Beautiful stupas, a floating market and a misty mountain lake

I felt someone shaking my shoulder. Opening my eyes, groggy with fuzzy vision I see a Burmese man looking at me. “Inle Lake?” he says to Anjli and I.I look outside, it’s still dark outside. What time is it? I look at my phone and it’s 4:30 am. We’re not supposed to arrive for another 3 hours. The Burmese man says to us “Inle Lake?” Anjli and I look at each other and then at him and nod yes. He points to the door. We quickly exit the bus, it’s freezing outside. We’re in the middle of some village next to a lone tea stall. Everything is closed and just a couple of people huddle around warm cups of tea. Our bags are set on the ground and the bus is gone before we’re even fully awake. Now what?

We had gotten on the night bus from Yangon to Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake’s tourist village) at about 5pm the night before. Everything we read said that it’s supposed to take 15 hours to get there. Somehow we had arrived in less than 12. I start to panic a little. Here I am in the middle of the road in some small village in Burma, a wife in tow with nowhere to go and no one that speaks English at 4 in the morning. Anjli is approached by a man in a jacket and a beanie. He says to her “Inle Lake Taxi?” to which, Anjli replies “Yes”. He says to her “8,000 Kyat”, roughly eight dollars. Luckily Anjli has done all the necessary reading in our Lonely Planet guide and speaking with other travelers, and it turns out that this is quite common. Being dropped off in the middle of the road at crazy hours of the morning, that is. Anjli assures me this is safe and we should get in this guy’s cab. It’s 13 kilometers to Nyaung Shwe, we stop just outside the village pay our foreigner fees ($10 each) and are dropped off at the Primrose hotel. We’d met a German couple a couple days earlier in Yangon that had recommended it to us. Two very smiley girls in their pajamas greeted us at the door and showed us the room. We took the room and the girls said get some rest and we could process the payment later that morning.

Burma is an incredibly safe country. Within 25 minutes of being dropped off on a random street corner, we were safely ushered to a clean hotel and had already crawled in to a warm bed. Anjli and I slept like logs for the next seven hours. For $30 a night, we got a clean room with hot showers and a wonderful breakfast with locally grown coffee. We had found a gem of a place.

After an amazing pancake breakfast, Anjli and I went off to explore the town and to find ourselves a boat for the next day. We wanted to check out the 5 day morning market and get our bearings around town. We spent the day just walking around Nyaung Shwe, a quaint little tourist village with lots of little cafes and restaurants. At night we went to check out a puppet show that was recommended and it turned out to be kind of fun but I think we realized that the intended audience is probably the five to seven year olds that were dancing along with the puppets and not a 30-something year old couple like us. Anjli and I chuckled at how silly we looked surrounded by toddlers watching a puppet show. 😛

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The next morning as our boat pulled out of the pier, a dark, dense fog surrounded us. We could hear the loud diesel engine noises of the early morning boat traffic but we couldn’t see more than a 100 feet in front of us. It was ever so cold and we were wrapped in thick blankets. The wind chill from the boat moving can get quite cold. As our boat worked its way out of the canal and further away from the village, the fog seemed to get denser.

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We worried about how we wouldn’t see the leg rowing fisherman we’d heard so much about. But as we neared the end of the canal, the mist seemed to clear a bit. And then out of the fog, we saw them. The fisherman on their boats and huge basket like nets rowing along.

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The whole scene was something from a fantasy. Speeding through an alpine lake in Burma, early hours of the morning, seeing local fisherman on their skiffs, a mist hangs over the surface of the water, while the lake is surrounded by rolling hills with their peaks dotted with golden stupas. It was incredible. I always say to Anjli that sometimes there are moments in life where I wish I could pause them, freeze them and keep them with me to be able to come back and live those moments again. Being out on the lake that morning was one such moment.

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We spent the rest of the day going around different villages, checking out different hilltop monasteries and ruins. Many of the monasteries and stupas have been around for over a thousand years.

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We had lunch at a restaurant that was a huge house built on stilts over the water, we visited a factory that made scarves from lotus silk and had just all around fun day of exploring the lake.

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When we finally came back in to town at 4 pm, we were ready for some dinner and drinks. Here’s a picture of Anjli enjoying a Lychee martini.

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Continuing our theme of drinking, Anjli and I decided to bicycle down to one of Myanmar’s only two wineries, Red Mountain Estate. At breakfast that morning, we met Francis who happened to be from Seattle. Francis, a recent UW graduate, is travelling through Asia on a fellowship studying and writing about, among other things, ethnic minorities in Southeast Asian countries. He’d been on the road (if I recall correctly) for five months and planned to be travelling for another six or seven months. WOW!

So after breakfast, Francis, Anjli and I hopped on our bicycles and had wonderful bike ride through the village to the winery. We passed through open fields and beautiful countryside yelling ‘mingulaba’ to the villagers who all yelled it back with huge smiles and waves. We sampled wines and Francis and I decided to share a bottle of the Shiraz – Tempranillo while Anjli got a glass of their late harvest which was similar to a Riesling. Best of all, the bottle of wine was only 10 bucks. No markups. We met some other interesting travelers there, a professor from Finland and a couple from Holland. Between the wine and the conversation, nearly five hours had passed. Anjli and I stumbled back to our bicycles, smiling and just happy about the wonderful time we’d just had. Travelling has been fun but it was nice to just sit, relax and have a bottle of wine over sunshine. It felt like a bit of home drinking on the rooftop of our condo back in Seattle with friends.

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We rode back to the hotel on the bicycles watching the sun go down of the valley excited for our next adventure. The next morning we were to be off to Bagan, the land of a 1000 temples.

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Rudyard Kipling: “This is Burma. It is quite unlike any place you know.”

We had been planning our six months of travel for a long time. It was something we were so excited about! We knew we wanted to go with the flow and not plan the itinerary ahead of time, but we couldn’t help day-dreaming and discussing about which countries we wanted to visit. Burma, the second most isolated country in the world, had both of us intrigued. We didn’t know very much about the country other than the general population wanted democracy and both Obama and Hilary Clinton had visited in 2012 to support this view.

We arrived to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) International Airport, a beautiful open air building of glass. Anjli and I quickly made our way through immigration as we had procured our visas a couple days earlier from a visa service in Bangkok. Just $10 each and it saved us a whole day plus a trip to the Myanmar embassy. We grabbed our bags and after a quick stop at the duty free for a bottle of scotch for me :), we made our way to the exit. Two pretty young Burmese girls were standing near the exit with a sign that said “Downtown Taxi $5”. After a few minutes wait for the taxi and loading our bags, we were on our way to downtown. The streets were nice and broad and there wasn’t very much traffic. There were a couple of tall buildings but the landscape was mostly flat with houses and offices scattered along the sides of the road. I commented on how the city seemed more developed than I had expected and couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. We got dropped off near Bogyoke Aung San Market and ended up at this wonderful guesthouse just outside of downtown near the Ayeyarwady River.

We dropped our bags and immediately went out exploring. Up until a few years ago, people were required to wear the traditional longyi (like a sarong) and pants are apparently a fairly recent phenomenon. We walked through busy markets with lots of street side stalls with people selling all manner of things. There were tons of street side food stalls where people sat in child size plastic chairs and stools around pots full of curries, noodles and vegetable dishes. Other street stalls had tons of interesting looking street meats that the vendors would cook for you on demand. I am a vegetarian and Anjli’s tummy had been upset so we decided not to partake. We did buy interesting looking fruits including bite size oranges and something that looked like small green tomatoes but tasted crispy like an apple but had the flavor of something I’d never tasted before. It was refreshing to see independent restaurants and stores, no McDonalds or KFC, no billboards for Coca-Cola or Pepsi.

Shwedagon Pagoda

After exploring a little bit, we hopped in a cab and made our way to Yangon’s highlight: Shwedagon Paya. I don’t think one can say that they’ve seen Shwedagon Paya. It’s probably more appropriate to say that they’ve experienced it. A 322ft (a little more than half the height of the space needle) tall gold gilded stupa that is surrounded by a compound of temples, Buddha statues, a museum and so much more. We arrived about an hour before sunset and started the hike up the west entrance to the compound. Along the steps, vendors sold bright and beautiful Buddha statues made of bronze, wood and stone. The ceiling above the shops held hundreds of frescoes that displayed images from the life of Buddha. We were overwhelmed by how beautifully constructed the whole place was.

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After about a twenty minute hike up the steps, we arrived at the top. Coming over those last steps just as the pagoda came in to view was amazing. The sheer size of it is something that’s difficult to comprehend until you actually stand in front of it and look up at it. Anjli and I just sat at the entrance for a good ten minutes just staring at it…speechless…motionless. We took a few pictures and lingered at the entrance for another ten minutes before moving on. The sun was on its way down and the light was starting to change. The way it reflected off the bright gold pagoda, gave it hues of purple, red, yellow.

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We walked around the compound viewing it from different angles while checking out hundreds of smaller stupas and Buddha images around the compound. There was a small museum that had pictures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries along with some history of the pagoda. Anjli and I are not at all religious. In fact we border on atheist/agnostic. The lonely planet guide accurately said that experiencing Shwedagon Paya could make you “question your inner atheist”.

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After literally five hours there, we descended down the north entrance and hopped a cab back to our hotel. We finished off the night at an Indian restaurant over some dosas and ice cold Myanmar beers.

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Yangon Walking Tour

The next day we decided to follow the self guided walking tour around the city center. We started off at Sule Paya, another beautiful gold stupa that is housed in a traffic circle in the center of the city. From there we made our way to a traditional Burmese Café where we had some tea and snacks.

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We walked around for about thirty minutes checking out many impressive buildings including city hall, port authority, the supreme court, etc before walking past The Strand Hotel ($550 per night!), we met two little girls outside that were trying to sell us postcards. Anjli started up a conversation with them and before we knew it we were at a restaurant having lunch with them. Shakuntala and Kara were friends that lived across the river in a small village. Each day they would camp out outside of the Strand Hotel trying to sell postcards to tourists. Both of these girls were smart, bright eyed, with huge smiles and so full of life. We talked with them about Myanmar and the recent changes, what they wanted to do when they grow up, etc. Myanmar has a troubled past where military rule has been the norm for the better part of the last fifty years. Only recently has a semi democratic government been installed and the country has opened its doors to tourism. With a per capita income of a mere $435, the country is in dire need of investment and support. Shakuntala was 14 years old and spoke almost fluent English that she had learnt from her ‘foreigner friend’. She also spoke some German, French and a handful of other languages. She quit school when her father passed away in the 2008 Cyclone Nargis and started selling postcards so that her mother didn’t have to work. She wanted to open up a shop selling jeans – smart girl since the majority of Yangon’s population still wore longyis and a trendy few had started to wear trousers. It just broke our hearts to see such smart kids, clearly with so much potential not being able to realize it. Still, the country is full of hope and after decades of suppression, the people are excited about the future. Tourism and other industries are now booming in Myanmar. Investment from China, India and other surrounding countries should also help to make things better here.

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After a fun lunch with the girls, we continued on our tour. After a few more buildings, we walked over to Little India where immigrants from the south of India have a small community. We saw Indians, Burmese, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus, sitting in and outside their shops talking, smiling, making transactions and just living together. All of them, men and women wearing the traditional Burmese longyis. It’s quite a sight. Anjli and I sat down outside a lassi shop (yes, you can get lassis in Burma :)) on a pair of child size plastic chairs and enjoyed a couple of cold strawberry lassis just people watching, chatting with locals and hanging out. We had more than a couple people start up conversations with us in Hindi. The first time it happened, we were so surprised. An elderly Muslim man put his hands together and yelled out Namaste to us! The diaspora that Indian immigrants have created while mixing with Chinese and Burmese cultures is truly unique and just delightful to experience.

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We finished our lassis and finished our tour back at Bogyok Aung San Market, where hundreds of vendors are selling jade jewelry. We walked in to one shop where stoneworkers were grinding away extracting beautiful jade Buddhas, bracelets, earrings from huge rocks. Anjli and I walked back to our hotel just people watching, enjoying random street snacks, loving the experience of being in Yangon. Our first couple days in Myanmar had been amazing but there was much more of the country to see and we were to be off the next day.

Many Many Tigers!

Our train arrived on time at the Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) Howrah station. Let me tell you, this train station is HUGE! By far the most well run and cleanest train station we went to. Just the night before at Varanasi’s train station, there was a train delay on platform 1 due to an obstruction on the track. We found the obstruction. Here it is for your viewing. 🙂

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From Howrah Station, we quickly made our way towards the prepaid taxi booth and hopped a cab to Calcutta’s “Traveler Ghetto” on and around Sudder St. A couple days earlier we had met other backpackers that had done a package tour through another one of India’s Tiger Reserves. Their tour guide had sold them on the tour promising to see “Many Many Tigers”. The truth, unfortunately, is that very few tigers exist in the wild anymore. Fewer than 300 (roughly 274) are thought to live in Bengal’s Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. At one time, over 40,000 tigers roamed Bengal and its mangrove forests. Over the last century through hunting, poaching and habitat destruction, the numbers have dwindled down to just a few hundred. Very sad. 😦 Coming back to our backpacker friends, of course they did not see any tigers. Tiger sightings are extremely rare and take persistence, timing and a lot of luck.

We arrived at Sudder St. and made our way to Tour De Sundarbans to meet up with Rajesh Shaw, the proprietor of Tour De Sundarbans. I had spoken to Rajesh over the phone a couple days earlier to confirm our reservation. Though there are many tours to Sundarbans, Rajesh and Tour De Sundarbans provides a unique experience that incorporates the Sundarban experience with a two night stay in their eco-village on a small island near the reserve. With basic accommodations, nightly live Bengal folk music performances, home cooked meals and no electricity, the eco-village experience allows you take a peek in to the lives of the village folk on these rich, beautiful and well-preserved islands.

After we found a place to crash for the night, Anjli and I walked over to Calcutta’s most famous monument, the Victoria Memorial, (Wikipedia) a large marble building that was built between 1906 and 1921 to honor and commemorate the passing of Queen Victoria in January, 1901. The building is now a museum and houses artifacts, paintings and other items from British India. We saw collections of vintage weapons (400 year old swords, bayonets and shields) and amazing paintings. Anjli and I roamed the beautiful gardens and made our way back to our hotel while enjoying some of Calcutta’s famous street food on the way back.

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The next morning we made our way to the Tour De Sundarbans office to kick off our Sundarbans tour. We met up with the other folks that were to join us on the tour. Two Germans (Markus and Andrea), and a French woman (Marianne). On the way to the eco-village, we picked up two Indian couples (one newlywed and one of retired age). After a 3 hour bus ride, a 20 minute ferry, a 30 minute rikshaw ride another 15 minute ferry, we finally arrived. We chanted our mantra for the trip: Many Many Tigers!

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The eco village for tourists was set up right on the outskirts of the main village. The mud huts looked exactly like the village huts on the outside because Rajesh didn’t want the villagers to feel like their houses weren’t good enough for their guests. But I bet our accommodations were a lot more comfortable on the inside with bamboo beds and private showers with western style toilets. However, there was no hot water or electricity!

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After a nice Bengali lunch, we headed out for a walk through the village. It was really neat to experience rural life in India. Anjli grew up in Bombay and the time I spent in India was mostly in Delhi. We thought we knew what India was all about. We were so wrong. Only 27% of Indians live in urban areas, the other 73% live in rural areas like the island we were on. While walking through the village, we saw mud huts, house cows, house goats, women and men working the fields growing their own crops, carrying rice, seeding rice fields, harvesting rice fields, stray dogs, house dogs and much much more. The villagers were extremely friendly – smiling, waving, saying ‘namaste’, especially the kids. The kids spoke just a couple of words of English like Hello and Bye. The little kid on the right said ‘I love you’ to Anjli and gave her a big flying kiss. 🙂

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We came across a two day old baby goat that smelt like goat cheese! The villagers encouraged us to pick up the goat and were so amused that we were squealing with excitement. Anjli says that this is her favorite picture from the trip so far:

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We walked back to our hut and took a short break before setting out for a boat ride through the mangroves over sunset. We navigated through backwaters, spotting birds and other wildlife. We saw villagers fishing and going about their evenings on their way home aboard small kayak like boats. As the mangroves got denser and denser, we were surrounded by trees and had to push our way through the last stretch of trees. We finally cleared and watched the sun go down from the boat. A vast silence had taken over the water. No traffic, no television, no pedestrians, nothing, absolutely nothing to make a sound. The water as still as a frozen lake in the twilight of the late evening with orange, yellow, purple skies. This is called the magic hour. We reveled in it for a while before slowly making our way back to the eco-village.

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We enjoyed dinner over an hour long Bengali folk music performance just for us. Afterwards, Marianne, Andrea, Marcus, Anjli and I stayed for a bit longer enjoying beers, discussing travel, family and of course tigers! We finished our beers and chanted our mantra one more time for good measure. Many Many Tigers! We went off to our huts, carrying our oil lit lanterns. Anjli and I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of tigers.

At the butt crack of dawn (5:30 am) as light was just creeping over the horizon, Ajay, our tour guide woke us with a loud bang on our door. Anjli and I took a quick shower with a bucket of hot water from the tube well heated on a wood fire stove, before heading on over to the boat that would take us in to Sundarbans where we hoped to see many many tigers. J Our eyes still filled with sleep, the weather still cold, and morning dew stuck to everything. We pushed off the dock and floated towards the reserve. After a quick stop to pick up the cook, we headed over to the Tiger Reserve office to get our permits and to pick up our guide. An hour and a half later, we were on our way in to the jungle. Our guide was a skinny Bengali fellow, he wore a moustache and a smile. He explained to us the lay of the land and the various wildlife we could expect to see; crocodiles, ten species of kingfishers, wild boars, falcons, spotted deer, jungle cats and of course many many tigers.

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About an hour in, we’d seen many kingfishers, some egrets and other birds when we saw our first croc. This motherfucker was HUGE! Roughly five to six meters. Markus with his long range camera took many amazing photographs. Anjli and I with our point and shoot cybershot actually managed to get quite a few good shots. We were actually surprised at how beautiful the photographs from our tiny point and shoot came out.

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Throughout the first half of the day, we saw many other birds and animals including spotted deer, wild boars, monkeys and other birds. Finally, around noon while we were looking at some deer, someone yelled “TIGER!” and pointed to the other end of the shore. All of us standing turned in unison and instantly became silent. Andrea saw something move and the rest of us carefully, slowly and quietly scanned the shoreline and the mangrove trees. We sat there for nearly five minutes in silence, scanning until someone finally made a sound. We moved up and down the shore line for another ten minutes before conceding that there was nothing to be seen and moved on down the river. The rest of the day was spent looking at other wildlife, including many crocodiles. But alas the many many tigers we had hoped to see eluded us. The afternoon turned to late afternoon which turned in to the early evening. We started for the eco-village, dropped off the guide and the cook an made our way back where a new batch of people had just arrived. Marianne, Markus, Andrea, Anjli and I took our dinner near the water reservoir under the stars as the music performance from the night before replayed for the new group of people. We listened to music, drank beer, ate dinner and just generally had a good time. All of these people were genuinely nice people. After being away from Seattle for so long and it having been just Anjli and I, it was nice to meet these wonderful people. It really made us miss our friends in Seattle. We walked to the boat as our second night was a stay on the boat. We stood on the deck and looked out over the calm and silent water. We all felt a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the privilege of having this experience. The darkness, the stars, the waters, the boat, the silence, the company, the twilight all made this night ever so beautiful. Anjli and I slept that night feeling like we had made the right decision to travel for six months. Any doubts, concerns we had were wiped away.

Anjli and I walked away that evening feeling that everyone, absolutely everyone should have the opportunity to travel and experience the world this way. There is so much beauty in this world, all we had to do is step outside and see it.

Following the Ganga – a spiritual journey in India Part III

Kanpur

We made a pit stop in Kanpur to see my paternal grandmother and uncle (chacha). My parents also happened to be visiting at the same time which was a bonus! We had great conversations, ate a lot of chaat and consumed a lot of alcohol – something that is somewhat of a trend when Dad and Raj, Chacha and Raj or Dad and Chacha get together. So it was triple the enthusiasm this time ;). Raj collected firewood from the backyard and built a bonfire on our last night there 🙂

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Here is a funny picture of Dad getting a massage from chacha who in turn got a surprise massage from Raj!

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My grandma and I swapped stories about Rishikesh. She had been there in the late 1950s with four kids in tow (my uncle hadn’t been born then and Dad was just seven years old!). She described crossing the Ram jhoola and hiking up the hill to her uncle’s cottage where they spent a few days. She remembered acres of mango orchards and I was sad to report that I hadn’t seen a single mango tree. She also took all the kids down to the Ganga for a dip in the holy water. I was imagining Dad as a seven year old chilling on the banks of the Ganga surrounded by mango trees 🙂

Kanpur is also on the bank of the Ganga but it is far from a holy place. The leather tanneries let out their waste in the Ganga making it one of the most polluted rivers in the world. While there were no worshippers at the ghats in Kanpur, this pollution didn’t seem to stop or bother the believers who were happy to take a dip, bathe, and swim in the waters downstream at Varanasi, our next stop.

Varanasi

Varanasi is the oldest and one of the holiest cities in India where Hindus from all over the country come to die or cremate loved ones. Many Hindus believe that dying at Varanasi brings moksha. Bodies are cremated on the banks of the Ganga, ashes are sprinkled in the river and heads are shaved for the rituals around death. Death, a concept that frightens me, is so out in the open at Varanasi. The city is so in your face, so raw. I’m glad I went to Varanasi but I don’t think I ever want to go back.

We arrived in Varanasi by train and ‘splurged’ $20 a night for a room with a balcony overlooking the river. We took a boat ride the next morning to explore the various ghats and watch the sun come up. Dawn breaking over the Ganga was beautiful. The ghats came to life with people washing their clothes and themselves, folks offering early morning prayers along the bank and tourists in the multiple boats being chased around by hawkers in smaller boats. The ghats were typically named after a temple or the ruins of the palace by the Ganga.

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Our boat driver gave us minimal commentary and subsequently, information about the different ghats and their significance. We came to the Harishchandra ghat where dead bodies are cremated. Three bodies were being cremated on big pyres of wood. Our boat driver came to a standstill there and mentioned that bodies are cremated on that ghat 24 hours a day. The area started to look like a Niagara falls of sort with boats filled with tourists looking on to a family’s seemingly personal moment, some taking photos with zoom lenses. It was a bit shameful, really. I asked the boat driver if he thought it was weird that so many strangers seem to partake into something so personal. He responded with – everybody has to come here one day which meant that everybody’s dead body will be burnt at this ghat someday, so what’s the shame in people looking on. Anyone and everyone who lives in these religious towns is a philosopher! With life and death so in your face all the time, I guess one is forced to think about these things constantly. We asked our boat driver to hurry away from the cremation ghats and drop us off at the main Dasashwamedh ghat from where we could walk back to Assi ghat to our hotel. We saw the same sights on foot as we had seen from the boat including the cremation ghat. This will sound bad but should probably not be very surprising – it smelt like barbeque. I tried not to look at the burning wood pyres and hurried along. And then we came across a sight that is probably etched into my memory forever. A family of five – men and women – were getting their heads shaved by a barber. Beautiful black hair fell onto the steps of the ghat. Nobody was crying. In fact, they were very composed and just looked onto the next person getting their head shaved. For the loss of their loved one and hair, I was overcome with emotion, tears and nausea all at the same time. Raj noticed this and hurried me back to the safety of our hotel room.

After some discussion we came to the conclusion that Varanasi was a bit much for us and we decided to take on the easier, lighter side of Varanasi – narrow alleyways with markets, graffiti and art, even a beautiful Indian classical music concert. We spent an evening with some other travelers drinking beers at one of the nicest (and only) bars in Varanasi – this made me miss my friends back home so much!

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Raj and I acknowledged that it was probably a bit of a cop-out to not get over the emotions and truly immerse ourselves into the culture, to get the true Banaras experience. But even now, in retrospect, I’m not sure I could handle the alternative. We left Varanasi a day earlier than planned to visit Sarnath, just 18 kms away.

Sarnath

Buddha gave his first sermon to his five disciples in 528 BC in Sarnath, making it one of the holiest places for Buddhism. The Dhammekh stupa was marks the spot where Buddha gave his sermon. We spent a day walking around the ruins of the stupas and the old monasteries, and were lucky to see a group of monks chanting in front of the Dhammekh stupa. While these ruins are also protected by the Archeological Division of the Govt. of India, they didn’t seem to be taken care of as well as the temples in Khajurao. People were walking up and down the excavated brick structures in spite of written warnings, and there didn’t seem to be any guards to stop these folks. I couldn’t help but wonder if there weren’t enough funds diverted to these ruins because they were Buddhist, and not Hindu.

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Many pilgrims from Buddhist countries come here to pray. Multiple countries such as Thailand, China, Japan and even Myanmar have set up their own temples and monasteries around the old ruins. We spent the night at the Tibetan monastery with cold bare rooms, great traditional food and surprisingly fast wi-fi!

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By popular demand, here is another picture of Raj with one his gai (cow) friends 🙂 This is a baby cow, just three months old!

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In conclusion

We were finally at the end of our spiritual/religious journey in India – a mix of good and bad, overwhelming and sobering experiences, sometimes fun other times not so much. We were ready for some fun, light hearted experiences at least for the next few days and hopped on a train to Bengal to see a tiger or two!

Following the Ganga – a spiritual journey in India – Part II

Rishikesh

After the good and the bad in Haridwar, we decided to make our way to Rishikesh, another historic Hindu town made holy by the number of rishis (priests and gurus) who meditated for the good and peace in this world, for the betterment of humankind. Rishikesh has the title of being the ‘yoga capital of the world’ and I was excited to take a few yoga classes here. We took a local bus, the ride not as eventful as the bus ride in Goa but saw four grown men on one motorcycle who were only too pleased to be photographed 🙂

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Rishikesh is on the other side of Ganga from the main town and is connected via two pedestrian bridges which are also shared by bicycles, motorcycles (unfortunately), cows, dogs and monkeys! The bridges are called Ram jhoola  and Laxman jhoola. We walked across the river on the Ram jhoola and made our way to the Parmarth Niketan ashram which would be our home for the next 10 days!

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We got a large room for 400 rupees (about $7 a day) with a shared courtyard. Our days consisted of going to daily yoga classes (at 6 in the morning!), getting porridge/muesli breakfasts, reading fiction, drinking chai by the Ganga ghat and feeding the stray dogs and cows, chatting up fellow travelers, and listening to the sermon during the evening artis. We also went to a Sufi concert in this Hindu town! We had a regular chai walla who we would go to every evening, even a regular bindi walla who would sing old Hindi film songs like Teri Bindiya Re while applying bindis on our foreheads :). It was a true vacation and at the very same time, it quickly became a lifestyle that we felt we could adopt when we retire. Only downsides – strictly vegetarian food, they wouldn’t even serve eggs or garlic or onions, and NO alcohol! 😦 In spite of this, Rishikesh was easily my favorite place to visit in India!

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Each ashram is led by a religious guru whose teachings the workers and volunteers in the ashram follow. The guru at Parmarth Niketan was very progressive. His sermon at the evening artis was very secular with emphasis on one God and how the humankind should help each other no matter who they pray to and what they look like. He also stressed on how people should donate to causes that build toilets in India as opposed to more temples. In his words – you can’t go to school before you go to the toilet. He made everyone at the arti pledge to plant a tree and reduce the use of plastic bags – a rather refreshing experience after the Mansa Devi temple in Haridwar!

Raj’s Beena massi and Shyam mama and family came to visit us in Rishikesh for a couple of days. It was fun hanging out by the Ganga with them and hiking out to the nearby Neer Falls 🙂

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I want to share a personal experience while in Rishikesh. One morning, after the yoga class, I took off to get some chai on my own. I went to this café called ‘The Office’ which we frequented during our time there. Ironically, none of the patrons of ‘The Office’ had any work to do :). The place had a nice balcony laid out with sheets and cushions, with a view of the Ganga. A swami dressed in saffron robes with a tikka on his forehead took a seat next to me and I offered to buy him a chai. We ended up conversing for over two hours on life, love and purpose. It was amazing to me how this swami (along with others) left all worldly relationships – his wife, parents and kids, and all material possessions to live a life meditating and praying in Rishikesh, all the time not knowing where the next meal would come from. We discussed fate, highs and lows in life, attachment to materialism, and how the one God would always take care of you no matter where you go and what you do. He shared these words with me, to share with Raj, but I’m sure he’ll be happy to share them with anybody who reads this blog:

Om Namaskar

Life is short

Fix your mind on God

Try to understand yourself

Time is passing fast

Your death is waiting

Follow your intuition

Listen to your inner voice

Believe in God

Surrender to God

Remember God

Open your third eye

Wake up

Everything is possible

God bless you

Universal love

Thank you Ladu Babaji! In speaking with him, I’m back to being agnostic, spiritual even. I went back to Raj at the ashram feeling happy, more in love and ever so grateful.

Following the Ganga – a spiritual journey in India – Part I

We spent a couple of days in Delhi and Meerut to spend some time with Raj’s wonderful extended family. Grandma, Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, Nieces, Nephews – a good time was had with all, especially Raj’s cute little nieces and nephews.

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We then took off to travel in India for a few days. In India – a country I didn’t want to travel through at all outside of meeting with family. Raj had traveled in India back in 2005 and if you ever get him started about that trip, I promise you it’ll be difficult for you to make him stop :). Somehow, this man convinced me to try traveling in India for just a few days. We didn’t book our flight out to Bangkok so that we could leave as soon as I wanted to. We ended up spending another four weeks (!!) in this country in addition to the two we had already spent in Goa, Bombay and Delhi!

Haridwar

Raj suggested we go to Rishikesh where I could get my yoga fix. The best way to get to Rishikesh was via Haridwar. Haridwar is one of the holiest cities in India – millions of Hindus go there every year to wash away their sins by taking a dip in the Ganga river. The evening artis (prayers) were supposedly beautiful and both my and Raj’s grandfathers’ ashes were spread on the Ganga here, so we decided to spend a couple of days exploring this little city.

On our first evening in Haridwar, we tried to figure out when exactly the morning arti was held. We asked three different people and got three different answers ranging from 5am to 5:45am, none of which were correct as we found out the next morning. Anyone who has traveled in India will know that Indian people don’t like saying ‘I don’t know’, so they give you an approximate answer to the best of their abilities. In any case, since our hotel was a bit far from Har Ki Paudi (translates to footsteps of Shiva), the Ganga ghat where the morning arti took place, we left real early at about 4:15am and arrived at the ghat before 4:45 am. You have to take your shoes off, so we were standing bare feet on the cold, wet stone steps waiting for the arti to begin. In spite of being harassed by self-proclaimed pandits to perform a private pooja and our feet slowly but surely turning into ice, it was fun to watch the activity around us – hawkers setting up shops, diyas made of flowers and leaves with a small candle and incense sticks floating downstream in the river, and groups of people taking dips in the water.

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Men undressed down to their underwear and some women down to their sari blouses and petticoats (most women were fully clothed in sarees),  stood waist deep in the often fast flowing Ganges and held onto the railings or chains built specifically for their safety or held on to each other, and quickly submerged their upper bodies in the water right to the top of their head – this action of dipping one’s entire body in the river and letting the water wash the body is said to wash away all your sins. We saw a group of eight women standing in a circle and holding onto each other’s hands to steady themselves in the fast flowing river take 10 dips in unison while yelling out ek-do-teen… (one, two, three…) as they came up for air. The scene really makes you question your inner atheist and ask yourself if you’re the one who is missing something important in life, if it was possible for you to believe in god as unconditionally as these folks who subject themselves to freezing waters at four in the morning, all in the name of religion.

Raj and I took in the scenes and lit a beautiful diya made of all compostable materials and let it flow in the Ganga. We got some hot chai to warm us up, watched the arti which finally started at about 6:15am(!) and hung around till the sun rose about 7am.

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The next day, we decided to go to Manasa Devi, a famous Hindu temple on top of a steep hill in Haridwar. In spite of a cable car available, we decided to hike up the 2km in the blazing sun – the temperature variations were really quite extreme. While we were rewarded with beautiful views of the Ganga plains, it was just too hot even for a short hike.

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The visit to this temple, one that is visited by Hindu pilgrims from all over the country, was ironically the least spiritual experience for me. We were ‘greeted’ by two scary looking men in black robes and faces painted black who insisted on touching us and putting tikkas on our foreheads so that they could ask for ‘donations’. We dodged them and made our way up. Along the way, there were plenty of hawkers selling flowers and other offerings who insisted on sharing their opinion on what you should buy and what you should be doing at the temple. The temple itself wasn’t very impressive with statues of a few Gods/Goddesses, just overly crowded with people who wanted to darshan (view the faces of the deities to absorb some of the divinity) and make cash donations. A few priests said things like – if you don’t darshan this particular God, something untoward will happen to you, or you better make donations to this God. Frankly, I was far from moved and in fact, disturbed by their pushiness and decided to make an early exit. A lowlight of the trip. At the time, I had a difficult time separating the priests’ pushiness from that of the religion’s and considered myself fortunate to not succumb to the superstitions instilled by these so called messengers of God.

Khajuraho: Exploring Thousand Year Old Temples via Bicycle In Search Of My Celestial Nymph (Apsara)

Nov 30th – Dec 4th, 2013

Ever been to a temple in search of enlightenment? Bet you don’t expect to find a couple 69-ing each other (NSFW) on the wall outside. Or perhaps a “Celestial Nymph” enticing you while applying kohl (eyeliner) on her eyes. Now that we got the smut out of the way, we can chat about the deeper significance of these incredibly beautiful, deeply spiritual and amazingly well preserved temples that are over a thousand years old.

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Day 1 and Day 2: The Sound and Light show explaining the Chandela dynasty (Wikipedia) and the Western Group of temples.

Legend has it that one night near the river bank in Khajuraho, a beautiful woman was bathing in the river under the moonlight. The moon god (Chandra) saw her bathing and could not resist her. He descended to earth and they made passionate love all night. As the morning sun approached Chandra had to return to the sky. The maiden implored him to stay as she was unwed and had indulged in passionate love and would be disgraced. Chandra said to her that she would give birth to a son who would bring about a reign of glorious kings and would build beautiful temples. This is how this dynasty got its name The Chandelas.

The Chandelas built in all 85 temples, of which only 25 remain today. The rest deteriorated, were destroyed by invaders or looted by villagers. Once a bustling metropolis and the center of activity during the reign of the Chandelas (950 CE – 1050 CE), Khajuraho is now just a small sleepy tourist town. On the night we arrived it was already too late to go out and see the temples. The western group of temples, which houses about five or six of the best preserved temples inside a beautifully manicured gated lawn puts on a nightly “Sound and Light Show”. The show is an hour long and happens at night when the whole compound is covered in darkness. As the history of each temple is explained along with the history of the Chandelas, each temple lights up in various pastel colors using bright strobes. Very psychedelic! The story of the Chandelas is narrated by famed Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachhan. Anjli, her parents and I watched the show together. Though the piece was well researched, it was made in a very dramatic Bollywood style. The flamboyance kind of took away from the experience. Afterwards, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Anjli’s parents at a restaurant across from the western group. We laughed at and discussed the show and chatted about plans for mom and dad to come and meet us in Cambodia. We enjoyed dinner with mom and dad as this would be the last we would see of them for a few months. We enjoyed the evening over drinks and even brought a couple beers back to the hotel for good measure. 😊

The next morning Anjli and her folks explored the Western Group of temples for a few hours while I booked trains for Anjli and I to Varanasi and then on to Kolkata. The western group of temples is a group of six or seven of the best preserved temples at Khajuraho. After a morning of exploring, it was time to say good bye to Anj’s parents as they headed back to Kanpur. We said our goodbyes and planned to hook back up in Cambodia or Vietnam in a couple months.

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After Anj’s folks left for Kanpur, Anjli and I had planned to check out the western group together. Instead we walked back to our hotel for a quick power nap. Five hours later we awoke to find that the sun had already set and the temples already closed. 😛 I guess we were just exhausted from the long drive from Kanpur to Khajuraho. We had a lovely dinner together and retired for the night.

Day 3: The Western Group of Temples

We woke bright and early the next day and headed on over to the Western Group, which houses four of about six or seven of the best preserved temples:

  • Lakshman Temple
  • Kandariya Mahadev Temple
  • Vishwanath Temple
  • Chitragupta Temple

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Anjli and I sprung for the very informative and very entertaining audio guide (Highly Recommended). We meandered from temple to temple looking at the beautiful sandstone sculptures and admiring the craftsmanship, spiritual depth and marveling at the how well these temples have been preserved. How can something so old survive for such a long time? A millennium is a time frame that is incomprehensible to most of us.

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As an Indian American really exploring India for the first time, you can’t help but feel somehow connected to this past. You start to ask and wonder what these people from a thousand years ago were like. Who was the individual sculptor that was inspired to create each of these beautiful pieces? You feel connected to them. A deep sense of privilege and gratitude takes a hold of you. You look at each sculpture and imagine yourself looking over the shoulder of the sculptor that chiseled away at this piece of sandstone and created this masterpiece by hand. It’s like travelling back in time and feeling his/her presence. Imagining their hands next to the sculpture. Imagining their inspiration. Being at Khajuraho was truly a magical experience.

We took lots of pictures and stood for hours in front of sculptures admiring, imagining, contemplating and reflecting. We finished about 5 hours later and still felt like we could spend days there. Alas, time was short and we had to move on. We had another amazing dinner on the rooftop of our hotel looking up at the sky, talking about our favorite sculptures and how beautifully they were carved.

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Day 4: Exploring the other temples via bicycle and finally finding my Apsara

You may be wondering exactly what is an Apsara? In Hindu mythology, an Apsara is a beautiful, supernatural female beings. They are youthful and elegant, and superb in the art of dancing. They are often the wives of Gandharvas, who are the court musicians of the rain god Indra. They are often depicted taking flight and in service to gods. Apsaras are found depicted in temples and dance across India, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia (Source: Wikipedia) One could compare them to angels. Anjli liked to think of them as fairies. 🙂

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Anjli and I left that morning on the back of bicycles to explore the other temples around the neighboring villages. We cycled from temple to temple, dodging touts, stray dogs, stray cows (yes, that’s a thing!), and village goats. We explored beautiful temple after beautiful temple. And after another day of exploring, I had dinner with my Apsara. Here’s a picture of her posing in front of one of the temples. 🙂

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