Saturday, February 23, 2008

Nepal and Thailand

This past November and December, I spent six weeks touring Nepal and Thailand. (My editor was kind enough to grant me a leave of absence.)

There's a Nepali word -- "khatham!" -- which means, "it's F*****." That describes the state of Kathmandu.

The Himalayas seem dwarfed by the mountains of trash on the streets, cleared occasionally by trash fire. Starving goats nibble on the shawls of beggars. The air pollution gives you a headache by noon; you're asleep by 5 p.m., trying to make it disappear in dreamland.

Yet it's rich culture -- filled with vibrant cloths, bright powders, children swinging on oak branches and old women feeding stray cows -- lend Nepal a beauty that even poverty and pollution can't cloak.

The people's daily lives are triumphs of the human spirit. One feeble man, with meager possessions, saved enough to buy a bathroom scale. Each day he sits on the sidewalk, charging passers-by a few pennies to check their weight. Resourcefulness in action.

Thailand, by contrast, is a European resort. Bangkok is a party destination, with hot restaurants and nightclubs and street-vendor Pad Thai Noodles and refreshing mango juice. Chiang Mai, in the north, is lush and green, with forests of bamboo trees that seem to shoot a mile high. The islands in the south have crystal-clear water and white beaches.