The Laos teenagers beating poverty and getting an education as novice monks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2017, 2:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 4:36pm

Each dawn, lines of teenage monks in orange robes criss-cross the temple-studded streets of Luang Prabang, the religious heart of Laos and the storied seat of kings and colonisers.

They gather in the gloom to receive alms – normally freshly cooked rice or snacks – from the faithful, a ritual that weaves spiritual and practical bonds between the novice monks and the community they serve.

It is the centrepiece of the strict daily routine undertaken by hundreds of novices drawn from poor, rural villages to the ancient temples which fleck the Unesco-listed town.

Many come to receive an education denied to them in the overcrowded and underfunded village schools.

They also gain a venerated position in society. Elders ‘wai’ – a respectful greeting with hands pressed together and a slight bow of the head – when addressing them despite their callow years.

But the boys miss out on many of the routine freedoms and experiences of teenagers across Asia.

“We wake up at 3.30 am and pray. Then we receive alms, we eat lunch, clean the dishes and then walk in a procession to meditate,” said 12-year-old Xeonic who was sent to join a temple after his mother died.

With its riverside setting and French colonial architecture Luang Prabang is a magnet for tourists.

In peak season packs of visitors jostle for photographs of the fabled alms-giving ceremony, trailing after the barefoot novices who walk at breakneck speed across the town.

After their mid-morning meal the teens do not eat again until sundown, in a day that arcs through prayer, school and Buddhist learning.

Three years ago Khao Phommesith, 18, left his village a few hours drive north of Luang Prabang to become a novice.

“My family is very big and very poor... so I came here to study,” he said after the evening session of chanting of Buddhist texts. “I am learning English, I want to have a good future maybe as a doctor or in IT, I don’t know yet ... this is a place for me to start.”

Some of the novices stay in the monkhood as adults.

But most will return to civilian life after a few years of study, hoping education will give them a leg-up in a country where the rewards of economic growth are skewed towards a wealthy elite and foreign investors.