21 Oct - 28 Oct 2014 Kathmandu

The Double Bipolar City (I) …
Matt: Joining both Buddhist pilgrims and Hindu devotees, meeting innocent travellers in Thamel's backpacker Disneyland and clever locals in Kathmandu's dusty suburbs and preparing for an independent multi-day trek through the mighty Himalayas.

"Get busy living or get busy dying." 

Matt: Exploring the warren-like old town of Kathmandu, the largest city and capital of Nepal, which is stuffed with ancient stupas and sculptures at every crossroad, taking many walks through her labyrinthine backstreets and discovering half-hidden temples overflowing with marigolds, courtyards full of museumlike wood carvings and busy traditional markets where friendly Nepali people sell and buy everything imaginable; namaste!
"Kathmandu was a place of mystery and magic, almost unimaginably exotic. Palaces shaped like elaborate wedding cakes lined the maze of narrow alleys. Ornate Hindu and Buddhist temples were at every turn. There were religious sculptures everywhere - goddesses with many arms, buddhas in many guises, amazing erotic carvings on the corners of buildings, prayer flags strung like festive telephone wires from house to house. Open-air bazaars with color, in sharp contrast to the stone gray, two-storey and four-storey buildings that squeezed into every available space."

Matt: Celebrating the five-day-long Hindu Festival of Lights, Deepavali aka Tihar aka Swanti, in my new neighbourhood in Thamel where homes, shops and guest houses are brightly lit with candles and oil lamps in order to welcome Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. 

Matt: Hanging out at Kathmandu's atmospheric Durbar Square (admission: 30-day visitor pass for both square and palace museum for NPR 750.- or US$ 7.70 per tourist), the most popular UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nepal and an open-air architectural museum of magnificent medieval temples, multi-tiered pagodas and ornate shrines where the city's kings were once crowned and legitimised, studying the historical exhibits of the 17th-century CE Palace Museum aka Hanuman Dhoka, guarded by fearless Ghurka soldiers with their traditional curved khukuri knives, and marvelling at the eye-catching hard-core woodcarvings which decorate the erotic roof struts of the 16th-century CE Jagannath Temple, the oldest structure of the square.

“I don't know the question, but sex is definitely the answer.” 

Matt: Visiting the Tibetan-Buddhist main sights of Kathmandu thus (i) climbing up to the touristy UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Swayambhunath Temple aka Monkey Temple (admission: NPR 200.- or US$ 2.- per foreign non-believer), making a ritual circumnavigation of the gleaming white stupa under the watchful eyes of the Buddha, spinning the poorly lubricated prayer wheels set into its base, ignoring the hordes of shop owners who sell both worldly kitschy souvenirs and Tibetan-style religious paraphernalia and enjoying great views over the heavily air-polluted, dusty sprawl of Kathmandu, and (ii) taking a cheap local bus (5 km, ½ hour, NPR 25.- or US$ 0.25 per person) from the Old City Bus Park to Asia's largest stupa at Bodhnath aka Boudha, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to Tibetan exiles, where monks in maroon robes and with shaven heads wander the prayer-flag decked streets and international pilgrims stock up on yak-butter lamps, ceremonial horns and Tibetan drums.

“We need the courage to learn from our past and not live in it.”

Matt: Enjoying in Kathmandu's backstreet kitchens and traditional restaurants the quintessential taste of the Himalayas: (i) vegetable-filled and deceptively simple dumplings aka momos, Nepal's unofficial national dish, 10 pieces between NPR 40.- and NPR 80.- per plate, served either with home-made hot chili sauce (yum!) or with factory-made bland tomato slime (yuck!), and (ii) the Tibetan version of stir-fried handmade noodles, cooked with a variety of local veggies and onions, aka vegetable chow mein, usually between NPR 50.- and NPR 80.- per plate.

HappyCow's Compassionate Healthy Eating Guide

Matt: Deciding to skip the dangerous Annapurna Circuit Trek where a sudden and unexpected blizzard with following avalanches killed at least 43 trekkers, guides and porters only a few days ago (caused by the tail end of a dying cyclone which had ravaged the eastern coast of India), and gearing up for the alternative Langtang Trek where guides and porters are as useful as a hole in the head: (i) purchasing for NPR 300.- or US$ 3.- the 1:150,000 trekking map on Langtang from the Himalayan Map House Kathmandu, (ii) registering my independent trek at Kathmandu's well-organised Tourist Service Centre by obtaining a compulsory Green Trekking Information Management System (T.I.M.S.) Card for the stiff rip-off of NPR 2,000.- or US$ 20.- (requirements: application form, copy of passport, two photos), and (iii) paying the compulsory national-park fee of NPR 3,000.- or US$ 30.- for the Langtang National Park also at Kathmandu's Tourist Service Centre.

"I finally got my orders.
I’ll be marching through the morning,
Marching through the night,
Moving 'cross the borders
Of my secret life." 
(Leonard Cohen)

Matt: Taking a rugged local bus ("Slow Drive, Long Life") from Kathmandu's Macha Pokhori bus stop to the trailhead for the Langtang Trek, Syabrubesi (145 gruelling km with many police roadblocks and road construction zones, 9 ¾ hours of deafening noise from the bus' powerful sound system, NPR 340.- or US$ 3.40 per person - incredibly cheap and also incredibly uncomfortable), and sharing the jam-packed vintage bus with vomiting little children, foul-smelling old people and incessantly crowing roosters.

For Raoni, Tien and Ronja:
Von Kathmandu bis an den Fuss der Himalaja-Berge nach Syabrubesi bin ich mit einem Bus gefahren, aber mit was fuer einem!
Die Fahrt ueber 150 km dauerte nahezu einen ganzen Tag und kostete genauso viel bzw. genauso wenig wie eine Fahrt um drei Ecken mit dem Stadtbus in Toronto. Dafuer war mein Bus in Nepal mindestens halb so alt wie ich, sah aber bereits doppelt so alt aus! Das mit Abstand modernste Bauteil war eine lautstarke Digitalhupe ("Made in China"), die der Fahrer vor allem in den Bergen und vor engen Kurven viel lieber als die Bremsen benutzte. Ich vermute deshalb, weil die chinesische Hupe viel zuverlaessiger funktionierte als die indischen Bremsen und ihm auch viel mehr Freude bereitete.
Da es weder Sicherheitsgurte noch einen air bag gab, hat der Fahrer sicherheitshalber zu Beginn der Fahrt schnell noch ein paar Raeucherstaebchen ("Made in Nepal") angezuendet und mit dem Rauch die unfallverursachenden boesen Geister im Bus vertrieben. Ob sich nun die vielen Mitreisenden wegen dieses Rauches, wegen ihres eigenen Koerpergeruchs oder wegen der steilen Abhaenge am Strassenrand staendig erbrechen mussten, ist im Nachhinein nur noch schwer zu entscheiden. Den vielen lebenden Huehnern im Bus hat die Kotzerei jedenfalls nicht geschadet; sie haben bis zum Schluss gegackert. Ebenso wie dem Dutzend junger Maenner, die es sich zwischen dem Gepaeck oben auf dem Dach mehr oder weniger gemuetlich gemacht hatten, da alle Stehplaetze im Inneren des Busses bereits besetzt waren. Ihr haettet sehen sollen, wie der Schaffner waehrend der Fahrt vom Businneren aus die Fahrscheine auf dem Dach kontrolliert hat; Ordnung muss sein.
Um die Fahrt unterwegs etwas unterhaltsamer zu machen, hatte sich die Busgesellschaft trotz des niedrigen Fahrpreises sehr viel einfallen lassen. Neben der andauernden Bedroehnung und Bedudelung mit Nepalesischer Volksmusik und Indischer Filmmusik (filmi music) waren auch die vielen Polizeikontrollen sehr kurzweilig. Den Hoehepunkt bildete ein kurzer Stopp genau in jener steilen Kurve, wo einige Tage zuvor ein Bus in eine tiefe Schlucht gestuerzt war. Alle durften hinunterschauen. Zum Glueck gibt es in Nepal nur gute Busfahrer, die schlechten werden nicht alt. - Welche Busse benutzt Ihr in Ontario?
From Nepal, with Love!

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01 Oct - 29 Oct 2014 Bangkok

S̄wạs̄dī or Saluton Bangkok… 
Crossing the Pacific east to west, re-adjusting to Southeast Asia's time zone, temperature, humidity, food and beer and exploring the Thai Indian side of Bangkok's cultural diversity at Phahurat, often known as Thailand's Little India, where Sikhs, Tamils, Hindus, Muslims and Thais live together and die alone.

“It is not for me to judge another man's life.
I must judge, I must choose, I must spurn, purely for myself.
For myself, alone.”
(Hermann Hesse)

Adding another lazy month to the good practice of our tried and trusted "Aiya Routine" (e.g. coping with trans-Pacific jet lag and trying to understand the mysteries of the international date line, keeping physically fit with semi-daily laps in our sport club’s sparkling swimming pool, feasting on lekker vegan Thai food, washed down responsibly with ice-cold Thai beer, socialising with like-minded travellers from the East and from the West, and exploring a few unknown corners of Bangkok, which never ceases to amaze us; see also our previous visits [1], [2], [3], [4], [5] to the Aiya Residence & Sport Club, our Thai home-away-from-home for many years) and fine-tuning our travel plans for this year's segregated overwintering in Asia: (i) Konni's relaxing beach-and-dive dream in the Philippines and (ii) Matt's challenging hike-and-photo schlepp in Nepal and India.

“The reason some portraits don't look true to life is that some people make no effort to resemble their pictures.”

Enjoying an unobstructed 360-degree view over Bangkok's chaotic skyline of high-spirited hotel towers, high-rise office towers and highly venerated temple towers from the 84th floor of the 304-m-tall BaiyokeTower II Observatory and Revolving Roof Deck (admission: THB 300.- or US$ 9.20 per person), currently the tallest tower in Thailand, but only the 83rd-tallest building in the world, and trying to locate the visible and invisible landmarks of Bangkok's cultural diversity.

Matt: Discovering Bangkok's colourful and friendly Little India, an ethnic neighbourhood surrounding Phahurat Road in Phra Nakhon District, with the welcoming 1932 CE Sikh temple Gurudwara Siri Guru Singh Sabha in its middle, and a busy centre for the trading of cloth, fabric, garments, textiles and wedding souvenirs, Indian herbs, spices and processed food products as well as religious paraphernalia like statues and pictures of Indian deities, feasting hereafter on dirt-cheap but delicious pure-vegetarian Indian food and browsing the nearby Sampeng Market, the divide between Chinatown and Little India, mooted to have more pickpockets than anywhere else in all of Bangkok.

"Your mercy is my social status."

Matt: Purchasing a non-extendable 6-month double-entry tourist visa for the Republic of India (requirements: print-outs of the downloadable on-line visa-application form, copy of passport with Thai arrival stamp, two photos, THB 2,250.- or US$ 70.- per person in cash, return air ticket not necessary) from Bangkok's well-organised India Visa Centre +6626641200 which issued the visa within five working days - friendly and surprisingly painless.

Konni: Purchasing an extendable 59-day single-entry tourist visa 9a ("temporary visitor for pleasure") for the Republic of the Philippines (requirements: application form, one photo, copy of passport, copy of both in-bound and out-bound air tickets, THB 1,050.- or US$ 32.- per person in cash) from the relaxed Philippine Embassy +6622590139 in Bangkok which issued the visa within 24 hours - friendly and without any bribes.

Matt: Leaving friendly and vibrant Bangkok, Thailand’s most populous city, thus taking the arctic BTS Sky Train from Wong Wian Yai  to Mochit Terminal Station (THB 42.- or US$ 1.30 per person) and thereafter the super fast a/c express bus A1 (THB 30.- or US$ 0.90 per person) to Bangkok’s revitalised Don Mueang International Airport, flying hereafter uneventfully and without suspicious sneezing with Thai Air Asia (“Now Everyone Can Fly”) in an Airbus A 320-200 to Kuala Lumpur's new KLIA 2 and with Air Asia X (“Now Everyone Can Fly Xtra Long”) in a dirty and fly-infested Airbus A 330-300, crammed to capacity, to Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport, consistently rated as one of the worst ten airports in the world, for THB 5,010.- or US$ 162.30 per person, one way, all inclusive, booked over the internet way back in February 2014 CE, changing my watch from Thailand's Indochina Time (GMT/UTC + 7:00 hours) to the peculiar Nepali Time (GMT/UTC + 5:45 hours), buying an extendable 30-day single-entry tourist visa on arrival for Nepal (requirements: application form, one photo, US$ 40.- in cash) from the airport's friendly immigration guys, a straightforward and painless process without any hassle, and taking an unmetered small taxi for the negotiated deal of NPR 300.- or US$ 3.05 from the airport to the Om Tara Guest House +97714259634 in Thamel, Kathmandu's backpacker ghetto with over 2,500 Jenga-like hotels, guest houses, restaurants, trekking agencies and souvenir shops jammed into half a dozen narrow streets, rivalled only by Bangkok's notorious Khao San Road.

Konni: Leaving our Thai home-away-from-home, the well-tried Aiya Residence & Sport Club on the Thonburi side of beloved Bangkok, saying goodbye to our good friends Laine & Matthew and her little daughter Rosamund, taking the arctic BTS Sky Train from Wong Wian Yai to Mochit Terminal Station (THB 42.- or US$ 1.30 per person) and thereafter an a/c city bus no. 510 (THB 17.- per person) to Bangkok’s revitalised Don Mueang International Airport, flying uneventfully with Thai Air Asia (“Now Everyone Can Fly”) in a very cold Airbus A 320-200 from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur's new KLIA 2 for THB 2,280.- or US$ 70.-, one way and all inclusive, changing my watch in mid-air from Indochina Time (GMT/UTC + 7:00 hours) to Malaysia Standard Time (GMT/UTC + 8:00 hours), flying hereafter from Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia's Air Asia (“Now Everyone Can Fly”) in another seemingly unbreakable Airbus A 320-200 to Cebu's Mactan International Airport for MYR 240.- or US$ 73.- per person, and doing my last leg with Cebu Pacific Air ("Why Everyone Flies") in an ever reliable ATR 72-500 turboprop for the steal of just PHP 1,322.- or US$ 29.- from Cebu to Dumaguete, the hop-off point to Siquijor Island, my relaxed sun-and-beach destination for the next months.

For Raoni, Tien and Ronja:
Bangkok ist eine riesige Stadt in der ein netter Koenig und viele Millionen Menschen leben. Der Koenig und die meisten anderen Thailaender sind Thais, d.h. ihre gesprochene und geschriebene Muttersprache ist thailaendisch, ihre Hauptreligion ist der Theravada-Buddhismus und die haeufig scharf gewuerzte thailaendische Kueche ist die mehr oder weniger beliebte Landeskueche. Soviel zur Landes- oder Mehrheitskultur (mainstream culture), die Thailand zum bewaehrten Ziel fuer viele Touristen und Reisende aus der ganzen Welt macht, auch fuer uns. Dabei wird jedoch manchmal uebersehen, dass es in Bangkok auch noch andere sprachliche, religioese und kulinarische Minderheiten (ethnic minorities) gibt, die ihre eigenstaendigen Beitraege zum kunterbunten Charakter dieser grossen Stadt leisten. Zu ihnen gehoeren u.a. Chinesen, Inder, Vietnamesen, Burmesen und immer mehr Abendlaender. Die meisten von ihnen leben zweisprachig und pflegen inmitten der thailaendischen Hauptkultur ihre eigenen Sprachen, Religionen und Essgewohnheiten.
Wir haben uns diesmal etwas naeher in Bangkok's Little India umgeschaut, das uns an Toronto's Gerrard Street East erinnert und wo wir (nichtbiertrinkende) Freunde unter den vegetarischen Sikhs haben, die man leicht an ihren kunstvoll gebundenen Turbanen (dastar) erkennen kann, und mit denen wir viele gemeinsame Werte teilen. Diese Kopfbedeckung samt dem ungeschnittenen Haar drueckt entsprechend dem Selbstverständnis des Sikhismus die Weltzugewandtheit, den Stolz, und den Respekt der freundlichen Sikhs vor dem Leben aus. Der Turban darf zu jeder Zeit und an jedem Ort getragen werden. Manchmal wird der Sikhismus mit dem Hinduismus oder dem Islam gleichgesetzt und aufgrund ihrer Kopfbedeckung werden die Sikhs auch haeufig mit Muslimen verwechselt. Die friedlichen, familienbezogenen und toleranten Sikhs lehnen jedoch Askese, Aberglaube, Okkultismus, Nonnen- und Moenchstum sowie jedes religioese Spezialistentum (wozu auch Priester und Imams gerechnet werden) ganz entschieden ab, da sie jedem Menschen, Frauen wie Maennern, das Potenzial zusprechen, das Spirituelle direkt in sich selbst und zusammen mit anderen im aktiven Alltag zu erleben. Die meisten Sikhs in Bangkok sind Nachfahren von tuechtigen Migranten aus dem Punjab, wo sie in Amritsar ihren goldenen Haupttempel haben. - Welchen sprachlichen und kulturellen (Migrations-)Hintergrund haben Eure eigenen Eltern und die Eltern Eurer kanadischen Freunde? 

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