Question: “If we follow the Eight Precepts of Buddhism, especially the one that prohibits having sex, after 100 years the human race will become extinct.”
Response: “As a matter of fact, this question is asked about something impossible and it is quite useless to discuss about such an absurd subject. But to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, we may do some guesswork about it. Of course, if all human beings on Earth observed the Eight Precepts and abstained from sex, mankind would become extinct within 100 years. Even if that happened, there should be no cause to lament or to worry unless you were the only human being that remained and lived alone in the whole world.” (from Questions and Answers In Buddhism, Professor Saeng Chandngarm, Mahamakut Buddhist University, Lanna Campus, Chiang Mai, Thailand)
The Eight Precepts of Buddhism
Refrain from destroying living creatures.
Refrain from taking that which is not given.
Refrain from sexual activity.
Refrain from incorrect speech.
Refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
Refrain from eating at the forbidden time (after 12:00 noon)
Refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.
Refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.
Whow…that’s heavy – no sex, no drinking, no drugs, no dancing – no FUN! No…not exactly. “Refrain” actually means “resist” – it does not mean “Thou shalt not…” Semantics? Only in the Judeo-Christian sense – and actually, only in the Middle Eastern ancestry of the Christian sense of absolute “good/evil.” Otherwise, Buddhism recognizes humans as merely one of over 30 life forms searching for the ultimate release from the cycle of life – reincarnation – through enlightenment. When’s that ultimate release? It’s up to you. Now THAT’S heavy!
To Westerners, people walking around in saffron robes is intimidating, yet we’re use to Catholic priests, nuns and Protestant ministers wearing odd clothing. Clothing, obviously, does not make the person and Chiang Mai’s Buddhist Temples and monasteries have intelligently created time within the day for the Monk Chat. It’s a chance to sit down with these men and discover that, OMG, there just like us – Apple laptop and all. At two different Temples – the magnificent Phra Dhatu Chedi Luang and the unique Silver Ubosoth – we had the opportunity of conversing and deepening our knowledge of this 2500 year old religion.
The all-inclusive Buddhist lifestyle and, to the Western tradition, its seeming contradictions, have always been an enigma. In a classic, and somewhat humorous manner the monks patiently explain a way of life that baffles many people. “Life” is not just human life and even that concept does not mean that animals and plants are simply sacred. One’s life encompasses millenniums of reincarnation through many forms – hence sacredness – before, at some point, in a human life form, the soul, through the Eight Precepts, achieves enlightenment and nirvana.
So every Buddhist Monk will achieve nirvana? Hardly. Male children as young 7 years old can enter the monasteries and receive a free education until 20 – first few years of university. For poor children this is truly a “god-send.” At 20 they may choose to study further for their university degree and ordination as a monk. At that point it’s a life-long committment? No. A novice and a monk may leave the monastery any time they wish. They may marry, have children, become a farmer or a banker. Do they then go to “hell” when they die? No. Buddhist do not believe in that concect of retribution – they believe in reincarnation until the achievement of enlightenment and nirvana. A former novice or monk (if married they must now be a widower) may reenter the monastery at any time – and may leave again if that’s their wish. We were told that many people will enter the monastery for a year or two as an adult, like a sabbatical, just to enrich their personal and spiritual life, and then return to their business life.
The Lord Buddha’s attitude toward women…a sticking point among modern Western thinkers. Buddhist nuns are, like in the Catholic Church, not equal to monks and are cloistered. I will turn once more to Professor Chandngarm’s explanation and make no claim, as a Quaker, that I fully understand the concept.
“According to the monastic rules, the most important rule for monks, as well as for Buddhists, is to keep celibate. Since womanhood is the natural opponent to celibacy, so women are a stain for chastity. The Buddha did not keep women in a lower level or in inferiority than men. He only recognized the differences between men and women. Monkhood in the Buddha’s time was very hard. Right after ordination, monks would be sent away to live and practice alone in caves and forests, in the wilderness in deserted huts. He had to eat whatever. sometimes they were beaten and robbed, or didn’t eat for days. The Buddha hardly expected women to do that. When monks and nuns live close together another kind of trouble breaks out – and you can imagine what it is. Not because of women’s evil, but because of man’s natural weakness and the overwhelming charm of women. As far as intelligence and attaining Enlightenment, the Lord Buddha saw no difference between the two genders.”
Have I now told you everything you need to know in order to understand a belief system that affects the lives and politics of more than a dozen cultures, governments and millions of individuals? I hope not, or else you will not want to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to chat with these intelligent and gentle monks in the 2,000 year old spiritual and Royal center, Chiang Mai (of the Lanna Kingdom and Thailand).
He’s about four feet tall and looks like any one of a hundred classic poses of the Lord Buddha. He rests behind bars in an exterior open gallery with a twenty-something female guard sitting at a desk (no guns). Photos are forbidden. Because Laos’ a Communist nation? No… the statue’s a cultural icon, it’s worth a zillion dollars and the Luang Prabang National Museum would like visitors to buy a postcard. The statue is THE Golden Buddha – the Phra Bang – of Luang Prabang, and it’s 90% solid gold. For centuries it sat in an inconspicuous corner of Wat Ho Prabang on the Palace grounds in this city of over 40 Buddhist temples and monasteries until someone noticed it after the 1975 revolution.
For nearly a thousand years Luang Prabang, in the northern highlands at the confluence of two great rivers, the Nam Kahn and the Mekong, served as capital for the kingdoms of Lang Xang, Luang Prabang and, finally, Laos. The French, under their “protectorate,” built the 1904 Royal Palace (now the National Museum) for the revered national hero Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng and Laos for 55 years (1904- 1959). Ironically, in 1975, it was at the same palace that Prince Souphanouvong (the “Red Prince”) arrested his half brother, KingSisavang Vatthana sending him, the Queen and Crown Prince to die in a “reeducation camp.” Prince Souphanouvong became the first President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. It’s a much more peaceful city today.
In 1995 Luang Prabang was rightfully declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and today is the most popular tourist attraction in Laos. The city is gorgeous, at least the old historic core and the stunning surrounding countryside. Luang Prabang is a classic Southeast Asian provincial city and one of the few remaining – villas next to woven bamboo houses, residents cooking in the alleyways on charcoal and wood, aging French colonial buildings and 600 year old Buddhist stupas with monks everywhere, backpackers from Australia and Europe, people in business suits in Toyotas and motor bikes and fisherman throwing nets in the river. For me the preservation of this wonderful collage is what I hope the UNESCO designation will maintain, although there are an increasing number of upscale hotels and amenities geared to the well-heeled Western and Asian tour bus crowd which could alter this reality.
What to see? Wander into any number of the Buddhist temples and monasteries. At first sight “they all look the same,” but fix your eyes on each one’s decorations – gold leaf stencil on teak wood carvings and walls, enamel and mirrored murals depicting holy texts and everyday life, young novitiate students in saffron robes talking on cell phones while taking a break from temple chores, the beautiful sounds of temple drums and the monk’s devotional chanting several times a day.
Discover the hundreds of Spirit houses with individualistic statements – the elephant manifestation of the god Ghanish next to Japan’s “Miss Kitty,” sticky rice, glasses of water, incense and candles in trees, on walls – all of nature is sacred. Unfortunately, the much vaunted morning ritual of offering food to the monks at dawn has devolved into a mere tourist attraction/photo op. Local people now simply bring food or make cash donations directly at the Temples. (In other areas of Southeast Asia, especially in the rural countryside, this tradition is still strong.)
Climb the 350+ steps up Mount Phousie in the center of the Old City passing dozens of Buddha images – the seven daily Buddhas, a magnificent Sleeping Buddha – and a rusting anti-aircraft gun emplacement left over from the Vietnam War era – to the small 1804 That Choms – one of the city’s most revered sites. If lucky, the temple fortune teller will be present. It’s the highest point in Luang Prabang with a panoramic view of the city and countryside, even if there is a humid haze in the air caused by late winter burning in the surrounding mountains (both controlled burning of underbrush in the teak forests and clearing land for Spring planting). You can purchase, for a pittance, flowers in cone shaped banana leaves, sticky rice and incense as devotional items to leave after your prayers. Women sell pairs of small live birds in bamboo baskets that you carry to the top of the hill and, after saying your prayer, release from their cage. They will take your prayer to heaven.
At the base of the Mount Phousie is the small but exquisite museum Traditional Arts and Technology Center. The artful displays detail the ethnic groups and spiritual influences that comprise Laos. The gift shop sells excellent and authentic handmade crafts and will advise as to the best shops in town. The café offers a stunning seven course set menu consisting of classic dishes from all of Lao’s ethnic groups. There were dishes I had not seen on any menu. The cost was $12.50 for 2 people – the menu doesn’t say “for 2,” the Lao’s assume no one person would stuff themselves (don’t even try to eat everything yourself).
There are numerous eco-tourism companies that offer excursions into the beautiful surrounding hill countryside. The best is Tiger Trails – it seems every company slaps on the moniker “eco-tour” these days so make use of the internet and do some research. There are a host of “made for tourist” attractions in the area that are really not worth your time unless you’re in town for a few weeks – the “Whiskey Village,” the “Silk Village,” the Pac Ou Caves – and simply want a diversion. Whereas the Elephant Village – a non-profit that rescues abused elephants from the lumber industry – is a must see excursion.
Luang Prabang is a Mecca for well made high end silks, art, jewelry and furniture representing both traditional northern Lao and contemporary designs (prices are still a fraction of what they’d be in Europe or North America). The best shops are in the compact Old City, which is easy to navigate on foot. Do not purchase antiques since many “antique” stores sell fakes knowing full well it’s next to impossible to remove genuine antiques, and even contemporary fine art, without a difficult to obtain export license for each item.
There is the MorningMarket (4:00am – Noon) that’s a serious food emporium. Discover hundreds of foods Westerners never would think could be used in the kitchen – I will detail this market in a future blog. The lively Night Market (5:00 PM – Midnight), unfortunately like so many in Thailand and Cambodia, has devolved into a tourist attraction offering the same old cheaply made clothes, crafts and souvenirs you’ll find in any tourist shop – obviously factory made and, despite labels, probably not even in the country you’re visiting. Yet for prepared street food, the Luang Prabang Night Market is fantastic! One can feast on freshly grilled meats and fish, create a salad using dozens of greens, fresh herbs and produce or add them to savory soups and stews. Along with a refreshing Beer Lao you’ll have a banquet that will cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to maybe $5.00.
Accommodations range from $20/night guest houses (many have A/C even at that price) to boutique hotels (fortunately – cross fingers – there are no large chain hotels) surrounded by lush gardens tucked away all over the Old City that range from $55 to $155/night. Many in the $55/65 night range are just as beautiful and comfortable as those at the higher end. It’s not always easy to find these gems on the Net. I did use a good booking site – Agoda – but since hotels subscribe to booking sites it’s hardly a complete list. TripAdvisor is another good source but since it lists only ones reviewed by members, it does not have a complete list as well. My advice for anyone traveling to Southeast Asia is to book a hotel for the start of your stay in each city through a booking site and then check out what’s available. If you are pleased with the booked hotel, inquire if they’ll extend your stay at the same rate – booking sites are always discounted. If not, you can just move down the street. We stayed at The View Pavilion at over $90/night but, although it had a terrific staff, the hotel needed maintenance from its absentee owners. (Following my own advice for a change, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at The Rimping Village Hotel they willingly extended our stay at Agoda’s discounted rate after they proved to be a mini-paradise – more on that in another blog.) Lao courtesy and concern with customer comfort is so effusive they would be insulted if you did not ask them for help making dinner reservations, advice on excursions and making the arrangements as well as securing a taxi or tuk-tuk and negotiating the fare. Take advantage – it makes them happy.
Laotian cuisine is neither as sweet as Vietnamese nor spicy hot as Thai – although they still love their chilies. This allows the abundant use of basil, cilantro, mint, green onions, garlic, roasted vegetables and dozens of flavorful greens to shine through their masterful dishes complimented by grilled and steamed fish, pork, beef, chicken, frog, prawns and many other forms of protein. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, they use a number of vegetable/herb/meat pastes, freshly made with mortar and pestle, to add additional layers of flavor. Fermented fish sauce, which in my experience the average Westerner finds disgusting, adds subtle flavor to most dishes and was/is a salt substitute. Fish sauce – of which there are many varieties – does smell vile to the Western nose, but when added to food, that smell dissipates and actually results in a slightly sweet under taste. (I will be writing an article on a wonderful all-day cooking class offered by Tamarind restaurant.) Like most Asian dining, a number of dishes should be ordered – depending on the size of the party – with all diners sharing. We found, for our own dining comfort that for two people, three dishes – along with steamed or sticky rice – was enough. One cold salad, one fish/seafood dish and one meat/poultry dish was satisfactory. Soups are usually substantial consisting of noodles, greens and protein and can be part of a main course. It is easy for a vegetarian/vegan to eat well anywhere in Southeast Asia, but don’t expect this to be the norm among locals. Dishes will be served as they are ready not in a Western order (appetizers first followed by the main course, etc.) Two people in even the most expensive restaurants in Luang Prabang would be hard pressed to spend more than $40/couple, and it is easy for most meals to cost less than $10 – $15/couple. (Note: adding a bottle of wine will more than double to triple the cost, so don’t bother unless you can’t live without wine.)
My top picks for traditional and fusion Lao restaurants in the Old City are Tamarind and Rosella Fusion Café both on the Nam Kahn river front. The Australian/Lao owned Tamarind is probably the best in the city, and it is moderately priced serving imaginative dishes (lunch or dinner for 2 $15 – $30). Reservations are essential for dinner. The young Lao staff of Rosella Fusion Café serve much better than average traditional Lao dishes at low prices ($10 – $15/couple) while you sit at attractive teak tables surrounded by orchids at the edge of the high banks overlooking the Nam Kahn. Tamnak Lao, on Sisavangvong Road (the main street) in a classic stucco and wood Lao structure offers tasty traditional Lao dishes, also at moderate prices, while Joma coffee shop on the Mekong side river road has great French coffee and imaginative thin-crust pizzas. Ignore most hotel restaurants. Although many are in attractive surroundings, they serve food geared to the tourist palate – mediocre – at high prices (unless you really crave your Angus beef steak).
There are excellent French restaurants in this Communist nation where road signs are still written in Lao and French, bilingual schools are common and the French government funds many projects. L’ Elephant is in an elegant art-deco building offering classic French and French Indochina cuisine at prices in the very high end. Unfortunately, it’s become popular with tour groups as well. Café Ben Vat Sene (my favorite) has the feel of a French bistro in the “colonial” tropics – which it is – and too small for tour groups. Under the slowly moving ceiling fans, sitting at rustic tables with brightly colored Lao fabric napkins and placemats, eating such classic French country fare as Pommes de Terre Savoyard (au gratin potatoes with smoked ham) and freshly made Tarte au Citron(lemon tart), don’t be surprised if you conjure images of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Jean d’Estray at the next table enjoying an absinthe. Orchids, the tropical evening and fine food do that to you – give in.
The baritone sounds of the giant drums resonate calling monks to prayer. Soft chanting can be heard in the stillness of pre-dawn. In the near pitch blackness dozens of men and women jog, walk and exercise on modern machines one sees in any American gym except these are free and in the park. In front of the Vientiane Times, men are stacking rolls of the daily newspaper on their motor bikes for delivery. French bakeries are opening for business. There is barely a car in sight on the streets at 6:00 AM. The air is still cool and moist before the sun raises the winter temperature to 90 degrees (F) by midday. Welcome to the reincarnated city of Vientiane, capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic
On the South Korean financed and constructed 2.5 mile long Mekong River Promenade/flood control wall (completion by 2013) stands the largest political monument in Laos – a Pathet Lao leader? A vitriolic monument to Western imperialism? No…it’s a memorial to an early 19th century national hero, the martyred PrinceAnouvong (KingChaiya Sethathirath V: 1767 – 1829)last ruler of the Kingdoms of Vientiane and Lan Xang. He led a failed war against their enemy, Siam (the Kingdom of Thailand) who had occupied Vientiane, and he died in captivity.
After 400 years as the on-again/off-again capital of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants), the city of Vientiane was utterly destroyed in 1827 by Thailand and remained a wasteland until the arrival of the French in the 1890’s. They rebuilt Vientiane as the administrative capital under their colonial “protectorate” and many structures retain early 20th century French colonial designs. Where are the memorials to the 1975 Communist revolution? They exist in only two places – the former Royal Palace (National Museum) and at the former American compound of the USAID/CIA outside of the city that became the home of Kaysone Phomvihane (1920–1992) co- leader of the Pathet Lao along with the “Red Prince” Souphanouvong (brother of the last King of Laos). Thus is the complex history of this beautiful country with its stunningly friendly people, as well as an indication that modern Lao is still the traditional, conservative Buddhist culture that has been its history for over a thousand years.
Vientiane, like so many Southeast Asian cities, is undergoing an economic and building revival unheard of since the end of Western domination (the Vietnam War) in 1975. It still retains vestiges of a relaxed colonial town that has to deal with tropical weather which rarely gets cooler than 85 (F) on any day – and always humid. I was told that the number of cars has doubled in the last three years and building cranes can be seen in numerous locations. Chinese, Vietnamese, South Korean and European investment money is pouring into this Buddhist nation.
Capitalism in a Communist nation? Let’s get real. Before the creation of the unified Kingdom of Laos, after the French withdrawal, under His MajestySisavang Vong, ( King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46 and King of Laos 1946-1959) – another celebrated national hero – the nation we know today as Laos – drop the “s” and say “Lao” – was a feudal society of several kingdoms who pledged loose allegiance to the Kings of Lan Xang and, later, to the Kings of Luang Phrabang. The monumental statue on the grounds of Luang Phrabang’s National Museum (former Royal Palace) depicts the King’s right hand in a classic Buddha position for peace and the left hand holding the 1946 constitution.
The current Lao People’s Democratic Republic is not much different, with many of the same families in power, except allegiance is to the Central Committee that resides in Vientiane. Over 90% of all Laotians are self-employed small business entrepreneurs and farmers and always have been. Buddhism and its teachings still remain the greatest cultural and political influence within the nation. There are more Buddhist temples and monasteries than I can count – independent of government influence – and travel within Southeast Asia for Laotians is unencumbered. The excessivly bureaucratic government is considered incompetent and government workers have decent middle class jobs – just like the former Royal Courts. There is a visible lack of infrastructure planning in this developing country.
All of this makes Laos, Vientiane and the ancient northern capital of Luang Phrabang (a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and another blog) a fascinating country. Laos cuisine is wonderful. Less sweet than Vietnamese and with fewer hot peppers than Thai, the dozens of flavors from herbs, meats and spices shine. This will upset vegans who believe Asians are basically vegetarians and are eating more meat due to the influence of McDonalds, but Laotians have always been large meat/fish eaters. I was told by numerous chefs that currently more vegetable dishes are becoming part of the cuisine because of Western vegetarian trends! Laotians eat EVERYTHING – beef, pork, duck, frogs, rats, some dog, river fish, shell fish, all the innards and the blood – both liquid and congealed. (OK, please don’t stop reading – I won’t add recipes.) But they lavish love on their pet dogs and cats – they don’t eat their pets – unlike other Southeast Asian cultures (although this is rarely a part of the modern urban diet).
Life is on the street and in the markets – typical of Southeast Asia. The “morning markets” are primarily food (4:00 AM – to mid day.) “night markets” tend to be crafts, clothing and prepared foods and “weekend markets” are a great mixture. At any market you will find fresh frogs and the latest Apple I-Pod – it’s “one stop shopping” – the American dream…
Inexpensive restaurants abound and spill onto the streets. Lunch or dinner for 2 will rarely cost more than US$15 – unless you stuff yourself. A large 3/4 litre bottle of Beer Lao – a pleasant lager – costs $1.25. A few outstanding restaurants exist. The best being La Silapa, owned and operated by a French Canadian with a menu that is an excellent fusion of French and Lao flavors. Lunch for two is less than $30. (Note: wines are expensive anywhere in Southeast Asia. Costs are frequently more than the entire meal.) Nos serves excellent sushi at prices that make a Westerner believe they were in a Sushi nirvana – about $.25/each with salad and miso soup. There are a number of pizza restaurants using wood fired brick ovens and make terrific paper thin crusts. For genuine Lao cuisine eat on the street. Look for the most popular, crowded street restaurants. The rapid turnover means the food is fresh and has not lingered in the heat – what, no ice to keep the food fresh? Get real – I’ve yet to get even the slighest stomach problem.
Poverty, as judged by Western standards, is the norm for most people – especially in the rural countryside – in all of Southeast Asia, but not starvation. For a visitor from the “First World,” luxury is quite affordable – beautiful hotels for less than US$70/night, restaurant meals for 2 with drinks for less than $25 (and this is the average high end.) A person/couple can travel for less than a third of that amount or waste money on ultra luxury accommodations that will run in excess of $650/night. Yet if peace and stability remain in this fabled land they just might achieve the Lord Buddha’s dream of the Middle Path – neither lose one’s self in sensual pleasure nor deny one’s self the gifts of living.
Before French imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, before the uninvited American intervention during the Vietnam War, before “sainted” President Reagan’s support for the murderous Pol Pot, his reign of horror and the civil war he pursued for a decade after his overthrow in 1979 by Vietnamese forces, there was the glory of the Khmer Empire (9th – 15th century) and it’s capital the Royal City of Angkor Thom.
The greatest of the 292 temples that comprise Angkor Thom is the 12th century Angkor Wat constructed during the reign of King Suryavarman II (1112-1150) when the Khmer Empire was at its height dominating most of present day Southeast Asia. The temple complex covers over 200 acres making it the largest religious complex on Earth. It was built to impress. Its outer walls and outer temple are at the end of a 1,000 foot stone causeway over an equally wide 30 feet deep hand dug moat. The inner temple complex is reached by walking on another 1,000 foot raised stone causeway through the vast interior courtyard.
To attempt a detailed explanation of Angkor Wat, its architectural significance and the meanings of its intricate bas reliefs requires a text-book. Viewing any of the temples with out arranging for a private guide (US$45-55 for 8-hours, guide and driver) would be a waste of time. The bas reliefs of Angkor Wat are the largest in the world covering dozens of walls hundreds of feet in length and 12 – 15 feet in height. They are in stunning condition. Both carved into solid sandstone and covered from the elements over the centuries they tell the stories of Khmer glory and the religious texts of Hinduism in excruciating detail. Many are horizontal tryptics: royal life/battles top third, everyday life middle third and the ocean or hell on the bottom third.
King Suryavarman II is depicted (picture below) riding in triumph on an elephant covered with the 15 umbrellas that signify his rank as god-king.
The Khmer Empire at its beginning was Hindu, but openly adopted Mahayana Buddhism in the 12th century. The Buddha, a Hindu prince himself, was not a religious monolith and therefore Mahayana Buddhism blends all of Hindu beliefs within Buddhist teachings – the divine trinity, heaven/hell (good and evil), the commandments. The result is a masterful melange of art and philosophy.
By the 14th century the Khmer Empire was under assault by its neighbors, especially the Kingdom of Thailand which succeeded in sacking Angkor Thom. The Royal Court moved south and the jungle slowly overtook 291 of the temples. Angkor Wat was, for the most part, spared that fate due to the diligence of the Buddhist monks who refused to abandon the complex even during the horrendous events of the recent Southeast Asian wars. Angkor Wat today is an active temple with two Buddhist monasteries – it is “Mecca” for Mahayana Buddhist monks. UNESCO World Heritage status and on-going restoration projects (currently being conducted with Japanese and German funding) once again are making the temple the focal point in Khmer culture it enjoyed in the 12th century.
Angkor Wat is a fitting symbol for both the Kingdom of Cambodia, which is enjoying its longest period of peace and stability (20 years) in centuries, and the resilience of the Khmer culture.
The 1951 musical, The King and I, is banned in the Kingdom of Thailand. The fictionalized script, based on the memoire of Anna Leonowens who served as tutor to the children of His Majesty King Mongkut, Rama IV, from 1862-1867, is highly offensive to both the Chakri dynasty and Thai society. Considering that the most onerous objection is the fictionalized portrayal torture and execution of Tuptim (who actually became one of Rama IV’s 36 wives) and His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, the 83-year old current monarch is a direct descendent of Rama IV, one might understand Thai sensitivity. When it comes to the monarchy, Thai sensitivity is high – it is a revered institution (with a capital “R”). Not only that, Rama IV started the modernization of both the monarchy and Thai society which is exactly the reason he hired Anna as governess to his children.
Following the destruction of the great 14th century Thai capital of Ayutthaya in 1782 at the hands of the Burmese, the founder of the Chakri dynasty, Rama I, moved the capital 40 miles south and established Bangkok. King Rama I literally had the course of the Chao Phraya River altered along with the construction of numerous canals to surround the new capital with a watery moat. That same year, he began the construction of the half square mile Grand Palace complex on the river’s bank. At the center of the complex is Wat Phra Kaeo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (actually solid jade and robed in rich garments that change with the seasons. The Emerald Buddha itself was a prize of war from present day Laos centuries ago.)
The scale of most structures is so vast that it’s difficult to capture with a camera, but the artistic craftmanship is nothing short of stunning.
The Grand Palace complex today serves official functions only, as well as being Bangkok’s top tourist attraction. Admission to the complex is US$6.50. Photos are not permitted inside any of the few buildings open to the public, and shoes are always removed inside Temples and most Thai houses. Wandering the complex grounds is fascinating enough.
In the 1890’s His Majesty King Rama V found life in the Grand Palace too frenetic and moved the residence of the Royal Family to the Dusit area of Bangkok several miles inland from the river. There on a vast track of land that he personally purchased, he commissioned his European educated architect brother to design and construct the world’s largest all golden teak building, Vimanmek Palace (no interior photos, of course). The 72-room Palace would be comfortable as a mansion in any Victorian seaside town. Built in traditional Thai style there is not a single nail in the entire structure. Wooden pegs join everything including spectacular circular staircases.
Unlike so many mansions, this was a home. It’s flooded with light and well ventilated with intricate wooden lace work topping all walls allowing air to freely circulate. It serves as a museum today for the royal collection of period furnishings and for both official and private functions of the Royal family. Currently, it is now part of the extensive private compound of the Royal family including the Royal Elephant Museum and the Dusit Zoo. Admission to the Palace is included in the ticket for the Grand Palace and is valid for a visit within 7 days of the ticket’s purchase. One hour guided tours are conducted and, wearing no shoes, the silk-smooth teak floors feel wonderful on your feet.
What defines a fabled city? Age? Diversity of cultures? Tolerance of differences? Quality of life? Art and architecture? By using any of these terms I’m not sure if “fabled” is a moniker that can be applied to Bangkok. Fascinating certainly is proper terminology.
Bangkok is young and chaotic. Founded only in 1782 (Philadelphia, USA, is a century older) after the Burmese destroyed the truly fabled capital city of Ayutthaya, the site of Bangkok was chosen for strategic purposes – protection from the Thai’s arch-enemy the Burmese. Like Venice, it was marsh land surrounded by rivers. The king immediately constructed a system of canals creating a virtual moat around the city – and like Venice the elevation of the city is sinking.
It’s a city of contrast; not only rich and poor but architectural styles as well – condo skyscrapers next to river shanties, 19th century shopping districts and modern malls, dubious electrical infrastructure, scorching heat/ humidity (even in “winter”), cooling parks, trees, flowers everywhere and exquisite topiary.
Would you believe Bangkok’s a clean city? Believe it ! Trash on the streets is virtually non-existent despite the constant and lively street life. Legions of street sweepers and building maintenance workers constantly sweep up even leaves and fallen flower petals.
Traffic is horrendous! I spent one hour in a taxi to travel less than 4 miles – of course the fare was modest and the cabs are mostly new, comfortable air-conditioned Toyotas. Yet for less I could have taken a Tuk-Tuk – a motorcycle pulling an open air covered wagon – or, for even less, rode on the back of an orange shirted motorcycle “taxi.”
Yet, built within the past decade, the ultra modern, ultra clean and comfortable Sky Train elevated and the subway system will whisk one around the central core of the city (about one-third of Bangkok) for less than taking the average city bus in the USA. Despite the chaotic traffic I’ve yet to see a dented car.
There are over 35,000 Buddhist temples (Wat) in Thailand, 300,000 Buddhist monks, shrines everywhere – street corners, in malls, in front of every house, in parks, restaurants and hotels with burning candles, incense, flowers and food offerings. Just about every other world religion is present as well. In the Robinson Department Store just down the street from my hotel is a Muslim prayer room.
Shoes and hats are never worn in Thai houses of worship, or, for that matter, in any Thai home. The dirt of the outside is left outside. Floors are immaculate – not a speck of dust.
Everything is available from street vendors, especially food. The Thai’s seem to eat constantly yet I have not seen a single person you could call even slightly overweight. For a Westerner, the cost of food is embarrassingly cheap. In the pictures below, the sushi and superbly grilled trout, plus a rice salad and miso soup in a small nondescript Japanese restaurant in a shopping mall cost less than a Big Mac in the States.
In the three days I have wandered the city I have experienced nothing less than the utmost courtesy whether in a tourist attraction, on the Sky Train or the street. I have yet to see any public display of anger or bad behavior. The police are friendly and helpful – what a contrast to so many countries.
Children seem to be revered and the photos below sums up my impression of Thai friendliness – figures of laughing children are everywhere, especially in the gardens of the Wats (temples) and street the vendor’s baby in the crib is cooled by a battery-powered fan. Bangkok may be intolerably hot and humid, chaotic and perhaps not “fabled,” but it has a more valuable treasure – it’s friendly.
“The things they carried…P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits…they carried diseases…malaria and dysentery…lice and ringworm and leeches…and the land itself…the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles…They carried their own lives.”
from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Haughton Mifflin, 1990)
It’s been a quarter century since peace finally came to the lands of Southeast Asia. For centuries it was part of the fabled “spice route” between the eastern and western worlds, yet in the 20th century more than twice the tonnage of bombs were dropped on Indochina than in all of World War II. I’ll be leaving Sunday to spend 43 days in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I’ll have no worries or fears, unlike the brave but misled soldiers of that ill-fated war.
For me who narrowly escaped experiencing the horror of those past times, it feels odd that I’ll enjoy first class hotels, renowned cuisine, stunning scenery, cities and sites that have survived millennia of wars and legendary hospitality. From all my research of the past six months in preparation for this trip I expect to see, or even feel, little evidence (except in museums) of last century’s strife. As a chef, historian and travel writer I’m preparing myself for a flood of experiences that will test my ability to process this trip with all five senses – especially taste. Foods that few westerners ever have the opportunity to see, no less taste, await me, with fusion cuisine developed over centuries of east-west contact – durian cheesecake anyone?
Oddly, I’ll carry some of the same objects listed by Tim O’Brien – can opener (cork screw in my case), pocket knife, wristwatch, mosquito repellant, bottled water, sewing kit and malaria pills (one-a-day for 51 days). I’ll have to still be mindful of bed bugs – carrying bed bug repellant (fortunately I’m already aware of what they look, and feel, like.) Lice, leeches, dysentery are all still present – this is the tropics – which means swimming in lakes and rivers is out. I’ll carry my ignorance of customs – no pointing either with fingers or, especially, with one’s foot. I’ll be ignorant of the languages. For the first time in my life as a traveller I’ll be hopelessly unaware of what anyone is saying (with the exception of tourism workers that speak English). Language will become music, much nicer than the karaoke sounds my research says is the favorite throughout all four countries.
The best thing I’ll carry? A sense of wonder.
My first blog, from Bangkok, will post Tuesday, 8 February.
“I deplore two principles in religion, obedience upon authority without conviction and destroying them that differ with me for Christ’ sake.” William Penn, (1644-1718) founder and Proprietor of Pennsylvania Colony
William Penn not only wished his colony to be a refuge for fellow Quakers but for all people – even Jews, unheard of in the 17th century. As a businessman, he intended that Pennsylvania would prosper to the benefit of all landholders. Land grants were made to a number of families within what is today Philadelphia and the four surrounding counties of Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware. A road system was planned as early as 1683 connecting the new townships to the city creating the best and most extensive systems of its day. Germantown Avenue/Pike extended from Philadelphia – today’s historic square mile Old City – linking important communities such as Northern Liberties, Germantown, Chestnut Hill, Plymouth Meeting, Evansburg and Collegeville.
Mennonites, Amish, Methodist, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Baptist all flocked to the new colony. The abundance of fertile land, water power, quarry and limestone brought the promised prosperity. German farmers brought the technology of burning limestone in kilns into powder that fertilized the farmland. Yet would the same groups that may have been both persecutor and persecuted during Europe’s interminable religious upheavals cooperate to govern the new towns? Would the “holy experiment” work?
Evansburgwas a very early 1700’s planned community in religious cooperation. Although Plymouth Meeting (1702) served the needs of area Quakers, The 1698 Norriton Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest churches anywhere in Pennsylvania. The beautiful tiny stone structure is surrounded by an American Revolutionary cemetery. The new building for the congregation is next door.
Quakers do not believe in proselytizing their beliefs, yet there was no issue when St. James Episcopal (Anglican) Church, 1721, established the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The above 1780’s building was a recreation of the 1721 log church. The cemetery holds a number of Revolutionary War soldiers who died in the Battle of Germantown. In 1838 the building became one of America’s first public school buildings. Today it’s the St. James Community History Center.
Their current 19th century St. James Church is across the street. Next door, at 3814 Germantown Pike, is the 1737 Glebe House. A “glebe house” was a self-supporting farm for the Anglican priests of the parish. St. James’ is one of the earliest existing glebe houses in the American Episcopal Church.
Stephen Rush operated an Inn in his house (1803) and later purchased the Evansburg Inn. Stephen was related to Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Rush house is private today, but the former Evansburg Inn is still serving food and spirits as Osteria Restaurant, 3835 Germantown Pike.
The Casselberry family is one of many that can trace their ancestry back to the founding of Pennsylvania, but are among the few still living on their original land. Henry Casselberry emigrated from Germany in 1683 settling in Evansburg in 1729, towards the end of his life. His son Derrick created a prosperous farm with his inheritance and built a sizable house in 1734. Now owned by a non-profit, it is undergoing restoration. A generation later, his daughter-in-law, Ann, purchased an elegant 1798 plaster-over-stone house and barn. The house, and barn, just north on Evansburg Road off Germantown Pike, is still the home of the Casselberry family.
The waterways of the region provided both transportation and power for dozens of mills throughout Penn’s colony. Skippack Creek in Evansburg State Park, which is the southern boundary of the town, provided the “fuel” for 18th and early 19th century industry such as Keyser’s Mill, now maintained by the Park.
In 1792 an eight arch stone bridge on Germantown Pike was constructed over the creek. On the National Register of Historic Places, this bridge is still in use! It’s considered the oldest bridge of its size in America certified to support heavy traffic.
If Evansburg is an example, William Penn’s Holy Experiment continues to succeed.
Philadelphia and its surrounding counties – Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware – were all part of the original land grant of Pennsylvania that William Penn received from King James II in the late 1600’s. Having alienated his famous father, Admiral Penn, by associating with that “radical religious cult,” the Society of Friends (Quakers), William took his inheritance to establish a utopia of free speech and social equality in the New World.
I grew up in historic Bucks County in the 1950/60’s when it had a population of 250,000 (over one-million in 2011) and there was so much open farmland I was always bored on a “dog-day” July afternoon because the world was so silent. It was a racially segregated society. There were some African-American families living in the county. Many worked on the large prosperous farms. My parents occasionally employed a local African-American resident (his family still lives in the area) to help around our 14-acres of (non-farm) land. He always had lunch with us, and he was always addressed as “Mr. …” – which was how we were taught to address adults. My parents were liberal Catholics. I was 11 years old when I lost my innocence concerning racial prejudice. An African-American farm-worker family enrolled their boys in our local Catholic school – the outcome was not pretty. I was shocked, horrified and puzzled at the racist reaction of my friends and their parents. The boys didn’t last long. It was the beginning, for me, of life-long realities.
In the 1860’s, Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County, consisted of large Quaker-owned farms. It became a favorite location for wealthy Colonial Philadelphians to establish country farm/estates. By the Civil War, 1860-1865, the area had attracted both the interest of wealthy investors and the Federal Army. Camp William Penn was created as the first, and only, Civil War training camp for Black soldiers. The site was deliberately chosen because, being within a Quaker community, there was less racial intolerance than within the city itself.
Lucretia Coffin Mott, born into a prominent New England Quaker family, settled in Philadelphia with her husband in the 1820’s and, with both their strong anti-slavery views, created one of the first anti-slavery societies in the country – as well as being a leader in women’s rights (Seneca Falls) and many other social issues. Her son-in-law, Edward M. Davis, was a wealthy Quaker who had a vast farm/estate in Cheltenham Township which she and her husband often retreated to when their home on 3rd. & Arch in the city became too frenetic. After the Civil War, Cheltenham became the focus of intense real estate development among wealthy Philadelphians – many non-Quakers: P.A.B. Widener, William Luken Elkins, John Wanamaker. With Quaker influence, a unique development formed.
As these wealthy families built their own vast estates and developed such exclusive communities as Wyncote, Glenside and Elkins Park, the influence of the Davis and Mott families encouraged these non-Quaker millionaires to act with a social conscience. Davis and Mott set aside land from their estate for African-American families – many were workers on neighboring estates – to rent and own their own dwellings. In the 1890’s one of the first home owners was the butler to Mr. William Elkins. Architecturally, there is nothing interesting about La Mott. The houses are classic working class bungalows, row houses and twins that are found in all Northeast coast cities. Yet it’s the reality that such a neighborhood existed at all with the opportunity of home ownership in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that is remarkable.
Of course, African-American’s were still segregated, and employers were the wealthy white residents of the Township. Right next door to La Mott, separated by an enclosed iron gate, is the still exclusive Latham Park in Elkins Park. This mile-long private boulevard is lined with spectacular examples of upper-class architecture of the early 1900’s, including a stunning mid-century modern (1972) currently on the market for $625,000.
Even given the obvious racial/class differentiation of the past – although today more than one Black family owns a Latham Park house – La Mott Historic District represents a seminal social shift in American racial attitudes and is a prized symbol among Philadelphia’s Black community.
At the apex of Victorian excess in both architecture and interior design, a quiet revolution was brewing among British and American artists. Reacting to dehumanizing industrial life in the late 19th century, a back to nature and handmade crafts movement was born. Architecture opened up interior space and utilized hand worked wood, chiseled stone, brass, copper and glass to mimic the forms of nature. Many architectural styles became common place in America between 1900 – 1945: Craftsman bungalow, Ranch house, the Prairie School and Mission Revival. Even landscape design was affected moving away from formal gardens to recreating the country side or a rural village within an urban setting (Frederick Law Olmstead’s New York Central Park).
By the late 1800’s, Lansdale, Pennsylvania, was connected to Philadelphia by rail making both a commute and shipping profitable. Like many Montgomery County towns along the line, Lansdale prospered. The brick and wooden row houses, sturdy Four Square brick homes of the middle class and the stone mansions of business families are all laid out in the predictable grid pattern of most American towns.
In 1912, Harry Richardson, son of a prominent Lansdale businessman, purchased land on the west edge of town and laid out 36 lots for what was to be an Arts and Crafts Movement village, Oak Park. Entering through the gate with its two classic early 1900’s tile mosaics, the narrow winding streets curve around irregular lots covered with trees and plant life. Oak Park was not meant to be a “cookie cutter” development so no two houses are alike. Many were designed by local architects and built over a 30 year period, several of the earliest were designed and built by Harry Richardson. Nearly all are modest in size which was a tenant of the Craftsman Movement. Unfortunately, unlike Wyncote Historic District, there does not seem to have been, or is, an owners association – which is logical given the free-thinking of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Yet this has resulted in houses not remaining true to their original designs and, in some cases, very poor maintenance.
Two of the earliest homes in Oak Park, Richardson’s 1912 bungalow and William Heebner’s 1915 bungalow typify the ideal that Oak Park was to represent – modest dwellings amidst gardens and trees in a country village enjoyed by well-to-do families. Unfortunately these two historic bungalows are in need of major maintenance.
In pristine condition is the 1915 Dutch Colonial Revival that architect Walter Slifer built for his mother. Slifer took advantage of the abundance of local stone as well as the classic Craftsman’s use of wood shingles. Next door is a stunning Prairie School style house designed by, unfortunately, an unknown architect. The Prairie style was perfected by Frank Lloyd Wright who in 1915 was at the peak of his success having designed many famous homes in that other Oak Park (Chicago suburb). This Oak Park house (picture below) is a classic Prairie style with its clean horizontal lines and understated decoration meant to compliment the clean lines of nature.
Harry Richardson wanted Oak Park to be a community of Craftsman bungalows and he basically succeeded with about one-third of the three dozen houses maintaining their structural and design integrity. The 1998 listing of Oak Park on the National Register of Historical Places will, hopefully, help preserve its architectural heritage.
Like many towns in the post-industrial Northeast, Lansdale went through a long period of economic decline which certainly discourages home maintenance. Fortunately, this decline began a reversal in the 1990’s and the town today sports many restored homes and commercial buildings covering the entire architectural history of Montgomery County since Colonial days.
Going to the ends of the Earth is fun, but I am rediscovering adventure in my own back yard.