Monday, February 25, 2008

261206 Wat Mahathat - doors & pillars

Main door of ສິມ (sim - not sure if congregation/assembly hall is best translation):


Side doors:


Panel of side door:


Pediment above side door:


Pillars, with different gold-stencilled designs...


...& naga eave brackets:


Sunday, February 24, 2008

261206 Wat Mahathat - ceiling & roof

Stencilled with gold paint above the front wall of the congregation hall:


Moths or butterflies?


Some kinda bird (left) & no-idea-what (right) - hence no idea which orientation it should have!


Devas, bird & bat:


Chinese dragon & a crab-like sun?


yot sor faa on the ridge of the roof, with a hongsa at either end:


chor faa (roof finial):


They are installed during a special ceremony as part of the temple building construction process, but now many end up mounted & sold as antiques for display in hotels & homes...

261206 Wat Mahathat - Sithone & Manola

The front wall of the congregation hall is decorated with this sort of 3D art (no idea what the term for it is)...


...depicting a story known as Sithone & Manola (aka. Phra Suthon & Manora in Thailand, or Sudhana & Manohara in Indonesia), from the Pannyasa Chadok (ปัญญาสชาดก), a collection of jataka (chadok, or stories of the Buddha's previous lives).

Nang Manola is the kinnaree (half-bird half-human)...


...who left her wings & tail (below, golden things at middle left) aside while bathing in a lake...


Unable to fly away, she was caught by a hunter (above, at bottom left), who brought her to the palace...


There, Prince Sithone fell in love with her & married her. While he was away at battle, there was a plot to have Manola killed, but she managed to get back her wings from her mother-in-law. To help the prince locate her on his return, Manola left directions with a hermit (reusii/rishi) in the forest...


...before flying back to the safety of the kinnara kingdom...


They were eventually reunited after Sithone managed to pass a series of tests set for him by Manola's father, one of which was to identify her from a group of identical-looking kinnaree.

The detail is mind-blowing - right down to the roof finials & gables:


Mini elephant + giant foot soldiers - seriously it isn't that wise to walk so closely behind the elephant pie-producing end of the pachyderm:


At the time of the cat's visit, it wanted to ask around about the story behind this work of art, but everyone was busy:


They had to finish this & then bathe, get dressed in full robes, light the candles & set up the congregation hall & then strike the bell to get everyone assembled for the daily evening chanting. More than a year later, the cat finally stumbled upon the story while searching for information on the main stupa of this temple.

261206 Wat Mahathat

A most beautiful temple near Nam Phou:


Wheel of Dharma above seven intertwined nagas on the gable:


Main door of the sim:


Of all places, right above the main door of a Buddhist temple congregation hall, is a scene of someone trying to kill someone:


Side view:


Rear view:


Funny how an entire structure can be decorated so elaborately, only to leave a big fat blank space on the rear wall...this was the case for several other temples too, although a few like Wat Xieng Thong (Luang Prabang) & Wat Chom Khao (Huay Xai) do have fully decorated rear walls.

261206 Luang Prabang alarm clock

The catnap was suddenly interrupted by the alarm clock that went off directly above all three cats' heads:


It is set to go off at 4:00PM sharp at every temple in Luang Prabang on every eve of & day of ວັນສິນ (wan sin aka. วันพระ wan phra in Thai). Often translated as 'Buddhist holy day', these uposatha days occur on every new, quarter & full moon. The new & full moon days are the 1st & 15th days of the lunar month (wan phra yai in Thai), & on these days Theravada monks recite the patimokkha rules, while devout Chinese Mahayana Buddhist laymen turn vegetarian. The alarm clock can also go off at night when:

...sometime a temple has happen a bad thing such as a person die at night in the temple or the temple has got stealing. The novices & monks have to beat the drum to call people.

Batteries not included, the alarm clock is manually operated:


Within earshot of Wat Mahathat is Wat Hosiang, & the novices of the neighbouring temples trying to out-*BOOM* & out-*CLASH* each other with their drums & cymbals gives rise to a pretty deafening Dolby surround sound effect...'like stereo', joked one monk. According to him, the drumming occurs at regular intervals during the day at the temple atop Phou Si Hill, a continuation of the old method of timekeeping for the town.

The clock mechanism is of great interest to some tourists:


Whose efforts to share the experience with everyone can be seen here, here & here. Other tourists staying in guesthouses right next to temples loathe it, as this alarm clock rings at 4:00AM in the morning too, & there is NO snooze button ;) To some novices it is fun, to some it is a duty that can be escaped if one attends the afternoon session at school, to some it is a way to warm up before bathing (no hot water) during the cold season, & one monk who says i don't like to drum because i can not do it is glad that his novice days are over.

For some reason the drumming rhythm in Luang Prabang & Muang Sing is far more elaborate & frenetic than what the cat observed in Vientiane (two slow thumps followed by single strike of a gong). In Vientiane the cat also heard the drumming at about 5:30AM, right before the monks & novices left the temple to go on alms round.

The top three photos were taken at Wat Mahathat, the shoulder in the corner is that of the novice who asked the cat to come up to the Wat Hosiang side for a better view. This temple receives only brief mention as one of seven places under 'other temples' at the end of the write-up on 'Sights' in the Luang Prabang section of the blue backpacker bible, while the only mention of Wat Hosiang is a dot numbered 123 without a temple symbol on a map, listed together with petrol stations in the map legend. Both are located southwest of Phou Si hill, outside of the peninsula proper.

The full impact of being 'Lonely Planet-ed' would strike the cat when it witnessed the 4:00PM alarm clock ringing the next day at Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham (bottom three photos), a temple in the heart of the tourist area that receives double mention in the guidebook - an individual write-up of its own, plus a listing as stop number 14 on the guidebook's walking tour of Luang Prabang. Within minutes, the cat saw more tourists than it saw over three afternoons spent at the other two temples...

261206 Wat Mahathat SPECIAL - *CAT edition*

Reeling from the culture shock, the cat beat a hasty retreat & sought refuge in the nearest temple, a place where one would expect to find more locals. Sure enough, it ran right straight into two of them:


Looking at other cats from a cat's point of view:


261206 Culture...Shock

Lao towns are made up of little neighbourhoods/villages (ban), each with their own temple (wat) of the same name e.g. Vanvisa Guesthouse is in the Ban Wat That neighbourhood of Wat Maha That. Ban Wat That was where silversmiths working for the Luang Prabang royal court lived, & the owner of Vanvisa Guesthouse moved here after marrying a silversmith from this neighbourhood. One silversmith at the Chao Fa Ngum Road end of Ban Wat That has a little 'SILVERSMITH' sign decorated with fairy lights, which served as a landmark for the cat when finding its way back to the guesthouse at night.

A few doors away from Vanvisa Guesthouse is the home & workshop of Thithpheng Maniphone, a silversmith mentioned in travel guidebooks. Over the next few days the cat would walk past the sounds of endless tapping & chiseling from the outdoor part of the workshop several times a day, where several young guys in jeans would be seated on low stools under a shelter in the driveway, pairs of hands busy keeping a piece of Lao heritage alive.

Sometime it saw the old master himself inspecting the work of his apprentices, usually when everyone had laid down their tools & disappeared for lunch + nap. The cat never got to talk to him, but it wonders if he feels the same as some of the Kyoto craftsmen, artisans & iemoto, the cat's wushu teacher, & Akha pima (village 'historians' who memorise all the myths, rituals & entire migration history & the genealogy of every guy in the village) - that one is but merely a 'vessel' for passing on the knowledge of a timeless tradition, & with one's talent & skills (at a fine art, a craft, a martial art, or memorising) comes great responsibility for ensuring that it is faithfully transferred to the next generation so that it may live on.

He once served the Luang Prabang royalty, & now his showroom of glass cabinets filled with silver items for sale has framed photos of Thai royalty (HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn) dropping by...the cat simply couldn't imagine the entire entourage complete with security detail squeezing down this little lane that serves as a badminton court & tricycle path for neighbourhood kids...(& is this why this particular lane is so nicely paved? =P)

After checking into Vanvisa Guesthouse, the cat set off on its first foray into the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang...walking past Pheng Maniphone Silver Shop, it reached the Chao Fa Ngum Road end of the lane near Nam Phou fountain, turned left onto the main road towards the Post Office, & within the space of a few minutes, it saw as many falang as it usually sees in an entire day at work back home, even before it hit the Post Office (usually filled with falangs shipping back their loot from the Luang Prabang night market)...


click to see the cat's reaction

(The cat works in a falang-dominated environment with people from France, Germany, Switzerland, UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Italy, Canada, etc.)

Khon falang laai kwaa khon lao (Caucasians more than Lao), a bit of a shock to the system after the time spent in Phongsaly province. Wonder if this is how villagers from places way off the tourist trail feel when they arrive in Luang Prabang for the first time?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

261206 Vanvisa Guesthouse, Luang Prabang


The entrance, where new guests are greeted with a cup of fruity tea:


Sometimes it seemed that it didn't matter if one wasn't a guest - he/she would still be welcomed & served tea anyway =) This place felt a lot more like a favourite aunt's house rather than a guesthouse.

Facing the entrance is a wooden cabinet filled with the owner's collection of weavings, & to the right is a little living room with black & white family photos from another era. In the space beneath the stairs, there are shelves with even more weavings & books, including a cookbook, Food & Travel Laos, co-authored by the owner.

For most of the cat's stay, a wizened smiling old lady was parked on a wicker chair near the entrance, wrapped up in scarves & attended to by various female family members who busied themselves with watching Thai channels on TV, in between cleaning & running the guesthouse. Months later, when reading about the cookbook online, the cat realised that the old lady was most probably the owner's aunt, mentioned here & here:

Mr.Suthipong Suriya received his culinary training in Luang Prabang court cuisine from Lady Bua, a Luang Prabang royalty, and her niece, Mrs.Vandara Amphayphone in the past few years.The writer has a strong emotional attachment with Laos and a personal home cooking experiences with Lady Bua Lattamali who was married to Luang Prabang royalty. Lady Bua used to work as chef assistant in Luang Prabang court in a number of ceremonies. She is now 96 and leads a simple life transferring cooking skill to her only niece, Vandara Amphayphone. She also once assisted Phia Sing Chaleunsilp, the former chef and Master of Ceremony of Luang Prabang court. Phia Sing died in 1967 and left behind an invaluable manuscript on original court cuisines.

The cat had made a booking through this website, & in this peak season (cool season + Christmas + New Year) there was no jacking up of room rates, unlike many other establishments in town. Cat's room in the front section of the house:


It had booked a double room for USD8 (no single rooms), but somehow it turned out to be a triple (for the same price)...enough room for the cat to swing itself around. About three rooms in this section share two bathrooms with 'antlers' serving as towel hooks...the whole place was decorated with all sorts of interesting items, including a spear along the staircase...! The rear section has larger ensuite rooms, & in between both sections is the kitchen & dining area where cooking classes are sometimes held.

Unable to find any power sockets within the room, the cat had to charge its camera batteries using one outside its room. However, the socket was at eye level & as loose as all Lao power sockets are. Everything had to be held in place with electrical tape, with the long wire dangling down onto the floor where the charger rested. The cat hid everything behind a tall potted plant that was just of the perfect height, to prevent anyone from tripping over the charger =P This, & the lack of air conditioning which would be the bane of tourists in the hazy & hot seasons, are the only drawbacks of this guesthouse that the cat can think of.

In the garden:


The last flower is Clitoria ternatea (Var. pleniflora?) aka. butterfly pea. Once upon a time the cat had to collect 44 of these flowers for its entire class to dissect for an upper secondary Biology practical class, which is why the scientific name remains embedded in the cat's brain till this day. Didn't get to ask if it is used in Lao cooking...the petals are the source of the blue colouring used in Peranakan food e.g. Nonya bak chang (steamed glutinous rice dumplings filled with pork, chestnuts, spices, etc) & kueh (glutinous rice cakes) like pulut inti & pulut tai tai.