Laos in the Slow Lane
So you want to be someone who meditates? Head to Luang Prabang.
Twisted up in the bed sheets, I toss and turn between marshmallow-soft pillows on a luxuriantly swollen puff of a mattress. The alarm squawks at 6:45 a.m., but anxiety has already stolen my sleep. In this idyllic sanctuary made for rest and renewal, my mind dwells on what lies ahead: a puddle-jumper flight to Bangkok, the sliver of a layover before liftoff to Hong Kong, and then the final leg of a mad dash that will deposit me in Paris just in time for rush hour. At 6:58 a.m., I shuffle past my overstuffed Rimowa and slide open the glass door of my villa at Rosewood Luang Prabang. There, on the outdoor wooden deck, sits a young Lao man, perfectly still and folded into a calm, composed lotus.
This serene figure is Sommaiy Saiyavong, the hotel’s Guest Experience Manager. Two days earlier, during a morning walk among Wat Xieng Mene, Wat Chomphet and Wat Long Khoun—three of the 50-plus gilded Buddhist temples for which the UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang is famous—I’d asked him for a private meditation session.
My request prompted a smile of the purest kind as he responded in the affirmative. Yet pride in my off-the-menu idea was already getting shouted out inside my head by an all-too-familiar dialogue of doubt. “What about getting enough sleep?” shouted my hesitant internal self. “What have you done?!”
I really do want to be someone who meditates. My iPhone holds more than one app for it, including a faux flickering candle. Yet I never do tap on that icon, nor do I read the daily affirmations I signed up to have sent to my inbox. I have yet to open the email with instructions on how to download the meditation program I purchased after my beloved dog died last year. At least I am consistent.
Saiyavong discovered that path much earlier than me, well before he found his way to the hospitality industry. At age 12, after a childhood in the Lao countryside, he became a Buddhist novice—”to receive an education,” as he explained on our tour. Dispelling any notion that every saffron-clad young man one sees around Laos is motivated by divine intervention, Saiyavong emphasized—in the excellent English he learned as a monk—that for a Lao boy his age, “being a Buddhist means getting better education, free food, and a place to live.” After a few years, most of these young men return to their lay communities and get married. “I surprised my family by deciding to stay for eight and a half years!”
We were crossing the Mekong by longtail boat that morning to reach our trekking route, and Saiyavong continued to tell me his story over the engine’s din. “I really had no idea what it meant to live a monastic life,” he admitted. “But I felt certain of what I did not want: to follow the path of others in my village.” Dressed in novice monk robes, he went on morning alms rounds and lived in the center of Luang Prabang at Wat That Luang temple, an important Buddhist ritual site. Around five years into his studies, Saiyavong met a revered local abbot named Oun Huan who taught him to meditate and “to understand what silence and wisdom really mean.” Following his master to a forest temple outside Luang Prabang called Wat That Po, he first practiced silent Vipassana meditation, which traces its origins to a discourse on mindfulness attributed to the Buddha himself.
As we meandered along the riverside path connecting these humble yet serene shrines, the morning haze lifted. A spectacular panorama emerged of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Nam and Mekong Rivers. Taking in this deep jade landscape dappled by gilded spires, I could believe the legend that the Buddha stopped somewhere near this spot, smiled, and prophesied this would one day become a rich and powerful city. Indeed it was, from the 14th to the 16th centuries, when Luang Prabang served as both a royal capital and center of religion.
During his first attempt at meditation, a five and a half month silent retreat under the abbot, he was not allowed to speak to anyone except to seek guidance about meditation from his master. “No reading, no chanting, no going for morning offerings and only one meal each day,” recounted Saiyavong, continuing to enlighten me with insights from his spiritual journey. “Every movement, every breath was spent mindfully.”
Unable to imagine myself succeeding at this for even a week, I appreciated Saiyavong’s frankness about the challenges he faced. “Definitely I faltered early on. I didn’t see any results except the thousands of thoughts like ‘Why are you sitting here?’ and ‘Why don’t you get out and enjoy the sunshine like everyone else?’” Huan counseled him patience. “No thinking about the past and no worrying about the future. He said my duty is to be only in the present.” Well into the second month, “my mind started to get calm. I could sit longer. When the mind is quiet and at peace, wisdom will naturally arise.”
• • •
“The mind is like a jumping monkey, leaping to whatever it is convinced of,” Saiyavong’s guru had cautioned him. “When we dwell on the past or worry about the future, we forget to live in the moment.” Now, two days later, I am doing exactly that.
Greeting Saiyavong at my door, I inhale and force myself into lotus position alongside his stillness. I attempt to focus only on the never-ending roar of water tumbling over boulders just beneath us. When my mind lunges forward, I call upon some simple instructions he’d given me two days prior: “Allow thoughts that come into your head to know that you will come back to them later.”
Buoyed by the believer rhythmically inhaling and exhaling to my left, I center myself and try to concentrate, pushing out thoughts of what I forgot to pack and whether I remembered to check in online for each flight. I visualize the great gush carrying off each errant thought. My mind wanders; I corral it back to the chorus of water rolling over rocks. Conscious thought, crashing water. The pattern repeats itself as the river flows.
Suddenly (or so it seems) I become aware of the sun’s warmth on my skin. Saiyavong unfolds his limbs with sparing movements that flick my eyes open. Morning’s tender light has arrived, palm fronds flap around us as butterflies flutter past. Forty-five minutes have passed! I pat myself on the metaphoric back. Staring out over the undulating river, I rise, feeling surprisingly lighter. Awed by my new ability to let go, my mind gets busy making plans to come back to Luang Prabang for more. But then Saiyavong stops me with a few parting words of wisdom. “Just go with the flow!” he says with a smile, then turns his back as I follow calmly, into the melee.