LUANG PRABANG, Laos // Sometimes having a plan is a good thing, but sometimes wandering aimlessly allows for the universe to align // where moments of magic happen that touch your being and alter the way you live your daily life.
We have seen several monks throughout our travels. We watched hundreds of monks during Morning Alms. We went to a meditation exhibit in a temple, and paid to enter the oldest temple in Luang Prabang. We have passed monks walking the street but we have never dreamed of speaking with a monk. They always seem stoic and reserved.
But then the universe sent us Chancim. We were wandering down from the temple on Mount Phousi, unsure if we were going the right way, when we came face to face to a monk with a big smile and an immediate greeting, “hello". A little taken back as none of the other monks have ever spoken to us, we returned the hello but did not venture into further dialogue. The monk stood his ground. In the middle of our path still beaming his bright smile, "Where are you from?" he says in almost perfect English as he gestures for us to enter a terrace off the path near a sign that says "footprint of Buddha" and an arrow pointing down towards the cement floor. It turns out NYC is his favorite city in the USA. I can tell he is practicing English with us as he enunciates each word and we nod with approval. He says he only speaks a little English but he is completely conversational.
He has been in Luang Prabang since 2013. He explained that he chose to become a monk because his parents had passed away and he didn’t understand why or what was happening. It was cheaper to be educated as a monk than in his village schools. With two younger brothers there was no way to afford an education so he chose to become a monk. He has an older sister who is married and has one child, his nephew, which makes him an uncle. He has two younger brothers as well one who just joined him here at his temple as a novice last July. He’s enjoyed having him around though he is naughty. He is strong at mathematics.
He is a novice monk who is in the middle of school exams this week. English is his favorite subject and he has an hour final exam tomorrow. He asks us to define “fairly” which is harder than you would think to define. Then to our amusement he asks us to define “good nightlife” which is even harder as we mimic dancing and partying for him in the temple. He laughs as we try to explain.
His big smile never ceases. He has the traditional buzzed hair cut and orange robes over his left shoulder kept together with a cloth belt. He carries only one small simple tan bag with his notebook in it which he brings out to show us, and is covered with an image of Big Hero III and doodlings like I used to make on my biology book from high school. We ask how he learned English, and he said textbooks were difficult, but watching television and movies was the best. It turns out they have a TV in their temple that they watch together. He is also allowed to use computers to help learn.
He plans on taking off the robes when he graduates monk school next year. You get to choose to enter and you choose to leave, or if you want or stay in the temples the rest of your life. He wants to go to university near the airport in Luang Prabang and then become an English teacher in his hometown 13 miles north near the Chinese border.
He asks me what time it is pointing at my watch. 5:10 I answer. We have been talking for 40 minutes. He has to be back at his temple by 5:30. They pray to buddha everyday from 5:30-6:30. If he is late he will be disciplined and probably have to clean the restrooms which he does 2 times a month as part of his chores anyways. We tell him not to be late on our accord and he smiles and says 10 more minutes. I smile thinking that a monk has a stricter schedule and I do right now. He is young and human. You can tell he is not perfect nor does he have everything figured out. Its refreshing to know even monks, who I thought had it all figured out, are just as human as I am.
I don’t know if Chancim does this everyday with everyone, and we are just one drop in his vast memory of speaking with foreigners, but our meeting has ingrained itself in my mind. Everyday I need to smile more and say hello. If it only takes a monk 20 minutes of meditation each day I can commit to that too. I can be human and strive to be kind. Perhaps that chance encounter was the entire reason we came to Luang Prabang. Though the coffee is exceptional and the waterfalls are beyond beautiful, Chancim is what I will remember. His big smile will stay with me.