Visting Lumbini: The Birthplace of Buddha

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I’m not sure what I expected to find in Lumbini, which is internationally recognized by almost everyone as the birthplace of Buddha. All I had seen was a few photographs of a white monastery-like building in the middle of nowhere and, as we drove through the arid stretches of the Terai, nowhere seemed to be just where we were heading.  I supposed I’d expected one or two sacred sites and maybe a few golden Buddhas, as after all it is one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism, but I was shocked and impressed at the scale of the place.

The UN Lumbini Development Project was set up in 1970 and a master plan was put together to develop Lumbini, which had fallen into disrepair centuries ago.  Today its an UNESCO World Heritage site,  consisting of a rectangular walled block of land measuring 4 kilometres by 2 kilometres, which includes a sacred garden and Buddha’s birthplace at one end, and a Peace Pagoda at the other.  Between these two extremes runs a long connecting mall with reflecting ponds, vaguely similar to the famous mall in Washington.  Either side of the mall (to the east and west) are plans for up to 40 different Buddhist monasteries from different sects and countries all over the world; some are built and some are still being developed.  And the scale of development is far larger and more impressive than anything else I have seen in Nepal to date.

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The Maya Devi temple in the sacred garden at the north end of the temple
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Buddhist monks under the sacred tree.  These guys were selling blessings.
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Stunning tree covered in prayer flags that we are told is the tree that Buddha’s mother leaned against to give birth to him.
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The ruins of his birthplace are covered in a white monument, but still surrounded by original foundations from other buildings.
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Part of the connecting mall looking North from the Peace Pagoda
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Spaced out along the mall were signs in English and Nepali which shared messages from Buddhist teachings.
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At the eternal flame looking South to the Peace Pagoda

I’m not Buddhist, so this wasn’t a religious experience for me, but it was a peaceful and beautiful place. And remarkably clean and well cared for. It was actually quite shocking to walk on clean, swept, wide pathways (and great proof that if Nepalis want to keep something up, they can!)

However, what struck me most was the emptiness of the place.  Wide boulevards that would fit thousands of people, and barely anyone there.  Of course, this had something to do with the time of year.  Touring outside in 90 degree is too overwhelming, even for the devout.  But I also know that Nepal has not done a great deal to promote religious tourism here. Most (non-Buddhist) tourists come for the trekking and mostly don’t even know about Lumbini.  So it sits in relative obscurity, as this giant monument to Buddhist in the middle of nowhere.

Finally, a quick look at some of the monasteries.  I could do a separate post entirely on the different monasteries that we saw.  I would guess there were about 25-30 built and we saw about 10-15: Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Nepali, Chinese, French and German (yes!) , Japanese….  Here are few examples of the different styles. We spent half a day, we could have spent two days looking at everything. Fascinating place.

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Susie making new friends!

The Terai

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You know you’re in the Terai as pedicabs and rickshaws suddenly appear.

When the time came around, it was hard to leave the peace and greenery of Chitwan.  In April,  the weather was getting a bit too hot and humid for my liking, although not too bad.  But rumour had it that this was nothing compared to the rest of the Terai, which we were about to experience as we were heading westward towards Lumbini in the Central Terai.

The Terai refers to the flat, southern strip of Nepal, which borders Northern India. Most people are surprised to learn it even exists as everyone expects Nepal to be cold and mountainous, not hot and flat. Of course, Nepal is both, and everything in between, it just depends on when and where you are standing.  Its actually astounding how much variety in landscape and temperature there is here.

Back on the road, it was hard to get pictures from the moving vehicle.  On the flat tarmac it was possible to drive faster, and the small towns and agriculture centers whizzed by at speed.  And, yes, it was very hot and dusty, and some of the major towns were ugly (non-descript at best) and there was no reason to stop and see more.

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What I did like was the agricultural areas.  The Terai is known as Nepal’s bread basket.  And to prove it was saw endless acres of wheat, which happened to be harvesting as we were there.  99% of the harvesting was by hand, with long medieval scythes.  (It looked backbreaking and I can’t imagine doing it in the heat.)   However, we did see a couple of bright green combine harvesters at work in the massive sea of beige.

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Terai wheat fields
Terai wheat fields

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Terai village
Terai village

If Kathmandu is grey, the Terai is beige. Beige mud houses, dusty unpaved beige streets and unending fields of beige crops. And hot, did I mention it was hot?!…. So where in all this hot beigeness would we find the birthplace of one of the major major religious leaders in the world and whatever was it doing here…..? We were about to find out….

 

Gharial Breeding Center

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We’re watching you!

In case you didn’t know, gharials are prehistoric cousins of the alligator, fish-eating reptiles with strange narrow snouts that end in a ball. They might like fish, but some of the larger ones we saw…I’m sure one of my limbs would have made a tasty snack in a fish shortage! But fortunately for us at the Breeding Center, we were safely separated by stainless steel mesh.

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Here’s the list of sponsors for the breeding center.  If you look carefully you can see Lacoste – very creative!

The breeding center was built about ten years ago with WWF money and donations from other sponsors in response to the increasing problem of gharial extinction. Its populations have reduced dramatically in the last 70 years and it is now listed as “critically endangered.” The breeding center incubates the eggs and raises babies, and keeps populations of gharials from all age ranges. You could walk from pen to pen and see them at 2, 5 10 and even 45 years old, but I understand most are released into the wild once they reach the age of 4. I couldn’t find any statistics online on the impact that the center is having on the wild populations, but hopefully its a positive one.

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Gharials that are few years old.  I loved the way they piled up on one another like logs!
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…and then there were these big terrifying ones
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We both loved this labeled peephole.  Its supposed to allow you to see the big gharials, but they were smart enough to hang out right under the sign so you could only see their massive backs as you strained to see in.

 

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This notice showed you how many gharials were in captivity at different ages.  Its hard to read from a photo, but was interesting to see close up.
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I’m guessing these are 4 year olds around release age.
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This wasn’t a lucky snap or superior camera skills by me.  He sat like that the whole time I visited – frozen with his mouth open.  In fact they all did.  If they hadn’t blinked occasionally I would have thought they were made of rubber.

Chitwan Jeep Ride

DSC01991 Our big adventure for this part of the trip was to go out into the jungle on a jeep. I’d been warned that the safari part of this was limited. There are animals there, but its not like Africa with an abundance of wildlife. So we took the adventure as a jungle trip, rather than a safari, as the experience of just being out there in nature is a special one. So first thing in the misty morning, as the first part of our adventure, we headed down to the Rapti river, which forms the boundary of Chitwan National Park. Its shallow and fast, and the only way to get across and stay dry (sort of) is by hollowed-out canoes. These are less than stable…I really thought I was going in!

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Canoes made from hollowed out logs, ready to take us across
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Rapti river
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Heading out in the jeep

From the opposite bank,  we walked to our jeep, and then drove dirt trails into the jungle. In the early morning, the birds were really active and you could see kingfishers and all sorts of colorful and beautiful birds. It was hard to capture them on film without a fantastic camera lens, but wonderful to be there and listen to them sing anyway. When we saw the first peacock, we reached for our cameras and he flew into a tree. Here is my best shot:

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Peacock!

Later peacocks kept showing up everywhere. It was mating season, and the males were strutting around. By the end of the day, we were saying “oh that’s just a peacock” and recognizing their cries. Hard to believe that we got used to such a spectacular bird, so they seemed common like pigeons! As it got warmer, the mist lifted and the terrain changed.  I loved how different areas of the jungle had their own feel.  My favourite was the open grasslands and the cotton silk trees: the beautiful reed-like grasses and the angular, vaguely oriental feel of the trees were stunning.  Add to this the imagination of what may be hiding in the grasses, and our eyes were set ahead, frantically scanning the view.

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the beautiful silk cotton trees
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elephant grass

We stopped at one of several viewing platforms to take a breakfast break. The rickety platform did give us more elevation to see around, but unfortunately no animals interrupted our meal.

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Our rickety viewing platform. Note missing step!
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Termite nest. Apparently these make tasty treats for sloth bears. You could see claw mark-scratched holes around some of them…made by sloth bears looking for a snack.

So what did we see that day? No tigers, unfortunately. They are now considered the prime wildlife sighting because they are so rare. There’s only about 200 Bengal tigers left in the park. But, fortunately, there’s now a concerted effort to stop poaching and track the surviving tigers. Hopefully, their numbers will slowly start to increase. We saw lots of beautiful birds, countless peacocks, monkeys, deer, boars, alligators, cranes and wild ducks, a rhino and — most significantly of all — a black sloth bear. A large, male actually. They are considered the most dangerous and unpredictable of all wildlife in Chitwan. He was actually frightened by us and ran along the horizon, trying to find a way to cross our path. He finally darted across our trail, but too fast for me to catch a shot. Maybe next time.

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Love, Love, Love the Baby Elephants!

First stop on our roadtrip was Chitwan, where we had visited last year over Christmas. We stayed a second time at the charming Sapana Lodge and met again with the “pregnant elephant” who now was mum to a three month old calf. He was adorable!  We went over to pet him and he was hungry for attention. He sucked my silk shirt up his nose and wrapped his trunk around my legs. He was so wonderfully goofy and eager….just a really, really big baby.  It did bring the expression “charging around like a baby elephant” into new perspective.  It was so funny to watch something so powerful be so clumsy.

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It was so much fun to reach out and touch him. He wanted to interact as much as me
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Susie playing with the elephant and some local kids

The keeper fed his mum some sugarcane, and he tried but just couldn’t coordinate stuffing the sticks into his mouth. They were just too big and he was too uncoordinated, but his mum loved them! Talk about a sugar high!

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This is mum, after feasting on about 12 sticks of sugar cane. Look at that face! Bliss!

Around midday the keeper would take them both down to the river for a bath. And the little elephant swum around his mother, hiding under her belly and diving underwater to snorkel. Nearby the local Tharu kids were playing football and tossed the ball for the baby elephant to catch, but he was far more interested in the water and for us it was so much fun to watch elephant bath time!

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Taking a bath with mom

In the afternoon, the elephants were taken out to a fenced enclosure by the river where they grazed and hung out. The local kids took their soccer game out of the water when it got a little cooler and ran over to us asking for their picture to be taken. We went over to see the baby again, and he came running over to a gap in the fence, straight to my outstretched hand. He wanted to play and out he came! I guess baby elephants play with one another head-to-head and tousle with their trunks. He tried that with me and very nearly knocked me over! He sneezed on Susie’s clean white shorts, which were now covered in sooty elephant snot. (We think he’d been nosing around in one of the fire pits.) Then he got really frisky and tried to play-charge me. I turned around to try and use my back weight to stop me from falling over. I was laughing but also a little afraid that he trample me as he charged at my butt and pushed me around like a steam engine.   Susie was laughing but also a little cautious, so getting this on camera was not an option.  But we did manage to get some pictures of the kids playing with him:

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This little guy used a different technique to me. When the baby elephant wanted to play and started pushing….he pushed back!

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It was a wonderful opportunity. If I’m lucky enough to come back again in a few months he will be bigger and probably too dangerous to play with- if indeed he still wants to play at all.

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At the end of the day- after bathing, grazing and games – its time to walk back home with mum

Girls Roadtrip! Or Thelma and Louise (with a driver)….

… (hint) It has a much better ending!

It was so exciting that my really good friend, Susie, would be coming all the way to Kathmandu. I was a little apprehensive too as this is a difficult city to visit in a lot of ways — its dirty, dusty and congested — but I thought she would do ok and she did. ;o)

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Susie arriving at KTM.  This is one of the few pictures we managed to get together.  Guess neither of us had heard of selfies…oh well!

I had planned a full week on the road to escape the grey dust of Kathmandu.  (We did exchange some of it for the beige dust of the Terai…but that story comes later.)   We were excited.!!  A whole week of no kids or husbands, and time to catch up on each others lives.

Nepal isn’t the easiest country to get around. The road system is limited and a lot of the roads are windy and potentially dangerous. So if you wanted to keep to tarmacked roads that have western quality hotels, Chitwan and Pokhara are the best bet.,,and that’s where we were headed.   We had our own driver, a serviced jeep, good brakes and plenty of trunk space.  So, we were sure to pack essentials like gin, tonic, Pimms and PG tips.  We were going to do this in style…!

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Notice the black top roads (in red) are all in the south of the country. Thats because the north of the country is covered by rather large mountains called the Himalayas. No highways there!

 

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Ready to go…bags at the door…
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.. and into the jeep.  Let’s get out of here….!

We traveled for 4-6hrs from location to location, glimpsing rural Nepalese life from the windows.  It wasn’t always easy driving…too many trucks…but our driver did a good job of keeping us safe and we were never in the jeep so long that we went crazy.   It was fun to watch the scenery change…and the weather too.  The south is so much hotter!

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Grabbing the view from the front….
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….and from behind!  That truck was stuck in a 2 foot gutter.  One of several “accidents” we saw.  Fortunately nothing fatal.

So the next few posts are going to be about our adventures in Chitwan, Pokhara and Lumbini. He’s a little preview:

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Other people even hauled our stuff up and down the stairs, so bags magically appeared in the rooms.
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Enjoying an elephant ride together
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Making new friends in Chitwan
People brought us plates of food. Yes those are french fries. What the hell!
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Finally being chilled out enough to lounge around and read

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A Word a Week Photo Challenge: Round

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Elaborate door from Vietnamese monastery, Lumbini
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Football on the Rapti river, Chitwan
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Clay pots drying in the sun, Bhaktapur, Nepal
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Swayambuneth Stupa, Kathmandu
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Discarded coconuts, Palawan, Philippines

 

This post participated in the A Word a Week Photo Challenge: Round

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