Chùa Hương, The Perfume Pagoda

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. [1] 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.

Autobahn traffic
Autobahn traffic
Boat launch at Bến Đục
Boat launch at Bến Đục

A young woman rowed us upriver. 12700_V_10_15_82The 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. 11900_V_10_15_74

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.

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After disembarking we hiked 4 kilometers straight up.

Beginning the pilgrimage up the mountainside.
Beginning the pilgrimage up the steps

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.

Taking a break
Taking a break on the hike up the mountain

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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. [2] 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.

Entrance to Huong Tich grotto
Entrance to Huong Tich grotto

Once we reached the cave, we descended back down 120 wide stone steps to the Huong Tich Grotto, which translates as ‘traces of fragrance’.

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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.

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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. [3]

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NOTES: [1] This excursion instantly became one of my favorite trips of all time. [2] 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. [3] An ingenious way to transport the needed materials to the site!

© Jadi Campbell 2017. My post The Cult of Bà Chúa Xứ is scheduled to post. Go there after May 5th to read about south Viet Nam’s most sacred shrine. More pictures from our trips to Vietnam and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de. 

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.

 

Adventures in China's New Territories 1: Ten Thousand Buddhas

On the path
Pam on the path

My sister Pam is a teacher for international schools. For the last three years she’s been located in the Hong Kong area. It’s a great place to visit: the languages are Cantonese and English, the transportation system is so simple that anyone can feel clever using it, and contrasts between modernity and tradition are everywhere you look.

Pam and her family live in the New Territories. This part of China is on the mainland north of Hong Kong. While Hong Kong is the most densely and vertically populated city on the planet, the New Territories are still relatively quiet. The landscape consists of steep, lush jungle peaks that end in bays and inlets.

Hong Kong Island
The vertical density of Hong Kong
The view from my sister's apartment in China's New Territories
The view from their apartment near Sai Kung

The region is growing, and changing fast. On the bus from the apartment we pass villages on hillsides or tucked into hamlets and harbors. Several floating villages of traditional houseboats are minutes away. And then the high rises suddenly appear, row after row after row.

There are lots more that look just like these
There are lots more that look just like these
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So did you hear the one where the Buddhist monk, the Catholic priest, and the Jewish rabbi enter a temple…

It’s not far to Man Fat Tsz, the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Sha Tin. It was founded by the devout layman Venerable Yuexi (the Chinese月溪法師; pinyin: yuè xī). Building began in 1949 as Yuexi and his disciples carried everything up from the foot of the mountain. For eighteen years they constructed the buildings – and 12,800 Buddha statues.

IMG_6471You head up through a bamboo forest and statues line both sides of the path to the monastery. IMG_6442There are roughly 500 Arhan [1] statues in plastic, painted gold. Each one is unique. IMG_6462IMG_6445IMG_6464IMG_6465IMG_6449IMG_6461

Their expressions represent the experience of enlightenment. Other statues await once you reach the summit. (Click on any of the thumbnail photos for a closer look.)

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I felt like I was in a tacky Buddhist Disneyland until I got to the top and entered the main temple. Before the altar is a glass case, and it contains Venerable Yuexi’s preserved body! His body (still perfectly intact) was exhumed eight months after his April 24, 1965 death. Yuexi was next embalmed with Chinese lacquer, his head and face covered in gold leaf. The Diamond Indestructible Body of Yuexi’s robed corpse sits in the lotus position. I was oddly moved by his preserved body: with the sight, I had a glimpse of religious truth. [2]

IMG_6492IMG_6546IMG_6545IMG_6551That feeling became surreal as we headed back to the bus stop.

This pagoda appears on the HK$100 banknote
This pagoda appeared on Hong Kong’s $100 banknotes

IMG_6516IMG_6504We climbed down a different set of steps past my least favorite creatures: wild monkeys.

IMG_6574And from the meditative hillside of Ten Thousand Buddhas, we neared and then entered the shopping mall complex at Sha Tin.

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Sha Tin shopping mall
Sha Tin shopping mall

As I say, the New Territories has both the traditional and the modern. They all line the same path.

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NOTES: [1] To quote Wikipedia, “…in Theravada Buddhism, an Arhat (Sanskrit: अर्हत् arhat; Pali: arahant; “one who is worthy”) is a “perfected person” who has attained nirvana. In other Buddhist traditions the term has also been used for people far advanced along the path of Enlightenment.”

[2] Taking pictures inside the temple is not allowed.

Photos Copyright © 2015 Jadi Campbell. All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the images. Uwe’s photos of our earlier trips to Hong Kong and mainland China and his photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Madeira’s Verticals

I laugh and say I’m a travel tramp. A new place to see? How soon can we leave? After a holiday is really just the break before the next trip. But a few months ago I was working very very hard to finish my second novel. In my family we’re One-Tracks, and when we’re focused on a project the outside world vanishes. For the first time in our marriage, this year Uwe had to bribe me to go on vacation….

“How about a week on Madeira?” he suggested. “You can write while we’re there. What do you say to a working holiday?”

In the capitol Funchal
In the capitol Funchal

We were on the island a decade ago, and I liked the idea of returning. A place has a personality. You just can’t talk about the Greek islands or the Tunisia coastline without making mention of the quality of light and blue paint contrasting with whitewashed stairs and walls. My visit to Uwe when he was working in northern Sweden was all about snow and the aurora borealis.

Madeira means verticals. This Portuguese possession is located 520 km (280 nautical miles) from the coast of Africa. It’s lush. Madeira advertises itself as the garden island, and it’s a paradise of vivid flowering plants and trees.D70_1207_DxO10

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D70_1206_DxO10D70_1253_DxO10Madeira is also impossibly steep.

Funchal cable car
Cable car from Funchal, southern coast of Madeira

We took the cable cars from the capitol of Funchal up to the various parks and botanical gardens. Later we rented a car and went exploring. Achadas da Cruz (Porto Moniz), population 159, on the northwest corner was a delightful highlight. The fields are down on the waterfront. To reach them the farmers use the cable car known as teleférico, a descent of 500 meters or over 1,500 feet. Prior to the opening of the teleférico in 2004, they made a steep hike of 5 kilometers down to their fields. Now, that’s dedication!D70_1413_DxO10D70_1407_DxO10

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While the teleférico is popular with tourists and costs only 3€ for a one-way trip, the cable car really is used by farmers to transport crops.

Madeira was voted Europe’s Leading Island Destination in 2013. There are ample opportunities for hiking along the traditional water canals known as levadas. The island’s famous for Madeira wine, forests of bay laurels, and black scabbard fish.

Fresh catch of black scabbard fish at Funchal Market
Fresh catch of black scabbard fish at Funchal Market

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The black scabbard or Espada Preta is one ugly fish. It is found only in extremely deep waters like those of Madeira’s coastline. The fish are abundant in waters between 800 and 1300 meters deep; adult fish swim at depths of 200-2000 metres and easily live and feed at substantially greater depths. Almost nothing is known about its life cycle!

A dish of black scabbard and bananas is the island meal (it’s okay. We preferred the fish cooked other ways: with garlic and wine, or in a fish soup, or…) The fish has no scales, and the delicate flesh melts in your mouth no matter how it’s prepared.

Bom Proveito!

NOTES: All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. More of Uwe’s pictures from Madeira and his photography may be viewed at viewpics.de. For more on the One-Tracks go to: Meet the One-Tracks. Northern Sweden: It Was a Bitterly Cold -22°. My new novel: Tsunami Cowboys.

 

 

The World’s Largest Pile of Bricks

We love travel. I refer to traveling to new cultures and places as connecting the dots. With each trip I feel a little more connected to the world at large and to the various dots that make up my picture of this planet and we who inhabit it.

While in Burma, we took a boat up the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Mingun for the day. Yet another fallen kingdom, Mingun is reknowned for the largest functioning bell in the world. It weighs in at 55,555 viss (90,718 kilograms or 199,999 pounds). The sound is a deep claaangg, rung by thumping the bell hard on the lip with a mallet. Mingun is also famous for the king who bankrupted his people with an attempt to outdo every shrine-builder who’d ever lived: King Bodawpaya wanted to build the huge stupa known as Mingun Pahtodawgyi.

It would be the highest in the world, a magnificent 150 meters tall, dwarfing everything built

How the stupa would have appeared finished
How the stupa would have appeared finished

prior to it.

Work began in 1790.

King Bodawpaya never finished his religious edifice. He ran out of funds; or, halted construction due to a prophesy that his realm would end when the building was completed; or, that completing the stupa would signal his death. An earthquake on March 23, 1839 dislodged the huge bell and damaged the structure beyond saving. The Mingun Pahtodawgyi became the world’s largest pile of bricks…

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Mingun Pahtodawgyi. Can you spot the teeny tiny humans in the photograph? (Click on the photograph)

The structure stands, all semi-finished 50 meters (150 feet) of it, roughly a third of the original planned height.

It’s a holy place and the faithful still come to worship. And the curious come to climb it [enter Jadi and Uwe, stage right]. Now, at any sacred Buddhist site, you remove your shoes at the base of the structure.

Going up, sir?
Going up, sir?

And you climb the stairs, barefoot, and then clambor on the ruins, barefoot, for one truly awe-inspiring view of the Irrawaddy River and the surrounding countryside.

View of the Irrawaddy River
View of the Irrawaddy River and several of Mingun’s gorgeous temples

Shan pilgrims in traditional outfits had also climbed the stupa and gave us the gift of their smiles and waves.

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Shan pilgrims
Shan pilgrims

It was a magnificent afternoon and yet another highlight of our 4 weeks in Burma.

Picnicking on the Edge
Picnicking on the Edge

It wasn’t until we were safely home again that I got a good look at Uwe’s photographs.

Go on, I dare you
Go on, I dare you
Just a few small jumps and you’re there

There was a photo I had taken, too.

Hope those bricks are stable!
Hope those bricks are stable!

All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. And click on the final image to enlarge it for an even better idea of how damaged the site is.

More pictures from our trip to Burma, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.