Lumbini was in my list of must-see places in Nepal. I visited it out of curiosity of what Buddha’s birthplace was like. While I am not a religious person, Buddhism, among all the religions in the world, resonates with me the most. And, Lumbini is one of the top holy sites among the Buddhists. It is their Mecca.
Taking two to three days from my 45-day stay in Nepal and coming to Lumbini, thus, seemed like an obligation.
But Lumbini, which is located in the Terai plains of southern Nepal close to the Indian border, turned out to be underwhelming, not to mention the long and dusty bus ride from Kathmandu and the subtle harassment I got from the tour guide I hired for one day.
My experiences in Lumbini were punctuated by ironies and ugliness. At first I thought writing about it would be all-zen. A magazine editor had even asked me to write about it before my supposed trip. But it would be too hypocrite of me not to tell exactly what happened and what was on my mind while I was there.
I left Kathmandu for Lumbini a day after a three-day international conference on investigative journalism which I attended because it happened to be held just where I was in that month. I was still recovering from cough and colds so I was not in my top shape. I arrived at the bus station in Kathmandu 5 minutes after the AC bus en route to Lumbini had left. I had no choice but to take the non-AC bus to Bhairawa. In Bhairawa, I had to find another bus going to Lumbini. All in all, the travel took 11 hours because these ordinary buses stopped frequently to pick up passengers.
While in discomfort and sweating inside a full bus that was like a sardine can, I consoled myself: “Everything will be better in Lumbini.” To get through the day, I tried to think of impermanence, a Buddhist thought. Everything, without exception, is “transient, evanescent, inconstant.”
I arrived in Lumbini at half past 6 in the evening. On the bus, I was half-worried that it might be too dark to find a guesthouse to stay for the night. I didn’t book my accommodation beforehand because I thought it might be less costly to simply scout for a cheaper room, which turned out to be a right decision. I found a room for 5 US dollars.
But still it was a risk to come in the night. (Tip: Make sure to get the AC bus at the Kathmandu bus station at 7 a.m. because the travel would surely take six to seven hours. You will arrive in Lumbini by 2 or 3 in the afternoon.)
The caretaker of the first guesthouse which I had checked asked me how much I was willing to pay for a private room and quickly I replied: “500 rupees.” He initially said 700 rupees but he eventually agreed to my price. The room was clean and had basic amenities- shower, fan, and a queen-size bed, all that I needed.
Lumbini has been identified as the birthplace of the Buddha way back in 248 BCE. A pillar of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, who visited Lumbini in 248 BCE, stands erect there with an inscription commemorating the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, whom the world knows as the Buddha, or the enlightened one. The exact place where Buddha was born has always been a subject of debate. Some claim he was born in India. But Buddhists for more than 2, 000 years believe that the enlightened one was born in Lumbini, a town located in the present-day Nepal.
When I came to Lumbini, I was disheartened to see poverty everywhere. I saw several children with gaunt eyes, tiny bodies and bloated bellies. While I was eating outside a restaurant, one child carrying a tiny baby, probably 1 to 2 months old, was begging for alms. “Should I give her money?” a Caucasian woman sought our help in her decision whether to give or not. A Japanese tourist replied: “It’s up to you.”
After an hour another girl came with the same baby asking the other tourists for money.
My misadventure started when I met an unusually friendly owner of a restaurant near the guesthouse where I was staying. When he found out that I was Filipino, his face brightened up and in an instant he became chatty. He even Skyped his former Filipino officemates in Dubai so they could talk to me. So he somehow earned my trust. He offered me a tour guide to go around with me the next day. I asked how much and he said I shouldn’t bother and it would be up to me. (Note: This was a mistake. Hiring a guide turned out to be more costly than just hiring cycle rickshaws and figuring out where to go on your own. )
I met the tour guide the next day. He was supposed to drive me around with his motorbike. But an hour after visiting the gleaming white Peace Pagoda, his motorbike began to malfunction. It wouldn’t start. We had to take a rickshaw and then bus from where we were.
It was totally fine with me. I know shit happens on the road. But what pissed me off big time was this tour guide’s subtle sexual advances. There were several times he put his arm around my shoulder despite my disapproval. I told him, still politely, that, it is inappropriate to touch a woman. “But we are friends,” the guide reasoned out.
His advances, no matter how subtle, made me uncomfortable throughout the day. Worst, after I paid him 1, 500 NR (15 USD) , he stroked my back in a sensual way.
I stood up and shouted “I told you not to touch me!” I walked away. But I felt I didn’t do enough to punish him for his acts. It was clearly a harassment. While in my room, I was boiling over. I should have expressed utter disgust, curses and all, to prove a point. I shouldn’t have allowed it to pass.
But I actually allowed it to pass. I felt I had to leave Lumbini as soon as possible.
(My advice to solo female travelers: team up with fellow travelers if you are in South Asia. And for your safety, look for a female tour guide instead. You can also go around around Lumbini on your own. And if anything like this happens to you too, tell the guy to F*ck off!)
My misadventures actually didn’t end with that. Perhaps due to the rough day, I found it difficult to sleep on my last night in Lumbini. I did manage to sleep eventually, so soundly that I missed my 7 a.m. bus to Pokhara. I had to take a non-AC ordinary bus, which again crawled on the road to pick up as many passengers as possible.
So if you’d ask me if I got my zen while I was in Buddha’s hometown? My answer is definitely not.
I went back to Pokhara where the approaching winter cooled the air. And the sight of the Annapurna Himalaya cheered me up again. I went back to my yoga mat the next day. And, all things had gone well.
In a way, Lumbini gave me a taste of ironies and some lessons learned.