Monday, April 30, 2012

Don Khong Temples - Wat Phuang Kaew & Wat Jom Thong

Wat Phuang Kaew in the heart of Don Khong's main tourist drag.

Wat Jom Thong is believed to have been constructed during the Chao Anou Period (1805 to 1828). This temple complex sits at the bank of the Mekong in the village of Wat Xieng Wang at the northern end of Muang Khong's main tourist drag. It's a comfortable walk from town, passing through rows of guesthouses, bamboo grooves, untended fields and a dramatically placed bridge before eventually finding the south gate entrance. The temple itself faces the east, shaded by coconut palm trees, some betel nut plants and a mango tree to its left. At the back of this main temple - the "sim" (ordination hall) - is a newer, albeit smaller temple which is eternally closed for visitors, but nonetheless visible. The grills have been shaped in Buddha-like images.

Chao Anou Period was lead by Chao Anouvong (Chaiya Sethathirath V) who led the Laotian Rebellion between 1826 to 1829. He was the last king of the Lao Kingdom of Vientiane. Anouvong succeeded his brother Chao Intawong when the latter died. Anuvong was quite friendly with the Siamese regime. In fact, he helped Thailand in its campaign against the Burmese. He also repressed a Champasak revolt. He was also responsible for the construction of the beautiful Wat Si Saket in Vientiane.

Wat Jom Thong is the island's oldest temple, but it's also famed for its unique cruciform pattern. However, it's easy to disregard this detail once you're inside. A dozen Buddhas of varying sizes adorn the main altar. Three concrete stand-alone arches with chipped off white paint stand right in front of the temple, each one facing the east, north and south. Roaming the grounds is an enjoyable foray back into time. After all, not many structures dated 1805 survive the modern age of cyber interaction.

Soaked with a rich atmosphere and the obvious desolation, nay abandoned feel, Jom Thong is one of my personal favorites.

Wat Jom Thong in Ban Xieng Wang

Wat Jom Thong's main temple, the "sim" or ordination hall.

Fronting the entrance of Wat Jom Thong, which faces the east, are 3 stand-alone archways facing north, south and east.

The northern side of Wat Jom Thong.

The southern side of Wat Jom Thong is the most common entrance of most tourists coming from the south's main tourist drag.

The back of Wat Jom Thong. 

A second, smaller but more modern temple rises at the back of the main temple.

Main "altar" of the second temple at the backyard.

Wood carvings at the main temple's front door.

Main altar of the ordination/prayer hall of Wat Jom Thong.

Entrance gate of Wat Jom Thong from the southern entrance.

Fields surrounding Wat Jom Thong.

In the central town of Muang Khong, Wat Phuang Kaew dominates with its sprawling grounds and a gigantic Golden Buddha facing the east. The statue itself sits on a pedestal rising from an 18-step platform guarded by nagas (mythical water serpents) from each side. There are stupas at the front. Two main temple halls stand beside each other.

The main temple is the "sim" (ordination hall). It boasts of a breezy hall beautifully designed with white posts on a square-tiled hallway filled with Buddha statues, a gong, a carriage, etc. In the chaotic era of political struggle during Laos' "revolution", the government tried to oust the abbot governing the temple. Despite such power and influence, they were unable to do this. People have since believed that the head monk's powerful meditation had given him due supernatural powers to deflect the oppressive politicians, making this temple quite a bit of a local legend.

Since the temple stands smack in the heart of Muang Khong, it is easy to visit anytime of day. It is located south of the bridge and the row of guesthouses. Nearby is an internet cafe with cheaper rates that open until 10PM. The Agricultural Promotion Bank is in the vicinity, so are the Police Station, Post Office, Lao Telecom, Governor's Office, Bureau of Finance and Office of the Poverty Assistance Fund. In front of the temple is an abandoned football field now covered by untrimmed grass.

There is a more romantic temple - Wat Phu Khao Kaew - that sits on top of a hill at the western riverbank, in the Muang Saen village 8 kilometers east from Muang Khong. This was something I wanted to see more than a traipse into the party island of Don Det. I knew I had to get there.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Wat Phuang Kaew's gigantic Golden Buddha being guarded by a naga.

Wat Phuang Kaew's main temple.

Main altar of Wat Phuang Kaew

Spacious and atmosphere-rich ordination hall of Wat Phuang Kaew.

Second temple in Wat Phuang Kaew grounds standing to the right of the main temple, but is mostly closed.

Stupas in front of Wat Phuang Kaew's grounds. In front is a football field that's mostly deserted.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Exploring Don Khong - North of the Bridge

Last night, I had an epiphany. Why it would come at a dour moment when I was testing the mosquito net in my room was dissociative. Or maybe nets trap thoughts the way pinholes in eye exams give clarity to vision. My mind just wanders. For this trip, I have been roving around quite a bit, moving into new towns almost on a daily basis. If I stayed two nights, I hardly saw my room. Being idle is a curse when you’re plying the roads in solitary splendor. I knew I had to somehow kick back and stay put, smell the roses so to speak.

Thus comes the dilemma of what to do on my second day in Don Khong. I had the option to see Don Det and Don Khone then head back to Muang Khong for the night before taking my ride back to Pakse on the day that followed. To be honest, this option had been crossing my mind for a couple of days now. I wanted a day not quite dictated by my guide books and printed manuscripts. After all, there were plenty of things to discover outside a written document. I could not completely abandon my itinerary but this day had to be ruminative and new; an experience that goes beyond my planned itinerary. 

I waited for dawn until the sun peeped its golden head rendering royal luminescence across the Mekong. Like most days, it was a sight to behold; an affirmation that life renews vigor and affirms the beauty of a place we call Earth. It was also nearly time to indulge in my new pastime - stalking the monks during their morning alms collection. Not quite 6, but there was already adequate sunlight to truly appreciate Wat Phuang Kaew which I dimly saw last night. I saw monks getting out of the nearby temple and prepared myself for the daily spectacle which has fascinated me ever since. Like what transpired in Champasak, the locals would spread small mats in front of their dwellings. They'd sit on them as their legs endure the weight of their body. When the monks see them, they'd give away food stuff and gifts at each of the monk's alms bowl, then the train of holy men would queue up and chant some prayers for the faithful. The locals meanwhile bow down their heads. Quaint scenery really.

I managed to follow two sets, but after a while, it was time to head north. By this time, the sun had bathed bright orange hues across wooden domiciles; the fields nearby kissed by the golden rays as though the heavens have waxed poetic. Don Khong in early daylight seems more alive than Champasak. From the row of guest houses fronting the river, I walked further. feeling fancy free than ever before. In fact, it was one of the few times I was gallivanting on shorts instead of jeans and a few kip in my small pocket.

Upon reaching the village of Ban Xieng Wang, I noticed the stark power of the sun over-illuminating the very green foliage around me. A bamboo grove lead to a clearing by the riverside and an old woman was carrying a pail full of whathaveyou's. The number of houses have dwindled. There was a wooden bridge I had to cross. Finally, I arrived at the temple grounds of Wat Jom Thong, the oldest temple in the island, famed for its cruciform floor plan. This was built sometime in the 1930s. It was deserted, and if it invoked the spirits of the past, its history lent a lot of character on nagas guarding doorways, sculpted wooden arches and a parade of varied sized Buddhas. I've decided to feature Wat Jom Thong and Wat Phuang Kaew on a separate post to give them the spotlight that befit them.

That early morning, I'd gone ambitious and decided to look for Phu Khian Cave (Tham Phu Khian) - the Green Mountains Cave. There's an elaborate description of direction in LP but this somehow concluded with "get a guide". That doesn't help much. After asking a few people about the "tham", someone eventually advised me against it. It's "very far", "dangerous", etc. As I am not exactly a spelunker, after several tries to head into nowhere, I gave up. But this lead me to an inward road, bigger than the pathways along the river. It was a highway without much transportation in a landscape sprinkled by farm lands and shanties. I must have walked for 5 kilometers heading north when I realized the scenery looked identical. Was I headed to the village where a postman grew up and moved on to become a President of the country? Nah, that was too far to walk. So I headed back.

Along the way, I saw children - some still drowsy, others brimming with wide infectious smiles. It felt good to be alive and privileged enough to witness these simple, albeit glorious slices of humanity.

I walked back from the highway to the riverside road. I noticed a beautifully assembled building. A new guesthouse perhaps? I headed to Souksarn Restaurant for breakfast, but decided to have one at Pon's River  Restaurant. Its signage outside still amused me: "Pon's Liver". I ordered Sweet and Sour Pork with rice at a pricier 35,000 kip and 10,000 kip for rice.

An elderly monk starts his day collecting alms.

After my meal, I tried the Tourist Information Center near the bridge for some maps of the island but for the second day since my arrival, its doors were still shut. I once again headed to Wat Phuang Kaew. Though I didn't need more kip, I decided to change a few dollars to local currency at the Agricultural Promotion Bank near the temple. It had very few customers, one of them was carrying 5 thick wads of paper bills. Hmmm. Who would need that much money in Don Khong? Was she a guest house owner? How else does a Lao earn that much in stuporous Khong Island? I was of course immersed in playful reverie since it took the bank clerks forever to finally entertain me despite paucity of customers. I also noticed how belabored their method was. They inspect every bill and painstakingly record every serial number on a ledger. And if I were to exchange $100 bill to local tender, this would take forever. And it did. Elsewhere in Laos, it wasn't this tedious and painstakingly slow. They were always fast no-frills transaction in Money Changers. This was a bank, yet they seemed ill prepared for such transactions. Weird. Sad thing is, this could be the only place for money changes thus there were no other options.

I walked back to my room and blasted the AC to maximum cool. Unlike most days when the sun was up and I'd be painting the town "blue", I decided to take my slumber. I wasn't going to tell the day that I've turned it into a night. And I surreptitiously slid under my pillow and slept the morning through like I've never slept before.

This is the  Eye in the Sky!

Eternally unavailable Tourist Information Center

Morning Alms Collection

An old lady carries a pail as she heads down the river.

Sun kissed riverbank.

Bridge going north. Nearby was Wat Jom Thong.

Wat Jom Thong was built in the late 1800s.

The main highway.

Morning smile. And I could seriously see myself in his eyes! :)

A new guesthouse along the banks of the Mekong.

Pon's Arena Hotel

Don Khong's popular bridge, mentioned in several guide books for reference.

Wat Phuang Kaew - A naga guards the Golden Buddha on a pedestal.

35,000 kip Sweet and Sour Pork at Pon's River Restaurant.