circa 3054 words
Down at the river, very different houses banded together. Balconied, bay windowed and balustraded, the houses were once French houses. They flashed columns, and double doorways, like long slits in skirts, over stiletto heels. “1923” was inscribed in the lintel of the house where two boys played a game, with pebbles, on top of a masonry fence. One house caught the eye among the ranks of houses freshly painted in soft colours. Paint peeled around the office of an architect.
The ornate river houses spread from an austere centre. The President’s Palace was a dove grey monument to French hopes. Facing a foreign river in a foreign land, a cube lay on its side. Two smaller cubes stepped forward at each end. The flat roof was a balustraded promenade. White framed windows looked at wide lawns. Low hedges, with red flowers like ixias, patterned the grass. Gardeners watched for any movement near the open gates. The gates broke a fence that was a solid wall. If anyone tarried too close, the gardeners snarled, like Doberman dogs.
In 1909, the Bassennes stayed in these grounds. Then, an important administrator lived on the soil laced in unseen ashes. Long before the French came here, a king held court. Siamese torches had burned his Royal Palace into the ground. Marthe Bassenne wrote of this place, in her journal,
“We walked towards the residence: three charming pavilions in the middle of a flowering grassland, constructed where earlier the palace of the old kings of Vientiane stood. We took asylum in a wing that is reserved for guests. The central pavilion was inhabited by the resident superieur. It drew special attention to its very large hall that runs all along the front of the building- a sort of waiting room or atrium- where earlier local chiefs assembled and, along the perimeters of which, are aligned enormous, bronze Buddhas.”
She walked a little way from her “pavilion” and photographed a hall without a roof. A tree grew in its steps. The Emerald Buddha once lived in the hall.
“Of Phra Keo, there is only a ruined enclosure left, walls veiled with lianas and two porticoes with delicate spires. One of these porticos has conserved intact its door in precious, carved wood, where grimacing dwarfs support costumed spirits, displaying hierarchical gestures on their heads.” Trees “shattered the basis; the intertwining creepers behead the pediments”.
Walls excised Phra Keow from the President’s garden. No lianas graced it now. Curving roofs saddled the standing stones of 1909, piling the hall in layers of ochre tiles. Nagas lifted single heads where each roofline ended. Their high horns swept the sky. From a shady haven of four winds, curved snakes carried steps down, then down again. The snakes wore sculpted scales. Circles studded their backs. Each halted in a single dragon’s head when it encountered manicured gardens. White butterflies floated in the red flowering hedges. Small trees spotted the lawns.
The lowest roof, a hip roof, drifted out across a solid base. The base was six feet above the ground. Marthe Bassenne photographed the pillars holding up the roof when they were broken bones of columns. Now delicate carvings ran up flutes and four wide verandahs had materialised. A dark red gable framed a three-headed elephant. On the verandah under the elephant, two Buddhas stood. They held their palms high. They stopped the water from flooding in. Behind their backs, another Buddha called for rain, his arms by his sides and his hands by his hips.
Other Buddha statues of the verandahs, seated on pedestals, called to the earth goddess Mae Toranee. Their right arms reached down, hand resting on knee, with fingers pointed straight at the ground. Left hands rested in laps. Stone flowers and leaves broke out of friezes in the walls behind them. The statues were very dark and they had a greenish tinge. Their hands had long fingers and their curling thumbs were double jointed. Long pointed ears dropped away into the line of ornaments almost resting on shoulders.
They wore helmets of knobs of reddish hair. Their flat top knots had no finials. The statues did not wear the faces of the people of the city. Rounded eyes rose high at their outer ends, almost meeting the downward sweep of arching brows. Prominent, slightly curving noses dwarfed small, round lipped mouths. These were faces last seen above the saffron robes of Gyuto monks, carrying Tibetan messages on Australian roads, in minivans.
The statues of the verandas might have been the bronze Buddhas Marthe Bassenne saw in an atrium nearby. There was no way to know. They could have been anywhere before they came to the hall of the Emerald Buddha. They were large, and they looked heavy. Someone had ordered them here. Lifting them up to the veranda was not a task to undertake lightly.
New was indistinguishable from old in the wooden shutters of the doors and windows. One wooden woman flashed gold from sheltering shadows. Like the others, her panel was set in a chamber. The chamber’s extruding spire vanished into dark dimness. When Marthe Bassenne photographed her chamber, there was no hip roof to shade it from the sun. The woman of the chamber faced the weather, her face bare of golden lines. In the panels, fabulous men and women walked in and on strange creatures, escapees from legends. Gold tipped figures materialised and mesmerised from bright blue. On one pair of doors, two small beings, both part monkey, traced themselves in gold from dark red wood. Each sat twisting at the waist, balancing a shallow bowl on its head. Tall golden people walked the bowls. They wore skirts sewn from the shapes of the roofs of Chinese pagodas.
At the far end of the hall, door guards fluent in every language reinforced a sign no-one could miss. Under writing, in strange and familiar scripts, an exposed roll of film stretched across the wall. A film canister hung beneath it, empty. A Chinese lion opened its green bronze mouth, and rolled its eyes.
Inside the hall was the semi-dark sadness of a museum of once precious objects, now abandoned. Tables and cabinets displayed antiquities. On one wall, a de facto shrine evolved. The Buddhas inspired offerings of tiny bowls of food, and flowers. A wishing well hinted beside the offerings. In spite of the history it preserved, and its shrine, the Emerald Buddha’s hall was a dark and empty room, one haunted by phantasms of memories. Sorrow seeped from the walls. It was not a place to linger, but to leave.
Outside on the verandah, twenty feet above the ground, half of something extruded from the wall of the hall. It looked cloven, by a ferocious sword, swung by a nameless swordsman lifted high. If indeed it was the child of sword strike, there was no knowing when the sword struck. These walls had seen at least two bursts of savagery. After the first, late in the 1770s, the Emerald Buddha was gone. In 1828, in retribution for a governor’s murder, the forces of Siam razed the neighbouring Royal Palace. Vassal King Anu had already taken flight. No Red Cross monitored treatment of prisoners when the Annamites of Vietnam transferred Anu into the care of the Siamese.
A white cockroach flew in on orange wings, miscued, and landed beside the Chinese lion. As its legs kicked the air, a red brown line on the insect’s white stomach was the red brown of the Buddha helmets and the flowering walls. The cockroach had flown in from the road beside the river. On the road, two teenage girls travelled on a slow moving motor scooter. The girl behind held their mobile phone to the mouth and ear of the girl ahead. As she spoke, her eyes were on the road, and her hands were on the controls.
The patterns of the woven cloths were complex and ordered. At Wat Sisaket, across the road from Wat Phra Keow, a bin of Buddha bits was chaotic. The bin was set into an arcade, inside a museum. A building outside the arcade, at the back of the Buddha bin, looked like a sacred place containing remains. Inside it, a weathered wooden cabinet, ten feet wide, jacked itself up towards the rafters. Its doors swung easily on their hinges. Inside were the faint remnants of red and gold paintings, and nothing else. This had been the temple library. The scriptures were long gone. On the other side of the arcade, two walls hid the long, low home of the monks who remained.
When Marthe Bassenne saw Wat Sisaket, she wrote in her journal “A single pagoda of Vientiane remains. It is Sisaket, or the Pagoda of the Oath; the priests of a monastery are in charge of it. The chiefs of the neighbouring provinces come to it, on fixed dates, to pay tribute to the representative of France, in the same gesture of vassalage that Bangkok demanded from them before.”
The old bonds of vassalage had been broken. With them had gone any weaselling subservience, if indeed any had ever have lived in Laos.
Through the colonnaded doorway, where tourists paid a small entry fee, four arcades were set square about a central hall. There were still a few painted frescoes. There was no way to know whether they were the frescoes Marthe Bassenne wrote that she had seen. Inside the square of the arcades, there were countless Buddha statues. One especially beautiful Buddha stood out from his fellows. He was a man’s shape, inside a white stone. The stone flowered behind, and out over him.
The front of the hall housed a shrine, beset with umbrellas and loaded in flowers. Along the wall beside the shrine, a naga ran. The naga’s teeth were large, and white. Its hollowed back was a long tray for holding water. Its blue scales, edged in gold, lit red from deep within. It held high a horn of many colours.
At the back of the hall, chambers framed red doors. The tall figures, first seen in the panels of Phra Keow, walked in bowls here too. The monkey creatures were standing on their legs, as they bore the bowls above their heads. The tall figures still wore their coned hats, with thin finials. The pagodas of their skirts had subsided into a single sweep.
The broken Buddha stockade was set in the western wall of the arcade. In front of its hefty fence, a guide hectored a group of tourists. He used the gestures and tones of an authoritarian schoolroom. The tourists did their best to look earnest, even enthused. A few succeeded in looking bored. The rest simply looked miserable. It was not like walking around the museum with Mr. Toon, a tuk-tuk driver from Fountain Station. He had learnt to speak perfect Australian, during a hard year of driving “Natalie from Sydney, gone to Thailand.”
“Three thousand Buddha here,” said Mr. Toom.
“Or three million?” asked a curious tourist.
“Too many Buddha here,’ he replied.
Most of the Buddhas of the arcade floors were dark. Seated, they meditated. Niches lined pale yellow walls behind them. From floor to roofline, they ran right around the square, in lines parallel to the cement floors. Each niche was a little pointed arch, about six inches tall, and not quite as wide. Inside each niche nestled two Buddha statues, three inches high. With his hand palm down, Mr. Toon gestured at all the Buddhas again. “No tops on heads. Thai cut them off.” Looking at the Buddha statues, even the ones three inches high were minus finials. If the Thai had cut off the finials, how many tens of thousands of soldiers had they needed?
The only smelly toilet in Lao PDR was in the grounds of the Wat, beside the street gate. People using it had not understood, as they squirted or squatted, the reason for having bowl in a tank of water beside them. It was for washing their splashes away.
They had understood piling used paper high in a little bin for someone else to empty. The scent of the flowers of the gardens crept back in, when the splashes were washed down a round hole. It was the drain. In the gardens, other structures rose in triangles, over living heads. Square based thats, the triangles housed aging remains. One by one, a man slowly, carefully painted them white, edging inset chambers in red-brown. He painted in gold sculptures set in the chambers, and finials. He had painted about half of the small pagodas.
Painting was happening all over Vientiane. At the tourist museums, and at the Wats, most used by the people of the city, pots and paintbrushes were restoring new and old buildings to the glory their design deserved. Scaffolding surrounded new building not yet finished. The painting and the scaffolding reached its crescendo at That Luang, the most sacred shrine of the Lao. Interred here, they believed, was part of the Buddha’s body.
That Luang was out past the Pataxi Gate of Triumph, a square blob of finialed archway bestriding a major road. The Gate had its own place in the oral tales of foreign travellers. In the days of “the domino theory,” the “yellow peril” threatened to drown “the civilised world” in an onslaught of “starving hordes” of Asia. The domino theory said that, unless “someone” halted its spread, Communism would infect one country after another, until the world was red. Need was perceived for a Vientiane airfield, that warplanes might thwart “the red menace” as it came south. The Lao were part of the “yellow peril.” They used the cement given to them to build an airfield. They made concrete, and constructed the Pataxi Gate of Triumph. They dedicated the Gate to peace, and to people who died fighting for their country’s independence from the French.
From the centre of the city, That Luang was not in sight. Questions from a stranger, asking after his wife who worked in the market, made Mr. Toon worried. His passenger might be feeling unsafe about going there. He immediately allayed any fears. There was no need, he explained, to worry about being with a strange man. “If Lao man, no problem. Even safe to sleep in same bed. No touch all night.” (I”m not sure if this works!)
Marthe Bassenne saw That Luang as “a strange and gigantic religious, rather well conserved, monument some kilometres away from Vientiane…When one emerges in the open space that isolates it from the forest, majestic, under the pale sky, it seemed to be a challenge thrown at death, at nothingness.” She counted “thirty two thats,” “on the sides of a square,” about “an enormously big central one.” Some thats were “deteriorated.” Others were “decapitated.” The whole was “encircled” by “a dilapidated wall in ruins.” (could you perhaps describe what a that is early on? — even I’ve forgot! )
The forest threatening the thats vanished before Christopher Kremmer arrived in the 1990s. For him, That Luang was “the massive stupa on a hill northeast of the town painted a gaudy gold and surrounded by dozens of smaller thats.” At That Luang, crowds crushed him, at a celebration “part religious festival, part commercial hard sell and part village fair.” Joe Cummings, the author of the Lonely Planet guidebook to Laos, saw That Luang a different way a decade later. “The monument looks almost like a missile cluster from a distance…From a closer perspective, however, Pha That Luang opens up and looks much more like a religious monument.”
That Luang did indeed look like a missile silo ( I never thought it looked like a missile Silo, and quoting that hack Cummings — oh well, can’t you put in some of your descriptions, you were there? Or maybe I was missing something), to anyone with eyes to see it that way. The “missiles,” pointing gold in the air, were the thats Marthe Bassenne had counted almost a century earlier. Up closer, the surrounding thats were fat little round white bottoms with golden needles. A first floor founded them. It surrounded an enormous concrete bubble, half blown out the ground by a giant somewhere underneath it. From high above the finials of the lesser thats skirting the bubble, a giant golden needle set out for heaven. Stairs, with Naga handrails, ventured up to the landing of the thats. A shrine pushed hard into the white skin of the central bubble.
A low and square arcade encased the lawns around the thats. Under the roofs of the arcade, Buddha statues meditated. The Buddha images had no finials. “Thai did them too.” A black tangle of electricity wires crawled into the arcade. A Buddha, who had lost his head, carried the wires over his shoulder. An artist’s wife had moved into the arcade opposite the entrance. She and her friend gossiped at a table. They sold small cards and watched people walking past her husband’s work. His paintings bore price tags in $US with two or more zeroes. They depicted Laotian life. French painters, (of the late nineteenth, and early twentieth, centuries), influenced the secular paintings Mr. Khamsouk Keomingmeuang displayed along a religious wall.
Some of his paintings were very lovely. In others, pressure to be prolific hid his talent. He painted abstracts. He painted fish frying in Chagall. He painted Gauguin women gazing at the Mekong. He painted dry Impressionist landscapes with Wats in them. Monks at a temple were fashioned in a Chinese style. There were portraits of water buffaloes. Beautifully placed multi-coloured dogs gazed deep in the mouth of a volcano, their tails turned on a sign. The sign said “Open eyes, open mind.”
From outside the walled square, red halls peeped inside. To the left of the That’s entrance, new halls were rising fast. Tourists donating money for the new buildings received numbered cards, sized in A4. Red printing ran strange script across the card, and detailed a Wat. Before the hand over of the certificate, two palms came flat together, with fingers under chins, and heads bowed. The gesture disconcerted foreign tourists. The action extended courtesy, and thanks, from one person to another. It was not the companion of a prayer to a deity.
A park as large as That Luang hugged the road back to Vientiane. Behind white masonry posts, standing bougainvilleas flowered. Children rode in the metal seats of an aerial with chains making their seats fly like circling aeroplanes. The blue boulevard through Pataxi, and central Vientiane, ended at the airport’s edge. Past the airport, a high gravel road traced the river’s course through the early morning.