Friday, January 6, 2012

First Day, Vientiane, Laos

Green Park Hotel, Vientiane
We arrived in Vientiane four days ago after nearly 24 hours on three flights, through Dubai and Bangkok.  We stepped off the plane into a warm, humid night.  The air had the familiar and comforting third world smell of wood smoke and exhaust.  The Vientiane streets were quiet and nearly empty as we drove to our hotel, which turns out to be an oasis on the bank of the Mekong River.  The bar was closed, so we grabbed cans of Beer Lao from the mini-fridges in the rooms and sat in the darkness by the pool to toast being together again in a foreign place.  Nearly opaque green lizards snagged moths on the stucco wall behind us, and in the distance Ralph swore he heard monks chanting.  We walked around the pool, trying to get closer to the sound.  I figured it was a nightclub somewhere nearby - we finally gave up and agreed to disagree.  After we finish the beers, we could barely keep our eyes open.  Back in the room, on the firm mattress, under the mosquito netting, I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow.

The next morning, after indulging ourselves with a breakfast buffet that stretched along two walls of the dining room, we met Nou, our guide.  It was a short van ride into town.  Traffic was surprisingly light and orderly.  I was ready for something more like Kolkata, where everyone drives with one hand on the horn and no one pays any attention to the rules of the road.  Vientiane is neat and clean and quiet.  Vientiane is the second capital of Laos, the first being Luang Prabang.  In the late 19th century, the entire city of Vientiane was destroyed by the Siamese army, and the people taken back to Thailand as slave-workers.  Only one temple survived.  The rest of the city was rebuilt in later years. 

Buddha figures at Vat Sisaket
We went first to the Sisaket Museum (Vat Sisaket).  Aside from the temple itself, the striking feature of this site is the collection of Buddha figures that line three of the four walls of the courtyard.  There are over 10,500 Buddha figures, two each in small alcoves cut into the walls, in addition to dozens of larger Buddhas.  On the porch that surrounds the temple building there is a device used to bathe the monks.  It's a kind of long, pipe that's intricately carved into the shape of a naga, which is a snake-like creature with a dragon's head.  There is a door in on its dorsal side, near the end of the tail, and the pipe inside runs to its mouth, several meters away.  Because no one is allowed to touch a monk, and women are supposed to keep a certain distance from them, this naga allows women to pour water into the tail end that runs likes a shower out of the mouth under which a monk can bathe.  I'd love to have one of these in my house.

Hands of a Buddha figure at Ho Phra Keo
Across the street is Ho Phra Keo, which was once the royal temple of the Lai monarchy.  It housed the Emerald Buddha, which was taken from Vientiane by the King of Siam when his army conquered and sacked the city.  Now it's a museum that holds Buddha sculptures and artifacts.  One of the Buddha figures is standing, but the bottoms of his feet are turned toward the viewer.  Jeannie said that if we saw that on a medical trip we'd conclude it was rickets.  Nou told us that it symbolizes that the Buddha hides nothing.  We bought a pamphlet that explains 45 different poses of the Buddha.  Right after that we saw one that wasn't in the guide.  When we asked Nou just how many poses the Buddha had in him, he laughed.  He doesn't even know.

Next we made a short drive to That Luang.  Inside this temple, or stupa, is a smaller stupa that is said to contain some of the ashes of the Buddha.  In the plaza next to this temple we saw several people holding small wooden cages in which small birds were fluttering around.  We thought at first that they were selling them to eat, but Nou told us the following story.  There was a monk who had the gift of seeing the future.  A boy who was a young novice asked this Master if he would tell the boy his future.  The Master agreed, and after a minute, said to him, "you will die in seven days."  The novice, after telling his mother this disturbing news, decided to spend those last days at the monastery.  On his way there, he passed along a river that was very low because it was the dry season.  He came upon a muddy flat in the riverbed where several fish were thrashing, barely alive for lack of water.  The novice gathered them up and carried them to where the river still flowed, and dropped them in.  He spent the next days at the monastery, and after the seventh day, he was still alive.  The puzzled Master, trying to understand why, asked the novice what he had been doing since his future had been told, and the novice replied "nothing," but then remembered what had happened with the fish.  When the Master heard the story, he said, "you gave them life, so you also have been given life."  What you do, Nou told us, is to buy the caged birds and then set them free as a way of reenacting this story.  Ralph bought each of us a cage.  One at a time, we pulled up the bars and let the birds fly away across the plaza.  This was actually more moving than you might think.

Our last stop of the day was a somewhat odd place called Xiengkuane Buddha Park.  It's some distance out of town, along the Mekong River.  It really is a park, and it's filled with statues of the Buddha as well as of several Hindu gods.  The oddness is due mostly to one thing, a spherical structure in which you walk from hell to nirvana.  The ball is three stories tall, and seems to be made of concrete.   You enter through the open mouth of a monster that is affixed to the side of the ball.  A hallway runs around the interior circumference, and on the inside of the wall are small windows through which you can see a room at the interior of the sphere.  On the ground floor, this room is full of contorted and grotesque figures representing suffering in hell.  Partway around there is a narrow stairway through the ceiling into the next level.  This level also has a hallway around a central room.  This room represents earth.  It has happier figures inside it.  There is a doorway into this room, and in the center, a very narrow and steep stair to the next level, which represents heaven.  From this top room is an even narrower stair that leads out onto the top of the sphere through a very narrow opening.  This opening represents the way to nirvana.  Ralph, Rob and I wriggled through it but nothing seemed any different.  The only conclusion I can come to is that we were already in nirvana. 

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