Many of the students at the school I work at in Luang Prabang are novice monks. It is certainly a sight to behold – a classroom bathed in bright saffron robes beneath a sea of shaved heads (and eyebrows). People outside Laos find it interesting as to why so many novice monks come to school without understanding why. Here is an insight into the life of a novice monk in Laos.
Many novice monks come from very poor rural poor rural villages. Schools in these remote villages are often overcrowded and poorly resourced. These teenagers make the journey to Luang Prabang as lay men and join a temple where they find a roof over their head, food and education. They live in small buildings built around the temple. By becoming novices, the boys bring merit to both themselves and their families and all Lao boys are expected to become novice monks for at least three months at some time in their lives. Some stay up to 12 years in the temple and may stay as adults, but many leave to live life as a civilian about the age of 20.
It is a life full of routine. Every morning at 3.30 they rise to pray to the Buddha and shower. At 5.30, as dawn is breaking, they walk the streets of Luang Pragang barefoot – a UNESCO listed city of 55,000 people and 33 temples – the religious centre of Laos. Monks collect alms from villagers who give to the monks to make merit for themselves. It is a magnificent sight to see – a strict ritual observed every morning, rain or shine. Luang Prabang, however, has become a popular tourist destination and alms is a major attraction. Sadly many tourists are poorly behaved, touching monks, poking cameras and videos in the monks faces, blasting flashes and generally being disrespectful.
The food given is usually sticky rice, sweet rice in banana leaves, sweets, biscuits and sometimes fruit. I always give fruit to inject a bit of health and balance the junk food given by some. Monks are not supposed to kill or harm living animals but they can eat meat if they receive it from someone else. About 7 am they prepare their breakfast from the food given. They only eat twice a day – breakfast and lunch – no eating is allowed after noon. This is to show alliance with the Buddha, who ate only when necessary. If a novice ill or weak however exceptions can be made. Water, juice and Milo are allowed in the afternoon. Most novices say this is difficult to adjust to initially but they get used to it.
After breakfast is it off the Buddhist school and many do extra study at centres such as LEOT and MEC to study English during the afternoon or evening. At about 4.30 pm novice monks clean the temple grounds again and prepare for the daily ritual of chanting in Pali. In the evenings they usually study and meditate. For many, it is a very long day and a magnificent opportunity to get access to education and most make the most of this chance in life.
Novices and monks are an honored member of Lao society and you should show respect. Never touch a monk or hand anything directly to a monk (put it down for them to pick up). They are usually happy to speak with you so strike up a conversation if you’re in a temple and you see some who look willing to talk. You should also wear respectful clothing in a temple (long skirt, trousers and shoulders covered) and always ask before taking photos.