Once upon a time….
Laotian artist and mystic, Boun Leua Souritat went hiking in the mountains in his native land. He was walking alone, minding his own business, when he fell into a hole and landed in the lap of Keoku, a kindly hermit who lived in a cave. Leua stayed with Keoku for several years, during which time the hermit taught him about Buddha and the underworld, and introduced him to some of the Gods and Godesses who live in the higher realms of Buddhist mythology.
After resuming his life above ground, the artist created a vast array of gigantic sculptures in the forest of north-east Thailand, which he named Sala Keoku (Hall of Keoku), in honour of his spiritual teacher. Leua’s spectacular figures depict many of the religious and mythical beings that he learned about from Keoku.
Sala Keoku can be found in Nong Khai, a bustling town in north-eastern Thailand. It lies on one bank of the Mekong river, and Vientiane, Laos, lies on the other, so Nong Khai is utilised as a gateway between the two countries. In 1994, a Thai-Lao Friendship bridge was constructed to link the two destinations.
Unlike many of the travellers I met, I was neither on my way to nor from Vientiane. I would have been, had I stuck to the original route I’d planned, but chance meetings, and money problems (or rather, the lack of ATM’s in Laos), had meant that I’d re-jigged my itinerary a little. So on this occasion, having covered northern Laos on one 15-day visa (at the time of my visit in 2006 it was only possible to get a 15-day visa on arrival for Laos), I was on route from Chiang Mai to Mukdahan, for Savannaket, Laos, in order to see the southern part of the country on my second 15-day visa.
It had always been my plan to build Nong Khai into my itinerary though, as I desperately wanted to see Leua’s surreal and intriguing creations. The park did not disappoint, and I spent a good few hours here being mesmerised by these fascinating sculptures, some of which measure up to 25 metres in height.
Knowing only what I have shared with you here, about the story behind the park’s construction, I found myself wishing that I could understand the Thai script, engraved into the base of many of the sculptures. I felt almost like a story was being told as I wandered amidst these mystical creations, and I needed to know and understand that story in order to fully appreciate the presence and relevance of the figures that stood before me.
But maybe Leua wanted his creations to remain shrouded in mystery and surrounded by questions, maybe he wanted us to draw our own conclusions; write our own story.
How to get to Sala Keoku
I cycled to the park from Nong Khai, along highway 212. I hired my bicycle from the guesthouse at which I was staying, Mut Mee Garden Guest House. They also distribute handy maps, although the park is ridiculously easy to find.
Alternatively you can board a bus heading to Phon Phisai – or any other eastern destination. Hop of at Wat Khaek (the alternative name of the park), and then walk for about 500 metres in order to reach the entrance.