So maybe you’ve been wondering what we’ve been up to. Maybe not.
There were some setbacks for Riki as its not possible to buy many things in Switzerland that he uses for his art. However, after much trial and error, and some importing thanks to family and friends in the States, he has found a combination that he likes enough and is now able to finish some of his pieces. All are on wood that we found or were given, which was also a tough task, as there is no abundance of dumpsters here as there is in New Orleans.
Here are some of the latest pieces, mostly by Riki. Most are incomplete, either lacking the final coat, or completely in progress. Enjoy!
People are always asking what our favorite part of the trip was. That is an impossible question and I usually follow it up with asking for a category, like best nature, or best cave, or best food. We’ve seen too many amazing things to narrow it down to one.
We started this list somewhere along the way and have updated it as we go. There is a story behind every one, many of which are somewhere in our blog. For the most part, Riki and I agree on these – but I’ve noted where we don’t. There are a lot of ties. This is by no means exhaustive as we could find a best and worst of all 275 days, but I’ll spare you. Here are the highlights, and lowlights:
Best Meal: Hanoi, Vietnam – sautéed pork with thick strips of coconut
Best sunrise: Poon Hill – over the Himalayas & Bagan – with its hot air balloons
Best sunset: Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia – from the beach over calm water
Best snack: Fried fish powder & Broad beans
Weirdest food: Wood meat balls in Myanmar, Hue clams in Vietnam & tarantulas
Best coffee: Vietnam
Friendliest locals: Myanmar, but if you want just kids, then Laos
Most annoying tourists: Chinese in tour groups
Best outfits: Men – Monks with umbrellas in Laos & Myanmar (longyi – skirts), Women in Vietnam with their day pajamas
Best hairstyles: Men in Vietnam & Myanmar (slick & fashionable), Women in Nepal with dyed red hair
Cheapest meal: Pho in Vietnam
Best new vegetable: Morning glory
Best beer: Bia Hoi in Hanoi
Worst tuktuks: Phnom Penh, Cambodia – all just scams
Most painful moment: Sun/wind burn on my hands while motobiking the Thakek Loop in Laos
Worst sleep: Train from Sapa, Vietnam with snoring man
Worst road: Motorcycling on the Thakek Loop, Laos
Worst bus ride: Getting to and from Mrauk-U, Myanmar
Coolest museum: Jakarta’s National Museum
Coolest building: White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand
Coolest non-religious building: Marina Bay Sands (Boat Skyscraper), Singapore
Coolest Houses: Bajawa, Indonesia & Ubud, Bali
Ugliest building: Government view tower in Bagan, Myanmar (so ugly it’s not pictured)
Best attraction: The Himalayas & Orangutans
Best Rice Terraces: Annapurna, Nepal (most impressive) & Ubud, Bali (most beautiful)
Friendliest kids: Laos, where they all wave and yell Saibaidee
Worst internet: Myanmar – non-existent in many places
Best caves: Phong Nha, Vietnam
Best Collection of Buddhas: Sukhothai, Thailand & Mrauk-U, Myanmar
Worst dogs: Kathmandu’s gangs who bark all night
Most touristy thing we did: Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam & the bamboo train in Battambong, Cambodia
Most kitschy: James Bond Island, Thailand
Best ancient city: Angkor, Cambodia
Best Ancient Structures: Prambanan & Borobudur, Indonesia
Best bike ride: Vang Vieng, Laos (though our butts hurt for a week later) & Lonely Planet city tour of Mandalay, Myanmar
Worst bike ride: Julie’s flat tires at Inle Lake, Myanmar (though I got to ride in a dump truck)
Dirtiest place: The river in Kathmandu, Nepal
Cleanest place: Downtown Singapore
Only place with a shopping mall on their currency: Brunei (also the strangest city we’ve been to)
Best skyline: Singapore because its variegated
Best land-based wildlife: Chitwan National Park in Nepal & Sukau in Borneo, Malaysia
Best ocean wildlife: Sipadan Island, Borneo, Malaysia
Most interesting city: Kathmandu
Coolest school uniforms: Girls’ skirts in Laos (I even got one made for myself)
Best propaganda: Vietnam
Coolest flag: Nepal
Safest street food: Thailand
Best night markets: Thailand
Best music: Nepal
Best dancing: Pokhara, Nepal during Tihar festival
Worst laundry: Pokhara, Nepal (sock disaster)
Worst utensils: Laos’ chopsticks would splinter just looking at them
Tallest trees: Angkor, Cambodia
Best public buses: Bangkok (and cheapest)
Biggest mistake: To be determined (though we are out of the incubation period for malaria so not taking those pills long enough is off the list)
Best decision: Halong Bay, Vietnam timing (going in October instead of December)
Biggest regret: Phu Quoc, Vietnam (over-priced)
Best Street Art: Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Best art purchase: Nepalese & Balinese paintings
Most useful purchase: sink stopper for laundry
Most useful item acquired: free wet wipes on buses
Best local quirk: Kissing noise in Myanmar(when ordering at bar/restaurant) & kids waving (all over)
Worst local quirk: Betel nut chewing and spitting noises
Hardest thing to find: sunscreen without whitening
Most used items: Travel pillow & electronics
Best item b(r)ought: Riki pants, tablet, umbrella
Most useless item: umbrella
Wish we had: Swiss army knife & variety of shirts
Best new game/time passer: Jenga & podcasts
Crazy things we are used to now:
trash in streets, long bus rides, motorbikes without helmets, bottled water, using a fork & spoon to eat, being stared at, being generally unclean, carrying tissues, crossing the street amidst hectic scenarios, walking on the left side of the sidewalk/escalator, never understanding the language
Things we missed:
Food – bread with flavor, Clothing – variety, Culture – western toilets & real showers
I still catch myself hesitating before using tap water to brush my teeth. I am tempted to head left when approaching people, walking up stairs, and standing on an escalator. Luckily, we aren’t driving anywhere, so the awkwardness is just that, not dangerous. I can’t shake the feeling that I should be out walking around all day. I want to eat chicken and noodles, not sausage and pretzels. I can’t buy food from a stall and I can’t get anyone to smile back at me on the street. But Zurich’s not all that bad. It has all you can drink water in fountains on every block and there’s no chance of finding a critter in the toilet bowl.
According to our Travel Map, we’ve traveled over 38,000 miles (61,000+ km) since we left New Orleans. And while we didn’t actually make it around the world, the circumference of the earth is only 25,000 miles (40,000 km), we went pretty far. We can’t abbreviate it as an ATW (Around the World) trip, which would be disappointing, except that I’ve just finished our budget and discovered we spent almost exactly the maximum we had intended to spend. Considering we stayed many months longer than we initially intended, this is exciting news. We were not as organized in our budget as some people, so my numbers are rough and are strictly based on ATM withdrawals in each country and credit card purchases. I can’t provide daily eating or transportation expenses, but accommodation I tracked throughout the trip. There are a few variables that could swing figures from one country to another, but overall, this is a pretty good guess of our expenditures. For example, we took some US dollars with us as emergency money in case ATMs weren’t working or our debit card was lost or stolen. This was a few hundred dollars, and we used most of it in Cambodia and Myanmar, where dollars are accepted. We also exchanged money from one country to the next, but usually tried to use it up rather than waste it on exchange commissions. These figures were undocumented, but since we did this almost every time we crossed a border, I am going to say its probably a wash. The extra Thai Baht we had converted to Singapore dollars we used in Brunei, and it wasn’t very much in the grand scheme of our trip. We had some very generous gifts of hotel and flight points, which I have excluded from my averages. For instance, the 5 days we spent at the Hyatt in Danang, Vietnam for Christmas and ate only the free food provided have not been factored into days spent in Vietnam (except for the tailoring we had done in Hoi An at that time, which has to, as its something everyone should do when there).
First, the average accommodation prices. Keep in mind these are double occupancy. Dorms tended to be about half what a double room cost. Check out our Hotels List for specific prices and reviews.
We often went for the cheapest accommodation we could find that still offered wifi and hot water (we achieved this about 80% of the time), so you could probably spend less than this if your willing to go a bit more rustic.
Street food is often the most economical way to eat in most of these countries. However, in Nepal and most of Cambodia & Myanmar, we did not partake in the street food as we were very wary of the cleanliness of the vendors we saw. In Singapore and Brunei, we had trouble finding street food, so we spent considerably more there on food. Cheap meals could usually be found for $1-2, on the street and in the plastic chaired restaurants. Our criteria for restaurants was: lots of locals, plastic chairs, and a picture menu. These three factors pretty much guaranteed a good, cheap meal. Some of our favorite meals were eating $1 pho for breakfast in Hanoi sitting on tiny plastic chairs at tiny plastic tables, amidst dozens of other people, slurping away at hot soup in the hot air (mostly Riki’s favorite – I prefer soup when its cold and not in the morning). My new favorite street food became $1 mango and sticky rice, when we crossed into Thailand for the last time. Why I didn’t discover this earlier is something I still regret.
Indonesia, Nepal and Malaysia topped out our most expensive countries. This is mostly due to the necessity of flights to get there and in between the islands (Indonesia), as well as some more expensive activities, such as diving and trekking. Laos was by far the least expensive country, with food being dirt cheap and accommodation far cheaper than any of the other countries.
Some tips for planning:
We started with the cheapest countries (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia). These countries are heavily backpacked already and thus are set up for budget-minded travelers. It is easy to get around, cheaply and mostly efficiently. Flights are not required unless you have a time constraint, and even these flights can be inexpensive. We generally paid about $1 per hour for buses and found them long, but manageable (my earlier ramblings may contradict this, but by now the agony of these trips has subsided). Meals along the banana pancake trail are cheap and can be had for $1-2+. We had a water purifier that cost about $90 with us. It paid for itself and we didn’t have to buy an endless supply of plastic water bottles. For a long trip like this, it was worth it. For a few weeks or even a few months, it may not be cost effective, but will certainly reduce your waste.
Nepal is a tough one to write. We were there in October, after a blizzard in the Annapurna region and about 40 people died. It is a small tragedy compared to what they have more recently gone through, and all of my advice for Nepal is probably obsolete. However, we are still in touch with our great guide in Pokhara, who is itching for more clients. His name is Raju and he speaks English better than he responds in emails (email@example.com). It would be great if I could get him more business, especially following the earthquake.
In Myanmar, we found the street food, covered in grease, unappetizing and ate more expensively than we would have liked. The buses were also a lot more than we had anticipated, often twice what we would have paid in Vietnam for half the comfort. Attractions as well seemed closer to American prices.
Due to thousands of islands, Indonesia was harder to traverse and thus, more expensive. While we could have taken more boats, we had heard these were not always safe and can take many hours. We opted for cheap planes to island hop through Indonesia. Bali is surprisingly affordable, with so much competition, that most of the places we saw were clean and even provided big breakfasts.
As our trip was winding down, we lost the budget-minded sensibility regarding food and went all out in Malaysia. For this was the place to do it. By this I mean, we spent $3-4 per meal. And it was so worth it. Spectacular arrays of Indian food and piles of noodles, we gorged ourselves during our last month. You could certainly spend a little less, but its not the cheap eats you find in Vietnam. Meals were generally at least $2, but you would get a lot of food.
In Singapore and Brunei, the food budget went out the window and we paid western prices for almost everything. Don’t avoid Singapore because you hear its expensive. There are still plenty of budget attractions and cheap food can be found in Little India and as always, look for plastic chairs.
MONEY. Contrary to guides we read, ATMs are available everywhere (even Myanmar). We opened a checking account before we left with no withdrawal fees and estimate that it saved us hundreds in transaction costs. Local ATMs generally charge a small fee, but you learn which banks are less and which ones give smaller bills. Otherwise, we used a credit card with travel rewards. We never used it in Cambodia or Myanmar, but it was helpful for paying the small service fees for online hostel booking, as well as booking flights and larger purchases (trekking and diving). Keep in mind, many small businesses still charge a 2-3% fee to use credit cards. With our credit card, we received 2% back anyway, so for large purchases, it was often cheaper to use the credit card rather than accumulate ATM fees as they usually have low withdrawal maximums.
To sum it all up and to generalize a lot, I will put it simply. Estimate accommodation according to above numbers. Spend $3-8 on food per day. Buses for $4-10 depending on length and excluding outliers like Myanmar. Planes can cost as little as $8 (Kota Kinabalu to Tawau) and up to about $70 per way – mostly we paid around $40. We found great last minute deals on AirAsia and were happy with the service. Walking is the cheapest transportation, but city buses are a great alternative and we found locals to be very helpful in guiding us to the right stop. For instance, Bangkok has a very confusing bus system, but once we figured it out and got a map, we saved a lot of money rather than hiring a crooked tuktuk or an expensive cab. Attractions vary a lot, but search online for top free activities in each city and you may come across some great alternatives, like we did.
Talking to other travelers proved to be the best way to research a destination. They have the inside scoop and can often recommend places that you won’t find on Tripadvisor or in Lonely Planet. If you must resort to guide books, we found that the places right next door to the ones in the books are often cheaper and better than the listed ones, as they must compete and don’t rest on their laurels as many places in Lonely Planet do. Although I overflow with more advice, I will quit here. Some of our best (and worst) memories are just relying on information we received along the way. Our recommendations will be in the next post.
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…
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)
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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)
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)
We spent our last few days in Bangkok researching about Nepal and wandering some neighborhoods we missed last time. We also switched hostels, from an interesting place on the water with a lot of character, but noisy toilets and questionable structural integrity to a place we had stayed before we went to Ayutthaya. We sacrificed windows and character for a/c and cleaner bathrooms.
We took the river ferry down to the skytrain and over to the commercial center full of shops and hotels. We didn’t have much success shopping for hats, but Riki found a smaller tripod so he can swap out his larger one when we meet up with my parents next week. The next day, we took the river ferry across to Wat Arun. The Thonburi neighborhood is one of the older ones and has lots of little side streets, as well as walkways along the water. And unlike Ayutthaya, the cats rule the streets here, not the dogs.
Good bread has been very hard to find and we have been craving it for awhile. Not far from the backpacker’s area in Bangkok, we found a great bakery with real bread run by ladyboys. And they have wifi. We went every day, even twice one day to eat fresh bread and research for Nepal.
On Wednesday we flew through Kuala Lumpur to Kathmandu. We were unimpressed with Malaysia Airlines, mostly because of the service. They ran out of chicken meals and brought me a vegetarian meal, but an hour later. And they brought Riki a tall glass of vodka when he asked for a beer, without anything to mix with it. So that was weird.
We arrived very late in the evening in Nepal and luckily the power was on and we got our visas pretty quickly. Getting our bags was a trip, just as we had heard. It is very hectic around the baggage claim. People with carts crowd the belt and it’s almost impossible to get to the front. But as soon as Riki had sent me off to check another belt, our bags arrived. We made it to our hostel and spent the next day wandering around Thamel looking for a trekking guide and supplies.
And this is where it gets awesome. Very conveniently, we arrived in the midst of Dewali/Tehar/Dipwali (known by a variety of names here), which is a big four day festival. For this festival, everyone decorates their buildings with lights. When we flew in, we could see all the lights, on almost every building. Incredible for a place known for its power outages. They must have saved up their power for this festival because we had no problems with power outages during these days. They also make incredible rice/sand pieces to invite the goddess of wealth into their homes. We walked around for hours looking at these and watching little kids go around from house to house asking for money.
Very early the next morning, we took a bus to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal. This 8 hour trip cost $7 and travelled along the highway, which was more high then way. It was barely two lanes (one each direction) and really bumpy. Sometimes we were very close to the edge. Other times, it was so bumpy we were actually bounced completely off our seats. Luckily they were soft and we didn’t hit any traffic jams. We have heard horror stories of people trapped on the highway for hours because of accidents. And it’s the only road.
We checked into a really nice family run place in Pokhara and spent the afternoon checking out the trekking agencies. That evening, still during the festival, the sidewalks were filled with people dancing. We stopped at numerous places to watch individuals and groups dance in front of the gathering crowds. Riki really enjoyed this and there are probably a hundred pictures from this night.
Because of the festival, the permit office was closed and we were not able to leave as early for our trek as we had hoped. This was fine by us, as we had plenty of time and wanted to see what the festival was all about. Saturday we did a short trek uphill for two hours to the World Peace Pagoda. We only got a little lost and ended up finding a troupe of monkeys. They were fascinating and we also probably have a hundred pictures of them. They were drinking from a small pond and had tiny babies with them. Eventually we made it to the top and had an excellent view of the city. The clouds even cleared a bit and we could see the Himalayas.
In August, there was a large landslide right under the pagoda and a few people died. The remnants are still very visible. We walked down a ton of steps (for practice for our trek) and found a boat at the bottom to take us back across the lake to Pokhara. That evening we found a ton more dancing on the sidewalks.
On Sunday, we returned to one of trekking agencies and arranged for a guided 5 day trek to Poon Hill for the next day. We spent the afternoon shopping for hats, gloves and provisions (including Snickers bars, which are big with trekkers).