All You Need is Less

Earlier this year we went on an epic honeymoon to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. My unexpected favorite place we visited during this trip was Luang Prabang, Laos. We were wowed by the people, the culture and the city – which itself is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Aside from exploring beautiful waterfalls, visiting ancient temples and eating delicious amok (fish steamed in bamboo leaves) one thing we enjoyed immensely was the massive night market. Right around dusk, the entire main street of Luang Prabang closes down and is filled in by local vendors spreading out their local wares – usually on a blanket.

All You Need is Less

Our Visit to a School for the Deaf

There was one day during our trip when minimalism and the idea of living with less hit me as never before during our stay here. It started with a visit our group made to a school for the deaf. Immediately after I wrote down my thoughts about the experience:

We just got back from our trip to Southeast Asia, yesterday and there was one experience from the trip that really stuck with me I wanted to share.

Laos, specifically Luang Prabang, was my favorite stop of the entire trip. While there, we were able to spend an afternoon at a school for deaf children – many orphans.

The school was started in 2008 and is one of many in Laos. Most of the children live there full-time. Some will go home every few weeks or months, but it’s really a full-time thing for the hundreds of students there.

After driving up and greeting the handful of dogs that enjoy playing with the kids, we joined a classroom of ~30 students to chat.

Through 2 interpreters (Laotian and American Sign Language) our group spent some time asking them questions and answering some of theirs.

We asked their favorite subject and immediately a number of students started signing the same answer. The ASL interpreter smiled and said: “English” I can’t think of a moment in my life when my privilege was checked quite so much.

The children asked us a number of questions as well. One of the first was wondering what we had done so far in Laos. We mentioned we went to a rice farm to plow, plant and harvest rice.

As soon as the answer was signed to them, they all started laughing and signing with each other. We eagerly asked why are they laughing? “Everything in Laos is so cheap [to foreigners]! Why on earth would you do that?!”

Bringing this back to the finance side – seeing a market dip last week, and again so far today, I’m reminded that we’re fortunate enough to have so much excess wealth that we don’t need it for day-to-day necessities.

As the market fluctuates up and down, remember that if you’re investing for retirement then you don’t need that money today.

If you’re reading this, then you’re likely to be fortunate enough to live in one of the most prosperous nations in the world, with the most stable markets in the world [historically speaking].

It was an educational, humbling, and inspirational visit. Special thanks to our tour guides (through Adventures by Disney) for arranging it!

The school in Laos

This exchange stuck with me. There were a group of mostly orphaned deaf children whose favorite thing to learn was English, a language they wouldn’t even be able to hear. Learning English would allow them to connect more with the world through television, news, and exported culture. It’s easy for me to forget how powerful it is to know English. Even though it’s the world’s 3rd most spoken language (after Chinese and Spanish), it is a cultural advantage to know, and something I surely take for granted.

Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony

One morning while we were in Laos, we woke up early for the Buddhist alms-giving ceremony in town. This is a tradition with deep roots that takes place every morning right around sunrise on the main street of town. The Buddhist Monks of all of the surrounding temples walk along a preset path where kneeling participants (or seated in our case) are waiting to give them a small offering of food.

alms seating
Sitting for almsgiving.

The offering in our case was a single mouthful of sticky rice that we would carefully put into each monk’s metal basket. The rice collected will serve as their only meal for the day.

One thing I didn’t expect was the age range of these monks. Most young men of Laos join a monastery to gain an education. Some stay for months, but others end up staying for many years. While I can’t fully imagine what this experience is like, I can say every monk that passed by (regardless of age) seemed more mature than their years let on.

alms feet
Monks passing by for almsgiving.

It was a humbling, yet quiet ceremony. There were a group of people consisting of one crowdsourced meal a day with relatively few possessions (although we saw many with iPhones!). For the second time on the trip, I realized my own excess and began to wonder how much less I really needed.

I’d love to try the experience of living in a Buddhist Monastery for a month (#36 on my goals list) but even without that experience, this morning was humbling.

The Night Market

One of the attractions of Luang Prabang is the night market – a series of vendors lining the street. This market starts around sunset every night and fills the area with quiet vendors waiting for customers to come to them. We boarded a tuk-tuk from our hotel and headed to check it out.

tuk tuk
Tuk tuk in Luang Prabang

On the way to the market, we passed one tourist with a t-shirt that stood out to me. It had one simple phrase on it:

All you need is less.

The combined experiences from the last day in Laos, coupled with the Beatles reference (I’m a huge Beatles fan) drove this concept further home for me. One aspect of minimalism that I am drawn to is the idea of living with only what you need – which is usually far less than you think. After our experience at the school and later with the monks, I began to wonder how much do I really need, as opposed to only buying because I’m bored, or unsatisfied with something else in my life?

When I’ve been on the verge of buying something that seems questionable, I think back to this moment. Is this something I need? Is there a path where I would be happier without buying this?

We continued on to the night market, which was amazing to walk through – even if you’re more spectating than shopping. There are food stalls serving any Laos dish you can imagine, clothing vendors selling entire outfits for $5, local alcoholic spirits and more trinkets than you can imagine.

Night market in Luang Prabang
Night market in Luang Prabang
carved elephants in laos
Carved elephants in Laos
coconut pancakes
These coconut pancakes are seriously one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.

Primed by our recent experience, we didn’t end up purchasing much in this market – a scarf for our new cold weather, a beautiful skirt for Marilyn and a little local wine to try. We did eat a bunch of delicious food – our favorite being these warm sweet coconut pancakes. We later looked up a recipe for them and started (attempting) to make them at home.

Would You Be Happier With Less?

When thinking about spending money, whether it’s making a choice between eating out and eating in, buying a new outfit or continuing to wear one in your closet – having a reason to have less can help steer your hand. For me, remembering these moments helps bring me back to a focused place. In the same way, I am happier after a workout, I’m usually happier after making a decision to live with less.

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I'm , a full-stack product developer in Salt Lake City, UT. I love enlivening experiences, visualizing data, and making playful websites.

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