Memorial Chorten

I took a photo of a temple in Bhutan.  These two men sat in those spots for about 30 seconds and then got up and left.  I was only able to snap two shots and am happy with the one above.  Goes to show you how much being at the right place at the right time makes an impact on photography.

Good Friday Procession with the Franciscan Friars

Click either of these photos to see a slideshow from the Good Friday Procession.

Archery: Bhutan's Equivalent of Golf

When you think of a popular sport where the participants are mostly affluent men, you generally think of golf — at least in the U.S.  However, in Bhutan, the most popular participatory sport is archery.   That’s not to say that some Bhutanese don’t enjoy golf, but I was told (although, I haven’t fact checked this) that there’s only one golf course in Bhutan.

One of the highlights of my day today was attending an archery match and chatting with the competitors.  The way archery is played in Bhutan is quite interesting.  Targets are set up 150 meters apart.  Members from both teams stand on each side and when one side is shooting, the other side hides behind large green barricades with many arrow scars, until the arrow hits the target.  When someone hits the target, all of the team members from that side’s team sing and dance exuberantly in front of the target to celebrate.  Every time someone hits a target, they receive a colored flag (depending on the team’s colors, usually red or yellow) that is placed around the waist and hangs down like a skirt.

The game is played to different point systems in different parts of the country, but in Thimpu it is best 2 out of 3 games, up to 25 points.  While the game is played, some of the many stray dogs wander across or lay in the middle of the field seemingly unaware of the deadly arrows whizzing overhead.

I suspect that it is wealthier people who play archery, since all of their bows cost around $1000 dollars.  One archer told me that the cheapest bow he saw was around $700 US and that all the bows are U.S. brands, since those “are the best”.

In order to leave the field, you have to cross the archer’s path, which in hindsight, we did at a more leisurely pace than I liked.  No arrows hit my head this time around, but I have heard that accidents are rampant.

Check out the video below to see the score dance and an arrow hitting the target:

Bhutan

This is a map of Bhutan from Wiki Commons.

Bhutan is a tiny country, about the size of Switzerland, nestled in the Himalayas beneath China (Tibet), surrounded by India on three sides.

All international flights arrive in Paro, which is located in the western part of the country.  Two planes fly there once a day.  I felt quite comfortable with the pilots as they maneuvered their way through the Himalayas to a small landing strip.  As the pilots weaved through, it felt like the scene from Independence Day, where the plane is weaving through the Grand Canyon, just barely making the clearing.  Despite all of that, I still felt safe, since the pilots have to be very well trained, which in fact makes them highly sought after.

I am extremely happy to be here.  This country has a motto, “low volume, high value tourism,” so its largely unexplored.  As a consequence it is not an inexpensive trip; however, it is a more enjoyable and authentic experience compared to countries with no such restrictions, where you are inevitably surrounded by opium smoking backpackers.

Bhutan was made somewhat famous recently when the 4th King pushed for “gross national happiness,” as opposed to gross national product.  He was not as interested in how much money the country makes, but instead that its people are happy.  In fact, though Bhutan is a poor country, people do not go hungry here because of all the natural resources, as well as their profit from hydroelectric power (which is mainly sold to India) and because of their strong sense of family values.

Travel to Bhutan can be a little complicated, but I was able to organize this trip in three weeks.  Tourism is highly regulated by the government and the government sets a rate of $200 per day, $65 goes back to the state and provides the Bhutanese with free education and health care.

The cost is paid to a local tour company, which provides visas, a guide, driver, all meals, hotels and transportation.  This is the only way to get to Bhutan, unless you are here on official business–then the cost is simply lowered by 65 dollars.  Either way, you must wire the cash to Bhutan and the government holds the cash until you leave the country and then distributes the money to the local tour company.  The transfer process seemed a bit suspect until I read about it on several travel forums and my guide book.

Whether you are in a big group or little group, the cost is pretty similar, so I prefer going privately to have more control over my trip.  I love not having to rush when I want to take some photographs, or ask to go to places off of my itinerary or fill up my day when I want it fuller.  In this country, going privately proved to be worthwhile.

So far, it’s been a great country that has already provided unique experiences, even though it is a long journey to get here.

As you can see, I’m ready to photograph my way through this gorgeous country!

Secrets of a Frequent Traveler

There are so many ways to make a flight more pleasant.  Over the years, I’ve uncovered things by happenstance and I was well aware that long flights with neither breaks nor little bits of comfort would make traveling unbearable.

As I try to visit more distant lands, the time to get there and the extra legs of flights add up and get to be extremely tiring.  This time, the journey to Bhutan took 48 hours (albeit with a 12 hour sightseeing layover in South Korea in each direction).  The following is a brief rundown of how the legs of the flight went:

  • Take taxi out of NYC at 11PM
  • Arrival at JFK at 11:30PM
  • Flight from JFK to Seoul at 1AM (15 hours in flight)
  • Arrival at Incheon Airport (South Korea) at 4:30AM
  • Departure from South Korea to Bangkok at 7:20PM
  • Departure from Bangkok to Paro, Bhutan at 6:30AM
  • Total:  48 hours in transit, 60 hours before I would have a chance to sleep (since I needed to sight-see all day in Bhutan)

With 3 legs and lots of layover time, a traveler must have a plan and lots of creativity to have a satisfying transit.

First, it’s always helpful if you make at least one leg of your journey go through a good airport.  Currently, there are a number of really great transit airports.  The top three that come to mind are in Singapore, Seoul and Dubai.  Personally, I’ve only experienced the latter two, but have read and heard from fellow travelers about Singapore airport being top notch (it has an Olympic sized swimming pool.  I think, that alone, makes it a great airport!)

Second, it helps to take a few minutes and research the airports you’ll be going through.  This doesn’t take a lot of time–it’s easily done during a lunch break with the help of google, going to the airport’s website or reading travel forums.

Third, get creative!  If you need sleep, there are always places where you can grab some rest.  Stick your leg through your bag straps and set your alarm for a little extra security.  Stock up on snacks and water bottles on the plane (they always give away a lot of that stuff on international flights).   Always look for the comfy recliners at the airports to take naps.  In Incheon, you can go to the “rest and relax” lounges on the 4th floor of the airport and in Bangkok, they are on the third floor, past the Emirates lounge, a perfect place to nap if you don’t have access to an airline lounge. The above pic is from Bangkok.

Fourth, if you can, upgrade your flight to a better class.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I am generally a frugal traveler, so unless I have miles or am getting sent to a country on business, I will not fly business or first class.  However, on flights going to certain countries, an upgrade could cost only a few dollars and then it is worth it for many reasons.  Reason #1 is the airport lounge!  There is nothing like going into a lounge, being handed a towel and toiletries and taking a hot shower after a day of flying.  Then, after you are nice and clean, you have access to computers and wifi, a score of magazines and newspapers and your fill of delicious foods and alcoholic beverages.

Reason #2 is the fun of sitting in 1st class, although it’s more of a secondary concern for me, because I can get comfortable anywhere.  It is all about the state of mind–trust me, if I can get comfy in a 2 dollar a night hotel in Calcutta, while sleeping on a wooden bed with a thin coconut fiber “mattress,” meanwhile, the room next to me has a rat’s nest in their bed, I know it’s all about attitude!

In my case, when flying from Bangkok to Bhutan, an upgrade to first class cost me an extra 40 dollars.  This is not bad for a 6 hour flight.  I found it quite worth it when I was in transit for 2 days.  The sky-lounge, the shower and the rest I received was worth it to me.

Since I knew I had a full day of exploring Bhutan after I landed, before I would finally get to sleep in a bed, I realized that getting creative was important in this flight time.  Otherwise, this would have been 60 hours of little to no sleep or rest if I had not found little ways to make the traveling easier.

Another tip I learned from a fellow traveler and good friend, Amber, is “Tylenol PM and wine.”  It’s Lent right now, so I’m excluding any glasses of wine right now; however, I’ve definitely brought along Tylenol PM.  No matter if a baby is kicking the seat behind you, while crying, or if elderly people wearing headphones are shouting that they can’t hear or the lights are on in the cabin, I can sleep at least 10 hours while sitting up in economy class thanks to Tylenol PM.

As I mentioned above, researching the airport is fairly important.  I always like to see if I can explore the city that my layover is in, at least for a few hours.  It’s also helpful to know that information in advance when you’re filling out your customs forms on the plane and you need a departure card or just a transit through the airport.  Some airports (and increasingly more, now that everyone is catching on) have transit tours.  South Korea has about 10-12 tours you can choose from dependent on whether your layover is 3 hours or 12 hours long.

I also have to mention that Incheon airport in South Korea has so much to make time fly and your layover feel like you spent your time well.  After my tour of the DMZ, I had a chance to breathe in the powerful smells of the botanical gardens on the 2nd floor of the airport.  Afterward, I had a chance to sit in the cultural center and paint my own version of traditional Korean art.

A transit passenger can also shower for free at that airport and go to a spa (but I think you should do the spa stuff in Bangkok, instead because it’s so much more expensive in Korea–in fact, I had an hour long FANTASTIC massage in the Bangkok airport for 15 dollars).

Happy (and comfortable) traveling!

The DMZ

This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.

Today, I got a chance to go to the demilitarized zone or the DMZ.  The Korean airport is so ahead of the game in terms of technology and service.  It has everything you can think of–shopping, movie theatres, a botanical garden and best of all, a transit tour office.  This tour office arranges tours based on the length of your layover.  We had planned on doing the Seoul City tour this time and then the DMZ on the way back, but as it turned out, two other people decided to go to the DMZ today which lowered our costs considerably (a 7 hour tour for $60, instead of $100). 

As always, the travelers we met were quite interesting.  One guy was from Houston, and just moved back after 6 years of living in Indonesia and was looking for a new home in South Korea.  The other guy was an Indian, living in America, working for a French company, traveling all over the world, looking for investment opportunities. 

When we arrived near the DMZ, the five of us had to switch from our minibus into a special tour bus.  Ours happened to be packed with Chinese tourists.  From there, we were told not to take photographs unless we were given word to do so.  After getting our passports checked, we entered into the DMZ  The most surprising thing to me was the amount of rice fields in this zone.  I expected it to be filled with military personnel, but upon further inquiry, I discovered the DMZ was filled with a lot of natural resources and beauty.  It contains birds and animals that cannot be found in other parts of South Korea because it is so untouched. 

I sort of got an ominous feeling when we drove through the forest and you knew there were still thousands of undiscovered landmines everywhere.

We saw a little film and a museum and then headed off to the 3rd tunnel.  After the DMZ was created, the North Koreans began digging tunnels under the DMZ to use in a sneak attack.  So far, the South Koreans have discovered 4 of the tunnels.  We got to visit the third tunnel.

Outside the tunnel, I ran into a U.S. Army man and a UN peacekeeper.  I spoke to both of them about their jobs in South Korea. The American spoke 5 languages and had been overseas for 3.5 years–he loved having these experiences so much that he bought a house in the Philippines and was learning Tagalog.  The UN peacekeeper told me how they watched and took photos of what was being brought into North Korea.  For example, if perfume is being brought in, they know its not for the North Koreans, since commoners are not allowed to have beauty products, but it is probably for the people in higher positions in the government. 

I thought the tunnel was one of the most interesting and bizarre parts of the trip.  After we locked our cameras in lockers outside the tunnel, we had to walk down this long path to reach it because the monorail was out of order.  We put our hard hats on and walked hunched over along the path, since the tunnel ceiling was low.  Along the way, you can see boreholes marked where the South Koreans had drilled to discover the tunnel–this is where they tested to see if there was a tunnel by pouring water down and seeing if it would drain.  Yellow paint highlighted dynamite holes to show that all the holes were going in one direction–straight toward South Korea.

One thing that was a bit funny was the coal smeared all aroudn the tunnel. this was done to pretend the North Koreans were just digging for coal, even though it was clear that coal is not found in granite rock. 

When we got to the first barricade, we were 170 meters from the demarcation line.  You could see thick barbed wire in front of a metal door in a meter thick barricade.  Through the window, you could see the second barricade, maybe 50 meters closer to the demarcation line.  Although we couldn’t see it, there is another 5 meter thick barricade at the demarcation line.  The South Koreans believe that there are several other tunnels under the DMZ, but they have not discovered them yet.  The South Koreans are justifiably concerned about this, since they believe that 50,000 soldiers can get through the tunnel per hour and the tunnels are all very close to Seoul. 

We didn’t get to see Panmunjeom, where the armistice was signed, where now North and South Koreans stare each other down at the border.  We were told that it is a violation if anyone from either side crosses the line; however, inside the buildings, which are right on top of the line, people can freely cross to maintain the buildings.  Apparently, there is also a golf course on the DMZ, surrounded by landmines–they call it the “most dangerous golf course in the world.”

We ended our tour solemnly by going to Imjingak, where South Koreans post prayers and wishes for their North Korean families.  There are a lot of people who were separated and haven’t been able to contact each other since the early 1950’s.  Everything is blocked, no phone calls or letters are allowed, so their only solace is praying for their families.

As we drove back, we noticed fences with barbed wire and guard posts along the side of the highway that bordered the rivers that led to North Korea.  It is pretty surreal to drive in a major city and see miles of barbed wire everywhere and be reminded that there is still a conflict in this democratic country. In contrast, we were told that in North Korea the guard towards face inward, trying to ensure that people do not leave the country.

Although  in the U.S., we think of the Korean War as having ended, a cease fire armistice is not a technical end of the war (like a peace treaty), and in fact, North Korea unilaterally withdrew from the armistice in 2009, adding more uncertainty to the current situation.

Korean Air and Airplane Dining

Let’s face it. There is most certainly a stigma about airplane food. I’m currently in flight to South Korea, about 12 hours in toward my destination. So far, two full meals were served – one dinner about an hour after we were up in the air, which was about 2AM and a breakfast that was served a couple of hours ago. I chose sleep over the breakfast, so I can only say that when I lazily opened my eyes and drifted back into consciousness, it looked like a very western meal (yogurt included) and smelled like bacon and eggs.

I will, however, describe what I had for my dinner because it was fun to put together and tasty to eat. I was given a choice of beef and potatoes or bibimbap. I went with the latter-after all, I am on my way to South Korea. If you’ve never tried bibimbap, I recommend it. It’s as common in the Korean cuisine as chicken fried rice is in the Chinese cuisine (at least the Chinese-American cuisine!)

The photo that I took with my iPhone shows you how the bibimbap comes. The bowl on the right is filled with a variety of vegetables, such as zuchinni, pickled root vegetables, spinach and mushrooms.

I love that I got a little set of instructions with my food!

Step 1: Put the steamed rice into the “Bibimbap” bowl.

Step 2: Add gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste).
Spice level 1 (mild): 1/2 tube
Spice level 2 (hot): full tube
– I added the whole tube, but didn’t find it very hot, but it gave it a great taste.

Step 3: Add sesame oil. – This was brilliant and really added to the flavor.

Step 4: Mix the “Bibimbap” together. – Mixing is super fun!

Step 5: Enjoy the “Bibimbap” with side dish and soup. – My soup was seaweed soup, so I am thrilled with that. I’m sure plenty of vitamins are pulsing through my body right now.

Overall, the food was really great (and, I’ve found these types of results on most international flights). No, it didn’t taste as amazing as the bibimbap I had at a friend’s birthday party in Manhattan, but it was pretty great. I’m loving Korean Air and the adorable flight attendants who are always giving me smiles adds to the great atmosphere, even back here in coach.

Oh, looks like it’s time for yet another delicious snack!

What to Pack!

Ah, the time has come upon me to pack.  I’m generally a last minute packer, although I always tell myself that I’ll do it a few days before the trip.  I’ve been asked over and over what it is I pack and how I prepare myself when I go out of the country, so I’ve decided to write a post about it.

Ok–I should first tell you that I normally don’t pack a lot.  It also helps that I’m going with my husband, so we can sort of split stuff up, like heavy camera equipment.  At all costs, I avoid anything more than carryon bags.  I have not had a bag lost/stolen yet (knock on wood) and attempt to avoid that by only taking what I can carry on.  The way I look at it is that if I really need another item of clothing, I can always buy something.  In most developing nations, it won’t cost me a lot of money to buy a tshirt or other toiletry product.  I have to admit that I do always make sure to bring the proper amount of medication or feminine products, as those are not things I want to mess around in other countries.

Above is a picture of the two bags I will be bringing on my trip.  The blue bag is a little larger than a beach bag and it’s great because it’s flexible and easy to carry.  I only use a backpack, if I absolutely need more room, but for my last 3 or 4 trips, I’ve used this bigger blue bag.  The blue messenger bag is a new bag for me.  It’s actually a Tenba camera bag and it is phenomenal because it opens at the top, so when I need to take a quick shot, I can just slip my camera out with one hand.  I usually bring a smaller bag that I hang over my shoulder that carries a lot of little items that I like to have with me–my notebook, pen, passport, water bottle, chapstick and little odds and ends.  I think that this time, I’m going to leave that bag behind, since I like to keep it to a 2 bag minimum and I’d love to try out my camera bag in a different country.

Items I don’t leave home without:

  • Passport
  • Tickets
  • Camera! I shoot with an SLR and a point and shoot.
  • Items that go with the camera, like memory cards, a harddrive to back things up, tripod
  • Notebook–I try to write and journal when I travel.
  • Manila Folder with items like visas, future tickets for other flights (this time, I have 3 legs of travel to get to Paro.  South Korea to Thailand to Bhutan), notes on things I absolutely want to do in a country, my loose or set itinerary notes (that always depends on how much time I had to prepare for the trip, what I was in the mood for, whether I have a local guide set up, etc.)
  • 2 Favorite Pens –just in case one leaks on the plane or gets lost
  • Flashlight–For this trip, I know that I’ll be without electricity in a few places, so it’s important to bring a little light.
  • Thank you cards–I usually bring about 3 or 4 cards, just in case I need to write a quick thank you, if I happen to do a homestay or need to tip a driver, with a little note about how wonderful it was that we didn’t fall off the mountain at those vicious curves. :O)
  • The country guide travel book–I like to stick with Lonely Planet or Frommer’s.
  • Monies –I tend to bring cash.  I always have a backup credit card, but I still don’t trust ATM cards or credit cards, since I had an incident in London about 10 years ago.  And, let’s face facts–there are a lot of countries that just don’t have the infrastructure for credit cards.
  • Headband or hat and hairbands/bobby pins–I’m bringing a hat and a headband this time around because I know about the climate, but I usually don’t bring both.  The bobby pins are useful for many reasons, so definitely bring a couple on a trip.
  • Tweezers and Nail Clippers
  • Clothes (discussed below)

Other items to go over:

  • Clothing wise, I tend to bring 2-3 of the major items.  It really depends on the climate of the country I’m going to and what I’ve checked weather conditions to be like a few days before.  This time, I realize I’m off to the Himalayas, so I don’t need shorts.  I’ll be bringing a pair of hiking pants and a pair of jeans.  Along with that, I take some sort of sensible shoes–hiking boots or trainers and then a pair of sandals (for showers) since it will most likely be inappropriate to wear them outside.  This time, I’ll take two long sleeved shirts and 2-3 short sleeved shirts, very warm pajamas (Always look ahead to see if the hostels/hotels you stay in have heat or generators or what their practice is in the evenings.)  I understand that with Bhutan, it happens quite often that there are cold nights with little to no heat available.  I absolutely hate being cold, so I’m definitely packing a pair of thick university type sweat pants, long underwear and a fairly thick sweatshirt.  Of course, I won’t forget the wool socks or underwear!  Oh, and I often try to bring a swimsuit along, just in case!  It worked out for me in Alaska, when Ray and I dove into glacier water!
  • A Scarf–scarves are quite useful, especially for women.  You can use one as a belt, to tie your hair back or when you’re a little chilly.
  • As far as toiletries, most of the places I stay don’t usually offer free toiletries, as they do in the western world, so I’m packing tiny bottles of shampoo & conditioner, some sunscreen, contact solution and eyedrops and moisturizer creme.  This is where it helps if you go with someone to share the burden to fill that quart sized ziplock bag and be able to carryon your items!
  • Jacket or windbreaker–It helps to layer when you go to climates that change drastically, like mountains or deserts.
  • Earplugs–If you are going to a Buddhist country, these are a must.  There are always stray animals running around.

Here are most of the items I’m packing away:

That’s about it!  Now, I hope to go to sleep soon!

Off to the Himalayas

Photo by little byte of luck on flickr

Tomorrow, I leave for the Himalayas.  I’ve never been to the Himalayas before, so I’m very excited about this trip to Bhutan with my hubby.   Bhutan is a little country, located under China and next to Nepal, that only opened its doors three decades ago to tourists.   I am really excited to hike around in the Himalayas and explore the different dzongs.  One of the hikes I’m really looking forward is a hike up to Tiger’s Nest.

I’ve arranged it so that we have a 12 hour layover both directions through South Korea.  The South Korean airport is so amazing–at least from what I’ve read about it.  Not only does it have a movie theatre and lots of shopping, it has a tourist office which arranges trips based on your layover hours.  So, we’ll be seeing the DMZ on one layover and doing a city and temple tour on another for 25 dollars!

This trip will mark my 71st and 72nd countries.  That makes me a quarter of the way through according to the Travelers’ Century Club’s official list of countries, which totals 319.   My goal is to get to most countries by the end of my life.  We will see how that goes!

I will do my best to blog about my upcoming trip, but I’m afraid we might not always have electricity or internet.  If I can’t do it while in Bhutan, I will definitely blog and post photos after I get back.

I will be writing a post tomorrow about what to pack and how I usually pack, which I hope will be helpful!

Catholic Underground

When I first moved to New York City, I wondered if I could find a good Catholic community, just as I had in Chicago. Luckily, I found so many groups and ways to celebrate this side of me in this great city. The first Saturday of every month, I am always at Catholic Underground. I actually tend to schedule everything around going to it because I love it that much.  It gives me so much strength to meditate for that hour with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.  To look around and see a fully packed church with 600-700 young adults all praying, meditating before the Eucharist is one of the most incredible experiences I have had and get to have each time I go.

To give you a brief rundown, outside the church, you see a lot of monks, nuns, priests and young adults gathered around and chatting before the evening starts.  If you don’t know who the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal are, there is a great article written about them in the New York Times entitled, Monks Who Play Punk.” After you enter Our Lady of Good Counsel (located on 90th between 2nd and 3rd), a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal gives you a booklet, filled with evening prayers or vespers.   At 7:30PM, the evening begins with hundreds of young adults chanting the prayers from the booklet, which are directly from the psalms in the Bible.

As one brother told me, “The psalms give you a way to communicate with God. They let you express every emotion you have–from joy to anger to love to any other emotion you have in your heart.”  Soon after, all the lights go out and candles light the altar, while a whole host of monks play music and an Irish monk sings and leads the way through the meditation hour. Every person I’ve talked to, who has experienced this form of prayer, has told me that it was surprise after surprise and a great emotional experience.

After the meditation portion is over, everyone goes outside and downstairs into the basement of the church to hear a musical group play. There are always people who want to go out afterward to grab something to eat or go sing karaoke.  No one comes away from Catholic Underground’s meditation without enjoying it immensely.  I highly, highly recommend this experience.

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