Nong Khai is a place most people pass through briskly, on their way from Thailand into Laos. It is modestly-sized, but the town’s infrastructure makes clear the difference between Thailand and its neighbour, just across the Mekong. The roads are clean and well laid out. When Claire and I cycled out of town, through nearby villages, there were well-stocked shops, public phones and power lines, which are all rare in rural Laos. Nong Khai also has expatriates. Some of them are teachers or small business owners, others are pensioners, but the majority are dishevelled men of a certain age, who spend their days in bars beside the Mekong, drinking and whoring. Border runs to Laos are easy, I suppose.
Nong Khai is a town without pretences, with one exception: the Salakaewkoo Sculpture Park, a garden filled with cement colossi on its outskirts, made at the inspiration of a single man. Claire and I spent most of our time in Nong Khai at Mut Mee Gueshouse, writing in its garden. We were doing work for a Hong Kong magazine, but found time for a few stories of our own. We did not find time for the tale of the sculpture park. I’ve borrowed it instead, from the owner of Mut Mee, Julian Wright.
Salakaewkoo was built by the mystic shaman Luang Poo Boun Leua Sourirat, who passed away in 1996, after constructing it, with the help of devotees, for more than twenty years.
Luang Poo Boun Leua Sourirat loved snakes, so much so that he believed in the ‘coming of the age of the snake’. Seeing them as the purest of all animals, having no arms or legs with which to destroy the world, he described himself as being half man, half snake.
He claimed that in his youth he had fallen into a hole in the forest where upon he met the acetic ‘Kaewkoo’ who lived at the bottom of it. ‘Kaewkoo’ taught him all secrets of the underworld, not least about snakes which were the principal inhabitants of that realm. Later, he trained as a Hindu Rishi in Vietnam and mixed Hinduism into his system of beliefs.
As a Lao national, he first started to produce sculpture on the riverbank on the Lao side of the Maekong river. But as the communists became more powerful, he became concerned that they may not accept his unorthodox views and so fled to Nong Khai in 1974, where he embarked on the creation of Salakaewkoo; his grandest artistic vision. The name means the ‘Pavilion of Kaewkoo’.
Today his mummified body can be seen on the third floor of the main building, under a glass hemisphere…He always claimed that his followers, who built all the statues, were entirely untrained, but their skill came to them from a divine source. Moreover, he frequently warned that anyone who drank even a sip of water in the park would eventually give to it all their money!
In the years following his death Salakaewkoo became more and more run down and untidy… until the local government stepped in and decided that his legacy should not be allowed to deteriorate further, so now it is being repaired and restored to its former grandeur.
There are more than one hundred sculptures in the park some of them reaching seven stories up into the sky. Some depict snakes, others images taken from either Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism. Hinduism is well represented too, with images of Shiva and Pavati, Brahma and Vishnu.
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