May 29, 2012

Story to Share: In Search of Burning Bodies

My story begins very innocently.  I was visiting Laos for the first time and I heard that someone had unfortunately died in the neighborhood I was residing in.  In Laos the news (through word of mouth) of a death spreads faster than information on Twitter.

Also, it is common to go to funerals even if you weren't that close to the person who died.  The relation could be that it was someone who lived in your neighborhood or someone who has the relative of someone you knew, etc.  But you go out of respect and to show support.

So I heard there would be a cremation (burning of a dead body) as per Buddhist rites and rituals in one of the outer temples near the forest.  And I admit I had never seen this before, therefore I was very interested in going - albeit, out of curiousity.  The cremation was set to occur 2 days from when I had heard the news.

For those of you who don't know, even though there are lots of temples throughout Laos, only a small number of them are designated as a temple where cremations can occur.  Most notably they tend to be the more further removed from urban or suburban areas.  And there's always rumors flying around that those specific temples are haunted and people even try to avoid them at night. 

The day arrived for the cremation.  It was the afternoon and the sun was shining brightly.  With a sense of excitement, I got on my borrowed bike and quickly made my way over to the temple.  First biking on paved roads, then on to unpaved pot-hole laden path.  Then from the path emerged behind the forest was a banner entrance indicating vat pa (forest temple).  It was a sprawling area for a temple that was just outside of a suburban neighborhood area.  Most temples in a suburban areas are not quite as spacious.  I slowed down on my bike.  Try to look around to see where the crowds were or to find where the cremation was taking place.  To my disappointment I didn't see any crowds and no smoke.  But I persevered and began biking towards the back area of the temple thinking that perhaps it's somewhere back there.

With my eyes fixated at the back area of the temple field and not looking down, I made my way around one of the temple buildings.  All of the sudden, I felt my bike slow down.  It seemed like the ground was wet and perhaps muddy but I kept biking for just a bit more.  I finally looked down at my bike wheels to see what the heck was slowing me down.  It was then that I realized that I had just biked through newly laid wet cement!

As I had turned the corner of the temple building, it was at this point that I noticed there was a group of Lao guys sitting under the shade and behind a huge bodhi tree. I didn't even see anyone until that point.  One of them yelled out at me.  Some unintelligble "hey!" of sorts.  I stopped in my tracks, jumped off my bike and apologized for having biked on the wet cement.  Then one of them said in Lao "didn't you see the barrier?" to which I replied "what barrier?"  He pointed to some random sticks and a long palm leaf as the barrier.  This to me looked like plain debris that had fallen or was just thrown there.  Not much of a barrier if you ask me.

In any case, I apologized profusely.  Some of them were laughing, some appeared angry, some appeared tired and exhausted and some didn't care.  Clearly they were the team of guys who had just laid down the cement and they had been resting under the shade of the large tree.

It all happened so quickly.  The realization of biking through wet cement to the seemingly sudden appearance of a group of guys with half of them pissed off at me for what I had done.  At that point after apologizing several times I quickly got on my bike and made my way back home.  And I didn't look back.  I biked my little butt on out of there!

I was still curious to go back but I waited a day or two (I forget exactly how long I waited to return).  I wanted to return to see if they had fixed the area that I had biked through or if they put up a more visible barrier.

The funny thing is that my bike tracks were still there!  They didn't smooth it out.  Though I must admit that the cement seemed to smooth itself a bit as my tracks weren't quite as deep as I thought they would have been.  And the barrier was a couple of extra higher and larger pieces of wood to make the barrier more visible.

So in my search for a burning body, it turned out that I had missed it and that it had been done in the morning not the afternoon.  In the end, my mark has been left in the cement of a forest temple.  :-)

- Story submitted by VM

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