Impressed with what we’ve already seen we happily wind our way back through the quaint streets to:
a temple considered, according to our local guide, to be ‘very beautiful, important & memorable,’ because of its age.
I recall another guide mentioning other similar information, in Vientiane, about Wat Sisaket – & even more, the Lao way of life – that I may have omitted to include; though it could be just as relevant to this temple complex, & to the importance of one’s lookout on life – & towards the lives of those elderly members of one’s community – in general:
‘Wat Sisaket is considered to be one of the most important temple, like a central to the community; & everything in my country in the former time. This is important also because it is still surviving from the war. Vientiane’s temples were damaged, but only this one remains whole for exhibition; so it’s considered very sacred. No one knows why it remains while everything else was destroyed. But this one is still the same though it looks new because money from the donations of Buddhist people around the country … & refugees abroad who send money … help to restore this one; & to make it look new.
And why is it so central to the community? It’s because of the education [it delivers]. Almost everyone knows a young man changes when he’s allowed to be a monk. When he can stay here. Other men after working in the rice field they try to come to the temple, for to hear the monk’s teachings & to do everything in the temple while they have the opportunity to study.
The classrooms are over there, just as they were for the people of a former time. The other house over there is for the monks to sleep. So the number of monks to be here is maybe not many; that way it was easier for the King to control everything.
There’s also a Library for the monks when they need information, or knowledge. In the past the manuscript was produced on palm leaves because there was no paper. Yet, about five years ago termites destroyed the Library; & now there is only a carved though empty bookcase inside to show people what may have been; something carved from the existing timbers that were still good; to show the importance of education over a long period of one’s life, like the survival of good timber, and our elders.
The carvings on the roofs are still a nice feature of all the buildings. Also the paintings on the underside of the roofs, the ceilings. And the top half of the walls have so many niches all round for Buddha images containing two images because one is considered lonely. But this is also a good lesson to pass on to the younger generations, about the importance of ‘a couple’ … parents … who are important in my country because after the old people get retired they don’t have any welfare from the government. Children [therefore] have to look after their parents. And if children don’t look after their parents the community complains, considering them to be thoughtless & bad people.
So it is important in this regard to ask the old people, ‘How old are you? Because if you are older than me I know I must respect you. And look after you.’
So old people are very important in my country. And how important someone is is up to the age of the person. And we mustn’t leave the old people to be lonely.
And because woman is a nice thing in the community we also have to look after her as well.’
So there we have it:
Wat Souvannapoumaram is old.
And therefore must be looked after.
All done with the information giving, we take the short cut through to the guesthouse …
Beyond our walking tour, we make a unanimous decision:
to go together as an unaccompanied group to the Pak Ou Caves, apparently found north of the town – and a place supposedly discovered by King Setthathirat in the 16th century” – though we’re to go by tuk-tuk & river boat rather than the more-leisurely river ride, & while firstly moving at odds with the thrust of the current.
Positioned in a cliff 15 metres above the fork in the waters where the Mekong joins the Nam Ou, the caves are considered one of the most treasured religious symbols of the Luang Prabang Province. In fact, together the upper (Tham Theung) and lower (Tham Ting) caves contain approximately 4000 carved wooden and gilded resin effigies of Buddha in all shapes and sizes – some thought to be more than 300 years old – all set out in haphazard arrangements upon a vast variety of prayer altars.
Written about by Francis Garnier (1839-1873) – & sketched by its assigned draughtsman, Louis Delaporte, as part of the famous Mekong Exploration Commission (1866-68) – it’s in Catherine Clover’s excellent article entitled ‘Retracing the Route: Mekong Exploration Commission (1866-68) to the Pak Ou Caves from Luang Prabang’ (2013) …
(written in 2013 & accessed at <http://www.electrummagazine.com/2013/05/retracing-the-route-mekong-exploration-commission-1866-68-to-the-pak-ou-caves-from-luang-prabang/> 29 March 2014 …
I learn that the monument – the Pak Ou Caves – was to stand as a “lasting reminder, both sad and touching, to the passage of foreigners in his country.”
In fact Clover goes on to enlighten by saying:
‘centuries of royal patronage by the royal family in Luang Prabang played a key role in the large number of statues seen in both caves. Every year the royal family from Luang Prabang would commission artists to create statues for the caves. This tradition continued until 1975.’
Nes helps negotiate a price for the journey to the caves with two tuk-tuk drivers
until it’s decided to squeeze everyone into one, & pay a little extra to cover ‘the fine;’ because it’s apparently illegal to carry any more than eight in a single tuk-tuk (& altogether we will breach the rules as we number ‘nine’).
All aboard – and with Hermann sitting up front as a fully-enclosed passenger in the driver’s cabin -so attempting to toss out the rule book with a little strategic positioning – we take a rather more exposed & chilly forty-five minute/ or twenty mile journey towards the river; with our driver stopping to purchase something from a roadside stall …
or to divulge some of our monetary ‘contributions to the cause of sustaining legalities’ to the local toll keeper ( though I rather consider it’s possibly more likely to be graft money, or sin bon).
The sun is particularly weak as it tries to nose it’s way through the covering of morning cloud.
Along Highway 13, we’re tail-gated by a group of Swiss riders.
They’re obviously also heading for the same cave, though after taking the turn onto a rugged dirt road they eventually overtake our tuk-tuk when they tire of swallowing our dust.
At one point, being obviously overloaded the hill climb proves too difficult for the struggling tuk-tuk so we all hop out – except for Hermann who stays safely ensconced in the cabin – while the driver negotiates the remainder of the hill with relative ease.
Back on board, & sitting in exactly the same positions on the timber slatted seats, with our backs pushed against the metal side-rails & heads twisted towards the scenery – & any measure of sunlight we can find – we travel on through a variety of eye-catching landscapes –
even past the tourists taking the guided elephant rides –
till we reach the riverside checkpoint
& the tiny village, that aims to take further advantage of its position at the drop-off point to the river & the caves by offering souvenirs & crafts for sale.
After we pay 20,000 kip to the uniformed ‘guard’ at a shaded table,
our driver points the way toward the river.
There are no telephone wires, no bridges spanning the water.
Merely those captivated by the exquisite beauty & variability of their surroundings…
together with plenty of kids dedicated to their assigned positions – with intent & purpose – in the open marketplace.
We’re soon loaded onto our boats for the crossing.
Once transported across the river in two separate crafts, as guests we’re greeted by slatted bamboo plank-ways, man-made concrete stairways with concrete handrails, and modern wooden ladders .
In fact access to the caves can only be gained by climbing up steep steps that cling to the cliff side facing the Mekong.
Still inspired by Clover’s writing,
‘One can only imagine what it would have been like for members of the Commission and Lao pilgrims before such modern conveniences were available.’
Nonetheless, as we traverse the first section of the bamboo walkway built at the very edge of the Mekong where the boats remain for subsequent pick-ups, we find it sinks into the water if it’s in any way overloaded.
Greeted by women sitting with official tickets in hand, we hand over an additional 15,000 kip to enter the caves.
As forewarned, the lower cave is packed with an enormous variety & number of figurines.
Almost everything seems worthy of more than a fleeting moment of our attention though there is seemingly just too much to gather onto our camera’s memory cards in the allotted time. Nonetheless we try our very best to retain remnants of what’s most impressed:
for it seems memories are so easily swept away in the dust of moments …
Moving through & beyond the cave, though there are many steep steps to negotiate, the view is worth any expended effort,
particularly after the difficult climb to the upper cave.
We arrive breathless at the entrance & gather torches from the two women seated at a dusty table nearby.
When inside, being interested in different things, we journey separately.
And for a time I worry Ben might be lost in the crowd, or crouching in a corner, in thought .
But he does walk out of the darkness with a smile & a camera full of imagery depicting just some of the contents of the cave.
And as Clover writes:
‘Knowing how dark the upper cave is … gives Delaporte’s detailed drawing great importance. It would not have been easy to accurately depict the contents of the dark cave, even with rudimentary lamps and torches. Back down below, from the shelter of the rocky overhang the Commission would have had a dry place to survey the two rivers and the Nam Ou valley beyond. Today the caves are in good condition thanks to a team of Laos and Australian conservationists who cleaned and catalogued the caves from 1992-1997. The Tam Ting cave is still used every April for religious purposes as a place to cleanse the household image of Lord Buddha.’
The Pak Ou are certainly worthy of the second look, because last time ( in 2008) I took only a couple of photos:
This time we’re definitely armed with a sizable combined cache of memories.
After finally exiting from the darkness of the upper cave & returning our torches,
I reward the younger girl with a Kit-Kat & give a banana to the older – ‘more important’ – woman before taking a last look around …
and venturing down the designated path to the boat,
& making a successful looping assisted-crossing of the swiftly flowing waters to arrive again at the beach opposite.
Here, eyes light up when I surprisingly reward one of the gathered children with a spare banana – rather than money – for his offered trinket.
Having already bought a beige-coloured scarf, I by-pass the village stalls on the way back to the tuk-tuk, though Hermann bargains for elephant figurines & scoffs at the prices suggested for faux-silver items.
The return journey is pleasantly warmer because the sun has come out at eleven, as promised by our tour guide.
Outside the guesthouse we each hand over the pre-determined 26,000 kip for our two-way journey & book the same driver for tomorrow’s trip to the Kuang Si Falls.
It’s only when we’re inside our room – & probably quite soon after being so attentive to the truly exceptional details of Lao – my eyes light up as I notice the note & its attendant doll hanging from the door handle …
I love being in Laos.
And no more especially, than here, in Luang Prabang.
And by the serene look on Ben’s face as he stretches out on his bed, I’m sure he feels the same.