Category Archives: culture

Signing off – five lessons I’ve learned about travel over the past six months

So, this is it. After 168 days, 56 different places and 11 countries, our time away is finally coming to an end. Today we leave Kuala Lumpur for dear old Blighty. This is my last blog here and rather than focus on any one particular experience, I wanted to share a few thoughts on what I’ve learned about travel since we left London back in January. They’re perhaps not revelatory, but they’ve certainly helped in framing my experience. Hopefully, they might just push a few of you over the edge into deciding that a hefty holiday is for you. Hope you’ve enjoyed the blog and thanks for reading. Continue reading

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Alms-giving in Luang Prabang, Laos – how not to behave at a religious ceremony

They slip silently down the temple steps, sleepily adjusting their robes. Alms bowls at the ready, the monks of Luang Prabang begin to make their daily dawn collection along the streets of this UNESCO world heritage town. On the road directly outside a temple at the foot of Phu Si, local women kneel and hand over sticky rice and assorted sweet treats as the monks file past. Standing across the road at a safe distance, we are on the only non-locals around.

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Biking to Beng Melea – off the beaten track in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Turning off the main road out of Siem Reap, our bikes crunch across wet gravel towards one of the many small local villages that surround Cambodia’s biggest tourist town. Turning around, our guide Samnang points to four uniformed men and a white Land Rover in the adjacent field. ‘Training to clear land mines,’ he says. ‘They’ve already cleared many temple sites, but there’s much work left to do.’

It’s a stark reminder that this area, and this country, are still suffering the horrific after effects of the Khmer Rouge’s brief but brutal rule. We’re on the road to Beng Melea, an ancient temple site that sits over 50km north of the main attractions of Angkor. Our ride though, which has only just begun, will cover 75km, through lush paddy fields, arid landscapes and tiny villages, as we get off the beaten track and try to find the real Cambodia. Continue reading

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Temple graduation in Chiba – our best day in Japan

Clambering the gantry and being cajoled into position by chirpy Japanese grandmothers, it was hard to fathom exactly how we’d found ourselves in this position. It was a bright, if chilly day in Chiba prefecture, two hours across the bay from Tokyo, and we were about to star in a group photo celebrating the graduation of 10 new Buddhist monks. In 20 years time, surely the same chattering wives and mothers who were being so friendly would look back on this snap and wonder who the hell those two beaming gaijin standing at the back were.

We’d been brought to Chiba by Mizuki, Keeley’s language exchange friend. His brother was one of the 10 new monks and we were here to witness him arrive back into society after 100 days of fasting and meditation. After setting out at 6am from Tokyo, we were bleary-eyed when we hard the first distant sounds of drums and chanting. Yet when the 10 arrived at the temple gates, clothed in white robes and led down by temple elders, we were mesmerised.

Standing around the ‘God tree’, where this Buddhist sect’s founder was first enlightened, the new monks clicked castanet-like instruments and chanted an ancient Japanese mantra. After quarter of an hour or so of this, they disappeared to prepare for their cleansing ritual, while we took to the assembled gantry for the family photo.

On their return, the monks had stripped down to just a single cloth covering their modesty, chanting as they were led to ten bamboo buckets filled with icy water. As they grew louder, the water began flying. Drenched, these ten men were being purified in body and mind. This was a truly magical experience and one we would never have seen on a regular temple tour through the tourist hotspots of Kyoto and Nara.

Having left Mizuki’s brother to his religious duties, we drove up into the hills to his family’s own temple. Here we slipped off our shoes and entered a freezing cold yet amazingly welcoming environment. We lit incense, prayed and then ate stunning okonomiyaki, made Osaka-style (like an omelette) by the temple’s housekeeper. She claimed to have sensed that our small party was coming, despite not having been told.

After a second lunch of tempura, we visited our final temple. Here we were told our fortunes and hung then on a nearby tree, before being taken inside and instructed in writing out a prayer in kanji by a resident monk, who then placed them in a beautiful golden Buddha.

Undoubtedly, this was the most moving and interesting day of the trip so far. Having taken in so many temples, it was a privilege to go to one and be given the inside track on exactly how they work and why they hold such an important place in Japanese culture.

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