Saturday, September 17, 2011

Religious Life in Laos

The cocks crowed hours too early outside my sleepy bungalow in Muang Ngoi Neua, Laos. By four-thirty in the morning, the small town of around 200 was abuzz with the clatter of food preparations and the drone of battery-operated Lao radio. While most days begin around dawn for almsgiving to the village’s monks, today was a special day in which everyone in the town participated wearing their finest sarongs and festive wear in order to give food, gifts, and money in memory of their deceased family members and ancestors.

Saan, my guide, had invited me to participate with his family. He—like me—had lost siblings, and woke at four to prepare meals to bring to the temple to fuel his brother’s and sister’s journey in the spirit world.

With my body fully covered and a scarf tied across my chest in the style of a Lao Buddha image, I stumbled from bed and found my place in the line of people that had formed to wait for the monks. From the temple at the edge of the village came the soothing sound of chants and gongs, leaving the crowd in excited anticipation for the procession. My offering plate overflowed with the banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice and cookies Saan had shared with me to give to the monks.

Laos is one of the only places in the world where Buddhist morning alms-giving persists as a daily ritual practiced by the majority of townspeople. The contemporary significance of Theravada Buddhism is quite remarkable considering Communist beliefs about religion. Just beyond Loas’s borders, Cambodian and Chinese Buddhists witnessed the destruction of temples and the systematic suppression of religious tradition, making modern Buddhism a shell of what it once was. Laos is an anomaly among Communist nations, with a strong religious culture that continues to govern the largest to most subtle daily decisions.

Temples continue to be found on every corner in Lao cities, like Starbucks in America. The temple structures—decorated in bright gold paint, bits of mosaic glass, and murals—demand a sense of awe, mimicking experientially the concept of achieving nirvana. While I’m not particularly keen on the ostentation, I did find peace meditating with monks inside the temples and particularly liked the artistry of the glass mosaic tiles.

Monks were some of the friendliest people I encountered in Laos. All Lao males are expected to become monks at some point, and families take great pride in their sons donning orange robes. Some choose monkhood for a couple of years while they attend school, and others devote their entire lives to the tradition. Several who studied English spoke with me about their daily routines which involve a great amount of study and personal discipline. While not all Buddhists refrain from meat-eating, monks and nuns do; they keep short sleep schedules; eat only two meals a day at 6am and noon; and remain dedicated to critical reasoning and investigation through many hours of daily study.

Next on my tour of temples and culture is Thailand! I expect Thailand to be the easiest place I have traveled so far in terms of navigation, and look forward to sampling delectable food, spirited dance, and sensational scenery.

Journeying to Far-away Lands

One of my hopes in Laos was to leave behind streets, tuk-tuks, and voices, and find a place where life is quiet. I had heard about treks to tribal villages out of Muang Ngoi Neua, a small town only accessible by boat, and decided to make my way to the storied place with no automobiles or flushing toilets, and only limited electricity.

Muang Ngoi was first discovered for tourism by a French woman boating up the Mekong in 1988. At the time, her search for a hut to sleep in was met by adversarial faces, with every townsperson shutting their doors as she approached.

Their lack of welcome came from equal parts fear and anger. For nearly twelve years, the people of Muang Ngoi had been forced to live in small caves carved into the local mountains as wars destroyed their tiny village. The worst bombing came from 1968-1969 during the U.S. “Secret War,” when the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran through Laos was attacked mercilessly by B-52 bombers. Per capita, Laos is the most bombed country in the world, with more bombs dropped in the countryside during the Vietnam War than fell in World War II. As is the case in Cambodia (see post below), approximately one-third of these bombs did not detonate, continuing to contaminate the countryside with dangerous unexploded ordinances.

My guide in Muang Ngoi told me that his brothers and sisters were born in those caves. During a trek through the hills, he showed me the exact cool and damp space on the cave’s floor where his aunt, my host, was born.

Today, resentment has faded as the people of Muang Ngoi and nearby tribal villages understand the economic benefits of tourism. They now have several simple guesthouses and family-run restaurants that welcome travelers from the very countries that made them retreat into caves some forty years ago.

Just outside of Muang Ngoi, several small villages can be found where residents speak tribal languages, practice varying forms of animist religion, and make specialized handicrafts that are sold in a communal market in Muang Ngoi every ten days. I visited several of these villages during a day-long trek with my guide, Saan. I saw how men work a full day to weave two baskets that could sell for 20,000 kip each (about $2), while others labored to make simple knives that would sell for about the same amount. I witnessed how American and Russian-made bombs had been repurposed for their metal and were used to support huts, create drainage, and sharpen tools.

Life really is quiet in these villages—except for the roosters, chickens, and children. Along the banks of the creeks and river, puppies, chicks, ducklings, and infants all crawled along dirt paths. Fertility was in the air, from the rice paddy homes of buffalos to the village huts. There was something romantic about life in Muang Ngoi, which I decided came from sounds alone: the buzz of the generators for the few hours of electricity that came at night; the chirping of insects in the forest along the river; the sound of the river, the creeks, and the waterfalls.

My stay in Muang Ngoi was brief, but made rich by the reception of villagers, especially my guide Saan and his family. Saan welcomed me to his home for a buffalo barbeque and drinks (I ate vegetables and passed on the Lao Lao fermented rice wine), traditional rice soup for breakfast, and a glimpse at religious culture in the village. Saan had been a monk as an adolescent, and taught me the ins-and-outs of paying respects during a Theravada Buddhist festival.


Throughout Laos, posters advertise experiences that promise “Shangri-Lao,” day to week-long escapes to an exotic paradise.

While landlocked Laos lacks the beaches famous in Thailand, its verdant mountains barely inhabited by humans in the North and thousands of flatlands covered in rice paddies throughout the country still warrant its title as a Shangri-la. Even the two most populated cities, Vientiane and Luang Prabang, span only a few downtown blocks, with the vast majority of Lao’s seven million people living in remote rural village communities.

My original itinerary had me spending several days visiting temples and sights of cultural importance in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, but after one afternoon in Vientiane, I realized that the sights I had planned to see over several days’ time could be visited in only a few hours.

Emancipated from my schedule, I set out to experience the essence of each town.

In the French Colonial capital, Vientiane, I spent every afternoon by the banks of the Mekong River. Resting by a fountain or tree, I would watch as couples and families enjoyed the park by day, hundreds participated in wildly popular group aerobics classes at sunset, and the dark of night brought lively markets and teens patrolling the boardwalk. With drinks from local caf├ęs and fruit stands, I read books and enjoyed the slow pace and relative ease of life in the small capital city.

The bus ride to Luang Prabang was the kind of adventure that comes free with the price of admission. A journey that I was told would take 8 hours ended up requiring nearly a day, with several landslides blocking the road, multiple bus breakdowns, and many miles by foot with my bags. I saw the slow journey as an unexpected gift because it meant I could spend more time appreciating the mountain scenery of Laos in areas that are not normally stops on the tourist trail.

The city of Luang Prabang, once the capital of the Kingdom of Laos, is the definition of quaint. Intermixed with the lingering influences of French Colonial architecture and eateries, traditional Buddhist temples and cultural sites make the town a sleepy getaway for travelers.

My favorite temple in Luang Prabang was the UNESCO-protected Wat Xieng Thong. Built in 1560 as a temple for the King, the small but ornate temple complex houses an extraordinary royal funerary urn as well as some spectacular glass mosaics done in rich jewel hues that glisten in the sun radiating colors as rich as a tropical coral reef.

While the most physically challenging, my best experience in Luang Prabang Province was a 70km bike ride through the hilly countryside. While a number of waterfalls were my official destination, by far, the joy came from the ride itself. Fighting exhaustion from the 90+ degree heat, I communed with local villagers who quite literally cheered me on as I went about my way. I imagine it is a bit of a site to see a foreigner riding through the hills during the summertime, and I appreciated all of the high fives from the kids and the smiles from the adults I passed by. I was most delighted by a stop to buy a hat. The saleswoman handed me a traditional rice-pickers hat which she had made herself. When I put it on, we both laughed and laughed. This picture was the first she had ever taken with a camera, and captures the moment of our giggling and language-less sharing.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Accessing the Divine through Art and Architecture: A Visit to Angkor Wat

Traveling during monsoon season in Southeast Asia is not for the faint of heart, but for those with a sturdy plastic poncho, ribbed-soled sandals, and a good attitude, it can mean lighter crowds and an exceptional experience on a rainy day in the forest.

When I arrived to Siem Reap, my guest house operator looked at me like I had two heads when I said I was ready to go to the temples despite the rain. All of the other guests appeared cozy inside watching a movie, but I was determined to explore.

My first visit was to Ta Prohm, the jungle temple that served as a setting in scenes of Tomb Raider. With rain pouring down and several-inch deep pools of water gathered in every courtyard, the temple was a ghost town. As I admired the high and low-relief stone sculptures, I danced in jubilation to the natural rhythms of rain falling in the forest, birds chirping, and monkeys howling. This was all I imagined Angkor would be!

The next morning, I set my alarm to 4am in order to make it to the main temple of Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. My dedication to the cause made me among the first to arrive, with an excellent spot for viewing. In the dark of the late morning, Buddhist monks could be heard chanting mantras in the distant temple. As the sun rose, silence fell upon the reflection pool for several moments before the buzz of tourists returned.

The quality of art and architecture within the Angkor complexes is exquisite, representing some of the finest humankind has made. Many of the temples were constructed around a central mandala design, with several including reflecting pools nearby that extend the images of the architecture to two planes resulting in incredible visual appeal.

During my days of wandering in and out of various surrounding temples, I was inspired by the images of Hindu and Buddhist deities that lined the halls. There was something so powerful about the religious messages shared by Indians traveling in Cambodia that the local people decided to convert and construct these monumental structures. The entire society became based around temple life, complete with festivals, religious ceremonies, and royal celebrations aimed at creating a connection with the divine.

Today, the temples of Siem Reap support the livelihoods of thousands of Cambodians who survive off of the tourist industry. Despite the heat and humidity, every person I encountered was equally inspired and pleased with their decision to visit Angkor. Like those who came before me, my pilgrimage was a moment to connect with the divine, a childhood dream come true.

Killing for Equality

In the “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” the writings of Marx are upheld as a sort of blueprint for idealist scholars. Several of my Harvard peers call themselves Marxists, inspired by a vision of equality and universalism.

For the people of Cambodia, the word “Marxism” brings back memories of one of the country’s darkest times. To explore the history of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and the genocide that ensued under the party’s leadership, I headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

In its four years of national rule from 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge is believed to have caused the deaths of 2 million of Cambodia’s 7.5 million civilians, making it the deadliest regime of the twentieth century. To force egalitarianism upon its populace, party leaders ordered the exodus of all urban dwellers to the rural countryside where a policy of self-sufficiency required people to produce their own rice, clothing, and medicines. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of deaths that resulted from starvation and lack of access to modern medicines, the party’s policies of torture and execution aimed at suspected capitalists depleted Cambodia of some of its most educated, famous, and prosperous members of society.

The Tuol Sleng Prison Museum is located near the center of the capital city of Phnom Penh. Once a high school, the Khmer Rouge converted the campus into a systematized torture facility and prison. During its four years of operation, an estimated 20,000 prisoners met their demise behind prison walls, with only seven known survivors.

The exterior of each of the school buildings remains covered in barbed electric wire, meant to prevent prisoners from committing suicide. The tiny cells constructed within the former classrooms appear insufficiently small to fit a resting body, sized more appropriately as coffins than prison rooms.

As each prisoner entered the facility, they were photographed and ordered to provide a full life biography. Today, the prison rooms are filled with the haunting photographic portraits of the thousands held captive and tortured within the facilities.

Just fifteen minutes outside of the city center, I visited Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, the location of the largest known mass graves in Cambodia. Here, at least 20,000 people were executed and murdered, many of them family members of those detained in Tuol Sleng prison, representing a small fraction of the estimated 1,300,000 buried in mass graves throughout Cambodia. Today, the bones of the bodies excavated at Choeung Ek are kept on display in a memorial stupa in the center of the killing fields. The land surrounding has been largely untouched since the excavations began. Grass now covers the shoveled pits where skeletal remains were removed; trees, once used to bash in the heads of infants, stand swaying in the wind; and local fishers now use the property to catch evening supper. The calm in this former place of mass violence is eerie with birds chirping and insects humming where once, the screams of thousands were heard.

It was amazing for me to learn that the Khmer Rouge party remained strong until the early 1990s, not officially dissolving until 1999, when I was ten years old. Today, the Khmer Rouge Case Trials continue, a slow effort overseen by the UN to bring justice to the Cambodian people.

I left the killing fields in silent prayer, sending peace to the spirits of Choeung Ek and praying for an end to senseless violence everywhere.

Bombs and bonds

I made a friend in Japan who I bonded with over a discussion about bombs. Rika and I chose to spend the day together in Hiroshima, and neither of us held back as we asked questions and provided answers about the war and the atomic attack. We realized that both of our understandings of the atomic bomb were deeply rooted in the patriotic telling of history provided by our textbooks and educators which gave a single perspective in an infinite sea of war stories.

In Cambodia, I entered another former enemy’s territory. I knew little about the Vietnam War outside of what movies, popular culture, and brief mentions in history books have taught me.

In Cambodia, I learned about the War from child survivors of landmine explosions.

The Cambodian countryside appears much as I imagine it did forty years ago, with yaks still serving as a major form of transport and labor, children playing naked in water pools, and families working from dawn until dusk in the rice paddies before returning to their thatched roof huts. This tranquil setting is where the vast majority of Cambodia’s 40,000 amputees lost their limbs and where most of the estimated 4-6 million remaining undetonated devices reside.

During the War, Vietnamese used territory within Laos and Cambodia to supply troops in Vietnam. Known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this supply line became a main target for near-continual American bombing that resulted in the loss of an estimated 600,000 Cambodian civilian lives. Hundreds of thousands of these bombs did not detonate and still litter the countryside, making rural Cambodia one of the most dangerous places in the world to live over thirty years later.

The number of undetonated ordinances increased following the end of the Vietnam War with the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Landmines were seen as a key part of their strategy, debilitating but not killing their victims, as the economic cost of an amputee to an enemy is greater than that of a casualty.

At the Cambodia Land Mine Museum and Rescue Center, children who have lost limbs receive an education and disability care. There, in the countryside of Siem Reap, I heard the stories of children as young as five who had been picking rice or walking to school when a bomb exploded nearby. These children, forever disabled, knew nothing of the difference between communism and democracy. The stories they wished to share were not about politics or war strategies, but about the long-term impact of bombs.

As I left the museum and the smiling faces of the limbless children, I felt deep appreciation for what a blessing it is that people have openly shared with me stories from the other side, those told by child soldiers, limbless civilians, and A-bomb survivors. The stories of war continue long after the signing of peace agreements and can be heard in the voices echoing in the countryside many years later.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Birthday Wish from the Top of Mt. Fuji

Each year, I think long and hard about how I will celebrate my brother’s birthday on his behalf. I usually try to do something that challenges me physically and mentally and helps deepen my appreciation for the world surrounding me. This year, I chose to climb Mt. Fuji overnight to watch the sunrise over Japan from the summit.

Climbing Mt. Fuji at night is a kind of pilgrimage that Japanese have taken for over a thousand years. The first known person to make it to the top was a Shinto priest, completing the 12,388 ft ascent in 663. Through the years, a mountain cult developed where worshipers climbed the mountain braving weather year-round, sometimes risking their lives to pay respect to the volcano.

Even in the summertime, the summit of Mt. Fuji plummets well below freezing after nightfall. Icicles glisten from rocky crevices and leftover snow from the previous winter lingers in the crater’s hollows.

Traveling with only a small backpack and prepared for the summer monsoons of Southeast Asia, I had little in the way of cold weather climbing gear. With the sweatshirt, jacket, hat and gloves I borrowed, I struggled to the top, knowing I would make it, but resenting the stinging wind that whipped my face.

After many hours of climbing and fighting exhaustion, I made it to the top with a couple of hours to wait before sunrise. I huddled close to new friends, and patiently waited for the moment that I hoped would astound me with beauty.

At around 5am on August 30, I appreciated the glory of life. The sun slowly peeked through the clouds on a day that all of the guides said was unusually clear. I spent a few hours at the summit, relishing in the moment and remembering my brother’s spirit. I know that this was a moment he would have been very proud of, and I am honored to live fully and appreciate life for both of us.