A quick post from an air-conditioned internet cafe in Banglamphu, Bangkok, two metres away from a coffee machine (I wasn’t planning on finding one, I just must have a Melbournian magnet for them). Bangkok and other parts of Thailand are facing the worst floods in decades. The Chao Phraya River here is swollen and heavy – banks, jewellery stores, hotels and a few other businesses are quickly building little 1-2 foot high concrete barriers, or building barriers with sandbags at the storefront. You step over them to get inside. Unsurprisingly, no-one seems put out or panicked or angry about it. It’s Thailand after all.
My hotel – Bhiman Inn – is a modest, reasonable small-ish mid-range joint about 10 mins walk from Khao San Rd. Luckily. That infamous strip is everything I’ve heard and worse. Neo-colonial consumerist brothel. Staff hold up signs that say they don’t ask for ID; every few steps someone is offering to sell you something (though they do tend to back off when you say no…); men of all ages and backgrounds walk around blankly arguing with their Thai “girlfriends”. Fascinating to walk down, but I wouldn’t want to be there.
Bangkok is a mystery. All cities are of course. But this one feels experienced in presenting itself and hiding itself at the same time. The typical pan-Asian concrete blocks and advertising hoardings, franchises, footpath traders, sizzling food-stalls, dogs and cats and motorcycles and more makeshift powerlines than you can imagine. Pedestrian traffic-flow is smooth, polite and calm. As are the roads. And the parks are mysteriously meticulously clean. There is a long history of cross-cultural engagement and tourism here; people of all backgrounds are here; Thais rarely bat an eyelid at outsiders, they just go about their lives.
I’ve visited a few temples, parks, the National Museum, bustling streets and back-streets, and missed a few things. It’s only a 2-day stop really, so there’s not much I can see or understand in that time. Today, I’ll try to find the Forensics Museum (!), and prepare for Chennai. Speaking of medical tourism, an ad in the Bangkok Post (english-language) Classifieds offered breast enlargement, liposuction and other procedures, and said foreigners are charged the same as Thai people. One of Bangkok’s local tourism magazines devote an entire column to medical travel. How visible is it in India?
PS I found the Forensics Museum. Truly fascinating on many levels – gruesome to the point of stomach churning, but haunting, mysterious and just plain odd.
It feels a little odd writing this now – I’ve been away from the blog for a while, so now I have to do a big update, talk about places I’ve left behind “long ago”. India is nothing if not time travel, though – Ambassador taxis, foot-pedal sewing machines and mobile phones, crumbling infrastructure, homes built into ancient ruins – indeed, the collision of different times.
So, about two weeks back we were in Lava, a tiny hill town not far from Kalimpong. Again, a gorgeous place – the small village of farmers and monks is dwarfed by the surrounding forest, and for most of the day is swathed in thick fog, waves of it rushing across the town in the morning and mid afternoon.
Being habitual Westerners, we’d forgotten that they might not have ATMs, so arrived with very little cash, just enough for two nights accommodation, plus cheap meals. We soon realised what poverty was, of course, when we went for our first meal – soup that was really just hot water with shards of vegetable and packet noodles. Lava exists on what little grows on tiny plots.
A beautiful place – we walked around the forest, such a powerful and independent presence, not a place that can belong to anyone, a spirituality loose of any language. But, as usual, a place of confounding contradictions – a huge, still expanding monastery, next to precarious poverty, shacks and destitution.
The trip back to Kalimpong was incredible. A 90 minute bus tripo along winding, thin, potholed mountain roads, packed to the rafters with yawning schoolgirls, old men spitting paan out the windows, tough weathered old women swaying with the bus as it honked its way down the hill, Hindi pop blaring optimistically through the fog.
This whole post won’t be about mucus and tremblings and edgy bellies, don’t worry. I just like the anagramatic irony of being sick in Sikkim. I had a dreadful head cold in Darjeeling, which I of course passed onto my partner Rachael. It hit her in Gangtok (Sikkim’s capital, and it’s most popular entry point), so we laid low there for a few days, saw as many of its sights as health and energy would allow. Both fine now, just the occassional flare-up of spiritual ennui.
Gangtok is, like many of West Bengal’s hill towns, a jumble of multi-coloured concrete block buildings crammed onto the line of a breathtaking ridge, steep drops of mountain on all sides. What stood out immediately was the relative wealth – Sikkim joined India only in the 1970s, and since then has been courted by the Centre with tax concessions and infrastructure. Consequently, there is much less visible poverty, actual footpaths next to some roads, lots more cars and industry, and (due perhaps to one of its biggest industries, liquor) high rates of alcoholism. We didn’t see drunkenness, but on the day when all the shops were shut (Tuesday!), the only places open were drugstores/chemists and liquor stores. By the way, for my beer afficionado friends, pretty much everything in the north east is 8% lagers – strong, dense, sometimes honey-sweet, but fairly unmemorable. Kingfisher is still the king.
And, in our brief few days, the best food in Gangtok is at Taste of Tibet, on the south edge of Mahatma Gandhi Marg. Fantastic thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) and spinach momos (dumplings), and very popular with the local monks and families.
Enough about my epicurean belly. The real highlight of Gangtok for me was our first day – we took the cable car ride from the hilltop over the centre of town, to the Institute of Tibetology. An amazing, vertiginous, giddy view. Sprawling buildings, gracious dramatic hills, huge strands of bamboo and patches of rice fields built into the hills. Gorgeous.
The Institute holds a rather large collection of Buddhist artefacts – devotional paintings, coins (from a country that doesn’t quite exist, tragically), yellowed and weathered manuscripts on paper and palm-leaf from around the 12th century. And, strikingly, bowls made from human skulls, and trumpets made from thigh bones. To remind the user of the transience of life. Nothing like that would happen in the West, I feel. The closest we would get to such a visceral treatment of the body is either symbolic (like the “body and blood of Christ”) or in transgressive art. The building is certainly worth spending a few hours in.
On that note, Rachael and I are both reading a book called “The Monk and the Philosopher”, a conversation between Matthieu Ricard, a French scientist turned monk, and his philosopher father. Fascinating on an interpersonal level (dad always seems to want to remind his son of what he was like when he was young!), but mainly it’s been interesting to ponder Buddhism as we experience it close-up. I can’t say I understand it more. Probably less, in fact. In it’s indigenous context (well, more indigenous than in Australia), there is so much accumulated ritual, symbolism, extravagant visual imagery, which is very hard to access without fully immersing yourself in study. One of the owners of Holumba Haven (an almost unnervingly calm collection of cottages in an orchid nursery in Kalimpong, where we stayed one night, on our way back to Kolkata from Gangtok), a beautiful, talkative, eccentric, intelligent man, said monasteries aren’t churches, they’re more like boarding schools. Useful metaphor, I think.
On the note of accommodation, if you can afford 1000 rupees a night, plus 250 per meal, Holumba is worth it – it’s very calm, yet gently sociable. Talk to the pea-hens, too – they’re a bit crotchety, but really lovely ladies. And, in Gangtok, we stayed at Mintokling Guest House – very helpful and professional managers, fantastic view of the Himalayas from the room when the sky clears, average food, and since the last Lonely Planet was published, the price has gone way up to pay for renovations (which I sense has taken some of the character from the place – not as intimate or homely as we’d hoped). Still, again, a good place to recover, rest, put shallow roots down, explore. You certainly need that in India, we’ve found. It’s exhausting, overwhelming – you need to take small steps sometimes, make little journeys.
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged – we’ve been doing so much travel these last few days, and internet access and time has been a bit scarce. There’s much more to say, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Next time – transport (jeeps, autorickshaws, trains, cycle-rickshaws), religion (temples and money), dense fog in the humble hill-town of Lava, and yes the beach in Puri!!!… If I can fit it all in… 😉
Ah, Mirik, no wonder the Indian middle-class flock to you in the winter! You have seduced me (although I may be a bit easy 😉 )!
Mirik is a small hill-town of about 15,000 people, about 2,000 metres above sea level. The older part of town is a gently bustling trading and farming village, but the town now also centres around Lake Sumendu, a man-made lake, surrounded by bamboo, cedar, ferns. I wandered around the stone and dirt paths that circle the lake and criss-cross the surrounding forest for hours. The Indian tourists ride horses around its perimeter, glide across the lake on paddle-boats, or (as I found out soon enough) set up picnics on the shore and play filmi (bollywood tunes) loudly and distorted through huge speakers. Ok, that part doesn’t sound so wonderful, but even that was kind of beautiful.
The outskirts of Mirik, the steep and the gentle hillsides, are populated by orange orchards, cardamom groves, and plenty of tea plantations. So, in spite of its tourist appeal, it has none of the tourist vibe of Darjeeling. Let me give you a few snapshots…
I visited the island shrine to Parvati, and one on a hilltop to Durga. The island is perhaps ten metres by fifteen, the shrine tiny, reached by a footbridge. When I went there first, I was entirely alone, so sat on the steps and just absorbed, and wrote, and sat…
The hilltop shrine is actually a complex of shrines, around 6, connected by a circular path, which wound around a banyan tree. I know next to nothing of the stories of Hinduism, and the images are still hard to access, but at some temples, there is a real sense of the spiritual, perhaps the patina of the years of accumulated devotion. Both places were deeply moving and beautiful, sublime perhaps.
I have to say, of course, that when I left Mirik and arrived in Siliguri, I soon enough saw a small temple near the river, surrounded by dust and grime and bamboo shacks, immense poverty… and somehow I was reminded of Marx’s infamous quote about opium… Easy to be “inspired” in a sublime environment…
There is also a huge monastery in Mirik. On my last day there, I got up at dawn, walked the 15 minute hill road to get there, and on the way, it was the first clear day since I’ve been there, and there the Himalayas were, looming white and majestic on the horizon! Breathtaking. I’d been having a touch of the Western guilts, wondering what I was doing here, having my own little experiences, leaving behind empty plastic mineral water bottles, going home… It reminded me that in the midst of a transporting experience, there is no self to agonise over.
I hover outside the prayer hall for a while, a bit aghast at the building itself, an immense five-story crimson and saffron palace almost, intricately yet subtly decorated… but decided I should go in. Hundreds of monks are at morning prayer. I slip as quietly and anonymously as a non-robe-wearing, white man can, and sit in a corner. Waves and currents of chanted prayer, gongs, the sound is like an orchestra, each voice a distinct voice yet disappearing into the whole. Again, I can only enter the outer perimeter of the significance of what’s happening, so I sit and absorb, and attempt my own version of prayer, chant, meditation, presence. I leave after maybe 15 minutes, and of course they’re still going…, walk down the hill feeling different yet the same…
I stay at Hotel Ashirvad, a tiny place off the main street. I couldn’t get through on the phone to book, so was a little nervous. I was greeted at the door by a 10-year old girl, who when I ask if there’s a room, she leaves, I assume to get the manager. An 8 year-old boy comes out, shows me upstairs to a tiny single room, says it’s normally 200 rupees, but I can have it for 150, motions me to sit down, relax, then rushes downstairs to carry my huge backpack upstairs! I meet Dad the manager later, but it’s so uncanny and unnerving to meet a child who is so confident and accustomed to the world of work. At other times, I’ve been slapped back to reality, when after admiring the humble architecture of a village home, I’ve turned the corner to see a six-year old collecting wood or sweeping the path. It’s not Australia’s reality, but it’s reality for so much of the world.
The only time in Mirik that I was approached by strangers who wanted something from me was when a group of young Indian men wanted their photo taken with me! Oh, and I while I was sitting in my room one cool morning, with the window open, a monkey stuck his head in, his fingers gripping the window-sill, his face curious. I shoo him away, as you do…
I spent Christmas dinner at Jagjeet restaurant, a family of one. A portly bearded Sikh gent played with a small girl (better than Santa any day!). She later wandered around the restaurant, running her toy truck across any improvised road she could find, including my leg. I could weep, with a blur of contentment, yearning, melancholy and joy.
Thankyou Mirik. A wonderful way to end my time in the West Bengal Hills. But, Siliguri was about to remind me of another side of India, and bring up tears of a different kind…
First, sorry for those pedants out there (myself included) – I couldn’t work out how to insert an accent over the “e” in cliche.
Now, for Darjeeling. I have probably seen more non-Indians here than everywhere else I’ve been combined. It’s tourist central – and not just people from overseas, but many Indian middle-class people make the trek up here. And who could blame them? A cliche is a cliche because it’s so compelling. The town is a cluster of homes, shacks, shops and hotels around a steep ridge, around 2000 metres above sea level. Many centuries ago, it was home to the Buddhist kings, then to the Gurkhas, and in the 19th century a few pasty white people decided they really liked tea (and the strategic and scenic location), so Darjeeling became firmly entrenched as the archetypal hill station of the British Raj.
I stayed at Andy’s. Of course I did. It’s actually run by Andy’s very fatherly dad Genesis. Andy moved from India to marry an Australian woman, in Melbourne, would you believe! So, I was meant to stay here (who knows, maybe I’ll move to India with Rachael ;)….)! From the rooftop viewing platform at Andy’s, on a clear day (and they all were, while I was there), you can see the Himalayas, including the breathtaking sight of Khangchendonga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world. I got up at 5.30am to watch the sun slowly illuminate the peaks, pink-orange sunrise wash to the right, soft wisps of mist rolling across the foothills. Cameras can’t capture it, but of course we all try.
I met some interesting people here, too, the happy compensation for Darjeeling being such a tourist mecca. I could feel the bunched up words itching to get out of me – finally some conversation! So, just in case you’re reading this, “Hi!” to Phil the Brit who drinks the local water, Andres (best of luck extending your stay here – your thesis will be much richer and so will you!!), and Kasja!
One of my highlights of Darjeeling was definitely the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, a few k’s from the centre of town. It was founded in 1959, the year the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India, by a handful of refugees. It’s expanded hugely now, and includes a school, medical clinic, and a variety of workshops, which feed the shop, selling carpets, shawls, jewellery, etc. A beautiful place. For the first time since I’ve been here, I decided to turn the line of prayer wheels, walk around them… I can’t describe it really (yes, I’m a writer, I should be able to, but…). While I’m still an outsider to so much of the acrued traditions and rites of Buddhism, there’s a kind of resonance in this place – deeply human and open. And politically aware (unavoidable really) – the centre includes a moving photographic exhibition and a printing press which was used in the early days for a Tibetan newspaper.
The other highlight was Observatory Hill. Another well-trodden path, but for a reason. A monk named Dorje originally lived here (hence, Darjeeling…), and the site is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. I’m not sure of the whole story (it’s a blog, dammit, I can be slack with my research, I’ll read up later…), but somehow they’ve managed to have a joint temple – you enter the front gate and to your left is a monk, to your right a Hindu priest, sitting side by side. The hill is covered in prayer flags, swimming in incense, and has many small shrines, including one inside a cave which is both a little eerie and deeply moving. Since one of the Hindu gods worshipped here is Hanuman, the monkey god (to grosslyl simplify…), the hill is also home to a large number of marauding monkeys (who are very happy to eat offerings presented at shrines!). I was a little nervous, but they’re more focussed on fighting each other than hassling humans, though I’m told they’re keen on stealing….!
I’ll leave it at that for now. Darjeeling’s pretty amazing, and I’m wondering why I left after only four days. I guess I just have perennially itchy feet at the moment. My current challenge is to try to direct my meagre rupees to businesses other than those listed in the Lonely Planet. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some fantastic meals in restaurants that the guidebook-bible lists, it’s just that I know that such listings almost guarantees success – there are other amazing places, and to try to find them is part of the adventure. Oh, but now I’m starting to talk about Kurseong…. which is my next post (plus a rave about the Toy Train!).
Miss you all (apart from those reading this who I don’t know, but maybe I’d miss you too if I knew you…).
I’ve just left Kalimpong, having spent a week in what one young Indian man told me is “the second Switzerland”. Leo also said that Kalimpong is Heaven, whereas Kolkata is Hell. It’s not heaven, but it’s been a huge oasis for me, in spite of a few little scares.
I took a share jeep from Siliguri to Kalimpong – it takes about 3 hours, up steep, potholed mountain roads, with 12 of us in one jeep, hips bumping against hips, legs crammed in. Deep-vein thrombosis is not a risk on long-haul flights, really, compared to this. Still, amazing trip! As we stopped for fuel at the outskirts of Siliguri, the local India Oil servo was preparing for a celebration – the entire place was covered in orange flower garlands, Hindi pop music blared from loudspeakers, a hundred plastic chairs were lined up in front of a podium – the banner proclaiming welcome to the CEO for the grand opening of an automated service station! On the share jeep ride, I also saw many roadside shrines, monkeys, cows, more tiny shacks selling paan (of course!) and car-exhaust-stained vegetables.
I am slowly becoming accustomed to poverty, I think. I expected to be thrown into despair, but I just feel somewhere between stunned, speechless and cold. In Kalimpong, there is definitely poverty but not to the extent of Kolkata. I had people say hello, ask me where I’m from, etc but no-one hassle or beg or try to drag me into their store. Of course, it seems there’s no work in town, so all the local teens are fairly surly and preparing to get out. I met a few of them, and they wanted to smoke dope and talk about rock music, and who they might marry. Some things are the same here, some things so different!
My first night here, I found a little restaurant, ordered a great Malai Kofta, and as I was feeding myself, a small group of about eight men gathered about ten metres away in the darkness. They started hitting and kicking one man, knocking him to the ground. A woman was screaming. It was dark, and cars were passing, so I couldn’t see, but it all stopped soon, and they all seemed to leave. As I was leaving, I asked what it was about, and was told “oh, they’re just drunk, it’s safe here but…” After that, I didn’t see any violence or drunkenness, but while it’s certainly a friendly town (I had so many people just smile, say hi, etc), there’s a complex history and a real sense of uncertainty about the future.
I have to say I have at times felt very romantic about the architecture and vehicles of India – there are Vespa-style motorbikes, gracious curved modernist/art-deco houses, signs that are hand-painted (and often misspelt). So much seems to have come from the first half of the 20th century. Indian people, from what I can tell, would take the new any day, but this is a subsistence, getting-by economy.
Stickers, posters and murals everywhere declare the demand for an autonomous Gorkhaland. The West Bengal Hills were taken by the Nepalese Gorkhas in the 18th Century, then by the British in the 19th. Kalimpong is primarily Nepali, but there is also Indian, Tibetan, and many others. It’s a real mix of people. But there seems to be a strong desire for autonomy from the West Bengal State Government. Conflicts, even killings, have resulted from differences over the degree of autonomy that is acceptable, and the means to achieve it. While I was there, there was a day long strike. Women congregated at the Rotary Club-built lookout park, and men around the Police Station, holding placards and flags. No conflict, just I think a reminder that’s what they want.
Kalimpong is also a mix of religions too – catholic churches, Hindu temples and Buddhist gompas. I spent a bit of time in the latter two. The Krishna temple was interesting – a huge, almost gaudy white and pink structure, with a tiny room where devotees prayed, circled the shrine and made offerings. I have a long way to go before I know anything of substance about Hinduism. It seems an immensely complex, malleable, ambiguous religion – a religion of stories rather than truths.
The gompas in Kalimpong are beautiful. As I walked around two of them, I was immediately invited inside. Interestingly, the gaze the monks gave me was neither welcoming nor unwelcoming, just a quiet constant regard. At both, I sat in the main hall for a while, but within minutes a young adept would be by my side looking at me mutely. The halls are explosions of colour, murals of various Buddha incarnations, worn crimson cushions and wood bench tables. There is a calm in these places, but it is not hyper-spiritual at all. Young monks play hacky-sack, kids tease the local dogs with sticks (shades of “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…”!), other monks carve and saw wood, building things.
I’ve had such ups and downs here. I’ve walked the beautiful, busy, lively backstreets, and wept out of loneliness. I’ve sat in calm awe on the balcony of Deki Lodge (where I stayed – a lovely little Tibetan-run place – the owner is a 60-year-old matronly saleswoman – as I left she showered me with mandarins and biscuits for my trip!). I’ve also met many lovely people, with a kind of aggressive friendliness – “MP” who gave me a list of local Nepali bands I should track down, Leo and Bakash who took me out for Tea and sat with me at the local park around a makeshift fire, and Charlie an American Buddhist who’s been travelling around India for about 2 years now. There is no replacement for friends and home. Homesickness persists, but it is abated, eased, replaced even, by the immense warmth and calm of this place.
PS. This photo was taken by a precocious local 8-year-old boy, who was fascinated by my camera, took dozens of photos. I had to pry it out of his hands, even though three of the fingers were missing.