Saturday, October 28, 2006


Bhutan looks like a tiny country on the map, wedged between two goliaths, India and China. It is rather small as countries go, about the size of Kansas, but there is an amazing amount of diversity in the landscape. The 80 kilometer drive from Thimphu to Punakha starts out in a arid valley, climbs up through dusty pine forests which give way to oaks and giant rhododendrons, peaks out at Dochu La pass with the high Himalayan snow peaks on the horizon, then winds down, down, down in tight switch backs through dense jungle with misty waterfalls and Assamese macacaques jumping through the trees before spilling out into another narrow river valley. The drive, which looks so short on the map, can easily take the better part of a day if one stops for lunch and takes a few walks along the way. Anyone thinking about visiting Bhutan, take note: the mountains are big, the roads have more curves than a sack full of snakes, and when you're looking out the window over a sheer 4,000 foot precipice, you want your driver to be at the very top of his game. The best itinerary is one that allows time to move slowly and stay in one spot for a while. Kansas may best be experienced in 6 hours at 80 mph on Interstate 70, but driving the same distance in Bhutan requires three long, bumpy days.

As you might guess, the diversity extends to the people here too. There weren't any roads at all in the country until the 1960s, so the people of bordering valleys rarely interacted, and developed distinct traditions, languages and beliefs. This is still very much a land where what village you come from means a whole lot. That the country is so stable today is testament to the popularity of the King (and the looming threat from populous and powerful neighbors).

I'm back in Thimphu now and will fly out from Paro in 3 days. From there it's on to Cambodia, where I'll publish a guide to Bhutan on the website. And I love it here, if that wasn't obvious. I'm already making plans to come back and stay for a longer time. Check back in around Thursday for anther update -

Sunday, October 22, 2006

"My Beloved Yak"

Coming at you from the Norling Cyber Cafe on the Main Street here in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan and home to 72,000 loyal citizens of the enlightened monarch, King Wangchuk, who passed me today in his blue Toyota Landcruiser. For an agrarian country, this is a happening place - there are buses, traffic circles (but no light), a 9 hole golf course and even a movie theatre across the street, now showing "My Beloved Yak".

Bhutan is mountains and mountains and more mountains, big old farmhouses on the hills with red chilis laid out to dry on the roofs and stray dogs everywhere because no Buddhist will kill them. Today we visited a temple from the 6th century, built when Padmasamvhata brought the teachings of Buddha from Thibet. The monks who live there paid us no mind, just smiled and ushered us into the inner sanctum where ancient statues of various saints and demons alternately beam and glare down from shelves illuminated by the flickering glow of butter lamps. Across the street farmers were out harvesting rice and herding cows, dogs curled up under the cypress trees.

"Ema sawachen abou tsome" means, "these chilis are burning my asshole."

Back to the street - walking through puddles from the late monsoon rains, new snow up on the hills.

Look for another post next Saturday....

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Suvarnabhumi Airport

Bangkok's new airport opened a few weeks ago, at about the same time as the coup, in a burst of celebration and confusion. It's a beautiful building, the largest single terminal airport in the world, and my arrival couldn't have been smoother. Just remember to use the toilet on the plane before landing, because apparently the designers forgot to include enough bathrooms in the terminal. I haven't been downtown because we fly to Bhutan tomorrow morning, but apparently it takes about 80 minutes by cab and costs in the neighborhood of $12.

It feels great to be back in Asia, back traveling, a foreigner again.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Off to Bhutan...

Could barely sleep last night for excitement.

Tomorrow I'll fly from Hartford, CT to Chicago, Chicago to Tokyo, Tokyo to Bangkok and then - after a nights sleep - board a Druk Air flight to Calcutta and soar over high Himalayan snow peaks to the hidden Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan.

I doubt I'll be able to blog at all from Bhutan, but keep posted for updates once I return to Southeast Asia.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Crossing the Penobscot

…..From the bike trip to Maine, September 2006…..

This morning I overheard a conversation while having a slice of pepperoni pizza at the lunch counter of the store in Lincolnville Maine. A young mother, apparently slightly philosophically minded, turned to her two sons, who were blissfully devouring a plate of chicken nuggets:

Mom – “ If you were going to get a tattoo that symbolized your place in the universe what would it be? ”

8 year old son, matter-of-fact, after a moments hesitation – “ A frog.”

6 year old son, smiling at his brother – “ A frog!”


Six days on the bike, pitching camp at dusk in the woods and cooking food over smoky little fires. I’m past Portland, past Bowdoin College, past the Bath Iron Works, past Boothbay Harbor and finally riding North along the island pocked shore of Penobscot Bay. RT 1 is still crowded but at least I’m making good time on the main road. The scenery gets more and more beautiful as I travel, plus the man I talked with at the bike shop this afternoon told me to get my ass up to Acadia and spent as much time in the National Park as possible. It’s been one clear cold sunny blue sky day after another. Sore muscles just have to keep working.

At Camden I find a dusty bookstore where a slightly-deranged looking woman sits at a lopsided desk buried among stacks of paperbacks. I find a copy of Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard,” a National Book Award winner about his “journey of the heart” to the Dolpo region of the Tibetan plateau, one of the most remote provinces of Nepal. It’s mine for $2.75 and the owner smiles and stares as I leave.


“Beautiful new granite bridge going in at Bucksport” says the journal in an entry marked ‘Sunset’.

Biking high up over the river feels like standing on top of a peak with storm clouds rising – heart-wrenchingly beautiful but also, well, kind of terrifying.
The bridge is narrow and the tiny tires of my folding bike don’t seem very stable on the metal. My luggage wobbles each time a SUV rumbles past, but scary as this is, I can’t keep my eyes on the road. The river, the harbor, the light on the hills, the boats, the proud old town on the waterfront, the massive paper mill venting steam, the huge American flag painted on the factory wall – I’m finally crossing the border between civilized Maine and the rugged ‘Down-East’ coast. Totally vulnerable, totally invincible, I come off the bridge and coast onto Main Street.

That night, I celebrate in my pup tent with a feast of fried haddock, French fries and coleslaw.

A scribbled journal entry –

“This trip is taking on its own character and steam – low budget seatofmypants pedal pumping stealth-camping how far can I go.”

A grubby awakening in my sleeping bag, the chores of packing up camp complete and needing to take a morning off, I ride back into town and drink free pumpkin flavored coffee at an independent bookstore. Bucksport is a blue-collar kind of place. The atmosphere here is totally different from the coastal towns on the Western shore of Penobscot Bay. There’s the paper mill, for one thing, and I didn’t come upon any restaurants that might use white tablecloths.

“This used to be a major fishing community for the Indians,” the man in the bookstore tells me. “They would set up weirs where the river narrows and catch salmon by the ton.”

“How’s the fishing now?” I had seen a man fly-casting from the town dock.

He shrugs.

“Only a few salmon. You can catch bass but they say you can’t eat any.”

“And how’s business?”

“People go to the Wal Mart in Ellsworth.”

“Same old story.”

“Same old story.”


I leave the store and ride down to the mill, where workers produce glossy paper for Time Magazine. An abandoned railroad runs up along the waterfront and straight into the bowels of the factory. The town has tried to make a sort of waterfront park by putting in a walking path, some benches and a gazebo, and leaving a line of rusting boxcars on the overgrown track. I can’t decide if the boxcars were meant to attract tourists or whether it was too much trouble to move them. A few local teenagers have spray-painted some tentative graffiti. “ART IS WAR,” is written on the side of one car.

‘WOMEN’S CYCLING TOURS” says the van parked by the riverside Holiday Inn. A group of about 15 women decked out in lycra are listening to the morning safety lecture from their tour guide. I take my time pedaling by and a few stop to look at the scruffy guy on the funny looking bike with tiny tires.

“Can I be your Cabana Boy?” I shout.

“Sorry!” the guide yells back.

I roll along, telling myself that some of the more attractive ladies looked as if they had wanted to take me up on it.


There’s someone sitting in the gazebo, but I fold up my bike and go inside anyway. My companion could be anywhere between 40 and 70 years old. His face is totally hidden behind reflective sunglasses and a bandanna, chest and shoulders bulging underneath a black T-Shirt, tattoos creeping up to his neck and just past his sleeves. A bit of gray ponytail under the bandanna is the only clue to his age.

“Nice day,” he says in a thick Southern drawl.

“Sure is,” I reply.

We talk for hours.

Roger Smith is from South Carolina and just couldn’t believe it the first time he came up North and learned you didn’t have to watch out for snakes in the woods here. He’s been coming up for a quite a few years now, ‘cause it’s nice and cool, quiet.

“Ah’m self taught,” he tells me.

“Ah have some sorta strange-soundin’ theories and ideas you might say. See, this is weird, but, one thing Ah like to do is, Ah like to Ghost Hunt. Ah was watchin’ this TV show one time and they was up in an old house an’ there was this ghost hauntin’ the place but they never got it on camera. So Ah figure Ah can go see for muhself, go out, places like that old fort ‘cross the river there, battles in the Revolutionary War and all, I go up to places like that, oh, 2, 3 in the morning and sneak around with a light and camera. Ah haven’t seen any ghosts yet but Ah been real close a few times.”

“Another thing I like is chess. Chess is the only thing in life where there ain’t no luck involved.”

“Those temples in Asia, they sound mighty cool, man, I could do some real Ghost Huntin’ there. Ah never been anywhere but Canada, but I always did think, if Ah was to go, Ah’ld like to see that there…where is it…that Neh-pal or Thi-bet.”


I give Roger “The Snow Leopard” and he asks for my address.

“Yer a good person,” he tells me as I scribble my parent’s address down. “Ah’m sad now, ‘cause here we are, we have this great conversation and now Ah’m not ever gonna see you again and that makes me sad.

“Yer a good person, and you know what, I don’t care, I hope you find a great girl, but you know, I don’t even care if you’re gay, or what, see I got this theory, this is another strange one, see there’s good people – I call them the marbles – and then there’s the bad people, the basketballs, and the basketballs take credit for all the good that the marbles do.”

"Ah’ve enjoyed meetin’ you an’ good luck an’ have a good life.”

I pedal on.