How I Discovered Buddhism in Southeast Asia
Throughout my travels, there inevitably comes a moment when I realize just how far away I am from home. When that moment arrives, I walk a little slower, begin to savor each bite and ultimately become connected with the new landscapes and scenery that surround me. On my recent journey to Southeast Asia, touring through parts of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, I felt I was discovering Buddhism almost as soon as I landed in Bangkok.
I had always known that I would fall for the beauty of Southeast Asia, but it was the people’s unexpected goodness that I was not prepared for.
I’ve always had a strong desire to see this part of the world, and it was while flying through the streets in a tuk tuk (a scooter attached to an open air rickshaw), the reasons became readily apparent. We passed golden Buddhist temples, bustling street markets and ornate buildings constructed hundreds of years ago.
The food markets were filled with cart after cart, ready to customize my pad Thai dinner at a moment’s notice. While prepared in the Chiang Rai night market and served on a paper plate, it tasted better than in any Thai restaurant I’ve visited in the States. I had always known that I would fall for the beauty of Southeast Asia, but it was the people’s unexpected goodness that I was not prepared for.
The people I met were generally excited to help while, much to my surprise, expected nothing in return. Their smiles stretched from ear to ear and conveyed a genuine happiness you don’t often see in the techno-centric, ‘instant everything’ culture I inhabit.
Truth be told, I did not travel alone. I was fortunate enough to go with a great friend on a 14-day tour (Contiki) that allowed us the freedom to be with the group as often as we desired. To maximize our time in each country, we spent most days with the tour, making great friends with the Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and Scots who were travelling with the group. In each country, a local guide accompanied us, providing insight into daily life, history and the language.
Initially, I signed up for the tour because my original plan was to travel solo. As a single female traveling through Asia, the safety and convenience of a tour group was a welcome relief. In hindsight, although not a necessity, having the logistics of lodging, transport and access to local highlights handled by Contiki, afforded me the opportunity to relax and take in as much as I could without getting caught up in details.
I loved the remote silence of being on the Mekong, passing small villages where electric lines were only just being erected. It seemed a million miles from home.
It was Laos that I absolutely fell in love with, and where I found the most relaxed, laid back “me.” Our entry into Laos from the Thai border had us immediately boarding a riverboat, run by a Lao family. They proceeded to take us on the two-day journey down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. I loved the remote silence of being on the Mekong, passing small villages where electric lines were only just being erected. It seemed a million miles from home.
Luang Prabang was my favorite city of the entire trip. Partly because of the activities we did there, but also because of the relaxed nature and laid back attitude of the people. We were advised not to be alarmed if it took an extended period of time to be served our food in a restaurant. It didn’t take long to experience this firsthand as we waited for almost an hour and a half that first night for dinner at Utopia (no joke). We passed the time lounging on mattress pillows on the floor…a backpacker’s haven.
Laos was also where I really learned about Buddhism and one of my favorite experiences was actually feeding the monks. Luang Prabang has over 33 temples, with hundreds of monks that rely on the daily almsgiving as their primary source of food. While some might label it as touristy, I felt a genuine, spiritual connection in being a part of something so basic and necessary. At dawn, we kneeled alongside locals, offering bits of sticky rice to each passing Monk until their alms bowls were filled.
Later that same day, we visited an elephant sanctuary where I was in absolute heaven. I adore elephants, something I discovered while on safari a few years ago. In the natural environment of the Laos forest we were able to both ride and feed them. We also visited a breathtakingly gorgeous waterfall and then celebrated the New Year dancing with fellow travelers around a bonfire.
We also spent time in Vang Vieng as well as the capital, Vientiane. It was in Vientiane where we had one of my favorite evenings of the trip. Lunch that day consisted of one too many Western options so for dinner we wanted something completely authentic. Breaking from the group, we researched and found a restaurant that famed celebrity chef and travel authority Anthony Bourdain had recommended.
What we thought would be a ten minute walk from our hotel to Amphone Restaurant became a journey into the heart of Laotian Buddhist culture. We first came to an ornate Buddhist temple, which was closing for the evening, and we quietly watched the monks retreating upstairs for the night, first taking pause to blow out all the candles. It felt very special to witness this nightly ritual.
The opportunity to immerse myself in another culture and create lifelong memories, all while seeing firsthand how other parts of the world live is something I look forward to every time.
Upon departing, we walked for a few moments before being drawn into an antique store. Here we purchased mini Buddhas, chatted with the owner and gushed over how special each piece was.
Finally, an hour after setting out, we arrived at the restaurant where we were seated in the outdoor garden. An appetizer and a bottle of wine were the perfect precursors to the multi-course tasting menu. The ensuing food coma was the perfect nightcap to our dining extravaganza. For only $20 USD each, such an experience would have been unheard of in the States. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Bourdain one more time for steering us in the right direction. While the restaurant decision was all his, the unforgettable experiences of Laos are all mine.
This is why I love to travel. The opportunity to immerse myself in another culture and create lifelong memories, all while seeing firsthand how other parts of the world live is something I look forward to every time.
I believe that the more I travel, the better I am.
Allison Block is a textile designer for Isaac Mizrahi, currently living in New York City. Discovering Buddhism: How I Discovered Buddhism in Southeast Asia