Vang Vieng – Nature, balloons, caves and kayaks

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I had expected that I would fall in love with Laos, that the scenery would blow me away and I wouldn’t want to leave this country. It had a lower population than the other countries I had visited and it was mainly rural, exactly my kind of place. After visiting the capital city of Vientiane, the first destination on my Laos list, I hadn’t been blown away as I had anticipated. That was, until, we approached the town of Vang Vieng and were confronted with cragged karst mountains covered in a thick forest of green trees. The town itself, Vang Vieng, is not impressive. In fact it is a very touristy little town, a backpacker haven. The countryside that surrounds the area, however, is beautiful and the best way to see it is from the height of a hot air balloon. Floating up into the sky in a little wicker basket, the heat from the flames warming my cold, tired skin was a wonderful feeling. Just as we climbed above the buildings the sun started to make its appearance above the mountains and the sky changed from grey to orange. The only sound from high on above was of the gas, pumping life into the roaring flames. Down below people started to go about their daily routines and Vang Vieng turned from a backpacker shanty town into a beautiful place. We had been warned that on a previous ride the hot air balloon had landed on some trees and as we made our descent, looming just above some houses, it appeared that we too would be making an unconventional landing. The children below, however, didn’t seem too concerned as they waved to us on their way to school. Eventually we did make it back safely to the runway, much to my dismay, landing on the trees sounded like a fun adventure. After we jumped out of our ride we headed up into the mountains to go tubing. I had expected to sit in a rubber ring and float down a river, relaxing and feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin. What our tubing adventure actually entailed was sitting in a rubber ring and pulling ourselves into a dark, limestone cave by a rope. The further we went in, the darker the cave, luckily our small head torches provided just enough light to be able to view the stalactites hanging down. As I pulled myself along I started to hum the tune to Indiana Jones, I had always wanted to be Indiana when I was a kid, finally it seemed like my desired occupation had become a reality and I was grateful that my idea of tubing had turned out to be the opposite of what we were doing, as cave exploring was much more fun. After we made it out of the darkness and back into the light we jumped into a kayak, two by two, and paddled our way down the Nam Song River. The view was amazing, the mountains rising up so high that trying to lean our heads back to look to the summit would mean an eventual capsize. The sun was beating down, and our skin was being cooled by the splashes of water from the paddles. On and on we paddled immersed in the nature of Laos, filled with happiness and excitement until, that was, we had been paddling for two hours and our arms and backs began to beg us to stop. But stopping was not possible until we reached our destination, and the more tired we got the more it seemed our destination was China. As we dragged our paddles through the water we passed people floating down the river in their rubber rings, relaxing with a beer in their hands. This type of tubing now seemed a lot more appealing again. ‘Do you want to swap?’ I asked one guy. ‘No, thanks,’ he replied ‘but you can have a drink of my beer if you paddle over here.’ As appealing as this was a detour only a minute to the right would set us back even further, if we stopped we would never start again. So on we went, through currents and dodging rocks, swinging from left to right, until finally, just like a mirage, the finish line came to view. We made it to the end, just.

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The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)

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Ever since seeing the movie with the same name I had wanted to visit the Killing Fields, to pay my respects to the people that lost their lives there, and to learn about this dark period within the living memory of Cambodian history. The long drive through the countryside to Phnom Penh was a stark contrast to the place I was about to visit. On both sides of the road there was an endless expanse of the brightest green grass, combined with the most intense blue sky I have ever witnessed, on the horizon. Whiter than white fluffy balls of cotton floated in the sky. It was like I was looking at a photographic image and the saturation had been turned up, full. The countryside of Cambodia, combined with the friendliness of its people, is what makes this place so special. It is hard to believe that people who were faced with such an incredible view of beauty every day could find it in their hearts to be so cruel to people when all I felt, looking out at this landscape, was an unequivocal wave of love.

As we approached the Killing Fields our guide explained to us how his family had been affected and how many people he had lost during the Pol Pot regime, that’s when the reality started to hit home. This wasn’t just a tourist attraction, this was a place where unimaginable horror had occurred and innocent people, including women and children, had been brutally murdered. Seeing the skulls of the victims was an eerie experience; however there was an unexpected feeling of peace there, too. I made an offering of incense and flowers to the lost souls and walked around gently, eyes filled with tears as I saw bones and teeth in the ground and clothes of victims so small that they could only fit a baby. The stories of how the guards smashed baby’s heads against the tree trunks to kill them to save on ammunition was just too much to bear.

After the Killing Fields we made our way to the S-21 prison and walked around the cells hearing the stories of how the prisoners were treated. Unexpectedly, as we were leaving the site, we were approached by one of the very few survivors from this prison. His name is Chum Mey and, through a translator, he told us how he was treated by the guards. How they twisted off his toe nails with pliers and how he was made to lick his own urine from the floor if the very small bucket the prisoners were given as a toilet overflowed. It was awful to hear how this smiling old man was treated, how anyone could be so cruel to him. But it was also very uncomfortable to see him have to retell these unimaginable horrific stories over and over again to tourists as he stood taking photos and trying to sell his book. It seemed that he had become a tourist attraction when, in my opinion, this man should be able to live in peace for the rest of his life instead of having to relive those memories over and over again. And still it seems that our species hasn’t learnt from the horrors such as those that occurred during the Pol Pot regime, there is still no peace in the world. I only hope that one day there are no stories, like Chum Mey’s, to tell.

Angkor Wat, Angkor Not?!

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There was nothing but darkness and tourists as we approached the steps by the waterside in front of Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. Our intention was to get there early and try and get a good spot, a clear view of what we had come to see without a line of heads in front of us. I managed to squeeze through the building crowd and find a patch on the final step, next to the water’s edge. I would be eaten alive by the mosquitos that had invaded the waters, but it was a small price to pay, in my opinion.

Slowly the sun started to rise, quickly the crowds started to gather. And as I sat watching the sky change from black, to purple and pink to orange, the silhouette of Angkor Wat in full view, the excitement rose with anticipation at finally getting to explore this mysterious looking complex. I imagined myself as Lara Croft finding hidden pathways and tombs. After the sun had brought its glow to the watchers below it was time for this very disappointing tomb raider to adventure to Ta Prohm. Our guide, Hang, had explained to us that we would start with what is known as the Tomb Raider temple first and we would visit the actual Angkor Wat temple last.

Wondering around Ta Prohm was fascinating, and the site is sure to make anyone feel like an explorer who has found a hidden tomb in the middle of the jungle, even if no secret passageways appear underneath your feet. Aside from the few tourists and a few scaffolding bars holding parts of the complex up, it felt like we were the first intrepids to venture into this hidden jungle climbing frame. After exploring the area, whilst dodging huge spiders, and singing along to Johnny Cash with our guide we headed over to Angkor Thom, and the temple of Bayon. As we approached we spotted a group of mild and friendly macaques by the side of the road, they had obviously realised that being nice to tourists meant being fed a constant flux of bananas and lotus roots, a far cry easier than going out looking for food. We eventually dragged ourselves away from the friendly monkeys when we realised that the more time we spent with these adorable animals, the more people were arriving by the coach load.

Climbing up to Angkor Thom, the stairs made to fit the feet of a three year old, I was blown away by the sight in front of me. Hundreds of faces of the Buddha were watching me from every angle. Every carving, so intricate and clear, which, considering this building was made hundreds of years ago when modern tools were not available, was astounding. The time and dedication it took to build this is awe inspiring. However exploring hundreds of years old temples in the Cambodian humidity is not easy and by the time we had reached the top of the complex we were all slowly starting to lose our energy, heat exhaustion didn’t seem to be too far away. Alas we dragged ourselves to the main attraction, Angkor Wat; however by the time our fatigued bodies reached the temple we were absolutely worn out, we tourists didn’t even have the strength to take a photo, a sure sign that the energy and enthusiasm present only a few short hours ago had been sucked away completely. Angkor Wat had turned into Angkor Not. The complex, even though it’s the biggest of the temples, is far less impressive than Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom so we were grateful that we had seen the best (in our opinions) that the attraction had to offer before we lost all ability to lift our feet up off the ground. Despite our exhaustion we knew that if we didn’t drag ourselves up the very steep steps to the top of the building then we would always regret it, so, one by one, we pulled ourselves up step by step. The incredible 360 view of the area was a small comfort to us and I just about managed to muster enough energy for a few more photos, then it was time for these weary travellers to climb down and head straight to an ice cold air conditioned bus. The moral of the story, listen to all the guide books, don’t attempt Angkor Wat in one day, take your time, relax, explore without the risk of dying from Cambodia’s intense humidity levels.

Smiles through adversity – New Hope charity, Siem Reap

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As we entered the slum area of Mondul 3, in Siem Reap, the children sitting by the side of the road greeted us with waves and ‘Hellos.’ The rocky, uneven surface of the roads slowed down our pace which provided a young boy just enough time to be able to jump on the back of the vehicle and come along for a ride. With the wind blowing in his hair, and eyes, he laughed, with a grin so wide that one couldn’t help but join in with the laughter, too. The further into the area we travelled the bumpier the ride became until, that was, we came to a halt and as I placed just one foot on the ground my hands were gripped by tiny fingers pulling me along to come and play. Surrounded by smiling faces I became a human climbing frame, with a child on my back and one swinging from my arms and one clinging to each leg. This was, without question, the friendliest, happiest greeting I had ever received and I instantly felt overwhelmed with joy. Some of these children had been born with HIV, some of them had parents who had tried to sell them for as little as $100 out of sheer poverty and desperation. Yet, despite all this, they were without doubt the happiest children I had ever met throughout my travels.

The young woman working for the charity gave a speech to explain the work they do however the children were more interested in distracting their new playmates and the sounds of their cheers and laughter drowned out the poor girl’s voice. We did our best to listen, however paying attention isn’t easy when your arms are swinging children up in the air and there is a child climbing up on to your head to try and reach the tree. After the unheard introduction the children performed some songs they had learnt during their English lessons and we were all soon joining in to ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’.

When it was time to leave, in order to visit the new school building, we had to physically peel the children away from our bodies, which was hard as they were obviously having so much fun and didn’t want their new playmates to leave. Seeing the amazing work being done here was so uplifting, but there is still work to be done. If you are interested in helping this charity you can find more information at www.newhopecambodia.com

 

Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus – Seek, and you shall find.

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Leaving a space where one feels happy and content is difficult. However, I had been apart from civilisation for too long, and I was running out of time in Nepal to accomplish my aim, to learn about Tibetan Buddhism. After lots of online research I found another monastery, tucked away in the hills of the Kathmandu Valley. It offered activities such as spending a full day in the presence of a monk, and one to one lessons on the religion, so of course I made a reservation at the hotel attached to it. Elated that I had finally found what I was looking for I headed back to the centre of Kathmandu to look into transportation to Dashinkali, the nearest village to the monastery. Now, usually this task would not prove difficult, with local buses and private taxis available on every street in Thamel. However, my time in Nepal coincides with the current fuel crisis, therefore getting to places that are off the beaten track is not so straight forward any more. The manager of the guest house that I was staying at called a few local drivers for me and they all quoted him very expensive prices. They had purchased fuel on the black market and of course with the increase in price come the increase in their charges, understandably. After several negotiations I managed to settle on a price and, feeling relieved, I arranged to meet the driver at ten o’clock the following morning, my studies were finally set to begin, or so I thought.

To my dismay the driver didn’t show up. I walked to the main street, backpack in tow, and within a fraction of a second I was fenced in at all sides by taxi drivers, my backpack had attracted them like honey attracts bees. I explained to them where I wanted to go and they all looked at me, frowning, and told me I would be better off getting the bus because it was just too much in fuel. So off to the bus station I went. Well, it’s not exactly what I would call a bus station; it’s more like a car park with people shouting out different destinations in rapid, musical speech. There is no ticket desk or timetable, no advice in sight. Now, as I unfortunately can’t speak Nepalese, with the exception of a few words that is, I had no idea which of these buses, if any, would be travelling to the village I needed to get to. So I approached each of the shouting men, who I presumed were the drivers, and asked them ‘Dashinkali?’, ‘No,’ were their replies. Eventually somebody took pity on the helpless backpacker wandering around lost in the bus park. ‘Where do you need to go?’ he asked. So I got out the map and the address of the monastery. It turns out that there are two villages that I could travel to that are near the monastery, Dashinkali and Pharphing, however there are no buses operating to either of these destinations. Feeling disappointed, and homeless, now that I was officially unable to travel to the place I had reserved to lay my head that night, I stood in the middle of the bus park trying to think of a plan B. So, I jumped into a taxi and headed to Boudhanath, which is an area in the Kathmandu Valley where the Tibetan refugees settled when they were exiled from their country, and it is also home to the revered Stupa. Here I didn’t have a teacher waiting for me but I would get to witness the devotees and pilgrims of the religion who come to circumnavigate the stupa and make offerings and prostrations. Wandering around the small streets, squeezing my way between tourists and locals, looking for a place to sleep that night, the weight of my bags seeming to get heavier and heavier, I heard someone calling, ‘You looking for a guesthouse?’ I turned around to be greeted by a huge smile attached to a monk who looked like he could be the Dalai Lama’s twin brother. ‘Yes,’ I replied. So, this helpful monk rescued the homeless pilgrim and proceeded to take me to a guesthouse that was, in his words, ‘very cheap.’

Boudhanath is an atmospheric marvel. The stupa, unfortunately, was heavily damaged in the earthquake but, thankfully, restoration work is currently taking place. Yet despite the damage to this place of worship the people still come from early morning to late evening. A constant flux of monks, nuns, pilgrims, devotees and tourists swirl, clockwise, around the stupa like a whirlwind. The melody of the chants, combined with the music and singing of the beggars, the smell of the heavily scented incense, mingled with the glow of the butter lamps, is intoxicating. Sitting from a roof top, looking out at the action, the mantra of ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ being carried through the air with every gentle nudge of a prayer wheel, and every little flutter of a prayer flag, you can feel the devotion in your bones. Even if you aren’t religious, or spiritual, or do not believe in the Buddha, the Dharma or any God, this sight will transfix you and being surrounded by it will move you, emotionally. However, despite the fact that I was witnessing Buddhism in practice, and I was immersed in the essence of faith, I still had that niggling urge telling me that I needed to learn more, to study, and as always the student within me won the argument. I was sitting drinking masala chai when, in my frantic search to find another place to learn, I stumbled across the website for the Kopan Monastery. There in big black bold letters, however, were the words DAY VISITS NOT POSSIBLE FROM THE 11TH NOVEMBER. Great, I thought, I bet its past that date. When travelling all days seem to roll into one so I didn’t know what date, or day of the week, it was. I checked the calendar on my phone, expecting to see that today was probably the 12th November. But, to my utter surprise, and when I say surprise I literally shouted out, ‘YES,’ and received lots of funny glares from those around me, the date was the 10th November, meaning that today was the last day possible for day visits. Feeling like I was finally receiving some luck on my quest I set off. I was greeted by welcoming, happy monks and lots of Namaste’s and enquiries as to where I was from. By the time I had arrived there, however, I had missed the Dharma speech, but I didn’t let this spoil my happiness, instead I headed straight to the book store. If I couldn’t find someone to teach me about Tibetan Buddhism in person then the Dalai Lama would have to teach me instead through the written word. Armed with my study books I wandered around the grounds, envious of the students that were rolling in for the month long retreat. Taking the opportunity to start my studying in the peaceful setting, I sat down and started to read. It wasn’t long before someone came and joined me at my table. A beautiful nun, skin golden from her time living in the sun, with warm, friendly eyes adorned with some very fine lines that made her seem even more welcoming. She radiated kindness. I watched her out of the corner of my eye as she turned her head to see what I was reading and then, with a smile which suggested she was happy with my reading material, sat back and closed her eyes. Intrigued by this woman, I struck up a conversation. She was from Australia and had been a nun for over thirty years, ‘Around about the time my hair started to go grey,’ she told me, laughing. I liked her immediately; she was exactly the sort of person I had wanted to meet here in Nepal. ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ she asked. So, I told her my story, how I have an interest in the religion and wanted to study it further here in Nepal. I told her all about my failed attempts and what had brought me here, to Kopan, buying books instead. She smiled with those loving, compassionate eyes and said ‘You know, one day, a teacher will just appear in front of you, and then everything will make sense.’ I smiled, in recognition of the lesson she was giving me with those few words. I needed to let go, everything always works out the way it should and when the time is right I will meet a teacher, just like she said. There was no point worrying, after all worry is just a waste of time, it doesn’t get us anywhere. ‘See you later,’ she said as she walked off to join the monks. ‘Yes, see you later,’ I replied and somehow I knew that I would see her later, I don’t know where or when, but I knew it wasn’t goodbye. She turned around, nodded at me and gave me another of her heart-warming smiles. I guess I did meet a teacher after all.

In stillness the world is restored – my time at the guest house of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery

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As I climbed the one hundred steps in the midday sun, my life on my back, doubt was running through my mind. Surely it would have been easier to reserve a guest house somewhere closer, that wasn’t so difficult to get to? But, all my negativity quickly washed away when I eventually conquered the final step. I stood in the garden and looked down below at the city. Gone were the sounds of traffic, and the day to day heckles of city life. Up here, suspended above civilisation, I had found the tranquil oasis I had been desperately craving since my arrival in Kathmandu. I approached the desk at the reception, red faced and shiny, and dropped everything that was weighing me down. Feeling lighter I smiled at the two faces that were looking at me with expressions void of any emotion. I requested a room on the third floor after reading reviews which suggested that the rooms had the best views of Kathmandu, forgetting of course that it would mean carrying my bags up another fifty steps. I picked up my load again and dragged myself to my home for the next four days, feeling relieved that I could settle for a while and take some time to breathe, to recollect my thoughts and relax. I hadn’t stayed in one place for longer than two nights so far and it was time for me to sit and take in everything that I had experienced on this journey.

The purpose of my visit at the monastery was to hopefully learn about the lives of the monks and to understand more of Tibetan Buddhism. I have studied Buddhism, and I have a personal as well as an academic interest in the religion; however Tibetan Buddhism, which falls under the Mahayana branch, I know little of. Therefore I had planned to spend the remainder of my time in Nepal learning about it, and seeing the religion in practice. The guest house has a school for young novices behind it and as I was walking up the stairs I heard sing-song voices shouting ‘Hello, hello.’ Across, in a room with a glass-less window, in a grey, dull building covered in bamboo scaffolding, were the bald heads of three young smiling novices, adorned in their maroon and orange robes. ‘Hello,’ I shouted back and they responded in giggles. I settled in to my room feeling excited about the learning experience I was about to have. My stay, however, wasn’t the education I had hoped it would be as the older monk’s, ages ranging from late teens to late twenties, seemed to eye me with suspicion. I greeted them every day with smiles; however the smiles I received in return seemed wary. I understood their wariness, I must seem a strange being to these young men. A female, nearly thirty, single and here in a monastery, all alone. I imagine they were wondering what this strange person smiling at them all the time was doing there. I persisted in my efforts to try and befriend the monks however all I could manage from them was the odd, occasional smile. And any effort to try and have a conversation was responded in one word answers. However, despite the lack of interaction with the resident monks which I had hoped to have during my stay, my time there was not wasted. My four nights quickly turned into six as I settled into a relaxed, calm routine, which was exactly what I needed after being on the road, hopping from place to place, for the past couple of weeks. I assimilated to my surroundings and the time scales of my daily routine quickly started to mirror that of the monk’s schedule. I awoke in the mornings to the sound of ringing bells at six o’clock, however as no-one was there to tell me off I sneakily went back to sleep for an extra hour. The chatter of the young novices going about their daily lives at the school re-awoke my lazy eyes and the rest of my mornings would be spent sitting in the garden, under the trees, purple petals showering me, as if from heaven, every time a bird would stop for a rest from its journey. The sun would heat up my body for the day as I watched the butterflies flutter past me and the kites soar above the city against the backdrop of the Himalayas, smiling to myself at the beauty of life. I felt so much gratitude in those moments. Grateful to be alive, to be able to sit in such a magical setting contemplating life, living in the here and now. Occasionally a monk would burst into song, snapping me out of my meditation, and I would giggle to myself when he realised he had an audience and quickly stopped his outbursts. I’m like an alien to them, from faraway lands, sitting here smiling, either in deep thought, reading or writing. I would like to ask them their stories, how they chose this path, however I daren’t ask such a forward, personal question. Sometimes I would feel guilty with my mobile phone and my laptop, my attachments to the outside world, after all Buddhism teaches that desire creates suffering, and by becoming non-attached the cessation of suffering is possible. However, all the monks here have mobile phones, too, and like people back home in the west they walk around with their faces glued to the screen, not looking where they are going. Their material possession makes me feel better about occasionally having my fingers attached to my electrical devices. Every morning the setting created an inner peace within me so profound that I could not entertain the thought of leaving. I was exactly where I needed to be, and despite the wary monks around me, I felt at home in these surroundings. Occasionally the sound of someone shouting from afar would be carried through the air and then the thud, thud, thud of monkeys running away on the tin roofs of the buildings. Their attempted burglaries failed once more. They have attitude these monkeys, they climb and stalk around in gangs, like the teenagers in some parts of England, terrorising people. Evenings were spent listening to a chorus of chanting, laughter, song and music from the young novices. Sometimes there would be tears, like all young boys in schools I imagine they had a falling out over something trivial. Lights out at the monastery is ten o’clock, and this rule I did obediently adhere too, as going to bed early is never a problem for someone who loves sleep, as I do. Before our eyes closed and entered the dream state, however, the choir of the dogs of Kathmandu must first be heard. One howl, then another, and one by one what appeared to be every dog in the city would join in as if they were singing us all goodnight. On my last day in my paradise garden a wasp came buzzing over to me, very soon it was hovering near the eyelashes of my left eye, but the stillness within must have been reflecting outwardly, as after a long period of investigation it flew away, bored of this inanimate object that had once appeared interesting. So, although I hadn’t learned anything about Tibetan Buddhism at the monastery, I did learn to live in the present, to not be concerned about the future, or the past, because they do not exist. What matters is the here and now, and the here and now is an overwhelming feeling of total bliss, of stillness.

Kathmandu, Kathmandon’t?

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Before leaving Pokhara our guide referred to the drive to Kathmandu as a death drive, with steep drops and hair raising bends around the mountains, not to mention landslides. His attempts at persuading us to take an apparent lifesaving short cut by flying instead were thwarted. We had grown fond of scenic road trips and the thought of the drive was more exciting to us than scary, plus we had the utmost faith that our driver would get us to Kathmandu alive. Up we climbed around the bends that we had been warned about, past goat herders and their four legged entourage, and school buses, bicycles and lorries. The mountains were covered in green and yellow ripples dotted with the bright red, pink and blue saris of the women as they collected their bounty. At the highest point on the pass, slightly deaf from my ears popping, I looked down at the valley below and thought to myself this is definitely not somewhere you want to be if an earthquake or landslide hits. So, our guide may have been right about the dangers, but we were also correct to place our faith in our driver as we made it to the city alive and well.

As we approached the busy streets of Kathmandu I was filled with a sense of nostalgia, gone were the lush green mountains and flowing rivers, our rural scenic adventures in Nepal had been replaced by traffic and pollution. I hadn’t left the vehicle and I already wanted to leave. Maybe our guide sensed my reluctance to be in urban surroundings as, rather than taking us straight to our hotel, he de-toured to the Monkey Temple, Swayambhunath, and if anywhere in the city was going to change my mind it was of course going to be one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Kathmandu. Entering the temple the thoughts of the mountains were pushed to the back of my mind, prayer flags and monkeys taking over my attention. When the earthquake hit I had imagined that I wouldn’t get to see Kathmandu’s famous sites however, despite some damage, the stupa was still glorious and a sight to behold. I managed to walk around the grounds with only one attempted robbery by a monkey. After he grabbed the bottom of my trousers I told him I had no food and he let go, others however were not so lucky.

After an early morning alarm we made our way to the airport to get up close and personal with the mighty Everest. We had booked a flight with Yeti airlines and had been warned that delays were possible because if the mountains weren’t visible then we wouldn’t take off. An Everest flight without seeing Everest was obviously pointless. Luck, it appeared, was on our side. I guess the mighty mountain wanted to show off her beauty to us because our flight departed on time and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we faced her head on. Relaxing on the flight with a glass of champagne may seem like cheating to those hardy mountain climbers, however, not all have the skill to climb those dangerous peaks, and going to Kathmandu without seeing Everest just felt wrong. So, I gazed out at the summit of the world’s highest mountain, filled with bubbles and happiness, and feeling extremely grateful that I was seeing something that many people in the world dream about seeing.

We came back down to earth with a soft thud and headed back to the busy streets of Thamel where we wandered around taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the city. Kathmandu Durbar Square had been badly damaged from the earthquake; however we had expected to see more destruction in the centre. It was when we visited Bhaktapur, however, that the extent of the damage was evident, with the ancient buildings being held up by wooden beams and piles of rubble scattered across the area. Yet despite the beautiful and interesting buildings around Kathmandu, my soul craved some peace, so I said goodbye to the wonderful people I had been travelling with on my tour for the past 15 days and headed off, alone once more, to the hills overlooking the city, for some rest and relaxation at the guest house of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.