Posted by: Heather | March 31, 2009

A Piece of Cake

It’s one of those travel moments that you cherish forever.  When you are traveling, you have to slow down occasionally and reset the pace so you can live the journey, not just take it.  There’s a slight distinction, but an important one.  When you put the guidebook away and discover things on your own, the list of “things to see” goes out the window and you start to EXPERIENCE things around you.

One such opportunity presented itself in the middle of the afternoon in Luang Prabang, Laos.  While other tourists were out riding elephants and visiting waterfalls, I decided to visit one of the many wats I kept passing on my walk around town.  What caught my attention were the several young novice monks walking about in their orange and yellow robes. monks_-14731Monks are allowed to talk to woman, but are forbidden to touch them. Perhaps there’s too much temptation with the vow of chastity.  Conversations with them are few and far between for a female, especially a foreigner.

Luck was on my side and a monk named Bounthanh, approximately 20 years old, struck up a conversation with me about his daily routine and the commitment he had made to the order.  Following a 3:45am wake up call (banging gong), 6am walk through the streets collecting alms (food and money from the locals) he attends college to study English.


An orphan, his goal is to one day return to his village to teach English.  Wanting to improve his vocabulary, a 20-minute casual conversation at a 10-foot distance led to a 2 hour English lesson across a table covering slang expressions such as “piece of cake”, “He’s a mess” and how “Let’s go get a Coke” can mean you actually want a Sprite.  When asked to explain the difference and appropriate times to use “approximately” instead of “about”, I was definitely challenged.  Finding words he already knew to describe what these words meant threw me for a loop. How would you describe them in the most basic of English?  It’s difficult.

Returning with Ted the next day, Bounthanh allowed me to photograph him for a few minutes

monks_-147302while Ted hunted for simple explanations of “Intrinsically”, “Administration”, “Executive”, “Purpose”, “Objective”, “Appearance”, words that can be used as both a noun, adjective or verb.  Ted and I returned two more days to give English lessons and met Bounthanh’s best friend at another wat for the same.


The day before we left the city, we surprised him with a book, Dr. Dolittle written in both English and his native language.  He was thrilled!

I was the one who got the best lesson.  Put down the camera for a while.  Enjoy a chat with a monk for an afternoon and the reward will be plenty.



  1. What a wonderful experience! I was a literacy tutor for a while and so I understand your difficultly in explaining word meaning. But it is so much fun trying! What a great couple of days you had!

  2. This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

  3. Amazing photography Heather.

  4. Loved your story! Have lots of fun adventures!!
    ps. I heard one of our hang-gliding instructors in Queenstown NZ recently died in a freak work accident…very sad.

  5. These are beautiful images.

  6. i love your photos. This winter, I am creating a multimedia project with music and photography that will premier in Minneapolis in February 2010, about imprisonment and enlightenment (using big screen projection). Would you be willing to let me use the picture of the monks walking in the project? I am happy to credit you in my program notes.

    thanks, jennifer salima holt, ph.d.

  7. Beautiful images and story. You can see the peace in their eyes!

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