Monkey Kings and Mushrooms

The great monkey king, Hannuman, brought Mount Phousi to Luang Prabang all the way from Sri Lanka to whet a Laotian queen’s appetite for mushrooms. At least that’s what a Laotian folk tale would have you believe. 

Folk tales at the Garavek theater in Luang Prabang.

John and I climbed the 355 steps to the top of the mount where we were met by grand vistas and the golden Wat Chom Si. I did not, however, spot any mushrooms on the way up or down.

Overlooking the Me Kong River.

My favorite mountain climber.

The golden stupa was built in 1804.

Directly across from Mount Phousi is the Royal Palace, now a national museum.

The palace is not ostentatious.

The palace was built in 1904 during the French colonial period and the royal family of Laos resided there until 1975 when the monarchy was deposed. The king and queen were sent to a communist “re-education” camp where they died.

In the 1990s, the palace was opened as a museum. Unfortunately, no photo-taking was allowed inside the palace which was very well preserved, offering a glimpse into royal life.

I wish I could have taken a photo of the throne/reception hall. The walls were composed of a mosaic of Laotian folk tales made out of Japanese glass. Breathtaking.

Laos’most sacred Buddha,  a small, 2,000-year-old statue made out of solid gold, is housed in the Wat Ho Pha Bang or Royal Temple located at the palace.

While the temple looks old, construction on it began in the 1960’s, was halted for decades due to political upheaval, then completed in 2006. I  particularly liked the green elephants which lined its base.

This afternoon John and I split to do our own thing. He headed out of town to explore a waterfall while I opted for lunch at a riverside cafe.

Lunch on the river.

Enjoying a nice breeze in the shade of the cafe, my mind drifted while I waited on a club sandwich. I contemplated fictional monkey kings who moved mountains and real kings who lost everything to “re-education.”

Wonder where all the mushrooms are hiding on Mount Phousi?

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Around Luang Prabang

They appear quietly in the mornings, wrapped in orange robes like slender pieces of fruit. Often, they move in small groups, a blotch of orange against a backdrop of white buildings. Sometimes, a lone l’homme d’orange wanders the streets carrying a cloth shoulder bag in which to store the alms he collects.

Buddhist monk on his morning rounds.

The monks survive on the charity of those around them. Most people give them rice. I saw the process unfold again this morning in Luang Prabang, an exquisite town in northcentral Laos nestled between the Me Kong and Nam Khan Rivers.

Quaint street in Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang has been inhabited for thousands of years and was the royal capital of the country until 1975 when the monarchy was toppled. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang is a favorite with tourists.

Strolling through this ancient town known for its many temples, it’s easy to see why. There’s a serenity and understated elegance about the place

A bamboo footbridge crosses the Nam Khan.

Guesthouses and hotels along the Me Kong River side of town.

One of the most notable temples in Laos is here. Built in the 16th century, Wat Xieng Thong, “monastery of the Golden city,” is the religious emblem of Luang Prabang as well as one of the highest symbols of Buddhism in Laos. It is architecturally stunning.

Wat Xieng Thong.

Through the main door a giant Buddha awaits.

Wat Xieng Thong was the site of royal coronations, funerals and other matters of state during the monarchy.

The gilded doors are certainly fit for a king!

But I found the ornate paper lanterns hanging from the eaves just as exquisite.

Wat Xieng Thong also housed the royal crematory — which was essentially a giant urn — and funeral barge.

Crematory on the royal barge.

Temples aside, simply exploring all the side streets, sampling restaurants and perusing the shops in Luang Prabang is thoroughly enjoyable. 
I’m glad John and I will be here for several days before heading to Vietnam. I’m already enchanted with this little jewel of a town!

Street art in Luang Prabang.

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4000 Islands

No regrets in leaving Cambodia, particularly after the bus company we, and several other tourists, hired to take us to Nakasong, Laos dropped us at the border and promptly left with no explanation.

We exited Cambodian passport control, walked across the border, paid the $2 fee required to get into Laos (we had already paid $22 for a visa) and waited for about 45 minutes, trying to figure out what was going on which is challenging when you don’t speak the local language. Not wanting to stand at the border of Cambodia-Laos and wait for the bus company to remember we were there, John negotiated a taxi ride to Nakasong.

Part of our original ticket purchased from the bus company was a boat ride from Nakasong to Don Det and we were able to use that portion of the ticket, arriving just as the sun was setting.

Don Det is part of a number of small islands on the Me Kong River collectively known as the 4000 Islands. We spent three enjoyable days there.

We found nice accommodations at the Baba Guesthouse. The view from our balcony overlooked the river.

A French family owns the guesthouse. 

Imagine our surprise when our “garden view” featured our laundry.

The cow preferred the grass to our clothing.

Don Det has a laid back, hippie kind of vibe. This sign in one of the restaurants captures the essence of Don Det from the tourist’s perspective.

My motto.

To get a feel for how the Laotians live on this big river, we took a boat tour of the islands.

A typical village.

Agriculture and tourism drive the local economy. The mix still leans more heavily toward agriculture.

Women harvesting rice .

No matter how poor the village, the temple was the most ornate structure around.

Pagodas were plentiful.

As was livestock!

Pig sty beneath a house.

The villagers, particularly the children, were very friendly. They waved to us as we passed their schoolyard or homes. They took great delight in John when he stopped to shake their hands.

Yesterday, we went to see the dolphins that inhabit a small area of the river. No dolphins in sight, but we did have a wonderful time with some village children who enjoyed practicing their English with us and teaching us a few words in Laotian.

Then it was onto the massive Khonephapheng Waterfall.

A beautiful park and shrine to a sacred tree, which had been removed from the top of the waterfall, were part of the sight-seeing.

The sacred tree.

Life is hard on the river, but the people seem happy. I am not sure how long their lives will remain unchanged as more and more tourists seem to be discovering the 4000 Islands.

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A Promise Kept at Angkor Wat

A great way to learn about what you’re seeing while visiting the temples of Angkor is to tour the Angkor National Museum.

Angkor National Museum

The museum gives you a basic grounding in the history of the Khmer Empire as well as some fundamental explanation of Hinduism and Buddhism — all of which enriches your experience while exploring the temples of Angkor.

For example, I learned that Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument, is a physical conceptualization of the Hindu universe. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of divine, celestial beings in Hindu mythology. Housed within a moat and outer wall 2.2 miles long are three rectangular galleries, each raised above the last. At the center stands three towers.

Scale model of Angkor Wat at the Angkor National Museum

The massive 402-acre complex was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, but transitioned to a Buddhist temple by the late 12th century.

Angkor Wat

It’s been an active Buddhist temple ever since. During our visit, I received two, blessed bracelets from a Buddhist monk who sprinkled me with water while chanting. Tied to my left wrist, the red, string bracelet wards off misfortune and negative energy while the yellow and red bracelet embodies love and happiness in friendship.

Angkor Wat is an active temple.

Much of the stonework at Angkor Wat is related to the Hindu creation story. The gods and demons joined in a cosmic tug-of-war, using Naga (a multi-headed cobra god) as the rope. The tugging churned the “ocean of milk,” creating and destroying many things. One creation was the Aspara, beautiful dancing nymphs who are depicted throughout Angkor Wat.

Aspara, celestial dancers, are well dressed!

Naga is well represented throughout Angkor Wat as well. His head is at the main entrance (s)

Restored Naga.

while his body forms the balustrade for a long causeway leading to the temple.

Naga’s body forms the balustrade.

Once inside, you catch glimpses of a colorful past.

But mainly, you just wander around, open-mouthed in complete awe of your surroundings.

The galleries seem endless.

Every window offers an enchanting view.

The towers dominate the temple.

A shady spot.

A contemplative tourist.

Leaving Angkor Wat today was bittersweet.  By visiting this magnificient monument, John has kept a promise made as a small boy to his grandfather. A promise kept closes yet another chapter in life. 

Our book is not finished, however. The road calls us to journey on to the next chapter, holding memories of the last one close to our hearts.

Naga seems to  overlook a path to infinity.

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Dragonflies over Angkor

Siem Reap, located in northwestern Cambodia, owes its existence to the ruins of Angkor, the seat of the Khmer kingdom from the 9th through the 15th centuries.

We hopped a short, one-hour flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap yesterday, arriving at the ultra modern Onederz hostel just in time for an early dinner at the Angkor Night Market.

John tried crocodile meat, but I stuck with a known entity — the Cambodian version of sweet and sour chicken.

Tasty!

I’ve seen scores of dragonflies flitting about like flocks of birds throughout Southeast Asia. Siem Reap in Cambodia is no exception. Today as we toured the ruins of ancient temples, dragonflies kept us company on more than one occasion.

The jungle, as nature always does, has sought to overtake these timeless ruins, but thanks to about a century of reclamation work, led by the Ecole Francis d’Extreme-Orient (EFEO) and others, the structures give us a glimpse of their original glory.

Ta Phrom

Angkor is an archaeological fantasy. While the ruins are indescribably beautiful just as they are, check out this article to see how some of these ancient temples looked when new. It’s astounding!

Next to Angkor Wat, the most famous ruin is Bayon with its gigantic heads.

Too many giant heads to count at Bayon.

But I found some of the smaller, more intricate carvings at Bayon were much more interesting.

This carving was found throughout Bayon.

Buddhists still visit Bayon, and the other temples in Angkor, to pay their respects.

Buddha at Bayon.

Banteay Kdei was the first temple we visited in Angkor. It is massive. It looked like the perfect set for an Indiana Jones flick.

The tree and the temple are one.

We spent about six hours covering 9.3 miles today as we climbed stone steps, walked up and down long corridors, and ducked in and out of ancient doorways built for much shorter people. We saved touring the mighty Angkor Wat for another day.

But the dragonflies and temples of Angkor we did see were more than enough, making for an unforgettable day.

Chau Say Tevoda

Thommamon

Ta Keo Temple Mountain

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The Passing of a King

Several days ago while in Chiang Mai, John and I found a cinema with movies in their original language. We popped in to see The Girl on the Train. At the end of the previews,  pictures of the king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej,  flashed on the screen, accompanied by what I assumed was the Thai national anthem.

Everyone in the theater rose. Out of respect to local customs, John and I rose as well. We have been told by expats here that the king is highly revered and cautioned about strict lese majeste laws that forbid any negative discussions of the royal family.

King Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch, died on Thursday and the entire nation genuinely mourns his passage. 

Today, Lub d, the cool hostel where we’re staying, posted some behaviour and dress quidelines for us tourists.

An interesting read.

The synopsis: Do/say something deemed disrespectful and you can be arrested.

Yesterday, John and I made our way to the central pier to take a boat trip through Bangkok’s canals. The streets were subdued with people dressed in black or white. Thousands of citizens were standing in lines at each ferry port, patiently waiting to board a ferry for the Royal Palace to pay their respects.

Multiple lines like this were at every ferry port.

Tourism continued, however. For $60, we had a private, two-hour boat tour down the rolling Chao Phrya River and into the canals.

We had the boat to ourselves.

The residences along the canals run the gamet from the homes of the well-to-do to those much less fortunate.

The canals are also home to water monitors, close relatives of komodo dragons. We saw two, one was huge, about six-feet long, while the other was much smaller, but still rather intimidating.

The small guy.

The canals were also teeming with fish — which explained what the monitors feast on.

Thirty-one years ago when John last visited Bangkok, the drivers flew through the canals at break-neck speeds. Nowadays, it’s a much slower ride which gives you a chance to take in the sites — temples galore.

One, big stupa.

Then it was back on the river and riding the waves churned up by all the traffic. It was kind of like being in the ocean on a longboat.

There were some good four-footers on the river.

We spent the evening at the Patpong Night Bazaar. It was very quiet. The bars were empty and the few ladies of the evening we saw were without customers. No public drinking or revelry is allowed during the next 30 days.

All quiet on the eastern front.

The somber mood prevailed this morning as we ventured out to the Chatuchak market. 

A glimpse of the market bordered by a park.

It was a good market, but I preferred the public park next door.

Chatuchak Park

We met the daughter of one of our neighbors for lunch at an excellent Lebanese restaurant. Kori works as a teacher here in Bangkok. We’ll see her next when she comes home for the holidays.

Tomorrow, we fly to Cambodia, leaving a nation in mourning. May Thailand’s next monarch be as beloved as King Adulyadej.

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One Day in BangkokĀ 

Rolled into Bangkok yesterday early in the morning after having spent the night in a sleeper car on a train from Chiang Mai.

Throughout the bumpy ride, a line from the 80’s hit, One Night in Bangkok, kept repeating in the cassette deck of my mind: One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster… 

The capital of Thailand, Bangkok is home to 8.3 million people. It’s a modern, skyscraper-filled city…

Eye-catching architecture.

with a 600-year past. Like most old cities, it got its start because of a body of water. The Chao Phrya River, the country’s major river, flows through Bangkok on its way to the Gulf of Thailand in the South China Sea.

Unlike the Ping River in Chiang Mai, the Chao Phrya rip-roars along with lots of boating traffic.

View from the ferry.

John and I arose early this morning and navigated the streets of Bangkok to find the boat ferry at the Oriental Hotel. 

We road the ferry to the Royal Palace complex which includes the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Temple and surrounding stupas and viharns are, without question, some of the most spectacular man-made structures I have ever seen.

The temple complex is vast.

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Edge of a gilt stupa in front of the temple.

No photos could be taken inside the Temple, but wandering around the complex was one scrumptious piece of eye candy after another. It was dazzling!

Garudas (a Hindu god) lined the base of the temple’s ubosoth to chase away evil spirits.

Gate-guarding demon.

Successive kings, including Thailand’s current king, have added to or restored aspects of the temple and Royal Palace. One of my favorite additions was a full-scale stone model of Angkor Wat (Cambodia was once a vassal state of Thailand) which was built by King Mongkut and finished by King Rama V for the centenary celebration of Bangkok.

Angkor Wat model.

I also enjoyed the little garden areas just outside the Royal Pantheon. 

They gave your eyes a rest from all the glitter and gold.

After wandering for more than hour in the sweltering heat amid throngs of mostly Chinese tourists, we found a lovely, shady spot to rest and soak in the more understated beauty of one of the viharns.

Viharn Yod is to the left.

Refreshed, we wove our way through the complex to the Royal Palace which was very elegant and quite sedate after all the temple glitz.

The Royal Palace.

The current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and assumed the throne in 1946, making him the world’s longest reigning monarch.  Sadly, the Thai king died today.

Yet, the wonderful restoration of the temple complex he sanctioned in 1982 will continue to delight visitors from around the world.

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