Linda Marlow is a long-time Zen Buddhist practitioner and member of the Buddhist Society in London. As well as enjoying travel she has a deep interest in astronomy and the natural world. She currently organises the Society's annual summer school.
Linda recently undertook a trip to Nepal & Bhutan a visit that she has wanted to make for some time. We are delighted that she has chosen to share her impressions of these two Buddhist countries and pictures of this trip with us on The Zen Gateway.
On 5 March 2016, some friends and I embarked on a long journey; one that we all had waited over a year for. The previous year we had all been looking forward to our forthcoming trip to Nepal and Bhutan but just a few days before our departure, a series if earthquakes hit Nepal with a magnitude of 7.8Mw or 8.1Ms, killing over 8,000 people and leaving devastation and intense tragedy in its wake. Our own desires came to an abrupt stop; seeming so futile in comparison. However, thanks to the wonderful understanding and sheer hard work of the organisers, a few months later we were on course again for the following year. The time had now come ….
After a comfortable flight from Heathrow to Muscat, we had a few hours in between flights to take in the surroundings; suddenly feeling very warm due to the temperatures in Muscat - a stark change from the coldness of England and then onto Kathmandu in a rather cramped plane. I was relieved to find a kind Nepalese gentleman next to me and he spent a lot of the flight telling me about his family in Pokhara. Time sped past and before we knew it we had arrived in Kathmandu. Once past customs and the visa desk, we found our guide waiting outside the airport with garlands of welcome for us all. A great way to start the trip of a lifetime.
MY FIRST TASTE OF KATHMANDU
We drove through the very busy and smokey streets of Kathmandu, looking out at the crowds of people busy selling their wares, mothers with their babies sitting on pavements selling jewellery and trinkets. The traffic was very congested and the air seemed very dense. There were sadly a lots of signs of the devastation, a result of last year’s earthquakes. There were lots of people living in tents, having lost their homes but re-building was going on everywhere and people seemed to be going about their business as usual.
About an hour later we arrived at our hotel. It was called Nirvana Garden and was surrounded by a lovely area which was quiet and unimposing.
The hotel was comfortable (albeit there were a few power cuts throughout our stay which proved to be somewhat challenging) but nevertheless we were all made to feel very welcome and after a good meal and a few beverages we were all ready for a good night’s sleep as we were due to make an early start the next day.
I will always remember that first morning. I awoke in a golden light as all the curtains were made of gold coloured satin with sunflowers imprinted on them. It was quite surreal but such a beautiful way to wake up and the realisation of where I was really hit me then and I felt so very privileged to be there.
CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK
First stop, Chitwan National Park. A five hour bumpy road ride from Kathmandu. The park is the first national park in Nepal. Established in 1973 it was granted the World Heritage status in 1984. The temperature is quite hot this time of year. We had a couple of wonderful days there, riding elephants. (We were glad to see the Mahouts take their elephants home each night and provide them with shelter, where they sleep.)
The first morning was spent on the river in a carved-out canoe, where later we saw sleeping crocodiles and many beautiful species of birds, not to mention a couple of Rhinos on the way back. Our Mahout was very helpful and actually found a mother and baby Rhino, both of whom seemed totally oblivious of our presence on the elephant (thank goodness). The sunset was amazing that first night and sitting beside the river that evening there was just the sound of the birds singing and little else.
The people of the area were only too happy to show us round their humble homes. One lady had five daughters and they all lived in a hut made of mud where they kept a few goats and grew their own food.
Then back to Kathmandu and another bumpy ride. The next day we went to Durbar Square which is a World Heritage Site. It was quite breathtaking with many people selling their wares. They were very persistent with us travellers! I found Kathmandu to be a fascinating city, bustling with traffic and people everywhere, the smells and sounds were quite mesmerising.
The very next day we were up early for our flight to the only country in the world that operates on GNH (Gross National Happiness) as opposed to GDP. The plane was rather small but had plenty of empty seats, so each of us grabbed a window seat hoping to get a glimpse of Himalayas, as had been mentioned by our guide.
The flight took about an hour; half way through I looked out of the window and suddenly my breath was taken away. There in all their majesty were the Himalayas. Apparently the “Him” in Himalayas means snow and the "alaya" means home. I have to say they are beyond words. A few minutes later I was astounded to hear the pilot announce that we were flying right past the highest mountain in the world: Mount Everest. It was beyond belief.
ARRIVING IN BHUTAN
Bhutan is a wonderful Buddhist country. Landlocked in the Eastern Himalayas between China and India it lies to the West of Nepal.
Once again upon landing we were met by our guide, who was an absolute treasure. He presented us with white silk scarves and warmly welcomed us all to Bhutan. Could it get any better than this? Once we had settled into our lovely hotel in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, all of us were feeling quite overwhelmed to be there and were ready for a good night’s sleep.
The state religion is Vajrayana Buddhism and this is evidenced in many monasteries throughout the kingdom. The country’s King is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and when he became the king in 2006 he introduced a wonderful new way to measure prosperity; using formal principles of gross national happiness and the physical, spiritual, social and environmental health of both its citizens and natural environment. There is free healthcare and education in Bhutan for all and when the younger generation reach a certain age they undertake a course in the 13 traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan. During our trip we visited the Institute of Zorig Chusum where we saw many students learning such skills as painting, sculpture, wood carving and weaving.
The next morning we drove continually uphill amongst tree clad mountains. Standing atop the mountains housing the marvellous Buddha Dordenma statue, all I could see were colours and the air was acutely fresh and clear.
The statue itself overlooks the southern approach to Thimpu and will eventually house over one hundred thousand smaller Buddha statues, each of which, like the Buddha Dordenma itself, will be made of bronze and gilded in gold. It is 169 feet tall and is one of the largest Buddha rupas in the world. Years ago it was prophesied that the statue would be built to bestow blessings, peace and happiness on the whole world. It is truly a sight to behold.
On the way up the mountain one sees signs of life affirming sayings; “Life is a journey, complete it” says one, “Let nature be your guide” says another. Almost all of the food is grown locally and is organic. Smoking is prohibited in Bhutan as are plastic bags and it was most amusing to find out that cannabis grows widely in the country but people there do not abuse it and in fact farmers sometimes give it to their pigs because it makes them happy! A most inspiring and compassionate country indeed.
During the next few days, we travelled to Paro, Phunkha and back to Thimpu staying in authentic Bhutanese hotels, the walls of the rooms often covered in auspicious Buddhist symbols.
The people were an absolute delight, extremely civilised and respectful in their behaviour and the food was absolutely delicious. Three of our group are vegetarians and we were spoiled for choice. The momos were most interesting! Many of the roads are still being built and on one occasion, we travelled for a few hours on an extremely bumpy journey over, above and below the mountains, hanging onto our seats for dear life. I don’t think I have ever seen such an astoundingly beautiful spectacle of nature.
We visited many Dzongs, in particular the Punakha Dzong which is a 17th century fortress that has played an important role in Bhutan.
We visited the archers of Bhutan and were astounded at the distance they could shoot their arrows. Each man wore a skirt of many different colours and layers, each depicting their particular skills .
Bhutan is also famous for its beautiful weaving. We saw many women busily weaving scarves and material in the most intricate and striking colours.
We visited paper-making factories and a post office where we were able to buy stamps with our own photos on them, which is a very novel idea.
We also saw the unique and fascinating creatures of Bhutan called Takins, mammals with huge hooves and similar to a gnu in appearance.
On our last day, after a very early start, we made an excursion to the Taktsang monastery, the most famous of all Bhutanese monasteries. It is situated on the side of a mountain and is called “The Tiger’s Nest”. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for me, I had previously sprained my ankle so the four or five hours’ walk uphill was out of the question. However I managed to get half way up, resting in a very comfortable shelter overlooking the monastery on the other side of the mountain.
I had great fun taking shots of cheeky mynah birds flying off with our crackers!
Three of our group managed the whole way which was quite a feat to say the least and it was an absolutely wonderful way to finish the trip. Our guide carefully helped us all back down again, some of us more exhausted than others but we were all filled with gratitude for this overwhelming experience.
All in all it was a trip I know none of us will ever forget; a feast for the eyes, ears and heart with so many beautiful and stunning paintings and statues in the monasteries and elsewhere, the people with such grace and friendliness and a real feeling that life in Bhutan is very special in so many ways.
RETURN TO NEPAL
When we returned to Kathmandu, the place really hit me: once visited you will never ever forget it. The shops bustling with activity, vendors selling their wares on the streets, spiritual music played everywhere and the smell of incense all play a part in creating the surreal atmosphere of this city; a real sensory overload.
The best day ever followed when we visited the Monkey Temple where macaque monkeys roam freely. I even managed a great shot of a baby who seemed to almost pose for me ! The monkeys even have their own swimming pool there and are treated very well by visitors and carers alike!
Later that day, we visited Boudhanath stupa which was breathtaking, the former one having sadly toppled in the earthquake the previous year. The stupa is (or was and will soon be again) the largest stupa in Nepal and near it one can find the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. Walking along turning prayer wheels is a real privilege. There were many monks surrounding the stupa, most of them Tibetan and wearing their maroon robes.
However the monk who really caught my attention was a Theravadan monk dressed in bright orange robes who seemed to appear out of nowhere. He simply proceeded to stand in the midst of all the activity and held one hand in prayer with his alms bowl in the other.
The people of Nepal are so special that I felt a particular warmth towards them during the trip. They bow continually to passers by. “Namaste” ( a greeting of respect), is a regularly used word to tourists and friends alike. One of the most touching moments I experienced was when I was being transported from one place to another and we stopped at the traffic lights. A young man on a motorbike looked in through the window and caught my eye and when I smiled, he put his hands together and said, “Namaste”.
The whole ethos of the city is one of perseverance and robustness. The evidence of the earthquake is prominent everywhere as previously mentioned; buildings have fallen down, with bricks heaped up everywhere and people trying to rebuild their homes and lives one step at a time. It was a very humbling experience.
All in all, two weeks of intensity, activity and some very valuable lessons that will touch my heart forever.
In Kathmandu, there is a place called the Garden of Dreams. It is right in the centre of the city. Yet it has an air of tranquility and other worldliness about it. I like to think of Nepal as two countries inhabiting this same frame, extending from one end of the spectrum to the other. One is poverty stricken, living in the middle of much mayhem yet rich in determination and the beauty of people’s hearts. The other seems to exist in another dimension where peace and compassion are the essential qualities of life.
Text and images copyright to Linda Marlow