Author’s note: This post is a bit more personal than my usual travel stories and advice from the road. But have no fear, they will be back soon.
I have not published regularly the last couple of years. There are reasons, mostly having to do with the maturing of life and love. Three years ago, I married my life partner, Kunkanya, in California in the presence of family and friends. Just getting a visa for ‘Anna’ to travel there for the wedding was a yearlong process which could fill several posts. It was a most memorable event, all the more so because I would never have imagined myself married a few short years before!
We returned to Thailand and it has been our home base ever since. After seven plus years of constant travel and so many priceless experiences, without anything resembling a permanent home, living in the Land of Smiles has been an appropriate and welcome change. Did I mention I also now have two amazing teenage stepdaughters?
Yes I, and we, still travel a great deal, mostly in Southeast Asia as of late and we love it more than ever! Typically, we look for a place or area to explore for around two to five weeks, although our longest wander was three months, one each in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Sixteen months ago, we married again, this time in Anna’s rural village in Nakhon Phanom, Isan, Thailand. It was a traditional Thai Buddhist wedding. Not only her family, but pretty much the whole village, over 200 men, women and children, turned out to celebrate, eat, drink and dance the night away with us.
Several friends and relatives made the long journey from California to Isan to join the festivities. Over the next few days we arranged some side trips by private minivan, one of which was to visit a well known Wat (Buddhist Temple) overlooking the mighty Mekong (Kong River) in Mukdahan, Isan.
Wat Phra Phutthabut Phu Manorom’s main feature is an enormous Buddha statue which can be seen for many miles as one approaches the mountain upon which it overlooks the Mekong. From the Buddha’s base, one has an unparalleled view of the Mekong including the Second (there are four) Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge several miles upstream.
The three story base supporting the Buddha, was still very much under construction when we visited with scaffolding and wheelbarrows for concrete in abundance. A lack of exterior walls and safety rails did not discourage a few of us from additional exploration. Farther down the mountaintop, some concrete lump was beginning to take the shape of a serpent. We were told that it would eventually be a large decorated Naga (the mythical hooded cobra that is the protector of Lord Buddha, depicted with anywhere from one to seven heads). In fact, the Phaya Nāga or Lord of Nāga, are mythical serpent-like creatures, believed by locals to live in the Mekong river protecting them from harm.
Yesterday, while on a week long family visit to Isan, Anna informed me that the Naga was complete and suggested a visit. Seven family members of various ages and sizes were loaded into the Camry for the one hour drive to Wat Phra Phutthabut Phu Manorom.
We could see the enormous hilltop Buddha from miles away. The place has grown a lot in 16 months. The road up the mountain is closed to public traffic now (exception for the physically handicapped). There is a large free parking lot at the bottom with constant songthaews (Thai pickups trucks converted into shared taxis) shuttling visitors up and down. The cost is 20 thb or about 60 U.S. cents roundtrip. We were lucky in that it was not a peak visiting time (such as a major Buddhist holiday).
Although not as large as the Buddha, the Naga is finished and its substantial serpentine visage is clearly visible from a distance. Thousands of red ribbons with peoples names flutter from trees, railings and any convenient tie off point. We happily added our own.
Then we hiked up to the Buddha statue. The outside of the base is finished now and one can climb four flights of rough concrete steps from which to view the Mekong, Laos and the second Friendship Bridge connecting the two countries a few miles upstream. The inside of the base is still quite rough, but that does not prevent the resident monks from their daily chants and prayers.
Later, we took the long slow way back to the family farm, along the river road. We stopped for a late locals lunch at a thatch covered table overlooking the river. We enjoyed several very fresh fish dishes.
Further up the river we were surprised to see a Catholic shrine, quite unusual in this part of the world. It is named Our Lady of the Martyrs of Thailand Shrine. It commemorates seven women falsely charged by the local police as being French spies during the Franco Thai War and were executed by the same in 1940, while professing their religious beliefs. It is an expansive well landscaped area and we spent a short time walking around the grounds and chapel. The pared down style, it was noted on a plaque, received an architectural award as the most beautiful Catholic church in Southeast Asia. Having visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site designated Baroque Churches of the Philippine Islands, I think that claim may be exaggerated. Nonetheless, the layout and atmosphere reminded me of Yod Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. It was a moving and sobering experience.