The view north up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang beckons with mystery. Soft clouds, ranges of mountains both close and far, a strong current flowing south to Cambodia and Vietnam, a breeze coming from distant China in the north. Autumn in the air.
And the 4,000 Buddhas of the Pak Ou Caves at the end of a two hour Mekong journey.
We had met Souk, our affable and helpful Laotian boatman, on the banks of the Mekong. After talking with him he wisely recommended we journey with him at noon to beat the heat of the day. For a reasonable price Jan and I were with him for almost four hours up and down the Mekong. No tour groups. No talking. Just the quiet of the river and its landscape.
We walked down to the riverbank and into his boat, ready for the two hour journey towards the Pak Ou Caves.
The Mekong current flows south and we’re headed north upriver. It will take two hours up and one hour back. As we leave the riverbank, Souk holds fast to the right side of the river, never venturing into the quickly moving current in the center.
The landscape surrounding the riverscape is breathtaking. The mountains are distant but clear, with noon day clouds perfectly accenting the views.
The two hours needed to travel to the Pak Ou caves are a joy, the natural landscape of Laos unfolding on every turn of the river. The Land of 1,000 Elephants, the Kingdom of Laos, is a joy to behold. Laos is a country that is more a collection of different peoples than a single unified group, and in many ways the country of Laos we know today is an odd invention of the French in the 19th century. Paris decided Laos was a backwater worth no investment for almost a century, abusing it for one crop: opium. Laotian poverty traces a long line back to France. What were we all thinking?
Despite the confusions and agony of history, Laos today remains the Land of 1,000 Elephants…
As we approach the end of our journey and the beginning of another, limestone mountains appear more clearly, guiding us safely to the 4,000 Buddhas of the Pak Ou Caves.
Souk docks our boat at the entrance to the caves and we disembark. Climbing a tall and long staircase, we enter into an ancient and mysterious set of caves going back centuries. The impact of the shrine is pure magic after two hours on the Mekong. This has become no longer a journey, but a pilgrimage.
The cave is filled with statues of the Buddha, the great teacher of Asia. Composer Chinary Ung once explained to me that Buddha is to Hinduism as Christ was to Judaism. Both figures should be seen as reformers of existing religious beliefs. The accumulation of the statues of the Pak Ou Caves reaches into a long past. No one knows the real starting point, but as a point of reflection the caves certainly contain a key to the relationship of faith and nature that is omnipresent in Asia. The statues venerate Buddha as Teacher. He is not a god but the greatest of all teachers.
History is bound up with geography. To know a place, a culture, a religion, a people, I find it essential to visit, research with honesty, study, and observe the environment over time. I did the same study as a student in the late 1970s in Vienna, learning German at the University of Vienna and studying French horn with Roland Berger of the Vienna Philharmonic. I wanted to actually speak the language of the city of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mozart, Haydn, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern to ground my musical foundation.
And so coming in contact with Asia later in life, I have applied the same passion. To simply program Asian composers because of the demographics of LA, to strike a few gongs and think you have found a new promised land, is for me a cultural parody.
Laos has revealed the mystery of Asia to me more than any other country in the twelve trips I’ve made to this continent over the last decade. And though a side trip from Hanoi, visiting Luang Prabang and the Land of 1,000 Elephants has confirmed my belief that Southeast Asia is where you find balance through chance.
Slowly but surely I hope you will understand me when I say that programming is not easy nor for the faint of heart. To be done with honesty, you have to confront spiritual and emotional truth in the music assembled for a concert. No good idea comes without searching patiently. I believe much of what we experience today in music is now routine and programs are created far to quickly by assembling the greatest hits.
You have to change and inspire people with every program. Ideas need integrity and authenticity to succeed. I don’t believe in public out-reach without first a personal in-reach of the mind…
I’ll continue to reveal Laos in my next post on the autumnal beauty of the Kuang Si Waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang.
Best, best, best,