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Sala Keoku & Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat

Sala Keoku houses a wide variety of monolothic icons, and they’re not as old they might appear.

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Just outside of Nong Khai is the vast concrete jungle of religious iconography known as Sala Keoku. Begun in the mid 1970s, this huge sculpture park-meets-spiritual site is perhaps the most well known of the works of the myserious Bunleua Sulilat. Bunleua has inspired many interpretations, but the sculpture parks in Thailand and Laos which have become his legacy are anything but intangible. Born in the early 1900’s, this monumental sculptor-turned-mystic (some say the reverse) gained notoriety for his singular mingling of art and spiritual beliefs. He combined Hindu, Buddhist, and Animistic imagery into powerful and imposing presentations of divinity, myth and some of the Buddha’s no-doubt limitless poses. Despite never donning the saffron robes of the monkhood, Bunleua is sometimes referred to as Luang Pu, roughly venerable father, which indicating stature as a religious icon. His mummified remains rest in a large but cramped and haunting exhibit of relics commemorating his life’s major events. Spread throughout are recently placed and long-decayed flowers, beads, incense and other offerings to his memory.

A more traditional depiction of the Buddha

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Nong Khai: the Thai-Laos Border

When the time came to leave Bangkok, Hannah and I decided it was time for a marathon train ride to the Thai-Laos border. The journey of nearly 400 miles would takes us through the heart of the northeastern Isaan region, a huge and generally flat swathe of agricultural land home to nearly one third of the Thai population. In April this area can be unbearably hot, and in combination with the ongoing regional drought made for an arid landscape full of sun-cracked rice paddies and framed by red dusty dirt roads.

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The history of the Isaan region reveals a culture that at times diverges greatly from those found in central Bangkok or northwestern Chiang Mai. I learned recently that this is in part due to the region’s historic ties to the Lan Xang kingdom, centered in what is now Laos. In fact it was not until late in the French colonial project that these territories were ceded to Thailand, which in turn brought about the current arrangement of borderlines. This helps to explain why much of the Isaan population speaks a dialect closer to Laos than Thai. It’s customs are unique, and its cuisine a delicious fusion.

 

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This is one of many temples found along Nong Khai’s waterfront streets.

The sleepy town of Nong Khai sits on the edge of the Laos border, just across the Mekong from Vientiane, and nestles by far the most widely used border between the two. Our time here was easy-going, and gave us an introduction to the widely reputed and somewhat unsettling “Farang daddy” culture found to varying degrees throughout the country. Farang being the general use term for any caucasians, tourists or otherwise. Our few interactions with these couples have brought mixed results, and we are still somewhat wary of this strange phenomenon. We have yet to see its reverse, although we await anxiously, and perhaps in vain.

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Sunset fishing on the Mekong River.

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Thai Red Cross Snake Farm

One of the highlights of my time in Bangkok was visiting the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institue & Red Cross  anti-venom and snake breeding facility. It is more affectionately known as the Bangkok Snake Farm.

The King Cobra’s venom is a neuro-toxin that can quickly cause paralysis and interrupt your ability to breath.

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Founded in 1913, this facility was expanded from its original role as a rabies vaccine clinic to focus specifically on animal toxins in 1929, making it one of the oldest anti-venom research centers in the world. In addition to it’s role in venomous snake research, the facility is open to the public as an education center, where you can learn about the wide variety of native Thai snakes, including the  worlds largest reticulated python) and statistically most deadly (Russel’s Viper).

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The Copperheaded Rat Snake above looks mean but is non-venomous, and in fact can aid in keeping small rodents away from agriculture (when they are not nabbed for lunch themselves by the highly venomous Banded Krait, or even the choosy rice farmer).

Watching the Red Cross staff handling some of these incredible creatures was mesmerizing and startling, and I was reminded of the strange relationship with the ‘serpent’ that can be found in most, if not all, human civilizations. A research laboratory celebrating the very animals which are the cause of the ailments they seek to cure seems a perfect depiction of this strange relationship.

The snake and the serpent, flesh and blood reptile and demonic dream-image, reveal the complexity of our relationship to nature and the fascination and beauty inherent in all organisms

– E.O. Wilson