Wednesday, July 8, 2015

First impression of Cambodia, and tips in and around Siem Reap

angor wat temple

"Tuk - Tuk! Tuk - Tuk!" "Massage Sir!" "Sir food, good food!" Tonal voices of Khmer, asking you for taking their services in a desperate manner created an annoying feeling. Constant bugging you for services that you didn’t need or at least very apparent that you were not at all interested, created an impression that was not joyful after all. However, when I lived there for a few days and observed the life of people, I understood how poor they were! It’s a compulsion to earn their living by this constant bugging, there’s no alternative for them.

Life in Seam Reap was far different from my anticipation. Every tourist seems to be like a dollar making machine. They see one and jump on it. In spite of everything, people are gentle, not criminals and accept their lives joyfully. I was very surprised to see how in Cambodian border, in front of government officials, thugs tried to cheat tourists. Surprisingly, the building where some unknown Khmer guides you to take your visa on arrival, is the fake one. When you will finally arrive at the real building, you will have to pay another $30 for your visa. I was warned by my friend about this scam, so I had already secured e-visa beforehand, albeit paid extra $7 for processing charge.

Beer at Pub Street

Siem Reap is quintessential backpackers’ destination. After spending much time in Khao San Road in Thailand, I was not desiring the same thing in Cambodia, but my first impression of Siem Reap was astounding. There were hotels, restaurants with catchy taglines, hostels, bars and everything reflected a feeling of alienation, especially when I had an entirely different mindset while traveling to Cambodia. There were ubiquitous pubs, restaurants, lots of hotels, a few hostels, and of course those annoying massage parlors.

There was an alley called‘Pub Street’, pretty much literal by its name. While walking along the street, I was frequently approached by street peddlers for different stuff, starting from postcards, souvenirs, tourist guidebooks and even drugs. And there were girls who approached me and "guaranteed" “happy ending”. I was very surprised to see a 14-15 year old boy working as a waiter in a restaurant with fantastic English and etiquette.

What you can do in Siem Reap

Angor Temples

Ta Phrom Angor Temples
Ta Phrom
The main, and probably for most of tourists, only attraction in Siem Reap is Angor Temples. Even if you aren’t really a heritage person, the temples will mesmerize you with their dumbfounding architecture and fantastic ambiance. The temples and surroundings are peaceful, ideal for any shutter happy individual and if you really want to see more, you can take a guided tour that will ensure you don’t miss the hidden charm. I particularly amazed by the trees in and around the temples.

ta phrom in angor wat temples

I and my two companions, 50 something Canadian couple, hired a Tuk Tuk and went for the temple tour. We started in the late morning as we had planned to see the sunset but unfortunately cloudy weather and sudden rain disappointed us. You can also hire a bicycle but it will take lots of effort, especially in the summers to ride the whole temple complex. Another way is to hire a bicycle ($1) and also hire a tuk tuk and hop in with your bike and start your temple tour journey from the ticket counter.

The full tuk tuk temple tour will charge you around $15 but if you want it to leave it at the ticket counter, it will be around $5. There are total five main temples, but many small relics as well. Don’t miss Angor Wat (the biggest one), Bayon and Ta Prohm. If you find time and wish to spend $20 more, you can take another day for Angkor Thom and other temples.

Hire a tuk tuk tour

tuk tuk in siem reap cambodia
Ubiquitous Tuk-Tuk
If you are not very comfortable in riding bikes, hire tuk-tuk for the whole day and see some popular places like Floating Village, Tonle Sap Lake, Banteay Srey and other places. I was quite shocked to see the mechanics of tuk-tuk; it is a 100 CC scooter, which is attached with a bogey, acting like a local taxi in the city. There is no public transport except tuk tuk so there is no option left for you. The good thing is there are plenty of them, so you can bargain hard to get a good price for hire. I had learnt one thing that is whatever they quoted I said exactly half of it, and then they came down to a good rate.

Indulge in fish massage

fish massage siem reap cambodia

If you don’t want to splurge in spa, there is a good alternative for your feet. There are dozens of shops lined around Pub Street, offering fish massage. If you are wondering what is that, let me tell you it’s not a great thing but it claims that tiny fishes actually nibble your dead skin from your toes and give relaxation. Well, I haven’t tried it, you can obviously.

Try Khmer cuisines

I liked Cambodian foods than Thailand but many people don’t agree with me. You can try a traditional cooking class where your chef guides you through ingredients, cooking style and serving. The most famous is Amok (fish and chicken), also you try green mango salad and spring rolls. Remember if you are not comfortable in eating raw vegetables, order fried spring rolls.

Take a bike tour to nearby villages

I did it and I enjoyed it. I hired a bike for $1 and went straight to Siem Reap War Memorial. From there I traveled to nearby villages and lost somewhere. Then I discovered a hidden resort in the middle of village with superb ambiance and free wifi. Cambodian villages are same like Indian North Eastern villages, same landscape, same vegetation, and same smell of earth. That was my best experience in Siem Reap apart from 4 hours dip in swimming pool.

Tro u -  Cambodian string instrument
Tro u -  Cambodian string instrument
Buy souvenirs

I know buying souvenirs is not exactly in the list of a traveler, but the tempting things in old market with such cheap prices compelled me to buy something for my home. You can go to Old Market (Phsar Chas) where you can get lots of things such as paintings, shawls, local made vessels, Buddha statues, bamboo craft, and numerous other things. I had bought one slingshot, one Cambodian violin, chopsticks, a coconut handbag and some silk scarfs for my neighbors.

Tips to travel in and around Siem Reap

First and foremost tips if you are coming through Poipet, don’t ever listen to any locals. Follow backpackers and team up with other travelers and find the actual visa center. It is just a 10 minute walk passing a few desolate casinos.

In the bus station, do not change your dollar. In Siem Reap there is no need to exchange money because everybody accepts dollars.

bar pubs in pub street siem reap
Bar @ Pub Street
Wait for some time in the bus station, or if you are alone, team up with 3-4 travelers and hire a taxi. It will take $10- $12 (in 2015) for one passenger. A bus will charge you less but then it will take lots of hours to reach the city.

The taxi will take leave you at a place where you will find a smiling tuk-tuk driver saying he will take you free to your hostel/hotel. Don’t fall prey to it, because it is an exchange for next day Angor Temple tour, which he will charge anything around $20-$25. If you don’t have much luggage, you can walk for 15 minutes and reach the Pub Street Area (Sok San road) where you will find hordes of hotels, restaurants, cheap hostels everything.

Pub Street restaurants are expensive; you can get the same food in a cheaper price in Sok San Restaurants.

Bayon Temple
Always bargain hard while buying souvenirs.

Don’t fall prey for prostitutes. In the night, there are lots of locals talk about ‘Boom Boom’,, ‘Happy Ending’, weed etc.

Beer is cheaper than coke or juice. Should I need to give a tip on that?!?!

Siem Reap is relatively safe, still book hostel that has personal locker facility.

There is no public transportation, so you either hire tuk-tuk or rent a bike and explore. If the weather condition is fine, you can also take a walking tour.

You really don't need additional SIM for Internet. Every restaurant, hotel, hostels has free WiFi.

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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Modern yoga retreat, new dimension, new way of living

My friend Yann, a French Catholic priest and a Hindi student from Banaras Hindu University, every year spends 10-15 days of silent retreat in Himalayas. He surrenders everything including his laptop and phone and usually spends time in remote locations of Uttarakhand. I met him last in 2012, as we were trekking together to Gaumukh and Tapovan. Later, on the same trip he spent his silent retreat in Munshiyari (Kumaon).

He is not alone, at least amongst my acquaintances; there are lots of people who undergo this type of withdrawal process, cutting back usual life and giving up all habits including cigarettes and coffee. Another friend of mine, Philip, an Austrian yogi, who undergoes Vipassana meditation whenever he comes to India. He also suggested me lots of time to go for it, but somehow for many reasons, I couldn't. It is a conscious effort not to undergo this type of seclusion, perhaps because of my books and diary that I can't leave without. However, it is no uncommon these days when aspirants go to Yoga retreat, but totally cut off from the usual world, without communication. This type of queer withdrawal process invites curiosity.

So, why people want to to withdraw from the usual life? What is the motive or is there any motive at all? For bourgeois, usual people, who spend their time engaging themselves in tangible life struggles; this type of withdrawal seems strange, rather peculiar. They think it is only for hermits, but the question is, is it necessary to be a hermit to reach a peaceful state of mind.

Ancient Tibetan Yogis retreat and its modern consequences

Ancient Tibetan yogis performed silent retreats for years when they lived in small caves without minimum food. Even in today Tibetan yogis who wish to perform silent retreat take permission from their masters and go for retreat. For them it is extremely important part of their monk-hood as it gives awareness about duality of existence. Meditation in silent retreat for long time helps them to understand body and mind as a single entity. There are examples when Lamas underwent years of silent retreat without touch of human contacts.

chopta trek camp
Retreat at Chopta
Originally this type of solo retreat is known as 'Lerung', a part of Tibetan Buddhism that is believed to create awareness of the existence and stop the mind rushing about in an aimless (even a purposeful) stream of thoughts.

Urban silent retreats and yoga schools

Following the path of ancient Tibetan yogis, silent and solo retreats are becoming popular these days, especially amongst Westerners. The heavy life and daily frictions of professional and personal life create a self-hypnosis construction when a person sees things that appears, and life small and big judgments are based on those appearances.

Retreat center at Tara Mandala
In a solo retreat, a person looks down closely how the mind works. It is actually the breaking down this false construction of “me” within and see what is real inside. It is of course not an easy course of action because the years of impressions created on the mind lead the individual in according the resultant force of all those impressions. So, many people take frequent solo retreat and continue the meditation techniques in their daily life to break the “construction”.

The idea of detach from everyone, without any sort of electronic device is unfathomable to many, but things work in a different way in silent retreats where a person face to face with himself or herself.

Indian Silent Retreat centers

Vipassana Meditation Center in Dharamkot

Vipassana Meditation centers spread throughout India but I liked Dharamkot center because of its natural peaceful surroundings, dense wood and Dhauladhar Mountain on the back. The center is as usual like others where you are given a room with a mattress, and blanket. You are not allowed to talk to anybody, even not to look directly at women in the center. Minimum of vegetarian food, 10 -12 hours of meditation practice every day and sleep. You can talk to the master though once if you have any question. Many people don't prefer to talk and keep silent for 12 days. You can't take your electronic gadgets, books, notebook anything with you.

Tushita Meditation Center, Dharamkot

Aspirants, who sometimes feel too tough to lead Vipassana, can register themselves in Tushita Meditation Center, adjacent to Vipassana in Dharamkot. The center stresses on silence but there is no strict rule. So, you can carry your notepad, books but not mobile phone or laptop. There is even a small place where aspirant can smoke cigarettes if he or she wishes.

Yogoda Satsanga Society, Dwarahat

Paramahansa Yogananda founded this society in 1917 in the lap of pristine Uttarakhand valley. The center is probably the best place for Kriya Yoga and understanding the philosophy of life. The atmosphere is fascinating with surrounding green valleys and silence.

Mayavati Ashram, Lohaghat

advaitya ashram mayawati lohaghat
Advaitya Ashram, Lohaghat
Best known as Advaita Ashram, situated at an altitude of 1940 m, 9km from the town of Lohaghat (Uttarakhand), this Ashram and surrounding area is simply spectacular. This small monastery is a branch of Ramkrishna Mission, which governs by the principle of monism (advaitya) where no idol is worshiped. The guest house is neat and clean with plenty of silence.

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Strolling down the lanes of Khao San Road and beyond

A quintessential backpackers' paradise in midst of bustling Bangkok, Khaosan Road does offer much to everybody. I saw people from all walks of life, roaming around freely, eating, shopping or just like me, lazy strolling without any aim. A road, which never sleeps, even at 2:00 am, I found people were selling foods and a few were drinking at road. When I observed minutely the vendors, shops, massage parlors and other local shops, I wondered how much hard work they really did, almost every day.

Although the first day, I stayed at Samsen Soi 2, a nearby alley, a lot calmer place. So, I walked around Khaosan Road and just surprised to see the crowd and cacophony. The place is remarkably popular among backpackers because of cheap hostels, but it is not the only place in Bangkok for sure. Even if you just walk 5 minutes from Khaosan, you can find lots cheaper hostels in Samsen Soi. I was also not much sure about 100 or 150 baht hostels because I didn’t want to lose my belongings just to save 100 baht.

I love traveling, not principally because I want to see new places or just an aimless strolling, but I’d like to sit calmly at one place and reading or writing. I like to observe people all around me. There are plenty of things you can see and feel, giving me certain kind of peculiar pleasure. In Khaosan Road, I tried to do that but unfortunately everyone skipped from my vision very fast.

I remember one day, I was sitting outside of my hotel, just gently smoking and observing all around. The music and people all around suddenly created a strange nauseated feeling inside. At that particular moment, I desperately wanted to rush back to home. The feeling stayed with me for 2-3 hours or so and gradually subsided.

Khaosan Road is definitely not for me, but I like the sensation, a new experience that will remain in my memory. Undoubtedly there is a magnetic appeal that holds everyone in that small road, but it wasn’t holding me much for a long time. I wish I could have spent some more time to understand the true nature of this famous road in Bangkok.

Good, bad, ugly at Khaosan Road

1. What I like that you meet lots of people if you just sit at a bar or footpath. Even in hostels, you meet people, get new experiences and start a random conversation. There are many people who stay in the place as a stopover and travel to northern Thailand or Cambodia or Vietnam, so you can find a good travel buddy if you are a solo traveler.

In the early morning nearby alley
2. It’s cheap place that is the major drawcard for backpackers. You can find lots hostels less than 200 baht. However, I advise you to stay at a good hostel for better room, security and good people.

3. Shopping is such a delight in the streets of Khaosan and other nearby areas. Only thing you need to remember to bargain hard.

4. Khaosan is too noisy, many people like it but there are so many like I who do not. So, stay at Samsen Soi 2 or nearby places, which are calm and cool places and you can easily reach Khaosan by walking 5 minutes from your hostel.

5. I can’t recommend foot massage because I haven’t experienced it. But seeing the massage parlors and lots of people with their closed eyes, I guess it is an enjoyable experience.

6. If you are really hard on money, then buy beer from Seven Eleven and take it to a road food joint and enjoy it. I don't recommend too cheap hostels because those seemed to me very shady.

7. Experience crunchy cockroach, grasshopper, caramelized spider and even friend scorpion. You can take a picture but you have to pay 10 baht.

8. Khaosan Road is also famous for hookers, but it is not a prostitute area so nobody really approaches you.

9. You can party till morning at Khaosan because that road never sleeps.

10. There are many tuk tuk and taxis who press you for ping pong show or taking you to night life in Thailand. It’s safe but they charge you almost double, so bargain hard.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Backpacking for camping: a beginner’s guide

I have been doing backpacking for last 5 years or so. I have learnt everything through hit and miss method, so I guess my way of backpacking is not conventional but it is solid. Moreover, I always travel solo, even in solo camping trips, I find it extremely enjoyable, though many times I find it difficult in simple things like camp fire, food preparation etc. 

Before you start your camping trip to wilderness, always remember the following ten essentials:

1. Navigation (map and compass)
2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
3. Insulation (extra clothing)
4. Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
5. First-aid supplies
6. Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
7. Repair kit and tools
8. Nutrition (extra food)
9. Hydration (extra water)
10.Emergency shelter

Backpacking with a partner

I’ve never ventured in with any partner, but I recommend for the beginner to find an experienced or at least sensible partner. If you have a knowledgeable partner, you will enjoy the experience; also you can understand many aspects of backpacking easily. A solo trip is always kind a boring venture, especially if you are seasoned for solo things.

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Also, for trekking, you can initially start with a group. There are many adventurous group, conducting trekking round the year. You just have to spend a little extra money and buy peace of mind. 

Pick the right destination for backpacking

For a beginner, one night camping or maximum two nights can be overwhelming experience. don’t venture into extremely rough terrain at first, and try to remain close with civilization. You can get trip information in guidebook, blogs or ask your well-traveled friends. 

How to choose your backpack gear

  • For the first time it is natural to carry lots of items, but after certain experiences in camping, you will automatically understand what you need or not. If you are confused with backpacking essentials,  check with 10 essentials mentioned above. It is best to avoid laptop or any expensive gadgets with it. Personally, I feel wilderness has its own music and it’s very odd to listen to music during camping trip.
  • Do not carry lots of books (generally I did this mistake earlier). If you are a book lover, carry one book because I am sure you won’t time to read things because camping is not enjoyment, it’s a lot of work and within those odd jobs, you find the pleasure.
  • If you are camping for one day, you shouldn’t carry stove or anything. Packaged food is enough to satisfy the hunger. However, if you want to add some zing in camping, you can carry a frying pan and make your own food with the help of wood and twigs.
  • Your tent occupies lots of space, so carefully select your tent.
  • Carry a knife and whistle.

camping cooking food

Backpacking clothing

• It is better to trek or backpack during summers, so that you needn’t carry winter clothes. However, if you are traveling to mountains, it is recommend to carry some of your woolens.

• Do not carry cotton clothes because it takes a long time to dry. Instead, you can buy some moisture-wicking polyester.

•  Convertible pants are the best thing for backpacking or trekking.

• In winters, carry a fleece and a jacket. In the night especially sometimes it’s too cold, so keep gloves in hand.

• Full or mid-cut boots are conventional choice of backpacking, but many people prefer hiking shoes.
Do not wear cotton socks in hiking. Use woolen or synthetic socks to avoid blisters.

• Bring some sunscreen and hat to cover your head.

• If you are hiking at the rainy season, carry a poncho with you.

Before you go

camping fire

If you are absolutely new without any experience in backpacking, you can practice camping in your backyard. Always inform your guardians or friends before you venture out. Also, contact the ranger office at the wilderness; ask for any permits, trail conditions, animal activities and other basic facts.

SOS – in emergency

Always remember the acronym S-T-O-P.

Stop: There was couple of times when I lost in forests. I simply stopped and sat at a place for a while. It is important to keep yourself assemble at the time of emergency. Don’t panic, don’t unnecessary wander to waste energy and resource. Eat a little and drink water to give you a fresh perspective to assess your situation.

Think: Think closely where you were from you starting your trail. Can to go back to that place? Can you remember landmarks or road trail? If you are confused to go further, it is better to go backward to your trail and start again.

Observe: While hiking in wilderness, always keep your senses alert and see things very closely.
Observe every trail very closely, keep your landmark while walking like creating signs on trees or create structure of rocks. 

Plan: Always plan your hiking in wilderness. If you are lost in wilderness, don’t panic but to create plans to get out of it. Check your available resources, your food, water etc. and then create a plan. Even if you are hiking alone, say the plan loud as you pretend to explain to somebody. 

Hike smart, hike happy
  • I can’t recommend anybody to hike alone, especially if you are a beginner. Always team up with at least one experienced hikers. Always remember “what if?”. So, prepare yourself in that way what if you are late? What if you are injured? What if you are lost?
  • Navigation skills are important. Buy a compass, a road map and learn how to use. You can find YouTube videos where you can learn how to use compass.
  • Finally, hiking is a fun, an education and an adventure. It is not a party, so don’t bring stuff that intoxicate and create a danger for your whole trip.
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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Tips for gynecological problems during overseas travel

Picture courtesy Huffington Post
Gynecological problems can be a real worry during overseas travel because of the reluctance to accept medical advice from unknown doctors. Before leaving for any long overseas trip, all women between 25 and 65 should have a cervical smear (pap smear), except possibly those who have never had a sexual partner. It is worth checking on your smear result by phone. Smears should be repeated every three years if normal, and according to your doctor’s advice if not fully normal.

Period problems during overseas travel

When traveling or going to live in a strange place, periods may get lighter or stop altogether, sometimes for months. This is very common, and no action needs to be taken unless pregnancy is a possibility or if you or your friends notice that you have lost a lot of weight.

Periods may also become irregular, abnormal or prolonged. If such problem persist you should see a doctor. If this not possible, and you are definitely not pregnant, it is possible take the combined oral contraceptive pill for seven days. You should only do this if you have recently had a clean bill of health and can see a doctor if abnormal bleeding is not cured by this treatment.

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How safe to travel to India during pregnancy?

It is worth reporting any prolonged, heavy bleeding as soon as possible whenever it occurs, not least because of the increased risk of needing a blood transfusion. Also check any persistent changes from your normal cycle when you next come home.

Remember it is better not to be menstruating during wildlife safaris, or while swimming where sharks may be lurking.

Vaginal discharge during travel

This is often commoner in the tropics, especially in hot and humid conditions and if you wear tights or jeans.

‘Thrush’ usually causing an itchy discharge, is especially common. You must carry certain medicines with your while traveling to tropics. Vaginal discharge medicines should not be taken if there is a possibility of pregnancy or if you are also taking antihistamines.

Sexually transmitted diseases can cause a discharge, and if you think there is a possibility of an STD, try to see a reliable doctor.

Family planning during your travel

If you are on the pill, take ample supplies of the preparation you are used to until you find out whether a reliable brand name of identical composition is available locally.

For couples who have definitely decided not have more children, it is worth giving serious thought to a permanent form of contraception (tubectomy or vasectomy) well before leaving or early on in your next home leave. This reduces one form of stress that is at least largely under your control.

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Tremors in Nepal annihilate the lives and dreams in a whisker

I begin here with a dream, with the best intention as to its realism, and if it fails, it will be owing to bad karma. Do you believe when thousands of people die in a single moment, it is a bad karma? Whose karma it is? Or is it really something we should look forward to find an answer? The land of Nepal is blazing now, with the tears of thousands of people, with immeasurable sufferings and broken dreams.

Everybody dreams of living in a peaceful place with a beautiful garden surrounding it, several miles of mountains and gentle streams flowing nearby. As I am writing this dream, there are several news surfacing in various media about the devastation happened in Nepal.  Dreams of people shattered, lives destroyed but who has seen the life, at least when it is near to death. This existence is so, so servile that I wonder this rational souls, human beings should running after things, so mean and detestable a prize, to be vanished in a whisker when nature just shrill a whistle once in a while.

Photo Courtesy Financial Express
Rescue crew and people start their desperate search for survivors, even the lost ones after this massive 7.8 earthquake that shook the world. All we are now seeing are flattened homes, buildings, temples and reports saying more than 2000 people lost their lives. 

I am not there, in a way I am a fortunate person that I am sitting on my desk and writing, but I can’t overrule the horror of this devastation in my mind where I can imagine how people are desperately looking for their loved ones on the streets and squares covered in rubble. We witnessed the horror of 2013 Uttarakhand flood when I just returned to my home and torrent started, and within a few days everything changed so dramatically that when I think about those days, still a chill runs through my veins. Uttrakhand is my second home, I traveled length and breadth to that region, Nepal is not, but it is not difficult to understand the pain of people if you are a bit perceptive.

Photo courtesy CNN
The quake struck at 11:56 am on April 25, 2015, when I was standing outside my office with some colleagues, and suddenly everyone started to come out from the building. Initially we thought it was a mild quake, but soon news flooded about the devastation. According the United Nations office for the Corrdination of Humanitarian Affairs, around 4.6 million people in the region were exposed to tremors. The earthquake hit neighboring Tibet where road blocked, building collapsed and at least 13 people killed.

mount everest avalanche earthquake nepal 2015
The base camp at Mount Everest after an avalanche on Saturday. (Photo Courtesy AP)

How world sees it? And how we can contribute towards relief process?

Life can’t be undone, but at least we can help to create a sustainable platform for people who are suffering right now. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, The U.S has put forward his support by giving initial $1 million, while many charitable organizations have started mobilization process to collect fund for relief work.

The humanitarian organization World Vision has put their staff on the ground in Nepal, providing food, water and shelter to people.  Those who wish to donate to World Vision can visit their page and donate minimum of $10.

There are many other organizations have already started their relief work. International Medical Corp provides medical supplies and their staff helps people in crisis regions. To donate you just go to their website here.

Save the Children, the non-governmental charity organization specialized in children reform, has launched its response to save children and families in Nepal. To donate, you visit their Nepal Page.

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