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 34 | Visiting one last temple in Chiang Mai before saying Sabaidee to Laos

Day 34 | Visiting one last temple in Chiang Mai before saying Sabaidee to Laos

Today was our last day in Chiang Mai (and in Thailand) before leaving for Luang Prabang, our first stop in Laos. We wanted to visit the famous Buddhist temple on Doi Suthep, a mountain about 15 kilometers west of Chiang Mai’s old town and then try out a fish spa before catching our flight out at 3pm.

We started the day relatively early around 7:30am and got breakfast at our hotel before checking out. We asked a couple of tuk tuk drivers how much it would be to go to Doi Suthep and back and were not happy with the quoted prices (600 THB). While it’s true the mountain is far from the old town, we were not willing to spend almost $20 on transportation to see one temple. Mimi knew that tourists wait at the northern gate for sharing a songthaew to get there for a lot cheaper so we walked in that direction. We stopped at the moat trying to figure out where the waiting point was.

In front of the moat surrounding Chiang Mai's old town

Soon after, a local guy asked us if we were trying to go to Doi Suthep and pointed us to a sign that said 100 THB round-trip per person, 10 passengers minimum. We sat down in front of a 7-Eleven and waited for more people to join us. There were already two girls waiting before we arrived. It took about 20 minutes to assemble our very international group: with us were a French couple, a 73 year old Japanese man, a German guy who lived in Mexico, two Korean girls, and two Chinese couples, one of which had a little boy.

When we arrived at our destination, our driver set a time for all of us to return to the vehicle for the way back to Chiang Mai. He gave us an hour and a half. Some people in our group thought it was too short and looked visibly annoyed. Us on the other hand, we were anxious about making it back in time to catch our flight. We were dropped at the temple’s base, 309 steps away from the temple proper. There were several Buddha statues there and along the staircase.

Buddha statue on the way to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

I also liked the dragons on both sides of the stairs that lead to the temple.

Dragons at the gate of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

After taking a few breaks along the way we finally reached the top and entered the temple grounds. It’s definitely a very popular temple with many foreign tourists as well as Thai people walking around the golden stupa. We walked around with everybody else.

The temple had some very colorful and detailed murals and as usual many Buddha statues surrounded by flowers and other offerings.

Buddha statues and murals inside Wat Doi Suthep

Inside the temple, a monk was blessing a couple of Chinese worshippers, saying prayers directly in Mandarin. He wanted us to join but we both respectfully declined.

We kept walking around in the complex at the top of the mountain. It’s quite green with many trees, we even spotted a durian tree there.

Durian tree inside the Wat Doi Suthep complex

Next, we checked the view from the mountain. Unfortunately today was very foggy and we were unable to see Chiang Mai.

Foggy view from Doi Suthep

It was almost time to go back down so we quickly finished our visit of the complex. We passed by this elephant statue which Mimi had to photograph.

Elephant statue inside Wat Doi Suthep

The temple also has nice gardens next to it… well until I realized that most if not all of the flowers were in fact fake. The trees are real, however.

Gardens inside Wat Doi Suthep

We also passed by a statue of the three wise monkeys similar to the one we saw at Wat Saket in Bangkok.

Three wise monkeys statue inside Wat Doi Suthep

In addition to durian trees, we also saw cannonball trees such as the one depicted below.

Cannonball tree

We left the temple and got back to the base of the hill which has plenty of souvenir shops and food stands. Everyone was back on time and we returned to Chiang Mai in just 20 minutes as the driver was speeding like a madman. The ride back was more fun as people apparently decided to be more social. The old Japanese man in particular was very chatty with the Chinese lady that was sitting right in front of him. The adorable little kid that was sitting on her lap also provided an excellent source of distraction for the rest of us.

With a little bit of buffer time before our flight, we decided to go for a quick (15 minutes) fish pedicure at a fish spa we had walked by yesterday. Initially, Mimi was not particularly excited to try it out. On the other hand, I was very curious and definitely did not want to miss this opportunity. As soon as we put our feet in the tubs, we both started laughing uncontrollably due to the extreme ticklish sensation created by these hundreds of tiny fishes nibbling at dead cells from our most sensitive skin.

The first five minutes were definitely the worst. I was not able to keep my feet submerged in the water the whole time. I had to take little breaks every 30 seconds or so. Mimi was more brave though also more vocal. The spa owner behind us was chuckling. I suspect he even used our initial reaction as the trigger to start the timer for our 15 minutes session! Eventually we got more used to the sensation and slowly calmed down. By the end of the session the skin on our feet felt noticeably smoother.

Getting a foot massage at the fish spa

It was time to go to the airport. Since it’s so close to the old town, we decided to take a tuk tuk rather than a regular taxi. We were lucky enough to find a tuk tuk large enough to hold all our luggage and still give us plenty of room to sit comfortably.

Mirror selfie in a tuk tuk

We got to the airport on time and proceeded through the check in. As we got to the gate, we saw that our Lao Airlines flight to Luang Prabang was delayed with no explanation given. We were not too worried, having read that one should not expect transportation to be smooth in Laos. In our case the delay was not that bad and by 3:40pm we were on the tarmac ready to board the aircraft.

Lao Airlines aircraft

We took off shortly after and of course I wanted to share the take off video with you readers.

The flight was short and without turbulence. As we got closer to Luang Prabang we started seeing more mountainous terrain. Since then, I read on Wikipedia that until early 2011 Luang Prabang International Airport was considered a risky place to land due to the surrounding mountains. Our pilot (who we could tell was neither a Laos nor a Thai citizen) had no problem and we landed on time, less than an hour after taking off.

Here too we walked on the tarmac into the airport terminal.

Luang Prabang International Airport

We cleared through immigration without issue and got a one month visa stamped. Before leaving the airport, we also changed our remaining Thai Bahts into the national currency which is called Lao Kip. With a rate of $1 to ~8,100 Kips we will need to get used to seeing prices with ridiculous number of zeroes.

We took a shuttle with a few other tourists and got dropped at the Namkhan Riverside Hotel where we will spend our first three nights in Laos. When we arrived, we were welcomed with refreshing fruit shakes. A little boy from the owners family was also very happy to see us. He came over to our table and started playing with our camera’s lens cap.

Our room was in the attic. Take the tour given by Mimi.

We left for dinner and walked along the Nam Khan river, a tributary of the Mekong river which it joins in Luang Prabang. We passed by a beautiful bamboo bridge over the river that was illuminated at night.

Bamboo bridge in Luang Prabang

We walked in the town for a good hour and found it really pleasant and super clean, especially after our trip in Myanmar. The buildings are in very good condition and the alleyways that bisect the main street are super cute.

Alleyway in Luang Prabang

Our initial impression of Luang Prabang was that it’s also very pedestrian friendly and heavily focused on tourism. Most of the businesses on the main street are directly related to providing services for tourists: restaurants and bars, guest houses, souvenir shops and travel agencies. We checked out the night market as well.

Night market in Luang Prabang

We eventually walked back towards our hotel and found a restaurant, Cafe Toui, where we tried Lao food for the first time! The streets were very quiet when we left the restaurant and we got back to our hotel for a good night of sleep.