Monday, 19 January 2009

Day 1: Bangkok to Varanasi

Day 1 (8 January 2009): Bangkok to Varanasi

The Swarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok was surely different from the old Don Muang airport I visited more than 4 years ago in November 2004. Don Muang back then was dusty and gloomy, and rather hot and uncomfortable. Now, in Swarnabhumi I felt like arriving in the second version of Singapore Changi Airport, with duty free shops and inviting cafés with wireless internet everywhere. You can even have a few hours of spa if you transit for more than 2 hours!

Bangkok is always memorable. Back then in November 2004, I was there for the nth IUCN Conference, and with loads of memories too beautiful and personal to reveal here… Now, in January 2009, I only transited for 6 hours, but it was a nice and fun transit. The first cup of hot coco that I tried was terrible; it was not even in the same zip code with second class hot coco, let alone Max Brenner. But the next one that I had as I enjoyed the free wireless internet was better. Still Max Brenner is da man!

The trip to Varanasi was delayed for 30 minutes or so. No complains. I had a window seat, from which I could see the Irrawaddy River meandering below, the Gulf of Bengal, Myanmar, and parts of Southern India. We stopped for 30 minutes or so in Bodhgaya, Bihar, where a thick layer of fog covered most of the horizon. It was amazing that we were able to land at all. I also should rewind a bit and informed that I had also seen Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam) and Phnom Penh (Cambodia) from above, before dawn where everything was still dark and sleeping, as I peeked from my Thai Air window. One day, I shall really visit other countries in Indochina as well. Godspeed, or rather, Goddess-speed.

I landed in Varanasi at about 3:30 pm local time, and went through a very short process of immigration, but a very annoying custom process, for the custom officers there asked me why I brought so many cameras; was I to sell them?! Well, I said, I am to visit His Holiness Dalai Lama for an Indonesia-made Buddha statue inauguration, and of course I need to bring many cameras! And it’s not really many, it’s just a standard pack. One SLR with standard lens, one 250mm zoom lens, one small digital camera, and one pocket digital camera (in case I want my pictures taken by friends or passer-by who are not familiar with SLR). Most definitely a standard pack for a semi-pro photography freak like myself. I should have carried a tripod and declared myself a real pro, and got more problems because of that. I knew that customs bloke wanted to make things difficult, but I persisted, and got away without having to pay anything. It was very annoying though. And porters. I did not ask for any porters, but a guy just persisted in helping me carrying my light-weighted stroll-luggage to the taxi. He glared at me when I didn’t give him tips. I glared back and gave him nothing. What a way to start my journey in India.

Entering Varanasi was like entering a small town in eastern Indonesia, or a less-developed suburbia of Jakarta. Rustic, with many worn-out billboards and signs of commercial and political ads. But by the Gods and the Goddesses, the worst part is… the DUST! I knew Varanasi, or Kashi as many people say, is dirty, but I never thought that it was THAT dirty and DUSTY. Well, I knew it was big, so I expected a metropolitan like Bangkok, or at least half of it. It might be 1/3 of Bangkok… but it definitely made Bangkok a much nicer and cleaner city in comparison to this beloved city of Lord Shiva.

I arrived at the Ideal Tower Hotel at almost 5 pm. Regrouping and mingling with my friends from Anand Ashram Indonesia, including my master Swami Anand Krishna, and then took a shower and had dinner. I exchanged news about the Buddha statue, and we received most relieving news that the statue would be inaugurated by His Holiness the day after, on 9 January. Praise Lord Buddha, Lord Shiva, and Mother Gangga! How lucky I was: one day later, and I
would have missed the precious inauguration completely!

Pic 1: Samudera Manthan (Churning of the Ocean) in Bangkok Swarnabhumi Airport
Pic 2: Me at the new Bangkok airport

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