Tag Archives: Buddhist

The Three Reincarnations of Vientiane

Modern Laos - old and new

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

 

 

everyday life: fresh charcoal, knife sharpeners, bottle cap checkers, tuk-tuk cab, bocci ball and bamboo construction ladders

 

 

 

 

martyred Prince Anouvong (King Chaiya Sethathirath V: 1767 – 1829) last ruler of the Kingdoms of Vientiane and Lan Xang.

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 Prince Anouvong (King Chaiya 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.

a small sample of Buddhist Wats in Vientaine (bottom center) prayer at That Dam - the revered centuries old Black Stupa - (bottom right) sticky rice offering on a protective naga (snake)

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.

His Majesty Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46 and King of Laos 1946-1959)

Capitalism in a Communist nation? Let’s get real. Before the creation of the unified Kingdom of Laos, after the French withdrawal, under His Majesty Sisavang 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.

infrastrusture? Repair?
a few of the many Spirit Houses in front of shops, homes and a pizza restaurant

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.

Pets - which are not eaten

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).

(Top) fresh roasted peanuts, smoked ducks, grilled fish in rock salt, frogs (Center) fish for stew, cockles, prawns and a variety of deserts (Bottom) produce, French bread, strips of Water Buffalo and an ivy-like vine leaves used for salads and soups

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…

La Silapa: Cream of Pumpkin Soup, White fish with Laos vegetables, salad with a lime dressing, tamerind sorbet, ginger cakes in creme anglaise

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.

Nos

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.

Angkor Wat: A Millenium Symbol of Cambodian Resilience

 

Angkor Wat, constructed in the 12th century

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.

Hindu God Siva at Angkor Wat, artillery damage from recent wars

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.

the three towers of the outer temple are on the national flag of Cambodia
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flag of the Kingdom of Cambodia

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.

(bottom center) punishment in hell, (bottom right) life in heaven

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 God-King Suryavarman II

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.

Buddhist monks and tourists at Angkor Wat

Bangkok: What defines a fabled city?

 

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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.

Sky Train and traffic

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.

(top left) shrine in a shopping mall, (center) Buddha statues for sale, (right) Holy Rosary Catholic Church, (bottom left) Temple of the Sleeping Buddha

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.

street life: (top left) eggs roasting on charcoal, (bottom left) street vendor dentures maker

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.

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