On Kounxoau Road in Luang Prabang I woke to drumming, the early morning call to prayer from the nearby monasteries. It was strangely reassuring, comforting that so far from home monks were turning their minds to matters of the soul. The cool mornings of the dry season encouraged lingering, and anyway it was very early, maybe 4:00am. I drifted back to sleep. Dimly I registered chanting, voices calling into the night for the sake of us all. I slept again for a short while, a sleep that has one ear open. An hour later, maybe more, I can’t really be sure, I registered a more subtle sound from the road below our room – the clink of metal on metal, a bowl perhaps, the occasional footfall, a whisper.
Hey John, wake up! It’s started already.
We scrambled into our clothes.
Outside, I balanced against the fence and pulled on my shoes. I could make out two or three people, shadows in the mist.
We’re too late, I said.
We’re up now, we might as well go for a wander, said John.
We walked to the end of the road.
With the magnificent Wat Xieng Thong behind us, mindful of its centuries of tradition, we looked down Kounxoau Road. We waited in the hush. More people now, but still not many, wandered across the road or sat on low stools. Few spoke, and when they did their voices were hushed. It was as if the street had become a church. Even the lone tuk tuk seemed to have a muffled motor. Perhaps we weren’t too late, at all.
A woman hawking offerings invited us to buy alms for the monks. I shook my head, no thanks. This was too sacred an occasion to commercialise.
I glanced towards the Mekong. And what should happen to lumber out of the mist and right past us, but two working elephants and their mahouts. I wasn’t the only one who lost all prayerful attitude in the excitement. A young woman who had been kneeling, waiting to proffer her alms, called out to me: I’ve been here two days and I’ve never seen that. We laughed, both of us, for a moment, forgetting why we were here.
The conditions were difficult for photography, the light was low, the mist still hadn’t lifted, and elephants, I discovered, move surprisingly quickly. I felt very, very small as I looked into the eye of the lead elephant. He didn’t blink. I was reminded of the sculpture in Nong Khai, of the elephant oblivious to the yapping dogs at its feet.
And then they were gone, back into the mist. And it was as if they hadn’t been.
Along Kounxoau Road, one by one, people took their place on the stools or on mats. Far in the distance I saw a splash of orange.
There was no more talking. Only the quiet of prayer, of giving and receiving, of tradition, of a shared knowing that words can’t explain.
And then the monks were gone, too. People sat for a moment, making a last prayer perhaps, or simply savouring the quiet before rising to meet the demands of the day. One by one they picked up their stools and wandered away. A scooter screamed along the road, a tuk tuk rattled over a pot hole, children played on their bikes. The mist disappeared. Hawkers arrived with fresh produce for the restaurants.
Fires were lit on the side of the road and pots put on to boil. Mekong weed was laid out to dry in the sun. Laundry too.
Shops opened for trade.
Day took back the street.
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