"The city of spirits" of Laos built by the leader of the cult, populated by demons


On the banks of the Mekong River in Laos is a "city" built by a cult leader and populated by demons, gods and warriors.

Hundreds of these otherworldly beings are grouped in a park called Spirit City, which was built in the 50s by one of the most unusual men in the modern stories of Laos and Thailand.

This eerie place on the outskirts of Vientiane has become an unlikely tourist attraction, with visitors attracted there not only by its over 200 giant Buddhist sculptures, but also by the bizarre backstage of the park.

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A low-profile tourist destination, Laos does not have the main credit cards boasted by its neighbors like Cambodia, with its incredible temple complex of Angkor Wat, or Thailand with its extraordinary beaches.

Instead Laos is making a name for itself as a country that has really strange attractions, from this "city" of worship to unexplained archaeological sites, a museum of landmines and a remote cave full of religious effigies.

The UNESCO has just given the prestigious status of Heritage of Humanity to the Plain of Jars of Laos, a curious landscape punctuated by ancient stone vases that date back more than 2000 years and remain a mystery to scientists.

Meanwhile, more and more tourists are heading to Xieng Khuan, the Laotian name for Spirit City.

This moniker was given by Bunleua ​​Sulilat, a controversial shaman born in Thailand but who lived in Laos for many years and developed a cult-like following. Instead of becoming a Buddhist like most of his countrymen, Sulilat mixed elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and shamanism to create a religion of their own.

An avid inventor of myths that possessed a great charisma, Sulilat began to gather a large following immediately after building the city of spirits in the mid-20s.

He told his disciples that as a boy he had explored a cave when he had met a hermit who had given him secrets for the universe, which he now applied in his religion.

That hermit was called Sala Keoku, which was the name that Sulilat gave to the second extravagant sculpture park he created, this time in Thailand after escaping across the border in 1975 following the communist revolution in Laos.

Part of the reason why his original park, Spirit City, has become so popular with tourists is the unusual aspect that Sulilat gave him.

Not only is it full of strange and sometimes horrible depictions, but legend has it that Sulilat has incorporated mystical and often cryptic clues all over the place, blending myths from Buddhism and Hinduism.

Sounds pretty weird, right? Well, the first tourist I met in this park is with you.

"This place is really weird," the American woman said as she walked ahead of me through an entrance designed to look like a demon's mouth.

"Yes, I don't understand any of this," replied his traveling companion, staring at the huge pumpkin-shaped structure they were entering. Whether they knew it or not, this is the whole point of Xieng Khuan.

Sulilat wanted this park to get confused with visitors, to give them mixed messages and leave them unsure why it was so strangely constructed.

This small park is like a forest of stone statues. Some are small, others are huge, others are simple, others are decorated, some look friendly, others look terrifying.

One of the first sculptures I encountered was a ferocious seven-headed Naga, a dragon from the Buddhist mythology believed to guard a place, a person or a deity.

Sulilat would have been well aware of the many bizarre legends surrounding the Naga, including that they lived secretly in the Mekong River and, if disturbed, could trigger natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods.

Sulilat told his disciples that by following his eclectic faith and paying homage to several religions at the same time, they were offering additional protection from the wrath of the gods.

Towards the end of the 70's, he finally moved to Nong Khai, Thailand, just across the border from Vientiane, Sulilat established a forest camp where he lived with dozens of his followers.

It was at this site that he built the Sala Keoku park at the end of the 70's.

Sulilat had many disciples until his death in 1996, after which both parks he built began to degrade. It is only in the last decade that the parks have been renovated and have become famous tourist attractions, particularly Spirit City, just 35 minutes drive from the capital of Laos.

While walking around Spirit City, admiring his gods carved from the Chinese, Indian, Thai, Cambodian, Burmese and Laos religions, I met Australian, American, English, German, Irish and Japanese tourists. They all seemed confused by their surroundings. Again and again I heard exclamations of amazement.

Even 23 years after his death, Sulilat continues to play with the minds of humans.

Ronan O’Connell is a freelance journalist and photographer specializing in travel and sports. Continue the conversation @ronanoco



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