Special Six: Shangri-La Experiences

Shangri-La city, in northwestern Yunnan province, is considered to be the inspiration for James Hilton’s novel ‘Lost Horizon’ so much so that the official Chinese name of Zhongdian was changed in 2001 to Shangri-La. The city’s traditional Tibetan name is Gyalthang or Royal Plains. I had the privilege of visiting this beautiful city at the foot of the Himalayas, for a few days, with half my APLP cohort in 2012. It was tragic to hear that a devastating fire destroyed most of the historic old town of Dukezong in 2014. The place has been rebuilt and while I haven’t visited the city since the fire, I did check whether some of my favourite places survived the fire.

My experience of Shangri-La was special and the following are six experiences I recommend to the traveler to this city.

  1. Early morning walk to temple

This was my favourite part of my stay in Shangri-La.

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Taku turning the wheel of the golden temple, photo credit: Mami Sato

2. Visit to Shangri-La Thangka Academy

The Thangka academy is a place where aspiring artists are trained in the traditional Thangka art. It is a wonderful experience to visit the center, and learn of the years of training that the artist goes through as well as see how the colours are mixed etc. There is a shop attached to the center, where you can buy local handicrafts including Thangka artwork.

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3. A Hike to the 100 chicken temple

This temple apparently received its name from the chickens roaming around, though I didn’t seen any chickens on the afternoon I visited. It is a short hike but has steep inclines, which can be a bit difficult for those with mobility issues especially when combined with the change in altitude from Beijing to Shangri-La. I did make it to the temple at the top but when the group decided to go on a further hike through some woods, I decided to turn back with my room-mate and we went back into the old town for some tea.

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Taking a break and enjoying the blue trumpet gentian flowers, photo credit: Mami Sato

4. A visit to the Songzanlin Monastery

I was too tired to go on the third hike, which was a longer one. The photos, taken by those who went to the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, also known as Songzanlin Monastery, were amazing. I would highly recommend visiting the Tibetan Buddhist monastery, founded by the 5th Dalai Lama in 1679, which is the largest in Yunnan province.

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

Songzanlin Monastery 2

Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

5. Stay at Karma Cafe and Lodge.

Our group was split up to stay at three guesthouses. I was delighted that I had the opportunity of staying at this traditional Tibetan house, which had lovely gathering places on the first floor. The verandah space, where breakfast was served, had great views of the temple and the indoor gathering space around the fire place was really cosy. The restaurant also served great local food.

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

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6. Eating at Tara Gallery cafe and bar

We had a couple of meals here and enjoyed the fusion of Indian, Yunnan and Tibetan food.

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

The old town is a lovely area, with its narrow streets, and where vehicles are not allowed. Though the shops are targeted at tourists, they are fun to explore. The Yunnan Mountain Heritage Foundation‘s Handicraft center, at the edge of the square and away from the tourist centre, is a non-profit organization that supports local cultural heritage, handicrafts and eco-tourism in Diqing prefecture and is worth visiting.

Shangri-La is also a great base for mountain hikes and treks, especially for those interested in going on the old tea horse trails. Do read Jeff Fuch’s The Ancient Tea Horse Road before going on one of the old tea horse road treks.

Hope you enjoyed the photo series of my recommended special six experiences in Shangri-La! Which of these experiences would you enjoy?

[I am linking this post to Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Lauren on Location, Snow in TromsoThe Sunny Side of This and What a Wonderful World; and

the newly started Faraway Files, hosted by Untold Morsels, Oregon Girl around the world and Suitcases and Sandcastles]

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Special Six: Stockholm Art

One of my favourite cities in the world has been Stockholm, ever since I first visited it in 2000. Since that first visit, I have lived there for three years working and studying and my last visit there was in 2010. While there are many places and things I like about the city, this post is about the six places of art in this city that are special to me.

  1. Waldemarsudde

Prins Eugen, who was himself a landscape artist, left his home Waldemarsudde and his collection to the Swedish state in his will. Therefore, since 1948, the place has been open to the public. The building was built in early 20th century as a residence for the prince. He soon added a gallery as an extension to the house, as he needed space for his expanding art collection. At the time of his death, his collection included 3,200 of Prins Eugen’s work and around 3,500 works by other artists.

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Prins Eugen’s home

I first visited the lovely home and art museum in Djurgården on a lovely excursion organized by my university, KTH. I fell in love with the house and its park overlooking the lake so much so that I brought my mother here for her birthday. The aesthetically pleasing landscaped gardens has several famous sculptures including Carl Milles’ Archer and an Alexis Rudier cast of Rodin’s The Thinker.

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My mother on her birthday, Waldemarsudde, 2003

This beautiful art museum is a not-to-be-missed gem by the visitor to Stockholm city. There is a restaurant and cafe, the Prince’s Kitchen, within its premises.

2. Millesgården

Nearly around the same time that Prins Eugen moved into his newly built home, Waldemarsudde in Djurgården, the artist couple Carl and Olga Milles bought their property on the island of  Lidingö. Over the next several decades, Carl Milles designed his gardens and added his fascinating sculptures to the landscape.

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Fountain of the Muses

The visit to Millesgården was also a special treat organized by my university.

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God on the rainbow

More than the house itself, I liked the gardens and my favourite was this little piece of sculpture on a low wall. A tiny stone carving of a wooden bench on which a couple are huddled together from the the cold. If you peeped across the bench, you would see a man sleeping on the other side. The sleeping man is supposed to be the artist, Carl Milles himself, and represented his time in Paris as a struggling artist.

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A la belle étoile

3. Monument honouring Raoul Wallenberg

During my initial months in Stockholm, my parents and I stayed in Lidingö for a short while. While walking with my mother across the city hall park, I came across a monument which called out to me from the first time I saw it. It was that of a man handing out documents, with his hands clasped at the back, and hands reaching out from the ground for those documents. Seeing that sculpture by Willy Gordon began my fascination with the story of Raoul Wallenberg‘s life. As a Swedish diplomat in Budapest during World War II, he is credited with saving the lives of about 100,000 Hungarian Jews, before he disappeared in January 1945. I admired his initiative, courage and commitment, despite knowing that he would be targeted eventually.

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Source: Lidingo.se

4. Kungliga Tekniska Hogskolan

Not just because it was one of the universities I studied at, I also like it very much because it is aesthetically pleasing. The main campus building in Ostermalm was built in the early 20th century and features work by prominent Swedish sculptors such as Carl Milles and Ivar Johnsson. The borggården (courtyard) is particularly lovely during summer.

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KTH Courtyard

5. National Museum

The museum was built in 1866 and is currently closed for renovation. For one of my mother’s birthdays, I had planned a day trip to this national museum. My mother used to enjoy painting a lot but at some point, had stopped her painting. After her visit here, she was re-inspired so much so that she not only resumed her painting, our apartment and my sisters’ houses were soon filled with her artwork.

6. University of Stockholm 

The campus at Frescati is located within a beautiful area and includes the Bergius Botanical gardens. Walking around the campus, taking in the sculptures by Marianne and Sivert Lindblom among others, is a treat.

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Photo credit: Jan Oqvist at sivertlindblom.se

Which of these special six places would you want to visit? If you have already visited some or all of them, how was your experience?

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Special Six: Manhattan highlights

While returning home, after completing my APLP fellowship residency in Hawai’i, I had chosen to fly back to Colombo via New York. A close friend of mine had asked her sister working in NYC to host me at her apartment so I had a great base in midtown Manhattan to explore the city from.

Besides seeing iconic Manhattan landmarks such as the Empire State, Chrysler building, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, UN headquarters and spending hours at the Met and Guggenheim museum, these were my special six experiences from my first visit to Manhattan.

  1. Home-stay at an apartment with an amazing view

I enjoyed staying at my friend’s sister’s apartment and experiencing views of amazing sunrises and sunsets over the East river.

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I think I was actually quite content staying indoors, comfortably warm, enjoying the amazing view as well as reading the books I had brought for my NYC trip. I also enjoyed getting to know my friend’s favourite sister better.

2. Walking around the neighbourhood

It was quite frustrating that while I was staying in midtown Manhattan very close to so many landmarks that I had previously only seen in movies or online, the pain in my leg aggravated by the cold winter meant that I could only walk for very short distances with the help of a walking aid and I needed to take lots of breaks. This was highly inconvenient because walking around is the best way to explore Manhattan. While I did manage to enjoy a few short walks, I did not take any photos during these walks because it was a hassle to have to remove my gloves and juggle my walking stick and camera. A walking route that I particularly enjoyed was a short loop walk, between 1st avenue 34th street and 5th avenue 35th street, which meant passing by two places I grew quite fond of – St Vartan Armenian Cathedral and the Empire State building. St Vartan Cathedral drew me in several times and I really liked the peaceful atmosphere within the cathedral, especially as I was at an emotional low point during this visit.

3. Experiencing a Broadway show

The only thing that I had pre-planned and booked well in advance for my visit to New York City was a Broadway show. I had to treat myself to one show while there and my choice for my first visit to NYC was Phantom of the Opera at Majestic Theatre. The theatre district is packed during evenings and is a sight in itself. It was especially difficult getting a cab after the musical and I had to walk a block or two before I could get a cab to stop.

4. Enjoying a mojito at Havana Alma de Cuba and exploring Christopher Street

A friend and I had made plans to meet up for coffee, after Christmas, at her favourite neighbourhood in Manhattan. I enjoyed exploring Christopher Street with her trying out some of her favourite places. We started with coffee at the now closed Mojo café, then visited McNulty’s Tea and Coffee shop where I bought some Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee for home.

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I had to walk into Sockerbit, a Swedish candy store, as soon as I saw the displays of godis, and it brought me back an edible piece of a country I consider my second home. The highlight of our walk though was enjoying a mojito at Havana Alma de Cuba, where we had popped into on an impromptu impulse.

We made a final stop at the Fat Cat jazz club. The place had not yet opened for visitors for the day but they let us walk around and see the venue. Since I was leaving the next day, I did not actually get to revisit the place and experience some live jazz music. However, I really liked the vibe of West Village, at least of the street that I explored.

5. Taking the Staten island ferry to see the Lady

I was meeting up with a former colleague living on Staten Island and was delighted to learn of the Staten Island ferry service, which gave me my boat fix for this trip, together with the pleasure of seeing the Statue of Liberty against the night sky.

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6. Eating out in Manhattan

With my kind host leaving me freshly cooked lunches daily before going to work, despite my repeated requests not to bother about it, I had no choice but to eat in most of the time. I did try out a few cafes occasionally though. Of the few that I tried, I very much enjoyed The Wright restaurant at Guggenheim museum, a museum I also enjoyed very much.

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Source: The Wright

What is your favourite Manhattan experience?

[I am linking this post to Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Lauren on Location, Snow in TromsoThe Sunny Side of This and What a Wonderful World; and

Faraway Files #2, hosted by Suitcases and Sandcastles, Untold Morsels, Oregon Girl]

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A hike across the Great Wall of China

Sometimes one knows when to push oneself beyond one’s limits and sometimes not. Ever since my 2005 road traffic accident, I have found that I am reluctant to push myself beyond my perceived limits in walking as it has always ended in a lot of pain. As this adversely affects travel experiences and that of my travel companions, I tend to avoid pushing at my limits especially when I am in a group. I also have a fear of re-injuring my leg, in a difficult to access region or a place, without facilities to treat me in case of another accident.

So by the time the end of our group’s three week travel around China was in sight and I ended up with not only a fever and nasty sore throat but also fatigue and leg pain, I decided that I would not exert myself the last couple of days. However, I was hoping to do one last walk on the trip – a hike across the Great Wall.

We took the bus from Beijing to Dongpo village, where we were accommodated in a simple home stay/ guesthouse.

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Stacked corn at the village

When we reached the village at the foot of the Great Wall in the afternoon, we found it was colder there than it had been in Beijing. After some coffee, the group decided to go for a sunset hike. I initially tried to go on that short hike but just a few minutes after we started, I was finding it more and more painful to walk so I took a photo of my friends continuing the hike and returned to the guesthouse.

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Hiking around Dongpo village

I enjoyed sitting in the courtyard resting my leg, while attempting to make friends with the little dog under the chair, and watching the sun set over the hills.

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When the others returned from their sunset hike, we had a lovely sumptuous dinner following which the hosts started a bonfire outside.

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Our sleeping space was in tiny rooms where six mattresses had been placed on a concrete platform in each room. The platform had smoldering coals underneath them to warm up the sleeping space. We had to sleep like packed sardines so it made for an uncomfortable night.

I woke up very sick and with a lot of pain in my leg and I knew that I would not be able to keep up with the others on a hike across the Great Wall. I told myself that I did experience a lovely home stay at a village at the foot of the Great Wall and had experienced lovely views of the wall in the distance. After everyone had left on the hike, I completed my packing and waited for the cars that would leave with our bags to the meeting point with the hikers. I was enjoying my coffee when three of my friends, including a staff, returned. In some ways, it is nice to have company rather than being alone when you are feeling a little down. We decided to play a game of cards till our departure time, which was a lot of fun.

When it was time to leave the guesthouse, the hosts offered us some ‘baijiu’ (Chinese beer) and the others encouraged me to try a sip as well, suggesting that it would be better for my throat. I tried a sip of the bitter, pungent concoction which was my first introduction to beer. I did feel slightly better as the drink burned my throat but the taste put me off beer that I didn’t attempt a second taste till several years had passed.

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Gretchen’s reaction to baijiu

We went with the hosts in their car to the point where our bus was parked and transferred to the bus. The bus took us to one of the entrances of the Great wall. I initially assumed we would be waiting at a restaurant at the entrance, and the others would join us for lunch after their hike, but I found myself following the others on a walk to the base of some steps leading upward to the Great wall. One of our mini-group members decided to go up the steps and meet up with the rest of the group. When walking back to the restaurant area, we passed the cable car ticket counter and the staff with us suggested we take the cable car up the mountain, since we had come all the way to the great wall and it would be a pity if we at least didn’t take a photo on top of the wall. Tempted, we agreed and took the cable car up.

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As we were in the cable car going up the mountain, we learnt that the rest of the group had begun their descent down the steps. We took some photos at the viewpoint at the top. I was happy that we had made it to a tiny portion of the Great Wall and it was amazing seeing the wall winding its way into the distance.

Given the context of today’s world, it was easy to imagine the fear that provided the impetus for the Chinese empire to start building its walls to control migration as well as prevent attacks by nomadic tribes along its borders. Some fears of humans seem to remain the same despite a couple of millennia of evolution.

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When we returned to the cable car, we were told that the cable cars had stopped working and that we had to climb down the mountain. I felt dismay because I knew I was not fit to attempt an arduous climb down and worse, I had left my hiking stick in the bus thinking that we were only going to a restaurant to order lunch for everyone. We agreed that the less strenuous way would be to walk across the wall to the nearest steps that led down the mountain rather than attempt the souvenir sellers’ rough hiking route downhill. I steeled myself to face the inevitable. One of the souvenir sellers, who had been pointing out her walking route down the mountain, said that she would accompany us to ensure we found the stairway. She also found a stick for me which I could use as a temporary walking stick.

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There we were, the four of us, going so slowly across the great wall marking each tower we reached as an achievement and keeping our spirits up. The souvenir seller was a very kind woman and she helped me across the steep inclines and steps. She mentioned she was from the Mongolia side of the wall and I found it admirable that she made the hike up to the wall and back every day to sell her souvenirs.

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I am glad we went up the cable car and were forced to walk across the wall as it turned out into a special achievement of will and perseverance, besides actually experiencing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of walking on top of the Great wall. I felt quite proud that despite my initial dismay, once I resolved myself to face the task, I undertook it without a murmur of complaint even at the tough sections of the wall which we had to cross.

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The unexpected kindness of the souvenir seller touched me and I felt that simply giving her some money, as if in payment for her services, would devalue her kindness. So, I bought a Tshirt for my mother from the souvenir seller, which my mother loves to wear on her short evening walks knowing the story behind it.

The travel lesson for me from my Great Wall experience is that sometimes when you find yourself in an unexpected and seemingly impossible situation, there is always some residual strength and determination left within you to go the remaining distance and often, where you least expect it, you come across unexpected human kindness and empathy.

Great Wall

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**Travel Link Up – August theme of ‘Travel lessons’, hosted by Two Feet One World, Adventures of a London KiwiSilverspoon London and #TravelwithNanoB]
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Kirinde and its local legends

The first time I visited Hambantota district was two years after the tsunami of 2004 and it was a school in Kirinde that brought me here.

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Photo credit: Archie Campbell @Travel Journals

As I stood on the beach, I was told a fascinating legend from a couple of millenia ago. According to my storyteller, the King of Kelaniya, in South-west Sri Lanka, had a beautiful wife. His step-brother was said to have had an affair with his wife, with whom he exchanged letters in secret. The King intercepted one of the letters and was outraged, when he recognized the handwriting, even though the letter was not signed. However, he wrongly assumed that the handwriting was that of his priest and had him put to death. It turned out that the priest, who was the King’s childhood friend, and his brother had studied at the same Buddhist school and ended up with a similar handwriting.

My storyteller continued that nature furious with the wrong done to a Buddhist monk had responded in the form of a tsunami. As people ran to the King for help against the advancing sea, the astrologers and other counsel of the King told him that the only remedy was to sacrifice a human being. No-one stepped forward to volunteer for the sacrifice. The Princess, the daughter of the King, finally said that she would sacrifice herself to save the people. She was put in a boat, with lots of riches, to take with her to her afterlife and sent towards the sea. The tsunami however lifted her boat and landed it on the south eastern shore of Kirinde, in the southern Kingdom of Ruhunu.

The fishermen in the area were astonished and ran to their King to say that a boat had been swept ashore with a beautiful woman on board. King Kawantissa came to the beach to see for himself the strange sight that had caused such commotion and he decided to marry the Princess himself, when he heard her courageous story.

A temple, the Vihara Maha Devi pansala, stands at a high point on Kirinde beach to mark the landing of the Princess. The inner walls of the pansala are painted with stories of the arrival of the Princess in Kirinde, her marriage to King Kawantissa. The stories on the wall continue with the stories of the two sons born to them, Tissa and Dutugemunu, famous Kings in the recorded history of Sri Lanka.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

As the princes grow up, the country faced inter Kingdom wars and invasions from Tamil Kings from the North. The peace-loving King Kawantissa extracted a promise from his two young sons that they would refrain from getting caught up in inter-Kingdom wars and killing people, when they become Kings. A wall painting then illustrates the famous depiction of young Prince Dutugemunu lying on a huge bed curled in a foetal position. His mother sits beside him and asks him why he sleeps thus. He replies that he has no space to stretch his legs as the sea surrounds him in the south and east and King Ellalan is pressing from the north and so this is the only way he can sleep. His mother understands his frustration but reminds him firmly of his promise to his father.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

However, after his father dies, Dutugemunu finds himself unable to desist from war. He seeks his mother’s permission to be released from his promise to his father and to be allowed to fight a war with Ellalan, the King of Jaffna, who had expanded his Kingdom to Anuradhapura in the north-central region of the island. He promises her that he will try to minimize the deaths incurred from the war. On that promise, she finally releases him from his promise to his father and he sets off to the north.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

On the battleground, he requests King Ellalan that only the two of them fight, as it is a fight between the two and that the people needn’t suffer unnecessarily. Ellalan acquiesces and both fight. The younger King slays the older King and Dutugemunu sets up his Kingdom in Anuradhapura. At the site of where King Ellalan was slain, he set up a memorial and enforced the law that each passerby had to offer his or her respect to the slain King.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

This is the story that is narrated in South Sri Lanka and the story that makes King Dutugemunu one of the most respected and popular Kings among the Sinhalese.

I also happened to hear the story of King Dutugemunu, as narrated in North Sri Lanka and it is the story of a blood thirsty King, in search of power and land, propelled to war by his mother and thereby leading to the death of the just Tamil King Ellalan. Therefore, King Dutugemunu is not such a popular historical figure in Tamil narratives.

For me, it was interesting to listen to the story of the same person, as handed down in history, among two ethnic groups, and see how the angle of view hugely affects the perspective.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

I find the story houses of pansalas (Buddhist temples) the most interesting part, with tales of local legends painted on the walls. A walk around the walls is akin to reading a book.  Yet without a storyteller, the pictures may well be disconnected paintings. I was fortunate to have a knowledgeable story-teller bring to life the paintings on the walls. Perhaps you will be lucky when you ask someone who works or volunteers at the temple. Kirinde’s Vihara Maha Devi pansala is a little gem on the southern coast and is worth visiting.

[I am linking this post to:

*Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Snow in Tromso, Lauren on Location, The Sunny Side of This and What a Wonderful World]
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PLACE OF CONVERGENCE

Located in Monaragala district, the second largest district in the country with the highest level of poverty, is a famous and popular pilgrimage site of Sri Lanka. Kathirgamam in Tamil and Kataragama in Sinhala, the unique place is  a site where people from several religious faiths converge. The annual festival in July is a particularly interesting time to visit.

My first visit to Kathirgamam was during the festival time and the place was packed. Our group had to park several blocks away and walk quite some distance through colourfully lit roads lined with street vendors. There was a carnival atmosphere. ‘Kavadi’ dance and music filled the paths leading to the temple where some pilgrims even went to extremes of fire-walking or piercing their cheeks or backs as a penance or for making or having a special request fulfilled. As we came closer, the crowds increased and there were long queues going across the narrow bridge leading to the temple complex. Most pilgrims chose to wade through the river beneath, taking a dip before they entered the temple premises. While my memories of the visit that night during the festival seems to be filled with lots of colour and noise, I have much more clear memories of Kathirgamam during later visits at less crowded times on non-festival days.

Driving in from Tissamaharama in Hambantota district on the south coast of Sri Lanka, we passed lush green fields and beautiful ponds of water lilies.

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Crossing over to Kataragama, one comes across a bridge built over Manik Ganga river, where during the day you can actually buy some fish food from the fish food seller nearby and feed the fish or you could choose to have a dip in the water as the pilgrims do.

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Crossing the bridge on foot, one comes across a compound with assorted modest structures from a mosque to a Hindu ‘koyil’ and a Buddhist ‘pansala’. Despite its modest appearance, the place is steeped in history and legends and is mentioned in 15th century Tamil devotional poems as well as the 16th century Pali chronicle ‘Jinakamali’.

According to the Muslim faith, they associate the site with Hazarat Khizr and believe that the current name comes from the older version Khizr-gama. Hazarat Khizr or the Green One is supposed to have drunk the water of life and gained immortality and eternal youth. Some believe that the secret spring is in this region and come in search of it. An old prayer house is reputed to be the spiritual station of al-Khizr. The main temple complex has a mosque and a Sufi shrine at the entrance where the flag is first raised during the festival season each year.

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Kathirgamam is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka for Hindus and many make special pilgrimages to visit the temple at least once in their lives. Hindus believe that Kathirgamam symbolizes the protection, wisdom and youth of Kathirgamar or Skanda (the many names of Lord Murugan). Right beside the mosque is a temple for God Shiva and along the path to the main temple for Murugan are other Hindu shrines and temples. The annual festival starts on the new moon day in ‘Adi’ (Tamil month of July) and ends with the ‘theertham’ (a special devotional offering involving water) on the full moon day. The casket with the mystic diagram which is preserved in the inner shrine of the Murugan temple is taken out during the festival season by pulling back the seven veils that hang before it in the temple representing the obstacles that one has to pass through to reach the truth. The casket is taken on an elephant to the Valli Amman temple and, after prayers are held there, brought back to its abode at the main temple.

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There is a special practice that some pilgrims take. This is the ‘pada yatra(i)’ or foot pilgrimage, which starts a couple of months before the annual festival in July. The longest route is the one from the north which makes its way to the east coast of Sri Lanka and down to the south east. This foot pilgrimage, according to the indigenous Veddah community of Sri Lanka, is a reenactment of the path that the “wise” person who shared knowledge and teachings took before establishing himself in Kataragama which they consider to be a very special place. Currently, the pilgrimage is undertaken by anyone who is interested in doing so, irrespective of their ethnicity. I used to see long lines of pilgrims setting off barefoot, dressed in yellow and carrying cloth shoulder bags, when I worked in Batticaloa on the east coast of Sri Lanka. I was surprised to hear that they walk all the way to Kathirgamam, a journey that took them a month or two to complete and which they timed so as to arrive at the temple complex in time for the festival.

God Skanda/ Murugan is also considered a Buddhist deity in Sri Lanka and is referred to in the Maha Samaya Sutta as the Sanat Kumara or the perpetual youth. Beyond the main shrine for God Skanda is a Buddhist shrine and a Bo tree.

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In Kataragama, there is also a much revered dagoba (Buddhist stupa), the Kirivehera. There are different accounts as to who was responsible for its construction. Many believe it to have been built by King Mahasena around 500 BC while others believe it to have been built by King Dutugamunu around 160 BC, after the defeat of the northern King Ellalan in Anuradhapura.

There are a few other pilgrimage sites around Kataragama, which the devout might be interested in visiting such as Kathiramalai or Vadihitikanda, a hill around 5 kms away from the main temple complex, which both Buddhists and Hindus believe is the original site of the temple. However, the climb is quite difficult and not adviced for people with mobility issues. Another pilgrimage place in the vicinity is Sella Kathirgama(m) which is also associated with God Skanda.

What I find most intriguing is that the site is a place where three religions converge and essentially merge in their belief that Kathirgamam/ Kataragama/ Khizrgama is the abode of the one with eternal youth and wisdom. Called by different names, the belief transcends barriers and enables the believers to merge spiritually and the annual theertham/Esala Perahera/festival merges the rituals of all three.

With the flag hoisted on July 5th this year, the annual festival is now underway. Check out my friend, Nancy Yang’s photo series on her experience of this annual festival this year.

Have you experienced the festival at Kataragama? Do visit Kataragama/ Kathirgamam during your travels around Sri Lanka!

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*Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Snow in Tromso, Lauren on Location, The Sunny Side of Thisand What a Wonderful World
**Monday Escapes #39, hosted by My Travel Monkey and Packing My Suitcase
***The Weekly Postcard, hosted by Travel Notes & BeyondA Hole in My Shoe, As We Saw It, Eff it, I’m On HolidaySelim Family Raasta]
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Special Six: Temples at Angkor

The Angkor archaeological park, considered one of the most important archaeological sites of South-east Asia by UNESCO, can be quite overwhelming. The 400 square kilometres of the park area is filled with ancient temple ruins of the Khmer Kingdoms from the 9th to 15th centuries. After seeing one temple after another, it can be easy to stop appreciating the differences and nuances in the temple styles and the history behind them. Aware of this, my friends and I chose a few temples we wished to see, both within and outside the Angkor park area, during our three days in Siem Reap. Even though our guide tried to persuade us to fit in more, we stuck to our choice which I believe enhanced our appreciation of the temples we did see at Angkor.

We started our temple visits at Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer empire, established by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century.

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The south gate with its 54 asuras (demons) and devas (gods) lining each side of the path to the gate, pulling on the snake’s tail and head respectively, was depictive of a Hindu mythological story regarding the creation of the earth.

The south gate had three faces facing each direction, with the central facing both in and out.

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The Bayon, the state temple during Jayavarman VII’s reign, is at the centre of Angkor Thom. With over 200 gigantic smiling faces carved on the towers of the temple, it is certainly a fascinating piece of architecture. My impression when seeing the smiling faces was that it was representative of Buddha, as there is a serene expression on each face, even though it might have been images of King Jayavarman VII.

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The bas-reliefs at the temple were also very interesting. I was wondering if it was illustrating the work that went into building the temple or whether it was depicting the King’s journey to the celestial Kingdom, as it was then believed that the King was a representative of the Gods.

Leaving the north gate of the Bayon, the guide took us to the Baphuon, which had been the state temple of Yasodharapura, the capital city of the Khmer empire during the early 11th century reign of Udayadityavarman II.  In the 16th century, the temple was converted to a Buddhist temple and several parts were demolished to reconstruct a reclining Buddha statue. It is difficult to see the Buddha statue clearly but when I looked closely, I could distinguish the face lying on a hand.

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Next to the Baphuon is the Terrace of the Elephants, which was used by King Jayavarman VII, the one who built Bayon temple, as an audience hall as well as a platform to view his victorious returning army entering through the victory gate.

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Exiting Angkor Thom through the victory gate, we made our way to Ta Prohm, a monastic complex built by King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his mother. The guide preferred referring to it as the Angelina Jolie temple though.

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It was an amazing sight to see the ruins with massive trees, fig and silk-cotton, that had taken over the complex.

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It was the massive trees that commanded one’s attention here. Ta ProhmAfter lunch, we made our way over to Angkor Wat. I feel we should have started our day at Angkor Wat and ended it at Ta Prohm, simply because the afternoon heat in Siem Reap can be quite draining and the gigantic trees at Ta Prohm does offer a lot of shade.

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Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II, in the early 12th century, as the capital city and state temple dedicated to Vishnu. It was subsequently converted to a Buddhist temple.

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Angkor Wat, the best preserved within the Angkor archaeological park, has the special distinction of being the only religious monument that appears in a national flag. Several countries, including Sri Lanka, have religious symbols in their flag but not a historic religious monument.

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On the second day, we had insisted upon visiting Kbal Sbean. Our guide had been less enthusiastic about it as it was about 40 kms away from town and he kept insisting there were many more important temple complexes closer. We were insistent however, as I personally believed, that the Kbal Sbean was the hidden gem or rather less visited gem of the ancient temples around Siem Reap. I strongly felt it would turn out to be best of the Siem Reap experience.

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Photo credit: Danny Yee @Wandering Danny

Kbal Sbean, located in Phnom Kulen, is a river bed carved with Hindu and Buddhist religious images between the 11th and 13th century. To reach the riverbed, one needs to climb a little hill. For anyone without mobility issues, it is an easy climb. For me though, it gradually became tougher as the incline increased and the path was not clear. The ankle, that I had twisted in Ho Chi Minh city, also started hurting. I reached a point when I realized that I could not climb further without assistance.

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Especially given that were I to slip and injure my leg further on those rocks, it would be difficult to access help. I did not want to detract from my friends’experience of the place so decided to stop where I was and asked them to proceed. Initially reluctant, the two of them finally left after I reassured them I was completely fine with it.

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I sat down on a little rock to rest my feet and watched the sunlight filter through the trees. I tried to regain my equilibrium after the upset I had felt at not being able to see what I had wanted to see the most during my visit to Siem Reap. The silence around me and the calming trees helped. Occasionally, there were groups that passed me by. After seeing the different responses of the first few groups that had passed by, I became interested in trying to predict how a group would respond to seeing me sitting along the path. There were many who simply averted their eyes, after the initial glimpse of me, and moved on quickly as if I were invisible or someone to be avoided. There were several who politely nodded their heads or murmured a good morning, without a single expression of surprise on their face and without a break in their walking stride, as if they came across someone sitting alone on a jungle hill path every day. A few though did stop to ask if I was alright. And then, a very few even offered to help me climb the last 100 metres of the hill, when they heard that I had stopped as it was too difficult for me to climb. Unfortunately, those that offered to help were in their 70s or 80s and I was not going to risk injuring them as well in case I fell.

So, while I did not make it to the riverbed to see the Kbal Sbean carvings, I did have an interesting experience sitting on a rock on the path and observing human behavioural responses to an unanticipated situation on their hike. The reason why this photo means a lot to me.

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After lunch, we made our way back stopping at Banteay Sreay. This temple complex, built in the early 10th century is the only one in Angkor, not built by a King, though he was part of the royal family and a counselor of the King.

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A Hindu temple, this little architectural gem came to be known as the Citadel of Women with many stories as to how it got its modern name. Most references to the origins of the name assume it is because of the numerous carvings of females at the temple, though there is a story that a female carver was responsible for the more delicate carvings at the temple.

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In Hindu images, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty is often drawn or carved with two elephants on either side as in the carving above. The temple also has intricately decorated libraries. Again, knowledge and books is represented in Hindu imagery by Saraswathi, the goddess of wisdom. So perhaps the temple came to be known as the citadel of women because it was dedicated to women goddesses?

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Irrespective of the origins of its name, Banteay Srei is a little gem worth travelling to the outskirts of the Angkor park area for.

Each of the six temples visited was unique and amazing in its own way and if you have only three days in Siem Reap, I would certainly recommend visiting these special six.

Which of the special six intrigues you most? Is there another temple at Angkor that you would include in this list?

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Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Snow in Tromso, Lauren on Location, The Sunny Side of This and What a Wonderful World

** The Weekly Postcard, hosted by Travel Notes & BeyondA Hole in My Shoe, As We Saw It, Eff it, I’m On HolidaySelim Family Raasta]
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