Whether a believer or not, it is difficult not to be in some way a part of the Buddhist community in Luang Prabang. A quick stroll through a temple will inevitably be extended by a conversation with a novice practising their English, or even the abbott musing about life. The pandemic has reduced the number of foreigners and visitors in town drastically, and in a way, that has opened up the temples even more, as the inhabitants are not worn down by being photographic subjects and the talent of the town. Many years ago I had a young cousin visit from Los Angeles, and on her first few days she likened seeing the monks in their bright orange robes to celebrity sightings, until the frequency made it evident they were actually a substantial population, and an everyday event.
Giving alms at the end of Buddhist Lent, outside Ma Te Sai shop.
Young novices at Vat Aham preparing decorations for the Festival of Lights
Since 2006 the Buddhist Heritage Project continues to support and encourage initiatives of the Buddhist community in the fields of education, preservation of its cultural, religious and historical heritage, and on-site environment management. You can visit temples, Vat Kili, Vat Pha Khan and Vat Hat Siaow, and see their restoration of grounds, buildings and art works. Vat Kili hosts the Buddhist Archives, an important historical collection of photographs and manuscripts. Education has been an important part of their fund raising activities: developing the school 20km north along the Mekong at Vat Pa Pha-O, and it's Vocational School of Arts. Both help alleviate poverty in making sure novices have skills for employment once they leave the monasteries.
Vat Hat Siaow and it's murals.
This year they have taken over some disused rooms in Vat Sop, a temple on the main street at the end of the Luang Prabang peninsula, to devote them to woodwork and carving.
The workshop at Vat Sop
To assist in providing income to teachers and students Ma Té Sai, along with the Project, has developed some items to sell. Years ago carved wooden textile hangers were easily found in Luang Prabang, now not so, and many customers ask for them to display their newly purchased weavings, so now we have two sizes of carved rods for textile display, one 50cm and one 90cm, suitable for the standard weaving comb widths of 40cm and 80cm wide textiles. At the same time we were discussing this idea, a customer asked for wooden buttons for his clothing range, we just shipped off a few hundred to the Middle East, sizes for shirts approx 1.5cm in diameter and jackets 2.3cm diameter. More ideas are in the works. Items of various sizes are useful because most of the wood is sourced and used for the carving of Buddhas, and these small items make their workshop more sustainable taking the off-cuts. If you are interested in wooden items don't hesitate to contact us.
But not only have we been supporting this project, there is a demand for English learning at the temples. I have been volunteering on Saturday mornings to teach at a forest temple across the Mekong. This temple is relatively new, the original temple sim was there for many years but only recently did an elderly monk revive the temple and build it up. Now Monk Seng is the abbot and it is home to 3 monks and 13 novices, some as young as 10. Many of them are from remote Hmong and Khmu villages in Chomphet district. So our work here has changed from trade to more development, and there is plenty to contribute, and an abundance comes back in return.
Classroom at Vat Kiu Nyaw, across the Mekong, Chomphet District
Monk Seng, on left, with his dog Kinu