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Archive for November, 2009

Elephants, etc.

The Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for animals rescued from brutal conditions, is the creation of a seemingly tireless woman known as “Lek”, which means “small”. She is indeed small, even for a Thai, but what a big heart. They let visitors feed and help bathe the elephants there, but the best part is just watching them lumber around in peace, and knowing they will be safe for the rest of their lives from torture and abuse. The babies are pretty entertaining too. There is a website if you would like to know more about Lek and her other projects to help elephants: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org

I did not spend enough time in northern Thailand to really explore the region, but a few highlights besides visiting the elephant park were: cycling around the medievel ruins of Old Sukhothai, wandering around the small hill town of Mae Hong Son at night, a short hike through bamboo forest to a waterfall, and a day-long Thai cooking course in Chiang Mai.

In the last week, I have also refined and I think perfected an important life skill. As a youngster growing up on the edge of a vast wilderness, I was taught that when lost in the forest, one should stay put to make it easier for people to find you and to avoid walking around in circles. However, being hot, tired and lost in a tropical city calls for an entirely different response: 1. Proceed immediately to nearest source of cold beer. Make half-hearted attempt to decipher map and establish present location while drinking beer. That failing: 2. Proceed to nearest spa. Massages, facials and the like I have discovered miraculously restore one’s sense of direction. As a last resort: 3. Ask someone to point the way.

One Night in Bangkok (how I wish I could get that song out of my head), and then tomorrow I leave for India, where I’ll be spending 2 weeks at an Ayurvedic centre in Kerala recommended by my friend Samantha. The timing is perfect, because to tell the truth I am getting a little tired of sightseeing, packing and unpacking every couple of nights, and being around tourists, which is I suppose another way of saying I am getting tired of being around myself as a tourist. Staying in one place for 2 weeks with a few books sounds about right.

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Like a Rhinestone Cowboy

Courtyard Punakha DzongFrom a single point on a vast slope, a rare beauty entices the eye, an improbable burst of delicate pink in a sea of conifer green. For reasons unknown to me, the Himalayan wild cherries, sometimes in stands of two or three but more often solitary, bloom in the fall just as the oaks, maples and other deciduous trees begin to turn and prepare to shed their leaves …

The days in Bhutan were graced with beauty of all kinds: views of the eastern Himalayas from a high mountain pass on a cloudless day, blue-green mountain rivers rushing to the Indian Ocean over roaring rapids, starry night skies, the impressive architecture of dzongs (fortress-monasteries), and the awe-inspiring religious figures of the temple in the Punakha Dzong, which thanks to Namgay’s thoughtfulness and the ease of changing plans when travelling in a small group, we were able to contemplate in unhurried quiet while other tourists were enjoying lunch.

The Bhutanese people initially struck me as reserved (which might be explained by the fact that I’d just spent a month in Bali), and I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get to know any of them. The impression I was left with at the end of the trip was that, although they will not ask about your age, marital status, where you’re going to and where you’re coming from within moments of meeting you (see earlier posts), the Bhutanese are a warm-hearted, gracious and self-possessed people who know how to have a good time.

Both men and women look very elegant in the national dress – gho and kira respectively – which is required for many occasions and entrance to many public buildings and sites, and is still more common than western clothing at other times. It’s appreciated as good etiquette for visitors to also wear the national dress, especially at religious festivals such as the one we attended in Bumthang, so with Namgay’s help, Wayne and I each picked up a new set of clothes before leaving Thimphu.

Monklets Watching Dances
The festival kicked off the first night we arrived in Bumthang with a rock concert-like atmosphere, complete with a traffic jam and a mosh pit when the crowd rushed to squeeze through a gate in order to have a chance to run through a fire three times to purify themselves. (I made it through twice only.)

The festival is not a show put on for tourists, a fact which unfortunately seems to be lost on some foreigners, but a religious occasion and a community event. There are spectacular dances which people crowd around to watch, and also food and merchandise stalls to browse. Our days at the festival were a leisurely opportunity to meet some local people, including a gaggle of giggly little girls practicing their English, and a pair of elderly betel-chewing ladies who helped adjust my kira for me.

One of the highlights of the trip was our second-last evening when the owners of the local tour company Namgay works for, Jack and Karma, invited us for dinner at their home in Thimphu. They had heard from Namgay that I was curious about the new constitution and political system (geeky, I know) and very thoughtfully also invited their friend, His Excellency Tshering Tobgay, Opposition Leader in the National Assembly. It was a great honour for me to meet him and to have a chance to ask my questions to someone with expert firsthand knowledge.

After a delicious dinner and lively conversation, the singing started, first some lovely Bhutanese hurtin’ tunes, and then Jack made an abrupt switch to lead us in some English language classics. No one could remember all the lyrics to “It’s Hard to be Humble”, so we moved on to “Rhinestone Cowboy”. I learned that country music is quite popular in Bhutan – just one more surprise and one more reason to love the place.

I’m not sure what it was that made me feel so at home so quickly in Bhutan. Certainly there are superficial explanations: the familiarity of the cooler, drier climate compared with the equatorial torpor of the previous month, faces which could have come from Kakisa or Taloyoak, logs crackling in the woodstove in my hotel room in Bumthang, a combination of granite outcroppings and pine trees that but for a prayer wheel and painting of a Buddha on the rockface could be mistaken for a bit of the Canadian shield, a community picnic by a river, a nighttime fundraiser concert with 20 or so plastic chairs placed around a bonfire for the spectators, a cup of tea to warm up on a chilly night, the generosity of hosts who went out of their way to make us feel welcome. But of course I could come up with as long a list of the unfamiliar, alien and unique. All I can say is that something about this tiny kingdom felt profoundly right to me, and after the privilege of experiencing an all-too-brief 12 days within its borders I do not pretend to know or be able to explain what that was.

I’ve now been back in Thailand for 2 days. Yesterday was a frenetic experience at the MBK shopping centre in Bangkok, getting a second fitting for a couple of new suits, replacing worn-out sandals, haggling over the price of a new suitcase, having my new cell phone reconfigured by a giggly but very competent young Thai man who spoke limited and incomprehensible English (still far superior to my Thai) yet somehow managed to understand my explanation of the problem and fix it. A manicure and pedicure squeezed in at the end of the day. Too tired this morning to argue with the taxi driver who charged me twice what I should have paid, but still got me to the airport for a fraction of what the hotel demanded for their limousine service. Early morning flight to Sukhothai, where I’ll be spending 3 days before going further north to Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai.
Himalayan Wild Cherries
While present in Thailand, I am doing my best to hang on to the magic from Bhutan. A single moment keeps coming to mind. We’re on the highway back to Thimphu, driving about 30 km/h because that’s all the narrow switchbacks will allow, and we pass a resplendent Himalayan wild cherry by the side of the road, blossoms lit by the sun against a background of azure blue sky. There’s no opportunity to take a photograph, so all I can do is enjoy the sight while it lasts. It occurs to me there are lessons embodied in this tree, a bit of a rhinestone cowboy in its own right (aren’t we all). That it is what it is, it blooms when it does, and that why and how aren’t important. That moments like this aren’t meant to be captured, but received with grace and then as quickly surrendered. That being willing to go through life at 30 km/h instead of 140 km/h means missing fewer such moments and makes them last just a little longer.

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