Varanasi (also called Banaras or Benares), is easily the craziest place I have ever experienced. If you take regular India, which is already astoundingly crazy, and add another factor of about 10, you have Banaras!
Located in the North Eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is the holiest sight in all of India. 3 million Indians and 200,000 foreigners flock there every year to see the holy Ganges and the many ceremonies celebrated there. And it isn’t only the Hindus that find this place holy. Jainism, Buddhism and Shiekism are all linked to Varanasi as well, and about 25% of the city’s residents are Muslim, so there is a great deal of cultural diversity. Best of all, is that all these cultures seem to come together in a peaceful way. That, in of itself, might be a miracle!
Our first time walking down the Ghats, I spotted this bit of grafitti. Sadly, during our second trip down this way, I noticed that it had been covered by flyers advertising a sale…
Cows and boats…typical sights in the ghats
There were plenty of boats being fixed as well
We walked along the River Ganges several times, people watching, animal watching and enjoying the old buildings and colourful scenery. Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi is very auspicious (lucky/holy) because it means that you will no longer have to reincarnate, and instead you will find Nirvana. Many people die and are cremated here and certain Ghats (areas of the river with steps leading into the water) are specifically reserved for that purpose. We saw several cremations taking place, which was both fascinating and a little horrifying for our sheltered western eyes. To the locals, this was business as usual, and there were children playing cricket in the neighboring ghat, where the smoke from the cremations blew into…
Cremation costs are based on the type of wood and the amount of wood that is used in the process. Salesmen in the area will urge you to come up onto a big alter for a ‘better view’ of the cremations, and then request that you help fund the funeral once you go to leave. Frankly…watching a body be cremated wasn’t something I wanted to experience, so the idea of ‘getting a better view’ wasn’t exactly on my list of priorities…
One of several cremation sights
Walking along the river at night was especially interesting. In addition to the cremations, there is a ceremony every night where people send out little floating candle offerings. This year hasn’t been great for tourism in India, so when we were there, there were probably more salesmen than tourists. The big seller on the banks of the Ganges: boat rides. Everywhere you go, people will be asking you a 1 word question: “boat?”. Depending who you speak to, a boat ride along the Ganges can cost anywhere from 100 rupees to 1000 rupees. The official price is suppose to be around 250 (according to government regulations), but just like everywhere else in India, the salesmen in Banaras just can’t help but try and soak you for that extra money…
Boats sit on the Ganges while spectators watch the ‘special’ ceremony that is done every night…
On the banks of the Ganges
Plenty of people also tried selling us hash, opium and even Colombian cocaine (doubtful). And of course, there were always beggars around, with various ailments..some real…some badly faked. It is considered specially good to give money to beggars in Varanasi, but it’s very unwise to do so as a foreigner. If you give to one…not only are you encouraging a practice that the government condemns, but you’re also opening yourself up to being mobbed by 30 other beggars in the area. I had it happen to me in China, and it was scary! It is very hard to give in when you are being asked by children…so hard…but it’s much better that they take on jobs instead of relying on begging. Especially with India’s growing tourism industry and the jobs that are being created with further focus on sanitation in the country, there will be more and more jobs opening up for these people in the future.
See here: urinals. Of course, nobody uses them. Instead you see people peeing up against the walls everywhere…the smell is terrible in some places…
There is hope for Varanasi though…trash bins are being placed all along the ghats. Now the struggle the government faces: getting people to USE them…
There is also life away from the Ganges’ Ghats. This densely populated city has a population of about 1.2 million residents. When you add in tourism, there are some very full roads. Varanasi is also quite poor, so the infrastructure leaves something to be desired. In an alley barely wide enough to fit 1 car, you’ll find Tuk Tuk’s, rickshaws and cars all weaving around each other, while pedestrians and people on bikes try to get out of the way. And of course, there is livestock everywhere as well. We saw plenty of cows, goats, pigs, chickens and even a few horses walking the roads of Banaras. Considering that the holy city is larger than the capital of my home province (Winnipeg, Manitoba), the variety of animals in the streets is surprising to anyone just arriving in India.
And if you think I must be exaggerating about the state of Varanasi’s roads, I will provide proof of the mayhem. This is a combinations of several videos I took while visiting the holy city.
If markets and the River aren’t what you seek in Varanasi, there are also plenty of temples to see. According to Wikipedia, there are an estimated 23,000 temples in Varanasi, ranging from small shrines to massive stone structures. We didn’t go into any this time around because we’ve seen enough to last us a lifetime. Instead, we walked the busy streets and spent an afternoon at a small cafe near Assi Ghat. Open Hand Cafe was wonderful…playing English music (the Dixie Chicks!!) and serving excellent coffee. Best of all, they sell items made by disabled women and children, who are unable to otherwise create income on their own. With fixed and fair prices, it’s an excellent place to make purchases.
Although this pack seems well fed, there were way too many skinny dogs in this city! I saw one with a rat in its mouth and I caught myself cheering for the pup! My joy that he was getting a meal trumped my disgust at the dead thing it his mouth…
A beautiful building down by the river
Varanasi is thought to be one of the world’s oldest continuously lived-in places. Some of the buildings sure look old….
In short, in Banares you will experience everything from fully visible cremations to near death experiences on the road to people claiming to be selling Colombian cocaine. No matter what your interests are…Varanasi has something for you!!!
We’re home now…but don’t worry! I’m not done writing about India just yet! Stay tuned for my posts about the Taj Mahal, our night in the desert and our final days in Delhi!
Around 7 years ago now, I decided to sit down and come up with a bucket list. I decided that there would be 100 items on that list and I knew, even before I began, that a lot of those items would involve traveling. In the last year I’ve been fortunate enough to cross 10 items off of that list, and I plan to be crossing off several more before 2015 ends. One of the things I’ve accomplished this year was our trip to Angkor National Park, which was the main reason we traveled to Cambodia for China’s May Holiday. Although I planned on finishing what I had to say (and show) about Angkor in 1 post, once I went through my pictures again, I realized that that would be impossible. There’s just too much to see and too much to tell to do it all in one post. So this will be part 1 of 2 on our stay in northern Cambodia, where we toured temples, met locals and visited a floating village.
The Cambodian Empire
Angkor National Park is all that remains of the Kampuchea empire, which reigned for over South-East Asia for over 600 years. Covering parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and even Burma, the Cambodian Empire was fierce and wealthy, and as such, its kings erected massive temples both in Cambodia and in its conquered lands. The most impressive group of those temples is near Siem Reap (named after a defeat against Thailand at that location), which is where we visited during our stay in Cambodia. Interestingly, during Kampuchea’s hay day, there was both Hindu and Buddhist influence in the area, so these temples vary quite a bit from one to the next, making Angkor National Park a fascinating visit.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Angkor National Park spans an area of over 400kms square and contains over 100 individual temples, ranging from Angkor Wat (an enormous temple with many buildings within its walls) to small ruins that are merely a wall left over from a previous sight that was destroyed.
Written records weren’t kept at this point in history, and much of what we know about the 9th-15th centuries has come from Angkor Wat and it’s surrounding temples. Carvings in the stone, as well as refinements of past culture still remain in these spots and they’ve told archeologists a great deal about South East Asian history. As someone who studied classical Roman and Greek history in University, I found that aspect of the park to be enthralling. Because of its cultural relevance, Angkor National Park was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is preserved and has been repaired as a result. People flock from all over the world to see these sights, which are some of the most famous and awe inspiring temples in the world.
Our first stop in Siem Reap was Angkor Wat, the temple after which the national park was named. It spans 1km square and is the home to several libraries, halls and pools. It’s fared well against the test of time and has been restored through the years, where needed. We were lucky enough to visit Angkor Wat twice…I’ll be writing about our sunrise visit in my next post. Our first stop was a very hot one (the temperatures in Cambodia during the dry season go up to 40 degrees celcius…and stay there…all…day….long…), but well worth the trip. Our guide was a decent photographer too, so we even got pictures of the two of us in Angkor National Park, which was nice 🙂
The heat definitely played a factor in our enjoyment of Angkor Wat (along with our guide’s underestimation of the amount of water we’d need…we ran out early…), but Dave was brilliant enough to make a video before we got too exhausted:
We left Angkor Wat and hopped into a nicely air conditioned van, where we enjoyed the rest of our iced coffees to cool down. Iced coffee is AMAZING in Cambodia!!! Instead of sugar, they use sweetened condensed milk, which gave it a nice flavor. Plus, they get their coffee from Vietnam, which has some of the world’s best :). My favorite part though…it’s served in a bag…
Ta Prohm is, without a doubt, one of the coolest looking places I’ve ever seen in my life. It was built in the late 12th – early 13th centuries and unlike Angkor Wat, which was built under a Hindu King, Ta Prohm was built primarily as a Buddhist school. What makes Ta Prohm so interesting though isn’t it’s Buddhist ties. The fact that the temple has been kept as it was found, wild and grown over by trees, makes it the perfect spot for photos.
Ta Nei is one of my favorite spots we visited. It was a long way away from all the other temples, (our driver had to go down some roads that looked like they were just walking paths in the middle of the jungle in order to get us there), but once we arrived, we saw why it was worth the trip.
Not only were there no other tourists there, but the sight is gorgeous! It’s definitely seen better days, and it hasn’t been restored the way Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm have been, but there is such a rawness to this old temple…I got some of my favorite pictures of the whole trip during this visit.
We loved this sight so much, we even remembered to take a video for it! I love how beautifully quiet it was there 🙂
Bayun (or Bayan) Temple
Our last stop on day one of our Siem Reap Tour was in Angkor Thom, the last (and longest enduring) city of the Cambodian Empire. Although there are several sights to see within Angkor Thom, Dave and I were suffering from pretty terrible heat exhaustion, so we only saw some of them from within the air conditioned vehicle. Our tour guide wanted to save our energy for Angkor Thom’s greatest masterpiece: Bayon Temple (I’ve also seen it spelled ‘Bayun’ Temple).
Built in the late 12th century, 100 years after the building of Angkor Wat (our first stop of the day), this is clearly a Buddhist temple. From afar, it is a beautiful sight to see, but when you see it up-close, you realize how fascinating this temple truly is.
Each of Bayon’s 54 towers has a large face carved into each of its 4 sides. That means that this magnificent temple has a total of over 200 faces. It made for some incredible photos!!
I should add that these faces are enormous…here is Dave and I standing directly in front of what is considered Bayon’s most beautiful Buddha.
I was very happy to have a guide at this point, as he was able to point out some of the best shots. There were so many faces everywhere that I could have easily missed shots like these ones:
He also got some great pictures of the two of us. By the end of this part of the tour, we were both feeling like we did on our wedding day…tired of smiling! But it was all worth it in the end! I would have been devastated had I not gotten some of these pictures!!
So that was day 1 of our Siem Reap stop. I’ll be back next week with Day 2, where we experienced Angkor Wat at sunrise, a floating fishing village and Cambodia’s beautiful ‘Lady’s Temple’.