Friday, 11 August 2017

Buddhist for a Night: South Korea Temple Stay


When I visited South Korea in 2014, courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation, I spent a lot of time in Seoul. The capital turned out to be a fascinating city, defying its stereotype of bland modernity.

The one big trip I took to the countryside was to stay overnight with a media group at the 9th century Haeinsa Temple, located in the leafy southern interior of the country.


It was an unconventional travel experience: wearing special pyjama-like clothing, getting up at 3am for chanting and bowing, and sleeping on thin mattresses upon heated floors in gender-segregated dorms.

One activity which my companions disliked was eating a vegetarian dinner in complete silence in the communal dining room.

For some reason though, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Maybe I do so much talking, that it felt refreshing to have an enforced break from it.

It was an interesting sleepover, though I was in two minds about some elements of the experience.

On one hand it was stimulating, taking place within an ancient temple in a beautiful natural setting.

We learned a fair amount about Buddhism, via an early Q&A session with a monk.

On the other hand, our subsequent 'training' sessions with the monk felt as if we were pretending to be Buddhists for the night, basically spiritual impostors.

It was an interesting tension, forcing some reflection on spirituality.

And I was glad I'd had the opportunity to visit the temple, especially to see its 700 year old collection of Buddhist texts on wooden printers' blocks.

The one big negative of the experience is that was that I managed to catch a hideous fast-acting sinus infection from a random pilgrim.

It stayed with me for months, through the rest of this trip and a subsequent trip to Oman.

Buddhists would no doubt tell me that such physical suffering is an inevitable part of existence; and a hazard of frequent travel.

Find out more about South Korea's Templestay program at its website: eng.templestay.com.

Friday, 4 August 2017

A Day in Jasper, Canada

On this trip I was a guest of Destination Canada and Tourism Jasper.

During my recent trip to Canada I had a day free in Jasper, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. This period was dictated by the timetables of two VIA Rail trains I was catching - The Canadian up from Vancouver, then the train northwest to Prince Rupert. So I hadn't thought much in advance about what I'd do in the town.

Turned out there were plenty of options. As Jasper is a popular holiday town in a beautiful location, there are lots of short tours and eating choices for visitors. Here's what I did with my day in the mountains.

1. Motorbike tour. In the middle of town is the base of Jasper Motorcycle Tours. It takes visitors on tours to nearby lakes and lookouts, perched on the back of, or in the sidecar of a Harley-Davidson.

There was a certain amount of theatrical dress-up involved, as the guest gets kitted out in leathers first:

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Then it was off into the mountains outside town for a while, for a taste of the open road and some impressive scenery:

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2. To the heights. After my motorcycle jaunt, I headed to the base station of the Jasper Skytram, a cable car that runs to the top of Whistlers Mountain (and whose staff seemed mostly Aussies!). From the top there are great views of the township and the surrounding mountains:

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3. Dinner in the woods. To finish off the day, I had an excellent dinner in the atmospheric dining room of Tekarra Lodge, just outside town.

A set of cabins built in the 1940s, the Lodge has a certain retro charm. I was also told that its restaurant was haunted (but maybe just by the ghost of that deer on the wall...). There was certainly a Twin Peaks vibe to the decor.

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I didn't meet any ghosts after dark, but the intersection of the Miette and Athabasca Rivers seemed a good place at which to finish my Jasper day. The next morning, I had a train to catch.