My great English mentor would tease me much later in life when I told him about my travels to Java, Sumatra and Kyoto - “and you were born in a small corner of the former Roman province of Pannonion – a part of present day Hungary”. He would smile and tell his friends “Christian is travelling to Kuala Lumpur to watch a cricket match on the village green”.
I had lived in Hungary until almost the end of the Second World War – my mother was a farmer’s daughter and her father had served as a hussar to the Imperial Court in Vienna. In those days of extreme hardship there was little else to do but read and dream and so the desire to travel the world was born and the longing to one day see as many “Seelenlandschaften” (landscapes of the soul) as I possibly could.
The search for these landscapes was long and arduous but that night a dream of the lily pond of my hotel “Le Parasol Blanc” in the old royal capital of Laos came to me in vivid detail. I saw Luang Prahang with its dramatic scenery along the raging Mekong river and the “Le Marin Saigon” opposite the forbidden purple city Hue in Vietnam on the banks of its mighty slow moving Perfume River. This had been the home of the Vietnamese emperors. Both of these places are so different and yet so similar in their affinity, grace and tranquillity.
Luang Prabang is very much alive with its beautiful wats and temples which have been lovingly restored and coloured flags flying everywhere in the slight river breeze. Monks hurrying about in their saffron robes getting ready for prayers – chanting or helping in the work to complete work on yet more of the temples. There are ceremonies, mostly in the mornings, of alms giving and the people seem to be haggling about this and that all the time. Beautiful girls will smile and their smiles are inviting and yet tell you they are untouchable.
If you are lucky you might come across a performance of classical Laotian dancers at “Le Parasol Blanc” where they perform the traditional “Sun Dance” at sunset. The stage and restaurant are around a tranquil lily pond in which the colours are reflected and the story unfolds about the life giving power of the mighty Mekong River – just as the ancient Egyptians worshipped Amun Ra the Sun God of the Nile.
On entering through the gates of the forbidden purple city of Hue, everything looks forlorn and devastated by the long years of war and only now and then there is a lonely monk moving through the vast empty spaces. Some of the temples and gates are being restored and the gardens re landscaped but it is a massive job. It is quite noticeable that these gates have five doors and during imperial times the biggest middle gate could only be used by the Emperor, the next one to the left and right was for the army and administrators and the last two very big and wide gates were for the elephants – the symbols of power.
Maybe this has been the connection between the two cities I had been dreaming about – the “Elephant Gates of Hue” and the emblem on the Royal Laotian Standard in Luang Prabang, the home of the former “Elephant Kings”.
As the symphony neared its close it was time for the dream to end and I was brought back to London – leaving Hue to its melancholy loneliness and for the last memory of Luang Prabang with the river mirroring the evening sun and the golden stupa of Mount Phousi beckoning me to return.
The images on this page are used with the kind permission of
Christian Bartok, who retains copyright.