Experience the Wonders of Asia
“Fragrances of frangipani and jasmine, reverberating gongs in golden temples…these worked their way under my skin and into a deeper consciousness. I had fallen under the spell of Asia, and I knew I would always want more.”
—Marybeth Bond, from the Introduction
Women have been traveling to Asia in ever-greater numbers for the simple reason that it is the most fascinating continent on earth. From India to China, Japan to Sri Lanka, cultures, cuisines, and adventures form an intoxicating and enlightening web of experiences for women of all ages, interests, and backgrounds. In A Woman’s Asia you will:
- Meet the love of your life in Bhutan
- Dance in Mongolia with a descendant of Ghengis Khan
- Bathe with elephants in Nepal
- Return to a personal paradise in Bali
- Search western China for the perfect yurt
- Hike, sleep, and dream the Japanese Alps
- Overcome the People’s Liberation Army in Tibet
- Meet the Queen of Compassion in Singapore
- Leave your attachments in the dust of India…and much more.
by Marybeth Bond
I went to Asia for the first time when I was twenty years old and a student in Paris, but my fascination with the Orient had begun much earlier, when I was a child. Our elderly next-door neighbors had lived in Singapore, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka (but they had always called it Ceylon). I was enthralled with their tales about life on the rubber plantations and adventures in the jungle. They punctuated their stories with props: stuffed cobras, elephant toenails, embroidered slippers, and magenta silks pulled from an ornate leather trunk stashed in the basement. During my time in Paris the lure of the East grew stronger. The French romanticize their former colonies in Indochina, and my friends in France often referred to ancient Siam and the Khmer civilizations. When one said she was planning a trip there I jumped at the chance to head for the jungles of Malaysia, the golden Buddha temples in Bangkok.
It wasn’t the grand tour of the Orient. We ate pork buns, satay, and fresh mangoes on the street; in modest guesthouses we laid our heads on hard cots, enveloped in a cocoon of mosquito netting beneath whirling ceiling fans. From Kuala Lumpur we traveled upcountry and upriver to trek in the primeval beauty of Taman Negara National Park, where the sun rarely penetrated the thick jungle canopy. In hothouse conditions we hired a Dyak guide, indispensable because there was no trail system. Using a machete to clear a path, our guide made loud grunts and whistles to locate a nomadic aboriginal tribe. When we entered a clearing where a small group of aborigines were resting, a young hunter, clad in a loincloth, returned with a monkey and his blowgun over his shoulder. His handmade poison darts were stored in a quiver. We traded cigarettes and a lighter for a blowgun and some untreated darts.
In Bangkok we floated through the khlong waterways and wandered through golden temples where I was initiated into the sensual pleasure of my first massage. I reclined, fully dressed, on a straw pallet on the cement floor of the School of Traditional Thai Massage in the gardens of Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. I was disturbed by the moaning of a corpulent Chinese man on the pallet next to me, who had a thumb-length hair protruding from the mole on his chin. I was thrilled—the more exotic, the better.
In the garden of the dilapidated, unrenovated, colonial Raffles Hotel we split a Singapore Sling and I wore the orchid from the swizzle stick in my hair. We wandered through the night market and watched people buy live bullfrogs, snakes, and crickets to add to their dinner menu. It didn’t matter that very few Asians spoke English or French. Smiles, nods, and gestures welcomed us and made us feel safe.
But I did not feel comfortable. For the first time in my life, I felt off-balance. I could understand, at many levels, Western European culture and life. At some subliminal level, Asia befuddled me and shook the very foundations of my belief system. Why? Why were the people I met so seemingly satisfied and happy? Was it their religion, or perhaps family, friends, and community that was central to their lives? I had more questions than answers.
Fragrances of frangipani and jasmine, the aromas of ginger and lemongrass worked their way under my skin and into a deeper consciousness. The impact of traveling off-the-beaten path in the Orient was like the reverberating gong of a temple bell. I had fallen under the spell of Asia, and I knew I would always want more.
Ten years after my first journey there, I left my corporate job, bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok, and traveled alone for a year. I went to many of the remote places I had dreamed about as I sat in my cubical at work. For four months I trekked in Nepal, in the Everest, Annapurna, and Langtang areas. Although I feared India, I was seduced for five months—I trekked in the Kashmiri and Ladakhi Himalayas, meditated in a Buddhist temple, rode trains, camels, and rickshaws. Elephants carried me through the forests that are home to the tribes of northern Thailand, and I explored the shores and cultures of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bali, and southern India. What great truth did I learn? You will get diarrhea and you may, or may not, find God.
One truth is certain: Asia gets into your bloodstream. It was true for Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Graham Greene, John le Carré, James Michener, and it is true for me. We are drawn to the Orient for the timeless possibilities it holds—for culture, spiritual awakening, romance, adventure, and fabulous food.
On that second trip, I met my future husband, an American trekker, in Kathmandu. Since then I’ve returned with friends and my own family more than two dozen times, and I hope to return another dozen times. My yearning for Asia has not been dulled by marriage, mid-life, motherhood, or menopause.
It’s true that life is a journey, and for me, travel is a catalyst for change. After I appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show with my book Gutsy Women, I renewed my efforts to urge women to take time off to revive themselves. As demonstrated throughout this book, many women use travel as the cocoon stage in which to grow, discover themselves, and make changes that would be harder to make at home.
When I went to Asia alone at thirty years old, I was called a “gutsy woman,” and I wear this badge, then and today, with pride. Gutsy does not mean foolish or arrogant. It means being savvy, strong, and courageous. And I am not alone. Many other courageous, adventurous, and, yes, gutsy women are out there, in Asia, traveling right now.
We love to travel because it feeds our curiosity as well as the desire to see and connect with other cultures. When we travel, we bring home a bit of the world. We know how important it is to care for our brothers and sisters, worldwide, regardless of religion or politics. Upon my return from each trip to Asia, I realize I have found another soul mate: Made from Bali; Ringee, Namdu, Pertemba, and Olga from Nepal; Anita and Mandip from India. The list goes on and on and I am deeply enriched by these friendships.
Most recently, for our Christmas holiday, my family and I went to southern Thailand where the weather is almost always sunny and deliciously warm. The ocean is calm and clear. “Why are you traveling so far for Christmas?” friends and family asked. “Because we love Asia; its food, culture, natural beauty, and most of all, its people.” Of course, those who haven’t experienced Asia wonder why Hawaii or the Caribbean isn’t good enough. I reply to my friends, “Thailand deserves its reputation as ‘The Land of Smiles.’ The people are sweet, kind, patient, and fun-loving.”
We had the usual plans for a vacation in southern Thailand. We wanted to snorkel, dive, sail, kayak, and relax. We had no idea we were headed towards the worst natural disaster in modern times. My family’s December holiday to this favorite destination transformed into a lesson in life, as the Land of Smiles was filled with terror and tears.
The story of our close call with the tsunami is included in this collection. It was written by our sixteen-year-old daughter, Julieclaire.
Of course, the scenes of the tsunami remain etched in my mind. Today, as I sit at my desk writing to you, I count my blessings as I struggle to cope with my family’s survival and the death of so many innocent people. My heart goes out and remains with the people there. The earth can tremble and we can vanish in an instant. Life is fragile. San Francisco has earthquakes, New York City had the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Florida has hurricanes, but we return to these wonderful places. And so when asked, “Would you return to Thailand?” I answer unequivocally, “Absolutely, tomorrow, given the opportunity.”
My experience with the tsunami solidified my passion for Asia and my deep connection with the people, culture, and religions. My close call in southern Thailand has brought me, symbolically, closer to Asia, closer to life.
Join me and the women in this book to share adventure, romance, healing, self-discovery, intellectual and spiritual explorations, escape, and pilgrimages. May our stories open a door, and give you courage, confidence, and wisdom.
Waltz at the End of Earth
The Gift of Beggars
The Beginner’s Gift
Taken for a Ride
Up Mandalay Hill
Tara Austen Weaver
Bathing with Elephants
All Night on the River Kwai
Confrontation at Xegar Checkpoint
Jennifer Leigh Rosen
Sweating in Taipei
Dancing with the Conqueror
Passing through Bandit Territory
On a Wing and a Prayer
Katherine L. Clark
Tibetan Bargain with a Twist
Queen of Compassion
Love Potion No. 9
A Wedding in Ekinlik
The Path to Buddha
The Face of Disaster
Leilani Marie Labong
Ann Armbrecht Forbes
Thailand’s Lost Children
Janna L. Graber
The Holy Nectar of Immortality
Trigger Happy in Cambodia
Returning to Paradise
The Moss of Time
Amy Greimann Carlson
In Search of the Perfect Yurt
Carried Away in Bhutan
Sample Chapter: Carried Away in Bhutan
by Linda Leaming
She experienced not just the wheel of karma, but the wheels.
I came to Bhutan ten years ago to punctuate a two-month trip I was taking through India. “A nice diversion,” is how the travel agent had pitched it. It was. And it still is.
Like many who come to this tiny Himalayan country, I was instantly attracted to the Bhutanese people, their remarkable physical beauty, easy charm and propensity to laugh. I traveled in Bhutan for two weeks, all the way to the country’s far east and back to Paro in the west. On my way east, I stopped in Punakha for two-and-a-half days of sightseeing. Punakha valley was warm and unusually sunny, that is to say not rainy, as it was August and the Monsoons were supposed to be in full force. I stayed at a hotel on the top of a mountain at the southern end of the valley. It was low season for tourists and I was the only customer at the hotel. It was amusing to have the entire staff at the hotel, which numbered about twenty, focused entirely on me. So much so that I merely had to look in the direction of an empty glass at dinner and four waiters would rush toward the table armed with pitchers of water.
My first day there, I was ready to shake off India and have an excursion on my own. I decided to walk down the hotel road to where it intersected with the main road that ran through the valley. I took the valley road past the imposing Punakha Dzong at the confluence of the Mo Chuu and Po Chuu—the mother and father rivers—and through to the other side of the valley. When I set off I had no idea how long it would take, but Bhutan is a place where I always feel like walking. It is suited to travel at the most leisurely of paces.
And unlike India, where I had been traveling for about a month, I could let my guard down. There were no beggars. The Bhutanese were polite and smiling. They seemed delighted to see me, but mostly they left me alone.
A rudimentary motor road meandered through the heart-stoppingly beautiful Himalayan valley of Punakha, and paralleled the wide Mo Chuu, or “mother river,” which began to flow as glacial run-off above Gasa to the north, then into Punakha and inevitably, I imagine, to India. The long valley curled around lush mountains terraced with bright green rice paddies. It had been raining all summer, so all of the vegetation looked ready to explode with emerald ripeness. There were leafy, geometrical orange groves, which made nice counterpoint to unruly, red poinsettia trees. Farmhouses and the occasional palace belonging to this or that member of the Bhutanese Royal Family, painted with the distinctive Bhutanese Buddhist iconography, dotted the fields. Gold-roofed Buddhist temples appeared here and there, usually high up in the mountains above the farmland. The air was delicious, clean, and sweet-smelling. I remember feeling it was a day where anything could happen and I felt light-headed and giddy. It might have been the altitude, but it didn’t really matter: Bhutan made me happier than any place I had ever been.
It was so easy to be happy. Children stopped their play to watch and wave to me shyly, but with obvious delight, as I passed by the occasional house at the side of the road. One boy, the bravest of the children, stood as if at attention as I walked by his house saying formally but improbably, “Hello Englishman!” I smiled, said hello, and threw in a wave. He smiled and waved back, rewarded for his effort. I was clearly the most interesting thing to have come down the road in a while. They were so hopelessly charming, and I felt drunk with good will, the cerulean blue sky, the mountain air, and the sparkling sun that was so intense it made confetti everywhere.
As if on cue, a herd of cows meandered past. I imagined being a cowherd in Bhutan. Or a cow. How would it be to walk this charming road every day? I have to say it didn’t sound bad. I am a hopeless daydreamer, and this seemed an excellent qualification for life, any life, in Bhutan.
Before I knew it I was almost two hours into my walk and the valley walls on either side of the road had become steeper, the mountains more imposing. I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I had seen any people—or cows. Although the scenery was still breathtaking, it was clear that I should turn around and head back to the hotel and the lunch that would surely be waiting for me. The combination of high altitude and exercise had made me very hungry. But before I turned back I thought it would be a good idea to go down to the river’s edge—about fifty feet to the right of the narrow road. There the Mo Chuu was wide but shallow, with clear water flowing over smooth brown stones. I had heard its rushing like an endless loop of white noise all the while I was walking. It had been calling me. Before I knew it, I was beside the river with my shoes and socks off and my pants rolled to my knees. This must have been what I’d had in mind all along. Who could pass up dipping one’s feet in the icy cold water during a longish walk through a beautiful valley in Bhutan? I inched my toes and then my feet into the startling wet, and I was just thinking how slippery the stones were and how I should be careful and try not to fall when—boom, I fell.
Laughing, I pulled myself up out of the water and as I put my weight on my left foot, a sharp pain went up my leg from the ankle. I quit laughing. It felt twisted. Not badly twisted, but the thought of walking all the way back to the hotel, including the last twenty minutes up a mountain road made me wince with pain. Now my wonderful walk had taken a turn. I sat on the riverbank and examined my ankle and foot. The ankle was already starting to swell and I cupped it in my hands and felt heat.
As I struggled to put my socks and shoes back on, I tried to keep calm and upbeat by thinking of worse predicaments I’d gotten myself into. But I couldn’t think of any. Getting hurt or sick is what every woman traveling alone dreads—not being able to go on. I got my boots on and the support of my boot on the twisted ankle made it feel a little better. This is not so bad, I thought. But it was, and it hurt like hell and I couldn’t stop limping.
I made it back to the road. There were no cars around, or trucks or people, or even dogs. There were always dogs around in Bhutan. Where was everybody? I limped along the road for a few minutes, telling myself that it was okay, but I felt silly, walking a little like The Mummy in those old movies. Even hurt, I still felt safe in Bhutan. I wasn’t lost. Eventually the people at the hotel would come looking for me. I was all they had. But if I could just walk, get back to the hotel on my own somehow. If I could get down the road just a little bit then maybe I could find a car, a truck, a tractor, something mobile to give me a lift. The thing that upset me most was thinking of hobbling by the children who were playing in front of their houses. I didn’t want to limp past them, wounded, and spoil the picture. I tried to cheer myself up imagining walking past on my hands like a circus act. Or maybe I would meet up with the cows again and could ride one. They seemed docile enough.
The ankle and ensuing pain became a focal point, and I could hardly enjoy the scenery. Now fully miserable, I had to stop and rest, get off the ankle and so I sat on a rock at the side of the road, near a small temple that was partially obscured by an enormous, room-sized boulder in front of it.
I sat there for I don’t know how long, and it was clear that no one was coming, and I was hungry and hurting. With great effort, I made myself get up and start walking again. Almost at once, I heard the sound of a motor—it was a motorcycle, behind me. I stopped and put my arm out and waved the air like I’d seen hitchhikers do in Bhutan. A man wearing a black helmet with visor and a gho, the handsome national dress of Bhutanese men, passed me slowly. He didn’t even look at me.
Then the oddest thing: he went down the road a few feet and he swung the motorcycle around and came back to where I was standing. “Where going?” he said.
I hobbled toward him. “You want me to get on?” I asked. “Can I get on? You’re giving me a lift?” I paused. He said
nothing. I had asked too many questions. “Oh, please let me get on,” I said as I positioned my good leg to take my full weight and I swung my bad leg over the back of the bike. I was afraid he would get away.
Now only inches away at the front of the bike, he turned his head sideways and said again, “Where going?”
“The hotel on the mountain,” I said and pointed up. “Zangtopelri.”
He let out a big laugh.
As I learned later, Zangtopelri, besides being the name of the hotel on the mountain in Punakha, is the heavenly abode of Guru Rinpoche, the patron saint of Bhutan.
It felt like I was going to heaven on the back of the bike. I was thrilled to be mobile, off my ankle and riding in the open air. It was my lucky day. This kind man, this wonderful man, was giving me a lift. He drove deliberately and expertly, avoiding potholes and bumps, and he even seemed to slow down as we passed a house with the children playing outside. They were busy pushing a small boy in a cardboard box around the yard. They looked up, and, seeing me again, this time on the back of a motorcycle, they shrieked with delight.
One little girl called out “Hello my darling!” as she waved furiously. They all giggled and waved and smiled these amazing, delighted, whole-face smiles. Me too, as I waved wildly with one hand and grabbed the fabric of the man’s gho with the other. All of us, the children and me, waved and smiled because we were old friends. My heart melted.
We got to the hotel and I hobbled off the bike and began another assault of questions. “Was this out of your way? How can I thank you? Will you come in and have tea? What can I do? Can I give you lunch?”
“Me jhu. Me jhu,” he said. No thank you.
I remember feeling like I didn’t want him to leave. I didn’t want this dramatic rescue to end. I dug in my pant’s pocket and pulled out a wadded 500 ngultrem note—not an insubstantial sum in Bhutan. I tried to give it to this man with the motorcycle. He was still astride his bike, wearing his helmet with the black visor and so I couldn’t see his face very well, but I did see him purse his mouth below the visor and turn his head slightly, as if he was offended by my offer of filthy lucre. He wouldn’t take the money.
I couldn’t think of anything else. “Thank you,” I said.
“Welcome,” he said, smiled, and drove away.
A couple of days reading in the lobby of Guru Rinpoche’s heavenly abode with my foot elevated, the staff swarming around me like bees, and my ankle was fine. After Bhutan, I went back to India and traveled in the south for a month or so. Then I met friends in Italy. I remember sitting at a café at the Piazza Duomo in Florence, talking to them about Bhutan. I’d even gotten my film from Bhutan developed in Italy and I made them look at the pictures.
“Don’t start with the Bhutan stuff,” they teased. “What about India? Weren’t you in India for two months? Look around you. You’re in Italy now.”
“I’m going back,” I said.
Great, they said and offered to stuff me in a cannon and shoot me back to Bhutan. But I couldn’t help myself. I was already carried away.
The next few years I came back to Bhutan several more times on holiday, and the next year, I got a job teaching
English at a traditional art school just outside of Thimphu. Teaching at that school made me radiant with happiness.
At thirty-nine, firmly ensconced in middle age, I felt I had found the center of the universe. The other teachers were all Bhutanese tangkha artists, woodcarvers slate carvers, weavers and embroiderers, all making this highly refined but obscure and wonderful Buddhist art. The students, charming, studious and intensely focused, worked all day drawing, painting and praying, and they spent about an hour and a half a day with me learning English.
The second year I taught at the school, I married one of my coworkers, a tangkha lopen or teacher, a painter of Buddhist iconographic images. He was talented, shy and enormously kind. It was the first marriage for both of us.
My husband’s name is Namgay and he is uncomplicated, but surprising.
As he is Buddhist, he believes our karma brought us together as it has before in other samsaras and it will countless times again as we are born and reborn. Maybe in the next life I’ll be his mother; after that, he’ll be my dog. It doesn’t matter to him. What matters is we’ll be together. This he doesn’t doubt. His conviction is convincing and now I’m inclined to agree.
I hesitate to tell the rest of the story, because it is enough just to say I have found a home and a voice and a wonderful, albeit quiet life among the people and mountains of Bhutan. Living here has taught me to slow down and pay attention to the signs of life and life force that are so abundant. But sometimes I still have to be hit over the head.
One day, about two years after we married, Namgay said something that stunned me. I can’t recall what we were talking about, but he asked me if I remembered the day he gave me a lift?
“What do you mean?” I asked. “What lift?”
“On my motorcycle.”
“You don’t have a motorcycle.”
“Before. That day you hurt your ankle.”
“What? That was years ago. In Punakha. How did you know I sprained my ankle?”
“Because,” he said sweetly and completely matter-of-factly, “I gave you a lift.”
“No! That was you,” I cried. “That was you? On the motorcycle?” After so many years, the picture of him riding up on the bike was still vivid, that day when he rescued me on the road. The helmet shade obscured his features, except the lips. But I have certainly seen those lips since. Of course it was he.
And now I understand that life is full of these moments, these life altering, happy coincidences. They probably happen much more than we think or are aware of, especially when we are traveling, loosed from our moorings, if you will. And I know that if a day comes and you’re in a place that seems absolutely magical, when you feel like anything can happen, you just have to go with it: go ahead and let yourself get carried away.
Linda Leaming lives beside a river outside of Thimphu, Bhutan. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including The Guardian Weekly, Cimarron Review, Greensboro Review and Tashi Delek. Currently, she writes and edits for the Centre for Bhutan Studies and is completing a book about Bhutan from which this story was excerpted. In 100 years she hopes to be a redheaded ghost in some valley in Bhutan.
Marybeth Bond has not always been a Gutsy Woman. During summer camp, at the age of ten, she was nicknamed “Misty” because she had a bad case of homesickness. Not one of her counselors would have predicted the bright travel career that lay ahead.
Now a nationally recognized travel expert, speaker, and media personality known as the “Gutsy Traveler,” she is the award-winning author/editor of seven women’s travel books including the national bestseller, A Woman’s World, winner of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Gold Medal for Best Travel Book from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation.
Marybeth has walked, hiked, climbed, cycled, and kayaked her way through six continents and more than seventy countries. Her travels have taken her from the depths of the Flores Sea to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, across the Himalayas and the Sahara Desert. She made her first gutsy decision when she left a successful corporate career, put her worldly possessions in storage, and bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok. While some thought (and told her) she was nuts, she traveled “single and solo” for two years around the world. It was during her travels that she discovered the “gutsy woman” within herself and had the time of her life.
Marybeth continues to criss-cross the globe educating, enlightening, and empowering others to explore it through travel. Whether your idea of a “gutsy traveler” is taking your first plane ride across the Atlantic, navigating the promenades of Paris, or rafting in the Rockies, Marybeth’s travel tips, know-how, and practical advice will guide you along the way.
A highly sought after speaker, Marybeth has addressed numerous consumer groups, corporations, and industry insiders about the amazing benefits of travel. She’s also appeared on more than 250 network and cable media outlets including CBS, ABC, FOX, NBC, CNN, NPR to name a few. She was a featured guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where she discussed with Oprah how it is through travel that women can refresh, renew, and recharge themselves and be ready to take on the world.
Currently Marybeth is Adventure Editor for TravelGirl Magazine and a travel correspondent for iVillage.com and USAToday.com. Her articles have been published in magazines and newspapers around the country.
Marybeth is a member of National Association of Journal-ists and Authors and the Society of American Travel Writers and was an advisor for Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
She now lives in Northern California with her husband (whom she met while trekking in Nepal!), two daughters and the family dog. Please visit her web site at www.gutsy-traveler.com for more news, updates, and travel advice from Marybeth.