Backpacking South Asia: The Monkey Temple

By Jen Jang

Since my friends back home in Taiwan were huge worriers, I told them I was still travelling in Japan. In actuality, I had already booked my flight to Nepal, and gotten my visa for India.

Not having a plan was an anomaly for me, as I usually have 15 items on my daily to-do list, and a schedule too packed for vacations. But soon I found myself on the plane to Kathmandu, the capital, with 10 kilograms on my back and no plan other than bargaining for a taxi.

The woman sitting next to me took care of the bargaining. “Call me if you have any questions!” she whispered as we parted.

Caught in the midst of peak traffic, I could see the claw-marks of the devastating 2015 earthquake, raked deeply across the capital. Dirt and saturated plastic littered the streets, while mud form along the unearthed pipes in flooded areas. I spotted old and beaten trees, buildings – people alike. Here, I suppose the charm of the city lies in its antiquity and chaos.

The next day I meandered through Kathmandu’s alleys, in search of Swayambhunath, “the monkey temple.” It was early morning, but the city had already risen. Patient goats, tied to a pole, waiting for their turn for slaughter. A man shearing the fur off one such body, almost meditative in his movements. A mother, arms crossed, smiling in satisfaction at her playing toddlers. Avril Lavigne blasting from a nearby home. Dogs at the side of the road, ears flicking lazily as they bathe in the sun. Nonchalant cows, free to perambulate.

“Namaste!” an old lady beamed to her old acquaintance; he grinned back and parroted her greeting.

The strap on my left sandal broke, and I had to fix it with a green-hooded safety pin.

I soon reached the Buddhist temple. True to its name, I found monkeys racing around, picking at nibble through the littered floor. The small hill was also the local gym; men ran laps up and down the steep stairs, kids played jump rope to blasting pop music, and young men gathered at the bars, doing chin-ups.

After conquering the stairs, the heavy metal prayer wheels came into view. Parents lifted their children so that the tiny hand could turn the wheels in their spits. To my left was a congregation of song and drums and various traditional instruments. Pigeons dived over scattered seeds, then flocked back to the temple roof when intimidated by their giggling pursuers.

Vendors were everywhere, selling arranged plates of offerings — flowers of orange, hot pink, purple and yellow — along with manufactured antiques and gaudy souvenirs. Some probed me with “Ni hao,” which means “hello” in Mandarin. I ignored them, and they proceeded to impress me with various East Asian greetings that perhaps matched my face.

A woman was breastfeeding nonchalantly on the side, but all the attention was on the pushing and shoving of offerings into the temple’s mouth; people were touching the gold, the Buddhas, the inscriptions, the sacred painted stones, and wiping the holiness all over their own skin. The central holy man turned distractedly to slap a man on the forehead with a bundle of greens — as some form of apparent blessing — then pocketed the money that was offered.

I left the temple profoundly bewildered yet enthralled at the bizarre world I had landed in. This world functions within its own logic and traditions, and I am open to all interpretations offered. As I would learn later, letting go of my meticulous schedules is what opened me to all the possibilities of travel.

And I certainly did not expect to find myself in the Himalayas mere days later.

 

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