It was last April 25 just before noon, that the magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck central Nepal. I was taking photos of a Sadu, a Hindu priest, at the Vatsala Temple in the ancient Nepalese capital, Bhaktapur.
The ancient stupa and towers in Durbar Square –just six metres away from us – swayed precariously.
Towers collapsed and bricks flew right by us. For a few minutes, we choked in a storm of dust that gushed out of the collapsing buildings.
When the first series of tremors stopped, we (with the help of the guides) dashed out into the open space at the entrance of the Square, through narrow lanes already filled with falling bricks.
Mercifully, we survived the episode unhurt, and returned to Malaysia after spending two nights in the open lobby of the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu.
I was very touched by the loyalty and dedication of the Nepalese guides who were with us. They carried all the heavy camera equipment, pushed us out of harm’s way, and saw to it that we were taken care of before leaving to search for their loved ones, who were even more severely affected by the quakes.
I promised myself I would return to thank them. But the year 2015 ended and I still couldn’t find the time to go back to Nepal.
With the dawn of the Monkey Year I told my wife that I had to go to back.
So on Feb 11, I set off to Kathmandu with Danny Wong (the photographer friend who was with us during the quake) and Yip Loong Heng (who was at Kathmandu then but left a day before the quake). Two others who were also with us then, couldn’t join us this time around – Datuk Dr Sharifuddin Wahab is in Umbrah, and Tan Sri Kua Sian Kooi had promised to spend the Chinese New Year with his elderly mother.
Hemraj Malla, the Nepalese guide, met us when we arrived, and we had a long chat.
The next morning, when we left the hotel, I was stunned to see a huge evacuation camp just next to the hotel along Boudha Main Road, still teeming with people!
There were about a thousand tents in the settlement, each housing one or two families.
The women were cooking, ladies shampooing their long hair, men were brushing their teeth and children ran around outside the tents.
Long shallow lanes had been dug out through the settlement, and acted as drains.
They have no electricity but thankfully, there are public water taps and community toilets.
Though the conditions are harsh, the children are cheerful and the womenfolk appear resilient.
I saw that some ladies were already up early, doing tailoring work or washing clothes.
I asked Hemraj if anyone has been helping them to stand on their own feet again. He said the government has low-cost loans for them to re-build their houses, but many just cannot afford even the initial down payments required.
I had a sinking feeling this temporary evacuation centre may soon evolve into a permanent shanty settlement.
Back to ground zero
As it is the beginning of the Monkey Year, our first destination was the Swayambhunath Temple, popularly known as the monkey temple. The Tibetan Monastery at the base of the temple remains intact but the Queen Tower beside the Main Stupa has collapsed.
All the three Durbar Squares – Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur – have been heavily damaged. The previously majestic palace towers have either collapsed or are now “leaning towers” with poles held against them to prevent them from falling apart.
There are tourists. However, instead of admiring the once colourful architecture, they now take photos of the piles of fallen bricks beside the bases of the fallen palaces.
At the Bhaktapur Durbar Square, I stood at the exact spot where I was taking photos of the Sadu on the basement of the Vatsala Temple when I felt the first rumblings of the quake ten months ago.
The tall swaying tower that was merely 6m away had collapsed. Only its basement floors remained. The narrow lanes through which we escaped now have scaffolds around them.
I was relieved when the shopkeepers around Vatsala Temple told me that the Sadu was not injured and had been assigned to look after other temples.
I was surprised when the guide pointed out to me that we had run through about one kilometre of the narrow lane before coming out to the open space at the entrance. And that too in a matter of minutes!
Similarly, at the Bungamati suburb, the square has been severely damaged and many majestic houses around it are now in ruins. We climbed up one of the fallen homes and found a camera hanging on a column. Danny pressed the start button and heard a clicking sound. The camera was still in working condition ten months after!
The tall stupa of the world-renowned Boudhanath Temple, with its famously long lines of colorrful prayer flags, is not there anymore.
However, I was relieved to see a massive scaffolding structure over the base, marking the beginnings of a huge international effort to rebuild the once mighty stupa.
All over the city, most of the fallen houses and office buildings remain in ruins.
Besides the sight of the ruins along the main roads, we also saw long queues of lorries, cars and motorcycles lining up for their quota of gasoline.
Because of Nepal’s long-standing conflict with India, there is now a restriction on the amount of gasoline flowing into the country. Each motorcyclist is allowed only 5 liters of gasoline per day and each car, 15 liters.
Because of the long queues by the side of the main thoroughfares, this has resulted in a huge amount of congestion for other passing motorists.
Ten months after the tragic earthquake, the city remains hauntingly unattended.
We did not have time to venture into the valley at the centre of the quake, but I am sure the conditions there remain dauntingly harsh too.
On the morning before our departure, we bought a Manchester-United football and lots of pencils and candies for the children in the evacuation centre. They were joyously playing with the football when we left.
A minute after, however, two boys came running behind us to tell us through in sign language that the bigger boys had taken possession of their football.
We could only tell them to talk to their parents and sort things out. I suppose children everywhere are the same.
I felt disheartened by the lack of progress in the recovery process. Nepal’s reconstruction efforts need more international focus and assistance. Unfortunately the world’s powerful nations are now more preoccupied with refugees out of Syria and IS issues.
But I am hugely encouraged by the Nepalese resilience. These people have remained stoic and positive. Hemraj, our guide, told me that Nepal has been independent for a thousand years, though sandwiched between India and China. It will survive and become better on its own.
While we were touring the home of the Kathmandu Kumari living goddess, we saw a glimpse of her looking out of the window.
To the locals the rare sight of the Kumari equates to blessings to the beholder. I certainly wish those blessings would continue to be upon all of Nepal.
Tan Sri Dr Fong Chan Onn is a former dean of the Faculty of Economics and Administration, Universiti Malaya, and former human resources minister.