Page 2 - Deep Red Threat in Malaysia

For Whom the Gongs Toll in Nepal — Page 2
Story by Marco Ferrarese - pictures by Ferrarese and Kit Yeng Chan

Nepal travel story

After slogging over one last demanding hill, we returned to a main, flat road and joined a trail of people who were walking towards a place farther ahead along the road, where other people were gathering. As to enhance the dramatic effect of our arrival, the fog lifted, and a sound of gongs followed by the echo of religious chanting broke the silence of the mountains around us.

"Come, come... you can rest here," said our savior guide, indicating the wooden fence inside and outside of which most people kept going. He chaperoned us in, and as we went inside, the eyes of a hundred people lifted from whatever they were doing and focused on us. After an awkward moment of silence, the sound of drums, gongs, and a trumpet broke in, and I realized it was coming from a shelter on the left, where there was an impromptu pavilion covered in tarpaulin. Inside, an altar and a group of seated Buddhist monks were chanting and murmuring their mantras, like a sad orchestra, while several devotees shuttled food offerings and lit flower-shaped candles on an altar placed next to the lamas.

Nepali funeral ceremony

Tipsy for the Dead

"Where are we?" I asked, receiving more stares than answers. About twenty people stepped closer and surrounded us. Our guide slung a sheet on the grass and asked us to sit down and leave our bags. "Rest. You see that man?" He indicated someone standing next to the entrance, his face reddish, eyes looking up to the sky. "From Surkey. Rest first, then Surkey with that man".

Man in Nepal

Before I could even reply, two women among the group stepped forward with reverence and gave us plates. Another man came in from the left, holding a pot filled with a mix of stewed vegetables and crunchy oats, and someone else brought round breads. Hungry after many hours hiking, we started eating by dipping our fingers in the food as per local custom. We had just started, when our guide brought back three young men dressed in jeans and t-shirts. I stopped eating and gulped when they started greeting us in Malay.

"How do you know Malay?" my partner asked.

They were some of those returning immigrant workers who had spent time in Johor Bharu, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and other Malaysian cities. Being able to finally speak a common language, we received the answers we were looking for: we had stumbled upon a high-altitude Buddhist funeral. A family from the Tamang cast, traditionally Buddhists, had lost one of their daughters, only aged 37. We didn't know that in Nepalese Buddhist culture, it's about one month after someone passes away that the family throws a party to celebrate the departure and forget the mourning. Villagers close and far are invited to participate. They pray with a live ensemble of lamas, feast on traditional food, and most of all, drink their brains out of grievance.

"Do you want to try our wine?" one of the three Malay-speaking young men asked, and it was in that moment that I understood how teary and lucid his eyes were: he was already tipsy. A golden cup filled to the brim with dense orange liquid was passed around and shoved into my hands. It smelled strong and unappetizing, but I had to take a sip, as everyone was looking at me, pursing their lips and waiting: it tasted frothy, a bit fruity and laced with some ungodly local moonshine. I took a couple sips and handed it back, already feeling the fire of booze ignite the depths of my stomach.

Woman in Nepal

Most of the people around us were in the same condition: tipsy. Some even very drunk. I immediately understood why some women hung at the side of the monks' awning, peeking through and laughing at each other. It became immediately clear why men came to look at us, almost touching our foreheads with theirs, keeping their lips pursed, and their eyes shut in that typical alcohol-induced semi-blindness. Even some of the older women who were wearing their best golden jewelry through their ears and noses, wrapped in colorful silky dresses, couldn't stand straight. One of them, visibly intoxicated, held the scythe she used to cut grass in the fields way too close to her chin. A false move, and she could have cut herself badly. She stood up with fatigue, her face red and vacuous, slowly swaying. Most other villagers around her, however, instead of taking that blade from her hand, laughed at her, loudly and drunk.

"Don't want to drink more?" I was asked again, but I preferred to refuse. It all went on for hours: the lamas kept chanting, the villagers having fun and forgetting the passing of a young woman. Things were just getting better, a beam of light out of death's darkness... just slightly out of control. At last, the man I never spoke to before, the one I was told would take us back to Surkey, grabbed my arm.

"Come," he said, and we followed him out and onto the road. A group of women waiting on the road outside joined us. Nobody spoke English, of course. From the way the man swayed ahead of the group, we all understood he, too, was drunk. One of the women, old and with a face so full of wrinkles it looked like soft tree bark, gave us a look that needed no translation: "don't worry, we are just a bit tipsy, but we'll help you find the way." We all left the main road for another small, slippery path, while behind us the gongs kept tolling, the booze kept flowing, in memoriam. The party could go on until dawn—or until there is no more booze left to drink.

Marco Ferrarese is author of subcultural noir Nazi Goreng, freelance travel and culture writer, and metalpunk guitar-slinger based in Southeast Asia. He toured most hellholes of Europe and North America, hung out with Kurt Cobain's alleged murderer, and rode with truck drivers from Singapore to his native Italy. He blogs at and you can follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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Related Features:
Sacred and Profane: Tantric Buddhism in the Land of the Thunder Dragon - Tony Robinson-Smith
No Country for Honest Men - Marco Ferrarese
Stranded on the Back Roads of Tibetan Sichuan - Marco Ferrarese
Blood Rites in a Taiwanese Temple - Steven Crook

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