Day 71 | Up, down, in and around Thimphu, Bhutan

On our second day in Bhutan we hiked to a hilltop monastery, circumambulated a memorial stupa, visited one of the largest Buddha statues in the world and watched archers shoot an impossibly far target.

We woke up around 7am to amazing sunrise views from the Thimphu valley. Despite the many dogs barking all night, we slept well in the super comfy king size bed. It was also the very first time we felt a little cold at night since the beginning of our trip. For us, a much appreciated break from the extreme heat of Southeast Asia.

We left the room for breakfast at 8:30am. The restaurant had only two other customers. Even though it is the high tourist season in Bhutan, it seems like there are very few travelers at Bhutan Suites. Breakfast was served Western style, consisting of tea/coffee, pastries, fresh fruits imported from India, omelettes, toast and jam. Good but not memorable. Too bad we did not get to try a more traditional set of Bhutanese breakfast dishes. (When we asked our guide about this, he said the traditional Bhutanese breakfast is just rice!)

Our guide showed up in the hotel restaurant at 9am to start the day. Just kidding it was his doppelgänger! We were fooled and stared at a random mustached man across the restaurant. Our real guide Kesang was waiting outside with our driver Tandin.

Our drive to the start of the hike was super scenic going along the river. We crossed a bridge and passed in front of the school for royal bodyguards. We kept going up with the car for about 45 minutes until we reached the entrance of the national park which is also where the start of the hike to Chagri Monastery is located.

It was a beautiful hike up. We started by crossing a river. The ascent was pretty steep and the landscape absolutely breathtaking.

The sun was shining and we were happy to breathe the fresh mountain air.

Hiking to Chagri Monastery

We passed by this dog who must have been exhausted from barking all night long with his gang.

Dog yawning

On the way we learned more about our guides, talked about US TV shows they watch (turns out they probably watch more American TV shows than we do!), US politics, gun violence and also the 2016 presidential elections. They knew a lot about all these topics, especially Tandin, our driver who is younger.

Tandin and Kesang lead the way

We encountered this stupa overlooking the valley as we were approaching the monastery.

Stupa atop the hill

We got to the monastery at the top of the hill in about 45 minutes.

First glimpse of Chagri Monastery

There we spotted several domesticated goats and sheep. These were brought here by worshippers to save the animals from being slaughtered in order to earn good karma. The animals now live a happy life next to the monks (unlike sad goat from yesterday).

The monastery is a school for monks to learn meditation. It’s the oldest monastery in all of Bhutan, established in the 17th century by the founder of Bhutan Zhabdrung Rinpoche when he came from Tibet. After praying inside, our guide told us a lot of details about the monastery, and the specific branch of Buddhism that is followed in Bhutan which is different from the one found in Myanmar.

There is something so calming about the click-and-spin sound of prayer wheels rotating.

These in particular were beautifully painted.

Prayer wheels at Chagri

Our guide Kesang also mentioned some monks come here and then stay in solitude in the forest for 3 weeks, 3 months or even 3 years, talking to nobody during that time. While inside we only saw one monk. We also bumped into very few tourists, perhaps only a dozen or so.

We finished our visit of the monastery, took more pictures and got back down to where we started.

Trail out of Chagri Monastery

Car ride back to Thimphu through the beautiful winding roads again. We stopped for lunch at Bhutan Kitchen, which had a mostly vegetarian buffet.

Bhutan Kitchen from outside

The food was excellent and the style of the restaurant is very cute / family owned. More tourists than yesterday at lunch. Several Indian and Chinese families were there as well as a group of maybe 12 German people.

Lunch at Bhutan Kitchen

After lunch, we took the road to the big Buddha. On the way there, we stopped by the Memorial Chorten (or stupa) built in 1974 to honor the mind of the third King who passed away at a young age, and walked three times around it clockwise.

Memorial Chorten

The clouds passed quickly over the stupa.

Blue sky above the chorten

We joined many elderly worshippers as they walked the circumference of the stupa as well. Some of them relaxed by sitting next to a structure housing the prayer wheels.

Elderly worshippers at Memorial Chorten

We also turned the big prayer wheels that contain many mantras.

The sky was now covered with big storm clouds when we left the stupa.

Storm clouds over the chorten

As we drove the rain chased us through the winding hillside road.

Rain over the valley

Leaving the car, we walked a short distance to the Buddha statue.

Short hike up to the Buddha

The big Buddha Dordenma statue was super impressive. The complex is still under construction at the moment (the statue itself was completed a few months ago in 2015). The statue was made in China but assembled on-site in Bhutan. It measures 51.5 meters tall.

Buddha Dordenma for size comparison

We caught this shot as the sun parted the rain clouds over Buddha’s head.

Sunlight over Buddha's head

Then we visited the inside of the temple as well with walls covered with paintings honoring the Buddha’s life and his teachings. Very few tourists here.

Colorful statues of animals and deities lined the pedestal around the statue.

Elephant statue

Next we went to check out the archery field to watch men practicing Bhutan’s official sport. On the way there we stopped for pictures of the Thimphu valley. Kesang pointed out in the view of Thimphu various things such as the city’s only helicopter landing pad.

Overlooking the valley

When we arrived at the archery field, Kesang explained there are two types of bows: traditional and compound. Traditional is harder to aim vs. the compound one. Small groups of Bhutanese men were in the middle of a game. We were amazed by the distance between competitors and the target: 145 meters. Given that, it is very impressive to witness shots that reach the target. We saw a handful.

Archery target

Tried to capture the arrows flying into the air after release from the bow but they go so fast that it was impossible to get them in photo, even using continuous burst mode with our camera.

The traditional bow.
Old fashioned bow

And the modern compound bow.

Modern bow

Then we had extra time to go window shopping in Thimphu. We went to the arts and crafts market which consisted of many little stores on a single street, some of which were closed.

Thimphu's quiet gift bazaar

Every city we go to, Maurice shops for a souvenir fridge magnet.

Souvenir shopping

After a quick walk in front of the market, our guides gave us additional time to walk around some more in central area of Thimphu. Saw a lot of migrant workers from India (all men) in the area. Also saw the human traffic light directing the very sparse traffic at an intersection. Funny to see there is such a job given the small number of cars there!

Countless dogs were sleeping in the streets, though a few of them were roaming around.

One of many dogs roaming Thimphu

Then it was time to head back to our hotel which took just a few minutes. We had tea with Kesang and Tandin and talked with them more about Bhutan, its history, its culture, relations with its neighbors China and India, etc. Super interesting to exchange perspectives on the world with them.

We then went to our room to rest, work on the blog and nerd out on the web. We captured a time lapse sequence from our balcony as the sun was setting over Thimphu.

Sunset over Thimphu valley

At 8pm, we went downstairs for our second Bhutanese dinner at our hotel’s restaurant. Food was good just like yesterday. Some of the dishes were the same and others were new. We loved the pumpkin soup and mushrooms with cheese in particular. For dessert, we had a cup of fruits in milk. We were the only ones there pretty much the entire time. Probably the staff was waiting for us to leave before they could go home (since the kitchen closes at 9pm).

We came back to our room and worked some more on the blog before going to bed.

Day 30 | Touring Mandalay’s top sights

Day 30 | Touring Mandalay’s top sights

Today was our first and only full day in Mandalay. Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city and also its last royal capital. It has a long and rich history and despite being much smaller than Yangon, it is considered by many to be the center of Burmese culture. It definitely offers a lot to see in such a short time so we planned for a very busy day. We decided to hit the top-rated touristy places namely the Mandalay Palace, the Shwenandaw and Atumashi monasteries, the Sandamuni and Kuthodaw Pagodas, and Mandalay Hill to hopefully end the day with a sunset view over the city. Fortunately, all these sites are conveniently located in the same area in the northeast of the city so we were able to mostly walk from one place to the next one.

After snoozing for a good half hour, we finally woke up and started the day by a late breakfast at the Home Hotel. Food was okay, pretty much equivalent with all the other breakfasts we had so far in Myanmar. We did come twenty minutes before breakfast ends and they were running out of some of the dishes so we’ll have to give it another try tomorrow.

We got a taxi for the old city and started our visit of the Mandalay Palace, surrounded by an impressive moat. The entire area is a 2 km by 2 km square but tourists are only allowed in specific parts of the complex and can only enter from the Eastern gate, for reasons that were unclear to us. In the 19th century, the palace was the royal residence for the latest kings of Burma. It got destroyed during world war II and rebuilt in place just about 25 years ago.

Inside the Hall of Victory.

Inside the Hall of Victory in Mandalay Royal Palace

Mimi at the entrance of a building in the Royal Palace.

Mimi at the entrance of a building in the Royal Palace

There were few tourists while we were there, and a sizable chunk of the ones that did come here were from Myanmar itself. It seems foreign tourists didn’t care much to learn about the history of Burma which is a shame because it’s quite rich.

Inside the Royal Palace

We kept walking around and taking small breaks in the complex. Even though it only occupies a small area within the citadel, it’s still relatively big and the sun was already very strong in Mandalay.

Chilling in the Royal Palace

A lot of the buildings look very similar but each had a specific function for the royal family.

Typical buildings within the Royal Palace

Inside the Royal Palace

Also check out this short 360 degrees tour shot by Mimi.

On the left is the supreme court building in the Royal Palace, called the Hluttaw in Burmese. This was were the official business of the court was conducted.

The Supreme Court building in the Royal Palace

From there we decided to check out the view from the watch tower. This tower is 24 meters high and offers a nice panoramic view of the city, especially on a clear day. The tower is also one of the two buildings that did not get destroyed during the world war II bombings.

Mandalay Palace Watch Tower

Here are a couple of shots we took from up there, showing the palace grounds surrounded by lots of trees and the Mandalay Hill in the background of the first picture.

View from the Mandalay Palace Watch Tower

View from the Mandalay Palace Watch Tower

On our way out, we saw this Burmese couple taking wedding pictures. Cool to see a bride not wearing a traditional white wedding dress.

Couple taking wedding photos inside the Royal Palace

We left the Royal Palace to the nearby Shwenandaw Monastery (or Golden Palace Monastery). This beautiful structure which follows traditional Burmese style was built by the king of Burma at the end of the 19th century.

Shwenandaw Monastery, the Golden Palace Monastery

Inside, several sections were reserved to men with signs explicitly forbidding ladies to enter. Second-class treatment of women seems to be an unfortunate constant across religions, including Buddhism (much to my surprise).

A section reserved to men inside the Shwenandaw Monastery

The inside of the monastery featured numerous very detailed teak carvings such as that one of elephants fighting which Mimi obviously loved.

Fighting elephants statue

Even though she could not enter some of the sections reserved to men, Mimi still had fun inside the building. Make sure you watch till the end.

This is a view of the monastery from the side. The building is also covered with teak carvings on the outside, making it an extremely picturesque structure.

Side of the Shwenandaw Monastery

We then moved to the Atumashi Monastery. Although much bigger, I found it less interesting than the Shwenandaw Monastery. Its design is somewhat notorious for its birthday cake design with five rectangular terraces rather than the more common multi-tiered spired roofs most pagodas and other religious buildings have. The original building was actually destroyed by a fire in 1890 and the new one was only rebuilt a century later, in 1996.

Atumashi monastery

The main room inside the monastery is impressive due to its size. When we were there it was almost completely empty and we were not sure if the building is actually used as a monastery these days.

Inside the largest room of Atumashi monastery

By the time we were done visiting the Atumashi Monastery, it was past 2pm and we were getting quite hungry. We tried to find a Burmese restaurant that was recommended for tourists on the map provided by our hotel but it did not seem to exist, at least not at the location indicated! Instead, we ended up in an open air restaurant catering to local people. As soon as we sat down I had a bad feeling about it. The place did not seem clean and there were very few customers (granted it was late for lunch, but still given the central location I expected to see more activity). A few minutes later, we got to witness something we will remember for a long time. A stray dog walked from the street inside the restaurant and relieved himself right on the floor, less than two meters away from a table where a customer was eating. The story does not stop there: one of the waiters saw the dog do his business but did not do anything about it. After the dog left, nobody from the staff came to clean up the floor and the puddle of pee stayed there while food was being served to customers… Mimi and I could not believe that none of them reacted. While we were already used to the general dirtiness of the streets and public facilities in Myanmar (and Mandalay was no exception), this was a new low. Despite this incident we still ordered food and drinks. The area did not seem to have other options and we did not want to try street vendors.

After that, we visited the Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda. This is the arch leading to the complex.

Arch next to the Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda

The pagoda with Mandalay Hill in the background.

Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda with Mandalay Hill in the background

The temple itself is famous for its large Buddha statue carved in a single block of marble.

Marble Buddha in the Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda

We moved on to the Sandamuni Pagoda, still in the same area south of the Mandalay Hill. The pagoda has 1774 white stupas arranged in rows and columns, creating an impression of infinity. Here is a close up of one of them.

Stupa in the Sandamuni Pagoda

The main Buddha statue is located in the middle of the temple, under a massive golden chedi. It is supposedly the largest iron Buddha statue in Myanmar, weighing over 40,000 pounds.

Buddha statue in the Sandamuni Pagoda

Here is a view of a group of aligned white stupas that the pagoda is famous for.

Stupas in the Sandamuni Pagoda

On our way out we bumped into a group of monks visibly very happy to be photographed. This was not the first time that we saw groups of monks happy to interact with foreigners in Myanmar. They generally seem very open and like to talk to strangers.

Monks walking in the Sandamuni Pagoda

We left the Sandamuni Pagoda for the nearby Kuthodaw Pagoda. That one is famous for containing the world’s largest book, a set of 729 large stones (the pages of the book) each contained in its own stupa. This is a miniature replica of the pagoda.

Miniature replica of the Kuthodaw Pagoda

The pagoda’s stupa was modeled after the one in the Shwezigon Pagoda which we visited just two days ago while in Bagan.

Stupa of the Kuthodaw Pagoda

While walking around the stupa, two little girls with baskets on their heads came to us and wanted to sell flowers and Thanaka to Mimi. At first Mimi declined but seeing how motivated they were, she had no other choice but to let them apply Thanaka on her cheeks. I was amazed to see how comfortable they were moving around and applying make up on Mimi while carrying baskets on top of their head.

The end result was pretty good and we naturally agreed to give them tips to thank them. Before leaving us to go after the next set of tourists, they gave flowers to Mimi and told her to offer them to the Buddha statue behind us which she did since we did not want to carry the flowers around.

Mimi with her make up artists

Mimi posing in front of the Buddha statue with her cheeks covered with Thanaka.

Mimi with her Thanaka at the Kuthodaw Pagoda

We completed our visit of the pagoda and realized it was time to go up to the Mandalay Hill to watch the sunset over the city. We took a songthaew up and the driver waited for us to return.

The view from the hill was indeed spectacular, we could see the Royal Palace with its surrounding moat and beyond it the city all the way to the river. There were hundreds of tourists trying to find the optimal spot to capture the beautiful sunset that evening. While looking for a spot of our own, we saw a group of monks that we attempted to photograph but our picture was photobombed by a doppelgänger of North Korea’s supreme leader (that was Mimi’s joke, but I loved it too much to not quote it here!).

Monks photobombed by a doppelganger of North Korea's supreme leader

After walking around for a while we finally managed to find a place that was not crowded. It was 6:30pm then and the sun was setting over the Irrawaddy River.

Sunset over Mandalay from Mandalay Hill

On our way out, we saw groups of monks as well as nuns.

Monks at the top of Mandalay Hill

Nuns at the top of Mandalay Hill

We also saw a Burmese family with two girls that had apparently never seen a moving escalator before. They were so petrified that their parents had to carry them!

Our driver was waiting for us and we asked him to drop us at an Indian vegetarian restaurant Mimi had found online. On the way there, we saw many buildings from the Royal Place lighten up with neon lights that suddenly gave Mandalay a very futuristic look. High in the back you can see the Mandalay Hill.

We arrived at Marie Min around 8pm. I love how all the vegetarian restaurants in Myanmar are called “be kind to animals” restaurants.

Marie-Min vegetarian restaurant

The food there was delicious and fairly cheap even by Mandalay standards. We walked back to our hotel and went to bed soon after. Today was another busy day!