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 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.

Day 26 | Introducing Bagan, Myanmar’s ancient city with over 2,000 temples

Day 26 | Introducing Bagan, Myanmar’s ancient city with over 2,000 temples

Once again we had to catch a morning domestic flight and a long taxi ride to get to the airport. Tonight we will sleep in Bagan, an ancient city located on the Irrawaddy River (Myanmar’s largest river), renowned for its thousands of temples and pagodas. But for now the priority was to get to Heho airport on time.

We had a quick breakfast which was prepared by the girls from the guesthouse owners family. I had omelette as well as a fresh avocado. Mimi on the other hand just ate two toasts of white bread. She was feeling much better after eating white rice and bananas the night before but wanted to allow more time for her stomach to fully recover. After what she has been through yesterday we both agreed to be more cautious from now on. We can’t let some risky food choices ruin days of our trip anymore!

We traversed Nyaung Shwe for the last time and after about an hour of scenic driving, our taxi arrived at Heho airport. On the terminal road leading to the airport, there was a religious procession with kids wearing traditional costumes riding horses being followed by groups of men and women throwing things at them. We could not figure out the meaning of this rite (and our driver did not speak enough English for us to quiz him) but we still appreciated the costumes, music and general atmosphere.

After checking in our Air KBZ flight, we had to go through the immigration desk again. We waited at our “gate” until our flight was announced to be ready for departure and then walked on the tarmac like we did after landing here just two days ago. It made me think about how fast our traveling pace has been so far. Our stop in Inle Lake appeared to be even shorter since we ended up spending more time than expected at our hotel. But anyway, we had our tickets to NYU in hand (that’s the airport code for Nyaung-U airport).

Let's fly to NYU

This time, the airplane was mostly empty. Mimi counted just a dozen heads sticking out of their seats, for an aircraft with a total capacity of 70 passengers.

Inside the plane from Heho to Nyaung-U

And here is the obligatory take off video.

Just 40 minutes later, we landed at Nyaung U Airport, on time.

This is another really tiny airport, very similar to the one in Heho.

Nyaung-U airport

Just like to enter the Inle Lake area, foreign tourists have to pay a fee when landing here. It is called the Bagan Archaeological Zone Fee and is two times more expensive than the one we paid on our way to Nyaung Shwe (25,000 Kyats per person).

We jumped into a taxi and were on our way to our hotel in Old Bagan, the Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort. The driver was very chatty and visibly quite eager to drive us around for the next days. He asked how long we were staying in Bagan and also what we were planning to do every day. As we told him we were probably going to book a balloon tour, he suggested we could arrange for it before getting to the hotel since the office for Balloons Over Bagan (the leading company for such tours) was on our way. We agreed and 10 minutes plus $640 later we had two tickets in hand for tomorrow’s sunrise tour! This is one of the activities that we were most excited about when planning our trip back in New York so let’s hope it’ll be as good as we anticipated.

After that, our chatty and interested driver asked if we were planning to also visit Mount Popa during our stay in Bagan. We were and he convinced us to use him as our taxi driver to get there and back. We agreed to have him pick us up at 9am the day after tomorrow. We later learned that the price he quoted us was above market price by a fair amount. He was so talkative and overloading us with questions that when we arrived to the hotel and got out of the taxi to check in, we forgot to pay him for the ride. As I was thanking him and started walking away he awkwardly asked if I was going to pay for the ride. We felt super embarrassed and Mimi and I both apologized.

The hotel staff welcomed us with scented cold towels and fresh fruit juices, a well-thought-out gesture considering the 98F temperature. The resort has both individual villas and standard rooms and this time we opted for the latter one. In general, we found hotels in Myanmar to be significantly more expensive than in Thailand even for a lower quality accommodation. This may be because unlike Thailand tourism isn’t operating at scale yet. The resort is fairly large so we were taken from the lobby to room L124 in a golf cart. It was my time to give the tour.

With that checked off the list, it was time to start exploring the ancient city and its impressive temples. We started by walking around the resort since there are a handful of small temples on the resort grounds proper. Those were renovated during the last century.

Temples next to our hotel

We then walked to the lobby to take more pictures of the resort before leaving the area. It’s perfectly maintained and the view over the Irrawaddy River was a nice change from the views on coconut trees and turquoise water we got while island hopping in Thailand.

Swimming pool of the Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort

Also check out the beautiful swimming pool.

We left the resort with plenty of water and started exploring nearby temples. We probably saw a dozen that afternoon but only the bigger ones could be visited from the inside. The ones worth calling out here are Ananda and Thatbyinnyu. At this point it’s better to let the pictures tell the story.

More temples in Bagan

Even more temples in Bagan

Side view of a medium size temple

Buddha statue inside of the temples

Outside of a damaged temple

Posing in front of Thatbyinnyu Temple

Facade of Thatbyinnyu Temple

Large Buddha statue covered with gold leaves

Donations left by visitors

Ananda temple

Top of the Thatbyinnyu Temple

By 5:40pm we were getting tired and hungry. Other than breakfast and the very small meal we got during our morning flight, we had not eaten much today. We decided to stop by Be Kind to Animals The Moon, an excellent vegetarian restaurant in the area.

Vegetarian restaurant in Old Bagan

At first we thought it was a good idea to sit outside, under the trees. But after Mimi received a “gift” from a sparrow right on her wrist and just inches from her bowl of soup, we changed our mind and moved to the covered area of the restaurant! The food was delicious especially for Mimi who was delighted to eat something other than white rice or bananas. Her stomach had recovered, finally.

We walked back to our hotel as the sun was setting over Bagan. The sunset shot below includes the Bagan Archaeological Museum which we did not end up visiting.

Sunset over Old Bagan

Back to our room, we changed to our bathing suits and went for a swim in the pool. It felt so relaxing to finally cool down after the afternoon heat. Bagan gets extremely hot when the sun is at its peak and walking around all afternoon was a bigger tax on our bodies than we had realized. Tomorrow, we’ll try to rent e-bikes to visit more temples. We did not stay up late to be able to wake up before 5am and catch our shuttle bus for Balloons over Bagan.