An Hour of Enlightenment: My Monk Chat in Luang Prabang

Noy as a monk- monk chat in Luang Prabang

Arrival at Wat Pa Phai Temple

At 9 am, just as the day’s heat began to rise, I found myself bicycling in the historic town of Luang Prabang, preparing for an enlightening encounter. I parked my bike, a loaner from the Belle Rive Boutique Hotel near the steps, covered in pink petals from the flowering bush overhead. Before entering the temple grounds, I pulled out the sweater I brought to cover my arms. As requested by Orange Robe Tours, I arrived 5-10 minutes prior to the start at the tiny, but serene, Wat Pa Phai Temple, nestled steps away from the Mekong River. The courtyard, fragrant with the scent of lavender and frangipani blossoms, offered a tranquil setting for my monk chat in Laos.

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Meeting Noy

Noy, a former monk who devoted nine years of his youth to Buddhist monasticism, chose a different path for himself. As soon as we began our conversation, he assured me that no topic was off-limits. He encouraged me to ask any questions I had, and he would strive to answer them truthfully. Despite not appearing uncomfortable, it was evident that he was not entirely at ease. He later admitted that engaging in casual conversation with people was still something he struggled with after leaving the temple.

Instead of preparing a list of specific questions, I approached our conversation as a casual chat between a former monk and a curious soul. However, there was one question I was particularly interested in: What led you to become a monk in the first place?

From a young age, Noy felt a profound calling towards the monastic life. He pleaded with his mother to allow him to join the temple, but initially, she denied his request. However, when he turned eleven, she finally relented. Noy explained that his decision to become a monk held both cultural significance and deep personal meaning. Monks are highly revered in Laos, adding further weight to his choice.

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Life as a Novice Monk

As Noy detailed, life as a novice monk encompassed a journey of self-discovery and spiritual enlightenment. Each day began at the unearthly hour of 3:30 am with meditation. After the meditation session, the monks would embark on an alms round, walking through the town and collecting food. This is a tradition I personally had the opportunity to participate in. My hotel prepared sticky rice and boiled eggs for me to offer to the monks. The monks gave me a blessing in return. According to Noy, the temple served as a thriving community that welcomed novice monks, fully ordained monks, nuns, and visitors in search of spiritual solace.And many of them came with different Buddhist beliefs.

I wasn’t aware that Laos is home to more than 40 different ethnic groups. Each one, practicing their own unique version of Buddhism. Noy, hailed from one such tribe. He shared that his tribe held the belief that every living entity possessed a spirit or soul. That’s a viewpoint that diverged from the conventional teachings of the temple.

However, during the chat, Noy mentioned monk life in the temple was not all solemnity and study. As a boy, Noy shared, there were moments of play and typical childish antics. Yet, amid this camaraderie, the expectation to devote the majority of their time to learning and adhering to the teachings was always present. He candidly revealed that, like in any other sector of life, there were monks who strayed from these teachings, a testament to the universal challenges of human nature.

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Leaving the Monastery

After spending nine years in the monastery, Noy made the decision to leave. However, it was not a renunciation of the teachings. Instead, a desire to explore a different path for practicing them. Initially, he had plans to get married, but recently he has been having second thoughts. Currently, he has a girlfriend, but he is uncertain about whether he wants to marry her. (I hope she never comes across this, haha).

Noy mentioned in the chat that if he doesn’t enter into marriage within the next few years, he intends to return to monk life permanently. He prefers the simplicity of temple life. This decision is understandable to us all. He expressed his love for the simplicity of being a monk. While choices may be limited, the abundance of spiritual fulfillment is undeniable.

Bridging the Gap Between Monks and Me

Our conversation bridged the divide between the curiosity of an observer and the spiritual experience of a devoted practitioner. It went beyond a mere interaction and delved into the depths of a novice monk’s life, surpassing the external symbols of orange robes and morning alms rounds.

As a tourist and a woman, I had always observed novice monks from a distance. I understood that they had little time for interactions with visitors. However, my curiosity persisted, and I was grateful for the opportunity to sit down with Noy without any apprehension. During our chat, Noy mentioned that monks often find women intriguing. And this curiosity can sometimes be a contributing factor for individuals leaving behind the monastic life. While he didn’t explicitly mention it. I couldn’t help but suspect that the same curiosity might also entice some monks in the other direction as well, lol.

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After our chat, Noy kindly showed me around the small temple. I learned that the gold adorning most temples is purely for aesthetic purposes and not directly related to Buddhism. It simply adds to the beauty of the temple. Following the temple tour, we embarked on the second part of the experience, which involved a guided meditation inside the temple. You can find detailed information about this meditation session HERE (when I write it).

More than two hours later, my time with Noy came to an end. Orange Robe Tours organized the monk chat. Their mission not only provides me with a profound understanding of Lao Buddhism and culture but also contributes to a noble cause. It offers a unique opportunity for me to gain insight into the lifestyle and life choices that many young men in Laos and throughout Asia make today.

Orange Robe Tours supports former novices and monks like Noy as they transition from temple life to secular life. They do this while preserving the invaluable Lao Buddhist culture. The cost of the monk chat is $20 USD for an hour-long session. It costs an additional $10 USD for a one hour guided meditation.

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