Marry Buddhism, Hinduism and a touch of quirkiness, and the result is Buddha Park – a sprawling green space studded with more than 200 concrete sculptures near the Laotian capital city of Vientiane.
Hopping out of a minivan shared with French and Swiss travelers we’d met at the Vientiane’s bus station, we expressed relief that we hadn’t taken our more frequent form of Southeast Asian transportation – the tuktuk - to get there. The 25 km. (15 mile) ride from Vientiane to Buddha Park had taken us through extremely bumpy and dusty backroads. Though our journey would’ve undoubtedly been more ‘adventurous’ by tuktuk, it also would have been more painful to our bottoms given the lack of shocks in the scrappy little vehicles.
The sculpture park is known locally as Wat Xieng Khuan, or ‘Spirit City,’ and though its name implies otherwise, Buddha Park does not have a temple. In fact, during our late afternoon visit last January, it was brimming with lively Laotian students clad in red, white and blue school uniforms that lent them a French air. With all the youth there, the atmosphere was more amusement park than meditative on the day of our visit, though I’ve read that some monks do use the park for the latter purpose. Fuchsia bougainvillea blooms carefully placed in the statues’ open palms reminded visitors of the park’s more spiritual side.
Construction of Buddha Park started in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, who oversaw a similar park’s construction in neighboring Thailand. There are Buddha statues, Hindu characters like Shiva and Vishnu, and humans, animals and demons. When we walked into the park, we were conflicted whether to be drawn first to the enormous pumpkin-like sculpture – with levels that represent hell, earth and heaven – or the reclining Buddha, which measures 120 meters (or 390 ft.). The great pumpkin won us over, and we were soon climbing into its ‘mouth’ and ascending the various levels. The bowels of the pumpkin resembled an odd statuary storeroom of sorts, but the panorama of the park from atop the ‘pumpkin’ was lovely, in a manicured and whimsical sort of way. We were surprised that some visitors went so far as to sit on the brittle railing, and shuddered to think what would’ve happened had it snapped.
As we meandered through the park, we suddenly felt as though members of the paparazzi were following us. Groups of youth congregating near the large pumpkin giggled nervously, while sneaking peeks at us, until one brave interpreter broke the ice.
“Can we take your photo?,” the young Laotian teenager asked Shawn. And then a group of boys and girls approached me. One had an American flag emblazoned on his bag. The girls wore uniform Laotian sinh or skirts.
I could joke that the kids had mistaken us for celebrities or public figures, but if you’ve been to India or Southeast Asia, you know that this phenomenon is common. I wonder where our images might still be popping up today…
Noticing the merriment of the children and adults at the park, we transitioned into a mischievous mood, mimicking some of the human forms. Next to a diminutive bodybuilder-like statue Shawn struck his most convincing Arnold Schwarzenegger pose. I sprawled out next to an empty fountain adorned by a stone bathing beauty of sorts.
As we continued our stroll, we noticed the soon-to-slumber sun highlighting the iridescent wings of hundreds of dragonflies flitting in the air. In an attempt to show the park’s more solemn side, I tried to compose a photographic scene replete with spiritual offerings – marigold flower garlands and half-full Pepsi bottles sitting at a statue’s base. Suddenly, a young girl hopped in front of my lens, her braids swinging back and forth, a wide grin on her face. Her father was at first embarrassed that she’d strutted in front of my camera and tried to lead her away, but within minutes I was doing a photo shoot with the outgoing girl and her older brother. They flashed peace signs, rode in the mouth of a crocodile or naga figure, and tried to mimic the park’s sculptures.
So much for being solemn or spiritual. On this day, Buddha Park was a spirited place.
Photography & text © by Tricia A. Mitchell . All Rights Reserved.