Archive | March, 2013

Our afternoon with a monk

29 Mar

Wouldn’t it be great if you could spend an afternoon with a monk? A monk who said “ask me anything”?

Well. That is possible now in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The monks here have set up their own chatting club with tourists. Three times a week, you can go by Wat (temple) Susan Dok and speak with young monks together with other people who have left their swimming pools behind for some more culturally valid stuff. But if you have the time, you can always stroll through the city and look for small paper notes with 'Monk's Chat' posted outside some of the smaller temples.

For us, it was Wednesday this week that our trip in Thailand became one of culturally joyous fulfilment.

Phra Kiattisak, a cheerful 26-year old man who has been a monk for the last ten, was keen to practice his English. For me and my boyfriend Dominic, it was an afternoon of smiling to each other, either thinking “I can't believe we are doing this” or “I can't believe you just asked that”.

Phra: Most tourists ask about my daily life. In the morning, I wake up at 5am and I go out to get alms.

He points to the street, visible through the temple gates.

Me: Is it just Thai people or do tourists also give alms?

Phra: Yes, tourists too. In the morning, falang. You have to be out at six to participate.

Dominic: What kind of food can we give you?

Phra: Anything.

Dominic: Anything, so we could give you McDonalds? A happy meal?

Phra, laughs: Yes, but no alcohol.

Dominic: And what do people normally give you?

Phra: Sticky rice. Thai curry.

Dominic: If you see someone with Thai curry and you would rather have that, can you skip the guy with sticky rice?

Phra, with a laugh: No, cannot choose.

Me: And after the alms?

Phra: Go back to temple and eat breakfast. Save some for lunch. That is the last meal of the day. After, I normally go to university. But now, I live in the temple. Do you want to see?

Phra takes us to the main room of the small temple. Opposite the altar and a long line of monk's seat, a makeshift wall of bamboo shield a room about eight square metres. A thin mat is laid out on the floor, a brown thick piece of cloth hangs over his bed.

Me, pointing to the cloth: What is that for?

Phra: For meditation…and for mosquitos.

Me: Do you share the room with any of the other monks?

Phra: Only me.

Dominic: So what else do you do?

Phra: I sleep, I read, I garden..and…

My boyfriend fills the pause that follows.

Dominic:.. and talk to tourists!

Phra, laughs: Sometimes.

Dominic: Do you like tourists coming here and asking questions?

Phra: Yes, good for my English.

Dominc: Do you like Western food?

Phra, with an answer that will please my Thai sister in law Kay: I don't know about Western food. I know it's just bread.

Me: Did you have a girlfriend before becoming a monk?

Phra, with a laugh: No, I a lonely man.

Me: What did your parents say when you became a monk?

Phra: My parents want. They want that I be a monk because they believe if I be a monk I can develop in my life, in everything in my life”.

Me: Was it a big change for you to become a monk?

Phra, after a minute: I think it is not big choice in my life. Because maybe, I am Buddhist and be a monk is one duty for religion.

Dominic: And what about your robe? Do you always wear that?

Phra:If I stay in temple, I can wear this. It is just a cloth to protect my body.

He takes off the long saffron shawl and shows us an orange vest and trousers.

Phra: But, in ceremony, I have the…

He puts the long piece of cloth back on.

Phra: If I go out, I also cover…It is hot.

Dominic: Why do you shave your head?

Me: And your eyebrows?

Phra: For save money for buy shampoo.

Dominic and I both laugh.

Dominic: And what about foreigners? Can they become monks?

Phra: If foreigner would like to be monk, he should train with senior monk for one or three months to prepare mind and body. Because to be monk has to chant in Bali language.

Me: What was the most difficult when you first became a monk?

Phra: For meditation, to train mind. Because the mind is like a monkey.

Dominic, disbelievingly: A monkey??

I scribble down monk comedy gold on my notepad as quickly I can.

Phra: Because if you have to meditate you just breath in and out and your mind concentrate and you breath in and out. If you concentrate, your mind is thinking a lot, 'to your hometown, your girlfriend, boyfriend', it is difficult to learn to control.

Dominic: So, what is the best and the worst with being a monk?

Phra: The best is how to be good man and is the highest of the Buddhism, enlightenment. And the worst for monk is four things. If monks do, you must stop the monk. One, you don't know about the enlightenment but you tell another one that you know about the enlightenment. Two, you have sex with human. Three, stealing, stealing money, everything. The last…” he trails off. “We have 227 principles we must follow”.

Dominic: Are you going to continue to be a monk or can you stop?

Phra, firmly: I can stop.

Me: Are you planning on stopping?

Phra: If I graduate with study. Still studying at university, last year. I study philosophy of religions.

We are back in the garden, where Phra and three other monks planted flowers when we first came by this morning. A poster saying “Free WiFi” is laid out on the table.

Me, holding up the poster: Do you use the Internet?

Phra nods.

Me: And facebook?

Phra nods again.

Me: Can we become friends on facebook?

Phra: Yes, ok.

Yes, the excitement is clearly on my side. Phra replies in the same tone of voice as when he explained his morning ritual. But a monk friend is a monk friend.

Me, helpfully: So can we do it now?

He checks the wifi on the computer.

Phra: I don't think open wifi.

But we are in luck and soon Phra is showing us one of his facebook albums.

Phra: Last week I came back from walking in meditation. We walked 178 kilometres. Over 15 days.

And there it is. An album filled with photos of robed-clad monks in a long procession. The monks have tagged themselves.

Me: So how long have you been on facebook?

Phra: Two to three years.

Me: Are all the monks on facebook?

Phra shakes his head. A chat window pops up on his screen.

Me: And do you use it to chat with your parents?

Phra: No, they don't know about modern technology. They are farmers.

Me: How often do you use facebook?

Phra: If I go to university. And if there is wifi in the temple.

Phra: Where are you going next?

Dominic: India.

Phra: I would like to go to India. That is where my Buddha was born.

The world may be even smaller than we thought.

 

 

 

Luang Prabang in a few photos

27 Mar

As I write, we have spent a week in Luang Prabang. On Monday, I ploughed a field with a buffalo. On Thursday, I participated in a Hmong shaman ceremony. And, yesterday I bought chopsticks made out of bomb remnants. Exciting times, and I should have given you seven paragraphs on each of the days we have spent here. But, instead of mile-long paragraphs, which I would undoubtedly end up with, I will rather show you some photos of this brilliant place. And, of course tell you the monk joke – my first and probably only – that I learnt in Luang Prabang.

The monk that was given a watermelon

Once, there was a man who really wanted to go to heaven. So he brought a big watermelon to give to the monks in the morning. He put it into the bowl of one of the monks, whose bowl was then completely full. The monk could not carry anything else than the watermelon and had to return to the temple. The monk ate only watermelon that day. So instead of going to heaven, the man went to hell.

 

Mr Chum's snake whiskey

Our stay in Luang Prabang would not have been the same without Mr. Chum. For years, he has been serving up Laos' finest and cheapest whiskey to tourists from glass jars filled with snakes. He even has a stack of guestbooks for his little bar on the river front.
 
 

The waterfall

Hard to miss, as every tuk tuk driver in town will suggest to take you there.
 

 

Street food

In a narrow side street to the night market, you will find lines of BBQ stalls. Cheap and tasty…until our stomachs started doing acrobatics.

Monks and Susan the Buffalo in Luang Prabang

20 Mar

And so to this trip´s biggest thrill. I am knee-deep in paddy water and mud while holding on to a wooden plow. In front of me is a docile water buffalo called Susan. “HUIII”. The farmer next to me shouts an instruction. But Susan is not budging.

I am twenty minutes outside of Laos´ former royal capital, Luang Prabang. This tiny city in the Laos highlands is tucked in by jungle-shrouded mountains and the brown Mekong river. Its golden temples, crumbling timber houses and hints of French architecture secured the entire city a designation as a World Heritage zite in 1995. Today, an estimated 275,000 travellers make their way to Luang Prabang, a city of 50,000, every year.

If you start your day early enough, which most tourists seem to do, you will see orange-robed buddhist monks collecting alms. In poverty-stricken Laos, joining a temple is often also moving away from poverty and gaining inexpensive education. Most monks walking around at daybreak in Luang Prabang appear to be small boys about eight to twelve years old.

A timeless ritual – at least if the Communist party has it their way. Though a centuries old tradition, the monks have recently become wary of the alms donated in Luang Prabang. Unscrupulous locals sometimes sell stale food to tourists for them to dole out to the novice monks, resulting in the young boys falling ill and becoming hesitant to continue the tradition. Being whitewashed by flashbulbs before breakfast probably doesn’t help either.

Reportedly the ‘big monk in town’, Sa Thu Keo, is two years into a project to build a new temple outside of town so that the monks may continue their tradition in dignity. “It will be out in the countryside”, Lee Laut, who manages the farm where Susan lives, tells us. “So no tourists. No camera flashes in the face of the monks in the morning”. Though as my boyfriend dryly pointed out in response, “I am warning you. We, the tourists, will come”.

Either way, tourists will be able to come to Luang Prabang in the future and see orange-robed young men. Iif Wikitravel has it right, “the government has made it clear that the monks have to continue the tourist pageant or risk being replaced with lay people clothed in saffron robes in order to keep up appearances, and thereby maintain tourist revenue.”

But let’s pull back to Susan, who outranks the monks on Tripadvisor as the premier attraction in Luang Prabang. The field Susan and I are ploughing is one of many small rice paddies of the Living Land Farm. Laut says the tourists started coming seven years ago after a hotel owner in town contacted him. Some of the hotel guests were wondering if they could come and see Laut’s farm and its organic vegetable garden.

Lee says he was perplexed. “Now, I thought to myself why would any five-star hotel guests want to come to my muddy and dirty farm? But I said yes. And at the end of their visit they asked me why I didn´t start tourism”. Today, small groups of two to maximum ten people can come along for the day to plough the fields and learn how to plant rice. But the town’s tuk tuk drivers still find the idea odd. “How crazy this kind of falang! Why? That is so boring. That is why I changed my job to become a tuk tuk driver!”.

However, as you may recall and I most certainly remember, I’m standing knee-deep in a muddy rice field. Though, let´s clarify “mud” before I go on. Because saying only “mud” makes it sound like Susan and I are enjoying a shared foot bath. But no, no, no. This is an organic farm. The farm’s four water buffalos are in charge of fertilising the area. And Susan has just stopped to pee.

Somewhat reluctantly accepting the encouraging nod from the farmer, I tell Susan a meek “huuuiii….”. And she obeys, trudging straight onward with me moving in the mud just behind.

 

The limestone pillars of Halong Bay

20 Mar

And now onto Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin – Vietnam’s top attraction. The spectacular view of more than 1600 limestone pillars rising out the sea is best viewed on a cushioned lounge chair on top of a wooden junk. As most travellers, we opted for a two-day cruise organised from Hanoi. Both Vega Travels and Oceantours are reportedly reputable agencies.

If they could choose, most travel agencies would probably have used the shiny, dazzling UNESCO World Heritage designation to promote this magnificent karst landscape. But, Vietnam’s communist party wanted it differently. When a Swiss travel magazine launched an online poll of the ‘new seven wonders of the world’, the party mobilised the country’s population to vote. So instead of the universal label of UNESCO, Halong Bay is proudly presented today by tourist guides as one of the seven wonders according to the Swiss.

Plying waters dotted with hundreds of limestone pillars would obviously have made for a nice little video. I do have that video. But, unfortunately someone may have accidentally lost it into Halong Bay. As a touch of irony, the video camera is waterproof. So, here are therefore some photos instead:

 

 

Hoian in a nutshell: interesting

20 Mar

After a 20 hour journey from Hoi An in part sleeper bus, part tumble dryer, we arrived in Hanoi. Vietnam’s capital had me humming Katie Melua’s “There are nine million bicycles in Bejing” from the moment I heard the stats. 6.7 million people. 6.2 million motorbikes. Each and every one of those whizzing through the streets while honking inanely, doing their best to keep up Hanoi’s dubious record of being the most polluted city in southeast Asia.

Hanoi is, if I may be frank, a city I doubt I would ever really like. But it pulls you in. I would probably be able to continually find it interesting. It’s not modern like Ho Chi Minh, pretty like Hoi An or charming like Can Tho. But, it had me staring from the moment I arrived.

Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum

The main attraction in Hanoi is also its most macabre attraction: Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh was the president of North Vietnam during the build up and part of the Vietnam War. Although he cultivated the image of the humble ‘Uncle Ho’, his wishes of a cremation was politely disrespected by the communist party who would rather continue cultivating him as a national icon. In the tradition of communist leaders, he was embalmed and put on public display. Most of the year, Ho Chi Minh is found in a horrendous granite mausoleum copied from Lenin’s tomb in Moscow. Though once a year he goes to Russia for maintenance.

Ho Chi Minh’s tomb is open most weekdays, and we joined the slow queue of several hundred people one day. It was first when we entered the building that it dawned on me what we were about to see. A 79 year old man, 44 years after he passed away.Frozen in time, Ho Chi Minh lays pale and frail in a glass sarcophagus. Despite the best efforts of his Russian embalmers and the warm spotlights on him to make him appear more lifelike, he resembles a vax statue. During the few minutes in his tomb, watchful guards occasionally pushed us onwards. Because you will want to linger. It is a mummified body after all.

Our stay at Hanoi Hilton

And yet – Hanoi was a welcome breather. We stayed with our Norwegian friends Tone and Jørn Petter, whose home was so packed with joy and treats we almost booked a flight back to Europe to get a home again of our own. We slept in duvets. The shower had hot water AND good water pressure. The coffee was an actual espresso and breakfast was glorious bread, cheese and jam. It was peaceful. And for a few lovely days, someone dealt with all of the normal journey issues for us. Safe taxi companies? (Taxi Group, ABC Taxi, and Mahlinh) Best travel agencies for trips to Halong Bay? (Vega Travel) Opening hours of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum? (From 8 to 11 – though with the queues, you need to be there before 9) etc etc.

 

Joys of travelling: the day someone peed on my sandals

14 Mar

I had originally self-censored this post. Travelling has its ups and downs. The below blog post was a matter of me writing out the irritation. Though intended as a bit of self-theraphy and not for publishing, I nevertheless sent it to my family. Not surprising, they found it utterly hilarious. And upon reflection, there should be some balance to the positive travel stories I normally share. So, here it is. The day someone peed on me.

 

Travel blogs tend to be about destinations. Nonetheless, a lot of the time is spent travelling in the true sense of the word. The boring bus ride, the uncomfortable train journey and the waiting. Or in my case, the women peeing on my feet – completely unnecessary and unprovoked.

Yes, that´s right. Two days later, and I am still so mortified that this is the story I would tell you if we met tonight. So yes. I´ll pour us some imaginary drinks and tell you the truth about our travels two days ago.

Okay. So we were travelling from Can Tho to Phu Quoc. The first leg of that journey is a bus ride. Buses in Vietnam have so far come with very comfortable seats and air conditioning. Unfortunately, they also come with a maniac for a driver. And of course, an extremely violent movie in Vietnamese blasting at top volume. Chainsaws are normally involved.

After nearly having killed 57 motorbike drivers and barely missed 12 head-on collisions, we stumble out of the bus at Raich Gea. Actually, we can barely get off the bus. We have been spotted as the only foreigners by the waiting taxi drivers. Instead of finally putting our feet down on the ground and sighing of relief, we find ourselves surrounded by shouting people. “Where you wanna go?”, “Taxi?!!”. Realising that we are not responding, all six start tugging at our clothes to get our attention. “TAXIII???”

Scrap that.

So, we do what anyone would do. We walk out of the station. Obviously we need a taxi. But when you´re fed up, your power seems to be to take your tourist dollars and walk away.

I´ll fast forward until we have realised that even our small backpacks are annoying backpacks in 35 degrees heat. We finally find a taxi that we insist takes us to a non-existing place, before we eventually realise we have the wrong information and ask him to drive us to the ferry stop instead.

Tired and hungry, we walk along the harbour until we spot a nice breezy restaurant. When we ask for the menu, we are given a tourist version…with no prices. We ask for one with prices. Oh, afterwards, we are told. But then how do we know what things cost, we ask. Afterwards, the guy repeats. But how do we know what to order if we do not know what it costs?, we repeat – still not eager to give the guy a blank cheque. He shrugs. We start pointing at items on the menu, asking for sample prices. A bottle of water? Fried rice? Again, he shakes his head. Only after we have eaten.

Fed up, we set off with our backpacks for the waiting area of the boat station. On my way to the toilet I realise I need money. At the time, I was rather happy with having to pay for the toilet, thinking it would probably be cleaner then. I return a few minutes later and push open the door, but stop just inside because of the people in front of me. A queue, I assume.

A women smiles at me and says something in Vietnamese. I, of course, do not understand. Until I look down. Two grown women are squatting on the white tiles, facing me and a few metres away from the three cubicles. They are both peeing. Two other women are standing behind them. I keep staring. I slowly realise that I – and everyone else – are standing in an increasingly large poodle of pee. I´m wearing flip-flops.

I catch the eyes of the peeing woman closest to me. She looks at me and grins. Now, I´ll admit that what happens next sounds like a bad American teenage movie…where I star as the snooty teenager. Because I simply turn on my heels and walk out. Hands to my temples, half shielding my eyes. “Oh my god”, I horror. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god”. I keep repeating this as I walk away, to the amusement and chuckling laughter of the Vietnamese women.

So, sometimes the slogans are simply bad slogans. The airline companies have it all wrong. Travelling is not always the destination. Travelling is sometimes the annoying part.