Month Thirteen Recap

Where We’ve Been

Thailand, Cambodia and Nepal

The Highs
  • Bayon Temple at Angkor Wat.  This was my favorite of the temples – I nearly got chills when we first saw it.  Such an incredible place.
  • Phare, the Cambodian circus.  I left that performance feeling so much joy for the performers, the organization and Cambodia in general.  Well worth the incredibly cheap $15 ticket price for such a wonderful show.
  • Being woken up by our wonderful hotel manager in time to witness the stunning views from Pokhara.
  • Getting 50% of the benefits of visiting India without having to visit India.  John and I agonized about whether we should go to India or not, but finally decided to skip it for a multitude of reasons.  Fortunately, being in Nepal satisfied many of the reasons we wanted to go in the first place:  we got to do a meditation course, eat loads of fantastic Indian/Nepali food, enjoy very similar music and culture, and we even saw some Hindu cremation ceremonies.  And we managed it all without having to suffer the chaos and illness that appears inescapable in India.  Huge win.
The Lows
  • More sickness.  John and I both had a cold during and after our 10 day retreat at Kopan.  Being sick really compromises my ability to appreciate my surroundings.
  • Lack of wildlife at Chitwan.  The elephant safari was pretty cool on it’s own, but I wish we had been able to see something other than pigs and deer.
Things I’ve Learned

Toward the end of our stint in Thailand, we started thinking maybe we were just sick of Southeast Asia and Thailand itself wasn’t to blame for our unrest.  (You know, the whole “It’s not you, it’s me.” routine.)  Turns out that wasn’t the problem.  Returning to Bangkok for one last night after visiting Cambodia for five days (and loving it) provided the perfect proof that it really was Thailand and not us.  I doubt we’ll be back.

Nepal, however, quickly made the list for one of our favorite spots despite being by far the least developed country we have visited.  (The roads are abysmal, there is rubble and trash everywhere, the internet is nearly impossible, and I’ve never been to a capital city where there are scheduled power outages daily.)  I guess good food and interesting culture can go a long way.

What’s Up Next

United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.

Pokhara

The phone in our hotel room jolted us awake.  As John sat up to answer it, I checked the time: 5:50am.  Who was bothering us at this hour?

As it turns out, the call came from the hotel manager, who wanted to inform us that it was a clear day outside.  Normally a clear day wouldn’t be enough to make me bolt out of bed (or cause hotel staff to wake you before 6am), but we were in Pokhara.  Monsoon season started early this year, and it had been 6 weeks since the last time you could clearly see the entire Annapurna Range – a clear day was exciting.

Thankful to the hotel manager for waking us before the clouds rolled in, we quickly got dressed and headed to the streets.  We weren’t the only people in town excited by the clear day.  Taxi drivers were waiting anxiously on the street, ready to swoop up tourists and deliver them to the perfect viewpoints.  Off season had started early this year, after all, and they were eager to make some money again.  So we hopped in the back of a cab and headed for Sarangkot, a popular sunrise viewpoint.  The sun had already risen, of course, but the views were still phenomenal.  From one side of the viewpoint the entire Annapurna Range was clear against a blue sky, and to the other you could see the valley below just waking up.

(Notice in this photo how John is standing with his legs super far apart so that he looks closer to my height.  He does this in nearly all of our photos, and often when he’s just standing near me.  It gives me a false belief that he’s not all that tall – until he straightens up and I’m looking straight at his chest.  Make no mistake, he’s a tall man.)Clouds were already looming on the horizon, so we jumped to one more viewpoint just to take in all the scenery we could.  The road up to the World Peace Stupa is rugged at and rough, but the views over the lake were well worth it.
When we got to the top, we met a couple from the UK who had been trekking for a week hoping to see just glimpses of the mountains through the clouds.  They corroborated the story that this was by far the best day anyone had seen in six weeks.This buddha has a pretty sweet perch.Some early risers were taking advantage of the clear skies to take scenic flights over the mountains.
After a quick breakfast, we rented a row boat on Phewa Lake.  From the lake you cannot see the mountains, but you can watch the scores of people paragliding from the hilltops.  I think there were as many as 30 at a time flying over our heads.
By the afternoon, clouds had rolled back in and the lake went back to looking dreary and overcast once more.  The epic mountain views were completely obscured by cloud cover, just as they had been when we arrived.  Seeing as this was our last day in Pokhara, we felt truly grateful to have gotten a few hours of sunshine.

The next day we bussed back to Kathmandu for a short overnight before leaving Nepal.  Our three weeks here were wonderful, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we come back here sometime in the future.

Nepal is by far the most undeveloped country we have visited so far, so I’m sure we’re in for quite a culture shock as we head out to our next stop – Abu Dhabi.  Notes from the Middle East soon!

[...] Being woken up by our wonderful hotel manager in time to witness the stunning views from Pokhara. [...]

Chitwan National Park

Many, many months ago, I read about Chitwan National Park in a book.  The author had such a lovely description of doing an elephant back safari that I immediately wanted to do it, and we put it on the list of things experiences to have if we made it to Nepal.  Earlier this week we made the five hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Chitwan to finally cross that experience off of our World Tour To Do List.  (That list just keeps getting smaller and smaller…)

Elephant safari is one of the things to do in Chitwan, so we weren’t the only ones getting up early to explore the jungle.  When we arrived at the starting point loads of elephants and their guides were hanging out, just waiting to take groups of tourists for a ride.The elephants are so huge and cool.

This trunk was looking for a snack, no doubt about it…To climb onto the back of the elephant, we had to use one of these handy staircases.  Four people fit per elephant, with legs hanging out over the corners of the wooden platform.  It is not a comfortable configuration, I must admit.  As the elephant walks, you tilt heavily side to side slamming into the wooden rails quite a bit, and the bottom platform digs into the upper thighs.  I was definitely bruised the next day, but it was still worth it.

Once all four of you are in position, it’s time to wander through the jungle in search of animals.  For some reason I assumed the pace would be really slow, but that elephant can move pretty quickly.Some of the trails barely feel like trails.  Trees and bushes slapped against the sides of our elephant (and us) and I had to keep an eye out so as not to get hit in the face by a tree branch.  As we walked she would swing her tail to and fro to shoo off bugs, often hitting the soles of our feet hard with her tail.  Whenever an animal was nearby the elephant would make noises, and we could feel her growling beneath us.At one point we crossed this river.  It’s somewhat surreal to hear the sloshing of giant footsteps and be standing in the middle of  a river but be so far up in the air that you can’t feel any of the water.Sadly, the animals were not really out and about for us to see.  We spotted monkeys, wild boar (and a wild piglet), and spotted deer, but that was about it.  I was always on the wrong side of the elephant to photograph the spotted deer, which was a shame because they are actually pretty cool looking.  We didn’t even come close to spotting a rhino or tiger, though another group from our hotel saw a rhino somewhere.  It wasn’t our day for wildlife I guess.Once our safari ended, the elephants and their guides went to hang out by the riverfront, no doubt waiting for the next batch of tourists.

After our ride, I  asked one of the guides to take a photo of us with the elephant, and this is the first shot he took.  There are a lot of weird things going on in this image…

This was the second shot he took.  Still kind of a weird shot, but you can see that we were with the elephants.  Close enough.In addition to the elephant safari, we toured a Tharo village, where indigenous people live pretty much exactly how all the kids at Panya, Pun Pun and other eco-friendly/stustainable/permaculture communities try to live, but more successfully.  Then we wandered down to the river to enjoy the views.  (Another group enjoyed the riverfront via elephant, as you can see, but we just walked.)We grabbed a front row seat for sunset, and enjoyed some local beer (It was the first alcohol we’ve had in Nepal, actually.  10 days at a monastery really made me forget about drinking entirely, though I can’t say the same for many of the other course participants who were counting down the minutes until they could break free for a beer in Kathmandu.)The lovely sunset view, with a few Himalayas off in the distance…And after sunset we went to see the “Tharu Culture Programme”, which was basically a performance of tribal stick dances.  It looked a lot more like synchronized combat than dancing, and at one point there was fire involved.  I thought it was going to be totally lame and touristy, but we actually enjoyed it.

Though everyone tried to convince us to stay more than one night in Chitwan, one night was all we had.  I don’t think we needed any additional time, truthfully, since we aren’t really into birdwatching.  I guess another day would have given us more opportunities to see rhino, but you never know if they would have come out for us at all.  When our quick overnight trip was over, we boarded another five hour bus to Pokara in hopes of catching some mountain and lake views.

Boudhanath Stupa

The ominous, booming chanting that is piped in through speakers surrounding the Boudha Stupa greatly enhanced in experience of visiting the Tibetan holy site.  As a result, John and I have decided that all national monuments should come with a soundtrack.  It really sets the mood.  (Just imagine how much cooler places like Angkor Wat, Tikal and Machu Picchu would be if they came with a soundtrack?  I’m just saying.)

This stupa is the holiest Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet, and is one of the largest in the world.  The eyes represent the all-seeing eyes of the Buddha and the pyramid represents the ladder to enlightenment through Buddha’s teachings.  From each corner of the pyramid drape hundreds and hundreds of prayer flags.  I’ve never seen so many prayer flags in my life.We visited it on Buddha’s Birthday, and the crowds were massive.  Hundreds of people were circumambulating the stupa, reciting mantras, spinning the prayer wheels, and talking amongst themselves.  Below are the prayer wheels, which are installed all around the outside of the stupa and are carved with the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum,” which means “May wisdom and compassion unify within me.”Surrounding the stupa is practically a city’s worth of restaurants, shops and hotels.  We tucked into a quiet courtyard restaurant for lunch that felt like a completely different world.  As we stepped back out after an hour or so, incense, prayer flags and chanting quickly confronted us with the realization that we were still in Nepal.  It was an odd sensation.Apparently after sunset hundreds of these small lights would surround the stupa in celebration of the Buddha’s Birthday.
Us with the prayer flags, hiding from the sunshine.  It was a very bright day, and the reflection of the sun off the bright white stupa only made it more intense.Time to leave Kathmandu for the jungle – more soon!

Jim Barrow - June 4, 2013 - 10:08 am

Tracy, just to say Hi and how much I admire your photography.
Jim

Hindu Cremations at Pashupatinath Temple

Located on the banks of the Bagmati River just outside Kathmandu, the Temple of Pashupatinath is one of the most important Hindu temples of Lord Shiva in the world.  While Hindus often come here on pilgrimage, most westerners visit for a chance to witness the open air cremation ceremonies.  It might seem a bit macabre to want to watch people cremate their family members, but watching one of these ceremonies is an interesting cultural experience.  Visitors watch the ceremonies from across the river and do not interfere with the processes.

We arrived to the riverbank just in time to witness one of the more elaborate ceremonies of the day.  In this case, the deceased was someone of wealth or importance and was given a prime cremation spot right on the riverfront.  People of lesser wealth are cremated in one of the many other simpler sites nearby.

As they arrive, family members carry the body, draped in flowers and wrapped in fabric, on a type of stretcher into the temple and down to the riverbank.  Here they wash the body’s feet and head in the holy river water and take turns sprinkling water and flowers on the body to pay their last respects.

Watching this process highlighted for me how distant our culture is from the process of death.  The family members appeared to have no trouble handling and being near the dead bodies of their loved ones.  In our culture it is rare for us to see a dead body, let alone handle one (unless you work in a certain profession where this is part of your job), and we outsource the tasks of cremation and burial so that we do not have to witness them firsthand.

Once the blessings are finished, they carry the body down the river to a cremation spot that has been prepared in advance.

More blessings and flowers are placed with the body before it is situated on the pire and the fire is lit.  Once the fire is lit, two men tend to the process for several hours until it is complete.  Many people seated on the steps continued to watch the fire burn as they mourned together.
I can’t say that watching this ritual convinced me that I would want to attend open air cremations for my own loved ones, but it was fascinating to see how different the Hindu tradition is from our own.  While I know some people find the idea disturbing, a certain sense of closure must come from watching the body burn before your eyes.

richa maheshwari fashion photographer - May 19, 2016 - 10:27 pm

Here they wash the body’s feet and head in the holy river water

Amresh Kumar - May 27, 2013 - 9:16 pm

wow !! amazing story and stunning images, you have very well describe about pashupatinath Temple, Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story !!

Robin - May 27, 2013 - 6:46 am

Fascinating Tracy. I am learning so much just from your blog. Thanks.