Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Twenty four hours in Chang Mai

Young Karen girl shows off her neck rings

After Nepal, Bangkok is thoroughly modern with its skyscrapers, freeways and late model cars and buses, but it's peak tourist season now and a sweaty 39oC. The place is full of Aussies escaping the winter and who probably got the same cheap airfare that I did. The only hotel room I can get is a box with no windows and a very noisy airconditioner. I am not looking forward to spending my last two days here so in the morning I take a VIP bus and head for the hills.

The roads are excellent and there isn't much traffic. Although the countryside is green and has attractive flowering trees it is also extremely flat and becomes quite boring after 700 km. Chang Mai is a beautiful city and not just because I have spent twelve hours on a bus. Streets, buildings and bridges are lit up and there is a scent of frangipani in the air. A huge night market is in progress and there are lots of places offering excellent, inexpensive food.

Lavish display at an orchid farm

In the morning I am off on the back of a motorbike again. A mini bus group tour may have been slightly cheaper but it would have included monkey and snake shows, more temples and elephant rides which would all have required additional entrance fees. I am also getting that been -there, done -that feeling. After a brief stop at a beautiful orchid farm which grows its own butterflies we continue up the mountain to a Hill Tribe Village.

The Hill Tribe Village seems a bit contrived. It has been built by the government and is a bit like a living Museum - a human zoo -as one writer put it. It is also rather expensive but it does save several days trekking in the mountains and the money supposedly goes to the communities. The guide is a member of the White Karen. As he tells it this is a vast improvement on the days when the government literally persecuted the hill folk. From 1992 onwards they were no longer allowed to burn the jungle in order to grow food because of fears that this practice was responsible for deforestation. However, when they came to the cities to try to find work, they met with discrimination and were harassed by authorities because they did not have ID cards.

Craft stalls at the Hill Tribe Village help to produce income

Young girls of the Long - necked Karen Tribe.

The first rings are put on when the girls turn five. According to the guide they were originally to protect them from tigers. I am not sure about the boys. I didn't see any. Perhaps they have all been eaten by tigers.

Representatives of six major tribal groups including the Hmong, the Lahu, the Lisu, the Palong, and three different Karen groups occupy houses in the village and practice their traditional forms of craft and agriculture. Their value to tourism revenue has been recognised but I wonder out loud what it's like having visitors photograph you all day and poke their noses into your house. The guide introduces me to members of his family. They certainly don't look unhappy. They share their meal with me - crispy fried chicken skin, fish and rice and tell me that they love being here. The guide says the women just enjoy coming here to gossip.

Lunch with members of the White Karen

The houses are simply constructed of timber with rattan walls. They have large open verandahs where most living takes place and airy spaces underneath like Queenslanders. Because it does get cold at night, the hearth is in the centre of the house. Above it are shelves for pots and pans. In one house there are posters of pop stars on the wall. I assume that it belongs to one of the teenage weavers. I imagine that for the young, life here in this ethno eco-agricutural village probably holds more appeal than living a completely isolated traditional life in the hills. There is a small school here and a church is being built. While older women and girls weave, the young ones play a game like Jacks with stones. Interestingly, an Argentinian woman tells me that the same game is played there and beats the little girl at the game.

For a totally different view of Karen life, read the story by
Antonio Graceffo in the Asian Sentinel (07 May 2007)

A teenage Karen girl weaving

Afterwards I am shown around various craft workshops near Chang Mai, starting with the Umbrella makers and finishing up with Jewellry and Leatherwork. The workmanship is exquisite but my budget rarely runs to souvenirs much less these rather pricey items. It is fascinating to watch them being made but what really thrills me is how beautifully everything is presented. A furniture display is not just a furniture display. Whether it is the silk factory or the umbrella workshop, there are water gardens and refreshments, shady nooks and graceful artwork, just as there were at the orchid farm.

Adding gold leaf to lacquerwork

Beautiful entrance to the Silk Making Workshop

The whole process from the cultivation of silk worms, to dyeing and weaving to tailoring and can be seen on the premises. Beautiful silks and ready to wear items are for sale.

At the Umbrella making Workshop

Here the entire process from splitting of bamboo, to making the paper to decorating the end product can be seen on site.

Charming hostesses at the Jewellry and Gemstone workshop. However, no photos may be taken inside this glass and concrete Aladdin's Cave

We finish off with a temple or two near the old sunken city and finally there's just time for another Thai massage at the blind masseur's guild, before catching the all night bus back to Bangkok. Blind masseuses are an excellent idea in principle I think, though this particular massage does not involve taking one's clothes off. It is in fact a form of ritual torture which makes you forget whatever aches and pains you had originally.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Nepal - Last Glimpses and Parting Thoughts

My last and best view of Everest

Because of the forthcoming elections on April 10, I am advised to leave the city early. There have already been enormous rallies and huge traffic jams. A five day holiday has been declared for the elections and alcohol and the carrying of sticks have been banned in in the Valley. Just time for one last adventure.

World Heritage Expeditions has booked me into a pleasant hotel at Nagarkot for the night, so I head eastwards on a local bus. At Baktipur I change to an even more decrepit bus that snakes slowly upwards. This area is much greener and more prosperous looking than most of the places I have seen. At last I arrive on the top of a razor back ridge which has a whole string of hotels with names like Hotel Space Mountain and Hotel at the End of the Universe. Mine is called Hotel Viewpoint which is certainly apt since its many terraces overlook mountains in every direction including Mount Everest in the east. It also has gas hot water and excellent food.

Looking South

It's lush and green here, but it rains a lot more

Alas, it's hazy at dusk and raining at sunrise so much of the benefit of getting up for the obligatory sunrise viewing is lost. With my pack on my back (day pack only - I am getting a bit smarter these days) I walk for three hours to the next village on the other side of the ridge. This must happen often. I don't walk very long before I am accosted by children and divested of my remaining biscuits. The children are a bit more sophisticated here. They don't just ask for money or sweets but try to sell me postcards and ask for pens for school. A little further on the clouds part and I do get a glimpse of a snow covered Mount Everest.

Leaving Nagarkot with Mt Everest emerging from the mists

In the valley a charming young man invites me in to meet his family. His father is a school principal at a government school. They show me photos of their sponsors - people who have donated money or materials and uniforms.

Bishwo's family at Sankhu

From Sankhu I catch a bus to Jorpati to visit the couple who first suggested that I come to Nepal. They run the Pegasus Orphan School but the children are on holiday at the moment so there's not much to see. Karma makes a great lunch and then I return to Kathmandu still wondering what to do.

Karma and Kinnley the couple who invited me to Nepal, with son Sangee. (Hope I have spelled this correctly).

As it happens members of a Regional Development Corporation based in the UK who have just built the school at Chitwan are staying at the hotel. They invite me to dinner for further discussion shortly before I leave.We eat at a restaurant run by deaf people. This is no doubt an individual initiative and it's a fantastic idea. The food is good too, but we don't come any closer to a solution since they work with local NGOs in one particular area only. The problems are just too big and no one seems to have any overview. In the absence of a solution which will help everyone, the starfish solution will have to do. You can't help them all, but you can at least make a difference to one or two. Though I haven't decided yet where I should teach, we plan to keep in touch.

Should you be interested in becoming a volunteer* for 1-3 months or making a donation check their website http://www.aidcamps.org/independent-about.htm

*fees apply

Last Supper - with the group who built the school at Chitwan. As usual the power is out, but the venue is a great idea

Looking at the map of Nepal, I am disappointed to see how little of the country I have actually seen. What is it like in the West? There are rumours of people living in subterranean tunnel villages in the North. What about the South East? At least I have had some tantalising glimpses and look forward to coming again.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Nepal- A Close Encounter at Chitwan

I am front left -long curly hair

By now I had seen most of the major ecosystems in Nepal except the jungle. On the advice of Ramesh my host at Pokkhara, I now pay a visit to the Chitwan National Park also located in the southern lowlands of the Terai. The region is rich in wildlife and home to many endangered species including the Royal Bengal Tiger, Sloth Bears, Leopards, Sambar and Spotted Deer and around 450 species of birds.

Two young elephants attest to the success of the Government Breeding program. This year there were 28 pregnancies of which 8 ended in stillbirths. The only problem was that many of these pregnancies were due to wild elephants breaking in and not the local stock.

When these elephants are two years old they will be trained to transport tourists around the park.

There are many things to do here, including rides in dug out canoes for the masochistic, jeep safaris and joining the elephants on their daily bath, but time and money are short so after visiting the elephant breeding centre and seeing the evening's performance at the Tharu Cultural Centre, I elect to have an elephant ride through the jungle.

The Tharu are the indigenous people of the Terai. Here they perform the Stick Dance, a form of Martial Art (apologies for the excellent picture of the backs of people's heads).

An elephant is the ultimate all terrain vehicle for observing animals in the wild. Not only do they offer an excellent and safe vantage point but they are amazingly quiet and move through the jungle with ease.

A Spotted Deer

At first we only see a few pheasants and several species of deer - some spotted ones, a barking deer and something which looks like an ibex, when suddenly we come upon a clearing where a mother and baby rhinocerous are grazing.

Another party on an elephant enters the clearing from the other direction. It also carries a party of four plus the mahout (elephant driver). For a moment, the mother rhinocerous looks confused. One possible avenue of retreat has now been cut off. She prepares to charge the other elephant.

Our mahout quietly takes out his rhinocerus hook, an evil looking implement with both a hook and a point. He also carries a hatchet. Then he makes a noise to distract the rhinocerus. For an instant we think we will be charged instead, but the mahout utters a few soothing words and the elephant steps elegantly out of the way. Now the mother rhino is reassured and both she and the baby continue to graze.

One horned Rhinocerii - mother and baby, nibbling daintily on blue ageratum

Friday, April 18, 2008

Nepal - In the Footsteps of Siddharta

This ancient tower in the Secret Garden at Lumbini 700 km west of Kathmandu, marks the place where Siddharta, later Lord Buddha, was born.

I felt a vague compulsion to visit this part of the country because a famous uncle wrote the well known book about Siddharta which was later made into a film. After a long journey on numerous unsprung buses and an involuntary stay in Siddhartanagar, I finally arrive at an unprepossessing collection of villages.

Lumbini is in the Terai which is hotter and flatter than the rest of Nepal. The people here are quite different too and have long wanted to seccede. Here the women wear saris rather than the loose trousers and tops which women wear elsewhere in the kingdom. They look like red hibiscus flowers as they work the fields. Many of the villages have small blue mosques topped with Islam's crescent moon indicating that much of Nepal's 15% Muslim population is concentrated here. The rest are Hindus and Buddhists. Occasionally you see elephant shrines in the fields.

A tiny elephant temple in a fig tree

Most houses and barns and even storage vats in this region are made of simple unrendered pise. Large birdhouses feature prominently on the rooftops because birds, particularly cranes, are regarded as sacred and as bringers of good luck. Woe betide the family that eats the eggs, they will be plagued by sickness and misfortune and in the event that they should they kill one, they will be cursed for many generations.

All the rooves have birdhouses

Unfired Clay Storage Jars

The exact spot inside the Queen's palace where Siddharta was born

Beneath prayer flags, pilgrims from many lands listen to the words of Buddhist monks beside the pool where Siddharta's mother bathed before he was born

A little further on you come upon the unexpected sight of dozens of fabulous temples built by Buddhist nations including Thailand, Vietnam, Tibet, China, Myanmar, Brunei , Cambodia and India. Austria and France who have Buddhist communities also have a presence here and Germany has a research centre. There are also monasteries, nunneries and meditation retreats here.

The Japanese Peace Pagoda

Myannmar's Golden Temple
Just two of dozens of splendid buildings in this region
Some 60,000 tourists and pilgrims come to view these every year, but although they were relocated to make way for them, so far the villagers appear to have had very little benefit from the influx of visitors.

Thirty five kilometres away at Kapilvastu the kingdom which Siddharta forsook at the age of thirty, part of the Royal Palace has now been excavated, along with tombs of the King and Queen. Nearby is a small museum featuring fine ceramics and carvings which were found at the site.
It is here that the young Prince excelled at sports and learned archery. Where his arrow struck the ground, a spring is said to have formed. It was here too that he had the formative experiences that led him to become a mystic. Although sheltered from the world, he did once see a sick man and also witnessed a funeral and thus began his quest to find out the cause of human suffering and to provide relief.

This is the East Gate by which Siddharta left his earthly kingdom to become Lord Buddha

Sad -eyed village children clamour to be photographed

I am not sure exactly what the story is with this empty village just outside Lumbini. It was built either by the Sri Lankans or for Sri Lankans some time ago, but has not yet been handed over to the people. No one seems to know who is responsible for it.

The Sri Lankan Village?

Things are very different in Chitwan Royal National Park some 300km down the road towards Kathmandu. The villages look freshly swept, the clay houses look well maintained and there are flowers and gardens. A school has recently been built by foreign NGOs. Village culture is kept alive through public performances and continued ownership of elephants used in safaris. The small shops and restaurants also benefit.


If you see this man, please tell him to get in touch immediately

On a lighter note, all travellers need good angels. Mine was Camillo who not only bailed me out when there was no ATM and no one would take my Visa card, he also looked after me when I was sick. Before I could pay him back, he quietly slipped away without leaving a forwarding address.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Nepal - Under the Himalaya

Sunrise over the Himalaya
The tour company isn't all that thrilled to see me when I arrive back in Kathmandu as they have already paid out the money and can't pay me back for my failed mission. After a few days of abject misery, they send me off on a bus to Pokkhara, one of the most beautiful places in Nepal. It's the well trodden jumping off point for treks to the Annapurna Circuit and the Everest Base Camp. I am surprised to see banana palms and hibiscus flowers all along this route.

The rather gothic hotel is beautifully appointed and set near a lake. Although it's rather touristy the bonus is that the town is clean and tidy, the menus are all in English and there is a German bakery. There is even an ATM, the only one outside Kathmandu. This is just as well as convivial host Ramesh soon signs me up for a sunrise glimpse of the mountains and a day's sightseeing on a motor bike.

Pokkhara Lakeside

The Hotel Grand Holiday. This crazy paving style of decoration, very prevalent here, is quite different to anything else I have seen so far. There is usually a lot of colourful paintwork around the windows too, similar to that seen in Mongolia. This is not surprising given that many of Nepal's 71 ethnic groups, especially among the trekking guides and porters and many of the Newari traders are of Mongolian descent. In the east, they are more likely to have Tibetan origins while in the west there are Magyars. On the Terai - the hot flat grazing lands to the south, there are more likely to be Indian influences.

Nepalis have this obsession that everyone should see mountains at sunrise. This means getting up at some ridiculous hour in the middle of the night so one can be transported to a suitable viewing point. There could be a good reason for this as later in the day the moisture rises from the valleys and the mountains are often obscured by clouds.

Either way I wake up at the first cock crow and start groping around in the dark for clothes. My phone which I have been using as a clock, has been scrambled since I left home so I have no idea what the time is. I learn a new truism. "Roosters do not only crow at dawn. They crow any time you want to sleep." Eventually someone does come to collect me and we do the half hour drive to the top of the nearest mountain. So does everyone else. Nevertheless it is a spectacular sight to be up above the clouds watching the first rays of sunlight strike the Annapurnas. A strong wind springs up. It's a relief to be taken back to the hotel for breakfast. The place is full of gung ho trekkers from many different countries.

Afterwards I am taken on a motorbike tour of the district. Devi's cave, the largest underground cavern in Asia, was only discovered recently when a Swiss couple decided on a swim in the river and were promptly swallowed up by the earth. There is a curious temple inside. A papier mache cow has been installed in one of the caverns. Pay a few rupee and you are given a metal ball. This is put into a dish - one of those spiral ones - and the cow gives milk. I skip the bungee jumping and paragliding. Though it does look wonderful to be soaring with the eagles on the thermals, it is just too expensive for tourists like me. I visit the Tibetan refugee camp instead. Carpets are being made here and the locals think that the refugees are doing quite well thank you.

Speaking of doing well, having so many affluent tourist predecessors does have its drawbacks. There is the expectation that all westerners should somehow contribute to the education of Nepalis. Everyone wants me to teach or contribute funds or materials to their schools. It's hard to know where to put one's money or energy as the need is so great especially in rural communities. Fourteen thousand people have so far been killed in the war, leaving many orphans and widows who have virtually no government support. However, I am also warned by some locals that many of the schools are a rort, enriching the principals but not the children.

One young man asks me directly to find him another sponsor for his three children. Apparently an Australian couple has paid for their education in a private school for the last eight years and now this has suddenly stopped and he can't understand why. I tell him that perhaps they are sick or have died or they have been retrenched or their pensions no longer go as far as they used to. I tell him how students work part time and parents work two jobs to pay for the education of their own children and tell him how we raise money for schools with cake stalls or lobby governments to improve things for everyone. He at least has a job and the oldest is now nineteen, so he has had a pretty good run. Perhaps some type of loan system could be introduced in such cases or employers could help.

Ramesh who manages the hotel does his charitable giving his own way. Each year he goes to the mountain villages with sacks of rice and clothes. That way he can see for himself who needs what. For tourists it is better to give to schools- preferably those off the main tourist beats, since they are more likely to know which children are in greatest need.

After several days of travelling on buses and motorbikes I take my life in my hands and venture into one of the local barber shops. My hair doesn't turn out too badly so I look down the list of offerings and decide to have have my eyebrows waxed. They have a most unsual method of waxing. The younger barber takes a strand of white cotton and twists it, then literally whips stray eyebrows off. As if this wasn't hair raising enough, he then rubs it all down with Vicks Vaporub to prevent infection. This stings like anything, and I am glad I didn't have anything else waxed but the result isn't too bad, especially after an amazing, head, neck and shoulder massage.

On the way back from Pokkhara I visit the ancient mountain top town of Bandipur with its eagle eye views of the surrounding valleys.

In the town of Bandipur, an intact medieval village in the mountains not far from Pokkhara.

The architecture is similar to that in Baktipur. This is no accident. Back in the days when seventeen different kings ruled the Kathmandu Valley, the King of Baktipur and his supporters were chased to this region. It had the added advantage of being protected by Magyar villages on either side as well as being in the nosebleed section of the 'foothills' giving advance warning of any invaders.

A boy in Bandipur demonstrates his prowess with a top.

Not to be outdone, his younger brother does likewise

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nepal - In the Valley of the Gods

A parade to honour the Gods in the lead up to Nepali New Year in April. This is in Ason, the old market place dedicated to Annapurna, the Goddess of Plenty and the real heart of Kathmandu

View of the Kathmandu Valley from the Monkey Temple. One and a half million people live here and the population is growing at around 4.5% er annum. Much of this is due to inmigration from the surrounding countryside as rural communities are much poorer.

Nepal is my third kingdom in as many weeks. It too is about to have elections - the first since 1995 when civil war broke out because of government corruption. After the restrained orderliness of Bhutan, Kathmandu is a real assault on the senses, a riot of colour, smells and noise.

Incense wafts from shops and doorways. Amid the roar of the traffic, the blare of car horns and the cheeky chirrup of rickshaws it is not uncommon to hear sacred music or the clack of prayer wheels. Pedestrians compete with bicycles, hawkers, musicians, beggars and sacred cows on the narrow streets and there is almost always something on, be it political rallies, Maoists on motorcycles or religious celebrations of various kinds. During Divali I am alternately showered with water or red powder every time I step into the street.

This is part of Thamel - the tourist central of Kathmandu - a confusing collection of lanes where all the trekking companies, coffee shops, hotels and souvenir shops are.

Nepal sells its hydro electricity to India. In consequence, there are two scheduled power cuts daily of four or five hours each, plus quite a few unscheduled ones (Tasmanians please note). For this reason when you arrive at your hotel at night, the receptionist gives you two candles. It is a miracle that the whole place doesn't burn down. You also get quite used to having showers in the evening because in the morning the water is sure to be cold unless your hotel has instantaneous gas water heaters or generators but these are likely to be much more expensive that the one I was in.

This is an electric rickshaw. Previously I had never seen one of these outside of Mr. Bean. Nepal has lots of these. Slow they may be, but at least they are cheap and non polluting.

It is said that Kathmandu has more temples than houses. I would believe it. There are temples everywhere - small ones, large ones, some occupying hilltops others tiny niches in walls or even trees. There are no skyscrapers here either but this is not due to any royal decree, but because of the risk of earthquakes.

Monkey Temple - This is one of the more famous ones. It is set on the hills which surround Kathmandu and makes a spectacular sight as it catches the first rays of sunlight in the morning. Health Warning: the steps leading up to it will give you a heart attack.

More Temples: In Kathmandu's Durbar Square Hindu and Buddhist Gods alike are worshipped. A very similar collection of historic temples can also be found in the Durbar (royal) Squares of Pattan and Baktipur (see below).

The Golden Temple at Pashupati - a mecca for Hindus who must visit it at least once before they die. In front of it is an older temple still used for animal sacrifices each October. It was the only one spared by the earthquake of 1934.

A body being prepared for cremation at one of the ghats at Pashupati

In two hours, the ashes will float down the Bagmati River to meet the Ganges.
Death is a cause for celebration rather than mourning.

More temples. This one is part of the group in Dubar Square at Baktipur a well preserved, historic town just out of the city. Notice the difference in air quality.

All templed out, I opt for some low level trekking in the mountains. This necessitates a seven hour trip on the local buses. The rule of thumb appears to be thus. Take the logical capacity of any vehicle and double it, then stack about half as many people again on the top.
The job of the jockeys is most important. Not only do they stack and pack and solicit more fares in each town, but they have to let the driver know by beating on the roof, when he has safely cleared any other buses and trucks.

A sacred cow rests on a rubbish pile at the local bus station

A stand -off between buses on a mountain road. One of us will have to back up to a wider spot so the other can pass

If I thought the roads - and I use the term loosely- were bad in Mongolia, that was kindergarten compared to those in Nepal. At least the roads in Mongolia were flat, whereas these are vertical and much narrower to boot. There are landslips and washouts and many places where the raillings have broken away. There's a reason for all those Buddhas on dashboards. The good news is that at pitstops there are more trees along the road than in Mongolia.

The 'foothills' are higher than the highest mountains in Australia. Along the way I look anxiously down from razor back ridges to see if there are similar buses to the one I am on lying in the ravines like there were in Bali. Not so. Perhaps metal is too scarce here to leave lying around, but I tell myself it is because the drivers are much more careful. I am surprised that thousands aren't killed on the roads here every day.

Fortunately there are few private cars but plenty of motor bikes and enormous gaily painted trucks. On any uphill section many of these trucks will be stalled with their bonnets up. The bonus is that occasionally you get glimpses of a snow covered Himalaya in the distance and you do get to know your fellow passengers rather well. At lunch time the bus stops at a rough truck stop and everyone eats dahl baht (the national dish - enormous quantities of rice with vegetable curry and a thin lentil soup) with their fingers. A man with a large pot comes by to refill anything you have eaten until you can't eat another thing.

In the countryside women are little more than beasts of burden. They plant the rice, carry water from the village fountain and huge loads of wood, bundles of bamboo and sacks of rice. The men plough with oxen and wooden ploughs.

By evening I am sick as a dog - temperature, runny nose and a headache. A warm shower would be nice now, but no such luck. There's only a standpipe out in the yard and the thought of lugging my pack up a mountain for seven hours a day for the next seven days fills me with dread. Going back down is the lesser of the evils, so the next morning I get back on the bus. Groan.

Danebat to my hosts at the little guest house in Trisulla. Raju, on the right in this picture is a trekking guide