Saturday, February 12, 2011
That Ing Hang in Savannakhet - Buddha's Spine in South Laos
It had been a long journey from Vientiane, the Lao capital, to Savannakhet – 470 kilometers, to be exact. It must have been the bus number that clued me in – Bus no. 6666 – that the trip would freeze every crevice of my body. What did they say about "hell freezing over?" Since our 8:45 PM departure, it had been a bitterly cold ride, the AC went unregulated. I tried to sleep through my misery, but it was a shallow sleep, despite a very comfortable seat at the top deck of my bus. I had the best seat as I was facing the windshield - no obstruction, but darkness crept through our ride.
We reached Savannakhet slumbering in the wee hours – 4:30 AM. The view from my front seat didn’t help much. As our vehicle slid through places, I couldn’t venture an impression for everything was bathed in pitch darkness. I was only aware of the abundance of foliage, none else!
I alighted from my bus and saw some unoccupied benches at the almost deserted bus station. There was a flickering light at the unmanned ticket booth. Everywhere else was dim, almost to its creepy witching-hour veneer. Walking around in solitary darkness, when you could hear each stride that you take, offers a surreal experience. For a few moments, I half expected itinerant souls pinching me to signify that I wasn't the only one who's wide awake at 4:30. Once left with nothing else to do, I lazily pulled my luggage until it plopped carelessly on top of a bench. I decided later to look for a guest house at the break of dawn when people were possibly awake. For now, at least, there’s a bench where I could lie down for an hour or two. The station – with its 3 other occupants in dreamland – felt like a safe haven.
Later that day, after finding Leena’s Guest House, right through secluded Chow Kim Road, I asked my tuktuk driver to pick me up at 8 AM. We negotiated on a price – 100,000 kip ($12.50) return.
I was going to visit the second holiest religious edifice in South Laos (after Wat Phu Champasak). It's called That Ing Hang! “That" or "Thaat”, in Laos, refers to a “Buddhist stupa”.
Thaat Ing Hang is said to have been built in the mid-16th century, rising 9 meters from the ground. Like most sacred sites in Indochina, the site is steeped with history: Buddha is believed to have stopped here when he was sick while roaming the ancient lands. He rested by leaning (“ing”) on a Hang Tree – thus “Ing Hang”. A relic of Buddha’s spine is believed to be kept inside the “thaat”. This particular stupa has been restored by the French in 1930. It is located about 15 kilometers northeast of the city center (Savan).
My ride to Ing Hang was pleasant. We passed through houses that looked deserted; through a roundabout with a couple of huge dinosaur statues standing guard beside a city monument.
Along the way, I noticed stalls selling what would be temple offerings, not unlike incense, flowers, fruits; but these were conical things wrapped in coconut leaves. I've only seen such offerings here in Laos. My tuktuk parked right in front of the ground walls. After paying 5,000 kip ($0.60) for my entrance, I made tentative steps towards a square compound: each of the 4 sides are lined by uniform gleaming buddhas, and right at the center is the stupa. It isn’t as visually impressive as I thought it would be, but you feel piety all around. At some point, women weren’t allowed inside. There weren’t a lot of people, and like most sights in Laos, there were no bothersome touts either.
It doesn’t take much to roam the compound. And I was pleased to have made my journey there.
Lonely Planet's description doesn't quite match what I saw, thus I was somehow asking myself if this indeed was Ing Hang. A guy on his way out, so I asked him and he nodded. That was a relief! Somehow, it felt like a place waiting to be visited. It's modest size imparted a sense of intimacy, which I liked. Special sights too far removed from the madding crowd gives me a sense of empowerment. A tourist as inconsequential as myself has stepped on lands where Buddha used to roam. That, to me, is a little bit of magic!
This is the Eye in the Sky!