City of Gold (Vientiane, Laos)

In this tumultuous land,  the oldest monastery in Laos, Wat Sisaket has survived numerous invasions. The architecture is more Siamese style than Laotian, with a five-tiered roof and a u-shaped terrace exhibiting 6,800 statues of Buddha in wood, bronze, and stone.

We were very fortunate to meet two monks willing to speak with us about a typical day. Prayer and lessons, chores and ceremonies, meditation and study. Their religion leads to insight and knowledge. The aura of the monastery is calm peace. To the left of the initiate monk in orange, there are two canopied beds decorated in gold and silver. Higher ranking monks sleep here with darling kittens. I loved this insight to men and their pets.

Nearby is the most important religious monument in Laos, called That Luang Stupa. In the first century, an older Hindu temple was on this spot. Later Buddhist missionaries brought the breastbone of Buddha and rebuilt the stupa. In the 13th century, it became a Khmer temple that fell into ruin. resurrected once again as a Buddhist temple, the Thai invasion of 1828 destroyed it for the fourth time. The French rebuilt it twice (1900 and 1930) before it was demolished in a bombing raid and rebuilt again after World War 11. If nothing else, this site shows human tenacity at its greatest.

Bring your sunglasses as the 147′ tall temple is covered in 1,102 pounds of real gold leaf. It’s built in three levels following Buddhist teachings. The bottom is a little over 226′ square and represents the underworld. The middle level is one step closer to heaven, if believers have followed the 30 Buddhist teachings of perfections. These are represented by 30 smaller narrow stupas surrounding this level.The upper level is enlightenment and Nirvana.

Almost hidden around a corner is a modern reclining Buddha in a garden setting. The bottom of Buddha’s feet have infinity wheels and many people want their earthly remains interned in stupas flanking the statue.

I’ve been gone from this site for awhile–traveling and having many new adventures that I plan on sharing with you! Next up–Amazing Angkor Vat. 

Mekong, Monks, and Market

What is the common thread of the Mekong River, monks and markets? Nourishment, the passionate joy of discovery, a shifting of the inner self to allow meditative balance.

The Mother of all rivers is the 2,700 mile long Mekong which begins in China, flows through the Tibetan Plateau and onwards to Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to the China Sea (*note– SE Asia isn’t happy this sea is named for China!)

The river supports many diverse groups of people. Britannica states that 80% of protein (fish) is harvested from the Mekong River in Cambodia and 1/2 of all crops are irrigated with her waters in Viet Nam. Small hydroelectric dams have been in place since the 1950’s, but current large projects are highly controversial. I cannot imagine flooding of the Buddha cave and other ancient sites and this is only one component of the debate.

Early every morning, orange robed monks walk single file and barefoot down the streets seeking alms of rice. This ancient Buddhist tradition offers residents a way to attain good karma and peace as the sun rises. Monks are a visual reminder to be faithful, to walk with intention, to be mindful of all actions and words. Religion nourishes us from the inside out.

Daily markets are a microcosm of life worldwide. A young mother rests on a bench, feeding her baby before gathering the day’s sustenance for the rest of her family. Women from the countryside harvest fruit, vegetables, and even addictive Betel Nuts. People develop friendships with locales as well as strangers, and these interactions feed their souls.

Some venders cook meals, including grilled rat which is a local delicacy in Asia. (*It tastes like grilled pork)

Other booths carry flowers for spiritual and religious uses. Birds are captured and sold, some to release for good karma and others to grace our dinner table.

One of my favorite markets is the night market in Luang Prabang, Laos. It is certainly set up for tourists, but the items are varied and negotiations brisk. Hand-turned exotic wood bowls, handmade paper made into lanterns, beautiful paper greeting cards with intricate pop-ups (*note to buy in quantity, but keep in mind they are $1US a piece in Vietnam), fabric and embroidered goods.

Please refrain from buying the jewelry made from bomb casings. Do not encourage public collection of these dangerous materials unless they are from a certified and safe removal organization. IMG_0563

Traveling With a Tender Heart

Refugees from northern Thailand have lived for three generations under the highway in Bangkok, squatting on Port Authority land. They have nothing to go back to. IMG_8944The rice fields and their homes are long gone.IMG_8940

There’s a man named Thai who was a champion kick-boxer who runs an open air gym underneath the overhead thumping and growling traffic. He wants to keep kids away from drugs and other bad influences by training them to excel in a lucrative competition that offers a chance for success.

Young men sacrifice gallons of sweat, honing the sport on dreams filled with hope.

I walked with the mayor of this small village, down narrow paths hemmed in by ramschackle dwellings made from items found in garbage bins. Babies played or old men napped in the golden afternoon light.

There’s a small grocery in the front room of one home. The owner wheels a cart, piled high with goods for sale. Her voice echoes up and down the maze of passageways. Chickens are raised in one section, roosters saved for fights and gambling. There’s a meger pharmacy, sans a druggist, doctor or nurse. The community struggles to be self-sufficient.

 

I became a pied-piper, drawing in so many children who wanted stickers I brought to pass out in exchange for a smile. A few crafty ones returned with another shirt, hoping I wouldn’t recognize them, waiting in line for a second helping of goodies.

Why don’t these families move on, absorbing themselves into the open air and sunglight of Bangkok? When faced with the question, the mayor answered, “This is our home.”

 

Visiting the Hmong refugee village near Luang Prabang in Laos felt much the same. These northern people, in danger from unexploded United States cluster bombs, were moved by their government from hollowed craters where poppies grow, ripe with opium.

 

Life moves on in this village, where these strangers aren’t accepted by other Laotians. A woman pumps air into a forge where her husband squats at the flame and crafts knives. A retired man makes bird and fish cages out of reeds. Women thread looms, making scarves  with babies at their sides. Another group of women embroider fabrics to sell at market. Children play games with rocks, climb trees, and go to a one-room school. Everyone smiles and waves.

 

The best way to keep cultural identity and traditions alive is to remain in a group strengthing the community, even if living conditions aren’t ideal.  We were invited into the leader’s home and spent some time talking about the dispersed Hmong people and what a typical day is like.

 

He later dressed in a traditional outfit and played music for us. Plied with local moonshine, we were embolded to eat appetizers of fried crickets, silk worms, and cacoon of moth before a beautiful feast was prepared in our honor.

 

We were welcomed with such grace and open arms.  I wondered at the cost and time of hosting such an elaborate meal and felt guilty about using their resources.

‘HOME’ is a complicated word that cannot convey the depth of feeeling within a heart or an ethnic group. If I were a painter, I’d splash and swirl colors of the rainbow to try and give you the meaning. Musicians might compose a sound that would vibrate inside your soul. All of these arts cannot surpase the simple act of a well meant hug.

Royal Wat Xieng Thong

After a delicious lunch at Joma Bakery in Luang Prabang, we visited Wat Xieng Thong, built in 1559 as a royal temple where kings were coronated until 1975.

 

Wood doors covered in gold tell the life of Buddha. Enter the building to see carved Naga on the ceremonial cremation barge used for the kings remains. These snake figures are said to be a supernatural deity, and can be a protectress or demon, guardian and demigod. Evidently, some of them can turn themselves into human form, which might be kind of freaky.

 

Images of Buddha with various hand positions (called mudras) instruct us to follow peace, banish fear, quell demons or practise charity.

 

I was busy looking at sparkling glass tiles and painting on the wood beams of winged Pegasus and didn’t realize that the tour had moved to another building.

 

Three children were busy getting their fortunes. Delighted, they showed me how to pull a numbered stick out of a container and how to foretell my own future. Later, I learned doing this three times would have been better.IMG_9067

Across the courtyard is the temple where the Laotian Kings were coronated and where the sacred boat is kept.

 

Another favorite building is the Sim, or congregation hall, with the outer wall decorated in glass tiles in the shape of a tree of life that shimmer in the light.

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This golden guy is a cautionary tale about a peeping Tom and he got caught.  Of course, he had karma payback for his naughty actions.

 

In 1887, when rebels invaded and destroyed Luang Prabang, this complex was saved because the leader had once been a young monk who studied here.

 

Floating Market and Mangrove Forests

The famous  Damnoen Saduak floating market,  located sixty-two miles southwest of Bangkok, Thailand remains a blast from a past when river traffic was the only way to trade.

The main canal was built in 1866 by King Rama 1V to connect two rivers, but many  side canals were dug by hand. Today, these twisty mazes offer vistas of beautiful temples with gold dragons adorning steps down to the water to house boats where people live and work.

There used to be markets like these across Thailand, but as roads were developed, many of them closed. Damnoen Saduak retains its history, chaos and charm.

Very early in the morning, farmers sell vegetables and fruit before a quick turnaround to ply the tourist trade in an irresistible and colorful tourist trap offering t-shirts and low-cost indigenous clothing, Buddha figures, and carved wood items with a few hidden spice dealers or local artists amongst knock-off purses.

Other sellers cook noodle soup or hot bbq inside their boats and I wondered how they kept afloat. A kaleidoscope of vendors voices join the long tail boat’s smoking engines that whine in a strange orchestra of sound as crowds thicken and jostle for space.

I bought saffron. But you need to know what color it should be (bright orange and red, not brown). A large bag would selling for $40 at home, set me back $5 US. Old spices sold cheaper–be wary. Everything is negotiable, and I suggest aiming for 50% off asking price. Cute traditional cotton pants should cost $3-$5. Fix an amount in your head and stick to it. Competition is fierce and a seller won’t let you leave without announcing their bottom line.

Close by, there is a mangrove conservation area in Khlong Khon district of Samutsongkram province. These forests grow in salt water, providing a green wall of defense against coastal erosion. The health of an ecosystem is determined by the vigor ( or lack) of the mangroves that can grow up to forty feet tall.

When fishermen noticed a depletion of harvest, a serious effort began to replant and protect this sensitive ecosystem. There are hundreds of shrimp-eating monkeys who ran after our boats looking for bananas. Some of them are cute, while others reminded me of the Witch of Oz and her army. It was fun to watch them, but be sure to keep them off your lap and watch your fingers!

The sea-side communites farm-raise fish, mussels and oysters. Some residents make shrimp paste (which is really krill) used in Thai cooking.  I asked about sustainability of harvesting krill with the Arctic and Antarctic oceans warming, resulting in the reduction of the mighty protein required by all mammals, including the largest whales.

I got a confused look from the local vendor. Seems like a little education is in order for both of us. I’ve googled that there are eighty-nine known krill species and all of them should have harvesting limits.

Edible cricket farming is on the rise too, and I recently learned about a high protein cricket flour that is being exported around the world. Thai farmers make more money on this high protein commodity than in harvesting rice, sugar cane, palm sugar, or coconut sugar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phoenix Rising From The Flames

On my SE Asia trip, I confess to being hesitant to visit places like Pol Pot’s killing fieldsIMG_0652 and the CuChi tunnel outside of Ho Chi Minh city. The “American War” (Vietnamese name) brought up memories of friends killed and protests at home. I didn’t want to revisit anger over my government’s lies. My peers, those with a bright and promising future, signed up because they believed in the honor of that war. How do you justify top brass without the cahones to admit they were wrong? Those men who delivered our young to the slaughter house instead of doing the right thing? Frankly, it’s happening again in Afghanistan. History repeats itself, and we’d be wise to revisit these places of horror.

 

 

I felt helpless facing so many ghosts and told our guide, KC, that I didn’t think I could handle the encounter. He encouraged me. “Dawn. You need to come. I’ll make sure you don’t have to see anything that’s too difficult. Please come.”  KC kept an eye on me throughout, and now I must admit that he was right.

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This old school became the high security prison and torture center for the Khmer Rouge from April 17,1975-January 7, 1979

Chum Mey is one of only seven adult and five children survivors of the Tuol Sleng high security Prison and torture center during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Mr. Mey doesn’t know why he lived, other than he knew how to fix machines and his captors needed him. He was arrested on Oct 28,1978 and was tortured in ways that I will not speak out loud for fear of evil revisiting the world again. Mr Mey’s entire family was murdered, even his 2 month-old son.

 

 

In January, 1979, Vietnamese liberators followed the stench of decaying flesh to free the Cambodian people after half of the population was forced to dig their own graves and were then bludgeoned to death in 388 killing fields.

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It was an honor to hear Chum Mey speak, not only about survival but also about forgiveness for his jailers who he felt would have also been killed if they didn’t follow orders. His testimony at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal resulted in the lifetime imprisonment of Duch, the man most responsible for genocide at Tuol Sleng.

CuChi Tunnels

 

 

 

It was a privilege to visit with Mr. Nam, a Viet Cong soldier who lived and fought every day in the tunnels for over fourteen years. He stood before an illuminated map showing military control zones and I held my breath, not certain of what he might say to the Americans sitting before him.

 

 

His first sentence was, “I never wanted to be a soldier. I never wanted to kill anyone.” He proceeded to tell us that his village was destroyed by US bombs and that he had to move underground. He met his wife, a nurse who took care of him when he lost his arm, and his children were born in the tunnels. He feels that he was protecting his family as US forces continued to bomb and tried to destroy where they lived. At the end of his talk, he said, “There are no winners here.” I asked him what made him the happiest and what was the saddest from that time. His answer was, “There wasn’t happiness and it made me so sad to see my friends killed.” The most heartwarming moment was when our veterans joined Mr. Nam in a moment of forgiveness.

How to Survive Peace?

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sculptures made out of unexploded bombs at the Vientiane, Laos Rehabilitation Center of COPE

Since 1996, COPE has worked in Laos with disabilities caused by UXO (unexploded ordnance or cluster bombs) as well as clubfoot deformities. 260 million tons of payload were secretly dropped over Northern Laos during the Vietnam war from 1964-1973. The airplanes couldn’t land with live bombs on board and the government in Laos asked for US help in trying to control pockets of communism along the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran the long border between Laos and Vietnam. The American public never knew.

 

 

Thirty percent of those bombs did not explode and remain today, waiting for one little mistake. There are still 300 accidental detonations resulting in 46 deaths each year. The war ended over 43 years ago. Because cluster bombs destroy a large area, the increase of collateral civillian damage is huge. The live ammunication can be dormant over many generations. There are hundreds of little bomblets in just a single casing.  In 2008, the United States refused to sign a ban  and we continue to use clusters in Afghanastan. (On a side note: In Afghanistan, the bomblets were painted yellow and so were the relief food packages dropped for civilians. Children thought the yellow balls were something to play with.)

Bombs and mines have hurt everyone in Laos. Our guide’s father built a fire near his field to keep warm. The heat was just enough to explode the hidden casing buried below him. There are instances of children finding cluster bombs the size of softballs and in innocence don’t know they are deadly. One toss. A child’s life taken.

 

 

These survivors picked up my broken heart and rebuilt it through their stories of heroism, grit, and courage. Their message was clear: Never forgot those who died at the hands of evil. Be vigilant that this never happens again. Forgive those who were manipulated, terrorized or lied to. We are all the same–we want peace and a chance for good health and prosperity for our families.

When do we stand united and simply say “No” to war and conversely, when there is a great evil like Pol Pot and Hitler, when does the globe unite to make sure genocide of an entire race doesn’t happen again? Are we paying attention in Syria and Mynamar?

 

Venice of the East (Ayutthaya, Thailand)

In 1350, a king of Siam relocated to a conflux of three rivers, 53 miles north of Bangkok, and called the royal city Ayutthaya. It’s believed he was escaping a smallpox outbreak in the old capital.

 

Imagine hundreds of temples and stupas sheathed in gold covering 9 square miles. By 1700, over a million people lived in Ayutthaya, making it the largest city in the world at that time. An amazing number (thirty-five) Kings ruled from here. Surrounded by water, the island was called Venice of the East.

 

 

Wat Mahathat means temple of the great relic and is one of the oldest (early 1350’s) constructed from cantilevered brick and once sheathed in smooth materials. It is surrounded by towering cremation and meditation stupas. This wat was also home to the supreme patriarch of the Buddhist monks.

 

 

In 1767 The Burmese army destroyed the royal city, murdering and raping the population and hacking hundreds of heads off the Buddha statues. This decapitation showed their power but also had a reason— gold and jewels were often hidden inside.

 

 

A tree grew around one Buddha head, creating this eerie scene within the ancient complex of Wat Mahathat.IMG_0011The entire ancient site isn’t under UNESCO preservation at this time. Touring the city requires a bike, a hired cab or jambo for the day. If you want to step back in time, you can even ride an elephant, just like royalty of old.