It’s easy to get blasé. Temples and shrines are juxtapositioned next to high rise towers and ancient ruins mingle with cities throughout Asia. Ayutthaya north of Bangkok, the old Siamese capital, with its three Chedis reaching for the sky protecting the ashes of the Kings beneath, stands out for me when visited at sunset and Wat Po (the temple of the reclining Buddha) in Bangkok is a peaceful haven in a hectic city as the colourful tiles take on a new life at night when the grounds are almost deserted. Finding solitude in hallowed grounds without the usual jostling for position amongst a sea of selfie sticks is a gift and it’s easy to forget the reason beautifully ornate structures were constructed and how crumbling towers once protected cities.
In Nha Trang on the southern coast of Vietnam the big white Buddha stands surveying the city at Long Son Pagoda. I’d put it on the back shelf as Nha Trang is a beach town where life revolves around the sea. However I decided to pay a visit.
Walking in under the large carved stone archway the entrance is guarded by a gleaming yellow, green and blue dragon surrounded by ornate urns. It’s quiet and I soon realise that the main buildings and other areas are closed between 11:30am and 1pm. I didn’t do the research as this was a spur of the moment, hop in a cab visit. If I had I would have waited. I take note for future excursions. Early morning visitors have left and the afternoon crowds have yet to arrive.
I decide to walk up the side alley and am stopped by a resident monk. It’s midday and he motions to remove my hat as the sun beats down. There’s a breeze which helps. He puts his finger to his lips and leads as I follow up the steps winding past the main temple.
We reach the top where tombstones are scattered without any distinguishable plan like mini temples, shrines protecting those beneath. Names and parting words are etched into the stone. He lights three incense sticks and hands them to me. There are three urns. I’m guided to each. Bowing three times I place one stick of incense into each one before my guide bestows a blessing on me. I close my eyes and find myself silently praying. Flowers hang from the walls, scattered porcelain and tiny horses lay at the base of a tree. Rows and rows of more moderate and simple nameplates curve around what forms the base of the summit supporting the Buddha above.
I place my offering on the blue and white plate under a rock to stop it blowing away. There has been a previous visitor evidenced by the notes left before me. Now the two of us are the only ones here.
My impromptu guide has lived in the monastery encircling the pagoda for 40 years. He is 65. These are humble quarters. I’m reminded this refuge cocooned from the city has a purpose and is not merely a photo stop in the hectic schedules of passing tourists. It’s a home, a place of study, of worship and of remembrance and while the doors have been opened the residents and those laid to rest are deserving of consideration and respect. By welcoming guests there is hope traditions can continue with the help of donations. There’s a school next door. The laughter rings out until it’s quiet as lunch finishes and class begins. Usually in the city the sound of horns and traffic is constant. Here I hear only the birds.
I walk back down and start climbing the steps on the other side. A white reclining Buddha stretches out half way up the steps that take you to the giant one sitting at the top. It covers the entire width of the hill but you can only enter the foreground from this side which is closed until one. There is an image of Buddha for people born on each day of the week and being born on a Tuesday this is mine and instantly connects me to this sacred spot. It’s an easy climb and as I continue up the city drops away below and surrounds me. On the the way down the gates to the Buddha lying propped up on one arm will be open.
At the top resting peacefully with eyes closed and hands clasped the gleaming white Buddha rises twenty four metres into the sky and sits on a pedestal with a large urn in the foreground. It is quite stunning. Circling the huge circumference leads to more name plates, row upon row, each carved with personal tributes and fresh flowers provide evidence of a loved one’s recent visit.
Returning to the bottom the doors to the main temple have been opened to reveal the inner sanctum where gold images and hanging gold and red lanterns dangle from the ceiling, glowing above the stage set with offerings. Golden warriors behind lattice gates guard the walkways and nearby amongst flowing yellow curtains a young monk pays his respect. A basket of cloth next to shoes respectfully removed invites visitors to cover their legs before entering.
As the tour buses arrive I’m on the way out. Having intended a quick photo stop, sitting in contemplation discussing life with a monk in a smattering of English and devouring one of the best noodle soups I’ve tasted, I’ve stayed for three hours. It’s a reminder that all temples are different, all have their own stories and the monks who live a most humble life are knowledgeable and interesting companions.
As I arrived at Long Son Pagoda, I thought about asking my taxi to wait. I’m glad I didn’t.