WordPress does an interesting job of compiling mundane facts about blogs on their service. I thought I would share this with my readers just so you know you are not alone!
I also feel like maybe you would want to see a re-post of some of my favorite photos of the year, so here goes. They are not in any particular order, and if you want to know more about our trips, you can always navigate to them on the top of the page.
There were more trips in 2012, and thanks to you readers for reading about them. You can go back and read them again if you so desire.
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I am changing my entire look and feel in 2013, but I will still get to you somehow.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 30,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 7 Film Festivals
We were warned that the Paro airport in Bhutan is visual only, and the least level of incremental weather shuts it down. Which seems only right because it is surrounded by mountains. They tell you to make any connecting flights with a day lapse in case you cannot get out of Paro. Well, we arrived at the airport on a cloudy morning with drizzling rain. Nothing that would stop an Airbus 320 anywhere else.
However our flight was delayed hours, waiting for perfect weather. Druk air served us lunch and tea in the lobby so that people would not be absent if the clouds lifted.
Our flight was back to Kathmandu. We were not on an 320, but a small prop plane. That meant we should have gotten a great view of Everest.
We got back to Kathmandu on a nice afternoon. We went back to the KGH. We just relaxed for the next day. We spoke with people who had tried to get into Tibet. They actually had their permits and/or visas. But when they got to the border, the Chicoms turned them around, with little or no reason given. We spoke with our travel agent about a visit to Tibet someday, but he was as perplexed by the Chinese constantly changing the rules as we were. Maybe someday we will be able to go, and maybe someday pigs will fly.
We left Kathmandu for Bangkok. We had both been there a few times before, so we looked for something different to do. We signed up for an Intrepid Travel Tuk Tuk tour. It was fun. We saw some interesting and different stuff.
We left BKK for KL. That is Kuala Lumpur. We flew Air Asia, which is an excellent low cost airline that covers that part of the coconut. I hear that the main terminal in KL is beautiful, new and efficient. The low cost terminal is, well, tired.
The KL airport is 1 ½ hours away from KL. We were only going to stay in KL overnight, and leave the next morning so we stayed at a hotel only a ½ hour away, which obviously exists to serve people in transit.
We flew Air Malaysia to a city called Sandakam in the state of Sabah. We were still in the same country, but it was a 2 ½ hour flight, definitely the longest domestic flight I had ever taken in Asia. It was like flying from NY to Chicago. Amazingly, when we got to Sandakam, we had to go through immigration! Oh well, at this point another stamp in my passport is just another stamp.
We were now officially in Borneo. I am not sure just what I expected. Headhunters?
Our tour was arranged through AMAZING BORNEO TOURS. They picked us up at the airport. Our lodge was n the Kinabatangan river, about two hours away. For the next two hours we drove through nothing but palm oil plantations. Miles and miles, thousands and thousands of hectares of land that used to be jungle, is now producing palm oil. It is definitely the cash crop of Sabah. Why all this palm oil? Is this a good or bad thing? Go here to find out.
We got to the lodge after a the long drive. The lodge was OK, nothing to write a blog post about. Our adventure in “wild” Borneo was to start the next day.
The first thing on the agenda was Orangutans. I was thinking that this was the third endangered species I had seen this year, kinda cool. We went to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. This one of those places that somehow get orphaned or injured critters and raise them until they are prepared to go back into the wild. They showed us an interesting video of their work. I noticed a glaring error and afterward tried to bring it to the attention of the docent. No big deal, but they ought to get their facts straight. I’m no biologist, but I know the film was flawed. This place was billed as a chance to see orangutans play together. After a 45 minute wait at a staged area, in the Borneo heat, we saw ONE. He was led to the feeding area by a refuge worker, and did not look all that enthused about being on display.
we transferred to another lodge where we took trips on the river. On one trip we actually saw Orangutans in the wild, and my favorite, the Jimmy Durante of primates, the Proboscis monkey, on another.
In case I have at all led you to believe we were “explorers” in wild Borneo, this next photo should cancel that idea.
We were treated to a great sunset.
The next day we left the lodge and the river. We drove through palm oil plantations for another hour to see the second cash crop of Sabah, birds nests. Yup, this is the primary source of birds nests for birds nest soup, of which the Chinese are apparently quite fond. They pay a LOT of money for these nests, harvested from a cave.
Well folks, that was it for Borneo. Is it worth your time and treasure to go? Only if you want to say you have been there!
Thanks for reading, share with a friend, make a comment, or go order a bowl of birds nest soup cooked with palm oil.
Bhutan, besides being a country of happy people is a country of almost unparalleled beauty. As you can see, even the money is Bhutiful
We only saw a quarter of it in our week there and a lot of that from the back seat of our sedan. I am not sure how many times I asked the driver to stop so I could take in a vista, and take some photos, but the simple fact that I took close to 700 photos in a week should say something.
Bhutan is of course a mountainous country with plenty of rain. The combination of the two means nice rivers.
I started wondering about fishing, so I asked. Yes, you can fish in Bhutan, with a special permit. They sort of frown on it because Buddhists don’t take the life of creatures, including fish. So I asked “what type of fish are there in these rivers ?” The guide said trout. I started putting two and two together.I figured if nobody fished, and never really had, these rivers must have some lunkers. So I asked the guide “big trout?” He said “some”. The driver, who was a very communicative young man shook his head and said “huge trout”. He related a story that about a year ago he had guided five Texans into the mountains to do some fly fishing. He was happy they practiced catch and release. He started telling me about them landing 8 to 10 pound trout all day long while he fished with a bamboo pole and a worm on a hook. He said he caught the biggest, and so that is the one they ate for dinner. This is one reason, among many, I would love to return to the land of the Thunder Dragon.
If I were a birder, I would definitely find Bhutan a destination of choice. Bhutan has many tour companies specializing in birding. This is one I only chose that one because I stole the following photo from their web site.
Not that I was always ready to get good bird photos (which is an art in and of itself) but I did see many bhutiful birds during my stay.
Bhutan has some marvelous detail work on their buildings.
I have made a big deal about Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. They take a census and publish the results, and then take action where needed. The idea is catching on. The UN is talking about it, but most amazing is that so is the US Fed Reserve. Don’t believe me, read this. Be sure to read the mention about Bhutan half way down the story.
Another reason they might be so happy is their music.
One weird thing I saw in Bhutan, and no where else I have been, is using a Phallus as a talisman against evil.
OK, so the government of Bhutan will not admit it, but I happen to think that one little reason for the happiness is this; pot grows wild all over the place.
So I asked the guide, who of course works for the government, if this was perhaps a factor in the happiness thing. He denied it and said that the marijuana is only used for pig food. Don’t believe me? Read this.
However, the driver who was a bit more irreverent (had to love him) said that the young people, because of the influence of TV and movies have discovered they have a natural source of happiness growing at their feet, and yes, they are feeding the pigs less.
That is it for Bhutan. I strongly suggest that the more adventurous readers/travelers go to experience this place yourselves. You can only get there through Thailand, Bangladesh or Nepal. I suggest Nepal. The best guy to set you up with tours or trekking in both places is Mr. Pandy, who you can contact right here.
Thanks for reading, share with a friend, make a comment, or better yet, plan your own trip!
This post will cover the two most spiritual things I have ever experienced. I was deeply moved by both of them. Bhutan is a deeply Buddhist country. I have mentioned before that if I ever decided to convert, as if I were disciplined enough to try, it would be in Bhutan. I found that the Tantrayana sect of Buddhism appeals to me for some reason I cannot fathom. Maybe it is just that it seems unspoiled by outside influences, much like Bhutan itself.
On the longest touring day in our itinerary we drove through beautiful mountains.
Prayer flags for our loved ones.
Our drive took us to a place called Punakha Dzong located at 3050 meters.
When I came back down the hill Mary Ann let me know that there was a Monk there who sold strings of prayer flags. That is exactly what I had just wished for. I do not care if I am in a Christian church, a mosque or a temple, I always say a prayer for the sole of my departed son. I really wanted to hang a string of prayer flags for him.
Hearing the Voice of Buddha.
From here we drove further until we reached what is called the most beautiful valley in the Himalayas.
As spiritual as beauty can be sometimes, in Bhutan you just never know what comes next
What we saw inside was a very large court yard surrounded by “dorm” rooms for a considerable amount of Monks. In the middle of the court yard was a temple. It was completely full of both Monks and civilians. They were all intently listening to an elderly Monk speaking a lesson. We peaked in, but did not feel like making a scene and trying to enter the crowded floor space. The man’s voice sounded wonderful, It sounded soothing. People were paying rapt attention.
When we left, our guide said how lucky we were to have heard the voice of Buddha. He could see by the look on my face that he owed me an explanation.
He went on to explain. In the Tantrayana sect of Buddhism, at any time there are three men walking the earth who are Lamas. One carries the spirit of Buddha, one the mind of Buddha, and one the voice of Buddha. That is who we had just been listening to. This was his monastery, these were his Monks. He is in his eighth reincarnation. His first life was in 800 A.D. Apparently he has clear memories from each of his lives. This is basically how they know he is a venerated Lama.
I was feeling very privileged. After seeing something like a million statues of Buddha in the last few years, to magically be transported to a place where I could hear his voice, made me start thinking…”am I destined for Buddhism?” Probably not, there is no way I could tolerate a mosquito biting me without killing it.
That is it for spirituality for the day. Time to go beat my wife’s cat for scratching the couch. Share with a friend, subscribe, comment, anything. Just let me know you are out there!
Bhutan Protects the Timeless Knowledge
There were three floors of the “old” library, each with a shrine to the Buddha.
Bhutan Enters the Digital Age!
Just outside of the capital city of Thimpu, there is a brand new IT Park
Space inside this building has already been leased to Microsoft and other international high tech companies. It will also serve as a start-up bed for Bhutanese entrepreneurs.
The Project Manager for the construction phase is an Australian that goes by the name of Shax. he keeps an interesting blog about the project and life in Bhutan. I suggest you read it, here.
Next post, A sacred ceremony Mary Ann and I performed which was the highlight of my five weeks in Asia.
Please share. Please return. Please comment. Please enjoy.
Yes, Bhutan is a happy place. I mentioned before that the government actually does a yearly census to evaluate the level of happiness and look for ways to make people even happier, now THAT is a wonderment.
I also mentioned that there is a US$250 “tariff” you must pay to visit Bhutan. This is actually a good deal because it includes everything except beer and souvenirs. So, it cost us a bit more ;-). That tariff is actually in place to keep Bhutan from becoming over run with back packers like what happened with Nepal, India and Thailand. I know it sounds snobbish, but thank Buddha they figured that out. The result keeps everyone happy! OK backpackers…snipe away in the comments.
One thing every country wants you to see are the handicrafts. Weaving, carving, and paper making. I always enjoy going because you know what…it is always different in every country, not to mention the best place for souvenirs. (My wife and I have a sort of unspoken but over riding rule, if we see something made, we are going to buy it.)
Besides the crafts, tours in Asia always make sure you see the temples. I know I have been in more Buddhist temples than 95% of the Buddhists on the coconut. But like the weaving, they all have a certain distinctness to them. You have to look hard but it is there. In our travels I have seen the worlds smallest Buddha, and now I have seen the worlds largest under construction Buddha. When he is done, he will just be a big beautiful Buddha, not the worlds largest. Some very rich man from Hong Kong is paying for this project. I wish I could be there when they consecrate it because I am sure it will be a spectacle.
The next post will take a quick look at Bhutan old and new. The ancient library and the brand new technology center. Whatever makes you happy! Stay tuned, share with a friend.
These two events were not on our tour agenda.
On our first full day in Bhutan, we found two towns involved in an archery tournament. Archery is the national sport. I was simply not prepared for what we saw.
These guys were all first rate archers, who had earned the right through years of experience to compete for the town they are from. What I found particularly interesting was that when others were shooting, they would drift away and drink beer and smoke cigarettes! What a cool sport!
As you might imagine, when an archer actually hits the the target it is cause for song and dance. No really, song and dance! Play the following video for “proof”.
I am going to jump ahead a few days. The day of the week is important here. It was a Tuesday, which is “Walking Day” in Bhutan. Private cars are not allowed to be driven. The king asks his people to get off their duffs and walk to work or the market.
In a small town in the mountains (well, Bhutan is mostly small towns in the mountains, but…) we ran across a tournement of taxi drivers playing each other in the second national sport of Bhutan, darts. I am not talking about darts like in some pub. These were serious darts.
They were thrown by serious men!
Like the archery this was not an easy sport.
They really had to chuck it The effort resembled a baseball pitcher.
Of course when they hit the target they sang and danced. Only here, the opposing team members got to harass them a bit!
Next post…hmmm…well, all I’ll promise is more from the land of the Thunder Dragon. Stay tuned.
The Kingdom of Bhutan does not make it hard for a traveler to visit, it is just hard to get there. When I first started reading about traveling to Bhutan I was led to understand that only a certain number of visitor visas were issued in a year, and that you had to go with a government approved guide service while you were there. The second part is true, not the first. However, the number of visitors to Bhutan per year could not fill the Rose Bowl. This is the last Shangri-La in my opinion. My fingers want to type all sorts of interesting and amazing tid-bits, but my mind wonders “where do I start? How can I convey the magic of this country while maintaining some level of credibility?”
Let us start with the official slogan of the Kingdom. “Gross National Happiness“. Yup, the government is much more concerned with the Gross Happiness of the people than with the Gross Production. Until just a couple of years ago, this was a pure Kingdom, led by the fifth king since unification. He happens to be well educated, handsome and married to a foxy commoner now his queen. He decided that the country needed to elect a congress so that it would be considered a democracy. Bhutan borders Tibet (Which I refuse to call China, although to keep things cool in Bhutan, they do) and I guess they figured a democracy would be better protected by outsiders if anyone looking is to absorb them. The people did not really want a congress, but if the king did, well, OK. They held elections and there were a hand-full of parties. The party that won a vast majority of the congressional seats had a campaign promise of two words… “No Change”.
The kingdom measures the happiness of the people in an actual census. Figuring the entire population of Bhutan is about 650,000, this seems do-able. The questions range from how is your job, to how is the infrastructure, how is your health care, to, do you like the TV channels you get. The government actually acts on things a great number of people might be unhappy about. If that does not seem incredible to you, you live on a different planet than I.
The population is something like 90% Buddhist. They have a certain, not unique, but different strain of Buddhism in Bhutan. This type of Buddhism is called Vajrayana, which means the Diamond Way because it is based on unbreakable logic. It relies on Tantras and is sometimes called Tantrayana. Here I am talking like I am an expert on the philosophies of the Buddha and I not sure I know the difference between a Tantra and a Tantrum.
OK, about getting into Bhutan. There is a single overland entrance from India. This is where anything you find manaufactured gets into Bhutan, even beer bottles. They brew their own beer, but the bottles come from India.
Both overland travelers and air travelers must pay the daily visitors tariff to the government. This is a US$250 per day charge. “But Wait! You get a set of steak knives with that!” Actually you get a lot more. This “tariff” pays for your transportation, guide, entrance fees and even the hotels you will stay in and 3 meals a day! The only thing it does not pay is your beer.
Most people enter by air on Bhutan’s only Airline Druk Air. They have two or three Airbus A320’s and only fly from Bangkok, Bangladesh or as for us Kathmandu. They are the only airline serving the country.
A few posts ago (here) I linked my readers to a Youtube video of the approach to Paro International Airport. It was definitely different. As a frequent flyer I am not used to the airplane making radical turns after the landing gear is down. But obviously all went well or I would not be here posting this for you.
Immigration paper work was easy because we had printed out our “Letter of Invitation” from the Bhutanese Royal Tourist Agency which confirmed that we had ponied up the money to the travel agency. Customs was a different story, although I was ready for them. They require a %200 duty on all cigarettes brought into Bhutan. You have to hold onto the receipt they give you because possession of tobacco is not allowed unless you can prove you paid the duty. That makes smoking very expensive, so most people don’t. More on that later.
Then we met our guide and driver, both dressed in traditional Bhutanese garments called Ghos. They are very distinct and attractive, but they look very difficult to put on.. Each one is made of different weaves, all quite colorful, yet subtle.
We drove from Paro to Thimpu, about an hour. I felt like I was in a magical fairyland. Disney could not have put Snow White in a more fantastic setting. Even the common farmers homes were quite beautiful.
We arrived in Thimpu and found our hotel to be quite comfortable. However, we were on the third floor and when I asked where the elevator was, the look on the guides face quickly made it clear that Bhutan has no elevators.
I am trying to keep my posts short, so that is all for this one. Next post, the national sport.
Stay tuned, share with a friend.
Our five weeks in Asia started in Kathmandu
We are lucky enough to be able to refer to this as our return to Kathmandu. Dear readers, you really need to be able to look beyond the obvious and not be distracted by the oblivious to enjoy this city. I will not belabor my love for Kathmandu, I explained it all in this post. In a city this old, in a country without a functional national government, nothing much changes so my two year old post is not outdated. We came here because we know a excellent guide/travel coordinator named Shankar Pandy. (You can contact him using the link.) He showed us a great time in 2010 and urged us to return so we could see Tibet and Bhutan. But whatever you do, do not ask Mr.Pandy to carry a cabbage!
This time we stayed at the Kathmandu Guest House. Kathmandu has a plethora of places to stay from hostels to luxury. The KGH covers the entire range. Back in the day, when Kathmandu was a target destination for hippies in Volkswagen vans driving the silk road from Europe, the KGH was the hotel to stay in.
Our last visit to Kathmandu was highlighted by a visit to the Buddhist crematorium on the main river through town. You can always catch a cremation live and in person. No reservation needed or admission fee charged. We decided to see it again. Not only is it sacred and solemn, it is also great theater! It takes place on the Pashantinah Temple which is on the Bagmati river, a tributary to the sacred Ganges.
We did not do much else in Kathmandu, we were anxious to get to Bhutan. Read the next post to see one of the traveler’s gems, the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Please share this with your friends, hit the like button, or make a comment. Thanks for reading and stay tuned!