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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, 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.

The Incredible Kingdom of Bhutan. A Real Live Shangri-La

The Kingdom of Bhutan does not make it hard for a traveler to visit, it is just hard to get there. When I first started reading about traveling to Bhutan I was led to understand that only a certain number of visitor visas were issued in a year, and that you had to go with a government approved guide service while you were there. The second part is true, not the first. However, the number of visitors to Bhutan per year could not fill the Rose Bowl.  This is the last Shangri-La in my opinion. My fingers want to type all sorts of interesting and amazing tid-bits, but my mind wonders “where do I start? How can I convey the magic of this country while maintaining some level of credibility?”

Let us start with the official slogan of the Kingdom.  “Gross National Happiness“. Yup, the government is much more concerned with the Gross Happiness of the people than with the Gross Production. Until just a couple of years ago, this was a pure Kingdom, led by the fifth king since unification. He happens to be well educated, handsome and married to a foxy commoner now his queen. He decided that the country needed to elect a congress so that it would be considered a democracy. Bhutan borders Tibet (Which I refuse to call China, although to keep things cool in Bhutan, they do) and I guess they figured a democracy would be better protected by outsiders if anyone looking is to absorb them. The people did not really want a congress, but if the king did, well, OK. They held elections and there were a hand-full of parties. The party that won a vast majority of the congressional seats had a campaign promise of two words… “No Change”.

The kingdom measures the happiness of the people in an actual census. Figuring the entire population of Bhutan is about 650,000, this seems do-able. The questions range from how is your job, to how is the infrastructure, how is your health care, to, do you like the TV channels you get.  The government actually acts on things a great number of people might  be unhappy about. If that does not seem incredible to you, you live on a different planet than I.

The population is something like 90% Buddhist. They have a certain, not unique, but different strain of Buddhism in Bhutan. This type of Buddhism is called Vajrayana, which means the Diamond Way because it is based on unbreakable logic. It relies on Tantras and is sometimes called Tantrayana. Here I am talking like I am an expert on the philosophies of the Buddha and I not sure I know the difference between a Tantra and a Tantrum.

OK, about getting into Bhutan. There is a single overland entrance from India. This is where anything you find manaufactured gets into Bhutan, even beer bottles. They brew their own beer, but the bottles come from India.

My wife enjoying one of three brands of beer for sale in Bhutan. This one called Red Panda Ale is a Hefeweizen. Brewed by a German who came to Bhutan many years ago and found a way to stay. The bottle is embossed with the name of an Indian beer,(King Fisher) because you cannot manufacture bottles in Bhutan, too much pollutiion. By the way, it was the 4th of July, hence the shirt.

Both overland travelers  and air travelers must  pay the daily visitors tariff to the government.  This is a US$250 per day charge. “But Wait! You get a set of steak knives with that!” Actually you get a lot more. This “tariff” pays for your transportation, guide, entrance fees and even the hotels you will stay in and 3 meals a day! The only thing it does not pay is your beer.

Most people enter by air on Bhutan’s only Airline Druk Air. They have two or three Airbus A320’s and only fly from Bangkok, Bangladesh or as for us Kathmandu. They are the only airline serving the country.

A few posts ago (here) I linked my readers to a Youtube video of the approach to Paro International Airport. It was definitely different. As a frequent flyer I am not used to the airplane making radical turns after the landing gear is down. But obviously all went well or I would not be here posting this for you.

My wife Mary Ann is a fearless traveler, but she was as glad (at least) as I was to reach the ground in Paro.

Immigration paper work was easy because we had printed out our “Letter of Invitation” from the Bhutanese Royal Tourist Agency which confirmed that we had ponied up the money to the travel agency. Customs was a different story, although I was ready for them. They require a %200 duty on all cigarettes brought into Bhutan. You have to hold onto the receipt they give you because possession of tobacco is not allowed unless you can prove you paid the duty. That makes smoking very expensive, so most people don’t. More on that later.

Then we met our guide and driver, both dressed in traditional Bhutanese garments called Ghos. They are very distinct and attractive, but they look very difficult to put on.. Each one is made of different weaves, all quite colorful, yet subtle.

We drove from Paro to Thimpu, about an hour. I felt like I was in a magical fairyland. Disney could not have put Snow White in a more fantastic setting. Even the common farmers homes were quite beautiful.

A look at a very typical  agricultural setting in Bhutan. This country has yet to suffer from over population. They see what that has done to India and China (and the rest of the world) and the King has “asked” the people to have a zero population growth rate. Not a law, but a request, and the current generation is going along with it. Therefore, the countryside is left to agriculture and just left alone for the beauty. Gross National Happiness!

We arrived in Thimpu and found our hotel to be quite comfortable. However, we were on the third floor and when I asked where the elevator was, the look on the guides face quickly made it clear that Bhutan has no elevators.

This is the main intersection in Thimpu, the capital city. A few years ago, there was a traffic light here, but it made the people unhappy,and it was removed. Thimpu is the only national capitol in the world without a traffic light.

I am trying to keep my posts short, so that is all for this one. Next post, the national sport.

Stay tuned, share with a friend.

Temple of Tooth. Kandy, Sri Lanka,

The real name for this is the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic. However our itinerary simply said Temple of Tooth, so I’m going with that.

This a beautiful temple.

The temple is the main attraction in Kandy, especially in July/August when a procession led by thousands of Kandyan dancers lead over a hundred highly decorated Elephants through the town. This draws tens of thousands of devotees and goes on for 10 days.

The temple was attacked by the Tamil Tigers  during the civil war, but the damage was  minimal and has been repaired.

Of course you must remove your shoes before you enter the temple. At the door is what is called a moon stone. This is a traditional and significant item to stand on for a quick pause before you enter the temple.

The tooth is a tooth of Buddha.  I was expecting a little glass box with a tooth inside of it. Sort of like the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, only smaller,people would wander past and take a glance.

Boy was I wrong.  Three times a day a service happens with drummers and dancers.

Loud, raucous and colorful!

The history of this tooth goes all the way back to the funeral pyre of Buddha where the tooth was snatched from the fire, then years later smuggled into Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess. Possession of the tooth was tantamount to ruling power. So, when the Portuguese came to Sri Lanka they stole it away. But wait! They only stole a replica say the devotees. Some say that the tooth here is only a replica and the real tooth is hidden away in a secure and secret location.

However, judging from the number of devotees that show up, wait in line and make offerings, I think that the people of Kandy believe this is the true incisor. Sri Lankan Buddhists believe they must make at least on pilgrimage to this temple in their lives.

But here is where I was disappointed.  Three times a day a heavily guarded room is open for what they call pujas, which consist of offerings (mostly flowers) and prayers. Then the long line of devotees slowly pass by a doorway to the room where the tooth is.

This is what they come to see and worship. This is not my photo. I did not get close enough and the lighting was weird, and there were a lotof people jousting for position. This is about 6 feet tall.

So where is the tooth? you ask. As it turns out there are six more of these Stupa shaped solid gold, jewel encrusted containers, each smaller than the other inside this one. Only once a year are they removed so you can actually see the tooth. It must be a madhouse.

That is it for Temple of Tooth. Next post will be a visit to a wonderful waterfall,with the very best hawkers I have  ever run across!

Thanks for reading and share this with friends.

Worlds’s Smallest Buddha

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.

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Sun rise over Sri lanka from our Air Arabia flight, taken with my new IPAD

Our first hotel, The Mt Livinia, was chosen for us by the previously mentioned tour agency because one of the things I said I wanted was a taste of the colonial lifestyle. You can't get much more colonial than having this guy run your bags to your room. I ruined the colonial experince by tipping him.

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.

I can scratch another item from my bucket list!

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…

I just thought it was so cool, but really the monks in the buddhist religion are just normal young men who traditionally become a monk for a few months,or a couple of years, then go back to whatever career is their calling. This guy probably became a surfer.

…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 .

My photo did not come out so well, so I stole this one from another blogger. This lttle Buddha is in a glass case (This picture makes the case look larger than it is) with a magnifying glass built in (on the right of the photo). If you put one eye up to it and look like a mad scientist into the glass jar you can see a very intricate carving, in gold, of the Buddha. The carving is about the size of a grain of rice, and absolutely beautiful. I do not know where it came from or any other details, but the curator of the museum was proud to tell me it was the world's smallest.

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!

We were treated to this sunrise while we waited at the train station.

It was worth waiting for! Such a cute train!

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!

Kowloon, Lantau and Macau are Not Chinese Menu Items

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.

Happy is as happy does!

First, Kowloon.

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.

Kowlooning around!

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)

keeping Hong kong clean is everyones job, not just the thousands of people who get paid to do it. You really do NOT see people litter here.

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.

Ladies Street Block after block of junk

Not that I like any Yankee cap, but this one on Ladies Street is the ugliest I have ever seen!

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.

At this point in the process, Mary Ann turned to me and said she had lost interest. Then the sales lady said something like 3 suits for the price of 1!. All I know is now we need an extra suitcase to get home.

Lantau Island.

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.

Lots of old people, and us! There was one guy on this bus I refused to be anywhere near because he was sniffling sneezing and hacking. Luckily I did not catch whatever exotic disease he had!

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.

He was very big, but where is the biggest? I'll have to Google that one.

Maybe this is a better photo. I am still learning my camera, and it was a grey day. We spoke to a tourist who went the next day and he said that it was so foggy that you could not see Buddhas head!

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.

I hear these burn for a week. They only sell them in packs of three, for about 700 HK dollars. You must really need to pray hard!

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.

I think every international carrier in the world flies to HK. Why not? It is rated as one of the top airports in the world. The thing I liked about it was that the immigration lines were well staffed and that they had a single line to stand in which fed all the stamping stations, so you do not feel like you got "in the slow line again."

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.

Buildings like these are all over HK. Crowded together. In mid town they are much dingier, and do not have the view. Our guide showed us the most expensive apartment building in HK where the apartments are 5000 sq. feet and rent for...US$21,000 a month. Plus a big dollar amount for a parking space. If you drive to work, you pay another huge monthly fee to park in a building in town. Therefore, public transportation is inexpensive and very well used. The buses and metros at rush hour are crowded as a beehive in spring. I think that the best business to have in HK must be elevator maintenance and repair.

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.

Rules at a park in town.

Rules at a beach. Check it out...there is nothing left to do!

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.

This is your first view of Macau from the ferry. It is one of many American and Austarlian casinos in the SAR now. MGM and Wynn also have built monstrosities.

This is Dr. Ho's latest attempt at having the biggest gaudiest casino in Macau. Rumor is, it will be surpassed very soon. With all the money the Chicoms drop at the tables here, there is just no limit .

There is another type of gambling one can do in Macua. The stakes are your life, or maybe just your sanity.

From the top of this tower, you have three options. First is to walk around an un-barricaded sky walk. Next is to bungie jump off of it. Or you can just jump, attached to a rope that finally slows you down as you approach the ground. The height is 764 feet, the worlds highest bungie or free fall site. I just bough the t-shirt.

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.

All that is left of a church built in the late 1600's. On the street next to it were two groups passing out literature, one of them was the church outlawed in mainland China"fong garonadinggong" or something like that.

 

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.

This is a singing water bowl. First you throw a coin in the bowl which is half full of water. Then you rub your palms quickly back and forth across the two handles until the water starts to actually bubble, and the the bowl sings. It is supposed to bring you good fortune. I was hoping it would help me take back some of Dr. Ho's money.

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.

Random Thoughts About Nepal

Everyone should see Nepal.

My bonafides for saying that are simple. I have done my share of traveling (not enough yet mind you) and a lot of that has been in back water bizarre places. I have been all over the Altiplanos of Peru and Bolivia. I have been on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. I’ve been to Machu Picchu three times.  I’ve been so far south in Chile I can almost say I have been in Antarctica. I have walked in the Atacama Desert in a place with zero rainfall ever. I have walked on the Chilean/ Argentine border at 18,000 feet in what I learned afterwards was a mine field. I have been deep in the Amazon jungle, where I swam with pink dolphins and fished for piranhas. I have driven through all of Central America. I spent a year in the Arctic and seen herds of caribou that took hours to walk past me. I lived on a tropical island for four years with hundreds of species of birds.  I have hiked where there are no trails and fished where no white man ever did before me.  I have been to an Eskimo village and have seen Polar Bears in the wild. I once drove a truck over a bridge on a major river before it was open for business.  I have walked on the Hopi Mesas. I have taken a train ride across an Asian country and driven across America. I have even lived in Los Angeles. To top it off I now live in the Arabian Desert.

I say you must see Nepal because it is somehow more intriguing than any of that.

It is not the poverty you’ll find if you look, that is everywhere. It is certainly not the desire to separate a tourist from his money, which is a survival tactic which I admire. It is not the lack of essential services that leave garbage in the streets and cause random blackouts. It is not even the multitude of sacred cows wandering the streets like lost souls.

It isn’t the colorful garb of the people; most people here want to dress like westerners, except for women on ceremonial days and those sensible enough to wear Saris. It is not the maroon robes of the Buddhist monks that sparkle in the city streets and the countryside like so many Thanksgiving mums. It is not the preponderance of Holy Men drifting to and fro with their faces painted and wearing bright yellow silk.

Don’t come here just to relate with Tibetan refugees chased out of their homeland by the Chinese communists, and now doing beautiful weavings and rugs to survive. By the way, the Chicoms will be reincarnated as cockroaches. FREE TIBET!

It isn’t even the thousands of ancient temples of two religions, or the fact that, as old as they are, they are maintained and used for daily worship.  It is not that the result of this hetero religious society leaves a wake of tranquility and contentment, no matter a Nepalese’ station in life.

You should not come here just to see the most magnificent mountain range in the world.

But you should make a pilgrimage here for all those reasons. I count my blessings that I am married to a woman who made Nepal possible.

The origin of name Nepal is disputable, and I do not possess enough knowledge to claim I know. Kathmandu is a word derived from “Temple from one tree”. Kathmandu was a stop on the trade routes from India to Tibet and China. The people in this valley traded with the Tibetans for salt mostly. They then traded with the Chinese for what they had.  When they began to get prosperous, the King built a giant temple from one Thal tree. It still stands today.

Fast forward to today. Nepal was never colonized. However, being India’s neighbor, as well as China’s the Brits, big in both, decided that a presence in Nepal would be a good idea and opened a type of embassy there in maybe 1850.  There is a bit of the colonial influence left over. For instance, they drink tea and drive on the wrong side of the road.  The good thing is that English is the second language of Nepal, which is great for tourists.

Nepal has many different regional identities, each with its own culture and style of dress. They have fought each other in the past for domination. They have been united and separated more than a few times. There remains only one Kingdom inside the territorial boundaries of Nepal, a place called Mustang. Mustang sits at the base of the Himal, in the central to western part of the country. There are no roads or air travel to Mustang. You have to walk it. It is not that big on the trekkers list of places to go. You need special permits and Mustangese guides. I have seen photos of the village of Mustang and I could see myself getting into shape, breaking in a pair of hiking boots, and going there someday. But maybe not.

Back to Kathmandu. The area our hotel is in is called Themal. I have mentioned before that it is the trekkers Disneyland. You would only stay in a hotel outside Themal if you were a businessman staying at the Hyatt. The Hyatt is convenient to the airport, and nothing else.

Walking the streets of Themal (not the sidewalks, there are not any sidewalks in Themal) requires a constant effort to not get hit by a motorcycle or a rickshaw.  You must do this while sidestepping Tiger balm vendors, flute vendors and little women selling little purses. It is a waste of time to be nice. You just learn to walk down the street muttering no,No,NO even when you are not being approached by a hawker. Learning to walk this gauntlet of cultural capitalism is an art form.  Once you have perfected it in Themal, it will serve you in the rest of the world. Every once in a while you might see something in a store window or on a table in the street. If you stop to look at it, boy are you in trouble. The owner of the store will be upon you like a tiger on a lamb. Pick it up and admire it and the owner will consider it sold. The only thing left to do is negotiate the price. DO NOT start doing this unless you really want to buy it. Make that an unwritten rule to follow faithfully. There are no fixed prices, even if there is a price tag on it, which is rare. The vendor will start with “very good price.”

You reply “oh yeah, how much?”

He says, for instance “1000 Rupees.”

You are now into a negotiation which culturally means a sale. You both lose face unless a transaction is completed. You lose face if you pay 1000 Rupees. You should first look surprised, aghast or even insulted by his asking price. Start to put the object down on the table and walk away. This is expected. He will follow you and say a variation of “How much is good price?”

You counter with ½. “500 Rupees”.

This of course will result in him giving you the same look you gave him when he said 1000. He will counter, you will counter, and before you know it you are at 750 Rupees. A sale has been made. Well, not quite. You pull out a 1000 Rupee note and he will invariably claim he has no change. He is counting on you or your partner having to get on your way to dinner, or to answer the call of Yeti’s revenge. You insist. You put the article back. He runs down the street and returns with change. All is well. When you get home you will have a souvenir and a memory. The memory will serve you well, the souvenir maybe not.

One thing you could do in Kathmandu, if so inclined, is to become a Bollywood fan. Bollywood makes movies in India that are immensely popular. Even at a few rupees admission fee they take in more money than most Hollywood productions. We get them on TV here in the UAE because of all the laborers from the sub-continent. In Kathmandu, they are playing in the theatres instead of the latest Hollywood cop movie. They are about 4 hours long. They are not subtitled. They really do not need to be. They are very graphic. Every few minutes, no matter what the plotline, they break into a huge song and dance number. Imagine watching this;

The movie opens with a man and woman obviously falling in love, and singing and dancing about it. They are co-workers and they sing and dance about that. But the woman is engaged to the boss, as revealed by song and dance. The boss is a crook, song and dance. The company is building a dam on the river going thru their town. The boss, instead of paying for concrete is using bat guano building the dam. Sing and dance. There is nothing our young heroes can do about their love or the corruption, so they sing and dance. Then the boss man falls into the cement mixer and becomes part of the damn, and our heroes get together, big song and dance. Then the heroin has a disfiguring accident, sad song and dance. The hero drops her. Sadder song and dance. The heroine disguises herself. The hero falls in love with her again, she then reveals herself and tells him to fuck off while singing and dancing. About this time the monsoons hit and torrential rain is falling. The river is rising and everyone is singing and dancing. Then the bat guano dam breaks, somehow everyone is singing and dancing as they get swept away by the river, but our two heroes hold on to the top of a Stupa and survive and sing and dance happily ever after.

That is Bollywood, the most popular form of entertainment in Kathmandu. Maybe the hash helps, I would not know.

In conclusion, I want to say that Nepal is the most intriguing place I have ever visited. I just began to scratch the top of the culture and religion that is so deep and old. There is really nothing else like it on earth. Nowhere has cultural and religious practices survived as long as they have in Nepal I am looking at opportunities to go back as more than a tourist. One is to go teach young monks to speak English. Live in a monastery and sing and dance the days away. Maybe.

Or maybe I will sell Yeti Tours. My guides and porters will take you deep into the Himal where Yeti sightings have happened, or at least Yeti footprints found. I will guarantee, 100% that you will NOT see a Yeti, even a footprint. If you do, your tour price is refunded.

No I have not been smoking hash.

Note: I am having technical difficulties making a proper presentation of the Kama Sutra post, but I promise it will come. Soon.

Up to My Temples in Temples

I have officially become a temple free zone. As I said in a previous post, our guide claims there are 1.3 billion gods in Hinduism. I think I have seen a temple for every one of them. They are all different, in a way, but after about a billion of them you really have to look hard to see the differences. They are all quite old. Most of them are very big and substantially built. By quite old I mean built in the 13th 14th, 16th centuries. Old.

They are everywhere. This one in town

Some defy description they are so beautiful

This is the tallest temple in all Nepal, supposedly

They are always surrounded by creatures, usually tigers guarding them

This one is guarded by a Cobra

This one is guarded by big scary guys with big mustaches. A previous life??

This one has Mary Ann for a guard. For a little while. The view of the courtyard from here was wonderful.

Some have courtyards with even more stuff to see indoors.

This is the royal bath inside a temple. The cobra heads where the water comes from are solid brass

This is the largest Stupa in the world. The way the Tibetans who built say it, it is the largest in the universe. They are optimistic people

I am declaring "Not One More Temple" Notice my hat? Whenever I wore this around the Nepalis pointed at me and said "Abu Nepali", Meaning Old Nepali man!

I could spend hours of my time and bore you silly with explanations of these temples, but I won’t. You can thank me later.

My favorite temple so far? Easy. The temple dedicated to the practice of the Kama Sutra. I keep teasing you that I will share my photos of all the “erotic” carvings carved into this temple. I just might hold out on you unless you ask me for it by commenting on this post.

The most impressive thing about each and every temple we have visited is that they are still in use. All the god statues have offerings around them. Everything from butter candles, to colored rice, to flowers rubbed onto them.

For instance. This shrine has been there for hundreds of years. It depicts the birth of Buddha. The legend is that when Buddha left the womb he immeadiatly walked five steps. See the steps? Anyway, just before I took this photo an old man was praying at it.

I’ll give you one more teaser for the next post. The god that started Kama Sutra has his own statue, and of course he is naked, and his impressive groin region is worshipped by rubbing flowers on it. I actually have a photo of a woman doing just that. So read my next post.

This country is about evenly split between Buddhists and Hindu. Always has been. Some of the temples have Buddhist stuff on top and Hindu on the bottom and some vice-versa. Because living in peace and harmony and accepting that things are just the way they are, they live together nicely.

Over 100 thousand Tibetan Buddhists escaped Tibet when the Chinese decided Tibet was really China. They destroyed temples and monasteries in an attempt to destroy the religion. Many came here, and many went to India. The one’s here have survived and thrived.

The only people causing trouble here are the Maoists. They have actually gone to war with the government and are still in the hills. You even see the hammer and sickle painted as graffiti and I took this shot in a city. I guess the phrase “godless commies” should be used here, eh?

Political freedom I guess.

The government of Nepal practically does not exist right now. They had an election a while back, but no one got a majority and they cannot name a President. No one seems to care. It is what it is.

After Everest

Welcome back folks.

Wishing you were here!

Nepal is getting more amazing as time goes by. My two immediate goals, buying a rug and seeing Everest up close have been accomplished. We now have something like twelve days to see what we can see. Like I already told you we have a guide. He is very thorough, thoughtful and attentive. He planned out the rest of our day after Everest. It turned out to be a long day that went by quickly. Every time we saw something, it was more amazing than the last thing we saw. Except of course for Everest. Maybe if I see a Yeti, maybe that would be more incredible.

Everest is something I expected to be incredible. The rest of the day was all new and all exciting. The internet, YouTube, other people’s blogs and the guidebooks did little if anything to prepare me for the surprises of the rest of this day. I feel like I could just post pictures and let you go ooh and ahh, but you know me better than that.

Ravi turned us over to a guide named Ari. Ari’s entire family is in the tourist business in one way or another. Ari ran a hotel on “Freak Street” back when Hippies drove here from Europe in VW buses and rented rooms for a buck a night and bought hash for 2 bucks an ounce. It was a kinder, gentler time. George Harrison found his mantra here. Cat Stevens hung out here before he converted. From what Ari told me, the area around Freak Street was all about sex, drugs and Rock ‘n roll.  I’m sorry I missed it.     I paid my pilgrimage even though it is like visiting the Haight these days.

The hey days are over. Just another street now.

It was an easy place to visit because it is one of the streets that runs of Dubar square. Dubar square is a spiritual center for Hinduism. It was on our agenda as the first stop. The square has many temples, all of them quite old. It also has the old Imperial palace. The old-old imperial palace is quite old.(When you call something old in Nepal, well, it is REALLY old. Every building on this square was in use before 1600.) Then, one of Nepal’s kings went to England. He came home and built a big English style palace connected to the old one. It looks like a turd on a wedding cake.

This was the kings palace for hundred of years, until...

...in the 20's a King went to England, came back and had this gross thing built.

Directly in front of it is an old temple surrounded by levels where people can sit. This, according to Ari, was always populated with hippies smoking hash in the good old days.

The kings palace is not 100 feet away. I can't imagine just sitting up here hitting a bong all day!

This photo shows the entrance to Nasal Chaw. Neither word is pronounced the way you just pronounced it. A Chaw in Nepal is a special courtyard or square, or maybe just an intersection. This Chaw is where all the coronations took place since the Royals took over from the Gods, until 2001 when the last king was coronated. He lived in that ugly building in a previous photo until he was dethroned in 2007. He now lives in a modest home in the suburbs. Inside this nasal place is a statue of the God of Justice.

Scary looking fellow

I said a little prayer for justice for all, and this guard guy laughed at me. I hope I made his day.

He had a good laugh at my expense, so I tipped him.

Then it was time to see a (the only) living goddess. This is a big deal in Nepal. The whole scene plays out like this. The goddess is chosen from a very large Nepali, Buddhist family. Not only does the bloodline need to be pure, but there are 35 other physical characteristics that must be met. Eyes must be just right, dimensions of nose bone to cheek bones, stuff like that. She is normally chosen as a pre-toddler and serves until her first menstrual period. All that time she lives in a palace in Dubar Square where she is unbelievably pampered. So much so that she   cannot be touched by anyone other than her immediate family, and her feet can never touch the ground. This girl does not take her first steps until she has her first period at which time she is cast out of the ranks of the holy and turns into a normal person. I have read that is a tough transition. A little rougher than getting laid off from GM I would think. People pay homage to her in many ways. People like Mary Ann and I drop a hundred Rupees into a box. The goddess’ family gathers what it may for twelve years or so, and then they are on their own. Until recent times she never married and stayed a virgin her whole life because it was believed that if a man had sex with a goddess, even an ex-goddess, at climax he would explode like a firecracker.  Hmmm… Anyway nowadays she can get married.  Also in modern times she receives an education, which they never did before. I saw an interview with an ex who is now about 20, and going to University in London. A very beautiful and bright woman, but I imagine that the men-folk, even at Cambridge, would be just a bit intimidated. I can see it now;

“Hiya baby. Hey I am eighth Earl of Naughtyham. Wanna dance?”

“Hello sir, I am the 8000th Goddess of Nepal. Wanna carry me around the dance floor?”

When she feels like it, she appears in the middle window at noon.

Anyway back to my narrative. We went to her palace where she makes a quick appearance in a second floor window most days at about noon. There were about twenty German tourists there, and us. A rule is plainly posted on the wall. You CANNOT photograph the Goddess because if you do your memory stick will explode like a firecracker.  Then one of her handlers, maybe daddy Goddess, come to the window and states the rule, if not the consequences, plainly to everyone. She made an appearance. She is a beautiful little girl. She probably had 5 pounds of make-up on and twenty pounds of silk. Nepali legend says that if she looks you in the eyes, your entire life will be blessed with luck, fortune, and your climaxes will only seem like you exploded. I tried to catch her eye. I did everything other than dance the funky chicken. No luck. Then touring Hans raised his huge friggen Nikon with a sports photographer sized telephoto lens, and snapped a picture. End of the show, and I was just getting started on my attention grabbing scheme. Bummer. Anyway, it is not every day you get to see a living Goddess.

Then we started wandering around the rest of the square. Temple after temple after temple. Because this is a must see place for tourists, vendor after vendor after vendor. I got my mantra here just like George Harrison. I don’t know what his is, but mine became, No, no, no, fuck NO! One guy was selling flutes. They were beautiful rosewood flutes. I told him I was not a musician. Didn’t work. I told him I could never learn to play a flute. Didn’t work. Then I stopped and told him the gods of music denied me the ability to make any music. He handed me the flute. I blew into it and such a horrific sound came out the end of it that he agreed with me and hurried off to find some other old hippie that wanted to be George Harrison. Then I met up with some Holy Men. There were a few of them around. Now I really do not know if these were really Holy Men anymore than the staff characters at Disneyland are really ducks or mice. But they were so cool looking that I had to pose with them.

Minnie, Mickie and Goofy? I don't know, but they seemed real and in Durbar Square, well I'll take it as it is.

Then a Holy Man called Mary Ann over to him. I love this shot.

Yeah dude, I think she is number 1 too. Do Holy Men wear surfer sandals?

From Dubar square we made our way over to the Monkey Temple. Fact is, you see monkeys all over Kathmandu, but at the Monkey Temple they rule the roost.

It is time to put on a show for the tourists you little brat.

The Monkey Temple is the home of a very large Stupa.

It seems where ever you are in this land, Buddha can see you.

The eyes are the eyes of Buddha. They adorn every Stupa. This reminds me of life in the ME where you can always hear the call to prayer. Here, Buddha can always see you. You better live right.
Then I was amazed when the guide took us to the sacred river where they deposit the cremains of Hindus who die. What I did not expect to see was the entire process of the cremation, from the blessing of the body to the actual funeral fire. You will have to read my next post to see this cultural experience of the end of life.
The post after that will be, as promised, the Kama Sutra, complete with all the erotic carvings from the temple where it all started.
Stay tuned!
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