Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Making merit, with and without the Internet

Something in Laos doesn't love a blog. Although our hotel has wireless internet access, it is sporadic at best, and for some reason beyond the understanding of tech know-nothings like us, it allows us to access some sites but not others. This blog is one of the others, and we keep trying periodically.

It's 9:30 pm and we've just come back from dinner in a restaurant that would not have been out of place in the Luang Prabang of 1950, when it would have been full of French planters rather than American and German tourists. This is a town that remains very much as it was before globalization, although it has more than its fair share of tourists. Our hotel is a charming French colonial mansion that was once the home of Prince Souvannaphouma (there's a name that resonates with those of us who remember the war in Indochina). It does its best to be modern and world-class, but it can't help showing its sweet Laotian side, from the shy smiles of the young people learning their jobs to the cup of green tea spontaneously brought to a guest who's been sweating over a recalcitrant internet connection for two days.

This morning we rose in the pre-dawn dark and walked down the street to take part in the daily early morning ritual of offering food to the hundreds of saffron-robed monks who walk down the main street, allowing Buddhists to make merit by feeding the monks of the 32 temples in this town of 17,000 residents. The monks range in age from novices of 8 or 9 to old men who have returned to the temple to live out their days. They don't smile in this procession; this is a religious rite for all participants. It's been going on for as long as anyone remembers, and although now it includes tourists both watching and offering sticky rice, it is an integral part of the way the world works here.

That's the morning. In the evening many of the same monks are sitting in front of computers in internet cafes. Presumably they can get online.

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