Tag Archives: Luang Prabang

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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Pra Bang Man

16 Nov
Wat Phabang, Luang Prabang - Laos (20140

Wat Phabang, Luang Prabang – Laos (2014)

The origin of its name — Luang Prabang — is attributable to a small 1-meter high statue called the “Pra Bang”.  The Pra Bang is the most revered Buddha image in Laos and is thought to have been cast in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BC. The image shows the Buddha in the “double abhaya” mudra [see Laos Calling at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Ik%5D and was given as a wedding present to the Lane Xang King, Fa Ngum, by a Khmer King whose daughter King Ngum married in the mid-14th century AD. King Ngum was the first major king of what was to become the Lanna Kingdom and he reigned between 1353 to 1373 AD.  At that time, the Khmer Empire was at its height and Buddhism had been adopted as the new religion of the Khmer replacing Hinduism. King Ngum’s marriage to the Khmer princess was important not only for the purpose of cementing of royal blood lines, but ultimately it served as the ceremonial circumstance that allowed Buddhism to become the official state religion of Laos. The Pra Bang bestowed an immediate legitimacy to King Ngum that he was able to leverage as he further extended his sovereignty and helped push the boundaries of his kingdom.

Sneaky pic of the Pra Bang

Sneaky pic of the Pra Bang

The Pra Bang was kept in the royal palace at Luang Prabang through the centuries and taken out on a few important Buddhist holidays where it was paraded through the streets of the old capital. In 2013, a new temple called Wat Phabang was built solely to house the Pra Bang. The Wat Phabang is located on the grounds of the Royal Palace where the last Lao King, Sisavang Vatthana, resided starting in 1959 after the death of his father (King Sisavang Vong). As Laos became swept up in the socialist fervor and political change which blanketed most of Southeast Asia at the time, the idea of a “king” became untenable and King Vatthana was forced to abdicate and turn the country over to the Pathet Lao in the 1975. The King died a few years later and the Royal Palace was converted to a state museum.

The Royal Palace - Luang Prabang

The Royal Palace – Luang Prabang

When I went to see the Pra Bang at the Wat Phabang, I first walked into the Royal Palace and what I found most interesting was a salon area where various gifts were on display. These gift had been presented to King Vatthana by others leaders and heads of state from around the world as gestures of cultural exchange and goodwill. Most of the gifts represented some indigenous or artistic link to the country that was represented. I found it interesting that the gift from the United States was a couple of fragments of moonrock in small glass capsules along with a metal engraving containing a statement from President Nixon which said something to the effect of: “These pieces of the moon represent the continuing friendship of the U.S. with the Laotian people.”  I walked out of the Royal Palace and headed to Wat Phabang. The Wat Phabang is brand-spanking new and gleams brightly when the sun’s rays hit it. I bounded up the stairs to the opened door of the temple and found a rope blocking entry along with a security guard.  The public is not allowed inside the Wat Phabang and no photos of the Pra Bang are allowed. I craned my neck into the shadowed interior of the temple and could see the Pra Bang standing within an altar.  The familiar double abhaya mudra position of the image was clear. I also noticed that the Pra Bang had what appeared to be a crown on its head. I tried to snap a few photos surreptitiously of the Pra Bang, but it was difficult to capture a clear view of the image. Admittedly, the moment of my face to face with the Pra Bang felt a bit rushed given the fidgety security guard nearby and the other visitors awaiting their turn to stand in the doorway in order to peer at the image.

The procession of the Pra Bang - April 2014 (courtesy of Jason Kittisak)

The procession of the Pra Bang – April 2014 (courtesy of Jason Kittisak)

The next day when I was visiting Wat That Luang (the “Royal Monastery”), I met a young monk named Somchit Kittisak. He had selected “Jason” as his name in English and we struck up a conversation almost from the very moment I parked my bike in the shade of a tree and strolled into Wat That Luang’s grounds. As Jason showed me the inside of Wat That Luang and we walked around the two Thai-styles which flank the temple — one of which is a golden funerary stupa that holds the cremated remains of King Sisavong Vang — I asked him about when the Pra Bang is taken out of its temple and paraded through Luang Prabang. He told me that this ceremony took place in the spring which usually fell on the 18th of April.  On that the day, the Pra Bang is removed from its temple and placed on a carriage which is then pushed through the streets of Luang Prabang to another temple. When it arrives at the designated temple, select monks from around Luang Prabang are vested with the right to pour water on the image and perform other rites. After the ceremony is finished, the Pra Bang is taken back to Wat Phabang. I have stayed in touch with Jason and he emailed me some photos of the Pra Bang during its last procession. I was excited to see the pics and have a clearer look at the Pra Bang.

Golden funerary stupa at Wat That Luang

Golden funerary stupa at Wat That Luang

Interestingly, as Jason and I discussed the Pra Bang ceremony, he brought up the “Burning Man” festival in the United States and asked me about it.  I never in my wildest dreams would have thought about the parallels between the Pra Bang parade and the Burning Man spectacle that takes place every August in the northern Nevada desert. I first laughed when Jason brought it up. But, then I thought about it some and said that at the very first Burning Man there may have been the same kind of spiritual force or energy that was similar to the effect the Pra Bang has in Laos when it is carried through the streets accompanied by pageantry and the public comes out en masse to see it.

Stenciled door panel at Wat That Luang

Stenciled door panel at Wat That Luang

But, I wasn’t sure what Burning Man represented now since all I had heard was that with each passing year it had  become more extravagant and “VIP”-oriented and it was no longer something that interested me. So, I had tuned it out. But, it was fascinating to see that in far off Luang Prabang a young monk like Jason had heard about Burning Man and wondered how it might represent the same kind of spiritual energy that he understood.

Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Xieng Thong

Aside from the Pra Bang, the most important site in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong (Temple of the Golden City). This temple was built by King Setthathirath in 1560 and there are many small chapels and other buildings — including a funerary temple and a temple that houses a golden carriage that was once used to carry the Lao Kings — found on its grounds. Everything about Wat Xieng Thong — its broad wooden flanks, bright green naga-style roof points, pillars, glass mosaics, red, gold & black coloring, and interior hall (or sim) — are wondrous.  But, perhaps, the most beautiful aspect of Wat Xieng Thong are the well-preserved Laotian stencil designs that are found all along its pillars, panels, exteriors, and interiors.

Stencils and design of Wat Xieng Thong

Stencils and design of Wat Xieng Thong

This stencil design process — called “mak mak” in Lao shorthand — is unique to Laotian arts and not something I’ve seen elsewhere in Buddhist religious imagery. There are a few shops in Luang Prabang which offer classes to foreigners who want to learn the Lao stencil process.  The stencilwork around Wat Xieng is over 400 years old — some patterns are infinitely intricate while others are straight representations of Buddhist iconography.

Main altar inside Wat Xieng Thong

Main altar inside Wat Xieng Thong

Inside the main hall of Wat Xieng Thong is a seated Buddha flanked by 4 standing Buddhas with 6 smaller seated Buddhas placed in front of it. There are red circular wooden pillars which frame the central Buddha. Each pillar is detailed with intricate gold stencil designs, patterns, and images of the Buddha. One cannot walk behind the main seated Buddha because it sits up against the far wall of the temple. There is some space to the 2 sides of the altar area where one can walk through in order to see the Buddha from a side view. Off to the left-hand side of the Buddha, there is a replica of the Pra Bang that stands within its own altar.

Mak Mak

Exterior stencilwork – Wat Xieng Thong

The back of Wat Xieng Thong has a lush mosaic piece referred to as “Tree of Life” which was created in 1964 — as part of commemorations in Luang Prabang of the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s attainment of Enlightenment.

Tree of Life mosaic - Wat Xieng Thong

Tree of Life mosaic – Wat Xieng Thong

The “Tree of Life” mosaic is seamless in the way that it integrates with the centuries old stencil designs which predated it. The mosaic elements of the Tree are so close in their look and feel to the stencil design elements of Wat Xieng Thong it is as if the 2 had been crafted by the same artisans at the same time. There are other glass mosaics found on the smaller chapels which sit on the grounds of Wat Xieng Thong. These mosaics depict scenes from the life of the Buddha, elephants, animals, and scenes of everyday life during Luang Prabang’s heyday as capital of the country. One of the chapels surrounding Wat Xieng Thong is called the “Red Chapel” or “Sanctuary of the Reclining Buddha”. Inside this chapel is a bronze Buddha statue in the reclining pose the Buddha assumed before his death. Only 1 or 2 people can enter this chapel at a time because it is very small and there is little standing room inside.

The "Red Chapel" / "Sanctuary of the Recliningg Buddha" on the left

The “Red Chapel” / “Sanctuary of the Reclining Buddha” on the left

Everyone must remove their shoes before entering and once inside the chapel it is better to sit down and absorb the windowless interior which is bright red and filled with hundreds of small gold Buddha statues. At the back of the temple is where the reclining Buddha image lies. Its central position in such a cramped space effectively commands one’s attention. There is no escaping the flowing beauty and almost haughty vibe of this image. The Buddha appears languid and bored through his facial expression and the manner in which his hand props up his head. The image also has an obsidian-like dark coloring and smoothness that enhances this “ice prince” effect.

The reclining Buddha in the Red Chapel at Wat Xieng Thong

The reclining Buddha in the Red Chapel at Wat Xieng Thong

There is an inscription on the statue’s base which states it was created under the instruction of King Setthatirath in what would have been 1569 AD. This image was at one point whisked away by the French who had on it display in Paris in the 1930s and then it was transferred to Ha Phreow in Vientiane for some time before being returned to Luang Prabang. The chapel of the reclining Buddha has red and gold coloring and mosaic work on its outside, and it stands out from the other chapels that dot the grounds of Wat Xieng Thong.

"Do Sa Fan" roof centerpiece - Wat Xieng Thong

“Dok So Fa” roof centerpiece – Wat Xieng Thong

When viewed from afar, the 7-tiered roof of Wat Xieng Thong is easy to see. The first tier is slung so low that it appears at first glance to nearly touch the ground. As your eyes follow each tier up above ibe another until you get to the final tier a final artistic flourish awaits. Located right in the center of Wat Xieng Thong’s last roof beam is the “dok so fa” — which can be translated from Lao to English as “jutting outward to the sky”. This decorative piece is meant to represent the Buddhist universe. At Wat Xieng Thong, there are multiple individual spires that cascade upward from the left and right side up to a center spire that stands above all the rest. This central spire represents the sacred mountain of Mt. Meru and the other spires below it show the rest of the universe as they come into and go out of existence through infinity.

Dok Sa Fa of Wat Maha That

Dok So Fa of Wat Maha That

I saw another interesting dok so fa at Wat Si Mahatat or Wat Maha That (the “Monastery of the Stupa”) which is located to the east of Luang Prabang. Wat Maha That was founded by King Setthathirath in 1548 and its dok so fa consists of 15 spires. Each spire is in the shape of a small pagoda similar in style to that of Wat Xieng Thong. This kind of ornamentation in the central roof beams of Lao temples is radically different than the simple roof ornamentation found in Thai temples [see photo of the dok so fa of Wat Si Saket in Vientiane in Laos Calling – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Ik]. When I had met Jason at Wat That Luang, I also asked him about the meaning of the dok so fa. When I pointed to the dok so fa sitting on top of Wat That Luang and asked him about Mt. Meru, he explained that the representation of the Buddhist universe was just one layer of the dok so fa and that it had a dual meaning. He explained that the moving upwards from each lower spire to the one above it and then ultimately reaching the central and highest spire was also meant to remind the Buddhist practitioner of the path towards attaining Enlightenment. At its core, the Buddha’s teaching to his followers was that the cessation of suffering could occur through maintaining a “Middle Way” and actively using 8 principles in their spiritual practice — one had to invoke the right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. In looking up at the dok so fa at Wat That Luang and counting each spire — whether from the left or right side – each set of spires led upwards to the central spire in 8 steps. The dok so fa was then a reminder to Jason and his fellow monks to follow the principles of spiritual practice that the Buddha taught in order to attain the ultimate goal — Enlightenment. It was incredible to see the convergence between art and spiritual practice through such an ornamentation.  I had only Jason to thank for providing me with that insight.

Post-script: Some months later, Jason sent me a video which provides a snapshot into the monastic life of young monks studying at Pasaviet Temple in Luang Prabang. Please take a look — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8RvVORSvEY&feature=share.  Jason himself appears at the beginning and strikes the call to prayer bell. The chanting is rich and billows out in waves of purity…

Massage Road (Lao Redux)

19 Oct
Vieng Vang, Laos (2014)

Vang Vieng, Laos (2014)

I woke up on a chilly late December morning in Vientiane. I was headed to Luang Prabang and had booked a spot on a bus that I was told would do the 390km (240 miles) journey in about 7 hours. That was cool with me. I would get to see the Laotian countryside and have some time to nap along the way. I was picked up outside of my hotel by a tuk tuk-like vehicle with a flatbed carriage. After the driver crossed my name off his list, I hopped on. I was the first person, so I had the carriage all to myself.  The driver spent about 30 minutes careening through the narrow streets of Vientiane in order to pick up 9 more people from other hotels and guesthouses. The sun was starting to rise, and since we were sitting in an open-air carriage, everyone was shivering and trying to bundle up. So, there wasn’t much conversation going on. As we neared the bus station, our driver suddenly pulled into a gas station and we were told to get off. Needless to say, we were confused and a South African amongst us asked the driver what was happening. The driver pointed to a small minibus that was parked in the gas station and said that was the “bus” to Luang Prabang. Everyone one of us was expecting a standard-sized bus and had seen photos of this when buying the tickets. Now, here we were at the crack of dawn — freezing — and being told our ride was half of what we were expecting. I could only laugh to myself. “Here we go again,” I thought as my mind flashed back to my experience in Cambodia nearly 8 years earlier [See post “Massage Road” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-HF%5D. But, I was strangely composed and nonplussed by the situation. I was going to roll with it and not get frustrated by what would surely be another aching and arduous trip. Not everyone shared my mindset though. The South African chap angrily demanded that his bags be returned to him and he quickly hailed a taxi and went directly to the bus station to find his promised ride. I looked around and counted 16 people: 2 Aussies, 2 Brits, 3 Poles, 8 Russians, and me — the token American. We each slowly piled into the minibus. Since I was one of the last ones on, I got the middle seat in the back row and that turned out to be the worst spot because I had nothing to hold or brace myself on for the entire journey.

Welcome Sign - Vang Vieng

Welcome Sign – Vang Vieng

As the minibus pulled out of the gas station and onto the one road that led north out of Vientiane, things initially began smoothly because the road was paved and the land was flat. But, after about 45 minutes or so, the paved road gave way to crumbling gravel and there were holes and chewed off pavement. The minibus popped and lurched along. On one of these pops, the young girl next to me vomited in her hands. I had to get her mother’s attention who was sitting a few rows ahead of me. Next thing I knew, I was handed some kind of barf bag to give to the girl along with handwipes. Her father got the driver’s attention and the minibus stopped. The young girl slowly waddled off and continued to throw-up outside while her parents consoled her and cleaned her up. When she got back on, the driver seemed to adjust his driving so that it was a bit smoother and we did not stop again until we reached Vang Vieng — the adventure capital of Laos with whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and lots of partying by tourists. At a guesthouse-cum-restaurant stop there, everyone piled off the minibus, stretched their legs, and had some lunch. I wandered around the streets of Vang Vieng and immediately tuned into the hippy-esque vibe of the place. There were hookah bars and places branding themselves as offering “natural” and “organic” foods. Hammocks were slung off the rafters of porches and there were rows and rows of adventure tour vendors.

Pensive Enchantment - Luang Prabang, Laos

Pensive enchantment – Luang Prabang, Laos

On my way back to the minibus, I bumped into a man who I recognized was part of my traveling group. We started chatting and he told me his name was Matthieu and that he was from Montreal. He had been traveling solo through Thailand and Laos for the last 3 months. He was married, but his wife had chosen to opt-out of his trip. He didn’t seem to mind. He appeared to be in his early 60s, but his eyes had a childlike quality and allure to them. I’ve seen that look before in others who come to Asia on extended journeys. It’s a look that smacks of being carefree, yet it is tinged with some kind of reclamation. Like getting back or returning to something that has been forgotten or lost in that person.  I would bump into Matthieu twice — both completely random — in Luang Prabang over the next few days. The first time he and I passed each other while walking our bicycles through the night market in the old town. We were so excited about what we each had seen that day that we talked over each other and I don’t remember at all what he said — except he had bought an exquisite Laotian silk scarf that was tied smartly around his neck and I knew I had to get one too! Our second meeting was at a French cafe located in the far end of the main road. He was having a cigarette and sipping an espresso at a table outside. I came across this cafe out of an instinct to find a good source of caffeine and as soon as I pedaled up to it — there was Matthieu waving at me. It was as if he had been waiting for me to arrive. We ended up having the kind of unabashed and honest conversation that only 2 strangers with no agendas can have with one another. There were no preconceived judgments or fears of any reprisals. Just exhilarating talk accompanied by savory cafe au lait and pan du chocolate. Then, we both got on our bikes and headed in opposite directions. His last words to me: “Enjoy life”.

Novice monks doing chores at monastery - Luang Prabang

Novice monks doing chores in their monastery – Luang Prabang

From Vang Vieng onwards, the road climbed and climbed with turn after turn through mountainous passes. Huge stone karst formations shot up around us. The views were amazing but the drive was so bumpy and shaky that it was impossible to take photos. We did stop a few times along the way, but all I wanted to do when stepping off the minibus was to try to regain my balance. Because I had no seat or anything directly in front of me to hold onto, I had to clench my entire body in order to lower my center of gravity and prevent myself from falling off my seat or hitting my head on the roof. The road had 2-way traffic, but was only wide enough for one car to pass at a time. I remember Matthieu making a joke to the effect of: “the French and Lao engineers must not have liked building tunnels because there were none.” He definitely was right about the lack of tunnels during the drive. The road kept snaking the long way around each mountain pass. So, while the distance between Vientiane to Luang Prabang when measured in a straight line was not too far, the actual drive time had no relation to that distance.  At one point, our driver stopped the car, and we didn’t know what was going on. It turned out he was ogling a small house built into the hillside which was in the process of collapsing and falling down. There was little patience among us for this kind of rubbernecking, so we barked at the driver to get on with driving.  On another turn, we came to a full stop and saw an overturned tanker on the road.  As our mini-bus had to inch around this steel carcass, we saw people standing around the tanker smoking as they waited for help. I guess the risk of the tanker blowing up due to their cigarettes wasn’t an issue.

Evening prayer at temple - Luang Prabang

Evening prayer at temple – Luang Prabang

Finally, after 11 hours, we pulled into Luang Prabang — and even then there was some dodginess. We had been led to believe that the ticket we had purchased would cover us getting dropped out off at our guesthouse. So, we expected that a smaller vehicle would be waiting for us at the bus stop.  Not the case. Instead, the minibus pulled into an area near the old city of Luang Prabang and we were told that we had to get our own ride from there to our guesthouse.  After nearly half a day of being jostled about in a tin can, I wasn’t in the mood for another long ride. I had been studying a map of the old town of Luang Prabang and because it was bisected by 2 rivers, I felt I had an easy sense of orientation. I knew my guesthouse would be off to the right-side of the old town and along the Nam Khan riverside. As soon as I got off the minibus, I put on my backpack and made a beeline through the old town night market and got to the main drag of Sisavangvong Road.  After a few blocks, I turned right on a small side avenue and walked down to where I got to the road overlooking the Nam Khan river. From there, I walked north and found my guesthouse on the left-hand side.

Novice monk studying - Luang Prabang

Novice monk studying – Luang Prabang

I entered my room, took off my pack, and plopped on the bed. I was exhausted. The long drive had sapped me of my strength and the walk to the guesthouse was farther than I had expected. I mustered up what little energy I had in order to connect my tablet device to the WiFi of the guesthouse and booked a ticket on Lao Airlines for my return to Vientiane in 3-days’ time.  I wanted to be sure I had reserved a flight because there were only a few flights from Luang Prabang back to Vientiane and this was the peak travel season. I  just couldn’t have my body and mind absorb another grueling half day overland journey. I had endured the nausea of the girl next to me, the rollicking of the minibus, and a severely tensed up back and neck. I put down my tablet after getting the confirmation for my plane reservation and then stumbled into the bathroom. It was close to 9pm, so I was only planning to do some reading and then falling asleep. I needed to recharge my batteries because I would be getting up early the next day and would be hopping on and off my bicycle going to all the sights around the old town.  I went to the sink and turned on the faucet for the cold water. I splashed the water over my face a few times and when I looked up at the mirror, I noticed a flash in my eyes. It was that look — same as Matthieu’s from earlier that day. As if I had ingested some tonic, my road-weariness shook itself out of me. I was in Luang Prabang — one of the best-preserved and most beautiful cities in Asia. Rich in history, lavish temple art, home to hundreds of monasteries, and surrounded by stunning geography and landscape. It was enchantment. The adrenaline coursed through my body. I quickly threw on some clothes and shoes and was off into the night. No doubt Matthieu was already there.

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.

 

The Jewel of the Chao Phraya

17 Mar
View of Wat Phra Keo temple complex - Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

View of Wat Phra Keo temple complex – Bangkok, Thailand (2006)


It’s rare to be able to identify the spiritual heart and soul of a nation within 1 religious work of art.  Yet, that’s what the Emerald Buddha represents to Thailand. While this Buddha image is not actually made of emerald (likely chiseled from a jadeite, nephrite or jasper stone) and is small in height (the statue itself is about 48cm or less than 2ft tall ), it has played a significant role in the legitimacy of the current Chakri dynasty and as an augur for the prosperity of the Thai people. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Legend holds that it was cast first in India about 500 years after the Buddha died under the direction of a prominent Brahmin turned Buddhist sage known as Nagasena who lived in Patna — not from Kushinagar where the Buddha had died. Due to invasions and battles in the area, the Emerald Buddha was transported further and further south and ultimately came to Sri Lanka.  It stayed there for centuries until one of the Burmese Kings of Bagan struck a deal with a Sinhalese King to have the Emerald Buddha shipped to Bagan which was at the time the center for Buddhist religious teaching and study.

Guardian Deity - outside Wat Phra Keow - Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

Guardian Demon – Wat Phra Keo

The Emerald Buddha never made it to Burma. Instead, a storm hit the ship carrying the statue out of Sri Lanka and the ship was blown off course. Somehow, the Emerald Buddha found its way to Cambodia where it was taken to Angkor. Then, when the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya sacked Angkor in 1431AD, one of the spoils looted from the great Khmer capital was the Emerald Buddha. However, other evidence has been discovered by Thai historians suggesting that the Emerald Buddha first appeared in Chiang Rai in the 1430s. At that time, Chiang Rai was part of the Lanna Kingdom which occupied a big chunk of what is today northern Thailand and in the 15th century was a rival to the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya in the south.  These historians point to records which speak of a large stupa in Chiang Rai toppling after being struck by lighting in 1434.  A monk who then combed through the debris of this stupa found a small stone figure of the Buddha. He placed this figure in the prayer hall of his monastery. Some time later, another monk happened to notice a small chip in the torso of this Buddha statue and upon further examination realized that the statue was actually coated by some kind of plaster or lacquer. He removed the coating and there beneath was the beautiful dark green crystal of the Emerald Buddha. So, the Angkor and Chiang Rai origination stories are problematic because how could the Emerald Buddha be in 2 places at the same time? Regardless of how the Emerald Buddha made its way to Thailand, the timeline as to what happened after the Emerald Buddha arrived/appeared is much better documented.

Ha Phreo - Vientiane, Laos (2013)

Ha Phreow – Vientiane, Laos (2013)

At some point around 1450AD, the Emerald Buddha was moved from Chiang Rai (or taken from Ayutthaya depending on which origination story one follows) to Chiang Mai where it stayed until 1551. Chiang Mai was the most important region of the Lanna Kingdom and it was governed by Chao Chaiyasetthathirat who was the son of the Lanna King, Phra Chao Phothisan. King Phothisan resided in Luang Prabang — a city farther north from Chiang Mai in what is today Laos. When King Photisan died, Chaiyasetthathirat had to leave Chiang Mai in order to make the arduous journey to attend his father’s funeral in Luang Prabang. Because he feared a coup or foreign invasion in Chiang Mai while he was gone, he decided to take the Emerald Buddha with him to Luang Prabang. Sure enough, within some days after he left, Burmese forces invaded north Thailand and pushed Chaiyasetthathirat’s armies across the Mekong River where they became cut off from Thailand. Chaiyasetthathirat had to stay in Luang Prabang which became his new capital and many spectacular Buddhist temples with exteriors and interiors painted with unique stencil-like design and patterns were built. However, Chaiyasetthathirat worried about being stuck in Luang Prabang and isolated from the rest of his kingdom, so he decided to move his capital south to Vientiane in the 1560s. Again, he took the Emerald Buddha with him. A gorgeous temple was built in Vientiane for the Emerald Buddha called Ha Phreow. The Emerald Buddha would reside in Ha Phreow for the next two hundred and fifteen years until 1778. Ha Phreow would ultimately be destroyed by Thai forces and rebuilt by the French in 1920s based on old descriptions and sketches of what the temple looked like in the 1560s. In 1778, a Thai general by the name of Chao Phra Chakri stormed across the Mekong River with his army and captured Vientiane. The Emerald Buddha was carried out of Ha Phreow and taken south to Thonburi which was where the Thai King, Taksin, resided. Taksin first placed the Emerald Buddha in a building near the site of Wat Arun. After Taksin’s death, Chao Phra Chakri ascended to the throne and crowned himself Rama I. He moved the site of the Thai capital across the Chao Phraya river to its present location in Bangkok. More importantly, Rama I constructed a temple for the specific purpose of housing the Emerald Buddha. In 1789, this temple which was called Wat Phra Keo (or the “Residence of the Holy Jewel Buddha”) was constructed within the Grand Palace complex where Rama I himself lived. The Emerald Buddha has sat atop a gold and diamond-studded pedestal inside Wat Phra Keo ever since.

Wat Phra Keow

Wat Phra Keo – exterior

Today, the Grand Palace is a big tourist draw and anyone can enter Wat Phra Keo in order to glimpse the Emerald Buddha — although no photos are allowed.  No monks live inside Wat Phra Keo either. At the start of each season (winter, monsoon, and summer) of the Thai year, the current Thai King (King Bhumibol or King Rama IX) performs a ritual that dates back to Rama I. The King will climb up a ladder positioned behind the Emerald Buddha and clean the statue with a cloth. Then, the King will change the attire of the Emerald Buddha based on which season is starting. The Emerald Buddha has 3 different golden garments that reflect each of the 3 seasons. For the winter season, the Emerald Buddha wears a golden frock that covers its entire torso.

Phra Si Ratana

Phra Si Ratana Chedi

There are many things to see in the Grand Palace complex.  The palace itself is a bold, ambitious building – a testament to King Rama I and his vision of a unified Thailand led by a new dynasty sanctioned by the presence of the Emerald Buddha. Within its inner compound where Wat Phra Keo is found, there are a number of stupas, statues, platforms, and other buildings. One interesting structure of note is the Phra Si Ratana Chedi which is a gold stupa built in the 19th century. It is thought to enshrine ashes of the Buddha that were transported to Thailand from Sri Lanka.  Another structure called Phra Mondop has ornate doors and columns. It is referred to as “the library” because it contains old texts of the Tripitaka – one of the earliest canons of the Buddha’s teachings translated from the Pali language. As one passes through this densely packed area, Wat Phra Keo suddenly appears. It is a standalone building and is the clear focal point of the complex. For most Thais, it is the most important and beautiful temple in Thailand. The outside of the building is meticulously bejeweled and glittering. Each side of the temple has its own “gate” of entry that is designated by a special statue or other unique element.

The Laughing Hermit - outside Wat Phra Keow

The Laughing Hermit

On the Western side of the temple, I was startled to see what looked like some jester or clown statue. This bronze statue was almost black in color and was unlike any other statue I had seen in any Buddhist temple grounds before. I was at the entry point of Wat Phra Keo called the “hermit gate” and this strange figure before me was the “laughing hermit” — a Thai saint believed to have healing powers.  I saw a few people stop by this image in order to make offerings in the form of flowers, fruit, and candles.  From here, I walked up a some steps and I entered Wat Phra Keo. Since it was early July, the King had just changed the Emerald Buddha’s garments to reflect the start of the start of the rainy season, so a gold sash covered the statue’s torso.

The ethereal glow of the Emerald Buddha

The ethereal glow of the Emerald Buddha

The Emerald Buddha is illuminated ever so slightly in an otherwise dark room. The effect is that the image appears to float.  Although the image looks like other seated images of the Buddha, many Thai believe the Emerald Buddha is  endowed with special powers such as the ability to perform miracles.  For the first century or so after it was housed in Wat Phra Keo, the Emerald Buddha was actually held aloft and walked by monks through the streets of Bangkok after the outbreaks of diseases, natural disasters, or other bad fortune had hit the people.  The effect of this magical looking green Buddha being carried through Bangkok neighborhoods cannot be overstated. People were cured of ailments and sickness, the waters of the Chao Phraya River quickly receded after large storms had brought floods and destroyed crops, and there was a reinforcement of the harmony between the Chakri King, the Sangha, and the citizenry. The most practical importance of the Emerald Buddha is its connection with the Chakri dynasty — which is nearly 250 years old and is the longest reign of any dynasty in Thailand’s history. This dynasty began with Chao Phra Chakri’s capture of the Emerald Buddha from Vientiane — although he did not become King Rama I until a year later. He built Wat Phra Keo and used the Emerald Buddha as a religio-political tool in order to sanction his rule and that of his heirs.  Even though King Rama IX is a “king only in title” today, he is highly esteemed by the people– almost on par as a religious leader. He is beseeched by his subjects to intervene from time to time in the many deadlocks, coups, and corruption that have plagued the Thai government through the years. He appears to have scaled back such interventions as of late, but it is highly doubtful that he will ever abdicate or give up his role as the primary caretaker of the Emerald Buddha. One of the most widely held beliefs in Thailand is that on the day the Emerald Buddha is taken out of Bangkok, the Chakri dynasty will end. Given the roving nature of the Emerald Buddha over the last millennia, I can’t help but think that there may not be a King Rama X.

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