Ventiane, Laos, 2018
I spent a week mooching around the streets of Ventiane, probably (my friends assured me) the gentlest of SE Asian capitals. I saw a fair bit of construction, used the ubiquitous wi-fi and tried to visit one temple each day. The whole gallery can be viewed here.
In between taking pictures I'd sit in cafes, loaded on caffeine and sleep deprivation and post on Instagram:
Took a coach up from Bangkok to the Laos border Friday night. Audio book of The Constant Gardener slipped the first easy five hours aside, it's tale of corporate skullduggery in Kenya chiming with the otherness. But what otherness. At first vast dystopian billboards promising a wheatish version of a global corporate vision: endless youth, sexy fun, good teeth, as we departed BKKs gravity a parade of brightly lit gas stations, air con 7-11s (everywhere here) and the unfamiliar familiar of distant strip mall. It's the closing sequence of Gilliam's Brazil. More neon though. Down through the Night, mammoth illuminated Buddha's in the dark, through one town a clutter of under powered motor bikes sit off to the side of a stage, technology of lighting rig, choreography entertained, the spangle of a nation that gave us red bull. Somewhere around two, sleep, in and out
The country now dark, in the town a fish market opening, gutting. We don't know our ETA ( I'm sat with a Frenchman) but at 05h we get turfed off the coach, battered bus station, a few clicks now to the Laos border. Nice loos...
After a couple of weeks of speeding on a caffeine and sugar drip, yesterday I crashed. I missed most of Friday night's sleep travelling up to the Laos border but did get the pleasure of a muddled and over-priced crossing. A familiar persiflage of negotiation with tuk tuk drivers and then the visa 'agent', an insidious sense that someone somewhere is on the make. Actually, everyone. A concatenation of deceipt engineered to extract a good ten euros of our money. You know what, good luck lads. It's only ten euros... Nice to be of an age and outlook that my slackness - could have got a visa in BKK - and active disregard should only cost ten bucks. And in the maelstrom of sleeplessness well frankly, meh.
Arriving in Vientiane, poaching folks wiffy - frankly blighty, get it together - and finally meeting an old old friend Michael, who appears on an undersize moped which we both straddle (plus my luggage) and whineee around this oddly communist vibe capital. It's all good here and yet, like Thailand, it's not India. India, bloody infuriating, demented India. Like a lover you can't let go... Ah yes, that problem...
There are two things and really only two things that confuse me as I travel. One is the religion and the other the money. Everything else I can crazy Englishman ignore ( okay overly repressive regimes excluded) . Laos appears to have doubled down on the pair, possibly bluffing but I'm not doing sure... Money is in the lira category, 11,000 to the GBP, my tentative new country consumption is addled. Did I just pay twenty pence for a cinnamon bun and cappuccino. Well a). French were here remember and b). I guess yes, but having s note in yr hand worth less than a penny is downright confusing. The 100,000 kip is coming up to a quid but when it's a bigger denomination note than the brace of curiously decorated bills that occupy my top pocket, well such are the struggles of early doors in this utterly unfamiliar country. Older readers will recall the weary circumlocutions as you moved around a pre euro EEC. Well it's like that but sans francais; actually there's a lot of French but meh... However... What the French singularly failed to do was inject their heady bells n smells Catholicism with anything like the weirdness of the Buddhism that seems to be 'going down'. We stopped by a few temples on Saturday and quite frankly, I'm surprised. The Lao seemed to have taken one long look at the dark energies the Bon channeled into Tibetan Buddhism and decided, 'pah, bunch of poufs'. The first pagoda we visited had a particularly Boschean account of the wheel of life: torture, rape, beasts of evil intent, hellish vistas last seen in the work of The Chapman Brothers. Now I know it's metaphor, life is suffering and all that but why does it have to be of such a dastardly snuff variety. Throw in some random Hindu deities, Hanuman is a particular favourite, and you've got a cymbal crashing cavalacade as alarming as that 'no it's not fukking art' hideous 'A Serbian Film'. And here's the drop. Since I've been in asia I've been thinking about the darkness. I did a bit of what might be called tantric yoga when I was younger. Not yr Sting n Trudie thing, STOP. Not that, but a slow introduction to working with subtler energies, developing more nuanced consciousnes... CONTINUED...
I kid you not, it's what it looks like. Some 'bloody genius's has bolted the front of a mini cooper onto a cargo bike. To get access to the hold you pop the hood and away you go. Indidntbride it but the hood popped just fine... And that is Vientiane for you!
That's right baby, it's going down...[distant rumble of thunder, reverb of a Glock stock snap back] . Players gotta play and haters gotta hate but I'm back in full bringing you my vision of the streets. I'm down on my knees to make these, I'm preying, trash thrown, I've grown to bring you the old school it's the new school, straight outta Vientiane, knock off creeps with a central party twist. We call them NUKES... Thanks goes out to all you who stayed strong when I did wrong, pictures of temples and such like, tourist temptation, eye candy, bourgeois affectation took me away from where I came from, made me forget. I'm still for the streets. That's right, I'm back and I'm keeping it real.
Here's a pic of a discarded trainer.
So mostly my writing has been the result of caffeine and sugar. Today I'm gonna try lunchtime drinking. Went to the organic veg mkt this morning, a shopping list that really caused problems. The Lao ladies laugh at me but I'm used to women laughing at me so no problem. Did buy a garlic press in addition to a slowly assembled list of vegetables. Hands up if you know what lemon grass looks like? No me neither. Anyway after that and still speeding on this morning's coffee - car chase across central ldn involving Nicholas Cage plays in the background - I wander over to a Wat, a temple complex. As a kid I'd have known what wat but frankly meh. Still good times, slow schlep clockwise and then the hall where some well fed monks are eating. After, what i take to be the cooks, chow down along with a fella who looks to have an opioid problem and another more down and out. A dog and a couple of cats roam hopefully. The hall is huge - I'm sure there'll be a pic soon - a series of tableau decorate the interior, not doubt loosely prescribed iconography playing out the Buddha's story. Next stop enlightenment. This ceiling rose, above, caps the whole thing a good 10m above the ground. The mundane and the ineffable intermingle. My iffy past in yoga nags at me, ive had my time in the great hall, known moments of near oneness, damn, as the storm of the acid subsides I've truly belonged. Perhaps I'll have a couple of beers with my veg n rice...
And round the corner to the WTF wat. This is by way of CONTINUED from a few pics below... On one side of the wheel we find a realm of torture, degredation and (presumably?) death. Poetically I read it as, in life is suffering, this too will pass. But what if there's something else? I imagine this imagery derives from harsher realms, more difficult life, pre-buddhist thinking. But what if it also alluded to a connection with more subtle realms? Tantra provides a safe passage into such domains, the discipline protecting the traveller from madness whilst bestowing powers we can not comprehend because of the coarseness of our experience.
Certainly there is historical precedent for attempts to harness these forces for worldy ends. Those crazy Nazis had a go. Indeed you might argue they succeeded, finding the means to draw on dark animal desires to assert that nutjob ldeology. Who knows what any of us might do given utter impunity, channeling dark residual forces to the will of the id.
I'm confused now, not clear altogether what I'm trying to express. I'm away to Varanasi soon and then a trip to Kali ghat in Kolkata. Maybe some more thinking but the agora baba are on here somewhere... Meanwhile Hari Om tat sat.
In 'after the ecstasy the laundry' jack kornfield posits that attaining enlightenment is not so very difficult. What then becomes tricky is life afterwards. Unless you stay up the mountain, taking the life of a renunciate or a mendicant, you have to then carry yr knowledge of ecstasy back to the mundane world of laundry. Looks like these lads are letting someone else do the socks but hey, all praise the vision of oneness they have attained. As for the rest of us, I can make no stronger recommendation then JKs book. It's a font of sublime compassion thatll have you in tears of joy and tears of sadness on subsequent pages. My one book on that desert island, it could well save you when you truly need a loving friend.
My last major trip to this neck of the woods was nigh on thirty years ago. Then communication was conducted using aerogrammes mailled home and received at poste restante addresses, a mailbox at the post office in larger towns. Yr Bombay, yr Bangalore yr Kathmandu, that kind of thing. You would declare an address and people would write to you. You could then visit that address and collect yr mail and... declare a fwd address, requesting yr mail be sent to yr next PR. I report this if only because it all seems so utterly ridiculous now. I spent three months in India to receive only two letters from home. Somewhat adrift in my mid twenties, I was at times especially lonely. I rocked up in Nepal to discover a bundle of mail had been sullenly chasing me across India. It was like birthday and Xmas all at once and I still recall the glee with which I devoured them over choccy cake ( it was Kathmandu). So this time out what really strikes me is the ubiquity of the smart phone and very cheap data plans and easily (tourist anyway) accessed WiFi. Yes Ted we know, you write every day. Well true, but it's to say the ennui doesn't have time to gather. It's a connected world and a part of me grieves for it but, and here's the snappy Buddhist inset, change is all. Still aerogrammes to Kolkata pls... Not that I'll be looking but it'd be a magnificent gesture.
Just discovered it's Good Friday. Odd that these matters float by, so preoccupied am I by temple iconography... Pah, I'm prroccupied by a desire to get more then four hours sleep a night. Lay awake last night for like, ages, and then about ten minutes after I fell asleep dawn started hammering. I think my window is adjacent to the next door mcmansions' air con because like a tubercular whale it's given to fits of wheezing groaning, each out pouring timed to my slip into nod. I'm drinking a coffee in a kind of post tenkio coffee emporium clearly aimed at an ex pat community. Right now I dont mind if Nippon makes another crack at SE Asian domination. As long as I can sleep some... This caffeine may induce a temporary psychosis. If I do damage to one of the half wits who parks their dreadful 4*4 pickups on the pavement... Well then you are my witness. Have I mentioned the Hummer? I'll get a selfie (accursed term), the irony being it must be owned by the mobile shops padron, the store that announces ''selfie expert' amongst a whole parade of retailers hawking the same phones. So, not so different to home
Yes, I'm overtired. This is a tree in a wat by the coffee store. Perchance to dream...
Bloody hell. Enlightenment, here now and forever always in every moment that is was and will be. All is one, everything connected across all space and time. God. Stick that in your pipe missus. Hari Om tat sat. You can pronounce it love if you choose.
In my twenties, returning from seven months in West Asia, my avowed athiesm took a bit of a hit. I'd read the tao of physics and Huxley's the perennial philosophy, a foundation for what was coming. Up in the Himalaya the sliow shifting as I read the Snow Leopard became a rush of comprehending when I returned to London. A great big penny dropped. I saw it all. To my poor flat mates I was behaving very oddly indeed, and undoubtedly a 'professional' , especially then, would have something to say, and do, but I did no harm, slept and ate little for a couple of weeks and bounded around with an all seeing comprehension of the inter-connectedness of all things. Probably happens a fair bit to young folk back from such trips. As my journalist friend once managed to assert hamfistedly in print 'in fact he was mad'. Well, not so mad but certainly a bit overwhelming. Anyway, such moments come rarely and take an awful lot of processing but in the decades since I've come to understand those days as a gift. They firm the core of my belief. To have experienced that perception was a gift, albeit one I'd saved up for myself.
All these enlightened beings eh. Thats yr Buddha for you. Love.
Stop. Now take a proper look. How big is this madness... Huge! Some proper outsider art on the banks of the Mekong.
Bus stop manicure, the fumes off of the Udon Thani bus, a border palaver like it is always. Small leakage of monies, quid here, ten bob there, waving of passport. Like bureaucracies everywhere, be calm and still, gentle smile, polite. Maybe should have got my nails sorted to detract from general scruffy hippy demeanour. Is fine. All is fine.