Published: July 13th 2006May 14th 2006
We decided to leave Kathmandu for a few days. We wanted to see a festival in Nepal and were excited to learn that the Buddha’s birthday was on May 14. We figured that Lumbini, which is Buddha’s birthplace, would be a great place to go.
We took the public bus down to Lumbini because it was the cheapest way. Like most bus trips in developing countries, the bus ride to Lumbini was a hot all-day affair. The views of the mountains and valleys were spectacular. The scenery changed dramatically as we went further south, from mountains and agricultural terraces to dry forests and swamps.
Nepal drivers are completely crazy. Many drivers elaborately decorate their buses and paint signs saying such things as “Road King” and “Please use horn” on the back. We saw many accidents and broken down vehicles, which were hard to miss, considering we were in the “seats of death” at the very front of the bus. We also saw goats riding on top of buses.
During the recent Maoist blockade of the Kathmandu valley, no vehicles were allowed in and out of Kathmandu. The Maoists stopped anyone attempting to avoid the blockade, made everyone get
out of the vehicle and torched it. Besides vehicles wrecked on the roadsides and in ravine bottoms, we saw a few trucks burned by the Maoists. There are usually many checkpoints where the police make everyone get out of the bus, check people’s documents, and search for weapons being smuggled by the Maoists. This can sometimes take hours, making the bus trips agonizingly slow. Fortunately, there is currently a cease fire between the Maoists and the government, so we did not get stopped at any police checkpoints.
We had to take a second bus from Bhairahawa to Lumbini. We waited for ages for this decrepit, falling-apart bus to leave Bhairahawa, a small town with cows wandering through the streets. The driver’s gearbox was falling apart and the driver had to latch the door shut with wire so it wouldn’t fall off. Although it was only about 20 kilometers, the bus kept stopping for passengers, so this short trip took more than 1 ½ hours.
We met this Indian guy on the bus, who recommended that we stay at the Korean monastery rather than one of the rundown guesthouses in town. There are many monasteries in the Lumbini area,
and some accommodate foreign visitors. We tried to barter with the rickshaw drivers, but decided to walk because they were trying to rip us off. It turned out that the monastery was pretty far away. We almost got lost because it got dark outside when we were trying to find the monastery, but at least it wasn’t as hot. The Terai region is just above India, and this area is really hot.
This is a huge monastery with more modern buildings and there are Buddhist monks and nuns here. There is also a school, where the monks teach the local kids. The Korean monastery is where many foreigners stay, because it is well-funded and can accommodate larger numbers of guests. The rooms are basic but clean and have a bathroom, 24-hour electricity, running water, fan and mosquito nets. There is even a clothesline and washtub to do laundry. The beds are concrete blocks with a cover that you unroll. This is very practical because as long as the covers are clean, there won’t be any bedbugs.
We hadn’t eaten hardly anything all day, except dried fruits and nuts, and were happy that they served a snack of sweets
and a yummy fruit concoction shortly after we arrived. Because it was Buddha’s birthday, the monks gave out gift bags. Each bag contained some sweets, 200 rupees (just under $3), and a mirror, which I suppose was to encourage you to look at your inner self. The custom is to use the money for charity, but you never give it back to the person(s) who gave it to you.
There is no set nightly rate at the monastery. Instead, guests donate however much they feel is appropriate. Anyone staying at the monastery is welcome to 3 meals a day, though I never made it to breakfast, which starts at 6am. All the food is vegetarian and many vegetables come from the monastery garden. A typical monastery meal is rice, lentils, and vegetables such as spinach, with some sort of kim chee or chiles on the side. Guests are allowed to stay at the monastery as long as they please, but must speak with the monks if they plan to stay longer than 3 days. Since meals are included and you donate whatever you want, I could see how some people might freeload, especially after I met some of the
wacky long-term guests staying at the monastery.
That evening, we wandered around the monastery grounds, catching the very end of a ceremony honoring Buddha. The pagodas were all lit up with lamps from donors and these beautiful lights. There was a huge, gorgeous full moon that illuminated the sky. What a beautiful, peaceful night.
The next day, we wandered around the dusty frontier town of Lumbini. The town is not so exciting, but they do have an interesting market there. We ran into the Indian guy from the bus. He invited us to meet his family and have a drink with them. We drank Coke and Fanta with them and shared some peanuts we bought at the market. It was pretty cool to be inside a typical home in this region.
There are many Buddhist temples in the area: Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc. We hired a rickshaw to take us to a few of them. Our Indian friend invited us to visit the French temple, which is called that because the temple’s main benefactor is French. We chatted for awhile with the monk. He is originally from Vietnam and lived in Michigan and Maryland for many
years. The monk talked to us for awhile about Buddhism and the monastery’s activities. It was interesting to talk to him, but in our opinion, he did not have the same level of spiritual magnetism as the head monk at the Korean monastery.
The monk told us there are 22 kids who live at the monastery and receive an education from the monks. We met one of the kids, a girl who is about 10 years old. The kids here seem to be healthier and better-nourished than the kids we saw at the orphanage in Kathmandu. I wonder if the monastery could do more by taking in more kids, but this leads back to the quality vs. quantity issue: Do you devote more resources to a smaller number of kids, or do you take in more and do less for each child? I also got the impression that there is not a lot of collaboration between the monasteries and that they all pretty much do their own thing. It seems a shame that they don’t combine resources to do more for the people in Terai, especially since this is one of the poorest areas in Nepal.
Indian family portrait
This is our Indian friend from the bus and his family. They kindly invited us in for a drink.
we wandered around to look at the nearby monasteries, which were lit up for the Buddhist holiday. We followed the sound of drums, but we never could figure out where the sound came from. The full moon was so beautiful and we could see all the stars in the sky. We sat down by one of the lakes watching the moon and stars for hours. This was such a peaceful, amazing night, one of the best I had during my whole trip.
It was not that late when we returned to the Korean monastery, but the gate was locked and the gatekeeper was nowhere to be found. After calling out a few times, we realized the only option was for me (as the only one with feet small enough to fit in the fence slats) to climb over the fence and find someone to let us in. This Nepali guy saw me hopping over the fence and asked me what I was doing. After explaining that we were locked out and needed the key, he helped me find the gatekeeper, who was sleeping under a pile of mosquito netting in a little room. The gatekeeper finally let my friend
in and we laughed about my henchwoman act for days. Is it bad karma to commit an act of breaking and entering at a Buddhist monastery, even if the intent is honorable?
We wish we could have spent more time exploring the temples around Lumbini, but we had to return to Kathmandu to catch a flight to Lukla. Rather than endure that grueling bus trip again, we hired a car and driver for the trip back to Kathmandu through our Indian friend. He pocketed a few rupees for acting as middleman, we paid less than if we’d flown or done it ourselves, we got back to Kathmandu a few hours faster, so everyone was happy.
The car was definitely less cramped than the bus and we were able to see the views better. We had a minor delay when one of the tires blew out, but fortunately, the driver had a spare. We also encountered a delay at a police checkpoint, where they were checking documents and searching vehicles entering the Kathmandu valley. Although there is a ceasefire with the Maoists, I guess some local army commander decided to demonstrate his importance. There is only one road into
Kids enjoying their Fanta
Notice that the little girl is wearing eyeliner. This seems to be pretty common with little girls in Nepal.
the Kathmandu valley and the traffic was backed up for miles. Thank goodness we were in a car that could weave in and out all the trucks and buses, or we might have been there for days.
That evening in Kathmandu, we packed and ran around the shops picking up a few things before we leave for Lukla, the gateway to our trekking expedition. Everest region, here we come!
There are more photos below