Thursday, December 23, 2010

Luang Prabang - Sala Pha Bang


Altar for Displaying Pra Bang
As I wrote in a previous blog, my top priority for our last day in Luang Prabang, Laos, our stay in town day, was to go to the Royal Palace Museum specifically to check out the Sala Pha Bang.  The Sala Pha Bang, also referred to as Haw Pha Bang, is the Royal Chapel and is located in the northeast corner of the Royal Palace Museum compound.  It is not an ancient building.  In fact it is not a very old building.  It was originally constructed in 1963; Western calendar and not "1963" 0f the Buddhist Era calendar which would make it 453 years older.


Sala Pha Bang In December Late Afternoon Sunlight
The King of Laos directed that it be renovated in 1973.  With the Communist Pathet Lao taking over control of Laos in 1975, the project was abandoned.  Over the years the Communist government relaxed its restrictions and attitudes towards the Buddhist religion with the project to renovate the Sala Pha Bang recommencing in 1993.  According to my 2005 edition of Lonely Planet guidebook, "Laos", the project was scheduled to be completed at the end of 2004.  During our first visit in February 2008, interior work specifically painting, installing pieces of brightly colored reflective glass, and applying gold leaf on intricately carvings was still ongoing.  I had estimated that the project was about 80% complete at the time.

It is interesting that it appears that no matter the form of government, government projects always seem to have budget and schedule problems.  In all my years of working on private projects, some considered to be Mega-Projects, the projects were seldom late.  Of the very few that were completed late, they were weeks or perhaps a couple of  months late but never a year let alone more than 4 years late!



The purpose of the restoration of the Sala Pha Bang was to prepare it to receive and store a statue of Buddha referred to as "Pra Bang".  The "Pra Bang" is a staue of Buddha in the "Dispelling Fear" position.  The statue is most likely Khmer from the 1300s although legend has it coming from Ceylon in the 1st century.  In 1359 a Khmer King gave the statue to his son-in-law in Laos which gave the monarchy there Buddhist legitimacy.  The statue has been venerated by the Lao people since that time.

We arrived at the Royal Palace Museum at 11:00 A.M. only to discover that it was closed until 1:30 P.M.  We took advantage of the closing to pursue a dream that had come to me in my sleep the night before.  My dream was not a quest for anything spiritual or involving any mysteries of either life or the universe.  In my dream, I was eating a Croque Monsieur sandwich.  Croque Monsieur is a grilled hot ham and cheese sandwich.  Before I left the cultural rich Luang Prabang area, I wanted to eat a Croque Monsieur.  Earlier in the morning we had encountered a French woman at a French cafe near our hotel who told me upon my informing her of my culinary quest that the best Croque Monsieur was served at the the Elephant Restaurant.  We asked around and found out where the Elephant Restaurant was.  It was back close to where our hotel was.  We eventually found the restaurant and sat down in what appeared to be a 1920's French brasserie.  That should have been a tip off.  The second tip off was when I was presented a leather bound wine list - A3 size (8.5 inches x 11 inches) FOR LUNCH.  I looked at the menu and there were some very tasty items described but no Croque Monsieur!  I checked and double checked the menu.  I had Duang explain to the waiter what I was looking for and he brought the maitre d' over.  We were in the wrong place!  But we were not the only ones or I doubt the last ones who had made the same mistake.  It turns out that the Elephant restaurant runs two other restaurants one of them being "Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene" about three blocks away and almost across the street from our hotel which did serve Croque Monsieur.  We made our apologies and left what our 2005 version of Lonely Planet guide book for Laos describes as "One of Luang Prabang's most elegant Western eateries ..."

We found the correct cafe and I enjoyed my fabulous Croque Monsieur and a French fruit tart while Duang enjoyed her Thai food entry for lunch.  With one obsession satisfied we walked back down to the Royal Palace Museum.


A Side Staircase to Sala Pha Bang

After paying the entrance fee, we headed directly over to the Sala Pha Bang.  As was the situation two years ago, people were busy posing for photos in front of the building.  Many of the people were flashing the "V" sign for their portrait - definitely not something or someone that I wanted in my photos.  We wandered off to the side and back of the building to find ourselves completely alone.  This was also the situation two years ago.  People all want to see what everyone else has seen and what everyone else will easily recognized.  After getting their photos which are just like everyone else's photos they scurry off to the next well recognized venue.  However just as there are two sides to every argument, two sides to a story, there are many perspectives to a venue.  By investing more time, sometimes just a little more, and more footsteps, you can better appreciate and experience a location.  For me it is not appearing in a postcard photo but for me it is all about the sights form all angles, sounds, smells and ambiance of a location. Not that I should be complaining; for if more people shared our travel philosophy Allen's World would be much more crowded!  I am fortunate that this philosophy also works for Duang so I always have someone to share the complete experience with. 

Exterior Door At Back of Sala Pha Bang

Main Staircase At Back of Royal Chapel

Handrail Detail of Naga At Back of Royal Palace Chapel
We eventually arrived at the front of the Royal Chapel and entered.  The restoration work had been completed but the venerated Buddha was not on display.  There was a lone female attendant seated in a plastic chair in the corner of the fabulous room.  Duang pulled up a spare plastic chair and started speaking with the attendant while I went about oohing and ahhing as I took photographs.

The interior was filled with intricately carved walls, ceiling, and columns.  In many locations any flat areas were filled with pieces of reflective colorful glass.  Most of the carvings were covered with gold leaf.  We had watched the craftsmen applying some of the gold leaf two years ago.  No adhesive is utilized to apply the gold leaf to base structures.  Static electricity from the super thin gold keeps the small sheets of gold attached.  Craftsmen use very fine brushes to apply the gold leaf in place and to brush out any trapped air between the leaf and the base.



Perhaps because the Pra Bang was not on display, there were few visitors to the inside of the chapel.  During our one-and one-half visit to the Chapel, there were no more than 15 to 20 other visitors.  This made it very convenient to thoroughly enjoy the beauty and mastery of the building.  I was able to lay flat on the floor and stare up at the ceiling.  The ceiling was dark red with carved gold leafed carvings of life in Laos a long time ago.  Mixed in with the scenes of Lao life were representations of Buddha's many lives.  Some of the scenes reminded me of scenes from the "Ramakian" back in Bangkok.  I suspect that the scenes are actually from the Hindu epic "Ramayana" upon which the Ramakian is based.

One of Several Murals in the Sala Pha Bang

There are also several carved gold leafed murals on the walls that I am certain are based upon the Ramayana.  It was a feast of intricately carved figures, gold leaf, and rich dark red paint.  Inside the chapel there were several ornate columns.

Ornate Interior Columns
Group of Ornate Interior Columns
One group of visitors to the Chapel while we were there was a Buddhist Abbott, two young Monks, and a Maechi; a female who is someone between an ordinary layperson and an ordained Monk - all from Thailand.  They spoke some English so I was able to communicate with them along with Duang's Thai conversation.  The entire atmosphere was very relaxed.

Monks Visiting From Thailand
The Lao attendant convinced that we posed no threat or perhaps just bored, left us alone after awhile.  left us alone to the extent that she left the building.  After  I had been photographing  a while Duang had to go to the bathroom.  Believing that I could not get into any trouble she left me alone while she walked to the far side of the compound where the restrooms are located.  There was no need for me to show her where they were because she had used them two years ago and just prior to entering the Sala Pha Bang.  Well Duang's belief that I would not get into trouble was not justified.  As I was photographing the beauty that surrounded me two small groups of people came in.  In both groups a person touched the intricate gold leafed carvings.  I was polite but I did not suffer in silence.  As in the protection of children, I believe we all need to contribute to the protection of our heritage be it art, or natural wonders.  In the absence of the attendant I decided to take on the roll of guardian of the Lao heritage.  I informed both people in Thai to not touch the carvings that it was not good to do so.  When Duang returned, I told her and she smiled somewhat embarrassed by my activism.  I get upset when people though their ignorance, callousness, or non-thinking endanger works of art or heritage for others.  When the attendant finally returned I informed her of what happened and also pointed out to her to be on guard for others.  I felt better  but I also had the nagging suspicion that she was also like too many other government employees.

Interior Door Detail - Buddha Upon A Lotus Flower
We left to walk back to our hotel where our bag was being held and where our driver was to pick us up to go the airport.  Our flight was scheduled to leave at 5:50 P.M. so we planned on meeting our driver at 4:00 P.M.  When we were about two blocks from our hotel, I saw out of the corner of my eye a Tuk-Tuk slow down which is not uncommon in Luang Prabang.  Tuk-Tuks constantly are hustling about trying to fares.  However when this driver called out he was laughing and smiling - it was our driver.  Since we were so close to the hotel, I waved him on.  Once again he had arrived early!

Duang and I could not believe how quickly our day about town had passed.  It had been a great day for the end of a great visit.  Although we had seen all the major items that we planned on for our second visit to the area, there were still many things that we still have yet to see or do in Luang Prabang.  Many things to see and do; reasons to return for a third visit some day.

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