The Buddha Cave Near Luang Prabang

Buddha Cave Near Luang Prabang in Xiang Men Laos

 

Hume and his two sisters fought over the bag of flashlights. The eldest girl won the tussle and handed us two torches.

 

“Why do we need flashlights?” my wife asked the children after we had paid them about $1.25 for a ticket to see Wat Longkhoon, a faded temple along the Mekong River, just across from the wat-filled city of Luang Prabang. (Wat means temple.)

 

The three Laotian children smiled; Hume, who couldn’t have been older than seven, added a wheezy grunt.

 

Walking to Buddha Cave Near Luang Prabang in Xiang Men Laos

 

“Dark,” said the eldest.

 

My wife repeated the question after we had walked away from the kids and their parents.

 

“I have no idea,” I told Marissa. I could hear Hume attempting to mimic a reggae artist, whose voice was coming through the small, portable speaker.

 

A pair of washed-away murals depicting Chinese warriors flanked the temple entrance. Absent from Wat Longkhoon were the bright gold and red paint that had coated the temples on the other side of the river. Here, in the quiet village of Xiang Men, the wat’s gold had become rusty and the red was nearly brown. Algae coated the patio. I turned on my flashlight to study the faded images inside the dark wat. I assumed that this was the reason for the torches, but then I realized that I still had on my sunglasses.

 

“I really have no idea why we need these lights,” I said after leaving Longkhoon.

 

View of Luang Prabang from Xiang Men, Laos

 

We started down the garbage-lined forest path for the next temple. The children had left their parents at the ticket table and followed us. Hume ran ahead. From his pocket, he pulled out a red balloon, a gift he had received from another traveler. He blew it up so that it was as big as his head and let the air out into his face. He chuckled. I asked him a few questions, but he didn’t understand. He put more air into the balloon and stretched the opening, making the very human sound of flatulence. Hume offered a huge smile full of gapped teeth that were starting to rot. His older sister, Ged, the entrepreneur of the family, smacked him on the neck. The middle child, Nut, was beautiful and shy. Her jeans, with red, white, and blue stitching, had one giant cuff at the bottom of each leg that reached back up to her knee.

 

Walking to Buddha Cave Near Luang Prabang in Xiang Men Laos

 

Butterflies raced across the trail.

 

I had many questions for these kids: “Where are you taking us?” “Why are you following us?” “Why do we have flashlights?” “Do your parents know that you’re possibly missing in the woods with two strange adults?”

 

“How old are you?” I wound up asking. Hume looked puzzled. I counted on my fingers to lead him to the answer. “Are you five, six, seven, eight?”

 

“One, two, three…” He counted to ten and smiled.

 

“How about you?” I asked the oldest, whose English was the best.

 

Ged rolled her eyes the way a new teenager does when given a silly challenge by an out-of-touch adult, like being asked to sing the alphabet or recite the first ten numbers. She counted to ten. Your age, I wanted to clarify. But quiet Nut, after hearing her siblings count aloud, started with one and smiled upon reaching ten, displaying a row of missing teeth.

 

“Up,” Ged instructed. The trail had crossed over a staircase. At the bottom of the steps, the muddy Mekong flowed and saffron-robed monks-in-training were stepping off of an old boat. They carried long boxes filled with thick yellow candles–offerings to the Buddha.

 

“What’s at the top of the stairs?” Marissa asked. The sign read Wat Tom Sackalim.

 

Hume smiled like he was up to something mischievous, Nut twisted uncertainly, and Ged led the charge, bounding up the concrete steps. Her younger siblings followed.

 

At the top stood two white gates made from iron rods that had been bent to form the outlines of two standing Buddhas. Hume wrapped his fingers through the Buddha’s hips and placed his feet so that they poked through, too. Using his little body’s force, he swung both gates open. Behind the iron entrance were two wooden doors. He jiggled the handle, but it was locked.

 

“What’s in there?” Marissa asked.

 

“Cave,” the children replied.

 

Ged popped the lock. Her hand ushered us into the darkness.

 

“There’s no way I’m going down there,” Marissa said.

 

Little Hume smiled at her with his rusty teeth and sprinted into the cave. Nut turned on her torch and disappeared into the darkness, too. I followed Ged.

 

Entering the Buddha Cave

 

“Buddha want money,” the two girls said when I met them eight feet below the outside landing. “Give Buddha.” Ged reached into the three-foot statue’s golden bowl to show me the few thousand kip that had already been donated. “Give Buddha.”

 

“Here, Buddha,” I said, giving about 1,000 kip (or about 12 cents US) to the golden Buddha.

 

Buddha Cave Near Luang Prabang in Xiang Men Laos

 

The two girls bowed to me. Hume was running sprints inside the chamber.

 

“Buddha no head. Buddha no head,” the children sang.

 

“Huh?” I wondered.

 

They shined lights onto a dark shelf. There was a line-up of decapitated Buddhas. Buddhists had dumped these destroyed, venerable statues into the cave because they could no longer be displayed in wats or Buddha Parks, nor could they be trashed.

 

Buddha Cave Near Luang Prabang in Xiang Men Laos

 

Marissa finally descended the staircase and exhaled. “It’s not so bad,” she said, trying to give herself confidence.

 

“Come,” Ged said. She began trotting down more steps into the pitch-black netherworld.

 

“I don’t want to go any deeper,” Marissa said, but the children were walking too fast for us to have a debate.

 

Buddha Cave Near Luang Prabang in Xiang Men Laos

 

“Buddha no head. Buddha no head,” they echoed.

 

“Come on. The kids are doing it.” I ran after my caroling elementary-school-aged guides. Marissa followed.

 

“Buddha no head. Buddha no head.”

 

Sometimes the Buddhas were headless. Other times only heads sat in piles beside shattered crowns. Hume came at me in the darkness with an amputated Buddha arm. He cackled after I had blocked the assault.

 

Buddha Cave Near Luang Prabang in Xiang Men Laos

 

“Buddha no head.” Ged pointed to a bloom of crystallization that looked like a bejeweled fungus sprouting from the cave wall. Inside one sparkling niche was a golden Buddha head.

 

Two other Westerners had found the cave and were passing us on the dark stairs. Ged and her younger siblings marched us out of the dark wat.

 

“Here,” I said, handing each kid ten thousand kip. Ged snatched at all three bills, but I tugged back and distributed the inflated bills to each child, preventing the oldest from pilfering the younger children’s wages. Their eyes went big with excitement. Then, like miners who had unearthed diamonds, the siblings darted back into the cavern, chanting “Buddha no head” as they searched for the two other Westerners.

***

 

Posted on by Noah Lederman in Asia, Somewhere

One Response to The Buddha Cave Near Luang Prabang

  1. Sam

    Well done & a little scary.

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