Category Archives: Asian Summer

Inle Lake in Myanmar

 

Inle Lake hotel and spa

Our lodge on Inle Lake

Inle Lake is a very beautiful, tranquil and special place to visit in Burma or Myanmar. There are many hotels on the lake, maybe the best Myanmar has to offer. We stayed at the Inle lakeResort and Spa. It was off season and we were almost alone in a big resort and spa, so the prices were discounted for massages, which is always a big plus.

Even in the off season, there is a lot to see. Of course everywhere you go,you go by boat.

The lake area supports about 70,000 people. Many of them are fishermen. They fish in an unusual manner.

fishing in Inle lake

The fishermen stand in their small canoes and row with their feet. They are very stable as they throw and retrieve the nets. This guy was so good he was even able to smoke while doing this feat.

The crucial element of this talent is using the toes properly.

These guys are collecting the weeds growing in the lake for use as fertilizer.

Every year in September/October there is a three week event  called Hpaung Daw U Festival.

Included in this festival are races between villages in foot paddled boats.  Also during this festival the Royal Barge is brought out of storage and sailed from village to village.

This is a big deal to the inhabitants of the villages around the lake. The journey of the barge takes up almost the entire three weeks. Each town turns out their best as the barge visits them.

One year, a tragedy struck. A storm hit the lake and the barge sank. The real tragedy was that when this barge does the tour, it carries five Buddhas encrusted with gold leaf. Only four were recovered right away, the fifth turned up in a fishing net years later. This is a photo of a painting in a temple alongside the lake depicting the tragedy.

This is a memorial in the lake to mark the spot where the barge sank.

Buddhas encrusted with gold

Buddhas encrusted with gold leaf? Yup. In fact there is so much gold on these things they look more like a lump of mashed potatoes than Buddhas. Here I am adding to the treasure and having a spiritual moment.

There are numerous villages on the lake. Each one has a different industrious specialty.

In this village, they rolled cheroots and cigars.

In this village they had the Temple of Jumping Cats. The cats were trained by a monk to jump through a hoop. The monk is long dead, but the tradition survives. I canot get my cat to jump off the couch, so I am amazed by this. Of course I am easily amazed.

Burmese cats

In between two villages was a beautiful, very large sanctuary dedicated to the restoration of the Burmese cat to Burma. About ten years ago a wealthy man found out there were no more Burmese cats in Burma. So he went all over the world to find pure bred Burmese cats. They have a playground better than most grammar schools, a huge house to roam. They breed here, but they do not sell the cats. So if you want to see a Burmese cat in Burma, this is the place

Another village is dedicated to weaving lotus stalks into cloth. This is how they extract the fiber from the stalk. The emphasis is on quality not quantity. It takes many man hours (woman hours really) to get enough fiber to weave.

Weaving lotus cloth is much more complicated than cotton or silk, because the strands they have to work with are quite short and must be tied together.

Mary Ann owns more scarfs than I ever owned Grateful Dead T shirts, so I knew she would buy one. All those woman hours do not come cheap, and I imagine the village ate well for a few days after we left.

There were villages dedicated to silver work, paper making and aqua culture. We visited them all.

There are five community market towns surrounding the lake. The market moves from town to town every day. This is the parking lot where we went.

On the way we passed this vendor taking his baskets to market.

Because we were just visitors we had to park a ways away and use this bridge to cross the water to get to the market town.

It was a long walk from the water to the town. We saw many people who had shopped early returning home.

Look closely, you will see my wife “inspecting” a load of bamboo floor mats heading to market.

Traditional clothes are still worn, especially by the women. The Burmese know hats!

nuts in Burma or Myanmar

Nuts and such for sale.

Spices. What did I say about hats?

If you ever go to Burma or Myanmar, be sure to go to Inle. When you do, be sure to see the lost temples.

There is one area on the lake where (in relative terms) they recently discovered hundreds of small temples that the jungle had consumed. Most of them are visible now, and some are restored. It is a great place for a walk.

One more quirky thing to show you.

Whenever you leave the main body of water to go near a village or a lodge, you must go over a speed bump! I have never seen a speed bump on water before.

All good things must come to an end.

That is it for Inle. Thanks for reading please hit share to send this to all your close friends on FB, and if you get truly adventurous, make a comment.

Burmese Days Part 3, Mandalay

For the Temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea;

            On the road to Mandalay. R Kipling

We did not take “the road to Mandalay” we flew. This time I think it was Asian Wings Airline, another start-up with two planes. Same process as before including the cool little stickers you had to wear in the waiting room.

Mandalay (which avoided the name change fad) is a port city on the Irawaddy River which starts in the Himalaya and runs the length of  Burma. Although it is a bustling city, it retains a certain charm, maybe it is the name.

This is a view from atop Mandalay Hill, which of course has another temple. You can see the busy port and part of the city. However, Kipling’s poem is an example of artistic license, you cannot see the sea. In other verses of the poem he says China is on the other side of the river. Well, not yet anyway.

Mandalay has a thriving Jade business.  We went to the Jade cutting area of town, which is three big square blocks and busy as a county fair on the 4th of July.

The jade, all mined in Burma, arrives in big blocks that look like normal old rocks to a guy like me.

These stones then get sawed into more manageable sized pieces. Big operations like this were all over the area, not just this one.

Then the pros go to work. They take a long time with high intensity lights and other vision enhancement tools to decide if a stone is worth further work, and if so where to cut it. Jade has relative values according to color and they work hard to get a part of a stone with pure dark green isolated for the best jewels.

Some jade beads in process.

Garbage jade! This where they dispose of the parts of the stones they do not want. I asked the guide if they would mind if I took a piece. He laughed and told me to go ahead, it is garbage. So I rooted through the pile and came up with a nice jade soap holder for the bathroom. I think that when tourism picks up in Myanmar, that will be harder to do!

Another Mandalay must see is the largest monastery in town.

We got there on laundry day. There were monk’s robes hanging out to dry all over the campus. I say campus because this is not just a monastery it is also a school.

It is a place where young novice monk in training go to learn the lessons of the Buddha before they can wear the maroon robes. There is a very big ceremony in a family when they send a son off to become a monk. Family, freinds, neighbors all come and give gifts. But some of the kids just do not make it. I have had at least three guides who lasted as little as two days, or a couple weeks. They could not take the long periods of fasting. In this picture they are standing in line for lunch with their bowls.

It is a very longline. This is a big complex. Women come from other parts of Manadaly and cook the meal in a huge kitchen. All the food comes from money donated by the community This is the place where the military government killed a bunch of monks, which set off the revolt that resulted in a democratic government.

The Source!

In the last few years of extensive travels in Buddhist Asia, we have seen more Buddha statues than it would be possible to count. In  Mandalay we saw something that I never expected to see.

Our guide, wh0 by now had tossed the itinerary away because he knew we wanted the bizarre stuff took us to a BUDDHA FACTORY!

The Buddhas are carved without much detail and without faces, until someone buys them and specifies what they want. Of course I was irreverent enough to ask our guide “If I bought this guy here, could I have MY face carved on it? ” I was not sure what the look on HIS face meant.

Then he pointed at this Buddha as if to say “put your face on this one.”

Mandalay Gold

Gold leaf is a very big thing in the Buddhist world. It is a common offering to Buddha statues to apply gold leaf to them. Now we got to see how it was made.

Of course you start with real gold. This was from a mine in the north of Myanmar.

Then the gold is melted, formed, pounded, stretched, pounded and pounded again until it is thinner than newspaper. It is then cut into squares about 2×2″. That little piece of gold from the last photo makes dozens of these sheets used for offerings. You can see them in this photo. The value added to the gold is probably five fold.

OK, that is it for this post, but we are not done with Mandalay yet. Next post we visit Mignon which is a community across the Irawadddy river which has among other things, the world largest brass bell! Stay tuned, share this with a friend, and thanks for reading.

Burmese Days, Part 2, BAGAN

We left Rangoon by air. We could have taken the train, but our time was limited.

It does not seem to matter which airline you book your flight on in Burma. All our domestic flights were booked on Air Mandaly.

We got to the Yangon airport early. At first it was a sea of confusion, but our guide assured us we were in the right line, although it was definitely NOT Air Mandalay. They took our bags and weighed them on an honest to god butchers scale, with a big hook and everything. They put old style tags on our luggage that read NYU. Huh?  Then they treated us nicely and gave us actual paper boarding passes that said NYU, and then they put stickers on us. Apparently we were on Air KBZ. It was too early in the morning to really care.

The stickers we were wearing were for the airline people to tell who was on their plane. There were maybe three flights leaving within the half hour. We all shared one waiting room. When it was time for our flight, a guy walked around the waiting room holding a sign like a pageboy in an old Manhattan hotel. He found people with the right sticker and pointed us to the gate. In the end, a very efficient, if 1950’s, system.

This was the breakfast served on Air KBZ. I thought it looked like fish food and I did not touch it.

When we got on the plane I read the airline magazine and it told me that Air KBZ has only two planes (ATR 72-500s). The airline is only two years old, but they must have bought this plane from the Bosnian air force. It was sort of beat up. I looked at their destinations, and nothing said they went to Bagan. I mentioned this to Mary Ann in my least possible “worried about it” voice. She gave me that look she does often that says “fool”. She pointed out that the name of the airport we were headed to was Nyaung U Airport hence the designator NYU. That was not fair because the guide had explained all that to her, not me. But OK, I’m cool now. When we arrived at NYU the plane parked  in the middle of nowhere. I of course had visions that a coup had happened, but in a few minutes we were safely in the hands of our next guide. You cannot leave the airport without paying a US$10 fee. Not an airport tax, no no. This was an entrance fee to the archeological site, which the airport sits on the edge of.

The I Am Sam club was there. They were Korean, but that is all I really understood. I just thought they were cute.

So we started our drive through Bagan. Our guide had grown up there and was very proud of his ancient city.

Every horizon is spotted with ancient stupas.

Normal life, just as it has for a thousand years continues underneath the temples and stupas, and the tourists.

I hope by now you are getting the idea that Bagan is a very special place. It was the first capital of a unified area now called Myanmar. It was very prosperous from 900 A.D. to 1300 A.D. Then the Mongolians, under Genghis Khan arrived. They laid waste to everything but the temples and stupas.

I feel incapable of describing Bagan in any form. Let me say this, I have been to Machu Pichu a couple of times, the pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal, the Vatican and none of them impressed me as much as Bagan. I have a few more photos to share.

This is one of the major temples in Bagan, just one. There are many. Counting temples and Stupas, there are close to three thousand archaeological sites.

Inside the temple of a thousand Buddhas. There were two layers of hallways each with these alcoves containing Buddhas.

Some of the temples have frescoes depicting the lives of Buddha.

Closely look at these next three photos of the same Buddha. This photo was taken up close to him. You can see Buddha is frowning.

Step back twenty feet or so and the same Buddha is now smiling.

Step back another 20 feet and Buddha is still smiling, only now he is glowing and his eyes take on a shine.

This Buddha is  just one example of the magic of Bagan. I have not been to Angkor Wat in Cambodia yet. I hear it too is pretty special. But…EVERYONE goes to Angkor Wat. It gets some amazingly huge amount of tourist traffic every year. Bagan is still sparsely visited, so see it now!

Thanks for reading. Please share with a friend on FB or on your porch, but share it. I crave the attention!

Next post, the beautiful Inle Lake, so stay tuned.

Burmese Days, Part One

Burmese Days is the title of a fun book written by George Orwell. People all over Burma try to sell it to you like tiger balm in Kathmandu.

Orwell is lucky he lived and wrote when he did. Ever since a Peking Duck became a Beijing Duck, Asian name changes have caused confusion, dismay, and sold a lot of new globes. I cannot imagine titling a book Myanmar Days. Or a blog post for that matter. My wife was trying to be politically correct and use  the new name, but she kept saying  Miramar. Hillary Clinton was in the country a couple months ago and she just called it “your country”. So welcome to Burma.

My first stop in Rangoon, I bought a copy of Burmese Days and a cheroot and some little girl painted my face. Traveling, can’t beat it!

English: State seal of Myanmar adopted in 2008.

English: State seal of Myanmar adopted in 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only airport to get into Burma is in Yangon. This is the city that was Rangoon. Those international 3 letter acronyms used by airlines  for cities change slower then maps, Yangon is still RGN, just like Ho Chi Minh city is still SGN. You can fly into Mandalay (no name change there) but only from China.

As you might know, Burma has just recently become a democracy. It had a rather oppressive military dictatorship since the late 80’s. People put up with it until the military killed a bunch of Buddhist monks, and then they picked up sling shots (really) and revolted. The dictatorship was only recognized by the Chicoms, who have exploited Burma’s natural gas reserves and built a pipeline to China. Every other country, and the financial world as well, refused to deal with the dictatorship.  Consequently, there is not a single, not one, ATM in the entire country. Beyond that, you cannot even use a credit card anywhere. That means a tourist has to enter the country with enough cash to last the entire trip. The currency is a Kyat, luckily pronounced “chat”. While we were there, the exchange rate was 865 chats to 1 US$. Just recently they introduced a 5000 kyat note, thank you Buhdda! Tourists before us had to carry enough 1000 kyat notes around to get by. Do the math. That is a lot of paper to trek around with. However, they, like everyone else in the world, love the greenback.  So if you go, bring US$. And bring brand new ones! If there is much as a inkspot on a bill, or god forbid, a crease in a bill, no one will take it. Mary Ann tried to tip a porter with a US$1 bill. He inspected it and refused it. OK, no tip for YOU!

Tourism is the first chance Burma has to bring in foreign money. So, you see these signs everywhere, even as big billboards. They seem to work. the Burmese are very warm and kind. Yes of course they have hawkers at the tourist sites, but they are respectful.

So we arrived in Yangon, Rangoon, whatever. We were met by our tourist agency Myanmar Shalom. I thought Shalom must be a Burmese word, but no. The agency is owned by a gentleman named Sammy  Samuels who is one of the last 16 Jews in Burma. As you might expect, he brings in a lot of tourists from Israel. We found him on the net. His prices were extremely good, and it turns out the guides he hires are first rate.

The first place a guide wants to show you in Rangoon, is this amazingly beautiful temple. It is really a great place to visit at night, because the faithful come here to do rituals at the different staions that relate to the day of the week you were born. In Buddhism, there are eight days in a week. Wednesday is split into before and after noon. People born before noon on a Wednesday, like me, are kind, slow to anger, and write great blogs.

I think this was taken in Rangoon. I included it here because I like it, I hope you do too.

Yangon, until recently was the capitol of Myanmar. When the revolt against the military started, they freedom fighters used motorcycles to strike and run. So, motorcycles were banned in Yangon, except for the police and the military. These super Tuk Tuks are now mass transit!

When Myanmar moved the capitol, they simply abandoned big buildings that were once ministry offices, and had been since English colonial times. So right now, there are quite a few beautiful colonial buildings standing empty. A couple are being converted to hotels.  One ofthe buildings is not so fortunate . The head honcho of the ministry occupying it was being investigated for corruption, so he lit the building on fire. When the fire department arrived, he bribed them to not put out the fire. He went to jail for bribing the fire department.

Chapter two of Burmese Days will cover Bagan, which is quite simply one of the most amazing places I have ever been. Historically, spiritually, and architecturally, it rivals Machu Pichu and the Taj. So stay tuned. Please share this with your FB friends (all you have to do is click on a button, and type “read this” ) and I will appreciate it!

From Bhutan to Borneo

 

We were warned that  the Paro airport in Bhutan is visual only, and the least level of incremental weather shuts it down. Which seems only right because it is surrounded by mountains. They tell you to make any connecting flights with a day lapse in case you cannot get out of Paro.  Well, we arrived at the airport on a cloudy morning with drizzling rain. Nothing that would stop an Airbus 320 anywhere else.

A druk Air A 320 going nowhere because of a light rain.

However our flight was delayed hours, waiting for perfect weather. Druk air served us lunch and tea in the lobby so that people would not be absent if the clouds lifted.

Our flight was back to Kathmandu. We were not on an 320, but a small prop plane.  That meant we should have gotten a great view of Everest.

Right after we boarded the plane, the rain returned, but we made it out of Paro anyway.

We did get a decent look at Everest. This is the “other side” of the great mountain, from the Tibetan side.

We got back to Kathmandu on a nice afternoon. We went back to the KGH. We just relaxed for the next day. We spoke with people who had tried to get into Tibet. They actually had their permits and/or visas. But when they got to the border, the Chicoms turned them around, with little or no reason given. We spoke with our travel agent about a visit to Tibet someday, but he was as perplexed by the Chinese constantly changing the rules as  we were.  Maybe someday we will be able to go, and maybe someday pigs will fly.

We left Kathmandu for Bangkok. We had both been there a few times before, so we looked for something different to do. We signed up for an Intrepid Travel Tuk Tuk tour. It was fun. We saw some interesting and different stuff.

I had never been to the flower market in Bangkok before. It was awfully pretty. This is a table of Lotus flowers on sale

We left BKK for KL. That is Kuala Lumpur. We flew Air Asia, which is an excellent low cost airline that covers that part of the coconut. I hear that the main terminal in KL is beautiful, new and efficient. The low cost terminal is, well, tired.

We went through this airport 3 times on this trip and each time it was crowded, even at one in the morning. There were no jet ways and no buses. You had to walk a long way from the plane to the terminal, dodging luggage trucks and jet blast.

The KL airport is 1 ½ hours away from KL. We were only going to stay in KL overnight, and leave the next morning so we stayed at a  hotel only a ½ hour away, which obviously exists to serve people in transit.

We flew Air Malaysia to a city called Sandakam in the state of Sabah. We were still in the same country, but it was a 2 ½ hour flight, definitely the longest domestic flight I had ever taken in Asia. It was like flying from NY to Chicago. Amazingly, when we got to Sandakam, we had to go through immigration!  Oh well, at this point another stamp in my passport is just another stamp.

We were now officially in Borneo. I am not sure just what I expected. Headhunters?

Our tour was arranged through AMAZING BORNEO TOURS. They picked us up at the airport. Our lodge was n the Kinabatangan river, about two hours away. For the next two hours we drove through nothing but palm oil plantations. Miles and miles, thousands and thousands  of hectares of land that used to be jungle, is now producing palm oil. It is definitely the cash crop of Sabah. Why all this palm oil?  Is this a good or bad thing? Go here to find out.

We got to the lodge after a the long drive. The lodge was OK, nothing to write a blog post about. Our adventure in “wild” Borneo was to start the next day.

The first thing on the agenda was Orangutans.  I was thinking that this was the third endangered species I had seen this year, kinda cool.  We went to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. This one of those places that somehow get orphaned or injured critters and raise them until they are prepared to go back into the wild. They showed us an interesting video of their work. I noticed a glaring error and afterward tried to bring it to the attention of the docent. No big deal, but they ought to get their facts straight. I’m no biologist, but I know the film was flawed.  This place was billed as a chance to see orangutans play together. After a 45 minute wait at a staged area, in the Borneo heat, we saw ONE. He was led to the feeding area by a refuge worker, and did not look all that enthused about being on display.

The rehab center put out a basket full of fruit, he ate one and then swung away like Tarzan, back into the jungle. Mind you, there were at least a hundred tourists who had paid like US$30 apiece standing around sweating and pointing cameras. All in all, this was a disappointing excursion.

we transferred to another lodge where we took trips on the river. On one trip we actually saw Orangutans in the wild, and my favorite, the Jimmy Durante of  primates, the Proboscis monkey, on another.

Although we could not get too close, we were in a boat in a big river, we were pleased and amused to see Orangutans in the wild. Actually we saw quite a few.

My favorite sighting was the Proboscsis monkeys. Their noses are humorous. They are kind of cute. Apparently not endangered, except for loss of their homeland to the palm oil business.

In case I have at all led you to believe we were “explorers” in wild Borneo, this next photo should cancel that idea.

This is just a sample of the tourist boats on the river that day, during LOW season.

We were treated to a great sunset.

I love a good sunset, don’t you?

The next day we left the lodge and the river. We drove through palm oil plantations for another hour to see the second cash crop of Sabah, birds nests. Yup, this is the primary source of birds nests for birds nest soup, of which the Chinese are apparently quite fond. They pay a LOT of money for these nests, harvested from a cave.

The best photo I could get in a dark cave. There is a walkway built of rotting wood that you follow through the cave. The birds nests (Swifts) are all up on the roof, and for me impossible to get a good photo.

Mary Ann and me in front of the opening to the cave on the slippery wooden walkway. It was slippery because it was covered with birdshit. If you fell off, you would land among the 10 billion or so cockroaches on the ground.

Mary Ann showing of her hand covered with birdshit from holding the rail along the walkway. We were ready to leave.

Well folks, that was it for Borneo. Is it worth your time and treasure to go? Only if you want to say you have been there!

Thanks for reading, share with a friend, make a comment, or go order a bowl of birds nest soup cooked with palm oil.

 

Bhutan the Bhutiful

 

Bhutan, besides being a country of happy people is a country of almost unparalleled beauty. As you can see, even the money is Bhutiful

We only saw a quarter of it in our week there and a lot of that from the back seat of our sedan. I am not sure how many times I asked the driver to stop so I could take in a vista, and take some photos, but the simple fact that I took close to 700 photos in a week should say something.

At a quick stop for lunch I found the “Window on Bhutan”

Bhutan is of course a mountainous country with plenty of rain. The combination of the two means nice rivers.

I started wondering about fishing, so I asked. Yes, you can fish in Bhutan, with a special permit. They sort of frown on it because Buddhists don’t take the life of creatures, including fish. So I asked “what type of fish are there in these rivers ?”  The guide said trout. I started putting two and two together.I figured if nobody fished, and never really had, these rivers must have some lunkers. So I asked the guide “big trout?” He said “some”. The driver, who was a very communicative young man shook his head and said “huge trout”. He related a story that about a year ago he had guided five Texans into the mountains to do some fly fishing. He was happy they practiced catch and release. He started telling me about them landing 8 to 10  pound trout all day long while he fished with a bamboo pole and a worm on a hook. He said he caught the biggest, and so that is the one they ate for dinner. This is one reason, among many, I would love to return to the land of the Thunder Dragon.

If I were a birder, I would definitely find Bhutan a  destination of choice. Bhutan has many tour companies specializing in birding. This is one  I only chose that one because I stole the following photo from their web site.

Not that I was always ready to get good bird photos (which is an art in and of itself) but I did see many bhutiful birds during my stay.

Bhutan has some marvelous detail work on their buildings.

Prayer wheels in the central square in Thimpu. These wheels are hollow inside and contain hundreds or thousand of prayers (very small font size) and when people walk past, they spin them to help the prayers do their thing. You always spin them clockwise. I can’t walk past a set of these wheels without spinning them all. It just feels good.

Windows on a temple. This style of window frame is all over Bhutan, from temples to government buildings to homes.

Just another doorway in just another temple. I could have used up an entire memory card with just photos of doors in Bhutan.

Another view of the big Buddha we saw under construction. When he is done there will be an entire temple under him. Before construction started, they blessed the land around him. I took home a blessed rock. I am staring at it right now.

This is almost a logo of Bhutan. It depicts an act friendship, kindness and cooperation. The elephant is giving the monkey a ride, the rabbit is on top of the monkey, and the bird is on top of the rabbit, all so that they can reach the “golden fruit” in the tree. This is depicted in many ways in Bhutan, I saw one where the elephant was wearing sneakers and the monkey was garbed out with sunglasses and a scarf.

I have made a big deal about Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness.  They take a  census and publish the results, and then take action where needed. The idea is catching on. The UN is talking about it, but most amazing is that so is the US Fed Reserve. Don’t believe me, read this. Be sure to read the mention about Bhutan half way down the story.

Another reason they might be so happy is their music.

Under certain conditions back in the day, I might have seen Jerry Garcia look like this, but without the bird on his head.

One weird thing I saw in Bhutan, and no where else I have been, is using a Phallus as a talisman against evil.

Sometimes they paint them outside their door…

…or on the walls of the school.

OK, so the government of Bhutan will not admit it, but I happen to think that one little reason for the happiness is this; pot grows wild all over the place.

I stopped our sedan to relieve myself. When I looked at what I was watering, I just had to laugh.

Right outside the front door!

I stopped to mail a post card. Across the street was the Thimpu police station. Look what is growing in their front yard!

So I asked the guide, who of course works for the government, if this was perhaps a factor in the happiness thing. He denied it and said that the marijuana is only used for pig food. Don’t believe me? Read this.

A happy pig in Bhutan. By the way, the pork was delicious!

However, the driver who was a bit more irreverent (had to love him) said that the young people, because of the influence of TV and movies have discovered they have a natural source of happiness growing at their feet, and yes, they are feeding the pigs less.

That is it for Bhutan. I strongly suggest that the more adventurous readers/travelers go to experience this place yourselves. You can only get there through Thailand, Bangladesh or Nepal. I suggest Nepal. The best guy to set you up with tours or trekking in both places is Mr. Pandy, who you can contact right here.

Thanks for reading, share with a friend, make a comment, or better yet, plan your own trip!

 

Happy Spirits in Bhutan

This post will cover the two most spiritual things I have ever experienced. I was deeply moved by both of them. Bhutan is a deeply Buddhist country. I have mentioned before that if I ever decided to convert, as if I were disciplined enough to try, it would be in Bhutan. I found that the Tantrayana sect of Buddhism appeals to me for some reason I cannot fathom. Maybe it is just that it seems unspoiled by outside influences, much like Bhutan itself.

On the longest touring day in our itinerary we drove through beautiful mountains.

Prayer flags for our loved ones.

Our drive took us to a  place called Punakha Dzong located at 3050 meters.

These are the Bhatan version of Stupas called Chortens. They were located on top of a hill at the 3000+ meter elevation.On a clear day, you get a great view of the Himalaya from here, but this was off season, so the weather was off as well. There were 108 (an important number) of these Chortens. They were built by the fourth Queen of Bhutan. Next to them is a temple the current King uses on certain ceremonies.

Each Chorten has an identical portrait of the Buhdda.

I climbed to the top of the hill for the view, and to sneak a smoke. Across the road I noticed acres of prayer flags strung from tree to tree. Prayer flags are just that. Little flags with prayers printed on them that certain sects of Buddhists hang where the wind blows so that the prayers are carried away to be answered.

When I came back down the hill Mary Ann let me know that there was a Monk there who sold strings of prayer flags. That is exactly what I had just wished for. I do not care if I am in a Christian church, a mosque or a temple, I always say a prayer for the sole of my departed son. I really wanted to hang a string of prayer flags for him.

Each string contains flags of multiple colors.The white flag is for the sole of dearly departed. I bought a string, and Mary Ann bought one also. We tied them together, which is cool I guess, the monk did not say otherwise.

The monk and our guide accompanied us up the hill to the spot where the flags get hung. It was over 3000 mtrs high and Mary Ann got a bit winded Not me, I was too excited.

When we got to the top of the hill, the monk and our guide helped us tie up the strings. We said a prayer. I felt more assured that my prayer helped my son Neal more than lighting a candle in St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Hearing the Voice of  Buddha.

From here we drove further until we reached what is called the most beautiful valley in the Himalayas

This is the fascinating valley of Phobjikha.  This is the winter home of black-necked cranes that migrate from the arid plains in the north to pass winter in milder and lower climate. Unfortunately for us the Cranes do not visit during low season. Yet it is easy to see that Bhutan has many unspoiled and beautiful areas. Like I keep saying, the last Shangri-La.

As spiritual as beauty can be sometimes, in Bhutan you just never know what comes next

At the edge of the valley is this magnificent monastery. Because it has a name too long to pronounce it is also called the Gangtey monastery. We went to visit it. I figured, “OK time to take off the shoes again, and see another temple” I was so very wrong.

This is the entrance to Gangtey monastery. No cameras allowed inside.

What we saw inside was a very large court yard surrounded by “dorm” rooms for a considerable amount of Monks. In the middle of the court yard was a temple. It was completely full of both Monks and civilians. They were all intently listening to an elderly Monk speaking a lesson. We peaked in, but did not feel like making a scene and trying to enter the crowded floor space. The man’s voice sounded wonderful, It sounded soothing. People were paying rapt attention.

When we left, our guide said how lucky we were to have heard the voice of Buddha. He could see by the look on my face that he owed me an explanation.

He went on to explain. In the Tantrayana sect of Buddhism, at any time there are three men walking the earth who are Lamas. One carries the spirit of Buddha, one the mind of Buddha, and one the voice of Buddha. That is who we had just been listening to. This was his monastery, these were his Monks. He is in his eighth reincarnation. His first life was in 800 A.D. Apparently he has clear memories from each of his lives. This is basically how they know he is a venerated Lama.

I was feeling very privileged. After seeing something like a million statues of Buddha in the last few years, to magically be transported to a place where I could hear his voice, made me start thinking…”am I destined for Buddhism?”  Probably not, there is no way I could tolerate a mosquito biting me without killing it.

That is it for spirituality for the day. Time to go beat my wife’s cat for scratching the couch. Share with a friend, subscribe, comment, anything. Just let me know you are out there!

 

Bhutan, Happy in Old and New Knowledge

Bhutan Protects the Timeless Knowledge

My wife Mary Ann strolling in the Bhutan National Library. This was not a stop on our itinerary, but being that Mary Ann is a professional Librarian, when we passed the library, we made sure our guide stopped so we could “tour” it.

There were three floors of the “old” library, each with a shrine to the Buddha.

Each of the floors had rack after rack of prayer scrolls which are quite old. Each prayer is contained in a silk bag. They are all cataloged. The cataloging system was not exactly Dewey-Decimal! Each of the prayers were used by monks for specific requests such as more rain, stop the rain, and so on.

The new section of the library was almost all in English. It contained books about the philosophy  and  practice of Buddhism. It even had a business section about how to run a business according to Buddhist principles!. It had a reading and study area. If I ever decide that I have the discipline to be a Buddhist (fat chance 😉 ) this is where I will go and read for a few months before I ever sit down with a monk.

Bhutan Enters the Digital Age!

Just outside of the capital city of Thimpu, there is a brand new IT Park

Almost finished, the government has already declared it open.

Built as a modern IT building, it nonetheless incorporates classic Bhutanese architecture. It is actually an attractive building. It uses a solar/water based system for air conditioning.

Space inside this building has already been leased to Microsoft and other international high tech companies. It will also serve as a start-up bed for Bhutanese entrepreneurs.

Facilities inside are as modern as any I ever worked in during my career in software development. I have high hopes for this place.

The Project Manager for the construction phase is an Australian that goes by the name of Shax. he keeps an interesting blog about the project and life in Bhutan. I suggest you read it, here.

This is Shax inspecting the water powered prayer wheel he incorporated into the landscape plan.

This is something he did NOT put in his plan. This is the most common weed in Bhutan. It grows EVERYWHERE. Gross National Happiness!

Next post, A sacred ceremony Mary Ann and I performed which was the highlight of my five weeks in Asia.

Please  share. Please return. Please comment. Please enjoy.

Bhutan, Gross National Happiness and Wonderment

Yes, Bhutan is a happy place. I mentioned before that the government actually does a yearly census to evaluate the level of happiness and look for ways to make people even happier, now THAT is a wonderment.

I also mentioned that there is a US$250 “tariff” you must pay to visit Bhutan. This is actually a good deal because it includes everything except beer and souvenirs. So, it cost us a bit more ;-). That tariff is actually in place to keep Bhutan from becoming over run with back packers like what happened with Nepal, India and Thailand. I know it sounds snobbish, but thank Buddha they figured that out. The result keeps everyone happy!  OK backpackers…snipe away in the comments.

One thing every country wants you to see are the handicrafts. Weaving, carving, and paper making. I always enjoy going because you know what…it is always different in every country, not to mention the best place for souvenirs. (My wife and I have a sort of unspoken but over riding rule, if we see something made, we are going to buy it.)

The distinctive patterns from each country are an excellent art form. At the gift shops, they will have everything for sale from bed spreads to scarves. Mary Ann bought so many scarves on this trip that I lost count.

An endless array of patterns, colors and opportunities to spend money!

Besides the crafts, tours in Asia always make sure you see the temples. I know I have been in more Buddhist temples than 95% of the Buddhists on the coconut. But like the weaving, they all have a certain distinctness to them. You have to look hard but it is there. In our travels I have seen the worlds smallest Buddha, and now I have seen the worlds largest under construction Buddha.  When he is done, he will just be a big beautiful Buddha, not the worlds largest. Some very rich man from Hong Kong is paying for this project. I wish I could be there when they consecrate it because I am sure it will be a spectacle.

He is probably 300+ feet high. I am sure if I looked it up, it would turn out that he is multiples of a magic number from the ground to his crown. They always make sure to do that. This Buddha sits on a high hill and overlooks the capital city of Thimpu, and you can see him from anywhere in the city.He is a wonderment.

The next post will take a quick look at Bhutan old and new. The ancient library and the brand new technology center. Whatever makes you happy! Stay tuned, share with a friend.

Happy Atheletes In Bhutan

These two  events were  not on our tour agenda.

On our first full day in Bhutan, we found two towns involved in an archery tournament. Archery is the national sport. I was simply not prepared for what we saw.

bhutan archer

The archers were of course all dressed in traditional garb. The bows and arrows however were ultra modern and probably cost more than my first car.

These guys were all first rate archers, who had earned the right through years of experience to compete for the town they are from. What I found particularly interesting was that when others were shooting, they would drift away and drink beer and smoke cigarettes! What a cool sport!

Can you see the target? It is 150 meters away and not very big. This makes Olympic archery look like playing cowboys and Indians with a Sears and Roebuck toy set.

As you might imagine, when an archer actually hits the the target it is cause for song and dance. No really, song and dance! Play the following video for “proof”.

I am going to jump ahead a few days. The day of the week is important here. It was a Tuesday, which is “Walking Day” in Bhutan. Private cars are not allowed to be driven. The king asks his people to get off their duffs and walk to work or the market.

In a small town in the mountains (well, Bhutan is mostly small towns in the mountains, but…) we ran across a tournement of taxi drivers playing each other in the second national sport of Bhutan, darts.  I am not talking about darts like in some pub. These were serious darts.

darts in Bhutan

They probably weighed a half pound. You cannot see the needle part, which are about 6 inches long.

They were thrown by serious men!

darts in Bhutan

They took this competition in a really good sportsman like manner.

Like the archery this was not an easy sport.

They really had to chuck it  The effort resembled a baseball pitcher.

The target was further away then home plate and much smaller, and the dart weighed more than a baseball.

Of course when they hit the target they sang and danced. Only here, the opposing team members got to harass them a bit!

Next post…hmmm…well, all I’ll promise is  more from the land of the Thunder Dragon. Stay tuned.

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