The War-Ravaged Town of Muang Khoun: Wat Si Phum

Our final stop in Muang Khoun was the little-known temple of Wat Si Phum, which had been the renowned as the most beautiful in Xieng Khouang province before the Vietnam War. Strangely, none of the blogs about Muang Khoun offer coverage of this temple, perhaps wrongly presuming that nothing had survived the war years. However, before we visited Wat Si Phum, we stopped off at one of the simple eateries on the main street of town for a bowl of noodle soup. The house alongside it had a very good example of UXO (unexploded ordinances) being used for ornamental purposes, a practice which is quite common in the region.

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UXO used as ornaments in Muang Khoun

From there we went to Wat Si Phum, which is actually located just behind the main street of Muang Khoun. The approach to the wat was via a back lane and there was a heavy metal gate drawn most of the way across. We walked parked the motorbike in the lane and walked onto the grounds of the temple. It turned out that most of the buildings were new, including the main prayer hall, which was locked anyway. The modern replacements to the historic structures were wooden buildings which looked like the sorts of temples you would find in small villages by the side of the highway. Still, it was a shame that these buildings were locked, as we would have liked to look inside and see if they housed any historic statues. However, there was not so much as a single monk around at the time of our visit. Fortunately, the grounds of the wat contained one historic relic for us to look at: That Si Phum, a Lao-style brick chedi which was beautiful even in its ruinous state.

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Wat Si Phum’s badly damaged exterior

The brick chedi consisted of a broader base with a thinner, gradually tapering body. There are niches in the body in which standing Buddha figures may once have stood, faced with stucco, but now only the niches remain. There are portions of stucco which remain on the uppermost portions, but most of it has peeled off, leaving only the brick skeleton. Here and there small plants have sprouted between the bricks, undoubtedly destabilizing the whole structure. In one corner there is an ornament on the base which is reminiscent of the ornaments on That Luang in Vientiane, but obviously on much smaller scale. The top of the chedi had broken off, though judging but what remained, it would probably have been some kind of finial, perhaps with a golden parasol on top.

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This portion shows portions of stucco and a decorative niche

The following day when we visited the Plain of Jars Museum, we were to see a display about That Si Phum. It was an architectural sketch of the thaat from before the war, and it was obviously an exquisitely designed and decorated structure. The sketch confirmed that it was originally an exceptionally beautiful example of a Lao chedi. Hopefully, it will one day receive a sensitive restoration which will return to its original beauty.

 

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The War-Ravaged Town of Muang Khoun: That Foun and That Chom Phet

After a visit to Wat Phia Wat, we went off in search of the town’s other sights: a pair of ancient thaat (the Lao name for chedi) which were said to perch on a hill above town. I had expected to be able to see them from the main street of town, but we had to ask directions. It turned out they were very easy to find; it was just that they were hidden by the buildings on the main street. However, on the way there we noticed what looked like a ruin on a small hill behind the main road, so we went there first to see what it was.

It turned out that it was the town’s the last French colonial building in town, though in truth it too was a ruin. The bombs of the US-led Secret War in Laos had destroyed the city’s colonial heritage along with its pre-colonial temples. The roof of the building was missing, as were the upper portions of the walls, and the plaster was peeling off most of the brickwork which remained. Yet even its ruinous state, it was an elegant example of French architecture, with a porch and staircase extending from the main structure. There was a sign on the site which informed us that this was the former town hospital; apparently not even hospitals had been spared the devastation which rained down from the sky during the Vietnam War.

From there we road up to the hill overlooking town and soon got our first glimpse of That Foun, which is the largest and most imposing of the town’s surviving chedis. It was once abandoned in a field of long grass, but in recent years, some attempt has been made to repair the structure. There is now a ticket office at the city, where the obligatory 10,000 kip entrance fee is requested. There is also a shop here selling traditional textiles made on a loom- more on this in a moment. We parked the motorbike, bought our tickets and walked around the soaring thaat, said to date back to 1576.

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This shows the side of the hole which has been bricked in

The top part of the thaat is in better shape than the base, retaining some of its stucco. This portion makes it clear that the thaat would once have been very beautiful; even in its damaged present state, the elegant proportions of the structure are clear. However, the lower portion of the structure shows considerably more damage. Very little of the stucco remains, some portions of the brickwork have crumbled away and there is even a large hole which was burrowed through the base by Chinese bandits during the late nineteenth century. However, at the time of our visit, repairs were underway. Bamboo scaffolding had been erected around the lower part of the thaat and the hole in the base was finally being filled in after 130 years. The restoration seems to be aimed more at stabilizing the thaat than restoring it to its former glory, but at least this is a start. To get an idea of what it make once have looked like, its shape is similar to the That Dam Stupa in Vientiane.

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The upper part of the structure retains some stucco

From That Foun, we continued further up the hill to the site of That Chom Phet. This structure has a better location than That Foun, commanding a spectacular view of the town and its surroundings, right across to the hills in the distance. However, time has been especially cruel to this structure. Like its nearby neighbor, a hole has been tunneled through the base of the thaat, but that is far from the biggest problem. That Chom Phet is now just a block of brickwork, with the top broken off and no decoration remaining. It is very hard to an even get a sense of what it once looked like. Overall, it is another casualty of Xieng Khoung’s violent history and one that may be beyond the furthest skill of restorers. Still, it is worth coming over here for the panoramic views.

From there we went back to the ticket office to look at the textiles. Most of them were hand-woven Lao textiles, some of them using vegetable dyes. Being fans of traditional South-East Asian textiles, we bought one off the woman who was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about Lao textiles. She was also well-informed about the renovations at That Foun, telling us that a Swiss benefactor had paid for them. She also had a collection of photocopies of Muang Khoun before the war. She showed us how Wat Phiawat had looked before the war- much like the sort of historic wats you can still see in Luang Prabang- and also the original vihaan of That Foun which had once stood in front of the thaat. She said that that town wanted to rebuild the vihaan but there were no funds available. Finally, she showed us pictures of the Wat Si Phum, which had once been the most beautiful of the town’s temples. She suggested that there was still some relics there. We decided to check it out as our next and final stop before leaving town.

The War-Ravaged Town of Muang Khoun: Wat Phiawat

In recent years the Lao province of Xieng Khouang has found itself the overland route for backpackers in South-East Asia. Travellers moving between the Lao and Vietnamese capitals might stopover in Xieng Khouang’s biggest city, Phonsavan, before getting a bus on to Vinh in the north of Vietnam. As novel as this route may seem, it is probably just the re-opening of an ancient trade route which linked the coast of Vietnam with the highlands of the Annamite Cordillera. One legacy of this ancient trade route may have been Xieng Phounag’s famous Plain of Jars. Another was the ancient royal capital of Muang Khoun.

Muang Khoun was once one of Laos’s richest settlements in terms of cultural heritage, with its wats such as Wat Phiawat and Wat Si Phum being renowned for the beauty of their old-world architecture. However, the province of Xieng Khouang was subject to saturation bombing from the United States in Laos, causing not only massive loss of human life but also the destruction of much of the country’s built cultural heritage. This loss was especially pronounced in the former royal city of Muang Khoun. In fact, not a single building was left untouched by the bombing and for many years, Muang Khoun was a ghost town. However, it is now coming back to life, with a few guesthouses and restaurants on the main street and many residents in the area. These signs of life notwithstanding, its wats are now either erased or in ruins.

Like most travellers, we decided to visit Muang Khoun from Phonsavan, which is the new capital of Xieng Khouang province. You can rent a Chinese motorbike from one of the businesses on the main street of town for 100,000 kip a day. The distance from Phonsavan to Muang Khoun is only thirty kilometres along a paved route, so it is an easy day-trip on a motorbike. However, we visited the area in early February and the weather was cold and cloudy. With the wind-chill factor added, we soon felt that it was too cold to continue without gloves and hats. So we started looking for these in the general stores which appeared intermittently along the roadside between the two towns, and found some gloves and beanies at the third shop we stopped at. While it was still cold even with gloves and beanies, we made it on to Muang Khoun with only one more stop along the way.

Muang Khoun is set in a valley in the highlands, with a river running along one side of the town and hills surrounding the town on all sides. The main street has a few local guesthouses, restaurants and shops; it is far from the desolate ruin which is sometimes described in the guidebooks. Within a few more years, it may even have backpacker-oriented guesthouses and cafes and be established as a destination in its own right. In the meantime, it is increasing in popularity with tourists on day trips from Phonsavan and we were to encounter a few on our tour of the town’s pre-war ruins. In fact, the first encounter happened a few minutes later at Wat Phiawat, the town’s best-known sight. There was an older English woman being shown around the wat by a local tour guide.

Like many tourist attractions in Laos, there is a 10,000 kip entrance to the wat, which was located by a group of ladies at the entrance gate. We quickly learned that the wat had been renovated, with some new wooden buildings having been built on the grounds and some monks in residence. However, none of these buildings are of any real distinction. The reason to come here is still because of the ruins of the former vihaan. It consists of the original brick foundation of the structure, which has emerged relatively unscathed from the war. On top of the base are the broken remains of a few brick columns, with many missing entirely. The timber roof which it once supported is now gone without a trace. Then at the end of the platform is a large seated Buddha which somehow survived the bomb largely intact.

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The Buddha seated in the touching the earth posture

This monumental, 14th century Buddha is seated on a lotus pedestal, which is made of bricks covered with a few extant patches of the original plaster. It is flanked on either side by the final two of the brick columns. The Buddha is seated in the bumisparshamudra, or the touching the earth posture, with his long, elegant fingers reaching down to the ground. Its legs are folded in the lotus position and its body has a solid, substantial look. There is considerable damage to the left knee area, which has been partly blasted away. The head is noteworthy for its elongated ear-lobes, with their suggestion of royal lineage, its clearly drawn features and its hair, which is rendered in a series of cylindrical spikes. Its hair is mostly intact though there is a large ‘bald’ patch at the back, where the spikes have been destroyed. Its right eye is also badly damaged, forming a sharp contrast with the relatively intact left eye. Finally, some weeds are growing from a missing portion of the Buddha’s forehead.

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The Buddha is still revered, even in its badly damaged state

 

Overall, the Buddha makes a melancholy impression, as you admire its evident beauty but also reflect on the damage which has befallen it, and indeed the people of the province. It is actually very reminiscent of the ruins of Ayutthaya, a former Thai capital which was destroyed by Burmese cannons in 1767. There too you find temple bases, broken columns and time-worn Buddha statues exposed to the elements. It is also worth mentioning that at the time of our visit, the whole base was being covered in modern, terracotta tiles which are very unsympathetic to the historic nature of the ruin. Hopefully, funds will eventually be found for a more sensitive conservation of the town’s surviving monuments.

The Eclectic Long Khanh Pagoda

After a day exploring the Cham towers of Quy Nhon’s hinterland, we thought we try and find something in town to see. After all, Quy Nhon was a city of 280,000 people, with three hundred years of history behind it; it had to have something to show from all those years. A brief search online suggested that the city did a few pagodas, the most venerable of which was called Long Khanh Pagoda, dating back to the early eighteenth century. Being centrally located it was easy to find, and we found that even on a weekday it was quite popular with locals.: there were a number of cars and motorbikes parked out front and devotees heading in and out.

The pagoda is said to have been built in 1715 by a Chinese merchant to the city, which was during the reign of Emperor Nguyen Trinh Tuong. The temple is sometimes claimed to be typically Southern Chinese in style, but it reminded us just as much as other Vietnamese pagodas we have seen as those from Guangdong or Fujian. The other complicating factor is that it was largely destroyed during the early 1950s during the First Indochinese War- in other words, the one against the French. However, a few treasures from the imperial period remained, justifying its inclusion on a blog about South-East Asia’s pre-colonial history.

When you arrive the first thing you will see is a 17-metre high statue of the Buddha in an elaborately draped robe. This statue was commenced in the 1964 and finished in 1972. Both in its size and style it is rather garish structure, but it is a fair representation of the eclectic nature of this city pagoda, which mixes together buildings from a variety of different cultures and time periods. The other very modern feature of the pagoda is a  nine-storied tower in a Chinese style. Unfortunately, it is made from concrete and looks very much like the recent addition that it is. More worthwhile are the colourful mosaics which decorate the grounds of the temple and make for excellent photographs. They may not be of any great age but they are more sympathetic with the historic character of the temple. The same can be said of the bonsai garden, which is situated in the front of the main hall.

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The interior of the main hall at Long Khanh Pagoda

For history lovers, a better bet is the larger bronze bell which survived the war. It is said to date from the reign of Emperor Gia Long and have been cast in 1805. The temple also has a silver seal from 1813 which states that the name of the pagoda was also Long Khanh at that time. There is also a bronze gong which dates back to 1739. More controversial is the main hall: most of the accounts state that it was destroyed or at least badly damaged during the Indochina war, while at least one claim that it is mostly original. Based on my observation, it reminded me of other early Chinese temples from South-East Asia. Unlike modern temples, it is quite small and simple, amounting to little more than a large room. It also has a red-tiled roof with ceramic ornamentation, which is typical of many older temples from the port cities of South-East Asia. Some of the woodwork on the temple also have an antique look, being delicate and subtle, quite in contrast with the kitschier elements on the shrine. If it is not an historic building, it is an unusually good imitation of one.

While Long Khanh is certainly not a major sight of Vietnam, it is Quy Nhon’s most important pagoda and well worth seeing if you are in the neighbourhood. An eclectic combination of modern and historic buildings, it combines kistchy elements with a few historical genuine treasures. Its mixture of Chinese and Vietnamese features also evoke the mercantile history of this coastal city.