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. 

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