Luang Prabang’s secret monk catwalk
Monks are the celebrities of Asia. Nothing completes a photograph that speaks of Asia like a monk or group of monks, either striding past a monument, walking down a street or serenely sitting in meditation in a wat, or under a tree, or by a Buddhist statue, incense sticks burning in the corner. With their bright orange, or safron robes, they scream visual mass, a strong focal point in any landscape picture.
To this day when I am travelling in Asia and see a monk or monks walking towards me I automatically reach for a camera. I often have to consciously tell myself, it’s just a monk, he’s not doing anything of particular interest, I have plenty of pictures …
The things that make the UN world heritage site Luang Prabang so attractive for travellers and photographers are its beautifully preserved French colonial architecture, its setting at the confluence of two rivers and the presence of so many Buddhist wats … and monks … in its centre. Unfortunately, all those things add up to another fact: crowds of visitors, all eager to get photos of monks.
I will write of my experience of the tak bat, or daily morning Buddhist alms round, in another post soon. But for those who want photos of monks with no one else in the picture, in a natural, simple setting, there is the perfect place, at least during the dry season, and it’s not quite in the centre but is nearby.
Each dry season, two bamboo bridges are built across the Nam Khan river linking the centre with Phan Luang. When you see the bridges, you will understand why it would be impossible for them to stay during any wet season. They are private bridges, costing 5000 kyat (less than $1) to cross. Monks cross free, of course. Every day at around midday, over the bridge connecting the town centre, there is a fairly steady procession of monks making the crossing from two wats in the Phan Luang district to the centre. As it’s in the middle of the day, they are often carrying umbrellas or parasols to shade themselves from the sun and heat. If you wait on the Phan Luang-side bank of the river beside the bridge, you can get a good shot of the monks in their orange robes, crossing mostly in single file, across the bamboo bridge, with the muddy Nam Khan waters and steep, heavily vegetated bank of the river offering an uncluttered background free from Western tourists or minibuses.
It’s a fairly peaceful place to spend an hour or so anyway, but you won’t have to wait long for the monks to make their appearance. Of course, the bridge is open to all, so you may have to wait for some fellow travellers to make their crossing, or shoot their seemingly endless selfies. But like everything with photography, it’s worth the wait.
I used a Canon 70-200mm zoom lens to best capture the monks crossing the bridge, with shutter priority set at a fast enough speed to freeze their moments.
You can see more of my photographs taken of the monks crossing the bridge, and other photographs taken during my trip to Laos at my Flickr site here.
Have you experienced the bamboo bridge crossing or have any other suggestions to photograph the monks of Luang Prabang? I would love to hear your thoughts.