Vientiane is special to me and many of my schoolmates because, well, we lived there. But let’s face it: most tourists hit Vientiane solely as a jump-off point to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, or other more touristy spots in Laos. But if you’re not just passing through, or if you have a few hours to kill, Buddha Park is worth the trek. Well, really, it’s only about 25 km from Vientiane, but when I lived here, 25 clicks out was pushing your luck.
The park houses about 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues in varied mythological vignettes. Built in 1958, the park and its inhabitants were designed and built (with a little help from his friends) by Bunleua Sulilat, a Thai sculptor with a Buddha complex.
After he left Vientiane following the fall/liberation in 1975, he built another Buddha Park across the Mekong in Nong Khai, Thailand (where he was born). I guess he missed his friends. (It’s there in Thailand that his mummified body lies preserved in the pavilion building of the Thai Buddha Park. See here. I have no idea whose idea that was, but there we have it.)
And strange company he kept, too.
At the entrance to the park is a three-story cement structure, a pumpkin-carving contest entrant gone awry. The innards have been scooped to make way for Dante’s Buddhist Inferno. Yes, there’s a Buddhist equivalent, but it’s complicated. (That’s the phrase we’re taught in first-year law school. It’s useful when approached at a cocktail party by someone who wants to pick your brain about criminal law, and the last time you seriously contemplated criminal law was in your first year of law school. The trick is to nod sagely, look down at your glass, and drawl (you have to drawl), “We-ellll, it’s complicated,” (drag the sentence out for best effect). Then hightail it off to the bar muttering under your breath. It works.)
[Well, that was fun. I went down the Research Rabbit Hole and… Did you know you can buy “Free Dante Inferno Essays and Papers”?! US$29.95 will buy you 1,608 words—”4.6 PAGES!”—detailing “The True Meaning of Dante’s Inferno,” crappy grammar and all. I kid you not! If you’re looking for some entertainment, I give you 123helpme:
“Soon after his encounter with the three beasts Dante meets the spirit of his idol a poet named Virgil. It is here that we see another three. Virgil informs him that three women sent him to be Dant’s guide. As his guide Virgil leads Dante through the nine circles of hell often with the words that they were sent from heaven. Virgil reveals that it was a woman named Beatrice who sent him to guide Dante through hell. It was first the Virgin Mary who alerts St. Lucia, the foe of every cruelty (canto 34 L100), to Dante’s plight….”
So, back to Dante’s Magic Buddhist Pumpkin.
And then you enter hell:
You can reach the summit of the pumpkin through a gently sloping walkway that runs around the perimetre. Or you can follow my mother-in-law, Trish, who absolutely insists on climbing every mountain, fording every stream, following every freaking rainbow, and so on:
This park, by the way, was where our guide, Khamtan Soukphida, really hit his stride. Each vignette tells a story, and Mr. Soukphida knew most of them. Actually, he could have been making them all up, but the stories were vastly entertaining and the park would not have been complete without him! One repeating theme was Mr. Soukphida’s issues with marriage. Or wives. Or marriage AND wives. This “Women Are Evil” mantra tended to arise at the most bizarre opportunities (“And here on your right is a monument to General X. His wife was evil!”) This theme repeated with alarming frequency, and I was never quite sure whether to feel for him or his wife. Either way, it led to some interesting moments:
The first time I heard of Buddha Park was from a co-worker from Laos. She had gone back to Laos in the early 2000’s and showed pictures. I asked her where it was–she said Thadeua—I asked how long it had been there. Since the 1950’s…I said “you mean to tell me I lived in Vientiane for 8 years and never heard of it?” Believe me, I made sure to go when I visited Vientiane in 2010! It is incredible!
Marilyn, I had the same reaction–“you mean this was here all along?!” Hard to imagine we could have missed it, but there we are. Glad I got to make up for it, though!