By , March 19, 2014 7:08 pm
I've been meaning to write this blog post for a long time.... almost a month now. But every time I sit down to write it, I lose my words. I stare at my computer screen for a while, contemplating how to start. Inevitably, I abandon the project without writing a word. I can't even seem to narrow down why I can't write. In part, I think it may be that I know that I lack the talent as a wordsmith to  capture what it's like to live in Bhutan. Putting this experience into words seems an impossible chore, and has from the moment I arrived. It's just so different in so many amazing and powerful ways. Also to blame is the simple truth that I just don't seem to want to spend a minute of my time here reporting on it, instead of experiencing it. Canada just seems so far away right now... sometimes I forget that there are people at home (and elsewhere) waiting eagerly to see pictures and hear stories of this place. During our RTW trip, we diligently photographed everything we saw, and had no problems taking breaks from travel every once in a while to catch up on blogging and photo editing. We blogged for our families back home, but also for ourselves - the blog was our record. Our journey. But again, Bhutan is different. Here, I often leave the camera at home because I want to be completely caught up in the moment... documenting the journey seems far less important than living it. So much less important that it doesn't even rank on my list of things to do. I suppose that's quite appropriate when in a Buddhist country. You know what they say - when in Rome...
One of the photos we have taken... this is our village of Nangkor.

One of the photos we have taken... this is our village of Nangkor.

Nevertheless, here is what can only ever be an awkward and inadequate attempt to introduce you to our new life here in Bhutan and to explain just a little about why it is so darn special. It is in no way complete and it certainly lacks details, but hey.... it's a start. Bhutan is often described as the last Shangri-La, and it's easy for me to see why. It is the most beautiful and unique country I have ever had the privilege of visiting. Beauty permeates everything - the landscapes, the architecture, the people, the culture, the rituals, the religion, the language, and even the smallest of interactions. There is an overwhelming sense of community in everything that is done - a culture of friendliness, respect, and hospitality. Gross National Happiness is not just given lip service - it is real and tangible. The people are warm and caring, quick to smile and have an intrinsic pride in their country and traditions. They value happiness over money, friends and family over work, and community over the individual. They are open and honest about their way of life and seem to have a good understanding of the problems facing their little nation (I only use the term "little" to describe the physical size... in any other measure that matters, it is grand). Don't misunderstand me. Bhutan is not Utopia. Of course, like any country, it has its share of problems. With the introduction of television and the internet in 1999, the influx of foreign-made items, the seemingly universal desire for Western comforts, a road system that connects new villages every day, and a young, rapidly introduced education system, there are plenty of issues in the new democracy. On a local level, litter covers the walking paths, health care is primitive (especially in the eastern part of the country), the highways are treacherous, and the mountains make comforts difficult to obtain. There is a growing unemployment problem as more and more youth are educated to a higher secondary or post-secondary level, only to find themselves in an economy that doesn't need their newly acquired skills and knowledge. Bhutan has had a massive growth spurt over the last 15 years, and like any adolescent it is in the awkward growing pains stage. Nevertheless, the good and the beautiful outweigh the bad. Let me share just a few things that I love about this place:

Starting the Day with Meaning

I have never been more awed than when I first took in the daily assembly at my school. Students were reporting for the first time that morning, and they lined up in perfectly straight rows by class and section with seemingly no instruction. As the assembly began, they fell silent. Student captains led the student body in their morning chanting. Perfectly in unison, the deep baritone of the older boys and the soft, melodic tones of the girls blended together in perfect harmony and filled the space between us and the mountains. I found myself listening from a place deep within. It was surreal, listening to their melodic chants and peering out over their heads at the peaks across the valley as the sun rose in the sky. The students did not appear to be bored or restless with the routine - they remained dedicated and engrossed in the task. It was a deeply spiritual, perfectly beautiful moment that has become one of my favourite parts of each day.
Preparing for assembly

Preparing for assembly

Mandatory Staff Parties

Attendance at staff parties is required of all staff.  I'm not kidding... for the first party I was invited to, I had to sign in duplicate that I would attend. As I would find out, attendance was not the only mandatory part of a Bhutanese party... a strong liver, huge appetite, legs that can take hours of sitting on the floor, the ability to say no when you mean yes, acceptance that even when you mean no you will be ignored and served more, a fondness for chilies (or at least the ability to grin and bear them as the tears roll down your cheek and mingle with the snot that drips ceaselessly from your nose), coordinated group dancing, and singing in Dzongkha. All mandatory. Oh, and for the fellas - the ability to open a beer bottle with your teeth. Of course, attendance doesn't need to be mandatory.  Everyone wants to go anyways. Spouses and children are welcome to join.  Community, celebration, and togetherness are the name of the game here.

Smiles.

Everywhere I go, people laugh and smile at me. I am the first white person that most of my students have EVER met. When I say "hi" to the shyer ones on a village path, they turn and run. But first, they giggle and smile. I have had a few rather excited and animated conversations with the elderly woman that lives in the next abode. I have no idea what she was trying to say, but she smiled when she did it. All these smiles are contagious... I find myself grinning like a fool all day.  Honestly, I can't remember a time where I've felt so much joy so often. The only time I have a hard time finding smiles is when I pull a camera out.  Most of my students get really serious when they pose for photos.  We've been working on breaking that habit, so that their beauty and spirit can shine in the photos.
A few of my students... I can't help but smile when I look at this

A few of my students... I can't help but smile when I look at this

Community

Everything in Bhutan comes down to community and togetherness. In Canada, I can spend an entire day teaching without interacting with another adult in the building. Here, my desk is in a room with half the other staff. I am never alone in the staff room, and there is almost always a conversation to be had. People work hard, but they value their time off. If teachers have a free period and don't need to be planning or marking, they're not. I still use my free time to create work for myself. They use their free time to tell stories until they are crying from laughing so hard.... you tell me which one is a better use of time. After work or school, students and teachers alike can be found playing football (or soccer, for all you North Americans), basketball, volleyball, khuru (darts), archery, a table game not unlike airless air hockey, and a game with rocks that I have yet to figure out. And it's always together. I have yet to see someone go practice archery by themselves, or go for a walk by themselves, or shoot hoops by themselves... when the sun is up, people are outside and together.

Perpetual Kindness

We live 10 km down the mountain from the nearest "town." It takes 30 minutes by car or maybe 90 minutes of walking to reach Pemagatshel. I have yet to find out the exact length of time required to walk, however, because I can't make the trek without being invited in for tea (by someone I've never met), being offered a ride (whether I'm hitching or not), or stopping to watch the monkeys and langurs playing in the trees. The other day, Mike and I went up to town to visit the ATM since we were literally down to our last dollar (no big deal... everyone at the shops will let us buy on credit). On our walk back down, a car stopped and offered us a ride back to Nangkor. The young man inside (whom we'd never met or even seen before) knew we had been to the ATM and were on our way back home. In any other country, I would be concerned about his intentions in picking us up. Here, the thought of malicious intent didn't even cross my mind. At least not until much later when a friend mentioned it on Facebook.

My Students

I am just starting to get to know my students, but they are such beautiful people. Their respect, kindness, and curiosity make me smile everyday. In Canada, it was a rare moment to get a thank you from my students. Here, the class thanks me each and every day as I leave their room.
A few of my Class 9's and me

A few of my Class 9's and me

I am so lucky to be here doing what I am doing. As promised, this post didn't do Bhutan much justice... but, unless you came yourself, I don't think you could ever truly understand. Maybe that's why I can't seem to explain it... it needs to be experienced.
By , January 24, 2014 6:45 am
This has been Mike's and my mantra for the past year. Anytime one of us is feeling down, wanderlusting, or just plain daydreaming, we turn to each other and scream "Bhutan!" After a long day at work... "Bhutan!".  In the middle of a 14 hour day of driving across Canada with no radio... "Bhutan!". Amid the Bangkok protests... "Bhutan!". For us, it's a word filled with meaning... opportunity, excitement, adventure, beauty, spirituality, simplicity, promise. It's stepping out into the unknown. It represents the next chapter of our lives. A dream realized, the impossible made possible. And now it's finally happened. We're here. It's not just a magic word anymore... it's our reality for the next 12 months. We get to live and work in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.... a country that values happiness over money, is set to become the world's first organic nation, has already banned plastic bags and the sale of tobacco, has a strong national identity, and a spiritual Buddhist value system that permeates everything they do. It's a place were hot chili peppers are the vegetable, not the condiment. Where gross national happiness values are incorporated into every government policy and school curriculum. And - if all of that isn't enough for you - it's in the freaking Himalayan mountains!
View from the plane as we arrive in Paro

View from the plane as we arrive in Paro

I've been in the country for less than twelve hours, but it's completely captivated me. Heck, it had me when I stepped out onto the tarmac of the airplane, took a deep breath, and tried to comprehend the sights around me. All the other BCF teachers I have talked to agree... there is just something special about this place. Something that can't be pinpointed or put into words. An indescribable aura that's impossible to ignore. It's just different. And magical. It's so much more than we expected. Times a million.

Paro Valley

Early morning view from our Thimpu hotel

Early morning view from our Thimphu hotel

HDR1

Thimphu

I have just signed a one-year contract (in triplicate) to teach in one of Bhutan's government schools through the Bhutan Canada Foundation (BCF). While this is considered to be a volunteer position back home, in truth I will be paid on a level similar to the local teachers - a little less than $400 CAD per month. This salary (or stipend, depending how you want to look it) will cover our rent, food, and some travel within the country. We'll still have to pay all the start-up costs (airfare, the required travel insurance, etc.) out of our own pocket. While I'm teaching, Mike will be doing something... we're just not quite sure what yet.

How did we get here?

Note: It was a bit of a long journey to get here through the BCF.  If you want to read all the details, great.  If not, don't miss out on the photos at the end! It all starts back in 2010 when we first decided to quit our jobs, sell our possessions and explore the world... March 2010 - We decide to take a one-year leave of absence and travel the world. November 2010 - I apply for a leave of absence. It is denied within minutes. I put in my resignation the next day. Our one-year timeline has been blown wide open. December 2010 - While flipping through an "Off The Beaten Path" travel guide, I read about Bhutan for the first time (offered as an alternative to trekking in Nepal). I immediately showed Mike, but when we discover the visa costs ($200-$250 per person per day) we put it on the "we'd love to, but it will never happen" list. I can't shake the feeling that our frugality is creating a missed opportunity. Somehow, I am already in love with this country. July 6, 2011 - We leave home for our RTW with no itinerary and no return date. This begins an amazing journey of personal discovery. Over the course of 21 months on the road, we began to turn our thoughts towards home again. February 2, 2013 - We try to explain to a nomadic friend of ours that we are ready to move home, get jobs, and settle down for a while. He isn't sold. More telling, however, is that neither are we. February 3, 2013 - We decide we are ready to settle down and get jobs, but maybe Canada isn't what we're looking for right now. We start researching ESL jobs online, with the intention of both of us teaching English for a year. Japan, South Korea, Russia, and Mongolia top our list. February 5, 2013 - Still searching for that perfect job, I come across a listing for a volunteer teaching position in Bhutan. It requires a Bachelor of Education, three years teaching experience, or a teaching certificate. I have all three. Mike does not. We dismiss it. February 10, 2013 - Still dreaming of the possibility, I check out the Bhutan teaching opportunity again. Buried on the BCF's website, I find that non-teaching spouses are able to accompany teachers. It doesn't take long for this to trump all other options. We decided then and there that we need to make this happen. March 23, 2013 - We return to Canada. When anyone asks if we're back for good, we tell them we want to teach in Bhutan for a year. We haven't even applied yet, but we're not going to let that stop us. Meanwhile, I start substitute teaching. Subbing allows me to reaffirm that teaching is what I'm meant to do... but I crave connections with students that subbing doesn't allow for. May 1, 2013 - Applications for the 2014 BCF school year open. I spend a good chunk of my day updating my resume, filling out the lengthy application and going over it again and again. I submit it that very afternoon. May 14, 2013 - I am offered a permanent contract with my former school division. These aren't always quick to come by, so I have to at least consider it. Although the BCF timeline is a little vague, I know the first round of interviews happen sometime in June and applications don't even close until July. I contact the BCF foundation to see if I'm even a potential candidate. They assure me that my teaching experience + my specialty (a Bachelor's of Mathematics) make me "a VERY strong candidate." I turn down the contract. Meanwhile, I accept a temporary contract that will have me teaching accounting (had to learn it over a long weekend!) and math until the end of June. May 28, 2013 - I receive an email requesting a first interview with BCF.  I am so excited! June 14, 2013 - My first interview with the BCF takes place via Skype. It is with Jenna and Kristen of the BCF office in Toronto. I have my choice of time slots... but they are all during school hours. Fortunately, one falls on the afternoon of my first final exam, so I don't have any students. I am told it will last about 45 minutes. It only lasts 20. I think this is a good sign. Most of the interview questions were about my credentials and how I would deal with some of the basic living and working conditions in Bhutan. I share my experiences living in my house in Bulgaria for a month with no power, no running water, and no working toilet. They are convinced I'll be okay. June 20, 2013 - I find out I've earned a second interview. June 27, 2013 - My second interview with BCF. This one is over Skype with a BCF representative in Bhutan, three Bhutanese math teachers, and a government official. I am sent the Grade 9 and 11 math curriculums to prepare. I expect to be quizzed on long-range plans, classroom management, project-based and inquiry learning, and questions like "What would you do if half your class fails a test?". I am right. For the first 10 minutes. Then begins 40 minutes of firing round questions from the math teachers on how I would teach everything from logarithms to continuity to stocks and bonds to digraphs. I don't even know what digraphs are. I am familiar with their other questions, but having never taught the senior maths (thus far, my experience was with Grade 9, 10, and some 11 math) I have not considered how to teach these concepts. Or even looked at them in the seven years since university. Did I mention that it is a 6 am interview? Good thing they can only see my neck up, because I am sweating profusely. I don't even know how to answer half the questions, but I spit some feeble words out hoping they will let up. They don't. I am decimated. And it's still only 7 am. I feel sick to my stomach and feel the dream slipping away. I refuse to answer anyone's questions about it, except to say it could have gone better. I find a few minutes that afternoon to meditate, as it is the only way to clear the feeling of dread that consumed me. June 28, 2013 - Once the tiredness wears off, I look at my situation logically. I didn't answer the questions to my personal standard, but did I really do that bad? And if I did, perhaps I could beg a second chance and spend some time preparing for it. I decide to just deal with whatever outcome there is and stop losing sleep over it. July 7, 2013 - Nearly two years after we left for our RTW trip, we leave home for a two-month eastern Canada tour. We carry all our Bhutan documents with us in physical and digital form... just in case. July 10, 2013 - It turns out all the worry and panic were for naught. The BCF contacts me to tell me that they want to move forward with my application. I start organizing the documentation. August , 2013 - While getting a strange noise in our car investigated at a dealership in Sault-Sainte Marie, I take advantage of the free wifi to discover that my name is officially being put forward by the BCF for government approval. Mike and I do our happy dance. September 13, 2013 - I submit all documentation, including a complete medical.  We also return home from our Eastern Canada trip. October 13, 2013 - I am offered a replacement contract at my old school in Regina until the end of first semester.  I double check the Bhutan timeline.  I would have to be Bhutan the day students would start their semester one finals.  The school accommodates me, and I start a full-time teaching gig that keeps me insanely busy for the next three months. October 26, 2013 - I FINALLY hear that the Bhutan Ministry of Education has approved my application.  It's almost official.  Just need the rubber stamp from the Royal Cival Service Commission. November 14, 2013 - The RCSC has rubber-stamped my application. Five and a half months after submitting my documentation, I AM OFFICIALLY GOING TO BHUTAN. November 27, 2013 - We find our our placement. Nangkhor, Pemagatshel in southeastern Bhutan.  That's really all we know and can find out... the name. November 30, 2013 - We submit our final documents and BCF contract. December 14, 2013 - We pay the BCF for our Druk Air flights from Bangkok to Bhutan and the required medical insurance. December 21 to January 5, 2013 - We try to get in as many last hurrahs with friends and family as we can during Christmas break. Unfortunately, this leaves little time or energy to think about packing. January 9 & 10, 2013 - I give three math classes their final exams in class (and mark them!), plus mark my Computer Science 20/30 final projects. This is a marathon no teacher should ever have to do. January 11, 2013 - We start packing. And by packing, I mean throwing things we think we want to take in a pile in the middle of Mike's parents living room. Luckily, they tolerated our pile for 4 days. January 13, 2013 - I finish my last day of work. Now to fully turn my attention to Bhutan. January 14, 2013 - At 3:30 pm, the first item gets packed in a backpack. We're due at my mom's at 6pm, where we will spend the night and get an early morning ride to the airport.  We also receive a little more information about our placement location, school, and accommodation. January 15, 2013 - We leave home, flying from Regina to Minneapolis to Tokyo to Bangkok. Luckily we have 4 days to recover from jet lag and general exhaustion in BKK. January 16, 2013 - Somewhere in Tokyo, we find our DrukAir eTickets in our inboxes.  We were relieved and happy to have them. January 17, 2013 - After arriving in Bangkok, we finally receive our Bhutan visa clearances.  Whew! January 21, 2013 - Despite the lack of airport shuttles running, we have no problems flagging a taxi at 3:30 in the morning and arrive at the airport with lots of time to spare. After an amazing descent in Paro valley, we land in Bhutan and are instantly blown away.
View from the plane as we approach Paro valley

View from the plane as we approach Paro valley

First views from the ground

First views from the ground

The BCF had approximately 250 applicants this year.  Eighty were granted a first-round interview, 60 were granted a second-round one, and I am one of the lucky 18 that made it to this point.  As you can see, it was a loooong process from the date of application to the official confirmation that we were accepted. But it was 100% worth the wait. I'm sure you're all dying to know the nitty gritty details about my placement and what's to come, but now you're going to have to wait. Because right now, we're on BST (Bhutan Stretchable Time).  And, more importantly, I have an incredible city to explore. Until next time... (whenever that will be - we have no idea what the internet situation is going to look like from this point forward).
Prayer flags overlooking Paro valley

Prayer flags overlooking Paro valley

A taste of the incredible buildings

A taste of the incredible buildings

Paro valley, with Paro Dzong in the background

Paro valley, with Paro Dzong in the background

Early morning view of Thimpu's hills

Early morning view of Thimpu's hills

Prayer flag

Prayer flag

Former prime minister's residence

Lovely courtyard of former prime minister's residence

Statue in courtyard

Statue in courtyard

More of Paro valley

More of Paro valley

 
Terraced rice paddies

Terraced rice paddies

     
By , January 21, 2014 9:30 am
Relax. No one actually got shot.  (Except some of the protesters, if you've been following the news.  But don't worry, we are safe and sound.)  I'm talking about getting shots. As in needles. Immunizations, if you prefer. Before our RTW trip, we did extensive research into required and recommended vaccinations, anti-malarials, and other health care issues. One of the vaccinations we needlessly got was Japanese encephalitis... exposure to the virus itself results from a quirky cocktail of lengthy stays in rural Asian areas, pigs, monsoons, and mosquitos - a situation we just didn't find ourselves in. Now, three years later, we are heading to rural Bhutan.  Which is in Asia.  For a year.  And where there are monsoons.  There are definitely mosquitos.  And possibly pigs.  So, we need Japanese encephalitis boosters.  Which carried a $265 price tag in Canada in 2011.  And this time, we don't have Mike's company drug plan to dull the pain of the bill. Enter the Thai Travel Clinic... a clinic specifically designed for foreigners needing advice and vaccinations. The cost of a Japanese encephalitis shot there? Approximately $16 CAD. So we showed up in Bangkok, made an appointment for the following day (not strictly necessary, as they take walk-ins), and proceeded through the most organized, helpful, sanitary, and easy-to-use health-care system we have EVER encountered (yep, that includes Canada). Not to mention cheap. When all was said and done, we spent 60 minutes checking in, filling out a health survey, discussing all our questions and concerns with a doctor, paying for and picking up our prescriptions and vaccines at the pharmacy, receiving our vaccines, and waiting around for 20 minutes just to make sure we didn't have a reaction. Everything was well-laid out, there were no waiting times, and the doctor was incredibly knowledgeable. He went through our entire vaccination record to make sure we were prepared for Bhutan, ruled out the necessity for a rabies booster, discussed the risks/benefits of taking anti-malarials (we will be located in southern Bhutan in a malaria zone... he has talked with several doctors from Bhutan and put our malaria risk at 1% or less for the year - small enough that the benefits of taking anti-malarials for such a length of time would be outweighed by the risks from long-term use of the medication). He also prescribed amoxicillin and ciprofloxacine for each of us at our request and discussed how to use them. The cost for all this? (Note: $1 CAD = approx 30 Thai baht) Japanese Encephalitis Vaccine - 470 baht Full prescriptions for antibiotics - 87.50 baht Doctor's fee - 200 baht Vaccination fee - 20 baht New registration fee - 20 baht Hospital service fee - 50 baht Grand total - 847.50 baht per person (or approx. $28 CAD) So, if you're ever looking for friendly, knowledgeable travel health advice and you're in the Bangkok area, definitely check out this travel clinic.  It'll save you a pretty penny.
By , January 18, 2014 9:30 am
Just like that, we are back on the road again... picking up right where we left off.  Literally.  Bangkok was the final city of our RTW tour that ended in March 2013.  Since then, we've spent a lot of time working in and touring our own country.  Now we find ourselves back in BKK.  We had full intentions of telling the rest of our RTW tales and keeping up with the blog during our Canadian stint, but life, work, social commitments, and plain old procrastination seem to have gotten the better of us.
Boarding the Plane in Regina... one last blast of arctic chill!

Boarding the plane in Regina... one last blast of arctic chill!

Some of you may have noticed that Mike optimistically announced our triumphant return to blogging in his last post.  And then we fell silent.  Again.  The blame for his empty promise falls squarely on my shoulders.  I was supposed to tell you all about the 10-day meditation retreat we attended in Thailand, but in reality I was in the middle of a temporary teaching contract that had me often working 12-14 hour days.  I was starting to lose myself in the process,  and was in a completely different headspace than I needed to be in to talk about meditation.  For now, let me just sum it up like this... the 10 days were some of the most rewarding and challenging in my life.  As cliche as it sounds, the retreat was life-changing (though if this last teaching gig has taught me anything, it's that I still need to find the elusive balance between work and play in my life). I expect that the next adventure we're about to embark on (teaching for a year in Bhutan) will be just the experience to help me find that balance.  I will be teaching full-time in a government school (with a six-day school week to boot) while being surrounded by a profoundly Buddhist culture that prioritizes and values such things as happiness and meditation.  Honestly, we can't wait to get there!  Luckily, we don't have to wait long...we fly into Bhutan on January 21. So.... like I said, we're back in Bangkok.  What better time than now to finally finish our RTW posts?  Among other things, we want to tell you all about Ayutthaya and stray dog bites, Chiang Mai and the elephants we met there, what it was like to finally be home (and how much at home we felt leaving again), some of the incredible scenery and hikes we experienced on our Eastern Canada summer roadtrip, just how safe Bangkok is right now amid the protests, and how exactly we got the opportunity to live and work in Bhutan for a year. Our only limiting factor now is the internet.  We're not exactly sure what our internet connection will look like in Bhutan, so we're going to try to hammer out as much as we can in the next couple of days.  Stay tuned!
Beautiful views from the plane...somewhere over Alaska or Russia

Beautiful views from the plane...somewhere over Alaska or Russia

By , August 23, 2013 7:35 am
Upon our return to Thailand, we decided to treat ourselves with an all-inclusive retreat. A beautiful place where we could soak in the hot springs, walk along the groomed paths, and fill up our plates at buffet-style meals. 10 days of food, drink, and accommodation all included in the low, low price of 2000 baht (~$65 CAD) per person. Let me guess... you're thinking - how is that price even possible? Because this was no ordinary all-inclusive vacation... this was a 10-day Buddhist Silent Meditation Retreat at the International Dhamma Heritage at Wat Suan Mokkh. The first thing we noticed upon arrival is that paying your tab doesn't guarantee you a place. Registration day began with personal "interviews" - the only question I was asked during my 15 minute interview was "what do you want to get out of this retreat?".... the vast majority of it was actually a staff member explaining the rules and expectations of the retreat to make sure you're up to them. This is no token step, either. The schedule and rules are strict and if you're not 100% ready to follow them, the retreat simply isn't for you. To see what I mean, take a look at a typical day's schedule:
04.00 Wake up
04.30 Morning Reading
04.45 Sitting meditation
05.15 Yoga / Exercise - Mindfulness in motion
07.00 Dhamma talk & Sitting meditation
08.00 Breakfast & Chores
10.00 Dhamma talk
11.00 Walking or standing meditation
11.45 Sitting meditation
12.30 Lunch & chores
14.30 Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
15.30 Walking or standing meditation
16.15 Sitting meditation
17.00 Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation
18.00 Tea & hot springs
19.30 Sitting meditation
20.00 Group walking meditation
20.30 Sitting meditation
21.00 Bedtime
(the gates will be closed at 21.15)
21.30 LIGHTS OUT
Depending on your attention to detail, you may have noticed a few things. First, there are only two meals each day. That's not a typo... that's all there is. Breakfast and lunch, no supper. Both meals are vegetarian. Breakfast is essentially rice porridge with a few veggies for good measure and, when you're lucky... bananas. Lunch is much more substantial - typically brown rice, a fried noodle dish, a curry, and a dessert. Tea time means hot soy milk, usually of the chocolate variety. *Spoiler alert* On Day 9, the schedule is blown apart. The entire day is left open as meditation time. Complete silence is the order of the day - there are no dhamma talks or verbal instructions, and no scheduled group meditation times. The whole point is to go at your own rhythm. To aid you with this, the menu is cut back to a single meal at breakfast time, with two teas scheduled in the afternoon. The retreat make no accommodations for picky eaters, though they do offer a small evening snack at tea time to anyone with a legitimate medical reason to need it (diabetics or pregnant women, for example). Chores are simple, easy tasks to be done mindfully... raking leaves, wiping tables, cleaning toilets, etc. The wake-up gong rings at 4 am sharp. Most people don't have a difficult time getting up at this hour, since the luxurious accommodations (a small concrete box of a room with concrete bed, wooden pillow, and straw mat) pretty much guarantee they were already awake and waiting for the gong to go off so they could leave the "comfort" of their beds.

The luxurious private rooms

Guys and gals are separated for the duration of the retreat. Dorm rooms are in separate buildings and the common dining hall and meditation halls are divided by gender. Finally, the meditation retreat is meant to be silent. For 10 days, not a word or sound should pass through your lips unless you have an emergency or you sign up for a personal interview on Days 3-6. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, here's the part of that rule that you might not expect: complete silence does not only mean no talking, it means no technology, no music, no games, no reading and no writing. At all. For the entire 10 days. The idea is to avoid analysis of the experience and just be in the moment.  You're not even supposed to write in a journal, though nearly everyone breaks that rule.  This all means, with the exception of the dhamma talks, you are entirely alone with your mind for 10 days with nothing to distract it from itself. All of these strict rules and removal of luxuries are intended to prepare you for meditation and to be in line with the Eight Buddhist Precepts. Think you could be alone with yourself for 10 days? Could you embrace a concrete bed and wooden pillow? Let us know and we'll let you know all about our retreat experience in our next post.
By , July 18, 2013 4:51 pm
We arrived in Cambodia after a terribly long travel day that involved a train, a tuk tuk, a border crossing, a bus, a tourist bus, and a really long walk to our hostel.  We were already worn out from a month of racing across Thailand, so we decided to slow things down. A lot. We had originally planned to stay in Siem Reap for about 5 days.  This would give us three days at the famous Angkor temple complex and a few days to bum around the city.  Instead, we stayed ten days and bought a 7 day temple pass.  And we wouldn't have wanted it any other way. While most people hire a tuk tuk driver for a day (or three) and temple themselves out trying to see it all, we decided to take advantage of the $1 USD/day bicycle rentals in town and explore the huge temple complex by pedal bike.  This gave us the time and leisure to take long lunch breaks, read amongst the temple ruins, and visit a reasonable 3-4 temples a day.  We certainly didn't see everything, but we saw a lot more than the average visitor.

The result of  a hard day's cycling... very dirty feet!

We didn't bike all 7 days - we rented a tuk tuk for two of them to give ourselves a break (it was a blistering 35+°C and we're not too keen on heat stroke).  This also allowed us to see the more distant Banteay Srei (see below) & Kbal Spean, and later the magical Beng Melea and distant Roulos Group (post to come). We left Siem reap with over 650 photos, so I'll try to limit myself to our top 5 favourite temples and only a few pictures of each.  Here they are, in no particular order: 1. Ta Nei This temple tops our list because of the complete solitude you can find here.  It can't be reached by tuk-tuk, only bicycle or walking.  Most of the guides haven't even been here.  While not the most impressive temple, you can spend an hour wandering around and climbing over the ruins without seeing another soul.

Road to Ta Nei

2. Ta Prohm Ta Prohm is everything Ta Nei is not... crowded and busy.  But it's easy to see why.  Like Ta Nei, nature has been working to overtake this temple with trees and roots winding their way through and along the temple ruins and walls.  Apparently some Tomb Raider scenes were filmed here (I've never seen it, so I wouldn't know). 3. Banteay Srei This temple required a tuk-tuk, but was so worth it.  Famous for its red colour, it was the intricate carvings that really made this one stand out for us.  We walked the entire temple grounds once with cameras in hand, then put them away and walked it all over again to pick up all the detail we missed while peering through our lenses. 4.  Banteay Samre This temple was special because not only did it have beautiful carvings, it didn't have the crowds of Banteay Srei.  There were a half dozen people wandering about this temple... all serious about photography.  Everyone kept out of each other's shots and there was a quiet and peace to be cherished here. 5. Bayon The Bayon was one of the few temples we made a point of visiting twice.  It looks like a pile of rubble from a distance (at least when you approach it from one side), but once you climb up the stairs you find yourself surrounded by giant heads.  Everywhere you look there are more... just staring and smiling. Why didn't Angkor Wat make the cut? Don't get me wrong... Angkor Wat is an incredible piece of design and construction.  Whether it was the constant crowds or the hype, it just didn't touch me the same way as many of the other temples.  I would never recommend skipping it of course... it is still a must-see!

View of Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng temple

Reading across the moat from Angkor Wat... a nice way to appreciate it

Useful tips:
  • Entry passes are as follows:1 day - $20 USD 3 days - $40 USD 1 week - $60 USD
  • Multi-day passes require a picture, so cannot be used by other visitors.
  • The one week pass does not need to be used on consecutive days.  It allows you entry on seven days within a one month period.
  • Passes issued after 5 pm are valid that day and the next.  This is especially nice if you only have time for a one day pass.
  • Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and many of the other popular sites will be swarming with tourists at sunrise and sunset.  Consider visiting a less popular temple to take advantage of the light for photographs.
  • If you are planning to go to Angkor during Chinese New Year, it will be packed.  So will Siem Reap... book accommodations well in advance and expect rates to double.
  • If you are planning to go by tuk-tuk, ask around and get a good price.  Everyone is a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, so there's a lot of competition.  (When we were there, the going rate was $10 USD for a day, or $15 USD for a full day including sunrise and sunset).  Expect to pay more for more distant temples.
  • Make sure that when you book a tuk-tuk driver, you have contact information and assurance that your driver will speak English if you want to be able to communicate.  The nice guy that you book with will rarely be your actual driver.
  • Have an itinerary in mind if there are certain temples you want to see.  Be wary of the tuk-tuk driver that suggests the floating village... it will cost you another $10 USD or so to get on the boat to see it and will take about half a day out of your temple seeing time.
  • Haggle at the restaurants.  The first price offered is never the real price, nor is the listed menu price.  If you really want to negotiate, you can probably get yourself some free fruit just for sitting down.

Typical budget Angkor restaurant... may not look like much, but they make a mean $1 fried noodle!

This kid was mesmerized when he saw his face on my camera screen

By , July 9, 2013 7:39 pm
OK, I'll admit it.  We've been slacking.  Big time.  On the blog, I mean.  We've been home for 3 months now and we're still finishing up posts about Cambodia and Thailand.  We're lucky to get in one post a week!  But you know all that. Sorry to all our loyal fans out there (all five of you), but we've been busy.  As soon as we were settled in, I was working as a substitute teacher (which was actually great for blogging, as I wrote one a day during my preps) and then scored a temporary position as a full-time temporary math and accounting teacher.  I've gotta say... I really enjoyed being back in the classroom, but it definitely cut into my free time! Mike was busy baking and doing.... well, even I'm not quite sure what Mike was busy doing.  But that's not the point.  We got busy.  Between work, reacquainting ourselves with family and friends, learning to bake the most amazing bread, and a little bit of play the blog's been suffering.  And it may just continue to do so all summer long. You see... we've left our good old family, friends, and home province of Saskatchewan behind to explore a little more of our own country.  We figure we've travelled to 21 countries besides our own now, so it's about time we saw some of our home soil.  We loaded up our car, borrowed my mom's GPS and CAA maps, and set out for the east coast of Canada.  That's pretty much the entire plan... EAST.  The only concrete detail is Sappyfest in Sackville, New Brunswick in August. We will, of course, blog about our adventures... but it's going to take some time.  Like sometime in September kinda time.  If that's not current enough for you, check out our Facebook page... we are using our newly acquired data plan (we really are back in a first-world country, aren't we?) to post photos and updates as we cross the country.  We'll keep trying to get the rest of the RTW posts up (so check in every now and then) but first and foremost we're going to enjoy every minute of our two month cross-Canada expedition.  It's also kind of hard to blog from a National Park campground.  But we'll do what we can. Enjoy your summer, because we're definitely going to enjoy ours!
Mike taking a road side photo - The Hills of Saskatchewan

Mike taking a road side photo - The Hills of Saskatchewan