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Lost horizon

By Ratchatawadee Jitdee
27 August 2006 16:44
Tibet’s Potala Palace.
An arduous journey through an earthly paradise

“A Passage to the Himalayas: Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, India,” a photo exhibition at Siam Paragon, features incredible pictures from Duangdao Suwunarungsi’s journey to the “rooftop of the world.” So fascinating are her shots that she has inspired many Thai travelers to make their own trek to this mysterious land.

It was in 2004 that this 50-year-old founder of Nature Explorer magazine undertook a hazardous road trip through the Himalayas, where the unforgiving environment can be cruel to lowland citizens like her. Though the journey was not easy, Duangdao, one of the country’s top female photographers and a travel writer, certainly has no shortage of praise and stories regarding what she calls a life-altering experience.

“I have found my Shangri-La. I hope other people will find their own Shangri-La someday,” says Duangdao.

Shangri-La, a fictional place in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, is today a common term used to describe an earthly paradise where people are friendly, nature is pure and peace abounds, far from the regular pressures of modern civilization.

“The theme in the novel is very much like Tibet. The word ‘Shangri-La’ is similar to the Tibetan word ‘Shambala,’ which means a peaceful land in the Himalayas…All communities situated around the Himalayas believe they are living in Shangri-la,” says Duangdao.

The Himalayas have always been a dream destination for the photographer. Her determination to visit this mythical area was inspired by nature explorer Joseph Rocks of National Geographic magazine.

Duangdao’s strong desire eventually led her to take the biggest journey of her life. She led a car caravan from China’s Yunnan province to the Tibetan city of Lhasa via challenging overland routes. The journey was planned for 14 days and sponsored by Thai Airways and the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

“There were lots of obstacles during the journey. Sometimes we drove all day for more than 200 kilometers without coming across a single restaurant or rest area along the way,” she says.

But that was perhaps the easiest obstacle she had to overcome during her travels. The team frequently met with complicated immigration systems and endless red tape, and then there was the time a car in her caravan rolled over and they were hit with a blizzard.

Yet at this point Duangdao was still not discouraged. It was not her first challenging road trip. About a decade earlier, she was part of an exploration team that took the overland-route from Thailand to Yunnan via Myanmar. This journey, which took about 16 days, was historic as no group had travelled it before – the borders were not officially open at the time due to ethnic minority conflicts and clashes in Myanmar.

But during her Himalayas trip, when things continued to go wrong, Duangdao finally began to feel defeated. When a bridge collapsed and forced her team to abandon the southern route they were taking and follow the opposite route to Lhasa, her plan to be in Tibet to celebrate the Buddhist Visakha Bucha Day failed.

“Three days before we were about to reach Lhasa, we heard that a bridge collapsed and nobody knew how long it would take before the bridge would be fixed. At that point, I was very discouraged. I called Somkiat Onwimon [a former Thai senator] and he cheered me up by saying we were lucky that our cars were not on that bridge when it collapsed,” she says.

“So we opened the map and decided to take another route via the north. It would take us one extra day and we did not have any other information about it. Everything was scuppered, including the accommodation we booked, the timing and money we had to spend. Someone even suggested we take an airplane instead but that was not what we wanted.”

Although the conditions of the road north were worse than those on the southern route, Duangdao was able to witness the journey of pilgrims who were walking to reach the same destination as her in Lhasa. The pilgrims’ determination and their hardship inspired her to go on.

“We had a chance to talk to the pilgrims along the way. It took them 140 days to walk to Lhasa. That made me realize that it doesn’t matter how many extra days we had to take. Our journey was like theirs, it was one of faith. That meant we couldn’t give up and we had to reach our destination even though we would miss Visakha Bucha Day,” she says.

She finally reached Lhasa and experienced several fairs and cultural activities there. But her adventurous heart still wanted more. As a result, Duangdao continued her journey across the Himalayas to Nepal, India, Sikkhim and Bhutan. Her journey was documented in the 240-page book A Passage to Himalayas: From Shangri-La to the Roof of the World and at the photo exhibition at Siam Paragon that runs until September 3.

“The success of this journey was like a getting a diploma in life. Ask me which trip that I am proud of the most, it is this trip. Because it wasn’t just a trip, but rather a journey of soul-searching. I realized what I had done. Besides being a photographer, I could experience other people, their culture and learn to understand them. That makes my life more valuable. The point is, I don’t want to feel this alone. I want my experience and my journey to inspire other people to explore the world.”

Other news in this section
Lost horizon
Himalayan splendor
The brilliance of Bagan
Sipping in style
Mountain of death
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