DISCOVERING BURMA & NEPAL
BURMA and NEPAL
October 1, 2012
There have been some amazing changes in Burma this past two years. The military dictatorship, which had controlled Burma since 1962, finally released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in late 2010 after nearly twenty years of imprisonment, and she was recently elected and allowed to take her seat in parliament. With the subsequent lifting of economic sanctions this fascinating southeast Asian nation, situated on Thailand's northern border, is now open to travel and exploration!
I'd been thinking for quite some time that I'd like to see Kathmandu and hike the Himalayas in Nepal, so why not seize the opportunity to combine an adventure trip that begins in Burma and then continues through Nepal!
The logistics are somewhat daunting so I better get to work!
Why are we in Burma?
March 24, 2013
I am riding in our tour bus sitting across the aisle from Steve Scott
our G-Adventures tour leader, on our first full day. He is speaking of his long personal involvement with this region, of his love of Asia and its people. He is describing how this country had been completely shut down to visitors for more than a decade. He is talking of infrastructure missing, of hotels shuttered - the interior furnishings covered with sheets. He is outlining the challenges of organizing a tour in a location that is so far removed from the mainstream. To paraphrase him - only two years ago we had only a handful of people - we had trouble selling a tour here - now we're faced with a shortage of hotel rooms - the government suddenly opened the doors then realized, where do we put all these people?
As we pass through the countryside and I am contemplating his comments, I am suddenly reminded of what had sparked my first interest in Burma. It was about five years ago and my good friend Bob had given me a birthday gift, a copy of Amy Tan's newest novel, Saving Fish From Drowning. In short, it's a story about an American tour group that ventures from China into Burma then disappears. I had been fascinated not only by the description of this remote and isolated country, but by the actions and perceptions of the individual characters in a crisis.
Unfortunately, travel to Burma was out of the question at that time. But when both G-Adventures and Intrepid resumed tours there nearly two years ago, I immediately recalled this novel and my fascination with Burma. And it was not long after that I began thinking about this adventure.
"A pious man explained to his followers: 'It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. "Don't be scared," I tell those fishes. "I am saving you from drowning." Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes."
"Crossing the border into Burma one can spot the same pretty flowers seen from the bus window in China; yellow daisies and scarlet hibiscus, lantana growing as plentifully as weeds. Nothing had changed from one country to the next, or so it appeared to my friends. But in fact, all had suddenly become denser, wilder, devouring itself as nature does when it is neglected for a hundred years."
"A good government had to guide its people, sometimes gently, sometimes strictly, just as parents did. It could allow certain freedoms, but in a style that suited the country."
Saving Fish from Drowning, 2005
March 21-22, 2013: On our way!
We drIve to San Francisco Wednesday evening and drop our car off at SkyPark near the airport - turns out this is cheaper than getting a rental each way (only $45 per week). Our flight on EVA Air departs SFO for Taiwan at 1 AM - a fourteen hour flight! A late meal on board, then we try to get some sleep - flying through the dark - it makes for a long night! Good time to catch up on all those movies we never got around to seeing: Skyfall, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook. I think I see more movies on airplanes than I do in theaters.
We cross the international dateline and get into Taipei at 6 AM Friday morning, so today is now tomorrow! A quick flight change and we are on our way to Rangoon. Do I call it Rangoon or Yangon? They say Rangoon is the "corrupted" colonial name for Yangon - I guess I should call it Yangon while we're here. What did the president call it when he came here with Hillary Clinton three months ago?
I sent our passports off to the Myanmar (Burma) embassy in Washington, DC about six weeks ago to request visas for us all. I'd tried to do this online but the "official" website was "temporarily unavailable due to beta testing". The application form was a bit wordy but I couldn't complain - just $20 and we got them back in less than a week.
Yikes! The weather report says it's hot (90's) and humid! Luckily the monsoon season doesn't start until mid-April!
By the way, G-Adventures sent me an email only a few hours before we left, advising us of a last minute change to our meeting-point hotel. It's the Thamada. I didn't have time to look it up but you can if you'd like: http://www.thamadahotel.com/. I hope it has A/C!
So I've been poring over my Lonely Planet guide for the past hour. (Brandon says it's already out-of-date, 2011 - I'll have to complain to the library!) It looks like the hotel is close to the central tourist area, if there is one! We'll catch a taxi to the hotel, then try to unwind and take it easy on our first day.
I'm making a short list of sights to see in Yangon. We don't meet up with our tour group until Saturday at 6 PM, and then we head off the next day, so we're on our own if we want to see anything here. My short list includes several pagodas, including the "must-see" Shwedagon Paya. I'd also like to take in a walking tour of the central area - this country has been closed off to tourism for so long, I'm thinking we may see some colonial era sights. I'll know soon enough!
March 23, 2013: Martial Law declared!
Our first day here has been like traveling back in time to an earlier era. As I've mentioned before, Burma had a very controlling military dictatorship until only two years ago, and only since then have any foreigners been allowed into the country. And it's clear the transition to civilian rule has been difficult.
We spent the first day on our own, wandering the central streets of the former colonial capital, marveling at the widespread remnants of British rule. In the center of the city we saw broad avenues lined with decrepit colonial-era buildings reminiscent of faded elegance, with signage apparently unmodified since independence, and sporting quaintly dated titles such as "Custom House" and "Government Telegraph Office."
We saw the contradictory sight of right-hand drive vehicles being driven on the right side of the roads. Apparently the military government many years ago ordered the change from driving on the left to driving on the right in an attempt to reinforce the country's break from it's colonial past. However, with the imposition of economic sanctions by western economic powers, only black market right-hand drive vehicles from nearby China fill the streets.
The Schwedagon Pagoda, an enormous gold and glass structure that is at least 2500 years old in its various iterations, dominates the skyline.
This first evening, we met with our tour group leader, Steve, who gave us a run-through of what to expect, then capped it by telling us that martial law had been declared this morning in an area of the country that's on our itinerary. More to come on that.
After the meeting we had our first group dinner at the Monsoon, a restaurant located across from the waterfront and adjacent to The Strand - both were throwbacks to colonial times with large rotating overhead fans.
March 24, 2013: the pilgrimage
Our first full day, we are on the road after a light breakfast of pork noodle soup. There are sixteen in our group plus Steve, our tour leader, an expatriate Aussie who normally lives in Bangkok. In addition to the five members of the Rose family, there is a Danish couple, Lotta and Mogins, with their 17 year old daughter, Sara; two young couples from the UK, Carol and David, and Lisa and Daniel; a young expatriate Canadian woman, Rachel, who has a diplomatic posting in Delhi; and two older single women, Lynn, a physician from Sidney, and Giselle, from Germany.
Our first and only stop before departing Yangon is the Schwedagon Paya (pagoda) the most holy Buddhist shrine in the country. According to Steve, every Buddhist in Burma aspires to make a pilgrimage either to this ancient 2500 year old enormous golden pagoda, or the Golden Rock, our next stop. Throngs of Burmese crowd the plaza at its base, accompanied by the constant inescapable chanting of a monk broadcasting from strategically located loudspeakers.
It's a four hour bus ride to Kinpun with a brief lunch stop in the small town of Bago. At Kinpun, the "base camp" (Steve's words) for Mt. Kyaikto, we encounter one of the strangest modes of transportation I've ever encountered: a huge two ton open-air flatbed truck with rows of narrow slats across the rear bed, onto which at least forty or more "pilgrims" are crammed like canned sardines. It's a rip-roaring high speed wild ride up the side of the mountain, taking a dozen hairpin curves at high speed. Getting ejected as I hang on for dear life is a genuine possibility, and I'm reminded of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland!
The final stretch is a forty-five minute steep hike straight up the side of the mountain. As I drip with sweat, I spot Christopher laying on a canvas litter, being hauled up by four very strong young men who are also perspiring profusely!
We watch the sun setting over the Golden Rock, an enormous boulder painted gold with a pagoda rising above it, as pilgrims crowd for position to touch the rock and paste pieces of gold leaf to the base. As darkness falls, I see the broad plaza beneath the rock is flooded with pilgrims hunkering down for the night in their sleep sheets. The rock is bathed in an eerie golden glow and there is a carnival-like atmosphere with vendors hawking all kinds of religious and secular memorabilia, and monks floating around in their priestly, orange robes. It is another of those surreal sights that simply seem fantastical.
We stay overnight in a Spartan hotel located a short walking distance from the rock, falling asleep to the continuous drone of a chanting monk projected everywhere within earshot.
March 25, 2013: The Road to Mandalay
Up at dawn, we quickly eat and start our hike back down. What was an exhausting 45 minutes uphill is an easy 20 minutes downhill. Another roller coaster of a ride back to Kinpun and we are on the bus. Steve tells us our flight to Mandalay is at 3 PM but he explains that the airline is unreliable - on the last tour, the flight departed without warning two hours early, and the entire group was left behind! So he has decided to forgo our planned stop in Bago to ensure we get to the airport extra early.
On the outskirts of Yangon, we make a brief stop at the massive Taukkyan war cemetery in which more than 6,000 British, Canadian and Australian solders who died here during the war are buried. Stretching nearly as far as the eye can see are row after row of graves, each commemorated with a plaque upon which they are remembered by their loved ones. I am saddened to see that so many of the dates are only a few months prior to the war's end. Steve explains that the battle fought here was one of the most vicious of the war but ultimately led to the defeat of the Japanese occupation forces.
It's just past one when we get to the airport and Steve is clearly relieved that our flight has not left without us. After enduring a primitive check-in process (no computer here - tiny rectangular stickers with seat numbers are affixed by hand to our boarding passes), we lounge around the boarding gate waiting for our flight. While I'm waiting, I spot what may be the only ATM in Burma. And guess what? It works! I risk having my debit card chewed up, but ultimately I retrieve 250,000 kyats (pronounced chats) in cash! I am a wealthy man! (If you want to know how much this is, you can go to http://www.xe.com/).
We board a tiny turboprop and squeeze into our cramped seats. After a lot of bouncing and noise we are airborne. A light box lunch is provided consisting of a mystery sandwich and a roll filled with unidentifiable green jelly. The plane suddenly lands and several passengers step out on the tarmac while several others join us, then another bumpy take-off. Suddenly Katie turns white. Airbags appear just in time as she loses her lunch. Twenty minutes later we are relieved to be back on the ground.
As we make our way to our hotel, we see that Mandalay is hot, dusty and dry. But our hotel is like an oasis - nearly new - so we crank up the a/c and unwind in our rooms (http://www.ayarwaddyriverviewhotel.com/). Later in the evening it's short walk to a nearby restaurant overlooking the Ayarwaddy River where we have dinner.
March 26, 2013: The sound of a screeching rooster!
After an excellent buffet breakfast (omelettes, fresh watermelon and papaya, crepes, etc.) Steve cautions that it's going to be a busy day, and very hot (100+).
Our first stop is the teak footbridge at Amarapura (‘world's longest' according to Lonely Planet), where I am closely tailed by a young souvenir hawker who refuses to take no for an answer. I finally lose him when I hire a guided rowboat to take Teresa and I back across the lake to the shore. The lake is only about three or four feet deep (during the dry season) and we pass beneath the criss-crossed teak poles of the bridge while admiring the many golden pagodas dotting the shoreline. Returning to shore, I find myself once again accosted by my "stalker hawker" - I finally scamper off to our bus and go hide inside until we leave.
We next see the thirty cave pagoda with its adjacent Buddhas stretching off into the distance along an enclosed semicircular walkway; then the Mahamuni pagoda which features the solid gold thirteen foot high Arakan Buddha, where devotees have plastered so much gold leaf against the base that it is layered several inches thick and is squishy to the touch.
Just before lunch we stop briefly at a small workshop in the Gold Pounders District, where I watch, transfixed, as a young man with a heavy mallet pounds a thin sliver of gold rhythmically into a layer of gold leaf. I am astonished to witness such a laborious and archaic endeavor.
After lunch at the Golden Duck, a Chinese restaurant not unlike those back home (an odd choice), we head over to the Golden Palace monastery, a pagoda built entirely of teak, originally gilded and part of the Mandalay Palace fortress, the royal city where the king resided. According to the story, when the king died, his successor was concerned that it was haunted by his spirit, so he had it relocated away from the palace grounds to serve as a monastery - the rest of the palace was completely destroyed in 1945.
We stop at the Kuthodaw pagoda which is surrounded by more than 700 marble-slabbed mini-pagodas sequentially engraved with the entire Triptaka, the Buddhist screed. Our last stop is Mandalay Hill, a geographic landmark that overlooks the city. We patiently wait for the sun to set but leave disappointed when a low-lying cloud cover drifts overhead.
We've bought tickets for an evening dance performance at the Mintha Theater and while we are unwinding with drinks at an adjacent restaurant, Christopher heads to the restroom then suddenly emerges shouting for help! "An old man has fallen and hit his head... he's bleeding!" I run over to help - he's an elderly man of about 80, part of another tour group - he's fainted from dehydration and hit his head on the sharp tile edge of the stall - he's now conscious but has a two inch gash above his forehead and is bleeding profusely. Someone shouts to call an ambulance. But there are no ambulances here and no hospitals. We lay him on a cot and try to stop the bleeding. I feel his face and chest - he feels like an inferno - he is confused and wants to go back to his hotel. "You have a huge gash and you need stitches", I tell him. He needs a hospital, I think, but he's in no distress or immediate danger, so his tour leader agrees to take him to a local medical clinic for treatment.
The dance performance is somewhat anticlimactic, mediocre by western standards, but certainly a valiant effort to preserve the local culture. The six man mini-orchestra with it's array of odd musical instruments is actually more entertaining than the dancers. One man plays the hneh - it kind of looks like an oboe but it sounds like a screeching rooster!
March 27, 2013: an alternate plan
I'm finally able to get online and read the news reports - apparently the disturbances are getting worse. I check our itinerary and see that we'll be passing through the affected area in about three days time. Steve tells us that he has been in contact with the G-Adventures regional office and a decision has been made to forgo the planned eight hour bus trip and avoid the area entirely by flying over it. He tells us that the government has authorized a special reduced airfare for safety reasons - it's an extra $60 each but the planned itinerary is too risky. Truth is, I hadn't really been looking forward to an eight hour bus ride on a twisting gravel road - I suppose a one hour flight on a hot, bumpy, cramped turboprop beats being attacked by an angry mob - think India! Steve assures us it's the only sensible solution.
We board a small boat that takes about half an hour to ferry us to the village of Mingun where we disembark to view the unfinished pagoda of King Bodawpaya who died in 1819. It looks like a large pile of bricks with two huge vertical fissures along the exterior (from an earthquake in 1838). There is another pagoda nearby, Hsinbyume, and we climb to the top to catch the stunning panorama of palm trees and pagodas.
Although the afternoon heat is oppressive, Steve tells us there is a market that's a 45 minute walk. We find it easily - it's bustling and we try to take it all in - we buy a few snacks for our ferry ride tomorrow. After a beer break we can't find a taxi to take us back to the hotel and end up walking- we are hot and sweaty when we return.
In the evening, Brandon and I decide to take in the Mandalay Marionettes - it's an ancient art form and is especially compelling when the rear curtain rises to reveal the puppeteers. But the most exciting part of the evening is getting there via motorcycle taxi - a hair-raising, helmetless ride through the dark streets of Mandalay.
March 28, 2013: the ferry
Up early, we are at the dock by 6:30 AM, boarding a somewhat battered looking riverboat, consisting of a lower deck with airplane-like rows of seats, and an upper deck with an enclosed restaurant and exterior deck for watching the scenery pass by. Steve tells us the trip from Mandalay to Bagan will be a leisurely twelve hours unless we get hung up on a sandbar, in which case it could be longer.
It is relatively cool in the early part of the day and most passengers are up top, but as it gets warmer they gravitate down below for some heat protection. (No a/c though!) As I'm sitting in the front of the cabin reading, I look up and realize that one of the crew is using a long pole to prod the riverbed below trying to determine how deep it is - not much more than five feet I guess. I go back to reading when suddenly there is a scraping sound and the boat lurches to a halt! There is a flurry of activity as the crew scrambles to free the boat, without success.
A few minutes later Teresa comes by and tells me they want all the men to get off the boat! I think she's kidding, but no, they are serious, so I grab my book and camera and step into a small life boat, along with about twenty other guys.
As we float off, Teresa takes pictures and the women wave goodbye! The life boat stops at a tiny village on the shore and we watch from afar as the crew tries to float the riverboat. I look around - not much to see - definitely authentic. The surprised villagers gawk at us at first, then go about their business. It is hot with little shade and worse yet, no beer!
About ninety minutes later we get back on the life boat and return to the still grounded ferry. A tugboat finally shows up, pulls us off the sandbar, and we are on our way.
We have a late lunch that is pretty good. I notice that many passengers down below have stretched out to catch some sleep - there are plenty of empty seats.
The remainder of the journey is uneventful and we sit out on the upper deck after dark until we pull into Bagan about 8:30 PM.
March 29, 2013: the Black Bamboo
Lots of temples on tap for today - the plan is to hit seven of the best known - five before noon, followed by a lunch break - then two more in the late afternoon, then watch the sun set over this flat, dry, dusty plain. Steve says it rarely rains here - the ground is parched and just walking kicks up clouds of fine dust.
Our hotel is a far cry from the upscale job in Mandalay - a cramped room with two twin beds - a TV - no furniture, no chairs. On the upside, it has a weak but functional air conditioning unit.
The collection of archaeological ruins here easily rivals that of Angkor Wat - I'm amazed I've never heard of Bagan - but then this country has been closed to the outside world for years. Let me correct myself - technically they are not ruins since they are not abandoned - they are still in use as Buddhist shrines.
In relatively rapid succession, we stop at Pyathada, Sulamani, Dhammayangyi, Kubyaukgyi and Manutha. Each temple is similarly constructed, pagoda-style and apparently all were built between about 1100 and 1300. Each is magnificent in its own right.
There are a number of vendors selling sand paintings in front of the temples, and we watch as one artist demonstrates the process - sand is finely mixed into a white shellac-like compound, then painted with a brush over a cotton canvas. After drying, the artist paints the scene creating a 3D-like effect, or as Teresa puts it, "like an Elvis-on-velvet painting!". Brandon and I examine the paintings closely. They are certainly authentic although they have a somewhat kitchy feel. I am slightly put off by Teresa's comment but I overcome my hesitation and buy two - one is the pagoda at Htilominlo, and the other, the pagoda at Ananda.
For lunch, Steve recommends the Black Bamboo Restaurant, a short walk from our hotel. We are impressed! It is clean with outdoor bamboo seating under a thatched canopy and twirling ceiling fans - and it has an appealing colonial flavor.
We are to meet in the hotel lobby at 3:30 PM to continue our pagoda excursion - two more temples - I realize they are the two in my paintings and I'm looking forward to seeing them close up. I'm feeling a bit light-headed and since we have at least another hour, I drink some water and lay down in our room. When it's time to head off, I'm feeling a bit dizzy but I forge on, assuming this will pass when I get moving.
We stop at Htilominlo - it is truly magnificent and I am delighted I bought the painting. But I'm feeling worse, kind of weak, and I need to repeatedly sit down while our guide is speaking. Back on the bus I suddenly take a turn for the worse and I think I may be sick. Brandon is also feeling sick though he has been complaining of nausea since early this morning. He suddenly hollers for a plastic bag and we scramble to provide several just in time - he retches and is white as a ghost! Steve offers to have the driver take us back to the hotel - I really want to see Ananda but I'm thinking the better of it - and no sooner does the rest of the group leave the bus than I grab a bag and I'm done for!
Back at the hotel I start to get chills and finally realize I've eaten some bad food. I spend the rest of the evening in bed, too sick to move, and I'm only vaguely aware of Teresa coming and going for dinner. But when she returns later she tells me that three others in our group are also sick from eating at the same restaurant!
March 30, 2013: nats!
I'm up just after 5 AM, a bit weak but otherwise OK and ready to roll. Other than tea and dry toast I pass on breakfast - at 7:30 we are on the road to Mount Popa. In our original itinerary, Mount Popa was to be the first stop on our eight hour drive to Kalaw, but since we'll be flying, Steve is offering this as an optional side trip.
He explains that the Burmese are a highly superstitious people who revere and honor the "nat". Nat are spirit beings and apparently there are thousands of them. According to Lonely Planet Burma 2011: "nats... hold dominion over a place (natural or human-made), person, or field of experience." There are thirty-seven "officially" recognized nats that date back to the eleventh century, and at the base of the mountain is the shrine in which the figures of all thirty-seven of these nats are displayed, presumably as they appeared when they were still human. (I should note that many of the nats are the spiritual remains, so to speak, of a real person who once lived.)
Along the way we stop at a family run palm sugar farm and get a short tour. A young boy demonstrates the art of quickly ascending a palm tree to retrieve coconuts, then several tribal women demonstrate how the syrup from the tree is converted into chunks of palm sugar - some of it is also used to make palm beer - then we are shown a large but primitive still where it is also converted to moonshine. A few brave souls throw back several shots and appear momentarily stunned - "must be hundred proof" says one!
As we get nearer, Mt. Popa magically appears like a mountaintop chateau.
We gingerly enter the shrine at its base to view the display of the thirty-seven nats - it's a long row of life-like full-size figurines with elaborate features. In addition to the thirty-seven, we also take in the nat vision of Mae Wunna, the "Queen Mother" of Popa. As a general rule we are advised that it's best to stay on the good side of nats because otherwise they can wreak havoc on your life! (If I recall correctly, the tour group in Saving Fish From Drowning first got into trouble when one of the main characters inadvertently offended a nat by peeing onto a shrine reminiscent of a urinal.)
We hike 777 steps past aggressive monkeys looking for food and vendors selling little cones of corn seed to feed them, finally arriving at the peak in about thirty minutes to find, what else, several more Buddha shrines - none are especially impressive!
Later, the five of us find an Italian restaurant where we hope we can have some safe, well-cooked food, i.e., pizza. It is wood-fired, remarkably good and very authentic. For obvious reasons I order a vegetarian pizza with cheese, mushrooms and aubergines. (Look that one up!)
Brandon and several others make their way to a nearby hotel that apparently caters to (and is possibly owned by) the military, and for only five dollars they buy admission to the pool area. I choose to stay back at our hotel to rest and recover - I'm still feeling a little shaky from yesterday's culinary adventure.
March 31, 2013: after the flyover
By 7 AM we are boarding our flight to Heho airport by Inle Lake. It's uneventful compared to our last fight and for this we are grateful! With only one stop enroute, we cover in less than forty five minutes what would have taken eight hours by bus! I'll concede that it's anticlimactic, i.e., no danger!
As soon as we are off the plane and have our bags, Steve is loading us onto another bus, we meet our next local guide, and we are off to Pindaya.
The single lane road takes us through some serious farmland, but it's a slow go - the bus crawls along the shoulder past villagers who are patching the road by hand using tar pitch and hand-sifted gravel on hands and knees to repair the road. It's shocking to see such labor intensive work. Steve explains that they do this to protect the road which will otherwise turn into muck during the rainy season - we stop several times to pay small tolls to support their effort.
At Pindaya, the shrine complex rises above the horizon and as we approach we see a giant spider hanging over the main entrance - apparently it's the symbol of this town - I take a few photos of Christopher (who hates spiders) with his head in the spider's mouth.
Virtually the entire shrine is inside the mountain. There are literally thousands and thousands and thousands of Buddha's lining the walls and walkways inside the cavernous interior. I spot several natural formations of huge limestone floor-to-ceiling stalactites.
We crawl on hands and knees through a three foot gap in a wall and emerge into a claustrophobic cavern, a "meditation cave" with a ceiling that is no more than about four feet high with a tiny shrine in front. There are several chambers that branch off from the main walkway and we transition from a cool chamber into a humid chamber whose walls and tiled walkway are slimy with condensation. We are barefoot and our soles are black when we finally emerge.
It's early afternoon when we get to our hotel (actually a motel) just off a dirt road on the edge of Kalaw. Steve points to a collapsing building on the other side of the road, says it's our hotel, then hesitates long enough that in horror, we start to believe him, until he finally laughs!
After unloading our stuff we follow the dirt road on foot about twenty minutes into the market at the center of town. We've been told that Kalaw is the site of a former British military installation, and we see many former colonial homes, some very large - apparently they are used by high ranking military as a summer retreat.
Steve has made a reservation for dinner at the Seven Sisters (his favorite restaurant), where we will have an array of authentic Shan dishes to choose from, as well as other regional items.
April 1, 2013: a longy day
Early in the morning we head for the hills just above Kalaw. Steve cautions us to expect a moderately strenuous trek, perhaps 10 K, with two stops, the first at a Danu village and the second at a Palaung village. While it's still cool the hiking is relatively easy and we chat and take in the vistas. The land is heavily cultivated and I'm especially impressed by the neat rows of cabbage stretching into the distance. Steve points out some plants that are suspiciously reminiscent of pot but he assures me it is green tea.
We pass through one very small village but there is no one to be seen - probably all out in the fields says Steve. A little further on we come across another somewhat larger village where the inhabitants are very busy laying tea leaves out in the sun to dry on woven bamboo mats. I watch closely as one older woman arranges the leaves, moving them around to form a single layer- apparently the drying takes about three days and then the tea will be packaged and sent off for sale.
We are served green tea and dried chick-peas and are shown a display of tribal garb including vests and shirts in tribal colors as well as some odd-looking tribal hats.
When we resume our hike it's late morning and definitely warming up. We are still proceeding uphill and I imagine that we have a long way to go - but when we round the next bend, there's our bus! Good timing!
On the way back we are dropped off at the market but before we split up, Teresa, the party planner, hastily makes a plan for a longy party - everyone who has bought a longy agrees to wear it this evening for dinner. We've come to appreciate that the longy, an ankle length skirt worn by both men and women, is the national dress - nearly everyone wears one - the only difference is the men's version is rather staid, subdued mostly plaid designs, whereas the women's are somewhat more flamboyant. It's basically a fabric tube in which you insert your legs and it's held up by knotting the extra fabric around your waist. On your upper torso you wear either a t-shirt, blouse or dress shirt.
We take a few hours to rest and relax - there is free wi-fi and we take advantage of it - Internet access has been hard to come by. About 6 PM, everyone emerges from their rooms wearing various types of traditional Burmese garb. All six men plus Steve are wearing their longys and many photos are taken - first the men and then the women, then both. I'm surprised that the longy is so comfortable, especially in the heat, but I discover that walking without stumbling is a major challenge. When we first arrived, I'd thought it odd that all the men wear wearing these skirts, but after seeing it every day it now seems perfectly normal. I guess it all has to do with cultural expectations.
April 2, 2013: wine country?
We're on the road again for about two hours, departing Kalaw then backtracking, passing Hiho airport along the way. We stop at what looks like a small roadside stand operated by several Shan locals who are creating translucent paper panels from tree bark, which they are then using to make Shan parasols and lanterns. The process involves grinding the tree bark for several hours into a pulpy mass then spreading it on an underwater cotton canvas, removing the canvas and allowing it to dry in the sun. We also watch closely as a young man deftly cuts pieces of bamboo to create the spokes of a retractable parasol - no machinery involved and no metal parts - just strips of bamboo held together mechanically - very ingenious.
We check in to our hotel at Nyang-shwe, a bustling village at the north end of Inle Lake. We have some extra time, so Teresa, Katie, Christopher and myself, accompanied by Rachel, walk over to the Win Nyunt Traditional Burmese family massage parlor where we are poked, prodded, pounded, slathered with sesame oil, and stretched for over an hour. We are walked on and have our butts kicked - and for this we are paying good money - what a treat!
At 3 PM we board two tuk-tuks for a tour of a local winery, Red Mountain Estates. (Actually it's the only winery!) The winery seems incongruous with its surroundings - apparently it was started in 2002 and had its first release in 2008. It's an unusual endeavor started by a French investor, and it has struggled to overcome economic sanctions for the past several years. We sample several wines including a Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Shiraz and a Rosé while munching on locally produced white cheddar - it's all quite good! We are also fortunate to meet the French wine master who has been involved with the winery since its inception and he explains the wine-making process.
Our last stop of the day is the Golden Kite pizza and pasta restaurant - I am quite happy to eat pizza again - at least I know it's fully cooked - and it's pretty good! I mean really, pizza in Burma?
April 3, 2013: your name here
Steve tells us to bring hats and sunscreen today - we will be on the watery expanse of Inle Lake for almost the entire day. Our mode of transport resembles an extended canoe except it has five wooden chairs lined in a row and is propelled by a large engine in the rear from which a seven foot shaft protrudes horizontally, and at the end is a propeller in the water. Our boatman cranks the engine by hand to start it - it sputters then roars to life - conversation becomes impossible. Steve has commandeered four of these contraptions and as we set off, I pull my straw cowboy hat that I just purchased for 3000 kyats onto my head - Teresa has a good laugh!
We head across the lake - it's about 13 miles long and 7 miles wide but is pear-shaped and gets narrower as we move south. We chug along for about half an hour then enter what appears to be a canal - but it's not. In either direction are floating "gardens", although they are so expansive the word "garden" does not do it justice. I see rows and rows of tomatoes being tended to by Intha farmers from their boats. Ten foot stakes spaced about ten feet apart secure the garden so that it cannot float away. The crops are planted on top of a layer of floating seaweed and compacted dirt and get nutrients from the water. If it didn't appear so primitive one would think that it was some kind of high-tech farm of the future.
We continue to the far end of the lake and then pass through a canal surrounded by dense foliage until we arrive at the village of Indain. We disembark and walk along the river's edge then uphill to the ruins of Nyaung Ohak where we see hundreds of crumbling stupas, small pagoda-temples, tightly clustered over several acres. These really are ruins - they are not in use - no restoration - built in the sixteenth century they have fallen victim to wars and insurrections. Steven tells us the army ransacked the site several years ago looking for gold and other valuables. A handful appear to have been recently restored - our local guide tells us that for about $200 for the smaller ones or $1000 for the larger, you can donate to have one of these stupas restored and a plaque with your name will be affixed to it permanently. (Just like the star registry!) I wander around examining the various stupas and finally settle on one, but before I can put my money down, Steve ushers us off and my plan is history.
We chug back down the canal and stop at a small restaurant that is raised on ten foot stilts - Steve explains that the lake level rises at least six or seven feet during the rainy season.
After lunch we stop at two more villages: the first is In Phaw Khone where we enter a building in which a number of looms are being manually-operated - but what is unusual is that the fabric being created is made of lotus silk. We watch as fine fibers are removed from the inner bark of lotus branches before being woven into thread for the looms.
The second stop is the floating village of Nampan - the entire village hovers above the water on stilts. The specialty item produced here is "cheroots", i.e., small cigars wrapped by young women by hand using tobacco sent from Bagan. It seems like an odd specialty item and I wonder where their market is - we haven't seen much tobacco use here.
Another thirty minutes back across the lake, then a short walk and we are back at the hotel. Steve tells us he's going to go scout out a restaurant and we are to meet him for dinner at 7. Katie, Teresa, Sara and Rachel disappear in search of the perfect pedicure.
April 4, 2013: last day
It takes about forty five minutes to get back to the airport at Heho. We are checked in quickly - I've really come to appreciate what a great organizer Steve is - virtually every aspect of our tour has fallen into place seamlessly thanks to his efforts.
We board another noisy turboprop and in less than an hour we are back in Yangon. Almost immediately another bus arrives to take us back to our starting point hotel. The afternoon is free Steve tells us, but he is planning a farewell dinner and we are to meet at 6:30 to walk over to the restaurant. He tells us that dinner will be provided courtesy of G-Adventures and we'll only be paying for our drinks.
Our family gathers in our hotel room to discuss our plans for our last day and also to review tomorrow's departure schedule. Our first stop will be the Suzuki restaurant for lunch where we'd eaten nearly two weeks ago - I can't believe the time has flown by so quickly! Rachel joins us for the afternoon and after lunch we hunt down a money exchange - she has way too much kyat left. Teresa and I have counted what remains of our local currency - only $50 - so we decide to hold on to it for now.
We spend about an hour or so wandering through the Bogyoke Aung San market - we'd stopped here briefly on our first day - we need to pick up some last minute items and to make sure we haven't missed anything.
Katie and Rachel want to have their palms read so we head down Sule Paya road to the Sule pagoda where we'd spotted a cluster of palm readers at the base of the pagoda. It's almost 4 and after hanging out for a few minutes while Katie's palm is read and her future is foretold, I head off to find an Internet café to get us checked in for our morning flights. After a false start, I find a place with a printer and check us in to Air Asia, then print our boarding passes for our 8:30 flight tomorrow morning.
Christopher also leaves for home tomorrow morning on an 11:35 flight via EVA Air - as I prepare to check him in online I'm feeling a bit sad that he cannot continue traveling with us. But my sentimental moment passes quickly when I log in - I'm shocked to find that not only has his flight departure time been changed to 10:50 but the flight has been switched to China Airlines! I quickly check my emails to see if I've overlooked any notices from the airline but there is nothing. I can't check him in now because I don't have the booking code for China Airlines - I finally give up trying - he will need to get to the airport extra early to check in tomorrow.
I rush back to the hotel - it's already past 6 - no time for a shower before dinner -the heat has been oppressive today and I'm covered in sweat - I quickly wipe myself down with a damp towel - it will have to do.
We accompany Steve for several minutes until he leads us up an obscure, unmarked concrete stairway - we enter to find a tiny, brightly decorated restaurant with several tables arranged in a semi-circle to seat us - it literally fills the entire interior space of the restaurant.
The owner has prepared the entire meal himself and emerges from the rear to greet us as dinner is winding down. As we wrap up, Teresa says she has a few words to say and it is quiet as she thanks Steve for a great trip and everyone else for being such good travel companions.
Back at the hotel we bid farewell to our fellow travelers - we'll be leaving for the airport at 6 AM and don't expect to see them again. But then Steve says he'll be at the bar and invites everyone to join him for a last drink together. We still need to pack, at least an hour - it's getting late - we hope he'll still be there when we're done.
When we return an hour later most of the group is still there with Steve. We spend about thirty minutes chatting then say goodbye to everyone once again and head to our rooms. We'll be up at 5 AM and it's already after 11!
April 5, 2013: on the move
I open my eyes - it is 5:22 AM - damn! My alarm didn't go off! I rush like crazy to get cleaned up and I'm about to run out of my room at 5:40 when the phone rings - it's Steve - we are sharing a taxi to the airport and he's wondering where we are.
Down in the lobby restaurant I throw back a cup of coffee and a slice of toast, and at 6 we hustle into our taxis. I'm sure we've allowed plenty of time but with international flights you never know - best to play it safe!
The airport is bustling as we are dropped off at 6:35 and make our way to the Air Asia check-in counter. We make it through security without incident and meet up again with Steve one last time at the gate - his flight is leaving from the gate next to ours. We laugh and joke and he tells us he's on his way to Manila to do a sixteen day adventure tour in the Philippines - he's meeting his next group tonight at 6 PM - no break for him!
His flight is called and it's tough to say goodbye for the last time - we thank him for such a great experience and I feel a twinge of sadness as he heads off. What a nice person, I think to myself.
Moments later, boarding for our flight is announced and we are off to Kuala Lumpur. I've sent an email to our host, Walter, who owns Jawadene B&B, to let him know we're on our way.
I call Walter from the terminal in Kuala Lumpur: "Take the purple bus out front to the Salat Tinggi station and I'll meet you there." Thirty minutes later he is driving us to his palatial home that doubles as his B&B.
We relax and unwind, lounging by the pool sipping Tiger beer. "It's a vacation from our vacation!" says Teresa. We wallow in the warm water - the sky is overcast with the rumbling of thunder in the distance - it's so humid the air feels thick!
Around 7 PM Walter lays out our dinner spread, tandoori chicken with naan and dal - it's been prepared offsite but is delicious nonetheless - afterward we avail ourselves of the high speed wireless Internet - but by 10 PM everyone is sawing logs. It's been a very long day. Off to Kathmandu tomorrow!
April 6, 2013: an angry kook stomps my foot
After an American-style breakfast of pancakes and sausages, Walter drives us back to the station - it's been a nice break but now it's back to business!
We are surprised to board an Airbus 320 - it's like riding in a Rolls compared to our Yugo turboprop! By noon we are on our way to Kathmandu.
The flight is uneventful and when we arrive we get into line at the visa-on-arrival desk. A group of three twenty or thirty somethings are in front of us, but when they get to the front of the line they have no Euros or US$ to pay for their visas and they have a heated discussion amongst themselves about what to do. They finally step aside and we are beckoned forward by the visa officer who reviews our paperwork and collects our fees. An immigration officer requests my passport and just as I am handing it to him, a guy elbows his way in front of me and demands to know why I cut in front of him - I realize that he's one of the three who had stepped out of the line. I'm taken aback and quickly apologize - "I'm sorry I didn't know you were still in line." This guy then starts shouting at me - then suddenly he angrily stomps on my right foot! "That's for stepping on MY foot!" he shouts.
Oh-oh, this guy's a kook - but he continues to yell at me - and I finally tell him to knock it off! Everyone around us is staring, including the immigration officials. I'd like to smack him but Teresa and Brandon pull me aside. This lunatic won't stop ranting and suddenly he accuses me of shoving his girlfriend. "That's a lie!" shouts Teresa, who had been chatting with his girlfriend just moments before he began his tirade. My rational inner voice is telling me to let it go - this guy is totally nuts! The immigration officer finally hands me my passport and visa, then advises me to go have a seat. Clearly he wants to separate me from this guy. I do, but I'm fuming.
When we get to the baggage carousel, this jerk and his girlfriend are there - I try to keep my distance. Fortunately, by the time we get our bags (thankfully) he is gone. Exiting customs we are all upset - Teresa is shaking and Katie is teary-eyed - I quickly arrange a taxi - I'm anxious to get out of here.
We are able to calm down on our way to our hotel. We talk about it - we've never encountered anything like this before in our travels. I recall my admonitions to others: Stay clear of crazy people, they're unpredictable! I hope I don't run into this guy again, I think to myself.
Our hotel is authentic and well-appointed. There is a note at the front desk from our G-Adventures tour leader welcoming us. Brandon and I step outside to find a money exchange - we'd left the airport in a hurry and hadn't gotten any local currency.
That evening we have drinks and dinner on the hotel terrace. The food is so-so but it's much easier than searching the streets for a place to eat.
I'm still feeling somewhat frazzled when I turn in early for the evening - tomorrow will be better I tell myself, I'm sure of it.
April 7, 2013: a treasure hunt
We have a full day to ourselves today - the first group meeting is not until 6 PM this evening. I review our itinerary for the next 10 days and see that it does not include a tour of Kathmandu itself, so I choose two self-guided walking tours from our Lonely Planet Nepal guide. I'm not sure if a tour of Durbar Square is included in our group itinerary - it's the former royal palace in the center of Kathmandu. If not, we can plan on seeing it when we return to Kathmandu later on.
As we head toward Thamel, the backpacker district at the center of Kathmandu, I notice that the streets are devoid of vehicles. Turns out that the political opposition has called for a one day general strike, evidently a common occurrence here - this proves to be advantageous as we wind our way through the narrow streets filled mainly with pedestrians. Passing through Thamel, many of the shops are closed due to the strike - not a problem for us since shopping is not on our agenda today.
The walking tours take about three hours to cover - we start in Thamel and slowly work our way south. It's like a treasure hunt - many of the temples, stupas and shrines are hidden from view in various nooks and crannies and require an effort to be found. Some are obscure and not well-maintained despite their cultural and historical significance. On close examination, we find intricate wood and stone carvings as well as detailed artwork. Passing through tiny doorways and concealed alleys that are nearly invisible we are discover elaborate multi-level tiered pagodas in hidden courtyards .
By the time we are done navigating the two tours it's early afternoon and time for lunch. We stop at Fire and Ice, a pizza restaurant recommended to us by Rachel when we were in Burma. The weather here is mercifully cooler, probably mid-seventies - none of us has yet to break a sweat!
On our way back we stop at a corner grocery store and stock up on water, beer and snacks, then relax at the hotel until the group meeting.
The meeting is held on the hotel rooftop terrace where we meet Shyam ("Sam") our tour leader who reviews the upcoming itinerary. I count seven others besides ourselves, all younger women including Clem from the UK, Kate and Bridget from Germany, Katie from Holland, Claire from Switzerland, Gale from France and Lisa from Michigan. They all appear to be in their early twenties except for Lisa, a thirty something who has a diplomatic posting to Afghanistan with the State Department.
Introductions are made around the table and I laugh when I inform them I'm old enough to be their father. It's a far cry from the diverse group we traveled with in Burma. I wonder why they've chosen this tour - it's far shorter version than several of the other trekking itineraries.
April 8, 2013: eyes
Our mode of transport today is a Toyota minivan that comfortably seats 12. We pile in and head for our first destination, the Swayambhuvath temple that sits in the center of Kathmandu. As we approach, I can see its white dome and golden spire on a hilltop towering over the city. Three hundred sixty five steps later we have a magnificent vista, although I'm surprised at how much smog is obscuring the nearby mountains. It looks like an inversion layer similar to what we see back home - lots of smoke from fires and black diesel soot spewing from trucks - I guess they don't have an Air Resources Board!
What is most striking about the temple ( other than its elevated perch and golden spire) is the set of eyes facing all four directions ("God's all-seeing perspective") and the number 1 where the nose should be ("the sole path to enlightenment through Buddhism"). There are rows of Tibetan prayer flags extending in all directions from the spire. The temple is surrounded at its base by many smaller shrines as well as vendors. Teresa spots a large display of doorknobs that feature snakes, goddesses and various deities as part of their design, but in the end she settles for several rolls of prayer flags. Sam points out a "swimming pool" for the ubiquitous monkeys.
We head across the river to the adjoining city of Bhakatapur. After lunch we enter the palace square which is a hub of activities as the locals are preparing for a festival, with images of the eyes being painted all over. The area surrounding the square is filled with monuments, Hindu pagodas and shrines, built in the 1700's, most of which are constructed of wood and have intricate carved facades. We wander the side streets - there is an abundance of local art and several art schools.
Later in the afternoon, Sam asks if anyone is interested in an early morning flight to see Everest close up - Teresa, Katie and Brandon are in. He tells them and several others to meet him in the lobby at 5 AM. Sam also reviews the details of the upcoming trek. Tomorrow we will drive to Pokhara, about 200 km but it is a winding two lane road that will take about seven hours to traverse. Hmm...
April 9, 2013: Everest up close then on to Pokhara
Brandon, Katie and Teresa meet down in the lobby for the ride to the airport. I decide to pass on this - my previous experience with small airplanes that fly high and circle around landmarks has been less than stellar. When they return, they are chatting excitedly about the experience - Teresa promises to write about it for the blog. When she does I'll post it here.
The drive does, in fact, take seven long hours to cover 200 km - we proceed at a snail's pace, passing slow moving trucks on hairpin curves, though small villages - it's a relief to finally get to Pokhara around 4 PM. Sam tells us to repack our belongings - about 15 lbs per person - one pack each, so that the porters can carry our stuff when we start the trek in the morning. Each porter will carry a large duffel bag with two packs. We sort through our stuff, trying to figure out what we will need for the next four days.
We have some time before dinner so we head to the main strip that runs through the center of Pokhara - it's a relatively small alpine town with tons of small shops catering to backpackers and selling mostly counterfeit gear. The merchandise says North Face and Columbia, but it's just low end knock-offs.
April 10, 2013: the trek - day one - Ghandruk
The trailhead, if you can call it that, is at the village of Nayapool, about a ninety minute drive from Pokhara. It's difficult to tell where the village ends and the trail begins as we walk along a narrow road lined with shops and what appears to be homes, although they are nothing more than shacks with corrugated roofs.
We follow the road for at least an hour as it crosses two narrow bridges until eventually a trail branches away from the road. As we pass other "trekkers" i.e., backpackers (mostly Europeans), I begin to wonder why the infrastructure is so poor considering that this has been a very popular destination for more than twenty-five years. Where are all the tourist dollars going, I think. The local population does not appear to be impoverished though - I'm not seeing beggars everywhere like in India, and the people seem to be relatively healthy - but why are so many living in shacks?
We hike horizontally for about two hours - it's relatively easy - then we break for lunch at a teahouse. The trail is dotted with teahouses, or guest houses as they are also called. We sit at an outside table covered by a low canopy - after we place our orders we watch as a woman, the owner I assume, collects fresh vegetables from an adjacent garden for use in our meal.
After lunch the hike becomes much more rigorous, mostly uphill and often steep at times. We stop frequently to allow caravans of burros carrying supplies to pass, as well as to let wandering cattle to go by. Rule of thumb - when a very large animal blocks your path, even if it seems docile, it's better to stand aside and wait and see where it wants to go!
The trail is very well-worn and the steepest segments have steps, some created crudely with stones and some from poured concrete. We pass other teahouses along the way - they provide relatively primitive accommodations for backpackers I expect. We also pass many locals along the way who are tending to their business - mostly farming - a substantial amount of land next to the trail is cultivated.
After climbing steadily uphill for several exhausting hours we arrive at the mountain-top village of Ghandruk and are rewarded with a stunning view of the Annapurna South and Annapurna III peaks.
As expected, the accommodation is very basic - the guest house has a number of very small rooms with showers and toilets, although the showers are (ostensibly) heated by solar panels.
As the sun goes down over the mountain peaks, we gather to watch - the view is clear - no clouds. It's truly awe-inspiring! But as soon as the sun goes down, it gets very chilly and everyone pulls out long pants and fleece jackets - our porters had arrived much earlier with our belongings.
After dinner we admire the clear night sky - I spot the big dipper but it's upside down! (Duh... southern hemisphere!) There's not much to do so we turn in early.
As I lay in bed I consider the vast differences between what I'm experiencing now and what I experienced in Burma just last week. Burma has been closed to the outside world and is relatively untouched, a stranger to foreigners. On the other hand Nepal is a well-worn destination for tourists and backpackers, and the locals are inured to foreigners. Is this what the future holds for Burma, I wonder? It's disappointing to think it may be.
April 11, 2013: the trek day 2 - the hot springs and Landruk
Sam reviews the plan for today over breakfast - we'll cover about 12 km that should take about seven hours. Katie has not been feeling well for the past day or so - she's been coughing and having chills off and on - most likely a cold. We arrange for her to accompany the porters who will be taking a shorter route to Landruk, our next stop - only about three hours of hiking although that can be a lot when you're not at full strength.
We hit the trail after breakfast - Sam estimates about three to four hours to get to the hot springs at Jhina Danda - I hope there's a warm shower there - I tried to shower this morning but the water was so bone-chilling I couldn't do it! I'm sure I have at least five layers of dried sweat to wash off.
There's a lot of steep up and down hiking this morning. It's a slog going up - I'm perspiring profusely and it's still cool out - then it's down, down, down. Then up again. Then down again... etc.
By the time we get to Jhina Danda my calf muscles are aching. I don my swimsuit and stand under a warm stream of water - relief! Several locals are soaping up so I pull out a small bar of soap and join in - what I thought was a tan quickly washes away!
We lounge in the hot pools for nearly an hour. An adjacent icy stream draws several members of our group who plunge in Swedish-style, then back into the hot pool.
After lunch we forge on - Sam warns us it's going to be tough - at least three more hours, mostly uphill, until we reach our destination, the village of Landruk. Despite several rest breaks, by the time we get there my legs are throbbing, the beneficial effect of the hot pool long gone.
Katie has been here since early afternoon, mainly resting to regain her strength - she admits that even the shortened hike was very hard on her - hopefully she'll be feeling better tomorrow.
This guest house is quaint but also primitive - Teresa takes a shower and reports that the water, while not icy, is still pretty chilly. Although it's late afternoon, the air is still warm so we relax in the sun until dinner.
April 12, 2013: trekking day 3 - Dhampus
My calf muscles are suffering as I swing my legs out of bed this morning - I say a quick prayer as I down a couple of ibuprofen tablets. Over breakfast, Sam assures us that today's hike will be much less onerous - can I believe him? Only eight to nine kilometers over about five hours!
I'm thankful I only signed us up for the three day trek rather than the ten day trek or longer - we've met other hikers who are doing the entire Annapurna Circuit - three weeks of daily hiking while staying in guest houses (with no hot water) every night! I'm not convinced that traipsing up and down mountain trails for days on end is an especially efficacious use of one's time and energy - self-abuse is not my cup of tea!
Around 3 PM we arrive at the teahouse where we will spend our final night beneath the Annapurna range. Today proved to be much easier (as promised) although I suspect it will be several days before the aching in my calves subsides.
It's a relaxing afternoon - an opportunity to take in and fully appreciate our surroundings. Sam has also arranged a cooking class later on - we will be shown how to make mo-mo's - a popular Nepalese specialty item that kind of resembles a perogy. Afterward we will enjoy a special dinner exclusively featuring Nepalese cuisine - so far I've been unimpressed with the local fare - it's generally been quite bland. But our dinner proves to be quite good, probably the best local fare we've had.
After dinner our porters liven up the evening with music and singing, and eventually everyone is drawn in to a wild frenzy of dancing!
April 13, 2013: a drunken driver pays us off
The final hike is all downhill and after about ninety minutes we are at the village of Phedi where our driver is waiting for us. Half an hour later we're back in Pokhara - it's just after 10 AM and Sam tells us we have free time until 2 PM. There are two rooms in the hotel available for our use - to repack or shower if we want.
Teresa, Brandon and I head into the center of Pokhara to look around one last time. We have pizza for lunch - familiar foods are appealing when you've been eating unrecognizable local fare for three weeks! We wander through the shops, change some money - I check out the nearby lake where rowboats are available for rent, then we head back to the hotel where we finally have Internet access and I can upload my blog notes.
It's a five hour drive to Chitwan National Park, our next stop. The road takes us into the mountains where our driver passes huge trucks while swerving precariously around hairpin curves - Teresa closes her eyes - better not to watch! I'm amazed that our driver is able to avoid getting us run off the road and off a cliff! Plunging to our deaths is a distinct possibility!
Oddly enough, it is when we are stopped in traffic and in no imminent danger when we are broadsided by another vehicle! Sam and our driver jump out and a heated argument ensues involving the other driver who reeks of alcohol, and members of his immediate family. A Nepalese policeman shows up - he calms everyone down before they can come to blows. Clearly it's the other driver's fault - we have twelve witnesses - but after a heated negotiation involving an exchange of cash, the cop sends the drunk driver on his way, much to our surprise! Our driver is annoyed but within minutes is back to passing large trucks on treacherous curves as if nothing happened. (Later we see that the damage was pretty superficial - mostly paint scraped off the other car.)
We get to Chitwan National Park around 6:30 and relax in the outdoor dining area over cold beer - Sam reviews the itinerary for tomorrow. We are staying at the Sapuna Village Lodge just outside the park - it's actually very nice - there is a cluster of buildings each with four rooms, spread over several acres, with a central dining and reception area.
April 14, 2013: the safari and a close call
An early start today - there is a short ride to the river in an open bed pickup, then we cross the shallow river (about thirty to forty feet wide) in a long canoe - all twelve of us plus Sam. Eek!
On the other side there are two jeep-style vehicles vintage 1990's and we hop on board, six per jeep plus a local wildlife guide. You can sit or stand - it's open air - whatever you prefer, but the gravel road is rough and the ride is bumpy. It's not long before we are seeing a variety of birds and animals - Chitwan is a world heritage site home to endangered rhinos primarily but also tigers, crocodiles, boar, bison, deer, monkeys and assorted reptiles.
Our wildlife guide is perched on the rear bumper with binoculars, scouting ahead, and he whistles for the driver to stop when he spots anything interesting.
After about an hour there is a stream and we drive through it, but the jeep cannot make it up the opposite embankment, so we pile out. On the other side there are crowds of villagers - apparently it's the new year according to the Nepalese calendar and they've come to enjoy a day off. A large group is clustered around an unusual tree - the guide tells us that the women come to touch the tree - it is believed to help with infertility and to ensure pregnancy - he explains that child-bearing is of utmost importance to the Nepalese.
We pile back on to the jeep and start to head off, but the road veers at a sharp angle - suddenly the left rear wheel goes over an embankment - at first the jeep lists precariously then it starts to topple over in slow motion - I grab the roll bar and swing myself over the opposite side to try to stop it. Our guide does the same and grabs the side bar, struggling to steady the vehicle. Everyone throws themselves over the side - Katie jumps over the tailgate while Teresa throws herself under the roll bar and swings over the side with her backpack dangling from her arm.
A huge crowd has gathered to watch as the driver guns the engine while the guide hangs on to the side bar with all his strength. Just when it looks like it's game over, the front wheels gain some traction and pull it back on to the road. The driver pulls forward to a safe spot then jumps out - he is clearly shaken. No one is hurt and the jeep is intact. We are surrounded by a crowd and everyone shares high-fives!
After we calm down we hop back on - it's not far to the crocodile breeding enclosure where we take a short break - there are fenced pools - each with crocodiles of different sizes depending on their age - they range in size from two to ten feet.
We continue further into the jungle following the road as it winds along the river. We come to a sudden stop - there is an enormous rhino wallowing in the water right next to us, and we watch from the river's edge, taking photos.
By 10 AM it's getting hot and we are seeing far fewer animals, mostly deer and bison, so we start heading back - but it's nearly an hour until we get to our starting point. After lunch at the hotel, Sam tells us to meet at 2 PM - we'll be taking another look for wildlife, but this time from a canoe on the river.
From the canoe we spot more crocodiles lurking in the weeds, their beady eyes peeking above the water staring at us, their bodies hidden. Better keeps your hands on board, warns Teresa!
We disembark for a nature hike through the jungle - our wildlife guide points out tiger claw marks on a number of trees "to mark his territory". We pass a waterhole filled with animal tracks, a rhinoceros favorite he points out. He also spots a lizard-like creature among the nearby trees but it darts off as we get near - I can see it's large, like a small dog.
It's late in the afternoon when we return, but there's more - we gather in the grassy area behind the dining hall and enjoy a Nepalese dance performance, martial arts style, performed by the men. When we finally sit down for dinner at 8, everyone is exhausted - the safari this morning already feels like yesterday!
April 15 - 16, 2013: What does fried wild boar taste like?
Today marks our last full day in Nepal and the start of our journey home.
Just before we depart Chitwan, we stop at a small "fair trade" shop that is next to the lodge - it has some unique textiles and handicrafts made by local women - Teresa buys several items including a bed coverlet and a notebook made from elephant dung.
Our gear is loaded onto the roof of our minivan, we pile in, and it's off to Kathmandu - another seven hours on treacherous mountain switchbacks!
We get into Kathmandu around 3 PM - we have some free time so we head to Thamel to see if we can find a nice (authentic) local rug to take home. Unfortunately most of what we see are Tibetan - not our favorite style - and we end up passing on these.
Sam has booked a Nepalese restaurant that features local cuisine for our farewell dinner - our last meal together consists of fried wild boar ("a little gamey and chewy", according to Brandon) and the ubiquitous mo-mo variety platter.
We still haven't been to Durbur Square, the grounds of the former Royal Palace dating back to the seventeenth century, so Sam offers to take us on a last minute tour tomorrow morning if we meet him in the lobby at 8 AM.
We pack our stuff so that we can check out of the hotel quickly when we return.
We follow Sam back through Thamel where we are surprised to find a very busy early morning farmers market in full swing. When we get to Durbur Square, it's a hub of activity - although it's a designated World Heritage historical site, it is very much in current use - its shrines and temples are filled with people and the scent of incense wafts through the air. The shrines are filled with burning candles that are being continuously replenished. Locals pay homage and seek good fortune from a variety of deities. I watch closely as throngs of believers file past to touch the revered but candlewax soaked statue of Ganesh, the elephant god.
We weave in and out of the crowds as Sam explains the historic significance of each site, until he eventually announces that it is time for him to leave us. We say goodbye, thank him profusely for all his help, and watch as he heads off. For the next hour Teresa, Katie, Brandon and I traverse the narrow streets scanning the shops for souvenirs and buying a few things to take home.
Eventually we make our way back to the hotel. It's close to noon and most of our group is gathered in the lobby preparing to go their separate ways. We check out, say our final farewells, then crowd into a taxi and head for the airport - our first leg home will get us back to Kuala Lumpur, then tomorrow it's on to Taipei and San Francisco.
April 17, 2013: Home
April 16 - PM
We arrive in Kuala Lumpur just before midnight. Fortunately we are able to catch the last shuttle bus of the evening to our hotel, the Concorde Inn (http://sepang.concordehotelsresorts.com/). The hotel's proximity to the international terminal and the free shuttle will make it easy to get back to the airport for tomorrow's flight.
After a leisurely buffet breakfast in the hotel dining room, Brandon and I opt for a quick swim - even at 10 AM it's already over 100º F! At noon we catch the shuttle back to the airport.
We breeze through check-in and security and find ourselves with several hours to kill before our flight - time enough for a round of McFlurrys at the McDonald's in the terminal - it's our first frozen indulgence in nearly a month! With the frequent power outages in both Burma and Nepal there is no way I would touch anything that had been (ostensibly) frozen.
Both flights, the first to Taipei, and the second to San Francisco, are uneventful - noteworthy perhaps for the quality of the in-flight entertainment: Silver Linings Playbook, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Jack Reacher.
We land at SFO just as the sun is going down - everything seems so neat and orderly - what a contrast to the chaos we've experienced the past few weeks!
As we drive back to Sacramento we can't help but feeling overwhelmed by the cleanliness and spaciousness. I love to explore exotic locales - travel abroad is such a fantastic adventure - but it sure is nice to come home, especially when you live in such a wonderful country!