Tibet – An Unforgettable Eight Days

Tibet was everything we had imagined it to be. In fact it was so much more than the expected yaks, spinning prayer wheels and robed monks. We witnessed rich cultures steeped in tradition, colour and ritual, a religion steadfast in its belief, enchanting temples and a traditional rural way of life that was under threat from modern economic development.  It was the weather-beaten faces of the elderly that told a thousand stories of a troubled past, the random conversations with the smiling locals and the awe-inspiring geography of a land that was slowly but surely being hacked away. Lhasa with its numerous police checkpoints felt as if it had lost its previous innocence. Gone was the nostalgia. No longer would it be regarded as a place that only a few brave travellers searching for adventure would venture to. The presence of the Han Chinese was everywhere; flags defiantly sat on Tibetan monasteries and the intimidating numbers of Chinese police gave Lhasa a feeling of being under siege.

Burgers were pushing Tibetan Thakpa out of the way.

The elephant in the room was staying put.

Our eight-day tour in Tibet was a monumental experience! We travelled hundreds of miles through sensational landscapes, visited what seemed like every Buddhist monastery known to man and met some amazing people – all in a rickety bus!

I grew to love that bus.

We started in Lhasa and ended our trip at Everest Base Camp, finally walking across the Friendship Bridge into Nepal where we had started our travels all those many months before. We had come full circle. I can still remember what I was thinking when I crossed that bridge. It was a sense of achievement coupled with sadness that our travels had come to an end. At the same time it felt like we had come home. I knew Asad felt the same. Nepal would always feels like home – we had grown to love the country. There was something cathartic about physically walking across the border back into Nepal having had all those experiences behind us. Crossing from one country into another in a matter minutes was so much better than just clinically flying over. We had ended our travels at the point of origin, only to begin another journey – this time back to London.

Tibet was an epic ending to a truly epic journey!

Highlights:

Lhasa – Loved getting lost in the alleyways of Lhasa, soaking up the spirituality, people watching, browsing shops for Tibetan souvenirs and randomly bumping into travellers we had met on the Qinghai – Tibet train.

Favourite Temples – They were all amazing but the most visually memorable and interesting were Jokhang Temple, Sera Monastery where we watched fascinating debates taking place between monks and the terracotta alleyways of Tashilunpo Monastery. Potala Palace was definitely impressive and the cave temple of Guru Rinpoche at EBC felt like we’d stumbled upon on unknown discovery!

Favourite Food – Apart from Tibetan Thakpa I fell in love with eggs and tomatoes! Don’t ask me why but I couldn’t get enough of this simple dish. The tomatoes were the sweetest I’d ever tasted.

Most inspiring, jaw-dropping sights – Casting your eyes over landscapes that range from grasslands and desert to fertile pastures, brought to life by the earthy pigmented colour of Buddhist gompas was a joy. However the view of Mount Everest has to top everything! We were so lucky to witness the clouds unveil such a beautiful site. Nothing will ever beat that view. Yamdruk lake was stunningly picturesque and exactly how I imagined it.  Nyalam Tong la Pass was a mountain pass we went through on route to the Nepalese border. At an altitude of 5150 metres, the views of the Himalayas from here were just mesmerising. Entering the border town of Zhangmu – the landscape changed from barren to lush, emerald greenery characteristic of Nepal. Sitting in the bus, driving along cliff side roads through huge ravines was just amazing!

Wish I could have stayed longer – Apart from the fear of facing the toilets which gave Everest a run for its money, I could have happily stayed at the Base Camp for an extra day or two. It was a great place for peace and solitude. Sleeping in a tent under Yak skins was a novelty and it was surprisingly warm. If it wasn’t for the massive rat that scared the hell out of me, I would have had a better nights sleep! However, I could easily have just kicked back and spent some time enjoying nature there. I would have loved to have stayed in Lhasa a day longer to just really discover more of the hidden pathways and   indulge in watching the various tribes and nomads of Tibet go about their daily lives. It was like going back in time.  Nyalam Tong La Pass was heavenly. Just fifteen minutes longer would have secured some sensational pictures.

My most spiritual experience – It has to EBC. Sat by a stupa in the glorious sunshine, yaks grazing in the distance, watching prayer flags fluttering in the wind and catching fleeting glimpses of Everest through the most beautiful cloud formations I’d ever seen. I often revisit that memory. I keep it close to my heart.

Shocked by – Being told off by the police for not walking on the pavement on arrival at Lhasa station! Also shocked by the heavy presence of the military in Lhasa along with fast food joints and burger bars! The horror of it!

Day 1: Arrival In Lhasa

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Lhasa Train Station

Day 2: Barkhor Square – Jokhang Temple – Potala Palace

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A view of Barkhor Square from Jokhang Temple
Buddhists pray in front of Jokhang Temple
Buddhists prostrate  in front of Jokhang Temple in what felt like a mass Yogic sun salutation
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The divine Jokhang Temple
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Previously the seat of the 14th Dalai Lama, Potala Palace is built at an altitude of 3700 metres on top of the Red Mountain

Day 3: Drepung Monastery – Sera Monastery

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Drepung Monastery – a university monastery dedicated to the yellow hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism
Me and our guide Choedren at Drepung Monastery
Me and our guide Choedren at Drepung Monastery
The iconic image of Golden Deer either side of the Dharmic Wheel
The iconic image of Golden Deer either side of the Dharmic Wheel
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Sera Monastery – Through a fascinating series of hand slapping gestures, senior monks grill junior monks on Buddhist doctrine

Day 4:  Yamdruk Lake – Karola Glacier – Kumpa Stupa (20th June)

Stunning views of Yamdruk Lake
Stunning views of Yamdruk Lake
Asad with Charles at the shoreline of Yamdruk Lake
Asad with Charles who was part of our tour group at the shores of Yamdruk Lake
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Karola Glacier
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One of the many lakes we encountered
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Another milestone!
Kumpa Stupa
Kumpa Stupa

Day 5: Tashilunpo Monastery – 318 highway – Qomolongma National Park – Dzong Monastery

Asad at Tashilunpo Monastery
Asad at Tashilunpo Monastery
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Charles, Alicia, Ariel and Asad in the driving seat  – on the 318 highway
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Hillside Dzong Monastery

Day 6 – Old Tingri – Rongpu Monastery – EBC 1

Rongpu Monastary - the highest monastery on the planet!
Rongpu monastery – the highest  on the planet!
Our home for the night - Base Camp
Our home for the night – Base Camp
Prayer flags fluttering in the wind
Prayer flags fluttering in the wind
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The monastery of Guru Rinpoche
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Look what we found! Inside the cave of Rongpu Monastery

Day 7 – EBC 2 – Nyalam Tong La Pass – Zhangmu

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From Left to Right – Asad, Kathryn, Amber, Charles, Ariel, Emily, Choedren, Alicia and me!
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My favourite picture of me!
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A dream – come true!
Nyalam Tong La Pass
Nyalam Tong La Pass – simply breathtaking!

Day 8 – Cross the Friendship Bridge at the Zhangmu border to Nepal

The Friendship Bridge connecting Tibet and Nepal
The Friendship Bridge connecting Tibet and Nepal

Our tour was arranged by Budget Tibet Tour. The driver was brilliant and Choedren the guide, was informative and attentive. I would definitely travel with them again!

Have you ever been Tibet? Let us know about your amazing journey!

Thailand – The Land of Smiles

Thailand has been a well trodden path for travellers for decades – and for good reason. It continues to serve up a big delicious slice of architectural bliss which radiates from its many temples, national parks and tropical islands. Pulling in the young and the old, balancing the smiles with the scams and the hedonism with the Buddhism – it’s a country of contrasts with a big personality!

We spent two months in Thailand. We were only meant to be there for one! But hey that’s what you do when you’re in Thailand right? You take it as it comes, find a place you love and hang around until you feel the urge to move again. For me the attraction of Thailand lies in its predictability – with just that element of surprise thrown in when you least expect it. It’s a perfect combination!

Even before you arrive at the airport, the “land of smiles” will make you a promise – that you will have a good time! The full moon parties, powdery beaches, amazing food and diverse landscapes are totally expected but venture further into what makes this place tick and you’ll find Thailand never ceases to surprise.

So where did we go?

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Chiang Mai

We could have seen a lot more of Thailand – lingered around the ruins of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai or visited the historic memorials of Kanchanburi. But as we still had the rest of South East to explore, we didn’t want to double up on the “same same but different” type of experiences.

So we hit the bright lights of Bangkok and indulged in the sights, sounds and food of this very cosmopolitan and vibrant city.

From Bangkok we took the train to Chiang Mai to enjoy its laid back charm, its markets and people. We put our culinary skills to the test in a cookery class, visited an elephant sanctuary and watched a Muay Thai Boxing match.

From Chiang Mai we rode to Chiang Rai on a Forza, taking in the scenery and experiencing the oddities of Wat Rong Khun – a Buddhist temple with a radically different architecture built to shock and astound you!

We flew from Chiang Mai to Krabi, got overwhelmed by the overtly tourist vibe of Ao Nang for a few days and escaped to Klong Muang. Here with new friends, we sat in the glow of a beach fire under the stars with nothing but a guitar, a tambourine and couple of bongo’s! Once in a while we’d all chip in to get some freshly caught fish from the market and have a BBQ on the beach. We explored the islands, had our weary bones massaged and went fishing.

Utter bliss!

From Krabi we hit the island of Koh Phangan, hired a moped and biked around the island indulging in sunsets, explored hidden beaches and partied at the Full Moon Party!

Favourite places

Klong Muang Beach
Klong Muang Beach
Koh Pha Nang
Koh Pha Nang

There’s not much we didn’t like, but we especially loved Chiang Mai. It’s a very livable, chilled out place with a bohemian feel to it. The climate is cooler and fresher and its location is great for exploring cool mountain landscapes.

We also have a soft spot for Krabi with the quieter beaches of Klong Meung and Tubkaek far better than the touristy strip of Ao Nang. Klong Meung had a charming village feel and only a handful of restaurants on the main road. Just what we needed after running around the past two months!

The Food of Thailand

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Morning Glory – Yum!

Thai food has to be one of our favourite cuisines. There’s something about the hot, sour, spicy and sweet combination that gives your mouth a full flavour sensation. It’s aromatic, healthy and so versatile with rich offerings for vegetarians and meat lovers alike. Bangkok has great street food on every corner of the city offering a huge variety of cheap, tasty treats – sweet and savoury. It’s also great for international food, whether it’s Chinese, Japanese, British or Korean – you won’t be disappointed! You’ll find  Burmese influenced dishes in Chiang Mai and of course the islands around Thailand offer regional diversity with seafood so fresh you’ll wonder what you’ve eaten all this time!

Favourite Eats

Apart from the usual Thai dishes that most people eat such as Pad Thai, Hot and Sour Soup or Red Curry, we became totally addicted to Morning Glory. We couldn’t get enough of the stuff! Known by many names including water spinach, water morning glory or Chinese spinach, this long-stemmed leafy plant is simply flash-fried in garlic, chilli and soya sauce, though there are countless recipes around. It’s so healthy and moreish – our obsession with it was bordering on ridiculous! As Bangkok was a haven for international food, we gorged on Japanese curries, Malaysian Laksa’s, Dim Sum and oh yeah…more morning glory! Better still, the cookery class we took in Chiang Mai introduced us to so many dishes we had never come across.

Accommodation

Thailand has to be one of the best destinations with its huge choice of accommodation. From hotels to beach huts you can spend as much or as little as you want. Even in Bangkok we were able to find a place to stay for £5 a night with a huge private double room with air-con, amazing wi-fi and included breakfast. What a bargain!

Cheapest room with the best location:

Vacation House in Klong Muang. Literally a stones throw away from the beach this place came in at £8 a night including wi-fi and a substantial breakfast. With breakfast on the beach every morning and a bar next door, what better place to hang out!

Transport

Whenever I get on the tube in London, it reminds me of how amazing and cheap public transport is in Thailand. In Bangkok, the MRT and BTS transport system knocks the socks off London Underground. Yes I know the London Underground is historical and well over 100 years old, so it has its limitations. But is it affordable? Hell no! You can zip around Bangkok on the MRT for next to nothing, making this a cheap, stress free and easy way of discovering the city. Great it you want to avoid getting ripped off by the tuk – tuk drivers!

Chiang Mai on the other hand, was great for songthaews. A cross between a shared taxi and a bus, it was easy to flag down a songthaew and get to your destination cheaply.

As for long distance travel, Thailand has a great rail network allowing you to travel the length and breadth of the country easily. It’s cheap, comfortable and allows you to mingle with the locals whilst you take in the scenery.

Markets

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Markets are what Thailand is all about. Be prepared to be amazed by the sheer scale of what’s on offer. You can buy just about anything you want. From food, clothing and furniture to antique Vespa’s, furry animals and jewellery. Markets give even the shiny shopping malls a run for their money.

Chatuchuk Weekend Market in Bangkok is a must as is the charming Night Market in Chiang Mai. You can eat and shop your way through a shopping spree and still come out with change! (Unless you don’t want too)! Have fun haggling, immerse yourself in the experience and be ready to be addicted! Find out more about Chatuchak Market here.

Worst experience:

Getting bitten by mosquito’s in Koh Phangan! Or at least I think it was the mossies. It could have been one of thousands of tiny insects that made a beeline for me, especially at night! If it wasn’t for the flying cockroaches that went straight for my face, it was other equally scary bugs.  Anyway, I developed a skin infection and massive auto-immune sensitivity that near enough caused me to itch all over for months.  I’m not joking, the itching was excruciating and I still have scars now!

Best place to get skin infection sorted:

Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok is the place to be if you get ill. They had a specialist Dermatology section that literally saved me from going home! It’s pricey as it’s a private hospital but still cheaper than the UK.

Best experiences:

The cookery class in Chiang Mai was fun, informative and well run. The visit to an Elephant sanctuary was brilliant and we got a chance to get up close with the elephants without it bordering on animal abuse!

Favourite catchphrase:

“No money no honey”!

Sick of hearing:

Hotel California! This song was annihilated in the bars and restaurants. Whether it was the remixes or singers doing their own versions, we heard it everywhere, all the time! Actually it wasn’t just Thailand but what seemed like the whole of South East Asia!

Intrigued by:

Thai women are undoubtedly beautiful but some take this desire for beauty to an extreme! Visit Bangkok and you’ll see many young women and girls who look like dolls. Hair dead straight, luminescent skin (which they have anyway),contact lenses that enlarge the eyes and blushed cheeks. Cute but slightly OTT!

Most lasting memories:

Top of the list has to be bumping into friends we’d met in Nepal who just so happened to be in Chiang Mai at the same time. What are the chances of that! Plus I was lucky enough to catch up with a work colleague who now lives in Chiang Mai!

Attending the celebrations of the King of Thailand’s birthday. The Thai’s adore their monarchy, it’s quite touching! Thousands of people came out to celebrate even though a lot of political unrest was going on at the time.

In a nutshell:

Compared to other countries, Thailand is a relatively easy place to visit. You don’t really miss any home comforts as they’re readily available. You can get around without too much stress, the people are friendly and the landscapes are beautiful. You’ll never go hungry and your money goes far. All in all Thailand was everything we expected with a few surprises thrown in!

Resources

Accommodation

http://www.agoda.com

http://www.hostelbookers.com

http://www.hostelworld.com

http://www.booking.com

Trains

http://www.seat61.com

Trip Planning

TripAdvisor

Various online blogs  including the brilliantly informative Nomadic Matt

Guide Books

Lonely Planet

Eyewitness

Rough Guides