more buddhist stuff

One of the ladies I work with’s brother-in-law died on Monday morning.  So, I went with Mr. Somephone to the temple to visit her and her husband Monday afternoon.  This is a rough account of that experience which I found a little surreal:

Firstly, there were a total of about 20 people seated in various places on the floor of the wat.  There were about three distinct camps – one for the men, one for the women, and one for the teenagers.  The women sat and rolled up 500 kip (5 cents US, approximately) in banana leaves and chatted.  I am assuming these will be used for some kind of religious ceremony.  Mrs. Bounsalome, the lady I work with, was seated among these women.  They all seemed to be laughing and having a pretty good time, despite the fact that some one had just died.

The men mostly sat around playing cards.  They were also laughing and of a generally congenial disposition.

The teenagers played with their cellphones.

In one corner, a really old monk laid on a matress and drank some weak tea.

Several dogs kept running in an out of the temple, which various people would then shoo away.  There was also a cat that people kept shooing away.

I asked Mrs. Bounsalome what they would do at the temple.  She told me that they would stay there all night and then the next day the would have the funeral.

Mr. Seethong also came around this time, and he told me that the next day they would take the body to some other place, and burn it, and then put the ashes in the stupa outside the temple.  I asked him if they would sleep in the temple, or stay awake all night, and he told me that many people would come to visit Mrs. Bounsalome and her husband during the day and the night and they would probably not sleep.  He said they would stay awake playing cards most of the night, and that people would bring them food.

At one point the monk went into a little room in the back and didn’t come out again.  Then Mrs. Bounsalome went to go eat lunch, and I sat and watched Mr. Seethong and Mr. Somephone play cards for about a half hour.  They were playing some kind of card game that I tried to understand but could not, but it did involve betting money. They tried to explain to me how to play but when it got to complicated they told me “just observe.”.  After a half hour Mr. Somephone had won about $5 and then we decided to leave.

During this whole time the teenagers were still playing with their cellphones, which would occassionaly start playing pop music really loudly.

Another thing that was pretty interesting is that at most of the wats you go to visit as a tourist they have signs that say “you must be dressed appropriately” etc, some of the girls I saw Monday were seriously wearing booty shorts at the temple.  And the men were gambling.  They might as well just bring in a boom box and bottle of Lao whiskey.

Speaking of cellphones, and I am really digressing here, I have noticed an interesting trend.  There is an entire genre of music and music videos that I have seen countless times (mostly on bus rides) that involve young Lao and Thai people starting longingly at their cellphones.  Once I watched an entire compliation of approximately 10 songs that all involved the same scenario – a girl staring at her cellphone, putting it away, then it cuts to a boy calling her, but she doesn’t pick up, then later she looks at her phone again, and it says “missed call”, and she tries to call back, but he doesn’t answer, and then they go on gazing in expectation at their cellphones for the entire duration of the video, cutting between different scenes of the boy and the girl.

If there was ever an apocalypse, and the only records of humanity that were left were these music videos, the aliens or whoever eventually found them would probably think that people were in love with their cellphones.  Which may be true.  I don’t know.

Anyway, that was my temple experience.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to go to the funeral the next day because sometime Monday afternoon I became ill and feverish with what I know with certainty is Giardia.

So I didn’t come to work yesterday, I stayed at home and did laundry and made some lentil soup. That means have a lot of work to do today, and also some guy asked me to edit his dissertation for him, which he needs by tomorrow, and I am starting a job teaching English on Monday.  So I am pretty busy these days.

more about luang prabang

Some years ago the entire town of Luang Prabang was declared  a“UNESCO World Heritage site”.  I’m not really sure why this is the case.  There are lots of wats, and some interesting colonial architecture, but I’m not sure about it’s status as a world heritage site.  Everywhere you go in the city there are “no smoking” signs that say “Smoke Free World Heritage”.  I wish I had been able to take a picture of one but my camera wasn’t working.

However, I recently read an article in the Vientiane Times saying that UNESCO had sent a committee to Luang Prabang in the past month to evaluate it’s status as a “World Heritage” site, because apparently since it was granted this status about 10 years ago, tourism has grown incredibly, and the city has begun growing also at a fast pace.  A lot of new developments, mostly hotels and guesthouses and other tourist infrastructre, has been built or is being planned.  UNESCO basically said that all that needs to stop or they will un-declare Luang Prabang a world heritage site.  They also mentioned that several wetland areas were about to be developed into hotels or something, and one of the provisions of UNESCO re-granting world heritage status was that the wetlands had to be restored and the city had to work towards conserving the historical aspects of the city.

Here is the full text of the article from the Vientiane Times (re-produced without permission!!  shhh! ):
The government will crackdown on violations of UNESCO rules to ensure Luang Prabang does not lose its status as a world heritage listed city.

Past violations related to construction of new buildings had put the city’s status at risk, Standing Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad told the National Assembly on Friday.

The only solution was to strictly enforce UNESCO rules from now on, he said.

“If we don’t solve the problem, Luang Prabang will be out of the list of world heritage sites,” Mr Somsavat said.

Last year UNESCO requested the government report on how Luang Prabang has changed since being listed as a world heritage site in 1995. UNESCO officials also inspected the city and asked the government to respond on 15 points.

One of these relates to road construction approved by the Department of Public Works and Transport without agreement from UNESCO, when UNESCO should have made the final decision, he said.

Mr Somsavat said some people knowingly constructed new buildings which breached UNESCO rules, while others sold their houses to entrepreneurs and moved away.

One troubling sign of this development was a reducing number people giving alms to monks in the morning, he said. Not only does this indicate a move away from tradition, the decline could also negatively impact tourism, because this tradition is one of Luang Prabang’s major drawcards.

“World heritage is still new for us and our biggest challenge is making local people understand the need to preserve cultural heritage and how this impacts on development,” Mr Somsavat said.

“Some people ask why we should preserve heritage if it means we cannot develop. But I don’t think heritage preservation delays our development. On the contrary it encourages development.”

UNESCO officials have asked the government to make an updated map of the city and encourage cooperation between UNESCO and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

The Standing Deputy PM said coordination must be improved between relevant sectors, and local people needed to be educated about the importance of Luang Prabang’s world heritage status.

Luang Prabang’s popularity as a tourist destination has increased since the city was listed as a world heritage site in 1995.

Mr Somsavat said the influx of visitors helped local people generate more income and improve their living standards.

“Now we have two world heritage listed sites: Luang Prabang and Vat Phou Champassak in Champassak province. But we won’t propose any more sites to UNESCO until we improve the existing ones,” he said.

“We will assess what we have done and try to address challenges. We have many sites to be proposed to UNESCO, but we want to study them carefully first.”

By Somsack Pongkhao