Archive for December, 2011

“The Beach” 11-14.12.11

After having spent around five weeks in the mountains and having been really cold sometimes, we were looking forward to head to the warmer South East Asia. Although it wasn’t in our original itinerary, we just felt like going to the beach, and what place can beat the Thai beaches?

Sonsoles in Monkey Beach

Iván in Maya Bay

We knew that it would be crowded, but we just wanted to check out what seemed to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the country and a place that we remembered, our good friend “Doctor Arana” (congrats with the PhD!!) had recommended us a while ago. So without hesitation, we took a train, a bus and a boat and after 16 hours we were in Ko Phi Phi, or Phi Phi islands.

Sonsoles in Long Beach

Iván in Ao Lo Dalam

We arrived after a long trip and we were tired to start finding accommodation, so after an hour of wandering around, we found a really nice Spanish/Australian couple who recommended us the place where they were staying. It wasn’t in the town side, but a bit further away, close to an area called Long Beach, and we were happy to escape from the party animals that seemed to have conquered the town. Despite our perception, it seemed that the island was not at its maximum capacity, as luckily for us, everybody had gone to the full moon party in one of the nearby islands. So we were so lucky to be able to enjoy the paradise of Ko Phi Phi without the crowds, yupi!! We got a simple, but nice bamboo bungalow right in front of the sea, with a hammock in the front, and the resort itself was really beautiful, built in traditional thai style and with multiple nice touches. We loved the restaurant, placed in front of a small beach, from where you could seat and watch the sunset while sipping a Chang (local beer). The prices were not as high as in the big resorts, but we were at the edge of our budget, so we thought that despite the beauty of the place, it was wise to stick to three days in the island, in order to save our pockets ;o) Funny enough, the resort in which we ended up, the one recommended to us by the nice couple, was called Viking Resort, so we couldn’t escape the Danish influences, even so far away!

View of Long Beach.

The following morning, we were shocked by the beauty of the place! The water was of an incredible turquoise colour and karts hills grew from the water in the distance.

Beautiful morning in Kho Phi Phi

Colourful fishes swam around us without even noticing us and just a few meters from the shore, there were coral formations hosting all kind of marine creatures, including non dangerous back-tipped sharks. We thought about all our friends who would enjoy this place! How much we missed you all!! We thought a lot about Charly, who loves these kind of places so much! Still, we agreed, this beach cannot beat Maria La Gorda in Cuba, so don’t worry Charly, we still haven’t found a beach which could overcome La Gorda’s beauty!!

We spent the morning in the incredible pretty Long Beach, which was unusually quiet, only a few people in the sand and swimming, we almost had the beach only for us!

Iván in our favourite spot at Long Beach

We rented a couple of goggles and tubes and we snorkelled all morning and part of the afternoon. Then we head to town, where we wanted to book a snorkelling trip for the day after in the renowned Ko Phi Phi Ley, and after enjoying a nice Thai meal, we visited the more crowded, but still beautiful beach of Ao Lo Dalam and we went up to the view point to see the sunset. There we were welcomed by a troop of mosquitoes who took well care of our legs and feet (as usual, Sonsoles got the best piece of the cake).

Sunset at the viewpoint

The next day we got up early and hiked to town along the beach. We met our companions (two girls from Italian Tirol and two ladies from Denmark!!), put our wet suits on and head to Ko Phi Phi Ley. There, we were amazed by the beauty of the island and any words we could use would not be enough. The blue lagoon, the world-wide famous Maya Bay (the beautiful beach where Di Caprio’s movie was shot, although quite crowed too) are just breathtaking and as wonderful as you always imagined. Just check out the pictures!!

Maya Bay, where the famous movie "The Beach" was shot

Us in Maya Bay

Us in Ko Phi Phi Ley

Then we continued snorkelling for another hour and come back to the main island. We saw endless colourful fishes, including the little Nemo in its anemone, small sharks and Iván even spotted a turtle. To finish the day we fletched a long tail boat to the equally great Monkey Beach (which is rather easy to access just on a kayak by the way) and enjoyed it a lot too. There is great snorkelling here plus the fun of the naughty monkeys!!

Sonsoles posing at Monkey Beach.

Our experience in these islands was very good and we will definitively be back!!…well, if we have time after visiting so many other great places in Thailand!! Ko Lanta, Ko Tao, Ko Samui, Railey, etc……

Monkey Beach

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A week in the land of the Thunder Dragon 02-10.12.11

Bhutan, known as Druk Yul (Thunder Dragon), is a very special place. Because of its isolation and its restricted tourist policy, not many people know about Bhutan. We have been really lucky to spend a week in this Himalayan Kingdom and we would like to share our experience with those who are interested. We will start by describing the different aspects of Bhutanese history and culture and at the end we will write our itinerary in detail. It’s been very difficult to summarize all the stories of this week in just a post and we really wanted to tell all aspects of Bhutanese life and traditions, so we apologize in advance for such a really long post (again) and we hope that you enjoy the reading despite its length ;o)

The Tiger Nest perched on the mountains and surrounded by prayer flags

Bhutan is a small country, about 300 Km long and 150 Km wide, with less than a million inhabitants, located between two giants (China and India) and landlocked by the mountains of the Eastern Himalayas.

Young monks having fun at the Trongsa Dzong

Despite of that, or maybe because of this isolation, it has succeeded in keeping its unique culture and traditions and it is considered as the last Sangri-La.

Bhutanese girl carrying her sister in the traditional way

When walking around the country, one of the first things to notice are that the local people all keep wearing the national dress, called “gho” for men and “kira” for women. These clothes are not only comfortable, but also very pretty and colourful. They are wear during working time, but also casually and in especial occasions such as festivals, where the most expensive and fine silk hand-weaved clothes are exhibited.

Girls wearing the traditional kiras

Another thing that caught our attention is the love that everybody has for the royal family and the king. It is not only that they hang their portraits and pictures in their houses, restaurants and shops, but also when talking to the Bhutanese, they have an enormous respect and pride for their king and his father, the former king. And actually, few countries in the world have a king who not only lives in a country cottage, but also who is so down to earth that walks around the country and asks people who their business is going, or what are their problems, in order to do something to improve their lives. According to our guide, it is not uncommon to see the former king and his son riding their mountain bikes around the Thimphu hills. In 2008, the former king abdicated in favour of his 28 years old son, but before that, he created a constitution and proclaimed the first democratic elections in the country’s history. Therefore, the king is now not in charge of the country’s politics, but it continues to have an important role in the country’s future. The last royal event, the royal weeding of the king with a 21 years old beautiful woman the 13th of October, is still celebrated throughout the country and pictures of this young couple hang everywhere.

Beautiful Punakha Dzong and the "female" river

With focus on sustainable development, Bhutan has the largest proportion of land designated as protected areas in the World, with 65% of the country covered by forests and mountains. Despite its tiny size, it features great biodiversity due to the large variation in altitude, ranging from 100 to 7500 meters. Its more than 5000 species of plants include tropical evergreen forests in the plains of the South, dark green forests in the valleys of central Bhutan and alpine vegetation in the higher areas of the North.

Beautiful Bhutanese valley and with un crystal clear river

Bhutan’s rich history is mixed with fantastic legends and tales, where saints subdue demons and convert them into protective deities and where thanks to the “Divine Madman”, phallus has become one of the most sacred religious symbols and it is very commonly used as decoration motif in house’s front walls. You will not believe this guy! First thing we did when arriving to a new village was asked for the best wine and the most beautiful young girl. By means of his “weapon” (yes, you are right, his pennies), he would subdue the demons threatening the girl’s family or the region. The story and life of the “Divine Madman” (his real name being Lam Drukpa Kuenley) is worth to be checked out! It is funny that according to these stories, most demons possessed only women and they were precisely these women who required “purification”. In our eyes, this is one of the many tales that are difficult to believe or understand, but they all form part of the Bhutanese system of beliefs and they should be respected.

Children selling the hand weaven scarfts that their mother has made

As one of the Buddhist countries by excellence, the lives of the Bhutanese are strongly linked to Buddhist traditions and rituals. Children’s names are chosen by pulling a name out of a glass jar in the temples, marriages are not arranged, but they are evaluated according to the Buddhist calendar, in order to find out whether the relationship is auspicious or not. Offerings of food, especially butter for the temple’s lamps, are donated by the local people to the monks of every temple.

Painting of the wheel of life in Punakha Dzong

Money is offered to the three main images of any Buddhist temple: Buddha (either in its past form, present form or future form), Guru Rimpoche (the person who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan) and Zhabdrung (the person who unified the country) and to many others. When visiting the temple, one can always encounter people doing their daily praying by walking around the praying wheels (always clockwise) or by doing their prostrations in front of the altar.

Monastic school in Thimphu

Us in front of a typical Bhutanese altar, in Gangtey Palace Hotel

Festivals are always linked to Buddhist religion and/or Bhutanese history they usually represent important past events for the country. The dances are normally performed by the monks in the larger festivals and by the local people in the smaller festivals. Dancers are dressed with colourful dresses and faces are hidden by scary-looking masks representing the local deities.

Rehersal of a new festival that we encountered by chance!

Archery is the national sport (and his little brother, darts, one of the main time pass), and you can easily find people shooting their bows. The matches are in themselves an amazing cultural show. Two teams, with member in each of the two sides where the bull eyes are located (145 meters apart!!) shoot arrows in turns. When your team hits the target, all the members will perform a rather interesting (funny in our eyes 😉 dance.

Exciting archery game. As it was weekend, many people gathered to watch it

The other national “sport” is chewing the nut. As our guide used to say “it is the easiest way to recognize a Bhutanese”. You may have seen it already, as they also eat it in other countries like India. It consists on a nut rolled on a betel leave with a little bit of lime altogether. It has a very peculiar odour (at first is ok, but after a few days it starts feeling a little too much since we are not used to it and it is very intense). After chewed, the mix gives and intense red blood-like colour to the whole mouth, which is very weird, because when they spit, it looks like blood! What they will tell you is that they take it because it keeps you warm, but we strongly believe that it is kind of a substitutive of the tobacco since this is illegal in Bhutan.

Our guide showing us the second national sport: chewing nut with betel leaves and lime

When it comes to architecture, Bhutan has a unique style which is different from all other countries. Chortens (monument housing relics of Buddha), goembas (monasteries), lhakhangs (temples) and dzongs (fort-monasteries) are typical Bhutanese religious buildings.

Stunning Punakha Dzong

Painting of the four kings protecting the four directions and a prayer wheel. This was typical of each temple

Houses are typically two storeys white washed buildings with wooden roofs (modern buildings have changed to more practical fire-resistant tin roofs), elaborated wooden cornices and windows and paintings such as garudas (mystical animal), dragons and phallus on the walls. A player flag, usually white, commonly waves from the roof. Normally, the bottom floor is reserved for animals, while the top floor is used for the family. In contrast to the individualistic way of living of the Western countries, where each person in the house has its own room, Bhutanese families share a room where all member of the family sleeps and spends their time together.

Traditional house decorated with phallus in honour of the "Divine Madman"

Bhutanese food is totally based on two key ingredients: rice and chillies. Local people make three meals a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner), which are usually identical. They consist on rice and a type of “curry” (meal cooked in a sauce). The most common variety of rice is “red rice” which is widely grown throughout the country. Chilly is not longer a spice, but the main ingredient of the meal. Some typical Bhutanese dishes include a vegetable (potatoes, mushrooms or green beans), cooked with chillies in creamy cheese-based sauce. However, in the touristic places, food is made especially for tourists are has nothing to do with Bhutanese food. Around six different meals are presented in small trays. These could include:
-Red or white rice
-Potatoes or local mushrooms cocked in a cheesy sauce (without chillies)
-Steamed or grilled vegetables (cabbage, carrot and green beans)
-Deep fried vegetables such as egg-plant or zucchini.
-Meat (chicken or beef) or some fish
-And if we ask for it, as I usually did and ended up with my mouth on fire, the typical Bhutanese meal, as explained above.

Typical Bhutanese meal set (tourist version)

Bhutan has remained quite rural and undeveloped until quite recently. Something that proves this is that when referring to distances, Bhutanese people talk in terms of “walking days” instead of kilometres! Until the 60’s, Bhutan had no schools, no hospitals, no postal service, no telephones and no national currency. It was also closed to tourists and only royal guests entered the country until the early 70’s. Still today, the country is known by its tourism policy of “low volume, high value”. This means that one cannot come to Bhutan on its own, but every visitor has to come through an agency and has to pay a minimum daily fee, which makes it one of the most expensive countries to visit. However, everything is included in this daily tariff (i.e. own guide, car and driver, accommodation, meals and all ticket fees) and the quality of the services is quite high. The idea behind this is to preserve the Bhutanese cultural and environmental values and by paying this fee you are supposed to be helping this small kingdom to catch up with the developed world.

Nice Bhutanese woman selling local "ara" (local wine of unknow alcohol percent!)

We hesitated significantly before we decided to come to Bhutan. Finally, and to be honest, mainly because of my (Sonsoles) perseverance, we decided to book a 9 days – 8 nights trip in order to learn more about this unique country.

After a recommendation from an acquainted from couchsurfing and after doing some research on the different agencies, we decided to book through a local company called “Bhutan Visit”. Throughout our email communication, which lasted several weeks, they were always kind and very flexible to our requests and wishes. Our itinerary was as follows: Paro- Punakha – Bhumthang (Trongsa and Jakar) – Wangdue Phodrang – Thimphu – Paro. Below our detailed itinerary is described:

Us on they way to the Tiger Nest

Day 1 – 02.12.2011
We land in Paro airport after an exhilarating flight from Kathmandu around 15:00 local time. Paro is not the capital of Bhutan, but it is virtually the only place in the whole Bhutan which is flat enough to allow a place to land. Paro is located in the western side of the country, at n altitude of around 2200 meters. Our guide, Phub Tshering, or Haba, as he asked us to call him, and our driver, Palden, are waiting for us at the airport. Positively surprised, we find out that we got a really nice car, a Toyota Landcruiser 4×4, with seats comfortable covered by beautiful carpets depicting dragons.

From left to right: our driver Palden, Iván and our guide Phub Tshering, "Haba" in front of our car for the trip

The weather is sunny and nice and there are still a couple of hours of light, so we go straight to visit a couple of sights: the Drugyel Dzong and the Kichu Lakhang before heading to the hotel. The Drugyel Dzong is an old fort, but unfortunately, it was damaged by the earthquake of the past September and it is not safe to visit, so we just see it from the outside. This fort is located in the route to Tibet, only two days away by foot. Kichu Lakhang is one of the oldest temples in Bhutan. It dates from the VII century and its history links it with the wider world of Buddhism. This temple, together with other 107 temples around Bhutan and Tibet, were built in one day in order to subdue a giant demon which was frightening the region. Apparently, the temple is placed right above the left foot of the demon. The hotel for tonight is a wonderful place called Gantey Palace, and example of Bhutanese design and architecture with an extremely nice and welcoming owner who shows us around his tower with his treasures upon arrival. The standard of this hotel is really high after what we were used to in Nepal with our low budget, and we are surprised to get a radiator inside the room (which was previously turned on by the employees, so that we had the room warm when we arrived) and a bathtub with hot water! After a few minutes, somebody knock the door and Iván stares with surprises eyes how two fast and efficient women come with two hot water bags and place them under the bed sheets, so that the bed is warm! How well taken care of we feel during this first moments in Bhutan! We enjoy a nice dinner together with a large group from Malaysia and some other guests and we try the local beer, Red Panda, produced in the center of the country.

Day 2 – 03.12.2011
We get up early, as we will do every day during this week, and we sadly see that the whole sky is covered by clouds. What a disappointment! Haba also finds it really weird, as he says that it has been sunny for the last few weeks…After breakfast at the hotel, we drive towards the center of the country, that is, East direction, and the plan is to drive 3.5 hours to Punakha and do some sightseeing on the way and in Punakha itself. As soon as we leave Paro, the clouds disappear and the sun comes out. Everything is so beautiful in the Paro valley in this light! We stop in a few places to take pictures. We drive through Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, which we will visit later on this trip. We pass the Simtokha Dzong, which is supposedly the oldest in the country and it was built by Zhabdrung, the person who is considered to be the unifier of Bhutan and whose figure is in almost most temples. Shortly after, we go through the Dochu-La pass, where there are good views of the Eastern Himalayas on clear days. However, the weather turns cloudy again and there are only glimpses of the mountains. On the pass, we visit the 108 chortens which were built in 2005 by one of the former king wives’ herself in order to commemorate the victory in the civil war and the people who had suffered during the conflict.

108 Chortens at the Dochu-La Pass

We stop for lunch in the village restaurant and Lobesa, were we try what will be a typical Bhutanese meal for tourists ;o) In the afternoon we visit the weekend market in Punakha, the wonderful Punakha Dzong (with cloudy weather, though) and the Chimi Lhantang, from the s.XV, dedicated to the “Divine Madman”, see his story in one of the paragraphs above.

Bhutanese woman at local market

Inner courtyard of the Punakha Dzong

Tonight we sleep in a farmhouse in Lobesa, a small village near Punakha. The farmhouse is property of two mid-aged sisters, but we only get to meet one of them as the other one is in Thimphu. When we arrived, we are shown our room, a very nice room with two mattresses in the top floor, and we are welcomed with Tibetan tea or butter tea and rice based snacks. The Tibetan tea is a thick tea made from melted butter, salt and boiling water. The result is a heavy, brown-coloured drink, which Bhutanese say, keeps you warm. I liked the way an English girl who we met described it: “it is a heart attach in a cup”. Today’s dinner is also a traditional one and we all eat in a circle on the floor of the kitchen: the owner of the farmhouse, two girls who have come to help with the dinner, our guide, our driver and us. The food was so spicy that it took two weeks to grow our eyebrows again! We really got now why Bhutanese are called “Dragon people”, hehehe.

Eating in the kitchen of the farmhouse

Sonsoles ready to go to bed at the farmhouse

Day 3 – 04.12.2011
After a hearty breakfast, which as the dinner, was also based on rice, chillies and potatoes, we start our long drive to central Bhutan. Shortly after, we see our first archery tournament and since it is weekend, many people have gathered to observe the game and cheer up the different teams.

Archery, the national sport in Bhutan. These modern bows are made in USA

The weather is still cloudy, so the views on the different passes are not good at all, but we still hope that the sun will eventually come out! The drive is long and tortuous, but our experienced driver does his job very well!

Bhutanese yak close to Pele-La Pass

Guess what Iván is wearing on his head?

After lunch, we reach Trongsa, where we visit its imposing Dzong.

Trongsa Dzong

Again, there is an archery tournament going on here. By the end of the evening, we finally reach Jakar, where we will spend two nights. We stay at Rincheling hotel, where we get a fantastic room: spacious, all made by wood and traditionally decorated with a Bhutanese stove inside! The food is even more impressive and we are delighted to try the typical cheese of the region, made in a Swiss factory close by.

Day 4 – 05.12.2011
Today we are attending a local festival Tang Namkha in a village a couple of hours away. We have been looking forward to this day for quite some time, since festivals are something really special in Bhutan. When we arrive, we find the local festival to be even more local than we expected. It is like attending a festival of a Spanish village in a very rural area!! Like going to “las fiestas de Villacodillo de Galapagar (sorry, only Spanish people will laugh here). The local people start coming with picnic baskets and the younger ones start rehearsing the dance of the day.

Local people from the village performing the festival dance (most of them were already quite drunk)

It shocks us that everybody is so drunk! Local wine (“ara”, 25%+ of alcohol) is all over! We meet a nice couple from England (Joe and Andrew) and we have a great time with them and their smiley female guide, Chimi. The dances are performed in the temple courtyard and everybody gather around it to watch first the local people dancing, then the two masked local deities and finally the “yak dance” (see pictures below).

Masked dancers at the local festival

In the middle of all this, a guy holding a wooden giant phallus, called the clown, harass the dancers and the audience, specially the girls, in search of money but basically for the fun of it! After a picnic with our new foreign friends and all guides and driver, accompanied by some glasses of ara, we head to the next destinations: the Ogyen Choling Museum and the Membartsho or “burning lake”. The Museum gives us a good insight about Bhutanese way of life (we found everything really funny because of the ara!) and the burning lake is a really special place with a beautiful story. Beside it, there is a tiny cave with two exits and legend goes that despite of your weight or volume, if you are able to come in by one side and com out by the other side, your body and mind are clean from sins (funny enough, only our guide could manage!).

Our guide and driver (foreground), the nice English couple and their female guide and us after having a picnic

Before heading to the hotel we visit Kurjey Lhakhang temple, one of the most important in the country since Guru Rimpoche left his body prints through meditation.

Back at the hotel, Iván and I try one of the Bhutanese experiences and have a traditional hot stone bath. It consists on a wooden bath tube where water is heated by hot stones which have been on the fire for at least two hours! By means of an ingenious system of buttons and lights, you can tell the guy on the other side whether you need more hot stones or cold water. The feeling that you get after the hot stone bath is really good and it makes you feel completely relax!

Hot stone bath at the Rincheling Lodge, Bhumthang

Day 5 – 06.12.2011
Before leaving Jakar, we visit the Jambay Lhakhang, where there are the three famous stone steps, representing past, present and future (the past step has already sink below the ground). The monks at this temple are getting ready for the visit of the head of the monks, equivalent to the Pope in Catholicism. On the way back, we visit the fine Trongsa Museum, located in the tower of the fort, where we meet again our English friends. Back on the road, we meet the head of the monks himself and we have lunch at the same restaurant that he has just left.

Sonso on the place where the Bhutanese movie "Travellers and Magicians" was shot

After a quick stop at the nearby Chendibji chorten, built in Kathmandu style, we continue to the Phobjika valley, where we come to see the black-necked cranes, a really special and threaten bird, which comes to Bhutan from Tibet every year from October to April.

A couple of black-necked cranes with their chick

When we arrive to the hotel it is already quite late, so we just have a quick dinner and go to bed. Tonight we stay at Dragon nest Hotel, an OK hotel by the river and in a room with TV, for the happiness of Iván.

Day 6 – 07.12.2011
We wake up in a beautiful sunny morning.

Balcony of the hotel in Wangdue Phodrang

We see Wangdue Dzong in the distance, but we tell our guide that instead of visiting this Dzong, we prefer to see the Punakha Dzong again, this time with sunlight, because we think that this is the most beautiful Dzong of them all! He agrees on that and we spend a couple of ours in this fantastic fortress, built on the place where two rivers (female river and male river) meet.

Beautiful location of the Punakha Dzong, where "female" and "male" rivers converge

After that we have lunch at the Dochu-La pass restaurant and we visit a new temple in Dochu-La pass, where we see very beautiful cartoon like paintings depicting the different kings of Bhutan, the royal family and some other motifs. Totally by chance we encounter the rehearsal of a no even announced festival!! It is incredible beautiful since it takes place in a hill behind the temple with the views of the Himalayas on the back. It is also very colourful and the stunning drums are hypnotic. After the low key festival we already saw (very interesting and fun though) this give us a better idea of what the biggest and most famous festivals look like.
Back to Thimphu, we visit the post office where we buy some traditional Bhutanese stamps, the Memorial Chorten and the Chang-Gangkha temple, a very special temple where parents bring their babies in order to get a name for them from the monks. In the evening, we visit the Thimphu Dzong (only open from 5pm to 6pm because it is used during the day by the Government) before coming to the Hotel. We stay for two nights at the Yeedzin Hotel, a centrally located hotel where we get a nice room, or should I say an apartment (because there is a living room, a bedroom and a bathroom!), but where the food could be seriously improved. After dinner we meet with Anne-Erika and Nono, friends of Camille and Elisabeth, and we have a great time with them, sharing stories and experiences about Bhutan and Denmark.

Day 7 – 08.12.2011
Today we see many sights in and around Thimphu. The weather is great! We visit Dechenphodrang Monastic Institute, where we see the morning prayer of the youngest monks. Then the Takin reserve, where the few remaining national animals are kept. The takings are weird animals which are said to be created by the Divine Madman and they are indeed as strange as him! When you look at them, you are surprised to see an immensely big animal which look like a mix of cow and goat.

Takin, the national Bhutanese animal, at the Takin reserve in Thimphu

After buying some hand made cotton and silk scarves made by local women, we visit the National Library, containing the World’s biggest book, the rather boring Folk Heritage Museum and the hand-made Paper Factory. In the afternoon, we visit the Changzamtog Traditional Weaving Center, where many women are making kiras (dress for women) in traditional patterns, all very colourful, beautiful and expensive (one could cost 1000 USD) and the huge new Buddha statue in top of the hill. The site is still unfinished and we feel like visiting a dusty construction site, but the views of Thimphu from here are great, tough.

Bhutanese woman weaving a kira with traditional paterns. Such elaborated kiras can cost up to 1000 US$

Hand weaving silk kira in traditional patterns

As it is almost our last night, Haba and Paldel come for dinner with us at a traditional restaurant, “Bhutan kitchen”.

Day 8 – 09.12.2011
Before driving to Paro, we stop by the post office again, in order to send our 16 letters and postcards!! We really hope that they arrive! Back in Paro, we start the hike up to the Taktsang Monastery, the famous Tiger Nest, perched on the top of a hill. It is the main pilgrimage center for Buddhists from all over Bhutan and Tibet. The hike takes us 5 hours, including stops for pictures and lunch, but we enjoy it a lot, since the weather is great and the views of the temple from all angles are breathtaking.

Us on the hike to the Tiger Nest

How were they able to build a temple on the edge of a hill! Unfortunately, the whole complex was burnt in a fire in the late 90’s, but Bhutanese made a great effort to rebuild it to its original form and it was completed in 2005.

Close up of the Tiger Nest

On the way back to town, we stop to see archery and darts tournaments, always funny sports to watch, and we reach the hotel after sunset. Tonight we stay at Sonam Trophel Hotel, in the middle of town and just above two karaoke bars, which makes it a little noisy until midnight. However, the food is great and after dinner we chat a lot with Haba and a friend of his, and they even talk to my mum and sister from Skype, while I am talking to them with the video camera.

Day 9 – 10.12.2011
Today is our last day in Bhutan and we feel different emotions, sad for leaving, but at the same time excited about going to our next destination: the warmer and fantastic Thailand! Before heading to the airport, we make a quick stop to see the Rinpung Dzong. The views of the Paro valley from this Dzong, as usually perched on top of a hill, are breathtaking, especially under the bright morning sun.

Us in front of the Dzong in Paro in the last morning

Haba and Paldel accompany us to the airport. We say goodbye to each other and wish each other best wishes. It has been a real pleasure to meet them both. We cannot believe that the week has passed so fast! We have seen so many interesting sights and learnt so much that we will always have a smile when we think back about Bhutan, indeed a really special place to visit.

Looking at the Tiger Nest from midway

As high as Mister Everest

It was not until we read in our guidebook those dramatic words: “Paro airport is often described as the scariest airstrip in the world” that we came to realise of the importance of the flight ahead of us. Our experience in Nepal had been so satisfying and fulfilling, that we did not have our minds set on Bhutan quite yet. And the flight Kathmandu – Paro was certainly one of the highlights. This flight is considered to be the most spectacular commercial scheduled flight and it would not disappoint anybody.

The weather was relatively clear in Kathmandu, what does not necessarily mean that the mountains would be clear too. In fact, there was what appeared to be a thick layer of clouds to the North, bringing our hopes down for the trip.

We got to the small Druk Air’s plane (Druk air Bhutan’s national airline and the only one which is allowed to travel to Bhutan), the first propeller plane that we had ever got into. Got on the runway and took off…

Us right before getting into the Druk Air plane

It was a tiny plane and we were no more than 20 people inside it. Everybody was willing to get a seat on the left hand side, although the thick layer of clouds did not allowed us to know whether the visibility would be good. And then, once over the clouds…the most dramatic view of the Himalayas we could ever imagine! We could not believe our eyes! Away from the city, the weather was perfectly clear and the whole Himalaya range was visible from peak to toe. After a few minutes, everybody started asking “is that one over there?”…”is it??” And yet! There it was! The highest peak in Earth! The top of the world! Mister Everest: 8850 m (as DTU announced a few days ago in the main Nepalese newspaper). It was just a dark black pyramid that made Lhotse (8516 m), look like a picnic. The feelings are too many to be described: the joy, the excitement…we just feel like in case the plane fell down at that moment, it would just do not matter…We just saw Everest! And we felt that we could even touch it! Even the captain announced it by the P.A. system: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this flight Kathmandu – Paro, at your left you can see Mt. Everest…Enjoy your flight!

But the flight has a long list of highlights and views of other peaks almost as impressive: Makalu, Kanchenchunga and other 8000+ peaks that just look almost unreal, so close of the plane as they were.

The Himalayas from the flight Kathmandu - Paro

Mt. Lhotse (8516 m, foreground) and Mt. Everest (8850 m, bagground)

And to top it all, the last surprise of the trip: landing at Paro airport!! It was indeed scary and shocking! For those of us who are used to flying, saying that landing at Paro is simply unconventional would not be fair. The Druk’s plane started a fast and steep descent into the valley, manoeuvring above the thick forests, and still far from the airstrip. We were literally flying through the valley until we reached the safety of the airport. We were very excited, after having enjoyed the ride of a lifetime!

Paro airport at our arrival

Coming soon: a long post about our fantastic week in Bhutan!

Nepalese cuisine

This post is about Nepalese cuisine and especially, those” delicatessen” that have conquered our hungry stomachs during our month in Nepal.

Typical Nepalese kitchen

Dal bhat: Nepal national dish, literally “lentils and rice”. It consists on lentils, rice, vegetable, a curry (normally potato curry for the veg. dal bhat), papad (thin fried bread) and pickles.

The best dal bhat from a Thakali restaurant in Pokhara

Momos: ravioli-like pasta, filled with vegetables, vegetables and cheese, chicken, beef or lamb. Most common momos are steamed, but they can also be fried or haft fried (kotchey), which are delicious because they are crunchy and juicy at the same time! Momos are usually served with a tasty sauce to deep them in. Absolutely delicious!

Delicious veg. momos from street vendor (the bowl is made of tree leaves)

Kotchey (half fried, half steamed) Momo's at Momo Star restaurant, Kathmandu

Egg veg. fried noodles and egg veg. fried rice: very common dishes in all menus, and very delicious as well, specially the noodle version. The noodles or rice are fried with the vegetables and fried egg is added on top.

Enjoying the best egg veg. fried noodles of the trek, between Tatopani and Ghorepani

Fried potatoes (with veg. or/+ egg): very good because you can not go wrong with them.

Garlic noodle soup: this delicious soup was our lunch almost everyday during the trekking. It was perfect because it gave enough energy to continue trekking without making you feel super heavy. Moreover, even though it is not proved, garlic is believed to help acclimatizing, or at least it reinforces the immune system.

Nepalese “donnuts”: these fried sweet “donnuts” are sold mostly in Kathmandu and surroundings, especially in the morning with the milk tea. Iván really loved them, particularly when they are just coming out of the pan and they are warm and crispy.

Yak meat and yak cheese: almost the only meat and cheese to be found in the mountain areas. Yak meat tastes like beef, but it is less fat. Yak cheese is different depending on how dry it is, but the smell is strong no matter what.

Yak burger from Yakdonnald's in Kagbeni (organic family-run restaurant)

King curd: speciality from Bhaktapur. It tastes like yogurt and sometimes it has a taste of cheese. It is sold in big clay pots or in small plastic cups.

Milk tea, masala tea, ginger tea, hot lemon, lemon tea, ginger lemon honey tea or mint tea: different varieties of tea to be found in Nepal. Milk tea or “chía” is black tea with milk and opposite to the Indian “chai” it is served without spices and without or with little sugar. Masala tea or Nepal tea is the equivalent to Indian “chai” (black tea with milk and spices). Hot lemon is hot water with lemon juice and ginger lemon honey tea was our saviour in the cold mornings and evenings during the
trek.

Nepalese beers: the most famous ones are Everest and Gorkha, but Tuborg and San Miguel are really popular and readily available almost everywhere.

Chang and tongba: local beer based on fermented rice or millet and alcoholic drink based on fermented millet, respectively. Chang looks like lemonade rather than beer and it is really strong (25 +). Tongba is served in big plastic containers filled with millet, where boiled water is added so long as the taste lasts.

Tongba: local alcoholic drink made of fermented millet

Kathmandu (03-07 & 27-28.11.11)

Our stay in Kathmandu was divided in two periods: three days before
the trekking and one day after it. During our stay, we focused on solving some practical issues first (withdrawing the local currency, Nepalese rupees (NPR) from ATMs, obtaining the trekking permits from the Nepal Tourist Board, getting the rabies vaccination at the Ciwec Clinic, etc) and then we concentrated on visiting the main sights. At the beginning we stayed in the Shree Tibet Hotel in Thamel, which was a nice hotel in a great location, but because of the really loud music of a night club next door, we decided to find something else after a couple of nights. Then we moved to Hotel Sugat, right in Durbar Square, which is a basic and cheap option with views of the Square and really nice and quiet from evening to morning. The following list describes the main attractions of Kathmandu and at the end we finish up with a list of advices for future travellers to Nepal’s capital city.

Thamel
Main touristic hub of Kathmandu, packed with mountain gear shops, hotels, restaurants and bars.

Durbar Square and Freak street
Kathmandu Durbar Square is the plaza in front of the old royal palace of the Kathmandu Kingdom. It is one of three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal (together with Bhaktapur and Patan), all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. While Thamel seems all made for tourists,Durbar Square still keeps the traditional Nepalese atmosphere and many street vendors sells their products around the square, making it very lively. Freak Street is an area next to Durbar Square which used to be a hippies paradise in the sixties. Both Durbar Square and Freak Street were our favourite places to stay in Kathmandu.

People workshipping the terrying Kal Bhairav in Durbar Square

Baudha (Bodhnath)
Most important Buddhist temple in Kathmandu and one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world. Pilgrimage place for Tibetans.

Bodhnath complex viewed from a temple in the square

Sonsoles and Iván in Bodnath

Swayambhunath
Second most important Buddhist shrine in Kathmandu. Impressive location on top of a hill, accessible through an endless stairway. Also know as monkey temple for the large community of monkeys who lives there.

Swayambhunath

Pashupatinath
Known as the Nepalese “Varanasi”, this site is sacred for Hindus, where they perform ablutions, cremations and other rituals. A large amount of sadhus (holy men worshippers of Shiva) congregate here.

Ceremony taking place at Pashupatinath

Sadhu (holy man worskshipper of Shiva) in Pashupatinath

Practical tips for future travellers:
– If you do not like noise, especially at night, it is better to avoid sleeping in the busy Thamel and finding accommodation somewhere else. We recommend either the North of Thamel where there are 4-5 guesthouses with relaxing gardens (ex. The Yellow House, around 1800 NPR) or the area around Durbar Square/Freak Street (ex. Hotel Sugat, basic and cheap hotel: 550 NPR for a double with attached bathroom).
– There is a limit on most ATMs of 10000 NPR per withdrawal. The exception is Nabil bank, whose ATMs allow you to withdraw up to 35000 NPR with an extra charge of 400 NPR.
– Taxis will charge you between 150 and 500 NPR for any ride within the city, depending on your bargaining skills. The best technique is asking first and then starting offering less than 50% of what they asked. Usually you will meet somewhere in the middle.
– Local bus is a fun and cheap way of transportation within Kathmandu. We could go anywhere in local buses and we paid between 10 and 30 NPR per ride. All buses start and finish their routes in Ratna Park bus station, but you can ask around and people will tell you where the bus will pass. Once you know which bus you want to take, you can stop them anywhere, like a taxi, since there are not official bus stops.
– If you are planning to make a trek for a few days, mostly all hostels will safely keep the entire luggage you do not need to take with you until you come back. Try to get a receipt for safety.

Nepalese local minibuses

Travelling by public transportation in Nepal is not only the cheapest (one way ticket within a town costs 10-30 NPR, less than 0.5 US$), but the most amusing way of transportation.

Iván on a Nepalese bus

We really like to understand how the life of the local people is and by staring them on their way to their works or schools, one can get a good idea of it. Local buses are twice as big as vans and are usually white coloured with colourful paintings/stickers (often religious related) on the outside. The theoretical capacity of these vehicles would not exceed 30 or 40 people in any Western country, but Nepalese people have the ability of stuffing more persons per square meter than what the Marx brothers would have never dreamed of. And if nobody else fits on the bus, don’t panic! There is always space on top of the bus, hehehe.

Sonsoles happily seated on the spare wheel during the ride Nagarkot-Bhaktapur

The driver usually seats on the right and around him, seated in a platform on the front of the bus, a whole crew of friends, relatives and other persons of diverse nature accompany him. A boy, normally between 15 and 25 years old, is in charge of calling potential passengers from the street by getting on and off the bus almost every five minutes and shouting the destination of the bus. This boy is also the person collecting the money for the bus ride and we could never figure out in base of which criteria they calculated the prices (the fare was different every time). However, these boys were always so cheerful and helpful in indicating us when we had arrived to our destination that we never had any problem in paying what we were asked for, even though it was some times more than what the locals pay.

Iván on the platform behind the driver

Something really characteristic of the Nepalese minibus rides is the soundtrack that keeps up the spirit in these long and tiring trips. Bollywood songs, sometimes even musical videos on a TV for the longer trips, or, depending on the age of the driver, Western disco songs, are played loudly during the whole trip. At the beginning we found it quite annoying, but we have to admit that we ended up getting used to it and looking forward to these musical moments!

Our best bus ride in Nepal was in Kathmandu during one of our last days in the country. We took a bus from the central bus station in Ratna Park to get to Boudhha, a huge Buddha stupa and Buddhist temple complex located 5 Km from the city center. The bus was almost empty when we got in it, as it was the first stop, expect for a group consisting on seven Nepalese teenager girls. The girls were having a great time taking pictures, chatting and laughing. I offered to take a picture of them with their camera, so that they could all stay together in the picture, and they were delighted. After that they insisted on having a picture with us also, and they urged us to seat with them at the back of the bus. They seemed very happy to meet a Spanish couple and we were really pleased of having this chance to interact with such an interesting group. The bus ride lasted about one hour and we spent the whole time talking to the girls, singing and learning some Nepalese words and teaching them some Spanish words. They could not stopped laughing when Iván told me “I love you” in Nepalese after they taught him to! We were also really surprised when one of the girls started playing a Spanish song from her mobile phone! Apparently, the song is famous in Nepal because it is sung in a popular Bollywood movie. The girls were 19 years old and they all studied together in Kathmandu, despite of coming from different parts of the country. They were so funny and clever! We had such a wonderful ride and we really enjoyed every moment, particularly when one of the girls with a really beautiful voice sang a Nepalese song, especially for us! What a promising future Nepal has if all the youngsters are like these wonderful girls! We wish them all the best!

The Nepalese girls loved Iván!

The old Kingdom of Bhaktapur (29.11.11)

Today we wake up in Nagarkot very early, around 5 a.m. since we want to climb to the Tower view point and see the sunrise. This is pretty much the only thing you can do in this town, and although is a nice experience (from here you can see the whole Annapurna range plus the Everest and all peaks in between) will however remember this place by another more terrifying experience not worthy to be registered in this blog! 😉 Therefore, we would like to skip this (sunrise was ok, but little cloudy in the mountains, so we did not see much) and jump to our trip to Bhaktapur. The trip was an experience in itself, as usual, and rather pleasant, as always, being said that we did the nearly one hour trip sat on top of a wheel!!! I mean, the extra one the have just in case…

Anyway, through the narrow streets from the bus station we got a little lost until we meet Mobu, a nice girl that showed us the way to Durbar Square. When we got to the “Palace Square” as it could be translated, we could not believe our eyes. It was full of temples from the early XVII century, each more beautiful and interesting than the previous one.

Us in Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Iván admiring an enourmous warrior in Nyatapola temple, Taumadhi Square, Bhaktapur

We rushed to find a nice hotel and enjoyed the town. We got a very nice room at the Golden Gate lodge with our own private terrace with views over the Square and far beyond, to the far skyline of the Himalayas. We would spend here two nights and we were very happy to enjoy such a cosy place for some of our last days in Nepal.

The town was really special not only because of all the things it has to offer, but mostly because of its atmosphere. Contrary to Kathmandu Durbar Square, Bhaktapur’s was a calm place full of corners where you could just sit down and comfortably enjoy and watch the everyday life as well as all other temples in the distance.

School girls from Kathmandu dancing and singing Shakira's "Waka-Waka" in Bhaktapur Durbar Square

It took us a little time to realise what the main reason for this feeling was, but then we noticed that…the historical centre of this city was pedestrian!!! That’s why!!! 😉

Two Nepalese men in front of Ugrachandi statue, in Bhaktapur Durbar Square. The men are wearing the typical Nepalese hat

A Nepalese girl, "Shital", playing with a rubber "ball". She could make up to 40 kicks without dropping the ball!

Bhaktapur was definitively a relief, an oasis far from the noisy and stressing capital. As the old three kingdoms Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, share the peculiarity of holding one of the three parts of a commonly proclaimed World Heritage Site that accounts for their respective Durbar Squares, or squares that surround the Royal Palaces.

Weeding parade that we met in Bhaktapur's Durbar Square

Bhaktapur is well known for being a city where art and handcraft emerge in every corner, from wood carving and paper factories, to painting and pottery. One of the most picturesque places is Pottery Square where pots crowd all over the place to be dried. From here, most of the pottery for the rest of the country is supplied. It is incredible how fast and easy these people make pots!

Pots drying under the sun in Pottery Square, Bhaktapur

Bhaktapur is certainly a place that we fully enjoyed!