A few months ago I visited Phanom Rung, a 12th century Khmer temple situated on top of a hill in the north east of Thailand. (My original Postcard is here.) Last week something awful happened there: the temple was vandalised. A large number of naga (mythical serpent) balustrades were smashed, as was the Nandi figure (the bull vehicle of the Hindu deity Shiva), two singha (mythical lion) figures and a couple of guardian statues. The Shiva lingam (stylised phallus) at the heart of the temple was moved from its yoni (female private parts) and turned to face the opposite direction.

Phanom Rung naga balustrade
Naga balustrade at Phanom Rung

Phanom Rung nandi figure
Nandi figure at Phanom Rung

Phanom Rung guardian
Guardian figure at Phanom Rung with Shiva lingam in background

There was apparently some sort of black magic ritual performed before the vandalism – a plastic glass of water and three cigarettes were found as well as candles and incense sticks – though the purpose of the ritual is unclear. One theory is that the ritual was to counteract the effects of a previous ritual performed by the current government at the site. Another is that the ritual was associated with the production of amulets.

The local people are stunned. Many of them were involved in the 10 year restoration project for the temple back in the 70s. They can’t believe that anyone local would do something so terrible. One of the archaeologists who worked on the original restoration said “I never thought that I would have to restore this temple again, especially as a result of vandalism. The feeling is so much different. The 1971 restoration work was conducted because of natural causes, but this time it is the work of a group of ill-willed people.” The site – like many similar sites in Thailand – was woefully poorly protected. The budget only allowed for three security guards to be employed to cover what is a large area.

Restoration will be swift – probably about a month – but the shock will take longer to fade.


I drove G to the central police station where he had to make a statement. The place seemed fairly chaotic. Nobody was manning the front desk, but seemingly at random various police officers would arrive and take away one of the waiting to somewhere more private to conduct constabulary business. Eventually G was taken away for his interview. About an hour later he reemerged to tell me that the police didn’t believe his story about his pick-up having been hit by another vehicle, and that they wanted him to pay a 400 Baht fine for the damage to the concrete barrier at the central reservation.

Damaged Barrier

G didn’t want to accept this fine – it would affect the insurance claim. G was told to wait whilst the police officers had a private discussion.

At this point I went home. I hadn’t showered or shaved by this point, wasn’t wearing any deodorant, and was wearing yesterday’s shirt. To put it bluntly, I smelt pretty bad.

I put a dish of home-made baked beans in the oven to warm and quickly showered. Then suddenly remembered something I’d seen at the scene of the crash: there was a headlight near the start of the skid marks. I drove back to the scene, took my life in my hands again as I crossed the Asia Highway, and started searching. I couldn’t find the headlight, but I found several pieces of silver plastic, some of which appeared to be from a bumper. (G’s pick-up is white.) I gathered these up and went back to the police station. As I arrived there G ‘phoned me to say that he needed 2,500 Baht; the police had agreed to investigate the crash, subject to a fee. I drove to the nearest ATM and withdrew the money.

At this point G was at the police vehicle compound on the outskirts of Ayutthaya. He said that he’d be back at the police station in 15 minutes. I had a choice of waiting in police reception with its hard, plastic chairs, pesky flies and stifling air, or outside with its even harder, concrete benches, equally pesky flies, and baking sun leavened only by a slight breeze. I chose the latter. More than an hour later G turned up. It took a further hour for him to pay the fee and complete the paperwork.

But that wasn’t the end of it. We had to drive to the police vehicle compound to complete even more paperwork. “Compound”, perhaps, is rather too grand a word for a patch of dirt with a couple of huts at the end of a gravel track. Here there was a handful of smashed-up cars and a larger number of smashed-up motorcycles.

G's car
G’s pick-up at the Police Compound

Eventually G was free to go. By now it was mid-afternoon, and my baked beans had been in the oven rather too long. Still, having only had two mouthfuls of muesli all day, I thought they tasted fine.

Things are still far from over. G will have to come back to Ayutthaya to make a further statement, and will then have to appear in court. The toughest thing for him, though, will be how to tell his mother.


I’m sitting in the waiting area of a local hospital. All of life is here. There’s the toddler with her hair in a pair of bunches, with shoes which squeak with her every step. There’s a pair of schoolboys with their brown shorts, brown, calf-length socks and brown canvas shoes. There’s the middle-aged woman standing at a payphone talking urgently, with hushed tones to some anonymous recipient. There’s the baby with spiky hair in his mother’s arms. There’s an elderly woman lying on her side comatose, covered in a blanket being pushed from somewhere to somewhere else. And out of sight in the Emergency Room is a good friend of mine.

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

This weekend G, a friend from Bangkok, came to visit me. It was a joyful weekend. He’d just become an uncle for the first time on the Saturday morning and was excited about that. We talked for hours about this and that, about everything and nothing. On the Monday morning we both woke at the ungodly hour of 5:45 so that he could drive to work and I could lock the gate behind him after he left. Ten minutes later I was watching the BBC news on TV and starting on my bowl of muesli when there was a ‘phone call. It was G. My first thought was that he’d accidentally left something behind. But no. He said he’d been in a serious car accident, and would I come?

I drove as fast as I could to get there, but wasn’t prepared for what I saw: there were some long skid marks, a trail of debris, a stream of brake fluid, and his white pick-up truck on its side, facing the wrong way in the fast lane of the Asia Highway. There were also three other vehicles, Emergency Medical Services. Two had arrived following a ‘phone call from someone who’d seen the accident, though the first on site had been passing by chance.

Thailand doesn’t have a national ambulance service. Rather, groups of (mostly) volunteers respond to accidents. They do it to gain merit according to Buddhist philosophy. They also get money from the hospitals to which they deliver their accident victims. So fierce is the competition for accident victims in some parts of the country that if members of two different groups arrive at the same time there can be fisticuffs, or worse, for the right to help the victim.

In accordance with Thai law one mustn’t move any vehicle involved in an accident until the scene has been inspected, either by the police, or (more usually) by the insurance company’s agent. G was standing next to his pick-up waiting for both. At least he wasn’t visibly injured.

I risked life and limb to dash across four lanes of the Asia Highway to reach the central reservation. There G told me what had happened: he’d been driving along in the third lane at a moderate speed when he was rammed from behind by another vehicle. He then skidded and hit the concrete barrier of the central reservation, upon which his vehicle flipped on its side and slid a further 20 metres or so down the carriageway. Then his pick-up was hit by another fast-moving vehicle. He couldn’t open the passenger side door, but was able to wind down the window, so he’d hauled himself up through it and out of the pick-up, leaving his shoes behind in the process; he was standing at the roadside in just his socks. The vehicle which hit him didn’t stop. Why? Perhaps the driver was drunk. Perhaps he didn’t have insurance. Perhaps he didn’t have a driving licence. Quite possibly, all three.

After a long wait for the police and the insurance agent G decided to abandon the wait, leaving the scene in the hands of the Emergency Medical Service team, and I drove him to the nearest hospital.

And now I sit, waiting, pondering the frailty of life.


Fortunately, G wasn’t too badly injured – lots of bruising and muscle pains, but the X-ray revealed nothing broken. He was able to walk out of the hospital clutching a bag with a rainbow assortment of different pills.


27. May 2008 · Write a comment · Categories: Laos

It’s been raining heavily for the past few hours, and it has done so most days for about a week now. The cold season is over and the life-affirming rainy season is upon us.

The start of the Thai year, Songkran, is timed to coincide with the start of the rainy season. That was last month. I’m not a great fan of Songkran: young adults put oildrums full of water (often dirty khlong water) on the back of pick-up trucks and drive around town throwing bucketfuls over all and sundry. Children have to make to with supersoaker water guns. And, of course, farang are a prime target. So usually at Songkran I leave the country. This year I went for a short break in Luang Prabang, Laos’ second city and its spiritual heart.

I’d not taken into account that the Laotians have their own version of Songkran which, if anything, is wilder than the Thai form. It lasts four days. I lost count of how many times I was soaked over my brief stay, but it was many dozen.

Songkran was originally a more refined affair. Monks cleaned their temples,

Novice monks washing Buddha figures, Luang Prabang

and laity brought sand to replace the grains they’d taken away on the soles of their shoes throughout the year. Children would return home to pour a little scented water over the hands of their parents and other revered elderly people as a mark of respect. How it became the mad, water-chucking frenzy it is today is unclear, but the same transformation has taken place not only in Thailand, but also in Laos and Burma. (In Burma the trains don’t have glass windows, just metal bars, and they travel very slowly. Many a bucketful of stinky, slimy water came through the window as I travelled from Mandalay to Rangoon.)

For me, the attraction of Luang Prabang isn’t getting soaked, but its graceful temples with low-sweeping roofs. There are dozens of them. (There used to be many more, but the Americans did a pretty good job of bombing many of them out of existence during the Vietnam war.)

Temple in Luang Prabang

Temple in Luang Prabang

(Apparently, the “lay-oss” pronunciation of the country was created for Richard Nixon because he didn’t want to call the country “louse” when he finally confessed to some of the US atrocities against the country on TV.)

And in the mornings the monks emerge at dawn to receive alms from the local people. There weren’t the groups of 90 or 100 monks that I saw when I was here last – perhaps no more than a dozen at a time – so I wonder if the temples are in decline (though it could be a seasonal thing).

Alms giving in Luang Prabang

In the centre of town the process of alms giving has become unpleasantly commercialised, with organised tour groups and touts selling food to tourists to give to the monks. Sadly, some of this food is stale or otherwise tainted, and many monks have become sick as a result of eating it. The situation got so bad that the monks threatened to stop tak baht. Cynically, the Lao government resolved that if the monks stopped their daily rounds, it would employ actors to dress as monks so as not to impact the tourist revenue.

The local scenery is also beautiful. A lot of tree cover remains, unlike Thailand which has largely been denuded. (In the 17th century Ayutthaya was in the middle of a vast forest with elephant, deer and tigers. Today it’s surrounded by a flat landscape barely punctuated by the odd tree.)

One day I took a boat trip to a pair of sacred caves where the Lao people take their old and broken Buddha figures. There are thousands of them there in different styles and sizes.

Buddha Images at Pak Ou, Luang Prabang, Laos

Because it was Songkran the caves were packed with people washing the Buddha figures.

I also visited a park with a series of waterfalls. I cooled off swimming in a pool under one of the falls; the water was icy cold.

Pool outside Luang Prabang

Some young daredevils took a more energetic approach.

Young daredevils at a pool outside Luang Prabang

Apart from that, I enjoyed the local food. It’s not as spicy as Thai and, perhaps, not as refined, but still very tasty: coconut-milk based curries, salads with coriander and mint, and simply grilled fish and meats.

Luang Prabang is still quite a sleepy town, but has changed a lot in the ten years since I was there last. There are now classy restaurants and boutique hotels where once there was only simple, open air restaurants and basic sleeping quarters. And the number of tourists has swollen. I do wonder how much longer before Luang Prabang becomes Disneyfied.