Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Climbers reaching the peak are rewarded with a view of the old capital and the Khan River
Today the skies are mostly clear, so I head back into the downtown of the old capital of Laos, Luang Prabang. On my way I find a coffee cart, so I stop to buy a mocha coffee shake. At 6,000 kip, it only costs me around US $.70. It’s delicious, and I slurp it down quickly as I walk away. Then I get to the bottom of the shake, and something gets stuck in the straw. 

It’s a rubber band!

Oh well, I don’t think the coffee vendor put that in there intentionally. Or did she charge me extra for it?

Tossing what’s left of it in a bin, I continue to Chomsy Hill, near the royal palace. Today I’ll climb it. I get winded as I head up the numerous red brick stairs, since this is the highest point of Luang Prabang. It’s a tiring climb, and after pausing at different levels on the way I reach the top step, number 228. I’m thankful I didn’t have to deal with anything dangerous on this climb, unlike that mishap that I had back on Marble Mountain in Vietnam. 

A young lady shaking sticks in a cup, a Buddhist ritual
There’s not a lot of room atop Chomsy Hill’s peak, but there is a small temple. Since I’m sweating from the climb, I wonder if ascending this hill is a type of Buddhist pilgrimage. 

I look through the window of the tiny temple, and two young Lao women are within praying in front of a small altar. Burning incense is in the air; one young lady is shaking a can of sticks between her hands. Resembling chop sticks with writing on them, these are Buddhist fortune sticks. The young lady shakes the canister up and down at an angle repeatedly, until one stick falls out onto the temple floor. This stick will be taken to a monk, who will interpret the stick’s message as her fortune. Each stick can also be matched to a longer written fortune, to be taken along for reference. 

Beyond the temple is the highest point of Chomsy Hill, the golden Phousi Stupa. It looks familiar, much like the immense golden stupa that I saw in Vientiane, though smaller. But the view from here is far better. As a pair of butterflies flit by me, I walk around the stupa and get a panoramic view of Luang Prabang. With fewer clouds today, I can see for miles. 
The golden Phousi Stupa adorns the peak

To one side is the Khan River and the approach to the airport. Without tall buildings, most of the cityscape is thankfully blanketed with old trees. The highest structure in view is another golden temple off in the distant hills. 

From the other side of the stupa I look down on the old colonial town, with the Mekong River and many mountain chains beyond it. It’s very tough terrain, I can only see one dirt road beyond the river that heads into the rugged mountains. Anyone hardy enough to cross the many miles beyond those peaks will find an important boundary. There is the center of the ‘Golden Triangle’, where the borders of Laos, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand meet. Further beyond in that direction: China. Laos may be poor, but it does have its strategic places. 

I’m grateful for the excellent view, but today it’s blazing hot up here. I’m still overheated from my ascent, so I find a bench to sit in the shade. Taking a seat, I’m startled to find I’m sharing the bench with two tiny birds, inhabiting an equally tiny bamboo cage. This may seem a strange place for caged birds, but a vendor is selling them up here to the Buddhist faithful. One way a Buddhist can earn merit at a temple, is to buy caged birds, and release them back into the wild. Of course this only encourages the vendors to go back out into the wild and trap more birds, to be used for the same purpose. But it works for the Buddhists. 

Almost on cue, a Laotian Airlines plane swoops nearby in the valley, straight across from me at eye level, at the same altitude. As the plane’s engines blare, the birds hop around and chirp excitedly from within their cage. They want to fly too. 

Russian anti-aircraft gun mount on temple hill
Not long after, a Buddhist woman who bought the birds returns to retrieve them. Soon the bamboo bars are pried apart, and the feathered ones are set free. They quickly dart into the air, landing in nearby trees. I hope that they won’t be re-captured, and have to go through this all over again. 

Feeling sufficiently cooled, I walk to the other side of the temple ridge. Beyond a flagpole flying the Laotian flag, I find something completely unexpected. The communists have been up here too, and they left behind the remains of an old Soviet 23mm anti-aircraft emplacement. The gun itself has been removed, leaving the base and the mount behind. 

I wonder to myself, why on earth was this placed here next to a temple? Probably because this hilltop has an excellent view overlooking the valley, facing the approach to the airport. Perhaps this old Russian weapon was brought up here in the post-war 1980's, when Pathet Lao communists were worried about conflict with Thailand. 

I find the gun mount’s supporting arm unlocked, and I give it a strong shove. The steel arm swoops around in a full circle, creaking loudly as it rotates. The mount isn’t level, so the arm continues to swoop back and forth like a swing, until it finally comes to a stop. 

The gun’s arm is aimed straight at the flagpole, and at the temple buildings behind it. 

How eerie.

Really, they ought to drag this old gun mount down from the temple peak, and recycle it for scrap. It doesn’t belong in such a peaceful place. 
Another view from atop Chomsy Hill facing the Mekong River, with mountain ridges beyond

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