Erdene Zuu Monastery

Most Mongolians are Tibetan Buddhists. This seemed strange to me at first. Tibet is pretty far from Mongolia, and most people living in between the two regions don’t practice the same form of Buddhism. I was really curious about how this had happened. The story goes like this. Buddhism was introduced to Mongolia by Tibetans in the 16th century. The Mongols originally believed in shamanism. Though the Buddhist doctrine had been spread across all of Central Asia, it had not been very successful in Mongolia, until one Mongolian leader wanted to use religion to unite his people. He invited a Tibetan Buddhist abbot up to Mongolia to hear what he had to say. He converted to Buddhism, and bestowed the title of Dalai Lama on the abbot who had come. The word “dalai” is actually a Mongolian word.

Erdene Zuu monastery was built shortly after these events. Legend has it that, after his conversion, the Mongolian leader was instructed to build a monastery in a river valley that was also near mountains. Coincidentally (or maybe not,) it’s near the ancient city of Karakorum, which was the capital of Mongolia way back in the 13th and 14th century. Whatever the reason, it’s a stunning setting.

Prayer wheels, Erdene Zuu

Parts of the temple have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years, then during the Soviet years, most of the temple was destroyed, as were most religious buildings in Mongolia. The Communist leaders wanted to eradicate religion altogether. During purges in the 1930s, over 10,000 monks were murdered, and more were exiled to Siberia. Religious activity, which had been a huge part of Mongolian life, became nonexistent, and would be so for sixty years. The only two exceptions to the assault on religion were Gandan Khiid monastery in Ulaan Baatar and a section of Erdene Zuu, which was allowed to keep operating as a museum only. While many temple buildings were destroyed (there had been dozens,) a few of them did survive, as well as the surrounding wall.

Wall, Erdene Zuu monastery

In Tibetan Buddhism, colors are of special significance: I can’t remember which was which, but the five colors white, red, yellow, blue, and green each represent one of of the five elements. Temples are always decorated with these colors, so they’re very bright inside.

Buddha statue Like in Mahayana Buddhist temples I have visited, there were guardian king statues near the doorway of the temple buildings. They’re always fierce-looking, but this was the first time I’ve seen a guardian riding a donkey (?), using a gutted human body as a saddle.

Guardian king

Things have changed a lot since the Soviet days. Religion is thriving, and most other visitors we  saw at the temple were Mongolian. It’s a working monastery again, so monks live there, without fear for their lives.

Monks at Erdene Zuu

For foreign visitors as well, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mongolia. The country has incredible natural beauty, and there are many opportunities to get outdoors, but due to its nomadic (and recently turbulent) history, there aren’t many places to experience Mongolian culture, or imagine its past as an empire. Erdene Zuu is one of those places. There wasn’t much we could see of the old town of Karakorum, but, at our driver’s insistence, we did take a detour to see one stone tortoise statue near the monastery. Later, I learned that this was one of four stone tortoises that guarded the north, south, east, and west boundaries of the city. Stone tortoise, Karakorum

I have to admit that, before going to Mongolia, I was primarily interested in outdoorsy activities and didn’t care about visiting any temples. I only went because my mom wanted to go. But Erdene Zuu was enthralling. Though it’s hard for any attraction to compete with the beautiful scenery, I forgot all about it, just for a little while. IMG_1820


Bagan: The Should-Be World Heritage Site

Imagine an area the size of Arlington County, Virginia. Now imagine that instead of houses, schools, and paved roads, that area is filled with four thousand temples, big and small, connected by dirt roads. Most are about a thousand years old, dating back to when the area was the capital of an ancient kingdom. There are some tourists, and a few locals, but ten or twenty temples get most of the visitors, leaving most of the others empty except for their Buddha statues and artwork inside. Now you are starting to get an idea of what Bagan is like.

Bagan plain at sunset

The area was somewhat mysteriously abandoned in the 13th century- historians generally agree that it had something to do with the marauding Mongol Empire, but exactly what happened is not known. The temples fell into disrepair, and were further damaged by an earthquake in 1975, but most have now been restored. Although the Pyu kingdom in Myanmar was a contemporary of the kingdom of Angkor, and both practiced Hinduism and Buddhism, the temples are completely different. The temples of Angkor are big- Angkor Wat is gigantic- and are distinguished by their fine sculptures and bas-relief carvings. Many are made of sandstone. The temples of Bagan, on the other hand, tend to be small, and are made of red brick.

Small Bagan temple with an impressive sikhara (corncob-like topper)

Inside they are typically bare, except for a Buddha statue at the center and perhaps some fresco paintings on the walls. While some temples of Angkor are Hindu, others Buddhist; the temples of Bagan are overwhelmingly Buddhist.

Temple ceiling

A few of the more recent ones are large and have lots of statues, but it’s really only a few compared to the number of small ones.

Thatbyinnyu Pahto, one of the busiest temples for tourists, worshippers, and vendors

Actually, most of the small ones don’t have names, only numbers.

One stupa leans, maybe due to the '75 earthquake? The temple number is visible on the lower right

Due to sold-out buses, we could only spend about three days in the area, but I was glad I got to visit it at all. It’s a beautiful place and deserves to be as famous as Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat: Favorite Temples

If there’s anything that deserves two posts, it’s Angkor Wat. In the past, I avoided writing about really touristy places; that’s why there’s no post on Borobudur. I’ve changed my mind now. I know there are probably a million blog posts on trips to Angkor Wat. But only I can write about my impression of Angkor Wat. That’s part of the beauty of a place like Angkor: no one has the same experience.

My favorite temple was the Bayon.

The Bayon

I liked it because of the carvings of everyday 12th-century Cambodian life, which I mentioned in my last post. Each panel was so different from the last- they showed people going to war, preparing a feast, giving birth, or anything else.I also really liked the gigantic stone faces that stare enigmatically down at visitors. Our guide told us that no one is sure who it’s supposed to be, but it’s probably the king who commissioned the temple, Jayavarman VII.

They're always watching...

Bob’s and Lissa’s favorite temple was Prah Khan. When we went, it wasn’t very crowded- it’s not one of the must-see temples, but our guide took us there because she really likes it and thought we would too. The temple Ta Prohm is famously known as the “jungle temple,” because there are trees growing throughout the temple complex, and it’s been only partially restored. Prah Khan is similar but hasn’t even been restored as much as Ta Prohm.

Outside of Prah Khan

I asked Bob and Lissa why they liked this one the best.

Bob: It was the most jungle-y temple.

Bob at Prah Khan

Lissa: It was in the middle of the jungle and all to ourselves. I liked climbing on it.

Jungle explorers at Prah Khan

My dad’s favorite temple was Angkor Wat. I don’t have any direct quotes from him, because he hasn’t responded to my email, but if I can remember what he said when we were there, he thought that this one was the grandest and most impressive.

Just after taking this picture, Gary climbed up that tall tower behind him!

He was especially amazed at the extent of the carvings: almost all the surfaces were covered.

Apsara carving in a doorway, Angkor Wat

We only spent one morning there, but our guide told us that she sometimes gives 10-day tours of the temples. When she does that, she takes her tour group to Angkor Wat alone, for three entire days. There’s just that much stuff to see.

The art will amaze you... and dwarf you

A Beginner’s Guide to Angkor Wat


A chat with my sister, February 2011
do you want to go to Angkor Wat?
lissa: i don’t know what that is, but ok
me: google earth it

We had some visitors! My dad and sister flew out to visit us for eight days. It wasn’t much time, so we decided to spend just two days in Bangkok and the other six days in Siem Reap (visiting Angkor Wat) and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’ve been wanting to go to Angkor Wat since… I don’t know, probably since the first time I ever heard about it. Lissa, on the other hand, didn’t know what it was. But we both had a great time.

The Temples

For those of you who might be in the same boat as Lissa was: “Wat” means temple in Cambodian, but Angkor Wat is not only one temple. It’s a collection of dozens of temples, big and small. Angkor Wat is the most famous of them all, so the entire area is usually referred to as “Angkor Wat.”

Angkor Wat itself (under repair when we were there)

The temples were built between the ninth century and thirteenth century, by a succession of kings, for various reasons. Some are devoted to the Buddha or a Hindu god. Some are devoted to the kings’ parents, and some are funerary temples. Interestingly, some temples are Hindu and some Buddhist. Southeast Asia has been a cultural melting pot for a long time, and Cambodia is no exception. The ancient empire of Angkor was influenced by both India and China, Hinduism and Buddhism.

The Art

These temples are very old and historically significant, but I think the real reason they’re such popular tourist attractions is because of the art they contain. The kings were not content to just to build temples; they commissioned artists to carve intricate bas-reliefs over most of the exposed surfaces. Due to our limited time, we decided to hire a guide to take us around the temples. The bas-reliefs all tell a story: some carvings depict stories from the Ramayana, some show historical events, and some show scenes from daily life. Our guide was able to tell us what meant what, as well as point out things we wouldn’t have noticed on our own.

A scene of 12th-century daily life (people cooking a feast) at The Bayon

The Effect of Tourism

Almost every single traveller we’ve met in Southeast Asia is planning to go to Angkor Wat. I guess if you’ve flown all the way here, why not go? According to my incredibly unscientific study, it is one of the top cited must-see destinations in Southeast Asia (the other one nearly every backpacker mentions is Vietnam.) This is a good thing in many ways: Cambodia sure could use the money, and temples don’t get restored for free. However, we were constantly surprised by the number of people we saw touching the carvings. Over time, some of the carvings have gone from rough to smooth, and now appear shiny. Our guide told us that she’s also seen people breaking off pieces of the rock, to take home as a souvenir. I worry about this laissez-faire attitude towards preservation. The good thing about Angkor Wat is that there are no unsightly signs that say “Don’t touch.” Unfortunately, maybe they need them.

Bas-reliefs made smooth and shiny by too many people touching them

My dad and I agreed that if these temples were in America, the bas-reliefs would be behind glass. I had that same thought at Borobudur (in Indonesia) as well; those ruins predate Angkor’s but receive far fewer visitors, so the reliefs are still in fairly good shape. I think that in the future, both Cambodia and Indonesia will have to do more to protect their ancient temples, and that probably means Plexiglas, at least over the most popular carvings. Go now, while you can still see them up close!

Fun Things to Do at the Temples

  1. Dance like an apsara, or heavenly dancer (in Hindu mythology)

    Look at the carvings on the column on the left to see the real apsara

  2. Thump your chest in an echo chamber

    Lissa tests to see if the effect is real

  3. Touch your nose to a giant’s

    Bob at The Bayon

  4. Pretend to be Vishnu and have people worship you

    Gary plays Vishnu (with help from Bob) while Lissa and I worship him

  5. Look for Cambodian wedding parties taking photos

    Cambodian wedding party at Angkor Wat

  6. Take a hundred photos in different windows and doorways

    Doorway at Ta Phrom

    Lissa at Phra Khan

Thailand’s Temples

In Southeast Asia, we’re trying to travel overland as much as possible. To that end, we took a train all the way from Butterworth (in Malaysia) to Chiang Mai, Thailand, which took 36 hours, with a change of train in Bangkok. The train ride was a lot of fun: we chatted with the people sitting nearby, ate the Thai train food (surprisingly good) and were actually able to get some sleep! It was both of our first time on a sleeper train. The beds were really comfortable- maybe even more comfortable than some guesthouse beds.

Chiang Mai is a city that I had skipped on my last trip to Thailand, and I was really excited to go. I was not disappointed. Chiang Mai is like the Kyoto of Thailand: it has a long history, plenty of religious sites to visit, and best of all, Thai culture is very accessible there. It’s possible to take classes in Thai language, massage, cooking, etc. I signed up for a four-day Thai cooking course, but before my classes began, Bob and I had a few days to explore the city. We wandered around the old, walled city; called in to several temples, and gorged ourselves on cheap Thai food.

I’m pretty familiar with Buddhism, having lived in Japan, but the Buddhism practiced in East Asia is different from the Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia. Theravada Buddhism, which is the type practiced in Thailand, emphasizes only the Buddha’s teachings and is an older form of Buddhism than Mahayana Buddhism, which includes other teachings and doctrines that did not come directly from the Buddha. Also, in Theravada Buddhism, making merit is very important. Ways to make merit for yourself (thus ensuring a better rebirth) are to build temples or stupas, donate Buddha statues to a temple, become a monk for a short period of time, give alms to a monk… there must be more, but those are the only ones I know. The first thing I noticed in the Thai temples were that they were much more ornate than the Japanese ones. The altars, in particular, were chock-full of Buddha statues. In Japan, you typically find just one.

Statues of Buddha as well as offerings and photos of illustrious monks

Golden stupa at Doi Suthep

Stupas are also a lot more important in Thai Buddhism, it seems.One temple complex usually contains a main temple buildings, some smaller subtemples, and a stupa. They’re usually to enshrine something inside; in Southeast Asia, many temples claim to have a strand of the Buddha’s hair inside. A dead ancestor’s ashes might also be put inside, to make merit for the deceased person. At Doi Suthep (right,) there is supposedly a broken piece of one of the Buddha’s bones inside. On the other hand, the stupa at Wat Chedi Luang (below,) was built by a 14th-century king who intended to inter the ashes of his father.

One of the cool things you can do in Chiang Mai is take part in a “monk chat.” Different temples hold these at different times; we chatted with a monk at Wat Chedi Luang, which is drop-in style. It’s one of the more popular temples among tourists due to its gigantic, crumbling brick stupa (it was damaged in an earthquake 600 years ago.)

Broken 600-year-old stupa at Wat Chedi Luang

So many foreigners visit the temples in Chiang Mai but probably don’t know much about Buddhism, so English-speaking monks are on hand to answer questions. We ended up talking for an hour. The monk we spoke with was 24 years old and has been a monk for the past 11 years. It’s very common for boys in Thailand to become a monk for a few months, but not many stay for that long. He didn’t say so directly, but I got the impression that he was from a poor family, so attending a temple school was the only way for him to continue his education. Temples in Thailand don’t just focus on religious education, they also teach the usual school subjects like history and foreign languages. He was really good at English; he said he’s studying to be an English teacher. He said he gets a lot of respect in the classroom because he’s a monk.

Check out the dogs on the stairs

Another interesting thing that we learned is that in Chiang Mai, there are twelve temples devoted to the animals of the Chinese zodiac. They believe that when you die, your soul goes to rest in the temple of that animal. I didn’t find the ox temple, but Bob found his temple (he’s year of the dog.)

The outsides of the temple buildings are pretty fabulous as well. They’re extremely colorful and ornate. The eaves are the most unique aspect. I have heard (though I haven’t had confirmation on this) that the reason the eaves always point upwards is so that they’re pointing towards heaven.

A pretty little temple at Wat Chedi Luang