Today we had another early start, around 8 AM to drive to Gorgora to yet another one of the very old monasteries of Ethiopia. Debre Sina Maryam was founded by a local priest who eventually succeeded in converting the Ethiopian king to Christianity.
Located on the Northern shore of Lake Tana with a beautiful view over the lake, this old church is way off the beaten track. Nevertheless, here as well, we had to hire a local guide. Circular on the outside and square on the inside, it follows many other churches of its age.
Apparently first founded in the 14th century, it grew to be of significant importance only for a few decades. Once the converted king died, all the action moved back to Gonder.
We watched an old lady make traditional Ethiopian sour dough bread called injera. It is made from a local grown seed named Teff. We haven‘t seen it in Europe but we are sure we will, as it’s gluten free and that‘s the new rage right now.
It is the base of many of the dishes here and varies in sourness. It is made of fermented , liquid dough and cooked on a hot metal plate the size of a very large Pizza. After about 5 minutes being covered with a lid, it takes on a spongey look and feel and gets taken off the hot plate. It also serves as a serving plate as dishes get piled up on top of it. Food is eaten with your fingers of your right hand. Most dishes are quite spicy but very savoury.
After visiting Debre Sina Maryam, we were supposed to take a boat to a small island with yet another monastery on it to visit. We were getting quite ‘churched out‘ by now so we were not too unhappy when the captain did not show up and so we decided to have tea and coffee at a most remote campground, called Tim & Kim. Tim and Kim are a Dutch couple who decided to build a campground with six huts and several camping spaces on top of a beautiful knoll overlooking Lake Tana. The road is not sign posted and it takes a rocky dirt road ride to get there. It’s a very serene spot and had the best amenities we have seen in Ethiopia by far yet.
We met a swedish couple, Emil and Fanny who were camping there and had a long trek behind them as well as in front of them. They made their way from Europe to Egypt where they picked up their car called ‘Wandelux’. From there they then drove through Sudan into Ethiopia. They will be on the road for a total of six months intending to travel through Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa. Quite a feat. We parted with our last bag of German Haribo which made their eyes sparkle with delight. You can follow their Instagram account here: wandelux.overland
We headed back to Gonder, as the Timkat festival was supposed to start that afternoon. For that they closed off the roads and we had to walk back the last two miles to our hotel. After a quick lunch and leaving all our valuables and mobile phones there (since we have been warned that there are pickpockets in the crowd) and we walked towards the parade grounds where a big procession was gathering.
Timkat is the biggest religious celebration. It’s called Epiphany, the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan and one of the three big religious festivities here in Ethiopia. The two others being Christmas and their new year (in September) Ethiopia follows a different calendar and is about eight years behind our calendar.
Timkat at Gonder is special. While other cities and their monasteries also have big Timkat celebrations, Gonder is the only one where the believers jump into a moat surrounding Fasilidas’ Castle to re-enact the baptism of Jesus in blessed water. But that was to be the day after.
Today the eight major monasteries of Gonder put together procession wagons, singers and dance groups and made their way slowly through town to Fasilidas’ Pool and castle, now used for ceremonial purposes only. Each group had in their midst a cloth wrapped ‚tabot‘, prayer tablets, (supposedly replicas of the Ark of the Covenant) that get taken out of each church only for special occasions. Each tabot is carried by a priest under a tabernacle. The dancing and music is quite unique and it’s impossible to even guess what words they are using. There is a lot of repetition and chanting going on.
Men usually wear walking sticks with either one bend at the end or a T-shaped end that represents the ram’s horns. They tap the stick onto the ground in rhythm with each other and their dance moves while chanting. Traditional dress is white with either Ethiopian flag colors (yellow, green and red) or Gonder colors (white and red). Long dresses for women and long shirts and trousers for men.
There was a throng of people accompanying the procession and waiting on the side of the road. Clapping and chanting. Everyone seemed to have a blast of a time.
The destination for the procession is Fasilidas’ Castle and pool, which is in fact a moat. 363 days the moat is empty, only the day of the procession and on Timkat itself it gets filled with water about 4 feet deep.
The entire procession and all the spectators piled into the sacred ground around the monastery and in no time the entire compound was filling up with people. It was near impossible to move anywhere. Chris of course being in his element and hunting with the camera found plenty of photo ops and while Esther was ‘parked’ at the moats wall with a good view, Chris zig zagged across the sea of people and took shots. The first he learned was ‘can I take a picture?’ in Amharic ‘foto mansat intschilalo?’ which mostly results in a nod and smile.
The procession arrived at Fasidilas castle and with much incense smell, ceremony and singing, the eight tabots were gathered under their tabernacles onto a small bridge leading to the castle and then carried to safety to spend the night enclosed by ancient walls and water.
Once the tabots had disappeared into their safe place, we went home by foot as it was impossible to drive through those roads full of thousands of people. We saw very few tourists and the ones we saw were always in groups. Safety in numbers… We feel the need to point out, that we didn’t have any safety issues whatsoever so far.
We had a very early night as we had to get up at 2.15 AM (yes that‘s correct AM) the next day for the re-enactement of the baptism.
Today we left Bahir Dar quite early to drive to Gondar further North. While the road was in fairly good condition, the going was slow sometimes as in the townships we passed often the market stalls crowded the sides of the road. Twice we saw cyclists from the Ethiopian national team driving in peloton, complete with race bikes, helmet and skin tight outfits. What a contrast to the hugely laden mule carts that are everywhere to be seen here. Ox carts instead of tractors, separating the grain from the straw with animal hooves pounding in circles instead of mecanical harversters that spit out readily baled straw in the back and collect the grain in their tanks.
Ethiopia is a country of two worlds: the old one where 85% of the population lives on agriculture and animal farming like centuries ago – many rural scenes remind you of descriptions in the bible. And a new one ruled by cell phones and payments without cash. There is better mobile phone coverage here than in Germany.
On we went through a nearly completely deforrested landscape and stopped at the so called ‘Devils Nose’ near Addis Zemen for Chris to fly the drone.
As to be expected in no time a horde of curious kids assembled around him and were fascinated by the camera and to watch their houses from above. Begging is forbidden here in Ethiopia but tell that to a kid of five years. We got asked for T-shirts, pens, soap but all we had handy were some local snacks. While Esther handed out three bags of snacks and tried to establish the concept of sharing (which failed miserably) the kids fought over them like warring tribes, everyone for themselves. It took our guide Gashow to take the snack bags away and to distribute them equally to each child . Then order was restored. We mentally tallied up that we probably never have a good number of small goodies to give as there are always more kids than treats. Last thing we want is a fight to break out.
About half way to Gondar we stopped at a local market and walked through. As always we were the only whites (nech’ochi) there and got stared at by everyone. Unlike India, Buthan or Myanmar, where we got asked for picture after picture, people here are friendly but mostly just stare. All sorts of vegetables and grain was sold. Little donkeys are tethered in groups together to wait until their grain bag got grounded by the miller. Live chickens just tethered together by their feet await a new owner. A chicken costs about 150 Birr (5 Euros) , a sheep or goat costs about 3.000 Birr ( 90 Euro) and a donkey /mule about 5.000 Birr ( 150 Euro). The most prized are cattle. A normal cow /ox costs about 12.000 Birr ( 400 Eur) but a fat box ox or bull can cost up to 35.000 Birr ( 1.150 Eur)
After arrival in Gondar, the capital of the Amhara region, and a pleasant lunch, we set out on foot to the old castles in the royal enclosure ( Fasil Ghebbi). As always here we have to register our small party and engage a local guide. That way Ethiopia is making sure that some of the benefit of tourism is staying with the local region that gets visited.
In the 17th and 18th centuries various kings and a queen have built a series of 12 castles on a 7 hectare hill top. Complete with adjacent additional amenities such as a sauna, steam bath and lion cages. Over the years the British bombed a lot of it, the Italians occupied it for four years and the local population took a lot of the stones to rebuild their houses. So the overall shape is not great. Many buildings are only ruins or walls, but the main palace, called Fasilides’ castle, is quite an impressive four storey building and was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1979.
Emperor Fasilides broke with the tradition of Ethiopian rulers progressing through the territories, and founded the city of Gondar as his capital. Its relative permanence makes the city historically important.
It is a pleasant way to pass the afternoon strolling between buildings and listening to their history. Our local guide then offered to accompany us to one of the oldest and most famous churches in Gondar. Built in 1693 Debre Berhan Selassie is the best preserved of all the churches in Gondar. Miraculously it survived several city assaults and hostile take over attempts over the years. Many of the paintings inside are original from the time it was built. As all churches here there is a separate entrance for women and for men, albeit leading into the same prayer room. The wall facing the womens’ entry mostly show scenes from Mary.
Taking shoes off and putting a head scarf for women on is mandatory in every church here.
As we are writing our blog and sorting the pictures of the day back in the hotel, a lot of music and starting celebrational noise can be heard all around us. You can feel that the city is gearing up for a special celebration in the next two days. Tomorrow we will dive into the Timkat festival and celebrations, which cumulate a day later.
Early start today to the Blue Nile Falls. When we drove through town and out the other end, we noticed a gloomy looking area, smoke rising up with birds flying above. We stopped, climbed up a bank and saw what must have been the backdrop for Armageddon in front of us.
Mounds and mounds of trash with thousands of birds hovering on it or circling above. A Hitchcockesk doomsday end of world scenery… Most birds were Marabou storks or vultures. It was eerie looking. It was the city’s dumpster and the European mind can only shake its head…
On we went to the Blue Nile Falls. While it’s only 40 kilometers from Bahir Dar, 35 of those are on dirt road. Our diver “slalomed“ his way between mini busses, heavily loaded donkeys, mule drawn carts with sugar cane piled high or simply pedestrians walking to the market, carrying with them the goods to be sold.
No white folk anywhere to be seen. Kids running in school uniforms to their school buildings, farmers working on their fields the traditional way, ploughing with ox drawn ploughs and women cooking and sowing on the side of the road. Most houses were simple wood pole constructions with sheet metal doors and windows. Not all had electricity connected to their homes. We saw no begging going on and no one seemed to go hungry, with all the crops that are growing here. Onions, potatoes, sugar cane, khat, coffee and cotton. Ethiopia is a very fertile land around Lake Tana and the Blue Nile.
Leaving our car behind, we walked on a small foot path for about 30 minutes against an ongoing traffic of donkeys, peasants, goats and cattle, all going into the opposite direction to market. Some come from as far as two hours away. Sometimes narrow bridges force us to pass slowly. The oldest stone bridge dates back to the 16th century built by Europeans and is still very much in use today.
Climbing up again and circling another bend the view was great. The Blue Nile Falls span across from us along a length of several hundred meters. Unfortunately, only during the rainy season is the complete fall full with water. Now in the dry season, only two spouts of water are really visible. In addition several years ago a hydroelectric plant was built and that deviates most of the water away from the falls. Nevertheless, refreshed by the waters spray we hiked on to our waiting boat to take us across the river again and back to our car.
It was nearly lunch time and we ate at a wonderful restaurant overlooking Lake Tana, Ethiopia`s largest lake. Ordering from the menu is rather tricky here as the English translations (if there are any) are very far fetched and what you think you ordered and what you get are often two different things. Same here. Ordering an egg salad sandwich does not get you hard boiled eggs with mayonnaise on a thin toast. It gets you a thin, plain omlette on a large bun. You will also find Pizza and Spaghetti on many menus. We thought first it’s food for tourists who don’t dare to eat the local Injera, but it seems it’s due to the Italians who occupied the country for some years. We’ll have a food blog entry coming …
In the afternoon we took a small boat to one of the peninsulas with one of the oldest monasteries. Ura Kidhane Mihret, built in the 16th century. It`s a big wooden structure, round on the outside but square on the inside. Many of the paintings were `refreshed` in the 18th century so they all looked quite new and shiny. Our local guide (you have to pay a local guide in order to support the local community) had his own interpretation of Christian history – which was fine with us as our knowledge of the various biblical episodes was not too profound to start with.
Interestingly when you compare our travel book, our guide and the internet, one will never find exact matches. So one of the hanging stones that emit a hollow sound when you tap it with another stone was declared a signal to prayer in one source, a signal to dinner in another and an alarm in a third…. Pick which one you like best …
On our way down we had another coffee ceremony and it was really hard to escape the many little stalls that sold religious tourist artifacts. There were just no tourists to distract their attention away from us. So we learned our second word after ‘Thank You’: ‘Al Faligem’ which means ‘I don’t need’. Back we went by boat. After crossing path with some Hippopotamuses on our way back we decided to make it a lazy evening, dining in our lodge again.
#Day2 #Ethiopia #Bahir Dar #Blue Nile Falls #Ura Kidhane Mihret
Today is our last full day in Myanmar. With a heavy heart we ate once again a delicious breakfast. Fresh fruit, local specialties, fresh eggs – we will miss it! One thing we are looking forward at home is our coffee. Nothing beats freshly grounded beans! Definitively not the instant variety that the British have left in each of their former colonies! Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to try the Shan Highland coffee.
Today we are exploring one of the villages on the west banks of the lake, about 30 minutes by boat away. Our water taxi and guide were picking us up at our Paramount Inle Hotel and off we went, accompanied by a flock of seagulls. The locals feed them sometimes from the boats so they fly really close in hope to catch a cracker or bread.
Today we took an early boat to Indein village. Indein is fully accessible by boat through a long narrow river that is one of four feeding the lake.
We decided to do a separate blog entry of the people of Lake Inle because we were so overwhelmed by the many wonderful, incredible and amazing sights we encountered here in a mere day and a half. Lake Inle is in the eastern part of Myanmar, surrounded by small mountains. It is a lake that is only 2-3 meters deep at its deepest part and the most surprising sight is that it looks more like a vast area of farm fields and not like a lake at all. 60% of the lake’s surface are actually floating fields and 30% are water surface, like we expect a lake to look like and 10% are islands in the middle of the lake. A rare bit of solid land in a sea of water.
Today after 3 days of incessant rain we were rewarded with a most beautiful sunrise at Mount Popa. This mountain east of Bagan is densely forested with virgin rain forrest and looks untouched for the most part. Dense green vegetation covers every inch of the ground. Birds and little animals make for a very nice sound backdrop as did the drip of the water drops onto the roofs. No civilization noise for a change.
Mount Popa resort is a very pretty bungalow style resort on top of a hill opposite the much more known monastery on a sheer rock called Taung Kalat. From here we knew we could have spectacular views onto the monastery. We got up right at dawn, while it was quite chilly outside, and headed to the viewpoint. We should be richly rewarded for getting up so early. What was one grey wall of clouds yesterday with no hint whatsoever that there was a monastery on a rock in front of us, now revealed itself as a most breathtaking panoramic view of the rock and the monastery in the early morning sunlight. We just wanted to sit there for an hour and watch this grandiose sunrise from dawn to when the first sunrays lit up the golden pagoda of the monastery until it was in full light of the sun. Amazing to watch the transformation of light.
After a very nice breakfast we made our way back down and to Bagan Airport to catch our flight to Heho. We had one more stop planned that morning at a palm sugar plantation. Burmese cuisine and snacks use three kinds of sugar : made from sugar cane, made from palm trees and honey. The sap of the coco palms is collected regularly and cooked in five stages and kettles for as long as it takes to become a brown, caramel looking goo which is cooled down and rolled into small sugar dots and left to dry. It’s probably the Burmese equivalent to our Zuckerwürfel in Germany. It is extremely sweet and can hardly be eaten in its concentrated stage.
Better are the Burmese version of choco crossies. Coconut is being rasped into little pieces, mixed with some palm sugar and coked again. The small portions are lft out to dry and they then look like choco crossies and taste very nice.
A third product is produced from palm sugar is palm schnapps. All is produced by hand and slowly. No pressure cookers here…
On we went to the airport. The drive was only an hour long in total but what struck us a pretty sad were the people along the road begging for money. Young, old, men, women, children, many sat at a distance on the ride of the road and started waving once our car approached. When we asked our driver about it, he said that they are looking for easy money and that the hard field work paid less than the begging. Pretty sad to watch. So far in Myanmar we had not encountered any beggars in any other place.
After a really short flight, we landed in heho, the closest airport at Inle Lake, our final destination on our trip in Myanmar. Three days we have here at this very shallow lake ( 2-3 meters depth max).
We were picked up at the airport , perfectly organized as always, and driven to Nyaungshwe, a little town at the north end of lake Inle. On your way we passed a lot of locals dancing , playing a version of volleyball and eating. We decided to make an impromptu stop and explore the festival grounds. Needless to say that we were once again the only non-locals and got stared at quite a bit. But people are more reserved in the east is seems. In the South we would have had to pose for many pictures already by now. It turned out that January 4th is the Myanmar Independence day and for that reason there are quite a number of festivals all over the country. We just happen to discover one of them.
We also made a short stop at the old but active monastery Shwe Yan Pyay with stupa, completely built in teak wood ( except the corrugated iron roof, which has replaced so many organic roofing materials here).
Then we had to say good bye to our car. What we did not know is that most villages and hotels on lake Inle are not accessible by car, only by boat. So we hopped on a long boat with all our luggage and were driven 45 minutes to our hotel. It was a fun ride and it is a strange sight to check into a hotel from the waterside. No curbside check-in ;o)).
On our way we saw several fishermen balancing on small boats all day for a good catch. The evening we watched a beautiful sunset over the mountain ridge across from our small lodge. A perfect ending for a very nice day.
The third day of rain here in Bagan does not offer a ton of options what to do. We had to cancel our three hour horse ride as it was pouring down.
Once every travel adventure we post a food blog entry. Today is the day. We are wrestling with twondays rain in Bagan and what better way to spend it than to eat!
Well we can’t always have good luck with the weather, but being in Bagan with 2.200 old buildings and not have any view from above due to the pouring rain is hard. Rain all day today and tomorrow. No sunrise or sunset that would bask this beautiful landscape into magical light and make all those temples and pagodas emerge from the morning mist to transform the landscape into a fairy land.
Well this was a most memorable night. Not what some of you might think. The floating hotel on the river sounded so interesting when we booked it. The room was small but OK, overlooking the river, the food good on board BUT what nobody told us is that sleeping was impossible. The sounds that came with this location were quite extraordinary and never let up during the night.
Where to start? First the busy boat traffic honking boat horns all the time, then the karaoke bar on board backing our room. After those guys were done around 1 AM then the 6 girls in the next room listened to Burmese pop music and giggled into the night and after then it was finally quiet until nearby monastery was calling for early morning prayers or donations at 4 AM through their megaphones. We literally did not sleep that night more than an hour max. Good thing that we had a leisurely boat cruise planned for the next day.
After getting up at 5.30 AM for a 6 AM pick up to get us from the hotel to the jetty, we literally had a car pick us up and drive us just 200 meters further to the jetty. Nobody told us that we could have just walked over and when we asked the driver, then he said he had to come, otherwise his company would not be paid by our travel agency. Weird world.
Once on board the RV Panorama we settled into very comfortable leather seats and enjoyed the slow start in the dark and a great sun rise over the river banks. The scenery was fantastic and many golden topped pagodas were lining the river banks.
The trip was scheduled to last 10 hours and include breakfast and lunch. They served a breakfast and good coffee on board and it was nice to just let the world glide by.
Late that morning we actually docked on the river banks at a traditional fishing and farming village. We would call it a ‘Freilichtmuseum’ in Germany. Like a mix between authentic village and a museum. It was very interesting to see how people still live and work using much manual and animal labour whereas other parts of the world have mega farms or huge fishing nets with automation present everywhere.
Back on board and after an excellent lunch, the crew demonstrated two very Burmese things. Clothing and cosmetics. Traditional clothing in Myanmar is simple and still worn by most people here. The style is simple but the fabrics and colors are not.
They are wonderfully woven garments made of silk or cotton and come in many bright colors. Men and women alike wear the longhi, a long wrap around skirt and a blouse/ shirt top. For women very figure hugging (and most really do have a very fine figure) for men somewhat a bit looser.
As for the cosmetics the favorite and worn by everybody here is Thanaka. Thanaka is a tree that gets chopped into pieces. It looks like you are buying a piece of wood. The bark then gets ground on a stone block to a fine yellowish powder. The powder mixed with a bit of water then gets spread in patterns across the cheeks and forehead, sometimes also on the nose and chin. It looks like everybody is running around with yellowish face paint.
Apparently, this serves as sunblock as well as a skin cosmetic. It looks funny to us but to all here it’s perfectly normal. The crew showed us how it is being applied it was a nice break from the flats of the river banks.
Finally, the first temples of Bagan came into view. This is what we had been waiting for. Bagan is the most important site of the cultural triangle in Myanmar. The area consists of over 2.000 temples, pagodas and shrines that look like scattered around the countryside. We only got a glimpse of them until it got dark and made our way to our hotel. A very relaxing and quiet day.
And if anyone wondered what we did for New Years Eve … we were so tired we slept through ;o)) or tried to as we were woken by a few loud crackers (Böller) at midnight. But we went happily back to sleep.
Another very early start: 5.30 am to the airport of Yangon. Just as we thought that we had all sorted out, bam! Fate throws you another curveball. At the airport Chris had to hand over his drone to the Burmese authorities for safekeeping until we leave the country. Sad to know that there won’t be nice areal pictures of Bagan and Inle lake.
Today is our last day in the South. It’s sunny and after a great breakfast with yummy fruit plates we are off to do some kayaking. A friendly Indian gave us the tip and Ye willingly changed our itinerary to get to Kaw Ka Taung caves. The caves impress less by the knickknack statue parc than by the clean pool, the nice restaurants and the bustling local crowd (almost no tourist here).
The rice fields are so pretty to see and early morning is already a busy time for everyone. Farmers tending to their crops in a very traditional way and fishermen throw their nets from the waterside.
We were surprised to not see more ox carts or ploughs pulled by animals. Most seem to be manual human labor.
Driving along some unpaved roads with lots of pot holes, we arrived at Kwa Ka Thawng cave (there are many different spellings for the same locations) and decided not to look at another cave that had disco lights visible from the outside, instead we walked to a small village at the end of a path where supposedly kayaks were for rent. Tourism is still in it’s infancy here and so only a small hand painted sign led us to the farthest of all stilt houses on the little river. Without Ye asking several times on the way we would have never found it.
It was a deligtful morning paddling through the canals, between the rice paddies, with flocks of birds all around us. Little kingfishers, white herons, and grey stork like birds. It was very serene until the monks chants for more donations started. Those always can be heard from far away. It was a very picturesque and lovely spot. We were getting used to being the only tourists and after a cup of tea wandered back, being photographed again several times by locals.
One tradition here that can be seen each day is the monks collecting food for the poor and themselves. They go around the villages and everyone who can gives something. Monks eat only breakfast and lunch. No dinner.
To honor those monks Kwa Ka Thawng Cave and pagoda have a row of at least 150 stone monks that span from one pagoda all the way to the next. Each one looking identical until you get to the first one. Some have been freshly painted, some are very withered. depending on volunteer time and donations. The restaurations progress in small increments here. Each renovation task has it’s own donation box.
Now it was starting to get really hot and sticky. 30 degrees at least. Even the dog felt he needed to cool down.
Luckily our car has aircon, so it was a nice change from the outside. Slowly we made our way through some picturesques villages. As always in countries with majority Buddhist populations, dogs, cats and other animals are roaming free and wherever they want to lie and sleep, everyone is nicely driving around them. Very considerate. You want to make sure you don’t run over your relatives from a previous life.
Our next stop is a very bizarre place. Kyauk Kalap is a rock needle that someone built a pagoda on top. You can only reach the top by impossibly steep ladders. That part is closed to the public but you can go onto a platform about half way up. The upper part of the rock is perched in a way that makes you wonder if it falls down any time. Like the golden rock, this one has also a (magic) hair of buddha inside the top pagoda that holds the balance and keeps the rock from falling down.
Some smaller pagodas have been built around it and an artificial lake with huge carps in it surrounds the whole little island. It is both picturesque and surreal.
Back at the car we know we have a six hrs drive to Yangon in front of us and need some food to sustain us.
With Fish Noodle Soup yesterday, today we wandered through some local street stalls in search for the next unknown (but appetizing looking) treat. We tried sticky rice and really like it. Fried rice is pushed down bamboo sticks, mildly sugared water is added and the whole is left in there for a day. Then you peel away the hard bamboo outside and a roll of sticky white rice emerges, thinly wrapped in soft inner bamboo skin. There is a particular pleasant flavor to it and we ate it as a very nourishing snack.
After several hours drive in light traffic, we hit Yangon city, Myanmars laregest city, but not its official capital. First impression : what a huge traffic jam! What took us like 1 hr for a few kilometers was the evening commuter traffic. Busses everywhere, that seems to be the only form of meaningful public transport. Surprisingly very few motorcycles and no air polluting Tuk Tuks. The air quality was surprisingly good.
Finally at our hotel we just checked in and headed out to our evening adventure, The Shwedagon Pagoda. There are really no words that can adequately describe this pagoda complex.
First of all it is huge. The sheer size of it is mind boggling. Then all the different smaller pagodas around the main one. Each is dedicated to one story how Buddha found enlightenment. There are hundreds of such stories and one can’t keep track of them all. Some areas are for men only. Many of the buddhas, pagodas (also called payas) are gilded in dazzling, shiny gold leaf. The whole complex has four main entries, one on each side. Each entry itself is spectacular. Long covered steps with intricately carved wooden ceilings lead up to the main paya. The steps are lined with shops from medicine to clothes to souvenirs and food. Walking some 100 steps up barefoot makes you feel like a pilgrim as well.
Up on the pagoda complex the atmosphere is both serene and joyful. Some people are in deep prayers, others look more as if they are on a sunday family outing. Kids runing around laughing and fathers telling the individual buddha stories to their families.
A very memorable place. We wished we could have seen it by daylight too. Nevertheless should we come back we will spend more time in Yangon. Finally we were able to upload our first blog entries, as very slow internet made it impossible so far.
Early start for us – 6.30 Breakfast. Typical breakfast dish here in Myanmar is Fish Noodle Soup. Something we tried but passed for fried rice and eggs. The sun was just rising and we packed some drinks and a light snack. Mt. Zwegabin was our destination.
We finally arrived in Myanmar on Dec.27. Munich – Warsaw – Doha – Yangon. Each destination it was warmer than the one before. We arrived very early morning in Yangon and immigration was really fast since we were in row seven on the plane. Our luggage made it too! Our driver Ye picked us up at 4:30 am and off we went exploring our next country.
In January 2017 we travelled Bhutan from East to West. If you are interested in the story, or if you’re planing to take the same route: It starts here: First stop India. The main roads entering the country are through Phuentsholing in the south, linking Bhutan with the Indian plains of West Bengal, through the border towns of Gelephu, in the central region and Samdrup Jongkhar (our choice) in the east from the Indian state of Assam.
The alternative is to fly to Paro directly. You can do that from Bangkok, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bagdora, Bodh Baya, Dhaka, Guwahati, Kathmandu or Singapore.
Here starts our first day in Bhutan: From India to Bhutan.
Fantastischer Fisch, süße Törtchen, majestätische Burgen, imposante Kirchen, romantische Sonnenuntergänge und Straßenkunst: Lissabon ist gerade genau der richtige Ort um der winterlichen Tristesse Nord-Europas zu entkommen. Auch jetzt im November steigen die Temperaturen auf bis zu 20° und notfalls wärmen Fado Gesänge einem das Herz oder ein Ginjinha oder Medronho Schnaps den Magen. Glücklicherweise hatten wir noch einen Gutschein für ein Wochenende im fantastischen “Palácio Belmonte“, mehr eine kleine Residenz als ein Hotel. Also ab nach Lissabon! Glücklicherweise gibt es oft günstige Direktflüge mit der portugiesischen TAP, mit Lufthansa oder ihrem Billigableger Eurowings (Good News für meine Eltern: bei allen drei gibt es Miles & More). Nach drei Stunden und zehn Minuten Flugzeit gibt es ein Temperatur-Upgrade von mindestens 15 Grad.
Übernachten wie ein Fürst
Unsere Herberge liegt im Herzen der historischen Altstadt, genauer gesagt: ist ein Teil davon. Der Palácio Belmonte wurde 1449 erbaut, liegt direkt unterhalb der Burg und überblickt von seinen zahlreichen Terrassen die Dächer der Altstadt und den Rio Tajo. Netterweise bekommen wir ein “kleines” Upgrade und dürfen uns über das Wochenende in der größten Suite einnisten (Der “Palácio” besteht aus zehn Suiten sowie einem kleinen Appartement).
Über Geld zu reden wäre hier zu profan, ich empfehle dazu einen Blick auf deren Homepage und anschließend auf das eigene Konto. Bei einer wohltätigen Tombala des Münchner Presse Tennisclubs spielte uns Fortuna einen Gutschein für eine Wochenendübernachtung zu. Jedenfalls dürfen wir uns jetzt in der “Amadeo de Souza Cardoso Terrace” Suite auf über 120 m² breit machen und schon mal unser Frühstück auf unserem Balkon vormerken. Natürlich mit unverbautem Blick auf das Kloster São Vicente de Fora wo der portugisische Königsadel seine letzte Ruhe findet.
Übersetzt heißt das Kloster Sankt Vinzenz ausserhalb der Mauern – früher gehörte das Viertel zur Vorstadt. Neben den Geistern der Vergangenheit beherrbergt das Kloster jeden Dienstag und Samstag noch einen großartigen Flohmarkt: Feira da Ladra. Der Trödelmarkt hoch oben im Stadtteil Graça bietet eine sagenhafte Vielfalt und allerlei Dinge, die man mal mehr oder auch mal weniger gebrauchen kann. Fun Fact: Feira da Ladra heißt auf gut Deutsch Flohmarkt der Diebin. Man erzählt sich, dass der Trödelmarkt einst ein beliebter Treffpunkt für Touristen war, die ihre gestohlenen Kameras zurückkaufen wollten. Auch wenn man in Portugal die nötige Vorsichtig walten lassen muss: Weder gibt es auf dem Flohmarkt massenweise Fotoapparate oder Handys zu kaufen noch streunern organisierten Diebesbanden durch die Stadt. Übrigens ist handeln nicht so unbedingt angesagt. Die Portugiesen empfinden die Preisfeilscherei eher als beleidigend. Schließlich bekommt man die Ware hier ja schon extrem günstig.
Aber zurück zu unserem Palast: Wir sind umringt von kunstvollen “azulejo” Kacheln, einem Marmorbad und Toilette mit Guckloch auf die Stadt, gemütlichen Liegen auf der Terrasse mit Blick über die Stadt… es fällt uns beinahe schwer das Refugium zu verlassen um Lissabon weiter zu erkunden. Aber das wäre ein Fehler! Auch nach dem dritten Besuch haben wir bislang gerade mal an der Oberfläche dieser vielschichtigen Stadt gekratzt. Zum Glück sind wir in den Besten Händen. Unser Concierge kümmert sich um alle Reservierungen, empfiehlt uns Restaurants (alleine über die fantastische Restaurantszene in Lissabon könnte man Bücher füllen), oder … organisiert uns eine Ausflugsfahrt auf einem Katamaran.
Segeltour auf dem Rio Tajo
Also: Dem Sonnenuntergang entgegen! Es gibt kaum einen schöneren Ausblick auf Lissabon als vom Boot auf dem Rio Tajo aus. Die Altstadt an backbord, die Sonne gerade aus. Von diesem Fluss aus segelten einst die Boote los, um die neue Welt zu erkunden. Daran erinnert auch die Statue Padrao dos Descobrimentos.
Auch die Aussicht auf den Terreiro do Paço ist vom Boot aus interessant: Hier legten einst die Händler und Vertreter aus den Kolonien Afrikas, Amerikas und Asiens an, die mit dem Königshof Geschäfte machen durften. Daher der alte Name “Palastgelände” der von den Einheimischen eher genutzt wird als Praça do Comércio – “Platz des Handels”. Heute steht hier kein Palast mehr und der Handel wird online oder in den Docks weiter die Bucht entlang abgewickelt. Das königliche Uferschloss war ebenso wie weite Teile der Altstadt 1755 durch ein verheerendes Erdbeben erschüttert worden. Zwischen 30.000 und 100.000 Menschen sollen der Naturkatastrophe zum Opfer gefallen sein – unter Trümmern begraben oder von den Brände verschlungen. In der Bucht und im Hafen hatte sich das Wasser zurückgezogen und dabei verlorene Ladung der Schiffe freigelegt. Der Versuch der Bergung war sicher keine gute Idee: Denn das Wasser kam in Form eines Tsunamis zurück und gab der Stadt den Rest. Es geschah am 1. November 1755 und veränderte das Gesicht und die Geschichte Europas nachhaltig. Die kolonialen Bestrebungen des Landes wurden bis auf weiteres eingestellt und Europas Philosophen der Aufklärung diskutierten über das “Theodizeeproblem” , also die Frage, wie ein gütiger Gott das Übel in der Welt zulassen könne: Die katholischste Stadt Europas. An Allerheiligen. Und dann blieb auch noch das damalige Rotlichtviertel die Alfama verschont. Der König selbst entkam der Katastrophe durch einen Zufall: José der I. verbrachte den Morgen auf Wunsch seiner Tochter außerhalb der Stadt im Grünen. Bis zu seinem Lebensende lehnte er es ab danach in vier Wänden zu leben. Statt dessen ließ er eine riesige Zeltstadt bauen die erst nach seinem Tod in den Palácio Nacional da Ajuda umgewandelt wurde.
Aber genug des geschichtlichen Exkurses – Lissabon ist nicht in seiner Vergangenheit stecken geblieben, die Stadt atmet, pulsiert und lebt in allen Ecken und Vierteln. Es gibt unzählige fantastische Restaurants (Feitoria Restaurant & Wine Bar, Gin Lovers & LESS und Taberna Sal Grosso um mal nur drei zu nennen), Shopping in allen Preisklassen, großartige Kunstausstellungen, Museen, Fardo-Musik und so vieles mehr.
Als leidenschaftlicher Fotograf zieht mich Lissabon vor allem für seine unzähligen Ausblickspunkte in seinen Bann. So viele “bella vistas” oder “miradouros” wie sie auf portugisisch genannt werden. Es gibt den Aussichtspunkt Graça, den Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, Santa Luzia, Arco da Rua Augusta oder San Pedro de Alcântara um nur ein paar zu nennen. Und natürlich unsere Terasse im Palácio Belmonte.
If, after seeing all these pictures, you’ve finally made your decision to travel to Bhutan, here are some essential information for making your travel arrangements:
First you need to be aware, that travelling to Bhutan is rather expensive. Not only because you can’t get there directly, but also because Bhutan has a special policy to make you pay a daily minimum for hotel and guide while latter is mandatory for most visitors.
The Bhutanese government is reserved about letting to many visitors in the country. This topic is matter of discussion in Bhutan, but so far you are obliged to have an invitation by “a citizen of some standing” or a volunteer organization. State-controlled tours are possible, Bhutan has deliberately remained closed off to protect old traditions. TV and internet didn’t reach the country before 1999! Due to Bhutanese policy, Bhutan was definitely spared from becoming another stop on the backpacker Banana Pancake Trail in Asia.
With the exception of passport holders from Bangladesh, India and the Maldives, all visitors must travel on a preplanned, prepaid, guided package tour or custom designed travel program arranged by an agreed travel agency.
Starting from Germany we choose Bhutan Travel, a small yet very dedicated travel agency near Munich. We were very happy with this choice, since they’ve made our travel very carefree so I can nothing but recommend them. If you live outside of Germany I’m sure the internet will help you to find other trusted agencies. In the last years private guides from Bhutan acting as travel agent themselves spring up like mushrooms. It’s up to you whether you prefer to book with one directly. The tourism council carries a long list of tour operators but I can help you with a direct contact to trusted people in Bhutan directly.
You’ll obtain your mandatory Visa for Bhutan at the border, but of course it’s your agancy that arranges that for you in advance. There is no need to go to an embassy. But you’ll probably need a visa for India or Nepal as well. Latter is easier to get and also a lot cheaper. Those two countries are usually your stepping stone for getting to Bhutan since they are close by and are connected by regular flights to Paro. The alternative is Bangkok which is visa free for many nationalities. It is served by Bhutan’s first private Airline Bhutan Airlines (Tashi Air) and recently state owned Druk Air added a daily connection too. Otherwise they are flights from Dhaka (Bangladesh), Yangoon (Myanmar), and Singapore. We decided to visit Delhi & Agra first, took a flight from Delhi to Gauhati and from there by car to Samdrup Jongkhar where we crossed the border to Bhutan in order to travel the country from east to west. There are two other border crossings: Gelephu & Jaigon-Phuentsholing. This map is giving you an good overview of the main connections.
You’ve probably heard by now, that travelling to Bhutan is not cheap. But that is not fully correct. You have a daily minimum or as it is officially called a “Minimum Daily Package“. This is set by the government to control tourism and protect the environment. It can’t be negotiated. But here’s the thing: The price includes all accommodations, the (excellent) meals, transportation (car & driver), guide and the cultural programs. So all you need to pay in addition is your drinks, souvenirs and the extra tips. I really enjoyed not having to worry about paying the hotel, the restaurants etc. Makes you feel even more like a welcomed visitor or like a king/queen all over the country. An important thing to know: A big chunk of the money from your ‘Daily Package’ also goes towards free education, free healthcare, and poverty alleviation in Bhutan, along with the building of infrastructure. For 2017 it was $65. Once you look at it from that perspective, it isn’t as expensive as it might seem in the first place. Its just a lot of money (well spent). Ok, let’s talk money:
High Season: March, April, May, September, October, and November
- $250 per person per day, for a group of three or more people.
- $280 per person per day, for a group of two people.
- $290 per day for single individuals.
Low Season: January, February, June, July, August, and December
- $200 per person per day, for a group of three or more people.
- $230 per person per day, for a group of two people.
- $240 per day for single individuals.
There are several discounts depending on how long you stay, how many you are. Also for students and of course children.
As mentioned above, you won’t need a bag full of money once in Bhutan. There is ATM service in Bhutan but from my six cards only one got accepted (Lufthansa VISA). Credit cards are not widely accepted but most of the tourist shops do. The Bhutanese currency is called Ngultrum and its value is linked to the Indian Rupee. With the exception of 500 and 2,000 rupees notes, the Indian Rupee can be used as legal tender. You should try to get some small bills, since you might need them for the voluntary (good for your karma though) donations at the countless temples.
Your tour operator will choose your accommodation. Most people assume that they’re stuck with a fixed itinerary and the hotels allocated to them. However, tour companies will in fact accommodate requests in order to keep business. So it might be worth it to check the proposed hotels with tripadvisor or similar pages. But keep in mind, that in some regions you only have a low density of hotels. If you are adventurous enough and want to exchange comfort for authenticity ask for home stays! We’ve enjoyed that part, despite having to sleep on a mattress at -5 C° with a toilet on the other side of the house. Most of the standard hotels are rather simple, if you are the luxury type, heaven is the limit – at least concerning prices: The amazing Amankora in Punakha will cost you 1,550$ for a double room.
Development in Bhutan
Bhutan has dramatically changed in the last thirty years. Sustainable growth isn’t easy at that pace, some are not happy of this journey and the side effects. On the other hand no one has the right to deny the Bhutanese and especially the youth the sometimes dubitable blessings of progress (or quantum jump in some places). Saying that, you should focus on the east of the country if you want to see and feel the traditional Bhutan. But be aware: You will spend a large amount of time in your car, since excavators are digging the country over for the renewal of the roads. Since it’s happening all over the country and you only have ONE main road, you won’t be travelling fast. Good thing about that: You have a lot of time looking at magnificent landscapes and you’ll be learning a lot about road construction…
Best time visiting Bhutan
So what’s the best time visiting this unique kingdom?
Let’s start with the climate. It is extremely diverse. This is due to the variations in altitude, as well as the influence of the southwest and northeast monsoons from India. Weather patterns can be divided as follows:
- Late June to late September: southwest monsoon brings heavy rain and high humidity to the southern border region of Bhutan
- Early October to late November: post-monsoon there are bright, sunny days and sometimes early snowfall at higher elevations
- Late November to early March: the northeast monsoon brings gale force winds through high altitude mountain passes, giving Bhutan its name “Drukyul” — meaning Land of the Thunder Dragon. Winter also sets in, with frost throughout much of the country and snowfall often above 3,000 meters. December and January are the coldest months in Bhutan, with overnight temperatures dropping below zero in Paro, Thimphu, and Bumthang. But from a photographers perspective: That is the time when you have crystal clear air, nice skies and the best photo op. Also, your daily package is cheaper and you have much less tourist around you
- Early March to mid April: spring is generally dry and pleasant
- Mid April to late June: summer produces occasional showers and maximum temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit)
But climate isn’t the only aspect: Many tourists visit Bhutan to experience the country’s fascinating festivals called tsechu. A comprehensive listing of festival dates for 2017 can be downloaded here from the Tourism Council of Bhutan website. The three most famous are:
- Thimphu Tsechu (September 25-29, 2017): It’s one of the biggest festivals and people travel from all over the country to see it. It takes place at Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu. Days and nights of prayer and rituals are undertaken to invoke the gods before the festival.
- Punakha Drubehen and Tsechu (February 19-27, 2018): At picturesque Punakha Dzong, the Punakha Drubchen hosts a dramatic recreation of the scene from Bhutan’s 17th century battle with the Tibetan army, who came to seize a precious relic.
- Paro Tsechu (March 27-31, 2018): Held every spring at Rinpung Dzong, this is one of the most colorful and significant events. Early in the morning on the last day of the celebration, the monks display a gigantic thangkha painting inside the dzong.
So choose wisely when to go to Bhutan. But don’t wait to long. Progress is transforming Bhutan and its people quickly. The capital Thimpu f.e. is one of the fastest growing cities in Asia and has to deal with a lot of challenges.
Waking up early the next day, we kept a real highlight for our last day in Bhutan. The hike to Taktshang Monastery is the most famous hike in all of Bhutan. Taktshang, or better known as the ‘Tiger’s nest’ is a monastery that has been built, no glued to a sheer cliff wall high up on a mountain at around 1649. It was destroyed partly by fire in 1998 but rebuilt with the help of a temporary cable car.
Today we said good bye to Thimpu. We won’t be missing the dog barks or the industrial side of Thimphu, nevertheless it was a city full of life and laughter.
On the drive to Paro, we drove through some really stunning country side. Steep valleys with small little rivers on the bottom meandering slowly. The sun was out and shining on many golden roof of smaller temples.
What a night in Thimphu! This will stay in our memories not because of the heavy partying we did (night life is rather limited here in Bhutan) but of the sleep we did not get. Like a replay of Mongar, we were kept awake by the incessant dog barking all throughout the night.
Now a special chapter about our culinary journey in Bhutan. Chris complained, that he never takes pictures of food plates (#foodporn), but eventually he made an exception for this blog.
At first reading about the food in Bhutan Chris had severe concerns that he’ll be ending up snacking on energy bars and Coca Cola for the duration of three weeks. Luckily quite the opposite proved to be true.
Punakha turned out to be a delightful valley with lots of charming little settlements and two meandering rivers that merge about half way down the valley. Right at its junction is the most magnificent Dzong that we have seen so far.
Punakha turned out to be a delightful valley with lots of charming little settlements and two meandering rivers that merge about half way down the valley. Right at its junction is the most magnificent Dzong that we have seen so far. Punakha Dzong is just a massive fortress and to imagine that this was built without any proper plans or calculations whatsoever is astounding. The Dzong was built in 1637 by one of the rulers at that time and until 1955 Punakha was the capital of Bhutan, before moving to Thimpu. In Punakha kings were crowned and in the winter months the entire monastic body that resides in Thimpu in the summer months moves then to Punakha Dzong. Including the chief abbot, who is equally important and powerful in Bhutan than the king.
Punakha Dzong can only be accessed either through a cantilevered wooden bridge from one side or from Bhutans longest suspension bridge on the other. Therefore it could easily be defended. Nowadays the access is restricted to opening times. Inside the Dzong there are three courtyards. The largest one, where the annual Tsechu is being performed, has a huge Bodhi tree and a large stupa in the middle. Around this courtyard all administrative offices are gathered. Through an intricate number of covered passageways we enter the second courtyard, which is smaller but offers an impressive view of the tallest building, the utse (largest tower). We are not allowed to enter this building, but were told it houses a large number of smaller temples, each dedicated to a different local deity. Only monks are allowed here.
In the third courtyard, we see a sacred temple to one side, covered in ornate carvings. Only three people in Bhutan have access to this temple and can go inside. The current king, the chief abbot (like the pope of Bhutan) and the head master of Punakha dzong. That’s it. Nobody knows exactly what’s inside other than it is a most important relic coming from Tibet. A relic so sacred, that wars were fought over it. But nowadays this Rangjoen Kharsapani relic is kept a mystery.
On the opposite side is the main temple that is also open to public and used for religious ceremonies. It’s the most splendid grandeur we have seen inside a temple before. A very large golden Buddha statue is framed by 1000 smaller golden Buddha statues and paintings of another 1000 Buddhas on the walls and ceilings. As you know by now, photos inside are not allowed so you have to use your imagination.
After wandering about the Dzong a bit, we set out to our next stop, where we were looking forward to a good hours hike up a hill to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. This religious temple is fairly new (1999) and has been built by the queen mother to commemorate the fourth king of Bhutan. It is a delightful show case of Bhutanese architecture, with the who’s who of the deities and the only temple where you can climb up to the very roof and enjoy the magnificent view from far above.
The special thing about it is that there are four altars built on top of each other, each level accessible by a small staircase and as you get higher (clockwise!), the altar rooms get smaller until you are at the very top looking at the fourth altar with all its offerings looking out into the winter landscape. We basked in the sun and then slowly made our way down the hill again. It was a nice way to stretch our legs and find out more about the local architecture.
We liked Punakha very much, with its balmy climate and picturesque houses but it was time to make our way to Thimpu, the capital.
Our last pass for this trip was Duchula pass at 3116 meters altitude. Surprise, surprise the entire road was already asphalted and nearly finished. What a difference in driving and speed! We had lunch on top of the pass, which reminded us of a rest station at an Autobahn. Food was better than in Germany but barely. On top of the pass are 108 chortens (stupas) in a circular fashion. The Druk Wangyal Chortens.
Waking up again to frozen windows (and we mean frozen inside!) and our breaths steaming white in the cold morning air, we enjoyed again a hearty breakfast of fried rice and omelette accompanied by black tea. Very yummy.
The next day we were off early as we had the chance of seeing another Tsechu, an annual festival on our way to Phobjikha Valley. This time the Dzong of Trongsa was having its annual three day festival and we were just in time to see the first day which also serves as rehearsal day. That means the monks dance without their masks that we have seen it in the Tsechu at Shongphu.
After Chris’ photo bonanza we’ve counted around 200 pictures (remember the old times, when on the photo roll 32 pictures were the max). So here is a glimpse of his rage (But wasn’t that the main reason for this travel?)