Tag Archives: fried Mekong riverweed

Leaving Nothing But Footprints

21 Jan
Mt. Phu Si - Luang Prabang, Laos

Mt. Phu Si – Luang Prabang, Laos

Mt. Phu Si is a small hill (about 100m high) that stands above Luang Prabang.  On top of the hill is a gilded stupa with a white base called Wat Chomsi which pokes out from the thick green canopy of trees framing it. Mt. Phu Si also acts like a geographic boundary because it divides the old town of Luang Prabang from the new town which spreads out behind it towards the west. There are a couple of different routes that one can use to climb to the top of Phu Si. My plan was to walk up the hill from the stairs that were across from the Royal Palace and then come down via another route that would take me through a monastery complex. But, before doing the climb, I would have to wake up at the ghastly time of 6:30am in order to do a boat trip up the Mekong River to see the Pak Ou Caves. These caves are about 25km north of Luang Prabang and the river journey to and from the caves takes at least 4 to 5 hours, so I had to catch an early morning boat in order to have enough time to see the caves and then do an afternoon walk up Mt. Phu Si.

Cliffs along the Nam Ou River - Laos

Cliffs along the Nam Ou River – Laos

Below where Wat Xieng Thong sits at the eastern tip of old Luang Prabang, there is a small jetty where long wooden boats ferry people up and down the Mekong River. I hopped on one of these long wooden boats for a ride to the Pak Ou Caves at around 8:15am. As the boat slowly chugged to the middle of the river, I began to be slapped in the face with the early morning chill of a late December day in central Laos. I knew it would be cold, but in my haste to get up early and walk from my hotel to the jetty, I wore only a t-shirt and my tattered NorthFace “adventure” pants. I favored these pants because they had cut-away sections that could transform the pants into shorts (awesome!), but the pants were porous and provided me with no defense against the whipping wind bouncing off the river and into my core. So, I had to endure a brutal, teeth-chattering 2-hour journey to the caves while battling insidious thoughts of the inevitability of turning into an icicle. I had one brief respite from the freeze when the boat stopped at a whiskey brewing village along the way. I spent nearly the entire time there warming myself over a fire that was being used to make the whiskey (and sampling a few whiskeys) before returning to the boat. For the last half-hour of the boat ride, the sun was still struggling to bust out of the morning cloud cover. When it did happen to push through, I tried to put my face in any sunbeam I could find. While trying to stay in the sun, I noticed that although the Mekong became wider and wider as the boat traveled north, the river was still very shallow all around. This was the dry season and there had been no serious rain for months. I saw a few fishermen on small boats laboriously using wooden poles to push down on the riverbed in order to slowly move in the direction they wanted. The landscape also began to be dominated by limestone cliffs. It was at one of these cliffs — where the Nam Ou River met the Mekong — that the Pak Ou Caves had been founded and subsequently used for several centuries as shrines and places of worship.

Inside Tham Theung

Entrance to Tham Theung – upper cave of Pak Ou

There are two caves that make up the Pak Ou Caves. The lower cave is called Tham Ting and the upper cave is called Tham Theung. Tham Ting is actually an outcrop of the limestone cliff above it and is located just above the Ou river. Tham Theung, on the other hand, is in fact a cave which tunnels inside the limestone core for a few hundred meters and is positioned high above Tham Ting. Both caves contain countless statues of the Buddha — mostly wooden — in various standing and sitting poses.

Inside Tham Ting - lower cave of Pak Ou

Inside Tham Ting – lower cave of Pak Ou

When my boat docked at the entrance to the caves, I first walked up the stairs to see the upper cave of Tham Theung. The inside of the cave was dark and I had a small flashlight that came in handy as I made my way through the sections of the cave that were open to the public. Parts of the cave walls contain faded paintings and etchings of the Buddha. When I entered the central chamber of the cave, what I noticed was a large slab of stone that at one time may have served as a pedestal or platform for large statues of the Buddha — either in sitting or reclining poses.  If large statues had been placed or fixed into this stone backdrop, they had long been removed or pillaged but their presence seemed to remain. The key area of focus in the main chamber is a wooden replica of a stupa with a gold-colored tip that was wrapped with a ceremonial saffron-colored cloth at the time of my visit. This stupa sits on a squared platform with small Buddha statuettes placed around it. To the left of this stupa is a tall wooden pole that was also wrapped in a ceremonial cloth.

Inside Tham Theung

Inside Tham Theung

I was not able to find any information about the construction or meaning of the stupa or pole inside Tham Theung. There simply is not a lot of details or records about the origins and history of the Pak Ou Caves. One sign inside Tham Theung did mention that the caves are over a thousand years old, so this would mean that the caves likely predated Buddhism’s arrival in the region. I also did find out later that the local people of the region did have a tradition of seeking blessings from the “river spirit”, and so it would make sense that the initial purpose of the Pak Ou Caves was to allow for a place to make offerings to this deity.  At some point afterwards, the caves then became converted or combined to provide a place of Buddhist worship as well. However, the information on how and when this may have taken place is scant.

Stupa inside Tham Theung

Stupa inside Tham Theung

The lower cave, Tham Ting, has larger white statues that appeared to me to be of Khmer origin — such as lions. Because Tham Ting is really just a secluded area covered by an enormous overhang of the cliff above it, one can see the Nam Ou River and the surrounding scenery while standing inside in it. I think its accessibility to the riverfront allowed Tham Ting to serve as a waterside shrine and any passerby on a boat could easily dock alongside it, walk up to pray (or stay in the boat to do so), make an offering, or seek a blessing before venturing onward.

Tham Ting - lower cave of Pak Ou

Tham Ting – Khmer lion?

As a result of this quick accessibility, the amount of Buddhist statues and figures that populate what seems like every inch of the main altar platform of Tham Thing is staggering. The thick dust on most of these statues indicates they have not moved at all for centuries and are well-protected from the storms that hit the area during the monsoon season.

Statues galore

Statues galore – Tham Ting

DSCN7134

and more

I walked up and down the sides of Tham Ting studying the thousands of Buddha statues around me.  I was tempted to reach out and touch them, but thought better of that. If these statues had been resting unmolested in the same spot for centuries, then I did not want to be the one who disturbed them. I walked up to a vantage point on the far left-hand side of Tham Ting and took in all the tiny figures below. I felt like Gulliver in Lilliput!  With that last glance, I turned and walked back to my waiting boat which took me back to Luang Prabang. The return trip took about an hour and fifteen minutes and I wanted to grab some lunch before heading to Phu Si.  I was craving a local dish — fried Mekong riverweed. This is an oily, crispy, sesame-seed laden appetizer consisting of flash-fried riverweed plucked from the Mekong. It is served with a chili paste dip called “jaewbong”. It looks like pieces of a thin dark green fabric and upon first taste, there is a grittiness to it, but then that gives way to something eerily welcoming and delicious! I found a place on Sisavangvong Road and ordered the riverweed along with larb — minced meat salad — a staple of Laotian cuisine. A much-needed pick-me-up.

Wat Chomsi - summit of Mt. Phu Si

Wat Chomsi – summit of Mt. Phu Si

After lunch, I began to walk up the stairs leading to Mt. Phu Si. The first flight of stairs led to a big terrace and I saw a derelict temple (I believe it is called Wat Pa Huak) to my right with a warped teak roof. I went inside and saw some very interesting frescoes behind the altar and along the side walls which depicted scenes with tigers, villagers, and some kind of diplomatic exchange with a Chinese delegation — this image was very clear and showed Chinese women’s faces and their garb.

Fresco inside Wat Ha Puak - Phu Si

Fresco inside Wat Pa Huak

Continuing up the stairs, I reached a gated area where I purchased my entry ticket. One last of flight of stairs remained before I got to the top and there before me was Wat Chomsi. Wat Chomsi was constructed in its current form in the early 1800s — nearly 300 years after Luang Prabang’s heyday. Wat Chomsi has a small prayer room inside it with a seated Buddha altar. On the outside wall of the temple, the words “no intoxicants allowed inside temple” are written in English. This is because many tourists come to Mt. Phu Si to watch the sunset and they bring alcohol and sit around Wat Chomsi boozing — utterly oblivious to the fact that Wat Chomsi is a sacred Buddhist temple. From Wat Chomsi, I had sweeping views of old and new Luang Prabang and the surrounding mountains. Below me, I could see the angular rooftops of many temples — including Wat Visoun and the dark grey, stumpy stupa on its grounds called “That Makmo” by locals (makmo meaning “watermelon”).

That Mamko

That Makmo (or That Pathum)

As I headed away from Wat Chomsi, I walked past a missile launcher monument of some sort and came to an area that felt like a small, neglected Buddhist theme park. There were a few grottoes with large yellow painted Buddha images accompanied by walls adorned with long nagas (serpents). I strolled through this area until I came to a weathered painted sign that said “Imprint of Buddha’s Foot.

This way to the footprint

Doorway to Buddha’s Footprint

Needless to say, I was immediately intrigued and my mind cast back to my ascent of Adam’s Peak which I had climbed during the monsoon season years before in order to see the most revered Buddha’s Footprint in the world [see post: Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) – Prologue at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-hZ%5D. But, unlike that arduous trek, here I was with pristine conditions and an opened doorway in front of me. No one else was around and I would have the footprint all to myself. I crouched inside the small doorway and was surprised to see that it did not lead to any kind of room. Instead, there was only limited space where one could stick a head inside and look down at a light-colored stone within which was a shadowy foot-like impression.

Petromolph

What kind of petrosomatoglyph is this?

There were many things about this imprint that I found fascinating. First, it appeared to be a left foot with 5 pointy toenails and a pronounced arch. This was radically different from all other standalone depictions of Buddha’s feet that I had seen. These other depictions were all highly stylized depictions with Buddhist iconography (lotuses and wheels) and were completely flat, symmetrical (meaning all toes were the same size and the foot/heel were in a size bearing some geometric proportion to the toes). The imprint at Phu Si is also completely devoid of any artistic flourishes. It looked to me like a footprint left behind in concrete — albeit the person would have to be at least 20ft tall and in dire need of a toenail clipping! The overall look of the imprint also reminded me of some the casts that people have created from alleged “bigfoot” tracks left behind!

Wat Phra Bat Tai

Wat Phra Bat Tai

The next day, I happened to be visiting Wat Phra Bat Tai (a 17th century Buddhist temple with strong Vietnamese influence) and as I walked behind the monastery and towards the riverfront, I found a small chapel where another Buddha’s footprint was housed. This footprint could be seen in 2 ways — either through the main opening in front of the footprint, or through a hole behind the footprint.

Chapel of the Buddha's Footprint - Wat Phra Bat Tai

Chapel of the Buddha’s Footprint – Wat Phra Bat Tai

I studied the footprint from both openings and saw that it was very similar to the traditional depiction of Buddha’s footprint. The toes each were decorated with a wheel-like symbol. They were rounded — not pointy — and each was equal in size and shape to the other. As I compared the footprint at Wat Phra Bat Tai to the one at Phu Si, I thought that maybe the footprint at Wat Phra Bat Tai was created first and so had to have been known by the local people prior to the creation of the other imprint a Phu Si. But, there was something almost prehistoric about the footprint at Phu Si that stuck with me. Perhaps the footprint at Phu Si was not originally a depiction of Buddha’s foot at all — it could have been a natural formation in the rock and that formation had been in existence prior to the footprint at Wat Phra Bat Tai.

Footprint viewed from hole behind it

Footprint viewed from hole behind it

What may have then happened was that the people and monks around Phu Si interpreted (or modified) what was really a natural rock formation as a superhuman footprint that could only belong to the Buddha. While there are probably records held by the monks of Wat Phra Bat Tai that document the creation of the footprint there, I’m not sure what information may exist about the origin of the footprint at Phu Si.  My walk down Phu Si took me through a monastery on its eastern slope, so the monks there may know the story behind the footprint. But, as I’ve learned when trying to comprehend the sights, realms, and artistry of the East, things do not always lend themselves to tidy explanations or allow for fact-checking or cross-referencing. That doesn’t make these things any less real. Instead, it is up to the individual to understand these things through a lens which requires detachment from preconceived notions as to what the nature of things must be. I didn’t need to go on a quest in order to suss out the origin stories of these footprints. These were the indelible imprints left by the Buddha. I understood and leave it at that.

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