Back to Buddha


The last time we crossed paths, he was for sale in a shop window in Ubud. Now, we’re in the largest Muslim country in the world standing on the largest monument to his memory ever conceived. Wherever we’ve traveled in Asia, it seems Buddha is close at hand, which also seemed to be the main point these architects wanted to get across when they shaped this massive ode to Monsieur perma-grin.


Called Borobudur, this stupa was chiseled in the 9th Century by Javanese Buddhists who crafted something so detailed and meticulous, in later years they might have been reincarnated as brain surgeons.

With over 500 Buddha statues (like the one above), 2500+ relief panels comme ca:


And 9 distinct levels, it’s already impressive as an engineering feat. But, after we learned more of how it was designed, I thought it really revealed how amazing it was.


Buddhism often comes off as one big paradox (ex. You can be everywhere and nowhere or You can only achieve enlightenment by not wanting to achieve enlightenment.) In print these sayings sound hokey, frustrating and cringe-worthy, largely because they’re simple and self-evident.

I find reading about Buddhism is like staring at this photo:


One second I see the vase, the next second the people. When I translate this to reading, I think, yeah okay, I get it. Now what? And, of course, that’s it – there is no other point.

Borobudur, I found, works along similar lines. The architects created a showpiece to Buddha which interweaves two strands of Buddhist mythology into a single structure.

First, the more obvious one, that we could witness from the ground is that the whole structure is one big storyline of the Buddha’s life, and his path to enlightenment. As a visitor you walk up the entire structure, one level at a time, and as you rise you pass through a stage of Enlightenment that the Buddha experienced, represented by the sculptures around you.

Starting at the ground level, you begin with the world of Desire which Buddha went through – represented in reliefs that in one way or another are various enticements for him to get laid, drunk or high:


However, good Mr. Siddhartha decided against a career as a rock star, and so passed into the World of Forms, which starts on level three of the structure. Rose and I weren’t exactly clear how the sculptures we looked at represented a form since it seems fairly self-evident (any old sculpture could be seen as a form), but the general concept is that at this stage, Buddha had meditated his way into seeing the world as having only shapes, “Oh wow that thing is shaped like a tube (a tree)”, which I can’t help think, if he’d tweeted his discovery today ex.: “My keyboard is only rectangles”, he’d be tranquilized and force-fed anti-psychotics.


After his geometry phase, he then passed into the Formless World, where – as Lauryn Hill would much later make us aware – everything is everything.

This is also where we took the majority of our photos – next to these huge bells, which each contain a sculpted Buddha:


And, offer amazing views:


Especially at sunset:


That covers the first bit of the architecture – the physical pilgrimage a visitor experiences walking up the structure. However, those wily builders thought, why not go for extra credit and knock out two concepts in one. And so, they also built the entire structure as a material representation of the Buddhist concept of the universe when looked at from above:


This two dimensional image, called a mandala in Buddhism, represents the universe – where the outer walls are squares, symbolizing humans’ attachment to linear concepts of time, followed by inner circles where time is seen as cyclical.

But a mandala, like the architects who built Borobudur, is overachieving. It also serves as a practical map or guide, which a Buddhist can bring to mind during their meditation to help them, as a reference point to focus on moving towards the center where all is one.

In short, Borobudur is the Swiss Army knife of monuments that offers:

1. A representation of Buddha’s life
2. A physical pilgrimage through his life
3. A representation of the Buddhist universe
4. A mental map to follow during Buddhist meditation
5. Underground parking garage

Le joke. Borobudur is a UNESCO world heritage site (yeah, that’s back too), and they seem to be making decent enough money as it’s consistently referred to as Indonesia’s biggest tourist attraction, so haven’t felt the need to raise cash from any modern enhancements.

However, they did offer some help a few years back. There were three shots at restoring the structure. First, in the early 1800s when it was “re-discovered” by a British colonial administrator. Secondly, by the Dutch 100 years later; and finally, in 1973 when UNESCO got involved.


There’s a museum on the same grounds which illustrates how they did the last restoration – from the photos and explanations it was basically one massive jigsaw puzzle. The builders took out almost every single block, labelled it, cleaned it up – then reinforced the entire structure with concrete and an updated water runoff system, and put the whole thing back together again.

We were staying at a hotel that was within the grounds of the structure, and were lucky enough to have a two minute walk to it from our room. So, we returned three times to walk up and down it – it was really cool to see.

Next to Angkor Wat, it was definitely a major standout of our entire trip so far.

But we weren’t done with massive, old monuments. Indonesia is not only home to big Buddha, but also big Hindu, all within the structure of the biggest Muslim population in the world.

Next – el Grande, Prambanan.

Talk soon


Buddha & Butterflies



Laos is often referred to as the “Land of a million elephants”, because the majority of Laotians are obese.

I’m kidding. The complete opposite is true.

Laos is one of the most undeveloped countries in the world, and many Laotian children suffer from malnutrition. Excess calories and XXXL clothing remain our North American privilege.

However, in non-metaphoric terms, Laos wins out.

Elephants in Laos were abundant in the 11th Century, and were often bedecked with gold decorated saddles and used as modes of transport by the Royal family.

While there are tourist packages available to see and ride them today, their numbers are not what they were, largely a cause of human encroachment or industry (slight as it is) and while not cited as a direct cause, I can’t help but think that 2 million tons of dropped bombs had an effect on their habitat.

So, given their declining numbers, I thought of tweaking Laos national motto to reflect a view, albeit limited from two cities: Vientiane and Luang Prabang, of the most common sights we saw: “Land of a million Buddhas and Butterflies”.

Both are ubiquitous. The majority of Laotians are Buddhist (60%) and it’s expected by many young men to spend time in a monastery before they enter the world or decide to stay on with the order.

The result is that on the streets of Vientiane (and in Luang Prabang – which I’ll get into in a later post), we passed tons and tons of monks, wearing their orange robes, who, after staring at them in awe, wondering what mystical journeys they were on, we later found out, were just on their way to school, the dentist or any other errand that you and I have. Even the path to enlightenment crosses banal street.


Regardless, this didn’t dampen Rose’s love affair. Whenever we passed any of the many Wats (temples) in the city where there were crowds of the orange robed savants, Rose would almost squeal with excitement staring at them while extending her hand out to me, able only to say one word: “Camera. Camera. Camera” or “Look. Did you get it.” asking me to take a picture:


Some of the most popular Wats were a couple near the national emblem; a stupa named: Pha That Luang – which also included a museum where we sweat in silence, next to a series of Buddhist statues, big, small and doll-size:

image image

Then, outside the stupa, a huge Buddha, sitting how Rose and I wished we could, given the heat and our diminished electrolytes:


Still unsure what the dominant religion was? Hey, what’s on your left:

Now, your right:

Confused, still? Even this cat was happy to give us a big hint:

Through the course of a day here, it felt like living inside a Buddhist kaleidoscope. Wherever you look, there he is:

Now, that brings us to the other side of the new motto: butterflies. Also, along with Buddha, they are a majority, as it seemed, any vista or view of the middle distance contained a fleet of the erratic bunch of flyers in all colours: monarchs, white ones, brown ones.

While, I did look closely, I didn’t spot anyone painting butterflies with a hammer and sickle. They appear to fly naturally, free of outdated propaganda.

The effect of Buddhas and butterflies everywhere, kind of created this blissful worldview, where I wandered around in a semi-dream state, half-expecting to see a unicorn gallop across the road.

Unfortunately, it turns out, we came across something much different.

On our trip, I’ve learned that I have a talent to use my imagination to sabotage any peaceful scene: (i.e. while enjoying a quiet day in a cafe in Laos listening to birds chirp I said to Rose: “Ya know in the Vietnam War this would be the kind of cafe in Saigon where a guerilla fighter would run in and drop a few grenades”).

So, I was having one of these peace busting moments, walking down a stretch of road, and I thought to myself: “Ya know. In Borneo, there were vipers in trees. There must be snakes here”.

That moment, I heard a big clang across the road, turned and saw a guy throwing a rock at the wall.

At first, I thought he was a local nut, but then I looked, and in an insane coincidence, saw he was throwing the stone for a reason, (though a very unBuddhist-like reason) to kill a snake:

Apparently, it had fallen out of a tree above, and the guy thought it better to kill than let it go free. After employing another burgeoning talent, miming, I asked him through hand gestures and acting if the snake was dangerous, and he nodded vigorously.

Okay. Shit. There’s snakes:

And, as Rose will agree, that pretty much set the tone afterward every time we sought shade under a tree, went to a public bathroom, or, in my paranoid case, got into bed in our hotel room.

Thankfully, this was the only appearance of a snake in the flesh, though versions of serpents appear all over Buddhist temples:


I still preferred butterflies.

Next stop: Luang Prabang where Rose continues her crush on Buddhist monks, and we drift away the days between the cities two rivers: the Mekong and Nam Khan, and good coffee and croissants.

Talk soon