Scenes from the Ghost Festival

We were in Penang, Malaysia, during the Ghost Festival. The Ghost Festival is a Chinese holiday during which, it is believed, the gates of Heaven and Hell open and the dead return to earth in search of food and entertainment. Clans erect tents and set out enormous banquets for the dead, families offer food to their deceased ancestors, and they also burn piles of “hell bank notes,” money which has value in the afterlife. A few more shots: In addition to family offerings, community groups stage performances in the street for the week. Some of the shows are flashy and…

The Buddha Park

About 25 km outside of Vientiane is the Buddha Park. The Buddha Park was started—for devotional reasons, probably—in 1958 by a shaman, Bunleua Sulilat, who fused Hinduism and Buddhism into his own syncretic cult. The statues, which look like they were collected from ancient temples across Laos, are actually modern creations of reinforced concrete. The site made me think of a 1970s lawn ornament store, complete with a sales pitch: Come on down to Buddy’s Buddha Barn! We got Buddhas that are small—Buddhas that are tall— Buddhas lying down—Buddhas on the ground! A three-headed Buddha? A six-armed Buddha? You know…

Vientiane

Recently, I joined Abby on her trip to Laos, starting in Vientiane. This is a city I have long wanted to visit: just the name itself has always conjured up for me an air of romance and mystery. And having now seen it, I honestly can say that of all the world capitols I have visited, Vientiane is definitely one of them. It’s not that the place is without merit. The temples—similar to Thai temples, but a little more ornate—are lovely. The colonial-era architecture, where it still exists, is crumbly and charming. Everything else, though, is unremarkable. Take, for example,…

Banteay Kdei

The last temple is Banteay Kdei (“The Citadel of Cells”), also built by Jayavarman VII. Reportedly, it was built with an inferior grade of sandstone, which may account for its utter dilapidation today. One website notes, interestingly, that “Though Jayavarman VII was credited with building many temples, he was also accused of squandering money on extravagant temple building projects at the expense of society and other duties.”    

Banteay Srei

The next temple we visited was Banteay Srei, also known as the Pink Temple for the color of the sandstone with which it is built. Banteay Srei was consecrated to the Hindu god Shiva in the 10th century and fell out of use some 300 years later. It was rediscovered in 1914, and nine years later—fun fact—André Malraux stole four devata statues from the site, a stunt for which he was arrested. News of the event sparked increased interest in the site, and the authorities began clearing it the following year. Given how old it is, the carvings are in remarkable…

Bayon

After Angkor Wat, we saw Bayon. Bayon was the state temple for Jayavarman VII, built as “the centrepiece of [his] massive program of monumental construction and public works”. The temple is most noted for the 216 faces carved on its towers, which—some scholars say—are copies of Jayavarman’s own face, in his role as a representation of the Buddha.