people and for Fox Mulder it might be being left alone (because his mantra is “Trust no one”). Yet others might think peace is something in between these two extremes, or something else altogether.

When I think of ‘peace on earth’ there are a few places in the world I can think of that would bring about a sense of peace. A couple of them are in Southeast Asia. Of a number of places in Southeast Asia where I feel at home and want to return, Luang Prabang, Laos stands out almost always at the top of the list.

Born at the place where two rivers meet, the Mekong and the Nam Khan have nurtured the township of Luang Prabang through time, when it was under the sovereign reign of Tai, Vichy France, Free France, Imperial Japan, and Nationalist China leaders and later, through a civil war for three decades before it was claimed by communist forces supported by North Vietnamese in 1975. Through the turmoil of its history, we find Luang Prabang today to be an enclave of harmony.

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Beside the Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang.

Belying its turbulent history when it changed hands a number of times, Luang Prabang has maintained an inherent quality of gentleness. How is it that a place that has experienced so many attempts to change its identity has not grown in resentment of the various intrusions, has not become embittered and angry, and instead exudes a peaceful co-existence of the influences of its past? This small town in Laos is a UN World Heritage Site, elected because of its blend of ancient Laotian architecture and colonial structures; and the combination of the cultures from historical heritage and cultures from when it was a French colony. I wonder if the secret to Luang Prabang’s way of successfully blending its past influences so well is because of its inherent open and humble attitude toward harmony.

Incidentally, last night I was introduced to Raymond Tang’s talk in TEDxSydney about the philosophy of water, which he learns from the Tao Te Ching.

Tang bases his philosophy of water on the Tao Te Ching’s Chapter 8, specifically the meditation on the supreme good is like water. Translated into English by Stephen Mitchell, it goes something like,

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

Chapter 8, Tao Te Ching

Tang condenses the philosophy into three concepts: Humility, Harmony and Openness.

The humility of Luang Prabang is best witnessed in the mornings, when hundreds of monks of its numerous temples walk around the city receiving alms and giving blessings to people.

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All in a row, monks in Luang Prabang.

For many Laotian boys, entering the novitiate in the temple is a way of receiving literacy education. Like water, which moves around obstacles in its flow, families send their children to the temple to gain reading and writing skills. They also learn humble tasks like doing their own laundry.

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Monk and laundry.

Sitting on the ground without footwear is what you do should you choose to offer alms to the monks in the morning. With your head lower than the youngest novice’s, you proffer a food item, perhaps sticky rice and a small bag of accompaniment. As you offer the food, you might lower your eyes. The monk takes the offering and places it inside a bowl slung across their shoulders. All this is done in silence, and the only sound you hear is the shuffling of the monks’ bare feet as they process through the street.

The tourism in Luang Prabang is not ‘in your face’ tourism. It is a quiet relationship between the traveler and the local service provider. In a restaurant, you might change your mind or be indecisive about an order. And the waiter will not rush you into making an order; he or she might smile and ask if they can come back later. At the night market, if you ask questions about the handmade craft, the sellers answer if there is a common language between you. If you decide not to buy anything, they will not chase after you while keeping up a steady pressure of words to make a sale.

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Night market and temple silhouette.

Not once in five trips to Luang Prabang have I heard local people raising their voice.

In countries that have been colonized, we might notice that sometimes, the knowledge or practices that have been learned through the perceived impositions of the colonizer might become a constant source of resentment. One might hear snippets of conversation in which the colonizer is berated or blamed for some existing practice that is disliked.

When I am in Luang Prabang, I frequently write (and eat) at the Joma Bakery Café on Kingkitsirath Road in Ban Vat Sene. They make good bread, an art learned from the French. The patrons are visitors like you and me, who have heard about the Café’s baguettes, bagels and pastries from their friends. There are local Laotians who visit Joma Bakery, too. All of us like Joma for its good bread and great, friendly service.

The practicality of adapting something from someone else, and blending it with your own ways is evident in the appreciation of good bread. It’s originally from the French, and it has become part of the fabric of being in the local reality.

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Vat Xien Thong.

This openness to the co-existence of the old, the new, and the borrowed makes me wonder if the humility of learning something out of historical turmoil and blending it with the intent to harmonize has allowed Luang Prabang to maintain and sustain its identity, that gentleness that one finds in a diversity of people in this place.

To flow with Tang’s meditation of the supreme goodness of water, the nature of water is that it travels in its path as itself. Sometimes there are boulders and steep drops in its trajectory; other times it is dammed and let out in trickles. But water does not lose its identity, its chemical composition even though it might sometimes transform when the temperature changes. And, through these obstacles and transformations, it is always itself.

Luang Prabang is a place I’ve found peace on earth. It is a place where I’ve learned that to be yourself, to hold on to the meaning of identity, is not a matter of forceful insistence but instead a matter of humility and grace.

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