TRAVEL: Receiving spiritual gifts of Luang Prabang, Laos

I step out from a 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 a.m. and locals have already started to gather on the sidewalk.

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People are on their knees with prepared food, ready to give alms. They are silent, or praying quietly as they await the arrival of monks. In the distance, I see movement up the street. From out of the darkness, the monks appear. There are hundreds of them approaching single file, barefoot, clad in orange robes to receive food.

I am humbled, witnessing the respect and kindness that characterizes this daily ritual. While exploring this ancient town, I cross the famous bamboo bridge with hesitation. It 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, spiritual energy is undeniable. 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 something inside me was spiritually broken and in need of healing. I kneel at the rear of the temple as they begin 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.

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. 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, 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 we 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, eager to enjoy the invigorating water. Cold rushing water cascades over my head — the sensation is refreshing after our long hike. I look toward the waterfall above me and observe four monks sitting in the water, 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 in silence allowing 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 inside of me — as I carry with me their gift of spiritual healing.

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