Escaping the Crowds in Krabi

On an exploration into Buddhism, I head to Thailand; one of the biggest Buddhist populations on earth. I seek the local’s way and I stumbled across Aoluek Paradise. 

Inland from the beaches of Krabi I spent a serene week there in what was supposed to be rest, relaxation and writing. Which was all three, but also an eye opener into the life of a local and how spectacular the scenery really is in southern Thailand.
Greeted with my name on a sign at the airport (a complete rarity when you’re a backpacker), Kowit’s place is an hour out of town and set in the jungle. 


I arrived to a bamboo loft style bungalow and settled in for the night listening to the frog’s melody and leaping with excitement at the sight of the fireflies. I’m there to finish my manuscript and what a find. There isn’t a tourist for miles and Kowit and the gang prepared three square meals a day for next to nothing, all delicious and spiced to perfection.


In between chapters I roam freely along the grounds and even sneak out for a day trip to completely deserted islands along with my fellow guests, the Danish couple who are Middle Eastern and the gorgeous girls from Singapore and our mellow French guide who went to Thailand to volunteer for a month (six years ago). With literally not another soul in sight, we ate our prepared lunch on the deserted beach, frolicked in the pristine waters off the bay and lay on the bough of the boat to watch the sunset. It was an incredible day and probably the highlight of my trip. I will always remember it for the simplicity of the day, the spectacular company and the breathtaking scenery we had all to ourselves. 


I visited Phi Phi during my trip and yes, those islands are technically more beautiful but for the price of wall-to-wall tourists, I’ll take Aoluek’s day out every time.

 
At night, we sat by the bar whilst Kowit entertained us with his many talents. Fire twirling, tight rope walking and a seasoned muso who made the Thai melodies float over the lake into a dreamy backing track to our family dinner. 

There were temples nearby which I explored and tried to understand the importance of Buddhism and heights, given the 1300 steps to the Tiger Cave Temple. (Apparently immense beauty and isolation provides the perfect place for meditation). Worth all the sweat and hyperventilation to capture the views though and perhaps if I was a revered enlightened one I would want to be enshrined in places this beautiful as well.


I highly recommend staying out of the fray in Krabi and dropping into Phi Phi for a day trip for a look then back to the serenity and local hospitality of Aoluek’s paradise. The place where my first manuscript was finished. OMG! Coming soon!

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Surprisingly No Oms

Thailand – the Theravada Buddhist capital of the world. I arrived in Chiang Mai for the most holy day in Buddhism – Vaisakha. The day Buddha was born, found enlightenment and died. Years apart of course, but miraculously on the same day of the same lunar month.

 In Chiang Mai, the tradition is to walk 17 kilometres up Doi Suthep Mountain at night to arrive before a dawn ceremony begins. I braved the hill and all throughout was greeted by volunteers giving away free food, ice cold drinks, sweet treats and words of encouragement to the tens of thousands of pilgrims who ascended together in a steady stream to worship Buddha on this important day.


Tired and weary I arrived to a sea of foot massage stalls set up on the street – yes please! Also, to the crush of the crowd adorning the serpent stair case to the temple. After a snail paced crawl up those 300 steps I arrived at the glittering gold monuments of Buddha. I took my incense, candles and lotus flower and offered them in thanks to the statue and prayed for mankind, given I think we need it sometimes. People were strewn about getting a little bit of shuteye before the rain came down and the ceremony was done.

I escaped to the safety of the Songthaews (Red Truck Transport) thanks to my sneaky leap into the standing room only section (aka the step outside clinging to the roof racks but at least I’m dry.) In the traffic a young man insisted I swap with him and he braves the elements. I like that the entire town came out to this event and it had all the spirit of Chinese New Year, with dances, and singers/bands along the journey and makeshift temples and monks handing out blessings via holy water and white cotton bracelets (sai sin). This bracelet is for health and protection, my two favourite prayers and white to signify purity. I thanked the monk who gave me mine and continued up the mountain.


I slept through the morning rituals after getting back to my homestay at 7am and woke just in time for the candle ceremony at Wat Chedi in downtown. The city’s most popular temple, the ceremony was simply gorgeous. Monk’s chanted and prayed with the crowds within the temple and I’m reminded to light my incense and candle again ready for the Wien Tien (Walking Circulation of the temple three times. Three – of course!). 

Then we all gathered out in the grounds and the monks led us into a garden on the lake with their candles and blessings while the crowd watched on in silence. This ceremony was again in memorial of the ‘Enlightened One’ and whilst it was beautiful, it was also ceremonious and full of tradition.


I keep thinking, but he’s just a man. Maybe the monastery will have the answers.

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Guru? What’s a Guru?

Living Interfaith Community – now that catches my attention.

I stumbled across this place in my quest for all things faith in India and I can hardly begin to describe what I found here. Harmony, tolerance, unity and personally inner peace and calm.


Gobind Sadan was started by Baba Virsa Singh over 30 years ago, an incredible man of God who dreamt of building a place where all men and women of all faiths can come, worship and live together in harmony. His message is simple: work hard, look after others and love God. Your way! Here they hold the Havan (sacred fire) in high regard. Around the clock three Havans are tended to and prayed upon by the occupants and passing pilgrims who volunteer.

 I dutifully sat by this fire and chanted in Sanskrit in the morning, recited the Jaap Sahib in the afternoon and sat in solitude in the evening whilst wishing well on the world and all the people in it. Trying not to forget to pour the ghee and cleanse the new wood so that no ants are harmed (after all it’s a vegetarian fire).


For three days I immersed myself in the culture of Gobin Sadan. This involved quite a tight schedule that seemed to keep me busy but not bored and not tired. Up at dawn for the first round of prayers (ok so I slept through that the first day), followed by prayers and prasad at the Havan at  8:00am. Then it was over to the Gurdwara to hear the recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib and chanting by the main Havan as the Guru – Babaji made offerings to God. The words were repeated over and over in unison (tan tan a baba siri chand sahib) with the other followers. It was such a beautiful sound and there was a feeling of being in a trance. I could have sat for hours, watching the flames flicker and dance with each other along with the swaying of the Chaur Sahib (second nature after such a short time).


Quick brekky and 10:00am snuck up on me. Time to recite the Jaap Sahib – a Sikh morning prayer; complicated at first with Hindi Sanskrit and Arabic. This is sung, the leader first, then us in chorus after him. Then it was rest time and reflection. Back to the Havan for midday prayers, lunch, rest unless you’re on fire duty – I was. Then a round table reading of a passage of the Guru Granth Sahib and reflection of what those words meant to us. Off to Jesus’ place to pray at 6:00pm and the cycle continues into the night and actually starts again at 2:00am.


The Guru – of which I would say there was two, Mary an incredible woman of the lord. Check out her story below; and Babaji, who I was lucky enough to have an audience with…twice. Of course, the first time I was feeling quite overwhelmed and wasted my opportunity to chat with such a wise and awesome man of God. Instead of going deep we discussed trivial history of the farm of which I already knew and of course the pilgrimage after being prompted as to my ‘purpose’ in life. Is it my purpose? But the second time, feeling more at ease, I just waltzed up and asked if we could have a chat and thankfully and graciously he agreed.


So, what do you ask when you have the Guru’s attention? Well my heart is repairing from my previous relationship. Healing advice? I’m dating a Muslim. Interfaith advice? And I’m dedicating my life to spreading tolerance. Protection and wisdom? I go for the hat-trick. I asked if the soul tie ever really evaporates following the loss of a great love or if a part of your heart dies with that end? I’m serious. He ponders. I can hardly catch my breath hoping he really does have the answer, suddenly immersed with more heartache than I thought I had left. He speaks, “The heart overflowing with love is a gift from God. You are blessed to have had this person to mould and guide you for the period you had. I will ask God for healing.” (Don’t weep, don’t weep).


The Guru continues, “In a partnership of two faiths you have the opportunity to learn and grow in tolerance and the children will know the love of God from more than one source. Should they experience negativity from their peers, society and others, they will know through the love of God and strength of their parents that they operate on a higher field than those who judge others for their faith.” Whoa!


And finally he hits me with this,“God is always with you, I will pray for your protection but in the arms of God who is Allah, who is Shiva and who speaks to us in many forms. He will always protect you, his daughter, so be at peace.”

WOW! How can that be so heavy yet so enlightening all at once? I feel free, I feel no fear and I feel FAITH. I offer my life into the hands of God. I will succeed, I will be safe and my longing for a family WILL happen.


I think I found a Guru…. make that two! 

https://youtu.be/P7XaacSD1bg  
Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

 

Not Encouraged, Not Forbidden – Religion in China

I’m left feeling a little confused. I’ve travelled the north and south of China and chatted to anyone who would listen and I’ve found three conflicting arguments.

  1. Yes, of course you can practice religion in China. It’s just not encouraged. And if you are a communist party member you can’t.
  2. No. You are not allowed to practice religion in China unless you have a foreign passport.
  3. You can practice religion but a lot of Chinese people don’t really believe; they just go for luck. Like the temple at New Year. What?


There is a rich history of diverse religion in China. I have explored mosques, churches, temples and synagogues. But if I’m honest most were somewhat lacking in that feeling of closeness to God that I usually find in places of worship. For the most part they were beautiful buildings filled with people. But they were tourists, not faithfuls. Historical buildings to be admired for their architecture, not houses of God. Restored and respected, but not revered. Some of which you can’t even enter. Empty, dormant, just a shell of a past time gone by.

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In Harbin the soullessness of a gorgeous historical Russian church broke my heart. The only association with God in this incredible place was an extraordinary last supper painting at the front, where I imagine the altar lay many years ago. Not a pew in sight; a history of Harbin adorned the walls and that’s all. It was filled to the brim with Chinese tourists taking selfies and skimming past the information on the walls. It was a tick in the box sight to see whilst in town for the annual ice festival. At least that’s what it felt like. Also in Harbin I found a spectacular refurbished synagogue which is now a Jewish museum, here at least relics of the faith that should be running through the halls could be found.
Although, the most perplexing church was the fabulous Gothic Cathedral in Shanghai. There was a Christian book store at the side but the building is a not allowed to be entered and the annex is a restaurant and function centre. The ladies in the book store selling bibles said there is no service here… ever. Odd, so no service, but come and buy a bible?
With a population of over 1.4 billion people the 50-odd locals I spoke to in two weeks is hardly an accurate representation, but I get the feeling there is two camps. The faithful who find a way, and the others who see religion as a history lesson or something the west does, not a reality in China. Let’s ignore the fact that it’s a Buddhist nation for now and that temples filled with monks and worshippers are plentiful.


China. It’s a strange place and the mystery of religion continues as I attended Chinese New Year celebrations in the Jina’ng Temple. To be by my side at midnight in the temple you would be rest assured faith is alive and well in this great land. A sea of thousands of heads bowed, hands in prayer, awaiting the New Year to commence. On the other hand if you walked the empty halls of churches in Beijing you’d perhaps find yourself saddened by the gaping hole of faith in such  iconic buildings.
To me places of worship of any denomination command a certain respect. They provide a community vibe, one of inclusion, sanctuary and service.  It is with dedication and devotion that people invest time, money and effort into these places. They are holy buildings of faith where the people can gather, united and give thanks to the Lord or pray for others, the world, and for peace.


I did find mosques, churches and temples with active services of not only expats but of real locals and was invited to tea by a Daoist leader in Harbin. In saying that, I pray more often than not in my house or my head, or when I’m walking I chat to God. So it begs the question. Is religion really reliant on a building? I know faith is not. Faith is in the heart of everyone. There is definitely faith in the hearts and minds of the Chinese. How many and how true, who knows?


Yet, I still find myself called to pray for China. Is that arrogant of me? Is it superior to feel sad for people who are restricted in faith? I claim to be all accepting but to be hidden or confused about whether or not you can choose and practice a faith whichever you like, to me is disappointing.
So that was China. Back to the Middle East – Lebanon here I come!
Yours in faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

House of God Hopping in Harbin

Harbin is a town in the Heilongjiang province in China all the way north, bordering Mongolia and Russia. A place I had never heard of until I came to China and the uni girls in Shanghai suggested I check out the annual ice festival. Every year thousands of domestic and international tourists flock to see the spectacular Harbin International Ice & Snow Festival. Where entire roundabouts are converted to ice brick palaces complete with lights and the footpaths in the main square have ice sculptures and snow creations. Even hotel lobbies have incredible creations on display.

There are several venues hosting the festival activities and I decided to head to the biggest and best on offer at Ice and Snow World. As the name suggests, it’s freezing! I had pocket warmers in my shoes, gloves and even on the back of my phone to stop it from shutting down. My fellow ‘single rider’  Da Win Sho wandered the park with me, sipping tea and admiring ballerinas carved from ice, castles, a giant snow rooster on the hill and even ice slides (which I skipped as I already couldn’t feel my legs). This is definitely worth a look if you are in this part of the world in January or February, but rug up as minus 20 is not for the feint hearted and this Aussie certainly was feeling it. In fact the flu set in pretty soon after I arrived and lingered until I hit the moderate temperatures of Hong Kong almost a week later.

Of course, this trip was not about sightseeing and tourist spots so unless there was an interesting religious history it was a no go. Well I don’t think I could have found a more religiously diverse history in all of China. Being so close to Russia the people of Harbin have Jewish and Russian Orthodox history, combined with the Temples for Confucius, Daoism and Buddhism. They also have some of the most beautiful church buildings I’ve seen in China. The food is also worth a mention.  Russian sausage on a stick sold next to dumplings and non-alcoholic German beer anyone ?

I set out to explore these places; to talk to the people  and discover the religious tapestry. What I found was perplexing and disheartening for a faithful like me. Churches, built with devotion and dedication to the Lord, were empty shells. A magnificent synagogue stood proudly in the city centre which was converted to a museum. There were café lined streets and restaurants with the Star of David in the windows; the only marking reminiscent of the rich Jewish community that used to call this place home.  The architecture and grand design of these buildings were there to be appreciated and admired, for a price, with your tourist tickets. Many buildings seemed to be  visited to snap a selfie in between trips to the ice displays.  I guess a tourist at the Vatican or York Minster is the same. It’s not necessarily a pilgrimage for everyone. Maybe it’s just pretty to see if you’re in town, yet it left me heavy hearted.

What happened here? Clearly the limitations put in place by the regime affected these organisations, but I was surprised to see the soullessness echoing still today. I did find an operational mosque which was grand and beautiful. I was not able to go in but I was told that the Islamic community is alive and well in Harbin. My hosts and I continued to visit empty temples, boarded up churches and just when I thought all was lost we stumbled across the Harbin Nanang Christian Church and a service was getting ready to begin. Thank the Lord! A church full of locals, who were devoted and practicing their faith. The ladies chatted to us and remined me that Jesus loves me, the only English sentence they knew. Cute!

In this church the service was not due to start for another hour yet the congregation arrived early to interact with each other, read the bible quietly and then out loud in a chorus prior to the service. I noticed it was a very female led congregation with the odd scattering of a husband or son among the pews.

We also dropped into a Daoist temple not on the list but a must see, said my host. This small unassuming local temple housed a small shrine, three prayer stools, a table with information and incense. The Daoshi was happy to chat to me and gave me a gift to remember my time there. He explained to me Ying and Yang, reminding me of the importance of balance in my life and therefore the world.

Three days in Harbin – seven churches, four temples two  mosques and a synagogue. Not to mention the Confucius temples that are supported by the government but not on the list of sanctioned religions. Harbin, rich in history but is it rich in faith? I’m not sure. China continues to confuse me as to whether religion is free or merely present? I’m not an investigative journalist, but what I do know is that people of all faiths have embraced me in China, so that has to stand for something.

http://www.icefestivalharbin.com/

 

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

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Buddhism in the far east.

China is historically a Buddhist nation with thousands of temples, some dating back more than 1700 years. Buddhism is a practice in which the follower observes a series of teachings of Buddha, not a God but a man who lived. Buddhists do not believe in a divine God or Supreme Being, although it has been said that as Buddhism is a practice you can be a follower of Christ or God (or whoever) and still be a Buddhist . I like this about Buddhism, the openness and acceptance of all religions and inclusion of humanity and its right to choose. Globally, there are more than 480 million followers, predominantly in Asia.  Buddhist centres, principals and congregations can be found all over the world, making Buddhism the fourth largest religion in the world, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism .

Check out Core of Buddhism from religioustolerance.org. This is one of my favourite references of Buddhism, of course there are so many out there, but this one is so simple. (The full link is below.)

  1. Sila: Virtue, good conduct, morality. This is based on two fundamental principles:
  •   The principle of equality: that all living entities are equal.
  •   The principle of reciprocity: This is the Golden Rule in Christianity – to do unto  others as you would wish them to do unto  you. It is found in all major religions.
  1. Samadhi: Concentration, meditation, mental development. Developing one’s mind is the path to wisdom which in turn leads to personal freedom. Mental development also strengthens and controls our mind; this helps us maintain good conduct.
  2. Prajna: Discernment, insight, wisdom, enlightenment. This is the real heart of Buddhism. Wisdom will emerge if your mind is pure and calm.

Source – http://www.religioustolerance.org/buddhism1.htm

Here in China I am confused with the terminology used by the Chinese people I meet. They come in droves to the temples to pay their respects and wish for good luck. Is that not the same as honouring God, and praying for blessings? The word luck and wish are used a lot in my conversations with the locals. I spoke to a lady in the Hanshan temple in Suzhou and asked if the people who were praying were all Buddhists. Her reply surprised me, “Probably not. They are just here for good luck because it is the New Year.” Interesting. So, it begs the question – who is granting the good luck? Or who are they asking?

LUCK – a force that brings good fortune or adversity

BLESSING – a beneficial thing for which one is grateful

WISH – a desire or hope for something to happen

PRAYER – an earnest hope or wish

 

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I have visited 17 temples in China: in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Harbin, Suzhou and Beijing. The theme is the same. A symbolic brazier is located in the courtyard, with a bell tower and drum tower normally opposite each other. Large gorgeous gold Buddhas are housed in a series of halls throughout the often-expansive grounds and incense is everywhere you turn. People come and kneel before the statues and three seems to be the magic number. Three bows of the head, three sticks of incense, and three times raising your hands in prayer. I got chatting with a monk at the magnificent Lin Ying temple in Hangzhou. Through his Mandarin, my Aussie English and Google translate,   we discussed the crowded forecourt and masses of people pouring in and out of the temple walls in a constant stream, in the half hour we sat and chatted. His view as well, is that not everyone is a Buddhist. This illusion of luck if you attend the temple at New Year and pay your respects, and then your year will be filled with happiness (blessings?). He had been a monk for 15 years and was committed to his faith, but reminded me that the teachings of Buddha do not include the reverence of a Supreme Being. I asked again, who is supplying the luck? He smiled and said that our actions supply our own luck . If you act with kindness and goodwill, then that is what you will receive in return. So is Buddhism ‘The Secret’?

I’m left intrigued to this faith and its followers. I will journey to Tibet, Burma, Thailand and Japan to further explore this ancient tradition. As far as China is concerned, religion may be restricted but Buddhism is everywhere you turn; there are street sellers offering Buddhas and incense on every corner. There is a multitude of temples in their grandeur on offer in every town and a history dating back centuries.

Peace to all creatures – what could possibly be wrong with that?

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Shanghai – Where are the Faithful?

I’ve arrived. It was a rather chilly reception when I landed in China. With two degrees flashing on my watch I set off to the AirBnB, with my backpack strapped on. Another warm welcome greeted me and a delicious dinner was prepared by my hosts, Sophia and Haoran. I was so curious about the government restrictions, my hosts happily explained their view on religion in China over dinner. This couple of self-confessed ‘culturally Buddhists’ explained that religion is possible in Shanghai and their mother dutifully attended temple regularly. It’s no problem to attend church, they said. Okay, I thought, this will be easy.

So I set off to explore. I had two agendas in Shanghai. Operation Brazilian Visa (a whole separate post needed for that), and find people of faith in Shanghai, without getting into trouble. My trip was very loosely planned; mostly just to fly by the seat of my pants was the plan. Which was actually how I ended up in Shanghai. My sister-in-law’s Finnish cousin, Emma , who I only met on Christmas Day, is studying there so she offered a bed in her university dorms. Why not?


So using Sanda University Halls of Residence as a base, and after getting past the very staunch and uncooperative guard that is, I explored that massive metropolis, and in my Googling I discovered an InterNations event. It was there I met Flora. Flora was a gorgeous Chinese woman who had lived in the US for many years. We shared our stories and she told me how she had come to know Jesus through her friends in the US and that through a difficult time in her life she decided to see what all the fuss was about. She candidly relayed the intimate details of her life’s trials and nonchalantly mentioned how kind church people were. A notion I’m pleased to agree with, reminding me of a comment made by one of my mates in Bali who I took to a church event once. “Christians. Always so bloody nice aren’t they.” (Yes Matt, they are!). What was interesting about Flora was that she was desperate to find a church but had been deterred by all the regulations stating as a Chinese passport holder she could not attend. What? So rightfully or not I invited her to the church I had attended earlier in the week. She went and has found home there, one email is all it took. I wondered how long she had been searching for a church family?

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I explored temples and churches mainly in Shanghai and attended an incredible ‘women in faith’ fellowship group. Women from all over the world met to discuss God and share their faith. I was welcomed with open arms and the host Carolina from Costa Rica sparked my interest in the turtle program there. (I might just do that, it’s been nagging on my heart for over a decade). About 20 women huddled in and we were led by a wonderful woman whose testimony was inspiring and of course there was cake. I questioned the restrictions on Chinese participation and one lady said, “I heard that if the government came you better have a foreign passport, but I don’t ask questions and there are definitely Chinese locals in the congregation.” Confusing. The women prayed for my journey and gave me encouragement and wisdom. I was so happy to have met these ladies and will be sure to drop in on some more fellowship groups.


Lastly was Moses, now he never said he was faithful and he may not be. But, his name was why I picked his AirBnB for New Year. What I liked about Moses was his open attitude, we discussed religion and he was in the conservative camp. Maybe if you want to pray you can but it’s not encouraged. He did mention with the beauty of VPN in China now the access to ‘real’ information is easier. I asked him how he got his name and he said in English class in high school they chose English names. He had heard the story of Exodus and thought, “I want to be a leader and with a name like Moses maybe I will be.” A simple idea and maybe it just made sense to a 14 year old boy. Or maybe it is like the story of Abraham – Genesis 17:5. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.

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Moses certainly had the presence of a leader in my eyes.
I’m yet to discuss the ins and outs of Buddhism with a monk but I’m heading to a town with a famous temple so that might be my chance.

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim