The Abbot Is an Alien

HE looks so at home at a temple here in Vientiane that no one would suspect his homeland lies beyond Laos’s southwestern border. Venerable Vanna Souryavong, however, says that although he still visits Cambodia, his home country, from time to time, Laos will probably be the place where he will die.

The 66-year-old monk is the abbot at the beautiful Wat Mixayaram Meoung Chanthaboury on Setthamthirath road in Vientiane, just a hundred metres from the banks of the Mekong River. He is also the deputy chief of Vientiane’s approximately 1,989 monks. Venerable Vanna is believed to be the first Cambodian monk to occupy such high ranks in Laos since the 14th century, when a Laotian monarch invited a monk from Cambodia to be his adviser.

Like Laos, Cambodia is predominantly Theravada Buddhist. Venerable Vanna himself notes, “Buddhism in Cambodia has 84,000 dharma (doctrines). In Laos we have 84,000 dharma as well. The only difference is the pronunciation.”

He says Cambodian and Laotian monks have some sort of exchange programme with one another that enables them to enhance their knowledge of the teachings of Buddha, as well as helps them appreciate other ways of approaching their religion.

In fact, this was why he came over to Laos in 1967, or three years before Cambodia disintegrated into civil war. He had planned to stay in Laos only up to 1970, but that was the year when the war began in Cambodia.

He says he could not speak Lao too well back then, and he “felt so sad and missed my homeland.” He did not even know then that the next time he would see his relatives would be more than 30 years later.

But being stuck in Laos apparently saved his life. During the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia that lasted between 1975 and 1979, some 50,000 monks were killed in his country. This was even if many other monks gave up their saffron robes because the Khmer Rouge did not look kindly at the religious (and just about everyone else, for that matter).

Today Venerable Vanna is among the few Cambodian men who have remained monks, without interruption, for almost half a century.

But if years ago he could barely speak Lao, now he is no longer very fluent in his native tongue. Struggling to speak in Khmer, he haltingly tells of being born on May 15, 1940 to a peasant family in a remote district in the Cambodian northeastern province of Battambang. He became a nen – novice – in 1957, and then a phikhok or monk in 1962. When he decided to continue his Buddhist studies in Laos, he crossed the border in Stung Treng, and settled in Sarawan, a southern Laotian province. He left Sarawan for Vientiane in 1982. Years later, the former abbot of Wat Mixayaram Meoung Chanthaboury would become his major backer in getting the positions he has now.

For some reason, Venerable Vanna has a Khmer literature book in his hands while he is telling his life story. It is apparent, however, that he has become one with Laos. “Now I am Lao,” he even says. “I do not want to move back to Cambodia.”

“When the war was finished (in Cambodia), the bad thing also finished,” he concedes, referring to the nightmare of living in a country where one was almost always in the crosshairs of someone’s gun. In late 1998, he was even able to go back to his hometown and spend a few days with his family. He maintains contact with his relatives up to now. He says, however, that he is too ill to finally go home. “It is too late for me,” he says simply.

Venerable Vanna says that once he got over his homesickness years ago, he realised that “for a monk who follows Buddha’s way, location does not matter.”

“Buddha,” he says, “does not mind whether you are in Laos or in Cambodia.” — Khan Sophirom