Saturday, September 17, 2011

Pak Ou

January, 2010

...about 100 of us are herded onto different boats. Our group is led to a small vessel that is little more than a roofed canoe powered by a small engine. The pilot sits crosslegged, hands on the steering wheel, his son of 4 or 5 at his side. The boy shivers in the cold. We're all cold. This morning, like every morning, is overcast and chilly. The cold wind at this speed isn't comfortable. But it is a delight to be on the Mekong again. The usual scenes are there: old boats trawling up-, down-, and cross-river; a new boat being cobbled together. Dozens of people on the banks, others in small fishing canoes, all of them equally photogenic. Banyam trees rising from the riverside, their root systems forests in themselves. Cows graze the rivergrass, elephants are ridden along the low jungle trees. An old truck 'liberated' from the US army is used for construction. Deathboats race by like Hot Rods, carrying their helmeted passengers. Rock reefs rise like the spines of dragons, with watermarks showing what the river can do in rainy season. We round a bend to a new series of mountains, rockier, more foreboding. Up there is the cave of Pak Ou. As we pass this point, the sun comes out, compounding the mystery.

The upper cave's darkness nearly hides the hundreds of Buddhas placed in small nooks and cracks in the rocks. The lower cave is more overt, Buddhas of every size are stacked up the front entrance, capped with a gold chedi. A warrior guards them, sitting spread-eagle at the cave mouth, though missing a head. Wonderful metaphor...

On the turntable: Spoon, "Transference"

On the nighttable: Mary Austin, "Land of Journey's Ending"

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