Phuket to Hat Khao Lak

Tuesday – The morning began pleasantly at the hotel – I swam, had breakfast and a massage. Checking out, however, was an unfortunate ordeal. Although the shuttle booking was undeniable, printed quite clearly on my confirmation, the hotel staff and manager absolutely refused to take any responsibility for doing what they had said they would do and were extremely rude about it. Clearly this was not a hotel that relied on repeat business, the other guests seemed nice enough but mostly package tourists, always a bad sign.

My best advice to anyone out there on the internets is – never, ever go to the Old Phuket Hotel in Karon Beach! This is a Phucked Up Place (ha!). Fortunately, Agoda (which processed the booking) later did take responsibility and reimbursed me for the taxi. It was a shame to see Thai people at this hotel acting just like Americans! Super sketchy, I must say! Enough complaining, I just hate being cheated, that’s all. Time to go diving.

Arriving at the Sunrise Divers office, I was quickly fitted for dive equipment and climbed into their comfortable van for the ride north to Hat Khao Lak. I had been through this way in 2000, doing the same trip with Sea Dragon dive center which was still in business but not running a boat this early in the season. Of course in fifteen years much had changed, particularly since the 2004 tsunami.

After relinquishing my shoes and clambering over the side of the Andaman Queen (it was very low tide), the two divemasters Steve and Tod introduced the crew and gave their briefing about the boat. It was designed for 21 guests but this early on, we only had 9, so we were upgraded. I ended up with two-bunk cabin with private bath, shared with a nice Russian guy. We didn’t spend much time there except for sleeping and downloading pictures and videos, so that worked out great.

We were served dinner, then the boat headed out for the Similan Islands. In the cabin futzing with my camera, I missed the fireworks set off on the bow, but I heard they were great!

Paro to Phuket

Monday – We left in two groups. There was a very early flight to Kathmandu, and having said most of the goodbyes the night before, I slept in. In mid-morning after breakfast, the bus took the rest of us to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. After more goodbyes all around and thanks to our guide Sonam and driver Pema (both of whom had served us very, very well the whole time), the plane took off, making that tricky S-curve upward, through the mountains.

After a brief flight the plane landed in Bagdogra. I thought I knew my geography, but truthfully I’d never heard of this place before landing. Google Maps later showed me its location on a narrow strip of land, part of India squeezed between Nepal and Bangladesh, south of Darjeeling in Sikkim. Now I know and you do too. Surrounded by tea plantations, it looked interesting…perhaps worth exploring next time…

Landing in Bangkok, I waited several hours at the airport. The flight to Phuket arrived in the late evening and of course the hotel had failed to send the shuttle I’d booked. A helpful airport tourist office person called the hotel and told me they said to take a taxi and that the hotel would pay for it. Then I checked in for a good night’s sleep.

Paro and Tiger’s Nest

Sunday – We left early, taking our bus to the trailhead (2600m/8525ft) for Tiger’s Nest monastery (3120m/10240ft). It was a steep climb (8.4km/5.2 miles round trip – 521m/1715ft elevation gain) so I hired a horse, which may or may not have been a good idea. The saddle was loose so it wasn’t easy to stay on as it went straight up the trail, led by its handler.

At the halfway point, the horse ride ended at a small cafeteria (2895m/9498ft). We gathered the group there, and trekked on another hour or so until we stopped at the shuttered Tashi Tashi Cafe for lunch. For some reason involving permit problems (just like in the good old USA!) they were closed, but we were welcomed by the family when we stopped for lunch, taking over their terrace. Two students from the culinary school were with us and unpacked a nice picnic they had made for our meal on the sunny deck overlooking the valley.

From there it was a slog, to the highest point on the trail, looking across to our destination, so near yet so far. The lookout was followed by another steep descent to a bridge below a high waterfall spilling down the gorge. Here there were colorful prayer flags hung everywhere.

Then came the final climb to the monastery itself. After the long trek the time we spent exploring it seemed all too brief. There was a nice moment sitting in the room adjoining Guru Rimpoche’s cave where a nun gave each of us amulets. Of course there was the old “no pictures” rule inside the monastery, here with a guard who required us to check cameras and bags. Still it was a spectacular and inspirational place which I’ll remember as long as those memory cells keep firing.

Walking down, we stopped to make video interviews, as I had offered to work on Kutira’s next promotional video for this trip. Positive reviews! For a while, it looked like it might rain, but fortunately it didn’t. We finally arrived at the parking area, tired and happy.

On the way back, the bus stopped for an audience with another monk we had met at the Bumthang airport, Jigdrel Teshe. He is considered the reincarnation of Dudjom Dorjee.

We encountered this friendly young monk who is noted as one of the four greatest meditation teachers today. He was identified as a reincarnate when he was only 3 years old, and installed in a ceremony in Nepal which Winna attended. From then, his life has been in training, and now he is beginning his career as a teacher. He also is a music fan! Although tired from the day’s walk, we were glad he took the time to meet us.

After that we arrived at the culinary school where Dasho and Ashi awaited us with parting gifts of ceramic face masks. They really are the most generous and gracious people I’ve met in a very long time, and it was quite touching that they had made the journey from Thimpu and waited for our return. It was hard to say goodbye, it was like they were telling us, “y’all come back, now!”

Following another great meal at the culinary school, it was early to bed…such an incredible trip, it all went by so fast…

Thimpu to Paro

Saturday – Kutira, Winna, Mary and I left our hotel at 7 am to walk a few blocks for coffee at the home of Patrizia, whom we met at the textile museum. Her husband was formerly a diplomat and the country’s foreign minister. On the mantle was a picture of his meeting with Bill Clinton. Their house was filled with art and rugs from their time in Afghanistan in the 1970s.

Patrizia also has a tour company and deals in jewelry. She showed us photos of a trek to a valley and temple in eastern Bhutan, usually off limits to foreigners. The pictures were incredible so we thought it would be great to go there! (Note: We are in fact coming back and doing the eastern Bhutan trip in November 2016!).

Mary and Winna bought jewelry, and as we were leaving we again met Patrizia’s Italian friends – all were getting ready to leave for the Jolohari 10 day trek, which is spectacular and grueling! I need to get more exercise…

The morning was leisurely, packing and catching up on writing and email. It was the last chance for shopping but I had bought everything I needed, though not everything I wanted. Then it was off to Paro after lunch.

We checked into at the hotel at the culinary school and shortly had dinner with Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi, Director of the National Museum and a noted Buddhist scholar and author. He has a local television show and travels extensively throughout the world. And he’s quite a raconteur! It was yet another, very entertaining and enlightening evening.


Art in Thimpu

Friday – This morning we visited an art school, the Thimphu Institute for Zorig Chusum, the thirteen traditional arts and crafts practiced in Bhutan. The school offers free instruction in all of these. The outside of the school is decorated with many inspirational sayings to motivate the students.

We visited classrooms teaching wood carving, weaving, sewing and shoe-making. In another building there were sculpture and embroidery classes. Upstairs, there were several levels of painting classes. Art students enroll here after the tenth grade for a six-year program. After that they can find employment in the arts which are valued highly in Bhutan. The instruction looked quite structured, with students replicating model artworks given them as exercises.

The gift store is where visitors can buy student artwork, from which students receive part of the profits. We did some power shopping at that shop, and also in another art store across the street. I bought a tapestries and couple of gho (Bhutanese menswear) which I will likely use as robes since putting them on in the traditional way is not easy and really requires assistance!

We walked a couple blocks to the Folk Heritage Museum, which preserves a traditional Bhutanese house. There were stalls for animals on the ground floor. Steep stairs led up to the kitchen, living quarters and a family temple on the top floor.  After that, it was time for more power shopping, and lunch.

A few of us went on to the Textile Museum which was a very modern and interesting place. We started with an exhibit of royal textiles then went up to the general exhibit. The textile art of Bhutan is intricate and beautiful. I would have liked to have spent more time there.

We finished with Olaf Van Cleef’s art exhibit in the building next door. We had met him earlier at Dasho and Ashi’s house. As a visiting artist, he was giving instruction to art students while we looked at his paintings. His work for this exhibition was Buddhist images incorporating jewels, which were again very amazing (that word again). A couple of us thought of buying one, but getting it back to the US would have been a big effort.

Leaving at the 4 pm closing, we ran into Kutira’s friend Patrizia Franceschinis (originally from Italy), her husband Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering and their Italian friends as they were entering the art museum for a reception. We also met Françoise Pommaret, an author and ethno-historian who has written numerous studies and books on Bhutan. So many interesting people!

So after that, we went on towards the hotel and the serious shopping! Remembering the old George Carlin routine, I bought more stuff and then another duffel bag to hold all that stuff! I visited a small art gallery Kutira recommended – very good paintings by young local artists, more in the modern style. I wish I had more room to bring home more stuff!

In the evening we went to The Zone, a karaoke bar owned by Dasho’s friend Namgay. With us was Ken, an Italian man living Singapore, plus Dasho and Ashi, Benji and Tandam, and their friend Eric, also from Singapore. The owner joined us later after our great meal of burgers, pizza and momos, plus Red Panda beer and some excellent dark local rum. As the restaurant was emptying out, we did a little karaoke!

I took out my iPhone, plugged it into the karaoke system and put on Matthew Human’s new album to great acclaim – Ashi tells me the Royal Family are big country music fans, who knew? She asked if Willie Nelson would be able to play here! (Alas, after checking with his management, I had to tell them Willie can no longer do high altitude tours at his age of 82!). Then we ended the evening walking back to the hotel, very, very happy after bonding with our new friends!