Monday, March 12, 2012

Pakse Tales - Whispery Temples, Smiling Monks & Dusk at Sedone River (Travel Log 112311)

After a motorcycle ride through Bolaven Plateau, I was left with enough daylight hours to finally see Pakse, a city south of Laos. The French made it an administrative outpost in 1905 – at about the same time that Dutch courtesan-cum-spy Mata Hari (Margaretha Gertrude Zelle) made her debut in Paris. Pakse, like most Mekong kissed towns, displays a laidback ennui characteristic of South Laos. It sits at the confluence of Mekong and the Sedone Rivers (Don River). It’s the capital of Champasak Province.

But the importance of Champasak doesn’t solely rest on its historical relationship with France. The Funan and the Chenla empires once reigned over the lands between the 1st and 9thcentury A.D. What’s interesting is how it became part of the Cambodian Angkor Empire between the 15th and 17th century, as exemplified by temples like Wat Phu Champasak located south of Pakse. Champasak Kingdom has had three monarchs: Soi Sisamut, Sainyakuman and Fai Na. The province’s population teeters in the vicinity of 500,000.

These days Pakse hums with the insurgent energy of change following the construction of the Lao-Japanese Bridge in 2002, facilitating brisk trade with Thailand. The energy of Pakse is comparably more palpable than somnolent Savannakhet – and even of the capital Vientiane. It has also enjoyed the transient stays of thousands of travelers. The few remaining colonial-era buildings are getting harder to find, what with the construction of huge hotels and commercial complexes at the heart of the city.

I decided to stay at the fringes of the urban hustle, making it possible to commune with the Mekong once again. In fact, Imoun Homestay wasn’t just inexpensive and accommodating, it’s also a mere 100 meters (or less) from the river.

Upon arrival from my Bolaven trip, I freshened up before meeting Teske, Mata Hari’s compatriot - a Dutch lady traveling through India and Laos. We’ve earlier planned on visiting the city’s most important temple - Wat Luang, which currently houses 136 monks! Wat Luang, a monastic school, was founded in 1935. The grounds contain the ashes of a former Prime Minister – Khamtay Loun Sasothith. Of the 20 temples, Wat Luang and Wat Thamfai would constitute the must-see sites. But I wanted to see a less popular temple too; one that’s far removed from travel guides.

Tes and I walked the main road facing Imoun and traversed the quite street (Thanon 11 – 11th Street) heading towards the opposite end, passing through the new market, a hospital, restaurants, and more guest houses. She would occasionally delve into snippets of her travels – a charming Indian guide enamored with her, proposing his love like a lovesick puppy. We were smiling at the stark romanticism of the situation. I, on the other hand, would point to a DVD shop where, the night before, I purchased 10 titles.

Wat Luang looked small for a temple of due significance. The temple complex stood beside the Don River, picturesque as it joined the Mekong southwards. The ordination hall (sim) stood at the center, with stupas (thaat) at the sides. There’s a monk’s school at the back, and a dusty, arid vegetable garden further towards the river. We chanced on several young monks lounging where the stupas were, chatting away, and curiously glancing our way.
I warned Tes about some of the precepts of the Buddhist religion, including how they deal with women in general, i.e. no direct touching, that everyone shouldn’t stand “taller” than the monks; that a woman’s touch can render the monks “unpure”. We were somehow aware of the political incorrectness of some concepts in the age of internet and texting, but Tes was wary not to cross boundaries. I admired that. Most other Caucasian travelers simply don’t care. In fact, Tes was hesitant to chat or have photos with them, it was amusing! I assured her that despite these “rules of religion”, Lao monks were generally receptive to foreigners, thus more liberal.

I didn't have a problem obviously so I felt I had to transverse between Tes’ contentions and the monk’s curiosity. I told the monks about Tes then introduced her to the fold. They were accommodating enough that before long, Tes was already on her own, while I walked away to roam the grounds.

A Sangha College (a monk’s school) indeed stood nearby. Later, I entered the ordination hall (the main prayer room called sim) and joined Tes. A friendly monk was sharing about his life and how he will be graduating in two weeks time. He will be sent to a faraway temple near the Cambodian border to perform further duties. After which, he would have to decide if he goes to college or not.

Other monks were studying on the temple floor. One of them was particularly shy. He would steal glances our way, but would never contribute to conversations the way his friends would. Every time a camera is pointed his way, he would consciously duck behind a concrete post or turn away. While Teske had photos with the rest, we left him by his lonesome.

We walked away from Wat Luang light hearted from our encounter with the young monks. There’s never been a more relax encounter as here in Laos. It was time to cross the bridge that we saw from the back of the temple. We knew that there was another temple just across the river – a Chinese Temple all in white. I was excited to see that, but Tes and I weren’t that lucky to find it.

Beautifully carved doors date as far back as 1935.

Buddhas at the main ordination hall of Wat Luang.

Tes and the conversant monk.

Tes wished she wasn't as tall; "I look like a giant beside them," she complained.

The back of the main temple: Wat Luang

Stupa has a Prime Minister's ashes.

Entrance arch to Wat Luang

For More photos of Wat Luang, please visit this post -

My book called it the French Bridge, although others referred to it as Sedone I Bridge (Sedone II Bridge is located northeast, beside Champasak Palace Hotel). It’s made of concrete – with wooden planks. This walk, under a mild late afternoon sun, was pure bliss. From a distance, there were few fishermen on the Sedone. I could see as it converges ever so placidly with the great Mekong. Other monks from Wat Luang were tending to their vegetable garden, though I couldn’t see any growing plants just yet – just a cultivated crumple of arid soil.

Across the French Bridge was a small checkpoint where motorcycles were being stopped. We leisurely glided across and stopped by a store for a bottle of soda. The white Chinese Temple was nowhere near, but about 100 meters from where we stood was a temple. I was excited and told Tes that we should check it out.

True enough, there stood before us was Wat Tamalangsingaram – or simply Wat Tahim. The ground was bigger, but the structures in the compound seemed spare and simple. Children were playing. When they saw our cameras, they wouldn’t leave us alone until they had their mugs in our SD cards. It was fun just parrying their zealous attention.
We found monks working – installing planks for a stage. Except for one, they were mostly oblivious to our presence. One of them had a gash on his arm; with blood dripping down the floor. It looked painful, but he was smiling at us. Tes was concerned.

French Bridge crossing Sedone River. Others call this Sedone I Bridge. When it creaks away, you hear: "Oui! Oui!" :)

Sedone River rushes south to the Mekong.

Fishing at the Sedone.

Dry vegetable garden beside the Sedone River (Don River) at the back of Wat Luang.

Champa flowers in bloom and Wat Thamalamsingaram. Tes liked this photo so much that she wanted to experiment on the "shot" with her own camera (see below).

This monk was laughing while I was taking photos while his right arm was bleeding (see below),

A gash of blood

Monks at work in Wat Tahim.

Our walk back across the bridge was relaxing. The sun had ever so gently set, casting dreamy hues against the Sedone (Don River). The solitary fisherman was still there – a mere silhouette amidst crystal waters. Tes and I wanted to check our mails. Since she had her laptop, we had to trace the whereabouts of CafĂ© Sinouk, a hotel and restaurant with great wi-fi service. I went to Sedone Internet Cafe at the next block. Wat Luang was dimly lit by then and nearby was Thanva Children Park (co-financed by Germany, founded in 2003). We parted ways, but agreed on having dinner together with Por at Imoun Homestay. What did Por whip up for us? We were looking forward for that.

Dinner was long. It lasted for three hours. Stories abound. Food was a mash up of chicken with vegetables and an omelette of sorts. At the table beside us were Caucasian guys, expats – mostly French guys who taught English (which felt odd) – who gather round once a week. They bring their food with them, Por would provide the drinks - and they laugh the night away. They were former guests, but has since become Por’s dear friends. That spoke a lot about Imoun and its hospitality.

This is the Eye in the Sky!


Ola said...

really good pictures of the monks-I did not know that they like to be photographed!

Life and travelling

eye in the sky said...

@ Ola:

They didn't mind being photographed. :)

Ramakrishnan said...

The monks look healthy happy & hard working.Teske appears pre occupied with the monks !The golden Buddhas are marvelous.The kids are so enthusiastic and eager to be photographed. And finally the yummy looking food at the cafe :)
Thanks fir disabling word verification.

eye in the sky said...

@ Ram:

I actually enjoyed Pakse more than I expected. It was because of a lot of things: the atnosphere, the people, the river close by. :)