The problem with “Mindfulness”

Ive wanted to write about mindfulness for a while now. I want to talk about how it is being portrayed in the West as a therapeutic intervention for everything from chronic stress to depression, anxiety, severe pain, addiction and many more.

I’ve always bridled at the movement a little although my rational mind has always argued that it is good that meditation techniques are coming to the West.

But being in a deeply Buddhist culture in Myanmar has helped me gain some clarity. What the mindfulness movement has done is taken mindfulness out of the cultural context in which it belongs and presented it as a therapy. It has presented it devoid of both the philosophical and psychological teachings of which it forms a central component. Mindfulness ultimately is a tool to help us understand the nature of life. Although it has healing properties, it doesn’t mean much by itself. It is trite to just say “be in the present”. For a start, from the philosophical perspective of Buddhism we should be free of attachment to both the past, the future but also the present.

Then we can be happy and relaxed.

The Buddhist psychology and philosophy is extremely rich and subtle. It is also far older than Western psychology which is still in its infancy. But Western psychology is aiming to bring mindfulness under its auspices, developing theories around it and studying it. It is ligitimate to ask questions about cultural appropriation.

Just as pharmaceutical companies isolate and take out the active chemical ingredient in traditional medicines, so psychologists and other professionals do something similar with mindfulness.

The end result is that mindfulness is over simplified at times to an almost comical degree.

We should be more humble on the West and respect the full context in which mindfulness belongs. This doesn’t mean one must become a Buddhist to practice mindfullness ( far from it !) but the rich teachings and overall context need to be engaged with and respected.

Anyway here’s a pretty lake !

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Kandwagyi lake in Yongon. Off to the monastery later. Thanks for reading.! It’s been lovely to see so many people reading. Please feel free to share and give me feedback and perspective in the comments section. Best wishes and see you in the new year.

A beautiful day in Yangon

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I had a beautiful day today. My mind was cool, calm and happy as I explored the markets and some of the sights.


I went to the markets first. Bogyoke market is a colonial era market set in what is now a tumble down concrete square but with many beautiful shops selling crafts, clothes and jewellery. The sheer scale was exciting to me. So many stalls and goods!

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Next I went to Theingyi Zei market, an older,  more claustraphobic ( if your that way inclined) market described by the Lonely Planet as “a proper Burmese bazaar” . Again the scale of it was thrilling in its way.

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And then I went to “Junction City” a modern day temple of commerce with awful music but some rather nice interior decoration and a Christmas tree.

The future….perhaps. Air conditioned, clean and spacious. How could you possibly argue with that? 20171214_145310.jpg

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And then there were the temples. Sule Pagoda sits in the middle of a am er ( how can I put this?) a roundabout.

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Yes thats right -a roundabout. Rimmed with shops, the inside is rather nice and costs three dollars to enter.  After ordering me to take off my shoes a middle aged lady shoved flowers in hand ( for the Buddha) and charging the equivelent of a dollar. I can’t argue (or even bargain) with middle aged Burmese women ( you learn something new every day I guess!).

Nice enough overall but nothing compared with the Shwedagon Pagoda. This was absolutely stunning. About a 40 minute walk from town I first noticed it here after rounding the bend

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The approach across busy streets requires the usual game of dodge the cars but after that……absolute heaven.

On entering the approach is deceptive and lined with stalls ( ssssh don’t tell Jesus) and there is three flights of stairs as you approach the entrance proper. Then its ten dollers in but totally worth it. I really had no idea of the beauty ahead of me and was grousing inwardly about having to pay!

But then, I was in this beautiful place. Everyone was barefoot and the atmosphere was one of quiet joy.

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Absolutely gorgeous. This is the orient of my dreams. Hundreds of temples, statues and pagodas set in a concentric ring with a gold gilded stupa in the middle 99 meters high. Originally built to a height of 18 meters in the 6-8th centuries, it was raised to 40 meters in the 15th century and brought to its current majestic splendour in the late 18th century.

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In a philistine act the British occupied it in the Anglo-Burmese war of 1824 resulting in vandalism and  pillage and  they and dug a tunnel under the stupa to see if it could store gunpowder. They occupied it again from 1852-1929 following the second Anglo-Burmese war. The Portugese also tried to make off with a bell tower in 1605. He wanted to melt the bell down to make canons but it fell into the river in transit. The same thing happened when the British tried to make off with a bell in the 19th century.

But somehow the stupa survived the Europeans.

Later in the 20th century it became a focal point for both nationalism and later for pro democracy demonstrations also. It is a strong symbol of Myanmar and loved by the people.

It was very special to be there. There were many people, both monks and lay people praying and chanting. I had a very pleasant meditation myself there also.

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And tomorrow I will go to the monastery until the new year. I hope to do one more post before then. Thanks for reading!

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


Airports

I spent most of today in airports and airplanes as I flew from Phnom Penh to Yangon. There was a long stop over and my flight to Mandalay was cancelled so ended up flying to Yangon in the end. I’m just in the door of my pleasant hostel in downtown Yangon. I already love Myanmar ( Burma).


But I want to talk about airports. Truth is I love them for no good reason. There is always a faint optimistic buzz in the air. The wonder of flight. Hope. Movement. The going away or the coming home. The promise of newness. We are all itinerants at heart. Im convinced of it. Its in our nature to move around, to seek out fresh pastures and oppertunities. Nothing shakes us up like a good journey. Ive even read that new places promotes the growth of new neural pathways as our brains learn to navigate a new environment.

Of course there is global warming to contend with and Ive no answer for that corundrum but surely world peace, cultural exchange and understanding are promoted by travel. Perhaps quality over quantity is the key.

Airports embody our age like nothing else. Utilitarian, bustling, clean, functional. There is no room for art or artiface. Shops, restaurants, cafes, off duty. Sometimes entire shopping malls. Ecumenical prayer room ( maybe). And its a divine consumerism because we are on our way somewhere better ! What could be more enjoyable ? Movement. No need to think or introspect. Wifi. Coffee. And I love it too.

So my plan has been interrupted by a flight cancellation but maybe it’s no bad thing. Mandalay has possibly inspired the worst poem ever written in any case. Read it here.

Awful stuff Im sure you’ll agree. I read Orwell’s Burmese days earlier in the trip which gives a great insight into colonial era Myanmar (Burma). You would feel as sorry for the poor English expats administering the firms as the Burmese after reading it.

So now I have the dilemma of taking two overnight buses and going up to the amazing temples of Bagan for a two days or going to the monastery earlier than planned. Ill keep you posted. Thanks for reading. Here is the sunset which I caught at the airport on arrival into Myanmar.

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Alan Coakley is a Trafal Director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


“Isn’t it awfull far from home some people live!”

I thought I’d combine a book review with a continuation of my travelogue.

I’m in what is to me something of a nowhere town. Kompong Thom is a small town on the road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s main cities and tourist destinations. I can’t complain. I choose it deliberately to see small town Cambodian life. But I do feel out of place. I feel the cultural difference here more then elsewhere. So I am grateful to have some books for company.


So far I’ve had Orwell ( Burmese days), Hesse ( Siddartha) and Eamon Kelly’s (Ireland’s Master Storyteller) to keep me company and its the later I want to talk about. He has been great company keeping a friendly upbeat tone, giving belly laughs galore and reminding me of home.

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The quotation above “isnt it awful far from home some people live” is from a story of his about a Cork labourer on his way to a job out the country. It says all you need to know about the famous Cork mentality!

He gives wonderful insight into Ireland’s past but also perhaps giving me a window into farming,  village life here too.

Driving out the countryside today I got to see some of that farming life. Cows wandering, people working in the fields etc.

I imagine much of it is relatable. Eamon Kelly is writting mostly about that rural Irish farming life of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. He is talking with humour, love and honesty about his own people, elevating them and describing the complex heirarchies, social relations and folk customs of his people. He does throw in a few fantastical stories but he generally sticks to simple humorous happenings. Like all the best art, it is ultimately a celebration of life, but he does not at all turn a blind eye to the difficult lives of the servants and labourers.

It is part social history, part fantasy and gives a wonderful insight into, if not a simpler time, certainly a time with less distractions and more home grown entertainment!

He reminds me not to be glib or hold simplistic views on life here. To me I’m in a bit of a nowhere town but of course it’s not. The streets are full of life, kids  playing, stall holders, romance. For two days, there was Buddhist chanting broadcast on amplifiers across the town. I’m told it was a funeral. Imagine that!

In a way I envy the village life that is still here. In the Western world we are getting more atomised all the time. But we all need a village. I think it is a basic need.

But I don’t wish to romantisise or idealise the life here either. The majority of people are poor and have little and I don’t know what the internal dynamics are like and if there is much social cohesion. I would love to hear a Cambodian Eamon Kelly poking fun at returned immigrants, Buddhist monks, labourers, business owners, courting couples etc.!

Then I’d have a handle on the place.

Anyway here are some pictures from today. It was another beautiful sunny morning and I was off again on a tuk tuk to visit Sambor Prei Kuk, some temple ruins in the forest. They are pre angkoran Hindu temples and build in the 7th and 8th centuries. There are about a hundred of these towers dotted throughout the forest. As ever it was a beautiful morning and it was lovely to be in the forest. The drive was also a great chance to see some rural life also.

Here are some pictures..

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


Practical guide to Angkor Wat

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In my last two posts I described the main temples in Amgkor Wat. Yesterday I spent a third day exploring some of the more remote, smaller constructions around Angkor Wat. More on that shortly but Id like to provide some practical tips for visiting Angkor Wat here first.


For me this trip is part of a longer sojurn in south east asia which will include trips to Myanmar and Thailand but a visit to Angkor Wat would also make for a fantastic short holiday.

Siem Reap is the nearest town and, of course, has an airport. For the quickest way to get here and the best fares I use skyscanner – http://www.skyscanner.com . Just be sure the cookies are off in your browser, otherwise my experience is that prices go up with repeated browsing.

Here in Siem Reap, I had wonderful accomodation. I stayed at Blossoming Romduol Lodge and would heartily recommend it.

Wonderful staff, good food, a little swimming pool and a really nice big room with air conditioning. They also gave me a free bike to explore Angkor Wat, free transport from the airport and breakfast included. I ended up booking a triple as there were no singles or doubles and cost was only 20 dollers a night.

The town itself is pretty touristy. Heaving at night, with all sorts of food stalls, bars, restaurants and if course tuk tuk drivers vieing for your custom.

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The town is about four miles from the temples of Angkor Wat. So that is either a short tuk tuk drive or a 40 minute cycle. I was a bit nervous getting into the chaotic traffic but it wasnt nearly as bad it looked. Drivers are actually quite considerate and I never witnessed any impatience or bad temper on the roads.

For admission to Angkor Wat you can either get a one day (37$) a three day(62$) or a one week pass (72$).

N.B.Don’t forget to go to the ticket office. You cannot get tickets at the entrance!

I got a three day pass and found it very satisfactory for my purposes. I was able to dawdle at the temples, relax in the forested walks sorrounding the temples and still got to see all the important sites and some of the more remote ones.

For the first two days I cycled which I wòuld recommend as the most pleasant way to experience the temples. I could explore as I wished, take my time, dawdle and meditate as I prefered. Up around the temples there is little trafic also and its forested so its a lovely place to cycle.

You can also use a tuk tuk. I got one on the last day for two reasons. I wanted to see sunrise at angkor wat and I wanted to visit some of the more remote temples. The whole expedition took about 8 hours and cost me 32$. I could possibly have bargained a little but I was happy enough with the price. I must say it wasn’t as enjoyable with a tuk tuk driver as cycling. I was conscious that he was waiting so wasn’t able to take my time as I pleased. Also we were sticking very much to the recognised tourist paths so ran into crowds a little more frequently.

Nonetheless I still had a great day and saw some beautiful places.

Angkor Wat at sunrise.

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Also it was cool to go into the building and feel the warmth from the stone. The stone structure keep it cool in the day and released the heat accumulated during night keeping it lovely and warm.


Then we took the long trek out to see the Bantrey Srei, also known as the ladies temple or citedel of women. Its a bit of a journey but of course its worth it !

Its a small pretty temple and boasts possibly the finest stone carvings anywhere in the angkor wat complex. Originally it was a 10th century Hindu shrine dedicated to Shiva with a settlement around it.

Next we visited Preah Khan, apparently  a sort of former Buddhist university. It’s a pretty tumble down place now with many halls and doorways.

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It does have a supercool tree growing out of it too!

Next was Neak Pean. This was a really gorgeous water based monument which more than hinted at its former splendour. In the past it was located on an island at the middle of a lake considered by many to be a representation of the sacred Himalayan lake of Anavatapta.

We rounded out the trip with visits to East Mebon and Phum Srah Srang.

East Mebon was actually a water reservoir with enormous towers once capable of holding 55 million cubic meters of water. It was dedicated to the Hindo goddess, Ganga, and would be easily mistaken for a the ruins of  a temple now.

Phum Srah Srang is also the ruins of a reservoir. It was a tough but fun climb in the midday heat.

And so ended my joyful exploration of the Angkor Wat temples. I will be back sometime. It’s definately somewhere I’d like to show my daughter when she is older. And there is a half marathon here in early December which I just missed !

I rounded out the day by the pool reading before venturing into town to try out the local ambassodors in Siem Reap

I wouldnt be coming here for the Guinness lads !

Alan Coakley is a Travel director based in Ireland.


Ta Prohm and Angkor Thum

Today I had the pleasure of visiting Ta Prohm and Angkor Thum.


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Angkor Thum is the ruins of the ancient capital city of the Khmer empire and contains the Bayon temple and the Baphuan temple as well as many, many more. The complex sits on a 9 km squared walled site with beautiful gated entrances over another vast moate.

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The Bayon temple is at the heart of the complex and was the state temple

Look at this beautiful smilling stone ! Wouldnt it make you happy just looking at it…

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but the Baphaun is equally impressive.

I had some job climbing this in the midday sun.

Ta Prohm is adjacent to Anxhor Thom  and is beautifully synthesized by the forest into an arboreal idyll. Gorgeous.

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There is something deeply joyful about Ta Prohm. The trees growing around and out of these gorgeous ruins has a deeply soothing, joyfull impact on the mind. They strike the unconscious as a deep and potent symbol of impermanence and transformation. Perhaps we are reminded the future will be beautiful in any case, whatever happens.

I had some phone troubles today too ! My data ran out at the temples and I had to navigate the old fashioned way – often asking for directions ! Signage was pretty bad and I’d left my physical guide books at home.

Notwithstanding this cycling around the temples is really very pleasant and the streets are quite enjoyable to cycle on. It is chaos, but everyone is very mannerly on the road. There is no aggresive driving and everyone weaves around each other taking good care.

Tomorrow Ive hired a tuk tuk to go see some of the further temples. And hoping to catch an early sunrise at ankwar wat also.

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours.


 

Angkor Wat

I started today by visiting Angkor Wat. What an honour to be here visiting this amazing citadel. I was really pinching myself today.

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Angkor Wat is just the largest of a whole complex of temples that I am looking forward to exploring in the next few days.

Ankwar Wat immediately impresses with its size. I dont think photos do it justice. And it also feels very tranquil and peaceful. Little shrines dot the buildings and they are tended by monks. It is nice that it still has a living presence. It does make it feel more alive and vibrant.

I sat, meditated and reflected in a few different locations. The scale of tbe place is so vast that even though there are many tourists I could easily find empty buildings. The coolness inside was deeply refreshing on such a hot day.

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Ankwor Wat was originally  built by the great Khmer King Suryavaraman ii in the twelfth century, probably as his mausoleum. Originally a Hindu temple devoted to Vishnu, it became Buddhist in the thirteenth century. It was greatly restored by the other great Khmer King, Javaraman ii. He restord after it was sacked by the Chams, the great rival of the Khmer. He raised an army and drove them out in the thirteenth century. It seems that it became Buddhist around this time also as the religious orientation of the Khmer people changed from Hindu to Buddhist. It is the worlds largest religious monument sitting on a site of 400 acres. It is sorrounded by an incredible moate 190 meters wide also putting anything comparable in Europe firmly in the shade.

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It has also been more or less continually inhabited by monks since the 16th century.

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There are some lovely carving here also

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There was a really lovely atmosphere pervading the place. I could feel the tranquility seeping into me. The soundscapes were lovely too with forest sorrounding the temple, sometimes some chanting and today there was even a brass band ! Ill leave you with there sounds

And some pictures of monkeys! Why not?

 

 

“The past is the past and it’s here to stay”

The above lines from a Nick Cave song have been haunting my mind all day. Here in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I have visited both the Tuol Sleng museum of genocidal crimes and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek also 15km from Phnom Penh. This is not the place for a detailed historical reprisal of that terrible time in the 1970’s when the Khmer Rouge dominated Cambodia effectively turning the country into a giant penal colony causing the deaths of 2 million people amongst a population of 16 million.

It is a story of a communism revolution led by psychopathic, brutal leadership set amidst the destabilising Vietnam war which radicalised much of the population. The colonial background of the country as well as, strangely, royalist sympathy on the part of the Khmer Rouge added to a complex, combustible mix. But why did it become so bloody ?

The loss of morality echoes  Nazi Germany,  Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Why did the twentieth century produce such horrors? Of course technology plays a part in enabling such atrocities but there is also an appaling moral failure.

Dosteovsky, the great Russian novelist, presaged this. He writes primarily about how people justify crimes to themselves especially when timeless spiritual truths are called into question, usually amongst educated elites who consider themselves too sophisticated for such truths. His novels show this on a personal level, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov. The 20th century bares out this prophecy on a societal level.

The trip to Tuol Sleng was informative and moving. A former high school it became a murderous prison camp during the Khmer Rouge era. Thousands died here along with millions in the country as a whole. It is impossible to take it in. It’s impossible to put it in context. It’s brutal, it’s murdurous. It’s children with machine guns. It’s mass evacuation of the cities. It’s forced labour and torture.

 

In the afternoon I went to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. It was also very moving. This was where people were murdered and buried as quickly as possible, hundreds in a day. The killing tree is the saddest monument I have ever seen. I dont have the heart to go into it here nor did I have the heart to take a pictureof it or even to stand and look. I walked past it. I took few photos here. I had little desire to. I simply walked around feeling every step of the way.

I had concerns about engaging in disaster tourism before today but I have no concerns now. Everything was very well done, with heart and sincerety and it is so good we take the time to reflect on evil and how it can invade society.

At the end of my time in Tuol Sleng I attended some beautiful chanting. Ill leave you with that

National museum of Cambodia, Wat Ounalom and The Royal Palace

I woke early today and put my trip back on track. By which I simply mean that I accomplished my plans for the day. I went to the national museum and the royal palace. In between I purchased some books and spent many hours in bars and cafes taking an epic amount of time over coffees, teas, water snd meals.

I very much enjoyed the museum which features art from the golden khmer age right through to the present. Naturally it consists mostly of Buddhas, carved out of wood or stone. Indeed parts of rhe museum are more like a temple with offerings to the Buddha being made and “guardians” attending to them.


I must say this was entirely to my liking and added greatly to both the liviliness and beauty of the place. The courtyard too was exceptionally peaceful and felt like a much needed refuge from both the heat and the cacaphony of the street. I sat there in a peaceful stupor drinking in the tranquil morning atmosphere.20171204_085723.jpg

After the museum I went to Wat Ounalom and stopped into the temple. The monks were warm and welcoming and spoke a little English. I meditated a little in the temple just as they were having their mid day meal. It was lovely to hear their affable, happy conversations as I meditated. I am wary of projecting too much onto these monks however. I know little of their lives.

As a solo traveller I am very much at the mercy of books to keep me company and purchased some new books in a gorgeous book store just outside the monastery of Wat Ounalom. I added Steinbecks Of mice and men and Orwells Burmese days to my collection.

I have just completed Herman Hesses Sidartha and am nearing the end of Eamon Kelly’s book Irelands master storyteller. The latter deserves its own blog posting here which Ill get around to shortly but I will mention that it is a wonderful travel campanion full of humor and insight.

After lunch I went to the royal palace and had a wander around. It was a beautiful tranquil space with many beautiful buildings mixing royal symbolism and adornments with Buddhism. I imagine that after the viscious persecution of Buddhism under the Khmer Rouge the easy marriage between royalty and Buddhism is a soothing reminder of a timeless order for the average Cambodian. But I am only speculating as an outsider of course. As soon as I start speaking of “the average Cambodian ” or ” the man in the street” I have almost certainly ceased to say anything usefull and am drifting into cliche and stereotype. Here are some photos and some music I heard there also performed in the courtyard.

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland.


Day 2 in Phnom Penh

I slept late due to jet lag this morning and my late start upset my plans for the day. Finding the museum and royal palace closed for lunch by the time I was up and about I ended up acceding to one of the many tuk tuk drivers offering lifts around the city.


Having initially agreed to a spin to Wat Phnom and the monkey temple on the far side of the Mekong, I ended up also going to Koh dak or silk island. The whole afternoon took over 3 hours and I was pretty exhausted by the end of it and ready for dinner and a rest. Although mildly irritated not to have gone yet to the museums or palace, I did see alot of Phnom Penh today.

The first temple, Wat Phnom, was very attractive and teeming with ceremonies, chanting and tourists.

And here is an audio of the music from the temple. Very soothing and calm

The monkey temple was nice also and not too heavy with tourists although I did have kids trying to beg money from me which of course is dis-spiriting and  sad.

From there I got the ferry over to Koh dak or silk island as its known. Here I got to see some of the cottage industries and some of the farming and village life too.

As we passed my guide pointed out the China town on the distance across the Mekong. A gleaming modern construction it sat in stark contrast with the Muslim fiahing village on this side of the river.20171203_052607.jpg

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This is one of the fishing boats directly above. My guide advises me they are predominantly Muslim and that they live on the boats.

Onwards then to Koh dak or silk island. It was nice to see village life but the pressure to buy was strong. This was a world apart from the main city with farming and cottage industry predominating. It was nice to see it but I was exhausted by the end of it. I eat a delicious curry and returned to my book and then the hostel. But the begging children and the desparate pressure to purchase on the island linger in my mind.

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland.