A Travellerspoint blog

Hiking to Tiger’s Nest is a Thrill for the Soul

Grueling walk in the mud and rain is worth every step taken

rain 72 °F

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Tiger’s Nest monastery - a world class site that is a key reason I came to Bhutan

There are those world-class sites, that when you first glimpse them with your own eyes, stop you in your tracks. I was on a rough, stone staircase leading to Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan. My guide went ahead, not noticing me frozen in place. “This was why I came here,” I mumbled to myself. A lump rose in my throat as I said my thanks for being able to see another amazing place in our world created by man.

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Looming high up in the mist, Tiger’s Nest is worth coming to Bhutan to see

It was images online of Tiger’s Nest that convinced me to choose Bhutan as a destination, months ago. Everything about the country sounded intriguing - it’s difficulty in actually getting there, the relatively few amount of tourists allowed in, and its unique embrace of Buddhism in creating its modern world. It does not measure Gross National Product, but instead created its own Gross Happiness Index. It had been difficult to get here, and expensive, as well. But as I raised my camera and began taking pictures of the gorgeous white, red, and gold buildings, I knew it had been worth it.

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The view of the hillsides and valley as we begin our climb

It had also been worth the climb. I woke up almost two hours earlier than I had planned, so anxious about my visit was I. I was praying for sunshine, or at least not pouring rain. I wasn’t sure if they’d cancel the hike if it was storming. The path was mostly mud and rock, and I imagine could be treacherous if it became a river. After showering and getting ready, I held my breath and opened the curtains of my hotel room windows. My second story room had a great view of Tiger’s Nest. Paro is in a valley hemmed in by tall, forested hillsides. I could see clouds drifting across the hillsides, and a gentle rain falling. The hills were not completely socked in with clouds, though. The fact that I could see the hillsides at all, and the entire valley was not fogbound, was good news.

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Prayer flags are a common sight everywhere in Bhutan, including the trail on the hike

At 7am, I walked downstairs and out the front doors of the hotel to see if anything had changed. The rain had stopped, and it seemed to be getting steadily lighter. I ate breakfast, and went back up to the room to begin preparations for my departure tomorrow. My guide and driver were picking me up at 8:30, so I drifted back downstairs at 8:15 - I have made it my goal to be early every morning. To my surprise, my guide Sonam and driver Niwas were having coffee in the lobby. They’d beaten me, for the first time all trip!

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Slackers, er tourists, mount up on horses to cover half the hike to the monastery

The drive to the trailhead took about 15 minutes, the road narrowing and become more potholed as we climbed. We passed strings of horses going the same direction. Sonam told me that some tourists ride horses halfway up, and it was obvious he disapproved. As we began our hike we talked about it more. I agreed that it kind of defeated the purpose to ride a horse on a hike. Plus, going to a monastery is somewhat like a pilgrimage. And pilgrimages are meant to be walked, to suffer physically for your spiritual quest. You could argue that if you’re a non-Buddhist like me, what does it matter? Sonam and I were of the same heart on this, though. Besides, horses on the trail meant watching out for poop going up and down!

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The cafe at bottom left, with the monastery looming in the mist above it

The day was foggy and damp, and clouds drifted up and across the hillside as we hiked. Sometimes, Tiger’s Nest was cloaked in mist, other times it shone clear, beckoning us upwards. Within 15 minutes, I shed my rain coat. It was very humid, and I began to sweat freely. My pace didn’t slacken, though, and Sonam said we were making good time. It was two hours up, and two hours down. At the halfway point of the climb would be a cafe, where we’d rest and have refreshments.

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Even the dogs in Bhutan know how to enjoy a scenic view

I took photos as we continued upwards, either of the monastery coming slowly closer, or of the views down below as we hiked higher and higher. Seemingly stray dogs are everywhere in Bhutan, and this hike was no exception. Some of them were even perched on rocks with amazing views beneath them. Do dogs appreciate beautiful scenery, too? In Bhutan, they appear to! We encountered few other hikers, perhaps our early start or the intermittent clouds were the reasons. We did encounter Gray Langur monkeys, lounging high in the cloud forest trees, though. Sonam spotted them first, and declared it good luck (or at least that is the tradition in Bhutan). As I zoomed in on them with my telephoto lens, I agreed wholeheartedly.

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Spotting a Gray Langur monkey is good luck, according to Bhutanese tradition

Spanish moss appeared on the trees, too, at a certain elevation as we climbed. The fog and lichen and moss-encrusted trees gave the surrounding forest a magical appearance. We passed prayer flags, alternating in blue, white, red, yellow, and green. You see strings of them everywhere in this Buddhist kingdom. Some have been hanging in the weather so long they are faded to white, the prayers written on them long since faded away. Eventually, we came to a tall pole affixed with red prayer flags. Sonam had pointed it out to me yesterday from my hotel where we could barely make it out high near the summit. This was our highest point in the hike. From here, we would actually descend slightly to the bridge that led to Tiger’s Nest.

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Lichen and moss hangs from the trees, giving the hike a magical feel

We stopped for awhile, though, and enjoyed the view. Sonam said this is the most famous view of the monastery buildings, but I would find dozens of stupendous viewpoints as we got closer and closer. A short time later, we rounded a shoulder of the mountain and came to the rough, stone stair. Here is where I froze in my tracks. There, slightly beneath us, Tiger’s Nest stood proudly in all its glory. My pace slowed to a crawl, as my eyes drank in this world-class sight and every nerve in my body thrilled to the experience.

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Tiger’s Nest monastery looming high above the valley

The hardest part of the hike, in my opinion, actually still lay ahead. The monastery is at more than 10,000 feet elevation, and the stone staircase leading up the final hundred yards kicked my butt like no other part of the hike. It was the altitude, I knew, but it was humbling nevertheless. One of the coolest parts of exploring the monastery buildings was the service going on in one temple. Two dozen monks chanted their prayers in unison, with older monks beating drums and blowing long trumpets. The monks were of all ages, from the elderly priest who led the chant to elementary school age boys. All were dressed in their deep, burgundy-red robes. Sonam was obviously moved to be there and prayed and prostrated himself in every building.

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Buddhist monks visible in front of the right hand buildings, enjoy the views from a railing

After we had explored the monastery - as much as we were allowed to - and enjoyed the amazing views, we began our trek down. The rain started about halfway down, and came and went all the way till the end. Going down was trickier, easier to lose your footing. Luckily (thanks monkey!), neither of us fell. For some reason, the way down seemed to take longer, and I was happy when we reached the parking lot. On the climb I had talked Sonam into stopping at the brewpub in town that I’d found out about yesterday. What better way to reward yourself for more than four hours of sweat and exertion than in a cold beer? I was tired of the traditional lunches I had eaten the previous four days, and pub grub would be a welcome change! Not that I am complaining - my tour with Bhutan Exist Tours and Travel had arranged a great tour for me. They were always available to answer questions and I’d highly recommend them: http://bhutanexist.com/

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At Namgay Artesianal Brewery in Paro, Bhutan - a reward for a tough hike!

After lunch, Sonam helped me shop for souvenirs, then took me to one last dzong, nearby. He said it wasn’t open and was still being renovated, but it looked pristine on the outside. Drukyul Dzong was built in the 16th century and was instrumental in Bhutan’s defeat of a Tibetan invasion. I couldn’t get too excited about it because, for me, I had already experienced my high point of the trip. When I came face to face with Tiger’s Nest lording over stupendous view’s high above the valley, I had seen all that I needed to see. Bhutan had been a great trip and worth the trouble to get here. However, the memory of Tiger’s Nest will stay with me forever, and of the grueling hike across rock and mud to get there.

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Drukyul Dzong - a smaller fortress currently being renovated

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:43 Archived in Bhutan Comments (1)

Retracing my Steps to Paro, Bhutan

Abbreviated day of sightseeing takes in temples and dzongs

semi-overcast 79 °F

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The Paro valley stretched out below its dzong

Even with six days in Bhutan, I was covering only a small slice of this 200-mile wide mountain kingdom. What’s more, the country’s limited road network and only one international airport meant that travelers are bound to retrace their steps, sooner or later. Today was my day. We drove from Punakha to Thimphu, and on to Paro, where the airport is located. Though I saw a lot of countryside, the scenery was pretty much a repeat of day’s one and three.

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Paro Valley, hemmed on on all sides by high hills

Once in Paro, we had lunch, then began our half day of sightseeing. This started at the National Museum, or more accurately, the stand-in for the museum which is being renovated after a fire a few years ago. It is now housed in a stone building just steps away from its former location, a round medieval watchtower located atop a hill overlooking the Paro valley.

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The round medieval watchtower that normally houses the National Museum

It is a small museum, with only three rooms of exhibits. The best is the first room with the masks that are worn in cultural dances covering the walls. The masks are grouped according to the dances they are used in, and well labeled in English. There is a placard explaining the origin and purpose of each dance, and what the masks are meant to represent. In addition, there is a decent video running every five minutes showing the dances being performed, with commentary.

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The watchtower and dzong share a hillside overlooking the town

The second room is merely photographs of Bhutan’s kings, while the third covers the animal and plant life of the country. There are a mix of photographs and taxidermy (complete animals, or their heads for larger ones). The information is good, and it is arranged by Bhutan’s very vertical climate system or habitats. It doesn’t take long to work your way through the museum. Afterwards, we walked down to look at the watchtower, whose exterior is in great shape (must have been mostly interior fire damage). We were supposed to hike down to the dzong next, but Sonam got spooked by the rain clouds rolling over the hilltops at the far end of the valley. So we drove down.

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Looking down at the fortress dzong from the watchtower

The dzong was the smallest of the three palace fortresses I saw in my time here. It was also the quietest, with a half-dozen tourists and mostly just monks in residence. Once again, no photos were allowed in the temple, which was the only building we were allowed inside. As usual, I was free to explore otherwise, making a circuit of the interior walls and courtyards. The decoration was amazing, as always for Bhutan’s historic dzongs. I probably spent the least amount of time here of the three, but it was also the smallest. Or perhaps I am getting “dzonged out!”

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The interior courtyard of Paro’s dzong

From there, we drove to one of Bhutan’s oldest temples, Kichu - built in the 7th century, according to Sonam. Apparently, it was constructed by a Tibetan king who built 13 temples in Bhutan in all. The coolest part about it was the active service going on when we arrived. The monks were droning their prayers and there was, I believe, recorded music accompanying them. It was very small and somewhat claustrophobic inside, with all of the worshippers, bowing and prostrating themselves. The monks were scurrying around dealing with all of the offerings of food and money being left by worshippers. I did my best to stay out of the way.

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Faded colors don’t spoil the beauty of the palace’s decoration

The temple did look older, and had different types of statues than the others I’d seen, so far. More bronze, and almost Hindu looking, with multi-armed goddesses. In an even smaller side chapel built less than 200 years ago, another service was going on. About a half dozen monks were chanting in unison. Suddenly, I saw two get out their cell phones (yes, Buddhist monks across the world seem to carry them). My first thought was, “Ah-ha! Monasteries are having the same problems with cellphones as teachers!” When I circled back around I saw that I was wrong. The monks had been pulling up an app that had the chant listed. They were reading from their cellphone screen - technology changing the way an ancient religion is performed!

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Kichu Temple’s interior courtyard

That wrapped up the day’s abbreviated sightseeing. I was driven to my hotel - The Tiger’s Nest Resort - and checked in. My room did indeed have a view of the cliff face where the monastery is located. That was the good news. The bad news is it is a 10-minute drive out of town, and neither my guide nor driver are staying here. So. I am kind of marooned out here. The grounds and view are beautiful, yes. But I was actually planning on doing some shopping tonight since Paro is kind of a handicraft headquarters in Bhutan. Driving through town today I saw tons of shops. Plus, there is a microbrewery here! Will I be retracing my steps into town tonight via taxi? Hmmmm...

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Dusk falls, looking out the window of my hotel room at Tiger’s Nest Resort

Posted by world_wide_mike 06:07 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Bhutan’s Stunning Mountain Scenery

...and more penis jokes than you can stand

overcast 79 °F

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Gorgeous views along the road from Thimphu to Punakha

Deep gorges and sheer cliffs fell away to one side of the car as I looked out my window. Beyond those drops, isolated farmsteads, tiny hamlets, and colorful towns stretched into the distance. The road from Thimphu to Punakha, Bhutan, was one of the most scenic I have ever traveled. I tried to imagine what it was like to for these poor villagers to wake up to million dollar views every morning. Did it grow old after awhile? My guess was no - based on the number of road side stands selling chilis, tomatoes, corn, and other vegetables from their fields. All were cleverly sited exactly where you’d want to pull over to take pictures of the incredible panorama opening up before your eyes. They knew they lived amidst soul-searing beauty.

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Clouds obscure the view from Dochula Pass

My morning had begun with a heartfelt prayer for good weather and clear skies that day. We would be traveling through the Dochula Pass on the way to Punakha. On a clear day, you can see the peaks of the Himalayas from the pass. Yes, yes, I had been incredibly lucky and seen them on my flight in. But how many times can you view the Roof of the World before you grow tired of it? My guess is never, and thus, my hope to see those icecaps on this morning.

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A line of mountain peaks of plays hide and seek n the clouds

When we arrived at Dochula Pass, we were greeted by a dense cloud cover, wrapping us in a blanket of fog. My guide Sonam was positive, and said it might clear up. He led me around what was essentially a roadside park, pointing out the display illustrating Bhutan’s Himalayan peaks, the best viewpoints, and the monument at the center of the park. It was built by the Queen in honor of the 108 soldiers who lost their lives suppressing an Indian rebel movement that had based themselves in Bhutan along its border with India. An oval of 108 man-high, brick stupas crowned the park - one for each soldier.

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A villager’s home standing on a hill above a deep valley

Sonam led me slowly through the mist, each of purposively dragging our feet to give time for the skies to clear. As we finished our circuit, I suggested we climb the monument and walk amongst the stupas, which seemed to have a great viewpoint - if the day were clear instead of fogbound. The stupas are in an oval on a hilltop, and as we reached the summit, I saw a patch of blue amidst the gray, and pointed it out to Sonam. He looked around, seeming to sniff the air, and declared it was clearing up.

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More Mountain scenery on the road to Punakha

We waited patiently for almost an hour. Breaks would appear in the cloud cover and jagged peaks would loom out of the gray. The openings would expand, and soon we could see an indistinct line of mountain tops. But each time, the clouds would pull their blanket back over our hilltop. I looked up at the hazy disc of the sun, praying for it to do its job and burn away the mist. We both joked that if we had superpowers, we would pull the clouds aside like a lace curtain. After an hour of Dochula Pass’s teasing, we finally gave up, and drove down the winding, two lane road towards Punakha.

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A town looms above its rice paddies in Bhutan

It was then that I saw those Bhutanese villagers’ million dollar views. Dochula Pass paled before these dramatic panoramas. This was life lived on a raw, elemental scale. Steep mountains loomed over valleys of rice paddies, which surrounded clusters of three-story, Bhutanese homes. Monasteries stood proudly on summits, seemingly inaccessible, above tiny villages. Forests cloaked the hillsides, wrapping them up in green mantles that made you wonder how isolated and cut off those villagers were before modern roads came. How many weeks would it take to travel the route we were covering in a few hours?

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Imagine waking up every morning in this house to those views

At the halfway point in my trip, I had seen a good bit of what Bhutan had to offer. I had seen the incredibly detailed and decorative dzongs. I had paced through Buddhist temples, admiring their wall paintings and marveling at their ornate, otherworldly statues. I had learned about its culture in its museums. I had sat amidst a night time crowd In Thimphu and listened to an outdoor concert. But this - the drama of the geography of a mountain kingdom - was the true soul of the land. This was why I had come to visit this Himalayan mountain kingdom. I soaked up the sights I saw through my window, and every time I asked my driver to pull over, he courteously did. Sonam immediately popped out, too, offering up my telephoto lens and being as good as an assistant photographer as I had any right to ask for. I could have done this all day, but we reached our destination all too soon.

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Hiking through the rice paddies towards the temple of the Divine Madman

One reason most tours of Bhutan stop in Punakha is to visit Chime Lhakhang, the temple of the divine madman - Bhutan’s most beloved Buddhist saint. Lam Drukpa Kuenly lived an unorthodox life in the 15th century. Wandering the countryside as a vagabond, indulging in booze and women. He decided that the ultimate weapon to confront the dangers to the soul that every Buddhist faced was, ahem, the phallus. And so wooden phalluses are his symbol, and the village in the shadow of his temple is adorned with more images of male genitalia than any high school bathroom could ever have.

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The Temple of Chime Lhakhang

In fact, selling painted phalluses of every size, shape, and use imaginable is their business. And - dare I say it - business is growing. Lots of construction is going on, with new hotels, restaurants, and craft shops being erected (sorry, couldn’t resist) on a weekly basis. I mean, really, how many places can you walk into a shop, and with a straight face and ask, “How much is that phallus in the window?”

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A woman seeks the Divine Madman’s blessing, circling the temple carrying a giant, wooden phallus

Of course, the climax of any trip to Punakha is visiting the Divine Madman’s temple. In fact, couples having trouble conceiving often visit here - some coming (hee, hee) from around the world. The women circle the temple three times, cradling a giant wooden phallus in their arms. As you’d expect, miracle stories rise from Chime Lhakhang’s potency. The temple was actually smaller than I expected (a common complaint of women worldwide, I think). Sonam dutifully explained the “birds and bees” of the temple - the meaning of all the paintings and statues. He and all of the other Buddhists present donated money or food. I asked Sonam if, having four children already, he really desired the Divine Madmen’s unique blessing of fertility?

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Hand-painted “souvenirs” for sale in the village

After lunch, and an end to my sophomoric double entendres, we checked in to our hotel. From there, we visited the Punakha Dzong - the winter palace of Bhutan’s kings. The fortress is wedged in the triangle of land between two rivers which join together as one (honest, I am trying to stop!). It is smaller than Thimphu’s Tasiche Dzong, but seems to cram the same amount of decoration into half the space. Once again, we could visit only the main temple. And once again, I took my time wandering the fort, admiring the thick walls (blame yourself, not me, for that one!), taking tons of photographs of the decorations, and imagining what this fort was like when it fought off an invasion of Tibetans and Mongols.

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Punakha’s dzong stands proudly at the strategic junction of two rivers

My guidebook recommended a scenic overlook, and Sonam recognized it and agreed wholeheartedly. We wound our way up hairpin turns until emerging high above the riverside town. The view was every bit as good as expected. It was a gratifying finish to a thrilling day. I felt I had touched the soul of Bhutan. It’s landscape, its beliefs, and its achievements were everything I could ask for. I had no idea what tomorrow would bring, but could only hope it was as good as today. And if you take that the wrong way, you have only yourself to blame!

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The Dzong gleams in the afternoon sunshine

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:55 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Two Unequal Halves of a Day of Sightseeing

The key question is always “What do you want to see?”

rain

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The sumptuous Tasiche Dzong is visually spectacular

So, what do you want to see? I think, more than any other question, that is what a traveler must ask themself when planning a trip. And it is one of the drawbacks, in my opinion, of a guided tour. Although you may be able to tweak a planned itinerary and squeeze in or rearrange stops on it, you have given up essential control of what you will see. And what may excite me, may bore another traveler. That is why I have always preferred arranging my own trips, and don’t mind solo travel at all.

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One of the ancient Buddhist tracts on display at the National Library

Here in Bhutan, the itinerary was basically set. Today’s stops were heavy on folk museums and cultural sights. My guide Sonam seemed surprised and a bit disappointed that our first stop, the Postal Museum, didn’t really thrill me. Bhutan is known for its colorful and interesting stamps, but this seemed less museum and more shopping stop to me. The prospect of getting your own picture (and face) on a kingdom’s actual, valid stamp may seem the coolest thing in the world to many. Not being a selfie guy, I wasn’t interested. The museum essentially consisted of four binders and a couple glass displays of past Bhutanese stamps (all of which were for sale, of course). Not being much of a shopper either, we were out of the Postal Museum rather quickly, compared to most tourists, I imagine.

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A traditionally dressed Bhutanese woman explains the significance of sights at Simply Bhutan

The National Library, and a chance to examine historical Buddhist manuscripts, seemed much more interesting to me. However, there were very few really old documents on display, actually. It was more of a working library for monks and Buddhist scholars to come examine and study from copies of ancient works. It was cool to see how many Buddhist tracts were wrapped up in colorful silk cloth to preserve them. But how many colorful silk bundles behind glass can you really look at? Speaking of colorful, seeing the world’s largest book - a very colorfully printed examination of animal life in Bhutan - was neat. But it was also behind glass for safekeeping, with only one set of pages on display.

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The Land of the Thunder Dragon means, well, occasional thunderstorms

Our next stop was the Folk Heritage Museum, which are always hit or miss with me. The no photos rule was an immediate strike, and the displays of tools and household implements were very static. Sonam tried to inject life into it, but the best part was the chance to climb around inside of a reconstructed three-story, traditional Bhutanese home. A later stop in the morning, called Simply Bhutan, was much more interactive, though it was essentially a repeat of information. Each visitor to Simply Bhutan was assigned a young, dedicated Bhutanese guide who explained everything thoroughly. You had a chance to taste the traditional alcohol, Ara, and shoot a traditional Bhutanese bow. There was a lot more life in this stop, though they both covered the same topics.

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The day’s highlight - Tasiche Dzong

After lunch, we drove high in the hills overlooking Thimphu for a scheduled scenic overlook of the city. They day had dawned warm, clear, and sunny, which had delighted me as every day’s forecast showed unending thunderstorms. While eating lunch at Simply Bhutan, though, I heard my first crack of thunder in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Sure enough, by the time we arrived atop the hill, a steady rain had set in. Clouds all but obscured the city below. We waited a few moments for it to stop, but another rumble of the dragon convinced us that this stop was a bust. There was little else to do except have them drop me off at the hotel before picking me up for the late afternoon portion of our tour at 4pm. I stretched out on my bed and napped, wishing I had urged Sonam to rearrange the stops that morning and do the viewpoint right away since it had been sunny.

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Pomp and circumstance at the flag-lowering ceremony

The sun was out again when we set out for the day’s highlight - a visit to Tasiche Dzong. A dzong is a combination fortress and palace, with this one being the actual, working center of government. The king and religious leaders have offices here, as do the nation’s ministers. Since it is a working administrative office, it doesn’t open until 5pm (or as we found out, until the last minister closes up his office and goes home). Beforehand, though, is a flag-lowering ceremony, which we could see through the fence. A color guard lowers the huge Bhutanese flag flying in front of the dzong with pomp and ceremony, attended by three Buddhist priests.

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The main temple at the dzong, where royal weddings and coronations are held

Remember when I said things that may excite one person may bore another? Most of part one of the day’s sights had fallen flat with me. However, the palace was right up my alley! Bhutanese architecture is colorful and decorative in even ordinary homes. However, they pulled out all the stops for the dzong, and it was encrusted with carvings and paintings that overwhelm the eye. Entering the courtyard, the visitor is surrounded by a visual feast. Sonam started me off in the complex’s main temple. No photos were allowed inside, I was told to my disappointment. Otherwise, the temple was gorgeous.

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Beautiful decoration on the exteriors of the buildings of the palace complex

Sonam pointed out and explained the meaning of the statues and paintings. This temple is where royal coronations and weddings were held. Both he and our driver seemed awed to be there, and the reverence sunk in. A guard patrolled the interior to make sure I or the other visitors weren’t tempted to sneak in a photo (trust me, I was!). Even when we stepped back outside, and Sonam explained the facade of the building (where pictures were allowed), I was reminded not to try to sneak an interior shot in by including the open doorway in my focus. Trust me, I had every intention of doing that - darn!

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A monk prowls an inner courtyard of the dzong

In such a sprawling complex, the temple was the only part of the interior we were allowed to visit, I was told. I was free to roam the courtyard and photograph the exteriors of the sumptuous buildings, though. At this point, I took off on my own and roamed the complex. I photographed the other buildings, the long covered hallways leading between them, the statues and carvings covering nearly every foot of their walls, and the tiny courtyards I could glimpse past gateways. Half of the palace is devoted to the religious officials and the other half to the secular ones, led by the king. Monks roamed the complex in their deep, almost burgundy colored robes. All officials and civil servants wore their ceremonial sashes (my guide and driver had donned their’s prior to entering).

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Carvings watch over a doorway

I am sure I spent much more time photographing the dzong than the average visitor. The dozen or so other tourists who had entered when we did were long since gone. But the sheer aesthetic joy of lining up different angles and unusual shots excite the artist in me. Remember: what do you want to see? My visit to Tasiche Dzong is the kind of thing that tingles my travel nerve. Others may have popped in and out, as I did in the Postal Museum, earlier. But when you get to that sight you’ve been longing to see, devour it, make it last, save every moment.

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Long galleries cover the corridors between buildings

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Posted by world_wide_mike 08:47 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Into the Himalayas and Bhutan

Sunshine breaks through in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

sunny 78 °F

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Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu gleams in the sunshine

I couldn’t have asked for a more auspicious omen to begin my trip to the Himalayan Mountain Kingdom of Bhutan. As I sat in my window seat looking down, the sun was rising above the clouds. I suddenly spotted what I had fervently hoped to see - the white peaks of the Himalayas. I watched in awe as the dawn made them stand out more and more clearly. I snapped a few photos with my camera phone, then pulled out my digital SLR with its 300mm lens. All the way until we landed, I was either admiring, photographing, or video recording the view. We landed to a sunny, gorgeous morning in Paro, Bhutan. I had been worried about the weather, as it was supposed to be rainy season, and the forecast showed unending thunderstorms. But here it was, the mountain kingdom revealed in all its glory!

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A lifelong dream come true - seeing the Himalayas

Visiting Bhutan is neither easy, nor cheap. The only way to be granted a visa is to sign up for a guided tour with one of their agencies. The fee is $250 a day, but that includes everything - hotels (or homestays, if you prefer), transportation, car, driver, and all your meals and site admissions. Plus, being off-season, my rate was dropped to $200 a day. And did I mention that I was receiving an individual tour - not a group one? Only a limited number of people are permitted to visit Bhutan, a fact I could tell by the emptiest flight I had ever flown. We had 16 passengers on a normal passenger jet designed to hold around 120.

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The beautiful Bhutan countryside

I was met by my driver and guide, and the tour began right away. I let them know that I enjoy taking photos and they encouraged me to let them know whenever I wanted the car to pull over. This started right away when we halted at the river crossing guarded by Dungtse Lhakhang temple. It was originally begun as a bridge toll booth in 1421, when an iron bridge was built over the river by a man named Thangton Gyelpo - who was famous for building dozens of iron bridges in Tibet and Bhutan. A watchtower stands as a toll booth on either side of the river, and the temple is a short walk up from there.

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Chain bridge stretching across the river between two watchtowers

It was cool to climb around inside one of the medieval watchtowers, though you can’t walk on the reconstructed iron bridge. When they say iron, they don’t mean beams of steel, but instead a chain link construction. Prayer flags adorn the modern chain link reconstruction of it, while next to it, a swaying wooden footbridge stands for people to cross today. The spot is incredibly scenic with the river rushing past, the colorful prayer flags, and the temple and watchtowers.

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Traditional Bhutanese dwellings overlooking rice paddies

The rest of the 45-minute drive from the airport to the capital city of Thimphu was beautiful. I had to resist making the driver pull over around every bend. One of the coolest things about driving through Bhutan’s countryside is that nearly all buildings look like temples - even if they are just farmer’s dwellings. The king of Bhutan decreed that all new construction should be done in the traditional, highly decorative style. Most are three stories tall. In the old days, farmers brought in their animals at night into the ground floor to protect them from predators. The second floor was for the family’s living space, and the third held shrines for praying.

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All new buildings in Bhutan must use traditional architecture

The buildings would cluster in groups of a half dozen or so, surrounded by rice paddies and pastureland. They would usually loom about a third of the way up a hillside, overlooking the fields. Honestly, it is hard to identify which are family homes, which are government administration buildings, and which are temples. They all look so ornate and gorgeous.

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Traditional and modern, one in the same in Thimphu

As we arrived in Thimphu, Bhutan’s largest town - holding about 1/5th of the nation’s 750,000 or so residents - the buildings clustered closed and closer together. The palace fortresses, called Dzongs, were much larger, though. From hilltops, temples and monasteries looked over Thimphu’s modern sprawl along the valley floor. The capital is a relatively recent phenomenon, being nothing but scattered hamlets in the 1960s and 1970s. Still, even the stores, banks, hotels, and commercial buildings had the ornate Bhutanese roofs, decorated windows and trim, and carved wooden designs.

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Thimphu stores

My guide dropped me at my hotel for an hour to check in and unpack, figuring I was tired and might need some rest. I was fired up to see more of this fascinating kingdom, though, and was back in the lobby early. We drove to the Memorial Chorten, built in honor of Bhutan’s long-reigning third king. Chorten is Bhutan’s word for stupa, which is a Buddhist memorial usually containing a relic of the deceased person, often a saint. This one apparently does not, but is supposed to be lavishly decorated on the inside, with paintings explaining the Buddhist faith. I was disappointed we could not go in, though. I was 0 for 2 today at seeing temple interiors, so far. The bright golden spire of the stupa shone in the day’s amazing sunshine. We circled the temple, my guide explaining and spinning the prayer wheels. I never knew that inside the drum shaped wheels were written Buddhist prayers. My guide explained that, by spinning them, illiterate worshippers earned the same blessings as if they had said them.

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Memorial Chorten in Thimphu

We struck out on our next temple, Thimphu’s oldest, which was closed for restoration. However, we were in the Motihang neighborhood, which was where the Takin Preserve was located. He knew I wanted to see a takin, so we added that to the itinerary. What’s a takin? Well, it is Bhutan’s national animal - kind of a cross between a wildebeest, a cow, and a massive mountain goat. Bhutanese mythology says they were created by its most beloved saint, the Divine Madman, to prove his magical powers. Some remain in the wild, of course, but the preserve has a herd of about 20 or so, from the looks of it. There were also several varieties of deer particular to the Himalayas inside the preserve. My guide stressed it wasn’t a zoo, but it looked for all the world like one to me.

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Bhutan’s national animal - the takin

Next up, was a visit to a nunnery perched on a hill with dramatic views of Thimphu. Thangthong Dewachen is relatively new, built in the 1960s, and is run privately rather than by the government (like most monasteries and nunneries in Bhutan). It was founded when a child was discovered to be the reincarnation of the iron bridge builder by Buddhist monks. Reincarnations of saints are a big part of Buddhist beliefs. I was happy that I was able to go inside the temple in the nunnery. The paintings were very interesting, and my guide identified the Who’s who of what I consider the very confusing Buddhist theology. Many of its benevolent gods look fearsome, and sport teeth and claws which look like they could rend a human limb from limb. Apparently, this is to cow and subdue demons, so you can’t judge a Buddhist deity by its cover.

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Decorative windows at a Buddhist nunnery

It was lunch time next, and I have to admit that I was actually hungry. I was taken to a restaurant buffet and sampled most of what was being offered. Bhutanese food is definitely fiery, and I had to order a second drink to cool my scorched tongue. I liked the spicy beef best, and had a second helping. From there, we were off to a Thimphu landmark - a towering, 203’ tall golden statue of Buddha, on a hill overlooking the city.

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A landmark in Thimphu - a towering Buddha statue atop a hill overlooking town

My guide explained that we were lucky because the senior priest in the kingdom was holding a service there all day to bless worshippers. That this would be popular was immediately obvious by the bumper-to-bumper string of cars, buses, and taxis headed up and up the six kilometer road to there. Our fine, sunny day was quickly turning into a scorcher. I felt myself nodding off as we inched along in the car. The road was lined with parked cars of worshippers who decided to hike the rest of the way up. Eventually we reached the summit, well kind of, as there were a lot of stone steps still to climb. As we ascended, it seemed fairly crowded. However, when we created the top of the staircase, I realized what an understatement “popular” had been. There were throngs there - many sitting cross-legged under umbrellas or in the hot sun. Others circled the statue, like we did, and still others seemed to be just enjoying the festive atmosphere.

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Worshippers in the hot sun receiving their blessing

The voice of the Buddhist priest droned mantras over the loudspeakers, as my guide pointed out various features of the site. Senior government and religious figures sat together in a gallery to the left of the statue, while an immense number of red-robed monks sat directly in front. Behind them, were the throngs of worshippers patiently enduring the heat and sun. In the shadow of the towering Buddha, a dozen beautiful golden statues of Buddhist goddesses were placed around the platform. It was an impressive sight, and I did indeed feel lucky to be there on this special holy day. All day, the three of us (guide, driver, and myself) had great discussions about Bhutan, America, and what is truly important in life. In talking about my photography, I had said that every site tells its story in the pictures you take. Today’s story at Buddha Dordenma was about devotion. The devotion of those who sat in the hot sun to show their faith. Also the devotion of the Hong Kong and Singapore Buddhists whose donations had paid for this monstrous mark of their faith.

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Built from donations by Buddhist abroad, this statue is one of the largest Buddhas in the world

Perhaps noticing my nodding off on the drive, my guide called an end to the day’s sightseeing. He encouraged me to rest a little, then explore Thimphu on my own. Honestly, I wanted to keep going, but once dropped off at the hotel, I did find myself napping for about an hour. I woke up incredibly disoriented, not sure where I really was. However, I soon got my head about me and ventured forth to find an ATM to finally withdraw some local currency. After that, I spent the afternoon wandering the area around my hotel. I watched archery practice (Bhutan’s national sport), checked out the soccer stadium, and took lots of pictures of ornately decorated buildings.

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Buddhist monks

Eventually I wandered back to my hotel, and ordering a Bhutanese beer from the bar, spent the rest of the time until dinner looking over and editing my photos. My adventures in the Land of the Thunder Dragon were off to an incredible start. Despite my lack of sleep, I found myself looking forward to tomorrow’s sights.

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Practicing their national sport - archery

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:03 Archived in Bhutan Comments (4)

Singapore’s Delightful Gardens by the Bay

My favorite city in Asia never disappoints with its over-the-top high tech sights

rain 88 °F

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The interior of the Cloud Forest Dome at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

When I talk about traveling in Asia, I tell people that Singapore is my favorite city in Asia. Those who prefer their cities chaotic and a bit crazy, will disagree. You can read my entries from my 2016 visit there on this blog, for more details about it why I like Singapore so much. Earlier this year, I made the decision that I was not going to refrain from traveling abroad like I did last year. With all of the health problems my parents are experiencing, I opted out of a summer trip in 2018. However, when I saw a good round trip price from LAX to Singapore, I pulled the trigger and bought it.

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The indoor waterfall at the Cloud Forest Dome

As it turned out, I would have extremely limited time in Singapore. My main destination for the summer was Bhutan, and I was at the mercy of when I could schedule a tour to this hard-to-visit, Himalayan country. Still, I had enough time to hit one spot that I was upset I didn’t get to in my last visit - The Gardens by the Bay. You can think of Singapore as a Dubai in Southeast Asia. There are a number of over-the-top attractions just like Dubai has, and the Marina Bay Sands Resort and the adjacent Gardens by the Bay are two examples. I had visited the towering, futuristic Marina Bay complex in 2016, so the gardens were the number one attraction that I wanted to see here in my short stay.

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Painted masks in the style of New Guinea aboriginal cultures

It is essentially a sprawling botanical gardens, though with a high-tech, Singapore twist. It’s most signature sights are the two, climate-controlled domes with thousands of plant species suited for that biome. My first stop was the Cloud Forest dome. There are six separate levels of pathways and walkways - some suspended high in air above the floor level. The dome is designed to simulate a mountain side climate, with lowland tropical vegetation at the bottom, up through rain forest, and gradually changing to cloud forest at the very top. You begin your visit circling the ground level, where you find an elevator to take you straight to the top. As you step off, it is noticeably cooler. You walk out onto skyways that circle the “mountain” that is the center. Each of the thousands of species are arranged attractively at their particular environmental niche.

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Suspended six stories about the ground level, the Cloud Forest Dome’s skyways are an awesome experience

Another cool aspect is the reproduced examples of artwork from around Southeast Asia - painted masks from New Guinea, statues and totems from other islands — all are placed aesthetically amidst the colorful flora. Some represent the mythology of the cultures, others the craftsmanship. I have to admit that I am not normally a botanical gardens type of guy. But I love taking pictures, and the arrangements of the flowers and other plants were so artistically eye-catching that it was a joy to photograph them.

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The Gardens by the Bay’s exhibits art often an eclectic mix of plants, native crafts, and modern art

I slowly wound my way downwards, passing the source of the enormous indoor waterfall, a crystal cave explaining the geology of cloud forests, and squeezing past more selfie-takers than should be permitted under one roof. I try to be polite and not walk between a photographer and his or her subject, but there IS a time limit for snapping your pictures. It is rude to expect others to wait more than 10-15 seconds or so while you line up your model shoot or Instagram post. Those taking half a minute or more deserve the photo bombs they get, in my opinion!

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Carnivorous plants in tiny glass globes

There were displays with orchids, carnivorous plants, and a bedazzling rainbow of flowers. Nearly all of the plants were labeled, and the Gardens does a great job trying to educate visitors about eco systems. The domes and climate within them are designed to simulate nature and be as ecologically friendly as possible. The water that falls as spray rain (or from the waterfall) is collected at the lowest levels and circled back into a closed environment. At the very lowest level are numerous exhibits about the importance of protecting our environment. One theater with an all-around (including the floor) screen walks viewers through the climate change and its projected effects world-wide as the global temperatures rise. It shows vivid video of species loss, deforestation, glacier melt, droughts, flooding, and more. It makes an impassioned but scientifically-based plea to viewers that now is the time to reverse this process, and make our modern world more friendly to the environment. I can think of a certain U.S. president and his supporters who could do well with learning from this film and other exhibits in the Cloud Forest Dome.

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A theater showing the long-term effects of climate change on our planet’s future

Next, I was off to see probably the most recognizable symbol of the Gardens by the Bay - the towering, artificial trees. These actually function as mammoth sized trellises, and are home to real flowers and plants the climb up their towering, conical sides. At the top, they flare out forming artificial branches that are embedded with lights for the evening light show. There is a sky walk - an elevated pathway that winds amongst their heights. It was closed due to weather during my visit (winds? forecast thunderstorms?), unfortunately. I had planned to come back in the evening for the light show, but in the end decided not to return. I have to leave something for future Singapore visits, right?

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The towering artificial trees at Gardens by the Bay

The base of the artificial trees were home to a Toy Story 4 exhibit and kids area, timed to coincide with the recent release of the movie. I was a bit disappointed in this veer towards crass commercialism. Of course, the fact that the area surrounding and amongst the artificial trees was swarming with dozens and dozens of kids had NOTHING to do with my feelings, I am sure! In all, I felt this part of the Gardens was somewhat disappointing. Though with the skywalk closed and not viewing the light show, that might have something to do with it!

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Statue marking the entrance to the Heritage Gardens

There are a number of Heritage Gardens in the park, too. They celebrate the different cultures that compose Singapore’s cosmopolitan mix. There was an Indian Garden, Chinese, Malay, and more. There are some informative placards talking about cultural medicine, food, and customs, but this part of the Gardens is definitely outclassed by the domes. Speaking of which, it was time for me to hit up the second one - the Flower Dome. I took the long way around the dome to photograph its outsides. Inside, I found it swarming with visitors - much more so than the Cloud Forest had been.

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The Flower Dome with the skyline of Singapore visible through the glass panels

This dome was arranged by various biospheres and types of plants. These ranged from water-filled ones from desert environments like yucca and cacti, to the bulbous tree trunks like Africa’s baobab trees, to the Mediterranean climate’s flora. There was also a special exhibit on roses, so there were thousands of brilliantly-colorful arrangements of roses inside the dome. Once again, statues and other artwork were placed in amongst the plants in an eye-catching way. Many were made of wood fashioned to look like ordinary branches whose intertwined shapes just happened to resemble a dragon, leaping deer, or horses. The ones in the Mediterranean section were white plaster, flower-draped replicas of Classical Greek and Roman statues.

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The Roman statues in the Mediterranean section of the Flower Dome

Once again, the sheer over-the-top aspect of the domes wows the visitor. Looking through the glass panes of the dome, you see downtown Singapore and the Jetsons-esque Marina Bay Sands. The displays use height to their advantage, aesthetically rather than biologically like in the Cloud Forest dome. I slowly, thoroughly worked my way through the dome. However, as the crowds grew, I found it became more and more like work. There were too many people expecting others to wait while they were photographed standing in front of this or that statue, or a particular spray of colorful flowers. I knew I was getting irritated by the press of people. Once I had seen it all, I bolted for the exit, not stopping much in the displays underneath, at the end. Once out of the dome, I made my way through the park to the nearby Bayfront MRT station.

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Some of the artwork mixed among the flora in the Flower Dome

Which brings me to one of the things I like so much about Singapore - it’s top-notch public transportation system. The metro is one of the easiest and most efficient to use that I have ever encountered. And the only air-conditioned one. I am not referring to the interior of the metro trains themselves, but to the whole thing. As soon as you begin to descend on escalators from the city streets, you feel the air conditioning wafting past your face as a cooling breeze in Singapore’s tropical heat. The signage inside is easy-to-understand, and everything is clean and comfortable. Just as importantly, when you reach your destination, maps and signs help you figure out which exit from the metro you should take for your destination.

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Singapore’s easy-to-use metro system

Transferring from the metro to city buses is probably one of the easiest in the world, too. I normally avoid city buses like the plague. I find it is too hard for someone unfamiliar with a city to know which stop to get off on. However, Singapore’s buses are more like trams, with designated and named stops. You can go online and print off (or save on your device) your route and simply count your stops to your stop. That is one reason I always prefer trains and trams over buses. If you pay attention, you know where you are, and how soon you need to get off. However, in Singapore, I take the buses, too. Occasionally, I will lose track and scramble to get off in time, but overall they are easy to ride. Paying for your ride is just as easy. You buy a credit card sized pass, and load it up with as much as you will need at electronic kiosks or at 7-Eleven stores. It works for all public transit, of course.

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Some of the gorgeous flowers in the Gardens by the Bay

The food in Singapore is usually great, too. I visited the Indian restaurant near my hotel again for dinner. Their butter chicken and naan bread is top notch. I also love my usual Singapore hotel - the Village Hotel Katong. The rooms are large and comfortable, and there is a grocery store in the shopping center attached to the second floor. I know this entry is short on words, so hopefully the extra pictures of the Gardens by the Bay will convince you to consider Singapore as a future destination. I think it will become one of your favorites, too!

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Awesome dragon looming over the Flower Dome

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Posted by world_wide_mike 03:59 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

My Beach Resort in the Philippines?

Snorkeling & beach Idyll starts this summer’s adventures

sunny 89 °F

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Sun sets on another beautiful, relaxing day at Mike’s Dauin Beach Resort

A place named Mike’s Dauin Beach Resort in the Philippines? That sounded like a perfect way to unwind from a stressful 2019, and lead into this summer’s adventure. The fact that the owner was an American originally from Ohio only made it seem even more fitting. I would need some rest and recuperation after my 17 hour flight from Singapore, and overnight flight to Dumaguete City through Manila. When I landed on Thursday morning, I had not actually spent a night in bed since Sunday night/Monday morning. I was able to get a decent amount of sleep on the flights, but my first day I crashed and slept much of the afternoon away.

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A cluster of beach huts on Apo Island

The resort manager, a friendly Englishman named Nick, had booked me on a snorkeling trip the next day to Apo Island, whose waters surrounding it were protected as a nature reserve. Mike’s is really a dive resort, and runs two dive boats, with excursions leaving on a daily basis. Snorkelers can go along, but pay less because we don’t require the oxygen tanks, dive equipment, or underwater guides. It also means that the trips caters more to divers - not snorkelers. The water was really choppy at two of the three places the divers went in. Only one of them featured calm waters, but it had a fast current that meant I was huffing and puffing to paddle my way back to the boat. There was lots of beautiful coral, though, and I even saw a sea turtle in my short amount of time in the water. The divers said the waters were amazing, though, and nearly all of them carried GoPro cameras with an underwater case, good to 60 meters depth.

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The pool, where I spent more than a few hours relaxing in my short stay at Mike’s

I sheepishly told them about my fear of sharks keeping me from get scuba qualified. They laughed and of course told me how sharks are friendly and more scared of us than we are of them. They also proceeded to tell me about their dives with sharks, convincing me more of their insanity than my safety. Still, it was cool to see them gear up, and then return a half hour or so later excited about what they’d seen. Maybe one day I will work up the nerve to get scuba qualified. I am sure that is precisely what Mr. Jaws is waiting for, though!

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Outrigger dive boats and local craft anchored near Apo Island

I made up for the lack of snorkeling time by taking lots of pictures of the island, dive boats, the fishermen on their small outriggers, and the sea and sky. While snapping pictures, I either had one arm wrapped around a pole or my feet bracing my weight against a wall to compensate for the boat’s rocking motion. For being rainy season, we had a gorgeous day. In the morning on the way to Apo Island, we did motor through one rain squall. But otherwise, it was a perfect day on the water. They provided chicken and rice for lunch, and fresh cut slices of watermelon at the end of each dive. A nice crisp lager would have complemented the spread, but maybe that is a no-go for diving, because it was only water or coffee.

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The divers did three dives each, and said the fish and coral were magnificent

The resort itself has a very nice pool, which I took advantage of a number of times during my stay. The pool is surrounded by shaded, padded lounge chairs. There are more chairs just a few yards away on the resort’s slice of beachfront. The beach in Dauin is used by locals for fishing as well as by occasional small resorts like Mike’s. The fishermen’s colorful outriggers are pulled up on the beach, while the larger diving outriggers are anchored just a short distance out in the water. While walking along the beach you see the mix of locals and resorts, which preserves some of an unspoiled aspect. We have all been to beaches where the hotels are chock-a-block, one after another, giving it a commercial and almost artificial feel. Here, it was much more unsullied - just boats, palm trees, and sand. The sand in Dauin is dark — a mix of brown and volcanic black sand.

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The rocky shores of Apo Island

About 10 minutes walk down the beach is a great snorkeling spot right off the beach, too. I made up for my limited snorkeling at Apo Island there, exploring first along the line of buoys which mark where swimmers are allowed, and ducking under the rope where snorkelers and divers can swim. As you first snorkel out from the beach, you see only brown sand and various dead vegetation and even refuse covered in the brown sand. Then, you begin to see movement and spot fish nibbling at plants. Next, you seen an occasional outcrop of coral, some colorful, some blanched or covered in the brown silt. Finally, you come to the huge outcroppings of coral, sea fans, anemones, and other more colorful sea life. As you venture further out, you find yourself floating between canyons of coral. It actually becomes tricky navigating a path through it at low tide, because you don’t want to accidentally damage the coral near the surface.

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Dive boats come in all shapes and sizes, but are the most common sight in the waters around Dauin

It was simply amazing gliding along and seeing the sea life all around me. I mentioned my fear of sharks before, so doing this by myself was a huge leap of bravery. I have to admit that my eyes kept scanning out towards the deep water to make sure no sharks were silently tracking me on my path through the canyons of coral. No sharks, but I did see some amazing fish. I saw a speckled gray and black rockfish, lurking on the sea bottom, eyeing the schools of smaller fish passing overhead. I saw colorful yellow and black angelfish, and the famous orange and white clownfish (Finding Nemo). Every shade of the rainbow fed around the coral - deep purple fish, red, brilliant blue, and vibrant yellows - like tiny specks of sunshine darting beneath the waves.

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A10-minute walk along this beach brings you to amazing snorkeling

The coral was equally colorful. At one point I felt I was swimming through a novelty store lit by black light — so vivid were the fluorescent reds, yellows, and blues of the branches of coral. I floated over brain coral, marveling out how much it did indeed look like a massive, exposed brain poking through the sandy ocean floor. I never did find out what my favorite was, but it was curved with ridges like some melted clamshell. Its entire tan surface, though, was covered with tiny white cilia - hair-like projections that were gleaming white in the sunshine. As the current caused the cilia to ripple, it seemed to glow iridescently as if covered by a million fiber optic cables lit with white light. I floated above it for a couple minutes, spellbound by its beauty.

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Beautiful tropical scenery and idyllic beach huts in the Philippines

Other guests at the resort had snorkeled there during my short stay at the resort. A Norwegian couple said they saw three turtles in there exploration of the coral reef. I didn’t see any turtles at this spot, though I had seen one at Apo Island. On my last snorkel at the reef, I had one hilarious but alarming incident. I was just getting out of the shallow areas at low tide and venturing into the deeper sections, when I felt something grab my right fin. I spun around to see one of the stray dogs that roam the beach had accompanied me out. He darted back to the beach, having played his practical joke and given a snorkeler a heart attack.

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Sporting my Worldwidemike gear and sampling the local brew at Mike’s

Speaking of dogs, Mike’s has a resident black lab who was a sweet presence. Lacy is older, and obviously partially blind. She spends her days napping in the sun and soaking up all the petting and love guests are willing to hand out. She is not averse to being snuck some table scraps either and will gingerly waddle up when she smells food at your table. The food at Mike’s is incredible. Everything is made with fresh ingredients, and they have a fairly varied menu. The portions are Cheesecake Factory enormous, and there was only one dinner that I believe I finished during my stay. Breakfasts were amazing, too. I began every day with a mango shake, and alternated between fresh fruit or the best banana pancakes I have eaten in my life. If you’re a foodie, you will love your stay at Mike’s Dauin Beach Resort.

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An upscale beach home on the shores of Apo Island

Another reason I would highly recommend this resort to divers, especially, are the staff and owner’s family. The manager Nick has the perfect personality for his job, always cheerful, chatting up the guests, seeing what they need and arranging anything that needs to be done. After Apo Island and the problems I had with mask leakage, he gave me a little class in how to avoid that, showing me what I had been doing wrong. Nick has an easy relationship with the Filipino staff working there. He cajoles them and they tease back and forth. It is obvious the staff is very happy to be working at such a pleasant place like Mike’s. Everyone was invariably cheerful and helpful, happy to be able to cater to any need.

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Local fishermen in their tiny outriggers struggle against the strong current rounding Apo Island

I struck up a good relationship with Mike, who was staying there for a couple weeks (he normally lives in Florida). He talked to me about his career arc that took him from the Sandusky area to owning a dive resort in the Philippines. He invited me to join the party they were throwing one night in celebration of two of his children’s birthday, and partake of the free food and beer he had lined up for the 50-plus guests. I also struck up a good relationship with his oldest son, Keith, who is in his mid-30’s, and lives in Northern California. He is a history buff like myself. He loves to collect arrowheads and spear points in the plowed fields around his home. He is even trying his hand at napping his own points with local stones that catch his eye. He told me about exploring a WW II Japanese bunker in town that I would have visited with him if I had one more day.

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By afternoon, the waters can get crowded around Apo Island

It was a short stay on the island of Negros Oriental, but the staff and fellow guests made me feel at home. Most who know me understand that I am not a “veg out on the beach” type of person. However, my time at Mike’s was just the tonic I needed to unwind from the stresses of school and family. It is almost like the place had my name on it!

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Local fishermen reel in their nets at the end of the day - a common sight at Mike’s Beach Resort

Posted by world_wide_mike 01:07 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Myanmar's Medieval Ruins of Bagan are a History Buff's Dream

Bicycling from temple to temple in tropical heat is sweet, sweaty pleasure

sunny 92 °F

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13th century Htilominlo temple rises above Bagan panorama

My skin was gritty with dust and dried sweat, my clothes damp and dirty. Matching blisters gnawed at each heel. As I climbed the last steps, though, I was in Heaven, as from on high, the ancient temple city spread out beneath me.

This was why I'd come to Myanmar, or Burma, as it is also known. The nearly thousand year old ruins of Bagan were worth the three days of travel and six legs of flights to get here. They made my two days of pedaling a bicycle from temple to temple across a hot, dusty plain a joy -- not a chore. Moments like these atop the temple-- when you can mutter only an inadequate "Wow" -- were worth feeling tired and dirty.

Besides not being easy to get to, Myanmar is a bit of a Forbidden Fruit for travelers. There is a controversy on whether travelers should even go there. It is a military dictatorship that annulled the free elections it allowed in 1990, when its pet party candidates lost overwhelmingly. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been in jail or under house arrest for a decade. She has urged tourists to boycott her country to starve the regime of foreign currency.

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Yangon's awesome Shwedagon Pagoda

So, why was I going? Not everyone marches to Suu Kyi's drum beat. I am more in step with that of Lonely Planet guidebooks that say foreign visitors have a positive effect, rather than a negative one. My own feeling is that the more outside influences the Burmese are exposed to -- travelers, foreign broadcasts, publications and internet , the more difficult it will be to repress them. Travelers can be the soap that makes the grip of the Iron Fist slippery.

My nod to Suu Kyi was to let my dollars go to the ordinary Burmese as much as possible, rather than to government-owned business or organizations. Over the internet, I hired an independent Myanmar travel agency, Golden Rock Travel and Tours, to arrange an individual "guided" tour. I am normally not the tour type. I did this because, when I began my planning, independent travelers were forced to purchase $200 of government Foreign Exchange Certificates (which went directly to their coffers). Those on guided tours did not have to purchase them. A couple months later, this changed, and now no one is required to purchase them, but Golden Rock had already arranged my hotel rooms, flights to and from Bagan and airport transfers.

Golden Rock met me when I landed in Yangon and took me to my hotel. Looking around the Summit Parkview's ritzy interior, I felt guiltily like a rich, package tourist. Well, at least all my days on my itinerary were listed by Golden Rock as "Free Days." This would truly be a self-guided, Guided Tour.

My hotel was within walking distance of Yangon's number one attraction, the Shwedagon Pagoda. This gorgeous, gold-plated, gem-encrusted temple is Myanmar's holiest spot. As I walked up the entrance way, I slipped off my sandals in accordance with Burmese custom. I was approached by a Burmese man wearing a tag identifying him as a guide. On reflex, I began to shoo him away, when the price he quoted sunk in. Three dollars. I had flown to the opposite side of the world and I was hedging on $3? Sure, my guidebook had an excellent section on Shwedagon, but what about my pledge to see my dollars go to ordinary Burmese? I gave in.

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Bogyoke Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi, Yangon

As it turned out, not only did John give me a thorough tour at my own pace, we ended up hanging out together the rest of the day. He said business was slow and I could pay him whatever I wanted beyond the $3 for the rest of the afternoon. I figured that, if nothing else, his sharpness at negotiating cab fares around spread out, sticky, humid Yangon (average taxi fare = 1,000 kyat = $1) would pay for itself. John showed me around the Aung San Market (negotiating the price down on the souvenir I bought), walked me to central Yangon's colonial section and even took me on a cram packed city bus to let me see how the ordinary Burmese got around. He showed me the football field long Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Temple and pointed out scenic spots to take photos. We capped the afternoon off with a Myanmar Beer at a local spot, where he explained his ambition to start his own guide service and agency. He has a degree in English and speaks it quite well. I would recommend travelers to Yangon contact him.

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Two Burmese, father and son, model longyis

Early the next morning, I flew to Bagan, where the staff of the Arthawka Hotel (owned by Golden Rock) met me. I checked in, unpacked and changed into my "bicycling clothes." Back home, I'd pondered over what to wear while biking in Bagan's heat and humidity. Shorts were a no-no in Buddhist temples I'd read, and the weather made jeans doubly so. I didn't have the guts to buy a longyi -- the national dress of Burmese men. It is basically a skirt, knotted at the front, which falls below the knees. Many also carry a shoulder bag, but you won't find me joking about Burmese men wearing skirts and carrying purses, no sirree! Besides, a longyi didn't seem practical for straddling a bicycle. I ended up buying a pair of "hospital scrubs" back home and packing the thinnest shirts I owned. Since I would be repeatedly taking off my shoes to enter the temples, I wore my sandals, which I felt would also be cooler. My heels protested this last choice, as it turned out. By the end of my first day in Myanmar, I was sporting blistered heels. I also discovered that wearing a longish pair of shorts (like Bermudas?) would have been fine, too.

All fashion tips aside, Bagan was the heart of my trip. There are more than 4,000 temples of various sizes and states of ruin in a 25 square mile area. I'd studied my Lonely Planet guidebook, which has an excellent section on Bagan, and made my plan of attack. On the first day, though, the plan went out the window. Bagan was too overwhelming. Everywhere I looked, gorgeous red brick ruins rose up against the blue sky. How to organize them? How to order them when they were all so scenic and so dramatic looking? I ended up pedaling around in a daze, not knowing which temple was which, until I noticed one that had a sign: Thatbinnyu Temple, the tallest in Bagan. Its whitewashed silhouette was unmistakable, and I finally parked the bike and wandered through it.

I'd made photocopies of Lonely Planet's maps and I got them back out and looked around. With Thatbinnyu as my landmark, I was able to locate Ananda Temple, said to be Bagan's most beautiful and graceful. I was particularly struck by the richness of the decorations on the outside -- the half-lion, half-dragon statues guarding its corners, the nats or spirits carved on its walls, and the golden spire gleaming in the sun atop the temple. Inside, four golden Buddhas gazed placidly down at worshipers and sightseers alike.

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12th century Ananda Temple, Bagan

It was at the next temple, Shwegugyi, that I happened upon the best way to orient yourself in Bagan. It was one of the temples that you are permitted to climb to the roof platform, an unforgettable panorama. I was shown the way by one of the ever-present, souvenir-selling Burmese kids. She pointed out each of the neighboring temples, along with their accolade, "Thatbinnyu -- the tallest...Ananda -- most beautiful." I dug out my map, looked around, and began to pointed to the other ones visible, guessing each's name. She corrected any mistakes. The map and the landscape fell into place in my head, almost with an audible click. From that point on, I was able to visit the temples I'd picked out in my notes beforehand. It was a blast, reading the guidebook's descriptions, examining the temples and beginning to recognized the Early Period ones from the Later ones.

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Young Burmese are eager guides (and souvenir sellers) at the temples

It is atop the temples, though, that the landscape of Bagan really shines. From the ground, scrub brush and slight hills hide many of the temples, and you can see perhaps three or four at once. From the rooftops, though, row upon row of temples rise up, their silhouettes looking for all the world like giant red tea bells. Some are small, brick shrines. Others are massive, sprawling temple complexes with walls and multiple towers. Most are made of brick or sandstone, while others are covered in whitewashed stucco. Here and there, a gold leaf spire reflects the sun. Late that afternoon, I followed my book's advice and climbed Mingalazedi Temple to enjoy the colors evoked by the sinking sun. Its warm red glow was thrown back by hundreds of temples all across the landscape. It was a stunning sight whose beauty caused a hush among those of us atop Mingalazedi. The occasional click of a camera seemed to be the only sound besides our peaceful, contented breathing.

It got a bit noisier at my last stop of the day, Shwesandaw Temple, to watch the actual sunset. In a more accessible country, Bagan would likely be crawling with tour buses. I saw a few, but most travelers to Bagan get around either like me by bicycle or by hiring out one of the colorful, horse-drawn carriages. A few are shuttled to the major temples by car and guide, but tour groups are a rare sight here. It is easy to lose the crowd, too, in the 4,000 plus temples. Most of the time, it seemed the only ones I saw along the road or pathways were the ordinary Burmese, walking, bicycling or riding a moped. You begin to recognize the handful of visitors you do see -- the half dozen French on bicycles, the Italians in their tour bus, or the English couple in the horse cart. Of course, it seemed like ALL of the travelers to Bagan were atop Shwesandaw Temple that evening, angling for a good view of the sunset. It was the most bustling I'd seen Bagan. We were all disappointed by the clouds which marred the sunset, but in a landscape so amazing, it is hard to be TOO let down.

My luck with sunsets and sunrises has never been particularly good. I've gotten up extra early all over the world to see clouds hide a sunrise, but I never seem to give up. So, naturally, I was pedaling through the predawn gloom the next morning back towards Mingalazedi. I clambered back up the rough, stone steps, turned around, to see...clouds. Of course. I'd been foiled, again, but it was peaceful and thrilling to watch the light come up and the temples transform from black silhouettes against a dark indigo sky to pale fingers of rock and brick stretching towards the gray of the morning haze. I returned to my hotel for a shower, breakfast and to get ready for the day.

Armed with yesterday's knowledge, I would be able to do a much more thorough exploration of Bagan. While writing post cards and enjoying a couple Myanmar beers the night before, I'd made a list of the temples I wanted to visit that day. And what a day it was! I went out early and stayed out all day long (my first day I had returned to the hotel for a mid-day break). I paced myself, pedaled slowly, stopped often to take photos or visit temples. It was glorious. The sun had burst out, the views were spectacular, and I was definitely in my element. It is strange, but when I am at an incredible historic sight, I enjoy being alone. I feel like a I can lose myself in the enchantment of the place much easier. Guides are a distraction. Companions bring me back to "reality." And Bagan is a wonderful place to escape from reality.

I felt much closer to the Burmese people that day, too. I ate both lunch and dinner at local "dives," enjoying the feeling of connecting with a different culture. I talked to them often throughout the day (thankfully, most speak some English) -- souvenir sellers, restaurant owners, policemen, monks, farmers and curious children. They are all very friendly, and happy to talk. I took pictures of them doing their daily activities -- pulling weeds out of garden plots, carrying bowls of supplies atop their heads, piling aboard their pickup truck "buses" or working on restoration of the temples. It was a wonderful day, memories of it will warm my heart for years to come.

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Nameless temples and shrines dot Bagan's landscape

The rest of the trip would be unable to compare with those days in Bagan. I flew back to Yangon the next day, and basically just nosed around, exploring the city. I found a street of booksellers and dug up a rare history of Burma, that doubtless I'd be unable to find back home. I browsed through the market, again, but had bought my souvenirs in Bagan, so nothing enticed me. I even checked out the Defense Services Museum (being a military history buff), but it seemed to concentrate on recent events and propaganda more than, say, the Bagan (Medieval) time period, which is what I'm interested in. At Golden Rock's urging, that evening I took in a Dinner Show and watched traditional dances and performances aboard a giant replica of a royal Burmese barge. Later, I found this to be one of the "official government businesses" I'd pledged to avoid -- oops!

A small slip like that was unable to spoil anything, though. And though the next day I began the arduous, multi-day journey back home, I did it in fresh and invigorated. Part of seeing Myanmar is sweat, struggle and fatigue, but the rewards resonate inside like the pleasant, tingly glow as you relax after a hard work out.

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:58 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Finding the Real Bali Takes a Lot of Digging

Scammers and aggressive tricksters almost ruin Indonesian experience

semi-overcast 92 °F

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Rice paddies in Bali, Indonesia

I had heard many good things about the people of Bali. They were kind-hearted, spiritual and gentle. So, when a coworker and I flew to this tropical, Indonesian island (just as Winter's cold descended on Ohio), I warmed to the idea of a trip that was more than just sun and fun. I hoped to connect with a culture said to be welcoming and different. In the end, it finally happened. The journey to connect was long and at times unpleasant, much like my 24-plus of flight time to get there.

The unpleasantness in Bali began in Denpassar airport, when porters snatched our bags unasked, and then tried to milk us for more than a fair tip. They knew we'd just withdrawn cash from the ATM and would have large denominations only. However, I had ignored their urgent pointing and marched straight from the ATM to the moneychangers to get smaller notes. Thus, I was only moderately conned.

Scott and I had booked our first four nights on the internet, so a driver was there to whisk us to our hotel about one hour north in the hills of central Bali. Exotic views of rice fields and elaborately carved stone temples flashed by. I saw farmers, calf deep in flooded rice paddies, working on terrace walls or tossing grains of rice into the air with a bowl-like sieve. Women placed offerings of colorful flowers atop roadside shrines. Sputtering past us on the road were squadrons of motorbikes, each carrying from one to four people each. Colorfully dressed women often clung to the driver, riding "side-saddle." And, seemingly oblivious to it all, scruffy dogs only grudgingly moved out of our way as we sped past. Some even slept nonchalantly on the asphalt.

Speaking of dogs, we'd chosen the Pringga Juwita Water Garden Hotel in Ubud, Bali, because of its enticing description in the guidebooks and websites. With its traditional Balinese architecture, all but the sleeping room were open to the outside. That, and the moat and trees and plants that encircled the complex, made the hotel unique looking. Perhaps, years ago, it was charming and worth the $75 a night we were paying. We'd splurged because Bali was reputed to be a bargain, otherwise. Hard times had struck this hotel, though. What remained was a dirty, unkempt shell of its former self.

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Stone demon statue at a Balinese temple

Since we'd already paid an internet company for it, we figured it'd be an incredible hassle to demand a refund and move elsewhere. Scott was more taken by the "charm" of our outdoor experience than I. Architecture had nothing to do with the dirt and dinginess, I argued. The same cobwebs and grime in our two-story cottage stood untouched during our four-day stay -- despite the fact that we were pretty much the only guests. Later, Scott admitted the Pringga Juwita was "a hole."

After unpacking, we strolled into town. Ubud's streets are crammed with restaurants, hotels, tour services and shops selling locally made crafts. It was impossible to walk far without a hawker offering his wares. If I had the proverbial dollar for every time we were offered transport alone in Bali, my proverbial butt could have been sitting in first class sipping proverbial champagne! The spiritual Balinese were proving quite mercenary.

We ate a tasty dinner at the Restaurant Dian (yes, normally unadventurous eater me ate Balinese food most of the trip). We then grabbed a couple beers and retired to our second floor deck to listen to the geckos and frogs. It wasn't long before we dozed off. Sleep came easily after flying for two days.

After a cold shower in the morning (the hotel advertised HOT ones), we set out for a hike to explore the neighboring villages and their temples. Either my map failed me or my sense of direction took its own hike, because locals had to steer us back on course a couple times before we arrived in Pejeng. Our first temple was Pura Penataran Sasih, the "Moon Temple," known for its 1000-year old bronze kettledrum.

We signed the Visitors Book (which seemed to be a Pejeng innovation), duly noting the spot to write down our "donation." We each tossed in 20,000 rupiah (about $2), which seemed to be the going rate with other travelers. The attendants handed us sashes to tie around our waist (separates the Bad lower half of your body from the Good upper half). One of the attendants attached himself to us and began a detailed explanation of the temple. His account was fascinating and I was thinking, "Hey, we should really tip this guy --he's great!" After much more time and detail than I'd expected, we thanked him, returned the sashes, and tried to hand him a tip. I'd pulled out a 50,000 note -- his talk was worth the five bucks. He shook his head and demanded 100,000. Each. I was still thinking warm, mushy thoughts about the Balinese, so after a weak dispute, we gave in.

Walking to the next temple on Mike's Excursion List, we resolved to clarify guide issues beforehand in the future. At Pura Pusering Jagat, "Navel of the World, "we were presented with another Visitors Book to sign and not our respective, individual donation. I rolled my eyes and wrapped the "complimentary" sash around me. Since we refused a guide this time, we were left to wander through the semi-ruined temple on our own. Balinese temples are quite interesting with their walls, intricate stone carvings, statues, altars and bas reliefs encrusting every surface. Afterwards, we stopped at a roadside warung (cafe) and cooled off with a drink. Hiking in the humid, near 90-degree heat was definitely taking its toll.

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Elephant-headed demon at entrance of Goa Gajah

My sense of direction had returned and I navigated us to Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave. First, we had to run a gauntlet of souvenir shops and hawkers, though. Once inside, it took a half dozen increasingly forceful refusals to free ourselves of prospective guides. The leering, elephant-like demon head carved around the cave entrance WAS cool, but the stuffy passages inside were a let down. I wanted to go further south to Yeh Pelu to see its carved rock reliefs, but our map had proven useless and I knew we'd never find it. This set us up for our next scam artist.

In my 22 years and 50-plus countries, I'd found I could usually trust adolescent local girls. They seemed more honest and less aggressive than the young men, more apt to use their charm rather than trickery. So, when a young girl offered to show us the way, I was ready to accept a guide, again. We grilled her on a price, but she said it would be free (even insisting SHE should pay us the chance to practice her English). She said we could tip her at the end, but only if we wanted. "See?" I thought. "You have to love those girls!"

Chatting away merrily, she led us down slippery forest paths and through a gate where an old man demanded a 1,000 rupiah toll. Then it was out of the trees onto the streets of her home village, our young guide pointing out her house. At last, we came to the reliefs. They were less impressive than I'd hoped, but I took some photos. We headed back to the main road, and Scott handed our young guide a 50,000 rupiah note. She refused, and insisted we pay her 100,000. It was that or nothing at all, she said. We argued, but she acted insulted by our offer, saying she was "usually" paid 100,000. I know, I know. We should have told her to suit herself and let her stomp off. Instead, we paid her, knowing full well we'd been scammed, again. Walking back to the road, she could read my expression. "Are you unhappy?" she asked. I said I was. I told her I'd read that the Balinese were good people. Today, we had met little but liars and tricksters. I told her that, so far, I was deeply disappointed in the people of Bali. "Let her chew on that," I thought!

After 15 minutes of hiking along the road in the rising afternoon heat, I flagged down a bemo (shared taxi), and we paid the equivalent of 50 cents for a ride back to Ubud. There, we cooled off our heads and bodies in a cafe with lunch and a couple beers. We nixed the last sight on my list in favor of a swim in the hotel pool.

Our first day of sightseeing had been an experiment to see whether hiking was a viable way to get around. We agreed walking or bicycling in the heat on these hills was out. Scott felt a motorbike was too risky, so we decided to hire a car and driver. The next day's plan was to visit the neighboring craft villages (each specialized in one skill, like wood or stone carving, silver jewelry, painting, etc.).

Our hotel receptionist had a buddy who could do it, he said. We negotiated a fair price and set out for a day of shopping. Our driver, Made, was patient and even turned into an impromptu guide when I twisted his arm into adding a temple I wanted to see onto our itinerary. Scott found the wooden Ganesh (elephant-headed Hindu god) he was looking for, and I found the silver jewelry on my Christmas list. The day was a success. Made was appreciative when we tipped him, so we contracted him for our sightseeing the next day. That night, we once again attended a traditional Balinese dance performance (a half dozen are held nightly in Ubud).

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Carved outside wall of a Balinese temple

The next day Made drove us east to the highest mountain in Bali -- Gunung Agung. Partway up the slopes of this semi-active volcano is Pura Besakih, Bali's holiest temple complex. Made warned us the guides were known to screw people over ("Oh, really?" I thought). Refusing a guide, though, proved to be a daunting task. We were continually badgered for the quarter mile walk uphill. At the entrance, the pissed off guides wouldn't let us enter the approved walkway. Tourists are not allowed actually inside the various temples, but may walk on a paved pathway that winds among them up the hillside. They directed us instead to an access road, which luckily joined up with the walkway, eventually. So, we did get to see Besakih. However, the experience of the island's holiest sight was spoiled by more of its despicable predators.

Finished, we drove north through forest and intermittent rain showers to Gunung Batur. This volcanic caldera holds some of Bali's loveliest views from the road that runs along the rim. It was striking looking at Lake Batur glistening far below, while two volcanic cones towered overhead.

I'd urged Made to stop at Pura Ulun Danu Batur, a temple on the rim of the caldera. As we stepped out of his van, we were swarmed by hawkers and beggars. Postcards, souvenirs and various items of temple clothing were shoved in our faces. I looked to Made for help, but he wimped out and just watched. To his credit, he had brought along a sarong for me to wear inside the temple precints (Scott had bought his own in Ubud). Made said nothing as a particularly unpleasant old woman tried to fleece me for a sash (this temple had complimentary ones only for guides, I was told). I paid a fraction of what she first wanted and slowly made my way through crowd like a bear encircled by hunting dogs. When the old woman then tried to place a temple headband on my head -- lying, and saying renting it was mandatory -- I'd had enough. "Go AWAY!" I yelled into her face, and broke away from the swarm. I stalked into the temple, not in the mood to appreciate anything.

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Volcanic scenery of Ganung Batur

The mood was slow in leaving the rest of the day. I made only feeble attempts to get Made to pull off the road so I could photograph scenic views. I was in the "Don't Give A Shit" stage. I've found when you get to that stage in a foreign country, the best cure is meeting a fellow English speaking traveler. Comparing experiences and hearing about their journey recharges my travel batteries. Vishnu must have smiled as we bumped into Merle, from California, later in Ubud. He was on a three week swing through Asia and I think was desperate for some American company. We drank and ate at a cafe, having a blast. Afterwards, we swung by his $25 a night hotel to compare it to ours. His proved to be a gorgeous, four star resort, which finally torpedoed the Pringga Juwita in Scott's eyes.

For the final three days of our trip, Scott and I headed south to the famous (and touristy) beaches of Kuta. We imitated Merle's walkup strategy and scored a pleasant one for $25 a night, too (I'd insisted: "No traditional Balinese architecture"). We checked out the shops and peeked at the beach the first day, reserving Day Two in Kuta for our sun and sand experience. The waves were incredible. I battered myself silly diving, somersaulting and bodysurfing them. Drying out in the sun on our $1 a day lounge chairs, it was fun just to watch the waves rise up and pound the sand with the sound of a tropical thunderstorm. Most of the other beachgoers were cheerful Aussies. There was only a minimum of the "I'll go naked anywhere I please (no matter what the local custom)" Europeans strutting around.

That night, we met Nick from Baliblog.com, an Englishman whose spent the past year here writing a web page on his experiences. We'd read and enjoyed his daily updates while planning our trip. The tons of pictures and the descriptions he posted prepared us for how Bali would look, feel and smell. I'm a fervent reader of guidebooks to figure out what I want to see, but Nick's site let you experience life in Bali alongside of him.

With Nick, were Sean (from Oregon) and Chris (Australia). Shortly afterwards, Juliana joined us. She is a cute, 19-year-old Balinese girl studying in Australia. The six of us had an incredible time, swapping stories and sharing experiences. I've found some of my most enjoyable evenings overseas are spent in the company of fellow travelers. Their insights on the world are unique and fascinating. For Nick's account of our evening, check out his blog.

During the evening, Juliana insisted we should all come see her village of Baturiti while in Bali. I was the only taker, as the others had plans. And here was where the connection with the kind-hearted and welcoming Balinese occurred. Juliana is a wonderful ambassador for her country. Despite going to school full time, she also squeezes in at least five hours of part-time work each night in various jobs in Australia. A kind heart, she has built a house for her parents, bought them their first refrigerator and other appliances. An only child, she embraces the fact that it will be her duty to support her parent's old age -- accepting it may impair her dreams of seeing the world. She is paying for the schooling of four of her young cousins, and confessed her dream is to build and run an orphanage so that poor Balinese kids have a chance in life.

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Lakeside temple of Pura Danu Bratan

I had a wonderful day with her and her family. Her mother Loh De fixed a Balinese lunch for us, including...gulp...two bowls of snails. They laughed at my expression as I overcame my reluctance and sucked down a few of the slimy-looking things. Juliana had hired a car for us, which her father Landuh drove. They took me to Mt. Bratan, with its volcanic lake and gorgeous shoreside temple. We picked up her mother on the way south to stunningly sited Tanah Lot temple. Her mother was from the local village and wanted to place offerings at the family temples. At Tanah Lot itself, we ran into the largest crowd of tourists I'd seen yet in Bali. The temple is set on a rocky islet on the coast amidst crashing waves. It was charming to see Juliana's Mom poke about the tidal pools, looking for crabs and reliving her childhood experiences.

Even more heartwarming was Juliana watching the local urchins trying to sell knick-knacks to tourists. That was how she got her start, she said, doing the same thing. She confessed she always buys something from one when she comes here, hoping that it will help that child have the good fortune she has. As she reached for her money, I asked her to let me pay for the little seashell souvenir. She had refused to let me pay for the car or gas. I told her this would be my way of thanking her, in the hopes that it might create a future Juliana.

This day, spent with a fun-loving and kind-hearted Balinese family, is when I finally connected with the true spirit of the island's people. Tourism has brought many changes to Bali over the years -- not all of them not good, I'd seen. I'd begun to doubt the positive things I'd heard about the Balinese. Juliana and her family showed me that the traditional spirit of her people still lives on in Bali.

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:29 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

A Short Trip to Andorra -- "Postage Stamp" Kingdom

Mountains and Spring-like weather make for a pleasant stay

sunny 66 °F

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Scenic pathway above Andorra's capital, La Vella, Andorra

I'd figured Andorra -- tucked between Spain and France up in the Pyrennees -- would be freezing in mid-March. I knew it was still ski season, so it had to be snowy, right? Thank goodness I'd checked the weather online before leaving. I was able to leave the thermal underwear and winter coat at home and enjoy the sun and warmth without them.

Since I'm not a snow skier, I was out to sample the mountain scenery. I flew into Barcelona and took a Novatel shuttle bus up the winding roads into the Pyrenees. The scenery as it whipped by the windows (and I mean really whipped -- Andorrans drive like they're one car length ahead of a landslide) was great. And it just got better as we climbed. Medieval churches, towers and castles presided over an undulating landscape. It made me wish I could take a week lingering at the hilltop villages on my way up here, instead of a couple hours. Their brickwork gleaming in the westering sun cried out for a camera or sketchbook.

Before I knew it, we were stuck in Andorra's legendary traffic jam. A "duty free" country, it is packed with day trippers, shoppers and bargain hunters -- along with busloads of bright cheeked skiers. Luckily, my shuttle drove right by the Pyrenees Hotel where I was staying, so I was able to easily retrace my way through town to it. It was a pleasant hotel, clean, bright and comfortable. The next morning I would discover its paper thin walls, but hey! For a three-star hotel, it was more than sufficient at 35 euros, including breakfast.

For dinner, I followed the advice of my Lonely Planet guidebook to a restaurant and had a decent salad and pasta meal. I wandered the quiet city streets a bit afterwards, and stopped by an internet cafe. It was getting late on Tuesday evening, though, and I hadn't been to bed since Sunday night. So, I turned in early. I really only had one full day for my Andorran sightseeing, and wanted to make the most of tomorrow.

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Shady river walk by the cherry blossoms in Andorra La Vella

After breakfast at the hotel, I headed down to the Old Quarter of Andorra La Vella, the capital city. Casa de la Vall, the 16th century combination Parliament, Justice and Town Hall is the city's main sight. I was the first to arrive, but since you can see it only by appointment on a (free) guided tour, they couldn't squeeze me in till 11 am. So, I tramped off to the municipal tourist office to get information on hiking in the hills. They were helpful, and with a better map in hand, decided to wander La Vella a bit. The weather was warm and Springlike. I found a shady river walk lined with cherry blossom trees in bloom. It was a pleasant stroll, looking up at the town rising up the steel slopes on either side of the valley, and above that, the pine trees where the buildings gave out, and finally, the snow-capped peaks where the pines faltered. There were many others out taking their leisure on that warm morning, as well. Andorrans seem to love to walk their dogs, but they don't apparently enjoy bringing along a baggie or scooper!

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16th century Casa La Vell

It was time for my tour, so I headed back to the Old Quarter. Casa de la Vall is small as European Parliaments or Town Halls go, but then again, Andorra is pretty tiny itself. There are only about 30,000 actual citizens -- the rest of the nearly a million people must live there for 25 years before they can become one. My guide, a pleasant young Catalan woman, told me many other interesting tidbits about Andorra during the half hour tour. The building still functions as the country's seat of government, and I was shown the small room with its various size chairs where the ministers, cabinet and council meet. Had they been in session, I wouldn't have been allowed in. The citizens are, though, and there are four benches in a mini gallery for them to observe (or they could tune in on radio, as all meetings are broadcast live). Andorra is a "Co-Principality," which means there are two (figure) heads of state: The Bishop of Le Seu and the reigning President of France. So, church and state share leadership. My guidebook explained that was part of the reason this "postage stamp kingdom" has survived to the present day without being absorbed, but it still seemed a little unclear to me.

After my tour, I followed the tourist office's map up through the streets into the hills overlooking La Vella. There is a cobblestone path called the Passeig Rec de la Sol (I think...) that runs for kilometers above the the sprawling valley settlement. It is fairly level, so the walking isn't strenuous, and has a wooden guard rail and is spaced generously with wooden benches. Having just come from Winter in flat, cold Ohio, it was a treat for my senses it sit and let the sun warm my skin while taking in the gorgeous view. Bilbo's line from The Lord of the Rings kept popping into my head: "I want to see mountains again, Gandalf. MOUNTAINS." And here I was, hiking in the Pyrenees in shirt sleeve weather. I said "Hola" to the retired folks taking their daily constitutional, befriended a dog who seemed to want some company, and even used my camera's timer to pose a shot of me overlooking the valley.

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Andorran mountain and valley scenery

I walked for more than three hours, then returned to town for a late lunch. I'd spotted a Pizza Hut in my earlier wanderings, so couldn't resist adding another country to my Pizza Hut total! Then I took a bus to the nearby village of La Massana (hmm, come to think of it, EVERYTHING is nearby in Andorra!). I hiked around town, climbing streets for good lookout points for more pictures. After more than an hour of that, my feet were beginning to protest. So, I trudged back to the La Massana's main drag and waited for the bus back.

After a short rest in my hotel room, I decided to pick out a restaurant for dinner. Catalan cuisine is supposed to be different than the rest of Spain -- more hearty and meaty. I picked out an authentic sounding one, and armed myself with the guidebook's section on food, ready to interpret the menu. One problem, though. There wasn't a menu! The staff was kind and patient, and helped interpret words for me, since my Spanish is nearly nonexistent. The onion soup was a bit odd tasting, and the steak was fatty and rare (I prefer it more well done). The high point was the plate of olives they set out as an appetizer. I've never been a fan of olives, but I found a type I really liked. All in all, though, it was the least enjoyable meal I had in Andorra. I've proved to myself many times in many countries before that I am NOT a gourmet. I guess I must subconciously feel, that to be a "serious cultural traveler," I must try the local food. Ah, well, every once in awhile, I DO find something that strikes a spark, like I did with Thai food.

I ended the evening in the internet cafe again, catching up on e-mail and letting my buddies from Travelpunk.com know how things were going. I'd had a full day, though, and was tiring quickly. I was footsore, but felt sated. And even if I hadn't gorged myself on Andorra's food, I'd had a full taste of its sights. The next morning, I mailed my postcards, found the bus back to Barcelona, and enjoyed the mountain scenery once again on the ride down through the Pyrenees. Still no snow or cold, just warm sunshine to match the warm feeling inside.

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:36 Archived in Andorra Comments (0)

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