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6 weeks in Nepal, Bhutan, Borneo and more...

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6 weeks in Nepal, Bhutan, Borneo and more...

Old May 5th, 2017, 08:43 AM
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6 weeks in Nepal, Bhutan, Borneo and more...

This is my first trip report and it comes with a huge thank you to many Fodor’s posters who have made my trips better than I could have ever made them on my own. I am excited for feedback or questions.

As background…my husband and I are early 60’s, like active travel, cultural interaction and wildlife. Every year we escape our cold Canadian winter for a few weeks in an equatorial destination – which has included Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, India and Africa - but also Antarctica, Galapagos and Patagonia in the same February/March time frame. I am often researching our trips a year ahead and really enjoy the planning phase.

We recently returned from 6 weeks in Asia on a bit of a convoluted itinerary to peninsular Malaysia, Nepal, Bhutan, Thailand and finishing in Borneo. Very different experiences but they added up to a spectacular whole.

We had initially anchored our trip around a Pandaw cruise in Borneo as a follow-up to a much enjoyed cruise from Mandalay to Yangon last year. Unfortunately, the date for the Borneo cruise was first re-scheduled to accommodate fewer passengers and then outright cancelled as Pandaw was unable to secure licensing from Malaysian officials. We scrambled a bit to re-orient the itinerary (twice), resulting in some circular routing.

Our final itinerary was:
Singapore - 2 days
Penang – 3 days in Georgetown
Nepal – 1 week in Kathmandu Valley
Bhutan – 1 week in Paro, Thimpu and Punhaka
Thailand – 1 week in Railay Beach
Borneo – 2 weeks in Sabah and Sarawak

Although it looks like we covered a lot of ground, we didn’t feel it was ever too rushed - there were places we could have stayed longer for sure but we also enjoy being on the move and we appreciated the diversity of geography and experiences. Along with cultural immersion, we planned to hike in Nepal and Bhutan, rest up in Thailand, then get into rainforest, wildlife and diving in Borneo.

I will break up the report into a few postings so as not to run on too long! Next post...Travel logistics and first stop, Singapore.
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Old May 5th, 2017, 11:40 AM
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Logistics-

We flew Toronto - Singapore via Istanbul going over and Singapore- Toronto via Tapei on the return. Our return was on Eva Airlines which is relatively new to Star Alliance. It was a superb flight – business class has pods, great food and full bed service with PJ’s.

Aside from our international flights, we had 11 internal flights and if I could do one thing differently it would be to have taken carry-on only – which we almost always do, finding it so freeing to avoid baggage check queues, baggage claim, hauling heavy bags, and being responsible for too much stuff. This time around, we rationalized checked bags as we needed both cold and hot weather clothing and I believed the Air Asia published restrictions on carry-on weight/ size – foolish me, when I saw what passed for carry-on on most AA flights, we could have easily complied! At one departure I asked why they were letting people on so obviously over the size restrictions and they replied that as long as the flight wasn’t full, they would not enforce. So you take your chances, I suppose.

Getting over jet lag in Singapore-

Arriving at 6am in Singapore, we had a bit of a wait until our room would be ready so armed with maps and directions to the ATM, we hit the city and did not return to the hotel until after 4pm. We found the MRT to be brilliant, easy to use and allowed us to cover a lot of ground in our two full days here.

We stayed in the Fullerton Hotel which I found to be more conventional than I imagined (and seemed to be wedding central during our stay) despite its past life as the old Post Office building – small rooms but with great views of Marina Bay, the city lights and easy access to the MRT.

Our day tours took us to the Asian Civilizations Museum, Gardens by the Bay, Chinatown, Little India, Orchard Street (but we’re not big shoppers), and of course hawker stalls.

Asian Civilizations Museum is a 5-minute walk from the Fullerton and a lovely, light filled space with innovative displays, and not too many of them so easily digestible. Gardens by the Bay is a must-see for flora enthusiasts; it’s expensive (like everything in Singapore) but the biospheres, particularly the rainforest are well worth visiting.

My appetite is usually off the first few days after long haul travel and time differences, so hawker food was perfect - we had good snacks at Lau Pa Sat near Chinatown (laksa and soft shell crab) and Satay by the Bay (satay, of course), both comprising a variety of food stalls. For dinner one night we ate at Southbridge Rooftop bar at the very end of Boat Quay, an easy walk from the Fullerton – a small outdoor lounge serving up light bites, unusual cocktails and a stunning view of the city and light show from Marina Bay.

We didn’t go to the Singapore Night Zoo which gets great reviews; we debated this but in the end had difficulty making the leap to going out to see animals in a zoo setting that we had been fortunate to have seen in the wild.

If you like architecture and modern city planning, Singapore has it in spades. Overall we appreciated Singapore’s clean, organized presentation which made it an easy first stop in Asia.
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Old May 5th, 2017, 12:01 PM
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Wow - what a diverse trip! I'm along for the ride.
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Old May 5th, 2017, 12:10 PM
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Great start to what I can tell will be an interesting and fun read. Thanks for the fantastic detail. And is just so nice to get to read a report from less - traveled destinations. Looking forward to more!
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Old May 5th, 2017, 02:14 PM
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Thanks so much for your encouraging replies!
Kathie, I have followed many of your posts and very often your advice!

Food, walking, more food in Penang-

A short flight to Penang was made significantly longer with crazy baggage queues (next time, carry-on..). We stayed at the Eastern & Oriental which we loved - unlike the Fullerton, the E&O has an authentic colonial feel – gracious rooms with dark wood floors, casement windows and a marble bathtub. In the heritage building, the long white-washed hallways on each floor are bright with windows along one side as the rooms on the other side all face out to the Indian Ocean. Breakfast buffet at the E&O is great and can be taken outdoors on a terrace by the ocean which is a good way to start the day.

We liked Georgetown’s slightly gritty, authentic feel – in contrast to Singapore. We spent our mornings wandering the streets of the old town, discovering street art (many of which are not identified on the tourist maps) exploring shop houses, touring the Cheong Fatt Tze (Blue) mansion and Peranakan mansion (both worthwhile visits), and the clan jetties (not so worthwhile). And we indulged in the first of one of our favourite Asia activities, hour-long foot massages!

Afternoons, we escaped the heat by hanging out at the E&O pool smack along the edge of the Indian Ocean in a heat-induced lethargy. I appreciated the E&O pool for its stately hushed atmosphere making reading and napping there a pleasure. The humidity is as oppressive as they say…we took along a lot of water when we walked and found ourselves dodging the daily but short-lived late day rainfalls, quickly learning to take an umbrella to dinner.

We had excellent and very different dinners at the Red Garden Night Market (hawker) which is right beside the Blue mansion and ramps up the action with karaoke at 9pm, the Olive Kitchen (Indian) and Kebaya in the Seven Terraces Hotel (Nyonya), all easy walks from the E&O. I recommend all of them, especially Kebaya which served a leisurely 5-course dinner in a gracious setting. We generally found the food in Penang to be excellent value.

We left Penang feeling there was more to explore but 3 days gave us enough time to soak up the ambiance of a great destination. We were able to walk pretty much the entire UNESCO heritage area in two days, so the additional exploring would be more in the way of enjoying more meandering through streets, taking in the sights, the art and the culinary experiences.

Next up...Chaos and serenity in Nepal.
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Old May 5th, 2017, 05:11 PM
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Looking forward to more.
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Old May 6th, 2017, 08:28 AM
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We flew from Penang to Kathmandu via KL arriving in Kathmandu in the late afternoon. It took over an hour to negotiate the airport baggage collection (yep, carry-on next time…) as several flights arriving at once overtaxed the small airport. We were quickly commandeered by a taxi driver who hustled us into his car took off like a shot. We felt like we were back in India as he barrelled through chaotic streets filled with dust, smoke, weaving scooters, cattle, jumbles of overhead electrical wires. He picked up a “guide” as we left the airport, and we were prepared for the routine. Said guide was onboard to ensure we had a safe trip to our hotel and by the way, what had we planned for tomorrow? So of course we hired him for the following day to tour Kathmandu.

In Kathmandu we stayed at Dwarika’s Hotel. That it’s located on a busy street is offset by being contained in a spacious and quiet courtyard. It’s Nepalese owned and built from recovered Newari building materials including brickwork and the unique wood carved windows. The rooms overlook the courtyard and are decorated with beamed ceilings and traditional textiles.

We opted to eat dinner onsite rather than venture out. There is a multi-course Nepali dinner offered at Krishnarpan which we did not try, but the main dining room and a small Japanese restaurant onsite were both good, and the bar is cozy with a real wood fire (it was warm by day but quite cool at night).

Our guide arrived the next day and took us to Patan (one of the three durbar squares in the Kathmandu Valley), Boudhanath (the largest Buddhist stupa in Nepal), Pashupatinath temple (the sacred Hindu cremation site) and Swayambhunath (a hilltop Buddhist temple known as the Monkey temple), making for a full day and a lot of driving.

Patan Durbar Square lost some structures to the 2015 earthquake but there is much to see, re-building is well underway and the museum in a 1734 Newari building is a treasure. We sampled our first momos on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the square.

I was less impressed by Boudhanath, perhaps because we arrived there at noon in unforgiving bright sun. The clockwise walk is bordered by tourist shops and the structure itself seemed bald and uninspired, compared (maybe unfairly) with Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon which we had visited last year, a stupa of such grace with its gold leaf,jewels and generous marble walkways. Maybe we just missed something as I know many have enjoyed Boudhanath.

We did enjoy visits to Pashupatinah, the Hindu temple and burial site on the Bagmati River, and Swayambhunath, another Buddhist temple and stupa - watching the parades of people – mourners, worshippers, gurus, monks and tourists - and of course, the monkeys. Swayambhunath has lovely views of the city viewed through masses of prayer flags making it highly photogenic.

We left Kathmandu the following day for a two-night stay at Dwarika’s sister hotel in Dhulikhel. Our plan had been to do some hiking between Dhulikhel and Nagarkot. We had originally booked a three-day trek out of Pokhara but changed plans shortly before departure due to concern about the effect of steep, uneven ups and downs of the Himalaya treks on my husband’s knees (sacrificed many years ago to college rugby), opting instead to do shorter hikes in the Kathmandu Valley. That all said, within minutes of arriving, we quickly questioned the wisdom of spending even an hour away from this nirvana. The resort straddles a steep hill, so there was a lot of climbing up and down to go anywhere in the resort, and we rationalized that would qualify as our exercise.

Coffee is served at the hilltop teahouse at 6am to watch sun rise across the Himilayan peaks, followed with yoga or meditation or breakfast on the terrace with the vast mountain range smack in front of you. The day can progress as you please with a pottery lesson, an art class, cooking school, the meditation maze, a soak in the salt house, a consult with an Ayurvedic doctor, or lounging on gigantic outdoor daybeds scattered around the property. Even doing many of the activities (as we did), it never felt hectic, there is a palpable sense of calm throughout the resort. Each morning we were asked what we would like for dinner which was cooked to order. Here we had Thali (Nepalese curries with many side dishes) one night and joined another couple in the Bhuddist dining room the second night for an innovative vegetarian meal. While the Dwarika experience doesn't come cheap, it was a truly unique and unforgettable stay.

We managed to tear ourselves away for Nagarkot which was on our itinerary primarily for the Himilayan views, and which in the end was a bit redundant given the vistas we had in Dhulikhel. But views, especially in March can be hit or miss so a trip to Nagarkot seemed like good insurance. And of course, the views from each location provide quite different perspectives given their orientation. It was quite hazy in Nagarkot but we did get an expansive view and the range definitely felt closer than in Dhulikhel.

We got our hike in at Nagarkot, making our way up to a tiny hilltop temple and then down through a cypress forest banking the hillside that the town is built on. It was very peaceful, only one schoolboy trailing us with postcards for sale who I put to work to find change rather than succumbing to the usual- “no change, but you can also buy a necklace, a trinket”, etc. I liked his resourcefulness as it took a number of attempts to get a shopkeeper to make change without him having to buy something!

We arranged a taxi back to Kathmandu (I found it easy to get the hotels to arrange taxis anywhere in the Valley and having researched prices, found they do so at very reasonable cost) to spend a final night in Thamel. We stayed at the Dalai La Boutique hotel which was well located for walking and in a quiet courtyard with its own restaurant. We didn’t eat there but it looked popular. We wandered the winding backstreets of Thamel and made our way down a chaotic road with the press of scooters to Durbar Square and later the Garden of Dreams. Though I found I got quickly used to the mayhem as I had India, I also relate to many who report that a couple of days in Thamel is enough.

Kathmandu's Durbar Square shows the effects of the earthquake more than anywhere else we visited. There are toppled temples, collapsed walls and closed buildings, including the museum. Already plant life is growing in the cracks of foundations and felled idols. It actually felt like a special time to see the Square, in this vulnerable and rather tender state. Like Patan and Bhaktapur, re-building is underway.

As we made our way back to the hotel, we were stopped in the street by none other than our guide from the airport – what were the odds of that? He seemed genuinely pleased to see us, cementing for me the pleasure in supporting local efforts to revive the struggling Nepali tourist industry. For dinner we went to well-reviewed OR2K in Thamel where removing our shoes, we settled onto huge floor pillows and joined what appeared to be a gathering place for the ageless hippies of Kathmandu for a (very good) Middle Eastern meal.

Next up….Not Quite What we Expected in Bhutan!
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Old May 6th, 2017, 08:58 AM
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Wow - you actually saw the Himalayas from Nagarkot! I've been there several times (and at the right time of the year) and never caught a glimpse! Fortunately, I'e had plenty of other views of the Himalayas!

I know the Durbar Square in Kathmandu was quite damaged by the quake. Sorry to hear that it is still so damaged. I saw photos (from a friend) of the Nepalis working to repair the buildings there, so I'd hoped it was in better shape.

Sorry you didn't experience the magic of Boudhanath. But comparing it to Shwedagon is an unfair comparison. Also, at different times of the day, the atmosphere there is really different. We liked it most in the early morning and the late afternoon.

We very much enjoyed the Garden of Dreams, a calm respite in the middle of the city.

Enjoying your report. The Dwarika’s in Dhulikhel sounds great!
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Old May 6th, 2017, 09:11 AM
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Sorry to hear about the durbar square in Kathmandu which I found magical.

You stay at Dwarika's in Dhulikhel certainly sounds more comfortable than mine in Phulbari!
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Old May 6th, 2017, 09:33 AM
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Kathie, for sure we were lucky with Himalayan views. Apparently there had been no views at all for 2 weeks prior. I recalled your trip report on Nepal which I read when planning and know you liked Boudhanath. I do think it was visiting in midday that was a mistake, without the softer light and fewer visitors. Probably tried to do too much in one day, our loss! And you're quite right, really not a fair comparison to Shwedagon...

Thursdays, yes the damage in Kathmandu Durbar Square is very visible. I also understand Bhaktapur, which we didn't visit suffered the most damage. It is sad but it shouldn't deter visitors, there is still some magic there and its part of their journey through history!
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Old May 6th, 2017, 05:42 PM
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This is a really enjoyable report. Loving it. Thank you.
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Old May 7th, 2017, 10:18 AM
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A brief diversion …. I went to Egypt in the 90’s and even more than a Nile cruise I was looking forward to seeing the Great Pyramids at Giza. We had one night before the cruise and planned to arrive in Cairo midday, make our way to the Giza to see the Pyramids, allowing lots of time by overnighting at the Mena Hotel beside the site. As we taxied out of Cairo, the driver warned us that a sandstorm had started up in the desert beyond the Pyramids and the visibility was worsening. Sure enough, as we drove on the winds picked up, a brown fog of sand swirled in and driving became a challenge. Making our way into the hotel, the sand bit into our exposed skin and we couldn’t see more than 10 yards in front of us. Immediately we asked if we could tour the Pyramids but no, all tours had been cancelled due to the storm. Deflated, we checked into to our room but it was difficult to settle; were it not for the curtain of sand, the Pyramids should be visible from the Mena. I tried the front desk one more time – was there any way to see them? There was a pause and a hopeful “give me a few minutes”. A callback confirmed we had a guide who would take us there on horseback but we must hurry, we must wear scarves covering our faces and be prepared for the tombs being closed. We didn’t hesitate and this misadventure became one of the most enduring travel memories I have. Our guide saddled us up at a nearby stable. We wrapped our heads so only our eyes peered through and rode through dust and sand haze to found ourselves quite literally alone at the Pyramids, guiding our horses around them as the storm began to ebb, revealing the fantastical structures. The tombs were being closed as we arrived but we were welcomed to climb down – alone. It was a mystical experience heightened by nature’s force, and a reminder that when things go awry in travelling, a door may open to a richer experience.

Not Quite What we Expected in Bhutan....

We didn’t appreciate ahead of time that we might see much on the flight from Kathmandu to Paro as we were east not west bound, but lucky for us we were seated on the left side of the plane and what a view! Non-stop mountains rolled out to the horizon like waves, their distinctive outlines and peaks breaking through high cloud - Everest, Lhotse, Kanchenjunga, the pilot called them out in passing. My camera in overdrive through the first hour of the flight, then revived again to capture the descent and landing in Paro as we literally dropped from the sky onto a runway nested in mountains and squealed to a stop.

Immediately things felt different. There is something unique and magical about the architecture in Bhutan with its Chinese influences, curved timber roofs and extravagant use of color. Monasteries studding the mountainside. Even the airport terminal sports a dzong-like façade.

We were met by Tashi, our guide and Tenzin our driver who would shepherd us through Bhutan for the next six days. We were naturally on high alert whether we had a good match, our personalities with theirs as we knew this could make a big difference in our enjoyment of the visit. In Bhutan, you must travel with a guide so it is worthwhile to do due diligence ahead of time and communicate your expectations. We booked through Snow White tours (after a false start with Druk Asia) and this turned out to be a good choice. Tashi was a perfect guide for us, informative without being too chatty, easy to be with and handled our itinerary flawlessly despite some unexpected circumstances.

Before detailing the trip, let me weigh in on some concerns that are often voiced about Bhutan and which we ourselves had before visiting.

First, the expense. Yes, Bhutan was one of the more expensive legs of our trip. The air to/from Paro is more expensive than the Asia discount airlines as only Druk Air flies tourists in and out. The $250pp/day required minimum spend while on the ground in Bhutan is factored into quotes given to you by a tour company. The first quote we got based on basic hotels, all meals, guide and driver was exactly that amount (and keep in mind it’s based on days, not nights). As soon as you upgrade your hotel, however, the expense goes up exponentially. This is because there is a 35% royalty tax on top of the 17% VAT. For example, when we opted to upgrade from basic hotels to superior hotels (Terma Linca in Thimpu, Uma in Punhaka and Paro), our daily rate went up to $475pp/day. I really debated this upgrade but the combination of reading unilaterally glowing reviews of Uma and many negative reviews of the food elsewhere, we decided for it. The only additional expense was alcohol and personal spending. Unless you stick to beer, expect your bar bill to be high. A glass of wine or a cocktail was rarely under $20 once taxes were factored in.

Second, the food. Yes, there is a great variation in the quality of food on offer and there is limited variety. Buffets are favored at restaurants and hotels and some appeared unappetizing. But some were very good, so basically hit and miss. What was unfailingly good was food at Uma. Beyond good, it was great.

Third, the roads. There has been major construction of roads in Bhutan but it has paid off. Most of the construction between Thimpu and Punahaka is complete and while the roads inevitably twist and turn up through the mountain pass, they are no longer torn up and it is for the most part smooth passage with some great views. I don't know about the road situation beyond Punhaka.

And finally, the history. There is the civil history of Bhutan and then there is the Buddhist history included in monastic education. They seem to intertwine and there were times that we weren’t sure whether we were getting factual history (if that even exists) or interpretive Buddhist mythology. There is also the issue of real antiquity, or not. There are many recreations of old structures that were destroyed by fire or unrest, as well as brand new structures made to look old. It’s all a bit confusing but it's probably best to just let it wash over you, and enjoy the ever evolving (hi)stor(ies) of Bhutan from your guide.
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Old May 7th, 2017, 01:43 PM
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You are so right that having a good match with the guide can make all of the difference. As a person who rarely uses guides, that is perhaps my biggest concern about Bhutan.

Before we went to Sikkim, I read everything I could get my hands on about Sikkim. One of the books I read was "Memoirs of a Political Officer’s Wife in Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan" by Margaret D. Williamson. Wisdom Publications, London, 1987. Her descriptions of living in Gangtok in the 1930s, and traveling overland by foot and pack animals to Tibet were amazing. The book gives a sense of how intertwined Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet were. You might enjoy the perspective of this book, Victoria.
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Old May 8th, 2017, 03:03 PM
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Our first stop was the Paro Dzong and the National Museum for an overview of what we could expect to see in the way of flora, fauna and culture. And then lunch, our first Bhutanese buffet (see previous comments!) followed by an hour’s drive to Thimpu for our first night stay. I had chosen the Terma Linca thinking it looked peaceful on the edge of a river just outside town. For us, this was a mistake. First off, it was too far from town to walk and explore which we like to do. While our room was very large with a nice view of the river, it lacked warmth – no art, textiles. Same with the lobby and common spaces, big views but little in the way of charm.

Rain set in, so we caught up on laundry and emails for the rest of the afternoon. It turned out that an International Women’s Day conference was being held at the Terma Linca that day, and so we shared their buffet dinner which was uninspiringly reminiscent of lunch…however, things turned better when a well spoken women chose to sit with us, perhaps thinking us fellow delegates and introduced herself as the Minister for Education for Nepal, making for most interesting dinner conversation.

Tashi and Tenzin arrived early next morning, coaching us for our hike through the Dochu La Pass enroute to Punhaka. The itinerary described it as having stunning views and a length of two hours to and fro, which means two hours to, and two hours fro. It was steep on the ascent and at an altitude of 10,000ft, there was some heavy breathing. When we arrived at the summit, at the Lungchutse temple where we were to have 360 degree views of the Himilaya, we were hard pressed to see the doors of the temple standing right in front of them as the weather had turned bringing in a grey mist and in an omen of things to come, stray snowflakes swirling around. We had a brief temple visit with the resident monk and then high tailed it back down the mountain. Tashi, in his traditional Bhutanese garb (which all guides wear) was no doubt more chilled than us and we made the descent in one hour flat.

Another buffet lunch which was considerably better than we had had so far - with fresh fiddlehead ferns and chilli shrimp – and then a picturesque descent into the Punhaka Valley. Our hotel for the next two nights, Uma Punhaka has only 11 rooms all looking out at the Valley, the river and Himalayan peaks beyond. It has a very warm and intimate atmosphere with meals served either on an outdoor stone terrace, or as in our case by a wood-stoked fire. Breakfast and dinners were so good - both Western and Bhutanese offerings, among the best we had all trip and the staff were delightful.

Next morning, we drove to the base of the Khamsum Chorten, a golden temple which can be seen from Uma Punhaka high up on an opposing hillside. Our day hike with Tashi started by crossing the river on a suspension bridge, then climbing steeply up to the temple. After a brief visit, we wound our way through rice paddies and villages, further up the mountainside through cypress and rhododendron forest to the 300-year old Giligang monastery, tended by an elderly couple who have lived by the monastery for over 50 years. Surrounded by sensational views, we enjoyed a picnic lunch brought along by Tashi. We had been joined by two dogs while passing through one of the villages and they waited patiently through lunch and continued with us as we made our way along the ridge until we could see far below stately Punhaka Dzong bisecting by the Chu River, surrounded by vibrant green valley with Himilaya rising opposite, a stunning view.

We zigzagged our way down to the Dzong and off the dogs trotted, apparently a new destination in mind. In the temple of the Dzong, we settled in to observe the monks in their evening prayers. Our hike had taken about 6 hours, plus a 2 hour visit to the Dzong, so we were pleased to come back to Uma for a fireside dinner.

Our hiking so far was a build-up for our last day’s trek up to Taktsang Monastery known as Tiger’s Nest. The plan for the next day was a short hike to the Temple of the Divine Madman, then to drive back to Paro via the Dochu La Pass and rest up for Tiger’s Nest the following morning. But plans do go awry. We woke to gentle but steady rain, and at breakfast heard the first of the reports that Paro, sitting at higher elevation had received 8 inches of snow- highly unusual in March - and that a snow day had been declared. After our farewells at Uma Punhaka, Tenzin started our drive while Tashi spoke rapidly on his cell phone to several of his co-guides. He learned that the rain in Punhaka and light snow in Paro was heavy snowfall and white-out conditions at the Pass and it was clearly an all-day affair as well. With no way back to Paro, we agreed to stay another night at Uma Punhaka. This meant no Tiger’s Nest – IF we got out the next day, we would arrive too late to make the climb, not to mention it was currently closed for the snow on the trail.

Not wanting to return to Uma immediately (it was 9am at this point), we asked Tashi if there was anything we could do in Punhaka, and this is where a good guide comes in. First, we drove to the Temple of the Divine Madman and Tashi wrangled umbrellas from local villagers as it is still a fair walk to the Temple from the closest road. I imagine the hike up to the Temple is more the point of this outing as the temple was not as impressive as others although two things stood out: first, the story behind the temple, that of the madman who was renowned for his sexual exploits, and hence the phalluses (many of them with faces and prayer scarves!) painted on the walls of the homes surrounding the temple, and second, the string of water buckets hung vertically on each corner of the temple. We’d seen these at most temples and understood they are to ease water gently off the temple roof, rather like a more artistic version of an eavestrough. With the steady rain, we got to see it in action and it was a pretty sight, and fun to photograph.

Returning to the car, Tashi suggested a visit to a local nunnery. We arrived as the nuns of all ages began their mesmerizing morning prayer routine, chanting and bowing. We all entered a state of relaxation just being present and passed a pleasant hour. Finally, Tashi took us to the Saturday market for a wet walk through the stalls and for lunch in the town. We asked Tashi and Tenzin to join us (usually they eat elsewhere) and enjoyed learning how to eat with our hands in the Bhutanese way.

Back at Uma, where we were warmly greeted back (despite as we later learned they had planned to take the day and evening off as no guests were expected), and we spent a relaxing afternoon having massages with the sound of the rain on the roof, a long bath and looking forward to another Uma dinner. There was only one other couple at Uma, also stranded by the snowfall, so we joined them for a specially prepared dinner by the fireplace, reminding us all that it was hardly a tough place to be stranded.

Next morning we awaited the verdict concerning the drive to Paro. The Pass wasn’t set to open to traffic until the snow was all cleared out, perhaps by noon. Tashi suggested we push on anyway and see what the morning brought. The drive up and out of the valley was dry with little traffic. When we approached the Pass, however, the road became icy and snow-covered with many vehicles spinning their wheels. There are no guardrails on the roadway despite steep dropoffs and we saw a truck perched half on and half off the edge of the cliff. At the Pass, we were stopped while the plows continued to clear.

This turned out to be very serendipitous for Tashi. We went into the restaurant for hot tea, and there was a monk who was according to Tashi a Great Master from whom a blessing would be very fortuitous. Indeed, all the restaurant staff and several visitors lined up to take the blessing which appeared to be a rap on the head with a wooden object. Eventually, the monk departed and accompanied by his brethren, lifted his saffron robes and tip-toed through the snow. Tashi took our photo in ankle- deep snow with the 147 snow-covered chortens and the Himilayan peaks in the background.

The drive down the other side of the Pass saw cars and buses jockeying for position on the only snow-cleared lane. We stopped for lunch in Thimpu enroute to Paro, watched the policeman at the single traffic roundabout (Thimpu is the only capital city in the world without traffic lights). Then on to the Uma Paro for our final night. While it is still a lovely hotel, we felt it didn’t have the charm and intimacy of Uma Punhaka; in fairness it is much larger and it didn’t help that they were still sorting out guests that had been stranded by the snowfall.

All in all, we really enjoyed Bhutan. The hikes were energizing and the scenery gorgeous. We didn’t get overwhelmed with dzongs and temples but I can see that it is important to be clear in your expectations with your tour operator as you could get saturated. We were sorry not to climb to Tiger’s Nest which we had looked forward to, but as we learned from our experience in Egypt, nature does like to give the gift of the unexpected!
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Old May 8th, 2017, 03:52 PM
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Wha a wonderful trip! Thank you so much for sharing it with us.
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Old May 8th, 2017, 03:54 PM
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Glad you had a good time and made it out despite the snow!
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Old May 9th, 2017, 05:52 AM
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Thank you for following.

Kathie, I will be reading Margaret Williamson's book soon, it sounds intriguing. I actually tried to include Sikkim on this trip but the logistics were difficult. I enjoyed your trip report on this area.

I have two more posts- which I'll try and keep shorter!!- for our quick break in Thailand and then 2 our final weeks in Borneo.
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Old May 9th, 2017, 06:31 AM
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Great report on Bhutan - brings back fond memories. Thanks for posting.
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Old May 9th, 2017, 06:35 AM
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No need to shorten your posts. They are so fun, interesting and full of good information! Thank you for posting.
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Old May 9th, 2017, 10:31 AM
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R&R on Railay Beach, Thailand

Leaving Bhutan, we packed our down jackets, hats and gloves in the bottom of our bags as we would no longer need them. As we took off from Paro airport on an equally steep ascent, I was already looking forward to the hot sand, Thai food, sunsets. Our flight took us to Bangkok BKK where we took the shuttle to Don Muang for our domestic flight to Krabi. We spent the night at DMK at the very convenient Amari airport hotel in order to grab an early morning departure to Krabi. There we were met by a driver arranged by the Railay Beach Club where we had rented a small beach house. A 40-minute drive with a stop for groceries took us to Ao Nang Beach where we met a long tail boat to take us to Railay, which is not accessible by road.

Railay Beach is nestled in among soaring limestone cliffs which are well known as a mecca for rock climbers. There are actually four separate beaches: Railay West and Railay East (joined by aptly named Walking Street, a hive of cafes and bars) as well as Phra nang and Tonsai beaches accessible by pathways. Nothing is more than 20 minutes walk so it’s easy to spend time on all of them. Each has a very different feel. Railay West where we stayed is a crescent of white sand between limestone karsts and along with Railay Beach Club has a handful of higher end resorts. Railay East is on a mangrove swamp but there is a breakwall for walking along and there's lots of shops, restaurants and bars - this is where Railay nightlife takes place. It's also home to several less expensive hotels favoured by the rock climbers who come to take courses or to be with fellow climbers. Phra nang is a narrow but lovely sand beach with only the very high end Rayavadee Resort fronting on it, but loads of daytrippers come here too. Finally, Tonsai is a half coral, half sand beach on which the cliffs come right up to the edge of the beach rendering it a great a hang out for the climbers. It's quite deserted and we found especially appealing in the late afternoon light.

Railay Beach Club (RBC) on Railay West manages around 20 homes for vacant owners, set among lush gardens clustered between the cliffs and the ocean. Our house (Baan Solly) was one of a handful that fronts on the beach with a big ocean-front deck, an outdoor shower and a tree-house bedroom with 360 degree views! This made for wonderful ocean breezes and great sunsets. RBC has an honor bar for its guests and will arrange food, transportation and reservations. It was also easy to pick up beer or a cocktail to take back to the house for sunset. Really a great place to stay if you want a beach vacation in an intimate setting.

The only downside to Railay Beach for us was the noise from the long tails which come and go from 8am to 5pm ferrying day trippers. Like the sirens on New York streets and peepers in the Spring (we live in the country so that’s my analogy), it does become background noise after a while. And by sunset, the beach is largely deserted and becomes a magical place as the beachside restaurants turn on strings of lights and the face of the cliffs are lit.

We spent our days sleeping in - no guides with agendas!- taking picnic lunches to the different beaches, kayaking (easy to rent and lots of karsts to explore), watching the rock climbers, exploring the caves, swimming, more foot massages and always an afternoon siesta. We decided to make our own breakfasts and lunches for a change from restaurants but went out for dinners to enjoy the great variety of food and the lively atmosphere on the beach or Walking Street. The beach restaurants are pricier but have the ambiance of the sand in your toes and the ocean music. On Walking Street, we ate at the fresh fish stalls where you pick from the day’s catch – huge prawns grilled with lemon – and later mango sticky rice to eat on the way home. There is an excellent Indian food restaurant and on our last night we picked up outstanding Thai food at Joy’s and with a bottle of wine, lounged on our deck by the ocean, quite sorry to be leaving.

Next ….a trio of Borneo adventures
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