I spent the new year in Luang Prabang, Laos, former home of the Lao royal family when they were still alive, and also a former French outpost when the French were in Indochina. It's a lovely, mellow, friendly place to spend a few days recuperating after running around the ruins of ancient Angkor in Cambodia with various family members.
Luang Prabang is home to many hundreds of monks - most of them "novices" who come from poor villages around Laos. Their parents send them to live in the temples here so that they can get free room and board while attending local high school or college. Many are eager to practice their English with tourists. None of the monks I spoke to plan to make a career of monkhood - instead they hope to get jobs in the tourism industry or as teachers or something after they graduate. A couple of them admitted that when they first arrived here, they didn't know what to make of all the foreigners - ranging from student backpackers to well-heeled European families on holiday - who come in droves at this time of year to take in the good vibes of this peaceful buddhist town, enjoy great coffee (a legacy of the French), eat fabulous Lao-French fusion food, and take trips up the Mekong.
For these young boys, serving as a human tourist attraction seems to be an acceptable tradeoff in exchange for an education. Every morning at dawn, it has long been the tradition in Luang Prabang for the monks to walk through the town in procession, collecting alms from pious townspeople. In recent years, however, the procession has turned into a major tourist circus. The town now posts warning on signboards at temples and distributes flyers in all the hotels asking tourists not to touch or harass the monks during their morning procession. There is also a problem with unscrupulous vendors selling unsafe leftover food to tourists, who then give it to the monks, who then get sick. According to Wikitravel's Luang Prabang page, the problem got so bad that the senior monks threatened to stop the morning procession altogether. They relented when the government threatened to continue the procession using laypeople dressed as monks if the monks refused to go along. So the procession continues every morning, and the boys get their educations - in buddhism, all the secular subjects, and a bizarre experience in globalization.
Speaking of tourism, if you haven't yet been to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples from Cambodia's ancient Angkor empire, go soon before it all gets completely overrun. My favorite temples were The Bayon (a palace not far from Angkor Wat), with these fantastic face-covered towers...
... and Beng Meala (an hour or so away), a quiet, overgrown ruin.
For more photos see my Flickr page.
Once back in Hong Kong I'll be posting a few things about the conference on technology and social responsibility I attended in late December - but didn't have time to write up before leaving on vacation.