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2012 in Review

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.

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My wife in front of the worlds largest beer mug. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Royal Selangor is a pewter shop. They make jewelry, picture frames, well just about everything from pewter. A great place to visit in KL

Sri Lanka

A restaurant in Sri Lanka that I just did not want to eat at!

20120425_325

On a tour in a medieval town in Italy, the mayor took my wife, the librarian, on a tour of their library which had thousands of volumes from medieval times. They actually let me hold one! They do not make books like this anymore. The art is hand painted. Amazing.

Uganda, equator

I have crossed the equator many times in my travels, but this was the most fun. This was taken in Uganda on a tour with Intrepid travels.

albino turtle

In Sri Lanka I visited a turtle hatchery and saw an albino turtle. Very unique!

assisi alley

In what was my favorite city in Italy. A street scene in Assisi.

berninis fave

We spent a few days in Rome, which everyone should do. I became a fan of the sculptor Bernini. His work is all over Rome, and all of it is exceptional. This was reported to be his favorite.

bocci

I tried my hand at Bocci. A game even an old guy like me can pick up. The old Italian gentlemen were quite patient with me and I had a great day.

emperors seats in the roman coliseum

When in Rome, be sure to pay for a good tour of the coliseum. We did, and we saw many things you will not see if you just walk in. This is a view from the emperors seat!

This is the original "senate floor" in the senate building in Rome.

This is the original “senate floor” in the senate building in Rome.

hitchiker

On my safari to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, this monkey jumped into the vehicle to ride along. Africa is wonderful!

We also visited the beautiful island of Mauritius. A bit out of the way, but a paradise.

We also visited the beautiful island of Mauritius. A bit out of the way, but a paradise.

Every year we make a trip to NYC. I think I am starting to like the place.

Every year we make a trip to NYC. I think I am starting to like the place.

While in Burma, or Myanmar if you wish, we went to Inle Lake. Besides these fisherman who row with their feet, there are dozens of other unique things to see there, and the rest of Burma.

While in Burma, or Myanmar if you wish, we went to Inle Lake. Besides these fisherman who row with their feet, there are dozens of other unique things to see there, and the rest of Burma.

An extreme bucket list item for the year was visiting the Kingdom of Bhutan, the happiest country on earth.

An extreme bucket list item for the year was visiting the Kingdom of Bhutan, the happiest country on earth.

miss Rwanda

My favorite shot of 2012! I call her Miss Rwanda. A mountain Gorilla posing for me with a welcoming bouquet!

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.

Please share this with FB friends! Please make a comment.

I am changing my entire look and feel in 2013, but I will still get to you somehow.

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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

Click here to see the complete report.

 

From Bhutan to Borneo

 

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.

A druk Air A 320 going nowhere because of a light rain.

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.

Right after we boarded the plane, the rain returned, but we made it out of Paro anyway.

We did get a decent look at Everest. This is the “other side” of the great mountain, from the Tibetan side.

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.

I had never been to the flower market in Bangkok before. It was awfully pretty. This is a table of Lotus flowers on sale

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.

We went through this airport 3 times on this trip and each time it was crowded, even at one in the morning. There were no jet ways and no buses. You had to walk a long way from the plane to the terminal, dodging luggage trucks and jet blast.

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.

The rehab center put out a basket full of fruit, he ate one and then swung away like Tarzan, back into the jungle. Mind you, there were at least a hundred tourists who had paid like US$30 apiece standing around sweating and pointing cameras. All in all, this was a disappointing excursion.

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.

Although we could not get too close, we were in a boat in a big river, we were pleased and amused to see Orangutans in the wild. Actually we saw quite a few.

My favorite sighting was the Proboscsis monkeys. Their noses are humorous. They are kind of cute. Apparently not endangered, except for loss of their homeland to the palm oil business.

In case I have at all led you to believe we were “explorers” in wild Borneo, this next photo should cancel that idea.

This is just a sample of the tourist boats on the river that day, during LOW season.

We were treated to a great sunset.

I love a good sunset, don’t you?

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.

The best photo I could get in a dark cave. There is a walkway built of rotting wood that you follow through the cave. The birds nests (Swifts) are all up on the roof, and for me impossible to get a good photo.

Mary Ann and me in front of the opening to the cave on the slippery wooden walkway. It was slippery because it was covered with birdshit. If you fell off, you would land among the 10 billion or so cockroaches on the ground.

Mary Ann showing of her hand covered with birdshit from holding the rail along the walkway. We were ready to leave.

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 the Bhutiful

 

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.

At a quick stop for lunch I found the “Window on Bhutan”

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.

Prayer wheels in the central square in Thimpu. These wheels are hollow inside and contain hundreds or thousand of prayers (very small font size) and when people walk past, they spin them to help the prayers do their thing. You always spin them clockwise. I can’t walk past a set of these wheels without spinning them all. It just feels good.

Windows on a temple. This style of window frame is all over Bhutan, from temples to government buildings to homes.

Just another doorway in just another temple. I could have used up an entire memory card with just photos of doors in Bhutan.

Another view of the big Buddha we saw under construction. When he is done there will be an entire temple under him. Before construction started, they blessed the land around him. I took home a blessed rock. I am staring at it right now.

This is almost a logo of Bhutan. It depicts an act friendship, kindness and cooperation. The elephant is giving the monkey a ride, the rabbit is on top of the monkey, and the bird is on top of the rabbit, all so that they can reach the “golden fruit” in the tree. This is depicted in many ways in Bhutan, I saw one where the elephant was wearing sneakers and the monkey was garbed out with sunglasses and a scarf.

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.

Under certain conditions back in the day, I might have seen Jerry Garcia look like this, but without the bird on his head.

One weird thing I saw in Bhutan, and no where else I have been, is using a Phallus as a talisman against evil.

Sometimes they paint them outside their door…

…or on the walls of the school.

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.

I stopped our sedan to relieve myself. When I looked at what I was watering, I just had to laugh.

Right outside the front door!

I stopped to mail a post card. Across the street was the Thimpu police station. Look what is growing in their front yard!

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.

A happy pig in Bhutan. By the way, the pork was delicious!

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!

 

Happy Spirits in Bhutan

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.

These are the Bhatan version of Stupas called Chortens. They were located on top of a hill at the 3000+ meter elevation.On a clear day, you get a great view of the Himalaya from here, but this was off season, so the weather was off as well. There were 108 (an important number) of these Chortens. They were built by the fourth Queen of Bhutan. Next to them is a temple the current King uses on certain ceremonies.

Each Chorten has an identical portrait of the Buhdda.

I climbed to the top of the hill for the view, and to sneak a smoke. Across the road I noticed acres of prayer flags strung from tree to tree. Prayer flags are just that. Little flags with prayers printed on them that certain sects of Buddhists hang where the wind blows so that the prayers are carried away to be answered.

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.

Each string contains flags of multiple colors.The white flag is for the sole of dearly departed. I bought a string, and Mary Ann bought one also. We tied them together, which is cool I guess, the monk did not say otherwise.

The monk and our guide accompanied us up the hill to the spot where the flags get hung. It was over 3000 mtrs high and Mary Ann got a bit winded Not me, I was too excited.

When we got to the top of the hill, the monk and our guide helped us tie up the strings. We said a prayer. I felt more assured that my prayer helped my son Neal more than lighting a candle in St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Hearing the Voice of  Buddha.

From here we drove further until we reached what is called the most beautiful valley in the Himalayas

This is the fascinating valley of Phobjikha.  This is the winter home of black-necked cranes that migrate from the arid plains in the north to pass winter in milder and lower climate. Unfortunately for us the Cranes do not visit during low season. Yet it is easy to see that Bhutan has many unspoiled and beautiful areas. Like I keep saying, the last Shangri-La.

As spiritual as beauty can be sometimes, in Bhutan you just never know what comes next

At the edge of the valley is this magnificent monastery. Because it has a name too long to pronounce it is also called the Gangtey monastery. We went to visit it. I figured, “OK time to take off the shoes again, and see another temple” I was so very wrong.

This is the entrance to Gangtey monastery. No cameras allowed inside.

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, Happy in Old and New Knowledge

Bhutan Protects the Timeless Knowledge

My wife Mary Ann strolling in the Bhutan National Library. This was not a stop on our itinerary, but being that Mary Ann is a professional Librarian, when we passed the library, we made sure our guide stopped so we could “tour” it.

There were three floors of the “old” library, each with a shrine to the Buddha.

Each of the floors had rack after rack of prayer scrolls which are quite old. Each prayer is contained in a silk bag. They are all cataloged. The cataloging system was not exactly Dewey-Decimal! Each of the prayers were used by monks for specific requests such as more rain, stop the rain, and so on.

The new section of the library was almost all in English. It contained books about the philosophy  and  practice of Buddhism. It even had a business section about how to run a business according to Buddhist principles!. It had a reading and study area. If I ever decide that I have the discipline to be a Buddhist (fat chance 😉 ) this is where I will go and read for a few months before I ever sit down with a monk.

Bhutan Enters the Digital Age!

Just outside of the capital city of Thimpu, there is a brand new IT Park

Almost finished, the government has already declared it open.

Built as a modern IT building, it nonetheless incorporates classic Bhutanese architecture. It is actually an attractive building. It uses a solar/water based system for air conditioning.

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.

Facilities inside are as modern as any I ever worked in during my career in software development. I have high hopes for this place.

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.

This is Shax inspecting the water powered prayer wheel he incorporated into the landscape plan.

This is something he did NOT put in his plan. This is the most common weed in Bhutan. It grows EVERYWHERE. Gross National Happiness!

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.

Bhutan, Gross National Happiness and Wonderment

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.)

The distinctive patterns from each country are an excellent art form. At the gift shops, they will have everything for sale from bed spreads to scarves. Mary Ann bought so many scarves on this trip that I lost count.

An endless array of patterns, colors and opportunities to spend money!

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.

He is probably 300+ feet high. I am sure if I looked it up, it would turn out that he is multiples of a magic number from the ground to his crown. They always make sure to do that. This Buddha sits on a high hill and overlooks the capital city of Thimpu, and you can see him from anywhere in the city.He is a wonderment.

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.

Happy Atheletes In Bhutan

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.

bhutan archer

The archers were of course all dressed in traditional garb. The bows and arrows however were ultra modern and probably cost more than my first car.

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!

Can you see the target? It is 150 meters away and not very big. This makes Olympic archery look like playing cowboys and Indians with a Sears and Roebuck toy set.

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.

darts in Bhutan

They probably weighed a half pound. You cannot see the needle part, which are about 6 inches long.

They were thrown by serious men!

darts in Bhutan

They took this competition in a really good sportsman like manner.

Like the archery this was not an easy sport.

They really had to chuck it  The effort resembled a baseball pitcher.

The target was further away then home plate and much smaller, and the dart weighed more than a baseball.

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 Incredible Kingdom of Bhutan. A Real Live Shangri-La

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.

My wife enjoying one of three brands of beer for sale in Bhutan. This one called Red Panda Ale is a Hefeweizen. Brewed by a German who came to Bhutan many years ago and found a way to stay. The bottle is embossed with the name of an Indian beer,(King Fisher) because you cannot manufacture bottles in Bhutan, too much pollutiion. By the way, it was the 4th of July, hence the shirt.

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.

My wife Mary Ann is a fearless traveler, but she was as glad (at least) as I was to reach the ground in Paro.

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.

A look at a very typical  agricultural setting in Bhutan. This country has yet to suffer from over population. They see what that has done to India and China (and the rest of the world) and the King has “asked” the people to have a zero population growth rate. Not a law, but a request, and the current generation is going along with it. Therefore, the countryside is left to agriculture and just left alone for the beauty. Gross National Happiness!

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.

This is the main intersection in Thimpu, the capital city. A few years ago, there was a traffic light here, but it made the people unhappy,and it was removed. Thimpu is the only national capitol in the world without a traffic light.

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 Asian Summer Part 1

 

Everywhere we went in this expedition across Asia, we felt quite welcome!

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.

This is the garden of the KGH. This is where Cat Stevens wrote Peace Train. To this day it is a quiet spot used by people to read, do Tai Chi, meditate, or in my case just sit and wonder what it must have been like back then.

The KGH has a walk of fame, kinda like Hollywood Blvd, but at least in Hollywood they can spell.

Even the not so famous can get immortalized at the KGH.

When “the Beetles” stayed here in 1971 or so, the KGH was pure hostel with shared bathrooms. Consequently this is what I call Lennon’s Loo. No, he did not autograph it.But if you feel the need to drop a load where Lennon did, go to Kathmandu!

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.

There are always Holy Men sitting around, getting stoned, and adding atmosphere to the place where the cremations take place. This is the same guy I had my photo taken with two years ago, I think maybe his beard grew another inch.

The ceremony starts with the delivery of the body wrapped in cotton or silk, depending on the treasure of the earthly family. Here it is adorned with flowers in season at the time. preferably Marigolds.

In the last act of the family for the deceased, they carry the now flower decorated corpse to the pyre. Only males take part in this.

Now the pros take over. The wood used to burn the body is sandlewood. It is layered with dampened straw to make the fire burn longer. Once the fire is started by the eldest son, a professional takes over. He uses sugar, butter  and coconuts to help the fire keep going.

After the body is cremated to ash, a small urn is filed with the ashes and taken home for a thirteen day celebration, then  the urn is put into the river. In this photo the pro is scraping the rest of the body into the Bagnati river. Every thing has a price and the prices are posted on a board. Wood, straw, the services of the pro, the flowers, all must be bought by the family.

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!

 

Posting From My Ipad. Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Borneo and Thailand

Please be understanding about my posting for the next five weeks. I love my IPad, but it is a bit difficult to type with two thumbs instead of two fingers. Also, the WordPress apps for the IPad are seriously demented.
Mary Ann and I are off to Kathmandu on Friday. We are going there for two strategic reasons. Kathmandu is one of only three places where you can catch a flight to Bhutan. Only one airline, Druk Air, flies into Paro, Bhutan.  If you want a good scare, go to YouTube and search for “Real Paro Bhutan Landing” or just click here. I cannot believe I will be on a Druk Air flight making that landing in just a few days. I have landed in La Paz Bolivia, and Bocas Del Toro Panama, both less than comfortable situations, but this one is rated the most dangerous landing on the planet. It is visual only, no instruments and weather is constantly sketchy. All the trip planners say to build in an extra day or two in case your flight cannot land or take off, so we have.
The other strategic reason is that Bhutan seriously limits the number of tourists at any given time and we know a great Nepalese guide who was able to get us the entrance visas.
Bhutan is an official bucket list item. There are many things to see there, including the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which you should google to believe, or just gander at this.

They say that you should acclimate to the altitude before you hike to this place. There are three ways to get there. Hike, ride a horse 2/3 of the way, of fly on the back of a mythical tigress. That last one is probably a budget buster.

After Bhutan we are going to Burma (Myanmar if you must) which also just reopened to tourism quite recently. How recently?? There is not a single ATM in the entire country. We will float down a river to Mandalay (which also has a new name,,duh, I dunno what) and see many spots that they want to turn into tourist haunts ASAP. I am just as glad to get there before the drunk Russians.
Then Borneo. Hell, I know nothing about Borneo. The tour agent told us to bring leech socks. Sounds like fun!
After that we are going to Thailand to try to find a place to retire. We think we found a good candidate. Inexpensive, on the beach, good expat community and excellent health care. We will do a week of due diligence. One good thing about Thai law is that foreigners cannot buy land, so even if we think we love it, then we don’t, we are not stuck with a place we cannot sell.
Stay tuned for posts about riding a Yak and other nomadic pursuits! Share this with anyone that you want to convince you know someone crazier than they are.
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