Sunday, November 26, 2006

Le Bout de Monde, Kep, Cambodia

I’ve made it down to the Cambodian Coast, where I’ll spend most of the next few months exploring and writing. Stories keep coming faster than I can write them down. At some point, I’ll have to get to the Elephants and Englishmen of Mondulkiri, but in the meantime I’ve found the most romantic bungalows in Southeast Asia, a place that demands an article – maybe a quick sell to one of those nice-smelling magazines my ex-girlfriend used to get and which I would secretly read.

The Bhutan guide is polished. It should be up on soon.

Here’s the romantic bungalow article – criticism, as always, is welcome.

For food and romance, follow the French.

The most romantic bungalows in Southeast Asia are tucked high on a hillside overlooking the bullet scarred and abandoned villas of Kep, Cambodia. Kep, a seaside town near the Vietnamese border, was traditionally the favorite coastal retreat of French colonists and Cambodian royals. Tragically, the genocidal Khmer Rouge reserved their most fierce hatreds for the Vietnamese, the Cambodian elite, and the French. During Cambodia’s prolonged hell of a civil war, Kep was wiped off the map.

Peace has come to Kep, but the crowds have not yet returned. A graceful palm-lined boulevard along the beach is empty and potholed. Cows graze in the ruins of grand old colonial mansions. Only a handful of new homes have been built. In Cambodia’s more well-known destinations, the scars of war have been concealed by new development, but the destruction of Kep still feels recent and raw.

Today, Kep is slowly rising from the ashes. The atmosphere that attracted the French in the first place is stronger than ever. Graceful green hills give way to the sparkling blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand, where brightly painted fishing skiffs sail between blue misted islands. The fishermen supply local restaurants with fresh shrimp, fish, squid and crab, all sold at unbelievably low prices.

Several new hotels have opened on the hillside bordering Kep National Park. The most popular is Veranda Natural Resort, which boasts luxuries like hot-water and 24 hour electricity. The Canadian owners have poured money into marketing with great success; bungalows that once went for $4 a night now cost $20.

Veranda is a perfectly pleasant spot, but my pick for romance goes to Le Bout de Monde, the first guesthouse to open on the hill and still the most atmospheric. The bamboo bungalows are rickety, the staff barely speak English and large geckos patrol the veranda, but there is a graceful elegance to the simplicity. The bed sheets are fine cotton, flowers line the garden paths and bread with homemade jam and delicious coffee are served on fine china in the morning. Very few travelers stay in Kep for more than a few hours, but Le Bout de Monde is the sort of place best experienced at leisure, with enough time to soak in the peaceful rhythms of the days. At only $10 for the private bungalows, why not open a good book and let the hours float by.

The food at Le Bout de Monde is quite simply the best I have ever encountered. Order fish with tamarind sauce and the shy young waiter will sprint down to his moto-bike and return 5 minutes later with a flopping sea bream for his sister to prepare. Lightly wok-fried with young onions and local peppercorns, the fish is so succulent that even refined eaters are sure to lick their fingers. One fish is enough for two people and costs all of $4.50.

I heard about Le Bout de Monde from a French traveler, and indeed, the only other guests during the 4 nights I stayed there were French. I can hardly blame them for keeping the secret to themselves. Then again, the three people who read this blog are hardly the type to ruin the atmosphere.

If you go –

Getting to Kep is easier than ever. Comfortable buses leave twice daily from Phnom Penh and any guesthouse or hotel can arrange tickets. The bus stops at Kep Market, but it’s best to ask the driver to let you out at Kep Beach, a few hundred meters beyond the white mermaid statue. From here, local moto drivers will run you up the hill.

If coming from the West, first get to Kampot, then take a taxi or moto on to Kep. The road is fairly good and the countryside picturesque. Motos cost $3.

If you call ahead for reservations at Le Bout de Monde, be patient and speak clearly. The staff is shy about speaking English, but eager to please. The number is 011 996 980.

The countryside around Kep was sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge even after the U.N. sponsored elections of the mid ‘90s. In 1993 guerillas kidnapped and murdered three backpackers who were riding the train near town. The area is now completely safe, much more so than tourist towns like Sihanoukville, but the people are poor. Don’t tempt trouble by leaving valuables lying around.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Mekong River Dolphins, Kratie Cambodia

Location Update:

I’m now in Phnom Penh, Lakeside, the heart of backpacker world. Yesterday I was doing a poor job of keeping my balance while riding bareback on the neck of an elephant, tonight The Killers are on the sound system and hundreds of moto drivers are hunting prey. Tomorrow I leave for Kep, a quiet little seaside town coast near the border with Vietnam.

Check in next week for tall tales involving elephant thongs, Mekong Whiskey and eccentric Englishmen. Below is an article about the Mekong River Dolphins, which I saw in Kratie, before hitting the hill country.


The Irawaddy Dolphins of Southeast Asia are shy, intelligent creatures with upward curving mouths that bestow a look of perpetual bemusement. Like so many other large mammals the world over, the river dolphin population has been decimated by human activity over the last century. Although the dolphins were once widespread throughout the Mekong and its tributaries, those that remain are limited to a series of deep pools in an isolated stretch of river that passes through Northeastern Cambodia and Southern Laos. Less than a hundred individuals are thought to exist in this area, along with remnant populations in remote areas of Indonesia and Burma.

Endangered species can survive in one of two ways. Either they make a last stand in the most inaccessible reaches of their habitat, or they earn their keep, contributing in one way or another to the human economy. Unlike other rare Southeast Asian mammals, like tigers, pygmy elephants and Javan rhinos, the Irawaddy Dolphins are incapable of retreating to the farthest corner of the jungle. The Mekong is about as big and remote as rivers get, but it’s also a major regional artery for human trade and transportation. For the dolphins, which must breach water every few minutes to breathe, the flat surface of the river offers no place to hide. During the black years of Cambodia’s brutal civil war, it was not uncommon for soldiers to entertain themselves by shooting dolphins from the river bank as they came up for air.

Fortunately for travelers, Cambodians and dolphins alike, the dolphins have become a popular tourist attraction in recent years, providing a vital boost to the local economy. Here in Kratie, a sleepy provincial capital 5 hours by bus from Phnom Penh, the Irawaddy dolphin has become a symbol of the town’s rejuvenation after years of war and neglect.

“Kratie is a convenient stop for people traveling between Laos and Phnom Penh,” says Keang Sour, 24, a local guesthouse manager. “Most stop to see the dolphins. It’s a nice quiet place to visit.”

From Kratie, visitors must travel 15 kilometers upstream along a quiet paved road to Kampi, a riverside fishing village where the houses are raised on stilts as protection against the annual monsoon floods. The Mekong runs thick and muddy here, broken by wide sandbars and clumps of straggly brush. The dolphins can usually be seen right from the river bank, but it’s worthwhile to take a spotting cruise in one of the wooden long-tail boats available for hire. The Irawaddy dolphins won’t come right up to the boat like their gregarious salt-water cousins, but they are easy to find, lolling about on the surface, or breaking water with a distinctive puff of spray while chasing fish.

The boat men will turn off the motor to approach the dolphins and maneuver with wooden oars, or simply make fast to a clump off brush when dolphins are nearby. Ducks, herons and egrets are plentiful in the vegetation, providing an aerial sideshow when the dolphins are invisible in the currents below. In just over an hour on the boat, I saw the dolphins over a hundred times, at a range close enough to distinguish between individual animals.

When I returned to Kratie town, locals and tourists were mingling on the riverside, sipping from fresh coconuts and cold cans of beer. The tourists were spell-bound by the peaceful river scene, the locals were happy to know that their town was finally back on the map, and in the water below, the dolphins were still swimming, oblivious to the people who now depend on what they nearly destroyed.

If you go:

The road between Phnom Penh and Kratie is in good shape, although it takes a somewhat circuitous route, heading East towards Vietnam before veering North and then West back towards the river. Buses run ( ) With the improved road, there is no longer regular boat service on this section of the Mekong, although it may be possible to arrange something locally.

It’s also possible to reach Kratie from Laos, traveling by bus from the border to Stung Treng and then down to Kratie. Those taking this route can consider making a side trip into Ratanakiri, a Cambodian frontier province that is home to several tribal peoples.

Kratie is not a big place and quite easy to navigate. Several guesthouses and small hotels cater to travelers. I stayed at You Hong Guesthouse, a friendly place by the market with English speaking staff and a small restaurant. Fan rooms are small but clean and cost $3. Other travelers recommend the Star Guesthouse, also by the market, but those bothered by early morning noise might want to try a place a little further from the center of town.

Red Sun Falling is a restaurant, bar and second-hand book shop on the riverfront run by Joe, a sociable ex-pat from Chicago. It ‘s a good spot for breakfast, closes from 2-5 for a siesta and then stays opens until around 11.

To cover the 15 kilometers from Kratie to the dolphin viewing at Kampi, most travelers choose to take moto-bikes, which any guesthouse can arrange. The going rate is $3 for the round-trip, or $4 with a stop at a hill-top temple on the way back. Taxis are also available for around $10. Perhaps the best way to travel is by bicycle. The road is well-surfaced, quiet and shaded, passing through picturesque villages where one can stop for drinks. Bicycles also allow more time for leisurely watching the dolphins from the riverbank, as moto-drivers will want to get back to Kratie after the boat ride.

There is now a $2 fee to see the dolphins, which supports the local community and the tourist police. Boats can be hired at around $3 per person for groups of three or more, although the price depends on the season and how far the boat drivers have to go. We paid $9 to charter a boat for two people. Keep in mind that even if the money doesn’t go directly towards conservation, every dollar is an incentive to protect the dolphins and their habitat.

For more information, check out For information on travel in Cambodia, the best source is

Feel free to contact me with questions or comments.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

From the banks of the Mekong

Location update –

I’m now in Kratie, Cambodia, typing away on the balcony of the You Hong Guest House, which overlooks the central marketplace. Below, bored women squat behind piles of mangos, naked children wander about with fingers in their mouths and a blind man sits cross-legged on the pavement, playing a bamboo flute. The smells of grilled fish, rotten fruit and moto-bike exhaust hang heavy in the humid air. One block away, the sun is sinking low over the far bank of the wide, muddy Mekong River. I’ll be here for the next few days, then plan to head East into the remote Cambodian hill country.

Below is an article I just finished about how to get around the Angkor temples. Hopefully I’ll find a place to publish it before leaving for the sticks.

To Tuk or Not to Tuk?

Angkor Wat will blow your mind. The sheer size of the temple is impressive, but scale alone can’t explain the overwhelming spiritual impact that confronts those who approach the central sanctuary. Pillaged by invading armies, abandoned to the elements for generations and now overrun by tourists, the temple still retains enough pure power to send shivers straight to the core of your soul.

But it’s also just one temple, and for all its potent enormity, Angkor Wat is just the tip of the iceberg. The ancient Khmer God-Kings were amazingly prolific, devoting the treasure of an empire to preserving their divinity for the ages. There are literally hundreds of temples scattered about the jungle near the town of Siem Reap, so making the most of your Angkor experience requires covering some serious ground.

Transportation isn’t hard to arrange locally, but there are a lot of options to consider. It can be confusing and intimidating to figure everything out on the spot, so in this article I’ll give you the heads up on how to get around the Angkor complex.

The easiest way to explore Angkor is to hire a driver for the duration of your stay. Indeed, from the first moment you step foot in Siem Reap, drivers will start offering to show you around the temples, hoping to score an extended stretch of steady work. Most drivers are professional, reliable and hard-working, but it’s worthwhile to choose one who speaks decent English and is relatively experienced. If the fellow who gives you that very first ride to your guesthouse seems to fit the bill, and you already know when you want to set out for the temples, by all means make arrangements to have him pick you up the next day. If you’re not sure, just say “No plans yet,” get his phone number, and decide later.

All guesthouses have a few ‘resident’ drivers who hang out in the courtyard and get most of their business from guests of that establishment. It can be very convenient to hire one of them, because they will be easy to get a hold of if you need to change plans or suddenly want to go somewhere. Plus, all guesthouses appreciate when you spend money within their ‘sphere of influence’. After you get settled into your room, ask someone to introduce you to a good driver.

Choosing a driver is important, but you also need to decide what kind of vehicle to use. The most popular choice is a remorque-moto, or tuk-tuk, a neat little carriage pulled by a moto bike. Riding around in one of these can be almost as much fun as exploring the actual temples. Tuk-tuks are quite comfortable, with well-padded seats and a canopy to keep the sun off. With no windows, a nice breeze cools you off while moving. There is enough space for four people in one carriage, but they are most ideal for couples, who can sit side by side, talk, and watch the countryside roll by.

Hiring a tuk-tuk and driver for the day costs between $8 and $20, depending on which temples you want to see and how many hours your idea of “a day” encompasses. If you want to sleep in, eat a leisurely breakfast, see a few of the most accessible temples and be back home in time to shower before dinner, $8 is probably plenty, but if you want to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, head out to a distant temple like Banteay Srei and then watch the sun go back down, think $15 or $20. It’s usually a good idea to agree on a price before leaving, especially when dealing with a driver for the first time. Be clear about your plans or, better yet, ask the driver for his opinion. These guys have been touring Angkor for a long time, and probably know what you want better than you do.

Your other transportation options include bicycles, electric-bikes, moto-bikes and cars. Most guest-houses rent pedal bikes for between $1 and $3 per day. It can be a lot of fun to explore Angkor on your own wheels, but bear in mind that the climate is tropical and it’s an 8 km ride between town and the closest temples. If you want to enjoy the hour before sunset at a temple, count on a long ride home in the dark.

Electric bikes are an interesting new option. You can rent them from a shop a few hundred yards before the ticket booth for $4 a day. To read my full review of these bikes, scroll down past the Bhutan guide.

Moto-bikes are marginally cheaper than tuk-tuks and a decent option for solo travelers, but are better suited to quick rides around town than a full day exploring the temples. As for cars, they’re obviously comfortable and air-conditioned, but you miss out on the breeze. Hiring a car is also expensive, with a going rate of about $25 per day.

While you explore the temples, your driver will wait in the parking area. At some of the more spread-out temples, like Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, he will drop you off at one entrance and pick you up at another, which saves time backtracking. To avoid confusion, be sure to confirm where exactly your driver will be waiting. Most tuk-tuk drivers will have a map with them, which helps with orientations and arranging pick-up spots.

No matter how you get around Angkor, a visit to these ancient monuments is truly awe-inspiring. However, contemporary Cambodia is also a fascinating place. If you only have a few days in Siam Reap, a trip to one of the more distant Angkor attractions is a good way to experience the Cambodian countryside, but an even better option is to extend your holiday and head for one of the blissfully deserted beaches of the Cambodian coast.

For more information on Siem Reap, Angkor and the rest of Cambodia, you can’t do better than

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006



In Bhutan, the taxi drivers are honest, the air is clean, and all the bright flags flapping along roadsides are prayers for peace and not advertisements for used cars. This fascinating Himalayan kingdom is about the furthest one can get from the frantic hum of the outside world, but it’s also a totally safe and relatively comfortable place to travel. Few countries can boast such stunning natural beauty, and even fewer have protected their culture so well. Most Bhutanese remain subsistence farmers, but it would be impossible to call them poor, especially when the government measures progress in terms of Gross National Happiness. It’s truly eye opening to visit a country so determined to remain a land apart and assess the flashy Wonders of the West on its own terms.

Bhutan has recently become the trendiest of destinations, but one of the reasons why it remains such an unspoiled and appealing place is that not everyone can go there. Or, to put it another way, anyone can go IF he or she is willing to pay the government mandated minimum daily charge of $200, which includes hotel, food, transportation and guide costs. Budget travelers backpacking around Asia are effectively priced out of Bhutan, but for wealthy retirees, or for working people with only a couple weeks of vacation time per year, $200 a day inclusive of all services is actually a pretty good deal. So, if you’re killing time at the office and day-dreaming about a holiday, by all means keep reading, because two weeks in Bhutan will be a lot more interesting (and could easily be less expensive) than a trip to Paris or Tokyo. On the other hand, if you’re down to your last baht in an internet café on Khao San Road, well, you probably can’t go right now. But keep reading anyway. Life is short and some places are worth the extra cash.

I was able to visit Bhutan for two weeks in October of 2006 along with my mother, 14 other travelers, and our tour leader, a family friend named Frank Oatman. Frank has been leading trips to Bhutan since 1979, and for years had tempted my Mom with the possibility of joining him on a future tour. With her eldest son tramping through the wilds of Asia, she thought the timing couldn’t be better. As for me, well, its hard to imagine a cooler e-mail from Mom than one with “Bhutan?” in the subject line. Sure beats, “Have you given any thought to graduate school?” or “When ARE you coming home?”

Two weeks on a group tour hardly qualifies me as an old Bhutan hand, but I can give a general description of Bhutan’s geography and culture, share information I found helpful, and teach you how to say: “Those chili peppers I ate are burning me in an unfortunate place” - in Bhutanese. Read on.


Bhutan is a small kingdom wedged between two enormous empires. To the South lies India and the hazy, crowded plain of the Ganges River. To the North the high altitude Tibetan plateau scrapes against the sky. The national borders of Bhutan basically coincide with the south facing slope of the Eastern Himalayan range. This makes for some dramatic changes in elevation, giving Bhutan a geographical diversity that is simply astounding for such a small country. Thick green jungles cover the lowlands, but travel up the river valleys and the air gets thin and cold, the hills dry out, and high snow peaks begin to shine on the horizon. Keep pushing North beyond the last roads and you’re soon among nomadic yak herders in an epic landscape of rock and snow and sky.

The main Himalayan peaks form a towering barrier from East to West along the border with China, but Bhutan is also divided by secondary mountain ranges that cross the country from North to South. Getting from one river valley to another entails winding up to a high pass and then following switchbacks down the mountainside. Distances measured on a flat paper map in the comfort of your home are totally meaningless, which is important to remember when planning an itinerary. Many a tour to Bhutan has been a disaster from the start because someone merrily assumed that covering a few hundred kilometers each day would be a perfectly reasonable pace. Remember that in Bhutan, a highway literally means a way high up in the mountains. If you only remember one thing from my guide, let it be this: Take it easy. Don’t try to see the whole kingdom in one trip.

Western Bhutan is the most developed region of the country. The airport, at Paro, and the capital city of Thimphu, are in neighboring valleys at around 7,500 feet, upstream from the major border crossing with India at Puentsholing. Most tourists, myself included, stay within Western Bhutan for their entire trip. Everyone must enter the country at either Paro or Puentsholing, and at least one leg of the journey must be by plane.

Central Bhutan is a days drive from Thimphu over two high mountain passes. When I asked Bhutanese which part of their country was the most beautiful, everyone mentioned the Bumthang valley of Central Bhutan.

Eastern Bhutan is quite remote, another full day by mini-bus or car from Bumthang. Many of the workers I met in Western Bhutan were originally from the East and had come West to find jobs. If you’re one of those travelers who absolutely can’t stand to see any trace of Western culture and want to feel like the only tourist in the world, go East. Intriguingly, and this is BREAKING NEWS YOU WON’T FIND ELSEWHERE, the Bhutanese have recently opened a border crossing in Southeastern Bhutan which gives access to an airport in the Indian province of Assam. The crossing is exit only, so you still have to fly to Paro first, but this means that it’s just become possible to go from West to East at a leisurely pace without having to spend three full days retracing the winding track back over the mountains.

The best time to visit Bhutan is in October or November, after the monsoon rains but before it gets really cold and snow storms threaten the passes. Spring is also pleasant, but it can be cloudy, and you might not get good views of the Himalayan peaks. Obviously, the weather depends a lot on elevation. No matter what time of year you visit, it’s essential to pack plenty of layers.

One more note on geography – Bhutan just got a bit smaller. The Chinese renegotiated the border and now own a chunk of Himalayan glacier that used to be the Northern half of the Bhutanese province of Gasa. Both the Chinese and Bhutanese governments are keeping the transfer of sovereignty quiet. The change isn’t a huge deal, because no one lives in the territory besides a few nomads who don’t recognize either government anyway, but it underscores Bhutan’s vulnerability as a small agrarian nation with only 732,000 citizens, caught between two of the biggest and hungriest countries in the world.


Because of its unique geography, in the past getting to Bhutan was practically impossible for Europeans. The first roads in the country weren’t built until the 1960s, and only a handful of adventurers made it to the central valleys before 1974, when the first hotels were built to accommodate dignitaries arriving for the coronation ceremony of the current King.

These original hotels, The Olathang in Paro and The Motithang in Thimphu, were carefully placed well outside of town to prevent unnecessary interaction between foreigners and locals. After the coronation, the government began to welcome a trickle of tourists, barely enough to keep the two hotels in business. In 1979, a total of 250 tourist visas were issued.

At this point, the government recognized the potential benefits of tourism as a source of hard currency and good public relations. However, officials were also wary of the state of affairs in nearby Nepal, which opened its borders to mass tourism back in the ‘60s and became a popular stop on the famous Hippy Trail. Bhutan, officials vowed, would never have a Freak Street like the one in Katmandu, where long-haired Westerners smoked hash all day long and spent only $2 a day.

Tourism has therefore always been tightly controlled. At first the government ran the entire business itself, but eventually private companies were allowed to operate. These companies are all obliged to charge the same daily fee of $200. For a while, a separate category existed for trekkers, who were charged $150 per day, but this is no longer the case. At the moment, it’s $200 regardless of whether you stay in a leaky tent, a local guesthouse, or a comfortable hotel.

There are a few luxury Aman hotels in Bhutan exempt from the $200 limit that charge around $1000 per night. Ask your personal assistant for details.

In 2008, the current King will step down in favor of his son, the Crown Prince. A lot of things will change, including the tourism regulations. The word now is that the $200 inclusive fee will be done away with in favor of a flat $100 government tax per tourist, per day, with all other expenses dictated by the market. Bhutan will remain an exclusive destination.


All visitors must use a registered tour company. Many Western outfitters run tours to Bhutan, in partnership with local agencies, but it's possible to cut out the middle man and book directly with a Bhutanese operator. If you choose this option, it makes sense to deal with one of the larger and more experienced Bhutanese companies, which offer more flexibility. If an early snow storm closes the pass or wipes out your 4 day trek, it really helps if your tour company happens to own your hotel. Otherwise, you might get stuck pitching tents in a cow pasture – at $200 a night.

Most people visit Bhutan with a group tour. Those offered by Western companies generally include around 15 people. If you organize your own trip through a local agency, it’s possible to travel in a small group or even as a couple, although a surcharge may be added to the daily fee. It’s impossible to register as a single traveler.

One leg of your trip must be by plane, with the national airline, Druk Air. Paro is the only airport. Druk Air flies to Bangkok, Calcutta, New Delhi and Kathmandu, but will soon debut flights from Singapore and several Indian cities. Round-trip airfare to Bangkok is around $760 dollars.

The flight to Bhutan is one of the most dramatic in the world. Most likely jet-lagged into a daze, you’re suddenly jolted awake by adrenaline as you pass by the peak of Mt. Everest. The plane drops into a narrow valley for the approach, banking around bends and over ridges like something out of Star Wars, before touching down amidst rice fields and ancient farmhouses. The flight from Kathmandu has the best mountain views of any commercially scheduled flight in the world. Get a window seat.

Entering the country overland at Puenthsoling is an interesting option, because the 6 hour drive up the river valley gives you the experience of climbing through various eco-zones to the heart of the Himalayas. Visas are issued at this border as well as at the airport, but to get a visa you must be pre-registered with a tour. The cost is $20. Keep your ear to the ground regarding regulations at the new overland crossing between Southeastern Bhutan and Assam, which is exit-only for the time being.

The government mandated $200 daily fee must include everything except souvenirs and drinks, so you don’t need to worry about constantly bargaining. The Bhutanese currency, the ngultrum, is pegged to the Indian rupee, at an exchange of about 44 ng to $1. Rupees are also widely accepted. A bottle of water costs around 15 ng in town and 35 ng in hotels. A ten minute taxi ride in Thimphu is around 60 ng. Bhutan produces excellent rums, and you can buy a liter of Dragon Rum for around 100 ng in shops, more in hotels. Tastes great mixed with mango juice.

Souvenirs are rather expensive, both because the Bhutanese are used to dealing with wealthy tourists and because the quality of local crafts is excellent. Bhutan produces some beautiful textiles, lots of Buddhist art and interesting metalwork. The Thimphu market (Fri-Sun) is a good place to shop. Be careful with antiques, because like anywhere else in the world, some are made to order. If you find something that really does look medieval, remember that it is illegal to bring any object over 100 years old out of the country. Save receipts.

You can change travelers checks and foreign currency at the airport, major hotels, and banks in Thimphu. Visa cards are usually accepted in stores that cater to tourists, but not elsewhere.

International calls are possible but expensive at most hotels, but the local mobile phone network within Bhutan is extensive. Slow internet access is available in Thimphu at around 70 ng per hour and you can also get online at a few of the larger provincial hotels, where it’s more expensive.

Electricity is 220 volts, and the plugs are large and three pronged. Bring an adaptor.

The biggest travel company in Bhutan is BHUTAN TOURISM CORPORATION LIMITED, owned in large part by the royal family. This is the company that organized our tour and I was extremely impressed by our guide, driver and the BTCL hotels. Their website is

The second biggest tour operator is called ETHO METHO, online at You might also take a look at, the website of a tour company owned by a reincarnate Buddhist holy man turned entrepreneur who seems to remember partying with my Mom in New York City in the 1970s.

It’s quite easy to arrange individually tailored trips geared around a specific theme, such as birding, rafting, trekking or Buddhist studies.


Bhutan is the last of the independent Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms. Religion is very much a part of everyday life, which centers around farming and family. a href="">Most Bhutanese still live a long walk from the road in big, beautiful farmhouses with terraced rice fields out front, red chili peppers drying on the roof, and white prayer flags snapping in the breeze. The outside walls of these farmhouses are often decorated with religious iconography. Very large, realistic illustrations of erect penises are especially popular decorations, a practice believed to date back thousands of years to pre-Buddhist creeds that did not discriminate between spiritual and physical vitality.

Because travel within Bhutan is so difficult, over the years each valley developed its own unique culture and distinct dialect. Over a dozen languages are spoken within the kingdom. The national language is called Dzongkha, as it is the language of the ancient fortress-monasteries, or Dzongs, which still function as the governing center of each province. Dzongkha is taught in schools, but the basic language of instruction is English, so nearly all young people are at least tri-lingual, speaking Dzongkha, English and the local language of their valley.

The most prominent minority group in Bhutan consists of Nepali and Indian laborers, most of whom are officially classified as guest workers. They do roadwork and construction, jobs most Bhutanese are unwilling or unable to take. Many of these economic migrants settled in Southern Bhutan over the years, until the government grew concerned that they were beginning to outnumber native Bhutanese, and forced many to leave the country. This was a controversial move, especially because Nepal refused to accept most of the migrants, who relocated to makeshift camps. This problem contributes to the King’s determination to promote cultural unity, to the point of enforcing a national dress code and emphasizing Bhutanese values in the school curriculum.

Despite the vitality of traditional village life, some elements of Western culture have made inroads in Bhutan, but most are given a distinctly Himalayan twist. Television was made legal in 1999, and with the government making a big push to bring electricity to the provinces, most Bhutanese now have access to American sitcoms and Indian soap operas. A high reincarnate lama assured me that Thimphu boasts several good discos, and when I went downtown to find them, I noticed a movie theatre with a huge crowd out front, everyone lined up to see Norbu, My Beloved Yak. Two great Bhutanese flicks available outside the country are The Cup and Travelers and Magicians, both directed by Khyentse Norbu (no relation to the Yak).

Archery is Bhutan’s national sport and if you see a match in progress be sure to stop and watch. Two teams face off at opposite ends of a range that stretches for all of 140 meters, with a tiny target barely visible at the far end. The opposing team stands around the target, trying to distract the tiny figure off in the distance who is launching deadly weapons in their direction. The archer lets fly, and if it’s a hit, everyone does a dance and sings and drinks rice whiskey before the next round. Somehow, its rare for people to take an arrow to the face, even when they are leaning over the target and yelling rude things down-field about the archer’s sister.

The Tantric Buddhism practiced in Bhutan includes a vast pantheon of demons, bodhisattvas and other deities. Practitioners believe in the karmic cycle of reincarnation and strive to accumulate merit through good deeds and the performance of rituals. Good people achieve good rebirths. The ultimate goal is to accumulate enough positive karma to escape the cycle of birth and death entirely. It’s common to see elderly men and women walking down the street muttering mantras and turning prayer wheels, which are conveniently built into walls along the sidewalks in towns. Stringing up prayer flags over rivers or on ridgelines is another way to accumulate good karma. The prayers written on the flags are absorbed by the wind and water, which carry their sacred messages to all creatures of the world. Some massive prayer wheels are placed over streams and constantly turned by the flow of water. Feel free to give prayer wheels a spin, but make sure you do so clockwise. Get it wrong and you might come back as a cockroach.

The importance of good deeds includes a deep respect for all forms of life, from the smallest ant to the earth herself. During my travels, I sometimes saw Bhutanese stop on the sidewalk, pick up insects, and move them out of harms way. Fishing and logging are heavily regulated and frowned upon, as is the killing of animals for meat, although most Bhutanese happily eat pork and beef that someone else has slaughtered.

Many Bhutanese become monks at a young age. It can be a stark life of chanting and mediation for these boys, especially in monasteries perched high in the mountains, but there is an otherworldly sense of purity and peace in such places.

Respect and devotion to the King is prevalent among Bhutanese, and in my opinion very much deserved. Since taking the throne at the age of 17, H.M. Jigme Singye Wangchuk has worked to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage while promoting certain forms of development. He has made a priority of environmental protection, cultivated diplomatic ties, and most remarkably, gradually eased himself out of the role of absolute monarch by transferring administrative power to a legislature. In 2005 a constitution was drafted and is now in the process of being approved for ratification by democratic vote.

The King is such an interesting figure that it’s worth devoting a few words to his private life. Instead of ruling from the palace, he chooses to live in a small bungalow hidden among pines in the hills overlooking the capital. He drives a Toyota Land Cruiser with a license plate that simply reads, “BHUTAN”. The King’s four wives, all sisters, and all beautiful, each have their own mansion in the town below. Their license plates read “BHUTAN 4”, “BHUTAN 5”, “BHUTAN 6,” and BHUTAN 7”. The Head Abbot has “BHUTAN 2” and the Crown Prince drives “BHUTAN 3”.

The King’s hatred of corruption is legendary. A few years ago, a decision was made to move the provincial capital of Punakha to a site downstream that would be less prone to flooding. The father of the King’s four wives quietly bought up farmland in the area where the new town would be built, thinking that it would soon appreciate in value. When the King found out, he was furious. Not only did he make sure the land went back to the farmers, he let them keep the money his father-in-law had paid. Incorruptible, modest and wise leadership…as an American, I can only dream.


The four valleys I visited in Bhutan are, from West to East, Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Phobjika. In this section I’ll give a quick rundown of the attractions you’re likely to experience in each of these destinations and also point you towards some less well known spots that I recommend.


All visitors to Bhutan will be in Paro Valley at some point to use the airport. Despite the runway, which is almost as wide as the valley floor itself, the area has retained a rural character and charm. Large, elaborately decorated farmhouses are scattered among fields of Bhutanese red rice, overlooked by one of the most beautiful and historically important Dzongs in the country. Our group stayed in the Olathang Hotel, the same hotel that was built for the King’s coronation. The best rooms are the bungalows, set in a pine grove with views up and down the valley.

Paro town is basically two streets running parallel to each other North of the airport. There are several local craft shops and a nice art gallery with original Bhutanese paintings and a terrific selection of black and white photographs.

The National Museum is in the old circular watchtower on a ridge above the Dzong. There are hundreds of beautiful Buddhist statues on the top floors and a dungeon downstairs where the first king of Bhutan was briefly incarcerated. There is also a display of medieval weaponry, but the doorway is heavily signposted with Buddhist texts preaching the virtues of pacifism.

There are several temples in Paro, including Kyichu Lhakhang, which dates back to the 7th century, when Buddhism first arrived in Bhutan. Your tour guide should be able to arrange a visit to Kyichu, which is located along the Paro River a short drive upstream from the center of town. With luck, the monks will allow you to view the original statues of the inner sanctum, long since dyed black by a millennium of smoke from butter lamps.

No visit to Bhutan is complete without a trip to the famous Taktshang Monastery, or “Tiger’s Nest,” which hangs from a sheer cliff thousands of feet above the valley floor, about 10 kilometers North of Paro town. Taktshang is actually a group of several monasteries, but Tiger’s Nest is by far the most dramatic. The founder of Buddhism in Bhutan, a man named Guru Rinpoche, arrived at Tiger’s Nest from modern day Pakistan on the back of a flying tiger. He and several other important Buddhist figures are said to have meditated on this cliff, living as hermits in a cave that is now the sacred core of the monastic complex. The physical landscape alone is staggering, but Tiger’s Nest is one of those rare places where human works have only added to the raw magnificence of nature, creating a transcendent beauty that vibrates in one’s soul.

At a leisurely pace, it takes about an hour to walk up the trail to a restaurant, where you can stop for a cup of tea and admire the view of the monastery perched on the cliff opposite. The trail is not so difficult, but those who wish can ride ponies as far as the restaurant by giving their guide advance notice the night before. From the tea house, the trail gets steeper, winding up to a viewpoint above Tiger’s Nest. If you’re scared of heights, this is as far as its wise to go, but most people will have no trouble with the final bit of cliff-hugging path to the monastery itself. Railings have recently been added to the hairiest section, but remember the cliff when backing up to get a good angle for a photo; a Japanese woman once failed to do so and fell into the upper branches of an oak tree. It took several hours before the Indian Army helicopter could be summoned to rescue her.

Two lesser known destinations in Paro that I enjoyed visiting are Dungste Lhakhang temple and Dzong Drakha monastery. Dungste Lhakhang is located on the East side of the river upstream from the National Museum. When I visited, a funeral rite was in progress, and it was haunting to hear the monks chanting and beating drums as I climbed up worn wooden ladders to the upper levels of the temple. The wall paintings inside are breath-taking, but it’s very dark, so bring a flashlight.

Dzong Drakha is located a few kilometers up the road that leads West over Cheli La pass to the Haa Valley. This road has only been open to tourists for 3 years, so very few visitors know about the monastery. It’s sort of a Tiger’s Nest junior, perched on a less dramatic cliff about 40 minutes walk from the road. The views are magnificent, and you’re unlikely to run into other travelers.

At the far Northern end of the valley, where the road ends, you’ll find the ruins of Drukyel Dzong, built to guard against invaders from Tibet. It’s best to come up here on a clear day for terrific views of Mount Jomolhari looming at the head of the valley.


The capital city of Thimphu is a dusty 2 hour drive from Paro. The road is due for widening and repair by next year, but this project has a long way to go. A growing population of around 70,000 people make their homes on the surrounding hills, making Thimphu the closest thing to a city you’ll find in Bhutan. Traffic can be thick along the main street, but there are still no traffic lights, just a white-gloved policeman directing cars at the central interchange.

It’s easy enough to navigate through town on foot, and you’ll have no trouble getting your bearings because everything slopes down to the river. Downtown is bustling, and several new tourist facilities are being built, including a massive structure that will soon be a luxury Taj hotel.

The residential neighborhoods are mainly on the hillside to the West of town. I stayed in one of these quiet suburbs at the Motithang Hotel, which was quirky and pleasant. A stuffed sun bear holding a drink tray stood in the hall outside my room, giving me a reliable pre-coffee jump in the morning. Those interested in wildlife can visit an enclosure just up the hill from the Motithang where the King keeps a herd of Takin, the national animal of Bhutan, which looks like the outcome of a cruel experiment involving a moose, a goat and a wildebeest.

Most practical things a visitor might need to buy are available in the shops downtown. Those hungry for a taste of home can check out the iconic Swiss Bakery just up the hill from the traffic circle. The weekend market is a great place to snap colorful photos and pick up souvenirs.

The government offices are located at the North end of town in an impressive Dzong. When our group arrived the royal fleet of Land Cruisers was parked by the front gate. There is also a golf course up this way. If anyone is interested in hitting the links and schmoozing with Thimphu’s upper crust, the greens fee is $25.

The drive up Thimphu valley makes a great day trip for those who want to get out of the city. Not many travelers take this road, which goes through villages, past the royal palace (where the King’s mother now lives) and by the training ground of the Royal Bodyguard, which looks suspiciously like a pitch and putt golf course. The road ends in a forest at the base of some steep foothills, with two monasteries hanging from the heights on either side. It’s possible to visit either Cheri or Tango monastery, both about 45 minutes by hiking path from the road.


Punakha is only about 40 kilometers from Thimphu as the crow flies, but the drive can easily take the better part of a day with a lunch break and a few photo stops. Be sure to bring your passport, because there is a checkpoint one hour outside Thimphu where soldiers can ask to see identification.

The road climbs up to Dochu La pass, an important spiritual place for the Bhutanese. Definitely make time to get out of the bus, stroll through the forest of prayer flags and take in stunning views of the Himalayan range. There is a restaurant a few hundred yards beyond the pass which is a perfect place for lunch. It’s also possible to stay here for a night and wake up early to catch sunrise over the snow peaks.

Punakha valley is much lower than Thimphu, so once over the pass, the road goes down and down through thick green virgin forest. Keep an eye out for monkeys, red pandas, rare birds and beautiful tree lilies. The valley itself is carved by two wide glacial rivers that come together below Punakha Dzong, which many agree is the most beautiful fortress in all of Bhutan. Traditionally, the monks from the Dzong in Thimphu spend the winter at Punakha, taking advantage of the relatively mild climate.

I stayed for four nights in Punakha at Hotel Zangtho Pelri. Again, the bungalows are the best rooms, although the water tank in ours exploded at 1 o clock in the morning. Besides the Dzong, I highly recommend a day trip up the valley to the vast Jigme Dorji National Park. The road follows a roaring river through farmland, where you can get out and walk up to hillside villages. The National Park itself is a great place for spotting rare mammals and birds. It’s possible to drive all the way up to the border of Gasa Province and still be back at the hotel in time for dinner.


I visited Phobjika as a day trip from Punakha, but would definitely recommend staying there for one or two nights. The valley is well known as the winter home of Black-Necked Cranes, which arrive in mid-October after flying over the Himalayas from Tibet. The cranes are sacred in Bhutan, and the government has gone to great lengths to protect their habitat. All electrical wires in the valley are buried and carpenters must follow strict codes when building new structures. All of Bhutan is an oasis of tranquility, but thanks to the cranes, Phobjika stands out as an especially enchanting landscape.

In past years, the only way to get to Phobjika was on foot, but a road has been built that branches off the main West-East high way just before the pass into Central Bhutan. It takes about 3 hours to make the trip from Punakha. There is a large temple on a hill overlooking the valley which is currently undergoing extensive renovations. The Hotel Dewachen in Phobjika served the best meal I ate in Bhutan, which, unfortunately, isn’t saying a whole lot.


Most meals in the hotels are served buffet style. At dinner, the first course is soup, which the wait-staff will bring to your table. A big pot of rice is standard, usually accompanied by dishes that include pork or beef, a curry of some sort, steamed vegetables and baked or fried fish (watch out for bones), At the end of the line, there will often be a bowl full of Bhutan’s national dish, ema-datsi, or hot chili peppers in cheese sauce. Wickedly spicy!

It’s a stretch to call breakfast Western style, but the cooks do try, and at worst you can always fill up on toast. Lunch is much like dinner, but without the soup.

The food isn’t bad, but it does get monotonous. It’s a good idea to bring some granola bars or trail mix from home for day hikes or long bus rides. Brave diners can try ready made market food, but be careful with chogo, dried cubes of yak cheese hard enough to break teeth.


Sadly, I wasn’t able to go trekking, but I talked with some trekking guides and can give general advice. The most important thing to understand is that when you go up into the mountains, you do so on the mountain’s terms. If the weather turns bad, or the altitude starts to get to you, or the guide has forgotten his mittens, it doesn’t matter how much you paid or how carefully you planned, you have to turn back! Over-confident trekkers have died in Bhutan. Make sure to go with a reputable agency and prepare yourself mentally and physically for adversity. That said, I wish I could have done a trek.


I couldn’t find much in the way of Bhutanese phrasebooks on the web, so its quite possible that the following is the best resource available! Very, very few foreigners manage to learn more than a couple words of Dzongkha, and any effort will be sincerely appreciated. You might even get local prices at the hotel bar, especially if you are as handsome and charming as me. I’ve spelled the Dzongkha words as they sound to my ear, no guarantee of accuracy. Without further ado…

Hello = Kuzu Zangpo (La) - This is the basic greeting, regardless of time of day. “La” denotes respect and is extra polite.

Bhutan = Druk Yul

Thank you = Kadinchey

Yes = Ing

No = Men

Good luck = Tashi Delek

Delicious = Shimbe If something is very delicious, say “Name Same Shimbe”.

How are you? = Cheu ga de be di?

I’m fine = Nga leshembe yii.

I = Nga

My = Nge

I’m from America = Nga ii America le iin.

You = Cheu

Where are you from? (lit. “which village”) = Cheu ii ga le mon?

A meal = Dto

Have you eaten? = Cheu dto zaigah?

I’m hungry = Nga dto khe chi.

Pretty girl = Jarim Du

Do you have a girl/boyfriend? Cheu luh aru garu yeh gah?

Let’s be friends = Nga cheu ni charo tzonah.

I love you = Nga cheu lu gai la.

See you again = Log jay gay

Water = Chu

River = Chu

Mango juice = Am chu kuleh juice

Milk = Ohm

Sugar = Goram

Butter = Ma

Meat = Shya

Beef = Noshya

Pork = Poshya

Chili Peppers = Ema

Yes, please (when tea is offered) = Shuge la.

Mouth = Ka

Nose = Happa

Eye = Mitto

Belly = Po

Ass = Abou

The hot chilies I ate make my ass burn = Ema sawachen abou tsaome.

Where is the toilet? = Chopsa gateh yeh?

I like Bhutan = Nga Druk lu gai.

Mother = Ai

Father = Nami

How old are you? = Cheu gi loh gam chi mon?

Tomorrow I’m going to… = Naba …. Jo ni.

Black Necked Crane = Thung Thung kar mon.

Animal = Semchen

Cat = Jchili

Dog = Schi

Goodbye (If you are the one leaving) = Legshembe Shug

Recommended Reading

The above guide is far from comprehensive, but heck, you get what you pay for. Those seriously considering a trip to Bhutan should get their hands on a real guidebook. Lonely Planet publishes a fairly comprehensive tome, but the best is probably Francoise Pommaret’s Bhutan; Himalayan Mountain Kingdom.

Jamie Zeppa is a Canadian women who went to Eastern Bhutan to teach and ended up staying. She has written a wonderfully personal account of her experiences entitled Beyond the Sky and Earth: Journey Into Bhutan.

Jeremy Bernstein’s In the Himalayas is one of my very favorite travel books. It’s mostly about Nepal, but also includes beautiful portraits of Tibet and Bhutan.

The news scene in Bhutan can be pretty quiet, but if you want to get the most recent intelligence check out the online edition of Bhutan’s weekly paper at The Bhutan Times also has a brand new website –

As mentioned above, the movies Travelers and Magicians and The Cup are well worth a rental. You might also look for a wickedly entertaining film called Land of the Thunder Dragon which follows two professional off-road unicyclists around Bhutan.

Thanks for reading. Please direct questions, comments and corrections to or visit

Thanks to Liz Burns who kindly contributed her stunning photos to this guide. Contact Liz at Thanks also to Frank Oatman’s Special Tours and everyone at Bhutan Tourism.

Tashi Delek!

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Electric Bikes at Ankgor Wat

Siam Reap, the base for exploring the temples of Angkor, is a town that changes fast. New hotels are constantly under construction, and the hundreds of thousands of tourists passing through each year give the town a temporary feel. Electric bikes for exploring the temples are one of the new developments since I was last here a year ago. My Mom and I tried them out today, and I thought some might appreciate a quick review.

The bikes are available for rent on a road that branches out to the right about 300 meters before the ticket booth. They cost $4 a day, making them a few bucks cheaper than a moto and less than half the price of a tuk tuk, or remorque moto. They seem well made and reliable and were quite easy to handle - my Mom had no trouble. The max speed is around 30 kilometers per hour, plenty fast enough, and cruising around without noise or effort is really pleasant.

If the battery runs low, there are 14 stations in the temple complex where you can get a battery changed free of charge by locals, who might ask you to buy a drink from them, especially if they watch the bikes while you explore. Mom and I changed batteries once during a long day of riding.

The only problem I ran into happened when I broke the tail-light mount while parking - it was completely my fault, but some kids ran out to lash it on with a jungle vine, and when I returned the bike the attendant said there was no problem. Traffic can also be intimidating, especially in front of the popular temples. Use your horn and expect everyone else to do the same.

The bikes are advertised as an environmentally friendly way to get around the temples, but good hearted travelers should be aware that some locals have lobbied very hard against electric transportation. The $4 for a bike is money taken away from drivers who depend on tourist dollars for their livelihood. If you want to do a good deed for a day, its better to take a moto and, if you like the driver, give him a big tip. You wont make much of a dent in carbon emissions by choosing the electric bike, but it is a pretty sweet way to get around.

Expect frequent posts over the next few weeks as I explore Cambodia.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Luck and Passport Pages

A quick post from Bangkok -

All this travel has added up, and filled up my passport, so this morning I made my way to the U.S. Embassy for new pages. When I tried to do this in the states before leaving, it involved wading through one of those excruciating phone menus and learning that they needed 6 weeks and $60 for express service - no thanks.

Bureaucrats are the same across the world, so my expectations weren't too high when I arrived at the Embassy - but shock and surprise - it took all of 5 minutes to walk up to a desk, give them my passport, complete a simple form and walk out with 20 fresh new pages of possibility, not a baht lighter in the wallet.


At lunch, I ate the last raw oysters from the buffet. In Bangkok. Oysters. Raw. From a buffet. And 5 hours later I've still got no complaints beyond mild constipation.

Yee Haw.

Off to buy some lottery tickets -

Next post probably Saturday from Siam Reap, Cambodia, where I'll be working on a Bhutan guide for