Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Vat Sokpaluang - November 3rd, 2010


We have begun to find short-cuts to places. Actually, they are sort of long-cuts, but they take us parallel to the clogged and smogged main roads choked as they are with pick-up trucks and jeeps and toxic tuk-tuks.

You can only hold your breath so long, and when you get stuck behind one of these things, that can never be long enough.

So we have discovered alternative routes to places. To get to the French School, for example, we take the Lao-Thai Road, which is pretty active and yet large enough so you’re never really stuck in traffic. At the top of the road there is another major road and a cut-off onto a tiny lane that brings you directly in front of the Ecole Hoffet. This little bit of narrow road goes through a village getting. A few road-side restaurants, smoke rising from early-morning frying.

Then, to get to the French Kindergarten you can always go back onto Thadeua. But I have discovered an alternative road that, once again, takes you through little village settings, up and down and around almost right to Simeuang Street.

I can see myself making certain assumptions about my readership (all eight of you…) when I am writing this. I am assuming you understand the way the city is laid out. So here is a crash course in Vientiane geography. A quiz will follow.

All of Vietniane is divided into districts. These districts are called (and remember, there will be a quiz…): Sangthong, Naxaythong, Xaithani, Pak-Ngum, Hatxayfong, Xaisettha, Chathabouli, Sikhottabong and Sisattanak.

In turn, each of these districts is divided into a village. We, for example live in Sisattanak District, Ban Wattanak. To make matters even less complicated, the word for village is ban and the word for house is ban and heaven only knows what else a ban is.

House indicators are complex because the street we live on does not have a name because it is not a street, just a dirt path. It is easier to understand now how we could have been deprived of municipal water for five days: no-one knows we’re here!

That is why everybody has a Post Office Box number (look under “Minor Inconveniences”, September 29th, 2010, to see ours…).

The point to all this is that in the heart of every village is a Vat, or Temple, of the same name. Did the villages arise due to the Vat, or was the Vat the labour of the village? This I do not know and only the brilliant Reb Dovid would have the answer to that!

One of the quaint up-shots to this is that if you want to go to a specific place in the city by tuk-tuk, you don’t give the driver the street name. You especially do not and EVER show him the place on the map. Instead, you look for the nearest Vat and give him that name and he will know immediately where it is.

If any of you remember the old Batman series, and I mean the black and white series from just after WWII, not the camp one in colour, you may remember how the overly curious newspaper woman Vicki Vale would get into a taxi in Gotham City and tell the driver, “Take me to the Madison!” or “Take me to the Rockefeller!” and the driver knew exactly where these buildings were. No need to give him an address. And the elegant Miss. Vale would exit the taxi in her elegant hat and thigh-hugging skirt and stumble cute-nosed and defenseless into the heart of criminal intrigue, right there on the 10th floor of the Madison

Here, it’s not at all like that. There is no 10th floor to anything. But the point remains that the Vat is the geographical reference point imprinted in the cerebral cortex of every Vientiane citizen.

The Vat is also, of course, the spiritual hub of village life, as we saw on Rosh Hashanah.

To make a long story even slightly longer, taking all these short cuts and long delays has brought me even closer to the Vat, because by bypassing all the major arteries, the straight line between two points, I have come face to face with individual village life and ride in front of an uncountable number of Vats.

You are probably wondering how I can resist not making puns, like: “What’s in a Vat?” or even worse: “Vat’s in a Vat?” I was even tempted by “Vat’s a Vat!” I suppose pride helps.

But the question remains, what is in a Vat? And what is a Vat? I really am not sure.

I visit them but understand little of vat I am seeing (sorry). There are statues of Buddha, sitting cross-legged. Sometimes smiling, sometimes frowning; the position mustn’t be too comfortable.

Off one road, one busy road, there is a gateway into a Temple complex and forest of great beauty.

Once you pass the gate, the main road is a distant memory. The wide road into the vast Vat forest (sorry again!) is unpaved. The blinding tropical light is softened by tall trees on either side of the route, apexing into a crown of gentle green.

Several things strike you immediately as you ride in. There are a lot of Temples and there are a lot of smaller shrines. These shrines attract a lot of attention. Also, the compound is shared by monks in saffron robes and white-robed nuns with shaven heads.

I followed an old silver stubbled nun followed by a black and white cat into a shrine with three Buddhas. She blessed her offering of cut white flowers on plates and then she took away the older wilted offerings. Then she lit candles and incense and put them all in a boat-shaped structure filled with sand. Girls and couples came in for blessings. The nun intoned a prayer. In the distance a deep bell rang and other voices prayed a circular droning hypnotic incantation.

Outside the forest was still, save the birds in the trees. Somewhere a lizard called, deep and subtle. The nun looked around her and smiled a red betel juice smile.

In a long house monks blessed a mother and her son. They were attached by a string. One of the monks, who spoke English, explained that the son was mentally deranged and the monks had prepared a special tea for him and his mother to drink. They obviously were not so sure who the deranged one was.

The sun was setting. The monks and the nuns, saffron and white, gathered into the largest of the temples to hear a talk.

I had to leave and reluctantly got back on my scooter. I drove back up the forest path as slowly as possible, dragging out the minutes until the inevitable moment when I would leave the dream and reach the main road, enter the flow of traffic and continue my life in the XXIst Century.

Other Vats will follow. Stay tuned.

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