Sunday, November 1, 2015

Alps, Balkans, and Oktoberfest 2015

aka - Tour of Former Olympic Venues  OR Tour of Wars of the 20th Century

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We red-eyed to Munich nonstop on Lufthansa, leaving SFO at 8:50 pm and landed around 5:05 pm on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015.

The airport had a giant courtyard between terminals with the requisite Biergarten. Alas, we didn't stop facing a two hour drive in a sleep deprived state.

Getting the rental car was fairly easy, as was the drive to Innsbruck. We averaged 120kmh, though sometimes drivers passed in the left lane at double out speed.

We drove south, the setting sun alighting the alps in late summer splendor. They came into view just a few minutes out of Munich. I was wanting a soundtrack of Rachmaninoff or Chopin, or perhaps a local like Handel to accompany the drive.

We arrived in Igls just above Innsbruck at 7:50 and found the restaurant at Bon Alps open. They had an Italian buffet, which was serviceable, but not great. We had salad, carrot soup, veggies and lasagna with overtones of nutmeg. The tiramisu was well above average.

We arrived at the Gasthaus Sonnehoff at 9:30 and got to a well deserved rest around 10:30. It is a clean and pleasant spot, though certainly not luxurious.

September 7

We had a nice, typical breakfast at the Gasthaus and the headed into the center of Innsbruck to spend the morning.

We parked near the center and then walked along the river on both sides. The tram up the mountain didn't seem worth it, because the peaks were shrouded in clouds. So, we walked up along the funicular line to the first stop. It was part of a 10k winterweg route In season.

After the hike, we headed back to the old town and walked around attempting to avoid the large tour groups. We visited the Church of St. Jakob and then headed for lunch at the local Biergarten. We had the special, which was knodel soup and spatzle with spek, mushrooms and cheese. We added green salad for a hit of veggies.

After lunch, we headed for Brenner Pass and the drive to The Pustertal, home of Dobbiaco/Toblach and the Tre Cime/Dreizinnen hike we've been wanting to do. The mountains came into view about 30 minutes out and made my heart sing. After checking into the Toblacherhof Hotel, we walked through town and got a coffee at Cafe Marlene.

We had a nap and reading time before heading to a return (having eaten there in 2011) dinner at Pizzeria Hans. I had the prosciutto and mushroom pizza with salad and we shared a bottle of local Lagrein wine. All in all, it was a great day.

September 8

We had a marginal breakfast at the hotel and then started up toward Tre Cime. We paid the exorbitant 22 Euro toll to park so we could do the shorter route and test our legs.

As soon as I stepped out of the car, I was choked up with the beauty of the place - a reminder why this is my favorite place in the world so far.  We started out clockwise to avoid the crowds which were headed counterclockwise. We had a small climb to a saddle where we could start to see the face of the peaks. Then, a descent followed to a small Refugio. We could see Locatelli in the distance, but the sign said 1 hour. That seemed a long estimate. But, we had another climb to a saddle and a big descent to a deep meadow and then a steep climb back to the Refugio for lunch. 1 hour, 5 minutes.

Lunch was polenta with peppers and bratwurst, though not veal brats. They were pork or venison. I also had a radler to drink.

After lunch, we had a small climb to the last view of the peaks before turning around the front side and a return to the start. At the end, we had a strong cup of coffee before driving back to the hotel where we napped before having a massive Tyrolian platter of pork and other local specialties at the Hotel Nocker restaurant. We will be back at pizzeria Hans tomorrow.

September 9

We decided to take an "ass kicker" hike that would give us another glimpse of the Tre Cime. We left from the town of Sexten on route 102 then split to the left up 103 through some switchbacks up the side of a massif and then into a narrow canyon ascending above a knife edge peak. We climbed 3000 feet in about 3 miles after a mile or so of flats to the start of the climb.

We stopped at Refugio Comici for some coffee and apfelstrudel. After the refuel, we started the two hour hike to Dreizinnenhütte (aka Refugio Locatelli), turning off on route 101 around the summit. We crossed a high plateau and entered a huge amphitheater of stone leading to the hütte, crossing a narrow scree field along the way.

For lunch I had some faro pasta filled with chanterelle and cheese in butter and topped with goat cheese and mushrooms. Delish. We caught a gloomy view of the Drei Zinnen in a cloak of clouds before turning down route 102 back toward the start. The descent was slow and undesirable as most are for me. I had a small spill and gashed my elbow. But, we made it back before the time estimates, nevertheless.

After a rest, we retuned to Pizzeria Hans for dinner. I had pizza with prosciutto, egg and asparagus and a side salad.

Today was probably the most beautiful day hike I've taken in the Dolomites - all around spectacular.

September 10

We had a leisurely morning before packing up the car to head out for our next destination - Slovenia!

The drive was estimated around 2.5 hours, give or take. We had to stop just before entering Austria to get our "vignette", a toll sticker, we had failed to get earlier that we were lucky to not get caught without.  After a brief stop in Villach, Austria at a wursthaus called Josef for lunch, we got our Slovenia vignette and headed for the border.

There was a 8km tunnel through the mountains to Slovenia and only a short drive in the freeway before hitting mountain roads in search of Lake Bohinj. We made a pass through Bled, the more popular tourist destination, and then 15 minute later arrived at Hotel Jezero on Lake Bohinj. We had a gelato and coffee (kava) with cream before taking a tour through the village church of St. John the Baptist. The church was small and quaint - just the way I like them.  It dates from the 13th century.

After the small stop, we walked for a bit along the lake - as much as my toe blisters would allow before heading back for dinner. Dinner was included as we had half-board at the hotel. It was pretty good with a nice variety of veggies and meats and sides. I had fish with asparagus, salad and steamed veggies and a tiny bit of steak and fries. I had a honey cake for dessert, which is similar to baklava. I also had strawberries gratin, which were cooked under a layer of spongy cheese - different but good.

September 11

Our planned hike today was up from the Sport Hotel to Debela Peč peak and back. The drive there was a bit exciting with less than one lane roads and blind corners, but we made it without significant opposing traffic.

The beginning of the hike was in deep conifer forest. We found lots of ladies out foraging for mushrooms. Then. After a few km, we emerged on a meadow with a tiny village without road, power or running water called Planina Javornik. From there the hike climbed more steeply to Planina Lipanca, which had a mountain hut. We had goulash there with root veggies, barley and beans. We then headed up another couple km toward Debela Peč. The footing was quite bad with scrambles mixed in. Plus, there was no view to be had as the peaks were socked in. So, we headed back down.

At the road, we found two Czech women who were hitching a ride down to the lakes, so we took them with us. They were university students in Prague taking masters in economics.

We had some "folded cake" after because we were hungry with our coffees.

With dinner we had some wine that we ordered called Dom ekonteric, which was pretty good. Otherwise, the meal was fairly standard.

September 12

We awoke to a dense fog but forecasted sun. Around 9:00 am, we headed up to the next village of Stara Fužina to start our hike up Rudnica - a lesser peak in the middle of the two river valleys that join at Bohinj. The hike up was brutally steep on a cowpath, reminding me of the walks in Ireland last year. But, every so often, there was a meadow with panoramic views of the surrounding peaks.

After summiting, we started down the other side of the mountain on single track. It was steep and dicey footing in places, but we made it down. A farmer helped us get back on track after we lost the path in the forest above Brod. Brod did not have meal service in town, so we continued along the cycling route that circled the mountain and followed the river back to Stara Fužina and then down to Ribčev Laz.

We had beers, grilled panini and gelato for lunch outside the hotel. Then, we retired for showers and naps before dinner.

September 13

Today we left Slovenia just after breakfast and headed toward Croatia. The first part of the journey was fast to Lublijana where we switched rental cars painlessly at the airport.

Then we continued for another hour or so on major highways after crossing the border to Croatia. We had lunch at a chain restaurant and hotel complex off the freeway. It was sweet pepper stuffed with meat and a side of veggies and potatoes - a big plate of food for around 8 Euros.

We got on more minor roads for the second half of the journey to Plitvice Miric Inn, just south of Plitvice national park.

After checking in, we walked to the neighboring town and had coffee at the local ski resort, which was more of a bunny hill.

In the evening, we enjoyed a mixed meat platter at our hotel, which was massive with pork chops, lamb sausage, pork sausage and chicken along with many traditional sides and knodel soup and salad wrapping up with an apple and cherry strudel cake. It was a huge meal, but very good.

September 14

We walked the 2km up to the national park first thing in the morning. It was relatively easy to get tickets and start the program. We took a tram to the top of the park and started the walk back down to entrance 2. It was mostly cloudy, but the lakes and falls in karst created a magical fairy land - like something out of the Lord of the Rings.

It took about 6km of walking to return to entrance 2, with most of the best falls in the last 2km. From there, we caught a boat across the biggest lake and had lunch on the other side before heading down to the big falls. The last bit of walk was shorter, but packed with tour bus groups traveling the opposite direction. We were happy to get a couple pics of the big falls and start our walk out of the park. After a short tram ride, we walked the 2km back to our hotel. We were out around 6.5 hours and covered 25km, probably around 15 on foot. What a great day!

After a call to my mom for her birthday, we ended the night with the trout platter. That was the first time I've eaten a whole trout (and my bone removal skills confirmed it!)

September 15

Today was the biggest driving day of the trip. We had planned about 5 hours for driving, but it ended up closer to 6.

We continued south and fairly quickly came to the Bosnian border. We got an exiting Croatia stamp and an entering Bosnia stamp.

Soon, we saw the hillsides dotted with minarets instead of steeples. We spent a good chunk of the day driving through the Republika Srpska. As we were looking for lunch and a WC, I saw a restaurant on the left and pulled in. They didn't speak English at all, but had a few words of German, so we used that. We asked if we could drink and eat. The proprietor opened his smoker to show us a suckling pig and told us "five minutes" in German.  We had sparkling water and Rick had a beer while waiting. Then, they served us a big salad, pig and a whole loaf of bread. It was delish, and only cost 11 Euros total!

After getting stuck behind many tractors and logging trucks, we finally made it to Sarajevo. We spent some time walking around and watched a small basketball tournament and had coffee. The Ervin, our guide, picked us up for dinner at his house with his mother. We had many local dishes with them and ate to overfilled. They were refugees during the war and spent time in Croatia and Spain. They eventually came back to their apartment - tank shelling on the side and all (still visible today).

It was good talking to them. It seems for the more cosmopolitan city people, life under Tito in the former Yugoslavia was much better. They had a good standard of life and people from different religious groups got along quite well - even intermarrying a lot. Now, life is hard, officials are corrupt, and lines of religion are drawn more strictly. They thought maybe things were different for the country people, but they preferred life before the 90s.

September 16

After a nice breakfast at Hotel Colors, we walked back to the eternal flame to meet up with Ervin for our walking tour.  We started in the Austro-Hungarian part of the old town where a mortar struck down 26 shoppers in the early days of the Balkan war in 1992. Then, we went through the indoor dairy and meat market where we sampled some cheeses and smoked meats.

After that, we went to the produce market where another mortar hit near the end of the war in 1995. Then, we visited the main Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in quick succession.

Following those, we moved through the Ottoman part of old town into the Jewish quarter where we took a break for Bosnian coffees, served with Turkish delight. There are only about 500 Jews left in Sarajevo, but they played a big role in helping Bosniak refugees escape the city in the war.

Following coffee, we went to the corner where Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sofia were assassinated starting the events leading up to WWI.

We ended with a visit to the main mosque and madrasah, which dates back to the 15th century.
After the tour, we had Burek or meat, cheese and veggies baked in a phyllo dough. We went with Ervin who had recommended the spot.  Following lunch, we walked up to the biggest Muslim cemetery from he war. It was sobering. 11000 citizens of Sarajevo were killed and the city went from being a diverse cosmopolitan place with 45% Muslim Bosniaks, 32% Serbs, and 10% Croats with other minority groups to 90% Bosniak and very economically depressed - now with 45% unemployment.

We went back through the market and I bought a necklace and earrings from a woman that does silver filigree. Then, we took a break at the hotel before heading out in the evening.  In the evening, we took some nice photos and then had apple cider before dinner. We went to another restaurant that Ervin recommended. I had veal and carrot soup and a cauliflower salad. It was a nice, light meal to follow too many heavy meat and bread laden affairs.

September 17

Today we drove from Sarajevo to Pelješac Peninsula. It was around a 5 hour drive.

We stopped halfway in Mostar and had lunch in the old city after getting lost a couple of times and ending up in one of those tiny cobbled streets where the car barely fits. I had to do a 100 point turn in someone's yard to get back out.

The food was good and we sat near an old bridge that did survive the war before making our way through the throngs of tourists across the "old bridge" that has been reconstructed. We saw a couple of divers jump off for tips before heading through the cobbled streets back to our car.

After lunch, our GPS directed us to the ferry for the shortest route. We arrived at 3:12 for the 3:15 ferry, but we didn't have a ticket. So, Rick had to do wind sprints to get the ticket and the captain thankfully waited for us.

We made the 1 hour crossing while having coffees. Then, we drove the last bit to our hotel. It had been a scorching 34-35 Celsius all day. We took a short walk along the waterfront before getting dressed for dinner, which we are at the hotel. We had a fish stew, salad and cheesecake along with the bottle of Montenegran wine Ervin had given us.

September 18

We had breakfast as early as we could at Hotel Indijan. Then, we headed out for our hike up St. Ilija mountain - the highest peak in that part of Croatia. It was already around 90 degrees before 9 am. So, we decided just to hike until we wanted to turn around. Around 10:30, we'd made about half he distance and 1/3 the climbing. The footing was getting challenging and I was concerned about getting sloppy as I got hot and sleepy. So, we turned around and descended the mountain.

We got back to town around noon and had a light lunch - salad, oysters and a yogurt smoothie. Then, we headed back for a swim in the Adriatic. We floated around for nearly an hour before heading back to our hotel for a clean up and laundry.

In the evening, we walked to a restaurant rated well in Trip Advisor, which was across town. I had risotto with shellfish and a salad. We shared some local wine before strolling back to the hotel for the night.

September 19

The morning started with a swim after breakfast in the ocean. Then, we piled in the car to head for Dubrovnik.

Our first stop was Violić winery where Boris, the wine maker, showed us his harvest and small operation. He explained how during the Tito years they gave their grapes to the state, so he is re-learning the winemaking craft that his grandfather passed on. We bought a 2013 Dingač and some grape candy with nuts.

Our second stop was Grgyč, who is famous in Yountville for beating the French winemakers in a competition in 1976. Their property was recently damaged by a wildfire. We bought a Pošip white.

We stopped for lunch in Mali Ston, a town fortified to protect the salt pans and known for oyster farms. I had fried calamari for lunch, which was perfection. I am spoiled for all other calamari now.

We then spent the final 40 minutes finding our apartment near the harbor in Dubrovnik. The parking space was "interesting" to fit into and our car still partly stuck out into the street. Oh well. We got settled, rested,  and had coffee and lemonade brought by the owner. The apartment "Cime" is small even by Manhattan standards, but is comfortable with good air conditioning.

In the evening, we walked to the old town and had dinner at Dalmativo, a recommendation on the Rick Steve's guide. I had mussels cooked in cream and they were fantastic. We walked back and had a bottle of white wine the apartment owner had given us.

September 20

We took the city bus to the old city for breakfast and dined just outside the gates. It was raining a bit during breakfast but let up.

The first city thing we did was buy a ticket to walk the walls. We spent around 90 minutes circling the city from above. It was a great walk. The skies were dark and dramatic against the orange tile roofs.

Following the wall tour, rain started coming down hard, so we ducked into a cafe for coffees under the awning.

Then, we went for a tour of the ethnographic museum to see how the southern Slavs of the Adriatic have lived over the centuries. During that tour, the rain stopped and the sun started peering out. We stopped for lunch at Komenič seafood - a Rick Steve's recommendation. I had the octopus salad.

Our last stop was at an exhibit of Dali illustrations including a set to illustrate the Vulgate as well as Dante's Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradiso. There were several that I really liked artistically.

In the afternoon, we rested and then went for dinner at a restaurant close to our apartment, which was pricey and good but not great.

September 21

We got up a bit early and looked for breakfast at a local spot so we would have time to catch the ferry to the island of Mljet for the day.

It was cool and breezy following yesterday's rain, but the sun was starting to come out fully. The ferry departed at 9:15, but didn't arrive on Mljet until 11 due to the rolling swells.

We bought our ticket into the national park and hiked our way to the larger of the two "lakes" on the island, which are really formed from a very narrow inlet.

We took the shuttle boat to the island of St. Marie in the middle of the lake where there is a ruin of a Roman monastery. We hiked around and looked at the ruins and enjoyed the restored church. Then, we had lunch by the water and waited for the next shuttle to take us to the smaller lake.

We stopped at the small lake for a swim as no powered watercraft are on that lake. It was warm and glorious. Some little fish were biting on my feet as I walked into the water. It was like a free Thai pedicure.

Following the swim, we hiked the longer route through a small village and back to where the ferry would pick us up to return to Dubrovnik.

Dinner was at a small local spot. I had the čevapi. We crashed a bit early after the long day.

September 22

We had breakfast around 8 at another local spot. Then, we decided to walk all morning and explore the Lapad peninsula. We walked for nearly 2.5 hours, exploring neighborhoods and the seaside walking path. It was sunny and a bit warmer than the previous day, but certainly not scorching.

We returned to our 'hood around 11:45 for a leisurely lunch at the local pizzeria. I had a tuna salad and mushroom pizza, knowing we would likely not eat a proper dinner with our travel schedule.

At 1:00 pm, we headed up to get our car and head for the airport. We just needed to gas it up before returning it. The first gas station in town was down for credit card payments, so we went to the other, which was under construction :( Finally, we decided to just head to the airport and look for one on the way. We were able to fill up about 9km from the airport. Phew!

Our first flight left at 4:40 and got to Zagreb at 5:40. The second flight left at 6:40 and got to Munich at 8:00 pm. We were able to successfully negotiate the train and streetcar to arrive at Das Hotel a bit after 9:00 pm.

September 23

We were hungry and so enjoyed our breakfast buffet at the Das Hotel. After eating, we headed out to walk to Marionplatz where our bike tour was meeting up. We arrived about 40 minutes early, so enjoyed an apfelstrudel and coffee at a cafe on the square.

At 11, we could not locate our group, so walked to the office of the company. They said the group wouldn't be assembling until 11:30. When we arrived back at the plaza, we found the group just as the rain was dissipating.

We had a brief lecture and then went to get our bikes. Our first stop was the residences of the Kings of Bavaria, reconstructed following WWII. Then, we went to a church built to honor the birth of an heir to the lineage. Following that, we rode to the seat of government, rebuilt in glass following the war. Finally, we stopped for a snack in the English garden and then went to watch the river surfers before ending the tour. Our guide, Tony, was from DC originally and moved to Munich to be with a woman he met in Thailand.

We had lunch at Haxenbrau, which specializes in pig and veal "knuckle". That was fantastic. We retuned to the hotel to change into warmer clothes before heading out to Oktoberfest.

Our trip to the get required a 45 minutes walk and we stopped to buy some Turkish delight on the way there. The fest was crazy - almost like a very packed state fair with games and rides in addition to the food stands and beer tents. After trying to find an inside table in two halls, we settled outside at Augustiner. We had 1 liter beers there before going to buy a half chicken and a pretzel. Then, we sat outside another tent to eat. Rick ordered another beer, but we only finished half or so and then decided we'd had enough of the monster crowds.

We walked back and partially sobered up, stopping for gelato on the way. I had dark chocolate ginger, which may be my new favorite flavor.

September 24

We caught the train after breakfast to Dachau, site of the first, and model, Nazi concentration camp. It was a forced labor camp targeted at political opponents and not geared toward extermination. However many cruel things happened there and many died as a result of their internment. Around 43,000 out of 250,000 who were ever there died - the lowest death rate in the entire camp system.

We toured for nearly four hours with a guide named Bernd, who is a retiree passionate about making sure nothing like that ever happens again.

After our visit, we headed to the train station and stopped for lunch at a hotel across the street. I was in detox mode so had a big salad with ox and water.

After a short rest, we headed out for dinner. Yelp assisted us in finding Alter Simple, where I had a fantastic schnitzel . Afterward, we went to BallaBeni again for ice cream. It was again superb.

September 25 - return day!

We had a short morning. After breakfast, we went next door to buy an apron I'd seen commemorating Oktoberfest, which I wanted for our tech chili cook off next week.

Following that, we went to the Brandenhorst museum across the street which had its entire Warhol collection on display - over 100 pieces including Portfolio Marilyn and Triple Elvis. It included some of his early drawings, two films and several episodes of TV that he made. My impression is that the silkscreen and paint pieces are his best, and the film stuff was just weird.

After the museum, we went to Burger House for a quick lunch and then headed to the airport. Coincidentally, after getting to our gate, we ran into my friend and former colleague Shannyn traveling home to Portland from Romania. What a fun day!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Impressions of Bhutan

I've had a few weeks to let my travels sink in. Bhutan is probably the most interesting place I've ever traveled. It is like being in a parallel universe. There is nothing western about the place - except for the hotels where the tourists stay. You will not find a Starbucks anywhere in the country, and I hope it stays that way. These are some of the things I learned and impressions I had during our visit. It is an epically beautiful, mystical and enchanted place. I hope to return someday to the area.


To really understand Bhutan's culture, you have to first understand the religion and the history and mythos that surrounds it. Bhutan is the only place in the world to have Tantric Buddhism as a state religion. Beyond that, it is the Tanntric flavor of Buddhism, which is unique to Bhutan, parts of Tibet and a small pocket of India in Sikkim. The central and western part of the country practice the Kagyu Drukpa sub set of the Kagyu sect of Mahayana Buddhism - our tour guide called it "red hat school". For one thing, it was my first realization of how splintered Buddhism really is. Also, there is a big element of the much earlier Bom (animist) religion mixed in with Hindu cosmology.

Guru Rinpoche

Relief painting of Guru Rinpoche

Besides the historical Buddha, there are 3 main religious figures revered in Bhutan. The first is Guru Rinpoche, who arrived from India in the 8th century. While Buddhism was already somewhat established in the area, Guru Rinpoche really solidified it in the area and the "red hat school" in particular. He was said to be a manifestation of the historical Buddha and he subdued eight classes of demons. He is said to have arrived by turning his Tibetan consort into a tigress and flying to a cliff above the Paro valley where they meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days. This is where that Taktsang Monastery is built in his honor. You may note that he had a consort, which is inline with the Tantric school of thought where union of male and female is spiritual - monks and nuns can marry. The Mahayana path is thought to be more broad and inclusive. Not all of the area was able to accept his teaching, so he hid away some Tantras in caves, which were discovered later. The guru is depicted in peaceful and wrathful or fierce forms - in total he has 8 manifestations, which are depicted in artwork in the temples. He is often pictured with his Tibetan and Nepalese consorts - sometimes in a "joined" position.
A wrathful manifestation of the Guru with the wheel of life

Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal

The three most important religious figures

The next important figure is Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. In the 17th century, he fled Tibet and established himself in Bhutan. He freed the country from Tibetan rule and unified all the areas under a new form of government. He also repelled Mongol invaders several times. The government was dual monastic and civil. There is a Jhe Kempo, or head abbot, and a Druk Desi, or king. The government remained completely in this fashion until 2010, when a Constitutional monarchy was established with a prime minister being the secular head and the king a figure head. You can see the government reflected in the Dzongs, or fortresses and seats of government with half the fortress dedicated to offices and half to a monastic body.

Drukpa Kunley

Phallus on the corner of a building

The final important figure is the "Divine Madman" or Drukpa Kunley. He was a 16th century lama who was a bit irreverent. He "enlightened" 5,000 women by "blessing" them through, um, "union". He is known for subduing demonesses into protective deities by hitting them with his penis. As such, his symbol is the "flaming phallus". And, the Bhutanese have taken to it with great fervor. You will find phalluses painted on buildings in graphic detail, sometimes spurting, with ribbons, wings or flames adorning them. Also, you will find wood carvings of phalluses hanging from the cardinal corners of buildings or over the doorways or placed as decoration in a home.
Phallus paintings


There are some practices that I found unique to the area, though my knowledge of Buddhism is admittedly not very deep.

Memorial prayer flags

When someone dies, a few interesting things happen. First, the family will erect between 1-108 white prayer flags as a memorial. These flags are attached to young tree trunks and very tall. There is also thought to be a 49 day period where the person is in an intermediary state. This is somewhat akin to the Catholic idea of purgatory. The person is trying to find their way to heaven, hell or the next incarnation. They will meet many mythical beings that will help them reach either heaven or the next incarnation. These beings will scare those who are not familiar with them, so you will see them depicted all over the temples to create trust and familiarity for the intermediate stage. Also, the person will be cremated and a small piece of bone will be preserved. The family will place the bone in a miniature clay stupa (same a chorten, same as pagoda - a miniature temple) and the miniature stupa will be placed in a cave or other special meditative spot.

Miniature stupa effigies

At birth, children do not receive a name. When they are 8 days old, the family takes them to the local lama with an offering and they receive their name from the local lama. As such, a lot of people have the same name. So, last names are largely made up for differentiation.

Something from the earlier Bom religion pertains to building a new home or building. One must receive the blessing of the naga or serpent deities in the area. So, the local lamas are hired to do rituals to seek the blessing before the house is built. If you build without consulting the naga, you risk an illness falling on someone in the home or some sort of catastrophe.

Because the path is wide, sexual relations seem fairly open, within the heterosexual sphere. The government distributes condoms. Marriage is usually taken upon conception of a child and is not that rigid or sacred of a contract. Broken or open marriages and composite families are rather the norm than the exception. There is apparently a bit of homoerotic activity in the monasteries according to the New York Times, but no one would openly admit to that being common.

Dogs are revered as being the closest of the animal realm to humans in the wheel of life and reincarnation. So, many people feed stray dogs to accumulate karma. This results in an all-night symphony of barking dogs in any populous area.

Music at the festival

The important stories of the religion are passed to the people via all-day festival events called tshechus. We were lucky enough to attend a festival at the top of Do Chu La pass - it was quite a feast for the senses surrounded by the theater of the high peaks of the Himalayas.

Masked dance at the festival

During our time there, we witnessed a tshechu, naming ceremony, a death anniversary ceremony, a memorial flag ceremony and also the local monks chanting at the end of the day to appease the local deities. All of these ceremonies were accompanied with ample incense, which was omnipresent in the air. For me, the smell of Bhutan is the smell of incense tempered by the smell of trees.

Incense can be burned anywhere


In 2010, the 4th king of the modern era established a Constitutional monarchy. He abdicated the throne and made his eldest son the figure head. Now, the people elect a prime minister. People don't seem all that excited about the voting thing. They liked their king and trusted him to act in their best interest. They don't seem to trust themselves. Also, there seems to be a general distaste for distention in the society which is stirred up with an election.
School girls in uniform

Everyone has access to health care and education. Elementary education is provided within approximately a one hour walk of all villages and is ensured by the government. Secondary education depends on test achievement or a family with enough resources to pay for a private school. Families who cannot even pay for books and uniforms typically send their children to the monasteries for a religious education.
wood carving students at arts and crafts school

Medical care is extremely basic. In the Haa valley, we visited the basic medial unit. They have 10 beds and one doctor for the entire valley. They don't have any testing facilities as their single x-ray machine was found to leak radiation - and only have access to a very limited range of pharmaceuticals. They do have ambulances, though travel across distances can take several hours for what would take 15 minutes here. And, some areas are only reachable on foot. The single doctor told us he travels on foot to make house calls to villages once per year. There is no medical training in country, so he was trained in Sri Lanka. Due to the relatively low level of education and lack of medical training, there is a severe shortage of doctors in the country. By our standards, one would only want to come down with a minor illness or injury in Paro and something relatively major like appendicitis could likely only be treated in Thimpu, the capital.

Rustic farmhouse in Haa

Most native Bhutanese have a decent standard of living as compared with the developing world. And, they live in relative harmony. Access to food is good. Many rural villages have access to electricity, television and some have indoor plumbing via rain harvesting or diversion of streams. In the cities apartments are spacious and have indoor plumbing, electricity and heating. Most rural areas use space heaters and the homes made of rammed mud have no insulation and no glass in the windows, so it is quite cold in the winter.

The worst standard of living is evident in migrant workers who maintain the infrastructure. The Indian Army is contracted to maintain the roads and many government buildings and they hire Bengali and Nepalese laborers for $1.50 a day to work. You see shanties constructed of corrugated metal or thatched bamboo erected by the side of the road where road crews live for months or years in squalor. The work is done in an extremely inefficient manner with small women, often with babies on their backs working on widening the road by taking a pick axe to the mountain side. I guess these inefficiencies can exist at $1.50 per day per person, which is apparently 3x what they would get in India for the same work. However, the roads show the lack of engineering and are in extremely primitive condition - often no asphalt, less than one lane with lots of vertical exposure and erosion. It is a good thing the Bhutanese are extremely patient and cooperative drivers, or catastrophe would be the rule of the day.

The Bhutanese have a co-dependent or symbiotic relationship with India. India maintains their infrastructure and provides agriculture and goods. Bhutan provides hydro-electric power to India and manual labor jobs for its citizens. Bhutan has a trade deficit with India in the $20 million dollar range. They seem to be aware of their vulnerability in the region, and their relationship with India seems largely a hedge against the fate of Tibet. They are very proud of their cultural and religious heritage and strive to protect it from the ever-encroaching world. After hydro-electric power, tourism is their biggest industry. They are working on developing infrastructure to support 50,000 tourists a year - up from 20,000 a year today. This will be a delicate dance to make sure that so many tourists do not dilute their unique culture.

Art, Food, Dress, Sport and Language

Art in the country is largely religious. Paintings are mostly Thankas, or depictions of the main religious figures and their manifestations. The paintings are beautiful and precise and very detailed. They are often approached as meditations by the students who are trained in the arts and crafts schools. Similarly, these are depicted in wood carvings and weavings.
Victory of good over evil banners

I've heard the decor described as "early over the top", which I find to be accurate. The spartan mountain landscape has led to a lot of brightly colored patterns all co-mingled together in ways that really wouldn't work anywhere else. And, of course, you will find phalluses thrown in everywhere for good measure. Art in temples and other buildings is often over the top in colors, done in an apocalyptic style with silk victory banners hanging all over in a myriad of colors and patterns.
Lady in a kira at the market in Thimpu

A lot of people wear the traditional dress. The woman in a jacket and long wrap skirt called a kira, and men in a short bathrobe-like garment called a gho. These are usually in vivid colors and patterns - again only working somehow in this mystical place.
High mountains
Conifer forest and rice paddies
The fertile Punakha River valley

The landscape is extremely varied, with the 200 mile wide by 100 mile high country having the elevation change from 700 feet to 22,000 feet. There are subtropics, high cloud forests, fertile river valleys, oak and confier forests and high alpine regions. The mountains are stunning and are made more beautiful with the adornment of ample trees - something that much of the Himalayan region is lacking. We were absolutely treated when a rare December snowstorm covered the middle peaks in white making the valleys seem truly magical for a couple of days.
typical food

The food is healthy and nutritious, though not very exciting. There is some Indian cuisine, which adds some variety. The staples are jasmine and red rice. They also grow buckwheat in the higher altitudes. They typically eat the rice several times a day with their national dish, which is chili cheese - a soupy warm cow's cheese with chiles stewed in it ranging from tepidly spicy to nuclear - one never knows until you try it. You will also find vegetables with the larger meals - typically stir fried fresh veggies or vegetables manchurian, which is tempura style. They have dumplings, called momos, which are like dim sum - mostly with veggies, sometimes with meat. And, some meals come with a stewed chicken or fish in gravy called a curry. The chicken is typically butchered in all sorts of strange ways, leading to a minefield of bones to avoid. They don't really do sweets, though they do like fruit - usually bananas, apples and oranges. After a few meals, I was ready for some more variety.

You better like tea if you go to Bhutan. You will get lots of it. For something different, try the butter tea with butter and salt. I found it pretty good. Coffee is almost exclusively Nescafe, and no, it does not taste any better after a few days. You can find a decent cup of coffee in one of two coffee houses in Thimpu or Paro.

If you are a fan of wine, this is not your place. The wine they produce ranges from moderately horrid to "gag me with a spoon". The beer is drinkable pilsner similar to most of what is found in the region - cheap and mostly unsatisfying. The arac, or grain "wine" or distillate, is pretty foul. It's like bad sake for the most part.  One shining exception is the grain whiskey. Their top shelf brand, K5 is a good mid-range whiskey by our standards, and being that it costs about $6 for a bottle, it's darn good. If you are more adventurous, you can try the local stimulant - betelnut. I did not try it as I try to stay away from known carcinogens.

Archery match

Archery is the national sport, practiced on very long fields with very tiny targets. Bows are made with bamboo and not extremely accurate. Men from opposing villages take on tournaments that last most of a day to several days. A hit on the target results in an elaborate dance. We witnessed a real tournament in Thimpu and a friendly match in Haa.

Stupa made of rock with script

The official language of the country is Dzongkha, which is not spoken anywhere else in the world. English and Dzongkha are taught in all the government schools. The way to greet someone is Kuzuzongpo or Kuzuzongpo-la to be more polite. It is a south-Tibetic language. The script is based on Tibetan.  The language is spoken in the center to western part of the country and many other hybrid languages are spoken in the east.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Bhutan, Cambodia and Thailand - December 2014

Alternative working titles: Sarah's Intro to Asia, Tour of Phalluses, Tour of Rice, Tour of Buddhism

Saturday, December 6

Flying from SFO @ 6:20 pm, landing in Tokyo scheduled for 10:00 pm, or ~10 hours after departure. Then, after a quick layover, we will be in route to Bangkok. Hoping to sleep a bit on each flight!

Addendum: Got good sleep thanks to my Nap Anywhere headrest/pillow!

Sunday, December 7
Fancy toilet in Tokyo Haneda Airport

We only saw 2.5 hours of Sunday on the ground in Tokyo @ Haneda Airport. 

The highlight of the stop was the Toto toilet, which cleaned itself as you approached, had a heated seat, played a babbling brook noise when you sat and offered various cleaning/drying services. 

I squeezed in my Monday strength training for a little movement and then we boarded our 2nd red-eye at midnight Tokyo time. 

Monday, December 8
Iconography at the Royal Palace

We arrived at 5:00 am in Bangkok and checked into Novotel - a quick shower and laundry and we were ready to meet Erika. We took the train into the city - 3 lines. At one point, it was so crowded, I could hardly breathe. We got to Mandarin Oriental at 9:00 and breakfast went until 11:00. Then, we met up with our guide Simastina, or Meow for short. She took us on a water taxi to the Royal palace and gave us a lesson on Buddhist cosmology while showing us the different buildings. 

We then took a tuk tuk over to Wat Pho to see the reclining Buddha. Our lesson in cosmology continued. It was the sweatiest December day I have ever lived. In the tuk tuk I noticed an advertisement for one of those massage parlors, so I guess the sex tourism still flourishes, though a bit more on the stealth. Our hotel even warned against indecent behavior in the spa and had a commitment against sex trafficking in the lobby, so I guess attitudes are changing. 

After a water taxi ride, we got Erika’s belongings and taxi’d back to the Novotel. We took a quick dip in the pool and had an early dinner at the hotel. 

We headed to bed at 7:30 for the 3:00 am wake up call. 

Tuesday, December 9
Walking across the suspension bridge

The day to go to Bhutan! We started the day with breakfast at 3:00 am, which was good. Our flight departed at 6:30 am with migrant Bengali workers in the back of the plane and us and Bhutan nationals in the front. We did a brief stop in Kolkata, which had very “thick” air. All the workers daprted and then we picked up one guy and headed onward. 

On the approach, we caught a glimpse of Everest in the distance. Then, we had a very exciting descent into Paro. 

Our first stop with guide Khandu Dorji and driver Nado was a bridge build by a Tibetan monk who found iron ore in Bhutan, so could build a bridge across the river. We crossed the river on the chain mail bridge, which was scary, and then looked at his monastery from below. 

We also stopped at teh confluence of rivers on the way to Thimpu. In Thimpu, we had lunch with rice, chicken, 2 kinds of veggies and chili cheese. 

We then headed to a 13th century monastery called Chonggonkalakhang. We arrived just as a family was brining their newborn to receive its name. We turned the prayer wheels on our way out. 

Then, we headed to the Folk Heritage museum, which is a preserved traditional farm house. We saw their grinding stone, plowing implements, the stable on the first floor, granary on the second floor and living quarters/shrine room on the third floor. And, of course, the flaming phallus for protection above the door. 

Our third stop was the national library, which is all Buddhist texts except for a grand book of pictures of Bhutan, created by a student from MIT. It is 2 meters tall and weighs 68 kg. Our final stop was at a local artist collective where we saw local paintings and a sculpture garden they have just started to work on. 

Dinner was a mostly Indian affair with rice, naan, veggies, saag paneer, lamb and chicken curry. 

I managed to stay awake and then headed for a 10 hour crash!

Wednesday, December 10
Prayer wheels and flags outside arts & crafts school

We had American breakfast at 7:30 and got picked up at 8:30 to depart. We took a small road east of town and parked for an ascent to Tango Monastery. It was a 1.5 mile meditation walk and when we arrived at 9,800 feet, we were treated to stunning views of the monastery against the mountains. The monks were working on constructing a fence to keep wild life like bears out of the retreat center they run. 

After that, we stopped for a picnic lunch down the road by some stupas. It was a repeat of lunch from Tuesday, catered by the same restaurant. 

After lunch, we hiked across a dirt track for 2.5 miles through the valley and saw villages and a government school. We also visited a private arts and crafts school for painting, weaving, and wood carving religious icons. 

On the way back to town, we stopped at a Taken refuge - the national animal that looks like a goat-cow. Finally, we stopped by the post office where I got a post card to send a Christmas greeting to Mom and Dad. 

We hopped on wifi in the evening at Hotel Galingka where I got news of my promotion to Director! We celebrated with wine at dinner, which was again Indian oriented. Yum!

Thursday, December 11
Chortens at Dochu La Pass
We started the day visiting the memorial stupa in town and then watching part of an archery tournament. We did see each team get a “hit” which led to an elaborate dance. 

Driving over Dochu La pass, we were rewarded with breathtaking views of the high peaks. We had chicken feet, veggies and rice with the most scenic views ever and even tried the butter tea (tea with butter and salt). The drive down the pass took us into a high rain forest. We saw two monkeys playing in the trees off the road. Then, we stopped for a hike, which was a steep descent with tricky footing to the river below, crossing the rice paddies, and then ascending gently through a pine forest to a ridge - about 3 hours. 

We drove from the ridge to Punakha and our lodge, Lobesa, which had rooms with sweeping views of the river valley and rice paddies below - a wonderful spot to rest our heads for a couple nights. 

We enjoyed a typical dinner with rice, veggies, momos, and chili cheese. We tried the Takin red wine, which was not very drinkable. We came back to beds warmed by water bottles!

Friday, December 12
Punakha Valley

We drove up the Punakha River valley to start our morning hike. We crossed a suspension bridge and then made our way up through rice paddies to a new temple - Khamsum Yuley Namgay Chorten built by the queen for a healthy birth. It had fantastic paintings in the tantric Buddhist tradition with all the creatures one would see in the 49 days middle stage between death and heaven/hell or the next life. After touring the temple, we headed back down the river valley through a local village of farm houses. 

Crossing back across the river took us to lunch, which was typical. We did have vegetables Manchurian which was a little like tempura or pakora and some super-hot chili cheese. 

We went to a nunnery after lunch, which had a nice painting of the life of Buddha and we saw the nuns making miniature stupas for effigies. We then walked around Punakha town, which wasn’t much other than local shops. 
Punakha Dzong

Finally, we went to the dzong, which is the fortress and seat of government. It was quite a spectacular building. We saw the monks doing the evening prayers to appease the local dieties with the discipline “masters” hanging around with whips :(. 

For dinner, we had a chance to try the local brew arac, which was fairly nasty, but good to try. It was a bit like watered down sake. 

Saturday, December 13
Musical core at the festival

We left Punakha a bit earlier than usual - at 8:00, for the long drive up Dochu La pass. We arrived just as the Druk Wayguel festival was starting. The hill was covered in colorful tents for the dignitaries and surrounded by flags and victory banners. 

The musical core played large drums, cymbals, and horns, both deep and piercing like bag pipes. The masked dancers played out dramas of religious significance as clowns flitted around the crowd with their flaming phalluses. 

We watched 4 or 5 dances with the dramatic mountains looming in the distance. The weather was crisp but ideal. After that, we ate lunch at the top of the pass with all the other tourists. Erika bought some beetlenut and “crack” - puff balls made with rice flour from a street vendor. 

We drove back to Thimpu and visited their arts and crafts school so I could buy a wood carving for Jennison. We continued to the weekend farmers market where we tried some dried yak cheese which was like sour and chewy smoked gouda. 

Rick had some tummy trouble, so we retuned to the hotel early. Erika joined a local woman for dinner, so Rick and I dined alone at the hotel. He had dal, rice, curried mushrooms, paneer, chicken and fish for dinner - again in the Indian style.

Sunday, December 14
Erika tries her hand at archery

We started the day waking up to rain! We rolled out at 8:30 and did a quick pass by the new supreme court  building under construction so that Erika could geek out. Then, we made the long journey to Ha - about 3.5 hours driving from Thimpu. We stopped at a dzong that had mostly burned down on the way. We skipped the planned walk out and continued to Ha. 

When we arrived, it was snowing in the hills around and very cold. We checked into our very rustic accommodations at Risum Resort. After lunch, we drove to town and watched a friendly archery match. We watched one round for each side. An archer let us feel the tension of his bow. 

We stopped at a local market and bought whiskey and a half bottle of white wine. We walked the full length of town and back to the lodge where we stayed by the fire reading and talking until dinner time. 

Monday, December 15
Prayer flags at top of Chela La Pass

We awoke to a winter wonderland today after the rain. But, the clouds were lifting, so we decided to take our walk down the valley. A short drive took us above the snow line and we ambled down through villages along the river. We met and older gentleman with teeth missing from too much beetle nut. He seemed interested in taking Erika home with him when he found out she was single!

The walk was gorgeous. Then, we ate lunch and headed over the Chela La pass, which we heard was drivable. On the way out of town, we stopped at the Basic Medical Unit and were invited in for a chat with the doctor. He trained in Sri Lanka and is the only doctor in the valley. They have 10 beds for admittance and he travels out to more remote villages once per year. 

The pass was nail-biting to say the least. The top 3,000 feet had snow on the way up and top 4,000 feet on the way down. We stopped at the top and made snow angels and looked at the prayer flags. 

We lost traction on the way down, but ultimately arrived safely at Kangkhu Resort, which is lovely and has a view of the Paro Dzong. We stopped for a cappuccino in town and had a nice dinner at the hotel. 

Tuesday, December 16
Carvings and victory banners at a 7th century monastery

I’m writing from Kangkhu resource, sitting on my bed, looking at snow-capped peaks across the valley. We awoke this morning to the sound of pounding rain on the roof and were happy that we had access to two guest umbrellas to walk to breakfast. 

After breakfast, we drove to a dzong above Paro, which was destroyed by fire (a fate that seems to have taken many dzongs and temples at some point - probably due to the love of lighting butter lamps inside the wooden structures). Then, we went to visit a 7th century temple in town. When we arrived, they were performing a death anniversary ritual, which was interesting - lots of incense, horns, drums and chanting. 

That temple also had a crematorium, which we viewed. Following that, we went into town and had cappuccino before lunch at a local Indian restaurant. They served pork curry, peas & paneer, and naan that were exceptional. The rest was OK. We had a view of trash for 180 degrees from the restaurant, which was not appealing. 

In the afternoon, we toured the national museum, which had a nice collection of masks as well as tea-making implements, weapons, and flora/fauna of the region. Our last stop was Paro Dzong which had a beautiful, sunlit temple and some nice paintings. We stopped at a tanka painting studio across teh street and saw an artist at work on a large piece. We enjoyed a late afternoon walk down to the river before returning to base. 

Wednesday, December 17
Taktsang Monastery

Today was the day! The hike to Taktsang Monastery. We awoke to clear skies and the sunrise lighting the snow capped peaks across the valley - an auspicious sign for our pilgrimage. 

We started up after 9:00 in brisk weather. We had views of snowy peaks and the monastery itself the entire way. We had a rest at a teahouse about halfway, though the second half was much slower due to photo taking. 

After 350 stairs, we reached the compound and checked our bags. We toured 4 temple rooms. In the second, a group were meditating. In the last, we received a blessing of holy water from a monk. Before leaving, Erika lit a butter lamp for the first day of Hanukah. 

When we returned to the base, I bought a necklace from a local village woman that I had seen on the way in. All in all, a perfect day to remember was had by all. 

Thursday, December 18
View of Everest and high Himalyas

We had our last breakfast overlooking the snow-capped peaks. Then, Khandu and Nado escorted us to the airport. We took off the same direction we had come in from for the landing, so lots of twists and turns before going across the entire Himalaya in snow-covered splendor. 

We landed in Bangkok around 5:00 pm and checked into the Novotel. Then, we grabbed a taxi to head to town. Traffic was so horrific, we diverted to a closer location of the restaurant we were headed for. We had several dishes - the only standout was the sautéed chayote greens, of which we had two servings. 

Then, we had a 45 minute taxi ride back at 9:00 pm. Ugh. I had a raging headache and tummy issues early in the night, but both settled down so I could have a good sleep. 

Bangkok was an assault on the senses after a 10 day period in Bhutan’s parallel universe. 

Friday, December 19
Dancers carved into a temple

We had a leisurely morning where I could work out, read, pray and then head for our flight a bit after 9:00 am. 

We took off at 11:30 and arrived in Siem Reap about 12:30. Surprisingly, Bangkok Air served a light lunch on the 40 minute flight. Our driver, Tann, took us through town and then dropped us at Borei Angkor resort. We spent the afternoon by the pool and then got a ride to dinner at Chantree Tree restaurant. Dinner was arranged by Vibol, our concierge, while we sat in the lemongrass-scented lobby. We enjoyed a malvasia/chardonnay blend, spring rolls, chicken with jack fruit and grilled kale for dinner. We had Kampuchean delight for dessert, which was a puff of rice flour over fruit/coconut compote with nuts and ice cream on the side. We finished off with coffee - happy to be back in the land of coffee. 

Rick and I took a leisurely stroll back to the resort, enjoying the river walk and Christmas festivities outside the hotel. 

Saturday, December 20
East gate of Angkor Tom

Today, we left at 9:00 to go to the temple complex. We stopped first at Angkor Wat after getting tickets. There were thousands of people and it was difficult to walk around, but we spent a couple hours. 

Then, Tann took us to the east gate of Angkor Tom and we walked the wall to the Victory gate. For a few heavenly moments, we ditched the crowds. 

We then toured Bayon and the Elephant Walk. Bayon was a bit less crowded and had more of the temple open. After that, we threw in the towel and headed for the pool where we had a couple snacks and some Angkor beer. 

Dinner was at Cuisine Wat Damnak, owned by a French woman. We had a 5 course tasting menu. Mine was great, and included frog - ribbit! The best dish was one Rick and Erika had with beef in peanut sauce. :)

Sunday, December 21
Sunrise at Angkor Wat

I woke up at 3:30 am with a cramped belly and sore throat and knew our 4:00 am start for our bike ride would be a challenge. We saw the sunrise at Angkor Wat, which really was all it was cracked up to be. Then, we toured the temple, including the top which had been closed the day before. After that, we had breakfast cooked by our driver and then started the bike ride. 

We mostly single-tracked our way to the walls of Angkor Tom and up and around the walls. Then, we saw a “corner temple” before descending to Bayon. Erika and I rested at Bayon and then I decided to sit out the last 5km to Ta Prom and rode in the van and napped while the group went on. Our driver escorted me through the jungle when I woke up toward Ta Prom. I saw a massive snake on one of the rock piles outside the temple. It was worth the trek and definitely my favorite - even without the whole Tomb Raider aura about it. 

We ended the day with lunch at a local cafe where I nibbled on rice and soup. Rick and I ate by the pool after I had yet another long nap in the afternoon. 

Monday, December 22
Making brooms in a village on Kulen Mountain

I felt much better after a good dinner and more good sleep, so we went with Erika to Kulen Mountain to see Thmuy Village where our colleague is sponsoring a school. We left at 7:30 after a good breakfast. We had to pay $20 each to go up a private toll road to the mountain built and run by an “official”. 

The town was about 10 km beyond the holy sites on the mountain. It was all dirt tracks and houses on stilts. The school was a single classroom with one teacher and 60 first and second grade students. 

We took the children bread and candy to augment the staples they get from the World Food Program. We watched villagers cleaning and winnowing beans and also were invited into the home of the village chief. He had mosquito nets and a TV in addition to his solar light. The TV is only one of two in the village and powered by a battery. There are 52 families in the village. We also witnessed some chickens mating and a spontaneous cock fight. 

On the way down the mountain, we stopped at the holy sites - a reclining Buddha carved in stone, the 1,000 “linga” and “yoni” (union of male and female, uh, parts) carved in stone, and a large waterfall, with dangerous steps, teeming with tourists. The highlight of the trip was definitely the village. 

Tuesday, December 23
Just a normal day on Tonle Sap

We awoke at an ungodly 4:00 am to see the sunrise again. Tann drove us for about one hour on increasingly marginal roads. Then, we gave $20 each to a very young long-boat captain who directed us through an narrow river filled with fishers, then through the floating village of about 450 families in the dark, on to the edge of Tonle Sap lake to see the sunrise. 

The sights, sounds and smells transported me back to the San Joaquin delta where I spent a lot of my high school years. It is easy to see why so many southeast Asian refugees have chosen that as an area to settle. We saw on the way back, villagers engrossed in the morning routines of fishing, cooking, washing and putting up their hammocks. 

We made a brief stop at a shop/restaurant. It was clear our captain was sweet on the daughter of the family running the shop. She helped pull in our boat. They had crocodiles, snakes and catfish in captivity as well as kayaks to rent. 

We were back by 10:00 and had breakfast at the hotel and then wandered around town - dropping off laundry to be washed and visiting a temple complex and the war museum for the killing fields and subsequent civil war. Dinner was just me and Rick at Viroth’s, which had a spin on Khmer + Balinese cooking. 

Wednesday, December 24
Christmas gala dinner

We finally had a lazy morning, waking up (relatively) late and having a leisurely breakfast. We ventured out from the hotel around 9:00 am on foot. No one seems willing to accept the fact that we want to walk - the tuk tuks harassing us at every turn to take a ride. 

We started by heading to Pub Street and the old colonial quarter, winding our way through streets and taking photos of the local businesses - a welding shop, car repair, laundry + bike rental, and “the top Mexican food restaurant in Asia” - hmmmm. 

We then headed for Angkor Children’s Hospital to see the weaving exhibition and the short movie about their work. We left a small donation, as the weavings were very fine and quite pricey. From there, we walked over to Wat Damnak, which was less kempt than the pagoda we visited the day before, but had charming monks who were eager to converse with us in English. We had a small lunch on Pub Street of beer, BBQ beef (meh), pumpkin soup (yum!) and french fries. We returned to the hotel via tuk tuk, stopping for our laundry en route. 

The afternoon leading to the Christmas gala dinner was lazy. The gala was quite extravagant with ice sculpture, all you could drink and western and traditional entertainment. It was not a typical way to usher in the Savior’s birth, but nice nonetheless. 

Thursday, December 25
Distributing sticky rice at First Church of Chiangmai

Merry Christmas! We had a short sleep after the thumping beat of the party died down. The hotel transported us to the airport at 7:30 am for our flight to Chiangmai. 

We got to Tamarind Village around 3:00 pm after a short taxi ride from the airport. We looked through various tour options and inquired about church services. We ended up at First Church of Chiangmai, which was having a big potluck dinner where they had invited disabled community members to have a meal with them. 

We listened to English Christmas carols being sung in the Thai language. There was a mix of Hmong and other villagers and expats amongst the majority Thai congregants. We served dinners to the disabled in attendance and then took around sticky rice for them for dessert. Before leaving, we stopped at one of the booths and had fried bread. Delish! 

We walked a few short steps to dinner at the Riverside, where they had a craft beer pub. We had a few Thai dishes - one interesting one was duck wrapped in bacon with dumplings and sauerkraut with a chili sauce. We called the night fairly early, as I was drained from an allergy attack. :(

Friday, December 26
Making green curry paste

We started the day with a two hour walking tour of the old city given by our hotel. We saw some small temples and gave food to the monks at the closest temple. We were told that as women, our menses makes us impure, so we could only place the tray of food in front of the monk before receiving our blessing. The men could hand it directly :(

After the tour, we went for a good coffee at Wawee Coffee across the road - kind of the Starbucks of Thailand. Then, we took at collective to the art shopping district and had lunch in a hole in the wall place for $12, including beer. The best part was sesame balls in ginger sauce, which may be my new favorite Thai dessert. 

In the evening, after a short dip in the cold pool, we headed for a cooking class - at Zabb-e-Lee cooking school. We went to a local market and then made 4 courses of our choosing. I made pad Thai, green papaya salad, tom yum gai soup and green curry. The class was first-rate and a great use of four hours. Highly recommended. 

Saturday, December 27
Statues at Wat Pallad

We called the guy who took us from the airport to our hotel, because none of the day tours really spoke to us. We wanted to hike up Doi Suthep from town. So, he took us at 8:30 just above Chiangmai University to the trail head. Of course, his first question was “Why?” when we told him our plan. I don’t think Thais are really into hiking much. 

We saw a snake immediately, which did not bless Erika. After 30 minutes, we arrived at Wat Pallad, a picturesque temple in the jungle. After another 80 strenuous minutes, we arrived at Doi Suthep and found our driver. We spent 45 sweaty minutes exploring the temple amongst the throngs of tourists (that’s why we hike where we can have the trail to ourselves!). Then, we headed for an elephant park, which was 40 km out of town. We thought it was a preserve, but alas, the elephants were chained up, and we felt like we’d thrown $30 down the drain. 

Our driver saw our disappointment and offered to take us to a beautiful temple nearby - Wat Ban Den. He got mega points, because it was gorgeous and had sweeping views of the mountains and valley below - and hardly any people! There was only one other farang there (foreigner). The afternoon was saved! Upon our return, we hit the Nutela crepes truck for a pre-dinner snack. 

Sunday, December 28
Rotisserie quail at the Sunday walking market

We had a very lazy morning. After breakfast, we joined Erika for coffee down the street at Pacamara. We lingered and enjoyed Thai-style coffee. Then, we made a walk to and along the north gate of the city to see if we could find street food (reportedly available in this location). We found nothing, so walked back alleys toward the hotel. We stopped at the Writer’s Club for a light lunch and then wandered back for a rest around 2:00 pm. 

At 4:00 pm, we headed out for the Sunday walking market and wandered for a couple hours and ate Thai street food - grilled mushrooms wrapped in pork; roti with egg, banana and Nutella; vegetarian pad Thai with glass noodles, fruit wine, and grilled quail eggs. 

We had two mai thais at the hotel and then went out for another hour and a half with Erika. It was so crowded, we could barely shuffle. Rick got a t-shirt and I got a new wallet and colored pencils for Luke and Claire (kids of one of my closest friends, Ann). We called the night around 8:00 and headed inside for showering and reading. 

Monday, December 29
New rice outside Chiangmai

We signed up for a half day bike tour of the countryside with Chianmai Bicycle. We had tried to sign up for the Doi Lom Challenge - a hillier tour along the mountains. But, it was full. We joined with a neurologist from Vancouver and his family, an Austrian couple, three in a group from Austrailia and an American couple - Eric and Karen, working in South Korea. We had a lot in common with Karen and Eric and hit it off. 

The tour was pretty mundane, and we rode 21 km only. The bikes were OK and the helmets atrocious. We stopped a lot, but had a pleasant morning talking with the other groups. Lunch was pretty plain pasta, so we deferred. Upon return, we hit Pacamara coffee shop again with a brief stop to get some protein and veggies + rice for me and a crepe for Erika and Rick. 

In the afternoon, we got our bags mostly packed and had a rest before heading to dinner. We walked 20 minutes to Rachamankha, which was fabulous and had La Na and Burmese dishes, along with the best “facilities” we’d seen the entire trip. We shared a bottle of Australian chardonnay. Sharing the restaurant, there was a small wedding parter for  Thai woman and a farang man, so it was a lovely evening. 

Tuesday, December 30

After breakfast, we caught our flight back to Bangkok. I realized I should have planned a later flight, because I had no desire to go back downtown on our third visit to Bangkok. Oh well. 

We spent the day packing, going to the gym and swimming in the nice hotel pool. We could have been anywhere in the tropical world. The day finished with $20 burgers and beers by the pool. 

Wednesday, December 31
Leg room! And my nifty new t-shirt. 

We got up at 4:00 am and enjoyed some fresh veggies and fruits at the breakfast buffet, unsure when we would see more of them on the long trip home. 

We took off at 7:10. After 3 hours, we stopped in Taipei. From above, Taiwan looks like a good place to explore mountains. We were re-screened despite the short stop and continuance. We were 30 minutes late getting out and arrived in Seoul 30 minutes late. We got screened yet again and enjoyed our brief walk through the Seoul airport. At 6:10 pm, we took off again for our final 9.5 hour leg to SF. We had the emergency row and TONS of legroom. Yay!

I only slept a tiny bit due to lots of turbulence and the regular flushing of the toilets - the only downside to our seats. After having Rick get caught in secondary passport control, we got our Lyft and arrived home at 12:30 pm. 

We had lunch at Armadillo Willy’s and a Trader Joe’s run while the laundry spun around at home. Despite living over 30 hours of December 31, we never passed midnight. We went to bed at 9:00 and awoke to the sound of fireworks at midnight and shared a New Year’s kiss.