Tag Archives: Nam Khan

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.

 

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