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.
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.
Hearing the Voice of Buddha.
From here we drove further until we reached what is called the most beautiful valley in the Himalayas.
As spiritual as beauty can be sometimes, in Bhutan you just never know what comes next
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 Protects the Timeless Knowledge
There were three floors of the “old” library, each with a shrine to the Buddha.
Bhutan Enters the Digital Age!
Just outside of the capital city of Thimpu, there is a brand new IT Park
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Have you ever seen an albino turtle? Betcha haven’t. We saw two today in totally different and amazing Sri Lanka.
But before I treat you to that vision I’ll fill you in our total day. It was a long fun filled one, so this post will be a bit longer than my last few.
In the morning we visited a mask museum/factory/store. Made from balsa wood and painted with natural colors these traditional masks are still used today to warrant off the spirits of poor health or bring good luck. I bought a couple for future use.
From here we went on a “river safari”. I am going to cheat here and give you some pictures from two different “river safaris” we went on. Sri Lanka has many large rivers, and they all cut through dense jungle, so a visitor gets to see many birds and creatures.
We went a ways up river from the ocean into a very large lake. A boy and his monkey came out to greet us and pick up a dollar for getting his picture taken.
We went to a buddhist temple in the midle of the lake and actually saw a Bohdi tree.
Another spot in this lake is called Cinnamon Island, for obvious reasons. I read somewhere that Sri Lanka produces something like 90% of the world’s cinnamon.
We moved on and found a guy in a Sri Lankan cayuco who rowed up to us. I thought he had something to sell, but he just wanted to share his piece of nature with us…
OK OK already, the albino turtle is coming up!
The only reason seeing an albino turtle was not on my bucket list is because I did not know they existed! Our guide stopped at the Kosgoda Turtle Center to show us the operation there. This is one of four such projects in Sri Lanka. Because they are all located at the beach, they were all wiped out in the tsunami, but have come back, mostly with volunteer labor. If your thing is turtles, you can volunteer there for as long as you like.
Turtle eggs, here and worldwide, are poached by the locals to eat. This practice is the main reason for the drop in turtle population in the world. Turtles have always had to deal with predators, but human overpopulation has made the situation even worse. These projects purchase turtle eggs from the locals for more than they can sell them to restaurants. Then they incubate them.
And now for the great finale!
That’s all for today dear readers. Thanks for being here, tell a friend, make a comment, or go to Sri Lanka to work with turtles!
My next post…up close and personal with BLUE WHALES!
On boxing Day in 2004, I think we all remember the incredible destruction caused by a tsunami all over SE Asia. Sri Lanka certainly did not escape the carnage.
The country has come back from the destruction. When you remember they have also had a civil war in the last decade, it is very impressive to see the recovery. Not to say a casual ride along the coast is bare of examples of destroyed buildings. You can still see shells of concrete buildings, but they are the exception.
We were in transit when I saw this sign.
The museum was started by a Danish expat and survives on contributions. It is very moving and impressive. You walk around in this old house in a very somber mood.
We walked out of this museum, after making a decent donation, in quite a somber mood. I think that was the intent.
Thanks for reading. Share this with a friend. Next time you see a natural disaster on TV, be glad it wasn’t in your neck of the woods and try to contribute a few bucks to the recovery, please.
Next post, ALBINO AND BABY TURTLES!
Our travel style,in case you are a new reader, is to hire a private guide with a comfortable car who is ours for they duration. We do not just show up and say “whatcha got.” We do our own research with every book we can find, and do not forget my wife is a university librarian. We also peruse all the social media sites, the usual suspects and a few that are truly suspect.
Then we start contacting guides using again every source we can find. If we send someone an email and get no response within 48 hours, that person goes on the dung heap never to be recycled.
That is pretty brutal, but pity the ones who get right back to us. We let them make a proposal in the form of an itinerary. Then we hack at it. They come back with changes. What we are really looking for is a bit of creativity and daring on their part. This consumes a lot of their time. Mary Ann leaves it up to me because I have nothing but time. This puts us in a distinct advantage. We may be playing on their field, but I’m Sandy Koufax and I don’t care where I am pitching.
The person who I ended up choosing was a guy named Johan at Noramix Travels available through www.Srilanka.com. I threw him a few curve balls, and he had a great turn at bat.
All that brings me around to this trip to Sri Lanka.
Sun rise over Sri lanka from our Air Arabia flight, taken with my new IPAD
Now that we were settled into a wonderful room our driver, Farzan, or as he put it “not Tarzan”, started taking us around Colombo. It is pretty port town dating back to the days of spice and tea trade. The Portuguese and English in turn ran the trading businesses through this town. Sri Lnka has been independent since shortly after WWII.
The country suffered through a civil war that just ended a few years ago. The tourism industry is recovering nicely in the south west quarter of the country and a bit slower elsewhere. Colombo shows no signs of the war.
Another thing we saw in Colombo, and everywhere else in Sri Lanka, is a comfortable co-existence of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian religions. You see it in the temples, mosques and churches and the cultural dress. I wish that were worldwide, alas.
We drove around and saw the city. Nice, but not much to blog about. However we did find one thing I have always wanted to see, a snake charmer.
Then we went to a place that was a combination museum and temple. This museum is more like a warehouse, but it’s full of valuable and beautiful treasures. Some of the shrines and buddhas were actually made of gold or completely covered in diamonds. I was busy taking photos of this cute little Buddhist monk…
…when my wife called out, “You gotta see this”. On my bucket list is the worlds largest Buddha statue, which I quess I will need to go to China to see. I had never considered the worlds smallest Buddha but here he was right in front of me .
We had been travelling across the coconut all night and day, so we went back to the hotel, had our first of many wonderful Sri Lankan meals. We had to get up early in the morning for the trin to Kandeeland!
Next post, Kandee! A wonderful city in the hill country, gateway to the tea plantations of old Ceylon!
Thanks for reading, tell a friend, pass it along, and remember, I get paid by the comment!
They are instead three islands near Hong Kong, which we took whirlwind tours of this week. All three deserve more time, alas our time is limited. I have not blogged for three days simply because when we get back to our hotel, have some real menu items to eat, a couple of TsingTao beers (the best beer with Chinese food, but strangely not by itself), I just crash. I suppose if we were 25 again, we would sample the night life in Hong Kong, which I hear is responsible for this smile on Buddha.
Yes, believe it or not it is pronounced just like it looks like it should be pronounced. I have not delved into the history to find out who named it that, or why. Instead I will just assume it was where mad Cow Disease originated.
Kowloon Is a five minute ferry ride across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong proper. By the way, when the Chicoms take over in 35 or so years, there will be no more English names for things. No Queens Blvd. or Prince Albert’s can. Nope, all the names will change to Mandarin. This will be tough on the locals as well, because they speak Cantonese. So to get to Kowloon one can take the ferry, or go under the channel in an automobile tunnel, or take the metro in another tunnel. We purchased what they call an Octopus card which is good on all local public transportation except taxis. Public transportation, including taxis, are one of the few bargains in the SAR. The what? The Special Administrative Region, the official name for “one country – two systems” rule in existence today. After buying our card, we walked for ages, it seemed like miles, underground to get to the metro platform. The first thing you notice after your sore feet, is that there is not as much as a gum wrapper on the ground. Hong Kong is CLEAN. No one litters. The fine for littering is 5000 HK dollars. (1US$=7.80 HK$, you do the math)
Kowloon is supposedly the bargain shopping area for greater Hong Kong. The most famous of the various shopping destinations is called Ladies Street. This is a six block long pedestrian walkway with hundreds of booths on each side of the walkway. Once you have walked a couple of blocks you notice that every 10th booth or so is selling the same junk, And I Do mean junk.
Now the only hawkers in all of HK are for tailors. There are probably more tailor shops in HK than any other city in the world. I thought Bangkok had a lot of tailors, but HK has BK beat. I hate being tall and white in Asia. The hawkers see me a block away and make a move for me. I have my radar out now. If I see a guy with a handful of business cards head toward me, I duck into a storefront, vitamin store, bathroom fixtures, lingerie, it does not matter. But they wait for me outside. They follow me at least a block telling me I am dressed like a beggar and should have a suit made, or three, special price for three! They pester me until I enter the hunting area of the next hawker for the next tailor. Mary Ann, who is the best dressed librarian in Sharjah had already decided she would have a suit made in Hong kong to go with the half dozen she had made in Thailand. She had already chosen her tailor, who happened to be in Kowloon, so the day was not a complete waste.
Our next day in fab HK was spent on another group tour. we like tours. Usually we hire a private car tour, just the two of us and a hopefully all knowing guide. But in HK they are prohibitively expensive, so we ride on buses with20 or so other people. At least most of these people are so old that I feel relatively young.
Lantau is the home of the worls “largest- outdoor- sitting -bronze Buddha”. Of all the buddhas I have seen in my travels he s the largest. I still do not know where the largest Buddha in the worls is. I think I will find out and put him on my bucket list.
Buddha sits on a hill over a very nice temple that is well used. Every temple sells incense for people to light and make prayers. This temple sold the largest incense sticks I have ever seen.
Lantau also has an amazing aerial cable ride which takes about 30 minutes to go from Lantau all the way to Hong Kong. It passes right near the HK airport, giving an excellent view of all the planes taking off and landing. This is a very busy airport as you might expect.
It also passes over an example of typical housing ing in BK. People here live in high rise buildings for the most part. One of our guides says the typical apartment is 500 sq feet. A person does not own an apartment ,only big companies. However if one chooses, you can rent a government subsidized apartment, but they are not as nice as these.
On to Macau.
Macau was a magic name to me when I was 8 years old because that was where all the really good firecrackers were made. That was all I knew about it. Now that is not the case. The fireworks industry has gone away and is replaced by casinos. In fact Macau now makes more money from wagering than Lost Wages, Nevada. It is another SAR. It pays no taxes to the Chicoms. In fact there are no taxes in Macau at all, which makes it a shopping haven. It is a separate government from HK and you must pass through immigration and customs going both ways. (Just a bit of a brag…I counted my the stamps in my passport while standing in line returning to HK. When I get back to the UAE, they will have the honor of applying the 100th stamp in my precious blue book. Wow.)
Honk Kong is a very strict place. they have rules and rules and rules. They are serious about them and fine you on the spot for violating them. Littering I have mentioned. They also restrict smoking to little permitted smoking areas. You can always find them because they have groups of people puffing away. ut the weirdest rule I have run up against is the customs regulation about how many cigarettes you can bring into the country. Get this, the number is 19. One short of a pack. If anyone can explain that I will be glad to hear it.
Macau being the gambling capital of the world,is now waging a civil war to build the largest casino. An old guy named Dr. Ho used to have the monooly on casinos in Macau. He also owns half the airport,docks, and other infrastuctures. Now, American and Australian companies are moving in.
There is another type of gambling one can do in Macua. The stakes are your life, or maybe just your sanity.
Macau was settled by the Portuguese. There is a long historyof Christain in-fighting in Macau with Dominicans, Franciscans and of course the Jesuits all trying to reign supreme. One of the iconic structures of Macau is the remains of the church of St. Paul.
And of course there are Buddhist temples and any tour in this part of the world will take you to a Buddhist temple. It must be in the licensing contract. Finally after visiting enough temples to start feeling outright religious, I found something unigue.
Our last stop was a casino, and thank Buddha we only got a half hour to gamble. I did not win any money…singing bowl or not. But I only had a half hour to lose. Mary Ann went to a facory outlet next door and further burdened our suitcases for the return tripwith some really nice and very inexpensive brand name clothes. If you come to this part of the world, HK is just fine. It is exciting and vibrant. But for better deals and more fun, be sure to visit Macau.
That is it for today. My next post will cover the Hong Kong Harbor Symphony of Lights. Stay tuned. Tell a friend. Make a comment. You CAN write a sentence can’t you? I should say thank you to my regular commenters.
If you ever asked me in my younger days what would be an exciting week I may well have said something like “fly 5000 miles, have currencies from 4 countries in my wallet, and wake up wondering where I am.”
In my adult life I have had quite a few weeks like that. I am in the middle of another one.
The day before yesterday I was in Chiang Mai. A 90 minute flight on Air Asia took me to Bangkok for one night. At five a.m. I was on my way to the airport to catch a 7 hour flight to Doha on a Qatar Air Triple 7. After a three hour layover in the Doha airport, an hour on an A320 to Dubai, and hour in a cab to our townhouse, I spent one night in “my own” bed and got up with the call to prayer for my ride to the Sharjah airport.
As I write this I am in an Air Arabia A320 on my way from Sharjah to Beirut. Yes Beirut. They say it is the Paris of the Middle East. (I have heard that honorific compared to winning the NIT.)
I have a relationship with the back of the seat in front of me that the second dog in a dogsled team must have with the lead dog.
But I love it.
Let us start this episode of The Other side of the Coconut in Chiang Mai. I had planned to be there a month. My plans were for nothing more exotic than oral surgery and subsequent recovery. The surgery went extremely well and the recovery was like finding a $20 bill in an old pair of jeans, pleasant and quickly gone.
I was able to change my flight home very inexpensively.
So my month was now a week. I was very familiar with Chiang Mai. I had done just about every dumb tourist thing to do that exists there. I had timed this trip to the dentist to attend Loy Kathrong, which if you are a faithful reader you already know I enjoyed immensely.
There was one thing in the Lonely Planet book that I missed last time, and was determined to see this trip. There is a village in the mountains north of CM, near the border with Myanmar (or Burma if you prefer). The name of the village is Mai Salong.
Mai Salong did not exist before a regiment of the Kuongmintang Army escaped from China after the revolution, complete with their families, horses and traditions. Horses are rare in Thailand and the Thai word for these people translates to “The Galloping Chinese”. For the first 35 or so years of their existence, the villagers survived, and thrived, on the opium trade. The village was inaccessible except on foot or hooves. Eventually, the King of Thailand told the people that they would be accepted in Thailand, but they had to quit running opium, and let the government build them a road to civilization. The King also sponsored a new industry, that being the cultivation, processing and sale of tea.
Lonely planet described Mai Salong as a mini Hong Kong, steeped in Chinese culture and architecture. Poppycock. The only thing it is steeped in is tea. Lots and lots of tea.
It was interesting to find four Christian churches and two mosques in Mai Salong. I do not remember seeing a single wat.
The following day I was up before the poppies bloomed to go see an amazing, yearly, but amazing event. The entire Monastic community of Northern Thailand, 12,500 strong, gathers in Chiang Mai in a ceremony to receive alms. The monks arrived in the dark and filled about five city blocks on one side of a raised platform. The platform had a statue of Buddha and the venerated elders of the monastic community. The four blocks on the other side were filled with civil and military authorities. The point of the gathering, after much praying and chanting, was the thousands of monks walking thru the government/military people who put offerings in their big bowls. Normal civilians could also give alms. You bought them from an alms dealer nearby. The alms were mostly rice, noodles, bottled water and fruit juices. The bowls filled up quickly and people walked behind the monks and transferred the lot to large plastic bags. I would estimate that they collected at least a few tons of subsistence for the monasteries. I will let the following photos give you a better picture of the event.
OK, the plane is now coming into Beirut. I am looking forward to seeing this city that is so full of history and conflict.
Thanks for reading this post. Tell a friend, make a comment, and stay tuned for the story of our visit to the land of Danny Thomas.