Thursday, September 20, 2018

Bhutan

Bhutan was the second portion of our trip and the abrupt change to quiet, clean and peaceful was most welcome. Unfortunately we could only afford to be there for a 7 day/ 6 night tour.  For all intents and purposes, Bhutan can only be visited on an organized tour, all prepaid and organized before arrival and carefully regulated by the government. During high season it is a minimum of $250US/person per day and in low season $200. Bhutan pioneered the concept of "high quality, low impact" tourism and it has kept  the  country free from a lot of negatives of mass tourism seen in neighbouring countries like Nepal and India.
The good news is that it is actually a very good value for most vacations as it includes minimum 3-star hotel, food, guide, transport and driver, activities and entry fees. The best part is that the minimum group size at that price is 3 people (with a supplement for fewer), so basically you end up on your own private guided tour through the country.  Because it is a car or van and your guide, they can be reasonably flexible with figuring an itinerary before you book, and even to make small adjustments while you are there.
Bhutan is a small Buddhist Himalayan kingdom, geographically similar to Nepal with the similar attractions of trekking and visiting temples. The scenery is stunning and it all feels a bit more mysterious and magical because of the more exclusive reputation. That is not to say it is devoid of tourists. Coming from Bangladesh it felt like there were tons but the reality is that tourist  numbers are measured in the thousands still and other than all congregating at the major attractions, you don't really see each other.
There is only 1 international airport, at Paro. Flights are limited and expensive because of the difficult approach in, descending between the mountains and up a valley with low-level turns and little room for error. The shortest tours  (which I suspect are the most popular) stay in the Paro valley area and visit the capital, Thimphu, and hour away in the next valley over. There is some great stuff but we wanted a little longer so we could get a little further out as well. We also intentionally chose to visit in the first week of December because it was the start of the low season and would still have good weather.  We were lucky, days were sunny and warm, up to about 20C with nights just above freezing. Far better than home at that time. On arrival we were picked up by our guide and driver (brothers) and spent the first two nights in Thimphu.

On arrival






On the way to Thimphu








Prayer flags like Nepal

On the way to Thimphu

As the capital, Thimphu is the most "international" and the largest town in the country.  It still doesn't have a traffic light and the country has put an emphasis on maintaining traditional culture and architecture as much as possible, even going so far as making traditional dress mandatory when entering public buildings and banning public smoking entirely in the country. I liked Thimphu well enough but it is not the best part of the country. We were on a "cultural" tour as opposed to a "trekking" tour but we still hiked a couple hours each day to visit different hilltop temples and their amazing views. It's the comparative simplicity and purity of the Bhutanese culture that was the most appealing.

Central Thimphu


Archery is the national sport


Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu


The dzong

Inside the dzong


Hiking up to Tango Monastery


Tango Monastery

Tango monks


The national animal, a Taksin

On day 3 we went over the Dochula Pass and down into the Punakha/Wangdu valleys for two nights. Punakha is at a lower elevation than Thimphu and the governing body relocates the capital to Punakha every winter for the better climate. It was definitely worth the extra couple days to get to visit Punakha. The view of the Himalayas from the pass is great and the Punakha valley was the most beautiful we saw. There are many traditional fortresses throughout the country called dzongs and we visited the ones in Thimphu and Punakha. The one in Punakha has a very pretty setting between the junction of two small rivers. The Wangdu valley is most famous for its temple of the Divine Madman, a wandering monk who managed to convince everyone that he had a magic phallus which he used to fight demons...  Needless to say, the town and temple had a lot of phallic symbolism and decor.

Dochula Chorten


View from Dochula Pass

Wangdu valley, looking at the temple of the divine madman



Punahka valley from the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Temple


View from the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Temple
Punakha Dzong


Inside the Punakha Dzong


Days 5 and 6 were back in the Paro valley close to the airport. We finished our visit with a trek up to the Tiger's Nest Monastery, easily the most famous sight in the country. It is a monastery precariously built on a cliff at over 10,000ft. Sasha had been sick the day before so we were a little worried about her making it through the couple hour climb to get there but fortunately the first half can be done by horse and the $10 to do so was worth ensuring she'd have the energy for the rest.
It is a stunning, unforgettable place. The sheer drop off from the walls of the monastery and the views on the approach make up for all the exertion to get there. Like the rest of the monasteries, temples and dzongs in Bhutan, photography is not allowed inside but it doesn't matter. We loved it and our whole experience in the country. I hope I get another chance to go back.

Heading to the Tiger's Nest Monastery (in the distance).


Almost there.


Tiger's Nest Monastery


Paro valley


Paro airport and dzong from our hotel

Ammon


Sunday, September 09, 2018

Bangladesh

Nov 2017, just 6 weeks after my solo trip to North Korea, Sasha, Bre and I took off for another 3 week trip to Bangladesh and Bhutan.
Bhutan was the selling point. Bangladesh was the 2 weeks I tacked on at the beginning that we had to survive first.  I hadn't been to either country yet and it made sense to lump them together though they are about as far apart as can be in so many ways.
I don't know many people that have been to Bangladesh.  Those that have visited have mostly been of the "spent a day or two to hop across the border or just in transit" variety.  Biman Bangladesh airlines used to be the cheapest way between India and Southeast Asia but required an overnight stop so people got in that way.  I think even fewer people visit now despite the fact that it is now possible to get a tourist visa on arrival at the airport in Dhaka (Very convenient though not without a bit of a hassle.  They actually want you show hotel bookings and onward flights and fill out the forms properly and wait in lines and all that silliness.  But we were prepared and they let us in.)
Even with this added convenience, Bangladesh is a very very hard sell for tourism.  Can you think of a reason to go?  Can you name a world-class attraction to visit?  Didn't think so. The whole country (but especially the capital, Dhaka) takes crowded, chaotic and dirty to a whole new level.  I had an idea what to expect after my time in India and was not disappointed in my expectations.  It is still culture shock right from the get go.  Bre joined us for moral support in Bangladesh and to make our "group of 3" for Bhutan and she was a savior in holding Sasha's hand and generally helping her adjust and not try to kill me for bringing her there.  I don't blame her, it is not a destination to be visited lightly as we were to learn later.
Bangladesh probably made the shirt you are wearing.  It will probably someday break down the cargo ship that brought your shirt too.  These might be their most famous industries and both are heavily criticized and notoriously dangerous in how they are run. A quick news search will pull up articles about hartals (strikes) crippling the country, typhoons and floods, refugees from Myanmar and the occasional terrorist attack. The politics is a mess and it is also BY FAR the most densely populated country (larger than a city state) in the world, and easily one of the most polluted. As a giant river delta, the country is mostly flat and revolves around water, including some of its most interesting transportation. There are also tons of bikes in the form of cycle-rickshaws clogging up the roads. Somehow, Bangladesh is almost the perfect contrast to the Netherlands.  I can't imagine a more perfect hell it could descend into and every Dutchman that complains about regulations and rules should visit just to remind themselves of the nightmare they are protecting themselves from.  For that matter, this is probably the best reason for anyone to visit.
I'm not trying to be negative and kick the country while it is down, but I've seen a lot of poor and dirty places and I think overall Bangladesh is very depressing as a country. There is so much poverty and chaos and so many people that I can't imagine it ever digging its way out of that hole.  Other countries maybe, but I just couldn't see any long-term hope there. I'm not saying the people are bad, just the country's situation.
Not sold on it eh?  Well I still wanted to go and the plan was to spend 2 weeks, see as much as we could and never have to revisit or feel like I missed something. I actually "enjoyed" it as much as a word like that can apply to such a place. It was eye-opening and is not without some redeeming qualities but it was not easy.   Unlike India next door, there is very little tourism, thus very little tourist infrastructure or information making things rather interesting to do without a guide. Even though we had a very busy and tight schedule to fit everything in, we hadn't actually booked anything in advance or even knew if it would work.  More than anywhere I've been in the last few years, it reminded me of the good old days of off the beaten path travel where you had to rely on your wits, kindness of strangers and good fortune. In that sense, it was very refreshing because in so many ways that is becoming a lot harder to find in an increasingly connected world.
Like India, Bangladesh was a former British colony and so was blessed with some key features to help us:
1. Trains.  Somehow the trains still run.  They look as if they have not had any maintenance or upgrades since the British left, but they still run and are the best transport option when available.  There is no close 2nd on this.  The buses and road traffic is a nightmare.  I honestly thought I couldn't be shocked anymore after visiting so many places but I seriously, without exaggerating, believe they have the most insane driving in the world. You have to wonder how you don't die every time you take a bus somewhere and make it to your destination without crashing.  But then you see how mangled all the vehicles are and look into it a little more and realize that smash and die is actually a regular occurrence... Take the train.  Buying tickets is a challenge because:
2. English. My favourite language by far and very useful to have around when traveling somewhere hard.  Funnily enough, there are almost no signs in English in Bangladesh but it wasn't too hard to find people that could speak it. I'm generally used to English signs (for the foreign visitors) with minimal speaking skills in the general population so you just fumble about on your own until you get to where or what you need. Bangladesh was the opposite.  I had no idea what line to wait in to buy a train ticket, or what bus to get on, or any of a number of other things, but there was always someone (usually a university student of some sort) to help you  out.
We were constantly "forced" to interact with people this way which is fine since we were getting a ton of attention anyway.  Everywhere we went we were literally surrounded by a few dozen people.  If we managed to put our backs to the wall it was only a semi-circle but we were still trapped.  Claustrophobics should not visit Bangladesh. If we moved the circle would  move with us.  If we stopped it got bigger.  Eventually someone would be found that spoke enough English to interrogate us on behalf of the group.  "What is your country?" "Where do you go?" The answers would then be yelled back into the crowd. With these critically important questions answered people would start to disperse, apparently satisfied with the answers.  I would then usually counter-attack with questions in return. "How do I get to...?" "Which line do I want?" Nothing like a little give and take.
I was always the point man.  Sasha and Bre would huddle behind me hoping nobody got weird. They were 99% men after all.  Sometimes it was a little weird (one guy on a train was so smitten with Sasha he serenaded her with a local love song while leaning over and on me to do it) and maybe they got some looks but it was still far better and more respectful than India or Egypt ever were. They were just curious and genuinely helpful if a little over-enthusiastic.
But every interaction ended the same way.  "Selfie?" Any guesses what happens when you  take  a selfie with one person while a big group is watching? Yep, you take more. Which draws more crowd, which means more selfies, which draws more crowd, which  means more selfies, which means....  If you don't cut them off it is an endless loop.  Having a train to catch is a good excuse but some will still follow you on, get their selfie finally then get off at the next stop (sometimes an hour away) and go back.  We took a mind-boggling number of selfies daily in the most random places.  I even had to tell a guy to wait for me to finish peeing before we could do our selfie...
For the most part our days were so exhausting with just existing that by early evening sunset we were ready  to remain hidden in our rooms. Days generally started very early and we didn't feel the need to go looking for even more crazy stories after nightfall. Finding a dinner that was not so spicy we could actually eat it was often challenge enough. The food is similar to Indian of course, but not the same. The good news is nobody got sick.  Prices for rooms were higher than India (I think a lot of the really budget places don't accept foreigners or are really hidden), but the quality of the budget places was much better than I expected also. Everything else was still really cheap.
We stayed the first night in Dhaka at a pre-booked hotel (as required for the visa) near the airport and caught the train out the next morning to Srimangal.  I knew I didn't want to start with the insanity of Dhaka but even  getting out of the airport and buying train tickets for the next day was so overwhelming and shocking for Sasha that we instantly decided not to bother with Dhaka at all other than to sleep there before flying back out.
Srimangal is a small town in the tea plantation region in the northeast of the country. Apparently it is popular as a tourist destination but I think we only saw 2 other people there.  In fact,during the entire 2 weeks, visiting many of the major sites around the country we saw a grand total of 9 other foreigners outside the airport. Tea plantation towns in other countries have always been a fairly pleasant and relaxed kind of experience for me so I was a bit surprised at how dirty it still was. Garbage on the crowded narrow streets and as far as I can tell, the air pollution in Bangladesh covers the entire country.  The visibility was only about 3 miles everywhere we went and it wasn't long before our lungs decided to hate us. More than anything else, air pollution is the worst for me. I can adapt to all the other hardships and inconveniences eventually but not being able to breathe is unforgivable.  A short walk out of town though and the traffic disappeared and we were able to wander into fields of tea. There are a few shops around that also serve an 8-layer tea that we had to stop and try.  It was literally 8 perfectly formed different layers of tea in the same glass.  Black tea, ginger tea, lemon tea, etc. The trick is drinking each layer separately to figure out what they are.  It looks  pretty cool too.


Very standard heavy traffic near the airport

A relatively quiet first night in Dhaka

Riding on top out of Dhaka is still a thing.

Srimangal is full of tuktuks and rickshaws
8-layer tea and a peaceful break finally

Where the tea comes from

An all day train to Chittagong was next.  Chittagong is the 2nd largest city in Bangladesh and tourists often pass through en route to the hill tracts or Cox Bazaar, two of the more popular destinations in the country.  We saw neither though as you need a guided tour and permits to get into the hill tracts to see the tribes (we had no time) and Cox Bazaar was too far out of the way. However, from that point on we started lying to everyone we met that we had been to Cox Bazaar.  Bangladeshis are very proud that they have the world's longest beach and think of it as their only real attraction so they were having trouble understanding how we missed it. I can't imagine ever going on a beach holiday out here though.
We were in Chittagong for a quick look at the shipbreaking that is done along the coast there. It is one of the largest shipbreaking areas in the world and ships of all sizes and from all over the world once decommissioned are dropped off and dismantled by hand on the beaches. After a lot of bad press, many of the yards are reluctant to let in visitors but there are still ways to see some of it from not too great a distance. Just north of Chittagong is a ferry pier called Kumira Ghat. The highway there no longer allows tuktuks and we didn't want to take a taxi, so with the help of a local shop keeper, we found a local bus that took us very close and a tuktuk from there. Local bus = crazy. Maybe a gifted author can describe it but words fail me. They try to separate men and women as best they can and I'm just glad I wasn't sitting up front.  Buses pass in ways that defy physics.  There were times where I'm pretty sure the bus I saw going the opposite direction had to have passed through us in order to be where it was. Ghost buses. There can't be any other explanation. I'm sure that shipbreaking is dangerous, but these guys have to get to and from work everyday so I guess nothing else really scares them anymore.
Ok, so, Kumira Ghat is a long pier that goes straight out to the end of the mudflats so that little open ferries can transport people to nearby islands.  On either side of the pier are lines of beached ships in various states of dismantling and you can easily see and hear the winches and blowtorches still at work.  It is actually all very interesting.  We declined, but on the pier a fisherman or two will ask if you want to ride around on their boat up and down the coast to get a closer look. We took our time and just hung out, the biggest annoyance being the poor visibility so we couldn't see very far down the coast, maybe just the first dozen ships or so.
Chittagong is in the southeast and our next destination was southwest and with a little bit of luck we were able to make it across the bottom of Bangladesh without having to backtrack to Dhaka. We found an early morning bus to a place called Chowdhury Ghat from which we could catch a ferry to Barisal. The "ferry terminal" was nothing more than a floating dock that only 2 or 3 boats could pull up along to load and unload.  There is no info, there is no ticket office. Fortunately we got there really early and there was a boat. While we were waiting for it at one point I thought the dock was going to capsize with all the people standing on it beside us to stare. We shifted all the way to one side to the point of nearly falling off and everyone went with us until it was tilting quite a bit. "Accidently drowned by curious mob" is not what I want on my tombstone...
The delta of Bangladesh is huge and we crossed the mouth of it and up various  channels around ever evolving sandbank islands. Silting of the various channels is a huge problem, changing many of the transportation routes and we were often bouncing off the bottom as we went along.  The largest ferries can no longer operate on many routes and we actually stopped to rescue passengers off a larger ferry that had grounded in one of the channels. They just can't get a break. We arrived in Barisal just after sunset, stayed the night and left before dawn the next morning, jumping on the famous Rocket paddle steamer. This iconic 100 year old ferry (there are a couple actually) is supposed to be a "must do" when here. It travels down from Dhaka overnight, stops in Barisal at the crack of dawn and continues southwest to Morrelganj, no longer able to complete the journey to Khulna. You need reservations for the Rocket if you want a  room for the overnight portion from Dhaka but I didn't see the point as the morning views on the water from Barisal to Hularhat (where we got off) were the most interesting portion anyway. It was chilly but not too busy on the old lower deck for a few hours where we sipped tea and chatted with locals and watched the world go by.

Ships to break

Rescuing a stranded ferry

Life along thedelta village ports

On the way to Barisal

Sunrise on the Rocket

Ubiquitous brick-kilns are a major source of pollution

Rocket girl

Life in the delta


Hularhat is right beside Bagerhat, the Unesco-listed remains of a ruined city (mostly a collection of old mosques scattered about and not a city anymore per se)  that we had to stop and see before continuing to Mongla for the night. Quite a few domestic tourists here and even a couple foreign ones.

A side mosque near Bagerhat.

Celebrity treatment

The main mosque and attraction at Bagerhat

Mongla is a little town just above Sunderbans National Park, a huge mangrove forest that continues into India. Multi-day tours through the mangroves in search of man-eating tigers are popular, though we were again not organized enough to have a reservation. We opted for a quick couple of hours to the edge and back, just to visit the Koromjal wildlife centre.  This was our biggest mistake of the trip.  I didn't have a lot of faith and opted not to do more, but the boats through the Sunderbans are actually quite comfortable and it would have been worth it to continue on a longer trip with a better chance of seeing more.  As it was, the wildlife center had a few pens of animals (they breed crocodile and deer) and a little nature trail to see the bush and monkeys.

The nice boats to Sunderbans




We spent the night in Khulna to catch an early train to Natore (where we got lost in a very roundabout and ridiculous way looking for a hotel to stay in). Giving up and jumping in a tuktuk didn't help us either as apparently "hotel" can also mean "restaurant" in Bangladesh and we ended up asking for rooms in a random dining room we were dropped off at. We eventually found a place to stay, quite far from the train station but fortunately quite close to where we would catch a bus for our day trip to Puthia, a relatively quiet town to see some old and quite run down Hindu temples. It's a pretty site and if it were cleaned up a bit and in another country would be a very popular place. As it was we had it to ourselves and took our time admiring the detailed artwork on the outer walls.

Natore from our hotel room

Puthia

Puthia

Awesome detail

Our final stop was Bogra, where we spent a few nights to check out the Mahasthangarh ruins (the oldest in Bangladesh) just north of town and the more well known Paharpur ruins a little further away (but easily visited as a day trip). Maybe because we were now in the northwest and not too far from India or maybe because it is a well known tourist attraction, I found the people around Paharpur to be much more annoying and hassle-y than most of the rest of the country. The ruins at Paharpur are the remains of one of the largest Buddhist monasteries south of the Himalayas. The outer walls outline the size of the complex while the central temple (which looks a little like a ruined red rocket) is the only part still standing.  Very little has been restored.

Mahasthangarh citadel ruins

Cycling through Bogra

Paharpur

Making more friends at Paharpur

And then it was back to Dhaka for a night before our flight to Bhutan. We stayed in central Dhaka and I found great entertainment standing on the rooftop of our hotel for hours watching the action on the street below, trying to find any pattern in the chaos and watching the blatant corruption of the police at "work" harassing the rickshaw drivers and chasing them around. In the same hotel we met two middle-aged British guys who had decided on a whim to do a visa run from Thailand to Bangladesh "because we haven't been to this country yet and found a cheap flight".  They'd had just over a week to explore. The first day they tried to visit some other town (the name was not familiar, so I don't know why they were going there), got lost, ended up in some random place overnight, were so traumatized that they immediately returned to Dhaka and had been hiding in the hotel for the week since, afraid to venture more than a couple blocks away.  It's just not the kind of place to visit without some preparation and the ability to roll with some pretty big punches.

Endless entertainment from our hotel's roof

We returned to the same hotel again in Dhaka for one more night on our way home from Bhutan as well.  By then we were pros but Sasha's wish to never see Dhaka in the rain fell through.  It was only a little rain, but it got muddy.  I can't imagine the monsoons...
Ammon