Tag Archives: TEMPLES

Wat ‘O’ the Week – Wat Chom Phet

If you’re looking for an enormous cricket, the no-evil monkey triplets, a nasty concrete crone with a chicken cage full of scared people, and a massive reclining Buddha, have I got a temple for you!

Wat Chom Phet, located at the southern edge of Vientiane, is not your run-of-the-mill Buddhist temple. Just a short bumpy ride off the busy Tha Deua Road, this place resonates a mystical, whimsical vibe.

I pedaled here with Tony and my friend, Catherine, early Sunday morning at the recommendation of a friend. Parking our bikes inside the temple gate, we were greeted by a strange collection of sculptures. A Lao man was lighting incense at an adjacent Buddha statue, so I asked him in Lao if he spoke English (an essential phrase to learn here!). He did, kind of.

We asked him to explain the unusual yard art.

Gigantic cricket with a man in traditional dress yanking on one huge cricket leg? Hmmm … he rambled about how the name of the village translated to “cricket” or something like that.

Skulls with red-painted fire and large aardvark-ish animals? Well, er, maybe those came from another temple.

Creepy looking witch with pendulous naked breasts guarding an overturned basket with three crouching captives inside? Ah, this one he could explain! The monks use this sculpture to teach that it’s easy to fall under the influence of evil people like this scary woman … or maybe not.

At least the hear-no-evil/see-no-evil/speak-no-evil monkeys were self-explanatory.

After chatting with us a bit more, the guy finished his prayers and drove off. We wandered around the temple grounds. The main attraction was the reclining Buddha, rumored to be 21 meters long and the biggest reclining Buddha in town. (I say “rumored” because nobody seems to know much about much at local temples.) I especially liked that Buddha rested his elbow on an elephant’s head; that was a creative touch.

Buddha’s bed was decorated with a menagerie of animals, including more elephants, a cat, chicken, naga, turtle, ox, dog, tiger and a couple I couldn’t identify – maybe a hyena or monkey?

There must have been some special event very early this morning. Ladies were cleaning up inside the big room, stacking trays used for eating while sitting on the floor.

Catherine and I sat down in the shade to chat, and we were soon joined by a novice monk and an old man.

The monk, named Som Chith, spoke some English and asked whether we had any questions about the temple. Turns out he didn’t have any answers, though. Fortunately, the old man, named Du Peng, had some institutional knowledge. He would relay long stories in Lao to our monk friend, who would then pause and think for a bit before giving us much abbreviated versions in English.

According to the guys, most of the temple was built on donated land in 1942, although the big gold stupa was older, maybe from the early 1900s. We asked about the crazy sculptures, and after a particularly long Lao explanation from Du Peng, the monk told us a traditional folktale about a character named Khatthanam. Catherine and I think the story goes like this: The evil witch captured people and ate them (hence the cage and the skulls on the BBQ). Khatthanam got word that some of his friends had been captured, so he came to their rescue. In an ending reminiscent of Hansel and Gretl, he tricked the witch by replacing the people with crickets. Gigantic crickets like the statue? We never got a clear answer to that. And, to be honest, we may have completely misunderstood the whole thing.

I tried to find details on (a) the temple, (b) the cricket story, and (c) the big Buddha, but as usual, I came up empty-handed. I find it very disconcerting how little of the local history and culture is documented in an accessible form. When I mentioned this to the first temple-goer, he shared my dismay. He said the government is deeply suspicious of the internet and wants to keep its secrets private. Well, they’re doing a good job.

Here are more shots from the temple:

Meditating With Monks

After giving our bodies a good workout with the morning bike ride on Saturday, Megan and I gave our minds a good workout with an afternoon meditation at Wat Sokpaluang.

Although I can barely maneuver the motorbike with just me on it, I nervously drove the two of us the short distance to the temple. We walked around the shady grounds and sat on a bench for a while to listen to the monks chanting.

At 4 p.m., we climbed the steps to the covered deck of a small chapel, where three monks greeted us, and rows of cushions were laid out for visitors to sit facing the little Buddha shrine. About 20 people showed up for the meditation. The leader (a man from India, maybe?) noted that the temple started offering free weekly meditation sessions about 12 years ago for the local expats, but after a mention in the Lonely Planet guidebook, it now serves mostly tourists.

He explained that we would be practicing Vipassana (insight) Meditation. He gave us a silent mantra for the sitting meditation: “Bhu” on the inhale, “dho” on the exhale. We sat for about 20 minutes until he rang a bell, signaling the start of a walking meditation. At that point, we all got up and walked slowly around the chapel building for about 20 minutes, following his instructions for focusing our minds. At the signal, we returned to our cushions for another 20 minutes of seated meditation.

I was surprisingly successful at first. I stuck with the mantra and kept my focus on my breath. Every time a thought popped in to my head, I put it in a little boat and sailed it away. During the walking meditation, I also managed to stay in the moment and only needed a couple little boats to ferry away my invasive thoughts. Then it all fell apart during the final seated meditation. My back hurt from sitting up straight, and my mind wandered incessantly: Where would we go for dinner? I don’t want Megan to leave tomorrow! Don’t judge the two girls wearing next to nothing at the temple meditation. Boy, that coffee gave me the jitters. Ooooh, I can hear some monks chanting in a different temple building. Cool, now they’re banging some gongs. Ha! Every time, they bang the gongs, the neighborhood dogs bark their heads off. Shut up, brain!

So I spent 20 minutes in physical agony while a whole armada played bumper boats in my mind.

Still, I enjoyed the experience and told the leader I hoped to be back.

Here, Megan is relieved to have survived the motorbike ride and is ready to meditate at Sokpaluang Temple.

Wats ‘O’ the Week – Luang Prabang Temples

This week’s installment of Wat ‘O’ the Week comes to you from Luang Prabang, where my sister and I celebrated Wat Wednesday. The historic little city in northern Laos boats 32 Buddhist temples built before the French showed up in 1887 for 58 years of colonization. Much to Megan’s relief, I didn’t make her visit all of them.
We were on the quest of a particular novice monk, who chatted with my friends, Tony and Rand, during their visit to Luang Prabang last fall. So we started at the temple where he was supposed to be “stationed” (or whatever verb you use to describe where a monk lives). “Novice Lai works at Blah Blah Temple now,” a monk told us. Only he didn’t say “blah blah,” and we were too intimidated to ask for clarification. I thought I heard a word that started with “K,” and the monk gestured in a direction that had only a few more blocks before we would hit the confluence of the Kham and Mekong rivers. So how hard could it be?
Unfortunately, we never found Lai. Sometimes being a girl traveler is a real disadvantage, particularly when it comes to approaching monks. They were all friendly enough, but Meg and I both worried that we were violating some patriarchal protocol by walking past the regular temple buildings to hunt down Lai in the residential areas.
However, we did enjoy visiting a few temples before heading back to Vientiane. Here are some highlights:

Wat Sene Soukharama

Built in 1714, this temple had some interesting details.
The windows were pretty flashy.

In the Buddha chapel, I loved that someone put a tiny elephant on one of Buddha’s big toes.

This funky guy with a fish in his claws was a nice touch.

Wat Sop Sickharam
These monks picked a perfect spot for studying.

Rice cakes were drying in the sun at the temple.

Wat Sirimounkhounsayaram
We walked around this temple, but I didn’t take any photos. It wins the prize for longest name, though.

Wat Xieng Thong
This is Luang Prabang’s most famous temple. Construction on the sim (ordination hall) started in 1560 right on the banks of the Mekong River, and other buildings were added over the years. The sim’s sweeping roof is considered a hallmark of traditional Luang Prabang temple architecture.

The back of the sim features a spectacular “tree of life” mosaic, and similar mosaics cover the exterior walls of other buildings on the temple grounds, as well.

I always enjoy seeing daily life depicted in art like this detail of villagers cutting rice, particularly meaningful next to the offering of sticky rice that someone had placed on the ledge.


Inside the temple’s carriage house, we saw a 12-meter-high (39-foot-high) funeral carriage.

Pretty detail on the carriage house door.

We also liked this Buddha in the carriage house. He’s standing in the posture that’s often associated with making peace with relatives, but the expression on his face suggests he’s thinking, “Seriously, I have to break up another squabble? Come on, people! Where’s the love?”

Temples of Angkor

The Lonely Planet guidebook tells you to “prepare for divine inspiration!” when you visit the temples of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer empire. Although this was my second visit and the throngs of tourists precluded any semblance of peace, I still felt a sense of awe and reverence faced with nearly 1,000-year-old structures, intricate carvings, soaring towers, massive restoration projects, and the jungle’s unstoppable reclamation.

For my sister Megan, even jetlag and the sizzling heat couldn’t diminish the experience. As always, photos don’t come close to conveying the spirit of the place.

Our guide, Kim San, picked us up at our hotel at 8:30 a.m., and we joined the caravan of tour buses heading to Angkor Thom. First, we clomped around the Buddha-bedazzled temple of Bayon, one of my favorite places in Siem Reap.




Click on the Sacred Destinations website for some details about Bayon Temple.

Next we visited Ta Phrom, a lesson in humility. An original Khmer inscription at the entrance says nearly 80,000 people worked at the temple in its heyday, including 2,700 officials and 615 dancers. The sprawling Buddhist temple was built to honor the mother of King Jayavarman VII, and at least one room still bears the marks of the opulent gems that once covered the walls. Over the last few hundred years, however, the jungle has crept back and taken over. Thick tree roots crawl along temple walls and worm their way through the stone blocks, slowly toppling the mighty towers. Kim San says Angelina Jolie filmed some parts of “Tomb Raider” here, but neither Megan nor I have seen the movie, so we’ll just have to take his word for it.






Lunch break. We gobbled up some Cambodian food, including dessert – sweet glutinous balls covered with shredded coconut. Yum!


Finally, we braved the crowds and blazing sun to visit Angkor Wat, believed to be the largest religious structure in the world.



For more than you probably ever wanted to know about the temples of Angkor, check out The Angkor Guide.

Our guide, Kim San. Click on his name to visit his website.

Wat ‘O’ the Week – Wat Sithan Neua

I’m cheating a little bit with this Wat ‘O’ the Week post. I actually visited this temple on the same day I went to Wat Phia Wat with Catherine.
We had hoped to visit with a monk she knew here, but unfortunately, we were told that he had gone to the States to study for a year.
Wat Sithan Neua is tucked in a back alley just a block from the Mekong River. The monks were hard at work landscaping the temple grounds.

Sithan Neua Monks Working

We found a monk who spoke a little English and asked him about the temple’s “sim” (ordination hall). He said it was about 70 years old, but he refused to indulge our request to unlock it.

Wat Sithan Neua's Sim

The small sim featured muted colors and delicate designs, but the building was in serious disrepair. A peek through the crack in the ornate front door revealed restoration work underway inside.

Sithan Neua Sim Detail

Sithan Neua Sim Detail

Sithan Neua Sim Door

A flashier new addition to the temple stood nearby with rickety scaffolding rising out of piles of sand and up to bright red and gold paintings. The old sim literally paled in comparison.


Wat ‘o’ the Week – Wat Phia Wat

I’ve been stalking one of our second-grade teachers, Catherine, an Aussie who has lived in Laos for several years and shares my love of the local temples. She seems to know everyone in town, and she has some beautiful stories about her experiences here. So I tagged her to be my tour guide today – Laos National Day – on my visit to the Wat ‘o’ the Week. I rode my bike to Catherine’s house, which is next to Wat Si Muang (a temple you may recall from the fabulous That Luang Festival “wax castle procession”). From there, we crossed the street, rode down an alley and popped in to a side gate of Wat Phia Wat, a temple overlooking the Mekong River.
We immediately noticed the presence of many military men, including a few camped out on the steps of the temple’s “sim.”
After poking around the temple grounds a bit, we were greeted by On Aye, a friendly temple resident. He told us that he’s living at Wat Phia Wat while he completes his medical residency in family medicine at a nearby hospital. (Side note: Some of you know about my former career working for the American Academy of Family Physicians, so it was interesting to hear On Aye explain that family medicine is a relatively new specialty in Laos.)
On Aye gave us a primer on some of the temple’s features. We walked to a collection of gilded sculptures, and he explained that they depict Buddha’s life:
First, there’s Buddha’s mother.

Buddha's Mom

Next, we see newborn Buddha taking his first seven steps and lotus flowers blooming in his footsteps.

Buddha's First Steps

Here, On Aye tells us about Buddha’s first meditation experience.

On Aye and Meditating Buddha

Here, Buddha is teaching.

Teaching Buddha

And, finally, people pay their respects to Buddha after his death.

Dead Buddha

On Aye walked us to a banyan tree, surrounded by more Buddha sculptures. These were similar to the ones Tony and I saw last week at Wat Hai Sok. “You can see everywhere the temple usually have this tree,” On Aye said. Turns out the Buddha statues are “Days of the Week Buddhas.” Many people like to leave special offerings or make a donation to the Buddha that represents the day they were born.
The Monday Buddha says, “Stop, in the name of love!” in his peace-making pose, also known as (seriously, I’m not making this up) his “Pacifying the Relatives” pose.

Monday Buddha

The reclining Tuesday Buddha symbolizes the moment he entered Nirvana. I loved the little clumps of sticky rice left by worshippers on Buddha’s arm and hand. (If I only had a dollar for every time I woke up to find rice stuck on my arm … or in my hair …)

Tuesday Buddha

On Aye and I were both born on a Wednesday. The Wednesday Buddha takes two forms, both related to accepting gifts of food! No wonder I felt an immediate connection with my birthday Buddha. Wat Phia Wat’s Wednesday Buddha is holding an alms bowl under his lovely shawl.

Wednesday Buddha

The Thursday Buddha also speaks to me … ommm. He is sitting in a lotus position for meditation, seeking enlightenment.

Thursday Buddha

Friday’s Buddha is standing at the Banyan tree, contemplating how he will explain the suffering in the world to his followers.

Friday Buddha

Saturday’s Buddha is again sitting in meditation, but this time the Naga King is protecting him.

Saturday Buddha

Sunday’s enlightened Buddha stands still for seven days under the tree to contemplate his achievement of complete knowledge.

Sunday Buddha

As we meandered back to our bikes, On Aye explained that the military was using the temple as a sort of base camp to provide extra protection and help keep the peace until after the Southeast Asian Games – a biennial multi-sport event involving participants from the 11 countries of Southeast Asia, which will take place in Vientiane Dec. 9-18.

When Catherine and I pedaled out the gate, On Aye had joined some of the soldiers for a game of bocce ball.
Just like last week, I am coming up empty-handed in my online search for information about this temple. Darn. So in the absence of information, here are more photos!

Wat ‘o’ the Week: Wat Hai Sok

Welcome to The Guide Hog’s new “Wat ‘o’ the Week” spotlight on Buddhist temples in Vientiane! I’ll try to visit a different temple each week with the goal of finding a unique angle or tidbit of information.
All wats comprise a “sim,” the actual temple building where people pray and make offerings, as well as a housing area for the monks, various sculptures, and ornate monuments with the cremated remains of temple-goers. Although visitors are free to walk around the temple grounds, the sim at most wats stays locked unless monks are using it for a ceremony.
Today Tony and I poked around Wat Hai Sok, a small easily overlooked wat that sits in the shadow of a bigger, more important temple. Here’s a view from the street.
From the street

The humble entrance was partially obscured by thick bundles of electrical wires that run the length of the road.

I couldn’t find any substantial information online about Wat Hai Sok. Every website lists the same paragraph:

Wat Hai Sok’s soaring five-tiered roof, topped with elegant golden spires, can be seen all the way from Thanon Setthathirat. It is worth stepping just off the main road to enjoy the atmosphere of this neighborhood temple. The windows and facade are beautifully carved in wood. Gilded multi-headed nagas (mythological snakes) flank the steps. There are usually children playing football in the shaded courtyard. Food sellers serve customers from the surrounding wooden houses, sitting at stalls beside the numerous funeral monuments.

There were, in fact, children playing in the sand next to a small bell tower. As we walked around the sim, we met two more youngsters tussling with a couple puppies. They eagerly showed us their dogs and happily posed for a couple pictures.
Kids and puppies

The sweet little boy was a tiny bit rough with his puppy.

The temple’s sim had ornate windows on all sides.
Detail on the sim

I always love the guardian nagas.

Another naga

Another interesting attraction was a tree surrounded by golden Buddhas in various poses.
Tony and the Buddhas

Other than the kids and the puppies, the wat was deserted and peaceful. No tourists. No monks. Pretty mellow.

That Luang Festival

Adjusting to a new job and a new city and a new language occasionally takes its toll, and some days end in tears. That was Friday. But today is Sunday, and my culture shock schizophrenia has brought a sunny mood to match the weather and festive spirit in Vientiane this weekend.
The That Luang Festival celebrates the most important monument in Laos – Pha That Luang. Its name translates to “World-Precious Sacred Stupa,” but it’s generally known as the Golden Stupa among local expats. For the Laos people, it represents sovereignty, spirituality and national pride. The stupa was built in the era of Lan Xan, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants, in the mid-16th century when King Setthathirat moved the Lao capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane.
Last night, we visited Wat Si Muang, where locals turned out in their finest clothes for the “wax castle procession.”
The wax castle is actually an arrangement of banana leaves and wax discs that resemble yellow flowers. People attach paper money and glittery decorations before presenting it at the temple. We saw small arrangements that easily fit in one hand, as well as massive multi-tiered displays carried on a litter by two or more men. Stalls selling the wax offerings lined the streets around the temple. Many people bought the unadorned models and added their own cash and glitz, while others created their displays from scratch, building a base from bamboo or styrofoam and mixing wax and honey to sculpt the flowers. The ubiquitous banana leaf-and-marigold arrangements sold every day near local temples were also a popular choice.

Inside the temple grounds, a xylophone band on an elevated platform provided music for the trips around the temple, and people walked with their families, village organizations or business colleagues. Here’s a little video of the xylophone guys:

After three loops around the temple, groups carried their offerings into the building and left them at the altar. Soon the temple was filled with wall-to-wall wax castles. Through the back door, we watched monks dismantling the displays and collecting the money. Here’s a little video of the procession:

The mood was light and festive with lots of singing and cheering. Occasionally, monks chanted Buddhist prayers over the loudspeaker. Children proudly carried small arrangements, candles or banners.
Suddenly, in the midst of the Buddhist celebration, a bomb went off. Well, I thought it was a bomb. It turns out Lao fireworks are even scarier than the ones in China. Some poor guy had the job of lighting a very short fuse of an explosive that was packed into a bamboo tube, and he did this over and over in various locations around the temple. I hope he survived.
Each time an explosive detonated, the crowd scattered and ducked behind trees for protection while watching the firestorm rain down on the temple. You never knew where the next bomb would be; sometimes it was right in the middle of a path. Freaky!
Finally, the fireworks ended and the crowd thinned.
Here are some photos from this spectacular experience:

Then it was time for a little Western-style revelry. Tony and I headed to an open-air pub owned by one the VIS teachers, where another teacher was performing with his 10-member funk band. I met up with some girlfriends, so Tony was free to go home, and we danced for hours under a hazy night sky.

Dance Party

What Wat?

Thursday’s Vientiane adventure with Tony N. and Rand included stops at two local Buddhist temples: Si Muan and Si Saket.
Wat Si Muang
Various legends surround the original construction of Wat Si Muang, but here’s the gist of the story: King Setthathirat moved his capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in 1563, so a group of sages selected a site for the big stone pillar that would become the home of the city’s guardian spirit. The pillar was suspended with ropes over a large hole in anticipation of a human sacrifice to the spirit. Finally, a pregnant woman leapt (was pushed?) in to the hole (sometimes with with her horse or a young monk, depending on who’s telling the story), and the pillar was released. Many people believe offerings at the temple will bring good luck to women trying to conceive.
Wat Si Saket
This temple was built in 1818 by Lao prince Chao Anou. He later rebelled against Siam’s influence in Laos, bringing Siamese wrath and destruction to Vientiane. For some reason, they spared Wat Si Saket, which was restored by the French in the 20s and 30s. The wat’s perimeter walls feature niches with more than 2,000 little silver and ceramic Buddhas with another 300+ standing and sitting Buddha statues on the steps below the niches. Some date back to the 15th century.
In one small space, there’s a pile of damaged, mostly headless Buddhas from the 1828 Siamese-Lao war.
I’m a wee bit obsessed with nagas, the serpent deity, so I loved the 5-meter long “haang song nam pha.” The whimsical naga stands at the back door of the wat’s ordination hall, and it’s really just a fancy wooden watering can for the ceremonial cleansing of Buddhist images.

Disclaimer: My camera battery was dead, so these shots were taken with my phone.

Color Me Happy

Update on my weekly Dash-to-the-Friendship-Bridge bike ride: On Saturday, I beat my previous record by more than 2 minutes! 37:47 Sweet!
I often use little mental tools to distract myself because I despise exercise with every fiber of my being. This week, I consciously focused on the colors I encountered on my ride. This may seem cheesy, but I’m going to list some of the thoughts that ran through my head during those 37 minutes.
• Wispy low-lying pink clouds glowed against the barely blue sunrise sky. Slowly, slowly the powdery blue deepened to a glorious cobalt while gentle breezes swept away any threats of rain.
• Ubiquitous brown … the dry shade of woven baskets overturned like massive wicker bowls to keep the speckled chickens from roaming … the alternately dark reddish mud and pale dusty dirt of the unpaved roads … sun-bleached wooden stilts protecting homes, restaurants and shops from the encroaching water … shiny dark hair pulled into a thick ponytail, gleaming coffee-colored eyes and golden skin of the smiling woman selling cold drinks at a roadside stand …
• The rainy season’s gift of green in every hue includes the crackling fronds of the coconut trees, the nearly teal floating pads of the water lilies, the waxy dark leaves of the magnolias, the yellow-tipped fluorescence of the rice plants, the seafoam-colored potted plants with twisted prickly stalks, and the bright tufts of doomed little weeds in fields where oxen graze.
• In a landscape of mostly muted earth tones, orange provides a welcome jolt. It pops from the wooden spirit houses, where villagers hang delicate offerings made from banana leaves, tiny white lilies-of-the-valley and vibrant marigolds. It brings a whole neighborhood to life when monks parade single-file (their humble yet dazzlingly bright robes swishing around their feet, baskets swinging by their hips). They pause to bless the locals who kneel at the roadside and then accept the donations of food.
• Glossy red and yellow Buddhist symbols adorn the gilded gates of temples, reflecting the sun’s persistent rays, begging me to stop and soak up some zen.
• Fuchsia blossoms of bougainvillea spill over the top of fences and splash down the dull white walls.
Aw, geez, I could do this all day.

Color Me Happy

The voice of my far-away mother, an artist, resonated in my head the whole ride, describing the acrylic paints she’d squeeze onto her palette to re-create the scenery. I pictured her waving her finger at that morning sky and saying, “OK, so we need some cerulean with alizarin crimson and a dab of titanium white.”
Next week … smells? Maybe not.