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Tumbling That

By Melody Kemp
Created 03/11/2006 - 15:03

Melody KempMelody Kemp lives in Laos. Her previous piece for Webdiary was The Thai & I [0].

by Melody Kemp

It's probably older than European settlement in Australia, but a new Australian settlement next door threatens to destroy it.

One of Vientiane's oldest relics, an ancient That (stupa) which reputedly contains the remains of a wayward prince, is being threatened by earthworks on the site for the new Australian embassy in Lao.

The That which sits adjacent to the site, is thought to have been built around the 16th or 17 century and is one of the few remaining structures from the ancient Laotian Lang Xang Kingdom. The Abbot of the neighbouring Wat (temple) Nak Yai and keeper of the That, is concerned that the rumbling bulldozers excavating the foundations for the embassy, may cause the already leaning top of this ancient structure to topple. It would, he said, be a very inauspicious beginning for the embassy and spell bad luck for all Australians living in Vientiane. Indeed.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade contracted Leightons Asia to construct a new Australian Embassy in Vientiane, and budgeted some AUD 6.5 million. The new embassy will be located on Route Thaduea, the major north-south arterial that leads to the Australian-funded Friendship Bridge, linking Thailand and Lao across the Mekong River. The new and very architecturally unappealing structure, will join other official missions and will be sited opposite the Japanese Ambassador's residence which was built on the what is believed to be site of the ancient Kings palace.

The excavation work raised some concern amongst two Australian residents living nearby; one, Dr Sean Foley, an environmental expert, the other the head of a UN office in Vientiane. Together they visited the Abbott, Venerable Phra Bounyed, and learned that the That is thought to contain the remains of a Prince, Kings Suriyawong's son, who had been beheaded because of unseemly behaviour with the King Seetha's wives and concubines. Not being able to keep ones parts in ones pantaloons was a fatal offence in those days, even if one had royal blood. The That, at one stage overgrown with creepers, has been found to have unique marking and statuary and is revered by Buddhists. A small spirit house at its base is covered in offerings and the That is circled by what used to be white holy cloth. Some think that the That may contain the guardian spirit of Vientiane. Losing one's head was often a prelude to a higher calling.

In the sixteenth century King Seetha moved his royal entourage from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and built his palace and across the road, an ancient stupa that sits in the grounds of the Wat and which marks the center of the ancient Lang Xang Kingdom, so the very worldly embassy will be set in spiritually hallowed ground. The palace and the stupa attracted rich and wealthy Laos who would stay at the palace when they traveled from the provinces. In 1828 the Siamese sacked the city, leaving little of what was reputedly an elegant and lovely city behind. The That which is in poor condition, with the top section well out of vertical, the stupa in the grounds of the Wat, and some of the more touristy Wats in the center of the city are all that remain. Abbott Bounyed is worried that the foundations having already been disturbed, leave the That more vulnerable to earthly influences.

Abbot Bounyed reported that he had been visited by two Australians - whether from the Embassy or the contractor is unclear - who discussed the condition of the That with him. He told them of his concern and suggested that they pile up loose earth to a depth of 2.5 around the base of the That. According to him, at that stage they made no commitment to any action to protect or restore the That; nor have any works been subsequently undertaken.

The concerned pair then talked to the DFAT Project Manager, Mr Robert Broinowski, explained their concerns about the situation and condition of the That. They were assured that the That was being monitored in '3-dimensions', but he provided no information on any active measures being taken to ensure its' survival and safety. A few days later they visited the site, taking a visiting environmental consultant from NSW. He too was quite disquieted that no EIA or other assessment had been undertaken. They looked at the DFAT and embassy website and could find no trace of calls for public comment, EIA's or heritage investigations. The Australian residents undertook to write to Kevin Rudd making precise recommendations about what should be done to remediate the site, and ensure that irreparable damage to Lao cultural property did not happen. At the time of writing no response had been received from Mr. Rudd's office.

Dr Foley's professional opinion was that disturbances from construction work may lead to a collapse of the top part, or even the whole, of the That, unless rapid measures are taken to protect it. These measures need to be completed before major works on the foundations for the Embassy commence and work stopped to enable this to happen. Last night a visit to the site showed that work is still on going and with the exception of a fence separating the That from the excavation site, no other attempts at preservation had been undertaken. Dr Foley phoned Michael Gray at the Embassy who was reportedly quite offhand, and insisted that the fact that the That was overgrown was proof that the Laos did not themselves care for the site. In fact the vines growing over the That secured the friable brickwork. The removal of the greenery has made it even more fragile at a time when it is most threatened.

A visit to the neighbouring Wat last night revealed that Abbot Bounyed had been approached by a delegation from the Embassy and heritage officials from the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture. They told him that they would remove the top of the That and then reaffix it so that it was stronger. This would be done with all the suitable rituals, over which the Abbott would preside. The Abbot who has been at Wat Nak Yai since 1986, was not quite convinced. "I don't really know what is going to happen. I would like a wall and proper paving around the That so that people can come and pray or visit" he said, as a small white cat with brilliant blue eyes nibbled at his toes.

So it comes down to the spirits versus DFAT.

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