geniet mee van onze avonturen Een jaar lang op wereldreis : ikzelf (Katlijn) ben een Vlaamse Belg. Mijn vriend Andrew (een Canadees) is de schrijver van dit blog ... daardoor zal de hele blog in het Engels zijn
The Other Thirty Percent
A bus ride through the gorgeous and rugged juggle hills is the quintessential Laos experience. A rusty ‘nam-era bus. Broken windows and the haze of road dust they let in. A crowd of backpackers piled in the back lazing off crooked seat backs and stacks of rice bags. An Asian bus driver that, paradoxically, drives in an almost sensible laid-back manner. Regular coffee breaks. Communities of stilt houses and thatched roofs rolling slowly by. Their tribal residents decorated in an other-worldly array of colors, styles, and names: The Black Hmong, the Red Dzao, the Akha. This is Indochina in low gear.
Our bus turned a corner, lumbered quietly down a dirt road, and squeaked to slow halt. Its crusty payload of international backpackers hesitated and blinked their eyes before squirming out from between their rice sacks and torn seat cushions. In the sunny quiet, we slowly and deliberately set about the solemn ceremony of unloading our enormous luggage, mounting up, and setting off in small teams to uncover the cheapest hotel deal in town and brag about our ruthless providence later.
Katlijn and I teamed up with an Israeli ex-fighter jet pilot and a tattooed Aussie beach enthusiast- typical backpacker circuit company. As we explored the wanting hotel scene, we remarked to each other how amazingly easy backpackers could go about their business here. In other parts of Asia, our bus would have been surrounded by a sea of slippery touts and over-eager hoteliers. They’d not only unload our bags for us, they’d run off with them to their hostels cleverly forcing us to take up chase. Not in Laos. It seemed the local business community couldn’t be bothered badgering backpackers. Sure, they’d make a token effort to rip us off, but it was done in such a half-ass lazy manner and with so much free lao-lao, that we’d feel almost obligated to give them our money.
There isn’t much reason to come to a place like Phonsavan. Indeed, very little reason at all. Nevertheless, I forced Katlijn to accompany me all the way out here just so I could witness first-hand their main tourist attraction: a grassy field full of broken stone jars called, rather uninspiringly, “The Plain of Jars”. Imagine that ! A plain of… jars ! Of all things ! I found that interesting. There is this place, deep in the farthest reaches of Asia’s mystical backyard, witnessed each day by only a handful of dusty backpackers who actually have the time for this sort of thing, full of giant stone jars so old they pre-date the birth of Christ by more than 1000 years. Oddly, these jars are found nowhere else but here, their extinct society would have devoted massive amounts of resources to their construction, and archaeologists haven’t the foggiest inkling what they are for. That’s incredible ! How can it be that everyone knows Stonehenge, but nobody has even heard of Laos’ giant jars ?
Several theories have been proposed to explain the origin of the plain of jars. The Akha people believe the stone jars were used to ferment lao-lao rice wine, while archaeologists think they may be part of an ancient burial ritual.
A german backpacker puts forth a third alternative.
As we wandered happily about the mysterious plain of jars, we began to notice, for the first time, the ubiquitous presence of the following signs posted all over Laos: (see on top)
And so, I think this is as good a time as any, to finally broach the topic. After all, I know what you are thinking: all these colorful tribal people and stone jars are fine… but, really, doesn’t Laos have something to do with the Vietnam War ? Come to think of it, if it’s the “Vietnam” War what did “Laos” and “Cambodia” have to do with it at all ? And if this was part of the “cold” war, why all the napalm ? And was it a “conflict” or a “war” and what’s the difference ?
If you ever find yourself asking questions like these, then you are probably a closet Vietnam War ignoramus and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. After all, between all the double-speak that developed to explain the unthinkable and all the stoned journalists telling the story, it isn’t surprising nobody really understands what happened anymore. However, the details of Laos’ tragic story seems to occupy a particularly nebulous realm in the already foggy place of the American-Vietnam psyche.
Vietnam era bombies: small clusters of metal balls packed together in clay and gunpowder. Thousands of these were dropped at a time to engulf several football fields of area in a deadly spray of shrapnel.
Despite all the confusion, the story line is very simple. The infamous “domino theory” was coined by John F. Kennedy to garner popular support for his increasingly hawkish interpretation of events in Laos, not Vietnam. These comments were made in response to political events developing in favor of a communist-inspired resistance government called the Pathet Lao. To prevent further escalation, a 14-nation conference was held to create the Geneva Accord of 1962 which strictly forbid the presence of foreign military in Laos. The tragic story is that everybody violated this accord for a very long time.
Bomber releasing bombies over a target.
It would be unseemly to announce in public the wanton dismissal of a major international agreement, so the war was conducted in secret. The “Secret War” lasted nine years and involved foreign superpowers (America, China, USSR) playing off native Laotian pawns (Thai-Hmong tribal groups and the Pathet Lao) against one another, while committing air support and ground troops of their own. The war was such an embarrassing secret that the name of the country was banished from all official communications; participants darkly referred to activities in Laos as “the other theater”. Pilots directly involved in the bombing, were asked to dress in civilian clothes so they could not be traced back to the United States. Since the war was in violation of a Geneva accord anyhow, it made sense to ignore the rest of the international rules of engagements while they were at it and what happened in “the other theater” was so horrible it had to be obscured in a confusing array of nebulous euphemisms forever. However, I will refrain here from the stylized diction of the stoned ‘nam embedded journalist, and stick with the facts:
On average, one planeload of bombs was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years at a cost of 2 million US dollars per day.
Between 1964-1968, nearly half a million tons of ordnance and 200,000 gallons of agent orange had been let loose on the country. At about this time, bombing was halted in Vietnam increasing the available air power to drum Laos.
By the war’s end, approximately 1.9 million tons of ordinance had been dropped on Laos, or over half a ton of explosives for every man, woman and child living in Laos.
On a per-capita basis, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare.
During the secret war, seventy-percent of the ordinance detonated successfully. In addition to an astonishing inefficiency, this figure highlights another issue: what about the other thirty percent ? And finally, brings us back to those signs and the subject of this post.
The short answer is that it has been re-integrated back into the local economy. True, some of it still goes off from time to time when a decades-old bomb sunk in the muddy rice fields meets a farmer’s plough or a tourist’s hiking boot; Laos is no place to wander off the beaten path. However, the vast majority of it is meticulously recovered and sold-off as scrap-metal for such mundane items as village flower pots, kitchen ladles, and thatched-roof supports. There were so many bombs dropped on such a poor country, that the left-over ordinance has become a commonplace commodity occupying the most mundane and banal items of daily village life. The locals barely notice that their tulips are growing out of bullet-ridden army helmets and that their families live in homes curiously cobbled together by spent artillery shells.
An abandoned soviet tank in Laos has since been picked clean by scavengers and resold as scrap-metal.
House support, fence, and herb-garden built out of spent artillery shells and bomb cartridges.
In addition to an increase in demand from American journalists and GIs, a newly-formed landscape of bomb craters created a boom for the local opium and heroine industry. Runoff collected in the bomb craters provided a perfect nursery for growing opium poppies. Poppies were grown in these bomb craters long after the war until the industry was made illegal in Laos only five years ago.
Not to undermine the problem of unexploded ordinance in Laos. American bombs of the era were designed to maim, not kill, and this cruel logic is still being unearthed more than thirty years later. The Laotian scrap-metal trade is as wicked as the war that initiated it. After all, who better to find and dig up lethal baseball-like bombies than the little fingers of child-labour ? The small cadre of Western volunteers trying hard to dismantle and remove dangerous ordinance from Laotian communities are often disheartened by the angry looks of villagers watching on as potentially useful and profitable commodities are taken away from them.
The mysterious stone jars were badly damaged during the bombing of Laos, irreparably complicating the process of understanding the past. Today, there exists a field of mostly smashed jars lying about a forgotten backwater of Laos: a kind of shrine to wasted resources attended to regularly by a clergy of gap-year backpackers.
As I sipped from a cup of coffee and sunk my teeth into a bacon and egg bagel sandwich, the portly American manager badgered her Lao employees then complained about them to her disinterested breakfast clients.
“You have no idea how hard it is in Laos to find someone who can get up on time and decently work a latte machine!” It was a modern-time American mass-consumer echo of the French Indochina rice-listening parable.
The manager continued waddling through the café, occasionally asking us about our order. “Is your coffee hot? Are your eggs cooked?” Truth be told, my mug was lukewarm and my sandwich downright runny. I cravenly hid behind my precious week-old English language newspaper feeling faintly sorry for everyone involved in this scene.
We were in Luang Prabang, Laos’ foremost tourist showpiece. It was the home of the Lao monarchy, until the end of the Vietnam War when communist inspired Pathet Lao forces rounded the royal family up and locked them away in a nearby cave. For the next four years, they slowly starved to death. However, that was then and this is now. Since the fall of the Soviet bloc governments and the opening of legalized private enterprise in communist Laos, Luang Prabang has transformed itself into a premiere South East Asian tourist mecca- and all the dodgy coffee shops, pizza restaurants, and smoky sports bars that entails. Not to mention the backpackers. Loads of them.
The Luang Prabang night market sells a decent array of local tribal crafts.
Katlijn on a sunny day by the Mekong.
But I’m not here to disparage Luang Prabang. Despite the annoying preponderance of western youth backpacker culture, it is still a sunny happy place nestled between green mountains at the confluence of the Khan and Mekong Rivers. No trip to Laos is complete without a day or two spent strolling through the relaxed palm-lined streets, the dignified crumble of stately French colonial buildings, and the gleaming rooftops of an ancient Buddhist heritage.
A bird's-eye view of the KhanRiver winding through Luang Prabang and the surrounding mountains.
Wat Xieng Thong's elegant roof-top sweeping low to the ground is typical of classic Lao temple architecture.
Starting from the snowy peaks of the Tibetan plateau and making its way to the delta region of Vietnam, the Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers. There are two ways to visit the Mekong from Luang Prabang: a twelve-hour leisurely float through a serene world of fishing traps and rolling jungle scenery, or a harrowing forty minute white-knuckler as your speed-boat hurtles up-river and the Mekong valley rockets past you. The former involves a good book, plenty of time for self-reflection, and a slow numbing of the senses brought on by a full-day of continuous on-board boozing. The latter involves a crash helmet, frequent collision, and a suicidal disposition. Wisely, we opted for a delightful twelve hour drift into a quiet lao-lao induced coma.
Making its way through Tibet, China, Myanmar, and Vietnam, the Mekong's famous waters have flowed past some of the most dramatic and bloodiest events in human history.
We came to sometime after sunset at a tiny fishing village called Pakbeng. Arriving from the other direction was a larger, and much louder, boat loaded with what sounded like a cargo of backpacking frat boys. Alas, the quiet lao-lao induced coma can only be enjoyed going up-river as the down-river boat takes on all the backpackers riding in from Thailand. Not much can be said of Pakbeng itself, except for one thing: I have checked my diary carefully now and shortly after we spent a night at one of Pakbeng’s many cruddy hotels, I had my first occurrence of a mysterious re-occurring skin irritation Katlijn and I subsequently referred to as “the bumps”.
Mysterious re-occurring skin irritations are, as you might imagine, an integral part of the South East Asia low-budget travel experience. Backpackers, in general, attribute any skin irritation to a generic phenomenon they call “bed bugs”. Despite having no idea what bed bugs actually are, backpackers nevertheless always arrive at this diagnosis with certainty, though the details of the inevitably woeful prognosis vary in a unique kind of morbidly creative flourish especially reserved for this sort of ailment (“they carry diseases”, “they lay eggs… underneath your skin”, “they’re still living…in your sleeping bag !”).
Bed bugs have therefore taken on the stuff of legend. Probably because of this odious and inflated reputation, nobody seems to ever have had bed bugs though, oddly enough, they “know somebody” who did and so can rattle off a long list of potential remedies that run the entire gamut of common sense from skin ointments to setting fire to your entire backpack.
Unfortunately, there was no shameful hiding my bed bugs from the frat boys the next morning. I didn’t have a choice- I was covered in the bumps. While a few of my fellow backpackers treated me and my potentially contaminated backpack like the bubonic plague, most were genuinely understanding and the ensuing debate on the nature of bed bugs and potential solutions to the problem served as an effective ice breaker. Together with our new-found friends, we whiled away twelve hours together on the Mekong playing cards underneath a steady stream of drunken backpackers making their way to the on-board bathroom. Needless to say, we saw a lot more cards and booze than scenery on the return journey.
Not for the faint of heart, Luang Prabang's morning market stocks some curious produce.
Alarmed by my rapidly spreading bed bugs and the developing backpacker lore surrounding them, Katlijn and I made our way to the local hospital back in Luang Prabang. South East Asian former communist block medical facilities are, in a word, deplorable. Any self-respecting tour guide will tell you to take you and your mysterious re-occuring skin irritations straight to Bangkok if symptoms persist- and with good reason. The local Laotian hospital looked like a converted bomb shelter with all the clinical sterility of your local fast-food burrito outlet. I tripped over an obsolete French medical text on the way in and we made our way through an eerily vacant cement bunker towards a very bored and unimpressed receptionist. She eventually led us to an examination room filled with a collection of macabre medieval medical contraptions. We were left a long time alone with our thoughts of all the sawed off limbs and leechings that probably occured in this very room. “Whatever you do,” Katlijn warned me, “ don’t let them stick anything in you.”
A nurse finally came in to examine me. She proceeded to poke at the red bumps on my leg and give me a blank look. Finally, she muttered a few consoling words in French and suggested I go home and take a shower.
The backpacker circuit concensus for a bad case of bed bugs seems to be tiger-balm, though in my experience, this remedy has about the medical efficacy of a particularly stinky placebo. However, I was desperately itchy and willing to heed any medical advice I could get, no matter how dubious but just short of burning my backpack. I had a long scolding hot shower and bathed my entire body in about half a bottle of tiger balm. Within moments of lying down in bed, a painful burning sensation seized control of my entire body which, in all honesty, was moderately more pleasant than my untreated bed bugs.
The next morning, I found myself reeking of Menthol hiding behind a two-week old English language newspaper listening to a corpulent American woman berate her lethargic Lao employees to a motley crew of indifferent backpackers nursing their hangover with mugs of lukewarm lattes.
As much as I loved sunny happy days on the banks of the Mekong at Luang Prabang, I desperately needed a change in scenery. It was time to move on.
"One Chinese does work of two Vietnamese. One Vietnamese does work of four Cambodians. Eight Laotians like one Cambodian," explained our Laotian waiter while beaming with pride at his restaurant's lackluster service. In a similar vane, a famous colonial proverb from the days of French Indochina roughly translates to, "The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Laotians listen to it grow." It is a well-known fact, not to mention a source of great national pride, that Laos is THE laid-back land of under-achieving layabouts.
At least this is the image of Laos which is carried around the globe by legions of crusty-haired, guitar-toting travelers who inevitably flock here to fill their days with such noble pursuits as hanging in a hammock and drinking from those wonderfully Asian super-sized bottles of Beer Lao. So successful is Laos' anti-tourist campaign, that it has become a staple in the South East Asia low-budget travel circuit and a kind of modern hippie pilgrimage site trying desperately to rekindle the magic of 1960s Shangri-La. In other words, contrary to the undiscovered country you might expect to find, there are a lot of backpackers here.
Unlike Thailand, Vietnam, and parts of Cambodia, Laos doesn't yet have the infrastructure to cater to anyone but the ubiquitous backpacker, but this is all changing. Snaking through the hills of Northern Laos, past charming thatched huts of ancient tribal people watching curiously from the roadside, is a sleek two-lane highway- as refined and modern as anywhere in the world. Laos just happens to exist along the shortest path between two of the world's great emerging economies of Thailand and China and, fortunately for a land of rice listeners, huge amounts of money is coming in from abroad to upgrade Laos' roads and facilitate their trade.
Our shiny black minivan glided into the remote town of Muang Sing, just south of the Chinese border. After dropping us off amid this backwater, we watched in silence as the anachronistic van glided further north disappearing into the horizon with its valuable payload of Singaporean and Malaysian businessmen. We silently turned around and walked into town through endless fields of rice paddies and the prevalent stench of farm animals.
A carved wooden gate is typical of Aka villages in Northern Laos. Interestingly, the appropriate etiquette is to walk around the gate rather than through the gate. These entrance-ways are reserved for use by their animist spirits.
Many of the carvings around these doors represent phallic symbols of fertility.
Muang Sing was the starting point for our trek to visit the Aka people, one of Laos' many remote semi-nomadic tribes occupying the picturesque hills along the Mekong River. Our guides were a good-natured farmer/teacher named Saw who loves British Premiere League soccer, and his trusted side-kick who loves green soccer socks pulled up to his thighs. They cooked us our food, guided us through the jungle, and spoke English, Lao and the local tribal languages. Like most Laotians, they smiled a lot and professed to the national ideal of working as little as possible and indulging in plenty of Lao Lao.
"Lao Lao" is the most important word in a Laos backpacker's local vocabulary. In it's simplest form, it roughly translates to "a dodgy rice spirit aged in rusty Vietnam war-era scrap metal." However, it can be used strike up a conversation with just about anybody in Laos who doesn't speak your language. Merely mention the word in passing to a random bent-over rice crone, and you will almost certainly be rewarded with a toothless grin, a tour of his personal shrapnel ridden distillery, followed by several drunken hours in a joyous linguistic exchange of profanities and Lao Lao synonyms. Truth be told, Lao Lao tastes like a bad sake with bits of rust floating about in it. However, the fact that it is often served to you out of a spent artillery shell using an old American GI helmet adds a certain macabre charm to the entire binge drinking experience, somehow making the whole language exchange with your new Laotian farmer friend all the more funny.
In addition to our guide, Saw, we were accompanied by a Scottish backpacker, James, an Aussie couple, Mark and Sara, and a token tribal guy who didn't really do much, but served the important role of earning the trekking company a coveted spot in the Lonely Planet's eco-friendly tourist page.
Our party from left to right: James, Saw, Katlijn, Mark, Sarah, the token Aka guy, and Saw's side-kick.
Mark crouching between our guides, Saw and his side-kick.
Our first day in the Lao jungle helped us better appreciate how miserable life must have been during the war: the pouring rain, the dangerously steep and slippery jungle terrain, the manically delusional Asians: "breaking your bone not possible !" Saw persisted in the face of commonsense. It was like a real-life 'Nam experience. James even slipped in the mud and impaled himself on a bamboo stick.
After a long, wet, eight-hour slog we were delighted to stumble into a clearing at a remote Aka village. Gazing for the first time at a Laotian tribal village in the heart of a green tangle is truly one of the Indochina's most inspiring experiences. A gorgeous patch of bamboo huts and water buffaloes amid the green jungle-clad remoteness. Thin muscled bodies of men returning at dawn from their work. The full splendor of an ancient and forgotten slash-and-burn agricultural society unveiling in the sunset.
Arrival at our first remote Aka village.
James entertaining the local Aka kids. He was delighted to find one of the locals selling Beer Lao to passing travellers.
The villagers had built a special bamboo stilt house for visitors, which transforms into a kind of foreigner animal house whenever Western backpackers pass by. We announced our presence with some awkward naked fumbling at the village shower, soon attracting a devoted crowd of Lao-Lao toting party goers who followed us back to our thatched abode and the most happening club-scene in the jungle. Our Scottish friend, James, was in his element here: a master at the art of drunken linguistic exchanges, he used a tiny picture book to teach the Aka people a remarkably diverse and creative anthology of drinking games. As our evening descended into bizarre blend of Scottish bar culture and Aka fart jokes, a number of pretty young tribal girls joined us to end the evening with a traditional massage. Lying on my stomach with a tiny girl crawling up and down my spine, I vaguely remember James' robust Scottish accent bellowing proposals to his masseuse, until this whole weird surreal world started spinning about me in a metallic rice-wine induced deluge, and I passed out for the night.
Massage is an important part of Aka culture. It is tradition, not only for each village girl to massage weary travellers, but also her father-in-law.
Slightly inebriated, Saw and his side-kick sit in the animal house and show off their tasty Lao mealtime creation.
The Aka village under a blue sky, shortly before we departed the next morning.
Our second day of slogging through the jungle began in the aftermath of a night's worth of Lao Lao and rust-poisoning reverberating through my skull, but ended more pleasantly with gorgeous panoramic views and sunshine. Though I never thought it possible, the second Aka village we arrived at late the next day was miraculously more gorgeous than the first.
Banana leaf lunch-time in the jungle. Absolutely delicious !
Water buffaloes bathing in the mud: an integral part of the tribal economy.
Aka swing set with tribal village in the background. Teenage Aka boys and girls meet and flirt with each other in this swing set during special inter-village celebrations. About six months before marriage, a new thatched hut is built for the girl, and her secret fiance is tacitly allowed to sneak out to stay with her over night. Most Aka girls are married by the time they are fifteen years old.
Saw instructed us to walk another half hour to find the village shower: a small waterfall descending a steep embankment. We arrived during the height of the tribal bath time and were met with a god-like display of finely toned, muscled, and bronzed naked men- perfect specimens of human beings that look like Michelangelo sculptures come to life. These were bodies that could only have been conceived from a life-time of natural foods and manual labour.
As we self-consciously stripped our clothing off, I heard Mark's disheartened Aussie accent mumble under his breath, "bloody oath, it looks like a body building convention here." Needless to say, our white, hairy bellies fumbling between their sculpted Asian pecs, was a damning testimonial to Western decadence.
James allays the pain with a giant bottle of Beer Lao while Mark and Sarah attend to his recently impaled hand. When James fell on the hard bamboo pole and needed stitches, Saw suggested he visit an Aka doctor who turned out to be the village tailor. Fortunately for James, Mark and Sarah had brought along their first-aid kit.
Aka village school. Very few skilled teachers are willing to hike out to these communities. Our guide, Saw, was such a teacher and use to hike 68 kilometers in one day to reach remote villages to teach their children.
While Saw swung lazily in his hammock, we spent the night slowly acclimatizing to the Aka's noble way of life: admiring a spectacular night-time electrical storm, sipping idly from giant bottles of Beer Lao, and letting the local ladies kneed our weary calf muscles. We all looked at each other thoroughly contented. It occurred to me, with great surprise, that somehow our pilgrimage deep into the dark Aka heart of the Lao jungle, far away from the backpacker circuit, together with our tribal hosts, we had somehow managed to rekindle the magic of Shangri-La.
Our post jungle trek celebration with Lao-style home-made flat noodle soup.
Arrival into Bangkok after being smack in the middle of the third world is always a bit of a shock. The remote drone of modern multi-lane freeways, the banal scent of air-conditioned taxi cabs, the prevalence of American fast-food culture. However, nothing says, "look, I'm back to civilization !" quite like setting foot into the gay swank of an ex-pat luxury apartment. The roof-top pool, the fuzzy clean carpets, the fluffy white towels: post-Myanmar cyclone R-and-R in Geert's apartment is surely backpacking at its most decadent and debauched.
However, Katlijn and I were determined not to succumb to the comforting dystopia of a Thai fat cat. After a night out bowling with Geert's friends, a spicy dinner with some money boys, and a much-needed appointment with their hair-dresser, we were once again ready to head off into the big-backpacked, dingy-hotelled, noodles-for-breakfast universe that is budget travelling in Indochina.
The ruins of Sukhothai, Siam's first capital, is an obligatory stop when travelling to North Thailand. The elegant lines of the standing Buddha are typical of Buddhist imagery from this era.
A Giant Buddha statue and reliefs near Sukhothai.
While I can understand the allure of green jungles, white beaches, and bronzed Thai girls for the Western vacationer, and yes, the food is great and the sun always shines, Thailand has nevertheless always fallen short of truly capturing my imagination: too modern to be a great third-world destination, too sleazy to be a great first-world destination, and too many backpackers to be a great backpacker destination, it always struck me as Asia-minus, somehow watered-down for mass-tourism and mass-consumption. As Katlijn idly noted on our characteristically clean, punctual and spacious Thai bus while gazing blankly at a shoddy Chinese music video production on a flat screen TV, "it doesn't even feel like we're travelling anymore..." Somehow during our visits to India and Myanmar, the world "travelling" had taken on a darker and more nefarious connotation.
In a desperate bid to re-discover the true Asia and get back to the dirty business of real travelling, Katlijn and I had decided to deliberately avoid any place where a tourist might want to visit: we headed straight for Laos.
The Htin tribal people are particularly skilled at manipulating bamboo to make everything needed around the house.
A tattooed elderly of the Mlabri tribe: probably the most primitive people we visited in Asia. The Mlabri are still mostly hunter-gatherers living deep in the jungle of North Thailand. It is hard to imagine such a primitive people only a day's drive from Bangkok.
The slash-and-burn agricultural practices of the other tribes in the area have destroyed much of the habitat needed to sustain hunter-gatherers, and the Mlabri people are in decline. As their lifestyle is not conducive to a Thailand embracing the future, the government is trying to encourage the nearby Hmong and Htin tribes to teach them how to build thatched huts so they stay in one place. Many of the Mlabri are having difficulty adjusting to this sedentary lifestyle and come across quite depressed.
Pork fat cooked on an open fire in a bamboo pole is a real Mlabri treat enjoyed by both young and old. Like this old man, many of the Mlabri people do not wear clothes.
Andrew tries his hand at getting a fire started with flint (harder than it looks).
Laos ! The backyard of Asia ! A country that only barely manages to occupy a vague association in the deepest recesses of the Western collective mind: "Laos ? Doesn't that have something to do with Vietnam ?" Always over-shadowed by its more famous neighbours: it isn't the economic miracle of Vietnam, it lacks the captivatingly abominable history of Cambodia, and even during its grand moment in the international consciousness, it was but a tragic side-show in a larger war. Digging deeper into its history, it only becomes more apparent that not much was ever said of Laos. The British thought of it as buffer state, while their French colonial counterparts pronounced it "useless."
But how does Lao food taste ? Who lives there ? What is the capital of Laos, anyway ? Like us, you probably never bothered to ask these questions, but are doing so now. And so, as we stepped off the bus and settled ourselves into a sheltered long boat destined for the far side of the Mekong river, Katlijn nudged me in the ribs and whispered eagerly,
"Look, just across the river. THAT'S LAOS !"
My god, she was right. In an instant, the overwhelming feeling of cynicism that Thailand always seems to bring out in me, vanished. I couldn't have been more thrilled. We were going to Laos.
That's what a Mandalay hotel owner told me when I enquired about some images of fallen trees I saw in The New Light of Myanmar newspaper. It didn't sound like anything to worry about at the time.
Our thirty-day visa was about to expire so Katlijn and I had arranged for a flight to a town called Tachilek on the Thai-Myanmar border. We planned to cross by land into North Thailand, hitch a bus east, and slowly make our way into Laos. Our travel guide had warned us that the local travel agents and government officials in Tachilek were notoriously corrupt, regularly telling travellers that the border is either closed or that they had to pay through the nose to cross into Thailand. Thus, we didn't believe a word the Myanmar officials told us when they said we wouldn't be able to leave the country.
Andrew getting help from the Bagan locals to fix his rickety Burmese rental bike.
As Katlijn and I fought with the airport police to let us into Tachilek, we watched in wonder at a group of armed military personnel in green uniforms posing for a picture in front of aid boxes apparently bound for some place called "The Delta Region". At long last, we reached an uneasy compromise with the airport police: they would let us visit the city if we took their friend's taxi at only a slightly extortionate rate. We threw our cumbersome backpacks into the truck, and sped into town.
All-aboard Pyin U Lwin's morning rush-hour pickup service.
With an abundance of newly paved roads and cell-phones, Tachilek is Burma's most Thai city. However, unless you are an aging expat on a Visa border-run, Tachilek has little to offer except perhaps South East Asia's premier shopping destination for cheap cigarettes and dodgy Chinese imports. Within moments of arriving, we knew we didn't want to linger long.
A typical street in Myanmar.
Before us lay a short bridge spanning a small river into Thailand. Bright Thai flags and royal yellow ribbons decorated the Thai half of the bridge, while the Myanmar half matched this with somber ruddy flags and silver helmeted police guards.
"What do you mean you won't let us cross into Thailand !?" Katlijn demanded.
The grumpy passport official shook his head. "No go to Thailand from here."
"Can't go to Thailand !?" I barked back, "Everyone here speaks Thai, all the money is Thai, that gentleman behind me is trying to sell me fake viagra! This bloody well is Thailand! Just let us cross the damn bridge!"
Dinner for two, Myanmar-style.
Katlijn and I were adamant. There was no way we would pay the bribe. However, unlike previous experiences, our usual tactics of escalating loss-of-face didn't seem to be working this time around. A sympathetic Thai woman even offered us her cell-phone so we could make empty threats to contact our embassy. At one point, I actually managed to get hold of somebody at an embassy in Yangon. The direness of our predicament was made clear to us as I tried desperately to explain our situation in faltering school boy French to a befuddled Parisian embassy worker while a group of Burmese military personnel listened in unimpressed. It was clearly time to throw in the towel.
"Wow, these guys are good." Katlijn observed as we glumly walked back into the charmless town of Tachilek through a dense mob of pirated DVD salesmen and porn magazine peddlers.
The bridge to Thailand: so close, yet so far away...
"Why don't you just give them a bribe ?" Suggested the kindly Thai woman. In fact, that was the suggestion of nearly everybody we talked to from restaurant workers to hoteliers. They even suggested an appropriate amount (about thirty dollars to start with) and persuasive techniques (display the money to the official while asking for his stamp). Following the same advice from local travel agents, we marched back to the bridge to pay-off the officials.
At this juncture, we'd like to apologize to the staff at the Tachilek Myanmar-Thai border crossing because, frankly, we really did think you were a bunch of corrupt military bastards. However, after two officials refused us, nay "freaked-out" would perhaps be more appropriate, when we casually waved a fan of bills on the table while motioning conspiratorially towards the stamp, I am guessing you truly were not able to let us cross into Thailand. As it turned out, there was actually a law requiring us to leave through our port of entry, and as foreigners, we were likely closely monitored. We apologize for any trouble we might have caused you, but we reallybadly wanted to leave Tachilek as you might have guessed from the rather sizable sums and varieties of money we were heaping in front of you.
Frustrated and dejected, I slumped down on the bed of an uninspiring over-priced Tachilek hotel room. Outside our window on a yellow poster just across the river, I could see the smug face of the King snickering at me from Thailand. The only redeeming feature of being stuck in the nether-region between Thailand and Myanmar is the noticeable absence of government censorship. I flipped on the television to BBC and, for the first time, learned that the "big storm" we had heard about was, in fact, a "deadly cyclone".
"You don't suppose they heard about this back home, do you ?" wondered Katlijn sheepishly.
A ten dollar, thirty second phone call to Canada quickly confirmed that, indeed, they had. Over the roaring static of my overseas connection I could barely make out the distant panicked sound of my mother picking up the phone in the middle of the night. It turned out that our families had mobilized at least four foreign embassies who had been searching for us to no avail for several days causing serious distress on the home-front. I'm guessing the remote Pa Laung tea outposts between Namhsan and Hsipaw weren't exactly the first places they would have looked.
"CAN'T LEAVE MYANMAR ! HAVE TO FLY TO YANGON !" I yelled across the planet.
"But Yangon is a bloody disaster zone..." echoed back the faint, though distinctly alarmed, voice of my mother half a world away.
It sounded like a good argument to us. Katlijn and I marched back to the the bridge.
"... so you see, you have to let us cross the bridge because, well, I don't know where you get your news from, but I have have it from some very reliable sources that Yangon is a bloody disasterzone."
"Airport fine !" announced the grumpy guard. Katlijn and I launched a final spirited protest, but it was clear that our campaign to cross that bridge was in its last throes. When asked who made up these ridiculous rules, a couple of them were genuinely sympathetic and thumbed behind them to the picture of Senior General Than Shwe hanging on the wall.
As I reclined back into the corrupt passenger seat of a corrupt Air Bagan airplane, it occurred to me that the one of the great tragedies of Myanmar is how we are always fighting with the wrong people. We roared off the ground leaving behind, hopefully forever, the frenetic sleaze of Tachilek.
Guard tower reflected on the water surrounding the Glass Palace in Mandalay. The last king of Burma, King Thibaw, lived here before being ousted by the British and exiled to India where he died of old age.
The plane landed in the ancient capital Mandalay, home to Burma's final dynasty. Then took off again, flying over the former capitals Sagaing, Inwa, and Amarapura. Past Bagan and Taungoo and Bago, all once thriving bright capitals since destroyed and forgotten. Finally, we touched down into Myanamar's most recent addition to its long and complex history of fading ex-capitals.
Post-hurricane Yangon looked like the disaster zone we had heard about: largely without electricity, filled with collapsed buildings, dirt and rubble everywhere, potholes in the street, and street urchins drinking unclean water- which is to say it hadn't changed much since the last time we were here. Truth be told, Yangon always looks a bit like it has been recently ravaged by a cyclone.
The most noticeable difference was that the formidable trees that once lined its streets, providing respite from the cruel April sun and adding to the city's dignified, if somewhat unkept charm, had all been sadly blown over. Many of them caused significant damage to nearby properties, the rest had mostly been cut up and cleared off the road. Despite some of the doomsday prediction I had seen on the television, the airport was functioning normally and, only days after the tragedy, Yangon was largely up-and-running again.
This massive old tree was up-rooted by the storm and hurled like a projectile into a house. In the aftermath of the storm, Burma received significant aid from their traditional allies of Russia and China. However, their neighbors in India and Thailand are so dependent on Myanmar, both for their natural resources and as an ally to quell their own smoldering insurgencies, that they lack the political clout to convince the junta to receive much-needed aid from most of the rest of the world.
The source of Yangon's rapid clean-up still remains a great mystery to me. The military police who roamed the streets were organized into largely feckless work gangs consisting of one poor sod with a hacksaw and about twenty cheroot-smoking layabouts watching him cut branches. A CNN reporter tried to explain the contradiction by suggesting he heard eye-witness accounts about armies of axe wielding monks diligently cleaning the streets by night- an account which, in our experience, sounded laughably ridiculous.
That isn't to say there was no damage to the city. The hotel we stayed in had a tree in its roof, and we talked to several distraught locals who lost their homes. While Yangon may have fared better than expected, the same cannot be said of the surrounding Delta region. For obvious reasons, we were not able to visit, but one of our backpacker friends was in Yangon during the cyclone filming a documentary on Myanmar. He made it outside Yangon and got footage of nearby villages. According to him, where there used to be small communities of precarious houses, there was now nothing left except for several neatly stacked bundles of bamboo poles and orderly piles of thatch materials.
"... And the worst part of it was, all the people came running up to me when I got my camera out and kept smiling the whole time, and, you know how its, some of the kids toyed with my leg hair and whatnot. I just couldn't sell this stuff to any of the major networks ! 'Can't you just look a little upset for the camera ?' I kept asking 'Why are you smiling !?'your whole village was just wiped out by a cyclone !' "
A smiling people ruled by brutes, grasping out for a sense of inclusion in the world, a victim of its own wealth, Myanmar is, in the end, a paradox.
A small mound of Burmese shrimp chips, smelly fish snacks, and beer cans wobbled precariously down the centre of the isle in cadence with the dangerous back and forth lurching of our Burmese train carriage. The packaged food mound rolled over a dense crowd of old crones sitting limply on the floor, all their bodies moving together side-to-side against the adjacent seat cushions in a kind of sea-sick narrow-gauge train rave. The mound stopped beside Katlijn's bobbing sleeping head. Astonishingly, a smiling face popped out from behind the plastic baggies of red chilli sauce and through the thick stench of dried prawn flakes.
Just as two scrawny arms emerged from the pile of dubious Burmese treats, the entire mound exploded.
Every crone in the train rave swivelled their heads in a single group motion at the former lump of smoked sea goodies, its shell of dodgy snack bags blown clear away revealing only its skeleton: a spindly Burmese kid with two thin outstretched arms holding the twisted remains of a couple of old plastic bottles- their entire contents had exploded forth on top of Katlijn.
Katlijn blinked and grimaced in her sleep, slowly awakening from her slumber, trying to discern nightmare from reality. A familiar flash of insight settled over her, a relapse, a recurrence: the whole stinking wobbling humiliation of it all. She was drenched in an oily fermented bath of whatever rank-smelling liquid Burmese people drink with their salty fish nuts.
An oddly familiar old monk with giant spectacles and splotches of grey hair sprouts turned around and clarified the situation: "Palm wine," he began- a poor man's spirit even by Myanmar standards. "All this train rocking must have caused it to burst from the plastic containers," he wisely explained.
Surrounding her was a sea of huddled old crones, and one terrified boy covered in soggy fish bits, smiling nervously at her, all waiting expectantly for her reaction. Everybody seemed to grasp what had happened but Katlijn; being on the receiving end of a massive palm wine explosion, it appeared, was perfectly normal- a kind of Burmese public transportation rite-of-passage.
Katlijn, to her credit, resisted the temptation to heap racist expletives at the poor terrified Burmese kid and, in a remarkable feat of equanimity that even raised the eyebrows of our kindly old monk friend, smiled with all the grace and humility she could muster, untied her hefty backpack from the shelf, found a reasonably clean set of North Fakes, slowly rocked and swayed her way through the grinning, toothless, undulating crones, and locked herself into the ridiculously dark and tiny confine of the Burmese public train toilet facilities.
The monk smiled warmly after her in approval and there was an audible murmur of relief among the squatting crones. The skeletal boy, saved from a gargantuan loss-of-face, seemed to relax a bit and even tried half-heartedly to sell me a few dried crab-sticks.
Katlijn later told me that as she crouched naked in the toilet room, swinging wildly against the slimy walls, washing off the stench of palm wine from her hair using the train's only semi-functioning bum-gun, she realized that this very moment was the ultimate low point in her world trip.
Off the Beaten Path
We arrived in the late afternoon at Hsipaw, a gorgeous town surrounded by rice-paddies. A pleasant place where the backpacker-friendly locals introduced themselves as "Mister- something" to help tourists remember them. There was Mister Charles, the hotelier. There was the paranoid Mister Books, who sold books. There was even a grubby street vendor calling himself Mister Bean, "I sell the best beans in Hsipaw !"
There were also more tourists in Hsipaw than anywhere else in the north
ShanState. Hsipaw, it turned out, was a burgeoning Burmese backpacker town. I don't have anything against backpackers, but the same conversations we have together were starting to get old: where we are from, where we are going to, and how truly sick to death we all are of instant Chinese noodles. We wanted new conversation, new experiences, new people, an undiscovered country. We wanted to be in the same illusive place all the other backpackers wanted to be, but paradoxically couldn't find: out in the sticks, the boondocks, Woop Woop, off the beaten path.
Just as a giant cyclone smashed through Yangon, days before Myanmar would briefly enter the ephemeral space of international consciousness, Katlijn and I, in our own private quest to realize the great backpacker dream, hired two biker kids to drive us out of Hsipaw.
To drive us not just off the beaten path, but as far away from it as we could get. We wanted to be as far away from the beaten path (while still outside rifle range of the nearest insurgency and armed opium plantation) that we could possibly be. And this, we learned, was a place in Myanmar called Namsan.
The Motorbike Ride
The road-not-taken turns out to be full of massive ruts and, on the back of a flimsy made-in-china motorbike, a thoroughly harrowing ass-numbing experience. It is a road so old and forgotten it hadn't been maintained since the age of empires, often causing us to cling to our underage drivers for fear of our lives as we skidded along the muddy potholes in the pouring rain. We stopped once to watch a local bus unloaded all its passengers before crossing a water-logged wooden bridge that sagged and groaned in imminent collapse. When it was our turn to cross the rotting colonial-era infrastructure, my driver clenched the accelerator inducing a sad painful wine from our flimsy hog, while yelling over his shoulder "too risky to cross with passengers !"
Ignoring his own advice, we slowly sputtered our way to the other side.
Though the old road from Hsipaw to Namsan is only 80 km long, it took us five hours and a two motorbike breakdowns to make it all the way up. We donated $1 to the nefarious regime for the privilege of spending a night at the only guesthouse in town.
Namsan itself is a charming village of wooden houses set atop a world of stunning forested hills accompanied by the soundtrack of distant cow bells. If not for its population of Palaung tea pickers and Chinese shop-keepers, Namsan might look like a centuries-old New World pioneer settlement, though the locals prefer to call it "The Switzerland of Myanmar". Out in the distance we gazed over a real no-man's land, apparently one of the least visited places on the planet. Somewhere out there, beyond those hills, grew nearly half the world's opium and the Burmese government waged a brutal, unknown, and ancient conflict against renegade Shan hill tribes still struggling for their independence.
Palaung woman in traditional hand-woven tribal clothes.
It wasn't long before we were introduced to the town's only English speaking locals. A jovial old woman calling herself "Macy" spoke impeccable English and was eager to invite us for a little conversation practice with her young students over the obligatory pot of Burmese green tea. "Sandy" guided us around the hills and introduced us to the local factory workers at the tea plantations. Despite the incredible hospitality of the towns-people, a suppressed fear kept gnawing at us from the back of our minds: we would soon have to endure the muddy five hour spank of the road-not-taken back to civilization.
Over the mechanical clatter of nineteenth century imperial tea machines, we brought this fear up with the town mayor and a gang of curious factory workers. They could instantly relate: even they avoided crossing that old bridge if at all possible and wanted nothing more than to help us find a way around it. The mayor proudly handed us a dusty old English-language encyclopaedia volume (letters C-D) written more than seventy years ago- a bit of light reading material while they hammered out a plan. A huge raucous debate soon ensued all around us as everyone collaborated furiously trying to figure out what do with us. Katlijn and I thumbed sheepishly through the fusty encyclopaedia, until finally they reached some sort of consensus. Taking great pride in his achievement, the mayor presented us a crumpled old Chinese Valentine. He opened up the heart-shaped card revealing a sophisticated drawing of boxes and lines labelled with that mysterious sequence of shapes and squiggles we had come to recognize as Burmese text.
Palaung factory workers drying and sorting tea leaves over a thatched bamboo table.
After a lot of hand waving, shouting, and charades, we gathered that they had, in fact, drawn us a map of the region describing a network of tiny backwater villages, monasteries, and shrines that would lead us back to civilization. Every time we walked into a new box on the map, we were to turn the card over and show the nearest crone the squiggles written on the back. Sandy explained that those squiggles roughly translated as "take me to your leader."
Everyone insisted that if a stranger walks into a Palaung tribal village, the locals would not only be delighted, they would feed us, give us a bed to sleep on, and point us to the next box on our map. It was more than just hospitality: it was a cultural and religious obligation. The Buddhist monks and villagers had to help us, there was no need to bring food or water for the journey. Thus, we were faced with the following challenge:
Could a couple of dumb white backpackers with no knowledge of the local language or culture survive the three day journey back to civilization, bypassing entirely the road-not-taken, with nothing more than plain old Burmese hospitality and a map scribbled on the back of a tatty piece of Asian Kitsch ?
Armed with only this, a lot of water purification tablets, and some emergency instant Chinese noodle packs, Katlijn and I set forth to find out.
We began the journey with some trepidation. A close inspection of the map revealed that few factory workers could agree upon which boxes should be connected together. In fact, the entire card was riddled with scratched out lines and alarming little question marks. To make matters worse, nobody seemed to know what kind of distances were involved. One line between two boxes could take anywhere from one hour to a full day depending on which puzzled monk we showed our card to. Clearly, we were going to be relying a lot on Burmese hospitality.
We put this hospitality to test when we arrived wearily at the first box on our map: a village consisting of a handful of thatched bamboo huts and the unlikely demographic of about fifty toddlers and four old crones. The kids went absolutely ballistic when we stumbled into town, crying out Burmese greetings while tugging relentlessly on my leg hairs. They sat us down in one of the houses, poured us a cup of bitterly green Burmese tea, and prepared us a feast.
We would have been content just to receive some hot water for our instant noodles, but they spent a good hour cooking us an assortment of local Palaung fare which they arrayed for us on a tree stump: rice, vegetables, spicy fish sauce, chunks of raw sugar, and a salad made from tea leaves. As we sat with a family shovelling this into our mouths with our fingers, the entire village came out to watch us eat. Some food tasted great and went down easily, other dishes required considerable determination to get through without wincing in front of our gathering hosts. Tea leaf salad was particularly challenging. Having the consistency of spinach but tasting something like a used Lipton tea bag, I imagine it would take a lifetime of cultural up-bringing to fully acquire a taste for it.
In retrospect, despite the fact that we didn't know what we were eating most of the time, we couldn't understand a word anybody was saying to us, and palm wine featured prominently on the menu, the home-cooked meals we shared with the Palaung tribes were some of the finest dining experiences we ever had.
The roads were lined with friendly tea pickers plucking leaves from the myriad of tea plants covering the hills around us. There was no shortage of people to ask for directions. Unfortunately, the accuracy and consistency of the answers we got left much to be desired. Talk to anyone who has been to the orient: never ask directions from a local. It's hard enough getting them to read a proper map, but trying to get your average tea-plucker to make sense of whatever nonsense was scribbled on our fading Valentine card was a thoroughly frustrating endeavour generally culminating in a lot of confused head scratching and a vague wave in a random direction. It wasn't long before we found ourselves way off the dirt roads, tripping over the steep dry scrub growing between tea-plantations: not exactly where one wants to be in a country boasting the world's highest rate of poisonous snake fatalities.
Covered in sweat and dust, we miraculously stumbled out into a clearing and found our way to a wild-west town full of old ramshackle wooden buildings. The town turned out to be "Kunh he" and, encouragingly, had several signs vaguely resembling the text written in the second box of our map. Too tired for basic formalities, I simply shoved the grimy Valentine card into the hands of the nearest resident and pointed to the text which we believe read "take me to your leader". We were soon brought to a beautiful old monastery and introduced to a young monk calling himself "Ken".
"Would you like to wash ?" Ken managed in his best English. There was nothing in the world I wanted more than a good shower. Ken asked me to follow him.
After twenty minutes of walking down a steep hill in my underwear and towel wondering what the residents of Kung He were thinking in selecting this location for their public toilet facilities, we emerged into a clearing full of half naked villagers sitting around a large cement bunker with three wooden pegs sticking out of it. It seemed somehow natural that the whole village had turned up to watch me shower.
"Would you like to wash ?" Ken asked again.
"Yes, please." I replied
There was a long silence while I stared at Ken and the grinning villagers, trying to examine them for some hint as to where I might find the shower facilities. I turned towards the cement bunker.
"Is the shower in there somewhere ?"
Ken motioned me towards the cement bunker, so I walked over to it not quite knowing what to do. I turned around and faced the villagers who weren't even trying to stifle their snickering. "Sorry, I just don't know how this thing works."
"Would you like to wash ?" Ken repeated. Ken had an irritating way of repeating unhelpful things.
"Look, Ken," I began while adjusting the towel around my waist, "do you even know what 'wash' means ? I mean, is this thing even a shower ? Are we even in the right place here ?"
"You wash !" Ken encouraged me.
Hoping for the best, I pulled at one of the wooden pegs. Suddenly, the peg popped out and the entire contents of the cement bunker gushed out at me in a freezing cold torrent of water that threw me off balance. The next thing I remember is lying on the ground in my underwear while Ken and the entire village joined each other in uproariously laughter.
The rest of my bathroom shenanigans, which consisted of the seemingly innocuous acts of brushing my teeth with a toothbrush and washing myself with soap, elicited nothing but more giggles from the villagers every time I peered behind me. Perhaps to save what little dignity I had left, Ken finally came over to show me how it was done. He cautiously pried open the second peg, picked up a smooth round rock, and fiercely scrubbed himself red. He was particular attentive to the top of his head, on which he used the stone to polish each of his tiny gray Buddhist sprouts. After that, he produced a ghastly metal implement which, to my amazement, he shoved deep inside his mouth and thrusted painfully about.
It suddenly became clear to me that out here, I was the one that didn't know what 'wash' meant.
The Evening Cinema
I learned from Ken on our hike back to the monastery that Palaung tribal villages have only one shower for the entire community and about two regular showering times each day, hence my supportive crowd. Back at the temple, we discovered that there is also a single television for the entire village. This television is generally occupied by a gang of couch potato monks who spend the best part of the day glued to the screen watching Thai kick-boxing.
Ken was a slavishly devoted host, but alas, no great chef. He prepared our Chinese instant noodle packs for dinner. It was a bit of a let-down from our lunch experience, but the upshot was we wouldn't have to suffer through another bowl tea salad. As we ate dinner, we watched as most of the villagers quietly filed one by one into the temple's TV room for the evening's entertainment. Ken asked us to follow them inside where an odd assortment of Buddhist relics, incense sticks, and prayer beads were arranged haphazardly around an old television set, a dusty DVD player, and a satellite dish. Ken handed us a binder containing the monastery's DVD collection and urged us to select a movie for the whole village to watch. Everyone smiled at us eagerly as Katlijn opened to the selection on the first page,
"Jaws","Freddy Versus Jason"," Alien"...
We looked up at the quaint tribal villagers and saffron-robed monks smiling expectantly at us. None of these titles seemed appropriate so we turned the page and kept looking.
"Halloween", "Evil Dead II", "Alien versus Predator"...
"Keep looking," began Katlijn nervously eying the countless children climbing around us, "I don't think we can show them this. It's a monastery, after all." We turned the page,
"Rosemary's baby","The Exorcist", "The Omen"...
Everyone kept waiting for a decision. Some of the kids were getting impatient and began tugging on my arm hair.
"Night of the living dead", "Hostel", "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"...
Our awkward situation grew dire.
"Wicker Man","Hell Raiser","Jack the Ripper"...
"Just what kind of monks are you !?" I cried out in exasperation, flipping frantically through Ken's macabre collection. Finally, there it was on the last page: the DVD cover for "Narnia". By some miracle, C.S. Lewis had come to our rescue. Katlijn jumped up enthusiastically and announced our selection.
Ken ran off to find the DVD and hit the play button. "It's a good one for children," began Katlijn hopefully to a room full of tribal people who nodded eagerly back to her in non-comprehension.
While the villagers and their children watched the movie with all the seriousness and intensity of discerning film critics, I thought I heard a few groans emanating from the general vicinity of the monks' section when the Disney logo came up. A couple of monks left the room after only a few minutes, and I think I caught one rolling his eyes at us. I guess you just can't please everyone.
The generator cut out halfway through the film and the villagers filed back home. Ken showed us to the meditation hall where he had set us up on the floor with some cosy mats, candles, and blankets. Since I was sleeping in the room anyway, I asked if I could join their morning meditation.
"Not so many monks here meditate in the early morning," he explained. Somehow, I wasn't surprised.
Katlijn and I prepared our beds while a group of monks tip-toed mischievously back out to the television room with an old car battery. I blew out the candle. As I closed me eyes and fell into sleep after a long day, I could hear the soundtrack of James Bond drifting in from the room next door.
The Tea Pickers
To Ken's credit, he actually did get up to meditate the next morning, though I had the sneaking suspicion that this was for my benefit only. With characteristic devotion, he prepared us our noodles for breakfast and took it upon himself to guide us to the next box on our map. Ken was very eager to connect with us, but after several hours of repetitive conversation, we were forced to come to the conclusion that he really hadn't the foggiest clue what we were saying. Though we liked Ken a lot, and I am certain he would have dutifully followed us all the way back to civilization, we finally had to ask him to leave so we could continue peacefully on our own.
The next line on our map turned out to be a steep up-hill ascent winding through the hills of scattered tribal villages. Groups of tea pickers lined the roads smiling, waving, and occasionally inviting us up to come join them in their work. After a long hike, we arrived at a village called "Kon Haut" and collapsed in front of an old wooden table at a long forgotten tea house. Within moments, a young teenage boy came running out to us.
The young boy introduced himself as "Anderson" and spoke excellent English. Anderson's soft voice and gentle mannerism instantly qualified him as our favorite Burmese person. He insisted on being our guide to his small village and offered us room and board at his wooden house on stilts. As with all the tribal people we met in this part of Myanmar, he and his family adamantly refused any monetary compensation.
Anderson's tiny self-contained village was a gorgeous collection of ancient wooden houses perched on top of a high hill offering a spectacular vista of the surrounding forests and tea plantations. Like all the other villages in the area, every resident grew and picked tea for a living. The Palaung people have been doing this for many centuries, forever as far as the people here knew. Anderson's family owns five small plantations located in disparate parts of the forest. During picking season, they get up at four each morning, hike several hours to their plantation, pick tea until the late afternoon, and walk back before dinner time. All this plucking resulted in some truly spectacular finger callouses, which Anderson and his friends enthusiastically showed us with immense satisfaction. A day's picking will yield about two large sacks of green tea leaves worth a couple of US dollars. This is enough money for Anderson's family to live comfortably out here.
Palaung woman sitting on her floor weaving a dress beside a pile of freshly picked tea leaves.
Anderson introduced us to his friends at the village monastery- a gorgeous two-century-old wooden structure filled with colorful Palaung tribal decorations. Buddhist monasteries, it turns out, serve as the local teenage hangout where young layabouts partake in some serious loafing with the novice monks. We felt very hip chilling with the cool tribal kids, though the boys insisted Katlijn sit on the floor below the men as part of the local Buddhist tradition. The monastery had only three senior monks, three novice monks, and two nuns living next door. The nuns do all the cleaning, cooking, and maintenance for the monastery. It remains unclear to us what monks actually do.
By the late afternoon, we felt we were starting to get the hang of Palaung village life. After hiking out to the cement bunker, I managed to clean myself with only minimal ridicule. Katlijn might have fared pretty well herself, had she not wore her longyi upside-down. Anderson's family meal of rice, potatoes, and dried chili-prawns was beginning to taste downright homey, and (I dare say) I believe I even started developing a vague appreciation for that insufferable tea salad. Sipping daintily on freshly picked tea, we idly watched the villagers file out to the monastery while chatting casually with our hosts over what lurid film they might be showing at the cinema tonight. Somehow, this forgotten Palaung backwater was starting to feel like home.
At night, we lay together under the stars with Anderson and he explained to us that he didn't want to pick tea leaves his whole life. He had always wanted to be an English-speaking guide and meet with people from the West.
We retired back inside Anderson's house where he prepared our beds on the floor, just beside the rest of his family who also slept on the floor together with us. In the corner of the room were all of Anderson's possessions: a tiny wooden desk which he barely fit into and a small shelf of old worn-out English language texts that he had collected over the years. As Katlijn and I drifted off to sleep, I watched Anderson's gentle silhouette flickering in the dying candle-light, hunched over his little desk quietly studying a crumbling English book.
Back to Civilization
Early the next morning, we awoke to the sublimely soothing chanting of Anderson's mother lighting a candle in the family's Buddhist shrine. One of Anderson's friends picked us up, a tough-looking but exceptionally sweet teenager calling himself "Jackson". Katlijn and I piled on the back of his bike and waved goodbye to our good friend Anderson before roaring off motor-cross style to the next box on our card.
Jackson showed us a short-cut through the hills and told us we'd be back to civilization in only five hours at a good walking pace. Of course, we knew better by now and weren't in the least bit surprised when, ten hours later, we finally limped our way past Mister Charles' Hotel, waved a tired "hello" to the cravenly Mister Books, and felt an exhausted euphoria when we heard a familiar voice yell out to us in the distance, "Tell your friends ! I've got the best beans in Hsipaw!" After a long journey off the beaten path, we were back home with the rest of the backpackers.
Given the utility of whatever was scribbled on the back of our tatty piece of Asian Kitsch, it was clear that only Burmese hospitality saw us through our challenge. As we lay down in the comforts of a real bed and rested our aching muscles, I felt an unconscious smile slowly form while I thought about how, on a future day, long after our world travels have ended, when the stress of modern civilization feels too heavy and the accelerated time of the new globalized planet too dizzying, we'll be able to think back to our memories of the motley people of the Palaung tribes, and be comforted by the fact that there is still a timeless place like this left in the world.
Note: Sadly, the photos we took of the area around Namsan in the Shan state of Myanmar were stored on an unreliable media (CD-Rom) inside an even more unreliable plastic casing (made-in-Vietnam) and we can no longer access them. Furthermore, we were unable to find on the internet any images of the villages or areas in the Shan state we trekked through on this trip. However, we were able to find some photographs taken of palaung tribal people in other parts of Myanmar. We selected a few of these based on how well they represented the things and people we saw on our trip. If you see your photo posted here, we thank you very much and you may leave a comment with us below. We do have a backup of all our photographs stored in the safe-haven of Geert's gay-chique apartment in Bangkok. We will update this entry again with our original pictures of the people and places of this story, as soon as we are able to retrieve our backup in a couple of months. In the mean time, we finally caught up with the rest of the twenty-first century backpackers and bought a portable hard-drive.
This is just a sample of the derogatory adjectives I found while researching Myanmar's dubious government-operated "budget" airline safety record: a history of downed planes and missing tourists so extensive it rivals even the world's great socialist "no-frills" commercial airliners of Africa and Russia. Myanmar Airways claims its record has improved dramatically after they dropped a rule requiring that planes take off on time regardless of the flight mechanics' advice- certainly little consolation.
Our other option was the decidedly safer "Air Bagan", privately owned and operated by Tay Za: Burma's most flamboyant and nefarious business tycoon who not only hordes the profits of Myanmar teak-wood industry, he also has close ties to Burma's massive illegal opium industry (surpassed only by that of Afghanistan). Naturally, he is a close friend to the military junta having paid for the current Senior General Than Shwe's daughter's notoriously extravagant $300,000 wedding.
Alas, we chose to patron Tay Za's Air Bagan and may we burn in hell. It was either that or face the sprawling twenty-four hour odyssey of crossing the entire country in the hot stuffy confinement of a Myanmar pickup truck. Somehow, eternal damnation didn't seem so bad anymore.
Our plane touched down into the cruel dusty furnace of April in Bagan, and by night-fall we found ourselves wandering the desolate streets of a third-world tourist dystopia. New Bagan is the brainchild of a military junta that gave all the residents of the original city one week's notice to pack up and move their lives to this more convenient location. The paved streets and ritzy hotels around us are widely believed to be the product of government enforced slave labour in a failed effort to bolster their tourist industry.
These days, New Bagan is downright spooky. A loud wind howls across dark empty roads in the night. Swanky western-style cocktail bars are populated only by dusty horse and carriage drivers pestering us to rent their services. Vacant luxury resorts sit sadly idle next to the murky green waters of their forgotten algae-ridden pools. Tourists don't seem to come here anymore. Too spooky.
Long boat on the Irrawaddy near Bagan.
Myanmar has a complicated and turbulent history consisting of periods of disunity and warring ethnic groups alternating with more prosperous periods of Burmese domination when rival ethnic groups were controlled with either the carrot of autonomy or the stick of force. It is tempting to consider today's predominantly Burmese junta as a continuation of this pattern. History repeating itself. While the military junta is rightfully despised, people are reluctant to consider the possibility that when junta is gone so will be the uneasy Union of Myanmar it barely managed to cobble together.
Each Burmese Empire had its capital. If the modern ghost metropolis of Naypyidaw is the unlikely capital of today's military junta, Bagan was the capital of the very first Burmese empire more than one thousand years ago. Alone and sadly outnumbered by the hotel staff, we checked out and began our hot and sweaty exploration of this more ancient Myanmar.
Marco Polo was the first Westerner to see Bagan (13th century). He described it as "one of the finest sights in the world." He also claimed that many of the towers were covered in gold a finger thick.
There use to be more than 13,000 temples in Bagan, but only 2,200 remain today. This is more than all the Cathedrals in Europe.
Touring Bagan is as exhausting as it is exhilarating. Temperatures soar well into the mid-forties, and the barren landscape provides no respite from the sun. Literally thousands of temples are strewn across a forty square kilometer requiring long hot bike rides between the sites accessible by road, and dusty pony rides for the rest. Each temple is home to gangs of touts either hawking the same paintings and postcards, or trying to barter them off to us in exchange for various personal items.
Covered in sweat and sun-screen on our second day of plodding along sandy roads on clunky third-world rental bikes, we collapsed inside a dingy Burmese restaurant suffering from a mild case of heat stroke and a major case of temple overdose. The Lonely Planet describes Burmese cuisine as a "curious" mix of Indian and Chinese influences which seems to be true since the food they served us had all the greasiness of Chinese take-away with all the cleanliness of an Indian hole in the wall.
Most Burmese restaurants serve a large variety of foods arrayed unattractively in plastic pales at the entrance. The food in each pale is actually intentionally covered in a thin layer of grease in order to keep the many nearby flies out.
Nevertheless, Bagan at dusk is positively magical. We climbed atop lonely nondescript pagoda number 384 somewhere in the middle of the ancient city. A gang of souvenir hawking pre-teen touts was there to join us as we sat down together for the evening's spectacle. Sunset over Bagan is perhaps South East Asia's most awe-inspiring sight. Even the grubby kid shoving postcards into my hands while tugging at my wrist found himself stopping momentarily to bask in the terracotta colors of twilight. Unlike other preeminent ancient cities of the world, the view before us was neither shrouded in jungle nor banalized by popular media. At sunset, the full extant of a massive ancient martian world lies unhidden, disappearing with the sun into the horizon.
A clear brisk morning. The pleasant scent of coriander chutney and naan bread roasting on an open fire. A piping hot mug of Nescafe "Turbo" 3-in-1 coffee mix. Kalaw, perched high above the cruel heat of April, seemed to us the only sane place to be at a time like this. Slowly, our dreams of Air Asia travel agents whisking us away from Myanmar to a distant discount tropical paradise were fading, and a renewed determination to understand the Burmese paradox settled into our imaginations.
The Indian family we stayed with showered us with as much conversation as they did chapattis. They had been living up here for a century. Like many of today's Burmese Indians and Chinese, they were originally brought here by the British to help develop and modernize the new colony. More experienced than the locals in the ways of the West, they became the advantaged elite fueling a deep resentment among the indigenous Burmese population. During the heady days of World War II and Burma's independence, anti-Muslim riots and institutionalized oppression forced many Indians to flee the country in a deadly mass exodus. Though the regime never fully got over its outdated anti-India propaganda machine, among the common people, this animosity has all but evaporated. Today, our hosts wouldn't dream of returning to India and insist the Burmese people are the world's friendliest, a different species entirely from the regime, living in a parallel world.
Kalaw was an old British army outpost still used by the junta's military today. Some fading colonial era buildings decay into the landscape, while others have been renovated and still serve as homes to wealthy generals.
Our various commutes on Myanmar's dodgy public transport services had left us non-plussed, and we decided to walk the rest of the way through the Shan hills to our ultimate destination at InleLake. Besides, what better way to keep money from the hands of the regime and, perhaps even more nefarious, the various local bus, pickup, and converted garbage truck mafias. The India family lent us the services of their son, Rambo, to guide us on our scenic trek through the Burmese hills.
Our awesome Burmese Indian guide to the hills around Kalaw, the soft-spoken Rambo. Fluent in Hindi, English, and the local tribal languages, not to mention an Indian roti connoisseur, he was indispensable.
The area's rich rust-hewed volcanic soil allows a diversity of crops to grow supporting an array of colorful tribal communities.
Myanmar's hills are home to some 135 different tribal groups, each having their own distinct language, customs, dress and specializations. Some of these ethnic groups number less than one thousand people and have been living in the same semi-nomadic self-sufficient ways for centuries. As we meandered down the hills, these exotically clothed people punctuated the fertile red soil, pastoral hills and tiny thatched hut villages with brilliant colours re-creating all around us a forgotten time.
More scenes of rural village life in the Shan hills.
Kalaw's colorful tribal people.
As usual with Indian-led trekking campaigns, mealtimes were a highlight of the day. In Canada, a backpacker meal typically consists of a bag of freeze-dried food, often marketed by weight and volume rather than taste and style. Packages are known to contain "calories per ounce" information along with a lexicon of similar metrics presumably inspired by the cattle fodder industry. In Belgium, people actually embark on overnight treks with nothing but a giant piece of salami, a hefty wheel of Gouda cheese, and a pair of long Baguettes that stick out of their bags like bazookas. I've seen Europeans last weeks on the trail eating only this.
Trekking with Indians is a whole different story. A pack of rice, some dried lentils, and a few zip lock baggies full of spices is turned into a deliciously dense spicy daal within minutes of the water boiling. And while you are gobbling that down, your guide is making fresh bread on an open fire out of a Tupperware container full of flour. All this and you're only paying twelve dollars a day for the food, accommodation, a professional cook, and a translator. Quite simply, Indian backpackers are making the rest of us look bad. As I thought about my fellow countrymen eating straight out of a soggy carb-loaded bag with a hard plastic spork, and those trail-side Belgians furiously chewing stale bread while attacking flimsy chunks of sweaty cheese with a pocket knife, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of shame for Western trekking culinary traditions.
Between bouts of sticky-fingered curry-eating gluttony, Rambo helped us chat with the locals. The cool easy-going hills of Kalaw bare little resemblance to the sweltering politically charged atmosphere of Yangon. While intensely curious of the outside world coming to visit them, the tribal people are entirely unaware and apathetic of their politics. Some are eager to exploit the tourist trade, but most live, trade, and marry within the confines of the hill communities and have limited interaction with the rest of the world. Unlike treks through remote areas of India, the tribal kids living here have not yet learned to pester foreigners for pens and candy.
After a while, one learns to recognize most of the region's tribal groups based on their occupation or clothing. For example, the Pa-O women shown here always dress in black robes and bright head scarves.
The Pulaung tribes specialize in growing tea. This old man from the Pulaung tribe invited us inside for a pot. He didn't know how old he was. Many people in the village didn't seem to keep track of their own age.
A Pulaung mother with a beautiful smile.
A Pulaung child borrowing one of grandpa's cherished green cheroots.
Rest and accommodation normally took place on the hard bamboo floor of a tribal hut together with a large family who all slept in the same room. On our second night, however, we had the luxury of staying at one of the village monasteries populated entirely by pint-sized monks in training and an aging abbot suffering from diabetes. Fortunately, the little ten year-old monks do the best they can to care for their teacher: massaging his feet every night while taking charge of daily business to ensure their spiritual operation is kept clean and running smoothly.
Before we went to bed, tribal people from nearby villages hiked out to the monastery and sat cross-legged together with the young monks to watch "Apocalypse Now" on what is likely the only DVD player in the area. The audience, clad in variegated tribal clothes and saffron monk robes, took everything in with a fascinated silence.
The monastery we stayed at. The architecture and corrugated tin roof are typical of Myanmar's many rural monasteries.
Young monk-trainees proudly doing their morning chores.
On our third day of hiking, we marched into InleLake and hired a boat to take us to a cozy guesthouse at a village called Nyaung Shwe. InleLake is one of Myanmar's main attractions: an idyllic mosaic of lake-side villages, rice paddies, and rolling hills. The region is notably wealthier than other places in Myanmar, the extra income from the tourist industry having transformed it into a kind of rural utopia complete with paved roads, a small airport, and other public facilities. Of course, this situation won't last much longer if foreign countries continue to discourage people from visiting here.
The lake supports a thriving farming community producing a wide range of vegetables and flowers cultivated on floating islands in the shallow edges of the lake. The men add to the islands by driving bamboo stakes into the lake bottom and piling up mud and lake vegetation.
Inle lake's most notable tribal folk are the Intha people, who are easily identified on the water by their novel (and apparently more efficient) paddling technique involving the ankles, legs and arms.
Proponents of Burmese tourism often cite InleLake as an example of how well-behaved the junta can be when there are foreign tourists watching and therefore argue in favor of expanding the areas accessible to visitors. Some human rights activists, however, fear that visitors plying the beaten path to areas like InleLake will develop huge misconception about the reality of life for most of Myanmar's rural poor. Furthermore, the impact of tourism on the Burmese tribal communities has never been studied.
Despite improvements to InleLake's infrastructure, not everything has been brought up to date. While indulging ourselves in some Western-style food at one of InleLake's many restaurants, Katlijn chipped her tooth forcing us to consider the frightening prospect of Burmese dental care. Our friendly guesthouse owner, ever trying to be helpful, recommended his dentist to us. Just before we were about to leave he asked, "You go to get your tooth pulled ?"
"No, we just want somebody to take a look at it."
"Oh," he replied confused, "if” you no want your tooth pulled, no go to Burmese dentist."
Needless to say, Katlijn decided to wait until we got back to Thailand for her dental work. However, it was somehow comforting to know that despite the inevitable encroachment of tourism, politics, and other modernizing forces into the traditional tribal way of life here, at least dental work was still done the old-fashion way.
I sat in the shadow of the ticketing office listening to Katlijn argue with the local bus tout. "Is it a big bus with air-conditioning ?" She asked.
"Yes," said the tout.
"Does the air-condition work ?" She asked.
"I think so," said the tout doubtfully, looking away.
Katlijn narrowed her eyes and looked penetratingly at the ticket man, then began slowly and carefully in a menacing whisper, "But will they turn it on ?"
The tout looked uncomfortable and shuffled his feet a bit, realizing she was on to him. "You'll have to ask the driver."
"Show me a picture of the bus !" Katlijn demanded.
The tout produced a glossy poster of a hotel-sized luxury vehicle filled with happy smiling passengers toasting each other with champagne flutes, marvelling at a highly improbable backdrop including the temples of Bagan reflecting off of InleLake surrounded by tropical birds and what appeared to be several extinct species of orang-utan. Honestly, I don't know why she bothers. This tout was going to rip us off and there was nothing we could do about it.
At long last, a dark noxious fog of belched out low-grade diesel exhaust ushered in our aging transport, clunking and sputtering its way towards us a good two hours behind schedule, an old tenth-hand rust-bucket long since discarded by its last owner in the West. Perhaps that same owner might one day visit this part of the world and feel a tinge of nostalgia and pride to see his or her faithful old rusty steed having a second-life in the orient as an integral part of the local Myanmar bus-scam. But to us, it was just another dirty van without a single functioning door or window, crammed full of betel-nut spitting crones all covered in a thick layer of Burmese road dust.
Katlijn had a small breakdown when it stopped in front of us, which began with "Is that our bus !?" and ended with a flurry of racist expletives heaped on an uncomprehending ticket salesman. All the while, the tout kept insisting it had "excellent air-suspension"as though this outright junk-heap had some deeper soulful charm hidden just beneath the surface, if only we would take the time to discover it.
Burmese kids hiding under a table of fresh durians.
We were heading north now, en-route to Kalaw the hard way. Sane travellers take the plane at this point, but we were determined to stay on our pathetic budget and keep our money from falling into junta hands, even if it meant the occasional mental breakdown and momentary lapse of sanity. I found a small extra chair just behind the driver which had been crazy-glued to the floor, while Katlijn preferred the broken padded cushion that hung loosely at an obtuse angle from its seat back. There is never enough space on a bus like this one, so babies are passed around like carry-on baggage and it wasn't so unusual for one to end up in Katlijn's lap. They don't use diapers in the third world.
I was worried about Katlijn. She was in a miserable mood right now, secretly plotting an escape from the country. I saw her the other day checking out low-cost Air Asia flights leaving Yangon for Phuket, certainly an act of extreme desperation. The heat was really getting to both of us. During our truck's second breakdown, while the driver tinkered with the engine using a plastic pale full of rusting tools, we found ourselves sitting out under the stars along the highway. It occurred to us both that even in the middle of the night, Myanmar was still hot as hell.
With the likely prospect of our aged bus' post-retirement career in the Myanmar bus-scam business sputtering to a final ignoble conclusion, we decided to get off at a town called Taungoo and head to a private guesthouse boasting an excellent reputation among Burma's controversial guidebooks. It was indeed a lovely place, constructed from varnished teak wood, tastefully decorated, and cheerfully managed. Of course, none of this mattered to us because it no longer had air-conditioning. The friendly doctor who owned the guesthouse apologized profusely and tried to explain.
In case we weren't confused enough already, the junta had recently moved their capital to a place called "Naypyitaw", not far from here. Depending on who we talk to, the capital city of either Myanmar or Burma could be Yangon, Rangoon, or even Naypyitaw. By all accounts, Naypyitaw is a brightly lit fantasy city of modern shopping malls, six-lane highways, and twenty-four hour electricity, except that almost nobody lives there. Access to the new capital is strictly controlled, only the military top-brass and necessary government personnel are allowed inside. The city is also home to a number of five-star hotels catering to unscrupulous tourists who describe it like an empty high-tech ghost-metropolis straight out of a bad episode of the Twilight Zone.
Like most of Myanmar's population, the doctor got her news from a daily BBC Burmese radio broadcast squawked at her through an old plastic Zenith radio. The BBC has proposed a variety of disparate explanations for moving the capital to a place truly out in the sticks, including a paranoid regime trying to distance itself from politically charged activists in Yangon, a better command centre for conducting their war against nearby Karen insurgents, or even a more easily defensible location in the event of a future American pre-emptive strike. Of course, BBC really has no idea what the regime is thinking, it could have just been the whim of some flaky numerologist. Regardless, the new capital consumes most of the region's power, allotting our teak wood hotel along with the rest of Taungoo only three hours of electricity per day.
Taungoo local selling us some juicy lychees wrapped in a banana leaf.
Curiously, the only exception to the three hour electricity rule occurs whenever a British Premiere League soccer game is televised. Our hotel owner speculates that the junta provides electricity during televised soccer matches purely as a security measure. The Burmese are fanatical British soccer zealots hungry for outside information regarding the world of professional footy. They may have passively accepted a hundred years of colonial rule and fifty years of brutal oppression at the hands of a ruthless military junta, but take away their evening soccer match and they'd riot.
Though our hotel had its own generator, it didn't produce a high enough voltage to operate the air-conditioner or to provide a sufficient angular momentum for the over-head fan to be effective. As a result, it got so sweltering hot in our room that we eventually decided to sleep outside underneath a mosquito net.
Perhaps the friendly doctor felt sorry for us when she found us the next morning lying naked on her hotel patio. She put together a truly amazing breakfast made up entirely of fruit from her exotic garden. Over heaps of lychees, mangosteens, and passion fruit, Katlijn told me about a bizarre dream she had of a mysterious Burmese metropolis, somewhere not far away, populated entirely by Air Asia travel agents and empty air-conditioned hotel rooms. I'm no shrink, but this was clearly not the sign of a healthy subconscious.
A pineapple growing in the doctor's garden.
The local Taungoo train station looked like a refugee camp. Making our way through the dense crowd of uniformed military personnel, saffron-robed monks, and gangs of children trying to pull at my leg hairs was a real challenge. We were eventually shuffled into a small office where the local train officer handed us a couple of post-it notes he had just scribbled on, and showed us to the appropriate platform. When our train finally lumbered down its narrow track two hours late, I remember voicing my worst fear, "these people aren't all getting on that are they ?", before it was realized by a chaotic surge of humanity converging on every malfunctioning orifice of the antiquated train.
We watched in stunned amazement at the spectacle. Everyone elbowed their way to the front, huge bottlenecks formed around the doors, monk bottoms and sandaled feet disappeared through the windows. Unable to physically get close enough to the train to board, we enlisted the help of an armed guard who, by some miracle, actually understood whatever was scribbled on our post-it notes. He successfully cleared the way and even scared a few old crones out of our seats for us. Every once in a while, a military junta really does come in handy.
Once inside, we were on our own. It took us ten minutes to get from the door to our seats. There were moments when I thought we'd never make it through the thick jungle of bodies inside. There wasn't enough space on my piece of bench for me to sit down and nowhere else for me to go. I ended up standing on my seat for fifteen minutes until Katlijn, uncovering a remarkable latent talent for human Tetris, barked orders at our fellow passengers until there was enough room for me to squeeze down with them.
The conditions on-board wouldn't satisfy an animal rights activist. The temperature outside pushed forty degrees, but it was several degrees warmer than that in the train. The entire cabin stank of Chinese fried noodles and body odor. There were people everywhere: crones squatting under my bench and kids lying horizontal on the baggage shelves. At each train stop, new passengers had to clamber through the windows because the door was plugged air-tight with human bodies. Before jumping in themselves, mothers would pass up their diaper-less baby through the window. The little tike was then tossed about the cabin like a hot potato until a suitable nook or cranny could be found for him. Somehow, Katlijn found herself in charge of this operation, possibly owing to her previously demonstrated Tetris genius.
As the narrow gauge train swung precariously back and forth along the bumpy tracks, we couldn't help but be impressed by the impeccably well behaved kids. While Katlijn and I had to fight back a childhood urge to throw the mother of all temper tantrums, there wasn't a single crying baby on the train. It's like they were too young to understand the whole stinking wobbling humiliation of it all.
We survived under these conditions for six long hot hours. Finally, our train swung into the town of Thazi where we saw a friendly-looking Burmese man running beside us calling out our names. Apparently, the good doctor from Taungoo had given him the heads up that a couple of white tourists were coming his way. Private hotel owners in this part of the country were now working together to make sure we didn't accidentally end up off the private hotel circuit and into a government-run facility.
Thazi turned out to be a dusty outback stuck in a Burmese time-warp. Horse and carriage were still being used to shuttle passengers into a wild west town from a fully functioning antique train station. Our inn keeper explained that not all was right in Thazi. Bad press, human rights activists, and the riot last September had destroyed the tourist trade. Now there were only two licensed hotels left in town, and not enough room for the both of them.
The hotel wasn't much to look at. A giant jumble of cables, industrial sized electronic parts, and large rusting metal boxes outfitted with retro wooden dials and knobs hummed ominously in the corner of the lobby. If every truck driver in Myanmar is a car mechanic, every hotel manager is an electrician. Power outages were frequent, and generators are generally of the DIY variety. While showing off his electromechanical baby, he explained how they had to pay a $760 license to cater to foreign tourists, give up ten percent of their revenue, and pay regular bribes to the corrupt police who ran the neighboring junta hotel like a gang of bandits. For his part, he fudged the tax records in the giant spell-book and showed me how he steals electricity from the train station to get by.
The local bus service finally rolled into town late the next morning: a massive steel lorry filled with passengers where the trash compactor used to be. In essence, the final leg of our journey to Kalaw was undertaken in a gigantic human garbage truck.
We adamantly refused to be stuffed into the back, choosing to pay extra for the privilege of squishing into the front seat with three others passengers over joining the eight men clinging to the roof top. The truck cruised around Thazi picking up more people until its entire volume was filled. We then drove around for another hour picking up cargo. I'm certain that if the garbage compactor was still intact, our incorrigible driver would have used it.
The passengers themselves didn't seem to care, dutifully compliant when the truck driver ordered them to squish themselves into a more efficient arrangement between steel drums of fermenting rice and large sacs of garlic. I asked a nearby passenger why we kept stopping to pick up more cargo, and he simply deadpanned "greedy" in reply.
There's always room for one more on our dump truck.
It was brutally hot where we were sitting, and I didn't even want to think of the poor sods exposed in the back. Our dump truck broke down three times, leaving us to bake helplessly on the side of the road waiting for our greasy driver to emerge from beneath the engine with his pillow case full of dodgy tools. In the meantime, Katlijn's mental health grew dire, her mind being corrupted by a loathsome animosity towards the evil chauffeur. In a twisted form of psychological torture, she kept repeating "How much longer ? How much longer ? How much..." to the superstitious bus driver which absolutely infuriated him.
Around mid-afternoon, the driver brought our rusting junk bucket to the side of the road so he could enjoy a luxuriously long cup of coffee while the rest of us rot like garbage waiting for him. I got outside and opened the back of the truck which would have revealed a scene of people trafficking during a war-time evacuation, except that every single one of them was beaming at me with a dazzling Burmese smile. Was I going crazy ?
"Why are you smiling !?" I shouted and emphasized my words for effect, "It's more than forty degrees outside ! You are stuffed in the back of a garbage truck ! The driver is enjoying a longcup of coffee ! This really does suck ! I'm not crazy here !" Inexplicably, they kept smiling at me, joyfully oblivious to anything I was saying, somehow unable to perceive the gross unfairness of it all. I could almost hear the start of a Rod Sterling voice-over.
Mysteriously satisfied customers smiling down at us from the rooftop.
I stormed off to find Katlijn glaring menacingly from across the table at our selfish bus driver who was mustachioed in guilt by a Nescafe 3-in-1 instant coffee mix. "Are you done yet ? Are you done yet ? Are you..." I felt just a bit saner knowing that I wasn't the only person going mad around here.
The driver eventually finished his coffee and several hours later, having teetered clear off the edge of reason, Katlijn and I finally arrived in Kalaw. We were as happy to get rid of the bus driver as he was to get rid of us. I waved goodbye to the passengers piled on top of each other in the back of the rusty garbage truck, then watched their smiling faces disappear into the sunset.
Kalaw was a world away from Thazi: a gorgeous town, complete with paved roads and street lights, clearly benefiting from the large number of military generals living here. But none of this mattered to us. At an altitude of 1320, it had one of the most pleasant climates in the country. We felt a cool mountain breeze blow across us, cooling our minds back to a reasonable state of sanity. We wouldn't even need the air-conditioner tonight.
If you aren't out throwing water at people, there are only two things to do in Myanmar during Buddhist New Year: stay home or seek refuge in a monastery. We considered the latter prospect, hoping to continue our meditation training from India. After all, Myanmar is a world center for meditation studies. While Buddhism's popularity waned in India, the original meditation techniques were painstakingly kept alive in Myanmar from teacher to pupil through an oral tradition. The government even issues special sixty-day "meditation visas" to people all over the world allowing them entry into the country for learning these techniques, and every Burmese citizen is required by law to spend time at a monastery for basic training. Unfortunately, the monasteries were completely full: wearing monk robes and sleeping in a monastery generally renders one exempt from the water throwing yahoos, making Buddhist New Year a particularly popular time for peaceful contemplation.
The festival had grown into an out-of-control multi-day extravaganza, and our options were now limited: being pelted with fire hoses or baking in the safety of our sweltering guesthouse. We were desperate to get out of Yangon and see the country. After significant research and a lot of charades with the train officers, we finally came up with a third option: a pilgrimage to Kyaiktio, the Golden Rock.
Pious Burmese head out in droves to visit the Golden Rock for Buddhist New Year. It is perhaps the holiest and most auspicious location in the country to wash away last year's sins. It was also the only location in Myanmar currently being serviced by some semblance of functioning public transportation. We wrapped our bulging backpacks in water-proof plastic sheets and set off on our quest.
A tasty Burmese snack.
Walking to the train station was a frustrating wet experience. The water fight had grown old fast: we were tired of stumbling about in wet feet and soggy underwear. In the InyeLake area, "Happy New Year" was the usual warning sign preceding a good hosing. For some reason, the kids downtown preferred to joyfully ask us "Are you happy !?", before proceeding to throw a bucket of ice water in our faces. The other pilgrims on the train simply laughed at us when we sat down in the passenger wagon, wringing our socks out.
Myanmar's much maligned trains should only be used as a last resort. The entire system is antiquated: from the 1940s meter gauge train tracks to an unreliable ticketing system run by opportunistic coolies keeping track of things with fading pens and old bits of scrap paper hanging out of their back pockets. A valid ticket could easily look like a crumpled piece of toilet paper with somebody's signature scribbled in pencil. The train ride itself is always a harrowing experience, as the entire cabin wobbles precariously back and forth along the narrow tracks. Train derailments are disconcertingly frequent under this technology.
Fortunately, we arrived safely at the city of Bago, two hours east of Yangon. We found a crumbling hotel room shrouded in a thick layer of mildew, its malfunctioning shower facilities forcing hotel guests to make the dubious choice between being blasted across the bathroom floor by a high-pressure beam of cold water or huddling underneath a scorching hot dribble. The beetle nut chewing hotel manager admitted his rooms could use another coating of paint, but he swore on his father's grave he had the best generator in Bago, capable of delivering twenty-four hour air-conditioning. We were sold.
One of Bago's many golden stupas framed against the Burmese-blue sky.
Checking in at a private guesthouse requires writing your name and passport number on a giant wizard's spell book. Apparently, these over-sized records are used to ensure the regime gets its ten percent hotel tax. According to the manager, our hotel was owned by a crooked business man running an illegal gambling ring. "Not to worry," he explained between audibly juicy betel-nut mastications, "this hotel is one of his legal business fronts. We only fudge the guest lists a little bit." In true form, he also knew exactly how to visit Bago without paying the extortionate government fees.
Bago is the Disneyworld of Buddhist relics, an amusement park of stupas and giant Buddha statues. It was once the capital of the Mon province, home of the ancient and defiant Mon people who arrived here around 1500 BC. Though brutally repressed for centuries for thumbing their noses at both the Burmese and the British regimes, their impact on the region can't be understated: the Mon are responsible for introducing Buddhism to South East Asia, and they have littered the landscape with some of its most hallowed monuments, including the famous Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon and our destination, the Golden Rock.
With the connivance of the local monks, our hotel manager confidently led us through various back doors into some of these monuments while telling us extraordinary tales of giant eight-meter Buddhas, a mysterious cult of Burmese numerologists who had learned to fly, and his very own pursuit of the philosopher's stone. I don't think we learned a thing from him, but his was a riveting narrative nonetheless, certainly better than a stodgy old government-approved tour.
The footprint of Buddha, one of the main artistic vehicles for demonstrating the Buddha's presence in Asia. In Myanmar, his footprint has small pictures depicting all the different reincarnations of the Buddha before attaining enlightenment.
True to his word, the twenty-four hour air-conditioning was fabulous: a miracle of biblical proportions in this country. The next morning, the hotel manager got us in contact with a shady character calling himself "Mister Joe". Technically, foreigners are not allowed to spend the night near the Golden Rock, but Mister Joe insisted the police never check. He sold us expensive tickets for an "easy" three hour truck ride to Kyaiktio.
When it comes to travelling around Myanmar, our experiences so far indicated nothing is "easy". Katlijn decided to double-checked with our hotel manager, "How long will it take us to get to the Golden Rock ?"
The manager opened his mouth in alarm revealing all six of his remaining crimson teeth, "In Myanmar, you never ever ask how long it takes ! It's bad luck !" He refused to tell us and stormed off angrily. The truck driver gave us a dirty look, like we had just condemned them all to death.
The Burmese have taken carpooling to a whole new level. The pickup truck stopped every few blocks to pick up more passengers until every cubic inch of volume was filled with body parts. A close inspection would reveal that we were arranged on top of each other in four layers: a few fragile old crones curled themselves up at our feet on the floor of the truck, Katlijn and I squished together with other passengers on the benches, their kids sat on our laps, while their husbands rode on the roof. A few deadbeats hung out the back with their feet on the bumper. As our rusty old pickup lumbered down the bumpy road, the Mon people periodically hosed us down and launched water balloons at us with slingshots.
In the dark, damp wetness of the enclosed pickup, packed shoulder to shoulder with the other miserable passengers, I felt the onset of a claustrophobia-induced panic. Desperate for fresh air, I poked my head outside and saw, for the first time, a ghastly new weapon in the week long water war. We were heading straight for it.
"You'd better take a look at this," I warned Katlijn.
She poked her head the other side. "WHAT IS THAT !?" She yelled back in alarm.
The other passengers saw it too, and pretty soon murmurs of alarm spread like wild-fire through the tiny space in the back of our truck. Everyone inside grabbed each other. The deadbeats hung on for dear life. Katlijn, in a cowardly act of self-preservation, actually grabbed a monk and used him as a human shield, hoping his monk status would protect them both.
I ducked my head, shut my eyes tight, and thrust my index fingers deep into my ear canals. Barely audible now, I thought I heard someone whisper, "Are you happy ?"
Everything happened fast. A gang of Mon kids jumped in front of the truck to slow it down, while about fifteen of their buddies positioned the weapon over top of our pickup: a long, wide-diameter, corrugated plastic tube that looked alarmingly like a broken sewage pipe belching forth a geyser of polluted water and noxious filth. With considerable effort, they ran beside our truck while simultaneously turning over the gurgling tube into an upside-down brownish fountain instantly flooding our cabin in a sickly warm foul-smelling ooze.
The aftermath is still a bit of a blur. I remember bits of algae hanging from the ceiling, a few aging crones coughing and wheezing in a pool of rancid liquid, and a wisely equanimous monk giving Katlijn a long, sad, pitiful look of sympathy, certain her ignominious act had just condemned her to be reincarnated as a fish.
Six hours and one more breakdown later, our clunky pickup finally choked and sputtered into a town called "Kingpun". We were close to our goal now, at the base of the mountain home to the illustrious Golden Rock. We celebrated by devouring some fried noodles at the local Chinese restaurant and transferred to a larger pickup truck capable of making the ascent. The back of the truck contained rows of small wooden benches that seated about sixty. After waiting a long time in the heat for enough passengers to fill the benches well beyond this already inflated capacity, the driver suddenly gunned the accelerator and we set off at a break-neck speed startling everyone on board.
Buddhists on pilgrimage to the Golden Rock being herded like cattle into pickup trucks.
Even by third-world standards, our driver was a maniac. The giant truck roared down the serpentine mountain road, careening dangerously close to cliff edges. Each high-speed hair-pin turn sent me toppling over fellow passengers, and each bump thrusted my bruised knees painfully against the wooden boards in front of us. Kids lined the roadside, laughing uproariously at our predicament while whipping us with buckets of freezing cold pond scum.
Slowly, I felt the last traces of my pathos for this country slipping away from me. I turned to my right side and saw an elderly monk look straight into my heart with his over-size Dalai Lama spectacles. He seemed to have notice my waning empathy as well. His tiny grey sprouts of hair fluttered and whistled in the howling wind. With his wizened old hands, he slowly and deliberately demonstrated how to hold on to the shoulders of the person in front of me for support. He smiled broadly revealing a rare un-betel-nut-stained set of reasonably straight teeth, then laughed loudly and with a hoot, yelled out,
"LIKE BURMESE ROLLER COASTER !"
Everyone started doing the same. Hands on each others backs, individual passengers connected as one, we rocketed our way up the mountain until our perilous truck ride to Kyaiktio finally came to an end. In an outpouring of collective relief, we all spilled out of the back of the truck. The Golden Rock was close now. The anticipation palpable.
A steep path led up the mountain crowded with monks and families making the final push in the late-afternoon sun. For forty-five minutes, we slogged through the wet Burmese heat. We saw our old monk friend cheerfully float by us in a stretcher, still smiling and waving. The clever fellow had hired a couple of coolies to carry him up. At long last, melting into a pool of our own perspiration, we caught sight of the Golden Rock itself.
"It's a rock," stated Katlijn underwhelmed.
"But it's one of the most sacred places in all of Myanmar !" I tried to convince her the trip was worth it.
"It's not even gold," she observed pointing across the rope, "look the paint is peeling." I approached the precariously perched rock to investigate. Indeed, it needed another coating of yellow paint to maintain the illusion. Finally, I had to admit it: whoever said "it's the journey not the destination" surely must have had the Golden Rock in mind.
The Gold Rock is perched precariously on the mountain. Legend has it that a single hair of Buddha holds it in place.
A bit deflated from the long day and its anti-climax, we spent the evening walking around the area, by now crowded with monks and families setting up blankets and pillows for the night. We were very nervous. Tourists weren't really supposed to be out here at night and Mister Joe's promise of no police was clearly an empty sales pitch. They were everywhere.
More interesting than the Golden Rock is the out-pouring of faith going on around it. Thousands of Buddhists from all over Asia gather on New Years to light incense, give offerings, and meditate together.
Some of the wealthier families slept in shelters, but nobody wanted to take us in, fearing trouble with the law. As inconspicuously as possible we crept into a nearby temple full of friendly people who smiled warmly at us. We set up our sleeping bags and exchanged food with our neighbours. Then, in a hopeless attempt to fit in, we joined the others in meditation.
Naturally, the only two white people on the mountain sitting in a lotus posture is anything but inconspicuously. When Katlijn came out of her meditative state, she was met with a room filled with huge Burmese smiles and pairs of warm beady eyes staring at us intensely. They had been watching us the entire time in respectful and curious silence. Even people from outside the temple were huddling over each other by the doorway to gaze at the two of us: hairy-legged, Teva-sandaled, sweaty white yogics in fading Nepalese trekking shirts- certainly a more profoundly bizarre spectacle than the Golden Rock.
It wasn't long before the police found us.
The Burmese police never do anything alone. There are no edgy Hollywood police mavericks here, no Burmese Dirty Harry, no Thanakha-wearing Starsky and Hutch. I remember watching the junta after the cyclone ravaged Yangon. They were a model of inefficiency. It would take twenty of them to cut a tree branch: one to saw away, one to take a picture, and eighteen to stand around and loiter. Thus, it is no surprise that an entire battalion of green-uniformed men with sparkling metal helmets marched into the scene of our dramatic arrest.
"Um..." the poor guard began bashfully, clearly terrified by the prospect of having to speak English in front of so many on-lookers, "are you happy ?"
"We're happy," I began hopefully. The growing crowd of smiling spectators murmured in approval.
"Yup," Katlijn, already condemned to life as a fish, finished my lie, "nobody here but us Buddhist pilgrims."
The police noticeably relaxed. They couldn't decipher any obvious political motivation behind our illegal infiltration of the Golden Rock. "I'm sorry to have to do this," he really was, "but I need to take you outside the premises to a government hotel."
And so ended our pilgrimage to the Golden Rock: we were charged an exhorbitant fee to stay at a dingy government hotel on the mountain, which we turned down in favor of being robbed blind by an even dingier privately-owned hotel.
Over luke-warm glass of imitation Burmese coca-cola, we toasted in the New Year.
One of the pythons died recently. Nu thought it was the soapy water; apparently, the orphans even shower together with the pythons. In any case, the abbot was absolutely distraught over the constrictor's demise and hasn't talked much since. I didn't believe her until they brought us to their meditation hall containing a dozen malingering monks swinging lazily in their hammocks, a few golden shrines, and one giant four-meter snake curled around a statue of Buddha. Beside the meditation hall, Nu showed us a small wooden shrine containing the dead python recently stuffed and mummified by the abbot.
Some of the kids get courses in traditional music. They were kind enough to put on a small show for our benefit.
We donated money to the monastery together with some children's clothing we bought in Yangon. The abbot chanted us a blessing for our generosity, but the monks couldn't come up with a way to distribute the clothing fairly. After much discussion, they contrived the following: we should give the clothes as a gift to a group of teenage orphans who performed traditional music for us. The performance was excellent, but it was both sad and embarrassing having to give baby clothes to each overly-gracious teenager individually- especially since there were bound to be younger kids in the monastery who also needed them.
Andrew giving tiny T-shirts and shorts to the orphan teens. They were very kind about it, and some of them really made an outstanding effort to squeeze into them.
By the early afternoon, the water festival had rendered Yangon's normally unreliable public transportation completely in-operable. Nu managed to arrange a horse and carriage for us, still a principle means of transportation in many parts of Myanmar. As we trotted off down the dirt road, the children ran after us, waving, smiling, and laughing.
Along the way, Nu told us that she takes care of a couple of orphans at home. It turns out that adopting orphans is very common in Myanmar, nearly all the hotel and guesthouse owners we stayed with across the country had an adopted son or daughter. Obtaining an orphan in Myanmar is extremely easy: walk up to your nearest monastery, give a donation of about one hundred dollars to the overwhelmed abbot, then walk home with the child of your choice. The system is clearly open to abuse, and it's hard to imagine this happens while elsewhere, so many qualified parents are enduring agonizing years of red tape to adopt a child.
The second orphanage we visited was run by nuns- all women in pink robes. In contrast to the carefree anarchy of the monastery, the nunnery had a fussy orderliness and the staff busied themselves with military discipline. The concrete dormitories positively gleamed.
Upon our arrival, a regiment of tiny bald little girls in meticulously kept pink robes were ordered to march before us and array themselves in perfect ranks. They were clean, healthy, and impeccably well-behaved. At the head-nun's orders, the children erupted into a perfectly synchronized chant of Buddhist mantras. It was an impressive and provocative display for our benefit, but there was something oddly robotic in their empty stares and mechanical high-pitch tones- their grim faces, starched uniforms, and shaved heads resembling more a miniature boot-camp than a kindergarten. It just didn't feel like New Years in April anymore.
We donated money to the head nun, and she gave us a blessing in the form of a Buddhist chant. She looked thin and exhausted. Life isn't easy for a nun. Though apparently not a part of the original Buddhist teachings, women are treated as inferior to men in many Buddhist sects. They receive even less attention in the West. While the image of a monk has become an icon of unfailing wisdom and infinite serenity, their female counterparts are virtually ignored. As a result of this hierarchy, most people want to donate their money to monasteries run by monks, often leaving the nuns with very meager alms. There was no New Years banquet here.
The system is far from perfect, but
Myanmar's monasteries and nunneries do a great deal of good for children who have nowhere else to go. Indeed, the entire country couldn't function without these refugees, scattered ubiquitously across the Burmese landscape. Simultaneously fallible and heroic, these orphanages provided us a true human face to the children as well as Myanmar's well-intentioned monks and nuns.
By the morning of the second day of the water festival, Yangon looked like a war zone. The streets were empty save for pickups carrying gangs of water-gun toting teens careening about in the ghostly wet streets. Over an egg breakfast, several backpackers cowered on a guesthouse patio showing off their hose welts and complaining about their predicament. The entire country was shut down in a water-logged state of nation-wide binge drinking. Nobody could get in or out of Yangon. In fact, nobody could leave within a few block of our guesthouse without being blasted by high-pressure ice water.
Andrew hanging out with the other stranded travellers at our Yangon guesthouse.
A long line of saffron robed monks strolled by for their morning alms. They live off the donations given to them by the rest of the community, devoting the rest of their time to meditation, study, and the sharing of Buddhist values. We were glad somebody was happy: people are particularly generous for Buddhist New Years alms, and nobody wanted the bad karma of hosing down a monk.
We decided to join up with our Yangon guide, Nu, to visit orphanages across the river. Trying our best to avoid any further engagements, we ran, ducked, and crept down back-alleys to a bus stop where Nu flagged down a pickup truck and pushed us on board. The passengers rolled their eyes when they clapped eyes on our white skin, knowing their dry pickup would now be targeted by every drunken Yangon yahoo with a water gun. To make matters worse, we didn't actually fit on the truck and a few previously comfortable commuters were asked to ride on the bumper and hang out the back for our sake. Clinging for dear life to the back of a truck while being fired upon with riot hoses is fine for the locals, but such activities are considered too dangerous for white tourists. The junta wants nothing to tarnish their beloved tourist industry, and the driver would stand to get into serious trouble if anything happened to us.
It wasn't long before we were spotted by the yahoos. "Here they come," muttered Katlijn.
I poked my head outside to see the approaching ambush: a couple of bucket-toting kids and some whisky-drinking Indians on hose duty. "You know the drill," I replied dryly.
We clasped our hands over are ears, shut our eyes, and ducked underneath the bench.
"Happy New Years !"
And with that, our driver hit the accelerator and we roared through the deluge. The velocity of the truck working against that of the incoming water buckets produced a loud smacking sound when the freezing water splashed against our backs. A frail old woman sitting across from us got a particularly violent slap to the face. Everyone on board remained exceptionally friendly with us, but we feared our popularity would start to wane after a few more of these incidences. We chose to step off as soon as we were close enough to the orphanage to walk the rest of the way.
The post-colonial renaming plague sweeping across Asia has also struck the country of Myanmar in a devastating wave of utter confusion. The British invented the name "Burma" after the "Burman" people who are the dominant ethnic group. However, the political situation in the country is far messier than this colonial-era name implies. Over one hundred different ethnic groups are known to live in Myanmar, and there are at least one hundred and nine different languages spoken in the country. Many of these ethnic groups have been fighting each other for centuries and are also sworn enemies of the predominantly Burmese military junta. To help pacify some of these people, the junta changed the name of the country to the more inclusive "Union of Myanmar". Americans and British do not view the military regime as the country's legal governing body with authority to change the country's name and therefore continue to use the old British name "Burma". Thus, we now have the awkward choice of selecting the imperialist name of "Burma", or recognizing a brutal military regime by using the less racy "Union of Myanmar".
Changing the name of the country and providing other political incentives was not enough to placate all the ethnic groups wanting either more autonomy or outright independence. For the last fifty years, the military junta has been battling several disparate insurgencies in various parts of the country, and there are credible reports of retaliatory killings, rapes, and other atrocities committed by the army against civilians. Most of this fighting is contained in remote mountain regions so nobody really knows what is going on. However, there is a constant stream of traumatized orphans fleeing these contested regions who, if they are lucky, may eventually find themselves in the sanctuary of a monastery. Soaking wet and fearing rejection by our fellow commuters, Nu took us to visit two of these.
The first orphanage was run by monks- all men in saffron robes. The monks shared their food with us: a huge banquet provided by today's bloated New Year's alms. It was probably the tastiest and most glutinous feast we ever ate in Myanmar. So much for the middle road !
Children's dormitories. Each child has his or her own space with a bed and a metal chest containing their belongings. They sleep and do their homework here. It is possible to obtain a high school degree at the monastery, but we only met one girl who made it that far in her studies.
The orphanage was basically a ramshackle arrangement of dilapidated monasteries and concrete dormitories with corrugated tin roofs providing shade for several dozing monks. While perhaps more spiritually advanced than your average layabout, Myanmar's monks could certainly loaf about with the best of us. They had all the laid-back attitude and Eastern philosophical bent of a Berkeley hippie, but without the free-love, drugs, and poor hygiene. Otherwise, while the compound definitely lacked a woman's touch, it had a kind of fun chaotic air as the children's variegated smiles of multiple ethnic origins ran amok in celebration of Buddhist New Years. The kids went absolutely wild when we showed up, desperate to bless us with a cup of scented water, gawk at our giant white bodies, and pull my exotic arm and leg hairs- a favorite feature of mine with Burmese children guaranteed to produce squeals of glee. The monks had built them a little wooden platform on the road where they could participate in the water festival like other kids in Yangon. Fortunately for us, there was just enough discipline at the monastery to forbid the use of fire hoses.
Not all was right at the monastery. Some of the little girls were covered in scabs, and another didn't speak at all but stared blankly forward in a permanently heartbreaking forlorn expression. The abbot looked positively exhausted and depressed. Nu insisted he was normally a loquacious host and provided the following bizarre explanation for his current mood:
The monastery owns two giant pet pythons. The pythons slither freely around the compound and the kids are allowed to "play" with them, presumably unsupervised by the looks of the place. While that all sounded pretty scary to me, snakes are held in high esteem by Buddhists. Besides, we are told the children love them to pieces.
T.S. Elliot must have had the weather in mind when he wrote that "April is the cruelest month". Temperatures in Myanmar soar into the mid-forties. Regular power outages all over the country render not only the air-conditioning useless, but also the overhead fans, and refrigerators. I've spent hours wandering the sunny streets desperately searching for a cold drink, sadly longing for ice-cubes only having to settle for yet another warm glass of imitation Burmese Coca-cola. There is no respite from the heat.
Until the water festival.
The Buddha couldn't have been more merciful in setting up his New Years celebration in the middle of April: a time when we are told to wash away the sins of last year with a bucket of cool water, so we can begin our next year of debauchery cleansed and refreshed. In the past, this meant three days of daintily pouring perfumed water from a small silver bowl on friends and neighbours. Unfortunately, things have gone sadly downhill in modern times. Maybe it's global warming. Today's Buddhist New Year Festival is a ruthless ten day water war waged all over the country, with next year's debauchery getting a formidable head start.
Girl dancers in traditional clothing line up with silver bowls of perfumed water for the opening ceremony in Yangon.
Nu took us to Yangon's New Year's opening ceremony. Along the way, small children and gangs of adorable young street kids asked us respectfully if they could please pour a bit of water on us. The chance to pour water on a white backpacker was an opportunity so exciting and novel it never failed to illicit shrills of enjoyment. We were only too happy to oblige. Behind them, however, their older siblings prepared more formidable instruments of water warfare. Their hungry smiles were laced with menace. They wanted nothing more than to wipe out all traces of last year's sins. However, for now, tradition protected us. They would have to hold their fire until after the opening ceremonies.
During the opening ceremony, a line dance of men and women gracefully poured water on each other.
Without the foggiest clue what was going on, a few police kicked several old ladies out of their plastic toy chairs, and we were ushered to sit in their places. Sweating profusely in our stinky Teva sandals and the same Nepal Trekking shirts we had been wearing for the last six months, we found ourselves in the seat of honour next to Yangon's City Mayor and some of Myanmar's most famous young film talents. In a pathetic and hopeless attempt to look important, we tried to chat with our Burmese-speaking neighbours until the opening ceremony began: a kind of dance and theatre show that looked suspiciously like last night's strip-tease.
Burmese film stars looking cool for the water festival.
Among other Burmese celebrities, we ran into Mo Win, a world-famous photographer now living in Yangon. He and his French wife invited us for a ride in the back of their white pickup truck to see the water festival at nearby InyeLake. Along the way, we picked up a few more Americans and squeezed together in the back. The opening formalities were over, and it wasn't long before we were assaulted by gangs of water throwing, whisky-swilling hooligans dressed up like British punk rockers.
The water fight had begun, and foreigners were not exempt. Indeed, we soon discovered that a clunky old pickup truck full of white-faces was considered a unique find and a primary target deserving special attention. While the morning's cute kids with cups of water were all in good fun, now that their older siblings had taken over it became a dangerous sport. Though previously impossible to find, garbage pales of freezing cold ice water now seemed to be everywhere, their contents pumped out at us with painfully high-pressure fire hoses. As our truck skidded down the windy roads, every turn was manned by adolescents with exotic water guns whipping us with buckets of high velocity ice water of questionable purity.
A pickup truck full of Indian immigrants preparing for an ambush. Ear protection is of paramount importance when attacked with a fire hose.
Mercifully, Mo Win ground his aging white pickup to a halt outside his gorgeous mansion. Soaking wet, freezing cold, and covered in red fire-hose-induced welts, we piled out of the back and ran through his gates to safety. Within minutes, we were in the serenity of his grassy yard, underneath the shade of his giant mango tree, eating its fruit freshly picked and prepared by his servants. Moments later, a couple more of his Burmese employees produced copious amounts of food, cool frothy mugs filled with beer, and a bottle of quality French wine.
"It's safe in here, we can talk." Interestingly, he was referring to a draconian law in Myanmar prohibiting groups of more than five people meeting together for discussion, rather than the ruthless gangs of water throwing Burmese punkers outside. `
Mo Win is on his third marriage to a much younger French girl. He has to "upgrade" every few years, in his own words. With a long dark mane of black hair he looks young for his years, and likes nothing more than the sound of his own voice; fortunately for him, he does exude a certain charm. He summarizes life under the regime like this: "We live our lives, and the government officials live theirs. We don't really mix. My art isn't political and I don't involve myself in politics. If I did, I'd be counting beads." The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, is one of his biggest fans and the NLD once asked him to photograph her. "I told them to stuff it ! Are they crazy !?", he exclaimed, "I'd be counting beads !"
The Burmese have mastered the art of Asian collective resourcefulness. In their close-knit community, everyone knows a friend of a friend to get things done. As a gifted photographer who lived most of his life in
France, Mo Win is a bit of a foreigner in his own land. His son once chastised him for being too honest on his tax returns, and demanded he get a local to do it properly. The Americans we picked up study Buddhism and do volunteer aid work. Locals help them to stay in the country for prolonged periods by arranging them business visas through a fake company.
Our gang gearing up for another forray: stuffing our valuables into water-tight ziplock bags and applying another coating of water-proof sunscreen.
Mo Win insisted we finish our drinks and set off once more, determined to show us the water festival at InyeLake. We crowded back into the pickup truck, our ranks now swelling to include several of Mo Win's Burmese wine-pouring coolies and a couple of bottles of scotch. As the truck rounded each corner, cries of "Happy New Year" were followed by such a relentless barage of water balloons, ice buckets, and fire hoses we'd periodically lose passengers out the back.
InyeLake turned out to be the main front in Yangon's water battle: a chaotic honking gridlock consisting of bumper-to-bumper pickup trucks carrying a cargo of water guns, hoses, and comatose old men still clutching emptied bottles of Jack Daniels. Through the polluted haze of low-grade Russian diesel exhaust, a motley crew of revelers held hands with green-haired teenagers dressed in studded leather and Union Jacks, dancing in the flooded streets to the rhythm of Burmese covers of Western Hip-hop. A virtual monsoon of water rained down from large wooden structures temporarily constructed to cater to throngs of Burmese kids who had paid good money to dump tanks of ice water and fire riot-pressure water hoses into the chaos below them.
Our rusty old pickup broke-down along the way so I had to jump out of the truck and push. The Yangon sewage system was overwhelmed by the deluge, and I splashed down into a knee deep river of chocolate water carrying past a detritus of mixed filth in its formidable current. With the men out of the truck, the two girls were exposed and abandoned in the back.
If the exotic site of a pickup truck full of white foreigners induced shrieks of enjoyment, cries of laughter, and buckets of ice water, the dream-like scene of two white girls in wet T-shirts dancing on a truck induced instant euphoria in the general vicinity. While two of Mo Win's coolies poured copious quantities of scotch down my throat, I caught a glimpse of an entire block of fire-hoses beaming down on Katlijn as she desperately swam across a pool of rank liquid spilling out of the back of the pickup in muddy cascade of garbage.
Other events that evening were so surreal I'm not sure anymore whether they actually happened or were some water-logged product of my inebriated and over-stimulated brain. I seem to recall a midget Asian rapper busting out a Burmese translation of government censored Eminem lyrics flanked by a troupe of background dancers that included a seven-foot albino giant break-dancing with an afro-wig. It was like a David Lynch film on crack.`
Sometime late that night, we finally made it back to our certified non-government operated hotel room for a cold shower and a non-functioning air-conditioner. Maybe it was just an emotional release during a week's time when the junta relaxes its grip and it temporarily becomes socially acceptable to make a complete ass of yourself, or maybe it is just a lot of experience with riot police. Whatever it is, the Burmese really know how to throw a good water fight.
We spent our first night in Myanmar at a Burmese strip bar. Our evening began with a pleasant stroll along the tree-lined sidewalks of Yangon's deteriorating colonial metropolis. The bustling sidewalk was full of the exotic medieval. Everyone was trying to sell us something: a juicy betel-nut fix, skewered crickets, spare auto-parts.
A typically busy sidewalk scene in Yangon. Girl's roast meat on an open fire. A boy with a white tank-top and brown traditional Burmese longyi looks for new customers. Poor, wealthy, old, and young come to sit as equals on the tiny red plastic chairs and gossip over a hot cup of bitter green tea.
Quite suddenly, a respectable looking chap, sporting a neatly ironed pair of longyi and a fancy cell-phone, emerged from the chaos and accosted us in miraculously perfect English. He wanted to tell us what was going on in his country and to describe what happened during the riots last September. He explained how we couldn't do this on the street because somebody might be listening in on our conversation; the regime is known to throw English-speaking students like him in jail. Katlijn and I were both excited by our piece of espionage. I thought this sort of unlikely plotline only happened in James Bond films. Feeling like a couple of secret agents, we followed our new friend into one of the city's many holes in the wall.
Inside was perhaps the world's most pathetic strip bar. In place of the rowdy testosterone-charged seediness of a Las Vegas club, the crowd of beer-swelling Burmese men couldn't look less manly squatting down on the tiny, knee-high, red plastic chairs seen throughout Myanmar's tea shops. The smiling face of a Chinese girl peeled off the wall along with the rest of last year's calendar poster. She looked positively lonely pasted against the massive windowless concrete. As in other Asian holes-in-the-wall, the decor was so sparse and pathetic it only accentuated the gloom. On stage, was a line of pretty Burmese girls dancing to the emotionless din of muzak, barely discernible through the crackle of the 70s-era audio technology. Like all strip bars in Myanmar, the dancers remained fully clothed thus emphasizing the "tease" portion of their profession. As we sat on our miniature table, it occurred to me that James Bond wouldn't be caught dead squatting in one of these ridiculous toy chairs in a dodgy place like this.
Beer is a government sponsored joint-venture in Myanmar. As we were trying to direct our money as much as possible to local people, we refrained from ordering a pint of the only redeeming feature in this establishment. Instead, we spent the whole evening talking about Myanmar. He explained how he was a student participating in the riots that were broadcasted around the world last September; the first since "8-8-88". He described a surreal moment when the protesters and the police met on the broad-boulevard surrounding the Shwedagon Pagoda. Both sides faced each other in total silence listening earnestly to a Buddhist monk give an eloquent sermon through an old megaphone. When the sermon stopped, the police began firing into the crowd.
Kippling wrote the following upon seeing the Shwedagon Pagoda: "Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?"
Images of the Shwedagon Pagoda are similar to those found in Nepal and Tibet: ordinary Burmese men and women meditate near the giant stupa, while saffron robed monks walk clockwise around the giant structure. Myanmar and Tibet share both political and cultural parallels.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is surrounded by eight planetary posts corresponding to the eight days of the week in a Buddhist calendar. There are eight days in the ancient Buddhist calendars because Wednesday is divided into two separate days (AM and PM). Each planetary post has a different animal sign. Devotees (and the odd tourist) pour water over their birth sign. According to our best estimates, Andrew was born the same day as Buddha, Wednesday morning, marked by an elephant with tusks.
The dazzling golden Shwedagon Pagoda is undoubtedly Yangon's best known-symbol, but its origin is controversial. According to Buddhist records, it was originally built over 2500 years ago before the historical Buddha died in 486 BC. However, archeologist now believe the current stupa was actually built between the 6th-10th century AD.
We agreed to meet our new friend the next day, but after waiting a long time, he never showed up. Instead, we found our way to a gorgeous green neighbourhood full of embassies and mansions that contrasted jarringly with the downtown area. Home to military generals and diplomats, it was clear that not everyone in Myanmar was poor. There were police stationed regularly on the sidewalk to patrol this portion of the city giving it an uneasy totalitarian air. We decided it would be a good idea to register with the French embassy before setting off.
On the way back to our hotel, we passed an aging old crone sitting on the sidewalk shading herself from the intense sun and oppressive April heat with a small umbrella. She carried a dusty old rotary-dial telephone in her lap. It's hard to imagine how she ekes out a living doing this, but in our experience, people like her constitute some of the most reliable pay-phones in the country. We had a telephone number we found on the internet of somebody named "Thiri" who gave revealing tours of the city. As Aung San Suu Kyi once said, "approach the Burmese telephone with a prayer," so it was something of a miracle when a kind voice crackled through on the other end. We agreed to meet in half an hour.
A gang of Burmese street-kids. They can speak surprisingly good English- better than many people with the benefit of parents and an education. Amazingly, they don't ask for money but seem genuinely interested in just hanging out with foreign backpackers. Street-wise and friendly, they'll never let a Yangon cabbie rip you off.
Thiri turned out to be a kind-hearted little Burmese lady with a working knowledge of English and characteristic bright smile. Like our friend from the tease-club, she wanted to take us to a place where it was "safe" to talk. On the second floor of a sleepy old guesthouse, we conversed a long time about Myanmar and she confirmed most of the things our friend told us the night before. These conversations were new and exotic to us at this time. However, they soon became a regular feature of our travels through Myanmar. Not a day would pass without somebody telling us their story.
She was certain our hotel was operated by the government and suggested we move to another facility. Like most Western visitors to the country, we wanted to cater privately-owned facilities only and minimize money going to the regime.
"Didn't you think it was odd when they were the only hotel allowed to have a taxi waiting for you at the airport ? Why on earth did you decide to go there ?"
I felt a bit sheepish telling her my outdated guidebook recommended it as a decent private hotel. I wondered if James Bond ever used the Lonely Planet.
She went on to tell us that the government has spies everywhere. They could be dressed as monks, taxi drivers, and shop-owners. She warned us to be careful of what we say about her to other people. Some people will tell us the same things she tells us, even slander the regime, and talk about their participation in the riots. Then, they'll report any potentially useful information we provide to the authorities.
"How are we supposed to know who we should and shouldn't talk to ?" We asked.
She explained that as an outsider, we'll never really know for sure, but there is one tell-tale sign: cell-phones. Special permission is required to own a cell-phone in Myanmar. It costs a normal citizen about $2000 to buy one- a fortune by Myanmar standards. Unless they are employed by the government, there is absolutely no way to afford it.
"In Yangon," she finished, "never trust a monk with a cell-phone."
Myanmar was a world away from Thailand. I thought back to our absent friend this morning. We had a lot to learn about this country.
A small plastic chair, a table, an umbrella, and an aging mechanical typewriter make up this old man's office. He has setup his buisness just outside a government office, earning a living by typing out the formidable documentation required for requesting governement cell phones.
Comparing the two neighbours today, and it is hard to fathom what happened. Thailand's new capital at Bangkok is a booming hive of modernity sprouting towering skyscrapers and high-tech Starbucks-studded mega-malls. Meanwhile, Myanmar's aged ex-capital at Yangon is a dusty grid of crumbling British colonial buildings struggling to maintain their dignity in slow decay. Somehow, in the last century, something went wrong in Myanmar.
Yangon's crumbling city hall.
A woman walks past an outdoor Burmese book market shielding herself from the relentless Myanmar sun.
Sadly uncared for and somehow anachronistic in downtown Yangon, the bright greens, yellows, and turquoise of Britain's influence still radiate a melancholy beauty.
Fortunately for us, it is much easier for a tourist to enter Myanmar than an aid worker. Within days of applying for permission to visit Myanmar, we found a hotel taxi waiting for us at Yangon airport to take us to "The Motherland 2" hotel. We were soon stumbling apprehensively through Yangon's dark and potholed checkerboard of Technicolor colonial buildings- vestiges of British rule when Burma was considered part of its Indian colony. Yangon's rooftops became a jungle of antennas after the military junta recently allowed BBC and National Geographic to reach households. Long isolated from the rest of the world, Yangon's skyline is a powerful testament to a beleaguered colonized people grasping for knowledge and a sense of inclusion into the outside world. There was something of South East Asia in the smiling faces around us. Something of India in the crowded concrete holes in the wall full of tea-drinking beetle-nut spewing coolies. But then there are regional touches all its own: green cheroot cigars hanging from wizened grandmothers, yellow thanakha drying on a baby's face, green uniforms and metal helmets worn by the government's ubiquitous police.
Burmese women are among the world's most beautiful- shown here selling roasted crickets with characteristic smile. The next time Myanmar shows up on the news, watch for the pale yellow paint on the faces of nearly all Burmese women and children. It is a paste derived from tree bark, called thanakha, and is a form of sunscreen. As far as I know, the Burmese are the only people in the region to wear sun block.
Myanmar never really made it on the tourist radar map- odd considering it has vast stretches of white-sand beaches that rival Thailand's, a temple complex more vast and exotic than Angkor Wat, and huge tracks of unspoiled nature which are among the least-visited places on the planet. Nevertheless, these obvious draws are probably not why a small cadre of crusty backpackers visit Myanmar each year- indeed, they probably never even knew about it since traveling to this land is discouraged by self-respecting foreign travel agents. Rather, they come because they shouldn't be here. And this is how visitors feel their first night in Yangon: the exhilaration of witnessing the forbidden as pairs of warm and curious eyes follow them with mixed feelings from the bustling sidewalk market places.
Sidewalk banana store.
What passes for public transportation in Yangon (an old pickup crammed so full of people they are forced to hang out the back) drives past the colonial-era Strand Hotel. This gorgeous hotel was perhaps the most luxurious in the British Empire, catering exclusively to white clientele.
Burmese people weren't allowed inside the Strand Hotel until its independence in 1948. Myanmar has always had an abundance of natural resources, and this wealth can be found in some parts of Yangon and other major cities. The problem is that throughout its recent history, the money has been horded by those in power and never made its way to the general populace.
The people of Myanmar are among the world's most friendly and hospitable, but somehow their government is among the world's most ruthless and oppressive. Britain's rapid withdrawal from its former colonies resulted in many tumultous years in Burma, until a military strong man by the name of General Ne Win seized control in 1962. Since then, he and his military junta have accumulated a long list of human rights abuses and a history of tragic mis-management along their bizarre march towards a Burmese Socialist Utopia.
Just how crazy is General Win ?
He believes that the number "9" is an auspicious figure with magical properties. As his incompetent rule continued to erode the country's former wealth until Burma became one of the ten poorest countries on earth, he devised the following economic policy:
On September 9th (the 9th day of the 9th month), he invalidated all 50 and 100 Kyat notes, replacing them with 90 and 45 kyat notes (9 + 0 = 9, 4 + 5 = 9, and like all numbers with this property, evenly divisible by 9) . It is tempting to attribute this decision to a naive, though well-intentioned, autocratic nut-head infatuated with numerology. However, this interpretation is far too generous. It was later revealed that he changed the currency to add up to 9 only because his astrologer told him he would live to be 90 (there's that number 9 again !) if he did this. Regardless, many people lost their fortunes overnight.
Understandably upset, students all over the country protested on August 8, 1988. This event is called "8-8-88" or "four eights uprising" by the people of Myanmar referring to its date. Ever superstitious, many people in Myanmar believe the number "8" is also thought to have magical powers. The regime reacted with a spree of killings and arrests so terrifying that there wouldn't be another large scale protest for nearly twenty years. In a seemingly miraculous change of face, the junta agreed to open elections in 1992. Not surprisingly, their rival party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won eighty percent of the parliamentary seats. Having exposed themselves, these representatives were promptly arrested and their supporters harassed. The spiritual and political leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest to this day.
The beautiful and eloquent Aung San Suu Kyi has won both the Nobel Peace prize and the hearts of her people. She is one of the most prolific and well-respected modern writers on democracy and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi doesn't want us to visit her country.
"The Lady", as Aung San Suu Kyi is referred to in Myanmar, believes tourism brings both respectability and economic aid to a nefarious regime. She thinks tourists are shuttled in air-conditioned tour buses between the government-approved attraction, don't have an opportunity to interact with local people, and will therefore bring home a distorted and incomplete view of the country. She has also suggested irresponsible mass-tourism will devalue and comodify Myanmar's traditions. In her own words, "to suggest that there's anything new that tourists can teach the people of Burma about their situation is not simply patronising - it's also racist."
Ironically, it is the reclusive military junta that wants us to visit. In their words, "tourism will replace criticism from abroad".
Others argue they are both wrong: tourism will heighten public awareness abroad, bring much-needed money to the people, and provide a meaningful cultural and language exchange.
The People's Desire, as dictated by the military junta, is posted in all of Myanmar's public parks and published daily in the country's propaganda-ridden newspapers.
General Ne Win's military junta remains in power today. His legacy is a country who's formidable wealth of natural resources benefits only a small number of government officials and their Chinese patrons, while much of the rest of the population lives in poverty. Of course, Myanmar's political situation is more complicated than one man and nobody really knows the ultimate reason for the divergent fates of Thailand and Myanmar. Nevertheless, the Burmese people offer their own theory: ever superstitious and mystical, they believe Ne Win was the reincarnation of a Thai prince defeated and executed by the Burmese who swore an oath of vengeance and put a curse on the Burmese nation. General Ne Win died six years ago, having lived to see his 90th birthday.
Ayathuya is home to one of Thailand's most famous images: the head of Buddha wrapped in the roots of a Bodhi tree. The combination of Buddhist imagery and nature is considered particularly auspicious.
It's rich portfolio of resources- oil, natural gas, teak wood, fisheries, minerals, and arable lands- is the envy of the region. Two centuries ago, they were an empire to be awed and feared. Long before Siam changed its name to Thailand, King Ayathuya of Burma marched his considerable army into the MekongValley and razed Siam's thriving seaport capital of Ayathuya to the ground. He wrote a triumphant letter to their king exclaiming:
"There is no rival for our glory and our karma; to place you beside us is to compare the great Galon of Vishnu with a swallow; the sun with a firefly; the divine hamadryad of the heavens with an earthworm; Dhataratha, the Mamsa king, with a dung beetle."
Thai monks studying the remains of a Buddhist image in the ruins of Ayathuya. The ancient city, still a source of national pride in Thailand, was destroyed by their powerful neighbors in Burma.
For hundreds of years, Ayathuya was the most prosperous merchant city in the region, accepting traffic and trade from as far away as Portugal. The Burmese entered Thailand and ransacked the city so thoroughly, nearly all official archives were lost and many details of Thailand's history remain vague.
Stupa reflecting in the water. Today, all that remains of Ayathuya are the brooding ruins of its once formidable religious sites.
The next morning, the cook and waiter were extra friendly as they showered us with smiles, brought us books and maps, then set us off with a sac-lunch into the Monsoon Forest. At least for now, Herr Flick was nowhere to be seen.
The rugged green universe of the Thai jungle provided a fascinating, albeit very hot, hiking experience. We were immensely happy as we clambered along the forest trail, watching birds, swatting at bugs, and chattering endlessly.
The first leech we saw was of academic interest: a slimy conical shaped slug that somersaulted its way around the jungle using its tiny suckers. Fascinating stuff.
We never saw the second leech. Rather, we erroneously dismissed the large red blood stain forming around Chris' right thigh as a blood-thinning side-effect of her medication. A bit more nervous, we kept moving.
It was only when a similar blood stain started forming around Katlijn's right leg that we put two and two together and finally started to panic. In a sudden moment of understanding, Katlijn gave a shriek and squirmed out of her pants. Before long, Katlijn was standing in the middle of the jungle wearing nothing but her underwear and hiking boots, the mad woman inside her stomping on a single fleshy worm, grotesquely fat and discolored from her blood.
"I'm sorry !" Katlijn seemed to apologize to the jungle, "I can handle the sweat and mosquitoes, but that's disgusting !" Chris couldn't agree more and the two of them raced out of the forest the same way we came.
Katlijn and her mom showing off their leech bites. Upon latching onto their victims, leeches inject an anti-coagulant before they begin sucking. The resulting wounds, therefore, bleed profusely. Fortunately, leeches are not known to carry diseases making them safer than other blood sucking parasites. Their exact role in a rainforest ecology is still not fully understood. However, their presence indicates a healthy ecosystem since they require an abundant source of large mammals to survive.
I put on a brave face, chastised them for being so silly, and continued on my way. Secretly, however, I was checking my arm pits and groin area every five seconds. Once you see one leech, you start to feel them everywhere. I began to exhibit tell-tale signs that my sanity was unravelling: stretching my socks high over my pants, spraying myself excessively with toxic repellent, and nervously whacking at every tiny sensation on my body. However, I didn't completely lose it until I happened to glance down at my boots and see a single slimy black slug somersaulting its way inside. Cautiously, I undid the laces and peered in:
Dozens of the slimy bastards ! All squirming over one another, jockeying for the wettest warmest position. The little buggers were actually fighting over me ! I tried desperately to pick them off, but the slippery worm-like beasts held on tight. As madness gradually consumed me, I found myself howling threats and war-cries at the leeches while frantically hammering at them with my fists. In seconds, my other boot was off and I was violently squishing, tugging, and swearing at my right foot. When it was all over, I briskly brushed myself off, laced up my boots, and speed-walked out of the forest as fast as I could.
Next time, we rode elephants through the park to avoid the leeches.
Andrew strips down and enjoys a jungle swimming hole.
Katlijn with her mom and Andrew, riding back from their elephant trek.
Fortunately for Emmy, she had stayed at our bungalow during our unsuccessful foray into the forest. Upon hearing about the leeches, however, she agreed with Katlijn and I when we suggested to forget hiking and explore the surrounding area with motorcycles. We rented a couple of bikes from a shop next door and were busy trying them out near the hotel parking lot when Herr Flick appeared, with eerie suddenness, from his jungle lair: his psychotic eyes flashed with rage and his crooked noggin like a white lightning bolt zig-zagging down the middle of his crimson face.
"SHUT UP !" He hollered, "YOU MAKE TOO MUCH NOISE !" He proceeded to let loose a tirade of abuse so loud and horrible, it sent his Thai wife and the rest of the cooks running for cover. We could do nothing more than stare back in stunned silence as he disappeared again back into his jungle lair.
What manner of beast could possibly yell at the mammatjes !?
With that thought, we watched in disbelief as Emmy gathered her courage and strutted off after Herr Flick. As the restaurant staff cowered behind the bar, Emmy walked right up to the towering German, cocked her head back, and looked straight up into his cold blue eyes hovering impassively high above. She announced matter-of-factly:
"I am sorry for making noise. However, I think your reaction was impolite and unnecessary."
For an instant, the massive German and the defiant little lady glowered at one another. We all thought she was done for. But then, something remarkable happened:
As he looked at brave little Emmy, his expression began to soften. Perhaps it was the sight of a concerned little mammatje teaching him his manners, or maybe just the distant memory of a long lost anger-management coach, but slowly -barely even perceptible- tiny wrinkles formed on his crooked beak, his scar tittered ever so slightly, and (I think) a thin film of moisture formed around the corners of his stony eyes. Like Thailand's hidden grin, Emily had found the closest thing Herr Flick had to a smile.
"I'm sorry," said Herr Flick.
Satisfied, Emmy calmly walked back, the mammatjes hopped on the back of our motorbikes, and we roared off into the karsty jungle paradise.
Millions of years ago, South East Asia was covered in an enormous coral reef much larger than today's Great Barrier Reef. The coral eventually deposited on the bottom of the ocean and became compressed into limestone. Over time, plate tectonics pushed this limestone above the ocean floor exposing them to the elements. Limestone formations eroded by wind and rain are referred to as "karst". South East Asia is famous for karst scenery, and the formations in Khao Sok are particularly impressive for their soaring heights (up to 900 meters), and the remarkable way in which the dense jungle clings to their sheer cliffs.
The next day, our time together rapidly running out, we sadly packed our things, waved goodbye to Herr Flick and his jungle cronies, then boarded a train back to Bangkok. By nightfall, Katlijn and I were surprised to find ourselves, stinky-footed and white-robed, back in the strangely familiar surroundings of Geert's queer-vogue apartment.
Bangkok's futuristic sky-train.
In most wealthy Western countries, motorbikes are a less popular form of transportation often associated with hobbyists and dare-devils. However, in most of the world, their lower costs and better fuel efficiency make them a principle means of transportation. In the practical hands of an Asian, they are made to serve multiple purposes including family wagons, long-haul cargo, and the preferred solution to a mid life crisis.
Before the mammatjes could leave, however, we had one last essential item to check off on our tour of Thailand: a Thai massage. Only hours before they departed for the blissfully cool rain of Belgium, the four of us were lying face down on the floor at the mercy of four powerful little girls.
I don't remember the last time I was so scared. Thailand's doll-like masseuses combine an intimate knowledge of human anatomy with a super-human strength, and as they confidently twisted my body into carefully positioned knots, it occurred to me that these petite smiling girls could probably kill me if they wanted. Their thin muscular limbs pulled my arms nearly out of their sockets, while they pushed their bony little feet into my ribs for leverage. After softening me up in this manner, they stood on my back and proceeded to walk up and down my spine. However, the most amazing thing about it all is that if you just close your eyes, avoid watching what is actually being done to your body, and try not to think too hard about the potential for long-term correctional physiotherapy, it actually feels great.
Rejuvinated for their long flight back to Europe, it was finally time for Chris and Emmy to go home. There were hugs and tears all around as we helped them into the taxi. Hardly able to believe it, we watched as the two little mammatjes rode off into the Bangkok night without us.
Katlijn and I walked back to the apartment in silence, feeling sudenly alone without their company. However, to this day, whenever we think back over the two giggling mammatjes and their exploits, it suddenly becomes impossible to stifle our smiles.
Chris learns her lesson and finally invests in quality sun protection.
Far away from the tourist hordes of Raileigh and Pukhet, Thailand was good to us. Under world class medical facilities and Emmy's careful nursing, Chris' feet were making a full recovery. With the help of the friendly locals, the giggling mammatjes, and a rigorous diet of Panaeng curries, my regional cynicism was on the wane. Even Emmy's flesh eating disease seemed to have lost its appetite for devouring her legs. With some of the world's most gorgeous tropical scenery, luxury hotel rooms, and excellent local food all at ridiculously low cost, suddenly, Thailand was starting to make sense to me. We felt confident enough to explore further, fully energized and finding Thai smiles everywhere.
Emmy's images of the Phang Nga city market discovered by the mammatjes.
Thai rottis make an excellent crepe-like snack any time of day.
Khao Sok National park is the largest area of virgin forest in South Thailand and is a remnant of a rainforest older and more diverse than the amazon. It is home to the world's largest (and possibly stinkiest) flower, countless gibbons, and our German host, whom Emmy referred to as "Herr Flick". Herr Flick was a burly old man with an astonishingly crooked nose, a massive scar marring the entire right side of his face, and two pale blue eyes which, when they looked at you, seem to whisper in a cold expressionless Shwarzenegger tone, "I am a maniaaac." We couldn't put a finger on what it was about him that emanated unease, but he gave us the creeps immediately and despite the presence of crawling spiders, poisonous snakes, and creeping insects everywhere around us, it was Herr Flick we feared most at night.
Our cozy four person jungle bungalow where we lived under the tyranny of Herr Flick.
Though his significant presence was never far away, his hotel in the middle of the jungle, somehow a fitting lair for Herr Flick, was the cleanest and most efficiently run outfit we ever patronized in Thailand. The food was excellent and the service prompt. It was clear that the waiters, his Thai wife and the rest of the hotel staff lived in constant terror of Flick's steel gaze and unpredictable temperament. Unfortunately, like an old boxer-has-been, crooked-nosed Herr Flick liked to spend his time in the restaurant chatting with his customers over dinner.
"Oh shit !" I heard one of his guests mutter under his breath, "here he comes !" Herr Flick marched over, sat down uninvited and started telling unfunny German jokes, punctuated by a high-pitched witch-like cackle that only added to his aura of insanity. While the customers smiled nervously at each other, it was clear to everyone that this man had been living in the jungle a bit too long.
Finally, it was our turn. We felt an icy cold come over us as the sweltering wet heat of the jungle instantly dropped forty degrees. Without looking, we knew that Herr Flick's pale eyes were bearing down on us.
"Would you like to book a tour with me ?" he asked slowly, in an uncannily accurate Terminator impersonation.
A nervous hush fell over the restaurant. Everyone knew Herr Flick's tours were over-priced, it said so in the Lonely Planet. The four of us looked at each other, not daring to speak. Finally, Emmy replied matter-of-factly:
"No thanks, we'll just head off on our own, tomorrow."
There was a long unbearable silence. The restaurant workers looked on in apprehension. I gulped audibly. Those two vacant eyes kept staring at us a few moments longer then, without a word, the burly German simply turned his back and walked away. Emmy, clearly the bravest among us, had just pissed off Herr Flick and, in doing so, I believe she earned the respect of the entire hotel staff.
One of the staff introducing us to a jungle reside
Our comfortable bus ride to Phang Nga went smoothly. Say what you may about Thailand's tourist industry, they certainly have facilities. As promised , the city itself was indeed ugly. However, we managed to find an excellent hotel, the nearby national parks were jaw dropping gorgeous, and we didn't see a single Aussie.
"James Bond Island" in nearby Phang Nga National Park. Perhaps better known as Saramanga's secret layer destroyed by Bond in "The Man with the Golden Gun".
A forest of mangroves, remarkable for their ability to thrive in saline waters.
Hidden green lagoon.
Limestone water cave.
Scenes from a Muslim fishing village we stayed at in the middle of the Phang Nga's dramatic ocean karst scenery.
Normally, sunburns slowly fade away, but Chris' was adamant. It just grew purpler everyday and, recently, had sprouted small blisters and boils. After much effort, Emmy, Katlijn and I convinced her to get it looked at by the doctor and the two little mammatjes set off alone into the big city.
"Stop worrying about us !" Emmy chastised Katlijn, "we're both adults, you know. We can take care of ourselves !"
Katlijn looked at me with parental concern and I tried to assure her that the two mammatjes were right. "What could possibly go wrong ?"
I believe Asians are genetically deficient in their capabilities at giving clear directions, and the two mammatjes were lost within two blocks of our hotel. A few locals tried to help by offering them a ride on their scooter, but while Thai people are accustomed to cramming a family of five onto a single motorcycle, Chris and Emmy thought it was a bad idea. The mammatjes definitely didn't want to make a fuss, but the family insisted on walking them to a nearby monastery. At the sight of two white ladies in need, a small group of gallant orange robed monks came to help.
Slowly turning redder with embarrassment, the two little mammatjes stood in the middle of a growing crowd of concerned monks, families, and children all wondering what to do. Clearly, there was a problem and they wanted to help, but what exactly was the problem ?
Emmy pointed down to Chris' feet and frantically tried to explain in words and body language, "We want to go to the hospital so the doctor can check her feet." Then she continued in the slow high-volume pseudo-English of a Western tourist in Asia, "VERY...BAD...SUNBURN !"
At last, a monk seemed to have picked up a few words and consulted with the other onlookers. After some discussion, the crowd suddenly erupted into chuckles and a balding old monk assured her, "No problem. No problem". He miraculously produced a stylish and sophisticated cell phone from somewhere deep inside his draping orange robes. This was clearly a 21st century Buddhist.
The spectators visibly relaxed. A few kept chuckling and staring. Everyone seemed to be stifling smiles and laughter. Thrust uncomfortably into the center of attention wondering what would happen next, the mammatjes just stood and smiled back. Within minutes, the whine of a siren could be heard in the distance. The mammatjes exchanged glances, was this intended for us ? It kept growing louder and louder, until it became a deafening wale sending any nearby monks or children not currently staring at the mammatjes running out to see what the two little women were up to.
"Godverdomme," muttered Emmy under her breath and with that, an Ambulance burst into the scene knocking over a tree as the local Ao Nang emergency team heroically leapt into the monastery. With blaring sirens and red lights flickering against the orange robes and golden stupas, two paramedics jumped to the rescue, threw together a stretcher, and rushed to the two stunned mammatjes. Unable to contain themselves any longer, the monks burst into a knee slapping, belly aching, gut-laughter.
Despite Chris' protests, the paramedics forced her into the stretcher and asked her if everything was all right.
"I've got a sun burn on my feet," Chris tried to explain.
"BAD...SUN...BURN...ON...FEET," Emmy translated.
The monks roared with delight.
With gallant swiftness, not sure exactly who or what the emergency was about, the two blushing mammatjes were swept inside and the driver gunned the accelerator. The ambulance lurched and bellowed to disentagle itself from the fallen tree as children, villagers, and holy men hooted and hollered with approval. Finally, the ambulance set off down the street in a frenzy of sirens, lights, and laughing monks. The whole monastery was there to see them off with a wave.
Minutes later, they were in a hospital patiently trying to explain to the nurses and doctors that Chis' feet were sun burned. From what I understand, the staff there was extremely helpful and professional in caring for Katlijn's mom, but I'm guessing they snickered privately to each other when they weren't around. The monks, it turned out, were fully aware that ambulance rides in Thailand are free of charge.
They say that in Thai culture, nothing is worth doing if it doesn't contain an element of fun, be it extorting tourists, kickboxing, or helping two little sun-burned ladies. Though well hidden beneath the tourist industry's thick veneer, I give the mammatjes full credit for finally finding Thailand's smile.
Full moon parties rank right up there with Phuket's hookers, government coups, and excessive anti-drug crackdowns as a Thailand trademark. In fact, the current Thai parliamentary installment is actually trying to provide certified legal protection over full moon parties in what they believe is a patentable concept: tens of thousands of wasted backpackers smoking in, drinking down, and shooting up copious quantities and varieties of illegal substances sold to them by crooked cops and jaded boatmen. The "full moon party" (TM) has become so wildly popular that there are now new moon, quarter moon, and half moon variations on the theme. Furthermore, these parties are no longer limited to their original home on Ko Pha Ngan, but are now being copied on all of Thai's karsty paradises: from the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman sea. We have talked to a number of [mostly Aussie] backpackers who attend this sort of event and while their foggy recollections between intermittent blackouts probably won't hold up in the court of law, the verdict is in that this is definitely an event not to be missed.
On the night of the Rayleigh beach full moon party, Katlijn and I left the mammatjes giggling in their luxury room, and joined a couple of curious party-goers on our side of paradise to go visit the others living in a creepy jungle bungalow sprawl. As our boatman rounded the rocky outcrop serving as a natural boundary segregating the decent folk from the crusty layabouts, we fully expected to see the dubious beach property crowded with the bronzed bodies of intoxicated Aussie mountain climbing beach bums indulging in a raucous night of illegal debauchery. Instead, what we saw can only be described as South East Asia's biggest dud: in place of the pounding psychedelic trance of a massive moonlit rave, a single bamboo hut was selling discount Foster's beer to a few drunken backpackers sitting cross-legged on the beach lighting homemade firecrackers. These guys could clearly take a few lessons from the mammatjes who were wisely drinking cocktails in the comforts of our side of paradise.
After hanging out at the bar drinking VB from a stubby holder and having a sadly civilized conversation with a Calgarian oil rig worker and a British yacht manager, we officially declared Raileigh's full-moon party a bust and tried to find our way back to go party with the mammatjes. We asked the nearest cooly the cost for a ride home, then watched as his lips slowly morphed into an all-too-familiar smug grin. In that instant, everything was suddenly made clear to us: Rayleigh's so-called full moon party was organized by the boatmen mafia.
The extortionate rate he quoted briefly brought out the little mad people living deep inside both of us. We adamantly refused. We stormed up and down the beach looking for a better deal. We even sat down beside them and started ranting:
"Thailand stinks ! I had no idea they had you in mind when they called your country the 'land of smiles' ! We got better treatment in India ! And by the way, your king's a phony and we are so on to your 'chicken island' scam !"
Unfortunately, not even slandering their beloved king phased these boatmen. They were professionals. Defeated at last, we payed up and let them take us on a five minute boat ride back to the other side. We found out later that our Calgarian and British friends, in a mediocre discount beer-inspired act of martyrdom, actually swam back around the rocky outcrop in the dark rather then succumb to the mafia's demands. Their brave act of shear stupidity in the face of blatant corruption earned them both a drink from us the next evening.
Bird's eye view of Rayleigh from a nearby hiking area.
While Raileigh and its surroundings definitely constitute one of the world's great scenic beach paradises, complete with gorgeous snorkeling opportunities, jungle hikes, and dirt cheap Thai food three times daily, its full-moon dud and our various experiences with the boatmen weren't doing much to slow the growth of my Thai cynicism. It was time to move on.
We visited nearby Ko Phi Phi island by speedboat as part of an incredible tropical snorkeling tour.
Phuket (pronounced "pooh-kett") may seem to you like an odd destination for a jaded traveler weary of Thailand's shady tourist industry. But Emmy and I firmly believed that, like a bad sun burn and forcing down a spicy hot bowl of green chili curry, a trip to South Thailand is not complete without enduring the obligatory visit to Phuket.
Las Vegas, jet skis, and loud obnoxious Aussies: three things that, by themselves, would give the average holiday traveler second thoughts about leaving the comforts of home. But put them together, and you've got Phuket. It is like hell in Asia, but full of Western tourists. While Katlijn endured one of the most feared of awkward situations (walking through an Asian red light district with your mother), I decided this was as good a time as any to attend a Thai boxing event.
Thai boxing, or Muay Thai, is the national sport of Thailand. I am using the word "sport" liberally here, as most sports I know have actual rules. In Western boxing, you are allowed only two points of contact (your two fists). Most sport-oriented martial art techniques emphasize four points of contact (your two fists and your two feet). However, Muay Thai is referred to as the "science of the eight limbs" as all possibilities including the hands, shins, elbows, and knees are allowed. In fact, punches and kicks are mostly used just to soften the opponent: the match is decided by landing knee thrusts and well-placed elbows. It is, perhaps, the most violent spectacle I had ever seen.
Needless to say, there were a lot of loud Aussies present at the Phuket arena that night. Presumably the organizers had predicted this and invited an Aussie boxer to participate. He was naturally pitted against a British boxer to help rile up the crowd (I guess they couldn't find a Kiwi).
"Aussie ! Aussie ! Aussie !" screamed the Thai commentator into the megaphone.
In lumbered the crowd favourite: A massive towering Aussie beast with his fists high in the air and a psychotic expressionless mug. He looked like a killer on the loose; a convict that should be doing jail time but was instead reducing his sentence with some sort of sadistic community service in a twisted Phuket social initiative.
"Oi ! Oi ! Oi !" screamed back a crowd of beer swelling Aussies, their enthusiastic blood lust proudly on display.
In crept his opponent: possibly the world's nerdiest-looking kick boxer. I think the mammatjes could have taken him. He looked like Harry Potter in a pair of tatty boxers. To the raucous chants of "Aussie ! Aussie ! Aussie ! Oi ! Oi ! Oi! ", the scrawny pugilist was positively green with fear.
The pre-match Muay Thai traditional dance lasted longer than the fight itself. For one minute, parents covered their children's eyes as Harry Potter endured a senseless beating at the hands of a ruthless Aussie brute. By the end of the first round, the previously unruly crowd was watching in a stunned silence, not quite knowing how to react. Perhaps sensing the odd stillness in the arena, the referees mercifully ended the fight and poor old Harry was carried off to fight another day.
Needless to say, this experience did not do much to counter my ever growing cynicism of all things Thai. I announced to the others that I had endured enough. We had "done" Phuket, and thankfully, will never again feel any need to return. Katlijn couldn't agree more and we set off to the city of "Phang Nga", a place that was described in our tour books as "unattractive" and even a careful reading of their review revealed no redeeming qualities. Surely, we could escape the Aussies here.
After our Bridge on the River Kwai experience, it was clear to me that perhaps the only way to halt my rapidly growing cynicism of Thailand was to change scenes entirely. The next day, we booked a flight to a place called "Rayleigh", and left for Thailand's much vaunted beaches.
Rayleigh beach was our home for the next five days. It consists of gorgeous stretches of white sand beaches and turquoise waters nestled between looming limestone cliffs.
Within hours of our plane touching down, we were swindled by a taxi driver, hoodwinked by a travel agent, and ripped off by a smug boatman who brought us to within swimming distance of Rayleigh beach. By late afternoon, Katlijn and I were still wading through slippery rock-strewn waters while heaving the mammatjes' monstrous suit-cases to our piece of paradise. A long search for budget accommodation resulted in the sad realization that Thailand's backpackers were being priced out of the market. While the sublime limestone cliffs and thick jungles relented to the growing consumerism of expensive holiday resorts, budget travellers are segregated into a "backpacker ghetto" of dilapidated huts on a dubious strip of beach property. Access to this ghetto is controlled by a mafia of smug boatmen.
In addition to hosting the wasted backpacker crowd, the ghetto is also the meeting place for hundreds of the world's mountain climbers on pilgrimage to Rayleigh's limestone climbing mecca.
Limestone not only makes for great karst scenery and excellent climbing, it is ideal material for caving.
To the astonished gaze of apathetic Thais and lethargic beach bums, Katlijn's tourist-induced alter-ego (dubbed "The Mad Woman" by Emmy) was still furiously sprinting up and down the beach, evading bronzed bikini-clad crowds, and dragging those massive suitcases through the sand as the sun set over Rayleigh. Miraculously, she discovered one last neighborhood of creepy budget bungalows outside the ghetto, hidden just behind one of Rayleigh's swankiest resorts. After a brief discussion, we contrived the following arrangement: we took the creepy bungalows, the mammatjes took the swanky resort, and we just hung out with them all the time.
Emmy, Katlijn and her mom going native.
By nightfall, we heard what would soon become the familiar sound of the mammatjes giggling in the distance like Indian hotelmen. When we came to investigate, we found what would soon become the familiar sight of two little mammatjes made ridiculously tiny by their own over-sized beds, scantily-dressed and lying in a grotesque display of gluttony, indulging shamelessly in the comfort of the best value hotel room I have ever seen in my life. Their bulging suitcases, it turns out, were largely full of booze.
View from Chris and Emmy's hotel.
The next morning, we sat together with two slightly-hungover mammatjes peering out at our surroundings from their gorgeous patio lookout. While Thailand's tourist hordes, the inevitable scams, and the jaded boatmen was enough to bring out the inner mad-woman in anyone, Raileigh's blanched turquoise cliffs reflecting off the clear turquoise waters, and the white sands contrasting with the deep jungle greens were simply stunning. Thailand, to my surprise, was rather slow to grow on us. Nevertheless, by about the same time we had recovered from our first really bad sunburn, our cynicism had also, somehow, faded away.
But first, the sunburn
I thought it would be fun to rent a couple of kayaks and paddle out to a good snorkel spot at a place called Chicken Island. "You rent kayaks from me. Good price. You get to Chicken Island in thirty minutes", a slippery boatman assured me. With that, we set out into the open sea in search of another piece of paradise.
The mammatjes about to leave Rayleigh for the open seas.
About two hours later, Katlijn and I nearly collapsed in exhaustion on some remote island off the Andaman coast, our arms throbbing in protest. Wondering about their fate, we looked back into the distant waters: the poor mammatjes were but a dot on the horizon. Slowly, the dot grew larger until a kayak, then two paddles, and finally two determined little women could barely be discerned paddling furiously in the distance across the open sea. Muttering incoherently about how they lost sight of land and wanted to go back to Belgium, the mammatjes finally arrived.
Fortunately for us, there were a couple of food stalls on the island (there are food stalls everywhere in Thailand), and a few members of the boat mafia smiling knowingly at our misfortune.
"Is this chicken island ?" I asked the boatman.
"This no chicken island ! Chicken Island thirty minutes further," he replied smugly, not even making an effort to control the onset of his own gut-laughter.
The boats were conveniently full of other tourists, and while it may still have been possible to pay the mafia an extortionate rate for a ride back to the backpacker ghetto, we decided not to bother inquiring. The mammatjes bravely gathered their strength and, full of the wisdom that can only be garnered after a life-time of experience, aimed their small craft at the open sea towards their air-conditioned accommodation waiting for them back in Rayleigh, full of booze. In contrast, Katlijn and I briefly rested our sore limbs and, full of the naive reckless abandon of youth, set out to find the mythical Chicken Island.
After another hour paddling about until our arms had turned into two heavy jelly-like weights, a small lump of land emerged in the distance. After squinting my eyes in the sun and tilting my head to one side, I decided it looked suitably enough like a chicken and declared our quest a complete success. We dawned our snorkel gear and jumped into the water to enjoy ten glorious minutes with the tropical fish before we had to turn around for the long haul back to Rayleigh.
While it took us only a few more hours to kayak back to our bungalows, our arms wouldn't forgive us for days. That evening, we made our ritual visit to the mammatjes only to find two scantily dressed, glutinous, diminutive lobsters nursing their sore limbs and sun-burned bodies with a bottle of pastis, muttering something about going back to Belgium.
"Ik wil naar thuis !"
As Katlijn and I walked back to our bungalows in the dark, we began to worry about both the mental and physical health of the battered mammatjes. Chris had committed the classic blunder of forgetting to put sun-screen on her feet which, exposed in the kayak beneath Thailand's powerful sun, had turned a remarkably unnatural shade of purple. Emmy's legs were afflicted with some, as yet unidentified, form of severe sun rash which looked alarmingly like pictures I once saw of a tropical flesh eating disease. The two of them could be heard through the night giggling maniacally as they drank away the entire contents of their super-sized suitcases: Chris had clearly lost her marbles and Emmy's normally sharp wit had been reduced to juvenile toilet humour.
After a long day, Katlijn and I lay down in the wet heat of our creepy bungalow under the heavy weight of guilt and concern, finally understanding what it must have been like for our mammatjes when we were kids.
Katlijn's mom, Chris, and Chris' childhood friend, Emmy, flew all the way from Belgium to join us on our three week exploration of South Thailand. As they are both Dutch-speaking, mothers, and diminutive in stature, we affectionately referred to them as "the mammatjes" (meaning "little mommies"). For our part, we enjoyed their company immensely. For their part, they let us take the lead and temporarily turned the tables on their former roles as parents.
Chris and Emmy: little people on a big adventure.
Our first days together generally consisted of gorging ourselves on Geert's complimentary buffet breakfasts followed by languishing about in Bangkok's smoggy heat. During this time, we introduced the mammatjes to some of the city's redeeming qualities: Thai food, 200 Baht foot massages, and Starbucks coffee. However, it soon became apparent that getting out of Bangkok as soon as possible was in everyone's best interest.
Statue and the grand palace gold glistening in the heat of the day.
Scenes of the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.
Our first attempt was to rent an air-conditioned car and visit several nearby attractions including the Bridge on the River Kwai: a site made famous by David Lean's memorable war epic. We caught a ride on the historic "death railroad" while Emmy entertained the local passengers who much appreciated her zany style of humour.
The "death railway", built by laborers and POWs during World War II, provided a vital supply line linking Thailand to Burma where the Japanese waged war against the British Empire. It is estimated that 16,000 allied prisoners and as many as 100,000 labourers died of malnutrition and disease during its construction.
While the bridge does exist, and Alec Guiness unforgettable in his portrayal of the quintessential British officer, the film is otherwise fictional. The real bridge was bombed by the allies along with hundreds of prisoners placed on the bridge as a deterrent by the Japanese. The current structure is a re-construction.
Nowadays, the infamous bridge is a tourist circus and the nearby museum comically inappropriate. Housed in a dingy concrete building is a bizarre assortment of random junk accompanied by uninformative explanations gushing over Japan's engineering genius and their alliance with Thailand during World War II. The best part is the hilarious butchered English which reads like a dramatic war novel written in baby-speak. A ridiculously grizzly exhibit featuring dead body parts floating down the water has the caption "after allied bombing of the bridge, bodies lay about in the river all higgeldy-piggeldy". And after the allies dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, "the city was obliterated in a jiffy". You just can't come up with comedy like that on purpose.In stark contrast to the museum's many grotesque wax exhibits, Katlijn and I found ourselves trying desperately to stifle an uncontrollable gut-laughter and though we left the Bridge on the River Kwai in tears, I am guessing they weren't quite the kind intended by the museum curators.
Andrew and a monk who cares for injured and orphaned tigers at a temple outside Bangkok.
Within hours of our harrowing rickshaw ride skidding through the dark streets to Madras airport in the hands of an intoxicated betel nut addict, Katlijn and I were surprised to find ourselves, still living, still breathing, in the immaculate shine of a bright ultra-modern living room, wearing complimentary white bath robes, sweating from the warmth of a hot shower, and roaring with laughter at the ludicrous sub-titles of a pirated Sex And the City DVD. Yes, we were in the trendy gay-chic of Geert's Bangkok apartment. Not bad for a couple of crusty backpackers, just out of India, reeking of Teva feet.
Katlijn and Andrew gazing over the city from Geert's rooftop pool.
In the grand palace, the mid-day sun glistens off of Wat Phra Kaeo's gorgeous curved rooftop. These elaborate layered roofs are typical of South-East Asia Buddhist temple architecture.
It is said that Thailand has three seasons: hot, hotter, and f***ing hot. We arrived at the onset of the latter. We made a few half-hearted attempts to explore the city, but after an hour or two bumbling lethargically about the crumbling sidewalks in a profuse sweat, we discovered that, in the end, the only respite from the hot polluted stench of Bangkok is a swanky air-conditioned apartment complex. And this is normally where Geert would find us after he came home from a long hard day of earning huge sums of money: still in the confines of his living room, still wearing fluffy white bath robes, still watching pirated chick flicks. Still stinky-footed.
Bangkok's infamous tuk-tuks.
Wat Pho's stupas at dusk
We didn't see much of Bangkok that first week. On our best days, Katlijn and I would gather our resolve, tear our eyes from the high-definition thin-screen television set, then, in a burst of inspiration, walk no further than the air-conditioned sanctuary of the nearby food court... but oh, what a food court ! A food court that would be the envy of any American-style uber-mall. A food court so massive it supported the entire battery of Eastern cuisine, Western fast food, and multiple competing coffee franchises. A food court that not only had a system of computerized cardboard passes to automate your purchase, but advertised nearby Starbucks and film attractions on slick three dimensional televisions. Between slurping Kimchi Ramen clasped with metal chopsticks and devouring California rolls dipped in a thick wasabi-soy sauce concentration, we stared dumbfounded at the shiny black hipness of Bangkok's twenty-first century excess. It's size and scope Singaporean. Bikaner's dream realized.
Somewhat sheepishly, I thought how, not so long ago, Katlijn and I would escape the heat of Puducherry's exposed boardwalk by running into the shade of a concrete hole in the wall. They didn't have much on the menu. In fact, I don't recall if they even had a menu. You just ate whatever lentils they happened to have that day, dumped unattractively on a metal plate from a large bucket at such a height that dense yellow curry splattered against the grimy walls and spilled onto the table top. We dipped our chapattis into the copious muck, scooped rice into our mouths with our thumb and forefinger, and eyed the cold metal cup of complimentary drinking water with suspicion. We were happy. While basking in front of the cool breeze of a high-power rusty fan, her hair blowing in the wind, Katlijn shouted over the racket about the diversity of India's fantastic gastronomy:
"THEY KNOW OF SO MANY WAYS TO PICKLE MANGOS AND EVERY CHAPPATTI IS A BIT DIFFERENT !"
"WHAT WAS THAT !?" I shouted back.
"LOT'S OF DIFFERENT PICKLED MANGOS !"
"TELL ME ABOUT IT!" I hollered, beaming with contentment, holding down the napkins with my sticky fingers. "I MEAN, COULD THERE BE ANOTHER TYPE OF LENTIL CURRY !?"
In contrast, while Bangkok's massive food courts could very roughly replicate the world's gastronomy, their air-conditioned sterility was entirely devoid of the food's underlying culture and feel rendering the high-tech convenience uninspiring. Similarly, the neighbouring grocery store was cathedral-like in its magnificence, but shopping in it was a thoroughly exhausting un-religious experience. Somewhere between India and Thailand, price tags had taken the place of a long heated debate over a product's worth. The thick wet smell of fresh fruit was staunched by air-tight plastic wrap. Muzak replaced the crackle of a Bombay talkie. Modernity had created distance between people and the food they eat.
Touching up Buddhist murals in the Grand Palace.
Nevertheless, like all place in the world, Bangkok has its charms: one of the world's most jaw-dropping palace and temple complexes, a chinatown with all the grungy polluted dirtiness of the real thing, and, of course, one of Southeast Asia's most diverse and bizarre nightlife scenes. On Geert's birthday, we got dressed up in our spiffiest pair of North Face zip-off pants for a night out at one of Bangkok's swanky cocktail bars. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let us in because we were wearing Teva sandals (I no longer own a pair of shoes), so the whole party had to be moved to a more backpacker-friendly gay district where we also met up with Maya, a lesbian Dutch yogic we knew from our Bengaluru meditation experience. Together, I am embarrassed to report, we whiled away the late night hours in the company of drag queens playing "spot the lady-boy" and attending an appalling ping pong show which, regardless of your sexual preference, is an event of unparalleled poor taste.
Beautiful men ... ???
Giant reclining Buddhas, futuristic sky-trains, orange-robed monks, Asians in mini-skirts, the dirty streets of old Bangkok and the polluted crush of new Bangkok, the King of Thailand and countless failed coups. Golden Siam's frenetic cocktail swirling about us, only one thing was certain: we weren't in India anymore.
Leaving the cushy confines of our backwater luxury barge, Katlijn and I took a short train ride to the capital of Kerala, Thiruvanthapunam: yet another Indian capital that has contracted the post-colonial "renaming" plague sweeping across this part of the world rendering all village, township, and city name in its wake sadly unpronounceable and unrecognizable to the rest of the world's population. The British, quite sensibly, shortened its original name to Trivandrum, but regardless of what you call it, the city itself is wholly unremarkable and we didn't linger long before we caught a plane to Chennai (that would be former Madras) and then a bus to Puducherry (that would be former Pondicherry).
Scenes of typical small town India en route to Puducherry.
After Mumbai and Old Goa, Puducherry is the last in our trilogy of colonial era cities. French East India's lesser known colony was contemporary with the better known British India and even lasted several decades after the English finally quit India. In fact, the French colony initially held the upper hand against the British and probably would have ruled the country had the French East Indian Trading company not decided that their representatives were playing too much politics and doing too little trading. Disputes with the British ended peacefully and the existing management was sacked. As a result, French East Indian profits increased in the short run, but France was effectively removed as an influence on the sub-continent condemning the Indians to a future of milky tea and dubious sporting events instead of fine wines and exotic cheeses.
Puducherry is a living testament to what India would be like had its history taken a more favorable course. In place of India's revolting sweet breads, fresh baguettes would have been eaten at breakfast. Instead of "3-in-1" South India powdered coffee mixes, these baguettes would be served with actual filtered coffee. Indians would speak an exotic kind of Abu-accented Francais, and police officers would patrol the streets in red kepis. Broad stretches of beach would be covered with pretty boardwalks instead of cow dung. Yes, the French colonists had their standards, and by the looks of Puducherry, it was head and shoulders above that of the average English Officer.
Katlijn and her baguette breakfast in bed. Sure beats dosas !
At dawn and dusk, Puducherry's denizens turn out by the thousand at the boardwalk for their daily yoga workout, meditation sitting, cricket matches, jogging, rope skipping, and more.
But the French colonialists were (obviously) not without their eccentricities, and a French woman known as "The Mother" ("La Maman" in Puducherry) is pasted across the walls of the local cafes, bakeries, and yoga retreats. She was a world famous self-proclaimed guru and her synthesis of yoga and modern science is now France's best-known colonial legacy. She is also the architect of nearby Utopia, Auroville, which is either "a place where all human beings of goodwill live freely as citizens of the world" in The Mother's own words, or simply an "uber-hippy, free love, hangout"- depending on who you talk to.
In the spirit of The Mother and deference to our Munar tea plantation trekking guides, Katlijn and I decided to finally brave an Indian Ayurvedic massage before leaving the country. I must admit that I approached this massage with some degree of apprehension. The last time I entrusted my body to an Eastern-oriented Masseuse was in Istanbul where my hide was violently scraped off by a fat Turk who subsequently sat on my back and pounded me senseless against a hard marble slab.
A typical Ayurvedic massage is a thoroughly humiliating experience that involves a lot of waiting around half naked in a ridiculous white thong and having several liters of oil poured all over your body as two Ayurvedic doctors rub it roughly into your skin until it becomes a flabby unctuous muck. The motions of the doctors is done in exact synchronicity while bantering about the latest cricket match. Slipping about the oily table top under their mechanical drubbing, I began to imagine myself as a car going through an automatic car wash or the dishes being scrubbed clean. Quite suddenly, the painful kneading stopped causing me to slowly skid across the slippery table top until one of them caught me in time before I slid clear of the edge and into the thick puddle of ooze accumulating on the floor below. They supported me on their shoulders as I skated my oily feet across the floor into what can only be described as a human oven. I sat upright on a hot chair while they closed two wooden panels around me so that only my greasy little head poked out the top. Then they baked me liked a buttered chicken.
I spent what felt like an eternity alone in my oven prison until I could see steam rising in the cracks around my ears. Despite applying my recently acquired meditation techniques to calm myself, it wasn't long before I started wondering if my Ayurvedic doctors were in fact cannibals and that I was being cooked in a large deep fat fryer.
"Excuse me ?" I called out. No answer.
I strained my neck and craned my head out from the hole in my oven. "Excuse me !? You can let me out now. I think I'm done," I suggested to the empty room next door.
Finally, just as my increasingly wild Ayurvedic cannibal doctor fantasies were bringing me to the verge of panic, the two masseuses re-emerged, opened the door, and slid me across the room into a cold shower. A sense of relief poured over me as I washed the sweat and oil from my body.
Upon our release from the Ayurvedic hospital, we made our way back into town and caught our last India bus ride to Madras. We were almost at the airport now. Our last uncomfortable commute nearly over. Soon we would be flying away from this noisy country to the backpacker safe haven of Thailand. A reward, we thought, for two and a half long months of intermittent stomach illnesses and rabid dogs.
As though the entire country's collective brain had contrived one final act of magical realism to send us off in true India style, our last rickshaw driver was completely stoned. We both agreed that he seemed a bit odd at first as we haggled over a fair price, but don't all Indian rickshaw drivers ? We weren't certain, however, until he started darting wildly between long haul cargo trucks and motorcycles and potholes, one hand on the wheel, neither eye on the road. Our lives flashing before our eyes, I saw his ruddy betel nut smile flashing in the dark. With our rickshaw skidding through the night towards the Madras airport on two wheels, I heard him yelling madly over the howling winds "Hello ! Where you come from ? Canada !? Good country ! My paan-wallah lives in Winnipeg. Lot's of Indians there !"
Sometime in the middle of the night, tired and exhausted once again from just another day in India, we were somehow surprised to find ourselves sitting on a comfortable Thai Air jet readying for takeoff. Like the thousands of Indian backpackers before me en route to Bangkok after enduring months of the sub-continent, I breathed a loud sigh of relief when I felt the plane lurch upwards and the wheels lift off the ground. Katlijn was finally going to get those Thai beaches she dreamed of during long nights of altitude induced sleeplessness on the freezing peaks of the Himalaya.
I could hear the dull ring of the steward's bell above the distant hum of the engines. The sterile atmosphere of the commercial airliner was the antithesis of India's explosive life. To my surprise, I felt a small pang of sadness welling up inside me as my mind distanced itself from the experience of travelling the sub-continent.
I turned my head towards the pristine window of the cabin and stared into the placid clouds outside, closed my eyes, and drifted into sleep with Varanasi's hand squishers and the rotting smile of its betel nut addicted rickshaw-wallahs, the many appendages of Saranath's queue beasts and their underwater evolutionary cousins in Hampi, Kajuraho's erotic carvings and the splendor of the Taj Mahal, Keoladio's dastardly touts and the foggy binoculars they peddle, elephants in the pink city, white rats in the Thar desert, and the indigo hue of Jodpur's old city, the merciless grind of Alice the camel's awkward gait, Orneel's lustful raspberries, sandy desert chapattis, Bikaner's dubious dancing camel show, transvestites on the express train, and late-night Octopussy in Udaipur, Mumbai's modern skyscrapers and slick coffee shops, Bombay's sprawling slums and dingy holes in the wall, invisible widows, cheeky cabbies, and gossiping hotel men, Portugal's lost paradise and Goan prawn curry, the noble silence of ancient Buddhist retreats and the clogged arteries of Bengaluru's IT future, floating palaces and Keralan fried fish, marathon theatrical Hindu bloodbaths, velvety hills of tea, French Baguettes on the boardwalk, tap dancing monkeys on corrugated rooftops, dog's barking on the ghats, cow's on the beach...
India is the logic of a dream, too elusive to be captured by words.
It was another long and dusty ride in a windowless bus down the mountain from Munar back to the lowland city of Kottayam. From there, we took a local ferry to the tourist town of Alappuzah while surveying the gorgeous green landscape of of Kerala's river-side life and rice plantations.
In 1957, Kerala became the first place in the world to freely elect a communist government (the second time this rare event occured was in Nepal). This is not too surprising considering that India initially sided with the Soviet Union during the cold war. More surprising is the degree of success with which this communist government has managed in the last fifty years. It has been labeled the most socially advanced state in India boasting the highest literacy rate in any developing nation in the world (91 %), an infant mortality rate one fifth the national average, and a life expectancy that is 10 years longer than the rest of the country. Communists can take heart in Kerala as evidence that there may, after all, be some grain of truth in this economic philosophy.
Unfortunately, a lack of any industrial development in the area has forced many of their educated youth to either leave the region, or simply languish in failed potential: Kerala also has the highest suicide and liquor consumption statistics in the country. The recent boom in tourism is seen as a solution to this problem, and nowhere is this more evident than in the small town of Alappuzha which serves as a gateway to Kerala's famous backwaters. Several ferry stops before we arrived at the city, our boat was flooded with a wave of pushy touts, engulfing every white passenger in a sea of countless hotel and river boat tour offers. Katlijn and I were quickly swept away towards what could possibly be the crummiest budget accommodation offer in all of India. Sweating profusely underneath a holy mosquito net listening to the loud repetitive din of a rusty overhead fan wobbling ineffectively above us, Katlijn observed that "this is the worst place in the world we could be right now" before we decided to down a couple of sleeping pills to hasten the arrival of dawn.
Faced with the prospect of another restless night in South India's ever climbing temperatures, we decided to take an overnight trip on a personal luxury house boat- the quintessential Kerala backwater experience.
Shameful decadence. A typical on-board meal presented to us by our chef: salads, curries, rice, and Keralan-style fried fish.
The backwaters are a vast 900 km network of thin waterways meandering labyrinthine along Kerala's coastline. As our house boat made its way through these waters, we floated quietly by gorgeous villages, mosques, churches, and temples nestled along the riverbanks between thick palm tree jungles, coconut groves, and rice paddies. The journey is filled with all the exotic sites of tropical backwaters: fishermen fishing, women smacking their laundry on make-shift ghats, and commuters paddling canoes along liquid highways.
House boats floating along the river.
Canoes take the place of cars in Kerala's backwaters.
Trees reflecting in the early evening light off a narrow waterway
As Katlijn and I relaxed in the comforts of our admittedly excessive floating palace, guzzling coconut milk and gorging on Kerala's delicious fish curries brought to us by our personal on-board chef, we felt happy to be doing our part in solving Kerala's social woes.
Andrew and our trekking guide sharing a chuckle at Top station.
As Kerala's lowland temperatures began to rise, we decided to head to the cooler climate of the surrounding hills. A few rusty old windowless ex-school buses make their way from Kochi and its blood drenched Kathakali stages to the old British tea plantations in Munar. From here, we stumbled upon a small group of eco-tourists who offered us guided treks through the mountain air and manicured tea estates of the surrounding Western Ghats.
Clouds descending on the tea covered hills.
Massive expanses of perfectly proportioned tea plants cover the hilly landscape in a bright green blanket providing a beautifully exotic backdrop as we made our way around the region's mountains and valleys. Indian trekking guides differ from those in the West in that explanations about the area's outstanding flora and fauna are always accompanied by a detailed explanation of their various medicinal purposes transforming your typical walking trail chit-chat into a bizarre blend of wilderness ecology and detailed pharmaceutical instructions:
"Stomach problems ? Chew two ginger roots and a piece of crushed tree bark three times a day. Don't take this with alcohol or during pregnancy."
"Sore throat ? Smoke three teak leaves mixed with a solution of two parts dried tamarind and one part masala. Get plenty of rest and avoid dairy products."
Good for mosquito bites.
Each diagnosis was given while he scrounged through the dirt looking for the various ingredients. Nevertheless, he was very knowledgeable and we enjoyed his company immensely: nothing is more heart warming than a naturalist excited about his work, even if he is a bit of an Ayurvedic quack.
As we had experienced in Nepal, there is something about the Western trekker - Indian guide relationship that is vaguely analogous to a master and slave, British colonist and Indian subject. When storm clouds rolled in and drowned the valley in a hard persistent rain, our guide quickly herded us into a village shelter where we watched him set up our tent in the downpour. His wet sandal-clad feet sloshed about the muddy pathways in search of tables and chairs for our comfort and he was constantly vigilant to ensure we had a piping hot pot of tea nearby steeped to the appropriate amount of bitterness for the duration of storm. At dinner time, he arrived at our doorway in the dark, panting and drenched in rain water, magically producing a delicious meal that would rival even the best Indian restaurants in Kerala. Any requests for help were quickly rebuked. If we attempted to leave the shelter and help him set up, he would promptly chase us back inside.
The village we stayed at is supported by this betel nut palm plantation.
The next morning, we had a long wet walk up to the region's highest tea plantation where we caught a jeep to Munar. On the way back, our guides taught us about the lives of the hill tribe tea workers and their efforts to responsibly bring tourism to some of these communities.
Early morning in the Western Ghats. Cotton trees and betel nut palms.
Images from the picturesque tea factory at the top.
This tea factory still uses British colonial era machines to process the surrounding tea leaves.
While we were happy to get back to Munar and change into dry clothes, our short trek through the tea plantations was one of our favourite trips in India, as much for the fine scenery as for the conversations with our excellent and conscientious guides.
Worn and dilapidated gravestone of a forgotten Dutch trainer in the corner of Kochi's graveyard.
A long overnight train ride away from Arun's tasty idli breakfasts and Bangaluru's appalling traffic conditions lies the amazingly laid-back town of Kochi, deep in the heart of what is known in India as "God's own country", Kerala. In the thirty minutes it took us to circumnavigate the charming, albeit touristy, 16th century trading center, we took in such diverse colonial remnants as giant Chinese fishing nets, white washed Portuguese cottages, British Raj mansions, Muslim mosques, and Jewish synagogues. Drinking outstanding tea and devouring some of South India's spiciest seafood curry creations in the shadow of the town's abundant foliage, the collective relief of India's weary travellers was almost palpable.
While colonialists somehow managed to sew a European country village into the fabric of a tropical Indian coastal landscape and culture, vestiges of Kerala's native traditions were kept alive. Our favourite Indian art form is, without a doubt, Kathakali. Developed at roughly the same time Shakespeare penned his great plays, Kathakali is South India's own unique form of theatre. To the beat of four drummer's complex rhythms and the exotic melancholic voice of a lone male singer, players dance and act out the great Indian Hindu epics in long drawn out performances that last more than twelve hours. In place of words or song, the story is told through a system of dramatic bodily gestures and evocative, even frightening, facial and eye movements. During the climax, performances become extremely intense. The drummers are drenched in their own sweat as their pounding sends the dancers into aggressive motions, contorting their faces into countenances made more ominously expressive through the use of dies which turn the whites of their eyes a deep crimson.
Kathakali performers study 12 years of dancing, theater, and make-up to master their art form. Preparation before a performance lasts several hours. Paint, elaborate costumes, decorated headpieces and meditation are required to transform themselves physically and mentally into the gods and demons they play.
The stories are a tad on the grizzly side. The performance we saw featured the hero literally eating the intestines of the villain in an act that was made more horrific by the simplicity of the props: a very long white cord and a lot of thin red paint. The final scene had the hero's exotic facial paints covered in fake blood dripping from his mouth, which he wiped off and ran through his wife's hair, with the villain on his back writhing about the stage floor in his own intestines kicking about in a pool of thin red liquid. Personally, I think Shakespeare would have loved it.
To tell you the truth, twelve hours of this sort of entertainment would be a bit much for even the most sadistic of Western horror freaks and shorter, feature film length, adaptations have been developed for the area's tourists. Interestingly, these adaptations are considered a major affront to many of Kerala's people. Kathakali is more than theatre, it is considered an act of worship and an important religious ceremony. Kathakali artists participating in curtailed tourist performances consider it offensive to their gods and often do so only out of desperation to support their families. Some performers have found this type of livelihood so despicable they have become depressed and resorted to alcoholism.
A Kathakali demon dancing in full regalia. Tourism is a mixed blessing for Kerala's theater tradition. While the money keeps their intense art form alive, its presentation must be modified to suit a Western audience. These adaptations are considered blasphemy to serious students of this religious musical theatre.
The 15th century ruins of Vijayanagar's Hindu Empire.
Far away from Goa's former paradise, in a quiet boulder strewn wasteland, lie the brooding remains of one of India's greatest forgotten empires. According to ancient Hindu legend, Hampi is the realm of the monkey gods who aided Rama in his fight against the demons. It later became the vast capital of Vijayanagar's wealthy empire, formed in the 14th century as an alliance between lesser Hindu Kingdoms to counter the Muslim threat from the North. For hundreds of years, it was the front in a campaign between Hindus and Muslims trying to out-atrocity each other with increasing effectiveness in the struggle for the soul of south India.
Virupaksha temple towers 50 meters above the Hampi Bazaar
Hampi's ruins nestled in the surrounding landscape of giant granite boulders.
Ruins hidden between banana plants.
While Hindus and Muslims continue to wage conflict in other parts of the subcontinent, Hampi's role as a modern battleground continues: pitting those who want to protect what little is left of a collapsed empire against those seeking to profit from its lingering ruins. As we groggily gazed out the door of our grungy sleeper bus at the theatre before us, it was clear who was winning. Without a choice, we dove into the turbulent sea of touts blocking our exit at the door, their hands moving about in a flurry holding above them small white business cards that seemed to float above the vast ocean like flotsam undulating in choppy waters. Our bodies fully submerged, we suddenly sensed the presence of an underwater beast. A hundred pairs of eyes fixating greedily on our backpacks that bobbed above us like towering buoys. Numerous hands grasping at our money belts. A multiplicity of mouths loudly querying our country of origin. The countless bodies of hired cabbies fusing together into a single multi-limbed organism that fed lustfully around the aging corpse of a dusty tourist bus whose innards trickled out of a small wound on the front-side and were sucked into the writhing monster. We were in the midst of a close evolutionary cousin to the Indian queue beast that had been domesticated by baksheesh paying hotel owners into a formidable war animal. Each of its brains had been selected and conditioned for the sole purpose of consuming dusty backpackers that emerged tired, weakened, and bruised from a relentless overnight suspension-less bus ride.
But Katlijn and I, hardened by our own struggles against Mumbai's cheeky cabbies and Varanasi's midnight hand squishers, persevered. Swimming desperately against the tide of the monster, we managed to escape its groping tentacles and emerged safely at a guest house one block away. Others were less fortunate. As we looked back, we saw the beast herding blurry-eyed travellers, unaware of what was happening to them, into over-stuffed rickshaws for deportation to the nearest scam.
Ancient Hindu temple architecture. Before its sudden destruction in the 16th century at the hands of Muslims, the city of Vijayanagar covered 650 square kilometers and had a population of over 500,000.
Based in the safety of our guesthouse, we spent a couple of days exploring the crumbling ruins of India's magic. With only 58 of 550 monuments protected as a world heritage and the local businesses constructing new facilities, it may not be long before the war would finally be lost and new India's rampant tourist empire would destroy Hampi's heritage, just as an alliance of Islamic sultanates did more than 400 years ago. For now, however, Hampi remains a fascinating and mystical place. I cannot think of very many things more enjoyable then renting a bike and peddling about the weirdly balanced rocks and lush banana plantations trying to fathom the beauty of the atmospheric landscape when it was home to an ancient civilization and a vast temple complex. We could have spent days in the blissful company of the these ruins and a dilapidated Indian basket bicycle, but Katlijn contracted an alarmingly high fever forcing us to consider the possibility of malaria. As alluring as it was to lose ourselves in south India's turbulent history, we set off to Bengaluru in search of what we really needed: modern medicine.
Sunset over Hampi.
My old floorball pal, Arun, and his lovely and very pregnant Belgian wife, Ellen, were very kind to let us take refuge at their home while Katlijn's temperature crept back to normal under the powerful spell of Arun's home cooked idlis and sambar. In addition to their generous hospitality, Arun and Ellen showed us the other side of India: their charming apartment, the possibility of decent Italian food in a modern Indian city, and supermarkets stocking exotic eastern fair beside more familiar western food items. They have nothing but praise for the emerging cosmopolitanism of former Bangalore, describing it as the perfect compromise between the warring faction's of new India comfort and old India simplicity. However, as I walked down the aisles of Arun's neighborhood food store, I studied the western items closely. Looking down at the jar of Ragu Spaghetti sauce I held in my hands, I realized that Bangaluru was finishing for me a process that began with Mumbai's coffee franchises and continued with Goa's uber-tourism: India losing its magic.
This was it, Bengaluru: center of the flat world, the silicon-coated hive of new India from which the IT money marches forth en route to Bikaner and the furthest reaches of the land, slowly silently dominating the entire planet while nobody is looking. And what does this new world power look like ? A giant traffic jam. A rush hour like no other. A perpetual twenty four hour gridlock with high and low tides that fluctuate between flooding the entire city and just the most important parts of it.
The groan of Bengaluru's creaking infrastructure buckling under the weight of so many vehicles can be heard in the conversations of the city denizens. When they aren't talking cricket and chip design, they are invariably talking traffic. Bengalurians are traffic gurus. Facing the overwhelming congestion on a daily basis, they have garnered a deeper understanding and appreciation of the very nature of traffic that cannot possibly be understood by you or me. Monk-like, driving aloof through the chaos, the city's commuters appear lost in equanimously observation over its impermanent processes. Later, they litter their conversation with tips on new-found insights: how best to time your departure to the office and the present state of street conditions that fluctuate under near constant construction.
There are no bovines strutting through the shroud of the city's formidable air pollution. Bengaluru is no place for cows. And with India's magic tragically disappearing in the clogged and polluted arteries of the world's most important IT boom town, Katlijn and I suddenly felt a burning desire to rekindle our spirituality.
Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha, is considered by Buddhists to be the premiere scientist of his day with an intense curiosity of nature. All the major moments in his life (birth, enlightenment and death) took place outdoors, symbolically, under the cover a Bunyan tree. Critical of the unfair caste system and the unquestioned superstitions of the Hindu religion, he decided to try the following instead: sit still and objectively observe sensations on his own body. He reasoned these experiences represented the only reliable truth which, good or bad, needed to be acknowledged without bias. Through this process and living a moral life, he claims to have attained enlightenment which he later described to his students like this:
"Through countless births in the cycle of existence, I have run, not finding although seeking the builder of this house; and again and again I faced the suffering of new birth. Oh house builder ! You have been seen ! You shall not build a house again for me. All your beams are broken, the ridgepole is shattered. The mind has become freed from conditioning; the end of craving has been reached"
Which I thought was a tantalizing passage. After all, assuming he's not crazy, what did he experience and who or what is he referring to as "house builder" anyhow ? We figured this was exactly the kind of thing we needed to think about for ten days in order to feel again India's vanishing mysticism. Thus, under the guidance of Myanmar's great guru, Goenkaji, we set about learning Buddha's 2500 year-old vippassana meditation technique, still practiced today by the Dalai Lama.
The small male area where I confined myself for ten days to learn Buddhist meditation techniques. A volunteer hit the gong to signal the beginning and ending of our meditations sessions and meal times.
Consistent with the Buddha's original methods, Katlijn and I were separated into female and male dorm rooms, and everyone took a vow of noble silence where communication was forbidden for ten days. During this time, we were expected to live the life of monks following a rigorous schedule where we got up at four each morning and logged more than ten hours of meditation each day. All food was provided and prepared at no cost. The experience of living in the charity of others is integral to the teaching and therefore the course is, by necessity, free of charge.
Meditating is more difficult than it appears and certainly doesn't reflect the very relaxing image we had of people in peaceful contemplation. At least the first steps are more like a mental battle ground. Before each session, I saw students marching up and down the grounds, stretching their muscles as if readying for a fight, even air boxing to pump themselves up for another long hard sitting.
If you think it's easy, try this: sit cross legged, your back perfectly straight, and your chin held high, then think about absolutely nothing else besides your breathing for one hour without moving a muscle. I give you one minute before your mind wanders away from the present to some unpleasant past or future experience, and about five minutes before you can think of nothing else but that agonizing pain forming in your lower back and that irritating itch on the tip of your nostril, both of which you should be observing with perfect equanimity.
`After torturing myself with this process for about thirty hours over the course of three days, I lasted long enough to sense the entire weight of my torso pushing down on my thighs and a tiny trickle of blood still circulating through the tips of my toes. At some point, the guru instructed me to absolutely force myself, no matter what, to stay in this position for a full hour. He dubbed this "strong determination" and it typically resulted in me limping painfully away from the meditation hall holding the railing for support.
I'm not sure how, but I mastered this pain after about seven days to the point where it became possible to sit still for a full hour with only minor discomfort. By the eighth day, some of the sensation could even be described as pleasant: the throbbing in my skull, the tingling in my toes, that soft tickling behind my ears. But this too, is a danger. Just as we were told not to let our minds succumb to the aversion of pain, so too should we never crave whatever pleasant sensations may temporarily flowing through our bodies. Both of these emotions are, ultimately, misery.
According to the Buddha, it is by developing the capacity to remain focused and objective in observing ongoing processes in our minds, ping-ponging between aversion and craving, moving restlessly between connectionless events of past and future, that you can be trained to discover the middle road and understand for yourself, experientially rather than intellectually, the necessity of compassion.
To be honest, I don't know if I bought into it all either, but certainly the nightly lectures on Buddhist philosophy and the experience of learning to meditate was stimulating enough for me to recommend a course in the technique to anyone. And just to ensure I end this lengthy entry by giving you something magical to contemplate, consider the following mysterious facts:
Two thousand years before the advent of modern science, Siddhartha Guatama taught that the body was actually made up of trillions of vibrating particles he called, kappa.
Long before Freud, Buddhist monks, through their system of objective self-contemplation, discovered and wrote about the sub-conscious.
Brain scans of monks during meditation reveal abnormal brain patterns and a substantially higher level of activity in areas of the brain responsible for compassion.
As we rode out of the city's choking traffic, it suddenly occurred to us that we had a new found appreciation for one of India's greatest and lasting contributions to civilization and we felt cautiously optimistic with the knowledge that mysticism could be found even in the depths of Bengaluru's IT madness.
By the time I boarded the night train in Mumbai's Victoria terminal, the busiest train station in Asia, my long campaign against Delhi-belly was almost won and I even managed a good night sleep before arriving in Goa. A rickshaw brought us to Anjuna beach where we began our ritual search for a decent budget room. Along the way, we met up with party-Dean whose presence in the hash-fueled hippy holiday pilgrimage of Goa was entirely predictable. He was nursing a beer at Anjuna's cleanest 30 Rupee eatery while he gave us the low down on the late-night beach side shindigs.
The budget rooms in Goa range from the dank and stinky to the downright scary. As we swung open the creaking doors, an ancient mildewy marijuana haze would issue forth from dark cave-like hovels revealing the blinking startled eyes of crusty backpackers who looked like they hadn't seen the light of day for years. Out of the dark murkiness, an intoxicated voice somewhere deep inside informed us through the cobwebs, "Yeah, man. For only 100 Rupees, this place is a steal !"
Miraculously, we stumbled across a family who, for almost no money at all, rented us a private room in their house, invited us to their dining room table each night for a much appreciated home-cooked Goan meal, and effectively adopted us for a week. Rather than hanging out with Party Dean and Goa's stoned beach bum crowd, we spent much of our days just relaxing on their patio with the mother and playing with her child, while granny was more than happy to fetch us a bucket of hot water when we needed to shower. This was budget travelling at its best !
Our life in Goa revolved around this little man called "Om".
To be frank, the Goan beaches themselves are a bit shocking. They teem with fat topless Germans and the gangs of young Indian men who come just to stare at them, while drunken leathered ex-hippies lament endlessly about how awesome Goa used to be to anyone polite enough to listen to them. Walking down the beach at sunset is done to the throbbing beat of techno emanating from the nearby Western oriented development while constantly vigilant to avoid the unpleasant feeling of slowly sinking your bare feet into the gooey softness of newly deposited dung piles left behind by Goan cows which (god bless them) strut emphatically up and down the coast turning their noses up at the invading European tourist hordes.
And what about Goa as the party place of all-night, open-air raves where the world's young bronzed travellers drink and smoke the night away ? This ended years ago with the enforcement of a government ban on loud music past 10pm at night. It wasn't unusual to find ourselves whiling away the evening at an empty ocean side bar feeling positively lonely as we watched the cows casually stroll by. Meanwhile disappointed party-seeking backpackers were being robbed by the exorbitant cover charge of the only nearby night club that is allowed to be open, or they were negotiating with the beach-side traffickers before holing themselves up again in a dingy budget hermitage.
Anjuna beach feels a bit like an Indian Costa Del Sol with scantily clad Western women being hustled by beach touts and hopeful Indian masseuses.
Relaxed liquor laws makes Goa an affordable spot to kick back on the beach with a beer.
Goa's dusk colors.
To be fair, those that can stomach lying on the beaches all day with a backdrop of all-inclusive package holiday development often love the place. However, it wasn't long before we felt impelled to escape.
Riding a motorcycle through the small villages and back country is a completely different experience guaranteed to re-affirm one's faith in Goa. While occasionally stopping to feast on the outstanding local coconut milk seafood curries and spicy fish creations, we weaved through the back roads between the palm groves, lagoons, and green rice paddies of some of south India's finest scenery.
Images of our Goan back-country motorbike trips.
Britain was neither the first colonial power to arrive in India nor were they the last to leave. Both of these honors go to Portugal who controlled Goa from 1510 until 1961. During its heyday in the 16th century when Portugal had a monopoly over Indian and far-East trade, the majesty and splendor of "Golden Goa" was said to rival Lisbon itself with a population exceeding that of London. However, if it weren't for a couple of impressive cathedrals that survived intact, Katlijn and I would have difficulty believing this now as our motorbike roared past crumbling church remains drowning in the surrounding jungle of palm trees. Without the resources to maintain its overseas empire, Portugal's Indian colony was eventually eclipsed by that of Britain and Old Goa was forgotten.
Atmospheric white-washed churches dot the tropical green landscape. Goa was the most successful of Europe's India colonies at converting the locals: today more than 30% of Goa's population is catholic.
Aging gracefully with their red-tiled roofs, these old
Portuguese houses reminisce over Goa's current capital of Panaji. Panaji is one of our favourite anachronisms in India blending the pastel shades of the Mediterranean with noisy India, it is probably the only place on the sub-continent serving delicious and authentic Portuguese food.
Mumbai's Victoria Train Station: vestiges of British India
While I lay awake in the white city - bollywood overnight express bus, bouncing painfully off the walls of its claustrophobic sleeping capsules, I mentally cursed that slippery little tout who convinced us its superior suspension was worth the extra money. Somehow, I managed to make it through the night and found myself staring out the window at dawn hanging over the city of Mumbai.
I remember once while travelling to Orchha, stepping off our bus in search of a toilet, an old crone pointed me to the back of a concrete roadside restaurant where I saw a thin aging man disappear behind a crack in the crumbling wall. I followed behind him and quite suddenly emerged into the light to find a large open field full of reeking garbage, families of wild boars feasting on rotting rice, and several squatting men, women, and children straining their bare bottoms in the heat. It looked like the apocalypse. It was as though in the last few hours, sometime after we got on the bus at Kajuraho and got off the bus at this nameless highway restaurant, some sort of great cataclysm had occurred which reduced civilization to defecating in their own trash.
Arriving in Mumbai, was exactly the opposite experience. The contrast between north and south India, old and new India, poor and rich India, never felt so vivid. Rajasthan's desert streets and potholes were replaced with modern highways and lane markings. It was as though, sometime between getting on the bus at Udaipur and getting off the bus at this nameless city bus stop, civilization had miraculously reconstructed itself and I found myself once again staring down a long clean avenue full of trendy coffee shops all trying to out-Starbucks each other.
Mumbai looked so clean and modern that I decided it was safe enough to try their medical facilities. The fact is, my bowels, which were waging a long and ultimately unsuccessful war against North Indian gastronomy, had begun to make alarming gargling noises that sounded to us like its last throes. Surrender was imminent and it was time to seek medical reinforcement. After I described my symptoms and had a brief checkup, the doctor asked me if I had eaten a hamburger in the last few days.
"Yes," I admitted before hastily adding, "but only out of curiosity and I couldn't finish the whole thing !"
"mmm hmmmm," the doctor replied and slowly, wisely, nodded his head: this, apparently, explained everything. He informed me I would continue to have more bowel movements then set me up with some antibiotics and the usual remedies for a serious case of the runs. Drinking regularly from my dense solution of electrolyte water, I lethargically set out to explore Mumbai: the first in our trilogy of colonial-era cities.
Renowned for their abysmal map reading ability and tenable grasp of the English language, Mumbai cabbies are among the world's cheekiest. Despite whatever nonsense they tell you, it isn't that far, their taxi meter works just fine, and your hotel did not burn down recently.
In 1661, a small inconsequential region inhabited by fishing folk, called "Bombay" by the Portuguese, was given freely to the British royal family by Portugal as part of a marriage dowry sealing the fate of India and sentencing them to a future of tea times, driving on the wrong side of the road, and soporific cricket matches. Bombay was leased to the British East India Company for the paltry annual rent of only 10 UK pounds a year. Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to this company effectively giving them a monopoly on British trade with India. In fact, for nearly 250 years this private commercial trading company, and not the British government as is commonly believed, 'ruled' British India specifically for the purpose of making profit from iron and coal mining, as well as tea, coffee, and cotton plantations. Bombay flourished into the principle port for trade with British India complete with impressive cathedrals, steam engines, and a cosmopolitan business and culinary culture. Bombay also became a major player in the independence movement where Mahatma Ghandi launched his Quit India campaign in 1942 urging the British to leave India immediately. Bombay has recently been renamed "Mumbai" by its nationalist Hindu government referring to an earlier pre-colonial name.
Every Saturday, Mumbai's young and old, gather at Maidan park which transforms itself into a garage league cricket battle ground hosting more than twenty simultaneous matches at a time.
Today, with a population of 16.4 million, Mumbai is a surging out of control mass of humanity haphazardly blending all of India's extremes. The touristy Colaba district is a pleasant mix of gorgeous colonial buildings, Indian open air markets, and relatively orderly streets crowded with signature black and yellow cabs. A walk down to Chowpatty beach reveals an attractive place to watch the sunset against the city's modern skyscrapers. Nevertheless, this New India often feels like a thin veneer belying the fact that over fifty five percent of its residence live in slums. Just a few blocks away from the tourist safe havens, we stumbled into sizable shanty towns that contrasted jarringly with the pristine gourmet multi-cultural dining experiences just a stone's throw away. In fact, Mumbai's Dharavi slum is the largest in Asia and is by itself home to more than one million of the world's poorest. Something in between Hollywood and Glasgow, Hindu and Islam, Britain and India, swish bars and poverty, Mumbai is, after all, a memorable and inspirational place containing all the beauty and the ugliness of the human condition.
Riding a rickshaw into picturesque Udaipur, we were struck by three things: the bright gleam of Rajasthan's "white city", the influx of foreign tourists, and the number of hotels advertising a seven o'clock viewing of "Octopussy". Every massive tourist draw in India seems to need a gimmick to help fleece the tourists of their money and their dignity, and Udaipur's happens to be a cheesy 80s James Bond installment which was filmed at many of the nearby attractions including the lake palace (Octopussy's secret layer where she trains an all-woman army of deadly kung fu super models) and the mountain side monsoon palace (where double-o-seven once again woos the master villain's gorgeous crony while slyly planting one of Q's ingenious tracking gadgets: the oldest trick in the James Bond mythology).
Sunset over the white city from one of its many roof-top restaurants.
Jagniwas, the Lake Palace Hotel island, was originally built by Udaipur's Maharaja in 1754. Formerly the royal summer palace, today it is the ultimate in luxury hotels.
Often referred to as the Venice of the East, the white city is a postcard come to life with two fairy-tale castles reflecting off the water, scores of temples, cenotaphs, and havelis, and an amazing vantage point to watch it all, sipping on a banana lassi, as the sun sets over Lake Pichola. Over its 500 year history, Udaipur was the epitome of Rajasthani people: embodying patriotic fervour and an aching love of independence by fiercely resisting the Muslim might of the Mughals and never sending their maharaja into negotiation in rebuke of British hegemony. This was a Rajasthani warrior-state that made no compromises.
Udaipur and its 500 year old city palace.
The white city reflecting off Lake Pichola.
The cenotaphs of Ahar is a city of hundreds of domes built over the last 350 years commemorating Udaipurs deceased maharajas and dignitaries.
Today, Udaipur is an international destination unto itself. It spans the gamut from abject poverty to filthy rich: India's penniless smack their dirty underwear against the concrete lake-side ghats while they gaze at a majestic island palace only 20 meters away where the world's wealthiest pay five thousand dollars a night to be pampered beyond imagining.
At roughly seven o'clock, just as Roger Moore strolled into the ritual gun barrel sequence, I made the all-too-common Indian tourist blunder of ordering a hamburger out of curiosity. Sinking my teeth into the soggy no-beef patty from one of Udaipur's many budget rooftop eateries, I too gazed across the lake at the palace hotel imagining the rich and famous dining on gourmet butter chicken, drinking martinis, and watching "Octopussy".
Udaipur city residences.
Basket weavers living in the old city.
By the next morning, whatever poisonous cow meat substitute that oozes forth from Udaipur's hamburgers began to pollute my gut. With my digestive track audibly bubbling and gurgling in protest, we began our first Indian cooking lesson under the competent tutelage of our great teacher, Shashi. While we discovered the ancient secrets to making a decent mango chutney and perfected the difficult art of creating perfectly rounded and puffed chapattis, Shashi recounted to us her story.
.Shashi was originally born in a small town of Rajasthan and was excited to move to the big city of Udaipur through an arranged marriage to work at her husband's family owned restaurant. A picture of her husband hangs over her kitchen, and their two children were often nearby, occasionally helping us to chop some coriander or crush some herbs.
Tragically, her husband died a couple of years ago. As a member of India's highest Brahmin caste, tradition forced her into a full year of mourning during which time she was not able to leave her house or work. With no income or belongings, she and her children were disowned by the husband's family- a fate that is still very common among rural Indian women and is the main reason for the begging widows which live invisibly in Indian city streets and slums. Though sadly underpaid, she made enough money to support her children as a cleaning lady working under the cover of night, and secretly doing the laundry of the region's foreign hotel guests. These arrangements were made by day through her sixteen year old son.
Ghat-side laundry. Shashi made 1 Rupee to wash five pairs of underwear.
About a year ago, she got the idea of using the cooking skills she learned from her mother and her husband's restaurant to teach foreigners. Despite having no knowledge of the English language whatsoever, she managed to convince a couple of Aussie tourists to pay her a handsome sum of money for a cooking lesson by mime. This was so much fun for both her and the Aussies that she has made it a full time career. As her various clients taught her the words to her mime, her English has improved to the point where only a small amount of body language is still necessary. Nowadays, she makes enough money to support her family, her children are back in school and she even has good relations with much of her husband's family again.
'Interestingly, Shashi said that one of the most difficult things for her to learn about and accept in her life was frying an egg. While she can speak stoically about her experiences locked in her dark house mourning for her husband, her little eyes suddenly become huge and she gasps loudly when describing the first time she cracked an egg over a frying pan, "disgusting !" The Brahmin caste are strict vegetarians which (in India) means they also don't eat eggs. Her mother would never have allowed it. As a restaurant worker and cooking teacher for foreigners, she had to learn to make foods with eggs. While she manages, she considers the scent of eggs cooking in her kitchen one of the most unbearable aspects of her new life.
Indian lentil salesman. North Indians prefer bread while south Indians prefer rice, but as in Nepal, they are united in their love for lentils. Literally hundreds of varieties of lentils exist, and some form of bhat (curried lentils) is served each meal.
The general dearth of water in the desert makes a five day trek a sweaty dirty business to say the least, so we were very happy to get back to Bikaner and finally enjoy that piping hot bucket of water and that pristine sand-less, camel-crap-less Tandoori chicken we had been dreaming about during long bouts of camel induced crotch pounding. We selected a very clean and modern restaurant that looked something like what we might find in Western Europe, though the rat scurrying around the tables combined with the unconcerned looks on the waiters’ faces was a dead giveaway that we were still in Rajasthan.
Bikaner is a hopeful desert outpost town that is trying to get on the beaten tourist path, but hasn’t quite made it yet. In deference to their burgeoning tourist business, we spent several days trying to make sense of their attractions: a crumbling fort, a few dilapidated havelis, and a dubious dancing camel show, before we finally gave up and found ourselves staring at the bland concrete hulk of a large, mostly empty, junk-country shopping mall. We have come across several of these ghost malls in north India and each time find ourselves lost in thought, gazing at some poor visionary’s failed business enterprise: there is nothing more depressing than a poorly executed attempt at mimicking the western excess of a massive shopping complex.
Katlijn bought a salwar in Bikaner. In addition to being attractive and more comfortable, Indians genuinely appreciated her wearing the local clothing and we were subjected to significantly less staring.
In Singapore, they have malls so herculean they have the combined excess of ten ordinary malls into one massive shopping center of mythical proportions that assault the senses with entire districts full of flashing advertising screens, exhausting supplies of expensive consumer goods, and mammoth American-style food courts. It is as though they had begun by carefully studying the very essence of western culture and then decided to quite deliberately go about reproducing it by marshaling all their greatest engineers and artisans, gathering their wisest philosophers, and focusing their tremendous Eastern assiduity to the task of constructing stunningly sophisticated consumer meccas having more Starbucks per unit volume than anywhere else in the universe: a place more western than the west could ever be.
Indian attempts at reproducing this type of western consumer excess are, thankfully, abysmal failures. Wandering around places like Bikaner always brings to mind the same questions: where is all that IT money going to anyhow? Isn’t India supposed to be running the planet in a few decades ? And when they do, will there still be errant cows wandering the streets? God, I hope so.
In Delhi, they tried to get rid of the cows. Several years ago, the nation realized that Western cities don’t have street cows, decided they were an embarrassment to the New India’s modern image, and embarked on an ambitious multi-million dollar program to rid “smelly” Delhi of its wonderfully robust bovines. What about holy cows and holy rats !? Such a shameless rebuke of centuries of Hindu heritage ! Fortunately, the government failed utterly at the task having under-estimated the monumental scale of the problem. Despite persistent effort, cows are still regularly seen obstructing traffic, strutting rebelliously down busy Delhi traffic arteries in defiance of Indian persecution. And I sincerely hope that when India’s IT money finally beats a path to Bikaner’s swirling desert outpost to transform the sad, dusty concrete shopping complex we were staring at into a bustling modern commercial metropolis, the cows will still be there meandering serenely down the crowded ultra-modern neon-lit shopping halls of a unique Indian creation- not another western strip mall clone, but something the world has never seen before: a modern city that actually looks original, a New India with its very own futuristic vision of next-generation rickshaws, touts, and food wallahs.
With this optimistic vision in my mind, we proceeded to Bikaner's crusty train station and waited several hours for our train to arrive. When asked where the train was, the station master told us it would arrive "in time" which is as close to "on time" as you get in North India and is a good indication your train will come sometime before dark. The train broke down on us again somewhere in the middle of the desert and we tried to pass the time reading our books over the general raucous accumulating around us.
Interestingly, if you are the only person on an empty bus or train in India, Indian passengers will come and sit right beside you instead of selecting one of the many empty seats. This is especially true if you are quietly reading a book which, in my experience, results in a large crowd of men invading my personal space and breathing down my back while they read carefully over my shoulder. According to several sources we have asked, many Indians simply do not understand why someone would sit by themselves and read a book- it is just not done here. Apparantly, we look very lonely and either they want to keep us company by engaging us in conversation ("Canada !? Beautiful country. My sister....") , or they are so intensely interested in what could possibly keep us occupied that they want to grab our books from our hands and rifle through them. Trying to read the Lonely Planet Guide to India is particularly challenging as surrounding passengers want nothing more than to pass the book around the train taking turns looking things up. Our i-pod is another object of immense fascination and complete strangers see absolutely no problem with borrowing our earphones for the duration of our trip while occasionally demanding that we change the song for them. After a few weeks in India, it occurs to us that we have completely lost our privacy. Our business and our belongings have now become public property.
An Indian bangle maker and salesman. Bangles are worn by most Indian women, especially during pregnancy when their rustling sound can be heard and later recognized by the baby.
Another Indian train peculiarity is the male Indian cross-dressers that go up and down the hallway generally annoying the passengers and asking for money. Whenever one walks into our train car, every nearby man, woman, and child gets up to stare at us. To the general annoyance of the transvestite beggars, a man wearing a bra and pantyhose is completely uninteresting compared to a white tourist's reaction to the situation- especially if they react by sticking their noses deeply into a massive Indian guide book desperately trying to pretend the text is so absorbing they don't even notice the fake bosoms heaving above them or the growing circus of spectators.
Faced with these experiences, we were glad to finally arrive in Jodhpur, Rajasthan's "Blue City". We tugged our junk-country earphones out of a pair of hairy ears, wrested control of our thick guidebook, and hoisted our bulging backpacks off the train. It wasn't long before we found a nice family-run guesthouse with a gorgeous rooftop view of Jodhpur's looming cliff-side fortress.
Glorious Meherangarh fort reigning over the blue city.
Mughal influenced architecture inside one of the fort's many palaces. These windows are specially designed so that women can surreptitiously peer down on the courtyard, while the men below are not able to see up through the windows at the women.
Tragic tiny hand prints of all the Maharaja's widows who performed sati (ritual self-immolation) when their husband died in 1843. Obviously, this Indian tradition is now forbidden by law though a very small number of incidents still occur each year in remote isolated villages.
View of Jodhpur from the ramparts. Jodhpur is called the "blue city" due to the indigo hue of the rambling buildings that make up the old city. This colour represents the Brahmin caste which constitutes most of the city's population.
We met up with a nice couple, Doug and Lee, both retired teachers from Berkeley, California, who are on their own six month world trip. In the evening, they shared dinner with us as well as interesting experiences including living abroad (Malaysia and Africa), travelling, and teaching Steve Jobs' children in California. They also kept us company while we explored the impressive forts, cenotaphs, and markets in what was our favourite of Rajasthan's colourful desert cities.
Milky white marble memorials and cenotaphs to Jodhpur's past Maharajas near Fort Meherangarh.
Rajasthan is considered a living study in ethno-musicology. The harsh desert climate contrasts dramatically with a sophisticated culture of music, dance, and dazzling clothing often having symbolic significance. The happy pink-and-gold combination seen here may only be worn by a woman who has borne a son.
Immediately following our hyper-dramatic Hindi film experience at the Pink City's Raj Mandir meringue inspired cinema, we caught a night train to Rajhastan's desert outpost town of Bikaner travelling, as always, in India's second lowest train class. Our usual strategy is to reserve, using India's miraculously functioning on-line ticketing service, the two top bunks allowing us to go to bed whenever we want to without disturbing the passengers below us. Unfortunately, the little-used Jaipur-Bikaner line runs an older and smaller model of train with low ceilings that force us to squeeze our bodies through a tiny crack separating the bed from the grungy ventilation fans, leaving us only just barely enough room to lie flat on our backs, occasionally being woken by the sensation of our noses rubbing against the dirty roof-top. Despite expensive ear-plugs, sleeping medication, and junk-country earphones, we are forced to endure yet another restless night when our carriage is invaded, at some ungodly hour of the morning, by a gang of yapping old Indian women.
As later explained to us by a friend of ours from Bangalore: Indians believe that it is their birth-right to make noise. It is not that they are trying to be rude; the entire concept of shutting off the light being quiet for others trying to sleep is, to them, such an abstract metaphysical paradigm as to be simply unfathomable to the sub-continent's general populace. It is not just the gangs of old Indian crones which seem to haunt the wakeful halls of every late-night sleeper train in the country, even the men running the hotels spend hours chattering in Hindi to each other into the wee hours of the morning. And what on earth are they talking about, anyway ? Where I come from, adult men just don't have that much to say to each other and certainly don't stay up all night giggling like school girls.
At times, Katlijn will be driven mad by the hotel men whose incessant gossiping simply overwhelms her specially molded high-end India-traveller's ear protection. Finally, in a fit of insanity, she will throw her ear plugs angrily at the door and storm out into the neighbouring hotel lobby to find six loitering men locked in loquacious banter, and frantically yells out to them:
"Oi ! We're trying to sleep in here !"
The hotel men stare at each other, exchanging blank looks- their brains, having been conditioned to a lifetime of whining scooters, quarrelling urban farm animals, and obnoxious horn blasts, are now no longer capable of even grasping the basic notion of noise pollution. Instead, after a brief pause, their Hindi chattering starts up again more intently as they desperately try to sort out, by group consensus, what the problem could possibly be, until finally they seem to settle on a theory, a plausible hypotheses: their best guess at what her frantic late-night fussing might be referring to. The oldest turns down the volume of the blaring Indian pop music, and asks, in his best English,
"Hot water bucket ?"
As I mentioned already, we don't get a lot of sleep in India. We finally arrived at Bikaner the next morning and groggily squeezed our way out of our claustrophobic train coffin, hauled our gigantic dusty backpacks from out beneath two loudly snoring old crones, and made our way to Vino's fabulous Bikaner Camel Safari Guest House: a sandy desert budget accommodation that seems to be managed and operated entirely by children.
After a brief visit to Bikaner's old city, we made arrangements with Vino for a five day camel safari through the Thar Desert. We were ready to go by the next morning and met up with Steve, a chatty Swiss backpacker who will keep us company the first couple of days. Steve is an economist taking several months off for long-term travel and proving, yet again, that the world's backpackers are quite an agreeable and varied people.
We started our desert trek at Kani Mata Temple, a peculiar and remote 14th century holy outpost in the middle of the sand dunes whose explicit purpose and ardent cult of followers is devoted solely to the worship of rodents. It seems that the cadre of Hindu holy animals knows no bounds: cows, monkeys, elephants, bulls, tigers and more. But, seriously, rats !? Just when we thought India's penchant for superstition could not possibly be stretched any further, we find ourselves in a temple, whose floors look alive with the scurrying of countless holy rodents, where it is considered auspicious for one to scamper over your bare feet and especially good fortune if you can spot a big, fat, fluffy, white one. We made our way carefully around the premises, together with a few barefooted devotees- their eyes peeled for white rats hoping that they might be so blessed as to feel the tickling of rat whiskers between their toes- all the while wondering if this temple was really built here for the explicit purpose of worshipping rats, or whether they simply got deified as the pragmatic solution to an ancient and uncontainable infestation.
According to devotees of the affectionately titled "rat temple", the holy rats seen here (called kabas) are the reincarnation of dead storytellers brought here to deprive Yama, the Hindu god of Death, of human souls.
After visiting the rat temple, we met up with our desert guides, the camelman and the cook. Despite spending every second together for five long hot days, we had a tough time making any kind of connection with them given their tenable grasp of our language and our entire ignorance of whatever Rajasthani tongue they communicated with. In fact, we never even learned their names, having given up after making a hash with the pronunciation and finally settling on calling the camelman the "white guy" and then referring to the cook at all times relative to the camelman as simply "the other guy".
Our camelman, the white guy, so-named for his white turban and white loin cloth which he wore and washed daily.
We had three camels with us: Steve's camel, our riding camel we named "Alice", and a strapping young male camel we named "Orneel de Kameel",who carried the cart while periodically sticking its tongue out at passing lady camels who, without fail, would saunter giddily towards Orneel's manly camel stench, unable to contain their passion at such witty flirtation. All over the Great Thar Desert, camelmen would have to chase after young virgin camels who had fallen under the powerful spell of Orneel's wooful raspberries.
From the very beginning, it was obvious that sitting on a camel for five days was going to be a supremely uncomfortable experience. The camelman had Alice lie on the ground so I could get on the saddle. Before I even had a chance to sit down, Alice, upon feeling my legs brush against his side, would suddenly let out a gaping camel groan of disapproval and lurch upwards, slamming its hard backside into my unsuspecting crotch while stretching my stiff legs sideways dangerously beyond the safety zone of my admittedly limited flexibility. This would be followed by several hours of stoically enduring the graceless back-and-forth saunter of Alice slowly rocking my testes into numbness until, mercifully, it was time for me to get off and begin the long and painful process of returning circulation to the lower half of my body. Camels also do not make a smooth transition from the standing to sitting position. Instead, they sort of fold themselves up in several fast jerking motions like a collapsible lawn chair, each fold giving the rider the sensation of freefall and each time landing, inevitably, hard on his crotch. By the time we finally got off, our legs had been reduced to a senseless oblivion: two heavy weights swinging lifeless from our torsos waddling awkwardly about the desert.
The first few days we enjoyed taking turns riding the camel and lying down in the back of the cart peacefully reading a book. However, it wasn't long before we began fighting over who got to lie down in the cart and who had to receive a three hour crotch pummeling. Finally, perhaps out of compassion, the camel man let us both lie down in the camel cart while Alice, bareback and unburdened, trotted happily behind us with a smug look of victory.
During our trek, we enjoyed the quiet peacefulness of the scrubby desert’s understated beauty punctuated by the occasional viper, vulture, and gazelle. We often passed secluded families living in tiny isolated mud huts, or even small mud villages sprouting sleepy rural desert communities.
Rajasthani boy and his mud home.
Thar Desert village.
The people of the Thar desert were exceptionally curious of us, especially the young children. While we stopped for tea or meals, small groups of brothers and sisters would huddle together and plant themselves at a safe distance to apprehensively study us in great detail like tiny fledgling scientists. Astonishingly, these profoundly patient children could go about their staring business uninterrupted for many hours in such a deep and pure state of meditation that, I must presume, it did not even occur to them to ask me for a pen. In the few cases they did ask us for something, it was never money, toys, or pens, but empty plastic water bottles of all things. In fact, empty plastic bottles were a trophy so deeply coveted by desert children, it drove them to acts of camel cart thievery that forced our poor nameless cook to be constantly vigilant and, when necessary, jump off and chase after them.
The larger Thar Desert villages each have a long trough of water for the camels. As we waited for Alice and Orneel to drink their share, the entire population of the village, often numbering in the hundreds, would emerge from their mud houses and rush down the street cheering our arrival at what felt like a royal welcome. When our camels were finished and we would continue on our way, the children would run after us into the desert for a while yelling "ta-ta !" and erupting into tearful laughter every time we responded to them.
The cook picked up pieces of valuable dried wood along the way which he would use, together with camel droppings, to make a fire. From time to time, he would also jump off the cart and disappear into a seemingly random mud hut in the middle of nowhere with an empty bottle and some supplies, then appear again sometime later behind us, running along the sandy trail in his sandals to catch up, the bottles now full of the desert goat milk he uses for our obligatory morning, afternoon, and evening chai. At some of the larger villages, he could be seen with the locals trading for supplies and, especially, flour for making his delicious chapattis. Furthermore, many of the locals supplied us with water from their personal wells. In return, our operation ran a kind of desert taxi service between the tiny villages as the camelman would allow complete strangers to ride on the cart with us along the empty roads. In many cases, our friends would join us for a hot cup of chai and even sit around the campfires at night, together with their sons and daughters, always staring at us, always smiling, while our cook and the camelman eyed our empty plastic containers nervously.
Despite working in the remote seclusion of the desert, the cook produced some extraordinarily delightful Indian vegetable curries making each mealtime an experience Katlijn and I, saddle-sore, would very much look forward to. While one cannot deny his obvious culinary talents, he did not run the most sanitary of kitchens and the small number of pots and pans he carried with us often served multiple purposes including wash board and portable camel latrine. At one point, we watched in horror as he used his dirty shirt sleeve to rub a large pile of green droppings off the pan and into the fire, mix and pound the dough on the same pan, then roast his superbly shaped chapattis directly on the smouldering camel dung. Furthermore, due to the difficulties inherent in finding water in the desert, after every meal, we washed our dishes in dirt we scooped from the ground. To be fair, a sand-wash is an amazingly effective desert camping trick which I suggest you all try at home if you don't believe me, the only drawback being chewing on the little bits of sand that perennially find their way into every bite.
The cook concocting another one of his delicious stews while desert children nervously study our camp.
The cook pounds and shapes the dough as the camelman cooks the result on a tawa then puffs up the final chapatti directly on the coals. An old local man in a red turban enjoys a hot metal cup of chai while quietly watching them at work.
Evening in the desert is a particularly magical time as the dark blue sky transforms itself into the deep crimsons, violets, and yellows of some of the world's most spectacular sunsets. At night, we sleep in the open sand gazing at the brightly lit stars above us, while each morning the cook wakes us up with breakfast in bed. Sipping on hot chai while crunching down on our sandy toast, the Thar Desert entertains us again with another inspired sunrise, worlds away from the late night gossip of India's hotelmen.
Despite hot weather during the day, the desert temperature drops rapidly at night. Underneath two layers of blankets and our sleeping bags, while isolating ourselves from the ground with two more layers of blankets, we slept comfortably beneath the stars.
A sari shop in India. The line of male tailors on the left display a huge variety of fabrics to the women sitting on the right. The fabrics can be cut into saris or other clothing items. Shops like this are seen all over India and, by tradition, all the fabric tailors and shopkeepers are men while their clientele are all women.
After a long bus ride, we arrived in Jaipur mid-afternoon. All the hotels recommended in our guidebook were fully booked so we had to wander around the crowds with our giant tout-magnet backpacks looking around for a reasonably clean place to stay. In the end, we settled for an over-priced room, with two drab beds and a snowy television, ran by an old Indian fart and his five hapless cronies. As a word of advice: never stay at a venue in India in which the front lobby is occupied twenty four hours a day by six loitering men. As we waited an eternity for a luke-warm bucket of water, staring vacantly out our comically minuscule window, occasionally going downstairs to the lobby to check the progress of our simple cornflakes breakfast (only to find six loitering men staring vacantly at the peeling paint of our stodgy hotel), we began to wonder just how many men it takes to do absolutely nothing.
A much better alternative is to find a hotel run by an Indian woman. At Keoladio Nation Park, for example, our astute hotel lady single-handedly did everyone's laundry, cooked all our food, fixed the plumbing, and helped her kids with their homework while still finding enough time and energy to skillfully hustle us out of 50 Rupees for a pair of foggy binoculars and a crumbling bird book. You had to admire her.
Jaipur was our first stop on our tour of the province of Rajasthan. This state in North-East India, bordering Pakistan, has been doggedly controlled by the Rajput people for more than 1000 years. They are a Hindu warrior clan, constantly fighting, if not with the Muslim Mughals and the Western British, then against each other. Much of their bellicose way of life feels a bit like that of the Japanese Samurai: hierarchical while emphasizing honour and chivalry in combat- demanding ritual mass suicide by self-immolation over surrender. The practice of warfare was such a common occurrence that it became highly ritualized and enshrined in their culture: philosophy as well as an art form developed around combat with beautifully carved swords, gorgeously decorated armour, and vivid paintings. They were such a staunchly proud and recalcitrant opponent, that they managed to retain significantly more independence than the rest of India as both the Mughals and the British found it wiser to make special arrangements with the Rajputs rather than embarking on a long internecine struggle. Unfortunately, this independence ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end for these desert people. The Rajput rulers eventually became corrupt and lived a lavish life-style while the general population lived in poverty. When India finally gained its independence in 1947, Rajasthan had one of the sub-continent's lowest rates of life expectancy and literacy. It remains to this day one of the poorest states in India.
Jaipur's impressive hilltop Amber Fort. All of the major cities in Rajasthan have sprawling walled fortresses that served to protect the various city-states.
Entrance to Amber Fort's inner palace.
The palace architecture is a mixture of Rajput and Mughal styles.
We embarked on a long hot walking tour of a desert city that seemed to be choking under the malodorous fumes of diesel fuel, camel carts, and permanently clogged traffic arteries. The 18th century Jantar Mantar observatory provided an interesting diversion- it looks a bit like an amusement park full of mammoth experimental art sculptures. However, each construction has a specific purpose for tracking the motion of planets and stars, including a 27 meter high sundial which can be used to tell the time accurately to within 2 seconds. Unfortunately, we can't tell you what other amazing feats of mathematics and engineering were on display as our guide turned out to be completely stoned, speaking in an incoherent babble while puttering around the observatory in a kind of hashish induced slow-motion.
Upon exiting the observatory, Katlijn made the well-intentioned mistake of offering a begging boy one of our bananas. Upon grasping the fruit in his little hands, his eyes went wide, astonished at such good fortune, his whole face lighting up to assume the childlike expression of barely contained excitement normally reserved for unwrapping Christmas gifts. He quickly ran down the street screaming with glee, summoning his friends and family, who began to emerge wraith-like, previously invisible, from some secret place in between the cluttered jumble of concrete junk-peddling holes in the wall. It wasn't long before Katlijn was surrounded by street people beseeching her for free bananas. Without enough supply to meet the exponentially growing demand, we had to beat a hasty retreat into a street full of rampaging rickshaws and honking motorcycles. A lone police officer stood uselessly in the middle of the chaos, looking positively stranded, staring vacantly at the emerging traffic situation.
At what point did we start snapping at people asking for bananas ?
When was the exact moment that penniless widows abruptly vanish from our view ?
Why do children constantly ask me for pens ?
What the hell is wrong with this place !?
Through the smoggy crush of the Pink City's rush-hour vehicle hordes, the streets bursting at the seems with staring masses and Indian queue beasts, between cars and trucks, careening cycle rickshaws and high-speed scooters, slowly making its way between the fruit wallahs and stray dogs, quite suddenly, an enormous elephant smugly lumbers down the road. Above us, literally hundreds of kites fill the skies for the kite festival. Somehow, the magic of the sublimely foreign scene before us, or perhaps just the serene expression on the elephant's face, filled me with a renewed empathy for this country and made me realize how lucky we are to be travelling to a place which can only be experienced and not easily explained.
A fruit stand in Jaipur. Jaipur is nicknamed the "pink" city due to the predominantly pink colour of the buildings in its old city. The coral colors are particularly vivid just before sunset.
To celebrate my renewed faith in, or perhaps just temporarily prolonged tolerance for, the confounding process that is travelling through India, I decided to take Katlijn out for what is perhaps the world's most dubious "dinner and a movie" date: McDonald's and a Bollywood film.
While some cultures have a problem with culinary fusion, I am personally all for it. Other than tasting good, I believe there should be no rules defining whether or not different schools of gastronomy should be combined together. Despite this, I must make exception for the shameless combination of the well-respected centuries-old Indian culinary tradition with an American fast-food laboratory product designed at minimum cost for mass consumption: an ill-conceived fusion clearly demonstrated in such Frankenstein creations as the "Chicken Maharaja Mac". Certainly, the line of vegetarian potato burger products featured in Indian McDonald's, the "McAloo Tikkas", are a testament to globalization gone awry. However, to India McDonald's credit, they have exceptionally clean toilet facilities. Say what you will about their nefarious influence on global eating trends, even in a country not exactly renowned for its cleanliness, the MacDonald's bathrooms positively sparkle and may possibly harbor the sub-continents only functioning automated hand dryers.
Jaipur is home to India's number one Hindi cinema: the world-famous Raj Mandir- a massive, sublimely ugly, green and white cinema complex with bizarre architectural motifs that seem to have been inspired by marsh mellows and lemon meringue pies. Katlijn was allowed to get our tickets from the "ladies queue", as oppose to the much longer and more unruly "men's queue". She similarly helped a gang of Indian boys get tickets for the show who returned her kindness by explaining to us what was going on during the film. Ultimately, it was not as bad as we thought, and a few of the musical numbers were downright catchy. If you can't make sense of India's Bollywood film mania, it is probably you have never seen one of these films live at an actual Bollywood cinema. The raucous crowd booing the villains, cheering the heroes, and joining together in group gut-laughter magically turn the absurdity of the underlying script into a genuinely entertaining experience. Like its American counterpart, Bollywood films are full of a lot of beautiful people, classy cars, and opulence. However, it feels more artificial and jarring coming from Hindi cinema as it is so obviously at odds with the reality we had seen in North India. Where are the betel-nut stained teeth and the invisible beggars ? How come there are no dogs barking or monkeys dancing and why don't Bollywoods stars ever haggle with rickshaw touts ? Despite the dramatic music and emotionally exhausting story, culled of errant cows and lumbering elephants, Bollywood's watered-down version of India feels a bit empty compared to the real thing.
One of several pythons we spotted at xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />KeoladeoNational Park. The large bulge seen about a meter from the snake's mouth is a recently eaten animal that is currently being digested by the snake.
A King Cobra bite will kill a fully grown adult human being in less than ten minutes without an appropriate anti-venom. Pythons grow as long as 7 meters and are fully capable of constricting, suffocating, and then consuming large mammals including jackals, deer, and tourists. Depending on the time of year, both of these snakes are seen with alarming regularity throughout KeoladioNational Park. At the entrance, there is an enormous yellow warning sign that reads in dramatic bold red characters:
"BEWARE OF TOUTS !"
Not a word of caution for unsuspecting birders about the giant snakes. Not a single suggestion can be found anywhere regarding appropriate course of action when the largest venomous snakes in the world stand a meter and a half high, their throats flared in striking position. However, the sign expounds in great detail who to call when the indigenous species of commission foraging rickshaw wallahs takes you to the wrong hotel. It is very clear, in massive crimson letters, italicized for emphasis, that "absolutely under no circumstances" should one "accept tea from strangers".
Marvelling at the ridiculousness of this piece of advice from India's forestry ministries, I began to wonder whether or not we had come to the right place for a little vacation from Agra's Taj Mahal touts and the energy sapping experiences of haggling with hotel managers, finding our way around dusty labyrinthine alleyways, and digesting countless flea-ridden chapatti. However, we didn't start to get really worried until the forest ranger/tout manning the park entrance stopped us from entering because we were not allowed to bring our binoculars inside.
"But it's a bloody bird-watchingreserve !" Katlijn tried to explain, clearly exasperated, with stress on the word "bird" fruitlessly emphasizing the particular difficulties inherent in this activity without binoculars, given the small size and tendency of its object to flock far away from people in the camouflaged and remote sanctuary of trees.
The so-called forest "ranger" tells us that we must pay him 20 Rupees to use the park's binoculars on top of the entry fee (outrageously inflated 20 fold for foreign tourists), and it was just too bad we already had a pair from our hotel owner who just "should have known better". This was one scam too many for Katlijn, the straw that broke the camel's back, and the subsequent tirade this unleashed from her mouth sent flocks of storks and cormorants scattering off the ground in alarm. This was followed by a long and unpleasant round of haggling over the illusive price of a pair of binoculars, the entrance fees, and a couple of dodgy Indian mountain bikes. However, once we were in the park, it was indeed quite peaceful and pleasant- our serenity only interrupted once by a poor little boy who made the mistake of asking Katlijn where she was from and suggested she give him her pen.
A blue bull drinking waters in the marshy grasslands.
We managed to spot a lot of wildlife including blue bulls, several species of deer, Indian mud turtles, jungle cats, and jackals. However, the real draw at KeoladeoPark are the 500 species of migratory birds, especially water birds, which frequent the area. It is in some ways an artificial sanctuary since it was once an arid region which filled with water only during the monsoon season and dried up afterwards. One of the maharajas artificially diverted water to the region from a nearby canal in order to attract more ducks for the purpose of entertaining his guests with duck hunting. His actions were very successful not only at creating one of the world's easiest duck shoots, but also at attracting all sorts of different types of water birds. It is now a protected area frequented by serious bird geeks, with an artificial ecology that is still sustained by diverting water from nearby canals and dams.
Katlijn bird-watching at KeoladeoNational Park.
Our bird-identifying skills leave much to be desired, and the dusty, tattered 1940s British Colonial era "Bird's of India" book, also given to us by our hotel owner, was of little use. Thus, Katlijn was forced to swallow her pride, make amends with the Park tout, and ask him for his help in identifying birds. Together, we spent many hours spotting countless different varieties of herons, geese, owls, woodpeckers, and kingfishers before coming back and exchanging information with the birders staying at our hotel.
Just before leaving, we realized our hotel lady was attempting to charge us a fee for the binoculars and her crumbling bird book. When we tried to explain we weren't allowed to use them in the park, she simply smiled and gave us the infamous Indian head wobble- perhaps the most mysterious and infuriating gesticulations on the sub-continent: a gentle cranial motion which, in the ambiguous hands of a skillful tout, means neither "yes" nor "no", but rather something more along the lines of, "I entirely agree with you, sir. Life really does suck". We finally acquiesce, once again, in defeat. They should have made that warning sign bigger.
Indian man getting a deep and thorough ear cleaning by one of the local touts.
Before leaving Varanasi, we made a brief stop at Saranath, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is the place where Siddhartha Gotama, the first Buddha, gave his teachings describing the four noble truths and the basic tenets of Buddhism. For this reason, it was also once the site of an impressive temple complex. However, there is scant evidence of this now. These days, the most remarkable thing about Saranath is the long and very intense staring we are subjected to by the masses of middle-class Indian families that picnic here on the grassy lawns.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a bit of staring. We look different, we speak different, we come from a different place. For the most part, I can relate to their curious- trying to gather their courage to talk with us. However, Indians take staring to a whole new level.
On a recent bus ride, a man sitting in a seat in front of us turned around, rested his head on his cushion and stared at me, without pause, for ten minutes straight. I tried to stare back at him, but found it impossible to hold his gaze. I swear, he didn't so much as blink ! Most irritating are small packs of middle-class Indian teenage boys who find following a couple of white tourists around a park and staring at them to be a day filling activity so immensely fascinating it warrants repeated photography. Katlijn is a particularly popular target. Even after asking the boys not to photograph her, they'll hide behind pillars and bushes, snapping her picture paparazzi style.
If you are reading this blog, please leave me a comment below answering the following question: what on earth do you do with photographs of random white tourists !? Honestly, we have no idea.
The troubling thing is that most Indians know about as much about the West as we know about India, which is to say, pretty much nothing at all. For example, we once met an Indian on the train who was shocked that we stayed at cheap hotel rooms, did not travel first class, and used an unfashionably low budget cell phone. His impression of foreigners is that we just give money away freely to anyone who asks because we have so much of it. More insulting: our understanding is that many Indian males still think white women are sex-craved targets willing to have pre-marital escapades with any Indian man- an attitude which is clearly reinforced by much of the popular Indian media. We are very often asked about our marital status and, on the rare occasions we tell Nepali and Indian people that we are not married, they tend to shake their head and nudge each other as if confirming their basest pre-conceptions. The problem then with staring, is not so much the staring, it is thinking about what the other person is thinking about- pitting one set of misconceptions against the other.
The only other remarkable thing about Saranath are the locals attempting to "line up" for tickets. There is no actual line, but a massive tangle of bodies elbowing, shoving, and pressing up against each other. At the ticket gate, hundreds of hands can be seen holding onto the booth's bars, white knuckled, pulling the rest of their bodies to the front of the horde. There are so many bodies pressed so tightly against one another that it no longer resembles a crowd of individuals, but one single multi-headed, multi-limbed monster surging up against a poor emaciated ticket wallah cowering inside a ramshackle booth, locked in a life or death struggle with the beast, desperately trying to stave off its many thrashing appendages with nothing more than tiny stubs of paper. Interestingly, women are actually allowed to go, automatically, to the front of the queue-beast. Of course, I have never met a western woman willing to test this theory given the monster's many groping hands and its multiplicity of male brains.
We escaped the monstrous, staring crowd in the early evening to arrive at Varanasi's train station. At night, Indian train stations look like refugee camps full of hundreds of weary Indians sleeping on the concrete ground waiting for their train to arrive. In our experience, nothing ever seems to work as expected in India, so we were positively astounded to find our names listed properly on the side of the correct train car. How could it be that our information was sent from an Internet form to some remote Indian operator, having filtered through the creaking Indian train system bureaucracy (presumably oiled by countless 5 rupee basksheesh) to arrive at the Varanasi station manger who paid off some tout to paste it on the side of a train so it was hanging right in front of us ? And this is not an isolated event ! Our names are always there: spelled correctly and pasted firmly on the side of the correct train car. How all these multitudinous transactions occur without problem, while I can't even get hotel owners to bring me a bucket of hot water, is truly one of the great mysteries of India.
Indian trains have about 6-8 classes to accommodate the budget and comfort requirements of all travelers. We are budget travelers and therefore ride in the "sleeper class" which is the second lowest class (even we don't travel with the lowest class which is a kind of repository of all the worst rumours you have ever heard about India). Trying to overcome the snoring passengers around me, I stuffed my imitation Sony earphones from Nepal deep into my ears for a bit of music. However, no matter how hard I pushed, the right ear piece produced nothing more than an annoying buzzing, while the left one gave only a distant hum. Whenever something like this happens, Katlijn likes to make the following remark: "junk country !" which succinctly summarizes the quality of the merchandise we have purchased since landing in Nepal. Without functional earphones, I took a few sleeping pills and let the gentle motion of the train rock me to sleep.
We began our post-Varanasi, post-queue-beast encounter by visiting the erotic temples of Kajuraho. These temples were the result of a mysterious creative burst occurring between 950-1050 AD by the Chandelan people, one of the last early Hindu empires in North India. Nobody knows why they bothered to make such an extensive temple complex in a place with absolutely no strategic value at all. I can tell you from our long overnight train-ride and subsequent 6 hour bus experience that it truly is in the middle of nowhere. If not for the temples, the small band of locals who man this outpost attraction would never be here. They constantly complain about the lack of rainfall and are more reluctant than usual to provide us a bucket of hot water- it hasn't rained here for three years !
Most tour books erroneously refer to the Kajuraho temples as "erotic" temples. Admittedly, a few of the thousands of fine sculptures that cover these temples are of rather shocking threesomes and foursomes. However, the vast majority simply depict women in daily life. The reason for sculpting such lurid scenes and the artists' original intent in general remains a mystery to Indo-Aryan scholars.
Shortly after the completion of the Kajuraho temples, they were abandoned for the nearby forts to help ward off the various groups of Muslims invading from Afghanistan. This was the beginning of centuries of Hindu-Muslim conflicts which continue to this day in various forms, including present tensions along the Pakistan-India border. It would be another 800 years before the temples were accidentally rediscovered by a lost British colonist. We spent a couple of very happy days biking around the temple grounds, absorbing the beautiful architecture and exquisite carvings- definitely the most impressive we have seen in all of India.
We continued on to a city called Orcha where we met up with Party-Dean, the Aussie backpacker, and the German couple, Karsten and his wife Julianna. Party-Dean is to us representative of the younger generation of 20-something ultra-low-budget travelers you have heard about: living the good life while hauling their backpack around the globe. However, Party-Dean is the minority: the reality is that the backpacking scene has changed over the years. They aren't the ragged bums we were initially afraid we'd have to deal with. Nowadays, the vast majority of modern backpackers are an older more sophisticated sort and range anywhere from their late twenties to early sixties. They travel cheap, but still have enough money to occasionally splurge on a truly awesome Tandoori Chicken. Most of them are professionals taking a couple of years off, confident they can return and find work again with no problems. Karsten and Julianna, for example, have been traveling for two and a half years and will shortly go back to Germany to continue their careers. Of the very few young backpackers we do encounter, they are not nearly as annoying as we thought. Party-Dean is actually a pretty nice guy, not to mention the fact that his frugal life style has taught him the very useful ability to ferret out any given city's cheapest 30-rupee quality Indian eatery.
We spent several days exploring the ruined forts of Orcha with the German couple and Party-Dean. The most successful of the Muslim invaders were the Mughals who arrived around 1500 AD into India. At one point, their empire contained most of the sub-continent and their legacy can be seen in the many old forts and cenotaphs of most North Indian cities. Orcha's forts, though massive, are less famous and some are in a state of near collapse. Nevertheless, we had a great time clambering over their impressive, atmospheric remains.
Orcha's Forts and Cenotaphs are fine examples of Mughal architecture.
Undoubtedly, the most famous Mughal legacy is the Taj Mahal, located in Agra, just south of Delhi. It is one of the seven wonders of the world and, if you will pardon the cliche, is in fact as beautiful as they say it is. It was built by the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan between 1631-1653. He was so grieved by the loss of his second wife, who died giving birth to her fourteenth son, he built this massive white marble masterpiece in her memory. It is said that he actually had plans to build an identical Taj in black marble, exactly opposite the current white Taj. Fortunately, one of his many sons over-threw him by force and locked him in the Agra fort before he could deplete the empire of the considerable resources required to complete his mad, though inspired, vision. Shah Jahan together with his wife, Mumtaz Jahan, are currently buried together beneath the gorgeous domed roof of the Taj Mahal.
While you have undoubtedly seen pictures of the Taj Mahal, you have probably never seen it from this angle. Most photographs of the Taj Mahal are taken from the front garden since this was the view intended by its architect. We chose to photograph it here from the backside not only for the nice reflection in the surrounding waters, but because this angle reveals one aspect of the architect's creativity: the Taj Mahal is built on a platform several meters above the ground so that, whenever we look at it, the building is always framed against the sky enhancing its beauty. Another important feature, seen here but omitted by most photographs, are the red sandstone structures on either side which complete the frame and contrast nicely with the white marble of the main building.
In addition to the Taj Mahal, Agra is famous for its touts which rival those of Varanasi. The Agra rickshaw touts are particularly renowned for their exceptional skills at shuttling tourists for hours between commission peddling shops while never actually taking them to the Taj Mahal. Our particular tout managed this by using the excuse of a city-wide rickshaw strike. Nevertheless, he did take us to a few interesting places with some chatty craftsmen which almost made his hustle worth our time.
If you get close enough to the Taj Mahal, you will see that its marble exterior is decorated with inlaid gems. Agra is world-famous for this art form. Even though the cost of marble items with inlaid gems is well above our price range this year, these craftsmen are happy to show us their trade.
It takes this carpet weaver more than a month to make a full sized carpet. Every carpet pattern is different and for each pattern, he invents a new song with mnemonic lyrics that help him remember the order in which to weave different colours of thread. He sits for hours singing this song in complete concentration, while his hands move in a blur steadily weaving the carpet imperceptibly longer and longer.
Katlijn gets a little help trying on this red sari.
Sunrise on the Ganges. The Ganges is possibly the holiest place in all of India if not the whole world. Ironically, it is also the most poluted. Five hundred faecal coliform bacteria per 100 mL of water is considered safe enough for bathing. Samples from the river indicate more than 1.5 million bacteria per 100 mL of Ganges water.
We took off through the thick fog of Kathmandu's outdated airport with Air India- an airline which tops the black list on travel advisory websites. We flew this company using the same dubious logic of most Air India customers: "hell, it's got to be safer than the bus !"
Perhaps because Nepal is India's smaller and less famous neighbour, or perhaps because most people visit Nepal after India, Nepal is forever compared with respect to India. They always say the same thing: "Nepal is like India, but different". We, of course, went to Nepal first and will forever see India with respect to Nepal. Here is our first impression:
India looks a bit like Nepal- there are cars, goats, and cows bustling about to the sound of honking horns in a kind of street havoc. BUT, India's is a paved havoc. That, and the cows are bigger. They're huge ! Cows in Nepal are poor, emaciated, mangy little beasts. Cows in India are rich, fat, robust bovines with massive horns often seen chasing naked children off the road. Otherwise, India looks like Nepal. In time, this first impression will be proven wrong. Nepal and India are utterly different, and don't believe anyone who tells you this "same but different" nonsense. The Nepali people, of course, know that they are not Indian and, to avoid any possible confusion, they actually invented their own distinct time-zone exactly 15 minutes ahead of India's.
After landing in India and setting our watches straight, we caught a pre-paid taxi service which navigated us successfully through the chaos to drop us off near Varanasi's old town. From here, we spent a long time haggling with a shabby rickshaw tout and came to an agreement which neither of us understood completely. This is the first among many similar experiences we will encounter throughout our India travels. Prior to coming to India, I had never met an Indian without a fluent, Abu-accented, command of my language. Furthermore, language was never a significant barrier in Nepal. Thus, we were a bit surprised to find that the majority of Indians on the budget-travel circuit do not, in fact, speak much English.
After getting about halfway to our desired destination we had a heated altercation with our rickshaw tout over something neither party understood and had to elbow our way out of the gathering crowd of curious on-lookers. We then wound through the impossibly old and narrow streets of Varanasi, our massive backpacks scraping a layer of grime off the crumbling plaster walls, desperately looking for the Ganges. We couldn't find it. Worse still, we made the mistake of asking one of the locals for directions. Attempting to capitalize on the commission racket, our new friend tries taking us to several guest houses before finally dropping us off near the river and demanding five rupees baksheesh for his service. After refusing, we are chased out of the old city and stumble inadvertently onto a dark and smoky ghat full of dead bodies burning in the night. Apprehensively, we approach the fiery pyres and are surprised to find ourselves so close we can see a leg, a foot, toes. An arm burns off and falls to the ground. A man in a dirty white turban is attempting to to put it back on the pyre. He can't manage it- instead, he chases the severed limb around the ground with two sticks, trying unsuccessfully to pick it up.
Katlijn begins to feel a little queasy at this sight, so we head straight for our desired guest house, chosen because it is perched strategically above one of the Ganges' famous ghats. Within minutes we are already haggling over the inflated price of a room barely big enough to fit the bed, with one tiny screen window too dirty to let in any light but still having enough holes to leak in a steady stream of mosquitoes and the ashy smoke emanating from the corpses below. It's late and we are too tired to explore other options, so we roll out our sleeping bags and try to get some sleep.
In Varanasi, the monkeys come out at night.
When I was in Nepal, I used to think the monkeys were cute, funny, fuzzy little creatures providing hours of entertainment and plenty of atmosphere. Now I hate the little monsters. They begin by performing what sounds like a late-night tap dance on the corrugated roof of our budget accommodation. As the show reaches its climax, things get out of hand and, from the subsequent screeching, clawing, and scampering, I gather that a giant monkey fight breaks out. As more and more monkeys pile on each other above us, the whole roof shakes and rattles.
Then the dogs start.
Egged on by the brawling, roof-top, monkeys. First one. Then two. Then a hundred. All the dogs in Varanasi are barking at the monkeys, and then at each other, and then just for the sake of barking. Varanasi turns into a nighttime zoo of canines and apes all trying to out-bark each other. The barking induces aggression and I find myself imagining poking a small rifle through the holes in the screen window of our strategically located sniper position, gunning down the unsuspecting mutts. For Katlijn, the situation is worse. The constant yapping becomes so irksome it seeps into her sub-conscious so that when she finally falls asleep, she actually dreams of violently bludgeoning helpless puppies with a blunt object.
Then the bongos start.
Thump. Thump. Thump-thump-thump. At first, the holy man's drums are barely audible above the symphony of animal noises outside. But once you notice it, you can't stop listening. Thump. Thump. Thump-thump-thump, made more obtrusive by its irritating childlike simplicity, it consumes my very being until the incessant thumping becomes a roar above the howling monkeys and yelping dogs, driving me slowly madder, until I want to throw open the shutters of the dirt-stained windows onto the choking Ganges, inhale a lung full of ashes mixed with dead body smoke, and bellow out over the flaming corpses,
"Oi, Bongo man ! Shut up ! We're trying to sleep !"
But I don't do this. Instead, I lie awake in my bed listening, unable to stop myself, to the ceaseless thumping, imagining myself taking one of those Tibetan horns, big as a python, positioning it right next to the bongo-playing sadhu, and exhaling with all my might into its sonorous chamber generating a massive, deafening, horn blast. I would then casually glance over at the sadhu's frail frame, like I never noticed him before, and say politely,
"Oh, I'm sorry about that, Mister Bongo Dude. It's my religion"
And with only that explanation, I proceed to let loose another thunderous honk. HA ! Let's see you bongo over that, bongo boy !
Needless to say, I didn't get a lot of sleep. Dreary-eyed, we clamber down to the dingy cellar of our low-budget accommodation for breakfast. The grumpy chef emerges from his dark kitchen: a fat, balding Varanasi resident with a perpetually tired look on his face and huge bags under his eyes, the product of whole generations of screeching primates. He slowly fumbles around on the table looking for the menus, then throws them at us across the room so they land on the table with the pages fluttering open. After disappearing into his kitchen for ten minutes, he re-emerges and we tell him our order. The cook doesn't speak a word of English, not even the words "pancake" or "banana", so he motions us to write it down on a notepad before returning back to his kitchen. After some time, he re-emerges and studies our hand-written order disapprovingly, scanning it for errors, until finally, he finds one. Thrusting his stubby finger up and down on our notepad he says, "room number", and disappears again.
Naturally, it was quite a while before we received our breakfast and left the confines of our tiny stifling room to emerge onto Varanasi's hazy river-side ghats. We are immediately approached by touts, trying to take me for a boat ride, trying to get me into their shop, trying to stick a long thin medieval-looking implement into my ear to get the "best ear cleaning, no problem, I give you good price !" By the time we reach the main ghat, touts are coming at us from all sides with their hands outstretched,
"Hi ! Hello ! Where are you from ?", one grabs my hand, "Canada ? Good country. My brother is from Canada. Lot's of Indians in Canada", but rather than shake my hand, he is squeezing it about painfully.
I try to pull away, he holds on.
"No problem, I give best massage, good price", I watch helplessly as he manipulates my fingers into obscene gymnastics. Finally, with Katlijn's help and using my other hand, I manage to wrench free from his iron grip, but it's too late:
"Five rupees," he demands.
Trying to escape this tout, we walk briskly away towards an aged sadhu sitting cross-legged on the stairs beckoning us toward him. Surely no tout will bother us around this respected holy man. He is wearing a tray full of variegated colours into which he dips his finger and places a saffron tikka on my forehead. At first, I naively thought this was a kind blessing, but then he demands five rupees baksheesh- our would-be saviour turns out to be just another tout in sadhu's clothing.
View of Varanasi's ghats in the haze. The turqoise boats on the right can be used for transportation between the various "ghats", or steps leading down to the river for bathing.
Even the children are in on it. A young boy and his brother picked us up for a boat ride to watch a nightly dance festival from the water. When he dropped us off again, he tried to double our originally agreed upon price based on a fabricated misunderstanding. When we walk off his boat and refuse to pay him anything extra, he yells at us "bad karma !" This is initially laughable until I stop to think about it, and it occurs to me that an eight year old kid just told me the Hindu equivalent of "go to hell !"
This rickshaw driver, shown with his tree-wheel rickshaw and my backpack, offered me a ride to the station in his helicopter.
Main street Varanasi. You should see this place at rush hour !
By nightfall, I needed to get back to our guest house so I ask the nearest rickshaw driver to take me to the main ghat. Like all cycle-rickshaw drivers, mine is thin, dressed in rags, and destitute. Happy to get my business, he smiles revealing a row of sickly red teeth, rotting away from a life of chewing paan. Paan is a popular Indian digestive made from betel nut wrapped in a leaf. Unfortunately, betel nut is both cancerous and mildly narcotic so that many Indians consume it like chain smokers leading to ruddy, rotting teeth- an affliction which has reached epidemic proportions in Varanasi. Betel nut is illegal in most parts of the world outside of India.
Being peddled around Varanasi on a rickshaw by day is scary enough. Riding one at night is downright terrifying. The cars and trucks have only dim, often mal-functioning, headlights. It's hard to tell them apart from the motorcycles careening madly through the chaos. Cows don't have headlights. Monkeys don't have headlights. Everything you can possibly imagine is a potentially lethal obstacle. Nevertheless, my poor rickshaw driver, sweat dripping through his tattered rags, pedals as fast as he can. Periodically, he swerves violently to avoid a flock of chickens, a pothole, or a pedestrian seen just in time, and I have to hold on tightly as our rickshaw tilts on two wheels, the third spinning wildly in the air.
After a good half hour, we still don't arrive at the main ghat and I start wondering where we are, quickly coming to the conclusion that, wherever we are, it is not where I want to be. I tap my ragged, panting driver on the shoulder, and ask him "how much longer until we get to the main ghat ?"
He replies by trying to repeat what I said with a confused look on his face. He pedals to the side of the dark, busy road and stops the rickshaw. I ask again and he repeats again. After a few more of these exchanges, it quickly becomes apparent that his understanding of the English language can be summarized by only two phrases: "30 rupees" and "no problem"- enough to land him a client, but not quite enough to get him to where he needs to go.
By now, a large crowd of Indians gathers around me and my frail, betel nut addict- most of them just staring at me in awe, many engaging me in inane conversation "Hello ! Where are you from ? Canada ! Good country. My son lives in Toronto. Lot's of Indians there", but none having the requisite map reading skills I wanted.
After several futile minutes, trying to say the words "main" and "ghat" in as many ways as I know how, while each Indian individually puzzles over my map, some sort of group consensus is reached and everyone confidently points my rickshaw driver in a seemingly random direction, sending us peddling furiously, once more, through the night. My driver turns around, flashes me his rotting teeth and yells back "no problem", giving me absolutely no confidence whatsoever we are pointed in the right way.
After a long time, I can hear the cadence of my driver's peddling growing slower, his breathing growing heavier. I don't blame him- it's late and we've been travelling a long time. At some point, he points to a dark hole in the wall and asks, "hashish ? Marijuana ?" and I say, "No thanks". Nevertheless, he stops the cart anyhow and disappears into the hole leaving me sitting on his little rickshaw wondering if he understood my answer properly.
It isn't long before I'm approached by a nearby Indian (there is always a nearby Indian). "Hello ! Where you from ? Canada !? Great country. My cousin works in Calgary. etc." Fortunately, this one miraculously turns out to be a student at the University with perfect, Abu-accented English. We chat for some time before my driver finally emerges out of the dark hole in the wall with a joint hanging out of his mouth and a bong tucked into his loin cloth. I ask the Indian student whether he thinks my rickshaw driver will be able to get me to the main ghat.
The student assures me, "He's no good, but the ghats are just a few blocks from here so no problem." And with that, we are off once again, the scent of marijuana trailing behind my driver's smoldering weed as I wave back at the student thanking him for his help.
Indeed, it wasn't long before we finally arrived at the main ghat. Of course, my driver asked me for twice our originally agreed upon rate. However, I was too tired and happy to be back to give up much of a fight. I just paid him his money and waved goodbye to my stoned rickshaw wallah. He flashed me one last betel nut smile before finally pedaling out of my life and into the night.
I could already sense the presence of the hand massage touts nearby and was preparing myself for the inevitable gauntlet when, without warning, the power goes out and my surroundings descend into pitch blackness. Instinctively, I stick my hands deep in my pocket for protection, hoping to fool the masses of touts I know to be coming at me now from all direction with outstretched hands, desperate to give mine a good squishing. But it does no good, instead, my guard down, I feel a cold spot of paint dripping between my eyes which, slowly adjusting to the dark, can barely discern an old man's withered hand moving away from my forehead. "Fiver rupees", the tout in sadhu's clothing demands for his blessing.
I quickly learn that Varanasi's famous ghats are a death trap in the dark with no lights to illuminate the many holes, steps, and river side drop-offs. Slowly and carefully, I walk back towards my guest house. I can already hear the scampering monkeys preparing to begin their late-night corrugated rooftop tap-dance extravaganza which will begin the unstoppable chain events leading to a thousand barking dogs- another sleepless night. I begin to wonder:
Since when did I become afraid to ask people for directions on the street ?
When did I begin walking around in fear that somebody might try to shake my hand ?
Why are there twelve light switches in my room, and only one light bulb ?
What the hell is wrong with this place ?
On the way home, I pass by a real sadhu dressed in yellow and orange rags with a small sac containing a few coins. I give him a ten rupee note. "Thank you so much, and bless you" he says to me, and somehow I feel instantly better. A bit further, a young western woman wrapped in a warm pashmina waits for me by the river-side. When I approach she tells me she feels uncomfortable walking alone in the dark and asks me if I can walk her to the hotel. I don't blame her. As we walk along the Ganges together, I tell her about my rickshaw ordeal.
"Did he really not understand me ? Was he stoned ? Or was he just trying to scam me into paying more money ?" One never knows, we agree.
Back at my hotel, I over-hear some recently arriving tourists ruthlessly grilling the staff like suspected criminals, completely certain that they would somehow be scammed unless they spell out in great details every aspect of their agreement beforehand and write it down on paper, their misplaced anger giving them away as recent victims of Varanasi's shakedown.
That night, the monkeys took their show elsewhere, the dogs didn't start their chain-reaction barking, and even bongo man, god bless him, provided us with one night of blissful sleep. By morning, we had our order ready for the grumpy chef in neat block-letters with our hotel number clearly written on the top. When he emerged from his dungeon kitchen, he put both hands on the table, bent over our notebook, and studied the papers carefully for a long time while we waited anxiously. Finally, he made a low grunt of reluctant approval, eyed me suspiciously for a moment, and returned to his dark kitchen which soon emanated the sweet smell of banana pancakes. I discovered a new respect for this chef's grumpiness- I'd be grumpy too if all the tourists I baked pancakes for talked to me like a common thief. Whatever is wrong with this place, it is cyclic leading both visitors and locals alike to badger each other.
Varansi at morning time in gorgeous pastels.
Less tired, our stomachs full of banana pancakes, we set off to explore Varanasi again. Over the initial shock of so many people treating us like walking money bags, we focus our attention instead on the vast majority of people bathing and bustling about the ghats. There are rich people, poor people, old people, young people, holy men, hippies, body builders, kite flyers, cricket players, and any other sort of person you can imagine doing anything you can imagine: bathing, swimming, playing, rowing, eating, cremating, dancing, defecating, laughing, crying, singing, praying, meditating, and more.
Colourful ghat-side characters. After cremating their deceased, Hindus will shave their heads and dress in white. Unlike in the west, white, rather than black, represents mourning.
As the days go on and we become use to life on the Ghats, the touts grow less and less prominent in the kaleidoscopic hubbub until they, too, are just another type of person, like any other, going about their business. In fact, we don't even notice the tourists. We know they must be somewhere, having chatted with them at our guest house and dealt with the touts that cater to them; India's tourist business is booming like never before. It is just that the tourists are a minority. Overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of local people, they disappear completely into the crowd, replaced instead by a feeling of authenticity like no other place we have visited.
Varanasi is, of course, the final earthly destination for Hindu souls. Though many Hindus will not see Varanasi in their lifetime, it is most likely where they will come to die. It is, at very least, the most auspicious place to have your body cremated. Hindus believe that if your life expires in Varanasi, you will be immediately offered moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Not everyone can afford to burn their loved-ones near the Ganges: the priests, ceremony, and wood cost considerable sums of money. The wood is particularly expensive, and three different types are provided to accommodate a range of budgets. Those who can't afford wood can use a nearby electric crematorium, which is also significantly more environmentally friendly. However few people are willing to do this since wood is integral to Hindu cremation rites, providing a symbolic connection between the body and the earth.
Given the high cost of wood, it is weighed carefully and sold by the kilogram. These people are experts in knowing exactly how much wood is needed to burn a given corpse.
The dead burn along the Ganges' ghats twenty-four hours a day. The Indian concept of a funeral is exactly opposite that of the West. Instead of a solemn and private affair around a body made artificially to look alive, the Hindu funeral is an entirely public spectacle set around a raw burning corpse. It is a place to contemplate death. While bodies are burning around you, there is a constant sound of ceremonies, drumming, and music filling the air which, combined with the many colours and varieties of people, creates a special mystical and spiritual atmosphere completely unique in the world.
Looking back on Varanasi, it was the highlight of our visit to the sub-continent: India at its most vibrant and irritating. It is simultaneously busy and peaceful, colourful and dark, magical and raw: exploding with life.
Nepal is home to eight of the ten highest mountains in the world. Of these, we only managed to see two of them during our trek through the Annapurna Circuit: Daulagiri (Number seven at a height of 8167 meters), and Annapurna I (Number ten at a height of 8091 meters). While we won't have time to trek up to the other mountains until our next visit, there are alternatives.
Nepal offers perhaps the most scenic mountain flights in the world. Unfortunately, Kathmandu's dubious airport is strategically located in a part of the valley nearly always covered in a thick blanket of early morning fog. It took me three trips to the airport before there was barely enough visibility to allow planes to take off. However, once you do manage to catch a plane, it will get you your shot of nearly all the great Himalayan peaks with almost no physical effort. It isn't quite the same as walking up there- the sterile cabin environment just can't reproduce the experience of actually earning the view. On the other hand, this is the only way you can enjoy gazing upon the world's highest point with a gin and tonic in your hand.
Mount Everest. Elevation 8848 meters. Highest point on earth.
A couple of weeks ago, in an over-priced Indian budget hotel room in Jaipur, something attracted my attention: barely visible through the snowy static of the television screen was a a picture of Sir Edmund Hillary: most likely the first person, together with Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, to reach the peak of Mount Everest in 1953. Edmund Hillary had just died. The only photograph taken on Everst's peak commemorating the successful joint Nepali-Indian-British expedition, is of Tenzing taken by Hillary. It has become a very famous image since appearing on Nepal's own "Everest" beer label.
Interestingly, in 1999, they found the body of George Mallory and his partner frozen just beneath the summit fueling speculation that they had reached the summit many years earlier in a 1924 expedition. It is still not clear whether they froze to death on the way up or on the way down. While, Tenzing and Hillary are still credited with the first successful Everest conquest, George Mallory is more famous for his stoic reply to a journalist questioning the purpose of climbing Everest: "because it's there".
These days, you need to meet three necessary requirements to conquer Everest: you must be an experienced mountaineer, totally nuts, and filthy rich (not necessarily in that order). It costs 60,000 Euros just to be given permission to climb Everest. Nevertheless, though many die each year "because it's there", wealthy people continue to pay the exorbitant fee for their chance. In Nepal, you can hear many of their stories. Some of these stories are gripping, such as the definitive adventure book written about the tragic 1996 expedition, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (also a film). However, my favorite story is that of Briton Maurice Wilson, who enacted his cunning plan to crash a private plane halfway up the mountain and then simply walk from there to the top. He was found frozen to death in a light sweater a few hundred meters from the crash sight, proving that harboring only two of the necessary three requirements for conquering Everest is not sufficient.
Katlijn and I will have to leave our definitive shot at Everest for our next visit- though on our budget, we'll have to satisfy ourselves with the view near the base camp. We were sad to leave behind Nepal- one of the poorest and most admirable places on earth. From their office in Kathmandu, our guide, Mahesh, our porter, Vishnu, together with our initial Nepali contact, Ram, waved us one last goodbye as we crammed ourselves and our backpacks into a tiny white car and risked one last harrowing taxi ride to the foggy airport en route to India.
As a wise man once said, "What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child ?". With this thought in mind, we returned to Kathmandu in search of a western-style Christmas dinner. Let's be honest, the best thing about Nepal is not the local food, it is the fact that there are enough decent foreign restaurants that you can avoid eating it entirely. A new brand of swanky foreign run restaurants have popped up all over Kathmandu, one of the best being "Kilroys" owned and operated by an Irish chef. We had to reserve early for Christmas dinner as it is perhaps the only place serving up a decent meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, hot buns, and a large selection of tasteful wines. One can only wonder where in Nepal they managed to find a turkey, but it tasted incredible so we didn't ask too many questions and spent the entire evening gorging ourselves on Christmas goodness.
Over the next several days, we explored Kathmandu and its surroundings. Kathmandu is an awkward blend of the most exotic ancient and the most uninspired kind of modern. The streets are tiny, crowded, and pot-holed. They wind haphazardly around crumbling structures, home to a rats nest of rickshaws, touts, and dog pooh. One can't help but wonder how on earth it will ever be possible to modernize a place like this. They'd basically just have to bulldoze the whole lot and start over again, and come to think of it, this probably wouldn't be such a bad idea. Many parts of town are destitute and falling into decay. Much of this is not the kind of graceful decay of ancient civilizations, the buildings brooding over a time forgotten. Kathmandu's is a poor, humiliating, concrete modern decay.
We met up again with our Himalaya guide, Mahesh, to get his advice on where to buy some electronics- a card reader for our digital camera and some headphones for our ipod. He leads us to a hole in the wall full of dusty 80s era audio technology- the kind of devices used in local buses where the pounding rhythms of Nepali pop music can barely be heard above a low fidelity crackle. The shop is run by two old ladies who show us their stock of audio headphones. For a moment, I stop to admire the superior craftsmanship of the imitation Sony boxes. It's amazing- you could swear it's the real thing until you open the box revealing a shoddy product on which no respected electronics giant would dare gamble away its trusted brand name.
We ask the shop keepers a few simple questions about their goods to help us decide what to buy. Their response is to shake their head from one shoulder to the other- an irritating Nepali gesture that means neither "yes" nor "no". In fact, as far as I can tell, it means nothing at all- a gesticulation of such utter meaninglessness that it can't possibly be translated or understood. It is the non-answer given to such vital queries as "Do you have anything other than Daal Bhaat on the menu ?", "Are those ice-cubes made from tap water ?", and "Is that milk pasteurized ?". In the face of such total absence of information, there is nothing one can do but acquiesce, defeated, and buy whatever junk they are trying to sell you.
However, while it must be said that modern Kathmandu is a stumbling junk heap of a city, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting its prouder and more dignified past in the old city and the surrounding Kathmandu valley. In fact, you can pretty much avoid seeing Kathmandu itself except as a kind of wasteland between the tourist sanctuary of the Thamel district, full of backpackers buying last minute North Fakes from the multitude of trekking shops, and the ancient exotic of the Kathmandu valley.
Christmas day turns out to fall on Kathmandu's laundry day.
Some of the most interesting places to visit are the Buddhist temples and Tibetan refugee villages which dot the entire Kathmandu valley. We visited the most important stupas, Swayambunath and Bodnath, where the monks allowed us to sit with them during their ceremonies. One of the monks begins with the low, ethereal, Tibetan chant. Over top of this barely audible rumble, an entire room full of at least 50 monks begin to chant, rhythmically and in unison, the syllables of a verse. Suddenly, a cymbal crashes, winds cry, and horns blast in an ear-splitting cacophony to break this contemplative rhythm. According to an Irish student of Buddhism I met later, the Tibetan verses simply describe a scene which the monks attempt to imagine in great detail as they repeat the verse over and over. The banging of the percussion and the harsh horn blasts are intended to represent the grand entrance of the Buddha, or one of his incarnations, into this scene.
Tibetan Prayer flags fluttering over Swayambunath Stupa. The watchful eyes of Buddha gazing in all four direction over the Kathmandu valley. The nose-like sign below the eyes is the Nepali number one; it is a symbol of unity.
In Nepal, both Buddhists and Hindus have worshiped peacefully together at the same temples for years. Both Buddhist and Hindu shrines are juxtaposed in the same compound. Furthermore, Swayambunath stupa is over-run by monkeys who are considered sacred animals by Hindus. Thus, Swayambunath is affectionately known as "The Monkey Temple" by the locals.
Tibetan horns and cymbals.
Nepal is the lesser known home to its legendary people: the birthplace of Buddha and refuge to many of his modern spiritual followers, the Sherpa people who are still paramount in the ascent and exploration of the world's highest mountains, and the fierce Gurkha warriors many of whom still serve as the Dalai Lama's personal guard and are employed by the British military. The traditions of these and Nepal's other people have remained intact over the years. Unlike India, Nepal was never significantly influenced by the British who decided early that the rugged hill side terrain would be too difficult to colonize. In fact, after initial conflicts with the west in the early 1800s, Nepal shut themselves off completely and the country was almost entirely unseen by foreigners until 1951.
The most important residents of the Kathmandu valley are the Newari. They are the inventors of the pagoda and therefore their architectural heritage, disproportionate to their fame, can be seen throughout Asia. Furthermore, the painfully spicy Newari meat dishes serve as a delicious caveat to the bland and soupy lentils otherwise dominating Nepali food. While reading an entertaining and informative book by a Nepali girl once worshiped as a living goddess, called From Godess to Mortal: The True Life Story of a Former Roayal Kumari by Rashmila Shakya, we became most interested in these people and visited their ancient and once-glorious cities at Patan and Bhaktapur.
Patan's Durbar square provides the largest density of Newari architecture in the world.
Examples of Newari architecture.
.Bhaktapur in graceful decay. At first glance, many of the old buildings appear dilapidated. Closer inspection reveals elegant Newari touches.
And what do you think the sport of choice is in Shangri-La ? Hacky-sac, of course. Children all over Nepal can almost always be seen enjoying a good hack. Too poor for our decadent western style cloth bags, children forge their makeshift hack-sacs out of a tangled ball of elastic bands rummaged from the garbage !
"Honking car horns is prohibited". Like most Nepali road signs, this one is entirely ignored.
All the Annapurna backpackers end up in Pokhara. Thus, it isn't long before we bump into a few of our trail friends and arrange a celebratory dinner- no daal bhaat allowed. After researching the most expensive restaurants in Pokhara, we come across a French bistro with an impressive wine list. You can always count on the Nepali for a solid effort at foreign cuisine, and while you could get a better "steak au poivre" in Normandy, what other French restaurant in the world has waiters serving you in North Fake jackets and hiking boots ?
Pokhara use to be a major destination on the Himalayan hippy pilgrimage in search of a free-love, free-pot, Shangri-la, but it now caters primarily to fat German tourists. Still, we had a lot of fun here and enjoyed some pretty tasty food before finally deciding to move on.
Inspired by the Korean Himalaya Woman, Andrew, Kimchi held convincingly between his metal chopsticks, enjoys a Korean pork barbecue in Pokhara with Katlijn. Koreans are avid hikers and some very authentic and tasty Korean restaurants have opened in Pokhara to cater to this demographic. In fact, we both decided that this was the best Korean food we had tasted since visiting Seoul a few years ago.
With a bit more time on our hands, we did some research on the bus situation in Nepal. It turns out they have something called "Tourist buses" which, for about 50 rupees extra (about 50 cents), provide you with marginally more comfort and safety. We take one to a small turnoff in the middle of nowhere and ride on the roof of a connecting bus going up to the small medieval town of Bandipur. The trip up to Bandipur is perfect for a little roof-riding as we climb above the clouds and are offered fantastic views of the Himalaya in the distance. Bandipur itself is a picturesque Newari town full of friendly people and some nice day hikes. We enjoy one relaxing day exploring the surrounding hills before continuing on to Chitwan.
Main street Bandipur, a perfectly preserved Newari village.
There is no way to catch a tourist bus from Bandipur to Chitwan so we are crammed into a small jeep so full of people that arms and legs spill out of the windows- there is simply no place left to put all those limbs. We can hear the creaking and groaning of the rooftop buckling under the weight of so many passengers sitting above us. We take this for a half hour before being herded onto a public bus by a skillful tout, and pushed towards two seats at the very back with malfunctioning seat backs which, to the general amusement of the bus staff, force us to stare blankly at the ceiling for several hours before finally arriving at the city of Sauraha near Chitwan National Park.
Chitwan is a long way from the cold Himalaya mountains. It is located in the Central Terai region of Nepal. The park together with the neighbouring reserves and conservation areas encompasses almost 1500 square kilometers- mainly sal forests and grasslands. It is host to 450 species of birds and 50 different species of mammals. It is also one of the only safari parks of this type where you are actually allowed to walk through the park, though you must at all times be accompanied by knowledgeable guides for safety. We decide this is the best way to see Chitwan, despite some small risk of wildlife attacks.
We get up early in the morning and enjoy a peaceful paddle down the Rapti River in the mist. Along the way, we see marsh mugger crocodiles, and a bizarre looking creature called a "gardial" which is a kind of prehistoric crocodile with jagged teeth and a long snout- they have not evolved at all in the last 150 million years. We also get a very close look at a one-horned rhino above the river bank.
View of the misty moody Rapti River from our dugout canoe as we hunt for crocodiles.
A marsh mugger sunning itself in the late morning. We owe the term "mugger" to British soldiers who watched these creatures emerge camouflaged from the reeds and drag local villagers to their watery death.
Before entering the sal forest, we are given instructions on what to do in the event of an attack by the various animals living in the park, except a Bengal Tiger. When I asked about this, he suggested the chances are pretty low, but I imagine there isn't much we can do about it anyhow. According to our guide, tigers hunt mostly at night and are not very active during the day. However, there are some incidents every year due to tigresses protecting their cubs or older tigers which discover that humans are relatively easy prey. A reassuring thought, for sure !
An endangered one-horned rhino. If you are ever charged by a rhino, the correct reaction is to run in a zig-zag pattern and drop articles of clothing behind you. This is often enough to throw off rhinos which have notoriously poor eye-sight and rely mostly on smell. If you are lucky, you will survive, intact, with your underpants still on.
Entering the Sal forest.
Claw marks of a Bengal Tiger. These markings together with its pungent urine demarcate its territory.
Our first morning is our most successful. It feels like walking through a fence-less zoo. We encounter spotted deer, barking deer, sambha deer, wild boars, rhinos, langur monkeys, red-face macaques, several gardials, and countless exotic birds. Katlijn and I march between our two guides who are armed with small staffs.
A Bengal Tiger sighting is the ultimate prize of any Chitwan safari and both Katlijn and I want to see this more than anything, until we hear a cat-like growl emerging unseen between the Sal trees and watch our guides turn pale. They motion us to stay still and position themselves in front, fingering their staffs. It occurs to me that our guides are shorter than me and a shade too spindly to take on a tiger with a couple of bamboo sticks. As they eye each other apprehensively, I can see them thinking the same thing. We slowly move away from the forest and further up the path where we are told to crouch down and wait. "It's a tiger !" one our guides whispers. We wait a long time, not quite certain anymore that we actually want to see a tiger, but nothing emerges from the forest.
Afterwards, our guides agreed they heard two sounds: a rhino and a tiger. I only heard a tiger. In fact, a bit shaken from this experience, I pretty much only hear tigers in the forest for the rest of the day. Nevertheless, the afternoon is relatively uneventful. A wildlife safari is actually a more relaxing experience than I had imagined- it tends to involve a lot of waiting around in a wooden safety tower hoping for something to happen while, in fact, nothing does. After several rounds of "hammer, paper, scissor" I fall asleep for a few hours before our guides wake us up and tell us our safari was over for the day.
As it turns out, we had inadvertently timed our safari for the one day in the year that the villagers are allowed to go out to the grasslands and pick grass for use in their houses. They were singing loudly and deliberately make a lot of noise to avoid wildlife encounters, in direct contrast to what were were trying to do. Consequently, we met a lot of villagers, but hardly any wildlife in the afternoon.
Chitwan National Park was originally a plot of land used for royal hunting expeditions. Since it was reserved only for this purpose, it was spared the worst of habitat poaching and most of its animal species survived. However, the People's War resulted in deteriorated security in the area and both animal and habitat poaching resumed over the last ten years. The rhino population was reduced significantly and only a handful of tigers remain today. With improving security, police stations can now be seen throughout the park patrolling the area. If the political situation continues to improve, the park will be saved.
The nearby villagers have grown accustom to gathering wood from the forest which is of a superior quality to the wood they are allowed to use in their conservation area. In fact, it appears they are using the grass gathering day to smuggle it out. In most cases, the locals bundle the grass on their back and herd it to their village. There are so many of them doing this that, from the observation tower, it looks like the meadows are alive and the grass itself has decided to move into town. Our guide uses his staff to poke at one of the grass bundles revealing that many of them are decoys used to hide blocks of wood inside. It is such as simple ruse that the police are probably more or less aware of this and allow it to go on to some extant.
Villagers loading a dugout canoe with grass bundles. Interestingly, the original people living in the Chitwan area evolved a natural resistance to malaria.
We stay at a a gorgeous village in the middle of the jungle hosted by a friendly young Nepali woman. We decide to order the barbecue chicken, not having ever seen that on a Nepali menu before. This turns out to be an enormous evening-filling production involving catching a chicken, killing it, making a fire, and roasting it cave-man style. Sometime in the middle of the night, we finally get to eat our chicken. The overall gastronomic experience is always one part taste and one part atmosphere. This chicken was among the best we had ever tasted and even the best restaurant in the world could never fully realize the experience of eating it around an open fire with the Chitwan locals celebrating a successful day of gathering and smuggling.
Unfortunately, this inspiring dinner will forever be tainted in my mind by the fact that I spent much of the next day throwing it up all over the forest floor. At one point, I found myself retching next to the bloody chicken feathers- perhaps its ghost exacting revenge on me from its poultry after-life. Katlijn, however, was unaffected and enjoyed a full day safari while I recovered.
By the following morning, I was well enough again to walk back to Sauraha. We went briskly through the forest, barely stopping to watch the wildlife, so we could get to the Rapti River in time to help bathe the elephants.
On the way back to Sauraha, Andrew stops at the elephant breeding center to feed a baby elephant the last of his digestive cookies.
Giving an elephant a bath is sure to capture the youthful soul in anybody. As we desperately try to climb up on the elephant's back, the trainer shouts commands causing the elephant to try to shake us off. It rolls around, shakes about, and sprays us with its nose. Meanwhile, children again, lost in the fun, we all forget how old we are and splash about together with the giant beasts.
I think one can safely say that it is a lot more fun to have a bath with an elephant than to actually ride on one. We decide we need to try an elephant safari that evening just to see what it is all about it. It turns out that an elephant safari involves being squeezed into a small box full of fat German tourists, and rocked about uncomfortably as the elephant waddles slowly through the forest. On the bright side, it is amazing how close you can get to the wildlife on an elephant. Deer are perfectly comfortable with elephants around, even when they are loaded with obnoxious tourists squeezing their camera triggers. Even the rhinos seem to barely notice us, sitting around lazily barely noticing us hovering over them.
Mule trains carrying supplies between the Annapurna villages. Mahesh says that once the roads are completed on either side of Thorung La pass, most of the mules and porters will no longer be needed.
While it is an easy hike into Pokhara from Tatopani, we make a detour to Ghorapani, meaning “horse water”, and a place of no particular interest. The main purpose of heading up to Ghorapani is to make a side trip to “Poon Hill” which is considered one of the most spectacular lookouts in the Himalaya. We are very sorry to leave the comforts of Tatopani, especially considering Mahesh estimates a steep, uphill, eight hour climb to get to Ghorapani. This also means that by the end of the day we are again at a reasonably high elevation guaranteeing us another cold night.
Katlijn in the lead, we storm to the top in under six hours, two hours under the estimated time. I put my bag down in our room, rest my legs and shoulders a few moments, grab my towel, then head off to a room optimistically titled “hot shower”. We spend the rest of the evening huddled around a log fire while I experiment with the local take on a European pouss-cafe called "Mustang Coffee" which is basically coffee with mixed with millet wine. To tell you the truth, I wouldn't do this to a decent cup of coffee, but its an improvement on pure instant coffee.
Andrew recovering from his shower in front of the fire system.
Ghorapani to Tikedungha (Elevation 1525 meters)
Mount Dhaulagiri (Elevation 8167 meters) from Poon Hill. Seventh highest mountain in the world.
In song, we hear Mahesh approaching shortly after five AM the next morning. Watching my breath swirling in the air before me, it is hard to convince myself to exit my cozy sleeping bag into the cold dark. Fortunately, I had cleverly anticipated this problem the night before and slept fully dressed with my headlamp and trusty North Fake tucked away deep inside of my sleeping bag, already warm and ready for the ascent.
It takes us a half hour to get to the top of Poon Hill, guided by Mahesh, our headlamps, and the stars. According to Mahesh, Poon Hill “must” be seen at sunrise to fully appreciate the experience. Sunrise, it turns out, happens quite a bit later up here owing to the mountains blocking the horizon- something, for whatever reason, I had not cleverly anticipated. This leaves us standing around in the cold for a good hour before the sun peeks mercifully over the front of Machupuchre immediately melting away our cold spirits and coating the Annapurna and Dhawalagiri ranges in a breathtaking orange and pink light. Katlijn was well on her way down before sunrise, too cold to linger, enjoying gorgeous views of Annapurna South and Dhaulagiri on the way between a forest of Rhododendrons. I spend some time on the top taking photos and absorbing the views while sipping some quality Masala tea offered to trekkers at the top. In high season, Mahesh says that over 600 backpackers are crammed up here in one morning. Fortunately, we are here much later in the year and have traded away these crowds for somewhat colder weather. There are only a handful of other people around me chattering quietly in various languages and accents.
After breakfast, we descend steeply down a green valley for several hours- an experience for which my knees won’t fully forgive me for another three days. Mahesh informs us that along the way, we will encounter Maoist rebels which control a large percentage of the rural parts of the country including passage to our destination at Tikedungha. The Maoists are a militant communist party that have been waging a ten year "People's War" to overhaul the existing system with a communist classless, and caste-less, system more conducive to improving the plight of rural peasants. As a part of these activities, the Maoists have been extorting money from foreign tourists on occupied trekking routes for years.
The way this works is that you are asked to make a "voluntary donation"- "voluntary" being Maoist for "the last person who refused to give money is still recovering in the hospital". George Bush labeled the Maoists a terrorist organization so Americans are most likely "asked" to give a bit extra. Being from Canada and Belgium, we are welcomed by the Maoists with a smile and given a short lecture about how they plan to use the money to help rural communities followed by long and more animated tirade about the evils of American imperialism and how they fund a corrupt government to drop bombs against them. As we are not Americans, he gives us a two hundred rupee discount and a receipt that reads "voluntary donation" which we have to keep with us: the Maoists are civil enough to only ask that we donate money one time so if we are ever stopped by Maoists again we can just show them your slip. Of course, we wouldn't need this slip if our donations were really voluntary, but this logic eludes them entirely.
Mahish (right) negotiating our payment with the Maoists.
Let's face it, the Maoist's really are a terrorist organization and their People's war has not only worsened the plight of rural farmers, it has cost about 15,000 Nepali lives and resulted in irreparable damage to the ecology due to habitat and wildlife poaching during the weakened security. It's not exactly the kind of organization you want your tourist dollars going to. Thus, ripping the Maoists off is a kind of tourist sport and is even fervently encouraged by the guides and porters who will aid you in this endeavour. In our case, we give all our papers to Vishnu who goes on ahead knowing that Nepali people are never stopped by the Maoists. Katlijn, Mahesh, and I follow behind. Mahesh tells the officer that we flew in to Jomsom and are hiking down in seven days. When asked for our papers, we tell them our porter has them. Not willing to make much of a fuss, they believe our story. At two hundred rupees a day plus our two hundred rupee discount for not being American, we feel like we have done our part. Other tourists often band together around somebody who already has a "voluntary donation" slip from some other part of the country. Interestingly, I read later in one of the local papers that the Maoists have pledged to stop this extortion. However, I can tell you this is definitely not the case and there was even a recent incident where a Swiss trekker was badly beaten by the Maoists for refusing to pay.
When we got into Tikedungha, I chatted with an American at the lodge curious about his Maoist encounter- he got the 200 rupee discount too by posing as a Canadian tourist ! We spend our last evening reading and relaxing with Mahesh and Vishnu.
Andrew, whose game has steadily been improving, fails yet again to beat Vishnu at a round of Carom. Carom is best described as a cross between snooker and crokenol. It involves sinking small wooden disks into one of the four corner pockets. It is a thoroughly addictive game played all over Nepal.
Tikedeungha to Pokhara (Elevation 884 meters)
The four of us after completing the Annapurna Circuit.
It’s an easy and pleasant three hour walk through shaded trees down to a nondescript village called Naya Pul where all four of us, together with our bags, cram into a tiny taxi which could comfortably fit about two. Our pubescent chauffeur confidently lurches around goats and potholes for an hour before we arrive, a bit shaken, at a mid-range hotel room in Pokhara. After basking in showers with that elusive combination of both hot water and high pressure, we take the entire contents of our backpacks to a shop where we are able to haggle a good per kilo price for laundry.
Cows and motorcycles.
We spend a few hours wandering around the streets of Pokhara which line the picturesque waters of lake Phewa Tal. Pokhara is shamelessly touristy which is exactly what you want after 17 days in the mountains. Everything from authentic Italian pizzas and gelato to a decent cup of joe are widely available.
A professional is needed to shave away Andrew's three week old mountain growth.
In the evening, Mahesh and Vishnu take us out for a “special” dinner, which turns out to be Daal Bhaat again. “Daal” means “lentils” and “Bhaat” means rice. The combination of “Daal Bhaat” basically summarizes the entire Nepali cuisine. Vishnu likes to refer to this combination as “Nepali Pizza” perhaps referring to its ubiquitous presence- there must be some sort of law requiring it to show up on all restaurant menus.`
To eat Daal Bhaat properly, you take your soupy lentils, pour them on your rice, and shovel it into your mouth with your fingers. It’s not that I’m putting Daal Bhaat down, I love lentils as much as the next guy. The first time I tried Daal Bhaat I thought it was great. In fact, and I realize this isn't a huge compliment, it really is the best thing on the menu. But seriously, every meal !? I spent three weeks with Mahesh and Vishnu and never saw them eat anything else. Actually, without exaggerating, I have never seen a Nepali person eat anything at all besides Daal Bhaat. Mahesh tells me that when baby turns six months old, there is a huge celebration where all the villagers turn out to acknowledge the auspicious occasion of the infant’s “first Daal Bhaat” and the beginning of a long and happy life of lentils.`
As it turns out, this particular Daal Bhaat really is special as it comes with mutton. From what I understand, most families can't afford meat and only eat it on very special occasions about once or twice a year. I can honestly say that this is too bad because the non-vegetarian version of Daal Bhaat is seriously tasty stuff and we thank Mahesh and Vishnu for restoring our faith in Nepali cuisine.`
I have received a lot of e-mails about this blog, mostly to the effect of "why didn't you just go to a Thai beach ?" so I feel I need to defend Himalayan trekking. "Yes", it was cold. "Yes", the high altitude caused some minor headaches. And "yes", we ate a hell of a lot of daal bhaat. But Katlijn and I both enjoyed the amazing scenery, people, and diversity immensely and highly recommend this to anyone of all ages. Get a porter if you need to. Try a lower elevation trek if you need to. Nepal is a hiker's paradise. We are seriously considering coming back again next year for a trek up to the Everest base camp. I can't wait !
Clouds blocking out the sun over the Trans Himalaya high dessert
We had been convincing ourselves for days that things could only get progressively warmer after the pass and we have very high hopes. Soon we could take our wool hats off, don T-shirts, and lose those crusty pairs of thermal underwear we had been wearing for the last week. Alas, last night was still cold and today no better. Clouds hang over the whole Mustang valley blocking our view and the sun leaving us once again with unusually cold weather. Mahesh tells us that it is snowing up at the pass right now blocking safe passage- a remark which was later confirmed to me by a Scotsman who attempted to make the pass despite the bad weather. It seems as though I defended my PhD just in time- a day or two later and we wouldn't have made it !
Our plan today is to start early and make it to Marpha before noon. Later than this and we get caught in the heavy winds that regularly blow through the valley. Our plan, of course, is foiled by the cold weather which causes the winds to pick up earlier in the day. We are caught with the full force of it. It makes for some pretty unpleasant walking but we manage to make it to the town of Jomsom where we stop to have lunch.
Nepali school girls in uniform
The villages on this side of the pass, and Jomsom in particular, are very luxurious compared with where we had come from. Furthermore, there are many more trekkers here owing to the airport in Jomsom and its proximity to the city of Pokhara. Many people simply fly in from Pokhara and walk back down to avoid the exertion of high altitude climbs while enjoying some spectacular scenery. Both for the large number of apples and American tourists, this portion of our trek is often called the "apple pie trail" referring to the tasty desert catered at most lodges. At Jomsom, Katlijn and I are both able to order a chicken schnitzel with fries as a reward for walking through the wind.
We arrive in Marpha later in the day, still cold, still wearing that crusty thermal underwear. The power is out and there is no hot water. The hotel owner puts some coals underneath the dining table and we all sit around it roasting our legs and drinking some delicious local apple brandy to stay warm (there is a distillery just outside of town). With this cozy arrangement, we play cards with Mahesh and Vishnu. They teach us some Nepali card games while we teach them both the game and the word "bullshit" which they begin to use with regularly from now on. Mahesh would start by saying to Vishnu mockingly, "There warm showers at Lower Pisang." Vishnu would pause for dramatic effect and then reply slowly, "Booool-sheeeeet" to which they would both laugh uproariously. Katlijn looked a bit uneasy.
Andrew demonstrating the bucket system.
Day 13 Marpha to Ghasa (Elevation 2010)
The small business caste of the Thakali people living here line their roof tops with stacks of firewood. According to our guide, these stacks are a demonstration of wealth.
We are disappointed again the next morning when we look outside: icicles hanging off the ledge and a thick layer of clouds. The morning begins with a soft, gentle romantic snow but naturally this culminates into a full blown snow storm by the time we are halfway through the day's hike. It is like yesterday's winds, but colder, stronger, and mixed with a dense snowy precipitation making it impossible to even look up. Sunglasses are needed, not to block the sun's UV rays which I thought I would never see again, but as a kind of eye protection against bits of ice and snow. Safety pins are needed to keep that damn North Fake jacket closed.
Not only is it cold and unpleasant, but it is disconcertingly quiet and lonely. Nobody in their right mind is still walking through this- we are the only trekkers out there. At some point, I see a lone jeep coming towards us silently off in the distance. When it arrives, the British guy we met back in Muktinath opens the window and gives me two big thumbs up. As they pass by us, I see the beady eyes of the Korean Himalaya Woman, wrapped in her Eskimo outfit and fluffy ear muffs, peering at me behind her thick scarf out the back window, her arms raised as far as her snow suit allows waving a kind of "goodbye". Then the jeep vanishes and we are by ourselves again with only the snow and the sound of it blowing past us.
We trudge slowly onwards against the frigid wind for several hours and I can't stop thinking of those Tibetans up at the High Camp probably sitting there right now, cross-legged around a smoky piece of yak shit thinking, gosh, it's not quite as cozy as a log fire but I'm sure as hell glad I'm not walking out in that ! At times like these, it seems only natural that I have to go to the bathroom and I spend a long and uncomfortable period of time considering the various desperate possibilities available to me. Eventually, we come across a town where I ask Mahesh to enquire the owners of a small home if I can use their bathroom. A chilling sense of deja vu washes over me.
The old crone leads me to her barn. We navigate our way around the chickens. She makes a path through the goats and beckons me to go with her. She motions at me to step over her buffalo to a small wooden shack with a hole in the ground. As I crouch down, I feel instantly relieved. I'm not sick. There is nobody cooking dhal baat outside the door. I didn't even get attacked by an alpha rooster on the way in. I think I made it, so I get up and push on the door. It's locked.
"Excuse me !" I cry out, "Excuse me ?", hoping my faint voice will carry through several layers of down, fleece, and wool- a faint echo above the howling winds.
After 10 minutes I start to get seriously cold and begin thinking about Mahesh' comments regarding people dying over night due to exposure to the cold. I wonder just how many tourists they find every year, frozen to death and forgotten, locked in the back of some Tibetan's bathroom. Is this how it is going to be then ? Freezing to death over a crouch toilet in the back of this barn ? It somehow seemed like a fitting conclusion to my Annapurna experience.
Just before I am about to enact a daring getaway that involves dangerously scaling the outhouse walls and walking out on their rooftops, Mahesh comes to my rescue. Within a few hours, the weather improves and we arrive safely at a small lodge in Ghasa.
Andrew turning Tibetan prayer wheels shortly after the snow storm and his embarrassing brush with death.
Ghasa to Tatopani (Elevation 1190)
View of the Kali Gandaki valley we follow down to Tatopani. Nestled between mountains higher than 8000 meters, it is the world's deepest valley- nearly 6 km deep and 36 km wide.
Nepali people love to take a crack at foreign foods and I was impressed to see Japanese Okonomiyaki on the breakfast menu this morning. It's actually a pretty good imitation, though it lacks Okonomiyaki sauce which sort of defeats the purpose.
It's an easy walk down the valley to a place called "Tatopani". "Tato" means "hot" and "pani" means "water", and the name refers to a nearby hot spring. A hot spring, I might add, that is about the best thing that has happened to us in the last two weeks. Forget the pine forests, the barren alpine scenery, the cold high dessert, this place looks like a club-med tropical paradise. There are bananas and oranges which you can literally pick off the trees for free from the lodge gardens.
Katlijn nicks a few oranges off the tree.
In short, Tatopani turns out to be a small miracle. How can it possibly be that we were slogging through a snow storm yesterday ? Here we have warm weather, fresh fruit juice, and some kick-ass banana milkshakes, not to mention the amazing healing properties of natural hot springs on two weeks worth of sore muscles. Finally, we are able get rid of those crusty thermal underwear.
To avoid altitude sickness, we need to spend a day acclimatizing at Manang. This also allows us the possibility to do a little laundry, access the internet, and stock up on Snickers bars before the final push over the Thorung La pass waiting for us 2000 meters higher. Mahesh tells us that we should enjoy the luxuries of Manang now since the higher elevation lodges are pretty basic. He adds that we will need to use the bucket “system” after today. It is unclear at this point whether he is referring to the shower or the toilet facilities.
The nighttime temperature in Manang regularly dips below 20 degrees Celsius. Mahesh tells us that people caught exposed in the night will freeze to death. Bundled in my thermal underwear, a wool hat, a heavy down sleeping bag geared for extreme cold, together with a fleece lining, I can say that I would be moderately comfortable if not for the inadequate foam mattress which causing me to periodically turn over taking turns numbing different sides of my body. Unfortunately, all-weather sleeping bags do not take into account night-time toilet runs- something my body seems to need frequently at this altitude given the vast quantities of dhal baat I am consuming. Dhal baat, in my personal experience, is a natural night-time laxative. Every night I am forced to ask myself the same vexing question: do I really need to go to the bathroom badly enough to get out of this sleeping bag, spend several frantic minute fumbling around the room in a desperate search for the toilet paper, dash outside and across the field to the nearest toilet, and then crouch down and expose my bare bottom to the freezing elements ? Unfortunately, after long and uncomfortable deliberation, the answer is always affirmative.
At about 8.30 in the morning, we can hear Mahesh coming to wake us up. Mahesh always gives us plenty of warning by singing a gentle melody. His voice grows gradually stronger as he approach until there is a sudden silence followed by a softly spoken, “Excuse me ?“ which is my cue to get up and return circulation to whatever side of my body I was lying on. Even on the trail, Mahesh normally carries a barely audible hum. When rounding a bend, he gives a soft whistle on the off chance we might startle somebody unseen around the corner. We like his gentle and unassuming nature.
Andrew marvelling at his frozen laundry.
The sun is very powerful at this altitude making a palpable temperature difference every time you walk into the shadow. Since there is no heating in Manang, a row of shopkeepers along the street can be seen each morning sitting outside their stores in the sun because it is too cold to sit underneath the shadow inside. We quickly adapt to the local customs, apply some sunscreen, and enjoy a hardy fried eggs and hash brown breakfast while soaking in the powerful rays.
Gunga Purna Glacier spilling down the mountain side. Evidence of glacier erosion can be seen throughout the xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Himalaya in large displaced boulders and smoothed rock surfaces.
Following the old climbers adage of “climb high, sleep low” to aid the acclimatization process, we hike up a few hundred meters above Manang to an excellent view point of the gorgeous Gunga Purna Glacier cascading down between Annapurna IV and Gunga Purna peak feeding a small turquoise lake below. Over night, the surface of the lake freezes over and we can hear it cracking in the sun as we march to the top.
Along the way, we catch a rare glimpse of a small dear near the lookout point which, judging by the elevation and the description in my book, is likely an endangered musk deer. Perhaps more impressive, we catch our first glimpses of the legendary Korean Himalaya Woman and her entourage:
- 10 porters literally carrying buckets of kimchi on their backs - 1 Korean Chef - 1 Korean/Nepali guide - 2 young Nepali boys holding her hand whose actual function we often speculate over while gossiping around the fire.
At least she is doing her part to keep the mountain economy going. We have never actually seen or heard her, but only barely discern two beady eyes peering from behind a scarf, an enormous Eskimo jacket, and big fluffy ear muffs. She looks a bit like Kenny from SouthPark.
The district capital of Manang camouflaged against its harsh environment.
We get back in the early afternoon and I spend the day taking pictures of the Tibetan people and architecture around the village while Katlijn relaxes with a book. Being low-season, we enjoy the entire hotel to ourselves.
Manang to Letdar (Elevation 4250 meters)
The human body needs time to develop physiological mechanisms to cope with the decreased oxygen in the air at higher altitudes. This process of acclimatisation is still not fully understood. AcuteMountain Sickness is a potentially fatal condition.
Mahesh gets us up early the next morning for the day's hike forcing us to bid a fond farewell to the comforts of Manang. The pine vegetation grows gradually thinner and finally disappears as we climb above the tree line leaving only small shrubs that can survive in the high dry climate here. Along the way, we catch a glimpse of rare mountain Ghorels grazing near the path.
To avoid altitude sickness, it is important not to gain too much altitude in one day so we have only a short four hour walk and gain about 700 more meters. Nevertheless, this doesn't prevent me from developing a painful headache. To make matters worse, Mahesh doesn't want me to sleep it off because he says I'll have more trouble falling asleep at night- another physiological effect of the body's acclimatization process. Instead, he suggests I eat some garlic soup which is the local remedy for altitude sickness.
Tibetans planting garlic, one of the few crops that grows at this altitude easily, and also a prominent ingredient in the local cuisine.
Regardless of its medicinal properties, garlic appears to be the ingredient of choice among the Tibetans living here. In general, it is chopped, grated, and roasted into all sorts of foods in such copious amounts as to render it utterly inedible. The fact that my soup was actually dubbed "garlic" by the Tibetan people should have been a clear warning for travellers to stay away, but I decide to give it a try. I slowly spoon down the whole bowl like a bad medicine. While my headache does indeed disappear, the soup's odor could still be sensed lingering on my breath for days.
While I recover from my headache, Katlijn talks with the Dutch couple. The older mother is afraid she won't make the Thorung La pass and so rented a horse from Manang allowing her to go faster. Rose, her physically fit daughter, has no signs of altitude sickness and wants to make the pass in one day- a feat normally accomplished in two days. According to our guide, making the pass from Letdar is not possible, but this does not deter them whatsoever. Later, our guide reveals that their porter and the horse trainer are aware of this and have planned from the beginning to take them to a shabby, ice-cold tea house just below the pass as soon as they realize they can't make it before daybreak. Naturally, this tea house is owned by the horse trainer and the porter will take part of the profits.
Today was my first introduction to the Tibetans' very own variation on the fire system. You may have wondered how the Tibetans can possibly stay warm at night above the tree line with the complete absence of fire wood. Their solution is to pack a large storage closet full of sacks of perfectly round yak turds. Two or three of these yak paddies are placed in a small oven and set on fire giving off a surprising amount of heat while filling the cabin full of a choking yak dung haze. It is definitely as effective as a log fire, though it certainly lacks the cozy ambiance.
It is so cold at night that the bathroom water bucket is frozen solid sending me to their backup toilet- a tiny outhouse of unspeakable filth. I come back and nestle my way between the Himalaya Woman and her large entourage of porters, chefs, and translators all huddled, shoulder to shoulder, around three chunks of smouldering yak feces. It occurs to me that maybe a Thai beach wouldn't be so bad after all.
Letdar to High Camp (Elevation 4900 meters)
We wake up early the next morning and I am pleasantly surprised to find that my headache is gone and I'm able to climb higher. We see the Dutch couple leave at about which is much too late to make the pass- Rose tells us the horse trainer took a very long time to prepare the horse causing their delay.
We are in very high spirits today as we enjoy another gorgeous hike in beautiful weather. While the temperature is bitterly cold at night, it is surprisingly comfortable to walk in during the day as long as we are in the sunshine. Along the way, we see a few forlorn travellers returning, pale faced and sick, to lower elevation. They had to go back down to Manang and recover from altitude sickness. Perhaps they will be able to try again in a few days if the weather holds. We stop at a village called Phedi and have lunch with Evan, the Canadian biologist from Nelson. We discuss what luxuries we miss most. For Katlijn, it is a bag of green hula-hoops and a pack of Fruitella. I want a good dark Belgian beer which would be the perfect Himalayan fire side companion. Nepali beer, by the way, is always of the lager variety and actually pretty good. The best brand is Everest which is quite a satisfying ice beer. Beer and whisky are available at all lodges even at higher elevations. However, like everything else, it all has to be brought up on the back of some poor porter making it unaffordable on our budget. In general, the price of all food and water inflates with altitude making tonight's destination the most expensive lodge in the Annapurna.
After lunch, neither of us are showing any signs of altitude sickness so Mahesh suggests we continue further up to the High Camp at an elevation of 4900 meters. This entails a steep 1 hour climb which will shorten tomorrow's final scramble over Thorong La. This is the first time during our trip where we start to really feel the lack of oxygen in the air. We have to make frequent stops to catch our breath and walk at a frustratingly slow pace. At this rate, it seems like we are making absolutely no progress at all, so it is surprising to see Phedi growing gradually smaller as the High Camp comes within view. Finally, we arrive. The sky is perfectly clear, I only have a mild headache, and we are confident we will make the pass. The Korean Himalaya Woman is with us too and she shares a little Nakchi with me to celebrate.
Seven ways to use a yak
Forget what you have read about Tibetan spiritualism and the Dalai Lama. In fact, Tibetans are actually avid yak herders ! Yaks are considered one of the most useful animals in the the world and are one of the only bovines that can live easily at high altitudes. Here are seven practical ways you can use a yak:
Yak butter, milk and especially yak cheese which is surprisingly tasty (actually should be called "Nak" cheese).
Yak fur is commonly used in clothing and in shelters.
Yak dung is a fuel forheating and cooking.
Yak dung is also a fertilizer.
Yaks are powerful beasts of burden.
Yak spinal cords are an effective contraceptive.
High Camp over Thorung La (Elevation 5416 meters) to Muktinath (Elevation 3710 meters)
Katlijn and I spend the entire night tossing and turning- contorting our bodies, sleeping bags, and pillows in search of that one mythical arrangement which might actually make us comfortable enough to sleep. There isn't one. At about , Mahesh' song can be heard mercifully ending what must have been one of the longest nights in my life. I talked to several people who stayed at the High Camp and they all had the same experience. I only know of one Frenchman who managed to fall asleep only to wake up and run out in the freezing cold hyperventilating as a result of a nightmare he had where he couldn't breath properly. A physician we met on the trail told us that both lack of sleep and bizarre dreams are common side-effects at high altitudes.
It is pitch black outside and freezing cold. I can't touch my breakfast and give the whole thing to Vishnu. To make matters worse, I have a splitting headache and need to take some aspirin. It is the worst I felt the whole trip. Determined to make the pass, I dawn several layers of clothing, switch my headlamp on, and do up all three remaining buttons on that North Fake down jacket.
We have to leave very early to be sure we make the pass in the morning. Otherwise, the winds typically picks up resulting in a high wind chill factor and a potential for frostbite. As we march through the darkness, my headache slowly dissolves. Gazing at the multitude of stars in the clear night sky and the moon's glow illuminating some of the highest peaks in the world is almost a religious experience. At dawn, we pass a small tea house occupied by the two Dutch women, shivering and stomping, just as Mahish had predicted. They told us it was so cold that icicles were hanging off their frozen blankets in the night.
The Himalayan sky behind mountains.
It's very slow going up to Thorung La, the largest mountain pass in the world and also one of the highest trekking routes. Behind us can be seen a few interspersed trekkers at various stages of the ascent. Most of them are stopped waiting to catch their breaths while admiring the surrounding alpine scenery. Others can be seen concentrating on putting one foot slowly in front of the other, each leg like a lead weight, steadily moving forward. Our porter is the slowest with his heavy bag. Then, Mahish and I walking at our pace. Far ahead is Katlijn who seems to be less affected by the altitude. She is waiting for us at the top.
We are all happy to reach the pass and have a quick celebratory photo. However, it is too cold for us to linger long and, within minutes, we begin our long steep descent. The cold weather ensures us some tricky icy passages, but we manage all right and it isn't long before we start to take our heavy jackets and sweaters off. Along the way, we are offered stunning views of the dry Mustang valley and the Dhawalagiri range separating Nepal from Tibet.
Mahesh and Andrew managing the icy slopes just below Thorung La
A view of the MustangValley which is in a dry high dessert climate. This region most resembles Tibet, located just beyond those mountains, and is referred to as the Trans-Himalaya.
We arrive at the town Muktinath in the early afternoon after about eight hours of walking, our knees sore from the long descent. We celebrate with a few special menu items for dinner: I have a "pepper steak" (read, "Chunk of Yak in brown sauce") while Katlijn has "pizza prosciutto" (Spam ham). Over dinner, we talk with Evan and a British couple about their experiences in India and get a few good travel tips. It was truly a memorable day. I peek down the hallway and watch expectantly as Katlijn dissapears into the shower room. After a few moments there are shouts of glee and steam leaking out the cracks. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
Eco-friendly solar-powered water boilers can be found throughout the Himalaya. It takes about 20 minutes to boil water on a sunny day.
After countless trips to the toilet in the middle of the night, I wake up early the next morning to the uncomfortable realization that I need to walk six hours with both a heavy backpack and a serious case of the runs. It is at this point that I am happy Katlijn brought a porter who significantly lightens my load by taking my sleeping bag. Of course, Vishnu now carries all of Katlijn’s stuff, 10 snickers bars, the last installment of Harry Potter and TWO heavy arctic sleeping bags. In order to manage this, he uses a head strap in addition to the shoulder and waist harness. Mahish calls this Vishnu’s “magic” which makes it all possible. Regardless, Vishnu is my hero.
Having the runs in a foreign country is one of the unfortunate facts of life in traveling to Nepal and India. Since many small villages dot the entire Annapurna circuit, trekkers are discouraged from going in the wild. Naturally, I was able to take advantage of this excellent opportunity to tour of the gamut of Himalayan toilet facilities. Like the vast majority of the world, they are of the “squat over a hole in the ground” variety and come in a few predictable classes of materials and designs. My favorite was when, in sheer desperation, I had to ask one of the villagers to use the toilet in her home. A tiny, hunched, ancient woman led me into her barn where I had to navigate my way through several chickens, a flock of goats, and a buffalo to the smallest wooden bathroom I had ever seen. Just outside the bathroom was her kitchen stove of all things- a funny wood burning stove with a small iron chimney that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. I stepped over the buffalo and ducked into what must be the filthiest spider infested bathroom in Nepal, if not the entire Indian sub-continent. I had to simultaneously hold the door shut and assume the crouching position forcing me to hang monkey-style over the hole- an acrobatic feat that would require extreme coordination even without my bowel condition. I lost my balance several times causing the whole shack to tremble violently for the duration of this experience. When I emerged, I was horrified to find the old crone just outside my door cooking some Daal Bhaat on the Dr. Seuss stove. She looked at me with her mouth wide open, revealing all three of her teeth, giving me a look of simultaneous astonishment and disgust that said, “What is the matter with you man !? You are 32 years old and still not potty trained !?” With what remaining grace I could muster, I stepped over the buffalo, put my hands together, and muttered “namaste”. She watched me carefully as I moved her goats aside and was literally attacked by an aggressive rooster on my way out.
There are currently no roads in this part of the Annapurna so all supplies are carried between the villages by porters who bare all sorts of strange and bizarre Eastern and Western items and livestock, often in ridiculously over-sized and over-stuffed backpacks and cages. However, a new road is currently under construction which will connect Besi Sahar with Manang promising to change everything, for better and for worse. We have to take an enormous up-hill detour to avoid blasting of the mountain side necessary for this construction. Mahish says the road will be bad for porters and guides which currently form the backbone of the tourist and transportation culture. When I once asked him if they will control the nature and amount of traffic on the road, he muttered sadly, “like in Kathmandu” which basically means a cluttered mess of buses, cars, and backpackers where pounding the horn repeatedly takes the place of road rules.
This is my favorite porter who was very kind to let me take her picture. Note that she is carrying that weight on her head ! Himalayan women do much of the hard labor. I have seen similar old ladies wielding dangerous looking axes to chop fire wood.
By the end of the day, my condition starts to improve. Unfortunately, Katlijn seems to be developing sinusitis. The lodge owners give her some local inhalant which seems to work quite effectively at reducing her symptoms. Mahish then produced another local remedy for my stomach condition that looks suspiciously like guinea pig droppings- I decide not to chance it.
Katlijn taking full advantage of the Jagat's local anti-sinusitis inhalant underneath her jacket.
During the night, Katlijn hears some commotion in the village.
Day 4 Jagat to Tal (Elevation 1700 meters)
Mahish gets us out of bed early the next morning and we enjoy a tasty apple pancake breakfast. He explains that the commotion was due to a thief caught stealing from one of the lodges. He is currently held in the local Jagat kindergarten since the nearest police station is in Bahundanda, nearly six hours walk away.
Mahish tells us that only kindergarten and elementary schools are available in most of the small villages we pass. He had to walk two hours to get to his nearest high school [uphill both ways] and this is not unusual. Some kids stay with relatives or in boarding houses away from home while other students can be seen in their uniforms walking the same trails as us. Still others, especially the girls, won’t go to school at all and are needed to work the farm at home. Maybe that road really will come in handy.
As we leave the town, we see all the villagers gathered in a crowded circle: men, women, children, and babies. We have to ask them to move aside so we can get through. In the center of the circle stands the young thief who looks positively terrified. There is blood dripping out of his mouth. He had been beaten. One of the villagers passes me by and feels the needed to explain, “he stole money”.
Waterfalls carving the Himalaya from stone.
Katlijn is still not feeling well so we do only a short three-hour walk to a small town called “Tal”. The path is very beautiful with several waterfalls cascading down the valley side. The Himalayas are caused by the massive collision of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate, encompassing both India and Australia, with the Eurasian continent. The resulting force is causing the bordering land to raise in elevation at a rate of a few centimeters each year. When we look at the Himalaya, we are not so much seeing mountains but the gaps between them carved by the rivers. It is interesting to consider that the river we are following through the valley is therefore older than the mountains themselves.
Day 5 Tal to Chame (Elevation 2700 meters)
Tibetan people live at these higher elevations. Chortens, such as this modern example at Tal, mark the entrance to Tibetan villages.
Katlijn spent a lot of time in bed and we are considering staying in Tal until she recovers. However, Mahish encourages us to continue on at least a bit further today. He is afraid that if we lose another day or two now we may have trouble making the high pass since we are attempting this trek so late in the year. The next storm could block our passage entirely and we would have to return home.
Amazingly, Katlijn’s condition seems to improve as we walk. After a long nine-hour slog, we manage to make it to Chame making up for the time we lost yesterday. Mahish told me later he never thought we'd make it ! Along the way, the diverse sub-tropical vegetation gives way to pine forests. There are no more terraces of rice fields. Rather, corn, wheat, and millet are grown at this altitude. In contrast to the Gurung people living at lower altitudes, the people here are mostly Tibetan- both newer refugees and older communities dating back to the ancient trade routes between India and China. The villages themselves look notably different with spiritual displays of prayer wheels, flags, and stupas.
As if marking this contrast to a new stage in our journey, the weather also begins to roll in- changing from this morning’s balmy, “why the hell are we lugging around these arctic sleeping bags ?”, to the evening’s bone chilling “why the hell won’t the zipper work on these cheapo Kathmandu North ‘Fake’ jackets we borrowed from our guide ?” Towards the end of our walk, it starts to snow and we experience our first night of serious cold weather.
Mist through the trees. The weather rolls down the hills at us.
Nepali people are very fond of the word “system”. Everything is a “system”, no matter how trivial. If you go to a restaurant in Kathmandu and ask them to wrap your tuna sandwich in foil, this is referred to as the take-home "system". Similarly, after Mahish finds Katlijn huddled on her bed refusing to come out of the room unless we cut out little leg holes from her sleeping bag, he invites us down to use the fire “system”. We decide to take his advice and follow him to a room where a few Tibetans sit around a fire.
Underneath a curtain of drying yak jerky, sipping from a piping hot cup of coco, roasting my feet in front of the cozy fire after a long day of hiking, reveling in my lack of bowel problems, I realize that this is my ideal vacation. Katlijn is not convinced, however, and argued vehemently in favor a cocktail on a Thai beach. Nevertheless, she had to admit that this particular moment was bliss. We spent the evening chatting with our guide and porter until, thoroughly exhausted, we retired to our room at about 8 PM- a late night by our mountain trekking standards.
Day 6 Chame to Lower Pisang (Elevation 3200 meters)
The sun burning snow off the impressive bulk of Annapurna II seen here towering above us to an elevation of 7937 meters.
The weather clears up and we enjoy spectacular views of the Annapurna range during an easy five-hour walk to the town of “Lower Pisang”. Upon arriving, two loud Korean girls tell us that there are “hot” showers in our lodge. Excited by this prospect, Katlijn and I grab our camp towels and head for our first winter high-altitude shower experience:
Imagine that you are naked in an enclosed wooden room completely shielded from the sun. Imagine, if you will, the temperature in this room is close to 0 degrees Celsius- sort of like sitting naked in your freezer. Now, think of a chest-high tap on the wall with one merciless knob dribbling luke-warm water onto the floor. Imagine how cold that water feels against the concrete in your bare feet. Now, imagine small holes in the wooden shack through which you can feel a cold draft blowing against your body. Imagine standing there for what seems like an eternity waiting for, no… hoping to god, that luke-warm dribble will eventually turn into a “hot” dribble like those damn obnoxious Korean girls promised. Finally, imagine it never gets “hot” at all. In fact, it gets slowly colder and colder as whatever “hot” water that might have been there to begin with is being used up.
We soon learn that it is actually better to be under the luke-warm water than getting splashed by it in the freezing cold. You still feel cold under the tap, but it is definitely better than not being under the tap. Thus, it is not only hard to get into the shower, but infinitely harder to get out of it. My approach is to plan carefully my actions before I reach up from my naked crouch position and shut the tap off. I then slowly and methodically dry each part of my body and, as soon as possible, cover that part of my body with clothing. Katlijn’s approach is to yell maniacally several expletives followed by the word “cold” at the top of her lungs to serve as a warning to any other trekkers within the next village.
After our shower, we proceed with haste to the fire “system” and I eat some of the lodge’s chowmein wondering how on earth it is possible to cook something with absolutely no taste at all. The Korean girls are kind enough to lend me their red chili sauce. They tell me they take this with them everywhere in Nepal to provide a little character to their meals. It doesn’t help.
Back in Kathmandu, they make tea by simultaneously boiling together the milk, the tea, the spices, and some water. It is a truly satisfying beverage which I highly recommend. Up here in the Himalayan mountains, you are lucky to get a small tea bag floating ineffectively in a glass of slightly-warm unpasteurized milk. I decide, instead, to try my luck with the local “Tibetan tea” which turns out to be a vile brew made from salt and warm yak butter. I couldn’t drink it. I couldn’t get anyone sitting around the fire to drink it either. In fact, I couldn’t even get any of the Nepali people to drink it. Instead, it turned into the evening's much needed entertainment as everyone took turns smelling it and then contorting their face into an image of disgust followed by guffaws of laughter.
After this game grew tiresome, we spent the rest of the evening around the fire gossiping with the other travelers. One of the joys of doing the Annapurna Circuit is talking about the various eccentrics that are crazy enough to do this hike in the middle of winter. Since we are all walking the same trail, sitting around the same fires, and eating the same food, you get to know them pretty well. There is Evan, a Canadian Biologist from Nelson, BC, who actually decided to start the Annapurna Circuit immediately after he got back from a 20 day trek to the Everest Base Camp- otherwise he is entirely normal and we like him a lot. There are the Dutch girls, a 55 year old mother and her daughter who claim that Eindhoven has everything we need to be happy (at this point, a soft mattress, a hot shower, and sit-toilets). Our favourite, however, is the infamous “Korean Himalaya Woman”.
Everyone on the mountainside knows of the Korean Himalaya Woman; rumors travel fast between the villages. According to the two Korean girls, she has been sited recently on horse back at Lower Pisang and they claim she gave them a cup of instant noodle ramen. She visits the Himalaya twice a year with not one, not two, but TEN porters ! This is in addition to her guide and chef. Each porter is purported to carry several kilos of Kimchi, an octopus, and some dog meat which her chef turns into a giant Korean feast every night somewhere in the distant mountains. Reports indicate she is generous. We have not yet seen her but have only heard stories about- she is sort of the Asian culinary counterpart to the illusive yeti.
I looked down at my full cup of salty Tibetan tea in quiet contemplation. Could the legend be true ?
Day 7 Lower Pisang to Manang (Elevation 3540 meters)
We get up early the next morning and I have some buckwheat bread with jam. Tibetan buckwheat bread looks like a Frisbee and tastes a bit like one too. Anyone for a game of Ultimate ?
Katlijn and Vishnu checking the map en route to Manang.
We enjoy a flat and highly enjoyable walk to the Tibetan town of Manang, the district capital and a virtual metropolis compared to the villages we had been staying in. Along the way, we are offered stunning views of Annapurna II, III, and IV. The weather is gorgeous. We have recovered from our illnesses. Upon arriving, I turned the tap water on… hot water ! It is a perfect day.
You can do everything in Manang. You can check your e-mail, buy Pringles potato chips, and even watch a small selection of DVDs on a big screen (“Seven Years in Tibet”, “Kundun”, “Into thin air”, etc.). You can even spend an evening around a campfire with the local Tibetans listening to their classic rock CD collection.
In short, Manang is the best place on this side of the Himalayas and we are very happy to be here for the next couple of days.
A couple of locals hanging out on main street Manang in the early morning.
Machu means "fish", Puchre means "tail. It is the fishtail mountain.
As seen from Sarangkot in Pokhara at sundown.
Sorry for the long delay in updating this blog. Believe it or not, there really are solar powered internet cafes in the Himalaya. However, they cost a small fortune to use so we decided to wait until we got back from our trek before updating our blog and responding to e-mail.
We completed the entire Annapurna Circuit a few days ago. Since it was a very special experience, we will provide a detailed day-by-day account of this particular journey which we will post in installments over the next week or so (subject to Internet availability and power outages, of course). After that, we will try to update the blog more regularly to describe the places we have visited...
The xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Annapurna Circuit
Day 1 Bus ride from Kathmandu to Besi Sahar (Elevation 800 meters)
Before it started leaking uncontrollably all over our hotel room floor, Katlijn enjoyed one last civilized luxury in Kathmandu: a hot bath. I have to say, in retrospect, our Kathmandu hotel is comparatively not so stinky and actually downright comfortable compared to what we will experience in the next 17 days.
We met up with our guide, Mahish, and our porter, Vishnu, in the early morning, got in a dangerously dilapidated taxi, and weaved at top speed through honking motorcycles and countless bovines before arriving at a bus station somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Mahish sat us down for a breakfast of Nepali tea and biscuits before we got into a rickety old bus painted in psychedelic pastel colours and took off for the Himalayas. This was our first experience with Nepal's public transportation system.
It takes two to three people to navigate the Nepali infrastructure by bus. There is the driver- in our case, an old man wearing a wool hat with a marijuana badge sewn on the front. Then there are one or two helpers who serve several purposes including the following:
- Calling out for passengers - Looking out for the startling number and variety of highway obstacles - A substitute for malfunctioning signal lights. - Strapping baggage, furniture, and roosters to the rooftop - Yelling Nepali profanities at slow moving vehicles and bovines
Our helper was a sixteen year old boy wearing a black "Jack Daniel's" bandanna, bandit-style, and black low-rider jeans. This wouldn't have been so bad except for the glaring fact that he was going commando. There do not appear to be actual bus stops in Nepal. Instead, the helper is constantly vigilant for potential passengers waiting in the middle of nowhere. To signal the driver to stop the bus, he would pound the side of the bus one time. After throwing whatever bizarre items the passenger may have onto a towering rooftop pile, he would pound the bus two times to signal it to start moving again.
Whenever passing another vehicle, a terrifying event which occurred with distressing regularity, he would pound the bus several times signalling there was no visible traffic, potholes, or farm animals. Our bus driver would then push the horn repeatedly and gun it- sending everyone lurching backwards, perhaps losing a few roosters behind us, as our bus hurtled past at full speed, held together only by a few rusty bolts, some rope, and the collective blind faith of those of us inside. On the narrow mountain roads, I had to hold back the urge to cry out. "Mr. Bus driver ! Are our lives really so dispensable to you !?"
Nevertheless, as our bus tempts fate just a few inches from a cliff side rounding a blind curve on the wrong side of the road, the Nepali people do not seem to notice. It was astonishing. I want to explain to them, "Our lives are in the hands of a crusty ex-hippy and a boy who wears no underpants. WE ARE IN SERIOUS TROUBLE HERE !". But yet, as I stare behind me, there are, at best, a few looks of mild concern. Our porter is sound asleep.
You may call me paranoid, but consider the following facts and figures which are all true:
1) You are 20 times more likely to be killed or injured in a bus fatality in Nepal than you are in any developed country.
2) I can see burnt carcasses of psychedelic pastel coloured buses off the cliff side that look disturbingly like the one I am riding in.
3) Riding a bus is considered the most dangerous activity you can do in Nepal. It is more dangerous than white water rafting, more dangerous than climbing Mount Everest, even more dangerous than drinking the tap water.
I can see our helper bent over in front of the bus fiddling with the dash board and mooning the passengers while he's at it. Before long, I hear a crackling noise through bus speakers and then the booming sound of Indian pop music played at full volume through an 80s cassette player system: my nightmare is complete.
Resigned to my fate, I rest my head against the grungy bus window and stare at the havoc outside. I start to feel the motion sickness pills kicking in listening to the rhythm of the music. I begin to play a game with myself: closing my eyes and opening them again then mentally remarking the foreign images in front of me.
Nepali girls with tikas wearing British school boy uniforms.
A technicolour truck with the words "push horn" painted on the back in Hindu font.
Cows parked between motorcycles.
Day 2 Besi Sahar to Bahundada (Elevation 1310 meters)
Every inch of land used. Rice is grown in the Himalays up to about 2000 meters.
Damn. I shouldn't have eaten so much chicken with my Daal Bhaat last night. I am sensing the start of a serious case of Traveller's Diarrhea. However, Katlijn is in high spirits so I try not to let on too much. This is our first day of serious trekking.
We have a Nepali guide named "Mahish" who can tell us what we are looking at and show us the way. Actually, this isn't true. Mahish also tells us when to get up, where to sleep, where to eat, where to rest, and where to go to the bathroom. In fact, we are total lemmings completely under his command. We even ride the bus when he asks this of us. We do absolutely everything he says and pay him for this privilege. Still, he is polite enough to refer to me as "sir".
I carry my own backpack, but Katlijn hired a porter named "Vishnu". After noting that we were basically paying our porter for my vacation, we also loaded him with a few extra comforts. Vishnu is not as outgoing as Mahish, but we learn to admire his quiet determination lugging his load up the mountainside. He always carries, by far, the heaviest bag and the biggest smile.
Katlijn, Vishnu, and Mahish. Vishnu's bag is loaded with Katlijn's belongings, a heavy arctic sleeping bag, 10 snickers bars, and the last installment of Harry Potter.
So far, the Himalayas are not the bitter cold, white, icy, yeti-abode I had always imagined as a child. Instead, the vegetation is sub-tropical and the green hills are terraced with rice plantations plowed by oxes. During our easy hike through the country, we pass by many small villages stopping occasionally for tea, before arriving at our lodge; "lodge" being Nepali for "spartan shack with luke-warm showers". Nevertheless, it is cozy by candlelight and the views from the patio are gorgeous at dusk.
A big thanks to all those who came to our send-off party. We had a nice cross-section of people from our lives in Belgium, and a few from our lives abroad. It was great to see all one more time before we hit the road.
In true form, the subsequent events after our party consisted of eating chocolate coffee beans for breakfast on the floor of our empty apartment, hauling refrigerators down three flights of stairs, and submitting that last journal article sometime in the middle of the night. After some serious last minute banking arrangements early the next morning, we finally left Leuven to arrive 20 hours later in Kathmandu. A guy named Ram, who has arranged our 18 day trek through the Annapurna Circuit, picked us up at the airport. We had a short, but harrowing, car ride through the streets of Kathmandu to arrive safely, with all our gear, at a stinky hotel in the middle of the city. This was pretty much our plan.
We spent our first day being chased around by honking motorcycles in the narrow streets of xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Kathmandu. At night, the power went out which, according to the receptionist, is a common occurrence here. Thus, we used a few candles to find our way to the top of the hotel. We spent much of the evening together on the roof listening to the sounds of the city. Kathmandu sounds like people, honking horns, and dogs barking (it smells a bit like that too). Katlijn wants it to be known that she doesn't think our hotel stinks. But really, it is all relative, and I think she may have already been here too long. Here are a few images of Kathmandu:
Temple through the trees.
Beautiful Nepali woman with children
A square where the children play
The children who wanted me to take their picture.
It's late. I'm at an internet cafe. I fear the power may go out again, so I will sign off for now. Tomorrow, we leave early in the morning with our winter gear to start our trek through the Himalayas. I understand there are some solar power internet stations along our route; sounds more reliable than the Kathmandu power grid, anyways. Until then, namaste !