As one of the best preserved historic cities in Southeast Asia, Luang Prabang attracts thousands of visitors interested in absorbing its beautiful scenery and slow pace of life. I likewise visited with the intention of experiencing these delights and also with the hope of volunteering. Although many places quite reasonably expect visitors to make a commitment of weeks or months in order to volunteer, there are places in Luang Prabang where one can do drop-in volunteering.
I had initially planned to help students with their English at Big Brother Mouse (http://www.bigbrothermouse.com/englishpractice.html) a local organization that seeks to increase child literacy. As well as publishing and selling inexpensive books written in Lao (an occasionally English as well), they run a drop-in volunteering program. Volunteers can read to small children or help older ones with their conversational English each day at 9 am and 5 pm. It’s a wonderful organization and while I both bought one of their books and donated money to them, I actually ended up volunteering teaching English to novices (young monks in training) because of a chance meeting.
Although its population is just 50,000, Luang Prabang has 33 temples. They are not only numerous, but prominent and their grounds occupy much of the old city. This in turn results in the presence of an exceptionally large number of monks (or more accurately, novices, I’ll explain the difference) in the city center. As a result the monks’ dawn alms round has become one of the city’s biggest attractions, so popular that it has created a cottage industry of scammers who sell low-quality rice that is literally fit only for farm animals at inflated prices. It’s also notable in that the participants in the alms round are almost all novices and thus are aged between 11 and 20.
After giving to the monks during the alms round on my first morning in the city, I went to a temple to meditate. After I left, a young man named Khamchanh whom I assumed to be a monk greeted me and asked me if I’d been praying since I had bowed three times before meditating, as is traditional in Thailand. We quickly began talking and it emerged that he, like most of the inhabitants of the temples, was a novice, not a monk. Although they dress identically to monks and many of the same religious duties, novices are young men who serve in the temple who are subject to the ten Buddhist precepts, rather than 227 monastic rules. Most are sent by their families or villages as a way both of gaining religious merit and also an education, since high schools are relatively rare in rural Laos, where three quarters of the country’s people live.
Being students and away from home with no adults to assist them outside of school, these young men need help with both their schoolwork and their English (which is usually taught by non-native speakers). As a result, I learned that while they find it inconvenient that visitors come to their temples just to take pictures, they’re appreciative of anyone who is able to chat with them in English. By my third visit, Khamchanh, who spoke very good English (made even more impressive by the fact that he’s never been outside Laos), had brought a number of other novices to come meet me specifically to practice their English. Some had come from other temples (which is not quite as surprising at it seems since novices from different temples attend school together and several temples adjoin one another). Given this incredible level of interest I made sure to return daily and was invited by the novices for both prayers and the drum ceremony (where they drive away evil spirits by ringing a giant drum).
Even with some of the students’ limited English, these conversations were fascinating as they challenged many of my perceptions. For example, when they are not in school or engaged in chores at their temple, novices are able to largely do as they please, provided they observe Buddhist precepts. The most onerous of these, I suspect, is that they are forbidden from physical contact with women (or with any object that a woman is touching), which also means they are not supposed to spend time outside their temple alone with women. (This also includes family members.) As temples are relatively well off by local standards, novices generally have phones, including smartphones in some cases.
Whether you volunteer by working with monks or at Big Brother Mouse, you will gain a greater understanding of Laos, and your students will likewise gain by your presence. If your time doesn’t allow either, buying books (which cost as little as 7,000 kip / about $1.50) from Big Brother Mouse and giving them to children wherever you go is another way of making a difference.
Note: Lao means the ethnic group and their language, Laotian means from the country of Laos