I cover my head with a towel to get some small relief from the scorching sun. Cameras strung around my neck and lenses stuffed in pockets, I jockey for position at the front rail in an area that has been set aside for members of the media covering the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra for World Peace event in Washington, DC. Today will be His Holiness’ only public appearance and the crowds have arrived early, filling the west lawn of the Capitol building to capacity. No bags are searched and no metal detectors have been set up and the lack of security is somewhat alarming, considering that the media has been subject to an hour-long security screening including metal detectors, bag searches and bomb-sniffing dogs on each of the previous days of the event before being allowed into the Verizon Center. I wondered how members of the press could pose more of a threat to the Dalai Lama than thousands of people arriving with backpacks and suitcases.
Our nation’s capital is a strange choice for a conference on world peace. In one restaurant, I grabbed the only available seat at a table where diners were comparing generals who insist on salutes and ‘sirs’ to those who are more casual. Snatches of political conversations fade in and out as I walk the streets. One whole afternoon was wasted trying to gain entrance to a press conference where the Dalai Lama explained his decision to step down as the political leader of Tibet to Nancy Pelosi and Speaker John Boehner.
In between, I take refuge in the Verizon Center, attending prayers and the elaborate Earth Ritual Dance, where Tibetan monks in exquisitely ornamented silk robes consecrate the venue and prepare the platform upon which the Kalachakra mandala will be painted in sand. The stadium overflows with love and compassion. I want to carry this inner peace with me but within minutes of leaving I am thrust back into the real world, once again dealing with traffic, crowds, angry people, unhappy people, power struggles. Monks have it easy, I think. Read More
The first day of the Kalachakra for World peace event that began yesterday in Washington, DC fell on the 76th birthday of the Dalai Lama. After opening ceremonies, thousands of supporters streamed from the Verizon Center and paraded through the streets to the National Mall, where dances and celebrations were held to honor His Holiness. The Kalachakra, which the most important event of the year for Tibetans, is held in a different location around the world each year and this is the first time it has ever been held in Washington, DC. The event will last for eleven days, from July 6-16, and will feature teachings by the Dalai Lama, as well as a building of a magnificent sand mandala.
I rubbed the gunk from my eyes and stepped off the overnight sleeping bus in Pakse, Laos. A pack of cutthroat taxi drivers instantly surrounded me, jostling and jockeying. “Where you go?” shouted one. “I give you best price,” insisted another. “Sinouk Cafe,” I answered groggily. The taxi drivers exchanged a knowing look that should have tipped me off. Fortunately, one use of the filthy, overflowing toilet in the bus during the night had convinced me to wait until morning and I was squirming to find a bathroom. By the time I returned, not a taxi driver was in sight, so I hefted my backpack and asked directions to the cafe where I was supposed to meet up with my fellow passengers for the Vat Phou Cruise to Four Thousand Islands. It was less than two blocks from the bus station, an easy walk that would undoubtedly have cost me dear if I’d hired a taxi.
With two hours to wait, I cracked open my laptop and settled into an easy chair with a Cappuccino and pastry. Other passengers trickled in and gathered in groups, all chatting in French, and it was soon apparent that I would be the only English speaking guest on the cruise. Though languages come easy to me, French is not among my repertoire and I wondered how I would get through the next three days, since none of my fellow passengers seemed to speak English.
After a briefing (in French) I followed the Mekong Cruises representative down to the river where we boarded a longtail boat that would carry us to the Vat Phou cruise ship. Having been reassured that an English speaking guide would join me on the boat, I tuned out the unintelligible French chatter and focused on the scenery. Unlike the mud-churned, rapids-laden Mekong River I had experienced during the Luang Say Cruise in northern Laos, here the river ran glass-smooth and emerald green. Fish jumped, sending concentric circles racing across the mirrored surface, and hawks screeched overhead, putting us on notice that we were intruders in their domain. Rather than jutting rocks, the southern reaches were pierced by innumerable sand islets that appear and disappear as waters rise and fall with the seasons, earning the area its nickname of 4,000 islands.
Around a final bend, the Vat Phou boat came into view. Originally a ferry that carried teak wood between Vientiane and the south of Laos, in 1993 the steel-hulled teak barge was converted into a luxurious floating hotel. As we slid alongside I registered my initial impressions. Frilly. French. Like a giant, top-heavy wedding cake. Could this boat possibly stay upright? I climbed aboard, deposited my shoes on the lower deck for the duration of our cruise, and climbed to the upper deck for another briefing, also in French.
We enjoyed a gourmet lunch as the captain motored toward Champasak township and the Vat Phou Ruins, a majestic pre-Angkorian 10th century temple complex regarded as the most important ruin in Laos. Just as we were finishing up he eased the giant vessel out of the main channel and gently bumped the sand embankment, allowing us to disembark and climb aboard tuk-tuks for a 30 minute ride to the ruins. This particular site was chosen because it sits at the base of a curiously shaped mountain topped by a 45-foot high monolith that was revered as a natural lingam (phallic symbol) of the Hindu god Shiva. The Chenla Empire, a great civilization stretching south into Cambodia, north and west into northern Thailand and as far as Burma was responsible for the building of the original temple between the 6th and 12th centuries. Nothing remains of the once great city of the Chenla Empire, since all but religious sites were built of wood.
Between the 11th and 12th centuries, Khmer architects restored and rebuilt many sections of the temples and they now have many features characteristic of the ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia – stone causeways, decorative lintels and many carvings. Today, the two large palaces on the valley floor are slowly being repaired and restored through the UNESCO World Heritage project, one by a team of French archeologists and the other by an Indian team, each of which has employed vastly differing Read More
Dave Bouskill and Deb Corbeil, photographers and travel writers at The Planet D, invited me to participate in a fun travel blogger exercise called “My 7 Links.” The goal of the project, which is the inspiration of Tripbase, is to share lessons learned and create a bank of past but not forgotten blog posts that deserve to see the light of day again. So with no further ado, I give you:
My Most Beautiful Post:
Ah there are so many, but if forced to pick one I have to say my trip to see the gorgeous fall foliage in New England in 2008 has to be one of the most beautiful trips I’ve taken.
My Most Popular Post:
No doubt about this one. I wrote about traveling with your iPhone without incurring huge bills about a year ago and it is hands down my most popular article. Read More
I arrived at the bus station in Vientiane, Laos, bound for Pakse in the southern part of the country via an overnight bus. In the dark parking lot the sign on the double-decker bus brilliantly declared: “Sleeping Bus.” I expected seats that reclined but was surprised by a triple tier of double beds stretching down either side of the narrow aisle.
My “bed”was all the way at the top; I climbed up and introduced myself to my bunkmate for the evening, thankfully another woman. By wedging myself against the window and tucking my backpack behind my head I was just able to straighten my legs and I was fast asleep before we had gotten a few miles down the road. My bunkmate wasn’t quite so lucky. The metal railing on the outside of the bed wasn’t high enough and she spent the night hanging onto the rail to keep from falling into the aisle each time the bus rounded a corner. I woke up only once – to the sound of banging as the driver and crew changed a flat tire in the middle of nowhere sometime during the night. The Lao Sleeping Bus has to qualify as the craziest bus in the world.