Asia

A place of peace, serenity, and hope. I felt all of these – and a gentle wash of kindness – as I ventured up the path toward the House of the Virgin Mary, or Mother Mary (Meryem Ana), located just a few miles away from the busyness of the ruins at Ephesus, Turkey.

It was a hot day in spring, and we had a very important stop before exploring Ephesus. We were visiting a place of pilgrimage for many global religions – that of the House of Mother Mary.

Visiting the House of the Mother Mary

History has it that when Jesus was on the cross, he tasked his apostle John with taking care of his mother. St. John and Mary relocated to this area, John to spread Christianity, and Mary to spend her last days. John is honored by a basilica over his burial site near Ephesus, the ruins of which you can also visit. Mary lived in a small stone cottage, far up on a mountainside. The structure of this building dates to around the 6 century AD, but the foundations date to around 1AD. It has been restored in the last century.

Visiting the House of the Mother Mary

Educational signs, teaching about Mother Mary

Located on Mt. Koressos/Bülbül Dağı (Nightingale Mountain) near Selçuk, Ephesus, and Şirince, Meryem Ana is reached by driving up a narrow winding road. Park, and breathe a sigh of relief for being here at this quiet, historical outpost. Then wander to the outdoor café, where you can rest under beautiful shade trees and have a Turkish coffee – and perhaps a simit stuffed with chocolate, if you’re lucky.

Relaxing at the cafe, at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Snacks at the cafe (including delicious Turkish coffee)

Cafe at the House of the Virgin Mary.

There are both indoor and outdoor tables at the cafe

Refreshed, we made our way up the stone path, through shady trees and blue skies. There was an open area to the left, in which you could look down and see the ruins of a baptismal cistern. We next came upon a small, outdoor chapel with benches. Then a statue of Mother Mary and some large educational signs amidst a beautiful, lush garden on each side of the path.

Pool of Wishes at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Remains of the baptismal cistern

Educational signs at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Educational signs

Statue of Mother Mary at the House of Mother Mary, Turkey

Statue of Mother Mary

Small groups of people wandered up the path, taking their time, enjoying the gardens. At the top, everyone stopped and paused to take in the very small building that is the house of Mother Mary, now a chapel. Our guide, who told us much about Mother Mary, reminded us to take no photos inside, and that the chapel was still in use as a place of prayer.

Looking at this small building, with arched doorways and windows, ironwork on the windows, shaded by tall trees, you’d never guess it as a place of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims (Mary, mother of one of the great prophets, is known as Isa Peygamber to Muslims). We approached the open door, and saw a small room within.

Window of the House of Mother Mary, Turkey

Once we stepped inside, though, something was markedly different about the house. The very air changed; it was noticeably still and peaceful, and sounds seemed to fade away. 

A few older, local women kneeled on small benches on the sides of the main room. Their kerchief-covered heads bowed in prayer, they reminded us of the holiness of this place. With quiet, deliberate steps, I walked forward, my footfalls softened and silenced by thick Turkish carpets. Moving slowly through an archway to the main altar, located in the smaller room where Mother Mary slept, I glanced around at the walls, the ceiling, the light streaming in from the windows. I wished I had my camera, but I was also grateful that I didn’t – for no camera can capture the utter peacefulness of these two rooms, the immenseness of millenia of belief, the stone walls holding stories no writer could ever tell as well. At the front, before the altar featuring a statue Mary surrounded by candles, I bowed my own head and paused to soak it all in, and gave thanks for this place.

I exited the house through a small, arched doorway. Once outside, everything seemed clearer, somehow. A few steps more and visitors can light a thin, white candle and place it in sand in large, iron boxes, saying a few words. Stopping to reflect here, I thought about all of the shrines, mosques, and cathedrals I’ve seen around the world. None of them were as peaceful as this small building, perched on a dusty mountain, in view of the Aegean. I like to think that Mother Mary loved being here – loved the view, the landscape, and the people – as I did. This love seeped down into the very rocks of the mountain, I think. We could feel it.

Lighting candles at the House of Mother Mary, Turkey

But the place wasn’t done with me yet. After turning a corner and heading down a few stairs, I came upon a few surprises.

First was a series of three natural springs, which were located in nooks in a tall stone wall. The springs are said to bring health, love, and wealth, so fill your bottle and drink, if you’d like.

Just past the springs is the Wall of Wishes, where I saw thousands of wishes tied to large, rectangular hangings on the wall. I didn’t look closely, because I think wishes are personal, but I was taken aback at the great quantity of them. Just imagine the power of these wishes, carefully tied by pilgrims from all over the world. It’s a startling and important reminder of the power of hope, and of belief.

Wall of Wishes, House of Mother Mary, Turkey

Wall of wishes

Wall of Wishes, House of Mother Mary, Turkey

 

Note: Our guide, a local, told us the story of the fire of 2006. It was an enormous forest fire, spreading rapidly across the mountains, burning all those dry trees and scrub in its path. She said that they all worked hard to stop the forest fire from reaching Mother Mary’s house, but it was a close call. The fire, which burned 1,200 hectares, stopped just 3 feet short of the house.

 

For more information:

http://www.meryemana.info/

http://www.kultur.gov.tr/EN,39846/house-of-virgin-mary.html

 

Tips for visiting the House of Mother Mary

Do not walk to Meryem Ana – the road is narrow, winding, and there are cars and buses utilizing it. Hire a taxi, drive your rental car, or take a bus tour there, for safety. You can also take a bus from Kusadasi for Sunday Mass – be sure to reserve your space on the bus; check the official website above for more information. You’ll know you are on the right path when you pass a very large statue of Mother Mary, guiding the way. There is parking here, so you can hop out and take photos.

Statue of Mother Mary, guiding the way to her house. Turkey

While most of the path is wheelchair accessible, there are a few steps in the walkway up to the house, as well as a steep ramp. Upon exiting the house and descending to the springs, there are a dozen or so stone steps.

There is a souvenir shop at the entrance, across from the café.

The entire area is very clean (including the bathrooms) – the caretakers work hard on this, as you can see. I didn’t see anything out of place here.

Cleaning supplies, House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Fun bathroom sign at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

 

 

 

This article was originally published at: https://www.wanderingeducators.com/best/traveling/visiting-house-mother-mary.html

Note: I was part of a group of White House Travel Bloggers that Turkish Airlines flew in to experience Turkey (thank you, eternally!). Stay tuned for more posts about this special country I’d love for you to explore  – and check out our The Best of Turkey – an A-Z Guide for inspiration from travel writers around the world.

 

Jessie Voigts has a PhD in International Education, has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled around the world. She’s published six books about travel and intercultural learning, with more on the way. Jessie is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding, and is passionate sharing the world through her site, Wandering Educators. She founded and directs the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program, teaching teens all around the world, and is co-founder of Writing Walking Women.

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Wandering Educators

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It turns out that kayaking for 12 dollars included a few other things in Vang Vieng. We started by going through a cave. Not just your ordinary cave, it’s kind of hard to explain. We got in mini tubes and entered the cave floating on water. We pulled ourselves through the cave using rope that is tied to the wall. The gap from the water to the roof of the cave is on average 4-7 feet so it was super claustrophobic. Really cool experience though, felt like I was some kind of cave explorer guy or something. Our group was a bunch of extremely European French guys wearing speedos and they reminded me of our group of friends, they even had a guy called Omár that they all made fun of like Danny. After that we trekked to the Elephant cave and ate lunch which consisted of kebabs and rice. Then we got into kayaks and went down the river, stopped at a few outdoor bars and played volleyball. We went back to Vang Vieng and went for dinner. Later that night we went to our usual spot, Gary’s Irish pub and met two nice Dutch girls from Holland, named Unicorn and Anook. I’m still not sure if that was their real names. We finally made it back to our hotel around 2:00 a.m. We planned to go tubing with the girls at 11:30 but we slept in. We spent the day mostly watching “How I Met Your Mother” in the Central Backpackers lobby for hours, eating, playing ping pong, Alex breaking the table, and more eating.

 

While in Laos I ate sticky rice with every meal, sometimes every day. It is incredibly good and I’m going to sorely miss it. The other thing incredibly good here are the street vendor pancakes with Nutella and banana! We’ve been eating a lot of those as well as stir fried chicken with cashew and vegetables a lot. My stomachs been okay until yesterday. Also the actual physical travelling ended up being very expensive and we had to buy 110+ dollar plane tickets to Phuket because it was just as much money to take two buses and a boat to get there, and took an hour instead of 2 days. Unfortunately at this point I need you guys to somehow figure out how to cash my cheque that dad hopefully picked up at the beginning of the month because I am not going to have enough money. Thailand has been much more expensive than Laos, especially for hotels, it’s difficult to even find 20 bed fan dorm rooms for less than 10 dollars a night. Thailand is also much more busy and overwhelming than Laos, no matter where you are, and the only laws that exist are drug laws and theft. Here you often see up to 4 people on a single motorbike, babies or adults or kids, no helmets and doing 110 km’s on the highway. The most surprising thing to me is that there are almost no accidents and I’ve only seen 4 ambulances in total since being here. I almost wish I lived here, it makes home seem like a pathetic joke with a bunch of stupid laws and everyone worrying too much about everything and spending ridiculous amounts of money on things that cost 10 cents to make in sweatshops.

 

However to end this email on a positive note, it is nothing like anyone made it out to be here. I have not once felt like I was in any kind of danger, (except for one cab driver who broke 200 km/hr on the highway and was swerving between cars). But other than that the only overwhelming thing is that EVERYONE and ANYONE wants to sell you something. Yesterday at a street vendor they were selling 6 inch knives, brass spiked knuckles, and legitimate ninja shurikens. It’s incredible to me how different the culture is, how they realize that violence isn’t necessary, respect exists here instead of just admiring all the rich old white guys at home living on the ridge in Edgemont. Even simple things like not breaking arcade machines, or trying to seem tough by wearing your hat sideways staring everyone down because you think you are a badass, and getting tribal tattoos.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

 

When I found out that it was possible (albeit near-impossibility at that time) to visit this sacred temple on a day trip from Siem Reap in 2012, I immediately grabbed the opportunity to see it while it was then — once again — enjoying a short “time of peace”. For a very long time in the past, as a disputed territory, the promontory of the Temple of Preah Vihear and its environs have had some serious history of crossfires between the Cambodian and Thai military forces. In fact, a few months prior to my visit, several soldiers from both camps were killed in an unexpected clash.

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The iconic first gopura, which contains some of the most impressive carvings in the temple complex.

Three years after that brave trip, as I look back, it is still perhaps the single most unique experience I have had in visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back then, it took me nearly four hours on a private vehicle to reach the temple from Siem Reap. Given the road constructions recently, the travel time is now reduced to nearly half of what it took when I went there.

The Temple of Preah Vihear never failed my towering expectations, to say the least. After all, it was confidently inscribed on only one criterium: “(i) as a masterpiece of human creative genius”. So far, only this temple, the Taj Mahal, and the Sydney Opera House are inscribed solely on this basis.

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The second gopura: the carving style of the pediment is different from the first one.

In my opinion, the temple rightly deserves to be on the same ranks as Angkor Wat and Bayon, if not even better. The incomparable beauty of this site stems from the following:

1. its history – older than those in Angkor, dedicated to Shiva and, according to some sources, is also one of a few that has a history of critical lingam worshiping;

2. its architecture – the extensive 800m-long layout of the temple is unique, the galleries surrounding the central sanctuary served as inspiration for the arrangement of Angkor Wat 300 years later, and the carvings offer a different style from those in Angkor (notice the style of its nagas, and the impressive quality of its carvings can only be compared to those of the much younger Banteay Srei) .

The third gopura as seen from the elevated fourth gopura that encases the main sanctuary of the Preah Vihear Temple.
The third gopura: the walkway leading to the fourth gopura prior to the main central sanctuary is dotted with lingams. One lingam near the portal can be seen in this photo.

3. its relevance – a major pilgrimage site for Khmer kings, as well as a rare key temple off-route the Angkorian Royal Road;

4. its location – situated right beside a cliff, on top of the Dangrek Mountains to a height of nearly 600 metres. From the temple, one can already gaze at the Golden Triangle, an area shared by Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos; and, lastly,

The Infamous Golden Triangle: transnational boundaries of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos.
The Golden Triangle

5. the geopolitical struggles and controversies associated with its WHS-inscription in 2008, and the earlier landmark International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 1962. More recently, in 2013, another ICJ ruling finally awarded the contested peripheral forest zone of the temple to Cambodia, putting an end to the long-standing dispute between the two Southeast Asian kingdoms.

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As a military zone, several soldiers are stationed in and around the temple complex. A political statement such as that in the photo clearly asserts Cambodian ownership over the promontory and its immediate vicinity.

As the Temple of Preah Vihear lies in an active military zone, it comes, then, as no surprise that not many travelers take the effort in seeing this site when I made my visit. In the five pleasurable hours that I spent there, I only managed to see about three other civilians — who might just be even locals — in the temple complex.

Aside from the breathtaking view from the top, I truly enjoyed receiving blessings by chanting monks guarding the central sanctuary; as well as exploring the interior of the largely ignored vegetated Tower of the Long-haired Lady that is reminiscent of Ta Prohm in Angkor.

The central sanctuary guarded by a military personnel
The central sanctuary that is guarded by chanting monks. Outside, a soldier is also on guard.

 

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The tower of the long-haired lady, an isolated structure that has been overgrown by plants and a tree.

Clearly, I got the strong impression that the Khmer people are indeed proud of the Temple of Preah Vihear as suggested by the displaying of the flags of UNESCO, Cambodia, and the World Heritage Committee not far from the first gopura. Such subtle declarations never fail to get noticed.

The temple of Preah Vihear together with its brother temple atop Phnom Chisor in the province of Takeo, which I also got the chance of visiting back in 2010, will always have special places in my heart for the wonderful experiences they have left me. In sum, the Temple of Preah Vihear clearly and easily justified itself as being one of the best single sites I have seen so far.

Just behind the temple: one simple mistake and I am history. The cliff drops to a height of 600 metres.
A view of the plains of the Preah Vihear province. This was taken at the edge of the Dangrek Mountain cliff.

There is no entrance fee to the temple. But, at the base camp, visitors have to pay for the motorbike that will transport them to the top for a fairly reasonable price. On this trip, I also went to the nearby town of Anlong Veng, visiting some ‘Khmer Rouge’ related sites such as the house of Ta Mok and the final resting place of Pol Pot.

Abra is a province in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) that is notorious for its records of election-related violence more than any other thing. Development is slow in this province and not much is really happening inside. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that this place is not one of those that would be in your priority of places to see in the Philippines: to mention that you are going to Abra to other Filipinos will surely invite some stare of judgment and even dissent.

How did we, on the other hand, see Abra?

What led us to Abra in July 2013 is to feature its “natural dye makers” — the indigenous highland people called Tingguians – for What I See travel photography show.

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The view of Bangued, the capital town of Abra, from the top of the Cassamata Hill National Park.
Right after the storm: International photographer Francisco "Paco" Guerrero scouting the surroundings of the long Calaba Bridge for the best capture there is to find.
Right after the storm: International photographer Francisco “Paco” Guerrero, the host of What I See, scouting the surroundings of the Calaba Bridge and the Abra River basin for the best capture there is to find.

The Bamboo Split Weavers

The Tingguians, also called Isneg, are engaged in various crafts. The most important of which is bamboo crafts production. It is for this reason that Abra is aggressively positioning itself as the “Bamboo Capital of the Philippines”.

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The Natural Dye Makers

In documenting the production of natural dyes from plants, the team went to the Tingguian village of Namarabar in Penarubia, a town an hour away from the capital Bangued.

Norma Agaid, a Tingguian elder and the sister of the ‘Father of Philippine Natural Dyes’ Luis Agaid, explained which plants yield what kinds of colours: mahogany for red, jackfruit and ginger for yellow, the malatayum plant for indigo, the narra tree for brown, among others.

Of all the mountain tribes in the Philippines, we have the most number of colours. We only get these colours from sources present around us“, she proudly said.

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Norma Agaid sporting an authentic Tingguian attire. Notice the “frog” pattern in her skirt. Traditionally, this is worn during the rainy months in the belief that this will please the gods and their ancestors in giving them the best out of the planting season.
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the malatayum plant produces the colour indigo that will later be used in dyeing textiles with various shades of blue.
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Brewing narra barks in this earthenware produces the colour brown sap. The narra is the national tree of the Philippines.
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The Tingguian women — in their native backstrap-woven clothes — preparing to serenade the What I See team with a traditional welcome song that they composed only a few minutes before we arrived.

The charm of Abra stems from the fact that it is not at all in the tourism map. Indeed, it is highly ignored by outsiders. Hence, our experience in this rustic province can only be as natural and authentic as we can get. Indigenous dyeing is obviously a dying art. It is important to shed light into it as it is a part of the bigger “Filipino identity and local artistry” that most of us Filipinos tend to take for granted.

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Tingguian designs are largely linear and simple, but are assigned with many meanings. Some textiles are reserved for use only during special occasions such as birth-giving, nuptials, and harvesting. The vividness of colours in this shroud only suggests the level of mastery they have in controlling the strength of the dyes they make from readily available sources around them.

Paco Guerrero, whose background is no less than Anthropology, could not have described the Tingguians any better, “In the forest, they do not only see trees and plants. They see colours.”

When I first moved to Hong Kong in 1990, there was a part of the city that was off bounds. It was an ungoverned slum called the Kowloon Walled City, with layer after layer of tenement buildings so close to one another that daylight sometimes never reached the minuscule alleyways. In the center of the slum was an ancient Chinese yamen, or government building. Although Hong Kong had been a British colony for about 140 years by then, the Kowloon Walled City was officially still a part of China. But it was largely run by organized crime.

KWCP model outside
Model of the Kowloon Walled City. Photo by Tom Kason
Model of the yamen. Photo by Tom Kason
Model of the yamen. Photo by Tom Kason

I left Hong Kong in 1991, only to return a few years later in 1994. By then, the Walled City had been demolished and a traditional Chinese park was under construction on the very space where the slum once stood. I often passed the general area of the Walled City–after it was demolished–on bus rides to and from my friend Janice’s apartment. I write a little about Janice’s place in my memoir, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, but was so involved in my own drama back then that I didn’t give the old Walled City or the new park (when it opened in 1995) much thought.

Kowloon Walled City Park sign

Years have passed since I left Hong Kong eight months after the Handover in 1997. But I’ve often thought of the Kowloon Walled City and a missed opportunity to 1) see the old tenement buildings, 2) watch the demolition, and 3) visit the new park.

So when my husband Tom and I visited Hong Kong last month, I put a visit to the Kowloon Walled City Park at the top of our list. We traveled out to the Lok Fu MTR station and took a cab to the park. On the short ride, the driver told me in Cantonese that we should have just walked to the park. It was that close. But I didn’t want to waste time looking for it and Tom wanted a break from the sweltering temperatures. Once we arrived at the park, it was difficult for me to imagine the former Walled City in its place. The park was one of the most peaceful places I’ve found in Hong Kong.

KWC old building
photo by Tom Kason
Yamen
yamen
KWCP stone formation
photo by Tom Kason

We walked around the grounds and found a garden with statues of the Chinese zodiac.

KWCP zodiac statues
photo by Tom Kason
KWCP dragon
photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason

There was a nice pavilion surrounded by water. A woman sat under the pavilion reading a book. I wondered if she was taking a break from work or chose to spend her day off at the park. I also noticed the modern apartment buildings in the background, many of which probably weren’t around when I first lived in Hong Kong.

KWCP pavilion

We also found remains of the old south gate and an old rickshaw, one of the few left in Hong Kong. Even the tourist ones aren’t so numerous anymore.

KWCP ruins

KWCP rickshaw

We also came across a few walls with calligraphy and this old vessel.

photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason

Tom and I were both happy we’d taken time to visit the Kowloon Walled City Park. He learned about a dark period of Hong Kong’s history and I was able to visit a place I’d thought about all these years. For first time visitors, there are docents who walk throughout the park, offering free information about the history of the buildings and artifacts in the park. We lucked out and met a lovely older Cantonese man who spoke to us in English and another group in Mandarin.

photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason

We hope you enjoyed this article from Susan Blumberg-Kason. Learn more about her adventures in her book:

Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

One of my favorite things about living in Hong Kong was traveling an hour south from my home to see the trams glide up and down the northern part of Hong Kong Island. So when I returned to Hong Kong two years ago for the first time in fourteen years, I made sure my husband Tom and I saw the trams.

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photo by Tom Kason

Traveling by tram isn’t always the quickest mode of transportation in Hong Kong, but it’s a reliable one. Only the trams run on the tram lines, so there’s no competing with double-decker buses, red taxis, cars, or trucks. On our last day of that trip two years ago, we spent the morning riding a couple of trams lines and saw different neighborhoods, including Wanchai and Causeway Bay.

photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason

So when we decided to return to Hong Kong this fall for another quick trip to promote my memoir, Good Chinese Wife, I had the brilliant idea of staying in the area where Happy Valley, Causeway Bay, and Wanchai intersect. My plan was this: we would travel by tram to and from our hotel (shown in the photo above just to the right of the greenery). It would be relaxing to hop on a tram and sit back while it sauntered along the track to a subway station or a destination we could reach on the tram line.

But then Occupy started a couple weeks before our arrival date. Thousands of students took to the streets to protest the lack of democratic representation. Although they didn’t set up their tents that close to our hotel, the barricaded roads affected many modes of transportation on Hong Kong Island. Trams included.

Occupy tents

In fact, on the night we arrived in Hong Kong, I asked the concierge at our hotel if we could take the tram out front to a subway station. He didn’t go into any details, but simply said that the trams weren’t running because of the ‘events’ in Central.

“But aren’t the trams running around in this area?” I asked, half panicking that my grand plans were about to be squashed.

“No, sorry. No trams.”

I thanked him and turned back toward Tom. We went to our room, activated our free wifi, and found out from a friend that the trams around Happy Valley, where we were staying, had started running again.

So we would get in a tram ride on this trip, I sighed in relief. But it still wasn’t what I’d envisioned when I booked the Cosmopolitan Hotel (which, for history buffs or people who enjoy quirky facts, used to house the de facto consulate of the People’s Republic of China back during the days when Hong Kong was a British colony).

racetrack at night
View from the Cosmopolitan Hotel

The next morning we figured out how to get to other parts of Hong Kong without riding the trams. I was still sad we couldn’t just hop a tram in front of our hotel. But I’d soon learn a lesson about what it means to live in Hong Kong these days.

Happy Valley tram terminus

trams in Happy Valley

Traffic was congested, especially during rush hour. We had to leave our hotel an hour before we needed to be somewhere that usually took only fifteen minutes to reach. I was amazed by how calm and accommodating people in Hong Kong were when it came to these changes in transportation. After all, they’re used to living in one of the most convenient and efficient cities in the world. If Hong Kong people can handle it, I certainly could. And we would do our best to ride the trams when we could.

More tram lines opened toward the end of our four-day trip.

tram in Western

And on our last night, we were finally able to take a tram from Central back to our hotel.

Looking back on this recent trip to Hong Kong, I’m so glad we were able to see Occupy and experience what people in Hong Kong now have to deal with on a daily basis. So we didn’t get to take the trams as much as I had envisioned, but we got our fill and had wonderful trip nonetheless.

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HOPPER GLACIER- Photo credits: Ahmad Mahboob

“Pakistan is one of the most plundered countries whose riches and potential yet awaits to be discovered”, remarked my driver-cum- guide as we took leave from Eagle nest- the hotel where I had spent the night. I had traveled all the way from Islamabad to Gilgit –Baltistan, the newly formed province in North Pakistan to view the famous high peaks rising above 6,000 meters.

Ever since my cousin Ahmad had returned from a trip to Hunza, his images capturing the picturesque beauty of this mountainous valley had mesmerized me and I had put Hunza on top of my “Must see” list. Among all, the “Lady Finger peak” seemed to attract me the most. However, I had to wait a couple of months till the temperatures up there were favorable for tourists. Hence it was the start of June when I finally decided to visit the Valley- perfect time to escape the scorching heat wave which hits the rest of the country. May till October marks the peak tourist season for Hunza because November on wards temperatures begin to fall below freezing point and heavy snow often restricts access to this enchanting valley.

Mountain climbing is not my cup of tea. As much as it fascinates me, it also exudes a feeling of fear and the most dreaded thought “What if I fell off” which has always kept me from giving it a try. It was my fifth day in the beautiful valley of Hunza, situated north/west of Hunza river at an elevation of about 2,500 meters.

This valley provides spectacular views of some of the most beautiful and magnificent mountains of the world, including the 7,788 meters high Rakaposhi, Hunza Peak and the famous 6,000 meters high Ladyfinger peak which drastically resembles a female finger.

The friendly locals and remarkable scenery provided by the surrounding mountains had made my trip to the famous tourist destination Altit quite memorable.

Altit Fort, Hunza – Photo credits: Nabil Arshad
Traditional dress and jewelry display at a local shop. Photo credits: Nabil Arshad

 

 

Traditional houses in Hunza Valley- Photo credits: Nabil Arshad

 

It was early morning and the sun rays had turned the snowy “Golden peak“ literally golden. “What a beautiful sight”, I exclaimed looking outside from the jeep’s window.

Enjoying the bumpy ride and nature’s exhibits from the jeep’s window I found myself playing with my wedding ring, twisting it around the middle finger.

“Lady Finger peak, hmm how interesting”, I thought.

I was munching on some sweet and sour dried apricots that I had bought along with some mix dry fruit last evening from the Bazaar. The market also had a huge display of cherries, plum, peaches and grapes- the specialty of Hunza valley and I planned to buy some on my last trip to the market before returning for folks back home. Our jeep was now taking a sharp turn along an uneven bumpy road.

GOLDEN PEAK- Photo credits: Ahmad Mahboob

The driver disrupted my thoughts by adding a lovely fact to my knowledge,

“Madam Do you know that the literacy rate of Hunza valley is above 95% and all children have access to High school?” My face beamed with pride to hear this wonderful statistic.

“Now that’s something to be proud of”, I replied gleefully.

No doubt I had found the people very friendly and hospitable but being part of a country where few eyebrows are raised at child labor, this happy news really made my day. The bumpy ride had finally come to an end. We had safely reached our destiny. I could see the real thing right in front of me. Unlike other peaks the Lady Finger peak hardly had any snow on its apex due to the sharp pinnacle.

The pebbles crunched under my joggers as I jumped off the 4×4. And then for a couple of moments I just stood there, speechless! There was a strange silence in the air. Glad to have my Reeboks on, I stood on a ridge and took a deep breath. Nature had its own beauty even in solitude and I wanted to savor the whole experience.

“Hellooooooo” I shouted on top of my lungs.

The stark silence broke. “Hellooooo”, my voice echoed back!

It seemed as if the rocky mountains were about to pierce the sky.  I stood in awe devouring the splendor of the scenery spread before me and the power of its Creator. That moment answered many questions that had been in my mind since a long time. Had n’t my entire life revolved around the word “ME”? MY plans, MY decisions, MY strength! My eyes fathomed the size of the gigantic mountains surrounding me and then I looked down at my own being- so tiny, frail and utterly helpless.

“Who am I after all?” I found my heart questioning myself and this time the reply was quite different than it always had been.

“Nothing!”  a single word said it all.

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Lady finger peak – Photo credits: Ahmad Mahboob

 

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songkran thailand

It had been way more than 24 hours since I’d been dry in any sense of the word and my hand was beginning to develop weird bruises and blisters from slinging a water gun. The dense dose of cheap Song Sang Thai whiskey that spiked my bloodstream certainly helped dull any discomfort, and the urgency to run second-point on our counter attack of “that guy with a hose” arrested my mind.

songkran thailand

I hid behind a truck waiting on my friends, currently tied up in another water battle, leaning on the back, fading off in the afternoon heat, either drunk or tired or else that weird combination that as long-term travelers you begin to regard as next to normal.

Without warning a bucket of ice water poured over me, straightening my spine in one snap. I darted away, splashes of the freezing water licking my ankles as I fired back over my shoulder.

Songkran is truly the festival to end all festivals.

songkran thailandCelebrated in Thailand as the traditional New Year’s Day from the 13th to 15th of April, Songkran has evolved into the absolute largest water festival in the world.

The festival originates from the customs of the Dai ethnic minority, who, as part of their New Year celebrations, traditionally hold a symbolic water splashing ritual called “Bathing the Buddha.” Water is regarded by the Dai people as a symbol of religious purity and goodwill, so in bathing the Buddha, and then one another, we wash away the bad and welcoming a clean, fresh New Year filled with prosperity and luck.

These humble beginnings have exploded into nationwide chaos beginning annually around April 13 – sometimes lasting as long as 5 days in areas like Chang Mai.

Here’s what to know before heading to Songkran:

No one is safe

songkran thailandEveryone gets completely soaked during Songkran, no exceptions. Typically if you’re eating or holding a baby, people will grant you temporary asylum from the madness, but if you are outside – you will get wet.

You can’t get angry

What totally blew my mind was watching the people who would get upset about having water thrown at them (unsurprisingly, it was always tourists.) This festival is the lifeblood of the Thai people and they throw their entire heart into it – locals we met said that the energy prior to the festival incubates for weeks. So if you get mad about anything during the festival, not only will your dissent be disregarded but if you pitch a fit, everyone in the nearby vicinity will point their water weapon at you.

Make friends with some locals

Thailand has already claimed its berth as one of the destinations in the world attracting the greatest number of tourists, and that figure only increases during Songkran. It’s very easy to cling to a group of foreigners as the celebrations unfold. But the Thai people are incredibly friendly and gracious, and if you show the slightest inclination of celebrating alongside them, you’ll be welcomed with open arms.

The Thais look forward to Songkran all year, and so whether its riding around in the back of pickup trucks or helping holding down a fort equipped with massive garbage bins of ice water, you won’t go wrong partnering up with some locals – and an entirely new side of the festival may open up for you.

Do not drive a motorbike unless you are a very comfortable driver

When you’re in Southeast Asia you’re bound to find yourself on the back of a motorbike at some point – they’re undeniably the easiest, fastest and usually cheapest way to get yourself around, while adding a bit of autonomy to your trip. But so many tourists wind up with what we’ve heard called “Thai tattoos,” or massive scars and bruises resulting from motorbike accidents. (Not to be confused with the other kind of Thai tattoo – fire jump rope burns.) The point is that plenty of tourists wind up at the clinic during perfectly safe driving conditions – Songkran adds that extra element of water being thrown in your face while you’re driving.

Get a waterproof pouch

During Songkran the street vendors will be selling pouches big enough for your money, keys and phone that hang around your neck. Invest in one.

Don’t cheap out on your water gun

Your gun is your lifeline during Songkran, not buying one isn’t even an option. Of course you’ll be attacked even if you’re brandishing one… but if you’re not you’ll be completely bombarded. That said, late into the second day of combat you’ll be cursing yourself for buying that crappy 200 Baht gun when the trigger’s falling off and it leaks from every angle. As can be said for many, many other things in Thailand: don’t go for the cheapest option.

Book ahead

Hostels, hotels and everything else fill up in a heartbeat during Songkran. For backpackers, realize that many hostels and guesthouses will require you to book 4-5 nights over Thai New Year as well, so that could change up your travel plans.

It doesn’t really matter where you are!

songkran thailandIn the weeks before Songkran, I researched what the festival is like in just about every corner of Thailand, trying to organize our itinerary so we could get the most out of it. What I found was that all that research wasn’t really even necessary.

Chang Mai is the famous epicenter of the festival, where it churns on for upwards of 5 days. Bangkok, a city known for its day-to-day organized chaos, also gets ridiculous during the festival. Many flock to one of these places for the festival, but I found that it really doesn’t matter where in Thailand you are. The entire population participates in Songkran, and honestly, it’s usually better if you’re away from where the tourists flock. We wound up in Koh Samui on New Year’s Day, but the photos, the stories, the madness, the chaos were all reported equally from every island, city and town in Thailand.

 

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windows nokia rajna adThanks to Nokia and Microsoft for sharing our story in their latest Windows Phone Update through their Newsletter:

Nokia Lumia owners: Is it time to plan a vacation?

With your Nokia Lumia, you don’t need to pack a camera. Traveler and writer, Lisa Rajna, recorded her travels in South-East Asia with her Nokia Lumia 925. Follow Lisa’s story

“The powerful camera was far superior to what we were using and the Internet access and applications that were available opened up a new world with this innovative device”

Seeing the world is many people’s dream, and with inventions like the commercial airliner, taking time out to explore cultures and climates around our planet is very possible in this day and age. Having a powerful and reliable device to record our adventures is also within our grasp, and that’s why we have traveller and writer, Lisa Rajna, to tell her story of when she took the Lumia 925 with her to South-East Asia…

We are honored to trial a Nokia Lumia 925 and share our stories!

Read the full article: Click here

Want to read more from George and Lisa? Traveling in Sin is available on Amazon.

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It’s a reality that travel is now an accessible commodity to much of the population.

We’ve the freedom to travel to the locations that stir our sense of wanderlust, but do we have the foresight to ensure our trip doesn’t have a negative impact on the local area?

I recently spoke to some of travel’s top bloggers and asked them “What does sustainable travel mean to you?”

Their responses were varied but all agreed that being mindful of where we spend tourism dollars was vital if we are to protect the resources of this beautiful planet on which we live.

saving thailands elephants

Ethical Travel Makes All The Difference

Can you imagine how it would feel if your very soul was stripped of everything that made you the person you are?

How would you feel if the motivation for such a brutal act was the pursuit of attracting tourism dollars to your community? Is cruelty and exploitation something you can justify?

For Asian elephants in Thailand this process of abuse is the wretched reality of their existence.

Captured as infants or born into captivity the elephants of Thailand’s tourism industry suffer immeasurably. There’s really no other way to describe it. The light within their heart is extinguished during an abhorrent process of abuse which domesticates the animal and renders it a cordial servant.

Once highly regarded and reserved for use in warfare and farming, elephants have long been the subject of human exploitation. Yet, it is evident that the respect which was once shown to these beautiful creatures is no longer displayed by their captors.

Dating back thousands of years the inception of elephant domestication was at a time when the estimated population was hundreds of thousands. Sadly we now live in a world where the possibility of extinction is not just a notion but an imminent possibility.

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Education Is The Key To Understanding

Now more than ever it is vital that we are all mindful of where our travel fund is headed when we spend on our credit cards and hand over cash abroad.

Those who ride atop an elephant’s back are effectively voting with their dollars in favour of domestication. While it may be deemed a quintessential Thailand experience, are you really prepared to contribute to this repugnant cycle of abuse?

Having learnt of the horrific nature of domestication I must also tell you that the act of riding an elephant causes further distress and injury.

For over 8 hours each day these animals carry weights over and above their capability which results in painful sores and irreversible injury to their spines.

The thought is harrowing but unless we can educate those visiting the region of the detriment the activity causes, sadly the practise will likely continue.

Save Elephant Foundation

For the elephants of Thailand there is hope.

Lek Chalert, founder of the Save Elephant Foundation is working tirelessly to pick up the pieces of a local industry devoid of ethics by rescuing captive and abused animals. Based in Chaing Mai the foundation manages the Elephant Nature Park, a positive place where elephants are brought to recover from the mental and physical wounds they’ve received while in captivity.

Today I’d like to ask for your support on their behalf.

While Lek and her team continue to support those animals already rescued from the darkness of elephant tourism, their facility is at capacity and they are unable to offer sanctuary to any more.

Having seen first-hand the impact unethical tourism has had on Asia’s elephant population a team of travel bloggers have come together in support of Lek and her foundation.

saving thailands elephants

The Travel Blogging Calendar

Creating a digital Travel Blogging Calendar the bloggers are offering those who donate the chance to win a trip to Thailand to visit the Elephant Nature Park.

With 100% of all funds raised going straight to the charity, this is a project which packs punch. The bloggers and their partners are offering one lucky winner USD$2,000 towards return flights to Thailand, and an 8 day, 7 night tour for two including transport, hotels, city tours and a visit to the Save Elephant Foundation.

While those who donate will be entered into the prize draw, they will also be granted access to an exclusive weekly blog packed full of rousing travel articles and inspiration covering religious festivals, holidays and celebrations taking place across the globe.

If your plans for 2014 involve travel then I implore you to be considered in your choice of itinerary. However in the meantime, I invite you to donate to the Save Elephant Foundation and travel the world with the team of the Travel Blogging Calendar.

– All images in this post used with the permission of Jeremy Foster