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A Bhikku Visits Cambodia and Laos

By Venerable S. Dhammika

I have just returned to Singapore after a two month journey to Laos and Cambodia. I spent a month teaching in Malaysia (in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Penang) and then headed north to Bangkok. Then I took a bus to the Cambodian border.

As soon as you cross the border into Cambodia you see the change. The east of Thailand is rather prosperous and developed nowadays which only highlights the poverty on the other side of the border. Suddenly there are beggars, dirt and untidyness everywhere and officials demanding money from you. There are also many people with limbs missing. They were everywhere, the victims of mines.

I went straight to Siem Rep and stayed in a small temple near the river. I spent the next seven days looking around Ankor Wat. Thanks to Osama Bin Laden there weren't too many tourists but the place is definitely gearing up for a major tourist influx. The city of Ankor itself is rectangular and surrounded by impressive walls and with gates at each of the four directions.

Ankor Wat is of course is exceptional and is the main tourist attraction of the whole country and in its massive presence, it really is one of the great wonders of the world. In size alone it surpasses anything I have ever seen.

Just the task of removing the earth to make the vast moat around the temple must have involved thousands of workers. When examining the stonework and carving close -up everything is as finely carved as lace.

At the exact center is Bayon, a huge temple to Avalokitesvara, the personnification of infinite compassion, which is really the only Buddhist temple at Ankor. This is the place with the towers with the enigmatically smiling faces that one often sees photos of. Bayon temple is in a ruined state but this seems only to increase the beauty of the place.

As with nearly all temples here, the temple at Ankor is still a functioning temple.

The other highlight is Ta Phrom. In the 1920s when the French were restoring Ankor they were so impressed by the huge trees growing around and on this temple that they decided to leave it as it was. Just the kind of finesse you would expect of the French! Huge tree roots clasp the stones of this temple and run down its walls like great streams of melted candle wax. In some places the roots are prizing the stones apart in others they are the only thing keeping the structure from falling down. Ta Phrom is exactly what the imagination thinks a lost city should look like. Here as at other places I clambered over stones and up walls to get a better look or observe more closely until I would suddenly remember "Mines" and then carefully make my way back to the well trodden path.

In many ways Ankor is like Anuradhapura a secular city dwarfed by the nearby temples and surrounded by huge reservoirs, except that the layout is severely geometrical and on a much bigger scale.

When I had satisfied my curiosity at Angor Wat I took a boat down the Tongle Sap inland lake and then on further down the river to Pnom Penh.

Pnom Penh is a rather horrible place. Sinister looking policeman flag down motorists to extract money from them, seedy bars and clubs, piles of rubbish on the pot-holed roads, thousands of children begging or hassling you to buy things and evangelical churches everywhere - sure sign of cultural disruption and degeneracy.

The National Museum has a fine collection of Khmer sculpture but even here the staff try to insinuate money out of you. The other place I visited was the infamous Khmer Rouge prison which was set up in a suburban school. Experts estimate that 80,000 people 'passed through' the prison. In room after room they store the official photos that were taken of the victims before these innocent Cambodian people were tortured and killed.

They show people of all ages, women with babies on their knees, the blind, even a few Westerners. Many have their shoulders pulled right back due to their arms being tightly tied with wire. A few photos were obviously taken after interrogation. The whole place is rather harrowing and more so when you discover that most of the prison staff were teenagers or even younger.

Apparently most of these, too, eventually fell victim to the system. I only stayed long enough to get my visa for Laos but even here the policeman standing guard at the embassy gate tried to collect the visa fee from me!

LAOS

Visa in hand, I headed north to a border crossing that I had heard was not open but that for a 'gift' you could cross. And so it was. For a small gift of US$5 they found an exit stamp. Later, in Laos I met an American who had crossed at the same place. He told me the guards had screamed at him, shoved their rifle barrels into his ribs and extracted $300 from him. I must have got them on a good day.

The border is actually on the Mekong River at a place a little down from where the river passes over the largest cataract on its entire course. This makes the river fan out to create several thousand islands. On most of these are small fishing and farming communities almost completely cut off from the rest of Laos. With no bridges, electricity or vehicles it's a rather lovely place. In one part of the river there are even a few Irrawaddy dolphins a very rare creature nowadays. I saw some frolicking in a stretch of open water. There is even a catfish, 'Plah Buk', which can attain a huge size of eight feet long and weigh hundreds of kilograms. But that too, is a rarity now.

At the beginning the last century the French had scheme to sail up the Mekong to China so they built three miles of railway line with the idea of transporting ships around the cataract. It never worked and the old steam engine and other bits and pieces sit rusting in the jungle.

The cataract itself is quite a sight - being a kilometer long, falling 15 meters and being as yet a completely undammed river, the water tumbles over it with a tremendous roar.

Then I headed north to Champasak, Suvanaket and eventually Veintaine. This a rather remarkable town. It must be one of the few capitals in the world that you can walk around easily in a day and which isn't choking to death in its own traffic. There are so few cars that there isn't a rush hour or even any traffic lights. I had arrived just as they were celebrating the 25 anniversary of their Glorious Revolution and there were red hammer and sickle flags everywhere, a real rare sight nowadays. Communism seems to have laid lightly on the Laotians, there are no architectural monstrosities, statues of heroic workers, obligatory pictures of party bosses and people are not frightened to talk to visitors. Apparently things got a bit nasty just after the revolution but it has been pretty mellow since then. Temples are active and there seem to be plenty of monks.

Next stop, I went to Vang Vung, a small town set in a landscape of mountains that look like those depicted in Chinese stroll paintings. Because of the many caves in the area the staple diet in Vang Vung is bat meat.

All you do is, just singe off the fur and wings, roast for a while and you have a mouth-sized meat ball. Another popular tit-bit is gecko toasted on a bamboo stick! It tastes like Chicken meat I am told.

Next, I took the bus through the mountains through north-central Laos to the old royal capital of Luang Phrabang. Most of the country on the way is very sparsely populated. Luang Phrabang is a charming little town on a finger of land formed by the Mekong on one side and one of its tributaries on the other. The whole place is a strange but harmonious mix of old temples and French colonial architecture. In the royal palace, in a shrine, is the palladium of the old Laotian Kingdom - a beautiful bronze statue of the Buddha. The story goes that it was made in Sri Lanka, was given to an early Khmer king, fought over, stolen and finally in the 14th century came into possession of the kings of Luang Phrabang. I examined the statue very carefully and it is definitely not Sinhalese but it is interesting that its attribution is such. Perhaps the original was from Sri Lanka and this is an ancient copy.

My next destination was the Plain of Jars, a grueling two day bus trip away. I can remember as a kid seeing a newspaper headline which read, "Guerrillas Storm Across The Plain of Jars' and of it evoking in my imagination a picture of large apes running across an open space strewn with glass jam jars. It is in fact an upland plateau on which there are clusters of Neolithic stone receptacles, the original purpose of which is unknown. There are several hundreds of them of different sizes but most big enough to easily sit in. It is an interesting place but hardly worth the very difficult trip needed to get there. Judging by the stares I got from the locals few outsiders bother to make the trip.

I returned to Luang Phrabang and took a boat down the Mekong to Vientian. It was a pleasant 6 day trip with the boat stopping a few times a day to pick up passengers and cargo. As with the road trip up, most of the country we travelled through was thickly forested. I crossed into Thailand, stayed for a few days at the temple of monk I know, and then went down to the south-east to visit several of the Khmer sanctuaries found in that part of Thailand.


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