In the summer of 2022 Jackson School M.A. student Teshan Laucirica traveled to Thailand and Laos, where she visited the former homes of the Emerald Buddha, learning local histories of the Emerald Buddha along the way. In this interview John Tran speaks with Teshan about her experience, and what its done for her research. Teshan’s trip was supported in part by the Southeast Asia Center’s Thomas and Mary Gething award.
John: Can you provide some details about your research trip? Where did you go and for how long?
Teshan: I started in Bangkok, where I stayed a few days then flew to Chiang Mai for 5 days. Then I hired a driver who drove me to Lampang and then up to Chiang Rai. I had intended to take a day trip to Lampang and then a bus to Chiang Rai, but there were no tours to the temple I needed to visit, and it didn’t cost much more to just hire a car for the day than it would have to take a tour and then a bus. That driver was amazing, we stopped at the elephant sanctuary, a great roadside market (he picked the best snacks everywhere we went!), and we even stopped at the white temple just so I could use the “fanciest toilet”, which is was. I stayed in Chiange Rai for 4 days, but hired a driver for a daytrip to Chiang Saen and the Golden Triangle. We stopped at a coffee shop on a coffee/pot/rubber farm that is a collective of about six tribes, and also stopped at the Opium museum which basically teaches you how to grow, harvest, weigh, and smoke opium. That was very strange. Then we finished the day off at the driver’s favorite Khao Soi shop in Chiang Saen. Each area makes Khao Soi a little different, so I was trying to have that dish everywhere.
After that I flew to Vientiane, Laos for about 6 days and then to Luang Prabang for 4. Luang Prabang was beautiful, but really difficult to get around (no grab bikes) and it was just so hot, it made it hard to walk. People don’t like using the air conditioning, so it was hard to find anywhere to cool off. Even the museum had none when the “real feel” according to my phone was near 107 degrees. It seriously limited my abilities to do much. Then I flew back to Bangkok for a few more days before flying home.
John: What was your research goal and how did that change, if at all, while you were abroad? In reflecting back now that you’re stateside, how do your accomplishments compare with the expectations going into the research trip?
Teshan: Basically, I was following a single Buddha statue, the Emerald Buddha, to all the places that it has lived in its approximately 500 year existence (according to the short legend, there is the long legend that says it was created in like 47 or 57 BCE in India). There is a lot of folklore and claims to ownership of this statue, so I wanted to compare how the history is taught in each location and why there is still so much animosity between Laos and Thailand over this item. I am researching how it has been used to create nationalism, why is it that this particular (quite small and not even an emerald) statue is so important, and how it came to be so powerful, and if there is any merit to that claim. It was last paraded through Bangkok in the 1820s to bring good health during a cholera outbreak, now three times a year, the king bathes the statue and changes its seasonal outfit.
My goal did not change, but I did discover some new leads and interesting bits and pieces. In Bangkok and Vientiane, all school kids visit the temple where the statue was or is currently housed, so its existence and folklore seems to be pretty common knowledge in those places. It was housed in the most famous temple in Chiang Mai (Wat Chedi Luang) and was discovered in Chiang Rai, so people at those locations seem to be quite aware of it as well. But the temple in Lampang does not have any tours that include it, so it probably doesn’t get too much attention. But in Luang Prabang, no one I asked had even heard of it and I could not figure out which temple it had been at, even with the help of locals. That in itself is interesting though because it shows a similarity to the previous mandala kingdoms where power centers radiated out as far as they could but that was only so far. The Vietnam and Civil wars probably have something to do with this disappearance as well. Only the rather modern house of the last three kings exists, and it had already left Luang Prabang by the year 1564.
John: As I recall, you were on a slightly different research path, how did you come to researching the Emerald Buddha? How did this switch then actualize into an opportunity for a research trip?
Teshan: Yes, I had started researching on the Golden Triangle as it is one of the trafficking capitals of the world in everything imaginable; sex, drugs, labor, endangered species, and it has a most fascinating history. But something felt off about doing this research as I had never been there and lacked language skills to communicate with the people even if I could get there to do in-person research. So it seemed like I would be relying on others’ research and forming arguments or opinions based on my own assumptions which I was uncomfortable with. It hearkens back to the days when area studies research was done by white, westerners who studied the “others” over there from here, which was quite problematic. And even if I could have gone to do research, I did not want to put myself in an unsafe situation. I would have been like a wide-eyed deer in the middle of the road.
Christoph Geibel’s book was a real inspiration for the Emerald Buddha research because of the way he takes one man’s, Ton Duc Thang, history and weaves it through with the national narrative, showing how a person can be used to further nationalist goals. The Emerald Buddha seems to have something similar which continues to fuel animosity between Thailand and Laos. I did a short presentation on the Emerald Buddha for my Thai language class and the idea just kind of struck me. At a time when I was quite lost on topic ideas, I knew I needed to go to Thailand and Laos, and thought that if the Emerald Buddha research doesn’t seem like it will pan out, then hopefully I will be inspired by something there instead. The more I learned about the Emerald Buddha (which, by the way, is not even made of emerald nor jade) the more fascinating it became.
John: How was it to see the Emerald Buddha in person? Did it live up to your expectations? How has your research changed now that you have seen it in person?
Teshan: The Emerald Buddha is shockingly small when you see it in person, especially because there are so many absolutely enormous Buddha statues in Southeast Asia and the folklore about the Emerald Buddha are so large. There are probably hundreds if not thousands of replicas, so researching why this particular one is so special is interesting. You cannot get close enough to really see the outfits in person, but I have read that one is diamond encrusted. The seeming disconnect between Buddhas teachings and vast amounts of Thailand’s and Laos’ wealth appear to be concentrated in the temples and monarchy’s palaces. My plan was to research how the history of the Emerald Buddha is taught in each location it has resided and that is how I learned that some believe it was found in a watermelon, a story that does not get taught in Bangkok.
John: What surprised you the most about researching abroad?
Teshan: It was my first time traveling alone, so that was interesting.There were a few disappointing things, like the fact that my Thai language skills are just not up to the task of historical research at that level yet. But it was good enough to have small conversations, and when the woman working at the temple in Chiang Rai realized I could read Thai she gave me a small book that I thought was about the Emerald Buddha. I was super excited to read it, but it was just a basic book on Buddhism with the Emerald Buddha on the cover. I am always surprised by the kindness of others while traveling in general, but the people who tried to help with the research by doing google searches in Lao, directing me to different places or books, all made for a really wonderful experience. As an American, sometimes I wonder why I am studying Thailand and Laos, and if it is my place to do so, but after traveling around the area more, I feel better about it. The people of Thailand and Laos are so warm and welcoming in general, some people seemed surprised at my research topic, or even wanting to learn the language, but no one made me feel like it was not an appropriate topic for a foreigner to research so that was a relief.
John: How will your research trip impact your remaining time at the University of Washington?
Teshan: It has been helpful for my MA thesis for sure and has definitely provided a lot of inspiration both to continue learning Thai and for the research, because I still have so many unanswered questions. There is one story that the Emerald Buddha came from a watermelon, and I have been having a very hard time finding more research or information on that story line. But it is so unique to all the other stories that I am determined. I have an interesting balance to find between the history department and the anthropology department (and of course the Jackson School!) so you will find me precariously floating between them for the rest of the year.
John: What was your most memorable non-research related experience?
Teshan: It’s hard to choose one because there were so many. I made friends with a Japanese guy and a Thai woman in Bangkok, and I can speak a little Japanese, so our conversations were a funny mix of all three languages but it worked surprisingly well. I took a rickety motorcycle tuktuk to the waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang and it kept breaking down on the winding mountain road on the way back. And I saw an old lady elephant at the sanctuary when all the other elephants had been evacuated because of the flooding. Also, my street in Vientiane had the worst flooding in the city while I was there.
John: Finally, do you recommend a summer research trip to others?
Teshan: I would absolutely recommend a summer research trip because spending time is the only way to get to know an area one is studying. It will also help improve your language skills just by negotiating in the world where the language is spoken. It can be a real financial burden, but even so, it’s worth it. Just consider it a quarter’s tuition and apply for funding wherever you can.