AVOID DRINK­ING TAP WA­TER

Sunday Tribune - - TRA EL - | New York Times

flocked. They were at­tracted to the as­ton­ish­ing jum­ble of tem­ples, al­leys, court­yards, shrines, stat­u­ary, pago­das, friezes, veg­etable-and-spice sell­ers, fish­mon­gers, palaces and hashish shops.

The hashish shops are long since closed. But still, I felt as if I was in an al­tered state when I saw the lit­tle girl, known as the Ku­mari, who is wor­shipped as the in­car­na­tion of the Hindu god­dess Taleju. She lives in the 18th-cen­tury brick palace of Ku­mari Ghar; visi­tors may en­ter the court­yard and take snap­shots of the richly carved re­liefs, but may not pho­to­graph the god­dess her­self, should she ap­pear – as she did – at the win­dow of her royal cage, her lit­tle­girl eyes huge with rit­ual makeup.

Kath­mandu is home to 4.5 mil­lion res­i­dents, if you in­clude the towns it has gob­bled up. The city is all but choked, not only by mo­tor ve­hi­cles, but also with garbage, pol­lu­tion, pedes­tri­ans, cat­tle, oxen and stray dogs and it is still re­build­ing, in great plumes of grit and dust, from the 2015 earth­quake that killed nearly 9 000 peo­ple and in­jured an ad­di­tional 22 000.

The city is also home to many re­li­gious tra­di­tions that have long rubbed up against one an­other, re­sult­ing not just in the pa­rade of stu­pas that we would see, but also in an al­most over­whelm­ing pro­fu­sion of gods, spir­its, demons, carv­ings, masks, men­di­cants, monks, mu­sic, prayer, rit­ual and med­i­ta­tive prac­tices.

In Nepal, re­li­gion and be­liefs are of­ten all mixed up, or co­ex­ist with one an­other, or share the neigh­bour­hood, as they do in Patan Dur­bar Square – a dif­fer­ent Dur­bar Square from the one we’d al­ready vis­ited, this one in the Kath­mandu Val­ley city of Lal­it­pur, the an­cient seat of the Malla dy­nasty. Though now sub­sumed by the greater Kath­mandu sprawl, Patan’s Dur­bar Square is cleaner and more hip­pie-free than its coun­ter­part to the north.

But noth­ing quite ex­cited my life­long quest for be­ing in prox­im­ity to the di­vine like the Pashu­pati­nath Tem­ple com­plex, Nepal’s holi­est

Hindu shrine, where I wit­nessed my first cre­ma­tion. Be­cause here, along the banks of the Bag­mati River – turgid and brown be­fore the on­set of the mon­soons – is where the de­vout send their dead to the next world in ac­cor­dance with the teach­ings of the Vedas.

A few days later, a short flight took us over Mount Ever­est and into an­other world, start­ing with our ap­proach to the air­port, set in a val­ley sur­rounded by hills that prac­ti­cally touched the wings of the air­plane as we made our de­scent.

Bhutan is Edenic and pos­si­bly even the world’s hap­pi­est coun­try, as it claims to be. But I also won­dered if it was not some­what rigid.

Take Bhutan’s “na­tional dress” – colour­ful robes or skirts that cer­tain classes of artisans and pro­fes­sion­als must wear to work. Or the ubiq­ui­tous bill­board-size pho­to­graphs of the pho­to­genic royal fam­ily. Or road signs urg­ing hard work and so­bri­ety.

I did not ob­serve a sin­gle per­son yelling, curs­ing, road-rag­ing or even frown­ing.

Per­haps they were try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate with the nearby and re­cently com­pleted Great Bud­dha Dor­denma. At 50m tall, it is mas­sive, and shiny with gold plate. In­side its base, there are 125 000 smaller gilded Bud­dha stat­ues.

Un­til the 1960s, the coun­try did not have cities (even now the largest city, Thim­phu, has fewer than 100 000 peo­ple), but was made up of vil­lages, forested up­lands and ru­ral, some­times semi-no­madic, set­tle­ments.

What the coun­try did have were dzongs. These ma­jes­tic and usu­ally white­washed fortress-monas­ter­ies, typ­i­cally built along rivers, to­day are home to monks and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and are con­sid­ered to be the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of Bud­dhist prin­ci­ples.

The most beau­ti­ful one we saw was in Pu­nakha, where, on a spit of land be­tween the Pho Chu and Mo Chu Rivers, the loom­ing 17th-cen­tury dzong was sur­rounded by bloom­ing jacaranda trees. Con­structed of com­pacted earth, stone and tim­ber with fan­ci­ful trim­ming, the build­ing gives way to court­yards, doors, a large stupa and fan­ci­ful stat­u­ary, paint­ing and friezes.

We also walked through farm­ing vil­lages and flooded fields to Chimi Lhakhang, a tem­ple and monastery de­voted to Drukpa Kun­ley, the “di­vine mad­man” said to have in­tro­duced Bud­dhism to Bhutan in 1499 and fa­mous for the mys­ti­cal pow­ers of his pe­nis. As we as­cended to the di­vine mad­man’s tem­ple, we were sur­rounded by shops sell­ing phal­lus cu­rios of vary­ing sizes, in­clud­ing stand­ing stat­ues.

I re­gret not buy­ing a sin­gle pe­nis key fob. But I do not re­gret that, on our last day in Bhutan, I woke up in the gor­geous Zhiwa Ling Ho­tel in

Paro, took my alti­tude-sick­ness pills and, de­spite be­ing wor­ried about faint­ing, hiked the steep, wind­ing trail to the fa­mous Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

Tiger’s Nest is built into a cliff 900m above Paro and is more than 3 000m above sea level.

I was happy to ar­rive with all my parts, in­clud­ing my brain, in func­tion­ing or­der and couldn’t wait to re­turn to our ho­tel so I could brag about my achieve­ment on Face­book.

Whether Bhutan re­ally is the world’s hap­pi­est na­tion is im­pos­si­ble for me to dis­cern, de­spite my over­all im­pres­sion of a pop­u­lace that at the very least smiles a lot

All I knew was that I, a woman of a cer­tain age who has had her share of tri­als and chal­lenges, was stand­ing at the door­way to Tiger’s Nest with a dizzy­ing view of cliff, for­est, val­ley and sky be­fore me and my true love of 30 years by my side. While Western­ised ho­tels and restau­rants and tourist at­trac­tions have nor­mal toi­lets, you’ll find more lo­cal joints and pub­lic re­strooms with squat toi­lets. Al­ways pack a packet of tis­sue and hand san­i­tizer. Tap wa­ter is not fil­tered or pu­ri­fied in Nepal. Thus, tap wa­ter is of­ten boiled be­fore con­sump­tion. It’s best to buy bot­tled wa­ter; it’s rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive. Avoid fruit and veg washed in tap wa­ter.

AVOID THE STREET FOOD

Street food isn’t al­ways re­frig­er­ated and food can be reused af­ter a day of be­ing out. Stick to well-main­tained and busy restau­rants. | gr­rrl­trav­eler.com

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