Life and death on the banks of the Bagmati River

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 hendreds 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 cremation ghats of Pashupatinath on the Bagmati River, Kathmandu, Nepal
The cremation ghats of Pashupatinath on the Bagmati River, Kathmandu, Nepal
Devotees begin to gather on the Bagmati ghats in anticipation of Maha Shivaratri, Pashupatinath
Devotees begin to gather on the Bagmati ghats in anticipation of Maha Shivaratri, Pashupatinath
A series of 11 small temples each housing a Shiva Lingam, Pashupatinath
A series of 11 small temples each housing a Shiva Lingam, Pashupatinath
Mr. Badal explaining the significance of the Naga in Hindu mythology, Pashupatinath
Mr. Badal explaining the significance of the Naga in Hindu mythology, Pashupatinath
Mr. Badal and the boys at Pashupatinath
Mr. Badal and the boys at Pashupatinath

Nepal, “the best country so far”

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.

Standing on the plinth of the Bodhnath Stupa, Boudha, Nepal
Standing on the plinth of the Bodhnath Stupa, Boudha, Nepal
The boys and their new friends
The boys and their new friends
Third eyes open during Maha Shivaratri, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal
Third eyes open during Maha Shivaratri, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal
Strolling home past hand-cranked ferris wheel, Boudha, Nepal
Strolling home past hand-cranked ferris wheel, Boudha, Nepal

 

Bangkok

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).

Speaking with a monk at Don Mueang airport, Bangkok, Thailand
Speaking with a monk at Don Mueang airport, Bangkok, Thailand
Enjoying the rooftop pool, Four Points Hotel, Sukhumvit 15, Bangkok, Thailand
Enjoying the rooftop pool, Four Points Hotel, Sukhumvit 15, Bangkok, Thailand
Enjoying 2 for 1 happy hour on the rooftop
Enjoying 2 for 1 happy hour on the rooftop
Gridlock on Sukhumvit with new SkyTrain above
Gridlock on Sukhumvit with new SkyTrain above
"Dessert"
“Dessert”
Amy and the boys, random alley, Bangkok, Thailand
Amy and the boys, random alley, Bangkok, Thailand
Braxton getting a (ticklish?) foot treatment at Dr. Fish, Khao San Rd., Bangkok, Thailand
Braxton getting a (ticklish?) foot treatment at Dr. Fish, Khao San Rd., Bangkok, Thailand
Head of 46 meter long reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand
Head of 46 meter long reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Kampot, Cambodia

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!!!!

Tuk-tuk taxi to Ganesha on very narrow paths
Tuk-tuk taxi to Ganesha on very narrow paths
Ganesha, riverside
Ganesha, riverside
The Tower
The Tower
Third floor awesome hang-out, the tower
Third floor awesome hang-out, the tower
Khmer house, Ganesha
Khmer house, Ganesha
Riding bikes to town, Kampot
Riding bikes to town, Kampot

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Kampot by bike
Kampot by bike

Tuk-tuks

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.

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Braxton engaging in cross-cultural exchange from back of tuk tuk, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Braxton engaging in cross-cultural exchange from back of tuk tuk, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Our wonderful tuk-tuk driver and teacher of Cambodian history and politics, "Tree"
Our wonderful tuk-tuk driver and teacher of Cambodian history and politics, “Tree”

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The Killing Fields, Choeung Ek

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.

Choeung Ek
Choeung Ek
Choeung Ek
Choeung Ek
Memorial Stupa, Choeung Ek
Memorial Stupa, Choeung Ek
A teaching moment, Memorial Stupa, Choeung Ek
A teaching moment, Memorial Stupa, Choeung Ek

Siem Reap, Cambodia

We took a detour from Phnom Penh and spent several days in the city of Siem Reap, the jumping off point for touring the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat, the previous center of the Khmer Kingdom.  Angkor Wat is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Below are Braxton’s impressions:

Angkor Wat is a series of beautiful temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  They were built by the Khmer people as early as the 9th century.  The buildings are crumbling and in some places the jungle is breaking up the rock.  It was amazing how much art they had in there.  A lot of the art was a style known as bas relief.  Bas relief is a carving in stone that often tells a story.  They had it on almost all of the walls and sometimes it went all the way around the perimeter of the temple.  Lots of the temples were bringing Hindu beliefs and Buddhist beliefs together.  They often had stories of Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer) in the bas reliefs.  All three are Hindu gods.  Vishnu is often found holding a mace, a sphere, a conch shell, and a disc (he has four arms).  Vishnu is also usually found riding on a Garuda.  A Garuda is a mythical part bird, part snake, and part human creature.

Angkor Wat is one of the most beautiful places ever.  It is also considered to be the eighth wonder of the world.  It is most beautiful when you see it at sunrise like we did.  I hope you will be fortunate enough to go there some day.

One of many temples, Angkor Wat
One of many temples, Angkor Wat
The jungle fights back
The jungle fights back
Henry and Braxton in front of temple
Henry and Braxton in front of temple
Sunrise over Angkor Wat
Sunrise over Angkor Wat
Hot air balloon over Angkor Wat, sunrise
Hot air balloon over Angkor Wat, sunrise
Vishnu in bas relief, Angkor Wat
Vishnu in bas relief, Angkor Wat
Huge Angkor spider, much larger than he appears here
Huge Angkor spider, much larger than he appears here