Muraltopia

[Written Wednesday, February The 15th, Night]

Christ on a crutch, I love this town! I’m telling you straight: were the air quality a little bit better, and the fruit quality more than a little bit better, I should love to stay here possibly forever.

The plan for yesterday, Tuesday, was to visit some temples East, North, and West of the city. Started out well enough, as there’s one I’d not yet seen located straight across from the guest house.

The next was not too far down the road. But the third, Wat Phon Phao, was a bit of a hike. This temple’s tree-shrouded stupa is one of the highlights of the vista from the top of Mt. Phousi – have been eager to visit since having spied its glory from on high.

So, I battened down the hatches for a walk on a heavier-trafficked inter-city road. No sooner than, I missed two excellent photo opportunities. The first was this girl…

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…doing a hop-skip across the street with her little pink umbrella in tow. She was getting air, man – I think she’ll be dunking a basketball in about two years’ time.

The second was these crazy moto mofos and their pane of glass.

glass

Still looks okay from this angle; but from the front was much better, as the glass-holder had an absolutely hi-larious look on his face. You can see it’s not a very pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare.

The Wat is located right near to the New Bridge. Somehow I missed the turn-off, and ended up at the new bridge. I could see the Wat towering on its hill above me, but was hoping I wouldn’t have to walk all the way back to the driveway to get up there.

So I took this one dirt road that I hoped would lead me up to a back entrance, and soon came to an eco-lodge, whose owner happened to be out lounging around with a guest. She explained me of a shortcut to get up to the temple. Following her directions, the trail was much less-well maintained than I’d expected – even had to do a little bit of bushwhacking. I was being extra careful not to annoy any snakes that might be in the area – me in my bare feet and all.

Got in through to a clearing, where a family had a little dwelling. It felt a little awkward, the trail leading right through the family’s “yard”, but nobody seemed to mind. Then it was back into some jungle, for a hearty up-slope, and then a pain-in-the-ass muck through a bunch of downed coconut fronds. Just as I was muttering to myself that this temple had better god damned be worth it, I received my first glimpse, and knew instantly that it’d be all good in the ‘hood.

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But, the temple was closed for lunch. With an hour-and-a-half to kill, I set out to explore the temple grounds – whose were far bigger than any other temple I’ve visited. I guess it’s a major centre of the so-called “Vipassana” school of Buddhism – to do with the means of meditation, I guess.

Anyhow, the grounds are very beautiful, set up on the hill, surrounded by woods and jungle. Even gots a public shitter – which is de rigueur in Thai temples, but basically unheard of here in Laos’. As at Phousi, cicadas rule the soundscape, and there are so many lovely trees around-abouts that it’s never difficult to find some shade in which to hide.

Was checking out this cool set-up…

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…and was joined for conversation by a novice name of “Sampaeng”.

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I told him that there’s a “Sampaeng Market” in Bangkok, but he didn’t really seem to give a shit about that. Nice guy, fairly thick accent.

He asked me what kind of food I liked here, and I named off a bunch of the fruits I’ve been eating. “No, not fruit,’” he protested, “Food!” I tried explaining him that I didn’t eat meat, nor fish, nor fowl, nor rice, nor noodles – only fruit and veggies. I just don’t think he was ever able to accept such a ridiculous notion, however.

When a gap in the conversation arrived, I asked if he’d been painting (you’ll notice the paint on his shoulder and chest)? He didn’t know what in Hell I was talking about, so I pointed to the blotches. He was completely shocked, and had no idea from whence they’d come. Then, he politely ended the conversation and ran off! I guess showing one’s face in public with a paint-splotched body is a major no-no.

Went to visit the auxiliary temple, which was also closed; but whose outside is almost as beautiful as the main temple’s.

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I set myself to photographing the temple’s many murals – you can see some of them there – and was soon joined in another conversation, this time by a civilian. He asked me where I was from, and I told him, then returned the question. He said he was from Laos, and I tried to get from him which province in Laos; but his English wasn’t so good, and I was unable to find out.

He offered to let me listen to his mp3-playing device; which I was quite glad to do — always want to know just what it is the kids are listening to these days. Turns out this kid was listening to, as nearly as I could determine, the audio track from a porno movie. In which language, I know not – possibly Thai or Lao. I silently returned to him his ear-buds, and went back to the picture-taking.

He left, returning about five or ten minutes later. Noting my still-active camera, he whipped out his johnson, and requested me to take a picture of it! I mean…I guess I could have done – I can’t deny that his was a fairly good-sized specimen. But right there on the steps of the auxiliary temple?? I respectfully declined, and he went back to his listening.

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After making the grounds’ rounds, I had about fifteen minutes to chill out and enjoy the view. Finally, they let us in, and…it was much more understated than I’d expected.

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But the airiness and the open windows gave it an incredibly peaceful feeling.

The murals cover the walls in matching pairs. The top set, I believe, is a numbered catalogue of the glories awaiting the devout. The bottom, meanwhile, is entirely filled up with more shocking scenes of violence: impalements, sawings-of in-half, cleavings of skulls, the pulling out of nekkid ladies’ tongues with calipers, and so on. Many of the victims are man/beast half-breeds.

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The implication, of course, is all too obvious. And this is precisely what I detest most about organised religion: the preying on of people’s fears of hellfire and damnation for power over them (and let’s not forget money from them) here on Earth. But I, personally, love all the hellfire imagery; and the artists’ abilities – and their imaginations! – are the tops.

It’s kind of a quandary: without all the fucked-up religions, we’d have missed out on so much wonderful architecture and so many wonderful artworks – and yet, there’d have been so much less pain and suffering in this world. The one is clearly not worth the other…but it’s too bad we couldn’t have the artworks without all the bullshit.

Anyways, continuing on around the perimeter, and, what’s this?, a stairwell? Wasn’t for-sure it was a public stairwell, as I’d not yet been to a temple with a second floor. But I trod on up, and…the second floor was a delight to behold.

The many open windows – and two balconies – afforded a great 360-degree view of the environs.

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The space itself featured many more beautifully depicted murals, as well as objets d’art (vases, carvings, antiques, and cetera), with a more modest Buddha set-up than even the first floor’s.

Also, a wooden staircase up to a third floor. Wow! On up we go, the third floor’s rather small interior’s murals are all stupae from (I’m guessing) different parts of the world. You can see some of them in the background here.

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And then, crapping you negative, another wooden staircase, up to a fourth floor. On the way up, you can stop and check out the little Buddhas lining the third floor’s windowsills.

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The fourth floor is a small dome – getting right up to the tippy-top now – with murals depicting scenes of Buddhist bucolia.

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You see it there, don’t you? The ladder/stair to the fifth floor! All up in that motherfucking stupa, I’m talkin’ about!

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The top’s murals are portraits of what I’ve come to realise are Luang Prabang Buddhism’s five most important animals – the chicken, the buffalo, the turtle, the naga, and the griffin – as well as tastefully rendered capturings of The Buddha in repose.

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And so there it is: my favourite place in the city. If these are the digs, I think I could go in for a life of monasticism.

But for this day, it was onward, across the New Bridge, to the North side of the city (had not yet been). Where, visiting a small market, I came to a realisation.

bare feet

This blog would perhaps be better titled “The Barefoot Farang”. For, nobody fails to notice them.

I said before that that Laotians don’t give me shit for them the way that Thais do. But here in Luang Prabang, many are, without being vocal about it, fairly openly hostile. These (usually smartly dressed women) make a big show of looking down at me feet, then back up at me and not returning my smiles. Most of the rest just think I’m a nutter.

But the old geezers love it. When I motion to them that I’ve shoes in my backpack, it’s all they can do to keep from crapping in their pants, such is the gaiety of their laughter. At the market, a young shop-owner even pointed out to me a stall at which to buy flip-flops.

So long as they don’t deport me, I’m okay with it. I’ve noticed that the soles of my feet have adjusted to the egg-fry pavements much better that my scalp has adjusted to the hot glaring sun. Funny thing is, in Bangkok it was just the opposite: I don’t think I once put on a hat, but I frequently had to dance to and fro’ in waiting for the light to change.

North of the city is a more laid-back, village-like atmosphere. Then, as one works one’s way west, and then north as the Nam Khan makes its confluence with the Mekong, it becomes literally a number of villages, dirt roads and all.

On the map, there’re four or five temples along this route. The first featured a leaning stupa.

leaning stupa

One may in the back of one’s mind be wondering, by the way, “Why taking so many pictures of the Naga? Can’t it be given a rest?”

But, here we go, north of the city, not only first Naga with a wafer-thin tongue; but also first Naga with a rice offering on its tongue.

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Another first: Naga under construction.

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This temple appeared to be on the receiving end of a general makeover, as it was also, at the time of my visit, getting’ a fresh coat of paint.

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Found the first two or three temples in their advertised locations; but apparently either took a wrong turn or the map was wrong – as I never did find the others. Found, however, a shitload that weren’t on the map. Every little village heading north along the Mekong has its own temple. Must’ve passed through eight or ten of them.

At one such, stopped to take a pic of some novices splashing away in the river below…

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…and was treated to an impromptu riverside jam session.

One temple’s stupa’s ruins are like something out of Close Encounters (or what).

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Walking through the villages of a late afternoon was, of course, a delight. The people are just the best. Here, as everywhere else in the country, the children love to vamp for the photographer’s lens.

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Not only the children, however. As I was busy taking a picture of this boy…

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…up the road a piece, these dudes were urging a bicyclist to take their photos. I was able to horn in on some of that action as well.

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Name of “Nadia”, the bicyclist was born in Russia (retains a slight accent), but has lived most of her life in the US of A, with a brief time in Japan as well. Living in Chiang Rai, Thailand for two months to help a friend of hers working (for five years now) in a Montessori school there, she had a week to spare, and decided to take off to Laos.

Like everybody does, she’s totally fallen in love with the country and its people, and laments the all-too-brief time she’ll be spending here. Tried to convince her to include Nong Khiaw in her itinerary, but it doesn’t look like it’ll be in the cards this time around.

One of her ports of residence has been San Diego; which, I was keen to know a bit about her experiences there, as I’ve considered possibly relocating to as well. Particularly, I wondered whether the military presence didn’t bother her. Of course, it does, she says. But she lived in a hippie-commune type of neighbourhood, right on the beach, with very low rents on account of its right under the airport’s flight-paths. Well, might be worth checking out.

I feel much the Stranger In A Strange Land here, but after a week’s time, I was able to give her any number of tips and suggestions in re travel in Laos; so that was pretty cool.

Like me, she’s in thrall with the village scene, so we walked up north for quite some ways. At one of the temples, some riverweed had been put out for the drying.

riverweed

I explained that it’s on all the menus here – but always cooked. We decided to try a little bit, and…it’s pretty decent! Taste and texture a bit like spinach.

Down a little side-lane, this family was even friendlier than most.

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The father spoke quite good English.

Eventually, Nadia decided to bike it back down to the city, hoping to be able to get up to Mt. Phousi for the sunset. Meself, I took it in on the river.

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Then, climbing back up to the village, seen my first gobbler of the tour.

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Also seen this little kid mis-applying the faucet’s pressure – and paying for it in spades.

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This lady was happier than you could imagine to be having her picture taken.

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Back down to the confluence, loitered around at the beautiful scene for a while, then hoofed my ass across the bamboo footbridge.

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Back in the city, nightfall had not prevented this youngster from practicing, with his older brother’s aid, his goaltending skills. The ball is there in the left-center sector of the image.

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4 Responses to Muraltopia

  1. Charles Arcola says:

    If there is nothing new, but that which is
    Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled…

    If a walk-man porno flasher in the middle of a remote Buddhist temple isn’t proof that God is one seriously hilarious motherfucker, I don’t know what is.

  2. S S T says:

    Who would have thought that in this remote place you would have encountered none other than Randy Johnson. No doubt he was primed for a little Monk ee business on the old temple steps. What’s next, a Horny Toad invasion?

  3. @wnwtravel says:

    Hello! Do you know the name of the Auxiliary Temple that you mentioned above? I have been searching and searching to find the name of this location. Thanks!

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