First the lead-up to ASEM, then the boat-racing festival, then the ASEM meeting, then it seemed like the city would just be getting back to normal, when the cacophonous speakers, Beerlao tents, and balloon-popping carnival games simply relocated to the That Luang stupa area.
Vientiane’s frenzied fall continued with the yearly religious festival, which has, as all good religious festivals around the world now do, a more modern commercial manifestation as well. In this case, it’s a week long carnival on the stupa grounds, preceding the religious ceremonies. After the hubbub of boat racing, I steered clear, but the roads all around the That Luang area were in gridlock each night, so it was hard to avoid.
Unlike many other religious festivals around the world, That Luang Festival still actually culminates in a solemn ceremony. Last year, I went to give alms for the first time, and this year I took my gold alms giving bowl off the shelf to return.
The city is charming in the early morning, even when dodging an endless line of Toyota Vigoes looking for parking. My alarm went off in the dark early hours, and when I finally emerged, sinh-clad and sleepy, to make my way to That Luang, the dawn had cast a silvery light on the city. As I drew closer to the temple, stands popped up on the side of the road, selling alms-giving essentials for those who were unprepared, like myself. Some chocolate-covered wafers, sticky rice, mandarin oranges, candles, and incense completed my alms bowl, and then I joined the throngs making their way toward the stupa.
For That Luang festival, monks young and old from all over the city, who normally collect alms around their own temple on a small scale each morning, gather on the temple grounds to receive alms from the thousands of devotees who come to respect the tradition. The gray early morning light around the temple is punctuated by hundreds of brilliant orange robes, and of a colorful spectrum of sinhs.
Last year, the alms giving ceremony was changed, but this year it was reverted back to its original manifestation. While last year, the monks processed to gather alms from us, sitting on the ground, this year the monks sat at tables with baskets and name cards, and visitors filed by placing offerings in their baskets. Although there was something nice about last year’s set up, this year, the temple boys didn’t have to follow all of the monks lugging their bags heavy with sticky rice and sugary snacks.
After my alms bowl was empty, I excused myself from the line. After giving alms, the carnival was starting up already, with food and drink (mostly khao poun, a noodle soup filled with interesting meaty bits, my least favorite of traditional Lao foods), and, as the full morning heat set in, it was time for a short nap before work.