Saturday, April 14, 2012

Stalking the Monks in Champasak Town - A Morning Stroll

Sunrise over the Mekong in Champasak Town.

Dawn in Champasak Town. I was hopeful to discover a wee bit more of this once royal land, now bathed with similitude of languor. Sunrises are such gifts to live out another day; to make it better than the last. But this was actually two hours before my intended departure. I had booked for a “mini-bus” that would pick me up and get me to the jetty in Ban Nakasang where I was to take a catamaran to the big island of Don Khong in the riverine archipelago of Siphandon (4000 Islands)!

But what can a solitary soul do at the peep of sunrise, when most people have yet to open their eyes? The orange hue of the heavens was telling as it lends its colors in the serenity of the Mekong, calmly raging in its journey southwards. I took a tentative step to the main road and noticed the stark emptiness of the street, clayish red, partially sandy and pebbly and uneven. I walked south and noticed other guest houses I didn’t notice yesterday – Sou Chitra Hotel, Khampouy Guesthouse. Inthira Hotel somehow lost its sophisticate veneer in sunlight in the absence of dreamy candle lights, wine bottles, and laidout utensils over beautifully carved tables. What I had for company were a pack of dogs who were disinterested in my presence. I saw a child playing with his pebbles and was reminded that there is simple joy to be had in the company of toy stones.

Deserted main road in Wat Thong.

A child and his toys, i.e. pebbles and stones.

Wat Amath

Wat Amath is located at the village next to the central Ban Wat Thong.

I sat here last night listening to chanting monks.

Further afield, I entered the grounds of Wat Amath. I was here last night; sitting on these stairs, listening to the hypnotic chant of the monks. The door had been shut, but it won’t be long before the monks start their morning alms ritual.

True enough, I noticed four young novices queuing behind an elderly monk wearing a faded saffron robe. And thus began my morning habit of stalking the monks. I was the unofficial 6th monk sans robe, sans haircut. If there was infraction in following them around, I silently apologized, but I couldn’t help pursuing them. I needed to observe the ritual that they follow here in Champasak which is a bit dissimilar from the one followed up north, or even in Thailand.

Villagers would scamper around preparing food and gifts by the roadside, kneeling down, anticipating the passing of these monks. Such were merit-making acts, an enrichment of the soul, so to speak. The alms-giver would kneel down and as the monks walk towards them, they fill their bowl with “gifts” – food mostly, that gets shared at the temple - then the monks queue, but not directly in front of the villagers, and start praying or chanting before moving along to the next. I do wonder why they cannot stand in front of the “givers”, most of whom were women. Maybe it’s because they are not allowed direct interaction with women who render them “unpure”. Of course, this is mere conjecture.

There’s a degree of chagrin in their routine, and I soldier on, tailing them like a paparazzi, though I tried hard not to be too conspicuous. After a few more collection, they moved further away and I eventually stopped following them. This practice would be repeated during my travels across South Laos, I might as well compile them into a book called “Stalking the Monks”.

The monks queue ahead after getting the "alms" and start praying or chanting for the villagers.

Wat Thong is the town’s most important temple. Also called Wat Nyutthitham, this temple is the repository of some royalty’s ashes. I saw a glimpse of one of its temples last night, but such visit provided an unflattering impression. After all, I was meant to see its main temple and ordination hall in broad daylight, instead of lurking in darkness. I wasn’t disappointed this time. With glistening floor and a sprawling hallway, the main temple looked royal, aptly illuminated in bright sunlight. This visit somehow is the rightful denouement to my adventures in Champasak Town.


At the back of the temple, I noticed a lake, stagnant and placidly reflecting the sky above, like a glistening mirror. Wooden boats were marooned nearby. As I gently roamed, I noticed the cracking sound where my feet took me and to my surprise, I was stepping on hundreds and hundreds of snail shells. In fact, the whole ground was covered with them. How could I not notice? What were they doing here? The thought of slime disconcerted me, but these were seemingly empty shells. I didn't dare peek inside.

I briskly walked back to Saythong Restaurant and feasted on a 15,000 kip omelette over rice. What was feckless darkness from last night was now basking in glorious sunrise. The river winks with serene charm. In half an hour, my mini-bus arrives to take me further south into this land of chill!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Wat Thong aka Wat Nyuthitham

Main Temple of Wat Thong

A gigantic pig roaming around Wat Thong grounds.

Lake at the back of Wat Thong

Snail shells cover the grounds

Black cat

The Mekong from my restaurant seat

Omelette over rice at 15,000 kip ($1.90)

Sunshiny Saythong Restaurant where I would be its first customer of the day (above and below).

Beauty abound in this sleepy Mekong town.

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