Saturday, January 31, 2009

Laos: The Weird Concrete Sculptures of a Buddha Park – A 2nd Part

Have you ever wandered into a place - a realm - that reeks of the bizarre? It doesn’t help much either that this place is almost deserted at any time of the day. It was alienating visiting this weird weird Buddha Park located about 24 kilometers southeast of Laos’ capital Vientiane. Hiring a tuktuk on my own was getting to be an expensive endeavor. Otherwise, if I had to share it with other tourists, we could share the package rate of $19+ for a return trip. Unfortunately, it isn't easy looking for travel buddies if you only have half a day to spare. Since at this leg of my trip, I’d already trudged through 7 cities and spent a fortune on solo-trips, I decided to try a cheaper means: use the commuter bus!

Of course, such endeavor takes guts as I would have to brave the language barrier and my unfamiliarity with the place. From Talat Sao (Morning Market) Bus Station, I found the green colored Bus # 14 and headed to the Buddha Park. We weren’t able to post these images until now. This was supposed to be a second parter of my original piece on the Buddha Park. Here are more mind-twisting images borne out of the imagination of a whimsical mystic named Bunleua Sulilat. He envisioned a place where his imagination comes to life in the form of larger-than-life concrete sculptures, combining Buddhist and Hindu deities as well as of beastly creatures.

For more of the Buddha Park, visit these posts:
A little historical background and experimental images:

For the 1st part of my blog post on my visit:

I was particularly anxious about this visit. I worried I might get lost – and you know how things might happen to strangers in a strange land. Most importantly, I had to get right back to Vientiane late in the afternoon. I had to check out from my hotel and wait for my pick-up – someone was taking me to the bus station for my 9-hour bus ride further south of Laos to the city of Savannakhet – 400 kilometers from Vientiane, where I decided to spend a few days before border crossing the 2nd Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge to Mukdahan in Thailand.

P.S. For my “bravery”, I only spent
$0.50 one-way bus fare instead of a whole day tuktuk hire of almost $20. Moreover, I enjoyed the hospitality of the Lao people at my bus ride. Everyone was willing to give up their seats for me – even old old ladies! And I thought I could pass for a Lao. Haha.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ayutthaya - Might and Splendor in Ancient Thailand

Ancient cities are always a thrill to visit. With a dash of imagination and some heaps of history, we found the Ayutthaya Historical Park a walk back to an era of kings and merchants, of adventurers and spice barter trades. We traveled barely 2 ½ hours until we were standing at seemingly neglected ruins that still evoked historical pages from what we expected. An ancient city in the central plains of Siam rose a century (year 1351) after the founding of the North Thailand's Kingdom of Sukhothai (year 1238).

417 years, the ancient kingdom of Ayutthaya, 85 kilometers north of Bangkok, flourished as a city comparable in size and wealth to Paris of that era. Some 33 kings of different dynasties ruled the Thai city which, at that time, was Thailand at its mightiest. The name itself meant “undefeatable city”. Founded by King U-thong in 1350, the reign lasted until the Burmese sacked and pilfered the kingdom in 1767. These days, ruins to the kingdom stand as mere shadow of a once mighty kingdom. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site that enjoys frequent day-tour visits from Thailand’s millions of tourists.

If you don’t have much time to do a comprehensive visit to all the temples and chedis – many of which are in dismal ruins with no hint of preservation – then just make a checklist of the major sites. Foremost on this list should be Wat Phra Si Sanphet (Sri Sanphet Rd), the largest temple in Ayutthaya, known for its row of chedis (Thai-style stupas). Housed within the grounds of the former royal palace, the wat (temple) was used only for royal religious ceremonies. Entrance fee is a measly 30 baht, but if you take a guided tour, you usually pay between 1000 to 1,200 baht that includes visit to several other sites like the Bang Pa-in palace, your lunch, transportation, hotel pick-up, most of the entrance fees and a sketchy tourist guide. Wikitravel says, “It once housed a 16-meter Buddha covered with 340 kg of gold, but the Burmese set fire to the statue to melt the gold and destroyed the temple in the process.” Roaming the whole area, one is reminded of the mindless destruction from a violent past. History has taught us time and again over the stupidity of war, yet how many countries in the present world are currently embroiled in such nihilistic folly? We just never learn.

There are several ways to visit the Ayutthaya. You can take the train from
Hualamphong Station in Bangkok. A 3rd class ticket will cost you 20 baht for a 2 ½ hour travel. A first class train will take 1 ½ hours. Upon arrival in Ayutthaya, you have several options to consider. You can rent a bike and pace your own visits, which is a fun way of exploring the park, especially if you’re fit enough to be pedaling for the day. Bike shops charge from 40-50 baht per day. The more convenient option is the tuktuk as you don’t have to brave the harsh sun. They usually charge 300 baht/hour – or a discounted 1,000 baht for 4 hours. However, if you consider a guided or arranged tour from Bangkok that charges 1,200 baht (that already includes your transportation, lunch, entrance fee to the temples and several spots to visit), hiring a tuktuk and the trouble of arranging your own itinerary (as well as dealing with opportunists and touts) seem like a poor option. You are better off getting the package tour. It saves you a lot of time, money – and headache.

This is the
Eye in the Sky.

Buddha head overgrown by trees at Wat Mahatat.

Clambering up chedis and temples are a big no-no. Hehe

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Eye in the Sky visits the Eye - Caodaism in Tay Ninh, Vietnam

SIX months ago, a day after my 2nd border crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam, I decided to finally bite the bullet and do the touristy thing of visiting a well-treaded path to the weird world of religious cult – a congregation that others see as fanatical or, well, just plain weird.

Some 96 kilometers northwest from the hustle and bustle of Saigon, in the town of Tay Ninh, near the Khmer border, is home to Vietnam’s most indigenous religions – Caodaism! My bus traipsed along Highway One, lined with pancake flat paddies and farmlands. Along the way, we passed by the picturesque Black Lady Mountains (Nui Ba Den).

I was to witness a congregation that reveres a hodgepodge of popular historical personalities and considers them their saints, namely Sun Yat Sen (Father of Modern China) and Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) among a few. In fact, in one of the walls within their great temple is a painting of these saints supposedly signing a covenant between God and Humanity. Other popular people in their celebrated saints are - hold your breath! - Jesus, Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore's 1st Prime Minister) and Joan of Arc (France's national heroine).

I signed up on a tour that was to take me to the Great Cao Dai Temple. In tours like these, you get to meet a bevy of nationalities. I was seated beside a Kiwi lady named Rachel who has moved to Australia and was on the crossroads of her career. There was also a group of Pinays who were “eager to please” our eloquence-challenged tour guide. While the latter annotated, you would see these ladies (aged 35 and above) raise their hands like they were in a classroom. I did get chummy with them, cracking occasional jokes with them. Like me, they were unforgiving photo hounds, but while I hardly take photos of myself, they had to be in every shot – even inside claustrophobic tunnels. One girl kept referring to kiwi Rachel as “my girlfriend” since I was in constant chat with her. She was after all, my seatmate. Naturally, when lunch time came, I sat beside Rachel while a couple of towering ausie ladies joined us. The latter were a pharmacist and a bank clerk on a short 5-day respite from Canberra.

Upon reaching the sleepy town of Tay Ninh, I jumped off the bus and started moved towards this massive 9-story hybrid of temple and pagoda, “ornately” painted with a rude mixture of lurid colours and icons; these were outrageous shades of fluorescent orange and yellows “screaming out from its rococo walls”. Each of the tourists in my bus began scampered towards the “church”. We saw locals decked in different colors of priest-like garbs and head gears. We deposited our shoes at the side of the building and saw ourselves inside the temple. You have to remember that this religion has tried to unify several religions into one – Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Confucianism, even spiritism - and stepping inside the temple was a thrill!

A whole community was already gathered inside, waiting for the ceremony to start. At the front altar, I saw a huge caricature of an EYE (eye in the sky, anyone?) facing the congregation. I couldn’t help feeling vestiges of the twilight zone. Tourists are then allowed to go up the 2nd floor through a winding stair at the back. We had better leverage to observe the rites.

The ceremony began with a parade of colors, but much of what transpires is lost on us since it was all in Vietnamese! It felt weird to be honest about it, but one should never judge how the faithful chooses to express himself. I could hear my pinay mates whispering, “cult…cult…” and I was shaking my head. After all, I wouldn't find it amusing if others saw Catholicism as mere ceremonial drivel, would I?

The ceremony – far removed from my comprehension - got boring after a while so I headed down while the rest observed the goings on. I gathered my shoes outside and saw Rachel busy taking photographs. I was looking for the john. I went to the back of the great temple and saw a row of rooms where I could ask where the toilet was. Ngi! There were ladies in white long uniforms intently staring at me! Haha. “Toilet? Toilet?” I was pointed to the adjacent lot outside the compound. I honestly didn’t wanna venture far. Pardon me if the place spooks me a bit! The imagination can be such an amusing companion sometimes.

The Divine Eye

The side of the temple where you leave your shoes.

Backyard garden

A Little History

The philosophy and moral code of the CaoDaists developed from unification of the most influential school of thought of the day in Vietnam: Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Confucianism. It was in 1920, six years before the official founding of the CaoDai religion that Cao Dai the Supreme Being revealed to Ngo Van Chieu, the then governor of Phu Quoc, a beautiful island in the gulf of Siam. Ngo was leading a life of seclusion and wisdom. With the assistance of a mediumistic form of worship, he maintained contact with the spiritual realm. An apparition which revealed an identity of "Cao Dai" appeared.

From the beginning, the name Cao Dai, which literally means high abode, or roofless tower, was given as a symbolic name of the Supreme Being. The Supreme Being informed Ngo that all the world's religions should return to the One from which they originally sprang. This message was to be delivered to the world. Ngo asked CaoDai for permission to worship Him under a tangible form. He then had a vision of the All-Seeing Eye and was subsequently ordered to use it as the symbol of Cao Dai. Ngo returned to Saigon in 1924. To those interested in self-cultivation, he taught the philosophy and esoteric practice he had learned from Cao Dai during his stay in Phu Quoc.

In mid 1925, totally separated from Ngo Van Chieu, three minor civil officials in Saigon - Cao Quynh Cu, Pham Cong Tac, and Cao Hoai Sang - were together practicing spiritism. One spirit contacted was singled out for His wonderful virtues and outstanding knowledge. He introduced Himself as AĂÂ. (AĂÂ are the first three letters of the Vietnamese alphabet). As the session continued, under AĂÂ's advice, they replaced their rudimentary method of communication with a tool for writing called Ngoc co (basket with beak). On Christmas eve of 1925, AĂÂ finally revealed that He was the Supreme Being, coming under the name of Cao Dai, to teach the Way. He said:
"Rejoice this day, it is the anniversary of My coming to the West to teach the Way (God came to the Middle East in the form of Yeshua - Jesus - Christ to found Christianity). This house will be filled with blessings. You will see more miracles which will lead you to further belief. For some time, I have used the symbol AĂÂ to lead you to religious life. You soon are to found a unique religion under My instructions."

From that day on, CaoDai religion began as an organized form of worship.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Venus Fly Traps, World Peace and KL's Independence Square

I had a convivial chat with Olga, a Ukrainean girl who was walking around the area covering Merdeka Square aka Independence Square in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. She was gazing at the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. Several other colonial-era buildings rise from the area, but the Square has historical significance among the locals. After all, this was where the declaration of independence happened some 51 years ago (August 31, 1957). My impression of the structure had been duly suspended as I was nursing a minor sprain after alighting from my cab earlier. Moreover, this was my second visit in the area within a year.

We hopped to the opposite block where the gardens were. There was their tallest flag nearby, but Olga, bless her heart, got crazy having her photos taken with the gilded gigantic replica of the venus-fly-trap. It was imposing. Even Jakarta’s very own Merdeka Square has replicas of the same plant. We should have the same species displayed at Luneta so as to foster regional unity and cooperation, don’t you think? I told Olga this and she took a moment to consider it. “And in my country too,” she added as she wrinkled her nose. I laughed, but halted as she sported an introspective look. She was serious and I was half joking. Yeah!
She then suggested we find our way back to KLCC as she wasn’t happy with the photos she took last night. But I declined. We exchanged email addresses, then I reminded her to agree on a 5 ringgit taxi fare to avoid having to haggle. Meanwhile, I was to catch a movie at Berjaya Times Square.

It is always a nice experience meeting friendly strangers from half way across the globe. And though fleeting friendships like these can be superficial, it does underline the possibility of universal cooperation. Olga was right. The idea doesn’t have to be a light hearted joke. Maybe we CAN start planting venus-fly-traps. Now where do I get a seedling?

Sultan Abdul Samad Building

Supposedly the world's tallest hoisted flag, it stands oppsoite the Sultan Abdul Samad Building.

The gilded venus fly trap replica at the Merdeka gardens.

A small Catholic Church in the vicinity of the Independence Square.

This is the Eye in the Sky.