After a whirlwind adventure in Thailand, the kids and I arrived in Siem Reap this week. As always there was a sense of “coming home” as we stepped off the plane, but rather than home we have been spoiled with staying at the amazing Jaya House River Park Hotel. This property has earned a well-deserved blog of its own soon and has already been an amazing partner for Journeys Within. After getting settled and catching up on work emails on the first day, I had a special morning planned with our new Siem Reap Spiritual Tour. While of course the ancient temples such as Angkor Wat are the main draw in Siem Reap, there are also some amazing modern temples here, with unique experiences only available in Siem Reap.
I was met in the morning by Sina and kid-free (they had a fun day with their dad), we set off the for the Fortune-teller’s. I have to start by saying that I’m not the Fortune-teller type…I believe we make our own destinies and I’m always scared that a Fortune-teller will tell me something that then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. BUT, my team swears by this man and I’ve felt lately like I could use some guidance! We arrived for our 8:15am appointment and in true Khmer fashion, he wasn’t there! My faith in his powers was severely diminished when he informed Sina he didn’t realize we were there yet and would be back as soon as he could! He showed up a few minutes later on his moto and showed us up to his house…a typical Khmer home on stilts with walls covered in framed photos of his family, him with various military and political leaders and of course, some landscape shots.
He immediately sat down and asked me for my birthday and then, using his iPad (Is there a Fortune-teller app?) started writing numbers on a piece of paper. And then he started talking and things got real! It was incredible and scary and emotional all at the same time. He is not a palm reader or a clairvoyant; he literally uses birth numbers to tell him the story of your life…past, present and future. So for an hour, a man wearing cargo shorts, a plain white button up shirt, and glasses like my grandpa’s looked at a piece of paper covered in numbers and told me things that he couldn’t have known! It was an eye opening and unique experience and I’m so glad I did it, but I have to admit, I’m still a little shook up. (Good news, I’m going to live a long life and will not only be happy, but will help others and make them happy. Bad news, I’m going to get sick in 3 years and have to go to the doctor a lot. This would all seem silly if he hadn’t been so right on with everything else he said!)
From here Sina took me to a local pagoda in town. The truth is I’ve driven past this pagoda hundreds of times, but never been inside and it was stunning. Still reeling from the fortune teller this was exactly what I need to reset myself and feel calm. A beautiful sitting Buddha fills the main pagoda room, but behind it, hidden away, is a much older reclining Buddha. Beautifully maintained and tucked away as it is, this Buddha is one of my favorites out of the countless that I have seen!
From here we headed to Wat Pho, the largest Wat in Siem Reap. Tiny kittens ran throughout the temple and beautiful carvings adorned the entrance, windows and doors. We explored through the temples and then went to the back where an older monk offered a water blessing. Here a monk chants while sprinkling you with water. At the end he tied a red ribbon around my wrist for good luck.
Our last stop of the day was to Sophie’s Healing. I’ve known Sophie for years, from when she was Callie’s French teacher at the International School. Now Sophie runs her own business offering her healing services. Sophie can help with spiritual, emotional and physical ailments and again, as an original non-believer, I have been converted as over the last three years she has helped with various issues I’ve had…a hurt foot, migraines and Couper’s nightmares. This time I needed her help to find peace and with a really sore shoulder…she doesn’t mind doing a little of each as part of the healing. For an hour I lay on her table and I can say that I left feeling at peace.
It was an incredible day, experiencing the modern spiritual side of my Siem Reap. We offer all these experiences to guests and while I’m a little nervous about it, I’m also excited. This tour offers a deeply personal day, and is not your typical tour, but at the same time, it was a powerful day and one only possible here. Travel is supposed to open up us and show us new experiences, today it did just that for me.
Luang Prabang is known for its many beautiful and historic temples, and for the hundreds of monks collecting alms around dawn each morning. For guests who want to enrich their experience by stepping into Laos’ spiritual world, rising before dawn is no longer the only option. We now offer a new evening mediation tour! This tour makes an excellent add-on and can easily combined with any itinerary. We find that our guests love the chance to learn more about the life of the local monks and participating in this activity will add to feeling of serenity and peace that accompanies spending time in Laos. Participating in this Chanting and Mediation tour also gives travelers the opportunity to help give back to the local community through the temple donation included.
Here’s what the new Evening Chanting and Meditation Tour looks like:
This evening, at approximately 5:30pm you will join your guide at Wat Nong Temple for the monks’ evening chanting and meditation. You will have the opportunity to absorb the sounds of the monks chanting as you take in the splendor of the gold stenciling and woodwork of Wat Nong, located in the heart of Luang Prabang’s old town. After chanting, the abbot of the temple will lead the monks in meditation. Your guide will help translate if needed for your introduction to their meditation practice. At the end of the session, you and your guide will give a donation offering to the temple before departing for dinner at a local Lao restaurant.
Many travelers to Laos and Thailand choose to get up early at some point to partake in the daily alms-giving to the monks, otherwise known as ‘Tak Batt’. ‘Tak’ comes from the act of giving food directly from your plate or bowl to the monk’s “batt” or alms bowl. . Most of our travelers experience this in either Laos or Thailand or both, so we wanted to give a brief overview of what to expect, how this practice is different between the two countries, and the proper etiquette to use when joining in these experiences.
To begin with, throughout Southeast Asia, monks should be treated with the highest respect and women in particular should never touch monks, their robes or hand anything directly to them. Many young men will spend a period of time as a monk for a number of reasons. For poor families, sending their sons to the monkhood allows them to receive an education and skills that will serve them later in life. Spending time as a monk is also thought to bring ‘merit’ to yourself and your family, and is thought to help round you out spiritually as a person. One aspect of monkhood, in Laos and Thailand at least, is that you are meant to live piously off of ‘alms’ or donations from the local community. For the locals, giving alms to the monks brings them ‘merit’.
In Laos, particularly in Luang Prabang, there are large numbers of monks and multiple monasteries, with monks ranging from the very young to the very old. At the first sight of dawn each morning, the temple bells ring and the monks line up single file, usually with the eldest monk in front, and walk down the streets near their temple. The local people gather on the edges of the street to give alms – donations of food – to each monk that passes by. To give alms, the locals will kneel on a mat laid out on the street, with their shoes removed, and a sash wrapped over one shoulder.
As each monk passes, he will lift the lid on his alms bowl (a large metal bowl hung slung over his shoulder with a sash) and the townspeople will drop in a handful of food – usually fruit or rice. There is no verbal communication between the monks and the townspeople. Back at the temple the food is collected into a communal pile and evenly distributed. If you choose to partake in this ritual, be sure to be properly dressed with your shoulders and knees covered and sash in place.
If you choose to simply observe and photograph this spiritual practice, please be respectful. You may notice other travelers jumping right in front of monks and jamming a camera lens right in their faces, and we respectfully request that you don’t do this. Giving alms is a sacred practice for the local people, and monks are the most revered members of society. Additionally, you may notice that people do this in particular to younger (child) monks. While iconic, please keep in mind that these young monks are still sacred societal figures, and what’s more, they are also still children – please take care to respect and protect their rights.
In Thailand, smaller groups of monks, usually around 1- 6 at a time, will set forth from their temples in the early morning. You will spot vendors with small booths offering to sell food or lotus flowers which you may present as an offering. When the monks come past, you’ll once again kneel at the edge of the road, with your shoes removed, and place the offering (if it is food) into their begging bowls. In Thailand, the food is usually pre-packed in plastic or Styrofoam containers. If presenting a lotus flower, you’ll set it on top of the bowl and the monk will then pick it up (don’t hand it directly to the monk.) Once you present your offering, the monks will pour water on the ground in front of you, and chant a blessing for you, before moving on down the street.
You can certainly partake in alms-giving on your own, but we recommend using our Journeys Within guides to improve the experience. Our guides can help explain the proper technique to each step, help you purchase and prepare your offerings, and explain the significance of each ritual and translate for you as needed. I’ve experienced it both ways – in Thailand, my guide Tien walked me through the process, explained everything, and made it a wonderful and enriching experience, and took photos for me.
In Laos, I walked out of my hotel with the intention of simply watching and taking a few photos, and a local woman approached me and offered to sell me a few offerings for a very cheap price. Figuring that I was here and might as well join in the moment, I agreed. She helped me wrap a scarf properly, offered a place for me to kneel and kept bringing me more offerings to hand the monks, and took a rather blurry photo of me giving alms with my cell phone, before proceeding to demand extra money, which fortunately I happened to have in my pocket – all in all quite a skillful hussle, but I chalked it up as being part of the experience, and noted it as something that wouldn’t happen under the watchful eye of a Journeys Within guide.
Other tips about visiting sacred sites in Southeast Asia and partaking in religious ceremonies:
Dress properly when visiting active temples. Be sure to remove your hat and shoes before entering a temple.
In many Asian cultures the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body while the head is considered the highest and most sacred part of the body. Do not sit with your feet towards the Buddha or another person– sit with your feet tucked behind you and don’t use your foot to point or motion “kicking”. Try not to cross your legs while sitting, especially in the presence of a monk. This applies whether you are sitting on the floor or in a chair. When sitting in a chair, keep your feet on the ground.
There are many sacred sites and items in Southeast Asia – please don’t touch sacred items, sites or statues without permission. Don’t sit with your back against a Buddhist image or statue. If you purchase mementos, don’t keep Buddhist images or sacred objects in inappropriate places.
You may notice contribution boxes – although not required, it is appropriate to drop a small contribution into a donation box at a monastery or pagoda, especially if there is no entry fee for visiting the site. These donations help maintain the sites and are considered to help create good karma.
Many temples or historical sites will post signs that state that photography is not allowed. Even if there is no sign, please be respectful and consider not using the flash in places of worship.
Speak softly when in a temple. Even more so if monks or locals are present worshiping! When handing something to someone, or receiving something, use both hands. When you pay for something, hold the money in both hands when passing it to the receiver.
If you find yourself in a position to visit Southeast Asia in November, we recommend heading over to Luang Prabang to experience a particularly beautiful and interesting festival – Awk Phansa or the Festival of Lights – which marks the end of the three-month Buddhist Lent.
Monks decorate the temple grounds with handmade paper lanterns, lights and candles, and local families do the same outside their homes. The second day of the Festival of Light is more celebratory with costumes, and fire boat processions. The locals make ’Khatongs’, or little boats, out of banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense and release them in the evening to float down the Mekong River.
We asked Onkeo, our Laos Country Director, about Buddhist Lent and Awk Phansa:
What is Buddhist Lent?
Khao Phansaa Day is on the first day after the full moon of the eighth lunar month and marks the beginning of the three-month rainy season. The tradition of Buddhist Lent or the annual three-month rains retreat known in Lao as “Phansa”. ‘Khao Phansa’ means to remain in one place during the rainy season. The Khao Phansa festival is a major Buddhism merit-making festival. During Buddhist Lent monks and novices are required to remain in one particular temple, and they have to swear to live in the same place; they can’t stay in the other places overnight. During this period monks will be strictly practicing meditation. Every day of the full moon, monks have to gather in one temple to recite “Phadhimoka” or 227 rules of monkhood.
There is a story of monks who travelled during in this period and damaged local plantations, and news of this event reached the Buddha. Therefore, the Buddha didn’t allow monks to wander to other places during the rainy season – they have to find a proper place or a temple to stay in. This is a time for contemplation and meditation. The monks meditate more, study more and teach more.
How long does it last?
During the rainy season – 3 months from July – Sep/Oct. This year it falls from 8th July – 5th Oct 2017.
What do the local people do during Lent?
Some people give up something for Lent – drinking alcohol, smoking, eating meat… Most people also go to the temple more to practice mediation, listen to the monks chanting and to give alms.
What did you do to celebrate Awk Phansa last year?
Last year I have had a wonderful time with my family on the Awk Phansa day (End of Buddhist lent day), my family all went to the temple in the early morning for alms-giving to the monks, and later we all prepared and cooked a big lunch and celebrated together. In the evening we went to the temple to join the candle light ceremony. Sadly, last year I missed the fire boat parade in town, which I promised I will go see the parade in town this year with my kids and family.
Why should guests visit Laos during this time?
During this period it’s the green season, with very nice scenery (green forest plus fresh air). It’s also a good chance for guests to travel to Laos as they will see more activities happening at the temples and can see how the local people celebrate the Lao way and traditions. Guests can see more farmers growing veggies on their farms and rice paddies. It might be rain somedays, but only for 1-2 hrs.
If this festival sounds like something you’d enjoy partake in – check out our Awk Phansa touring, which can be added to any itinerary.
This year, the eighth full moon of 2015 (in addition to being a Blue Moon) marks the beginning of a special time of year for Buddhists in Southeast Asia. Often referred to as “Buddhist Lent” or the “Rains Retreat” by westerners, this tradition corresponds to a three lunar month cycle when the region typically experiences heavy rains and farmers are planting their crops.
Monks and novices will stay in the same monastery or temple for the entire three-month period, venturing out only during the day (if at all) and always returning to the same temple to meditate and sleep. During this retreat, monks typically devote more time to meditation and deepening their understanding of the Dhamma – the truth taught by the Buddha.
Locals often practice a more ascetic lifestyle during this time period as well, often giving up meat, smoking or alcohol for a portion or all of the three months, spending more time giving alms on the streets, or visiting local temples to meditate.
To get a deeper understanding of this important Buddhist tradition, we asked our five country directors a few questions about how Buddhist Lent is observed in their countries. Below you will find answers from:
Houmphaeng “Phaeng” Phommaly, Country Director for Laos
Kanchana “Joy” Junglin, Country Director for Thailand
Michelle Nguyen, Country Director for Vietnam
Dar Le Khin, Country Director for Myanmar
Makara Put, Country Director for Cambodia
Journeys Within: What is this period of time called in your country?
Phaeng: In Laos we call it “Khao Phansa” which means all monks and novices must stay in the same place and focus on meditation.
Joy: In Thailand, we call it “Wan Khao Phansa.”
Michelle Nguyen: “Phat Dan” is the Vietnamese name for Buddhist Lent/Vassa/Rains Retreat. The Vassa tradition predates the time of Gautama Buddha (the founder of Buddhism). It was a long-standing custom for mendicant ascetics* in India not to travel during the rainy season as one may unintentionally harm crops, insects or even oneself whilst travelling. (*As they walked from place to place, followers begged and relied on charitable donations as part of a vow for poverty in order to spend ones time and energy solely on preaching and serving the poor.)
Makara: This period of time we call “Chorl Vorsa” (Chorl means enter, Vorsa means raining). It is one of the biggest religious celebrations besides New Year and P’Chom Ben.
Dar Le: In Myanmar, we called it “War-Twin” meaning duration of the Buddhist lent.
Journeys Within: For how long is it observed? Are there any particularly special days that are celebrated?
Joy: Wan Khao Phansa is observed for a period of three lunar months during the rainy season when monks are required to remain in one particular place or temple. This year it runs from July 31 to October 27, 2015.
Phaeng: It is observed for three months from July 31 – October 27 in 2015. For regular people, all activities remain the same, but on traditional Buddhist days of celebration like the full moon, even more people than usual would give alms on the streets and temples. And elders often go to the temples to listen to the Dhamma and join the monks in their chanting.
Makara: It is celebrated for a 3 months period, and there is a special celebration on the first two days. On the first day, most regular locals will bring many useful things like cloth, dry fishes, tea, milk, coffee, sugar and other offerings to the monks, especially the big candles that they will light every day. The second day the Head Monks will call all the monks to come together and give advice and take the role for this period.
Journeys Within: What do monks do differently during this time period?
Phaeng: All the monks and novices have to stay in the same places or temples and can’t travel this time of year. The (historical) reason for this rule is that it is the time period of hard rains and planting of new crops, so if monks were to travel they might step on farmers’ plants or on baby animals, or get stuck in the heavy rains (and mud). The head monks, and those in high positions, have to meditate for the entire period. These monks typically retreat to a center temple that is not open to the public during this time.
Michelle: For the duration of Vassa, monks remain in one place, typically in monasteries or pagodas. In the monasteries and the monks chant the scriptures, lead a period of meditation and give teachings on the themes of the festival in return for people’s offerings. At this period of time, the monks stay inside and they won’t go outside until the Vassa ends or unless there is anything urgent.
Joy: This tradition originates from old times when Buddha stayed in temples during the rainy season to avoid killing insects or harming the growing seeds. It is a period for study, meditation and teaching of new monks. The monks are allowed to go out during the day but they must sleep in the same temple every night during these three months.
Journeys Within: What do regular locals do differently during this time period?
Dar Le: People offer robes to monks which monks might need during the three-month time period. Since it is the rainy season, their robes can get wet easily while collecting alms and eventually need to be replaced. That’s why it is called a “vaso robe” which means “rain resistant robe.”
Michelle: Buddhist Festivals are always joyful occasions. Buddhists decorate their houses and streets with Buddhist flags and flowers. Buddhists often give up something for lent, e.g. meat, alcohol, smoking… It is a time to make special efforts to make people happy and review our personal progress for kindness and respect for everyone and everything around us.
A typical day during the festival people will:
Go to the local temple or monastery and offer food, candles and flowers to the monks and receive guidance, support and teaching from the monks.
Give food and support to the poor during the day.
Gather around statues of the Buddha when it is dark and walk around the statue with candles until all is covered in light.
End the day joining in with chanting of the Buddha’s teachings and meditation.
Joy: Mostly the activities on Wan Khao Phansa (Rains Retreat Entry Day) are the same as those on any other Buddhist holy days. Two main important things are presented to monks during Khao Phansa – candles and the garments worn by monks, specifically the bathing robes. In the old times there was only candle light to be used around the temples, and at the beginning of the rainy season, Thai people made large candles as offerings to be used during this season. Some believe that as a result of this custom, the givers become brighter and smarter – similar to the characteristics of the candlelight.
Makara: Regular locals will bring food on days they are free to offer to the monks because the monks cannot go out and receive morning alms like they normally do.
Phaeng: Devout Buddhists and most elderly locals would try to follow the five precepts below:
Abstain from killing
Abstain from lying
Abstain from alcohol and liquor
Abstain from stealing
Abstain from sensual misconduct
Besides following those rules, some people like go to the temple more often than usual.
Journeys Within: Any tips for visitors who are in-country during this time period?
Phaeng: Most of temples are open as normal since they have a special place for monks to practice separate from the main temple sights, so there shouldn’t be any problem. However, visitors can talk to their guide or the staff at their hotel before going to any temples so as not to disturb any ceremonies that might be going on.
Joy: One important tradition for Wan Khao Phansa is the Khao Phansa Candle Making Ceremony where people bring white and yellow candles to make the Khao Phansa candles. There are also Candle Festivals celebrated in locations throughout Thailand on this day, the most famous of which is located in Ubon Ratchathanee province at Thung Sri Mueng Temple, which is the province’s most popular annual event. Local artists express their artistic talents and techniques through crafting and placing Thai patterns with the candle wax, and the magnificent candles also demonstrate the link of local custom and religious belief. After a procession, the candles are presented to local temples.
Michelle: Take the opportunity to visit pagodas with our guides (or even on your own if you wish) whenever the opportunity presents itself in holiday itineraries and meet with the monks. Everyone will be very happy to welcome you to join in the festival experience and explain more. Chat with your guide if you need him/her to be on hand to help with translations. It is best to keep clothes comfortable and tops covering shoulders with long trousers at a respectable length. Shoes are taken off and left outside homes and on the pagoda steps. Hats shouldn’t be worn inside pagodas or homes.
Dar Le: Perhaps, volunteer at night preparing food for next morning’s alms bowls for monks.
Journeys Within: What is your favorite aspect?
Dar Le: I think that the people of Myanmar are still strong Buddhist followers and it’s good to see the religious spirit of the people.
Michelle: The nurturing of the community spirit, the bringing hope to others and stopping to remind ourselves that we do not live in isolation and whatever we do on a daily basis has an impact on others and on our surroundings.
Joy: I am Buddhist and I am proud that this tradition has been passed on from generation to generation and it is still present today.
Phaeng: I think Buddhist lent is good for monks and novices who can stay in same place, and for regular people as well. I see that most people try not to drink and that they are trying to maintain the Lao traditions that have lasted over a thousand years. I hope they are still doing this in the future, even as the world changes.
Makara: My favourite aspect is to see Cambodian people maintaining this traditional religious celebration the same way they have been doing this for years.