Nepal (Dec '09)

This was the second time for us in Nepal, and by now it's a tradition for us to be in the Himalayas once a year! This time, we chose to go to Pokhara and do the Jomsom trek in the Annapurna region.

19/12: Kathmandu
We arrived in Kathmandu with a few hours delay, and after checking in the same hotel as last time (Tibet Guesthouse), we quickly went out to arrange our gear. In the gear rental shop, they told us that the Jomsom trek (part of the Annapurna Circuit) that we wanted to take was not recommended - they had built a road all the way to Jomsom and the trek could be quite dusty. So we changed plan and opted for the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) Trek instead. This was still an unspoiled trek through a nature park, and the high-altitude trek would take around 9 days.

When we walked back to the hotel, we saw a black dog in the street - he was in real agony and it was heartbreaking to see him suffer. Not only did he have the mange all over his body, and was walking backwards, throwing himself on the floor, howling and screaming constantly. He had probably eaten some poison, and there was no help available in the street (many people avoided him for fear of rabies). Initially we thought we couldn't help him, but when we saw him the second time we wanted to do anything we could. At our hotel there was sign from a dog welfare society (KAT), but it was too late in the evening already and they didn't pick up the phone anymore. Luckily the man behind the reception was very helpful, and he called over ten different people until he managed to get hold of the founder of KAT. We felt like it was a miracle when they agreed to come out and help the dog, but unfortunately it would take a hour for them to reach us. We went back out again to find the dog and slowly directed him to a quiet side street, so that at least he was out of harm's way.

There were quite a few people around us who wanted to help (locals and an Italian couple), and everybody felt a huge relief when we told them that help was on the way. When the animal ambulance arrived, the guys quickly picked up the dog, put him in the back of the card and gave him a tranquilizer. We agreed with the staff that it was best to end his ordeal right now, and they gave him another injection to put him asleep. He slowly fell asleep and the suffering was finally over...

Some local shop-keepers knew of another sick dog, and they insisted we save him too. He was very friendly and still in reasonably good shape, but the mange had started and he lost half of his fur - a few months and he also would in terrible shape. The KAT team took him and they'll return him when he's healthy and sterilized. It was great to see that there's an organization who cares about these dogs - it makes a huge difference.

After all this, we had a quick dinner, packed our bags for the next day and collapsed in bed...Long walk from Pokhara to Phedi (25km) due to a nationwide strike...

20/12: Kathmandu - Pokhara - Phedi
We had heard something about a strike in Nepal, but this morning we realized the full consequences - no regular buses or taxis anywhere and all shops closed. We had a mid-morning flight, and luckily the government had arranged tourist buses to the airport. But when we arrived in Pokhara (after a 30-minute scenic flight), we realized that there was no transport whatsoever, and that we would had to wait three days or walk 25km to the beginning of the Annapurna trek... We choose to walk, and left right after lunch. The only concession we made, was to take a porter (which was hard as well, because all trekking shops were closed and porters are not really supposed to work, so there was a risk of conflict with the Maoists who called the strike). We escaped Pokhara with Binod, the porter, without trouble but it was a tough 5-hour walk to Phedi (in pitch-black for the last hour). We were very happy with the porter - a friendly and strong young man, who was a Tibetan Buddhist.

Magnificent scenery started on the second day21/12: Phedi - Tolka
We left Phedi at around 8am and started with a steep climb to Dhampus. Afterwards it was a relatively gentle walk up to Pothana where we stopped for lunch. After lunch we walked for another 2.5 hours until we reached Tolka. The track took us through villages and forests, and the temparature was a pleasant 20 degrees in the sun (until it dropped rapidly by late afternoon).

So far, this track is still much lower than the startpoint of the Everest Base Camp Trek (which starts in Lukla at 2,500m). Tolka is at 1,700m and our destination tomorrow will be at 2,170m. But that doesn't make it less though - it's still lots of climbing and descending... The difference, however, is that we now have a porter to carry our packs!

When walking through the villages, it's clear that it's a cultural melting pot between the Indian people from the subcontinent and the Mongolian people of the Himalayas (with relatively more Hindus). It's also clear that the people here are Sunrise in Tolkaquite different from the Sherpas in the Khumbu area around Mt Everest.

In Tolka we decided to call it a day, mainly because we found a nice and clean guesthouse (Namaste Guesthouse) with fantastic views... It would leave some more walking for tomorrow, but we'll worry about that later!


22/12: Tolka - Chhomrong (2170m)

Sjoerd woke up early to take some sunrise photos of South Annapurna, which was beautifully lit. We had an early breakfast and left at around 7.30am. It took us a good 4.5 hours to reach Jinudanda, passing through the villages of Langdruk and Newbridge. After Jinudanda (famous for its hotspring), it was a very steep climb up to ChhomrongSunrise in Tolka where we stopped for the day. It gets dark at around 6pm, but you want to stop walking by 5pm because you're exhausted and it gets cold rapidly (a wet, bone-chilling kind of cold).

Tea break in Landrung23/12: Chhomrong - Himalaya Hotel (2920m)

After a good breakfast, we started the hike at 8am with a long descent, only to climb up again for over an hour - not a great start of the day. We got to Sinuwa by 10am, stopped for tea and continued towards Bamboo. Along the way, we saw a large group of white langoor monkeys bouncing around in the trees. They seemed very much in their natural element there...

We arrived in Bamboo at around noon, and stopped for a good lunch. It was nice to sit in the sun and have a break for a while!Sunrise in Chhomrong

We left around 1pm and arrived at Dhovan within an hour - much faster than expected, and an encouragement for the last stretch to Himalaya Hotel. This was more tough, as it was uphill most of the time. But we got there by 4pm, so not too bad after all. We could feel that we are higher up now, as it's getting quite cold late afternoon already. We quickly put on warm clothes (incl. thermal underwear, ski trousers and a very warm jacket). Now we're good!

On the trail from Chhomrong to Himalaya HotelIn the evening, we noticed a beatiful but very thin female dog, sleeping outside under a table. We asked the lodge owner if she belonged to him, but he said no and didn't really seem to care. We fed her quite some of our dinner, and she was fine for the moment.Very large monkey in a tree next to the trail


24/12: Himalaya Hotel - Annapurna Base Camp

In the morning, we had an early breakfast (and ordered some extra pancake for the dog), and left around 8am. It took us 1.5 hours to reach Deurali, and by noon we got to Machchapuchchure Base Camp (MBC). While we were waiting for lunch, we were shocked to see that the same dog was following some trekkers up the mountain to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) - the temperature was still nice but it would be much colder higher up, and even colder in the night.

View from Machhapuchhere Base Camp towards Annapurna Base CampIt took another 2 hours to reach ABC, and on the way it got very cloudy and started to snow - we thought that it was excellent gift for Christmas Eve! But in a short time, the snow turned into a real blizzard, temperatures dropped rapidly, and we quickly dashed into the lodge for some protection. We enjoyed the view and after an hour bravely decided to go for a walk. We were fighting against the snow and wind up there, and when we turned a corner we were shocked to see the same dog laying outside, shivering of cold and looking miserable. None of the lodge owners let her in, and even advised tourists not to let her into their rooms. We ignored that of course, picked her up and carried her to our room, where she quickly disappeared under the bed. Even in the room she was shivering, but at least she was out of the wind. We bought her food in the evening, and throughout the night she kept on shivering. We felt very sorry for her, and had no idea how she ended up here.


25/12: ABC - Sinuwa

At 2am, she started to cry a bit, and we let her out as we thought she needed to pee. She dashed out, but she didn't return... So Sjoerd dressed up and went to look for her. After 10 minutes, he saw her and carried her back into the room. At 4am, she started to cry again, and we let her out again. Of course, she disappeared again, but this time we couldn't find her anymSjoerd had to carry down Christa - the same dog we saw two days earlier. She almost froze to death during the blizzard and couldn't walk in the morningore. We were sad, as we were sure that she'd freeze to death in the night (it was -17 degrees). After a few miserable hours during which we couldn't sleep (due to the cold and thin air), we woke up at 6am... And to our biggest surprise, the dog appeared from under the bed, stretching, yawning and shivering! We still don't know how she got there...

We took some photos of the sunrise and spectacular views, had a quick breakfast, and prepared to leave. We decided to bring the dog sown to a lower altitude, where she could manage on her own again. But she was so cold, that she just couldn't walk through the knee-deep snow. We had a leash, but it seemed useless - she didn't move. In the end, Sjoerd had to pick her up, put her on his neck, and carry her down the mountain!

Only after half an hour, she finally warmed up and decided that she could move herself again... And the three of us quickly descended that beautiful but ice-cold mountain. Christa, as we had called her, turned out to be a fantastic dog, who walked on the leash without any problem, and we made very good speed.

Taking a break during the tough climb back to ChhomrongWe got to Sinuwa later afternoon, exhausted from a sleepless night and almost 9 hours of walking. During dinner we heard that there would be another strike on 27 December, and that we had to walk all the way down and take a taxi to Pokhara in one day or we'd risk getting stuck on the mountain for a few days....


26/12: Sinuwa - Pokhara

We woke up late from a deep sleep, and decided over breakfast to try and reach Pokhara in one day... It would probably require 9-10 hours of walking and we would have to walk at least an hour in pitch-black, but it was better than spending a few days more here or walking all the way back to Pokhara.

All day Christa behaved like a model dog, and walked nicely with us on a leash. But along the way, we had several adventures with the local dogs and some wildlife hidden in the bushes (which resulted in wild barking and growling - maybe a leopard?).

In Chhomrong, we found the only internet cafe on the whole trek, checked for an animal welfare organization in Pokhara, and talked to the manager. He encouraged us to take her all the way down, and agreed to see her - no guarantee for a happy ending yet, but things started to look good for her.

Totally exhausted, we arrived to Birethanti by 7pm, where luckily some entrepreneurial taxi drivers were waiting for tourists. They charged us a LOT, of course, but we happily jumped into the 30-year old beat-up Toyota to drive us back to Pokhara. Only 10 minutes after we left, we realized that Christa was shaking on our lap, and that she has never been in a car before - who knows, maybe she has never even seen a car while walking through the mountains all her life. But she behaved, and we arrived in Pokhara by 8pm.

We found a nice hotel, and we just took the dog into our room - no point asking, as we would have done it anyway! As soon as we got into the room, she curled up in a corner and fell asleep - for the next 12 hours... And so did we!


27/12: PokharaWe left Christa in the good hands of the people at HART in Pokhara (Himalayan Animal Rescue Team)

As expected there was another strike across Nepal, and we couldn't get a taxi to the Himalayan Animal Rescue Team, so we put on our walking shoes again and prepared for the 3-hour walk there. It was even harder this time, as the streets were full of dogs who attacked our poor girl as we walked by. But we finally found HART, and even brought along another female dog who had just volunteered to get sterilized...

Kageshwaar from HART is a great guy who used to work with KAT in Kathmandu and works in Pokhara since March '09. He helps to get rid of rabies in the Pokhara valley by vaccinating all dogs, and to control the dog population by sterilizing the female dogs - all without any government support. We told him the story of Christa, and he told us that one of the staff will probably adopt her as he was looking for a new dog. We offered to adopt her if that didn't work out, as we had already fallen in love with this smart and beautiful dog. One way or another, we'll see her again!

We left her in the good hands of HART, and walked back to Pokhara for some sightseeing, dinner and shopping. Pokhara is one of the most charming cities in Nepal, with a large lake and magnificent mountains views, and we hadn't seen too much of it yet!

28/12: Pokhara - Royal Chitwan National Park

We took the 7.30am bus and spent over five hours cramped into small seats, slowly making our way south to one of Nepal's premier nature reserves - the Royal Chitwan National Park. This park was almost lost by the 1960s, due to years of enthusiastic hunting by the British and unrestricted population growth. When there were just a handful of tigers, rhinos and elephants left, the King intervened, declared it a national park and removed over 22,000 peasants from the 932 square kilometer park. The population of wildlife has been fluctuating since (as poachers were sometimes more successful than the park's security officers), but recently they counted 304 rhinos and 94 tigers. It's been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984.Collecting edible fern for dinner with local villagers - the building in the background is a watch tower where we slept

After we arrived, we had lunch at our resort and then left for their Jungle Camp - a couple of simple rooms in a watch tower just inside the actual park, from which we could see / hear wildlife, if we were lucky.Preparing dinner...

Shortly after we got there, we were joined by two Tharu women, who took us into the forest to collect fern for dinner. Without them, we probably would have starved that night, as we had real trouble finding the edible fern shoots among all the undergrowth... But they had an expert eye and quickly gathered a large collection. They then took us back to their village nearby, where we cooked together and had plenty of photo opportunities. It was encouraging to see that some NGO had recently completed a biogas installation, which would allow them to cook on the gasses from cow's manure instead of using wood. The kitchen was basic, but very clean and organized. We had some delicious dal bhat (dal = lentil, bhat = rice) with potatoes and the fern.

29/12: Chitwan
One-horned rhino in Chitwan
After a cold night up in the watch tower, we woke up in the middle of dense fog - little chance of seeing any wildlife, although we heard a mother rhino walking about and calling her baby nearby... A very nice experience.

We returned to the resort for a big breakfast, and continued the day with an elephant ride into the park itself. There are three ways to explore the park: walking, elephant ride and jeep safari. We did all of this, of course!

Magnificent spotted deerWhile we don't like elephant rides (we prefer to just look at them), it is the best way to see wildlife in the park as the animals don't feel threatened by the elephants and you can get really, really close. Within two hours, we saw a rhino at 5 meters from us, dozens of spotted deer, sambar deer at 3 meters distance, a family of wild boar, gharial and marsh mugger crocodiles, and countless birds. We had never seen a wild rhino before, and it was a very special experience to see it grazing peacefully right next to us. And we have seen more deer than any other trip we have ever done, and it was clear that the animals in the park are well-protected.

In the afternoon, we did a canoe trip followed by a jungle walk. During the canoe trip, we saw countless crocodiles from very close by (the fish-eating gharial crocodile with its long thin snout, and the more scary marsh mugger who eats anything that comes his way).Marsh mugger crocodile

Afterwards we made a jungle walk with an experienced local guide, who took us to rhino sleeping places and spotted many deer and monkeys. Once we got out of the forest, we visited the elephant breeding centre. This is a successful project that aims to increase the elephant population, as there are only 20 wild elephants left in the park. Luckily the wild elephants participate in the project, as the bulls make regular unscheduled visits to the ladies in the centre... They even recently had elephant twins, which is extremely rare.

In the evening, we had a nice dinner by a camp fire (wich was much appreciated, as there was no dining hall and it was less than 10 degrees that evening!).

Making our way through high grass, looking for rhinos!30/12: Chitwan

Today we explored some more of the park, first with another jungle walk and then with a jeep safari. We saw some wild life (hog deer, spotted deer, monkeys, Siberian ducks, crododiles), and it was good to see how large the park is (1.5 times Singapore). We also saw some beautiful lakes where the animals gather in the dry season. There were many soldiers and checkpoints, against poachers and Maoist rebels who sometimes come through the park.Gharial crocodiles in the Gharial Breeding Centre

31/12: Chitwan - Kathmandu

Today we took a bus back from the park to Kathmandu, and we could again see the deep poverty throughout Nepal - it was clear that many people have a tough life there, especially in the cold harsh winter.

In Kathmandu, we went to a nice restaurant with great Nepali food and a good cultural show. Kathmandu was really celebrating New Year's Eve, and the noise in the streets went on until late...

1/1: Kathmandu

After a long sleep-in and a big breakfast, we were ready for the new year...
Our activity today was to visit the Kathmandu Animal Treatment (KAT) Centre, ten kilometers north of the centre. We wanted to see their facilities, give them a donation and check on the dog with mange that they took from our hotel two weeks ago.

As there was another strike today (the third in two weeks!), we chose to rent bikes for the trip to Budhanilkantha. It was quiet on the streets, and we reached KAT after an hour. It was a small but nice facility, with kennels, an operating theatre, recovery rooms and many dogs that were too sick to be released yet.

On a typical day, KAT goes out in the morning to catch 5-6 female dogs (each day in a different part of town). They take them back to the centre, check their health, sterilize them, give them anti-rabies shots and other vaccinations, put a tattoo in one ear and clip the other, give them a red collar, and release them in the same place after 3-4 days. Over the years, KAT has treated over 11,500 dogs and we believe that their efforts are definitely making a difference in the valley.

We biked back to Kathmandu, and spent the afternoon shopping in Thamel - the tourist part of town, and of one of the best places to shop in Asia...Patan's Durbar Square

2/1: KathmanduFeeding pigeons at Patan's Durbar Square

The next day we visited Patan, one of the old Newari cities in the Kathmandu Valley. The Newaris have built beautiful cities, with extensively decorated five-story houses around large courtyards, water holes, palaces, temples, squares, and alleys. Most buildings date back from the 1600s, and are still well-preserved and continue to be used as houses and shops.

We spent a couple of hours walking through the old center, before returning to Thamel for another round of shopping.

3/1: Kathmandu - Singapore

Nepal is an amazingly beautiful country with a huge variety of nature, people and languages - ranging from subtropical jungles to the highest peaks in the world, with Hindus, Tibetans and various tribal people. But the country is still very poor, with low literacy, an unstable government and a real problem with garbage - in towns and on roadsides, everybody just throws their garbage anywhere, and many rivers have become garbage dumps. The treks up in the mountains are still unspoilt, but it's a different story once you're back to larger settlements. We truly hope that this country will get a stable, strong government and a better economy, and that the people will take better care of what they have. And we'll be back again in Nepal - we love this country!

For more pictures, click here.

Koh Samui (Nov '09)

The last time we were in Koh Samui was during our honeymoon, and we returned for a fabulous long weekend. IMG_4639

We stayed on Bo Phut beach in the north of the island, in the Anantara resort which really deserves its 5-star rating... The hotel has great facilities, and we were particularly impressed with its beautifully decorated library and garden pavillions. They have several restaurants, including a great Italian restaurant with probably the best desserts on the island...

IMG_4637The resort is designed with a monkey theme, and you see nice touches everywhere. In addition, the Anantara resort supports a elephant sanctuary in the north of Thailand (they charge $1 extra per night as donation to the sanctuary), which is another good reason to stay at one of their resorts.

Our room was on the third floor and our balcony was right in the canopy of the trees. We could see the squirls and birds in the morning - a good start of the day!
We spent our days lazing on the beach, swimming, working on our tan, and getting Thai massages - yes, it's a tough life!

Bo Phut beach is much more laidback than the popular beaches of Chaweng and Lamai (where we stayed previously). We rented a motorbike to go back to Chaweng and Lamai. Not much has changed in the last couple of years, and it was good to be back there.

All in all, it was a great weekend break, and definitely something to be repeated!

For more pictures, click here.

Chiang Mai (October 2009)

A few months ago, we saw an incredible documentary on Animal Planet channel about people saving elephants in Thailand. After the government banned commercial logging in 1989, many elephants became jobless overnight – they were used to drag logs out of the forest, and were no longer needed. As a result, many elephants ended up in the tourism industry, sometimes forced to beg in the streets of Bangkok at night. Many elephants suffered from neglect, abuse, car accidents, or even landmines when they are used for illegal logging in Laos, etc. This is aggravated by the fact that domestic elephants in Thailand have virtually no rights and are not protected by law. Abusing them or even killing them is punishable with only a small fine.
Some people are making a heroic effort to change this. In the Animal Planet documentary, we learned about the projects of Bring The Elephant Home and the Elephant Nature Park. Bring The Elephant Home is run by a Dutch lady called Antoinette who buys abused elephants from mahouts across Thailand, and she brings them to the Elephant Nature Park (, which is run by an amazing Thai lady called Lek. “Lek” means small, but she is a strong woman with a big heart and tremendous energy.
Even before visiting the park, we already decided to sponsor one of the elephants through a regular donation that goes towards food and veterinary care. So we were very curious to see what is happening here and meet ‘our’ elephant, which is called Dok Ngeon.

We arrived in Chiang Mai on Sunday evening, and spent a couple of hours exploring the city centre. We first went to an amazing vegetarian restaurant called Taste of Heaven which supports - no surprise here - the Elephant Nature Park… afterwards we made a short walk around the night bazaar, before heading back to the hotel to be ready for an early start.
In the morning, we were picked up for the one-hour drive to the park. The park itself is situated in a peaceful valley far away from the main road, and when we got closer we could already see the herd of 34 elephants, walking around in a beautiful meadow, After a warm welcome and a short safety briefing, we went on to feed the elephants. They have a huge appetite, and they can easily eat 10% of their body weight each day. Brunch for them was pumpkin, water melon, banana, and corn – banana was the favorite, with much less enthusiasm for the pumpkins…
After a great vegetarian lunch, we continued with elephant bathing! They thoroughly enjoyed this, standing in the river while people splashed them with water, or even going deeper into the river and going all the way under water, rolling around and clearly having fun. And of course, after they come out of the water, the first thing they do is cover themselves with mud and sand… but that’s only as protection against the sun and insects.

Elephant Nature ParkAfter bathing, they wandered off into the park for some private time until dinner… It was good to see that they could come and go as they please, without being forced into any activity. Each elephants has one or two mahouts, who take care of them and follow them through the park.

Lek wants to use the Elephant Nature Park to show that there is a better way to enjoy elephants – you don’t need to ride them, they don’t need to make paintings, they can be enjoyed just for what they are… elephants. She also shows videos to all visitors about the way elephants are trained, which we didn’t know about previously. Every elephant is put through a horrific torture training called the ‘pajaan’ which is a 3-7 day process during which the elephant is mentally and physically broken, so that they become submissive and are ready for further training. We’ve seen videos of this, and it’s truly heart-breaking. Just remember that next time you see an elephant begging in the streets of Bangkok or when an elephant makes a painting for you…
The Elephant Nature Park is a huge success (on our second day there were over 100 people), and Lek wants to show to the Thai people that tourists are willing to pay more to see elephants in their natural habitat, rather than performing tricks. Once they realize that, there will be no more need for ‘pajaan’ and tourist shows.
After the dinner feeding, the elephants were brought into their sleeping quarters. As we stayed for the night, we could see this ritual, and spend some time with the two babies, one 5-month old and one 3 month-old (who’s the son of Dok Ngeon, the elephant we’re sponsoring). These babies were born in the park, which is a sign that the elephants feel happy. The youngest baby was very naughty, playing with Sjoerd’s shoe laces all the time… he even tried to climb over the barrier of his sleeping quarters to get to them. We tried to push him back, but he was surprisingly strong for his small size. In the end, the mahouts had to put an extra barrier just to keep him inside! It was lovely to see them nursing with their mother, playing a bit, falling asleep in the pile of corn every now and then, only to wake up and continue to play.

In the evening, there were around 30 people at the park, most of them paying volunteers who stay for at least a week and some overnight guests like us. The accommodation is very good, with nice bungalows on stilts and comfortable beds, excellent vegetarian food – and the silence at night was unbelievable. The only thing you could hear was the crickets and some birds, for the rest: silence, until the 70 dogs woke up in the morning…
Elephant Nature Park
This place is first of all an elephant sanctuary, but it also provides protection, care and food for any needy animals, including a big family of water buffalos, an ever-increasing number of dogs, cats and a pony.
Lek - the driving force behind the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai
Lek, who runs the Elephant Nature Park, is the granddaughter of a shaman from a hill tribe nearby, and an extraordinarily smart and compassionate woman with a huge heart. She started with one elephant, and ever since she has dedicated her life to taking care of elephants in need. She is well-known around the world, through documentaries on Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, BBC and CNN, newspaper articles in pretty much any country in the world, and she was even named Time Magazine’s Hero of Asia in 2005… it was very inspiring to meet her and talk to her about her passion for elephants. And about two years ago, we wrote her about an elephant in distress at the Bridge of the River Kwai, and we asked her to save it. We never got a reply, but we found out that she actually went there several times to try to buy the elephant from its heartless owner. Unfortunately, he refused and played a dirty game of always increasing the asking price – if she paid, he would have just used the money to buy a new elephant and do the same thing again… But it was good to learn that she had tried, and hopefully one day she will succeed.

The next day, we left for Pai which is around three hours drive from Chiang Mai. This is a small and nice hill resort, and the starting point of our two-day white-water rafting trip on the Pai river. It was the first time we tried this, but we realized that rafting is by far the best way to enjoy nature – for two days we have seen only water and jungle… no cars, no other people, no house, nothing but nature.

Rafting on Pai RiverOur group consisted of five people with a guide, in a sturdy raft that carried all our food and clothes. It was all very well secured, because the raft can flip and turn any time! It felt very adventurous, and sometimes slightly dangerous, but we definitely want to go rafting again.

For most of the trip, it’s quite relaxed – you just float with the river, and sometimes paddle a bit to change course and position yourself well for a curve. But sometimes it can get pretty rough, with the river suddenly turning into a white whirlpool, madly churning around big rocks in the river. At those moments, it’s all hands on deck and your really need to paddle hard to stay on course and prevent a collision with a rock… At some point during a particularly turbulent part, the boat bumped over some rocks and one of our fellow travelers fell overboard with a load scream. Luckily he was still hanging on, but now we had to save him, while some others tried to keep the raft in the right direction and one person tried to rescue his paddle… Total chaos!

In the night we slept in a jungle camp, where everything was well taken care of – nice dinner, quite comfortable sleeping places, and the sound of monkeys to sing you to sleep. The next day we had a relaxed breakfast and left around 10am, for another 5-6 hours on the river. After the drive back to Pai, we arrived exhausted but very enthusiastic that we found another way to enjoy the Great Outdoors!
Wat in Chiang Mai
Next day, we spent some time exploring Pai and its surroundings. It was very nice, but we were appalled to find a baby monkey locked up in a cage outside a restaurant in the centre. It’s the Blue restaurant, and the heartless owner got the little monkey only a few weeks ago. It was clearly distressed, screaming and running around in its small cage. We tried to convince the owner to let us take it to the Elephant Nature Park, but she refused, saying that the monkey was her baby and that she would never let it go. After an hour of trying, we had to give up – we were getting nowhere with her. We had to leave the monkey behind, and our only consolidation was that it seemed quite relaxed when the owner carried it around… If you ever go to Pai, just avoid the Blue restaurant (we have also written to all major guide books asking them to remove this place from their listing).

After Pai we drove back to Chiang Mai, where we spent a day visiting some of the major wats (temples), before it was time to head back to Singapore. The north of Thailand was beautiful, and we’ll certainly be back at the Elephant Nature Park – a strong recommendation for any animal lover.

Click here for more photos.

Europe (Aug '09)

The holidays in Europe was absolutely amazing as always!!! We hadn’t been there in a long time, and it was really nice being back and to be reminded of all the things we love about our original home: Europe!In the forest with Nicky and Frank

Our first stop was the Netherlands, where we visited Nicky and Frank in Zuthen (in the East of the Netherlands). We enjoyed this small provincial town - we bought top quality Dutch cheese and good local herbal teas that we can’t buy in Singapore and we eat 'haring' in the street. Oh it just melted in our mouths, too good!!!!!! We especially enjoyed the nice walks that we had in the nearby forests. Of course we knew these places, but it was just nice to be back. And of course we returned to our favorite place here, the 'Pannekoeken Huis' (which literarily means a pancake house) of Erve Brooks. They make wonderful pancakes and apple pies!!!! And the best thing about it is its location in the middle of a field with grazing cows, everything is just incredibly green and peaceful. This is a place is well worth it to come back to all the way from Singapore :-)

Our next stop was Oradea in Romania, where we spent two days. Here we have met a new friend: Oscar - the new cat of Diana's mum and the friendliest small cat that we ever met. As long as you treat it gently, you can do whatever you want with him and he will happily sit next to youWalking around Sovata

I realized again what a beautiful place Oradea is, lots of old buildings everywhere in the center and slowly they Playing with the neighbour's dogare all getting renovated, which is really nice to see. And of course my mum cooked the most amazing and delicious food for us and the best cakes ever!!!! Just thinking about it makes us hungry again!

After two days in Oradea we left for Sovata, one of my favorite places in the world. Its location just simply can’t be better. Sovata is located in Transylvania, close to the Carpathian Mountains, surrounded by hills and forests. There are several salty lakes here (the water is saltier than the sea, so you just float), the water in the lakes is a bit cold, but still very nice for swimming and bathing. The water has healing properties for many health problems and this attracts The only living beings during a 6-hour walk around Sovata...many tourists. There is certain calmness about the place that makes us return time and time again.

View of Lacul Ursu in SovataOne of our favorite lakes is a small lake hidden away in the forest that only the locals know about. The water is so salty that when you dry up in the sun, you're all covered in a layer of white salt.

We rented a villa with stunning views over the hills. In the beginning we thought that it was too far from the lakes, but that wasn’t the case at all. The lakes were at 5 minute walk and yet it felt liDiana at the (hidden) saltiest lake in Sovatake we were in the middle of nowhere far from the crowd. It’s hard to imagine a better location. In the evening you would watch the sun go down and listen to the sound of the crickets and frogs. Oh it was like dream. The only way to leave this place, is to say we will be back Sovata!

After Sovata we stopped for a day in Oradea and then in Budapest. Budapest has a stunning locatiNational Day celebration in Budapeston and is divided by the Danube. We were very lucky again as it happened to be the national day of Hungary on the day we were there. We went up to the castle to see the fire works. In the castle district there was plenty of food and many wine stalls. Everybody seemed so happy and proud on the national day. There were also people dancing in the court of the castle. There was a concert with young performers, the music was folk music, but the rock version of it and the crowd went wild. We joined the crowd and danced and jumped until the concert was over. We had another wine with the stunning views over Pest from the castle side and back home again. The next morning we took a flight back to the Netherlands.With William & Femke at the Carre

Simply put: Amsterdam is a magical place. It’s hard to put it in words. All the buildings in the center are stunning. Many of them date from the 1600s…it feels like history everywhere, you can just imagine Rembrandt painting from the window of one of the houses…The canals are everywhere in the city and people are sitting in the bars outside. It is one of the few cities in the world that offers everything a big city can offer in terms of culture, diversity, beauty, yet it still feels like a village. In some way it feels so calm that you wouldn’t believe this is a world capital. We just realized again that we could live here anytime and it would be one of those places where we would happily return to live. We have never stopped loving this city, many of its inhabitants think they live in the most beautiful city in the world and we must agree with that!Feeding ducks in the Vondelpark

We love Asia, but we miss Europe a lot. I believe the longer you are away from a place the more you miss it, especially if you have the nicest memories from these places. We’ll just have to go back more often now :-)

Click here for more photos.

Philippines – Palawan (Apr ‘09)

Early April, we went to the Philippines together with Carole (our good friend from Paris) to explore the much-talkeHorse riding on Busuanga Islandd-about island of Palawan. More specifically, we went to Busuanga Island in the Calamian Group of islands in the north of Palawan, which is said to contain all the beauty of Palawan in a small archipelago. We couldn’t wait to get there…

We took again a rough overnight flight from Singapore to Manila, with an onward flight to Busuanga. We spend the first night in Coron town, where we did a great afternoon island discovery tour, including snorkeling above beautiful corals, swimming in a hot spring next to the sea, and making a long horseback riding trip through the surrounding forests. Towards the end of the trip, we stopped at a cliff overlooking Coron town and the bay… a magnificent sight.

The next day, we boarded the little outrigger boat that would be our base for the next couple of days. We organized a four-day kayaking tour around the islands of the Calamian Group, as this was said to be the best way to explore the stunning nature.  The boat was fully equipped with everything you cold possibly need for a trip like this – the crew even managed to serve cold beers at the end of the day! The service was excellent… we had five crew members taking care of the three of us.Looking for the dugong!

Diana and Carole, next to Culion IslandThe first day we went far away to Calumbuyan island, and stopped to snorkel at some of the many wrecks in the area. The trip was very relaxed – snorkeling, some kayaking, fantastic food for lunch, some more snorkeling and kayaking, and then heading for a deserted beach to put up the tents, grab some cold beers and watch the sunset while the crew prepares a great dinner. What more can you wish for?

We were very impressed with the crystal clear blue waters, sparkling white sand beaches and green vegetation everywhere in this archipelago – it’s probably the nicest we have ever seen!Our camp site for the the night: a deserted beach

The second night we went closer to Culion island, in search of the elusive dugong. The dugong is a very rare sea mammal of between 250 and 900kg, and it’s the only marine mammal that feeds only on plants. It’s been spotted in a few locations in Indonesia and the Philippines. Our guide, Ranny, has seen a few close to Busuanga and he took us to the place of the last sighting. We kayaked through the remote bay for a couple hours in the afternoon and again at sunrise, but we weren’t lucky – no dugong in sight, unfortunately. But the thought that it was somewhere out there, combined with a beautiful sunrise over a remote bay, made it a very memorable experience.

Kayaking around Coron IslandThe last day we spend kayaking around Coron Island, a large island in front of Busuanga, with a magnificent coast line. It’s famous for a couple of spectacular lakes inside the island, and we keen to see them. We first visited Lake Barracuda, via s steep climb over treacherous rocks, balancing ourselves with our mask, snorkel and camera. The lake was indeed very impressive, with ragged rocks visibBeautiful lagoon at Coron Islandle 20-30 meters deep. Although people were swimming in the lake, the atmosphere was relaxed as is considered to be a holy lake.  Before the next lake, we made a kayaking tour alongside the stunning vertical cliffs – combined with the crystal clear waters, it was truly spectacular! For the next lake we had to climb high up, from where we had a great view across the bay. Lake Kayangan was larger than Lake Barracuda, and just as nice. After this, we had to go back to Coron Town to disembark the boat and move to our hotel.

The next couple of days we went diving. The main attraction here is wreck diving, to see the wrecks of 24 Japanese cargo ships that were all destroyed by the US Air Force on 24 September 1944, in a 40-minute devastating attack. The wrecks were Wreck drive (Coron)typically 100-150 meters long, and you could swim all through them - entering at the front, swimming through the cargo bays, along the engine room and out at the back again. Sometimes you had to squeeze through tunnels, but it was never very dangerous. There were plenty of lion fish and stone fish around, so you had to be careful.

Palawan is indeed a fantastic destination – stunning scenery, great diving, deserted islands, and lots of fun. If you’re considering to go, we can highly recommend the kayaking trips of Rannie Dulay (+63 921 256 8347).

For more pictures, click here.

Vietnam – Hue & Hoi An (Jan ‘09)

Last week we went for a short trip to Vietnam, during the Lunar New Year. The Vietnamese call this the Tet Festival, and it is very much celebrated. We were warned that the country would basically shut down during those days, but that was not the case and we had a great time there!Thien Mu Pagoda (Hue)

Hue and Hoi An are located in the middle of Vietnam, close to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South where the heaviest fighting occurred during the Vietnam War in the last 60’s. Hue has been badly affected during several bloody battles, but Hoi An has escaped unharmed thanks to an agreement between both sides to save this remarkable city.VIETNAM MONK PROTEST

We started in Hue, where the main attractions lie outside the city – the tombs of the Nguyen emperors. We rented a car for a day, and kicked off with the Thien Mu Pagoda. This is a seven-tiered structure from 1844 has become the symbol of Vietnam, and exhibits the car that was used by Thich Quang Duc – the monk who set himself on fire in 1963 in Saigon to protest the government’s anti-Buddhist policies.

It’s a beautiful pagoda, and we liked the young monks with their shaven heads (except a tail at the front!) running around instead of studying…

Tomb of Tu Duc (Hue)The first tomb we visited was Tu Duc’s tomb, built in 1867 for the emperor for his life and death. He enjoyed himself is the majestic palace and serene gardens, together with his 104 wives. Somehow, his efforts didn’t pay off though, and he ended up adopting a son…! We liked this tomb a lot – it was the most impressive of all.Tomb of Minh Mang

Next we visited the Tomb of Minh Mang, which has a beautiful central shrine on a hill surrounded by pine trees. Right in front are three bridges, and you can walk over any – even the central one who used to be reserved for the emperor only…

Back in Hue, we visited the Citadel, which used to be an impressive island within the city with imperial palaces. Unfortunately, after heavy American bombings only the surrounding wall and the gates remain intact. The central gate has a large flag post with a huge communist flag proudly flying in the wind – it’s clear who is still in charge here.

The next day we took a bus for a three-hour drive to Hoi An. This city completely exceeded our expectations – it is probably one of the friendliest and most well-preserved cities in Asia, and we truly enjoyed our stay here. The city was an important port for foreign trade, and was re-built in the late 1700’s after a revolution.  Hoi An lost its port function in the late 19th century after the river silted up and became too shallow for boats. Now it’s focused on tourism, and thriving.

Lantern shop (Hoi An)We arrived on the eve of Lunar New Year, and the city was getting ready for the Lantern Festival. This is an appropriate festival, as every third shop in Hoi An sells lanterns (every other third is a tailor, and the rest are nice bars and restaurants). During the festival, there was a lantern competition, people floated hundreds of candles on the river to celebrate the New Year, and they even made balloons out of lanterns – it was a magical moment to see hundreds of lanterns rising up in the night sky…Temple in Hoi An

During the day, we made a leisurely walk around the city to see the many attractions, such as the assembly halls the different Chinese societies (Kantonese, Hainanese, Fujianese, …), the old houses, the temples and the musea. Normally you have to buy entry tickets for each, but because of Tet it was all for free. The Japanese built a beautiful covered bridge to connect their peninsula to the city, and it remains in good shape to this day.

Japanese Covered Bridge (Hoi An)The people were in a very good mood because of the Tet Festival – in every shop they offered us sweets, fruits and beer, even if we didn’t buy anything. Many people were sitting in front of their houses or closed shops, surrounded by their pets – there were many pets in Hoi An, and they were all in great shape.Temple entrance (Hoi An)

We did loads of shopping (lanterns, bags, a tailored shirt for Diana, etc.), we enjoyed the great food with lots of vegetarian choices and incredibly good chocolate croissants, and generally had a very relaxed time.

If we go back anywhere for a second during our time in Asia, it will probably be Hoi An!

For more pictures, click here.  

Bhutan (Dec '08)

Gandhi once said that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. From this point of view, Bhutan is probably greater and more advanced than any other country in the world, although it can and needs to improve further.

Until the 1960s, Bhutan had no national currency, no telephones, no schools, no hospitals, no postal service and certainly no tourists. By now, there is an airport, roads, free national health care, internet, mobile phones, and luxury tourist hotels, but the country has maintained its unique culture and natural beauty, qualifying it as the last Shangri-La in the world.

Bhutan is a magical country, with beautiful unspoiled nature, friendly people, and Buddhist tradition at every corner. Called "Druk Yul" or "Land of the Thunder Dragon" by the Bhutanese, it's about the size of Switzerland with only 700,000 people, it's 72% covered in virgin forest and is almost entirely mountainous. The 4th King established the concept of "Gross National Happiness" to balance economic development with protection of nature and cultural values, and this concept is fully engrained in the thinking of the Bhutanese.

25 DecemberParo's Ta Dzong (watch tower above Rinpung dzong)

We left Bangkok early in the morning, made a stop-over in Calcutta and arrived at the small airport of Paro – which is in the only valley in Bhutan that was long enough for a landing strip. We were welcomed by our guide RB and driver Karma from Bhutan Majestic Travel, who would take us around Bhutan for the next 11 days.

 After a quick lunch, we visited the National Museum which is housed in the Ta-Dzong above Paro Dzong. A dzong is a combined fortress / monastery / government office, typically around 400 years old and often accompanied by a smaller watch tower on a hill above (the ta-dzong). This ta-dzong has a unique circular shape (like a shell), and houses a nice collection of old artifacts, plus a large stamp collection (Bhutanese stamps are very elaborate, and some series can fetch huge sums at auctions).

26 December

Taktshang goemba ("Tiger's Nest")Refreshed after a long night sleep and a good breakfast, we first went to the Taktshang Goemba. The "Tiger's Nest" Monastery is the most famous in Bhutan and is indeed very impressive. It has a spectacular location high on the side of a cliff, 900 meters above Paro Valley. It took almost two hours to walk up there, and we stopped all the time to take pictures of the stunning temple that looks like it's growing out of the rocks.Taktshang goemba ("Tiger's Nest")

The monastery got its name from the legend that Guru Rinpoche (from the 8th century, one of the most important religious figures in Buddhism and seen as the second Buddha) flew on a tigress to this site to conquer a local demon. He subsequently meditated for three months in a cave there. The monastery was built in 1692 around the cave where he used to meditate, and inside are statues of Guru Rinpoche and beautiful paintings of the rock face. The site is considered as holy, and is visited by pilgrims from all over Bhutan.

Unfortunately, Taktshang was heavily damaged during a fire in 1998, but it was soon restored it in its old glory. Only since 2005 is it possible to visit this site, and only if the tour agency has previously arranged a permit (this applies to all major dzongs, or monasteries, in Bhutan).

We realized today that December is a good time to come, as these places can be too crowded with tourists during the peak season in November. During lunch, we had our first experience with "ema datse", a favorite local dish of chilies in cheese sauce (they eat chilies as vegetable here!).

Next on the schedule was Drukgyel Dzong, where are the impressive ruins of a fortress built in 1649 to control the strategic trade route with Tibet. Through the ruins, you could see what an impressive fortress this must have been. From the top, you had great views of the valley and the surrounding mountains covered with trees.

Paro's Rinpung DzongAfterwards we visited Kyichu Lhakhang. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the country, built in 659 by a Tibetan king who wanted to show his power and convert people to Buddhism by constructing 108 monasteries in Tibet and Bhutan (apparently in a single day!). Inside we met a nice young monk, who explained about his life and some religious practices. He joined at age 5, and will be a monk his entire life, rotating to different monasteries every three years.

The last stop of the day was at Paro's Rinpung Dzong, a very large and commanding building that now serves as monastery and government administration building. On the way down we walked over the beautiful Nyamai Zampa bridge, which offered some good views on the dzong and the National Museum higher up the hill.

27 December

We started the day with a one-hour drive to Thimphu, and on the way we passed by Tamshing Goemba (established by Pema Lingma, the treasure-hunting monk) with a famous iron bridge over the river below.

Once in Thimphu, our first stop was the Folk Heritage Museum, which is one of the oldest houses in Bhutan. We were surprised with how similar the rural life used to be compared to the ancient countryside of Romania or the Netherlands - cattle sleeping on the ground floor, storage space for equipment and grain, central kitchen that doubled as bedroom during winter, etc. The buildings are remarkably similar to Swiss chalets, but with Bhutanese decoration and wood sculptures.Takin (Buthan's national animal)

The next stop was at the post office – we had to buy some of the elaborately decorated stamps. Diana bought some nice collections of dog and cat stamps (of course!). Afterwards we had a stroll around the Centenary Farmers Market, a bustling daily market for fresh fruits and vegetables where we tried some extremely hard, tasteless cheese that locals eat as snack. Following a nice lunch, we went up to the BBS Tower on a nearby hill to see Thimphu and the valley, and visited the Takin Preserve on the way down. The takin is Bhutan's national animal, and legend says that it was created by the "Divine Madman" Lama Drukpa Kunley by placing a goat's head on a cow's body... Scientists are puzzled as well - they've created a separate family just for this species!

Changangkha LhakhangNote: a "dzong" is a fortress-monastery, or a heavily fortified monastery that could withstand the occasional invasion from Tibet. A "goemba" is a regular monastery, and a "lhakhang" is a temple.

The very old Changangkha Lhakhang features a giant statue of Chenresig, the bodhisattva of compassion with 11 heads and a thousands arms, as well as several large prayer wheels operated by some old Bhutanese men. We bought a white prayer flag to promote harmony, which we'll place on a hilltop or bridge in the next few days. Prayer flags are printed with various texts and Buddhists believe that the wind will carry the messages across the world.

Placed prominently in Thimphu, the Memorial Chorten was built in 1974 for the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who died at age 44. People come here all day to walk around the chorten, spin a prayer wheel and get some blessings. Especially in the morning it's busy, as school kids swarm the site for a blessing before going to school.Trashi Chhoe Dzong

Trashi Chhoe DzongThe Trashi Chhoe Dzong is the largest dzong in the country, and is absolutely stunning. It is a special building that combines the King's office, some ministries and government administration with a monastery. We were truly impressed by the size and beautiful architecture of this building – It really seemed fit for the center of a Himalayan Kingdom.

In the evening, we had a walk around town, and we were happy to see that the street dogs were in good shape (that’s not the case everywhere). We also found a voluntary artist studio called VAST, run by some very passionate young Bhutanese who aim to expand traditional art with more modern and experimental touches. They'll have a street exhibition next week – we're looking forward to that!

28 December

Tango goembaWe started with a steep 40-minute hike to Tango Goemba, north of Thimphu. This beautiful monastery was founded in the 12th century, although most buildings come from the 15th and 18th century. You could really see that this is an ancient, well-maintained monastery – especially the woodwork and paintings inside were very impressive. It is now mainly used as school for young monks, and it is also the residence of a young "trulku" (reincarnate lama), and home for a couple of fat and happy temple cats.

We had a great picnic lunch next to a river in Jigme Dorji National Park, and continued with a trek to the next monastery, Cheri Goemba. This goemba is mainly used for meditation, with around 25 resident monks. Typically, young monks first go to Tango to study, and then move to Cheri to do the typical Buddhist meditation session that lasts 3 years, 3 months and 3 days.

In the evening, we had dinner with Kipchu Tshering, CEO of Bhutan National Bank (the country's only private bank). It was very interesting to hear from one of the most important businessman in Bhutan, on how the country is developing while giving priority to preserving the environment and cultural traditions. We learnt that before a company can get a bank loan, it first needs permission from the Ministry of Environment for its planned operations. We wish other countries had a similar approach...Chimi Lhakhang

29 December

We first tried to visit the Traditional Medicine Institute, but it was not yet open. It was interesting, however, to see that people were lining up for a treatment with traditional herbal medicines – Bhutan is famous for this.

Dochu La passOn the way to Punakha, we crossed the Dochu La Pass (3,140m), where we saw the first snow fall. At the pass itself where 108 chortens, built to compensate for the lives lost in the 2003 "flush-out" operation, when the Bhutanese army chased out separatist rebels from Asam (India) that were hiding in South-Bhutan.

The first destination was the famous Chimi Lhakhang, built in 1499 in honor of Lama Drukpa Kunley (the Divine Madman). This monastery is renowned for the blessings you can receive there... with the bow and arrow of the Lama, and his 10 inch wooden penis! We also met a nice young monk named Phup Khundu, who behaved just as naughty as the original lama must have 500 years ago... Childless women come to this temple to get a blessing, and pregnant women come here to pick the name of their child.Punakha dzongChimi Lhakhang

In Punakha, we visited the impressive Punakha Dzong, which was the seat of the government until the mid-1950s. It's built at the confluence of two rivers, and had its fair share of misfortune – it burnt down three times, was damaged in an earthquake and was flooded once. But each time it was skillfully restored, and they even restored the traditional cantilever bridge (with help from Germany). It's still the winter residence of the Je Kenpho, the head of Bhutan's monastic body. Inside the main prayer hall are giant statues of Guru Rinpoche, Lord Buddha and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (the Tibetan King who built most dzongs in Bhutan). We were lucky to see the afternoon prayers of the monks, accompanied by drums and trumpets, and supervised by a whip-carrying senior monk...

This is again a stunning monastery, and by now we are already struggling to name our favorite...

30 DecemberKinley Phuntso!

Snow!Today was reserved for the long drive from Punakha to Bumthang Valley. We started the day with a quick visit back to the Punakha Dzong for some early-morning pictures, and than it was time for the Big Trip... It was a long 270 km drive, most of it through endless forest, beautiful scenery and enormous altitude changes (Bhutan is almost entirely mountainous, and you typically drive from a valley to a high pass back into a valley, only to climb to the next pass again...). We also had a great snow fight close to the Pele La pass.

In the late afternoon, we arrived in Jakar town, the main village in Bumthang valley, where we checked into a great hotel with a fireplace in each room. It was fantastic to have such a warm room after the low temperature outside! The hotel also had some huge dogs, and an extremely friendly cat that we named Kinley Phuntso, a typical Bhutanese boy's name.

31 December

Right after breakfast, we realized that Kinley Phuntso had been injured in a fight the previous night... his ear was split in two. Some tea tree oil helped a bit, but the poor thing will always have a split ear.

Bumthang valley, with Jakar dzong in the distanceWe first visited Jakar Dzong, which was built in 1667. This is a very nice, well-maintained dzong which again is used as government office and monastery. We climbed up to the top floor of the utse (main tower) where we discovered life-size skins of two demons hanging upside down.

Next we went to Jampay Lhakhang, a smaller temple north of Jakar dzong, built in 659. After passing 6 giant prayer wheels, we entered the main prayer hall that contains a huge statue of Guru Rinpoche, as well as three stone steps at the entrance. The middle step was almost at floor level and legend says that the world will end when it reaches the wooden floor...

The next stop was the large Kurjey Lhakhang, with three separate buildings (from 1652, 1900 and 1984). The oldest is built around a cave with the bodyprint of Guru Rinpoche, as a result of his intense meditation there ("kur" means body and "jey" means print"). It also has a small tunnel that virtuous people can crawl through – if your mind is not pure, you get stuck... Luckily we managed to get through unharmed :-)Fixing our prayer flag at Membartsho

We also visited Tamshing Goemba on the east side of the valley. This is the most important Nyingma monastery in the kingdom, and has an unusual design with a central prayer hall surrounded by a walkway (kora). Inside that kora is a 25 kg armor suit made by Pema Lingpa, which we carried three times around the kora - no small feat! On the balcony around the prayer hall are 100,000 paintings of the Buddha. We didn't count them, but there certainly were many. A bit below Tamshing is Konchogsum Lhakhang, which was unfortunately closed (in winter, most monks move to warmer valleys and only leave behind a few unruly junior monks...)

After a nice lunch we drove up to Membartsho (Burning Lake). This is a pool in the river, where the famous treasure hunter Pema Lingpa recovered some of treasures hidden by Guru Rinpoche. To prove that he was a 'genuine revealer of treasures' he plunged in the icy lake with a torch that was still burning when he resurfaced with the objects. It's a beautiful spot where nature, religion and mythology blur into one. There is a small bridge with many prayer flags, and we added our own prayer flag with a small ceremony of burning juniper branches to create nice-smelling smoke. If done with good intentions, the prayer flag and juniper smoke will help create more compassion for all living beings in this world.

In the evening we had great fun playing cards with our guide RB and driver Karma, and at night we thoroughly enjoyed the bukhari (fire place) in our room!

Taking a break on the way to Ura valley1 January

Happy New Year!Ura village

Today was reserved for visiting Ura Valley, a few hours drive further to the east on the small, hairpin-curve road called 'National Highway'. Ura itself is a medieval-looking village off the road, built in front of a large goemba. Inside the goemba were some of the best wall paintings we have seen – scary mahakalas painted in fresh, bright colors. During a walk in the village, we noticed that people here were poorer and less friendly than in other villages, possibly because all the young people leave for nearby towns for education and work. Hopefully the new school will change that...

We spent the evening playing cards with Karma and RB again, next to the fire place - with Kinley Phuntso happily purring on Diana's lap.

2 JanuaryTrongsa dzong

We started our return journey quite early, and arrived in Trongsa after a couple of hours. Trongsa is exactly in the middle of Bhutan, and has one of the country's largest and most magnificent dzongs. People were playing archery outside the fortress walls, while others where building stands for next week's festival. Somehow, it felt very authentic, and a scene that could have happened 500 years ago... Inside the dzong, people were busy practicing for the mask dance of the festival. Around 15 men from surrounding villages where dancing in a circle, supervised by a teacher. It was still a bit uncoordinated, but we're sure they'll do well at the festival!

Trongsa dzongOn the way, we were driving high through the mountains, which were covered in thick snow - a fantastic winter wonderland! We built a nice snowman, and our joint project ended (of course) in a massive snow fight...

Late in the afternoon we arrived in Phobjikha Valley, where we went to see Gangte Goemba and the Black Neck Cranes. The goemba was not yet in use as it was being renovated, but the cranes were great to see. They come each winter from Tibet, flying over the Himalayas to arrive in this beautiful, well-protected valley. Each year they announce their arrival by flying three times around the goemba, and they do the same when leaving in the spring.

3 January

On the way back to Paro, we stopped to see the dzong of Wangdue Phodrang. This was a great experience, as we were allowed to join the monks during their morning prayers. We sat for an hour or so, listen to the chanting of the monks accompanied by drums and trumpets. They were starting a seven-day ceremony, to promote the well-being of all living beings in this world. It was very, very peaceful, and a memorable moment.

Later, back in Thimphu, we visited the National Textile Museum to learn about this craft (one of the most important of the 13 Traditional Crafts practiced widely in Bhutan). Later we checked the Handicraft Emporium for some samples, but most things were way too expensive. As planned, we went to the Clock Tower Square to watch the street exhibition of VAST (the volunteer artist group). It was a bustling event, and we had a chance meeting with Tshewang Wandi, a news reader and actor in Bhutan’s most famous movie “Travelers & Magicians”. When he heard that we were from the Netherlands, he immediately started speaking Dutch, with the accent from the Achterhoek! It turned out that he has visited the Netherlands a few times, to make a documentary about Normaal and its lead singer Bennie Jolink. When we said goodbye, he replied by saying “doei” – unbelievable!

4 January

Time to leave Bhutan and head back to Singapore. It has been an amazing trip, and again we realized how energizing the Himalayas can be – pure nature, friendly people, ancient culture, and the peace and tranquility that you only find in Buddhist societies. This was our fourth time in the Himalayas, and we’re sure we’ll come back!

For more pictures, click here.

(no subject)

Last week, we went for a long weekend to Bohol in the Philippines – an island know for the Chocolate Hills, the tarsier, and fantastic diving.Alona Beach at Panglao island, next to Bohol

And we can confirm: Bohol has it all...

On Friday night, we took a brutal overnight flight from Singapore via Manila to Tagbilaran (Bohol's capital), but the sight of the azure blue waters around Bohol during our approach to the airport instantly compensated for all that. We forgot about being tired, and started making plans for the next few days.

On arrival, we took a local tricycle to Alona Beach on Panglao island, which is connected to Bohol by two bridges. At Alona beach, we found a nice hotel... as well as two little cats (but more about them later).

The second day we weSchool of baracudasnt for a dive trip to Balicasag island, which is one of the Philippines' top dive sites, and one of the best in the world. And it certainly lived up to its reputation... On the first dive, we bumped into the largest school of barracudas we've ever seen (and we've seen quite some things by now)! There was also a huge variety of soft corals, with many types we have never seen before (the Philippines has the highest density of coral species in the world). Balicasag has six dive spots, and we've seen three during the first dive, slowly drifting along with the current.

The second dive was a wall dive along the island's northern shore, and we again slowly drifted along two dive sites. One of the highlights was a large school of jack fish, which was circling in the clear, sun-lit waters. We also saw a huge stonefish, and countless other fish (Moorish idol, parrot fish, trigger fish, sweet lips, and many others...)

We've spent the afternoon on the beach, with massages, some drinks and a nice dinner. Great!

The Chocolate Hills turn brown in autumn, giving them their nameOn Monday we went for a tour in Bohol's inlands. The first stop was at a Dr Egos, a local vet, to find out what would be the fate of the two sick baby cats we've found. They suffered from bad diarrhea and dehydration, and they would probably have died in a matter of days without proper care. We asked the vet if they could still be saved, and we could do with them afterwards. Luckily, he believed that a few injections and some good care would fix them up in a couple of days, and he even knew some people that were interested in adopting kittens. We sincerely hope they'll pull through and find good new owners!

Later, after a brief stops at some of Bohol's 400-year old churches, we arrived at one of the most recognizable sights of the Philippines: the famous Chocolate Hills. This is a group of 1,268 hills of 40-120m high, covered in grass and bushes, and reaching as far as the eye can see (the vegetation turns brown in autumn, giving the hills their name). They used to be coral reefs, which were gradually lifted up and eroded to its current shape. The views were fantastic - it looked like a scene from the Lord of the Rings!

This is the tarsier... a very cute animal with huge eyesAfter a quick lunch by the river side, we went on to the Tarsier Sanctuary. The tarsier Tarsieris a small, very cute animal, with huge eyes (bigger than its brain or stomach!). It's related to the lemur and the slow loris, and is an endangered species due to habitat destruction and pet trade. It fits in the palm of your hand, can rotate its head 360 degrees, and can jump up to five meters to catch bugs for breakfast. It's an adorable little animal, and the sanctuary takes good care of them. Unfortunately, there are many shops and restaurants around Loboc that show tarsiers in cages. This is a horrible practice, as the tarsiers often die quickly from boredom and malnutrition. But the owners don't worry - they just catch a fresh one to show to the tourists...

The afternoon program was the same as before - swimming, sunbathing, massage, drinks and dinner on the beach... with a bit more sunbathing on Tuesday morning.

One thing is for sure: we'll go back to Bohol one day... for many more days!

For more pictures, click here.

Australia (Sep-Oct '08)

View on our hotel (Park Hyatt), SydneyLate September, we went for 10 days to Australia - Sydney and Cairns (for the Great Barrier Reef, Cape Tribulation National Park and Mossman Gorge).

But first Sydney... we arrived early and checked in to our hotel. Sjoerd has won two nights in Park Hyatt - the most expensive hotel in Sydney (with a photo competition organized by Carlson Wagonlit Travel). This hotel is special due to its location, under the famous bridge with direct views on Sydney's Opera House. Our room had full opera view, and it was certainly a nice way to wake up.
View on Opera House and Harbor Bridge
The hotel is situated in The Rocks, the oldest district in Sydney and now a tourist area with many bars, restaurant, art galleries and weekend markets.. After checking in, we started exploring the city, first with a walk around the Opera House (we found it more impressive from a distance) and through the lovely Botanic Gardens, with its resident population of white cockatoos and fruit bats. The kakatoos are very much used to people, and well aware that humans are providers of food...

From the Botanic Gardens, we had great views on the bridge and the harbour.

After a stroll through the CBD (hardly any old buildings unfortunately), we arrived at Darling Harbour where White cockatoos in Sydney's Botanic Gardenwe took a nice boat trip under the bridge back to our hotel. In the evening we went back to Darling Harbour, where you can get a good feel for Sydney's nightlife.This is good! Koalas are very fussy eaters... they rather starve than eat eucalyptus leave they don't like!

The next day, we went to visit the Koala Sanctuary in Sydney outskirts. It was a great place, with many sleepy koalas (clearly nocturnal animals), kangaroos that enjoyed to be caressed, dingos, cassowaries (large birds with a notoriously bad temper), and many more local species. One sleepy koala was selected for the afternoon show, but he didn't mind as he was treated to fresh young leaves. Koalas used to be hunted for their beautiful fur, and today they're threatened by loss of habitat. In addition, they're very fussy eaters who rather starve than switch to a different type of eucalyptus leave for dinner... The Sanctuary was instrumental in preserving the species back in the 1920's, and the third-generation owners continue to educate visitors on the need for preservation. The kangaroos were fantastic as well, you could easily pat them, even the mothers with a baby in their pouch (you could see the long legs sticking out!).
In the afternoon we visited Bondi Beach, which is comparable to Scheveningen in the Netherlands. It was nice, but we found it a bit over-hyped. In the evening, we enjoyed a nice fireworks display above the Opera House, which was a good end of our stay there.

The next day we flew to Cairns, where we checked into a lovely backpacker's hostel - we enjoyed this as much as the 5-star hotel in Sydney because it had charm, a resident cat and dog, and friendly owners. Cairns itself is quite low-key, and people mainly come there to start diving trips. The Tjapukai aboriginal cultural park is well worth a visit - it gives a good understanding of native life and beliefs, and let's you experience their hunting and gathering methods.Hello!

We've heard a lot of things abou the Great Barrier Reef - good and bad. We realized that it's important to move away from the coast and far into the reef, as that's where the best sites are. We were curious to see if GBR could match some of the top dive sites in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand... All in all, it did - the coral was less impressive, but the fish were much larger (thanks to restricted fishing in a very large area, allowing the fish to fully grow).The cod was huge, especially from close by

We went with the TAKA liveaboard trip, which is the most well-known operator. We did a total of 10 dives in four days, and we've some fantastic things. The highlight was Cod Hole, where there are a couple of gigantic potato cods (1.5m long) who patiently wait for divers to come and feed them every day (it's a well-regulated activity, with strict limits on how much can be given). It was fascinating to see them from so close... They were literally circling around us! We stayed after the rest of the group left, and we enjoyed their company just by ourselves. You could see that they were smart animals - they knew what was happening, and they seemed to enjoy the attention..Fish, fish, and more fish!

We did nine more dives across the Northern GBR, and we saw white-tip reef sharks, large groupers, a 2 meter long moray Eel during a night dive, a huge turtle of almost Diana admiring the Great Barrier Reef2 meters long, schools of baracudas, schools of trevallies and small yellow fish, and countless small fish - it really felt sometimes like we were in an overpopulated aquarium!
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and after four days we were back in Cairns.

But not worry - we rented a car the same day and left straightaway for Cape Tribulation, a national parl nortb of Cairns (described as a place where "the jungle meets the sea"). The coastal drive was very nice, with sweeping views across the coast line, followed by a drive through dense jungle forest. We found a great place for the night at Cape Trib Farm Stay, where they served a huge breakfast with fresh fruits from their orchard.

The next morning we made a long walk on the beach and checked the Cape Trib view point. We were surprised to see that nobody was swimming, but this is understandable - the waters are full of box jellyfish, which can kill you in 15 seconds! We also visited the Bat House, a wonderful volunteer initiative to restore the bat population and regrow the rainforest that were cleared before people knew the consequences of this. It's well worth a visit.This is Scarface, the dominant male crocodile of Daintree river. He was huge, even if mostly under water!

We drove back through the jungle road, where you see constant warning signs for crossing cassowaries. There are only 1,000+ left in the wild, and you don't want to kill one by speeding!
In the afternoon, we did a boat trip on Daintree river, to spot crocodiles. And to our delight, we did see Scar Face, the master crocodile of the estuary. Even the boat captain was excited to see him again. It was at least 7m long, and very impressive even if most of its body was below water. It was the dominant male of the river, and certainly removed our desire to go for a swim! We've also seen baby crocs, snakes and birds, and it was nice to see them all thriving in the wild.Mossman Gorge

By late afternoon we arrived in Mossman, where we checked into a B&B with truly spectacular views on the jungle and distant hills. After a great breakfast (giant croissants with passion fruit jam...), we made a long walk through Mossman Gorge. It's a significant site for aboriginals, and there was a aboriginal community near the entrance. We wished we had more time, so we could have taken a tour by a local guide.

It was a great way to discover this part of Australia... We'll be back one day to explore the northern and western parts of the country as well.

For more pictures, click here.


Los Angeles and San Francisco (Sep '08)

As much as I wasn’t looking forward to this trip (very long flight SG-LA) it totally exceeded my expectations! The conference was with plenty of useful information and plenty of time to network. Our hotel was right next to the famous Walk Of Fame with all the celebrity signatures and the famous Kodak theatre… and the parties during the conference were great :-)Diana spent most of her day traveling around in the famous tram... loved it!

Thanks to the Google that I'm managing, I had the chance to spend one week in San Francisco afterwards.

My hotel was located in central San Francisco. On my first day I immediately took the cable car through the city: started in Powell Street and went all the way to Fisherman’s wharf. The cable car is great fun, I was very happily standing on the stairs watching the world pass by, so I took it every day. They date back to 1889, there were attempts to replace them with public buses, but luckily due to public outcry the current lines had to be retained.

Sea lions in Fisherman's WharfMy first trip led to Fisherman’s Wharf. I loved this part of town, I immediately wanted to visit the famous Pier 39, which really isn’t a pier anymore instead it’s home to a very big colony of fur seals. I could have been looking at them the whole day, they are really entertaining. They all try to fight for some space on the pier and they all sleep stacked together next to each other, they all seem to be in some kind of a relationship with each other :-)

I have also found close to Fisherman’s Wharf the best and oldest bakery in town: Boudin Sourdough Bakery, very much recommended!

On the following day I went on a whale watching trip with Oceanic Society. We went to Farallon Islands The boat left at 7am and we were back at 4pm. The trip is well worth the early wake-up!Hump-back whale jumping out of the water...

The fog was high enough that we had a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge as we passed under it.

I wDolphins... right next to the boat!as delighted to see the humpback whales. They seemed to be a couple and one of them jumped up at just a few meters from us, absolutely amazing to see!!! This was probably one of the highlights of my trip!

Our naturalist on board noted that one whale had old scratches and bite wounds evident, perhaps from an orca (killer whale) encounter.

But we had plenty more encounters, a herd of over 300 Pacific white-sided dolphins intermixed with approximately 200 Risso's dolphins surrounded the vessel and everyone was able to get good looks with many dolphins taking turns riding the bow of the vessel. Other sightings included California sea lions, seals and plenty of bird life as the Farallons contain the largest seabird colony in the U.S. outside of Alaska and Hawaii.

If I’m back in San Francisco I’ll do this trip again!

Haas-Lilienthal house (1886)I spent Saturday afternoon just walking. San Francisco is a great place to walk. I started with Chestnut street, a favorite amongst the locals and I passed by all the beautiful old houses. I would just mention the most famous Haas Lilienthal House which dates back to 1886.. But there are many beautiful old buildings all over the city. This is what makes it so nice, very European in a wayJ

I climbed up many hills with fantastic views on the financial district, the harbor, the Golden Gate Bridge, really great views from everywhere!

I have also visited the famous Lombard street , which is the crookedest street in the world, super steep! In the evening I eneded up at Ghirardelli Square, which is the oldest chocolate factory in town. Loved their chocolates, specially the chocolate creams!Ghiradelli is the oldest chocolate factory and shop in San Francisco...

I spent the next day wondering the streets again passing through China town and the beautiful Italian part of the city with plenty of Italian restaurants to choose from…And of course I shopped plenty…

All in all loved San Francisco and we’ll be back!