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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 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.

Day 67 | A surprise in Ha Long Bay and more sights in Hanoi

Day 67 | A surprise in Ha Long Bay and more sights in Hanoi

We visited the Surprise Cave in Ha Long Bay and then our cruise returned us to Hanoi. From there we visited the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, the pleasant Temple of Literature, ate two dinners and then caught the sleeper train to Lao Cai, the gateway to Sapa.

It was very hard waking up at 6am today but we had to get ready for tai chi on the boat’s roof deck. We got there a few minutes late, Amandine and Laurent were already there.

Tai Chi on the Bhaya cruise

The weather was still foggy but the scenery was beautiful nonetheless.

Next morning in Ha Long Bay

After tai chi we had a quick breakfast in the restaurant with just toast & jam, milk & cereal, yogurt and some pastries.

Then it was time to go for our visit of the Surprise Cave with our guide Tung. Our guide made dirty jokes but also managed to give some interesting explanations during our tour of this massive cave with three separate chambers.

Entering the Surprise Cave

Mysterious lighted cave

The tour guide made us guess what this cave feature looks like. He finally answered it’s a cannon. He pointed to the trajectory of the cannon and in fact there was a hole in the ceiling that looked like cannon marks. Coincidence?

Like a cannon

Stalactites oh my

Fab four in the cave

Pretty lights in Surprise Cave

The cave is a popular stop for many tourist cruises and we felt rushed along its winding paths.

Cave swarmed with tourists

Another view in the cave

We left the cave and enjoyed a view of the spectacular karsts from shore.

Misty morning on the Ha Long Bay island

After our visit of the wonderful cave we came back to the boat to check out of our rooms and have brunch. Once again, Maurice and I got special vegetarian dishes prepared specifically for us. Desserts were very good too with fruits, opera cakes and mango mousse that tasted like mango lassi.

Desserts at brunch

Filling up our plates

We got back to the pier where we started less than 24 hours ago. We are going to miss Ha Long Bay.

Waving goodbye to the boat staff

We jumped in the shuttle for the four hour return trip to Hanoi. Again Laurent sat in the front while the rest of us stayed in a row. We stopped once at a souvenir shop just like on the way in yesterday.

When we arrived in Hanoi we asked the driver to drop us directly at the Hoa Lo Prison, which he did. Hoa Lo is ironically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American pilots who were imprisoned there during the Vietnam War. We went through the prison. The prison was established by the French while they were ruling over Vietnam. It is small but has a lot of Vietnamese Communist propaganda that was funny at first but eventually became a little annoying. The museum was made up of several rooms dedicated to different periods of history. In the first building, we learned about the horrible ways Vietnamese prisoners were treated by the French guards from the early 1900s to Vietnam’s independence (a few of them eventually managed to escape the prison via a sewage entrance) whereas in the second one we were relieved to learn that the American POWs (including senator John McCain) were pampered by their Vietnamese captors. They played sports, learned about Vietnamese culture and even celebrated Christmas in Hoa Lo Prison. Obviously it’s all propaganda and after fact checking on Wikipedia we had a very different version.

Models of Vietnamese rebels imprisoned by the French at Hoa Lo

Photo of John McCain revisiting Hoa Lo

Maurice took this candid photo of Amandine, Laurent and I planning the next steps of our day in Hanoi.

Planning the next steps

We left the museum to walk to the Temple of Literature. It was supposed to only take 17 minutes of walking according to Google Maps but due to the horrible sidewalks and crazy traffic it took us much longer, about 45 minutes. On our way there, a female street vendor literally blocked Amandine against the wall with her basket of bananas. It was super unexpected but also kind of funny. The woman let Amandine go with a smile but it made us think about how on average street vendors were a lot less pushy than we had anticipated, this one being an obvious outlier. We purchased tickets and entered via the beautiful gardens.

Tiger at the gate of Temple of Literature

We all loved this temple. We explored the outside and inside of the temple. We saw a handful of couples taking engagement pictures there. There are stone turtles holding stone slabs all over the complex. The slabs contain the names of all those individuals who successfully passed the royal exams. We could see why this was a popular temple for students preparing for finals.

Turtles holding slabs

Inside the temple complex

Inside the Temple of Literature

We were able to take another one of our “walking through the columns of a temple” videos. This is the third one after Mandalay’s and Vientiane’s and as usual you should make sure to watch until the end.

At first there were a lot of people at the temple (in particular big Asian tour groups) but towards the end of our visit we were almost alone, making it easy to take very nice pictures without strangers.

Good luck for scholarly pursuits

AmLo feeling the same

Bonsai tree in front of the pond

Last ones leaving the temple

We left the temple a few minutes after the official closing time (I was actually the last person to exit the complex) and walked towards Lenin Park which was very close. At the foot of the unimpressive statue, guys were playing soccer or skateboarding. Next to them some girls were practicing dance moves of famous K pop songs. We were happy to see that between Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam has a strong youth culture.

Lenin statue

For us, having skipped lunch, it was time to head for dinner. Laurent picked Bun Bo Nam Bo as he really wanted to try bun, a Vietnamese dish that consists of vermicelli rice soup usually paired with beef. The restaurant had a good mix of locals and foreigners so we figured it would be an authentic experience without exposing ourselves to the risk of getting food poisoning.

Check out those Buns

We all liked the food but decided that it would not be enough to keep us from getting hungry later at night when we travel by sleeper train to the Sapa region. Next we hunted for a banh mi place in the same neighborhood. We found Banh Mee. We ordered one sandwich each and they were good but not as good as My Banh Mi in Saigon (which Maurice and I went to three times).

Dinner part 2 at Banh-Mee

At last we were full enough to go back to our hotel and repack. The hotel’s staff was still very nice despite us not being customers anymore. We were able to change and pack our daypacks for our trip to Sapa. We left the hotel after giving a generous tip to the staff.

We walked through town to the railway station. Once we got there, Amandine and Laurent purchased their own return ticket and we boarded the sleeper train. We loved sharing a cabin the four of us. Slumber party!

Looking into our train cabin

Through the train window

Working on yolomimo

We chatted for a while before agreeing to go to bed around 11 PM, pretty tired from a very active day. The ride was a lot bumpier than our previous sleeper train between Hue and Hanoi so it took us some time to fall asleep.