Flashback Friday! Laos is one of my favorite countries because of the amazing people but it’s been sorely neglected from this blog. Today, that gets better with Wat Sisaket, the oldest monastery in Laos.
I visited Wat Sisaket on our first trip to Laos. It was the morning of our last day before heading to Vang Vieng and the temple was quiet. The sky was overcast, debating rain, and I was alone. I wandered the grounds, noting the pagodas, large Buddha statues, stupas, and kuti (building where the monks live)…completely missing the main building that housed 2000 (or 6000 depending on who you ask) Buddhas.
For once I’d read about the temple I was visiting, so I circled back to search, instead of leaving unimpressed. Now as I research the temple, I understand my confusion better. The wat is a mix of both Laos and Siamese constructions –
Unlike the typical traditional Laotian monastery, the sanctuary is situated at the center of the cloister, yet unlike any Siamese monastery the cloister is closed off to the exterior.
Eventually, I found the unwelcoming door that lead to the rows of Buddhas. The inner walls had tiny alcoves, hosting one or two small buddhas in each. In front of them sat larger bronze Buddhas. With time to myself, I found myself photographing the full Buddha statue, then just the face. I was fascinated with how the years had worn each face differently. Each was as unique as a human face.
This uniqueness was fascinating to me for the Buddhas in the Thai temples seemed more homogenous. I had not seen this beautiful level of disrepair and I reveled in each one. Luckily, there was no one around to see my fascination and I worked slowly down each row…until I decided perhaps I should do more with my life. I’ll confess it was about 70 photos later.
The faces of the Laos Buddhas seemed rounder and somehow kinder though. I debated if I should just go ahead and photograph every single one of them. I didn’t want some to feel left out after-all. But I quieted that crazy voice…and took to doing sets of Buddhas…or those truly unique. I left the Wat with about 145 photos of Buddhas. That’s reasonable, right?
During that time, I was amused to be passed by a young monk, also taking photos, on his cellphone. For some reason a monk, in his orange robes, on a cell phone, always strikes me as odd. Perhaps I expect each monk to have stepped out of the 1500s and be immune to the need to record or communicate through a phone. Most frequently, we’ll see these novice monks out and about though. Young men may become a monk for short periods to bring merit to their family or other personal reasons (a month is not uncommon). So we passed in silence, continuing to each record what inspired us.
As I photographed (everything), I passed a storeroom that housed hundreds of buddha statues, all in different states of disrepair. A handwritten sign explained that they had been “destroyed by the war” and were found underground during excavation of the city. The room was enclosed by a slated door. Looking in, I saw neat shelves of Buddhas lined up or leaning slightly depending on their state. The first photo above shows one of the beautiful statues that seemed to be peeking out from behind the door. This more intact Buddha was rare for the rest were primarily just the torsos. A sad theme throughout SE Asia has been all the decapitated Buddhas from wars. I paused there then slowly returned to my photographic mission.
Many photos later, I enter the main temple and sat for a moment (close to a fan). I thought grateful thoughts for the time to see these sights and be here in this new city. When I moved to leave, a friendly man selling trinkets asked where I was from and pointed out the properties of the pendants and statues. With the thought of being minimalist (riiight), I declined purchase of the token that would make me rich and headed back to prepare for our bus out of town.
Wat Sisaket is the oldest Buddhist monastery in Laos, having survived the Siamese-Lao war of 1828. Some say it survived because of the Siamese design and others have documented it is because the Siamese used it as their base during the invasion. It is a pretty temple to visit, not as “bright” and “shiny” as those visited in Bangkok but a nice place for introspection and peace. The admission price for foreigners is 5000kip and hours are daily from 8-12 then 1-4.
Random memory: In retrospect, my early wandering of the ground were a bit kismet. I’d come across fellow visitors photographing themselves under a large golden archway (and photographing a mandatory group jump). While random at the time, James and I would end up on a similar path with these Korean travelers. We shared the same bus to Vang Vieng and then randomly saw them throughout the next two cities. We would always remeet with lots of smiles. I was sad on our last night in Luang Prabang when we bid them farewell. I wish we’d made more of a point to remain in contact with them.