The Disappearing Man
Pha That Luang glistened in the distance, a beacon on the far side of the sea of tarmac. On my side a few stubbly trees gave shelter to a smattering of dozing songthaew drivers. Their makeshift hammocks, strung across the bed of their little pick-ups, rustled as they spotted me and began to lazily shout.
“Tuk tuk! Tuk tuk!”
I ignored them as I searched the shaded oasis.
The driver I’d arrived with, and not yet paid, was gone.
Earlier my driver and guide for the day had pointed across the desert of reflected sunlight at the temple. Then he’d gestured at the shaded spot he’d parked in, motioned for sleep and finished with a dismissive shooing wave.
I’d received the message, but headed into the opposite direction to grab some lunch before tackling the oven of midday. A nearby café was a perfect place to recharge my phone, my body and my heat tolerance.
By the time I headed back to the parking lot an hour and a half had sizzled past and the driver was gone. I guess he figured I had ditched him and sought another ride. Surveying the group again I shrugged and set off toward Pha That Luang. Maybe he’d show up later.
A Golden Symbol
Pha That Luang, or the Great Stupa, is regarded as the national symbol of Laos—and its holiest monument.
The first stupa erected on the site was constructed when the Indian King Ashoka of the Maurya Dynasty sent an envoy of monks to the Vientiane area to spread Buddhism in the third century BC. They brought a sacred relic from the Buddha to the area—some say a rib, others a collarbone and still others claim it was a breastbone—to be enshrined.
King Ashoka is credited with the relationship seen between monarchs and Buddhism in Southeast Asian countries today. He shifted the Divine Kingship model (where kings are rulers because they are descendent from a divine source) to another model, where the king earns the approval and support of the Buddhist sangha, or community (this sounds a lot like Europe’s historical relationship between king and church).
In Thailand King Bhumibol Adulyadej is regarded as a living Buddha who stayed behind to help the people. The model introduced by Ashoka is still very much alive as the highest title for Thai Buddhist monks, Supreme Patriarch, can only be granted by the king.
As Buddhism spread across the areas known as Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam today, political power frequently shifted around the ancient kingdoms. In the 12th century the Khmer (predecessors of the Cambodians) settled in the Vientiane area and built a temple at the site of Ashoka’s shrine.
Then in 1566 the Lao King Setthathirath built Pha That Luang over the site after he made Vientiane the new capital of his Lan Xang Kingdom. He built the stupa to rival the Grand Stupa in Chiang Mai, the capital of the neighboring Lane Na kingdom. As was the tradition he wanted to project himself as a steadfast patron of Buddhism.
He covered the temple in gold leaf, but its splendor would be spoiled in 1828 when a Siamese invasion ransacked Vientiane.
Heavily damaged and looted Pha That Luang was eventually abandoned.
In 1900 a French team rebuilt the ruined stupa. However, they misaligned it and the locals didn’t like the design. So in the 1930s the French recreated the stupa based on drawings from a French explorer named Louis Delaporte who drew sketches of the original Lao-style lotus bud structure in 1828.
The stupa stretching for the sky before me was the result of this turbulent history. As I circled the monument steeped in Buddhist symbols, its 30 small stupas glistened under the vast sky.
The Good Monk
“Excuse me miss, can you please answer some questions for my studies?”
A cheerful face greeted my glance. Swathed in orange cloth the monk dipped down to nab a sheet of paper. He held it out hopefully.
“Sure!” I ethusiastically replied as I took the paper from him. He beamed as he offered a pen.
“What are you studying?” I inquired as I checked off answers to the questionnaire.
He told me he was taking business management at the National University of Laos.
Notching a response in the last box I passed over the paper.
“May I take your picture for my blog?”
“Sure,” he said as he clutched his papers close.
As I lowered my camera to ask his name he dashed off to wave down some more tourists for his homework.
He was the second monk I’d run into on my travels who was studying at a secular university. The first had been a monk for 15 years and was studying law in Siam Riep, Cambodia.
It’s interesting how secular education grew out of religious schools all across the world. I mean the universities of Europe are supposed to have had their start in Christian monasteries.
Lao Buddhist monasteries were, and still are, home to educational opportunities for the poorest in the community. In 2010 there were approximately 20,000 monks in the country with over 8,000 ranked “senior monks”.
For many it is still a social requirement for men to practice being a monk at some point in their life—generally between their final education and their career.
I remember talking to some Thai girls who told me they wouldn’t marry a man who hasn’t been a monk. They said, if a man can’t keep himself from touching women, drinking, smoking and swearing for at least three months he wouldn’t be a good husband.
A Compromised Image
The most prominent issue surrounding monks in Laos is their compromised political neutrality. In 1975 the Pathet Lao, a communist movement and organization in Laos tried to halt the practice of Buddhism. They considered religious spending wasteful and a loss of funds for the state so they banned Buddhism from schools, forbade people from making offerings and forced monks to work in fields and raise animals.
Their tactic wasn’t making them popular with the public so they began to ease off the restrictions starting from 1976. By 1992 the hammer and sickle was replaced by the Pha That Luang monument as the national emblem.
Buddhism was budding in Laos in the 1980s, but has it bloomed into what Ashoka envisioned when he threw the seeds?