March 3, 2009
People thought my husband and I were crazy to go to Thailand and Vietnam for our recent honeymoon – “THAT doesn’t sound relaxing or romantic,” I was told more than once – so I didn’t elaborate on what we’d be doing there.
Not what you’re thinking. We went on what I like to call “death tours.”
Taking my fascination for cemeteries and legacy one step farther, such an expedition is a quest for notable places in the realm of death lore. In a sense, any place can fit the definition, as someone is sure to have died in that very spot at some time in history. (When I think about that while lying in bed in my 100+-year-old house, I can’t sleep.) But a good death tour goes a step beyond, to find the unique places and see how death informs what we see in life.
Thus I bring you Obit’s first travel extravaganza: a death tour of Thailand and Vietnam.
I like the Thai way of death. It’s elaborate, reverent, almost an extension of life. Spirit houses sit outside many residences and businesses, designed to shelter the spirits that dwell there. Many Thais make daily offerings of flowers, food and incense. This appeases bad spirits and makes the good spirits want to stay around.
My top Thai death stops are:
The Grand Palace, Bangkok
This complex of buildings is a must-see for any visitor. For more than 100 years, Thai royalty lived and worked here. Official ceremonies are still held on the grounds.
In October, the king’s sister was lying in state, prayed over each night by members of the royal family until the stars aligned for her burial. In another part of the city, an elaborate funeral pyre was being constructed for her cremation. (The princess died in January 2008 but was not cremated until November. Click HERE for more on her lavish funeral .)
The Grand Palace is enthralling, with buildings constructed in a variety of styles, from Chinese to Italian Renaissance. It houses the Emerald Buddha, but what makes this a death-tour stop is that some Grand Palace buildings are tombs. View the Royal Funeral Hall. The other sights are just a bonus.
Wat PrommaneeWat Prommanee, Nakhon Nayok
Although it’s a little off the beaten path for some tourists – about 60 miles from the capital – wouldn’t you inconvenience yourself for a chance of rebirth and a fresh start at the bargain price of $5? That’s what the Buddhist monks at this temple offer. During the daily resurrection services, hundreds of people take turns lying in one of the nine coffins in the middle of the temple while monks pray over them. They emerge a few moments later as new people, cleansed of past sins.
I used to think Catholics were letting people off easy with confession, but you have to talk during that and you can’t lie down.
The Death Railway, Kanchanaburi Province
If you know your history – or The Bridge Over the River Kwai – you know this story. During World War II, Japanese occupation forces sought to build a supply line from Burma to Thailand. More than 60,000 prisoners of war from the United States, England, Holland, Australia and New Zealand were forced to work on the railway, as were hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian laborers. More than 100,000 died during construction.
The workers were pushed to their physical limits, working long hours with little food. They fell from overwork, malnutrition and diseases like cholera. According to some experts, in certain areas one person died for every cross tie placed along the tracks.
Tourist trains along the Death Railway leave Bangkok daily. The all-day trip winds through lush green fields, along jungle-covered mountains and past a waterfall. In Kanchanburi, tourists can visit the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum. Behind the train station is the cemetery where almost 7,000 POWs are buried. It has the solemn, uniform look of a military cemetery, with neat rows of flat markers. Some are inscribed with the soldier’s name and country while others read only “An Allied Soldier of the 1939-1945 War. Known Unto God.”
Tsunami Memorial, Phuket’s Kamala Beach
The first time I ever heard of Phuket was in winter 2004 after the tsunami. I remember seeing photographs of people in bathing suits standing on the beach, watching the water recede. They look confused or excited or scared, calling friends and family perhaps to see the spectacle, maybe shouting for them to run.
It wasn’t easy to find the memorial. (A policeman just shrugged. “Thousands of people died here,” he said.) But locate it we did. Imagine a spiderweb of metal in a rough sphere, with waves of the same material inside. It’s about 20 feet high, on a raised patch of earth.
The wording on it struck me. It was neither angry nor regretful, reading in part, “Natural disaster is caused by a shift of nature to obtain equilibrium of the earth. Motions and forces of nature are inseparable. Its dynamism includes connecting, flowing and changing things ranging from atomic structure, physical chemistry, human behaviour to inner universe as a cycle of life linking everything to one.”
A little farther down the beach, another memorial, placed by Japan, called for people to give their respects to the Andaman Sea so it would respect them — us — back.
Another country where they take death – and ancestors – seriously. One guide told us a story: For years, he and his wife had yearned for a baby in vain. They consulted a Feng Shui expert, who figured out the problem. The man’s paternal grandfather was buried facing the northeast, where the storms come in. He had to be moved to face the mountains in the west. Our guide listened. He carried his grandfather’s coffin to a new resting place, and two months later, his son was on the way.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, Hanoi
It’s all about “Uncle Ho” in this city: his simple home, his thoughtful ways, his love of children. And although the man himself wanted to be cremated and have his remains scattered across Vietnam, Ho’s body was instead preserved and lies on display in Ba Dinh Square, where Ho declared the country’s independence from France in 1945.
The mausoleum was closed during our visit, but our guide described how people line up for hours to walk past his body, which lies in a dimly lit glass case as an honor guard watches over him.
Even the outside of the building is striking. Modeled after Lenin’s tomb, it dominates the landscape and gives a strong indication of how people – at least government workers who controlled spending on memorials — felt about Ho.
Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue
One of Vietnam’s oldest and most beautiful monastic complexes, Thien Mu also houses a national treasure: the car that, in 1963, carried monk Thich Quang Duc from his Hue temple to Saigon. He stepped out in the middle of an intersection, sat down in the lotus position, and set himself aflame. The images of that moment – with Thich, still and calm, as flames shoot from his body — has become iconic. Thich was protesting the government’s oppression of religion.
The beat-up blue car today sits in an open garage. A picture of Thich is on its windshield.
Khe Sahn, the DMZ
The fighting at Khe Sahn during the Vietnam War killed hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese. Even today, bodies are sometimes found in the surrounding hills.
The American base at Khe Sahn now houses a museum. The infamous air strip is barren, because, it is said, nothing will grow there. There is a bunker, probably a re-creation, but still oppressive and hot. American ordnances, helicopters, tank parts can be seen.
The small museum has photos from the battle and captions with a decidedly anti-American slant. (For example, American soldiers are described as “scared” and an image of President Johnson is superimposed over a photo of dead soldiers with a caption that ponders what he could be thinking.) One of the most moving sights is the guest book. Among messages of peace are bits of insight from those who fought here, like the American sergeant who said he fought for 77 days, from 15 Dec 67 to 22 April 68. “We never feared them (the NVA) but we respected them.”
Another woman wrote about a soldier who survived: “Peter Bogert served in the Marines and was here in the ’60s and survived to have 2 children and 1 grandchild. Semperfi.”
The one that touched me most was the simplest. Bai Thi Linh Van on Sept. 29, 2008, a Monday about 10:33 a.m., wrote:
My dad died here!”
War Remnants Museum, Saigon
This museum was once called “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government (of South Vietnam),” but the name was changed to be more tourist-friendly.
It’s a powerful museum. One area is devoted to the journalists who died covering the war. Another is dedicated to war atrocities, including chilling photos and accounts from My Lai and an exhibit about former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who in 2001 admitted his involvement in killing civilians while he was a SEAL leader in Vietnam.
More than one wall was devoted to pictures of people killed or disfigured by chemical warfare. It includes AP photographer Nick Ut’s famous photo of the naked girl fleeing a napalm attack. She is also shown as an adult, her scars clear.
Outdoors, visitors can view replicas of tiger cages, where Viet Cong prisoners were held, an American tank, and a French guillotine.
To be sure, death tours – particularly honeymoon death tours – aren’t for everyone. But maybe death and its rituals shouldn’t be avoided but embraced as a part of life. Realizing that may make our own departures easier.
Meanwhile, I’m already planning our one-year anniversary trip. I’m thinking Egypt. They have a lot of awesome tombs there.