Monks are to Laos what bowler hatted business men are to the City of London. They are not for show; they are ubiquitous; and whereas many of them might appear to be unapproachable, when you get to know one, they’re actually pretty cool people.
I caught up with Stephen Howard, a home-grown volunteer who recently returned from Laos, to learn about his experience at one of our more unusual projects, Volunteer with Novice Buddhist Monks. Here’s what he had to say…
How to meet a monk in Laos
I stayed at a fabulous little guest house, called Cold River. It’s on the banks of the Nam Kan river that flows into the Mekong river just around the bend. The family owners are beautiful, and often sat with us in the common area outside the main door, where we got to know each other via broken-English.
The Cold River has 10 rooms, and this program allows 10 volunteers to participate at any time here in Laos. There’s a minimum rotation of two weeks, but I quickly discovered that most people stay longer, often up to a month.
I arrived on a bright and beautiful afternoon, and spent some time travelling along the Mekong, visiting villages and becoming acquainted with the new and existing volunteers. After that, it was down to work.
The main part of my job was teaching at a local Monk School during the day, where the students are all novice monks. Novices, as they’re known, enter the temple at a young age, and usually stay until their late teens. The closest analogy I can use is that it’s not dissimilar to a boarding school!
Volunteers plan the lesson with the Monk School's staff, in Luang Prabang.
One thing that I learned, was that not all novices go onto become monks. It’s not mandatory, and at the end of their time at the school, they make the choice of whether to continue with their chosen path, or return to their regular lives.
Being in class was an immense pleasure. I love teaching, it’s a passion of mine, and this experience turned out to be completely different to what I expected. My time at the Monk School has helped me reconnect with the core values of teaching, and how amazing the profession is. As it worked out, teaching wasn’t just a job to me — it was a complete way of life.
The novices and monks are incredibly intelligent, it took me nearly a month to really appreciate it.
My first week was spent volunteering in Luang Prabang, and I got the chance to work at Wat Siphoutthabat (Monk School). The new school year started the week before, and English lessons were proving popular.
The monks get to grips with their English, in a group lesson.
The ambience at the school was peaceful, but there are some rules that volunteers, particularly women, have to observe when working with the Novices.
For example, a woman should not pass anything directly to, or receive anything directly from, a monk or novice. Instead they must place it down in front of them, and allow the monk or novice to pick it up. Don’t let the rules put you off though — it quickly becomes second nature!
In all honesty, working with the novice monks at Wat Siphoutthabat was a real privilege, and a highlight of my time in Laos, which provided great memories that I’ll cherish forever.