Thursday, August 8, 2013

THE GOLD TEMPLE

The impressive looking, 'World Precious Sacred Stupa' in Vientiane
I’m not quite believing my eyes.

I’m looking at a grand religious tower, and it appears to be made of gold.

This must be the largest golden structure I’ve ever seen. Like something out of an old movie, it’s a tall, golden Buddhist stupa shining in the sunlight. I never expected to see something like this in a poor country like Laos. This beats other golden icons I’ve seen anywhere, the size is just enormous.

This is Pha That Luang, also known as the, 'World Precious Sacred Stupa'.

Surrounded by a dark stone wall, three golden levels reach up to the center stupa. Approaching, I find the stairs to climb and and around the different levels. The platform around the tower is surrounded by a wall of gigantic, golden lotus flower petals. Continuing up, the great stupa is surrounded by many smaller stupas, forming what almost appears to be a gigantic golden fence.  


Of course the stupa isn’t constructed of gold itself, Laos is far too poor for that. Most of the interior of this grand monument is brick and plaster, covered with gold paint. That doesn’t take away from the stunning view though, the gleaming center stupa reaches 147 feet high, almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty in New York.

Much like Lady Liberty is a symbol of America, the Grand Stupa is the national symbol of Laos. Pha That Luang Temple is for Buddhist worship; it represents the human progression from ignorance to enlightenment. The Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism, the most revered monk in all of Laos, lives in one of the wats (monasteries) of this elaborate complex. 


The first stupa here was probably built around the 11th century. Local legend disagrees, many believe that the original stupa was built way back in the 3rd century, by Buddhists from India. The original relic located underneath the stupa is said to be one of the bones of Buddha himself, making this one of the most revered places in the country.
 
Old king of Laos statue guards the temple
Three golden levels lead to the stupa
In 1991 as communism collapsed worldwide, the Great Stupa replaced the hammer and sickle as the national symbol of Laos. This was very telling, since this national symbol has nothing to do with communism, and everything to do with Buddhism. The government finally returned to their real Laotian roots.

As I step back outside the protective wall, I notice a soldier passing by the entrance with a metal detector. As I watch, he sweeps the detector back and forth nearby. I’m puzzled to see him here. In Laos, anyone with a metal detector is usually looking for unexploded munitions, like the boys I had already seen along the old Ho Chi Minh Trail. But here, at their most revered monument? Perhaps the military still has concerns about possible terrorist attacks. Or maybe it’s a simpler reason; he could have been looking for dropped coins from visitors.

Gold statues in the temple complex
On the walkway leading to the stupa, there are numerous benches where Buddhist pilgrims can rest. I notice these benches are all painted with an advertisement for an airline from Thailand. How ironic to find them here, in a place that was once destroyed by the Thais.

When Thailand (then called Siam) invaded Laos in 1827, their soldiers destroyed this grand icon. The country’s beloved stupa, along with the rest of Vientiane, were left in ruins for decades. This wanton act of destruction hasn’t been forgotten by Laotians, and it’s one of the origins for their ongoing distrust of the Thais.

A somber statue of a Laotian royal, King Setthathirat, sits on a throne nearby. He has a sword laying across his lap, and he’s facing Thailand. It’s as though he’s guarding the stupa from future invaders.

As with other countries in Southeast Asia, over the centuries Laotians were usually dominated by their stronger neighbors. Kingdoms in the region would rise and fall, resulting in frequent border changes, and shifting regions of influence. The Khmer kings, the Vietnamese, the Thais, the Burmese, the Chinese, and the Chams all moved in and out of Laotian territory through the centuries.

Thailand (Siam) retained control of Laos for decades, until the French came onto the scene in 1893. That’s when the French sent two Navy gunboats up a Thai river, and anchored them off of Bangkok, directly threatening their capital. In negotiations that followed, the Thais were pressured to cede control of the land east of the Mekong River to the French. Laos became a French colony for decades to come. It was only in 1953 that the country once again became independent. They still fear domination by their neighbors in Thailand and Vietnam. 


I depart this impressive temple, and head back into Vientiane. 

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