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.

Day 60 | Leaving bustling Saigon for the ancient town of Hoi An

Day 60 | Leaving bustling Saigon for the ancient town of Hoi An

On our last morning in Saigon, we visited the War Remnants Museum, a museum primarily dedicated to the Vietnam War with some smaller exhibits related to the Indochina War with the French colonialists. Then it was time to say goodbye to this bustling city and travel to our second destination in Vietnam, the ancient town and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An, located on the sea in Central Vietnam, which we started exploring in the late afternoon.

We woke up early enough to get to the War Remnants Museum when it opened, at 7:30 AM. We left the hotel around 7:15 AM and walked through the streets of Saigon. They were already super busy with motorbikes. So busy in fact that even the sidewalks were filled with them. We were left to walk on the grass next to the sidewalk.

We made it to the museum shortly after it opened as expected. Immediately we noticed all the tanks, helicopters, fighter jets and other war vehicles exposed outside of the museum building. Here I am posing next to a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. We had seen these in Vietnam War movies but seeing one in real life really makes you appreciate how massive it is!

Next to a Chinook helicopter at the War Remnants Museum

Next we have a flame tank (tank equipped with a flamethrower). Its turret can be moved at an angle of 360 degrees. Better not be in front of it when it’s about to blast fire at the enemy!

Flamethrower tank at the War Remnants Museum

We kept walking around all the vehicles. There was also an M.48 A3 tank – a massive tank weighting almost 50 tons -, a bulldozer as well as a few fighter jets. All were captured from or abandoned by the defeated US army. Next to the building’s entrance, we also saw unexploded ordnances or UXOs.

Unexploded ordnances

We went inside the three story building and methodically visited all the rooms, following the suggested itinerary starting with the top floor. One room presented the historical background of the Vietnam War, in an obviously North Vietnam biased manner. Another one showcased weapons used by the infantry of both sides during the war. Another featured dozens of pictures taken by all the reporters who died while covering it, some of whom were young women. Another yet displayed pictures of victims of Agent Orange, a very toxic chemical substance dropped by the US Air Force during the war. Some of the victims pictured there were infants and little kids born as late as 2008. Many photographs in that room were quite hard to look at. Finally, the first floor had excerpts and photographs from articles published by various international newspapers during the war. Left to right below are full page ads supporting the people of Vietnam against the United States aggression in a German, French, and Italian newspapers.

Anti Vietnam War international artwork

We left the main building to see the nearby mock American prison. It had a guillotine as well as very low horizontal cages commonly referred to as tiger cages. That’s where North Vietnamese prisoners of war were tortured.

Tiger cages for North Vietnamese prisoners

We finished walking through the mock prison and left the museum to have a very early lunch since we did not have anything for breakfast that day. We went to our favorite restaurant in town: My Banh Mi! Yes, after yesterday and the day before yesterday this was our third day in a row eating there. That’s how much we loved their sandwiches. Though it was not very far on the map, it still took us some time to navigate through the very busy streets still full of motorbikes. We passed by parking lots filled with hundreds of them.

Typical motorbike parking in Saigon

When we arrived at My Banh Mi, we were welcomed and greeted by the staff who recognized us. A third checkin on Swarm even earned me the Foursquare mayor title for the place! This time I convinced Mimi to go all-in and order not two but three delicious vegetarian Banh Mis for the two of us to share. I went nuts when they arrived on our table just a few minutes later.

Going crazy for My Banh Mi

This time the owner’s father wasn’t around to chat with us. We ate quickly so we would not be rushed to catch our VietJet Air flight to Da Nang.

We came back to our hotel to finish packing. As we were about to exit the room, I found my sunglasses I thought I had lost! They were simply underneath the handle bar of my rolling luggage! I suddenly remembered putting them there when we first checked in. That made me happy for the rest of the (sunny) day!

We checked out and asked the hotel to get us a cab to the airport. We are going to miss the Park Hyatt Saigon, definitely one of the best hotels of our trip to date.

The taxi ride to the airport was both cheaper and faster than anticipated. On our way, a friend of mine sent me an article saying VietJet Air flight attendants sometimes wear bikinis and perform a dance inside the cabin. We were intrigued to see if this would be the case on our flight! After all I did find a YouTube video proving that it happened at least once on a VietJet Air flight in front of incredulous passengers!

We arrived at the Saigon airport, checked in without problem and waited at the gate for a little while since we were in advance. We then boarded the plane and no, the flight attendants were not wearing bikinis however they wore cute hats and shorts that you would not normally expect. The flight too was quite short, just one hour. We both napped for most of it, though I also took a few short videos.

The take off from Saigon, of course.

Cotton candy clouds over Central Vietnam as we approached our destination. This was not the first time we flew over such perfect cartoon cotton candy clouds on a domestic flight.

And finally the landing in Da Nang International Airport.

The airport was small but very modern. We retrieved our luggage and met with the driver that was waiting to take us to our hotel in Hoi An, about an hour drive South.

Welcome sign at the Da Nang Airport

On the way, we saw the beautiful sand beaches of Da Nang. The area seemed very rich and reminded us of Nice in France or the small beach towns in Southern California. There were many luxurious villas right on the beach and some large resorts as well. We also saw tourists riding bicycles.

There was very little motorized traffic and the drive ended up taking us only 45 minutes. We got to our hotel, Hoi An NGO Homestay, a tiny guesthouse with only five rooms. We were welcomed by a nice lady from the family owning the guesthouse who offered us slices of watermelon. She also gave us a map of Hoi An’s old town and flyers of popular tours and tourist activities.

We went upstairs to drop our stuff and take our obligatory room discovery video. Our little room was very cute, with the tiniest balcony ever and a super strong A/C.

We then left for the old town, a quick five minutes walk away from our guesthouse. Hoi An’s old town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, a prestigious title awarded to only about 1000 sites worldwide. Tourists need to purchase passes to enter the old town so we did and entered it using one of the main pedestrian bridges over the Thu Bon River.

Pedestrian bridge in Hoi An

Our passes were valid for two days and allowed us to enter up to five historic sites of the old town. We went to see a couple of them. First, we walked around the Cantonese Assembly Hall which had nice artwork with 3D effects.

Art in the Cantonese Assembly Hall

Then we visited one of Hoi An’s ancient houses which was also used as a bookstore in the past. The house still belongs to the same family that owned it over a century ago. It had a peaceful and very photogenic courtyard.

In the courtyard of one of Hoi An's oldest houses

After that, we stopped at Faifo Coffee, a three story local coffee shop. We enjoyed delicious cakes while sitting down on the rooftop to observe the old town from above. We were not the only ones. Next to us a Vietnamese couple was taking professional engagement pictures. It’s true that the view over the old town’s uniform roofs was very beautiful.

Roofs of old houses in Hoi An

We also saw many cyclos (cycle rickshaws), including a group with dozens of international tourists forming a super long line. It made a pretty cool video from up there, with the national flag floating in the wind.

After we left, we kept walking around the old town. Motorized vehicles are not allowed there, making it very easy and safe for pedestrians to explore. For us coming from Saigon with its streets filled with motorbikes, it was even more pleasant. The area was very photogenic and romantic, especially along the river. Most tourists around us were other couples (Vietnamese or foreign) with only few families or group of friends. We passed by many cute restaurants and shops catering to tourists.

A restaurant in Hoi An's old town

We also saw people selling fruits or flowers on the street. Most were women.

Street food vendors in Hoi An

The boats stationed on the river were colorful.

Boats on the Thu Bon River

Streets in the old town were decorated with paper lanterns. We walked along the river as the sun was slowly setting over the old town.

Back next to the bridge we used to enter the old town a few hours earlier, we took some more pictures of the river with the beautiful sky and lights reflecting in the water.

Sunset over Hoi An

We also stopped by the Japanese Covered Bridge, one of the most famous places to visit in the old town.

Japanese Covered Bridge's Pagoda

We took it to leave the old town and go to Minh Hien, a vegetarian restaurant that was highly recommended online. We chose it despite not being in the old town since the reviews were so overwhelmingly positive.

Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant

The place was packed with tourists, contrasting with most other restaurants outside of the old town proper that only had a few customers. We ordered a set menu that came with four different dishes including Cao Lau, a very localized specialty dish that was our favorite.

Set menus at Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant

Much like the food, the service there was excellent. After dinner, we walked back to our hotel via the old town. We took many more nighttime pictures and a few videos, in particular from the main bridge over the river which was still packed with people.

We took our time to get back to our guesthouse. Next to it, we passed by a soccer field with young men playing a soccer game. The air temperature was perfect at that time which is probably why they were playing at night.

We went to bed pretty tired as it was another long day of fun activities and travel.