Sunday, 28 October 2012

Vientiane to Sapa

Yesterday I made it to the Buddha Park. I hired a bike after breakfast and cycled to the bus station in central Vientiane, from where it was an hour-and-a-half’s journey on two buses. Immediately after the bus set off I started to feel nervous about leaving my bike in the bus station, with a lock through the back wheel but not secured to anything. The first bus dropped us off at the Friendship Bridge on the Thai border and I was directed to a small local bus to take me along a rutted dirt path through the countryside for another twenty minutes until we reached Buddha Park. It was a gloriously sunny day and I sat in a shaded part of the park and ate my delightful picnic lunch of spinach and salmon quiche and a petite tarte au fraise that I had bought earlier from a French bakery.

 I started chatting with a man named Ong who asked if he could sit with me. He knew a lot about British culture from working in Vang Vieng, Laos’ party town three hours away from Vientiane.  He told me that he liked fish and chips and curry pasty with gravy and that his favourite band was the Arctic Monkeys. He asked me a lot of questions about British music festivals and asked if Oasis were still together. I told him that Noel and Liam couldn’t get along and have each started their own bands, which he found very funny. Vang Vieng is a rural town in the mountains where backpackers flock to go ‘tubing’- floating down the Nam Song river in inner-tubes, stopping off at wooden bars along the river-front for cheap Lao-Lao whiskey and to zip-wire into the water. When Ong worked there in 2008, eight tourists, mostly Birtish and Irish, died within the year from the combination of drinking, drugs, river currents and rocks. He once saw the swollen body of a drowned Irish man in the river, who had come to Vang Vieng shortly after getting married. Tourists deaths have only been increasing, it seems. Somebody at my hostel who had just come back from Vang Vieng had said she met a group of girls there, who were crying and panicking. They said they had lost their friend in the river and hadn’t seen her for an hour; there had been rumours of a dead body being found further downstream. The Laos government has been taking measures to close down the party town, under pressure from the Australian government after several Australians were killed. A lot of the people I met at my hostel were heading there from Vientiane, even if the party atmosphere is now dying down. Some had heard that the river-front bars have been burned down.

I went to walk around the park. The largest sculpture was a huge pumpkin-shaped monument with a spindly stone tree on the top and a demon’s open mouth as an entrance way. I walked inside and climbed up the stone steps over three levels, to the top of the sculpture from where there is a view across the park. Within the pumpkin there is an unlit central room on each level; representing hell, earth and heaven as you ascend from bottom to top. The ‘hell’ room was unnerving to stand inside- dark, dusty and lined with stone skeletons hanging from trees, impaled on stakes or being eaten by crocodiles. Across the length of the park was an enormous reclining Buddha, and at the opposite end was a stone stupa. Scattered between were a few hundred smaller sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu figures and gods, demons, crocodiles and, my least favourite, a giant cockroach held on a leash. Indeed, they were often very bizarre. The park was built in 1958 under the orders of the shaman-priest Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather) Bunluea Sulilat, an eccentric character who combined Hindu and Buddhist philosophy in his teachings and had the park built as a monument to his beliefs. Originally a private garden, the park became a public museum after Bunluea Sulilat left Laos for Thailand and the government took ownership.

After looking at all the sculptures I approached the stupa at the end of the park and climbed very carefully up the steep stone steps with no sides to reach a small ledge. A little further up was a window looking inside the stupa. A monk was casually balanced on the high ledge watching me. I asked him if I could climb up to look through the window, and he said yes. I did so, very slowly and shakily, and had a little peek. “Nothing!” I said, looking down at him. “Yes,” he grinned. I climbed back down to the ledge and chatted to him. He told me to call him Bob, and was enthusiastic when I told him I was from England- his favourite country, he said, because he is learning English. I chatted to “Bob” the monk for a little while before clambering down to the safety of the ground. Then I waited for half an hour at the park entrance until I bus arrived for the return journey.

Back in Vientiane I was delighted to find that my bike had not been robbed. I hopped onto it on my way to my next destination, Sok Pa Luang temple, where monks lead an open meditation class on Saturday afternoons. As I had three-quarters of an hour, it didn’t matter too much that I initially headed off in the wrong direction after confusing which side of the bus station I was leaving from. Eventually I found my way to the temple, a large, leafy and peaceful complex within a small wood. There were several buildings including a temple, stupas, a monument under construction and several monks’ houses. With some direction I found the meditation class, which had already started. I quietly joined the thirty or so participants, mostly tourists, sat on the tiled floor outside a temple in front of a line of six meditating monks.

Without having had the introduction that everybody else had, I tried to remember the things I already knew about meditation- to concentrate on your breathing, to listen to your body as you breathe in and out, and to try to keep your mind clear of thoughts. I have only tried meditation once or twice before, always after a session of yoga, which I have found to be an easier way to relax the body and clear the mind. After the stress of cycling around trying to find the temple, my mind was very active, flickering with questions such as “When did the class start?” and “How long is this going to go on for?”  I found it hard to keep my eyes closed and quickly became bored. Afterwards, it was explained that meditation is an exercise for the mind in concentration and patience. It was very difficult for me as a beginner, and I could appreciate the amount of practise these monks must commit to in order to sit so still and serene for an extended period. It’s not even that I'm fidgety; it’s very hard to switch off your mind. I learnt that besides developing concentration and patience, a primary goal of meditation is to learn more about your body by taking time to appreciate how you feel (my back hurt), to observe the process of your breath going in and out and the effect it has on your body, and to listen carefully to the sounds around you and notice how your body responds to them.

We also tried fifteen minutes of walking meditation, which I found to be less boring and more relaxing than the seated meditation. The focus of the walking meditation was the movement of the feet. “Walk slowly, with your head down. When your foot is going up, know that it is going up. When it is going down, know that it is going down,” the translator told us. Although I initially felt self-conscious walking in super slow-motion, I soon relaxed and enjoyed experiencing the feeling of my bare foot against the ground, the slow crunch of dry leaves underfoot, and even the pain of crossing over a stone. I couldn't help looking up, though. It was certainly a curious sight to see the scattering of almost-motionless people facing various directions around me, all looking downwards with the leaves falling silently around them.

I got back on my bike feeling calmer, and enjoyed the slow cycle ride back to the hostel as the sun began to set, the most beautiful time of the day in Indochina.

Today I left Vientiane to fly to Hanoi. As I write I am waiting to meet Jessica at the airport, whose flight from Ho Chi Minh City has been delayed. Tonight we will travel to the beautiful North Vietnamese hill town of Sapa by overnight train, the beginning of a trek to the peak of Phan Xi Pang, the highest mountain in Indochina. My next post will be on Wednesday, after three days and two nights on the mountain.


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