Luang Prabang, Laos - (map)
The That Chomsi Stupa is a Buddhist monument perched on top of a 100 meter hill in the middle of picturesque Luang Prabang. At night the golden stupa can be seen from far away and, by day, makes an excellent place to watch the mountains, streets, and Mekong River from above.
I met 15 year old Novice Sinethana here while sitting on a flight of stairs. He approached me nervously, out of breath from the steep climb up. His skinny brown body, shaved head, and orange robes clashed with the clear blue sky as much as his timid eyes clashed with his big smile.
We exchanged hellos in Lao and he began - what turned into an hour conversation - by asking how long I'd been in Luang Prabang.
Novice Sinethana joined a nearby monastery at the young age of four, and will remain a novice until he becomes a full-fledged monk at age 20. For the last nine years he has been teaching himself English and the language of the Theravada Buddhist texts, Pali Sanskrit. He wakes everyday at 4 AM and spends his mornings studying, meditating, and while he didn't say this to me, probably going on alms rounds collecting food and attending to other needs of the monastery. He eats only twice a day, both times before noon. (I met him in the afternoon, so he pointed to his stomach and joked about being hungry.) And in the afternoon, he swims in the river like other people his age.
We only talked about simple things and, despite our dictionary consultations, he had trouble understanding my English at times. But I loved the way he kept our conversation going by sheepishly reading questions from a cheat sheet hidden in his orange shoulder bag and I admired the effort he put into learning. Most importantly, I enjoyed meeting such a kind person.
The next time I come back, I hope that Sinethana will be able to have an English conversation with me about some abstract facet of Buddhist thought. I have a feeling that, for him, it won't be a problem.
Luang Prabang, Laos - (map)
It is late afternoon by the Mekong River. The setting sun descends behind a tooth shaped mountain and spreads a crisp warm glow down to the dark earth of the riverside. With each of my steps, the soil releases an earthy sigh - the clean smell of dirt spirals together the pungent odor of plasticky trash fires and gasoline from nearby longboats - the perfume of the third world.
Scraps of white debris polka-dot the brown landscape. The dots clash with the lines of sudsy white runoff that trail down from the road above and carve deep polluted ravines in the soft ground.
A sunned brown child scampers past me with thudding footprints and an infectious white toothy smile, his homemade kite chasing closely behind him in a zigzag effort to take flight. He screams merrily - as if the extra breath might take the kite higher. For a brief moment I'm sucked into his world and share in the joy of a boy at play. He runs off to join his friends and in a chorus of happy laughter, the hard edge of their makeshift playground suddenly softens to the warm colors of sunset.