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Kingdom of a Million Elephants
Prisana Pipatpan finds plenty to appreciate and ponder over as she visits the Plain of Jars and the old Laotian capital of Luang Prabang.
This article was first published in The Bangkok Post on April 25, 1993.
The moment I arrived at Hualampong Railway Station, I knew I had made a mistake. I stepped into the crowded concourse, shortly before midnight and was immediately consumed by a massive flow of people, pushing and shoving their way to platforms, luggage carts and any available floor space. There was no direct stream of traffic, just a claustrophobic movement of sweaty tired bodies, crammed together without the luxury of airspace.
However, the chaotic scene I witnessed was not your average night. It was the night before New Year’s Eve and a massive exodus was underway. Surrounded by a sea of weary travelers, I slowly made my way to a filthy corner of the station, seeking refuge inside a dingy restaurant.
Our destination was Nong Kai, located on the banks of the Mekong River, where a short ferry ride would take us to our ultimate destination: Laos.
By the time I crawled into my second class, air conditioned berth, I did so with utmost relief. I awoke six hours later to a quiet sleepy compartment. A soft early morning light filtered into the train and I could smell the welcome aroma of coffee being served.
Upon our arrival in Nong Khai, we gathered at Tha Sadet pier. This was my first chance to actually meet a few members of our multi-national group, mostly made up of Bangkok residents. We grabbed our bags and made a steep descent down the narrowest steps in all of Thailand. A quick ferry ride across the Mekong landed us in Laos, where we filled forms and smiled at bored immigration officers. Outside the small office, Jit, our young lean Laotian tour guide, efficiently herded us onto a brand new mini-bus.
As we passed the Friendship Bridge under construction, Jit began his tour speech; “Laos has four million people, 10% live in our capital city Vientiane. 85% of our people are farmers…”. The magnificent Friendship Bridge loomed to our left; a monstrous steel apparition which looked distinctly out of place, rising from its humble surroundings into the 20th century. When completed in 1994, the bridge will link Laos with Thailand for the first time in history.
Some 125,000 people live in Vientiane, in modest homes and buildings which rarely rise above one story. Traffic was light and most of the commuters were on motorbikes and bicycles.
“I’m sorry,” Jit announced nervously, at the end of his speech. “The Lane Xang hotel is full. We will be staying at another clean and comfortable hotel, I believe you will enjoy.” I cringed at his description, having slept in various clean and comfortable Asian rat holes, however, the semi-new Asian Pavilion Hotel, was not what I had imagined. On the contrary, it turned out to be much nicer than the famous old Lane Xang hotel, named after the ancient name for Laos: the Kingdom of a Million Elephants.
"It is forbidden to take pictures at the airport."
Five minutes after stepping into our hotel’s empty lobby, we were whisked away to the airport. Jit had arranged for a helicopter to fly us up to Xiengkhoung, where we would visit the Plain of Jars. This news came as a welcome surprise, since I had never flown in a helicopter before.
“When do we leave?” I asked Jit, after sitting in Vientiane’s airport for well over an hour.
“When helicopter comes,” he replied smiling.
I soon learned that in Laos there are no set schedules. Our group meandered through the airport, eating fresh loaves of French bread and taking pictures of one another. I was just about to click off a few myself, when our Thai tour leader intervened and warned me otherwise.
“It is forbidden to take pictures at the airport,” he said.
I looked around and saw dozens of people snapping pictures and replied: “If it’s forbidden, why is everyone taking pictures?”
“Because they don’t know it is forbidden.”
“What will happen if I take pictures anyway?” I asked.
“They may take your film away,” he said. “It depends on their mood.”
Eventually, the Soviet-built ME-8 helicopter arrived and once again our entire group took pictures of each other standing in front of the copter. I stood there forlornly, wondering whether to shoot or not to shoot? I didn’t care if my film was taken, but I definitely didn’t want to offend my protective Thai guide.
We crawled into the copter’s empty grey belly. A loud whirl of blades turned overhead and suddenly, we were lifted straight up, far above the green Vientiane plain. I looked at my companions, who sat rigid on the vibrating floor, with their eyes closed as if in prayer. A few passengers had cupped their hands over their ears as well, trying to block out the chopper’s continuous loud whirling drone.
Unfortunately, the copter lacked windows except for two small holes on the floor in the back of the belly. Someone asked Jit if we could take pictures out of the door and to my amazement, he agreed. I quickly crawled over to the front of the copter and crouched behind a Laotian man who sat inside the doorway, with his legs hanging outside the helicopter. He was wearing large earphones and stared vacantly out at the open space. Jit wisely, was the only other passenger wearing ear plugs.
While the copter’s roar pounded in my ears, I rapidly shot off a roll of film, trying not to hit the Laotian man’s head with my zoom lens. It was a difficult task, considering he was sitting directly underneath my lens. Far below, I saw dozens of oddly placed ponds scattered throughout the countryside. A moment later, I suddenly realized that the hundreds of small “ponds” I saw, were not ponds at all. They were bomb craters.
When we landed I was in a solemn mood, unable to shake off a hundred questions firing inside my mind. I wondered what thoughts and questions must have haunted the men who flew the B-52 bombers over Laos. Journalists during the Indochina War-era called Laos, the Land of a Million Irrelevants. The buckshot landscape I sadly witnessed from the sky, clearly revealed the horror of such “irrelevant” bombings. In fact, the US dropped more bombs on Laos than they did worldwide during WWII: it therefore tragically earned the distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation, per capita, in the history of warfare.
We drove in a green rickety “school” bus down a winding dirt road towards the Plain of Jars. Hundreds of massive dark stone jars dating back 2,000 years, dotted the windswept grasslands. The largest concentration of jars were scattered across the gentle slopes of two small hills.
Our group leisurely strolled among the giant hollow jars, some of which stood over five feet tall. Approximately 300 jars escaped destruction during the Indochina war, and as a reminder of who bombed the Plain of Jars, several craters were marked with a small wood sign post which read: “BOM U.S.A.”
French archaeologists believe the jars were once used as stone burial urns. Ashes, stone axes, bronze ornaments, ceramics and other artifacts have been discovered inside the jars, which experts speculated were reserved for high ranking officials.
"A Manhattan with holy men..."
The next morning we flew from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, the former royal capitol of Laos. Founded in 1353 as the royal capitol of Lan Xang, this alluring little city was truly a dream world, nestled amid green rolling mountains on a sharp curve on the Mekong. Indeed, it was a hidden Shangrila, where you could disappear for a walk along the serene Mekong banks, or stop and talk with young Buddhist monks gathered around small campfires inside hushed temple grounds.
Luang Prabang was once described as a “tiny Manhattan” by Norman Lewis, “but a Manhattan with holy men in yellow in its avenues, with pariah dogs, and garlanded pedicabs carrying somnolent Frenchmen nowhere, and doves in its sky.”
Today the charming city remains much the same, though the somnolent Frenchmen have ventured elsewhere, the saffron-robed holy men still make their daily procession through the early morning mist, carrying shiny alms bowls and flickering candles.
Those who try to enter will die, either by a severe nose bleed, or suffocation.
Shortly after dawn, I climbed 329 steps to the top of Pousi, also known as “Marvelous Mountain”, a rocky hill which dominates the town’s skyline. From Wat Chom Si, a small temple at the hill’s summit, I gazed out over the early morning mist at Phousang, the city’s most mysterious and legendary mountain.
According to one legend, a famous cave called the “Flamingo Cave” exists inside the mountain, where hidden treasures are believed to be protected by “Nyaks” or guardians. However, no one has ever reached the cave’s entrance, even by helicopter. Supposedly, those who try to enter will die, either by a severe nose bleed, or suffocation.
In 1861, Henri Mouhot, the first Frenchman to arrive in Luang Prabang, climbed into Phousang to study the wildlife inhabiting the area. He died suddenly and mysteriously at the age of 32, while exploring the unknown region. Villagers are still afraid of venturing into the area, fearing such inexplicable deaths and many believe that Phousang is where powerful ogres continue to live, acting as the guardians of Luang Prabang.
A Golden Age
As the morning sun burned off dawn’s hazy mist, a clearer 360-degree view came into focus. Below me, the multi-tiered roof of Wat Mai glistened in the sunlight and the golden spire of the former royal palace of King Sisavong Vong rose above tall palm trees. Built in 1904, the palace was converted into a museum shortly after the 1975 Revolution, and houses the famous golden Phra Bang Buddha image.
The sacred standing gold Buddha image was presented to the city’s founder, Prince Fa Ngum, by the Khmers in the 14th century and inspired the capital’s name. Under his reign, the Kingdom prospered into the14th and 15th centuries, but increasing pressure from its neighbors and internal strife caused an end to the Kingdom’s Golden Age.
On the banks of the Mekong
In the late afternoon, I sat on some rocks on the banks of the Mekong and watched a family bathing together in the emerald green water. To the right of me two men carried bicycles across the river on their shoulders. To the left, children splashed each other joyously. The scene was utterly peaceful and made me wonder about the Laotians and their future. The winds of change are blowing in Asia’s least developed country; a place currently isolated in an enchanting time capsule.