With his elaborate face paint – and the tinsel, artificial flowers, and pompoms in his hair – this man is a far cry from the ascetic sadhus one sees wandering all over India and Nepal.
Pashupatinath, three kilometres northwest of Kathmandu on the Bagmati River, is home to one of the most sacred of Nepal’s Hindu temples and cremation sites.
One of the “seven groups of monuments and buildings” that make up the UNESCO-listed Kathmandu Valley, Pashupatinath Temple and the Bagmati Cremation Ghats are also on just about every tourist’s itinerary while in the city. So, the site hosts a mix of holy people tending shrines and selling blessings, venders trading in all manner of religious paraphernalia and offerings, Hindu pilgrims, non-Hindu tourists and gawkers, hawkers of tourist trinkets, and beggars.
The first time I visited Pashupatinath, some 15+ years ago (see: Heaven and Hard Work), I was almost overwhelmed by the experience: I found the sight of families around the ghats across the black and filthy river, with their deceased loved ones in flames, distressing and ineffably sad. The hot, humid air was thick with the smells of smoke from the funeral pyres, burning incense, and human waste. A crowd of beggars, children and hawkers attached themselves to the small group I was travelling with, and it was impossible to move without almost stepping on someone.
Last March, thanks to a workshop organised by travel photographer Gavin Gough, with the help of photojournalist Jack Kurtz, I got to visit again with a small group of photography enthusiasts.
Pashupatinath has changed: the April 2015 earthquake hit this area, damaging some of the shrines. It was raining, so the steps on the east bank of the Bagmati were washed clean, and much less crowded than I remembered. I certainly don’t remember wildly-decorated “sadhus” hanging around with their hands out for money!
But, I too have changed. I have much more “travel experience” under my belt now, and deal much more easily with the unfamiliar. I found myself “seeing” much more of the site this trip, and interacting more comfortably with all the people there – not just those dressed up for the benefit of the tourists.
I spent some time visiting the Siddhi Shaligram Briddhashram, the “Home for the Elderly”, a Social Welfare Center facility originally built as the Panchdeval (five shrines) Pakshala during the mid- to late 19th century within the grounds of the Pashupatinath Temple complex. This is a beautiful, serene facility for frail old people without independent means, and whose relatives can’t or won’t care for them in a world that has moved towards more stand-alone nuclear families. It was a shame that photos were not allowed inside, because not only did the elderly residents have a quiet dignity, but the central shrine itself – although damaged by the earthquake – was beautiful.
This set of photos speaks much more about the people of Pashupatinath than the place.
The cremation ghats, in use 24 hours a day, line the west bank of the Bagmati River.
Hindus believe that fire purifies and liberates the body, allowing it to disintegrate back into the five Mahabhutas, or great elements.
People on the Steps
Many local and international tourists enter the temple area from the east bank. Perhaps it is a consequence of the still-low post-earthquake tourist numbers, but this area was much less crowded than I remembered from my last visit many years ago.
Monkey on the Steps
The monkeys (rhesus macaques) on the river bank enjoy scraps from the visitors and the sadhus.
Three brightly painted “holy men” were waiting in the alcoves on the east bank for tourists to take their pictures.
Sadhu with a Kumbha
Nepali Hindus that I spoke to insisted that these are fake “holy men” from India; …
Sadhu with a Water Pot
… real sadhus – especially Nepali ones – don’t beg to have their pictures taken.
But, I think it is a bit like the men in leather togas at the coliseum in Rome: they stand around all day in costumes and if you want to take their picture, you pay for it. It’s a tough way to make a living! We agreed a price up front, and made our shots.
Bridge over the Bagmati River
Non-Hindus are not allowed into the inner temple, but there are plenty of nooks, crannies and shrines to explore regardless.
Hindu Holy Woman
My first stop was to get a tilaka (or bindi) applied to my forehead, some kalava threads tied around my wrist, and blessings in general bestowed upon me, by a holy woman.
Hindu Holy Woman
Hindu Holy Woman
Having a tilaka on my forehead already didn’t stop the next woman from beckoning me into her little shrine for another blessing.
Applying Tika Powder
Morning rituals start young!
Creating a tilaka takes a great deal of attention.
Tenacity and Grace
Always graceful, but unrelenting: this saleswoman was determined that I should buy one the necklaces she had for sale. Of course, I was no match – and did.
The temple complex continues up a set of steps, away from the river.
Although most of the complex is dedicated to Pashupati, an incarnation of Shiva, this shrine features the elephant-headed god Ganesha.
Old trees, moss-covered shrines, and piles of rubble are everywhere.
Ornate concrete fascia pieces sit in a pile amongst the many shrines.
Monkey in the Ruins
The monkeys are at home here.
Pouring Water over a Golden Statue
They (and I) watch over a wall as a man pours water over a golden statue; …
Guru and a Golden Statue
Ruins inside the Enclosure
There was an entry into the enclosure housing the golden statue. Cows roamed freely, and pieces of old buildings slid into collapse.
Off-Duty Police Officer
With broken English and pantomime, this charming young policeman and I had a chat. He explained that the man in orange was paying tribute to his guru. (iPhone6)
It is amazing what you learn when you have a chance to talk to people at the sites that “everybody” visits!
Until next time,
On the Rhine Falls
Tourists on a passenger boat and on a viewing platform marvel at the face of Europe’s largest water fall: the Reinfall on the Rhine River between the Swiss Cantons of Zurich and Schaffhausen.
Travelling around Switzerland is like luxuriating in a box of the rich, truffle-filled chocolates that the country is famous for.
Everywhere you go, picture-postcard scenes meet you.
And, if you have Swiss friends to guide you and a Swiss Travel Pass in hand, you don’t even have to work hard: accessing these magic places is easy.
We were headed out on a simple day trip from where we were staying near Zurich: we were taking a train to the SBB (Schweizerische Bundesbahnen) railway station at Schloss Laufen am Rheinfall, another train across the river to Schaffhausen, and then a third train back to Zurich …
Viaduct over the Rheinfall
Our rail trip to the Rhine Falls gave us a good view over the roiling waters of the Rhine – and of the railway and pedestrian viaduct that crosses it. (iPhone5)
Accessing the Rheinfall
The medieval castle of Schloss Laufen, sitting high over the Falls, now operates as a tourist attraction …
Courtyard over the Rheinfall
… and houses a restaurant and a youth hostel.
The Castle also offers an elevator down to the river for those who don’t want to make the short walk.
The Roar of the Rhine Falls
At river-level, it is easier to appreciate the power of the 150 metre- (490 ft) wide falls.
Boats on the Rhine Falls
The tourist boats on the river are colour-coded: some do a brief tour, some let you out at the rocks in the middle of the falls, and some explore further.
Boat on the Rhine Fall
The tourist boats are dwarfed by the spray from the 23 metre- (75 ft) high falls.
On the Rheinfall
We opted for the short trip –
Schloss Laufen am Rheinfall
– which never-the-less gave us a good view of the castle on the right bank of the river, …
Central Rocks in the Falls
… and of the island rock structures in the middle of the falls. The taller rock has a boat dock and a walking path up to the Swiss flag at the top.
Tourist Boat on the Rhine Falls
It was a very short train trip from Schloss Laufen am Rheinfall, and across the river to Schaffhausen – with it’s landmark 16th-century circular fortress. (iPhone5)
Built using forced labour between 1563 and 1585, today the circular Munot Fortress is accessed by a walk bridge over a deep moat.
Inside the Fortress
The inside of the Munot is dark and eerie; I have no idea how it must have been configured in the old days when it was defending against French invaders.
Old buildings might be interesting, but this one is little more than a shell – albeit a fascinating and unique shell – with diagrams; …
… so having newlyweds using the site for their pictures made the walls come to life!
Top of the Munot
At the top of the Munot, there are plenty of tables where you can enjoy a coffee or ice-cream.
View over Altstadt
Alternately, you can admire the views over old Schaffhausen …
View over the Rhine
… and the river; …
Wedding Party on the Munot
… or you can just people-watch.
Head Towards the Light!
We worked our way back down through the dark tower, towards the light of the fortress’ doorway.
Altstadt through the Vines
From there, we were pitched headlong through the vines …
… and past the quaintly tiled rooftops, …
Stairs to the Altstadt
… and down the steep stairs towards the Old City of Schaffhausen.
Crosswalk to the Old Town
Schaffhausen has been called “Erkerstadt” because of the 171 Erker (oriel bay windows) in the city.
I love the abstract layers that are produced by reflections: photographer, photographed; old town; modern shop with new products.
A Town Square
Waiting for the Wife
Girl in the Fountain
Haus zum Ritter (built in 1492)
Like many of the building fronts in Schaffhausen, Haus zum Ritter is wonderfully decorated with frescos.
Erker : Oriel Window
The oriel windows in Schaffhausen were built as status symbols on the houses of rich merchants.
Swiss Cheese Trap
Some of the ornate building-fronts house quirky shops selling unique items – like Swiss cheese traps.
Beautiful Building Front
Other buildings appear to exist for their own sake.
A simple day trip, but one filled with postcard-views.
Until next time,
Smiling Faces and Bright Futures
Thanks to dormitory accommodation, these Thai Hilltribe girls – children of Lisu itinerant workers – are able to continue their school studies.
The remote, mountainous corners of northern and western Thailand – and neighbouring Laos and Myanmar – are home to countless small villages of “mountain folk” (ชาวเขา), or ethnic “Hill Tribes”.
These Hilltribes/Hill Tribes are not a unitary group. In Thailand alone, there are six major distinct ethnic minority groups – the Akha, Karen, Meo or Hmong, Yao, Lahu, and Lisu, plus a few smaller groups and numerous sub-groups, each with distinctive customs and languages.
Most of these groups are relatively recent arrivals in Thailand; going into the 20th century, the country was home to only a few thousand hill tribe members. However, over a period of 200 or so years, groups have drifted across the borders from China, Tibet, Myanmar and Laos. Today, the combined groups are estimated to comprise about a million people in Thailand.
Traditionally, the Hill Tribes are migratory people who practiced slash-and-burn subsistence farming. In the past, their members were regarded as foreigners by the Thai legal and social system: even today, many of them lack legal status because of their past migrations across international borders. And, even when they are legally recognised, the remoteness of their communities puts them out of reach of many mainstream services, and the differences in their languages and customs puts them “outside” mainstream society.
Hill Tribe children face particular challenges in accessing education. They may live a long way from the nearest village school. Thai is not their language at home. Their subsistence-farming parents have little money for extras, like uniforms or books. The schools in these remote hills also face difficulties, for while the Thai Department of Education pays for classrooms and teachers, they do not invest in ancillary supports, like canteens and dormitories for children who cannot return to their distant homes during term, or libraries and recreational books to encourage literacy in pupils. Nor do they support individual students whose families lack electricity, running water, and a meaningful income. It is still often the case that “Hilltribe people are not getting the education they need to determine their future in society.”
Fortunately, this is changing.
When the Thailand Hilltribe Education Projects (THEP) was first formed in 1991, schools in the hills were struggling to provide even basic infrastructure for their resident students, and many children were dropping out of school at very young ages. Since then, THEP has supervised countless school dormitory, canteen, and agricultural projects, and has supported over 300 students through scholarship funding. In the last two years, the first THEP-sponsored students have graduated from university!
I love a good-news story that involves children being able to follow their dreams of an education.
And, I love visiting Northern Thailand, where the people are friendly, the views are stunning, and the food is superb. Susan Race, who manages the Thailand Hilltribe Education Projects (THEP), visits the region several times a year. She checks on the school projects she has found funding for, consults with local staff on potential new projects, and interviews all of the many Hilltribe students who receive study scholarships through her organisation. She does all this with absolute transparency: anyone who is interested is welcome to join her on her trips – as I have in the past (see: Ursula’s Weekly Wanders: THEP)
It is always great fun accompanying her, and meeting some of the students who benefit.
Wings over Chiang Mai
I feel good as soon as I see the red tile roofs of the city and the surrounding green mountains. (iPhone6)
Travel with Susan is always packed full! By nine in the morning, we are at our first school, where the children sit quietly waiting for us.
Many of the children at this school stay all term in dormitories that have received funding though THEP project grants. Flanked by Khru Usa, one of the local teachers behind THEP, and the school’s Headmistress, Susan speaks to the children briefly.
Like a Pied Piper
Khru Apichart, a local Headmaster and one of the principal drivers of THEP, walks towards a school’s dormitory with a group of children.
Some of the older dormitory residents line up to meet us. The Lisu tribe consists of more than 58 different clans; the groups in Thailand are known as “Flowery Lisu” on account of their colourful traditional costumes.
The Lisu are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group, descended from indigenous semi-nomadic Tibetans.
Kids Line Up
About 55,000 Lisu live in Thailand, mostly in the remote, mountainous hills of the Northwest.
In the Girls Dorm
We are not really in “the Hills” here, though. These students live at the dormitory so that their parents can find itinerant work somewhere in the region.
Lisu Girl in her Dorm
The youngest dormitory resident is a five-year-old kindergarten student …
Lisu Girl in her Dorm
… with a lovely, cheeky grin.
In the Mosquito Nets
In the boys’ dormitory, the lads show us how the mosquito nets – which need to be replaced annually – work.
Dormitory in the Rain
The next school we visited has a number of tidy dormitories which accommodate several different Hill Tribe groups.
High Bunk – Low Ceiling
Inside one of the dorms, a Karen student in traditional dress shows off the top bunk.
Traditionally, unmarried Karen girls wear dresses made of lengths of white or cream cloth that has been hand-woven on a backloom – if not by the girls themselves, then by their mothers.
Hmong Dormitory Students
A group of smiling boys in their wonderfully ornate outfits made by their mothers, greet us outside their dormitory.
Inside a Dormitory
The conditions in the dorms are simple, but at this school, they are beautifully maintained.
The traditional Hmong black velvet costumes are richly embroidered, and decorated with beads and coins.
Khru Apichart in the Boys Dormitory
Apichart Intra was one of the founders of THEP. He takes an active interest in the projects and the children who benefit from them. Here, he is asking the dormitory students how it is going, and if they have any problems.
Hmong Boy in his Dormitory
Susan and the Teachers
After a quick lunch, we move on to a local district office, where Susan and the teachers prepare to interview scholarship recipients.
Students Filling in their Forms
Scholarship recipients are expected to submit their grades every semester, and update the THEP team on any changes in financial and living status.
Susan always invites interested people to join her on trips; these may be student sponsors, and/or members of organisations who have donated project money. They always enjoy meeting the students – many of whom are willing to try out their English.
Student Group Shot
No project can happen anywhere near a Thai educational office without the ubiquitous group shot! The Karen children in the front row are in traditional dress. We then got back in our van to drive further into the Hills: from Chiang Mai District, west into Mae Hong Son.
After the long and winding drive through the mountains between Chiang Mai and Mae Sariang, we arrived at our last stop for the day, Sangwaan Wittaya School. We were greeted by students in traditional Lanna, Hmong, and Karen dress.
Traditional Thai Dancing
They danced for us while we ate our freshly prepared dinner. (iPhone6)
It was late when we finally pulled into our guesthouse.
We’d had a long day of meeting students and teachers, checking out dormitories and bunkbeds – a day full of fresh food and smiling faces. And, we had an early start the next day to do it all again!
I love travelling with Susan and seeing how the schools and students are doing. But, you have to have stamina!
A trip with THEP is work.
Pura Ulun Danu Beratan
The much-photographed 11-tiered meru – the thatch-roofed tower shrine – at Pura Ulun Danu Bratan is dedicated to Dewi Danu, the Goddess of the Waters, and features on Indonesia’s 50,000Rp note.
If you want to be a successful traveler, it pays to do your homework.
For example, checking the expected temperatures all around a region – not just on the coast – and packing accordingly!
This was not the first time I’d been caught out by weather in Asia: last year, my husband and I “forgot” that Vietnam is far enough north to get seriously cold in winter.
Bali, on the other hand, is just 8 degrees south of the equator, with average year-round tropical temperatures in the region of 30°C.
Unless, of course, you head into the mountains – in the wet season.
My husband and I had been enjoying some time in the coastal resort town of Sanur Beach when it became apparent that he needed to travel to Kuala Lumpur. Rather than join him, I decided to wait out his return near Candikuning. My plan was to do some yoga, go walking, catch up on work, and visit the temple of Pura Ulun Danu Bratan.
I hadn’t counted on the rain: three days of cold, ceaseless rain that knocked out the internet where I was staying and rendered my clothing – especially my shoes – woefully inappropriate. English language and tourist information fell away as I climbed the mountain to Wanagiri. Walking any of the local hikes was out of the question in the pelting rain and with the wet, slippery grass underfoot. No heat, no tv, no credit cards, and no internet: it didn’t take long for me to finish my book and to exhaust the “menu” in the wet, blowy common area. It turned out that the only transportation I could get down the hill to an ATM in the closest town was a motorcycle, making the idea of carrying my cameras seem pretty fool-hardy.
Still, you make do with what you have!
Fortunately, I had a plastic raincoat in my bag. I rolled up my pants so they wouldn’t get too soggy, grabbed my iPhone6 and my umbrella, got on the back of a small bike, and hung on for dear life.
Bukit Kembar BacPaker Room
I’m pretty sure the ad I read when I booked my simple room emphasised the “EcoTourism” rather than the “Bacpaker” aspects of my accommodation. Be warned: eco-tourism is often code for “no infrastructure”. Although, to be fair, the local coffee (although gritty) wasn’t bad, and the water in my shower was nice and hot.
Overlooking Lake Buyan
This is, no doubt, a lovely spot in good weather.
The Road Ahead
It was about 10 km of steep, winding mountain road, lined with jungle, macaques, and the odd house, back to the town of Candikuning.
Entrance to Pura Ulun Danu Beratan (Bratan)
I tried to organise for my motorcycle-taxi to meet me somewhere different, so I could go for a walk into town, but it was evident that we weren’t communicating clearly. I settled for assigning a time, and having him meet me here, where he left me.
Guardian at the Gate
This combined Hindu-Buddhist temple was built in 1633. Some of the features in the grounds – like the fierce dvarapala or gate guardians – are typical of Bali’s Hindu temple (and home) design.
Other features – like this extraordinary eagle – were like nothing I’d seen before.
Shrines of varying sizes and shapes are dotted around the grounds. The mountain in the background disappear into the rainclouds.
A typical feature of Balinese temple construction is the entry gateway, or Candi Bentar, which looks like an intricate tower that has been split into two.
There is no entry to the inner sanctum of the temple, except to those who are engaged in genuine worship.
When the richly-carved doors are open, however, you can see the draped temples within.
Visitors to the Deer Sanctuary
Deer have a special place in Buddhist lore, representing Buddha’s disciples.
The barking deer (muntjac) is a protected species in Indonesia because of their diminishing numbers in the wild.
The 11-Storey Pelinggih Meru at Pura Beratan
Pura Beratan is a major Shaivite water temple complex, part of the UNESCO-listed Subak water management system. The 11-storey Pelinggih Meru is dedicated to Shiva and his consort Parvathi, and also enshrines a Buddha statue.
Visitors to the Temple
A brief pause in the rain allows visitors and their Balinese guide to walk around the site.
A giant fish lives in Danau Bratan, which is also known as the Lake of Holy Mountain because of the area’s fertility.
Worker on the Site
Sacred Fig Tree
Wrapped in a black and white checkered cloth which symbolises the balance of good and evil in Balinese Hinduism, a giant fig commands a central place on the lawns.
Boats for Hire
There are no takers for the hire boats in the wet weather.
Outside the restaurants, more fish operates as a fountain.
Umbrellas in the Rain
From inside one of the restaurants, I can stay dry while watching more visitors as they leave the site under their colourful umbrellas.
I was lucky: the restaurant had reasonable prices and a free wifi signal; I dragged out my lunch as long as I could so that I could stay dry and check my mail and Facebook for the first time in two days.
Eventually, however, I had to roll up my pants again, don my plastic raincoat and brave the elements to meet my motorcycle driver for the long, wet ride back to my modest room.
Such is travel!
A Quiet Bench
There is something very “English” about a wood and iron bench sitting amid wet grasses and spring daisies.
“Spring” – that season of new life and fresh growth – is a concept originating in the temperate regions of Europe.
There is nowhere quite like an English country-garden to herald Spring in all its traditionally subtle beauty. The gentle rains – for which the countryside is so well known – coupled with slowly increasing sunlight, give rise to fresh budding leaves and an abundance of flowers. When the sun is shining, it is easier to believe in the ideas of rebirth, rejuvenation, renewal, and regrowth.
In practical terms, the arrival of spring, after a long, cold, grey winter, signals that it is time for people to get outside – either into their own small patches, or into those wonderfully expansive gardens of the old stately manors, preserved under Great Britain’s National Trust.
And so it was, one day last month while I was in Hereford, that we all grabbed our cameras and donned our sensible shoes, and went for a walk along the Wye River in The Weir Garden, a National Trust property just 8.0 kilometres (5 mi) west of the city.
This 10 acre (4 hectare) garden was designed by the prior owner, Roger Parr, and his head gardener William Boulter. In addition to the riverside walk, which follows the river banks over the old retaining wall, there is a traditional walled garden, dating back to the early 19th Century, and a Victorian glass house, added in the 1920s.
It’s a lovely place to visit, but you might want a raincoat or an umbrella!
Everything is spring-green, as we enter the Weir Garden property. There is a small entrance fee, unless you are a National Trust member.
The paths along the riverside are pebbled and dry, but most Brits always have their Wellies in the car, so they can put them on “just in case.”
A Quiet Bench
There are plenty of places along the riverside to sit and watch life – and the Wye River – go by.
I love daisies! They may be rugged and simple, …
… but they are so cheerful.
Purple Campion (Silene)
Valerian (Centranthus Ruber)
Clusters of flowers hang over the river as it winds past us.
Daddy and Daughter
Narrow steps lead down to the water’s edge, where a father and daughter check for passing fish.
Canoes on the Wye
Thanks to the local canoe rental, you can easily follow the waters down-stream.
Child in Nature
Youngsters are at their happiest in nature, climbing trees and getting grubby.
On the Tyre Swing
Near an open area with plenty of lawn chairs, there is a natural play ground built from ropes and wooden stumps; the tyre swing was a huge hit. I think it was only the promise of ice-cream at the near-by self-serve shop that got this little one to loosen her grip.
Green on Green
The grass and woods surrounding the upper path are impossibly green …
… with pink daisies stretching out from the verges. (iPhone6)
Admiring the Wye River
The upper path looks over the old retaining wall and the river banks.
Sheep in the Meadow
Freshly-shorn sheep graze in the neighbouring meadow, as we move from the Riverside Walk to the Walled Garden.
Common Red Poppies (Papaver Rhoeas) at the Wall
The 19th Century Walled Garden protects lots of freshly-planted kitchen vegetables, but is also colourful with the spring flowers.
Columbine (Aquilegia) Flowers in the Rain
Carnivorous Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia)
In true Victorian style, the heated glass house contains some real exotic specimens!
Bees in the Onion Flowers
Back outside, a light, misty rain …
Bees in the Onion Flowers
… doesn’t prevent the bees from going about their business.
We were heading back to the car when one of my companions got excited about what he could see in the trees.
I had to look very, very hard before the small, fast-moving treecreepers became remotely visible to me!
Canadian author Margaret Atwood has said: In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.
Dirt, flowers, and maybe a little ice-cream.
Until next time,
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