More Wats & Motorbikes….Sukhothai & Chiang Mai, Thailand

No sleep on our overnight flight from Kathmandu to Bangkok (through Kuala Lumpur again). We just can’t do it. Luckily, there are lots of movies and we were entertained on both flights. So when we got to Bangkok we checked into our usual place (weird that we have stayed here at least three different occasions already) and slept for the rest of the afternoon. Our two favorite street food places on Rambuttri were closed because it was Monday so we opted for one of the touristy places nearby. Which was a great find, not for the prices, but because I discovered baked bananas in coconut milk. Delicious, like dessert soup. Must find a recipe. The next day we sent out all of our laundry (except socks, which are never leaving our sight again) and tried to get the Nepal pictures saved and then blogged. We have spent a lot of time in Bangkok by now and are less impressed each time we come back. It has so much to offer, but it is SO big and can be quite frustrating and/or expensive getting from one place to another. We were glad to hop on a bus on Wednesday for a 7 hour trip to Sukhothai, another ancient capital.


We arrived after dark, took a tuk tuk to our hostel in New Sukhothai and then explored the night market area. While there were lots of street food vendors, there wasn’t much else to do. The tuk tuks here are different. Instead of a bike pulling some sort of cart, the cart is in the front, completely blocking the view of the driver. And then the passengers get all the wind and dust in their faces and totally ruin their hair.

The next morning we got up incredibly early (Riki’s idea, I was not pleased) to rent bikes in Old Sukhothai and explore the ruins. We arrived by tuk tuk at the entrance, where we were given our 30 baht (about $1) bikes, pink and blue of course. I got pink, not by choice. Incredibly uncomfortable bikes, except for the extra seat in the back of mine, but they had brakes, which is more than we can say about some other bikes we’ve rented.

Old Sukhothai is very spread out and it was pretty hot. The first Wat we visited was the most central one and the largest. I pretty quickly discovered some wildlife and Riki wandered off take pictures. A lot of the wats are pretty similar, but there are a few different styles here, with Sri Lanka and Khmer influences. I will spare you the nitty gritty, but there are loads of pictures (shocking).


 

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Too early to be sightseeing
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She came up to me, I swear.

 

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BIG Buddha

 

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Proof Riki was here.
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Waiting patiently for Riki while he takes photos
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Buddha be gold-fingered
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Back seat was more comfy on my little pink bike

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The next day we went back to the bus station and caught a bus north to Chiang Mai. You don’t normally have to book the buses ahead of time, just show up at the station and they will put you on the next available bus. We have been pretty lucky and haven’t had to wait very long so far. Six hours later we arrived and took another tuk tuk to the Old City. We checked into a guesthouse named after me and meandered to the city walls to check out the food stalls. We have been able to eat very well and very cheaply in Thailand. The street food is really good and there are many options. I discovered a dessert stall and sampled a few bright colored squares. Still not sure what they were, but they were kind of a cross between hard jello and pudding. Unfortunately, not a good combo.

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Chiang Mai is a hub for trekking, outdoor adventure and cooking classes. Having no desire to go trekking Thai style as we feel a bit spoiled by Nepal’s real trekking, we spent two days wandering the city, checking out the various markets and wats. We also got our first massage, after being tempted by so many vendors in Bangkok, we gave in and got 30 minute foot massages for the equivalent of about $5 total.

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This is where the parents should probably skip ahead, or at least be thankful that we sometimes do things without telling you first for a reason. Having exhausted the sights of the Old City in Chiang Mai, we had the grand idea to rent a motorbike and go on an adventure around a commonly travelled loop just outside the city. This 100+ km loop goes by some incredible waterfalls, various flora and fauna sites, including an elephant camp, and through some incredible scenery. Having rented scooters in New Orleans one time, we were pros, and showed up at the bike shop ready for anything. Except semi-automatic motorbikes and hills. And Thai police officers (more later). But for the equivalent of $10 we were given helmets, a bike and a map and sent off on our way. Having only ever ridden a scooter, an automatic one, this was, well, a bit of a learning process. Oh and the traffic (not to mention they drive on the left). The beginning of the loop goes for about 30 minutes through the city and its suburbs. In one word, nerve-racking. Riki thought it best that I start out driving. You know, because I know gears better (?). So by the time we see the police check point, I’m pretty mentally drained from dodging buses and cars and other crazy motorbike drivers. When the cop motions us to stop, I’m thinking, “Well, this has been fun, all 30 minutes of it.” He asks for my international driver’s license and I hand over my Louisiana license. Of course, getting our driver’s license translated had been on our list of things to do before we left Louisiana, but it didn’t happen. At this point, Riki and I are both thinking that we are going to have to park the bike and get a taxi back to town because they won’t let us drive. Well, not the case. The cop writes me up a ticket, and motions me to cross the highway to the guy sitting under a tree with a wad of cash. 200 baht (about $6.50) later and we are off, with me free to drive for the rest of the day. I’d like to point out here that getting an international driver’s license in the U.S. costs at least $25. So I’m still ahead.

Onward we went. Eventually, we turned onto a smaller road and the traffic subsided. We stopped at Mae Sa Waterfalls and hiked up the 10 falls. This place has been neglected some, especially the higher you go, but the scenery is lush and the falls were decent.

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These big guys have an affinity for me. Note my awesome pink helmet.

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Riki decided to risk another $6.50 fine and took over the driving. We continued on the Samoeng Valley loop to the Queen Sirikrit Botanical Gardens. It is set up on a very steep hill and there were times when I didn’t think our little 125cc bike would make it. But we made it to the top, ate lunch and explored the greenhouses. They have a great display of cacti and water plants, as well as a very large rainforest house.

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We continued on through windy roads which at times were very steep (uphill and down) and saw some beautiful views along the way. When Riki got tired of driving, I took over and continued producing terrible noises from the motorbike as I chugged up and down hills. Towards the end, it was so steep that the fuel gauge hit empty and I was pretty sure we were going to be stranded. It wasn’t empty just yet, but by the time we neared the end of the loop we were running on fumes with no gas station in sight. I started coasting whenever possible and we passed plenty of LPG (liquid petro) stations, but not a single regular station. Finally, at a stop light, I pulled up to a lady on a similar bike and pointed down at my bright red fuel gauge. She chuckled a little and motioned just up the street. Sure enough, there it was, but on the wrong side of the road. I can’t exactly explain why that u-turn was so stressful, but I think the combo of already being low on gas, having to drive 5 minutes down the road to the next intersection to turn around and then trying to figure out which side of the intersection to go on when everyone is going every which way, all combined to make an eventful end of our trip. We returned the bike and headed straight for John’s Bar, where we got two draft beers and tried to unwind.

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The next morning, we got a tuk tuk back to the bus station and caught the bus to Chiang Rai.

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Various Observations by Riki….Nepal

Pictures at the bottom!

On the plane from KL to KTM – they don’t have any more beer so they bring me half a cup of vodka (barely any ice)…. Hmmm, thank you I guess?

Nepal First Impressions (Kathmandu):

– Flying into the city was awesome (at 10pm), with colorful flashing lights dotting and blinking all about the skyline (we got lucky with our timing, because we came during the midst of Tihar, festival of lights (the Nepali equivalent of Diwali)

  • Airport is old school and crazy, lucky we didn’t arrive when it was too busy, otherwise I dunno…
  • At the baggage carousel, people be thinking, if I push my cart right up there then I will have so much space to get my bags and it won’t be in anybody’s way… not
  • Dusty drive in. Couldn’t see much but the blinking, colorful lights draped from the buildings. DUI checkpoints everywhere (instead of breathalyzers, the driver just kind of spits in the cops face, or says something in such a way that if you’ve been drinking the cop can definitely smell/feel it…
  • The egg yolks are yellow again!!! They were more neon orange in Thailand and Vietnam
  • Super dusty main streets make for cool pictures
  • These stray dogs are great at crossing the street without getting killed, they must have a lot of practice
  • The shopping (or potential to buy stuff) is the best I’ve ever seen. I want to buy everything, but I don’t have the money, or even a place to put the stuff if I did (here or anywhere)

Tihar (Dipwali) evening observations – colored powder, marigolds, candles (wax and oil), firecrackers, kids going door to door singing for money, lights everywhere…

Nepalese people are amazingly diverse, the kids are really cute, the women are beautiful, and the young men are all “cool dudes”

In general, the cars and bikes in KTM are the worst we’ve seen (most old school and full of awful drivers). Julie was almost hit more times in 4 hours of walking around Thamel than during the rest of our entire trip (and we’ve been around a lot of cars/bikes in Vietnam & Thailand)

Bus trip on the way to Pokhara

This bus is crazy bad @ not causing a traffic jam, along with the other 50 buses trying to get gas at the one gas station on the busiest street around

  • Back seat – we got air at least 10 times (air: whole body lifting off the seat by an inch or more…)
  • They were playing 50 Cent @ a lunch spot, great food, but weird vibe with the music
  • Saw a hemp plant growing on the side of the road, somebody in the bus shouts out “marijuana!”

Festival in Pokhara – great music, and people dancing all day and night (alone, in groups large and small, brother and sisters, etc…)

Cow in the Road – really can do whatever they like – tourists taking photos – one big old German guy tells another, of course, “Holy Cow!”

Me “I think all the dust is finally out of my mouth.” – Julie “They have paved roads here.”

On walk up to Peace Pagoda – we saw monkeys, a whole tribe of them (also we got lost again…) the baby’s were really cute, but there was a moment when we were surrounded, and a couple of the big guys were chasing each other, and it was pretty scary (like the gorillas in that movie Congo), but then I realized I was being a baby…

5 day Poon Hill Trek

  • Brutal if you don’t have a good pack (and shoes cause it gets “slippy”) and if you have a wicked cold (literally woke up in Ghorepani @ 2874M and my lungs hurt when I took deep breaths)
  • Sapa don’t have nothing on the rice terraces here… Btw, I love rice terraces
  • Little kids in towns we pass asking “chocolate” or “photos (for money)” is a little cute, til you think of how many people must be actually giving them chocolate… But when a kid says “medicine?” and is pointing at a lil infection on his leg, it’s a little depressing (we didn’t have any medicine… left it all in Pokhara)
  • So many porters, or just random teenagers/young adults were the friendliest people I have ever encountered (!!), just asking where you were from, how long in Nepal, etc… w/ huge smile, super friendly. Wish I could hang out w/ them more than just a pass on the trek
  • Water Features! Everywhere, just walking up and down little streams that have taken over the paths, must get awful during the monsoon.
  • While trying to fall asleep when it’s nearly freezing in our room: Julie: “Are you comfortable?” Me: “No! I’m wearing a f@#$ing leotard!”

Back to Pokhara

While having dinner, Busses full of students (or just lots of young people) pass us by & they are either singing or yelling happily. They do this as they pass each restaurant down the road.

Julie’s calves are wicked swoll right now after the trek

KABADDI (Wave World Kabaddi League)? – some crazy sport on Indian TV that looks like a mix between red rover and wrestling (w/ awfully depressed looking white cheerleaders)

Back to Kathmandu

These trucks are awesome – they just say whatever the drivers favorite thing is: Sports, Playboy, Lionel Messi, Bob Marley, Road King/Viking, Titanic (complete with Kate & Jack painting) – sometimes they have beautiful pictures painted on them (mountain scenery, gods & goddesses) and sometimes just kittens and puppies…

I’ve been offered Hash (in varying discrete ways) an average of 5 times a night every time we walk through Thamel (the touristy area)

The Three Durbar Squares around KTM:

Patan: coolest, most compact, pretty

Bhaktapur: old school, quietest, most quaint

Kathmandu: lived in, busy, most ornate decorations on certain buildings

This one song that is playing @ every music shop will now forever be in my head & Julie hates it (really just me singing it…). I find out later that it’s just Tibetan monks chanting for hours on end.

The dust is completely overwhelming, @ the end of the day, I use a tissue, and everything that comes out is grey/brown/black. TMI.

And the traffic is nuts here, no traffic lights, or even stop signs. These traffic cops must have balls of steel

Also, driving a car here (or bus) is like playing chicken (crazy scary chicken in the mountains), it’s all about who flinches first…

Final Observations:

Bus Travel – one highway b/w the major cities, going through crazy steep hills (what we would call mountains, but they call them hills, because the mountains here are the real deal…)

-On the way to Chitwan, saw a bus with its front section completely blown out, no windows, nothing, and the top half of the bus was leaning @ a 45 degree angle, and they were driving this thing…

-From Chitwan to KTM, saw a minibus fall off the cliff (we didn’t see it actually happen just the aftermath), luckily some dense trees saved it from going all the way down. Also, Julie saw at least 1 almost accident and the others said they saw three

-@ least the busses (for an 8 hour trip) are more comfortable than all the airplanes I have taken this year, and those busses are old school

Scooters Vs. Motorbikes:

Nepal does it right when it comes to motorbikes, real motorcycles (Royal Enfields, apparently these are real cool) w/ protection for your legs & plenty of exhaust. But compared to SEA (where they have scooters or fancy new motorbikes) they are bad ass…

Pollution in Kathmandu:

The dust is intolerable! I love the city, but c’mon! these road widening projects & all the construction for the SAARC summit (which happens Nov 26 & is nowhere near ready) puts so much dust in the air you can’t breathe…

-and I haven’t even started on all the trash they burn (literally, all of it) and the smelly river…

Leaving for BKK @ KTM airport:

The airport is old, so old, like Cuba w/out the organization (especially the domestic terminal where we left for Pokhara)

In the departure terminal: I’m pretty sure it was 95% men in there (mostly Nepalese migrant workers, likely going to Malaysia or the Middle East to be exploited as cheap labor) & I’m pretty sure many of them were about to board their first airplane b/c they were like little boys @ the airport (faces pressed up to the glass, watching the planes go about their business)

Rhinos, Tigers & Elephants, Oh my….Pokhara & Chitwan, Nepal

Leaving the dust behind, we took a short flight (after a long delay) to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal. Riki and I had been here a week before for our trek so we knew our way around. It is much quieter than Kathmandu, but still has its fair share of loud dog gangs. A lot of treks leave from Pokhara, so there are many tourists and many outdoors shops.

We took a taxi to Devi’s Falls, which is pretty dinky until you go across the street and down into the cave to see where the falls ends. From there, we took another taxi up to the World Peace Pagoda. Riki and I had done the two hour hike up to it before in preparation for our 5 day trek, but we didn’t have that kind of time. The taxi drivers were not too pleased to go up and insisted on waiting up there to take us down. A good thing too because the road is very bumpy and no other taxis were waiting for passengers. We had lunch at the top and even got a few good glimpses of the Himalayas. That afternoon, we went to the Old Bazaar neighborhood of Pokhara. There was not much happening, but it did have some old architecture from the 1700s, similar to that of the Durbar Squares we had visited in Kathmandu.

 

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On Wednesday we took a van to Chitwan National Park. This was along the same “highway” we had taken the bus on from Pokhara to Kathmandu. We saw the remnants of an accident that had happened more than month ago – a giant truck and a tiny car had collided, caught fire and killed 5 people. Accidents are common along this road and you can often be stuck for hours waiting for an accident to clear, as there are no other roads to take. It is one lane in each direction and people pass each other along curves and uphills in the worst possible places. Many times you are right on the edge of a cliff too. But 4.5 hours later we arrived safely in Sauraha and had much needed beers overlooking the river.

Now this is where it gets awesome, in my opinion. We took an early morning canoe ride in a hollowed out tree trunk down the river. We sat in very uncomfortable little seats in a leaky boat. Pretty sure the sole purpose of our second guide was to bail out water. We saw lots of birds, including some kingfishers, black cranes and ducks from Siberia. When we got out of the canoes, we took a short walk through some forests and saw some large spotted deer. The culmination of this tour was a visit to the Elephant Breeding Center, where they have loads of mother elephants chained to posts and their babies roaming freely. They don’t keep any males here and rely on males from the wild to impregnate the domesticated females. There was a 2 month old baby elephant (already over 70 kg / 150 lbs) who was very playful. In the trees nearby there were three spotted owlets. We had to look hard to find them but once we did, we could very clearly see there big eyes watching us. Very cool. There was also a very friendly cat who followed me all the way around the center. Don’t tell Riki, but I petted it. It looked pretty clean and I can’t resist when they roll over on their backs to be scratched. Oh, and Riki got leeched! (On his stomach oddly enough)

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Elephant Rush Hour

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That afternoon we took a jeep far into the park. We had to take a short canoe ferry across the river – more uncomfortable little seats – and then all piled into an open-topped jeep for the bumpy ride through the park. Despite the noise from the jeep, we were able to get pretty close to two types of deer, two boars, two types of monkeys, peacocks AND 2 rhinos! We were very excited about the rhinos, having been told that we may or may not see them. It is all luck as to what you see. There are over a hundred tigers in the forest, but you rarely see them. One of our guides had seen 4 in the 3 years he had been a guide. We also stopped at a Crocodile Breeding Center, where they have perhaps the ugliest crocodiles. They have long skinny snouts, which are often damaged as they bite each other when competing for the same fish. Don’t worry, they grow back, but slowly. The Gharials are endangered so they have had this center since the 1970’s to increase their population.

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The next day was even better. We got up super early – because thats the best time to see the animals – and hopped on an elephant for a hike through the forest. The theory is that the wildlife is used to hearing elephants stomping around, so you can get closer to them than the jeep. And closer we got. We were within 20′ of a rhino.
It was a bit bizarre though because there were perhaps 30 other elephants all piled with tourists looking for the same things, so when we saw the rhino, all the elephant drivers hollered and raced toward him. He was almost surrounded, but seemed ok about it for the most part. Then we stomped off in search of other animals. There were a few elephants whose passengers were less than quiet, but our driver made a point to split away from them and find another path so we could spot some animals. I doubt those people saw much, as they were shouting to each other the whole time and probably scared everything away. We saw more cranes, deer and a monkey herding some deer.

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Three of the group headed back to Kathmandu and the rest us arranged for a long afternoon hike through the forest, in hopes of catching sight of more animals. The hike began by crossing a small river in our bare feet, which we were less than thrilled about as the water in Nepal is not very clean. But we made it across and were in an area where we would see no other people for the next 4.5 hours (except for one person, more later). The rule of the park is that you have two guides no matter how many people are in your group. We only had four, but we had one guide in the front and one guide in the back. I thought this was a bit excessive, until 10 minutes into our walk when the guide in front holds up his hand to stop and we hear loud rustling in the grass ahead of us. Turns out, about 50 feet in front of us is a mother rhino and her 6 month old baby. These are very dangerous as the mothers can be very protective. So we were ordered back and I’m picking out the closest tree I can climb in case things go wrong. But the baby catches our scent (good noses and ears, bad eyes) and goes tramping off in the other direction. Soon the mother does the same and we continue along our intended path. The guides take us to a watering hole, where they have once seen 14 rhinos bathing at the same time. We only see one so we get a bit closer to get a better look. We were up on a bank, so its pretty safe because the rhinos are slow in the water and when they are bathing, they are very relaxed and just want to bathe. Not likely to chase you. So we get closer and another rhino (large male) emerges from the water. The guides get very excited and then we see another one. A tiny baby! Maybe 2 months old playing in the water behind his mother. This was way more than we could have hoped for and we spent a significant amount of time taking pictures and watching the baby play with its mother. All the while, the second guide is checking behind us to make sure the other rhinos are not going to come up and surprise us.

After about half an hour, the mother and baby head back into the grass and we move on. We are walking through a flat, open area where deer come at sunset and I’m thinking about how I can’t wait to tell people about the baby rhino when we are stopped dead in our tracks by a very loud, very close, warning growl. The guide in front immediately signals us to be quiet and wait. I am straddling a log and thinking we are about to see a boar come running out at us. So I picked out another tree to climb. This wouldn’t have done me any good as what we heard was a tiger about 20 feet away. Apparently, we had woken him from a nap and he was making sure we knew he was there and wouldn’t disturb him. So we backed up and waited to see if he would come out. The head guide pointed to the brush where the growl had come from and told the younger guide to go check it out. He was kidding.  The young guy wasn’t amused. Tigers are not as dangerous during the day though. They are usually seen patrolling their territory during the day and mostly feed at night. He didn’t come out so we found another path and continued on our way. We went through some thick underbrush and appeared to go in circles for the next few hours.  At one point we heard wood cracking and the guide shooed us back as he thought it might be a wild elephant (can be dangerous).  Turns out it was a domesticated one with a rider collecting firewood, lucky for us. We saw more deer, two mongeese (mongooses?) and some peacocks. Riki got another leech, on his ankle this time. On our way back, walking through some tall grass we were again stopped in our tracks by the guide because just ahead in our path was a very large rhino. Our lead guide took a large and banged it against some grass and when that didn’t work he threw the stick into the grass in front of us to make sure the rhino went the other direction. He stomped off and so did another rhino, which was didn’t see, only heard. They are usually solitary animals, so it was a bit strange for there to be two together and not just bathing. We made it back to the river and removed our shoes again. My dad discovered a blood-soaked sock, as he had also gotten a leech and I found a red tick on my knee.

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Checking for wildlife
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Tiger meal

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All in all, a very successful few days. Tiger spottings are incredibly rare and we were lucky to have even heard one. We took the tourist bus back to Kathmandu the next day and proceeded to do all our touristy shopping (Mom & Dad have an extra suitcase for our stuff) in Thamel. We found a place that uses recycled trash to make all sorts of things. I got a purse made out of woven cotton and inner tubes and my mom bought some ornaments made from Ramen packages, whose profits benefit women. On our last day we went carpet shopping and picked out a green (shocking) hand woven Tibetan one that is small enough to fit in the suitcase. We had a goodbye dinner with the family who arranged a lot of our travel in Nepal and then booked it for the airport for a midnight flight back to Bangkok. The security is bizarre in Kathmandu – they barely look at your bags, but we got patted down three times.

And now we will begin our adventure where we intended to in September, going to northern Thailand and meandering around to Laos, central Vietnam to south Vietnam, and over to Cambodia. Suggestions for after that are greatly appreciated!

Prayer flags & Temples…Kathmandu (again)

Back to Kathmandu to meet up with my parents and friends.  Nepal wasn’t on our original itinerary, but we are very glad we came and have had a great time with my parents – at least I did – and Riki would never say otherwise 🙂

The old folks (permission granted for use of this term) arrived a bit late due to some craziness in Doha, but we waited patiently at the hotel with some Gorkhas, our new favorite Nepali beer. We were then invited to an excellent dinner with an American/Irish family who has lived in Nepal for almost 30 years. They gave us a nice run down of how things work and the itinerary for the rest of the days in Nepal. The first morning in Kathmandu, we walked for about two hours, ending up in Thamel, the main tourist area. It isn’t terribly far from where we stayed, but there are no sidewalks and the roads are mostly dirt and not labeled on maps or signs. The taxis are pretty cheap, but you have to haggle, because the starting price is never what it should cost, like all things here. I don’t enjoy haggling, but I have been put in charge of arranging taxis because apparently I am good at it. I have no problem arguing over the rupee equivalent of $1, mostly because I know a Nepali would still be charged half as much as I am charged. And you can’t trust the meters because many of them have been altered to charge more than they should. Its a bizarre system. Everything is negotiable, except when its not.

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We spent the afternoon in Patan’s Durbar Square, one of the oldest known Buddhist cities.  Lots of brick buildings with cool wood windows. It is a UNESCO site and has many small streets and alleys. We ate a rooftop dinner with fried crunchy sizzling mo:mos (yes that is properly spelled). They are usually just like steamed dumplings and come in veg, chicken or buff (the menus verbatim).

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The next day we went to Baktipur, a large old capital from the 1700s mostly. It is also a UNESCO site, but cars are not allowed on many streets, so it is a nice change from the chaos of the rest of the city. They also have a Durbar Square.  It is rice harvesting time and the women have loads of rice spread out on tarps on every available flat space. They constantly rake it flat and then pile it up in order to dry it, all day. Then they pile it back up, cover it and do the same the next day.

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Our third day, we went shopping. My parents are taking a suitcase back home for us, so for the first time, we are able to buy things! But we didn’t this day. We just looked. We went to a Tibetan handicraft center and watched women sit in dingy rooms knotting rugs on giant looms. There were some great patterns, but it did not look like fun. That afternoon, we took a short tour of a school and an intro to Nepali class. We can now say thank you, left, right, straight and water pretty well. Oh, and tasty. Luckily, many people speak English. We also met with two contacts of Riki’s family, one in a development organization and one who is a former ambassador. Both offered great insight on their country. Feeling adventurous, we stopped at the New Orleans Cafe for dinner. My dad ordered the New Orleans Chicken Basket (fried chicken with french fries) and another travel companion ordered Jambalaya (I didn’t try it, but it looked like rice with chicken in a reddish-brown sauce). Those were the only New Orleans referenced dishes, not counting the New Orleans cocktail (vodka with some type of juice). Riki had the Mongolian BBQ. I think I had curry. No Abita, and no discount for New Orleanians. We even tried to show them Riki’s driver’s license. No luck.

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The next three days we had free while the old folks helped at a local school with activities and then painting. We wandered back to Patan on foot and did a little shopping. We managed to find our way back, despite there being no road signs and the maps are generally terrible. We had dinner in Thamel at a lively place called Friends Restaurant where we were entertained by some local instruments. Our third and final Durbar Square trip was in the center of Kathmandu. It was not as impressive as Baktipur, but had a lot more people (and pigeons). There is a great courtyard where the “living goddess” stays (and sometimes appears). She doesn’t walk outside of her quarters. She is carried by others. Once she reaches puberty, she is replaced by a younger girl. On our way to Thamel we stopped in a secluded Stupa square, surrounded by little art shops and some crafts stores. Riki disappeared for awhile to look at Thanka paintings and I was granted use of the camera to stalk an adorable small girl.

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Best picture of the day, in my opinion. Having been in about a hundred stores selling Thanka (a form of art very common here that shows the path to nirvana mostly and lots of Buddhas), I was glad Riki had finally found one he liked enough to buy that day. We then walked to the Garden of Dreams. It is a tranquil walled space in the midst of loads of traffic and honking.

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Waiting patiently while Riki takes pictures (of pigeons)

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Saturday we met up with another Nepali connection, this time an artist from a remote area in the mountains. He showed us his gallery set right next to a large stupa, Boudhanath (another UNESCO site). He was then gracious enough to take us 10 minutes walking to his studio so we could see some work in progress. His work is unlike anything else we have seen in Nepal, full of movement and expression. Most paintings we’ve seen are sedentary Buddhas. We learned alot about his village and his personal goals to educate its people. It takes over a week to reach his village, it is so remote. From there we walked about 30 minutes to Pashupatinath. This is another UNESCO site, where many cremations occur on the ghats. We came in from above and could smell the burning very well. It was a bit disconcerting to see the ashes flying all around and think about what was burning below. It is all done out in the open and then the ashes are scattered in the river. We saw tons of monkeys on our way here and all over the buildings.

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Waiting patiently while Riki takes pictures

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Our last day before flying to Pokhara was spent painting at a local school just outside Kathmandu. We joined the old folks and rolled walls all day. The school is for very young children of migrant workers, who would otherwise have no one to watch them or have to go to work with their parents. The building is a large house, so the classrooms are just the bedrooms and must be very crowded when filled with a dozen 6 year olds. There was a bit of drama as the quality of the materials was not exactly up to par with what we are used to (wobbly ladders, deteriorating brushes, watered down paint – all brand new), but we made do with what we could buy and were able to get most of the house painted.

Stroll through the Himalayas….Pokhara, Nepal

Nepal has many options for trekking. We only had about a week before my parents arrived, so we chose a 5 day Poon Hill trek out of Pokhara that promised great views and easy trekking. Easy is a relative term. We found a great guide, Raju through an agency and decided to carry our own equipment rather than get a porter. For complete details on accommodations/food/guides/etc throughout the trek, see below.

We left Pokhara with our guide at 8 am Monday and took a taxi for about an hour and a half to Nayapul (elev. 1070 m / 3510′) .  The trek begins walking through a small town’s dirt road, across a flag engulfed bridge and up a rocky dirt road.  It was initially very hot and we probably brought too much stuff with us.  We climbed up a very steep dirt road for a few hours before stopping for lunch.  After lunch, the road stops and any jeeps that have made it up the steep slopes, load their goods onto donkeys for the rest of the journey along a rocky trail.  There were lots of people, porters and donkeys.  The donkeys carry anything from mattresses to rocks and propane.  The porters pretty much the same.  4 hours after we started, we reached Hille (elev. 1500 m / 4921′) where we stayed overnight at a teahouse.  They have these small lodges along the trail for trekkers.  Most are very simple, with very thin walls, shared bathrooms and luke warm showers.  They are very cheap and range from $3-6 a night per room.  You’d think camping would be cheaper, but its not because you have to hire a porter to carry the tent and any cooking supplies as well as sleeping bags and other gear.  Despite the warmth we encountered during the day, our first night was very cold and we were grateful for the thick blankets provided (though we still slept in two layers of clothes).

After breakfast, including delicious fried bread, we left Hille to climb 3,280+ steps.  And we’re not talking your normal house steps.  Some were tall, some were loose, and some were wet.  It took about 2 hours.  And then there were more steps.  We took it pretty slow though we even passed some groups.  After lunch, which is generally Dal Bhat (rice with lentil soup) we trekked through an oak and rhododendron forest, where it started to rain.  Luckily, we had our rain covers and jackets (though Riki’s leaks).  We took cover during the worst of it and after some more steps and 7.5 hours total, we arrived in Ghorepani (elev. 2874 m / 9429′).

On Wednesday, we left our bags in the teahouse and started climbing Poon Hill at 4:45 am.  It was pitch black, but we had lights and so did the 300 other people climbing up to see the sunrise.  There were more stairs and we arrived about an hour later at the top (elev. 3210 m / 10531′).  The view was incredible and we were luckily that it was very clear.  This was the highest elevation we encountered on our trek and it was frigid.  We each wore three pairs of pants and most of our other clothes.  After taking a ton of pictures, we descended the mountain back to Ghorepani to eat breakfast and pick up our bags.  Our trek continued up a steep ridge that was engulfed in clouds and pretty chilly.  There was a bit of snow too and the whole thing was pretty eerie.  After about 2 hours it starts raining as we trek through incredibly lush forests.  More Dal Bhat for lunch and more rain.  We tried to wait out the rain, but eventually gave up and headed through more forest and along a creek that lead to an incredible waterfall.  The rain let up following a very steep and wet descent through moss  and fern covered forests.  Our day wouldn’t have been complete without more steps and the final segment was a steep uphill out of a valley to Tadapani (elev. 2590 m / 8497′).  Only 6 hours trekking.  Tadapani is mostly just teahouses, not many people besides those running the trekking-related businesses.

The fourth day was a short one.  We began at 9 am and trekked through beautiful rhododendron forests, with light red flaky bark.  It was cool and moist and also covered in moss.  For a change, we went downhill the whole way and arrived 2.5 hours later in Ghandruk (elev. 1940 m / 6364′).  After eating lunch with great views of Annapurna South and Fishtail mountains, we headed to the Gurung Museum to see some local artifacts.  Ghandruk is a much larger town, as it is only an hours walk from the nearest real road.  They even have a small brightly painted monastery.  We played cards that evening with our guide and tried the local liquor made from millet seeds.

Our last day trekking started with a downhill walk out of the forest and into more open rice terraces and scattered houses.  Then we reached the dirt road where there is a bus that we could have taken back to the beginning of the trail.  We opted to walk and had great views of rice terraces and even saw some monkeys playing in an area that had a large landslide last year.  After 6 hours we reached Nayapul (elev. 1070 m / 3510′) where we picked up a car and drove back to Pokhara for 1.5 hours.

We spent Saturday resting our sore muscles (surprisingly we were more sore from the downhill than the uphill) and doing laundry.  The place we sent our laundry managed to lose 6 of our socks.  Notice I don’t say pairs of socks, because that’s not what happened.  When you only each have 4 pairs of socks, losing 6 socks is devastating.  The hotel reimbursed us for the socks (kind of) and now I have one set that just doesn’t match.  Oh well.  So we are down 10 socks so far as Riki left two pairs drying in the bathroom in Hanoi.  Otherwise, we haven’t lost anything else (that we’ve noticed).

Sunday we took the 7 hour tourist bus back to Kathmandu to meet up with my parents for the rest of our Nepal travels.

Check out our pictures below.

Trekking Info:

We had a great guide – Raju – who is based in Pokhara and does longer treks and day trips/tours in Pokhara.  Contact me for his info.  He was very knowledgeable and kept us at a perfect pace throughout our trek.

The teahouses seemed to be pretty similar and the rates were pretty fixed in the Annapurna region.  This is where we stayed:

Hille – Dipak Guest House (thin walls, but decent beds and thick blankets)

Ghorepani – Super View Guesthouse (good view, but gross toilets and very low ceilings)

Tadapani – Himalaya Tourist Guesthouse (pay shower, smoky common area, excellent view in the morning)

Ghandruk – Heaven View Lodge (warmish shower, VERY clean, private bath available)

Pokhara – New Annapurna Guest House ($20, very clean, but if you do laundry make sure they do it in house because if they are busy they send it out and that place is terrible – not clean and lost our socks)

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