Day 71 | Up, down, in and around Thimphu, Bhutan

On our second day in Bhutan we hiked to a hilltop monastery, circumambulated a memorial stupa, visited one of the largest Buddha statues in the world and watched archers shoot an impossibly far target.

We woke up around 7am to amazing sunrise views from the Thimphu valley. Despite the many dogs barking all night, we slept well in the super comfy king size bed. It was also the very first time we felt a little cold at night since the beginning of our trip. For us, a much appreciated break from the extreme heat of Southeast Asia.

We left the room for breakfast at 8:30am. The restaurant had only two other customers. Even though it is the high tourist season in Bhutan, it seems like there are very few travelers at Bhutan Suites. Breakfast was served Western style, consisting of tea/coffee, pastries, fresh fruits imported from India, omelettes, toast and jam. Good but not memorable. Too bad we did not get to try a more traditional set of Bhutanese breakfast dishes. (When we asked our guide about this, he said the traditional Bhutanese breakfast is just rice!)

Our guide showed up in the hotel restaurant at 9am to start the day. Just kidding it was his doppelgänger! We were fooled and stared at a random mustached man across the restaurant. Our real guide Kesang was waiting outside with our driver Tandin.

Our drive to the start of the hike was super scenic going along the river. We crossed a bridge and passed in front of the school for royal bodyguards. We kept going up with the car for about 45 minutes until we reached the entrance of the national park which is also where the start of the hike to Chagri Monastery is located.

It was a beautiful hike up. We started by crossing a river. The ascent was pretty steep and the landscape absolutely breathtaking.

The sun was shining and we were happy to breathe the fresh mountain air.

Hiking to Chagri Monastery

We passed by this dog who must have been exhausted from barking all night long with his gang.

Dog yawning

On the way we learned more about our guides, talked about US TV shows they watch (turns out they probably watch more American TV shows than we do!), US politics, gun violence and also the 2016 presidential elections. They knew a lot about all these topics, especially Tandin, our driver who is younger.

Tandin and Kesang lead the way

We encountered this stupa overlooking the valley as we were approaching the monastery.

Stupa atop the hill

We got to the monastery at the top of the hill in about 45 minutes.

First glimpse of Chagri Monastery

There we spotted several domesticated goats and sheep. These were brought here by worshippers to save the animals from being slaughtered in order to earn good karma. The animals now live a happy life next to the monks (unlike sad goat from yesterday).

The monastery is a school for monks to learn meditation. It’s the oldest monastery in all of Bhutan, established in the 17th century by the founder of Bhutan Zhabdrung Rinpoche when he came from Tibet. After praying inside, our guide told us a lot of details about the monastery, and the specific branch of Buddhism that is followed in Bhutan which is different from the one found in Myanmar.

There is something so calming about the click-and-spin sound of prayer wheels rotating.

These in particular were beautifully painted.

Prayer wheels at Chagri

Our guide Kesang also mentioned some monks come here and then stay in solitude in the forest for 3 weeks, 3 months or even 3 years, talking to nobody during that time. While inside we only saw one monk. We also bumped into very few tourists, perhaps only a dozen or so.

We finished our visit of the monastery, took more pictures and got back down to where we started.

Trail out of Chagri Monastery

Car ride back to Thimphu through the beautiful winding roads again. We stopped for lunch at Bhutan Kitchen, which had a mostly vegetarian buffet.

Bhutan Kitchen from outside

The food was excellent and the style of the restaurant is very cute / family owned. More tourists than yesterday at lunch. Several Indian and Chinese families were there as well as a group of maybe 12 German people.

Lunch at Bhutan Kitchen

After lunch, we took the road to the big Buddha. On the way there, we stopped by the Memorial Chorten (or stupa) built in 1974 to honor the mind of the third King who passed away at a young age, and walked three times around it clockwise.

Memorial Chorten

The clouds passed quickly over the stupa.

Blue sky above the chorten

We joined many elderly worshippers as they walked the circumference of the stupa as well. Some of them relaxed by sitting next to a structure housing the prayer wheels.

Elderly worshippers at Memorial Chorten

We also turned the big prayer wheels that contain many mantras.

The sky was now covered with big storm clouds when we left the stupa.

Storm clouds over the chorten

As we drove the rain chased us through the winding hillside road.

Rain over the valley

Leaving the car, we walked a short distance to the Buddha statue.

Short hike up to the Buddha

The big Buddha Dordenma statue was super impressive. The complex is still under construction at the moment (the statue itself was completed a few months ago in 2015). The statue was made in China but assembled on-site in Bhutan. It measures 51.5 meters tall.

Buddha Dordenma for size comparison

We caught this shot as the sun parted the rain clouds over Buddha’s head.

Sunlight over Buddha's head

Then we visited the inside of the temple as well with walls covered with paintings honoring the Buddha’s life and his teachings. Very few tourists here.

Colorful statues of animals and deities lined the pedestal around the statue.

Elephant statue

Next we went to check out the archery field to watch men practicing Bhutan’s official sport. On the way there we stopped for pictures of the Thimphu valley. Kesang pointed out in the view of Thimphu various things such as the city’s only helicopter landing pad.

Overlooking the valley

When we arrived at the archery field, Kesang explained there are two types of bows: traditional and compound. Traditional is harder to aim vs. the compound one. Small groups of Bhutanese men were in the middle of a game. We were amazed by the distance between competitors and the target: 145 meters. Given that, it is very impressive to witness shots that reach the target. We saw a handful.

Archery target

Tried to capture the arrows flying into the air after release from the bow but they go so fast that it was impossible to get them in photo, even using continuous burst mode with our camera.

The traditional bow.
Old fashioned bow

And the modern compound bow.

Modern bow

Then we had extra time to go window shopping in Thimphu. We went to the arts and crafts market which consisted of many little stores on a single street, some of which were closed.

Thimphu's quiet gift bazaar

Every city we go to, Maurice shops for a souvenir fridge magnet.

Souvenir shopping

After a quick walk in front of the market, our guides gave us additional time to walk around some more in central area of Thimphu. Saw a lot of migrant workers from India (all men) in the area. Also saw the human traffic light directing the very sparse traffic at an intersection. Funny to see there is such a job given the small number of cars there!

Countless dogs were sleeping in the streets, though a few of them were roaming around.

One of many dogs roaming Thimphu

Then it was time to head back to our hotel which took just a few minutes. We had tea with Kesang and Tandin and talked with them more about Bhutan, its history, its culture, relations with its neighbors China and India, etc. Super interesting to exchange perspectives on the world with them.

We then went to our room to rest, work on the blog and nerd out on the web. We captured a time lapse sequence from our balcony as the sun was setting over Thimphu.

Sunset over Thimphu valley

At 8pm, we went downstairs for our second Bhutanese dinner at our hotel’s restaurant. Food was good just like yesterday. Some of the dishes were the same and others were new. We loved the pumpkin soup and mushrooms with cheese in particular. For dessert, we had a cup of fruits in milk. We were the only ones there pretty much the entire time. Probably the staff was waiting for us to leave before they could go home (since the kitchen closes at 9pm).

We came back to our room and worked some more on the blog before going to bed.

Day 70 | First exposure to the wonders of Bhutan, Asia’s happiest country

Day 70 | First exposure to the wonders of Bhutan, Asia’s happiest country

Just like yesterday, we again woke up super early to catch an international flight. This time we were leaving Thailand (and Southeast Asia) to get to Thimphu, Bhutan. This was the fifth time in a row we woke up very early. We checked out of the Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok and booked a Uber to Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The ride was without traffic at this early hour of the day. We arrived at the airport’s international terminal and proceeded to the Bhutan Airlines check in. Interesting facts: the only two airlines that fly into Bhutan are Bhutanese airlines: Bhutan Airlines and Druk Air (also known as Royal Bhutan Airlines just to make things more confusing); also Bhutan is connected only to a handful of countries in the region.

Inside Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport's international terminal

After going through immigration and security, we saw on the departure schedule screen that our flight was doing final boarding! We were definitely still early so we were very surprised to see that. We did not take a chance and ran like crazy to our gate. Missing our flight would mean we would have to wait until tomorrow since there is only one flight connecting Bangkok to Bhutan per day. I was so stressed that I went in the wrong direction and we ended up running way more than we had to. As we arrived at the check in counter, we found out that we were in fact not that late. Other passengers were slowly making their way to the counter. But as we got to the transfer bus I realized I lost my Balloons over Bagan hat while running! Very upset, I asked if I had time to go back to look for it and the lady at the check in counter said they would close in ten minutes. I ran back retracing my footsteps and managed to find my hat on the floor. I then ran one more time to the counter. Out of breath, I boarded the transfer bus which left few minutes later. Phew, we made it and so did my hat.

The air was very humid that morning, preventing us from taking clear pictures before boarding the aircraft.

On the tarmac of Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport

We got seats on the emergency exit row and were asked to review the requirements for passengers sitting on these rows. Personally I would always pick a seat on this row when given the opportunity since the legroom tends to be significantly bigger.

Reviewing the requirements for emergency exit passengers

Soon before taking off, we learned that our flight to Paro was not a non-stop flight. We were first going to stop by Kolkata in India. That’s when we noticed that the airplane seemed to have two distinct sections: one filled with international tourists like us and the other one filled with almost exclusively young Indian men that we figured were migrant workers established in Bangkok. We took off on time and said goodbye to Thailand for the third and final time.

Shortly after the take off we were served a vegetarian meal. It was good but we were not sure if it was Indian food or more authentic Bhutanese cuisine.

Food on Bhutan Airlines flight to Kolkata

We landed in Kolkata International Airport around 9 AM.

Kolkata International Airport from our airplane window

We stayed on the airplane but all the Indian workers that were sitting in the section behind us disembarked. Just a couple of minutes later, a cleaning crew consisting of just four men came aboard while we were still inside the airplane and cleaned the entire section in less than ten minutes.

Once they were done, new passengers boarded the plane. This time it was not migrant workers but rather wealthy Indian tourists traveling to Bhutan with their friends and relatives. We took off again.

And then we got a meal, a second one!

Vegetarian snacks on Bhutan Airlines flight to Paro

We were pretty hungry so we didn’t mind the extra food. We ate while looking at the beautiful clouds underneath us.

Flying over clouds

We finally approached Paro, a town in the Western part of Bhutan where the only international airport of the country is located. The airport in Paro is known to be one of the most dangerous airport in the world. In fact, it’s apparently so difficult to land there that only eight pilots have the necessary training and qualification to land there. And indeed our landing phase as well as the landing itself was impressive. Surrounded by mountains, the plane did multiple rounds and tries before finally landing. Apologizes for the long video on this one (skip to 5:00 for the final maneuvers before landing).

The sky was cloudy and the temperature less hot than in Bangkok. The humidity was lower too so we got another shot of the airplane but that one was without the fog effect on the lens.

After landing in Paro International Airport

I got to pose with some of the crew members as well.

Posing with Bhutan Airlines crew members

The airport was quite small despite being the largest one in the country! The terminal follows the traditional Bhutanese architecture style.

Paro International Airport only terminal

Just as we were about to enter the terminal building, we heard another airplane as it was getting ready to land. I was quite excited to see another landing while still standing on the tarmac, so close to the runway! We first thought we were super lucky but later confirmed that all daily flights landing in Paro airport arrive within a relatively short window in the morning when the general weather conditions and in particular the visibility are best.

We queued up on the immigration line, surrounded by other tourists coming from our flight. Judging by the number of foreign languages we heard and different passports we saw while waiting on line, we could tell that Bhutan is popular with tourists from all around the world. We got our entry stamp without any trouble and picked up our luggage.

As we left the building, we were immediately welcomed by Kesang and Tandin, our guide and driver from Bhutan Wilderness Travel. The two of them would accompany us for the entire duration of our stay in Bhutan (nine days) and slowly become our good friends. They were both wearing the gho, Bhutan’s national dress for men. Kesang is the one holding the sign while Tandin is the one in the back, left of Mimi on the picture.

Warm welcome by our guide Kesang

We jumped into the car, a very comfortable jeep. The ride from Paro to Thimphu (Bhutan’s capital city) was super scenic. Our first impressions of Bhutan were excellent as we enjoyed the beautiful landscape from the windows. All the buildings had a very consistent architectural style and integrated very well with the nature surrounding them. There were rice terraces too that reminded us of Sapa which we visited just two days ago but which already seemed so far!

Bhutanese landscape

There was not much traffic on the road and we arrived in Thimphu in less than an hour.

Thimphu welcome gate

Since it was lunch time, we were first taken to a place named Orchid Restaurant for lunch. There we had our first real authentic Bhutanese meal composed of red rice, buckwheat noodles, shredded cabbage, potatoes with cheese sauce, chili peppers with cheese, momos (Himalayan dumplings) filled with greens and lemongrass and some watermelon for dessert. The food was simple and delicious.

Traditional Bhutanese dishes

The restaurant did not have other guests, something that we would later find out is quite common in Bhutan. Given the low population (Bhutan has approximately 750,000 inhabitants) and density, it’s rare to be at a crowded place, even in the capital. Coming from Hanoi and Bangkok, two of the largest cities in Southeast Asia, it was definitely a change which we did not fail to notice.

Lunch at Orchid Restaurant in Thimphu

After lunch, we drove to the Centenary Farmers Market, a central vegetable and fruit market. The market was incredibly clean and not crowded at all. Kesang explained that most produce is imported from India and that Bhutan isn’t actually self sufficient in terms of food. We started the visit by the vegetable section on the top floor.

Vegetable section inside Centenary Farmers Market

Passed by an herbs and spices stand.

Herbs & spices stand inside Centenary Farmers Market

The produce sold there had vibrant colors. Fruits and vegetables photograph really well!

Fresh produce at sold at Centenary Farmers Market

We ended our walk through of the market with the fruit section on the bottom floor. Again everything was mint clean. No smell of rotting fruit on the sidewalk here! It was a peaceful and enjoyable experience for us.

Fruit section inside Centenary Farmers Market

We left the market to our main activity for the day: a visit of the Thimphu Dzong. Dzongs are massive multipurpose manmade structures. They serve as religious (monastery), military (fortress) and administrative (governor office) centers for a given district. Thimphu being the country’s capital, its dzong is also one of the most impressive. Before entering the perimeter, Kesang had to tie a traditional scarf called kabney around his gho. All Bhutanese citizens are required to wear such a scarf when visiting a dzong anywhere in the country. The scarf’s color determines the rank of the bearer. In Kesang’s case, the white color implies that he is an ordinary citizen.

Kesang preparing his ordinary citizen kabney

We started by taking some pictures from the outside, with the Bhutan national flag floating in front of the dzong. The Thimphu dzong consists of several individual buildings, three of which date from the 16th century. The external facing structure is much more recent: it was built in the 1960s.

Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu

We walked along the external wall until we reached the main entrance.

Walking along the Tashichho Dzong

Inside the dzong, we were allowed to take pictures of most places except for the inside of temples. The structure on the right is one of the three original buildings that date from the 16th century.

Inside Tashichho Dzong

Given how few tourists were there, it was super easy for Kesang to take a picture of us without any stranger in it, something that would require amazing luck and/or a lot of patience in any other place we have been on our trip so far!

Posing inside Tashichho Dzong

While we walked around, Kesang provided a lot of detailed background about the dzong but also started to tell us more about Bhutanese culture and history in general. That’s when he first mentioned Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the spiritual leader who came from Tibet and is widely recognized as Bhutan’s founding father.

We left the dzong and drove up the valley towards the Motithang Takin Preserve, a wildlife reserve area for takin, the national animal of Bhutan. We made a stop midway to enjoy the views of the dzong from above.

Far view of Tashichho Dzong

We arrived at the reserve and spotted several takins. We were able to see them from pretty close and take amazing pictures and videos. What a strange animal! The face looks similar to a guinea pig’s face but it is so much larger!

A takin, Bhutan's national animal

This fellow decided to come closer to the fence that separated us from the animals.

Takin coming closer

While this other one was just enjoying his food.

The wildlife reserve also had a few other animal species such as mountain goats. One of the goat was visibly depressed or at least acting like it.

After we finished our visit, it was time to get to our hotel, Bhutan Suites. We got there around 5 PM and Kesang explained what to expect for dinner and told us about the activities planned for the next day. We left him and Tandin and checked into our room, or rather our very large apartment!

We had an amazing view over Thimphu valley.

Thimphu daytime view from our apartment at Bhutan Suites

We unpacked and rested for a little bit. We were pretty tired by this long day of stressful travel and amazing sightseeing.

We got dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. We got served traditional Bhutanese vegetarian food again. It was similar to what we ate for lunch and still very good. For dessert we had a nice cake with coconut ice cream.

When we came back to the room, it was nighttime and lights were now shining in the valley.

Thimphu nighttime view from our apartment at Bhutan Suites

We worked on the blog just a little bit and read some more about what we had seen in Thimphu so far. For our first day in Bhutan we definitely had a blast. We went to sleep soon after, happy to know that we would finally be able to sleep more than one night in the same bed, after moving so much in the last week.

Day 69 | Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok aka the world’s biggest water fight

Day 69 | Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok aka the world’s biggest water fight

We spent our last night in Southeast Asia in Bangkok during Thai New Year (Songkran). Coming from Hanoi this was our one night stopover before leaving Bangkok for Paro, Bhutan the next morning.

For the second night in a row, we were woken up by the Vietnam Railway staff members knocking on our sleeper cabin door. We said goodbye to the Australian retiree couple we shared our cabin with and then left the train. This was our third and last time transiting through the Hanoi railway station. We walked through the streets of Hanoi to the Holiday Gold Hotel, repeating the same path we had tread just three days earlier coming from Hue. The town was almost empty at this early hour of the morning (5am).

We got to the Holiday Gold Hotel, woke up the staff once again and picked up our luggage. The very friendly staff member called a taxi for us and we were able to pay him using a mix of VND that we had left and USD that we had brought with us from New York.

The taxi ride was as expected without traffic. Once at the airport, we repacked everything so it would fit in our two pieces of carry-on luggage and two backpacks and then checked in. But when we arrived at the Air Asia check in booth, we were told that carry on items were limited to 7 kg per bag and that it would cost us $72 to check in our two rolling suitcases which were both around 11 kg. We were outraged by the prices especially because paying in advance was much cheaper at $10 per bag up to 15 kg. There was no way we were going to pay that much. Seeing we were visibly upset, the lady was nice and told we could repack our stuff so that we would only have to check in one of the two suitcases. We did exactly that and ended up paying only $36. Still an exorbitant fee for a single bag but we had no other option.

Hanoi airport

We went through immigration and security without trouble before reaching our gate. It was 7am then: despite our two rounds of playing Tetris with our luggage, we were still super early for our 9am Air Asia flight. We used that time to catch up on writing the latest yolomimo blog post.

The flight duration was about two hours and we landed in Bangkok for the second time. Maurice was anxious to go through the Thai immigration for the third time of our trip after his weird experience of being questioned by an immigration officer in Chiang Mai a few weeks ago. Luckily, he didn’t encounter any issues. We picked up our luggage, changed some dollars to THB and hopped on an airport bus to the BTS Skytrain station. As we walked from the bus stop to the Skytrain station, we started seeing many people selling water guns on the street.

Bangkok's skytrain

We realized the water guns were for the celebrations of Thai New Year aka Songkran. Tons of young people were on the train ready for the most epic water battle of the year. Once we got off the Skytrain, it took us a while to find our hotel. We had to go through the maze of two large connected shopping malls before finally getting to the Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok. The hotel itself is very luxurious, probably on par with the Park Hyatt Saigon we stayed at while in Ho Chi Minh City. We were assigned to a corner room.

After taking the obligatory walkthrough video, our first priority was to finally take a shower. We had been unable to bathe ourselves for close to 72 hours by that point! It felt truly amazing! We later took a few pictures of the hotel’s premises. We checked out the outdoor pool which we swam in later that night.

Pool at the Hyatt in Bangkok

The spacious lobby tastefully decorated with trees.

Spacious lobby at the Hyatt

We left the hotel around 2:45pm, searching for Inter, a very well reviewed restaurant serving Thai cuisine in our area. However due to the festivities for Songkran we were unable to walk through the overcrowded streets to our destination. There were tons of people having fun in the streets. We did get splashed a few times on our way.

First we stopped at the Erawan Shrine next to the hotel.

Erawan shrine

Crowds were forming at every overpass over major intersections. It was a long traffic jam getting to the other side of the street.

Crowds forming for Songkran

We were not prepared for the water fight, for example, we didn’t even carry a bag to protect our camera. So we tried to keep a safe distance from getting soaked.

Revelers on line for the festival

We did take some picture of the young people excited to splash others.

Supersoakers ready

This was the core part of the festivities in the Siam Square area of Bangkok. This animation captures the revelers marching down the street.

Water fight

We eventually gave up looking for the restaurant and ended up eating at Peppery Thai Bistro, a Thai restaurant located inside the food court of the Siam Paragon shopping mall. It was great to be able to enjoy true authentic Thai food again! We finished our lunch pretty late, shortly before 5pm.

Pad thai again finally

Since we had to go to bed early tonight we agreed to skip dinner and instead have a lot of desserts! We started with bubble tea from Coco.

Bubble tea

Then we walked to nearby Siam Center mall. We saw Tom Cruise on our way. (Who I don’t particularly like but why not pose for a photo anyway #BeingAsian).

I don't even like Tom Cruise

At Siam Center mall, we grabbed ice cream at Gelate.

Gelato next

Alas our dessert binge ended early as we weren’t hungry anymore. We did pass by Annette I Tim Tuk Tuk, a gelato on a stick food stand built into a tuk tuk.

The walk back to our hotel took a long time as the area was still super crowded with people coming to spray everyone with water.

Never far from the super soakers

We stopped at an overpass to record this animation of the infamous Bangkok traffic in the early evening with cars, tuk tuks and motorbikes.

Infamous Bangkok traffic

At the hotel, we used the business center to print necessary immigration documents for entering Bhutan tomorrow. While I worked with the staff to print out our documents, Maurice sat down on one of the two provided massage chairs in the relaxation area of the business center. That machine, an OSIM ulnfinity, was amazing (we later found out it retails for about $11,000). I joined Maurice and we both stayed there getting a full body massage for a good half hour.

Next we left for the hotel’s swimming pool. The water in the pool was pleasantly warm and for a while we were the only ones there. We also tried the hot jacuzzi which we were lucky to have for ourselves before returning to our room. A second shower and an hour of repacking optimization aka Tetris later, we were ready to fall asleep in the super comfortable King bed. But only to wake again at 4 AM for our 6 AM flight to Bhutan.