We made it back to Kathmandu from our trek in time to celebrate Holi. To make a long, convoluted story short, Holi is a Hindu festival that celebrates the survival of a Vishnu devotee — Prahlada, son of the demon god Hiranyakashipu — and the death of the demon god’s sister, Holika. It is a boisterous, day-long event that involves throwing or rubbing colored powder on other celebrants, spraying water, throwing water balloons, and dumping buckets of water from rooftops on Holi participants below. It is a male mayhem in which few if any Nepali women participate, and the less wholesome among the celebrants take the opportunity to touch women (almost all foreigners) in ways they would not dare otherwise. It can be a bit intimidating to say the least. Nonetheless, we all survived it!
Opening with a family photo atop a snow covered peak surrounded by stunning mountain scenery is an irresistible gimmick. Sorry. Getting high into the Himalaya was one of the goals of this trek, but getting there and back made up the bulk of the experience.
Here you are either walking up or walking down, and the ups and downs are massive. Our 12-day trek started at the end of the road in the town of Syaprubesi (1500m x 3.3 = 4950ft) and took us up the Langtang Valley over the following five days to the settlement of Kyanjin Gompa (3900m) with a day trip to the nearby “hill” of Kyanjin Ri (4600m). The return trip took us back down the river to Bamboo (1950m) before heading back up through the relatively large (and uniquely electrified) town of Thulo Syaphru (2250m), the tiny two-house Foprang Danda and the beautiful views from Laurebina Yak (3900m). On our final day we descended from Laurebina Yak to the roadside town of Dunche (1900m) to catch a bumpy, windy, 6-hour jeep ride back to Kathmandu on roads with precipitous drops through switchbacks and landslides. For those of you doing the math, the last day’s descent was the equivalent of walking down from the peak of our highest east coast mountain, Mt. Mitchell (2037m), to sea level.
This is not a wilderness area, but a place lightly populated mostly by third-generation Tibetans. Religious objects are everywhere. Here are a few that we saw along the trail.
But not all of the religious objects were Buddhist. On the trail to the sacred Hindu lakes of Gosainkund, Shiva images start to appear.
The trails themselves are much-used footpaths that have connected settlements for hundreds of years. This is a roadless area, so everything that moves here moves along these paths. That includes not only the people, but the goods. Pack animals carry cement, rice and other bulk items that are not likely to be broken when bashed against trees or rocks on a narrow trail. Humans are the pack animals for everything else. It was a painful and sobering sight to see men (young and old) hiking for three leg-trembling days (Syaprubesi to Kyanjin Gompa), often in flip flops, with the following items across their backs supported by a strap over the forehead. (Photographing these guys seemed too voyeuristic, so words will have to suffice.) Five 4×8 foot sheets of 1/4 inch plywood; 2×8 foot rolls of galvanized, corrugated sheet metal roofing material; reams of rebar; several cases of 750ml bottles of beer; solar panels, brackets, and piping for solar hot water systems; and the ubiquitous heavy-ass load of unidentified stuff to be consumed by trekkers somewhere further up the trail. A three-day haul with 90-150 pounds strapped to the back will bring in approximately $35. In Nepal this is big money; enough, apparently, to destroy your body getting it.
In addition to the lowly pack-animal porter hauling commodities up the trail, many trekkers hire their own personal porters to carry their gear so they can walk with a small day pack. The juxtaposition of doughy trekker with day pack against sinewy porter with three large backpacks strapped around his head and back was a tough one to see over and over again. We are used to carrying our own gear when we hike, and did so on this trek. But was that the “right” thing to do? As a result, we left at least one Nepali unemployed who would otherwise have made as much as $15-20 per day carrying our stuff. The porters we passed were not concerned about this dilemma and instead invariably commented with glee on the size of the boys’ packs. Some images from the trail.
The day-to-day was what made the trip. We met great people along the way, both local hosts and international trekkers. We ate mediocre but filling, carb-heavy meals and drank lots of hot drinks. We enjoyed good weather almost all of the time. And we slept well after long days of intense exercise (except when sharing lodging with large groups of loud Koreans . . .). Here are some images that capture some of those experiences.
Every day on the trek was a good one, but the best one had to be the day that we set out from Thulo Syaphru on the way to Shin Gompa (an 1100m climb). It had rained the night before, which was an unusual weather event this time of year. The trails were a bit slick and the sky was still overcast. After an hour or so thunderheads started rumbling and we sought shelter where we could find it under the eaves of a storage shed. As we crouched there with the temperatures dropping and the rain increasing we received good information from a passing Nepali of a tea house ten minutes up the trail. We made a run for it and managed to reach the warmth and shelter just as the skies opened up. The next four hours were spent on benches around a wood burning stove with an American birder, a Canadian wanderer, two German medical students and their various guides and porters sipping tea, eating various combinations of noodles, rice and potatoes, and watching a pan on the stove fill with water dripping from the ceiling. It was heaven compared to the outdoor alternative. When the weather finally cleared we got back on the trail and continued our climb through slushy forests to the ridge top clearing of Foprang Danda. The two tea houses that usually serve as a lunch stop became our home for the afternoon and night, and Foprang Danda became our favorite trail moment. Our young host cooked up an excellent dinner and we slept hard and well crammed into a room no bigger than the bed itself oblivious to the rats sharing our space and unconcerned about the frigid outdoor squat toilet with the shower curtain door. Rising at 5:30AM we caught the clear morning views to the west, north and east as the sun rose to the sound of roosters and nothing else.
Happiness is trekking with your family on the rooftop of the world.
The Pashupatinath Temple on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu is one of the most significant temples to the Hindu god Shiva in the world (and Nepal’s most important Hindu temple), and it happened to be a twenty minute walk from our guesthouse in Boudha. It also happened to be the day before the festival of Maha Shivaratri (“Night of Lord Shiva”) when devotees of Shiva (including thousands of ash-covered Sadhus) gather by the hundreds of thousands at Pashupatinath Temple (Pashupati is one of Shiva’s incarnations as “Lord of all Animals”) to make their offerings, bathe and anoint the Shiv Linga, and smoke marijuana. We figured we had to check it out.
The temple complex was already in full swing with about 12 hours to go before the official midnight start of festivities. As we entered with the throngs we were picked up by a near-toothless gentleman named Keshab Badal who became our guide for the day. Mr. Badal was quite an asset, as it turned out, presenting to us the basics of the Hindu belief system as we sat on the banks of the Bagmati overlooking the cremation ghats of Pashupatinath. This time of year the Bagmati is reduced to a sewage and plastic filled trickle as it makes its way from from the snow-covered Himalaya down to the Ganges across the plains of India. But like the equally polluted Ganges River, the Bagmati is sacred despite its current physical state. As Mr. Badal said “science says it is toxic, but culture says it is pure.” Believers who are near death are brought to a hospice building within the temple complex on the banks of this river to be near it when they die. This allows them to drink from the river just before they die in order to purify their souls, to be washed in the river after their death, and to be cremated on the ghats of the river shortly thereafter. As we sat with Mr. Badal listening to a cogent explanation of the Hindu trinity of birth, life, and death and the main gods Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver/protector), and Shiva (the destroyer/recreator), we witnessed all of the stages of this final life ceremony as the terminally ill were brought to hospice, as the bodies of the recently deceased were washed on the banks of the river, and as the shrouded bodies were placed on prepared piles of firewood, unwrapped for their final exit (“naked in, naked out” another Badalism) and set ablaze. The smoke from the ghats filled the air as dreadlocked, loinclothed holy men wandered by.
The boys declared Nepal the best country so far within an hour or two of landing in Kathmandu. When asked to specify what made it the best country, their answers varied from the vague “I don’t know, it’s really cool” “everybody’s really open and nice and stuff” to the more specific “the tea” “the colors, sounds and smells” “the sadhus”. I have to agree with them, but I am also hard pressed to put the “why” into words.
If only one word was allowed, it would be “texture”. That might be a stand in word for “what a place looks like when it is extremely poor”, but there are other extremely poor parts of the world that don’t have this feel. Nepal is an unthreatening place, even (apparently) for a nine year old boy. It is a place of stunning natural beauty (which we’ve so far only caught a glimpse of from the plane window). It is a place of vibrant culture, much of it intertwined with two of the most fascinating world religions: Hinduism and Buddhism. It is a place that seems totally chaotic, but in a good, exciting and energizing way. We’re all looking forward to our two months here.
It did not hurt the first impression of Kathmandu that we decided to stay in Bodhnath (or Boudha) on the good recommendation of our friends Kevin and Sarah. Boudha is the home of Asia’s largest Buddhist stupa and is inhabited primarily by Tibetan refugees. Our first afternoon in the country was spent circumambulating the Bodhnath Stupa with the maroon-robed monks and other devotees under fluttering prayer flags with the scent of yak butter candles in the air. Among the many people who took an interest in boys (but who could not care less about the boys’ parents) were two newly minted nursed who wanted to practice their English. The boys have enjoyed celebrity status throughout the trip, but Nepal has brought it to a new level.
We’ve been enjoying the life of luxury in Bangkok; a big, crowded, hot and humid SE Asian capital city. Our home has been the Four Points hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 15, a high end district of Bangkok, paid for on points. The free shelter has been accompanied by perks like 2 for 1 drink specials at the rooftop pool bar complete with a buffet robust enough to feed this family of four, and free wi-fi in the lobby. In other words, we are acting like backpackers, but living like five star tourists. The AC, reliable electricity and hot water, the fast internet, the concierge desk, pool, cable TV and etc have been really nice and potentially addictive. We will wrench ourselves loose from this paradise tomorrow when we fly to Kathmandu for two months in Nepal.
During our stay here, we’ve done a couple days of urban adventure that have included a stroll to the largest shopping mall in Asia and a day riding the SkyTrain and Chao Praya river taxi to the old backpacker center of Khao San Road, the Royal Palace, and Wat Pho (home of a huge reclining Buddha with beautiful mother-of-pearl inlaid soles).
We’d been on an island off the coast of Cambodia for five days without an internet connection when we returned to the mainland to say good bye to Coco and to find a column in the New York Times by Joyce Walder titled “On the Road, With Mothers” in which she wrote: “I have been thinking of writing a book, “How to Travel With Your Mother,” but it would be a very short book. That is because my first tip is: Don’t. Do not ever travel with your mother. Unless maybe you are disposing of her ashes.”
As our faithful readers know, Coco joined us at the beginning of February in Hanoi and traveled with the team for a month through northern Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, departing Sihanoukville March 1st by cab on the way to a day and night and day of travel that would take her from Phnom Penh to Hanoi to Seoul to New York to Burlington across 12 time zones. While I cannot speak for my wife or my children (who might write different blog entries, such as “how to keep your marriage together while traveling with your mother-in-law” or “how to manipulate two generations of parental authority figures to get what you want in Southeast Asia”), I would always welcome a good adventure with my mom.
For the Coco-philes, here is a photographic tribute to our month with Coco:
And just when you think you could not possibly relax any more… We spent five days at appropriately named Lazy Beach on this largely undeveloped island two hours by boat from the southern coast of Cambodia. Our pulses became almost undetectable. More hammocks, a bungalow right on the beach, an open air bar/restaurant, snorkels, books, badminton and not much else (including electricity). There were only a handful of bungalows on this whole side of the island. Apparently the developers are drooling over this tropical paradise and it will likely not look this way in five years. We were so lucky to find it now and enjoy it now. Highlights included, well all of the above. Plus for Coalter and me, a full-moon walk through the jungle to the other side of the island for a famed Southeast Asia “full moon party” where boat loads of youngsters are shipped over to the island during the full moon to party (or rave, is that what’s it’s called?) all night on the beach. Of course, given our age and stage in life, this was done strictly in the name of research, to observe the behaviors and mating rituals of the young, bohemian travelers of the new millennium. It was… something. We had an educational (fun) time and came away very happy to be right where we are in life!
It was very hard to leave Koh Rong Saloem after such a nice stay. The boat ride home through rough seas was terrible. For those of you who have ever wondered whether dogs can get seasick, the answer is yes, and they are also capable of setting off a chain reaction among the human passengers. Not a trip we will forget any time soon! But worst of all was that after our boat ride we had to say goodbye to Coco, who hopped in a taxi back to Phnom Penh on her way back home. She is an intrepid traveler who has been on many trips with us through many countries. We had a great time and shared many wonderful memories and laughs (don’t worry Coco, I won’t write about the ones I threatened to)…. she will be missed.
Next stop, return to Ganesha, then back to Phnom Penh to retrieve our backpacks then onward to Bangkok.
Next stop, Kampot on the southern coast of Cambodia, a quiet, riverside town best known for its eponymous Kampot pepper. We had a very peaceful and relaxing few days at the Ganesha eco-resort, a much needed change of pace after so much urban sightseeing. We rode bikes, canoed through the mangroves, napped, played cards, enjoyed the warmth and quirkiness of our lovely French hosts, and stressed over which of the many hammocks, hanging beds and relaxing spots to choose from… so many, so little time. We had our hands-down best lodging of the whole trip… a three story circular stone tower with hammocks and panoramic views of the surrounding rice paddies and distant Bokor mountains on the third floor (this became boy headquarters and yoga central). As long as you don’t mind sharing your bathroom with frogs and your bedroom with large geckos, waking to 5 a.m. Call to Prayer at the neighboring mosques, and spirited Cambodian weddings with loud PA systems that pulse with music all night on weekends, you will love Ganesha. And we did!!!!
We have spent a great deal of time getting around cities in tuk-tuks. It is a great way to see a city and to experience the chaos of the urban landscape. Here are a few photos. I have found it is best to sit on the bench that faces away from the driver and the oncoming traffic. This helps when, for example, you are the only vehicle going in completely the wrong direction around a very busy city rotary.
Interestingly, Phnom Penh was one of the cities the kids were most looking forward to visiting based on the reading they have done. Henry read several age-appropriate historical fiction and non-fiction novels about Cambodia set in the era of the Khmer Rouge. (“First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung and “Never Fall Down” by Patricia McCormick are good for teens and advanced pre-teen readers, and “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner is appropriate for younger readers, Braxton enjoyed this one.) We also watched the movie “The Killing Fields” prior to our trip. Given this preparation and their interest and maturity, we decided to include a tour of the Killing Fields on our itinerary.
The Killing Fields refer to the sites throughout Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot tortured and executed 1.7 million people – 21% of the population – between 1975-79. The best known one is Choeung Ek where 17,000 men, women, children and babies were brutally executed after being tortured first at nearby Tuol Sleung, a former high school turned prison and torture camp. These were very powerful and moving exhibits. Nothing can prepare you for seeing the glass memorial stupa containing 8000 human skulls, the mass graves, the huge vats of clothing, the 8 x 10 photos of every prisoner who passed through, including young children, the seemingly normal school where classrooms were turned into prison cells and torture chambers. While we had our reservations about exposing the kids, in the end I’m very happy they experienced this. I think they are too. How can you understand Cambodia without understanding this genocide, and how can you begin to understand genocide without understanding the horror? As the narrator of our audio-tour pointed out this was not the first or the last genocide, and to prevent future atrocities, anywhere, one needs to understand these past events. “For your sake, remember us and remember our past as you look to your future.”
Add to all this the perspective we enjoyed of our charismatic tuk-tuk driver “Tree” whose mother was a nurse under the Khmer Rouge and whose family is very poor. He explained the intricacies of dealing with the corruption of the system and the “rich ones” every day as he tries to provide for his family and rise out of poverty. You begin to understand yet another layer of the complexity that is Cambodia. While not necessarily condoning the violence, there are a great many poor in Cambodia who continue to support the ideals of the Khmer Rouge and who themselves were KR soldiers or who are descendants of this largely peasant group. It is much more complicated than we would have imagined, and still seems quite tenuous.
While emotionally challenging and certainly draining, this day was actually a highlight of our time in Phnom Penh, allowing for great conversations with the kids and amazing learning opportunities for all.