Travel tips for the "land of enlightenment"
Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India
A., an Indian viewer in Singapore, writes:
I would love to see the Bodh Gaya temple, marking the spot where the Buddha achieved enlightenment 2550 years ago. But it's in Bihar, the most lawless state of India. Is it safe, and is it worth risking Bihar for?
Yes, Bihar can be like the Wild Wild West without the cowboy hats. But you are among thousands of pilgrims and tourists each and every week, so you will not be alone. There are hassles, but most arrive and depart Bodh Gaya in complete safety.
The main pain-in-the-asana is the fact that the train does not go directly to Bodh Gaya itself - only to the sort-of nearby town of Gaya. Other than the train, there is virtually nothing in Gaya to keep you and everyone wants to get out ASAP. The local transport barons know this and capitalize on it.
In my case, literally about 200 western Buddhists, Tibetans and monks from all countries had been in UP for the Dalai Lama. En masse, we took a train from Varanasi to Gaya. The train was meant to depart VNS at 5.15 and arrive around 11am. Thanks to fog conditions, we ended up leaving VNS at 11.30 and arriving in afternoon!
Needless to say, after six hours we really got to know our fellow travellers on the platform.
At Gaya station, we descended on the auto-vultures who immediately tried to overwhelm us with exorbitant demands - taking advantage of the coming darkness. You should never travel from Gaya to Bodh Gaya after dark! even with other people).
Fortunately the Tibetan monks go all the time and knew the score. So I took a share auto with a bunch of monks who got the correct price. (They all speak Hindi and Tibetans do not bargain. Even the drivers are respectful to them.)
How much safer could a woman be?
We managed to get to Bodh Gaya by 4.30pm. Whew!
Once in Bodh Gaya you are home-free - it is quite the oasis, with lots of clean guest houses, good vegetarian restaurants and holy people from all traditions swanning round in their robes.
Sure, there is dust, some dirt and beggars. But it's a town quite well adjusted to travellers and foreigners. Women can move about freely there, but most stuff shuts at 9-10pm. My guesthouse gate shuts at 10pm. There is even an all-night cyber cafe with excellent speed - the Solar Cyber, next to the OM Restaurant on the main drag. Ask for Venu.
The BodhGaya temple is amazingly clean and peaceful, even while being continually used for worship. And - no entry fee for anyone! Open from 5am till 9pm every night.
The many international monasteries have cheap clean guesthouses - Burmese, Bhutanese, Thai, Bangladeshi, Japanese, Chinese and so on.
Best eating bets: the aforementioned OM Restaurant is always uncomfortably crowded, but the food is unfailingly clean, excellent and cheap - and they are open late (10pm).
The (confusingly named) Tibet OM Restaurant, in the back of the Gelugpa "white monastery" near Kalachakra Maidan, has everything in terms of peace and quiet that the original OM does not. It's run by "Mama," the wonderful Tibetan woman and her son and daughter. Everything is made with lots of love, and you can chill out there in peace.
In early March, Mama packs up and heads north to see the Dalai Lama's teachings in Himachal. In fact, many of the Bodh Gaya activities and places are seasonal this way.
Kalyan Restaurant, entrance directly opposite the main temple and back down a lane, has excellent and clean food, including South Indian, and one of the only peaceful outdoor terraces in town.
Mohammad's on "Restaurant Row" near Kalakchakra Maidan has great food and is extremely popular, but I found it to suffer in atmosphere.
"Restaurant Row" is a bunch of half-tent, half-bricks and mud "buildings" that look temporary but in fact have been there for years. I think they were set up hastily for the 2003 Kalachakra and never dismantled. The Thai restaurant has been recommended.
Check out what I call the "Korean Embassy" in the group of shops just inside the temple gates. It's a mini Korean temple that offers traditional Korean yoga classes every morning at 8.30 for donation only! Leah, the Israeli girl who lives there, will serve you herbal tea.
Bodh Gaya is a real haven and worth going through Bihar for; just take a few precautions.
--don't travel outside of Bodh Gaya, or between Bodh Gaya and Gaya, at night.
--Neighboring sites and villages such as Sujata, Dungeshawari Caves, Nalanda, Rajgir and NayaTaredhi are fine for day trips but get home before dark.
--I was advised by resident Tibetans not to even take the auto between Bodh Gaya and Gaya alone in the daytime - there are too many staged "accidents" and robberies.
--Take the plentiful and cheap cycle rickshaws round town. The autos (motorized, noisy rickshaws) tend to be more expensive and run by antisocial elements (advice from a local Indian).
--Shared autos (aka "Tempos") between Bodh Gaya and Gaya - safer because of the crowd - are 80Rs for the entire car, though the auto-sharks will always ask for much more. Pay no more than 20Rs per person.
--The best public toilet in town is the Reception Center just inside the temple gates. It's clean and always empty!
--Flat, highway-less Bodh Gaya is perfect for a bicycle. Rent one for 25Rs (about 50 cents) a day at Kundan Bazar, next door to the Hotel Embassy on the main drag. Kundan and his European wife Beatrix are a great source of local information and advice. The bike rental is just one of their many services, including new/used books (and book rental!), many foreign language books, a CD copying service, taxi booking, and cotton clothing. "The Kundans" also contribute to a number of local charities, such as a winter project to collect blankets for local street people - see more on their website here.
--After March, the weather becomes unbearably hot. Unless sweating is your sadhana, try to go in the winter time.
--Don't forget to check your shoes at the Shoe House by the gates - it's only 50paise (less than 2 cents). And, circle the Temple in the traditional clockwise direction - otherwise, you will be going against the current of dozens of pilgrims making the rounds!
--And last but not least, check the ground under the tree for fallen Bodhi leaves. They make a great free souvenir.
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