AVOID DRINKING TAP WATER
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