Tag Archives: Khmer

Laos Calling

8 Sep
Young Laotian Monks looking over the Mekong - Vientiane, Laos (2014)

Young Monks looking over the Mekong – Vientiane, Laos (2014)

Laos is a landlocked country sandwiched between China and Vietnam on one side, and Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia on the other. The center of the country is mountainous with huge karst stone formations shooting out of the earth. There are various rivers intersecting the country from the north to the south and east to the west — the most important of which is the Mekong. In addition to its role in moving people and goods around the country and beyond, the Mekong holds an important position in the Lao national identity because it separates the Laotian capital of Vientiane (or Vieng Chang – translated as the “City of Sandalwood”) from the north-central border of Thailand. So, this river is like a moat and has insulated and defined the borders of those city-state kingdoms which have vied for power in the region throughout the centuries. The Lanna Kingdom was the largest of these regional powers and it dominated a good chunk of north-central Southeast Asia for over 200 years. At its zenith, this kingdom stretched from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (which are part of Thailand today) north up to Luang Prabang (the oldest and first capital of Laos). Luang Prabang is today one of the best preserved and temple rich cities in all of Asia. During its time as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Buddhism flourished and a unique Laotian style of artwork employing stencil and mosaic designs was created. But, the same geographic features of Luang Prabang which allowed it to be insulated and free from destruction at the hands of foreign invaders were ultimately the reasons that led to its unseating as capital. The city is like an island that is cut off by the confluence of both the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers from the rest of mountainous terrain around it. Thus, any foreign army that wanted to imprison the Lanna King simply had to surround the city by stationing troops on the 2 main sides of the rivers’ embankments and then block the one overland escape route out of the city. It was because of this vulnerability that King Chaiyasetthathirat (or King Setthatirath) decided in the 1560s to move his capital from Luang Prabang to the southern city of Vientiane.

Ha Phreow - Front facade

Ha Phreow – Front facade

One of King Setthatirath’s first acts at his new capital was to build a temple specifically for the purpose of enshrining the Emerald Buddha. This temple was called Ha Phreow and the Emerald Buddha resided there for the next 215 years until 1778 when a Thai general by the name of Chao Phra Chakri (who would become King Rama I of Thailand) stormed across the Mekong River with his army and captured Vientiane. The Emerald Buddha was carried out of Ha Phreow and taken to where it is now housed in a temple in Bangkok [See previous post for history of the Emerald Buddha: “The Jewel of the Chao Phraya” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-DJ%5D. Ha Phreow was later burned down by another Thai ransacking of Vientiane in the 1820s and was then rebuilt by the French in the 1920s. Today, the inside of Ha Phreow rings a bit hollow because the Emerald Buddha is not there, however, there are a some finely detailed Buddha bronze and stone images located in the front of the temple entrance and other images are placed along the temple’s sides.

Stone Buddha image in double abhaya mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “double abhaya” mudra – Ha Phreow

Most of these Buddha images are about 3/4 the average human size and I found three of them particularly interesting because of their unique mudras. All three images showed the Buddha standing with a cape-like robe and were dark in appearance. The first depicted the Buddha with his hands pointed outward with palms out.  This mudra is known as the “No Fear” or “Don’t Fight” mudra (or the double abhaya mudra). One story credits this gesture to a pose the Buddha used when an elephant charged at him. When the elephant saw the Buddha’s hands push out towards it, the elephant stopped in its tracks and sat down before the Buddha. Other traditions maintain that the Buddha used this gesture in interceding between a conflict between two warring tribes. This mudra has a vaunted position in Laotian Buddhism and one specific image depicting a small standing gold Buddha in the double abhaya mudra is revered above all others in Laos. This image is called the “Pra (or Pha) Bang” Buddha and is thought to have been cast in Sri Lanka in the 1st century AD. It was given as a wedding gift by a Cambodian king to the Lanna king who married his daughter in the 14th century. The Pra Bang Buddha can still be seen in a special temple in the Laotian city that was named after it — Luang Prabang.

Buddha "Calling Rain" mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “Calling Rain” mudra – Ha Phreow

The other statue that caught my eye was one where the Buddha had his two arms stretched at his sides with his hands flexed downwards. This mudra is known as the “Calling Rain” posture, and, as its name suggests, its origin is tied to a story where the Buddha summoned the skies to rain during a time of draught. The third image I gravitated towards was of the Buddha with his hands crossed — not at his chest — but at his abdomen. When I saw this statue, I immediately thought back to the standing Buddha image I had seen a few years before at Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. [See post “The Colossi of Gal Vihara” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kR%5D.

Buddha "Sorrow of Others" mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “Sorrow of Others” mudra – Ha Phreow

In that particular Gal Vihara image, the Buddha is standing with his hands crossed at his chest, and the prevailing explanation for this mudra is that it is meant to capture the “Sorrow of Others”. But, at Ha Phreow, the statue I saw had the hands crossed at the Buddha’s stomach area. This had a peculiar effect because upon first glance it looks like the Buddha’s hands are cuffed or in chains. But, there are no chains or bindings of any type on this image. Instead, the image gives a feeling of “resignation” — meaning there is an acknowledgment that suffering in the world exists. Because of that feeling, there is thought by many scholars that this gesture of the Buddha’s hands crossed at his lower body is still a type of “contemplative mudra” similar to that of the statue at Gal Vihara. Both images reflect “sympathizing” with the suffering that is in the world and the plight of those afflicted by such suffering.

Aside from building Ha Phreow, King Setthathirath oversaw the construction of many other important temples in Vientiane — one of which was Wat Si Muang (1563). Wat Si Muang has 2 very intriguing aspects to it. First, unlike any other Buddhist temple that I have ever seen, there is a foundation pillar that sits in the main altar of the temple in an elevated position that is usually reserved for a central Buddha image or other Buddhist iconography.

Foundation Pillar - Wat Si Muang, Vientiane

Foundation Pillar – Wat Si Muang, Vientiane

The main altar room of Wat Si Muang is in the rear hall of the temple. A replica of the Emerald Buddha stands before the wall that separates the rear hall from a larger meeting area which is the front room of Wat Si Muang. As I passed  through the front room and my eyes locked on the Emerald Buddha in front of me, the importance of this image to the Laotian faithful became apparent. Although close to 250 years have passed since the Thai forcibly took the image out of Vientiane, the Lao people have not forgotten its importance. I saw photos and other renderings of the Emerald Buddha tacked in other temples and in stores around Vientiane — as if anticipating the return of the Emerald Buddha one day. I walked by the replica and passed through a doorway that led me to the rear hall of Wat Si Muang. This hall was much smaller and jam-packed with images. In front of the main altar was a black wooden stela image of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. This Buddha image was splattered with pieces of gold foil that had been pressed on it by pilgrims and those seeking blessings. Directly above this image on an elevated platform were other Buddha statues and in the middle of these statues was a gold-painted stone pillar which was draped in ceremonial cloth. This pillar is thought to date back to the initial founding of Vientiane itself and legend has it that at the time this pillar was lowered into the ground a pregnant Lao woman by the name of “Nang Si” was compelled to throw herself into the pit where she died.  After the temple was finished, a tradition began where pregnant Lao women came to the temple to ask for special blessings.

Exterior Wat Si Muang / Khmer ruins to the right

Exterior Wat Si Muang / Khmer ruins to the right

The second interesting aspect of Wat Si Muang is that it sits on a site that was formerly part of a Khmer temple or complex. Directly outside of Wat Si Muang’s rear hall are the remnants of crumbling black bricks which at one time may have been shaped in the form of a temple platform. This area has now been turned into a shrine and has various Buddha statues placed around it and the central portion of the ruins has a white cloth wrapped around it. Since the Khmer Empire at its height did stretch into Laos, it is not surprising that the Khmer likely did build temples around Vientiane. (In the lower half of Laos, there is “Wat Pho” which is a large Khmer ruin consisting of scattered buildings and other structures designed in a very similar style as those of the Khmer capital of Angkor.) So, Wat Si Muang may ultimately sit on the site of what was originally a 12th or 13th century Khmer temple and outpost. I am not sure how much archaeological study has taken place at the grounds of Wat Si Muang, but given the “monolith” like foundation pillar and the Khmer brick mound sitting in plain sight, it likely has lots of secrets under the surface which will probably never be unearthed.

Phra Ong Teu Buddha

Phra Ong Teu Buddha

Another temple of interest in Vientiane is the Ong Teu Mahawihan (Temple of the Heavy Buddha). This temple has the distinction of containing the largest Buddha image in all of Vientiane. This image is made of bronze and some other lesser metals and is called the “Phra Ong Teu” Buddha. King Setthathirath built the temple housing the Phra Ong Teu image, and although the temple was destroyed by the Thai in the 1820s, the Buddha image itself survived. Phra Ong Teu sits on top of a high platform and is flanked by 2 standing Buddha images. I was lucky enough to see this Buddha image soon after the temple had been restored. The inside of the temple is incredibly colorful and the lighting used has a magical effect. I wish the same could be said of That Luang which at one time may have been the most impressive Stupa in all the Lanna Kingdom. That Luang was built by King Setthathirath in 1566 for the purpose of enshrining a bone relic of the Buddha. It has a round base that is very reminiscent of other Stupas in the Buddhist world– such as Sanchi in India, Bodhnath in Kathmandu, and certain Dagobas in Sri Lanka. But, its core rises up into a tight spire similar to Burmese-style Pagodas. Unfortunately, That Luang was completely demolished by the Thai. The French began their first attempt to rebuild it starting in the early 20th century, but this reconstruction stalled and limped along until it was finally finished some time in the 1950s. The French for some reason relied on sketches of That Luang made by a Frenchman in the 1860s– which was after That Luang had already been destroyed by the Thai. I have no idea why they would do that. I can only assume that in their colonial haste, the French just wanted to erect something in order to show their good intentions and didn’t want to fuss with the notion that a “Stupa” could be anything more than a physical monument.

That Luang with King Setthathirath statue in front

That Luang with King Setthathirath statue in front

When I first approached That Luang from its southern entrance, it appeared dazzling. It had a similar beacon-like quality as the Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. However, as I got closer the stupa quickly lost its mystery. I could only see large chunks of cement coated in cheap yellow paint. It looked like an armory or missile depository. The outer walls of the stupa had more character than the Stupa itself.  I walked around the Stupa a few times — and absorbed its being from every angle and vantage point. It just did not create the feeling of reverence like other Stupas I had experienced. There was a feeling of stillborn glory and it seemed “forced”.  There were no streams of pilgrims or people circumambulating, praying, or leaving offerings within the shrine areas of the Stupa.

That Luang

That Luang

While perhaps the lack of religious practice at That Luang may be attributable to the Marxist leanings of Lao politics over the last few decades, I also think that it is difficult to breathe the mystical into modern concrete. Sadly, That Luang, Wat Si Muang, and virtually all other temples in Vientiane that King Setthathirath had constructed during his reign (the “golden age” of Laotian history) were destroyed by the Thai in the early 19th century.

Wat Si Saket (1818)

Wat Si Saket (1818)

The oldest surviving temple in Vientiane today is Wat Si Saket which was built in 1818 — over 250 years after King Setthathirath. It is not clear why the Thai spared this temple when they attacked Vientiane in the 1820s. Some historians think that because Wat Si Saket has elements of Thai design, it may have reminded the Thai of their own Wat Saket (the Golden Mount) in Bangkok [See post “Remains of the Wat-age” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-F6%5D. The Thai actually used the grounds of Wat Si Saket as their military compound and their soldiers slept and ate there while waging their siege on Vientiane.

Restored area of wall - Wat Si Saket

Restored area of wall – Wat Si Saket

Wat Si Saket is surrounded by a large square wall with a covered walkway. All along the inside of the wall are triangular alcoves which are filled with thousands of small seated Buddhas. This wall originally was painted with pastel colors of blue and pink and some small sections of the wall have been recently restored showing this vibrant coloring. The inside of Wat Si Saket is actually much smaller than what may think from viewing the exterior of the temple. No photographs are allowed inside the temple because of its delicate state. There are faded murals on its walls and a small altar sits at the back with an old wooden seated Buddha image. I was able to snap a photo of a small portion of one of the temple’s murals through a window while standing outside of the temple, but could not manage a photo of the old Buddha image which was shrouded in darkness from my standing point outside the temple.

Mural inside Wat Si Saket

Mural inside Wat Si Saket

The roof of Wat Si Saket has 5-tiers — each staggered broadly above the other.  Based on what I would see after traveling north to Luang Prabang, I was later able to understand the difference of the roof and overall design of Wat Si Saket as compared to the style of temples that King Setthathirath constructed in the 1500s. In those other temples, the roof is pancaked tight and soars nearly vertically into the sky. The middle sections of the roofs of those temples also have what look like large candelabras on them. These roof elements serve as symbolic representations of sacred Mt. Meru and contain 7 distinct spires — each symbolizing different stages towards enlightenment. The center section of the highest roof of Wat Si Saket only has a reliquary (or small vessel to carry a Buddhist relic or scripture) with 2 phoenix-like birds standing on either side. The reliquary design is very similar to classical Thai design and is almost basic when compared to the elaborate roof elements found on the temples of Luang Prabang.

Roof element - Wat Si Saket

Roof element – Wat Si Saket

My next stop was then Luang Prabang.  I was not planning on flying there from Vientiane. I wanted to take a bus, so that I could see the Laotian landscape. I had heard the drive to Luang Prabang would be slow and consist of grueling mountain stretches, but I was game. It couldn’t be worse than my “massage road” experience in Cambodia… I remember that exact thought as I took a swig from my bottle of Beerlao during my last night in Vientiane. I was watching the sun lower itself behind a bend of the Mekong River. A couple of fishermen were out on their long wooden boats and casting their nets. There was a live band in the restaurant that was singing John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me”.  Tears trickled down the bridge of my nose — not because of the sights or the song — but because I had ordered some insanely spicy Laotian beef dish. As I felt my lips blister, I took some strange enjoyment out of it. Little did I know how apt that feeling would be in describing my trip the next day.

 

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Massage Road

29 Jul
Border crossing from Aryanthrapet, Thailand to Poitpet, Cambodia (2006)

Border crossing from Aranyaprathet, Thailand to Poipet, Cambodia (2006)

A sense of unease marked my approach to Cambodia. My pre-trip research had revealed that while crossing into the Cambodian border town of Poipet from the Thai entry point of Aranyaprathet was no sweat, the trick would be getting from Poipet to Siem Reap – gateway to the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. There were only 3 choices for available transport: (1) hitching a ride on a pickup truck; (2) hailing a taxi-like Toyota Camry, or (3) finding a bus. But, there were no reliable timetables for any of these options, so I had no idea what I would find once I got to Poipet. My preference was to go with #2 — the Toyota taxi. This option would cost more, but at least I would have some control over where it was going. The contrast between exiting Thailand and entering Cambodia was immediate. Thailand has an efficient infrastructure of roads and rail with a wide network of public transport running on fixed timetables. Cambodia was horribly ravaged by the Khmer Rouge for decades and is still trying to piece itself together. As I crossed over the border and entered Poipet, paved roads vanished and were subsumed by clay and rubble. I was told Poipet had a certain rhyme-like quality to it that brought to mind “toilet” and within a few strides into this desperate and grimy border town that was evident. But, I didn’t get much time to absorb the delights of Poipet because the skies quickly darkened and I was soon pelted by a hard beating rain. The clay under my feet transformed into a churning sludge and I ran fast to the first place I saw in the distance which had a roof. While waiting for the rain to stop, I met some other backpackers who were also headed to Siem Reap. They told me that they had a guide who had arranged for a bus to pick them up at 1pm. I was skeptical, but because I saw no sign of any other transportation and I thought the rain may have scared off other drivers, I decided to hang with them. I walked with the group over to a bus depot, and to my surprise, a vehicle entered and parked alongside us within a few minutes. However, it wasn’t a bus — mini-mini bus is more apt. How we fit 20 backpackers and 2 guides into that bus still boggles my mind (although years later I would be crammed into another mini-mini bus with 16 others for a 12hr journey in Laos that rivaled the drive to Siem Reap; to be described in an upcoming post).

The approach to Angkor Wat temple complex - Angkor, Cambodia

The approach to Angkor Wat temple complex – Angkor, Cambodia

It was 2006 when I travelled to Siem Reap and at that time the “road” from Poipet to Siem Reap consisted only of packed red clay with some iron panels laid flat in certain areas. Maybe the road has since been paved, but I experienced it at a time when it was called by locals as the “massage road” — a euphemism for the deep tissue pounding wrought on any individual who had the privilege to drive over it.  The numbing effects of the massage road took on further visceral meaning for me since I was lucky enough to be sitting on this mini-mini bus, which was packed to the gills with people, bags, and basically dragged its chassis on the ground during the entire time. I had studied a map and estimated that the journey would, at most, take 4 hours. Siem Reap was only around 165km away from Poipet.  But, the guides on the mini-mini bus had other ideas. The bus maintained a top speed of 30km/hr, which I could understand was necessary in spots where the road was filled with holes, trenches, or boulders, but the fact that we kept getting passed time and time again by other trucks and cars made me skeptical of what was really going on. We also stopped twice — once for a food & bathroom break — the second was by force when the bus suddenly veered off the road and pulled into a small village. The guides told us that the bus had a flat tire and so we had to get off the bus and wait until it was fixed. Everyone filed off the bus and I looked on incredulously as the bus then drove away with everyone’s bags still on board! The other backpackers were shaking their heads in disbelief and were all questioning the mysterious flat tire. It had been around 5 hours of torture so far. After about an hour of waiting around, the bus returned and the guides happily explained the tire had been fixed. The remaining hours of the trip unfurled in uncomfortable silence broken only by the occasional “ooouch” and “aaargh” of moaning coming from passengers who hit their heads on the roof of the bus or crushed one another when the bus hit another rock or went over hole. Nightfall had also cast us in an eerie blackness and there were no lights whatsoever along the way. So, a nervousness and fear of accident filled the bus. I was miserably cramped in my seat, stinking in my own sweat (no a/c on the bus), and had no feeling in my legs since my backpack rested on my knees and had cut off circulation. I had images dart in and out of my feverish mind: I saw myself skimming along the road on one of those Toyota Camry taxis, settling into my room Siem Reap, taking a shower, having a cold glass of water… My headed bobbed every now and then as fatigue forced me to shut my eyes, but then I would be violently jerked to a full state of alertness when the bus inevitably lurched in some direction.

Macaque stalking the ruins of Angkor

Macaque stalking the ruins of Angkor

After one particularly nasty jerk of the bus, my eyelids flew open and I saw a faint glow in the distance. These had to be coming from Siem Reap!! I would soon be getting off this bus! We got closer and closer, and then, inexplicably, we continued past the town and sank back into darkness. Some of the people in the front of the bus loudly asked the guides where we were going. One of the guides said that the bus was taking us to the station which was outside of town. But, when the bus finally stopped it was clear what had happened. The guides had hijacked us to some out-of-the way guesthouse. They dropped us off there and in a humdrum manner declared that this guesthouse had the best rates. They obviously would get a cut of all the room bookings from the owner of the guesthouse. I told them that I had reserved a room back in town, but they insisted my guesthouse was closed. At this point, my patience with the guides had run out and I just turned my back on them and walked away. Luckily, I found a tuk-tuk driver sitting outside the guesthouse. Two Japanese backpackers who had been on the bus with me walked over to me and asked what I was doing. I explained that I had a place to stay in Siem Reap and was going there. They told me they also were staying in Siem Reap and asked whether they could ride into town with me. So, we struck an arrangement with the tuk-tuk driver to take the 3 of us to our respective lodgings in Siem Reap. When I arrived at my guesthouse (actually called Mom’s Guest House), the proprietor, Mrs. Kong, who was expecting me came out to greet me. The room I was staying in was $5 a night, but it was the best $5 I had ever spent by far in my life. It was 10pm, I had been on that bus for over 8 hours and was wiped out. My neck and shoulders were twisted up in knots and I was sore everywhere else. I had 3 days to immerse myself in Angkor, so I tried not to dwell on my maddening massage road ordeal. I thought only of the next day and the sights awaiting me.

Dancing Apsaras - Angkor

Dancing Apsaras

In the morning, I took a bike from Mrs. Kong and rode through the center of Siem Reap before I found my way to the entrance of Angkor — the last stretch of which passes by huge luxury hotels like Raffles and Le Meridien before the archaeological area begins. I purchased a 3-day pass (which requires a passport-sized photo for non-Cambodians) and spent the morning to dusk of each day exploring as much of the Khmer capital as I could. As described in a previous post (See “At The Dawn of Happiness” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Du), Angkor was founded as the capital of the Khmer Empire in the early 9th century and was the most populated city of its time. The first Khmer Kings were adherents of Hinduism and so stories from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, along with celestial beings like Apsaras were carved throughout the walls of the city. With each new Khmer King, new temples and structures were added to Angkor. In the early 12th century, the Khmer King Suryavarman II constructed the world’s largest temple complex known as Angkor Wat which was originally meant to capture a microcosm of the Hindu universe where the supreme-god Vishnu would be able to reside in quiet contemplation of all creation. Buddhism was not adopted as the dominant religion of the Khmer Empire until King Jayavarman VII ascended to the throne in the late 12th century. He ruled for 30 years (from 1181 to 1218AD) and is considered by most historians as the greatest Khmer King. He was a devotee of Mahayana Buddhism and one of his most important acts was to rededicate Angkor Wat as a Buddhist temple. He also actively expanded the city centre of the capital and constructed several new temples. Some of his most well-known additions to Angkor include Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Bayon (Jayavarman’s face is built into the sides of many portions of this pyramid-like temple since he sought to depict himself as a bodhisattva of compassion), and Angkor Thom. Interestingly, within a few decades after the death of King Jayavarman VII, the practice of Mayahana Buddhism within the Khmer Empire was largely replaced by Theravada Buddhism. One of the reasons for this shift to Theravada practice is that King Jayavaraman VII had a son who went to Sri Lanka to study Buddhism and became a monk in the Sinhalese Theravada tradition. When the son returned to Angkor, he espoused the Theravada teachings he had learned which quickly spread through the capital and throughout the Khmer Empire.

Silk Tree at Teah Prohm - Angkor

Silk Cotton Tree at Ta Prohm – Angkor

The Khmer Empire ultimately came to an end when the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya invaded and conquered Angkor in the 15th century. Thereafter, the inhabitants of Angkor began to leave, the creeping jungle slowly swallowed it up, and it became lost for centuries. But, what was not lost was Theravada Buddhism which had taken root after King Jayavarman VII’s death and became further entrenched as a result of the conquering Thai. Today, Theravada Buddhism is still the dominant religion of Cambodia notwithstanding the fact that the Khmer Rouge did their utmost to eradicate its practice. At the end of my first day at Angkor, I climbed up a hill called Phnom Bakheng which is located to the north of Angkor Wat. Many tourists and villagers go up to the top of this hill to watch the sunset and see how the fading sunlight changes the color of Angkor Wat which one can see below. From the hilltop, I was able to comprehend how enormous Angkor was and saw the boundaries and moats which the Khmer had so methodically engineered in order to protect and sustain its large population (ironically, one prevailing theory today as to why people ultimately abandoned the capital was that problems with proper irrigation for farming led to its collapse). I took several photos which captured the light dancing off Angkor Wat in all sorts of different shades. It was mesmerizing and I was rabid in anticipation of many more incredible scenes and photo ops that I would certainly experience over the next few days. Then, a funny thing happened. As I was pedaling on my bike and turning to exit the archaeological park which was closing, a small car with an attached food cart trailer came up on my left side. I tried to be sure that the car had a wide berth so it could pass me cleanly, but somehow my front wheel bumped a wheel on the trailer and I went flying over my handle bars. I don’t remember the pain of my fall. I only remember looking up and blinking at the face of someone staring down at me with concern. It was the driver of the car. He spoke a little English and asked me if I was OK. I stood up with a shakiness and tried to get my bearings. I saw the bent front frame of my bike a few meters away from me. I then looked down and saw my dented camera near my feet. I think somehow the impact of my fall was absorbed by my camera which I had strapped around my torso. I slowly wrapped my mind as to what had just happened and then I realized I was not seriously hurt. I exhaled in relief and looked at the man. I could only smile. He smiled back. I started to laugh and shake my head. I told him I was OK and shook his hand goodbye.

Female Monk - Angkor Wat

Female Monk – Angkor Wat

I was touched that he had stopped his car and come over to see if I was OK. He could have easily driven off, especially if he thought he had hit a tourist who was seriously injured. I picked up my camera and inspected it. It was dented, but the roll of film inside seemed unharmed and the camera appeared to still function. Little did I know that my camera was basically useless. Something inside the lens or shutter had cracked, and although I took over 12 rolls of film over the next few days, only a handful of the pictures were able to be developed. There you have it then — I had arrived via a ridiculously long and nerve-wracking journey and then found myself busted flat on the road during my first day at Angkor. I’m not sure I learned any lessons. I just picked myself off the ground, fixed the bent frame of my bike, and hopped back on. When it was time for me to leave and get back to Thailand, I did make sure to take one of those Toyotas back to the border. So, I guess that was a lesson learned — there was no way was I going to repeat the massage road experience. And you know how long the drive back to Poipet from Siem Reap took? 65 minutes.

Reflections in a Golden Face

26 Nov
Burmese girl at Mandalay  Flower Market

Burmese girl at Mandalay Flower Market

There’s a stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Mandalay, that reads: “If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else. / No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else/ But them spicy garlic smells, /An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells; On the road to Mandalay…” Kipling wrote these lines in 1892 and in the full context of the poem, these words are being spoken by a soldier who has just come back from a 10-year stint in Burma and is describing his experience to the Kipling narrator who longs for a life in the East with a Burmese girl he left behind when he returned to London. Now, stuck in the cold drab confines of English city life, he reflects on his lost time in Mandalay and slips into the past as he listens to the soldier’s words.

View of Mandalay Hill from palace wall

View of Mandalay Hill from palace wall

Contrary to what may be a popular held belief, Mandalay is not on the ocean and does not have a bay. It is in the north part of Burma located far from the gulf and instead is nestled along the Irrawaddy River. It was the last capital of the Burmese kings and their beautiful teak Mandalay Palace compound burned to a crisp during World War II fighting in the city.  Today, Mandalay is Burma’s second largest city and is a dusty, gem-trading urban sprawl that serves as a crossroads for Burmese minorities from the northernmost corners of the country who come to Mandalay for supplies and work. In the city’s north boundary looms Mandalay Hill — a 760ft tall mound that is sprinkled with many monasteries, temples, and shrines connected by a series of covered stairways and paths which snake around the hill and up to its summit.

O Bein's Bridge - Amarapura

U Bein Bridge (1850AD) – Amarapura

Within 50km of Mandalay lies the former capital of Amarapura (home of the oldest teak bridge in the world – U Bein Bridge) and Sagaing which is a center for international Buddhist study and learning and has hills laden with many monasteries and temples — most famous of which are the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda and U Min Thonze Pagoda.

45 Buddha images of U Min Thonze - Sagaing

45 Buddha images of U Min Thonze – Sagaing

97ft high Soon U Ponya Shin Budda  (13th century) - Sagaing

97ft high Soon U Ponya Shin Buddha (13th century) – Sagaing

Mandalay contains one icon that beyond all else was the raison d’etre for my visit there: the Mahamuni Buddha. Along with the Schwedagon Pagoda and Golden Rock, the Mahamuni Pagoda which contains an image of the Buddha’s face cast in 554BC is the most venerated site of pilgrimage in Burma. Pictures or small replicas of the Mahamuni Buddha are found hanging in taxi cabs, stores, and restaurants all around Burma.

The Buddha pointing down from atop Mandalay Hill to the land below where he prophesied the founding of Mandalay. Ananda to his left.

The Buddha pointing down from atop Mandalay Hill to the land below where he prophesied the founding of Mandalay. Ananda to the left.

During the last half of the 6th century BC, the Buddha walked throughout India and beyond to spread his teachings. At one point, he went east and crossed what today is Bangladesh and dipped south to the Rakhine State area of modern Burma. There, he reached the city of Dhanyawadi which at that time was the capital of the Kingdom of Arakan. The Arakanese King  had already been exposed to Buddhism through those subjects and members of his court who had converted to the Buddha’s teachings, so he requested that the Buddha come to Dhanyawadi.

View of Sandamuni Paya from Mandalay Hill [each of the white stupas contains a marble slab with a page of the Tripitaka]

View of Sandamuni Paya from Mandalay Hill [each of the white stupas contains a marble slab with a page of the Tripitaka (earliest Buddhist scriptures)]

When the Buddha arrived, the King and the citizenry brought various gold and other precious objects as gifts for the Buddha who of course did not accept them. Instead, these objects were melted down and an image was cast of the Buddha’s  actual face. After the cast was created and the rest of the image’s body was put together, this image served to commemorate the Buddha’s visit to Dhanyawadi and passing generations of people were drawn to it in order to make offerings and stand witness to this likeness of the Buddha. The offerings took the form of diamonds, gold, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires which were affixed to the crown and chest of the Mahamuni Buddha. Then, gold leaf was applied to the Mahamuni Buddha continuously and this has resulted in several inches of thick gold layering on the image.  The image stayed in Dhanyawadi until the Arakan kingdom was sacked by the Mon Burmese who absconded with the Mahamuni Buddha and made it their own. The story goes that the Mahamuni Buddha was so large that it had to be cut into pieces for transport to Amarapura- which was then the capital city of Burma. It was then moved to Mandalay and has resided in its present compound after it was built in the 1780s by King Bodawpaya.

Matwalgyi Paya - Mingun

Mingun Pahtodawgyi – Mingun

King Bodawpaya was incredibly ambitious — not only did he consider himself a reincarnation of the Buddha, he also attempted to construct the largest stupa (and bell) in the world — on the other side of the Irrawaddy river just north of Mandalay. This was to be called the Mingun Pahtodawgyi — the Great Royal Stupa. It was never finished and today lies as huge brick stump that has since been split by an earthquake.

Exterior of Mahamuni Pagoda

Exterior of Mahamuni Pagoda

The Mahamuni Buddha compound is large with 4 points of entry and contains arcades or pavilions with covered walkways. There is a bazaar-like feel in these arcades where there are hundreds of shop stalls selling various religious ornaments, garlands, incense, and other offerings alongside books, home goods, food, and other supplies. On display in one of the temple courtyards is a set of 3 Khmer copper statues that were originally looted from the Khmer capital of Angkor in Cambodia by the Siamese kings of Ayutthaya in Thailand.  Ayutthaya was then sacked in the 16th century by the Mon king of the time, who took these pieces back to Burma. These statues today are rubbed by pilgrims as each contains some special merit.  If one follows any of these arcades they ultimately spill into the central area of the temple which then cascades in a series of archways into a small chamber. Inside this chamber is the Mahamuni Buddha which although in a seated position — appears at first glance to be standing over the continuous streams of monks, pilgrims, and people who are sitting below it. But, the Mahamuni is in fact seated in the mudra position where his right hand is pointed down — invoking the earth’s attestation to his attainment of Enlightenment and the vanquishing of Mara the tempter.

Cascading archways leading to the Mahamuni Buddha

Cascading archways leading to the Mahamuni Buddha

I approached the Mahamuni head-on and passed through a narrow arched corridor.  Each arch was divided into a base of red brick that gave way to a golden paint which rose to the ceiling. As I walked closer to the gleaming Mahamuni, the last 7 or so archways became more and more ornate with glyphic designs, flowers, and other intricate gilded patterns. There were people sitting on a carpeted area looking towards the light of the Mahamuni. Women were seated in the back of the carpeted area and men were seated closer to the Mahamuni. The area nearest to the Mahamuni was cordoned off and reserved only for monks. I slowed my gait as the great image began to reveal itself to me.

Mahamuni Buddha

Mahamuni Buddha

DSCN2840

Siddhartha Gautama?

It was set off in the darkened corridor by electric lights that framed the final archway that led to its chamber. This was truly an inner sanctum. The golden image was enhanced by lights from the ceiling of the chamber that bounced off it. A round face with closed oval eyes, broad flat nose, and pursed lips. This was the face — the face of Siddhartha Gautama before me. I sat down. He is 13ft high, but looks bigger. Something about the layering of old, medallions, necklaces, and other gems on his torso and crown make it look massive.  I studied the image. It smacked of humanness. I clearly saw features of a face that once did belong to someone. I had no doubt. This was not an idealized Buddha face as was omnipresent throughout Burma and elsewhere in the Buddhist world. Nor was this some kind of inanimate face like those found in other ancient statues of the Buddha. This image had a very different quality — a soul.  No wonder that at dawn of each day the face and teeth of the Mahamuni Buddha are cleaned in a carefully choreographed ritual by a senior monk.  As I sat cross-legged in the carpeted area reserved for men, I looked around at the people around me. Some had their eyes closed in silent prayer, yet others had their gazes fixed on the Mahamuni Buddha as if in a trance.

DSCN2836On the surface it could have appeared that we were worshipping a golden deity, but Buddhism is not about worship. It is about inward contemplation about the causes of suffering and discontent, understanding how such causes shackle us, and then breaking free from these shackles through an active pursuit towards ethical conduct, intention, speech, effort, and mindfulness. The image of the Buddha may be used as a point of focus for quieting one’s monkey mind, but he is not himself the focus. The Buddha never spoke to his disciples that he was to be worshipped. Nor did he teach about the need for worshipping any creator of the world. The focus of his teachings was on how to navigate a middle path toward the attainment of Enlightenment and after one had achieved that, then one would pass into a state of spiritual and physical bliss – freed of suffering – which could be realized in life or upon death.DSCN2838 As I sat before the Mahamuni, I thought about what the other people around me were concentrating on. Were they here asking for a blessing, searching for answers, or merely basking in the radiance of the illuminated being before them?

Monk at Sandamuni Paya

Monk at Sandamuni Paya

I think back to that moment now and re-imagine the smells, sights, and sounds swirling around that chamber.  The fragrant incense permeating through the archways and the mix of garlands and exotic spices. The sight of golden rays shooting out from the Mahamuni. The quiet murmur of the monks’ chanting and the laity shuffling on the carpet.  A trinity of senses. In his poem, Kipling also invoked a trinity as he cited to the garlic, sunlight, and tinkling bells. From his grey London quarters, he thought about that — about romance, about the East. Today, from within the cramped office of Western modernity, I understand Kipling’s nostalgic sentiment. I understand that longing.

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