Mcloed Ganj – Dharamshala

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In Mcloed Ganj I found the spiritual vibe I had hoped to find in SE Asia. Home to the Dalai Lama and some 80,000 Tibetan refugees, this town at the base of the Himalayas is easily one of my favorite places I’ve been this trip. The green, steep mountains with the fog constantly rolling up and down the slopes reminds me very much of Sa Pa in northern Vietnam (another favorite spot of mine). When I started this trip almost 6 months ago, I had it in my head that I’d spend lots of time hopping from paradise beach to paradise beach. After having visited some wonderful beaches, I came to accept that I am more of a mountain man. Not surprising I guess since I grew up in the desert at the foot of the Franklin Mountains.

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The least fun part about Dharamshala was arriving. The night bus was uncomfortable. The aircon worked sporadically, going from comfortably chilled to sauna-hot in minutes. I was sat in the back of the bus and every bump jolted me out of my already shoddy sleep. At least I was lucky enough to sit next to a cool gal and have some interesting conversations to help pass the time. Also, I got sick from the food that I ate at a late night stop, and spent the first two days in Mcloed Ganj feeling like death.

My sickness went, and I was able to have some amazing days. I attended a talk held by the Dalai Lama himself. Knowing that he resided here, I never expected to actually see him. There was a beautiful energy in the air at the temple. I sat there for four hours listening, not understanding a word but enjoying being there just the same. Monks came around often to serve chai and give out snacks like bananas, chips, a rice dish, and foodstuffs.

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Another day I rented a Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle, a classic bike I’d always wanted to ride. A friend and I went to check out a waterfall in the area. Even though it was rainy and I didn’t get to go far, it was great riding while it lasted. Later the rain got heavy and we took refuge in a really chilled out café/bookstore. I skimmed through a variety of spiritual books and had a series of philosophical conversations with a Swiss and Indian man.

In Mcloed Ganj, I met a young Tibetan man about 23 years old while eating in the guesthouse restaurant. He shared with me his story which was nothing short of amazing. He told me about his intended escape to India at 13, and how the Chinese military caught him. He talked about his year and a half in prison being beaten and electroshocked. He tried again after his release and made it through Nepal to India, where the government grants Tibetan refugees citizenship and provides asylum. He recently opened a Tibet Massage parlor in the town. He was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever talked to. In fact, my time in Mcloed Ganj was characterized by amazing conversations with deep-thinking people, a really refreshing experience for me.

Angkor Wat?

 

 

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I finally got around to seeing Angkor WatWhilst back in Bangkok recently, unsure of where to go, and honestly a little tired of being in SE Asia, I decided that it would be a shame if I didn’t see Angkor Wat before leaving. In Bangkok I found a barbershop that also sold bus tickets to Siem Reap, the town that is the base for exploring the Angkor Wat ruins.

Getting There:

1) Don’t pay more than 250 baht ($8 US). That includes a minivan to the Cambodian border, and a large bus to Siem Reap after you get through passport control.

2) Don’t let anyone else handle your passport. The minivan driver or his associates will try to separate each person in the minivan to take care of the visa process for you. DON”T LET THEM. Take that f#$*in’ passport and do it yourself. It costs about $35 US.

3) Do bring a passport size photo. I didn’t and they were going to fine me 100 baht, but an official ended up patting me on the shoulder and saying “don’t worry, you can go” and I went through without paying extra.

4) Don’t listen to the minivan drivers on the other side. They will tell you ” your bus will be here in 4 hours but…you can take my minivan right now (at 200 baht, which if you want you can bargain down to 80), and get there early.” This is bullshit. Your bus will be along much sooner than 4 hours.

5) Once you arrive at the small bus station, ignore the persistent tuk tuk drivers and walk towards the canal in the city center. After walking 100 meters you can grab a tuk tuk for $1 (much cheaper than at the station) to your hostel/guesthouse/hotel or walk it, it’s not that far.

Once there I met an American guy, and a couple from Argentina. Together we decied to avoid the in-your-face tuk tuk drivers and walk the 2 km to our respective hostels. I ended up staying at Siem Reap hostel, a giant monstrosity with an indoor pool and decent bar. At this bar, I met two other Texans. I’d been in SE Asia over 4 months without meeting another Texan, and then voilà there’s two of them. One of them was from Austin, my longtime home.

About the ruins. They’re very impressive. I got the three-day pass for $40 US and set about exploring the ruins with my American friend Corey. While walking around the different temples and buildings, I enjoyed contemplating the hidden nature of the place. To me, all the impressive ruins of the world have a sense of mystery to them. To me no matter how much we dig around the site, events took place there that we may never know about. In my opinion our ancestors were much more advanced in many ways than we give them credit for. I liked analyzing the Khmer culture through the ruins. The mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism is evident in the wall reliefs and statues scattered around the complexes. I thought about how anytime a new religion comes along and gains popularity with the locals, it assimilates and absorbs the previous religion of the people. For example, Celtic beliefs and celebrations got absorbed by Christianity and became expressed through the holidays Christmas, Easter, Halloween and Dia de los Muertos. Contemplating history and trying to read between the lines of the official version of history we are told is one of my favorite pastimes. I also believe that all the large, ancient historic sites such as Angkor Wat were built in the location they were not only because of access to a water source and good land, but also because that site has/had a highly concentrated spiritual energy which the priests. holy men or monks and others could use to their advantage.

Anyways, nerd rant over. I really enjoyed walking around the temples and taking it all in. The age of the buildings is evident by the enormous trees growing over the temple stone. They must’ve taken centuries to reach their current size. I did the small loop with my friend with a really nice tuk tuk driver we hired for the day. The next day we rented fully electric scooters and did the large loop.

After three days there, I went back to Bangkok, again… I applied for my visa to India, which I am patiently waiting for. Until next time!

Bangkok part 2 & 3

During my final couple days in Hanoi, the overwhelming sensation that I had spent quite enough time in Vietnam came over me. The very next day I caught a flight back to Bangkok.

My lady from Brazil was also there awaiting her flight home a few days later. The first time I was in Bangkok I hated it. Too many tourists, 2015-06-07 15.29.02too loud, too this, too that. However, this time I thoroughly enjoyed myself. One day, we spent time walking around the calm University Area and later took a boat to the other side of the city. It was pleasantly devoid of tourists. On another day we visited the enormous Chatuchak Weekend Market. We tried our best to restrain ourselves from buying things that would weigh down our packs. One night we walked around Chinatown enjoying the smells of the food stalls where we eventually ate before going back to our area. It was a wonderful week with wonderful company, eating and walking and taking it all in.

Once she left, I knew I had to get out of Bangkok because my experience of the city wouldn’t be the same.  I took a train to Surat Thani and spent the next 10 days on the islands Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. Whilst in Koh Phagnan, I learned that a dear friend from Austin would be visiting me for a week. A new phase of my Bangkok experience was under way. Enter Bangkok part 3…

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This time we did many of the tourist things I didn’t do the first two times. Her first day in Thailand we visited the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho. The next day we checked out the Golden Mount and a IMG_9087few very impressive nearby Wats. That day was also a nature sighting day for us. In that area we saw a 3 ft (1 m) long Monitor lizard swimming in a dark-murky canal, and closeby we found a huge millipede and another large monitor in the alleys near the ramshackle homes that line the canal.

 

 

 

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My favorite site that we visited was the Grand Palace. I was previously reluctant to go in because of the 500 baht ($17) entrance fee. Later after having been I was glad I went, as Wat Phra Kaew (home of the Emerald Buddha), and the pagodas and murals were the best I’ve seen in SE Asia. I enjoyed walking alongside the Wat’s 100 m long mural depicting very interesting stories of Thai mythology. I say ‘mythology’ for lack of a better word. Personally I believe in the possible partial truth of many culture’s mythologies. What stood out to me about the mural was the stark visual difference between many golden clad deities or figures and the simply dressed, dark-skinned humans. My friend and I talked about the correlation between these depictions and our own theories of Human-Alien hybridization.

My second and third visits to Bangkok were a huge improvement over the first. I learned that  it’s a very interesting city once you get away from the boozy tourist spots near Khao San road. After a couple busy packed days in Bangkok, my friend and I headed south to Krabi for some beach time.

Wat Pha Tam Wua, The Forest Monastery

 

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I heard about the Forest Monastery from my Slovenian friends I met in Chiang Mai. Having done Vipassana Meditation before, I definitely wanted to do a retreat here in Southeast Asia. And so, whilst in Pai, I caught a bus going to Mae Hong Son and told the driver to drop me off at Wat Pha Tam Wua. About two hours later, the driver came to a halt in the middle of nowhere. The only indicator that I had arrived: a sign by a narrow road leading off into the wooded cliffs. I grabbed my backpacks, marched on a quiet path for 20 minutes, and arrived.

I’ll be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful location to meditate in Asia. The place is nestled in the lush, mountainous forest and hidden away by high cliffs. I got the feeling of sheltered from the world. All over the grounds were ponds, streams, enormous colorful flowers and butterflies.

I jumped right into the mix of things the morning I arrived. They had us do a mix of walking, sitting, lying, and chanting meditation. Silence is optional, and I met some great people chatting during our free time.

Unfortunately, the head monk was away during my stay. Others said that his English was quite good, and that he would have been able to give detailed explanations of the practice and instructions for meditation. That was too bad, I would’ve liked to hear the head monk’s talks. I did like the monk that I met very much though. He was always smiling and jovial. My favorite part was when one night, the fires from the government-sanctioned controlled burning were getting closer to the monastery, he said “fire coming to monastery…you huts bamboo…maybe you be barbecue…hehehe”.

As much as I liked my experience, there were a couple things that I didn’t jive with:

Meals – We only got two vegetarian meals per day, the last one being at 11:00 am. I pretty much went to bed with a rumbly stomach every night.

Chanting – The evening chanting felt quite long. Some of the phrases referred to the Buddha as “the exalted one” and “my only refuge”. I couldn’t connect with this part of the retreat. I did like that the Goenka Vipassana retreats I had done it the US were more secular.

After 3 days, I felt ready to leave. The monk gave me a Buddha necklace pendant that he said would protect me wherever I go. I walked 20 minutes back to the main road and hitch-hiked a ride to Mae Hong Son.

Wat Tam Wua, Forest Monastery