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 68 | Between two sleeper trains, a short visit to Sapa

Day 68 | Between two sleeper trains, a short visit to Sapa

Today was a super quick visit to Sapa, a small town famous for its landscape full of rice terraces as well as its ethnic minorities. Together with our friends Amandine and Laurent, we explored Cat Cat Village and hiked around Ham Rong Resort. We then parted ways as we took a sleeper train back to Hanoi while they stayed in Sapa for an extra day.

The four of us woke up when one of the train agents knocked on the cabin’s door, announcing that we had arrived at Lao Cai, a city close to the border between Vietnam and China and the terminus of our train. We had a good night of sleep despite the train’s movement and noise.

In front of the train in Lao Cai railway station

Before leaving the train, we had purchased transfer tickets to Sapa by shuttle from a lady selling them on the train. We knew this was not a scam and that the price was good because Mimi had researched it online before the trip. We boarded a minivan just minutes after leaving the small train station. It was full of tourists.

The road to Sapa was very winding, going through beautiful hills that make this region of North Vietnam such a popular tourism destination. On the way we saw plenty of rice paddies though the visibility was disappointingly bad due to the foggy air.

The ride lasted for a bit more than an hour. We arrived in Sapa and got dropped at Quang Truong Square, a large pedestrian place popular with local and tourists alike. As soon as we came out of the minivan, a group of six local women started selling us various items and asked us if we needed a place to stay for the night. Fortunately they were not nearly as persistent as what we had feared after reading about Sapa scams online. We declined and they did not follow us. We kept walking along the square.

Lucky Laurent

Our priority was to find a place to have breakfast. Laurent was unanimously designated as our tour guide for the day and brought us to The Hill Station cafe.

The Hill Station

After ordering food, Amandine and Laurent looked up hotels for the night as they were not coming back to Hanoi with us on that same day. For us it was convenient since it meant we would be able to drop off some of our stuff we did not need at their hotel. Not that we were carrying heavy backpacks that day, but it’s always nice to hike without excess weight on our shoulders.

The cafe was almost empty but we thought breakfast there was very good and took our time eating and planning what we wanted to see.

Breakfast at The Hill Station

We then walked in town to find the hotel they had booked. On our way there we passed by an elementary school with many kids playing in the playground. At their hotel, the receptionist gave us and them a dirty look when we said we wanted to use the room to drop some stuff. Apparently they were concerned we would all sleep in a room normally provisioned for two adults only. They said it was too early in the morning and claimed they did not have a room ready yet so we had to put our bags in a corner of the common space.

Then we went to Cat Cat village. The view from the road to get there was beautiful despite the sky still being very foggy. We stopped many times to take pictures of the incredible landscape surrounding us.

Hills surrounding Sapa

Rays of sun hitting the rice paddies terraces on a Sapa hill

Rice paddies terraces

We arrived at the entrance of Cat Cat Tourism Area.

In front of Cat Cat Tourism Area entrance

To go further we had to pay the entrance fees. We then walked all the way down to the small river that flows in the valley separating two groups of hills. The hike down was pleasant and we passed by some farm animals including little piglets that Mimi went crazy for.

Piglets in Cat Cat Tourism Area

We walked on a bridge over the small river with a view on water wheels. A manmade waterfall created a nice visual contrast between the slow and fast moving water.

View over the river flowing through Cat Cat village from the bridge

After crossing the river, we stopped at a view point looking at another waterfall – natural this one – directly feeding into the river from the opposite side we came from. The four of us took couple pictures there, starting with us.

Yolomimo in front of a small waterfall

And then following with one of Amandine and Laurent.

Yoloamlo in front of the same waterfall

I also had some fun with our DSLR’s high burst mode to capture the waterfall in action. Somehow I developed a renewed interest to animated GIFs, an ancient “Web 1.0” technology that I found more user-friendly than YouTube videos in some situations.

Waterfall from the view point

We kept walking up and got to see the water wheels from closer.

Water wheels on the river flowing through Cat Cat Village

Climbing back up was a bit of a struggle and the temperature was getting hotter. We passed by many arts and crafts stands. Cat Cat Village is home to many ethnic minorities in Vietnam and selling handmade goods locally made to tourists represents a big part of their economy.

Walking in Cat Cat Village

We crossed the river again using another bridge. It was my turn to get a picture with the ladies.

Me and the ladies

The air cleared out a little bit so it was easier to see the rice terraces.

Rice terraces

As we got back to Sapa town proper, we first stopped by the hotel Amandine and Laurent booked for the night, named Boutique Sapa Hotel. The room was ready now so we asked yoloamlo to give us a quick walkthrough of their room for the readers of yolomimo. Of course they had no choice but to accept.

After that we went for lunch at Little Sapa. We had good Vietnamese food there and ended with Vietnamese iced coffee.

Vietnamese iced coffee

After that we wanted to do a second hike to the radio tower hill that is recommended for its view points. It took us a while to find the correct path to get there. We had to pay another fee to enter the area where the radio tower is located. The fee gave us access to the entire Ham Rong Resort.

It was well worth it. We hiked uphill for a while until our path was blocked by a closed gate. There were other trails and we kept going. We passed by a small cave named Love Cave so of course we took a cheesy picture in front of it.

Love Cave

We also passed by a giant swing.

Having fun on the giant swing

Yoloamlo looking all serious all of a sudden.

Yoloamlo being all serious

Although we were not able to go to the radio tower, we found a trail leading to a pretty amazing view point over Sapa.

View of Sapa

The clouds were hiding the sun.

Clouds hiding the sun

We saw the radio tower from up there too.

Radio tower

A cool guy from Sweden who also gave us travel tips about Sapa took pictures of the four of us posing.

Yoloamlo and yolomimo

After taking pictures from the view point, we exited the park through flower gardens where tourists were renting traditional costumes of ethnic minorities to take pictures.

Flowers at Ham Rong Resort

On our way back to yoloamlo’s hotel, we saw several 7-8 year old girls carrying their little toddler-age brothers/sisters on their back and selling handmade jewelry. Not only were these kids not attending school but their parents were also forcing them to look more desperate by carrying their little siblings on their shoulders. We were appalled.

Back to the hotel we picked up our bags then Laurent and Amandine walked us back to the church where taxis and buses load up with tourists going back to Lao Cai. It was almost time to say goodbye to them, for the second time of our trip.

Street in Sapa

Laurent managed to get us two seats in a minibus that was just about to leave. Concerned about scams, we made sure to agree on the price with the driver before getting in. 40,000 VND per person we said, and he replied OK.

The guy drove recklessly, honking at motorbikes, other buses, people crossing the road and even got dangerously close to hitting a small dog. An hour later we were dropped at the Lao Cai train station. The driver tried to scam us by pretending the price was 100,000 VND. Despite our previous agreement, the price had magically increased. It was the second time a driver tried this trick on us and since we didn’t fall for it the first time in Hue, we were not going to fall for it here. We remained calm and refused to comply with his demand. He eventually played the classic “I don’t want any of your money” trick on us, which of course we had already seen before and did not work. He didn’t speak a word of English and even called a young Vietnamese guy that was at a nearby cafe to come act as a translator. That didn’t change anything for us. We just gave him 80,000 VND and left.

We had a quick dinner at Terminus Restaurant, a restaurant right in front of the train station. The food there was mediocre despite being the number one restaurant in Lao Cai on TripAdvisor. The staff was very friendly however.

We got to the train early enough to finally be able to record a video of the sleeper cabin. This was our third sleeper train in Vietnam in just five days, after the Hue to Hanoi one and the Hanoi to Lao Cai one just yesterday. The other cabins looked very similar.

A couple of Australian retirees showed up minutes before the train departed. They came from a more luxurious cabin, the AC wasn’t working and the train attendant moved them into our cabin, which otherwise would have been empty except for us. They were both divorced and remarried and were on a four week trip to Vietnam. We agreed to swap out bottom beds with them since they could not climb to the upper level. We chatted with them for some time (the guy knew a bit of French) before going to sleep.

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.