As my readers know, Uwe and I are devoted to travel. One of our favorite regions is southeast Asia. We keep going back, in love with the countries, the food, the cultures and the people. Each time we go, we’re lucky enough to plan on – or stumble onto – a local celebration.
If it’s a religious festival, taking part is a way to gain merit. After so many years visiting the area, I’d like to think that visiting is a way to gain merit as well….
An especially charming festival is the annual That Luang Festival, or Wax Castle Procession. The festival takes place in Laos’s capitol Vientiane. Uwe and I were in Laos one year when our visit to the city coincided with the fest. Of course, we had to see it!
The festival is a holiday honoring Buddha at the That Luang stupa, Laos’s most sacred religious site.  Traditionally, the festival occurs during the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (November).
A gigantic traditional trade fair had opened six days earlier, with booths, rides, food, and ear-splitting speakers blasting music…. There was no way you could miss where the festivities were! Families sat everywhere, either picnicking or taking a break from the sights. Special areas had been set up on the grounds for male and female monks to rest.
There are booths selling special foods, rides for kids, and items both sacred and practical for sale.
In the afternoon, everyone watches the traditional game tikhy, played with a ball and long curved sticks, similar to hockey. We missed the game – which gives us an excuse to go back again someday.
Within the stupa walls the atmosphere was devout. Outside the walls though, people were having a loud and lively time. We left as the full moon rose over the That Luang stupa and lights went on. Even more people were streaming in as we made our way back to our hotel.
Part 2 will post next week.
NOTES:  The That Luang stupa is depicted on both the kip (Laos paper money) and the att coins (no longer in circulation). Some information on the festival taken from “November 28, 2012 Wax Castle Procession” Vientiane Times, The First National English Language Newspaper
This is a brand new feature for this blog: I’m transcribing selected entries from my old travel journals. Currently I’m working on a batch of new posts set in Laos. I hauled out the journal I kept on our first visit to make sure that my memories match up with the facts. My descriptions from that trip are raw. I use a travel diary to record first impressions and get down the details to go over later (like now, years later). I’ve decided to post some of them here for your amusement. — Jadi
“13 March. The heat and humidity are too huge to move quickly. Despite them we’ve kept up an ambitious sight-seeing program.
A 1,000-year-old site we visited with our guide on yesterday’s tour:
Buddhas in the Angkor Wat style carved out of boulders in the jungle. And, not twenty feet away, a spirit altar by a tall tree. 
No one’s allowed to build anything on or near the site. But the locals come there for ceremonies and celebrations. It had a rather hushed and holy air as we stood on the jungle (forest) floor in the welter of the afternoon heat at Vang Sang. An elephant graveyard was once found nearby!
90 kilometers north of Vientiane we stopped for a boat trip on Ang Nam Ngum, an artificial dammed lake.
A long boat of Laos with packages waited on the adjacent boat docked there. They were from one of the many islands and had come in on a once-a-week boat trip to do their shopping.
The buildings all high on stilts for the rainy times. We had my favorite meal so far in this trip: a soup with fresh Chinese vegetables and tofu and vermicelli noodles – it may be the freshest ingredients in a soup of this kind I can remember. And a lake fish grilled whole with garlic and ginger and lemon grass and cilantro; and it was all just too delicious for words.
… I’m quite intrigued with the very old spiritual energy this country possesses. Little spirit houses beside trees. Sticky rice offerings on tree trunks.…
Now we’re down at an open pavilion-style café on the Mekong River. It’s receded with the dry season, almost to Thailand. Weird to think Thailand is so close. The river’s so low you could practically walk there.”
NOTE: The extended festival of Northern Viet Nam’s Perfume Pagoda begins today, the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. In honor of this sacred Buddhist site and holiday here is my original post. —Jadi
On our first visit to Vietnam we booked a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda.  The Perfume Pagoda is a major Buddhist pilgrimage destination. The Huong Mountains contain fertility and agricultural cults, too.
The name Perfume Pagoda really refers to a number of shrines on – and in – the mountaintop. The most important temple is the Perfume Temple found inside Huong Tich Cave. It’s northern Viet Nam’s holiest site and the setting for the country’s most important and longest religious holiday.
The fest starts in the middle of the first lunar month (February 15) and runs from February to April. Hundreds of thousands of worshippers make the trek to present offerings at the mountain’s shrines and temples. At the high point of the festival, peak traffic will back up for as long as 8 hours on the Yen Vi River.
While the entire trip can be made by road, we took the water route. Reaching the site involved a two hour taxi ride to the pier located 70 km southwest of Hanoi in My Duc Town, a boat trip being rowed for two hours on the shallow Yen Vi River to the base of the pilgrimage site, and finally a two-hour hike up into the limestone Huong Mountains.
For the taxi ride we traveled with our guide on one of Viet Nam’s first highways. As you can see in Uwe’s photograph, the traffic on this main artery a decade ago was nothing like what we’re used to seeing in America and Europe.
A young woman rowed us upriver. The boatwomen at Bến Đục (Duc Pier) make enough money to support their families, and are chosen by lottery.
We made our slow way past rice paddies and limestone peaks.
Fishermen in impossibly tiny boats balanced, standing, as they shocked the water with weak electricity to stun the fish they collected in the bottoms of their flat vessels.
After disembarking we hiked 4 kilometers straight up.
Good shoes are needed as the path is steep in places and the stone stairs are slippery if it’s been raining! The landscape is lush, and the spectacular views are worth the strenuous hike.
The Huong Mountains are rich in myths and legends. One story relates how a Buddhist monk came here to meditate in solitude two thousand years ago. Another legend tells the story of the Perfume Pagoda’s Quan Am or Guan Yin.  A stone at Phat Tich temple contains her preserved footprint.
It’s believed that the Buddha stopped at the Giai Oan temple to wash. Pilgrims clean their faces and hands in the Long Tuyen Well to wash away past karmas.
But older deities are present. Cua Vong shrine is where believers make offerings to the Goddess of the Mountains. And inside the holiest of holies, the cave’s stalactites are sought out for blessings.
Once we reached the cave, we descended back down 120 wide stone steps to the Huong Tich Grotto, which translates as ‘traces of fragrance’.
We entered the cave, whose opening is a dragon’s mouth. Inside Chua Trong (Inner Temple), our guide positioned himself underneath a stalactite and tried to catch a drop of moisture on his tongue.
The stalactites grant good fortune. Pilgrims through the ages have named them: Basket of Silkworms, Boy Stone, Buffalo, Cocoon, Girl Stone, Nine Dragons Compete For Jewels, Pig, Rice Mound, Gold & Silver Mound, and the Mother’s Milk Stone.
Couples wishing for offspring gather under the Boy and Girl Stones; those wanting prosperity seek out drops from the stalactites hanging from the ceiling that grant abundance and wealth. The Perfume Pagoda Festival is considered an auspicious time and place to find a mate, and is the starting point for lots of successful romances.
At the time we visited, the remote northern region had just gotten electricity. And as our boat headed back down the Yen Vi we passed by boats bringing materials to build a new pier even further upriver. 
NOTES:  This excursion instantly became one of my favorite trips of all time.  Guan Yin is the bodhisattva (usually female) associated with the quality of compassion. A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who delays Nirvana, staying behind to assist others in finding enlightenment. The Guan Yin of the Perfume Pagoda is identified with Dieu Thien, the third daughter of Dieu Trang, King of Huong Lam. She refused to marry, wishing to spend her time in prayer instead.  An ingenious way to transport the needed materials to the site!
Take a look around and see if you find old friends or stumble upon posts you may have missed. I like to think that these blog posts are my gifts to the world. As always, I welcome any and all feedback. See you next year!
India is good for a surprise around any corner and on any street. We once passed a band of musicians blowing horns and banging drums, marching nonchalently down the middle of the road. Cows, of course, are sacred in the Hindu faith and go wherever they damn well please.
And on our way to the airport near Bhopal, our taxi driver asked if we wanted to halt and watch a truck feed the passengers.
They were transporting a brood of hens to market.  Properly defined, a brood is the family produced at a single hatching. This group had to be several broods. 
We were bemused by how healthy the hens were, and how agreeable to being transported together in baskets. They promptly headed for the field and their feed – and then back to the roadside to be placed again in baskets.
Chickens can’t fly (although they will get a running start and stay airborne for a second or two). There are more chickens than any other bird. According to Wikipedia, “[t]he domestic chicken is descended primarily from the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus).” They’re a gregarious species, and chicks are both incubated and raised communally.
We didn’t witness any of the usual pecking order. Maybe these hens were too hungry.
Later that night over dinner (no, I don’t recall if I ordered a chicken dish) we talked about animal husbandry. The fowl transport truck seemed to both of us much less cruel than an industrial chicken factory.
It’s time again for the Weihnachtsmärkte. Stuttgart’s Christmas Market runs from 29 November to 23 December. Uwe and I always go to drink a glühwein with friends. You should, too!
The Christmas Market began as a short winter market.  Europe has held seasonal markets for centuries. Vienna, Austria’s Dezembermarkt dates all the way back to 1294/1296. But a Weihnachtsmarkt is special, and signals the beginning of the Advent season leading up to Christmas. This tradition is found in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Alsace region of France. 
Medieval guilds tightly controlled who could produce or sell wares, so each city market was unique and had a distinct, regional flavor. This remains true today. At a German Christmas Market, you’ll find these items for sale at open-air booths:
Tin, blown glass, wooden, and straw ornaments
Round wooden presses or molds for cookies known as Springele
Gebrannte Mandeln (candied toasted almonds)
Magenbrot and Lebkuchen gingerbread (Lebkuchen is often sold in beautiful and reusable decorative tins)
Clothes, including hand knit hats and gloves and scarves
Hot sausages and
Glühwein: a magical drink of mulled wine served from huge brass vats, with a shot of liquor added if you want to get extra-warm 
Our city of Stuttgart’s Weihnachtsmarkt is famous for its decorated booth roofs.
The market attracts more than 3,000,000 visitors each year! Tour busses pull up and unload shoppers from all over Europe. The Weihnachtsmarkt takes over several piazzas downtown; the 3x weekly Wochenmarkt for fresh produce and flowers moves to the Königstraße, the main pedestrian street.
I try to go a couple times each year. I head for the weekly market for fruits and vegetables and then meet a friend for a Bratwurst and a Glühwein. Or I arrange to meet Uwe after work.
We wend our way through rows of booths, enjoying hearing so many different languages along with the local Schwäbisch dialect.
NOTES on NOTES:  ….and nothing is better than a starry winter night, a hot mug of Glühwein, snow gently falling as you stand with your sweetie, the sounds of talk and laughter of other Weihnachtsmarkt visitors all around you as carolers sing in the courtyard of the 16th century castle across the plaza. Prosit, und Fröhe Weihnachten!
We began our trip to southern Spain in Granada. When I stood inside Granada’s Cathedral, I suddenly – and very vividly – remembered what and how I’d seen it 40 years earlier. At the Alhambra, my memories were blurry remembrances of running water.
A few days later in Córdoba, I had a further experience with spatial imprinting. We spent a half day in the Mezquita, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Mezquita was first built in the mid-6th century as a Visogoth church, built up in the 780s as The Great Mosque of Córdoba, and finally re-dedicated as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción) in 1236. The Mezquita’s altar incorporates and blends Catholic iconography and design into the original Moorish structure.
The early Muslim prayer hall is filled with rows of arches in colored bands of stone. They seem to stretch into Eternity.
This hypostyle hall (meaning that the roof rests on pillars) contains a grand 856 columns of finest jasper, marble, onyx and granite. These columns are topped with the arches, which are futher topped with more arches.
If Granada’s Cathedral is all soaring heights, the Mezquita in Córdoba is an endless repetition of forms. Gaze in any direction and turn your body in a slow circle. The repeating arches always bring the viewer back to the beginning again.
The repeating patterns are beautiful. They’re haunting, too; it’s no accident that what I recall best from my first trip to Andalusia are deeply buried memories of graceful forms in plaster, stone and tiles.
What would I say if you were to ask me to select one thing I remember most after my first visit to the Mezquita as a teenager, all those years ago? I’d say: A sense of wonder.
Islamic architects and artists are masters of geometric decoration. Their patterns’ deeper purpose is to bring visitors and viewers to a sense of another, underlying reality. Maybe it’s just the beauty in the world. Perhaps it’s the presence of God. I’m perfectly fine with either explanation.
I rediscovered the whimsical and the wondrous as I gazed at repeating, interlocking, intertwined squares, circles, triangles, flowers, tessellations and stars.
Artwork both secular and sacred is woven into every stroke of calligraphy that embellishes gorgeous walls and doorways and niches at both the Alhambra and in Córdoba. The effect is one of standing in a house of mirrors or an echo chamber with lights and patterns extending on and out into Forever.
No single detail stayed. Just… a fleeting glimpse of the Divine.