Peace in the Monasterio de Santa Catalina

Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, located well south of Cuzco and both closer to the coast and lower in altitude, made for a warm and welcome change of scene after being steeped in Incan lore and thin mountain air for so many days (not that I didn’t LOVE all the Incan amazingness and beautiful mountains!). The city is full of exquisite examples of pearly white colonial architecture and the vibe is considerably more down to earth than lovely, but ultimately touristy, Cuzco.

We had a few days here and I’ll write later at greater length about those days, but for now I want to share some snaps from, what was for me, the great highlight of our time in Arequipa.

The city is home to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a maze-like convent dating back to the 1500s.

Despite a dubious past – for much of the Monasterio’s history its nuns were women of wealthy backgrounds who continued to enjoy the good life, complete with servants and slaves, live music and parties in spite of their cloistered existence and alleged vows of poverty – the place still managed to produce one saint, Sor Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo, and in the late 1800s, the entire place was reformed by a strict Dominican nun, Sister Josefa Cadena, who ran a tight ship and brought life in the Monasterio in line with typical convent standards. (More details can be found here.)

Screen through which nuns would speak to people from the outside world.

Today, only a handful of nuns remain at the Monasterio. They live in a small section of the 20,000 square meter complex which is closed off to the public. The rest of the Monasterio, however, is open to visitors and is well laid out to receive them, with ample and interesting information about the place’s history posted in most rooms in both Spanish and English and even a café that serves quite decent food located about halfway through the tour circuit.

From what we’d read in Lonely Planet, I knew the Monasterio would be worth visiting. I wasn’t prepared though for how totally charmed I would be by the place.

The cells, courtyards and walkways are a mesmerizing interplay between, dim rooms, cool shadow and rock and bright hot sun and illuminated, brilliantly painted walls and cheerful frescos. I suppose the resident saint and the changes put in place by the reforming sister have been effective enough to balance out the alleged wickedness of some of the earlier nuns – the atmosphere of the place is peaceful and hallowed.

We ended up spending half a day there, making our slow way from room to room, hall to hall, enjoying the peace, the stillness, the warm, summery air, the beautiful grounds and the cheerful colors of the place.

I think I must have been a nun or monk in a past life. I just loved spending time in this place. Somehow the thought of a life of spiritual devotion in a location so simple but so lovely seemed quite appealing. Especially when reading a message from the sisters currently serving there:

Since the origins of Arequipa there was a need of founding a contemplative Dominican Mothers’ convent… (Permission was given to begin) the construction of the convent in 1570.

Nowadays we are 30 sisters, of ages ranging between 18 and 90.

In the serenity that our hearts have been originating during long hours of silence, listening to God, in the perseverant praise that springs up of the grateful soul, we are able to acknowledge the presence of God in the small events of everyday life.

Our spirit takes us to offer prayers of intercession and reparation for all the humans to be saved.

Our day starts at 5 a.m., and we pray starting from (during) the praise of Jesus Eucharist, from (during) our studies, doing our manual work in order to win our daily bread. In every single moment we pray for the world and with the world. In the Church we are the presence, not the visibility.

After more than 400 years we are still here, because our contemplative vocation is LOVE. This is our great secret of being happy: to be in love, neither with an ideal nor a project, but with Jesus Christ. 

There are plenty of times I will disagree vehemently with the Catholic/Christian church, but when I read something like this, I can’t help but feel pretty inspired by these women’s devotion to attempt to live in selfless prayer.

And if you’d like an audio to go with the photos, click below to hear the convent bells ringing as we left the peaceful sanctuary for the city streets at closing time. I always think there’s something magical about the sound of church bells…

Church bells

A beam of light shoots through the blackened walls of an ancient kitchen

A collection of old medicines

In the Monestario garden

I love swallows! 😀

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Xi’an: Food in the streets and one very special Mosque

Our time in Buenos Aires is rapidly drawing to a close. We’ve been busy with lovely things and practical things. Today is more of the same – yoga and lunch with some new friends from here then more shopping for supplies, research and packing are on the roster.

In terms of posts on this blog I’m getting close to the end of our time in China too, so I’ll press on with the catch up! 🙂 By the way, if you ever are confused by all my bouncing around time and space on this blog and want to check where we were when, Roman’s Everlater page is accurate and up-to-date plus the map is pretty nifty if you ask me. 🙂

So, back to China….

More than just the warriors

We left Pingyao for Xi’an. The lovely staff at the Yide Hotel made arrangements for us, booking the bus ticket, getting us to the bus stop along the highway (the cabbie even waited for us to make sure we got onto the right bus), and even writing out the address of our next destination in Chinese characters for our future cab driver’s reference. Note – if you’re traveling in China it’s not a bad idea to keep a look out for nice people who will do this sort of thing for you; most cab drivers we encountered don’t speak or read a lick of English. The bus ride was easy enough and we arrived at the bus station that evening.

Xi’an is the access point to the iconic Terracotta Warriors, and that of course is why we were there. But before we would come face to face with that silent army, we had a bit of time to poke around the city itself.

Xi’an was quite a change to quaint and quiet Pingyao. It too is a walled city with plenty of centuries old history. But that’s where the similarities end.

The city wall, all lit up at night

Xi’an is a bustling metropolis, and though the walls are old, majestic and mighty, they are surrounded by rivers of traffic, fast food joints, flashing LCD screens and plenty of other signs of modernity. The city within the walls – or what we saw of it – is mostly very modern, with plenty of shopping malls and things like McDonalds and Starbucks right next to the most touristy bit around the central Bell and Drum towers.

The drum tower

The Muslim quarter

The part that we found the most interesting was the quieter Muslim quarter. Unlike the Muslims in Xinjiang, the community in Xi’an is ethnically Chinese, which was interesting to see. From Lonely Planet: “The narrow lanes are full of butcher shops, sesame-oil factories, smaller mosques hidden behind enormous wooden doors, men in white skullcaps and women with their heads covered in coloured scarves. It’s a great place to wander…”

Lonely Planet’s got it exactly right; it was a fascinating place to poke around – although you might need to harden your stomach a bit. We happened to be there around a religious festival, and the butchers were hard at work that day preparing sheep for feasts. Kinda gross.

Lots of cooking in the street in the Muslim quarter. It’s not the best picture but I love this out door stove. The flame was shooting out of the exhaust pipe like crazy! 🙂

Hot stuff!

Poor sheep!

Anyone for feet?

Far more serene was the Great Mosque. An amazing building and one of the largest mosques in China and probably founded in the 8th century, it is an awesome blend of Islamic and traditional Chinese architecture. A minaret that looks like a pagoda, Chinese-style tiled roofs and elegant Arabic calligraphy – it was beautiful and an incredible place to visit.

Mountain state of mind

It’s Tuesday morning here in Buenos Aires (post written this morning; posted this afternoon due to slow internet), another wonderfully sunny day, but the temperatures are definitely starting to head south this week, and we are getting a real sense of late fall/early winter weather in JUNE. I know this is normal in the southern hemisphere, but it’s still quite the novelty for me! 🙂

We’re also getting organized for some travel in Argentina. We’re still waiting for confirmation to come through and to sort out some of the details, but chances are that we’ll be experiencing a good deal MORE cold before our time here is through. We’re also going to be catching our first look at the Andes, which I’m really excited for.

All this has got me thinking back to the last place we traveled that had both cold weather and mountains. The coldest weather we’ve experienced so far during our trip has got to be during our road trip along the ah-maz-ing Karakorum Highway in Xinjiang, China.

Second coldest though would be in Zhongdian, the closest we got to Tibet, in the Yunnan province, and a place that was definitely worth braving the cold for. I’ve posted about Zhongdian already, but I haven’t shared photos from the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery or Baiji Si Temple yet.

Two Tibetan Buddhist sites, both totally awesome in two very different ways.

The Ganden Sumtseling Monastery is one of the major tourist draws for the area. Over three hundred years old, it’s the biggest monastery in Yunnan and is home to around 600 monks. It used to be able to accommodate well over double that number, but was badly damaged during the cultural revolution and a lot of what stands there currently has been rebuilt in the past decades.

It has the feel of a walled medieval city (if it was completely Tibetan that is). You pass through stolid walls to enter the residential part of the compound. Small but beautiful houses are interspersed with lesser temples, all of them moving up a hill to the culminating, massive main temples up the hill, which loom majestically overhead. It really feels like something out of a fairytale.

Not the best panorama photo, but click to see what I mean:

The place definitely has some touches of Chinese tourism, like a shop in the middle of the Monastery selling loads of prayer beads and tonkas, but also sun glasses, keychains and other pretty secular stuff, right next to the sausage stand…

A monk serves Chinese tourists in the shop

But we found it quite easy to avoid the most popular/touristy spots and were able to explore and enjoy the dimly lit, mysterious temples, crumbling alleyways, amazing architecture and beautiful views pretty much on our own.

Here are some photos from around the monastery. Photography was not allowed inside any of the temple, so that’s why there are no interior pictures.

Baiji Si Temple was a completely different experience. A small temple set on a hill within the city of Zhongdian (the Monastery is outside the city), we hiked up to it on our last morning in town.

A steep but short hike up to Baiji Si

It was a sunny autumn day. The hill and temple were completely deserted (not even a chicken in sight – Baiji, for the record, means 100 chickens :-)), but alive nonetheless with the flutter of brightly colored leaves and thousands upon thousands of Tibetan prayer flags that were strung on lines all over the place. The atmosphere was peaceful, the sun was warm on my face, the light and colors magical, the views over the city and landscape awesome.

I didn’t want to leave, but we had a bus to catch…

These amazing flowers really were this blue! I wish I knew what they’re called.

The Angkor photos: Part two

Here’s the second half of the things we saw and experienced at Angkor.

Preah Khan
The amazing birdsong we heard by the entrance to the temple. The size of the thing – moving deeper and deeper into the center of the temple through what felt like endless, successive rooms, cool and dim and full of deep shadows and intricate carvings. The rumble of approaching thunder and the speed with which the massive puddles formed on the stone floors once the storm arrived. The beauty of the sun on the rain on the rocks. The skeleton of a massive tree still interwoven with the stone walls.

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Angkor Wat
The sound of the vendors’ nasal voices drove Roman crazy. 🙂 Luckily it was much more peaceful inside the temple compound. The dramatic walk over the broad stone bridge spanning the moat. The mesmerizing faces of the stone dancers drew us in. Each individual and with such fascinating and warm expressions on their faces. They were my favorite part of Angkor Wat. The sun’s heat reflecting off the stones – this was the only temple we went to that didn’t have the benefit of lots of shady trees. The families there who lit incense and prayed in front of large Buddhas, the father and son who had their heads shaved as part of a ritual – I wonder what it was about. I loved the monastery we wandered through as we left Angkor Wat. Still and peaceful with beautiful trees, funny shrines, and Buddhist flags flapping against a clear blue sky.

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Bayon
Mystical, magical feeling with all those massive heads serenely smiling into the depths of the surrounding forest. We made a donation, lit sweet-smelling incense to a Buddha and the woman there tied red string around our wrists. The temple is surrounded by some modern outdoor shrines with massive Buddha statues housed on covered platforms among the trees. I loved these as much as Bayon itself, the massive orange candles burning against a backdrop of pristine nature. We came back on the last day so Roman could take photos (his camera had died as we arrived at Angkor Wat) and I sat on the wall and just breathed. Birds, frogs and insects sang, somewhere a monk was pounding a large drum, devotees came to pray at one of the shrines. Sitting in that peace was one of the highlights of Angkor for me.

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Baphoun/Terrace of Elephants
We couldn’t go into/onto the recently completed Baphoun, but the surrounding ancient walls, the pathways and yet more incredible trees made for a spectacular, peaceful atmosphere and I loved the stillness and beauty of this place. No photo I’ve ever taken of a tree has ever done it justice – these were ten times as huge and beautiful in real life. Walking on the Terrace of Elephants, asking “Where are the elephants?” and laughing when we discovered them all over the place. More gorgeous carvings. It really is so much to take in and all so spectacular!

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Ta Prohm
We also went to Ta Prohm but I didn’t take my camera that day. It was also a must see, not just because of its association with Tomb Raider. Incredible, incredible – more trees to fall in love with. Best though was meeting the friendly Mr. Miyagi-type guy working there who got a kick out of the fact that we were so excited by the bird song (a Drongo. We recorded it – you can hear it here: bird2, along with phone-type sounds from the staff’s walkie talkies), he shared yellow fruit with us that he gathered from a tree and rinsed in a puddle, took us for a mini tour around the ruins, shared the heart-beat chamber with me, and helped me when we lost Roman, running around and communicating with me with enthusiasm and sign language. I wish we got a chance to properly say thank you and goodbye but we lost each other during the search for Roman. Also sweet was the young girl who kept me company in the parking lot while Boune, our lovely tuk tuk driver, went to check on the other side of the park for Roman. We quizzed each other on world capitals – incredible how many she’d learned! 🙂

The Angkor photos: Part one

There’s plenty of literature and information about the Angkor temples out there, so I won’t write any more about history of the sites we visited. I’ll include links when there are some in case you want to find out more.

We saw A LOT in the four days we spent at Angkor and I can confidently say that the temples live up to the hype. They simply are amazing.

Ironically, while Angkor Wat was fascinating and beautiful, this most iconic and well-known of the sites at Angkor was actually the place that excited me the least. I totally enjoyed it and think it is beautiful and not to be missed, but it was nearly all the other places we went that felt really magical and that managed to captivate and bewitch me.

I’m listing the places we went in chronological order, with a handful of photos and highlights from each in the hopes that these posts won’t grow to gargantuan sizes. 🙂

Kbal Spean (River of a thousand lingas)
A long, windy, interesting tuk tuk drive away from Siem Reap, it’s a bit of a hike through humid, gorgeous jungle to get to the “River of a thousand lingas”. The forest is amazing, full of fascinating bugs including incredibly loud cicadas that sound like an awful lot like power tools (yes, they were that loud!) and sweet butterflies that kept us company along the path, even hitching rides on our shoulders from time to time. The ancient faces carved into the river rock exuded an exquisite peace. We just loved it. Fun too to see bunches of Cambodian teenagers messing around and cooling off at the waterfall right by all these amazing, historic carvings. What an awesome hang out spot!

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Banteay Srei
Surrounded by majestic, tall trees. Amazing, intricate carvings in warm rock all glowing with the warmth of the sun. The crooked official who wanted to sell us “V.I.P. access” to the restricted part of the temple. The powerful heat of the afternoon sun as we stood taking in the view of the beautiful rice fields behind the temple. The cool, inquisitive, acrobatic bug that kept us company and loved jumping on Roman’s camera while we soaked in the atmosphere on the temple wall. The beautiful rainbow against dark skies that launched itself out of the fields as we drove back to Siem Reap.

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Beng Mealea
A place to feel like Indiana Jones, dwarfed by insanely huge trees, clambering over massive, fallen-down bits of temple, in a place where nature is claiming back the stone. Really atmospheric and incredible, I just loved loved loved the trees. 🙂

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Bakong
This is a more simple temple, not so much carving to see as other places we’d visited, but I loved it for the active monastery that sits at one edge, and for the disabled musicians who were playing traditional Khmer music for tourists. Till then I’d never really gotten into Cambodian music, but this was just spellbinding and I was transfixed, sitting under the green and blue canopy of tree and sky at the edge of their simple stage and taking it all in. Lovely.

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Heartbreak and hope in Battambang

Apologies in advance – this is not a very neat or resolved post!

Cambodia was at times challenging for me. Laos was such a gentle welcome back to travel and life on the road in Asia after my trip home; the peaceful energy and kind people we encountered put me so at ease.

The atmosphere of Cambodia was intense by comparison. Roman and I both found it took more energy to process the experiences we had there and I definitely needed a while to find my emotional footing with the country. Once I did though, I found myself feeling more open and moved than I have yet on the trip (being really, truly present and emotionally connected has been one of the big challenges of this big trip), and for this, I’m grateful.

Battambang was the place my heart started to open to Cambodia. It had started to crack back in Kratie, opening to the dozens of smiles, waves and other greetings I received on my village walk, to the laughter and energy of the kids I met along the road. I’m not sure what let me be more present and open in Battambang, but the day we spent doing the bike tour my heart just felt so light, so present, so open.

It was easy to relax with Sum and Dollar – energetic, enthusiastic and genuine, they were easy to talk to and good company. Maybe the beauty of the places we visited just helped to take down my intellectual defences. Maybe the work I’ve been doing on myself, with Roman and on my own, to be kinder to myself, to worry less, to savor the “now” more is starting to pay off. Whatever the grace that allowed it, the day touring around Battambang was just magic and delight.

The biggest highlight for me was meeting a young girl at Wat Ek Phnom, a quiet, beautiful, ancient temple that Sum and Dollar took us to. They stayed at the entrance while Roman and I went to go explore.

Naid (not sure how her name is really spelled) started shadowing us, and eventually enticed me into the ruins where she enthusiastically pointed out fat geckos crouching suspiciously in cracks. She must have been about ten or so, skinny as a rail and full of life. She flitted around the massive stones of the falling-apart temple, chirping in musical, broken English like a sparrow, pointing out Gods and histories carved into the ancient rocks.

Roman and I have had a many discussion about the children we’ve encountered on our travels. The stance we’ve adopted is to never give begging kids money – we don’t want to support, encourage or condone the situations where adults (parents or otherwise) will choose to put kids on the street to sell cheap souvenirs or simply beg (something we saw frequently especially at Angkor). Holding to this position has meant keeping closed in many instances – looking away or dismissing the little hands and faces that have implored us to buy a bracelet or simply hand over a dollar.

(Tough sometimes yes but not always when you see the kids going from “crying” to laughing and horsing around the second they know they’re not going to get any money from you. Tougher is seeing the kids who aren’t begging, like the scrappy, barefooted children I saw digging through garbage for scraps outside the night market in Battambang.)

We weren’t sure if our lovely tour was coming free of charge, but I couldn’t help myself. I just fell in love with this precocious, precious little girl. When we were ready to leave, she did ask for money. We brought her back to the front with us to explain the situation to Dollar and ask his opinion. He agreed with us completely about not giving money to kids at the tourist spots and on the streets. He questioned Naid and for him it was clear that her story was true.

With Dollar’s translation, we were able to ask her questions about her life. The oldest of three siblings, her parents couldn’t afford to look after her and had sent her to stay with a relative and attend school in Battambang. She studied during the day but came to the temple every afternoon to show guests around and try to earn a bit of money for school and food (it’s a given that students have to bribe teachers on a regular basis in order to attend school in Cambodia). At the end we gave her double the very modest sum she had asked for and we left to our next destination.

She’s stayed with me though. That day I wanted to cry every time I thought of her, brave, bright and beautiful little soul. What will become of her? Who will look out for her if even her parents don’t have the resources to do so? I said prayer after prayer for her: “Please let her path through this life be safe. Please don’t let any of those awful things one reads about happen to her – rape, violence, prostitution. Please let her be protected. Please let her fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.”

I shared some of my thoughts with Roman and he pointed out that I was looking at things from a very Western point of view – who was I to make any assumptions or value judgements about her life (something akin to the parable about the man trying to help the butterfly by cutting it out of its cocoon).

On an intellectual level I am sure he is right. On an emotional level though all I know is that something in me recognized and loves this little girl who I will probably never meet ever again, and for me that’s real and precious and part of the experience I have been seeking on this trip. I can’t make any more sense of it than that, but I’m so glad that I met her, and I’ll keep carrying those hopes and wishes for her around in my heart.

Photos from Wat Ek Phnom and our time with Naid

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The wat before the ruins

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Afternoon sun on the outer wall

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Naid invites me to come explore

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Temple carvings

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Lovely Naid

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Pointing out some Sanskrit carvings

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Buddhist flags at the doorway

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Moon rise

Kratie: Travel notes and magic moments

After having my heart melt in Laos, it took a bit of adjustment for me to get into Cambodia. The town was a bit rougher around the edges than where we were coming from in Laos. I liked it well enough, but it took a bit of time and persistence to get to the “gooey center”. The effort was worth it though – getting past the initial surface impressions led to some really golden moments.

Tourist stuff – accommodation and attractions

I mentioned in an earlier post about having to deal with touts selling their hotels the second we got off the bus in Kratie. We ended up talking to two of them; we stayed at the hotel Hap showed us, Morhautdom Hotel. We turned down the hotel Lucky showed us, but he was also a tuk tuk driver and we ended up arranging with him to see some of Kratie’s tourist attractions later on.

Morhautdom was ok, convenient central location and Hap was friendly, but overpriced at USD 15 a night for what we got (but we’ve certainly stayed at worse!). A tip – don’t agree to pay extra for air conditioning until you test it out; our A/C worked enough to blow out air but that was it.

Great about the hotel was that it was just at the other end of the block from Balcony Hotel and its totally delicious food!

Red Sun Falling had decent but not amazing food with a quirky atmosphere and (mostly) great tunes at night, and crazy Cambodian television during the day (we got to watch bits of a Khmer-dubbed Chinese movie with the staff one day during one of the frequent downpours. It involved drama and intrigue, snakes – lots of snakes, in the shower, attacking people, fighting bears, morphing into humans – and tremendously bad editing and special effects. Highly amusing!).

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Owner Joe watches crazy movies at Red Sun Falling

The first place Lucky took us was to Kampi, where tourists from Cambodia and further afield alike board small wooden ships that scoot around the broad, opaque Mekong in the hope of spotting the increasingly rare Irrawaddy dolphin. We enjoyed the morning on the peaceful waters and it was interesting and exciting to catch glimpses of the dolphins cresting.

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View from the prow of the boat – my flip flops have since then been demolished by the rainy season…

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Dolphin sighting!

For me though, even more enjoyable was the drive to Kampi, along a picturesque road running parallel to the river, and the monastery we visited on the way back to Kratie.

Before I get to those, if you’re considering visiting Kratie or other locations in eastern Cambodia, this website offers some good information and trail ideas.

Finding the magic

After we got back onto dry land, Lucky took us to Phnom Sombok, a wat (monastery) located on the only hill on the area. Lucky dropped us at the base of the hill, and steep concrete steps through lush green brought us to a peaceful complex of moss-covered buildings and a colorful temple and stupas.

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We arrived just at lunch time. The monks and nuns were in the main temple performing a ceremony. We peaked in from the perimeter and immediately the nuns, elderly, dressed in white and with kind faces, beckoned us in. I joined them on the floor for the end of the ceremony (Roman wasn’t feeling 100% so he stayed outside).

When it was finished, one of the younger monks started speaking with me, telling me about their daily life (including how much time they spend in meditation each day – hours and hours!!), swapping stories about Myanmar (he had travelled there to study and had great reverence for the Buddhism practiced and taught there), asking about my meditation practice (weak!!).

He and the nuns invited me to join them for lunch. I tried to protest but it was futile. 🙂 The monks left to eat elsewhere (apparently monks eat only that which they collect as alms; the nuns’ lunch is cooked on the premises), and the sweet nuns proceeded to chat with me in our limited French (mine much more limited than theirs) and fill me up with all sorts of Cambodian desserts. Such an unexpected and generous encounter – I just loved it!

After I ate everything they offered me and received a handful of dried mango for the road, I rejoined Roman and we explored the rest of the compound, enjoying the lovely atmosphere and gorgeous views of the farmlands below.

“How poor people live”

We rejoined Lucky at the tuk tuk and turned back to Kratie – but first he asked if we minded making a quick stop at his home. With only a slight tinge of bitterness in his voice, he said we could “see how poor people live.” I was moved to be invited into his simple one room house, where his wife and two young children were at home to receive him. His toddler son was fast asleep in a hammock slung across the room; his older daughter shyly watched me with big eyes, but warmed up when an older, braver neighbor girl stopped by to investigate.

Lucky was dropping in for his lunch break – a quick meal of rice and chicken and vegetable soup that had been prepared with the simple cooking implements in one corner of the room that constituted the kitchen. He told me that the house was relatively new – earlier they had been living with his mother-in-law. The roof was corrugated iron (cheaper than natural fiber or tile roofs – but hotter when the sun was out), the floor bamboo, the walls incomplete, patched together from woven palm fronds and pieces of plastic. In the village, his was one of the simpler houses. I wonder what it would be like to live in any of the homes there. I’m grateful for the glimpse we were able to have into Lucky’s life.

Even for the relative poverty and simplicity of the villages along the river, there was a lot of beauty too. Many of the houses were sturdier wood in a traditional Khmer style and really lovely to look at. The whole road once you got further out of Kratie was lined by gorgeous massive trees; the village homes and stores enjoyed their lush, green and gold-tinted shade. I fell in love with the peaceful atmosphere and sweet scenes of every day life that we passed in the tuk tuk and resolved to come back.

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Lucky’s napping son

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Grabbing a quick bite to eat

River road

I tried to find Lucky the next day but was unsuccessful, so I headed back along the road out of Kratie on my own steam (Roman was still not feeling great so I went on my own). I was aware of weather’s tendancy to get stormy towards the end of the day, so, leaving after lunch, I had to keep an eye on the time if I wanted to avoid a soaking. The journey by foot was a lot slower than by tuk tuk; I didn’t even get close to making it all the way to Lucky’s village, but I still saw loads of beauty on my three hour walk (and I made it back to Kratie five minutes into the afternoon rain – but before the real downpour opened up. Perfect timing!)

As I had from the tuk tuk the day previous, I just drank in the beautiful houses on stilts, rice paddies, massive trees and river views. But being on foot was even better – the countless number of smiles and greetings I exchanged with bemused Cambodians made the little trek just magical – especially the amazing, out-going, totally fun kids (see my earlier post for evidence 😉 ).

Other bits and pieces

I’ll post pictures in my next post, but before I finish, here are some of the snapshot-type things I want to remember from Kratie. 🙂

  • The kids sitting outside a store in town eating steamed snails, pulling the meat out of the shell with toothpicks
  • The television in our hotel room that turned on automatically when the power in the room got switched on. It was on a Cambodian music channel – horribly dubbed singers and musicians (honestly who ever was editing the sound to match the video wasn’t even trying) performing traditional and modern Cambodian music to a room full of dancers dressed up like they were going to the prom, dancing sedately around a table piled high with fruit. Awesome, atmospheric background music for our stay in Kratie! 😉
  • The cheeky little scrap of a dog from the hotel next door that nipped at my heels and made me scream (embarrassing! 😉 ) – not because he bit me but because he came out of no where
  • Waiting for our bus in town. The bus station was right by a medical clinic. The clinic was open to the dusty, busy street. Patients would shuffle out with a drip attached to their arm to by food from street vendors. When we arrived, two men in black were sitting on funny wooden benches by the station, busily sharpening carving knives. Slightly disturbing when they finished their work and went to deliver the knives not to the nearby restaurant as I would have expected, but to the clinic.
  • There was one young man I saw both during the tuk tuk ride and a couple of times during my walk outside of Kratie. Although he was walking around fine on his own, it was clear that he had cerebral palsy. I can’t begin to imagine the first thing about him or his life, but we caught each other’s eyes the last time we passed each other and I do know that his smile was so bright that it lit up my heart completely.
  • The sweet guy at the cell phone shop who was really friendly and helpful. He had received a brand new iPhone from his folks who live in the States; Roman fixed his sim card and tried to help him unlock it (I love this about Roman!) – unfortunately the guy’s phone was too new to be unlocked.
  • The hilarious woman at the first phone shop we went to who kept burping the whole time she was waiting on us. Now that’s customer service! 😉
  • Trying krolan, a regional specialty. It’s sticky rice with coconut milk, beans and a bit of sugar and salt, cooked by steaming it in bamboo. Total comfort food!

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At the krolan stand. The tops of the bamboo tubes are stopped with coconut fibers

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The sweet vendor demonstrates how to open the bamboo

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Deliciousness inside!

Three miles of bad road: Day trip to Wat Phu

(I’m leaving off the back filling for a bit – this is a post about what we did yesterday.)

At the risk of sounding nerdy, I really enjoy history. Roman and I are lucky that we are getting to visit some amazing historical sites during this trip, and I love learning about and being able to imagine what daily life was like when these locations were at their height or why some building or person is historically significant. The red forts, the Taj, Mehrangarh and Hampi in India, Bagan in Myanmar have all been just fascinating to learn about.

But sometimes I want to set the dates, facts and names aside. Some places it’s enough just to be there – to see, to be with, to simply experience. To tap into and commune with the energy and mystery of the land and the layers of history that run through it.

Wat Phu, the temple ruins set on a hill in southern Laos, is such a place for me. It’s been a sacred place for multiple religions across the centuries and remains a place of worship today even as it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a decent amount of information about it on the web if you are interested to learn more, but mostly I’ll just write from my perspective.

What I can tell you is that it is good-sized temple ruins spread up a beautiful, wooded hill with a lovely view of the valley stretching below. The ruins are centuries and centuries old. In its earlier history it was a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva; in the 10th century it was a sacred space for the Buddhist Khmer empire.

The journey

We decided to rent a motorbike in the city where we are staying, Pakse, and do a day trip to the Wat. It had not been on our radar, but the monk we met in Vientiane and his friends all raved about the place and said we had to go see it (even though they’ve not been – but they’re from the area and it seems to be a source of regional pride).

We took the new road (it’s less than a year old and not yet quite finished) from Pakse to Champasak, the town that is host to the UNESCO site. The journey took about an hour and a half in one direction; mostly easy-going and a beautiful drive. Even the bits where we got off course or the road quality deteriorated were good fun.

There’s not much along the way between the two towns but it was a gorgeous drive. Roman soon found he prefered driving to being a passenger, so I hopped on back and was at liberty to enjoy the scenery and flirt to my heart’s content; waving at any friendly villager who smiled our called out “Sabaidee” as we passed (which was most of them).

We stopped to photograph water buffalo cooling themselves in mud puddles. In no time we needed to cool off too; hopping on the bike and zooming across the gentle bends of the road was welcome relief from the pounding sun.

The landscape and weather began to change as we traveled on; towering mountains of earth and clouds reflected in the still waters of the rice paddies that flanked our path. We could see the rain moving in, a sheet of soft grey straddling the mountain. At one point we drove through a refreshing shower, cool drops hitting my cheeks and lips like unexpected but welcome kisses, but I’m glad that we made it to Champasak by the time the real rain started.

We managed to park under the awning of someone’s front porch just as the skies opened up. I felt bad parking and sitting just in front of their house, but Roman assured me this worry about invasion of space was Western thinking, and of course he was right – the residents weren’t bothered in the slightest. The rain came down hard and heavy for about a half hour. Villagers took shelter or continued on their bikes, utterly soaked and squinting through the down pour. Young kids threw off their shirts and took advantage of the chance to cool down, running and playing through the streets.

The destination

Finally the rain abated, and we headed through the village to the ruins. They are stretched across a large area, starting with an ancient stone-lined road pointing the way up the hill to the main Wat. It’s a steep climb up weathered stone stairs with much beauty along the way, and we took our time and savored each step.

Although the precipitation stopped, the dark clouds remained, and deep, sonorous peals of thunder punctuated and accompanied our journey up the sacred hill. The air was thick with the song of hundreds of bugs, a constant and ceaseless mantra.

The hills are covered with rich vegetation – great flowering trees, vines, thick, vibrant green grasses. With only few other visitors to the site, it felt like we were entering the deepest jungle. The great stone steps and temple walls are being claimed by the plant life; flagstones are crooked where roots flow under and through them, tumbling walls begin to disappear under a cover of ferns and moss. The buddha statues and other sites show evidence of modern day worship; bundles of incense are secured under a vine and statues that have witnessed the passage of centuries are garlanded in bright, plastic flowers.

The place feels bigger than us but willing to hold us too; a place of worship for all, from the smallest ant to the gods older than mankind. The sacred cycles of nature – from ceaseless destruction of the man-made buildings over the years to the ephemeral adornment of flowers and leaves, perfect for a moment, before they fade – encompass the stumbling gestures of man like a mother taking a beloved child into her lap.

Suffice to say, the whole day was magical, and we absolutely loved Wat Phu. I’m still taking it in, so that’s all I’ll write for now – but here are some photos before I end the post. 🙂

The pictures

A panoramic shot of the view from the steep, stone steps, shaded by magnificent leelawadee trees at Wat Phu. Click for a closer look.

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Some very happy, very muddy buffalo

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Sun and shadow, mountains and rice fields

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The rain approaches

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Heavy drops fall into muddy puddles, Champasak

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Approaching Wat Phu

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No entry – a girl plays where restoration work is being done to some of the structures in the site

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Butterfly landing on a fallen frangipani bloom

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Headless statues, incense sticks

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Incense and flowers in a tree

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Overgrown walls, mountain views

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Steps and roots

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Jungle Buddha

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Temple detail

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Making miniature stupas out of banana leafs and flowers – an offering