Thursday, June 15, 2006

Pak Ou caves, Laos

I've been meaning to write about this, but got sidetracked many times. I'm finally getting around to it. One of the best things we did in Laos back in March (Oh my God is that already three months?) was a boat trip down the Mekong. I had no idea what to expect. What I got was amazement, wonder and awe. (Awww...)

Colleen rented us our very own long boat with driver and they picked us up at our hotel that was just on the outskirts of Luang Prabang. I knew NOTHING about the Mekong river. Colleen was very excited about the trip. It had long been a dream of hers to see it. During the Vietnam War, the Mekong played a pivotal role and she had heard and read so much about it, she wanted to see it for herself. It was very beautiful, peaceful, wide and calm. It wended its way through hills and farms amd forests and every mile or so we'd see a wat. Fisherman were out in force, fishing as they had for thousands of years. After about 2 hours of floating, we came upon this:

The entrance to Pak Ou cave. To say I was startled was an understatement. I mean...WOW?! It was immense and awe inspiring and craggy and daunting all at once. For hundreds of years it has been a holy place where Buddhas are retired. A damaged Buddha is considered bad luck, but obviously throwing it away is pretty bad, so they get "retired" to places like this. It's a very holy place, but unfortunately it's getting plundered at a pretty alarming rate. I climbed up the stairs to the entrance and paid my 50 cents to get in. I also bought incense for offerings.

Inside the cave. To the left is the river Mekong. The altar is in the middle.

Me in the cave. I was a bit overwhelmed, it was just so amazing. I honestly felt teary eyed for quite a while afterwards. It felt as holy as any place I have ever been.

Some of the Buddhas. The place was intense. I collect religious images and artifacts (I'm not religious, but am fascinated with iconography) and am amassing a fairly good range of Marys, Buddhas and icons. This place was a Buddha collectors dream. I was enthralled. I have a couple Buddhas that are very similar to these and are at least 50 years old. One is over 500. There were conservatively 10,000 in that cave, and thinking that many have been stolen and sold on the black market....that's alot of Buddhas.

Buddhapolooza. It was gorgeous. The place smelled of mud and river and dust and old wood and incense. I'll never forget the smell.

Side view of the altar in the cave, looking toward the river. Laos Buddhas differ from Thai, as do Burmese. Each country has a different style. (The wats are different architecture as well.) Once you know the differences it's not hard to see them. Kind of like the difference between a Greek icon and a Russian one.

Some monks. This was toward the back of the Upper Cave at Pak Ou. There are two caves, actually, the lower one that you see from the river, (and all the pictures above this one) and then a higher one a very steep climb up many steps. Most people don't venture up there once they see that staircase, but intrepid me went for it. (Though I did have to take a break once I got to the top because that was ALOT of stairs.) It was very dark inside the Upper Cave but luckily there was a guy at the entrance who handed me a flashlight. Once my eyes acclimated, however, I didn't really need it. This upper cave was not as elaborate as the lower one, nor filled with as many statues, but if felt very dark, cave-y and spooky. It echoed at the slightest move and there was a space in the middle that was roped off, for what looked like rituals and ceremonies. It gave me the willies. I don't know why.
I got the picture of the monks out of pitch black, I set the camera on "night" and pointed it at them, hoping for something good, and I was rather pleased at this. Their robes glow in the available light. Their presence helped me not feel so freaked out.

On the way back down the stairs I had to pee real bad. I hadn't gone in like, 6 hours. Here's why I held it for so long:

A SE Asian toilet. You put your feet on either side of the bowl on the right, and sort of squat. I could never figure out which way you faced, forwards or backwards? so I just stepped right up facing it, afraid of stepping on to it backwards for fear of falling in. To the left is a trough of water with a handled bucket. After you do your duty (or dooty, which, sorry, I just COULD NOT do in those circumstances, ever) you dump a bucket full of water into the bowl and it flushes right down. Clever system in that it works just like a normal toilet. (And yes, they do use toilet paper (thank GOD) but it gets thrown away, not flushed, which made for some nasty bathroom smells from the open trashcans in every bathroom.) This also explains why I frequenly saw footprints on the seats of traditional "sit" toilets in SE Asia. Folks are just used to standing, not sitting.

And for the record, this was a VERY clean toilet by local standards. I rarely saw any that were just too disgusting for use. I was usually favorably impressed by the toilets wherever I went. Or, at least, not horribly grossed out.

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