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So here we are, back home after 7 months. And as you have noticed, we have not made much progress in terms of writing the blog! We can blame slow means to access the Web, but it’s more a case of enjoying the many sights and experiences we’ve had through South America. The unbelievable number of hours we’ve spent in buses can be blamed as well… Still, with over 30,000 photos and 500 or so videos, we have plenty of digital memories to help us write some more in the weeks to come (new photo albums are online). And all this with Internet connections that should allow us to do so more efficiently! So that’s one of the tasks at hand, along with, well, work. Doh!

All in all, we’re very thankful for the news we’ve had from everyone while we were away,  and we look forward to the catch up stage, along with the shock of little ones that will have grown a lot!

Till then, all the bestt

May be time to give a little update, since there is only one month left in our journey!

We are about to leave Bolivia, with Cuzco in our sights. Yesterday was our first encounter with an Inca monument, on the Isla del Sol of lake Titicaca. The first of several sites that will undoubtedly prove both interesting and emotional, given the years of hearing of this ancient culture.

Our time in South America has been an absolute feast for the eyes, with a concentration of landscapes I may not have suspected at first. Snow capped volcanoes, endless distances of pampa, astounding formations in multi-coloured canyons, immense salt flats, coloured lagoons… Chile, Argentina and Bolivia have given us weeks of natural wonders to admire.

Culturally speaking, although Chile and Argentina are close to a European lifestyle, we have learned much of the dramatic impact the Europeans have had on indigenous populations, namely a near-complete wipeout to provide settlements to immigrants. The story may not be as well known as that of the Indians of the United States and Canada, but it’s essentially the same. The sad result being that only one main culture remains outside the mix of descendants from European settlers: that of the Mapuche. And we have been lucky enough to stay with one of them in Pucon, Chile. Agustin and his family have been one of the most endearing and interesting encounter of our time here, and we are ever thankful for his warm welcome and perspectives.

Bolivia is the first country where we definitely feel a cultural difference, although the exchange with the locals is not always easy.

Anyway, just to say it’s been great so far, we will try and write more, and we have a lot of photos to upload, but the Internet is not what it is back home so it’s taking even more time than usual!

Hope everyone’s well and we’ll keep you posted asap!

Ciao!

Birmanie (1ère partie)

Chaleur assommante, chaos des rues , dents tâchées de rouge, joues parées de crème jaune, longyi pour les hommes, thameine pour les femmes, pas de doute, nous sommes bien en Birmanie, à Yangon.

Dix ans que je rêve secrètement ce pays, me procurant chaque magazine l’évoquant, dix ans de passion secrète pour ses moines empourprés, dix ans d’imaginaire. Et me voilà au coeur de cette ville battante, perdue, désarçonnée par les coups d’oeil curieux, hébétée devant une  architecture anarchique, abasourdie par une générosité de l’autre encore inconnu, abrutie par la moiteur de l’air ajoutée à celle de mon corps épuisé par le poids du sac à dos.

Quelques mots échangés avec nos  hôtes qui nous ont réservé un accueil sans pareil, une tape dans le dos de notre gardien d’ascenseur somnolant ou drogué,et hop! plongeons-nous dans ce méli-mélo de ruelles, parcourons ces avenues infiniment longues et sans charme, touchons du doigt ces superbes parcs payant pour les étrangers, approchons le luxe des plus fortunés en buvant leur cocktails huppés sur leur terrasse de teck surplombant le lac, entrons à la nuit tombée dans l’intimidante pagode Shwedagon, arborons ses coins et recoins, ses bouddhas élimés aux visages de cire blancs couronnés de néons clignotants tels les punching-balls de la foire du trône, ses chats squelettiques dissimulés entre leurs draps d’or. Puis observons avec discrétion ces adorateurs de minuit se prosternant, implorant un monde meilleur, caressant le souhait que demain sera plus doux.

Voilà, premier jour, le ton est donné: j’ai beau avoir lu un nombre considérable de revues, romans, artiles de presse: ce pays  me semble totalement inconnu et je suis paumée. Il va me falloir creuser loin et profond pour comprendre ce joyeux bordel!

Je m’y attèle dès le jour suivant. Je déambule dans les rues de Yangon, ne sachant trop où aller, rien ne paraît logique dans la construction de cette ville de toutes façons! J’atterris dans une sorte de marché couvert oû travaillent des dizaines de confectionneuses affairées derrière leurs ancestrales machines à coudre. Je profite de l’occasion pour faire réparer ma précieuse et inséparable tunique (on est pauvre en fringue en voyage) qui s’est encore déchiré hier. Les filles se démènent pour trouver la couleur du fil qui correspond, tout le monde se met à la recherche de la bonne bobine, et les sourires malicieux pleuvent. Puis vient l’heure de payer mon dû. Les filles rient à gorge déployée: il n’est pas question de payer, c’est un cadeau. Héberluée, je cherche à comprendre ce qui me vaut un tel honneur mais la barrière de la langue s’impose et je repars avec des grands sourires et tapes dans le dos en guise d’explication. J’en arrive à me dire qu’elles me prennent peut-être pour une clocharde! Il est vrai que mes chaussures sont délavées, le jean que je porte a une jambe plus longue que l’autre et je nage dans mon t-shirt…Mais quand même!!!

Constat n°1: le birman est généreux

Je poursuis ma promenade, guillerette et plus je m’enfonce dans la ville, plus je la trouve dingue. Des immeubles de taille et de couleur se collent sur des kilomètres, le décati juxtapose le flambant neuf qui ne ressemble à rien, les fils electriques sont…nombreux…épais…désordonnés…bientôt touchent le sol….L’arrière de ces ensembles est un semblant d’Inde, une déchetterie à ciel ouvert.

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Nous passons sous un pont et soudain, tout s’illumine! Du blanc! Du blanc dans cette ville polluée, crasseuse. Du blanc au plafond sous le pont. Du blanc peint par un jeune homme en blanc. Du blanc recouvre des dizaines de m2 en blanc. Du blanc peint avec un tout petit rouleau blanc, long comme mon index mais au bout d’un tres très long manche téléscopique blanc!

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Bon, j’avoue, je commence à délirer un peu sur cette situation cocasse mais un si petit rouleau pour couvrir une si grande surface!!!Ils sont dingues!

Et de plus en plus, lorsque quelques mètres plus loin, je découvre le golf de l’ex capitale. Des mazeratis, des porsches et Aston Martin en veux-tu en voilà! Des dizaines de voitures de grand luxe! Un green parfait! Au centre de la ville. A quelques centaines de metres des bidonvilles!

Je ne me déballe pas. Après l’Inde, il m’en faut plus désormais,  je comprends mieux pourquoi le moindre petit bout de rue à traverser est payant pour les touristes. Ils s’en mettent plein les fouilles les politiques, comme d’hab!

Il est clair qu’il va nous falloir boycotter un maximum tous les hôtels, restos, moyens de transport… appartenant au gouvernement ou à la junte militaire. Hors de question de cautionner ou de donner le moindre sou à ces xxx alors que le peuple crève de faim et peine à survivre!

Constat n°2: Les riches trop riches, et les pauvres trop pauvres et surtoit tellement plus nombreux!

Bon, on se casse, la campagne nous manque, direction le Lac Inle. Pour l’équivalent de 10 €, 12h de trajet de nuit dans un bus comme je n’ai jamais vu auparavant: le grand luxe! Fauteuils extra larges en cuir qui s’inclinent en totalité avec repose-pieds, tous les repas servis par une hôtesse  en tenue de gala, puis distribution de petites lingettes pour se rafraîchir ainsi que de brosses à dents…sans compter des cafés à volonté, des bonbons…Le top!

Nous arrivons très tôt mais ça tombe super bien: on se trouve un backpacker en 2mn tandis que de l’autre côté de la rue, des 10aines de moines nus-pieds défilent leur bol laqué dans une main, l’éventail de l’autre,  afin de faire leur “quête” de nourriture. Pour info, les bonzes ne peuvent que manger ce qui leur est offert et leur repas a lieu au monastère avant les 12 coups de midi. Ensuite ils n’avaleront plus rien jusqu’au jour suivant.

Quelques instants plus tard nous verrons ce même procédé mais effectué par de jeunes nonnes vêtues d’une toge rose et d’une écharpe safran.

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02/01/2014

Another change of culture in sight with our arrival on the South American continent, Santiago de Chile being the first port of call. The city is big, hot, surrounded by hills seemingly scorched by the sun, and we didn’t have much courage to engage in a thorough visit . We settled in a ‘hostal’ for a couple of nights in the funky area of Bellavista. Lots of amazing tags along the streets, pleasant restaurant terraces, good atmosphere and a practical place to visit a few spots of interest. One being the house of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, another the Santuario de la Immaculada Concepcion for views overlooking the city. But our main visit there turned out to be a catch up with Frédéric, my French fruit-picking colleague from Australia in 1998, and his lovely family. Playing with the kids, mountain biking in the cactus covered hills, talking about life in general… A real pleasure to spend some fun and relaxed time with them, and to see that we could just pick up from where we had left after leaving Batlow and its apples all those years ago!

 

Avec Fred

Avec Maca et kids

Avec Willy, Max et Alice

We also took a couple of days to visit Valparaiso, and some of the beaches preferred by the rich people of Santiago. A sure contrast of styles between the old city with its eclectic, coloured houses piled high over the hills, more or less derelict, with amazing tags painted on the walls, and the luxury mansions/designer houses with their perfect seafront/beach location. Different worlds, and I suppose we could have spent more time in Valparaiso, but the next stops to the South were awaiting us.

28/12/2013 – 02/01/2014

This was going to be another walk down memory lane, and I must admit that the prospect of just being there for barely 5 days looked to be a frustrating one. It turned out the place felt a little lifeless compared to what we had experienced during the previous 3 months, and the cost of these few days was simply astronomical. We are partially responsible for this since we hadn’t booked anything up to the day we flew out of Bangkok, and given the time of year, that little mishap was going to slap us back in the face pretty hard.

The average night we managed to find was around the £80-90 mark which, when you’re travelling on a budget, simply feels like extortion (including an impersonal, dirty backpackers’ hostel at £70 in a shared dorm…!) Even London seemed more affordable. When we arrived, I thought we would look into doing the walk on Harbour Bridge, which was just in the process of being tested at the time I left Sydney 16 years before. Thinking it would set us back Oz$50-60. I just gawped at the screen when I saw the prices: around $300 depending on the time of day… per person! Ok, one out the window. We started searching for free attractions, and the fact is that there ain’t much of these when you’re trying to see some of the main attractions in this city (or we’re just rubbish with no enough time to find!) The single positive and fun thing about these crazy prices was to see Amber’s jaw drop when she heard the cost of a pack of cigarettes, thereby giving her an early incentive to quit. Ha!

In the end, we walked around Darling Harbour all the way to the amazing fish market in Blackwattle Bay. Just a tad crowded at the weekend, but worth a visit nonetheless (just have to be patient if you want to grab a bite at the best stalls!)

Darling Harbour

 Darling Harbour

Sydnay fish market

We took the ferry (part of the public transport) back to Circular Quay, as part of the “how many views of Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House can you get in a day” challenge, the subsequent walk to the botanical gardens being part of it. Only slight issue with the latter being that it was all barricaded ahead of the New Year celebrations. A first glimpse into how crowded, controlled and complex it would be to find a good spot for the famous fireworks. Still, we got our views…

Harbour Bridge & Opera House

Save for the ferry, we completed all this on foot and on time to watch the 2nd part of the Hobbit in 3D at the Imax at 6pm. For those who don’t know Sydney, this is a LOT to fit in one day, especially the 3-hour long movie. And we still managed to have some dinner afterwards without our face falling miserably into our plate from sheer exhaustion. That’s what you end up thinking you have to do when you’re in such a place for such a short time. And preferably without looking inside your wallet if you don’t want that same face to go livid…

The next day, we went to Karonga zoo, just so we could see the koalas and kangaroos. It was Amber’s only chance, and the place has other fascinating, interesting and unusual animals. But it’s a zoo, and despite being a nice one, we are not particularly keen on seeing animals held in captivity, especially those that normally need larges spaces to live properly. After the visit, we took a walk along Athol bay and felt a little better seeing a few free-running indigenous animals, namely the Kookaburra and the Eastern Water Dragon.

Kookaburra

Eastern Water Dragon

We even thought we might have found a decent spot to see the fireworks, but that was before we found out the entire area was paid entry for that evening. And after checking on the Internet, we discovered there were a lot of places with restricted access for the celebrations, naturally many of the better ones, while the free and most popular ones would just be hellishly crowded. But in the end, we found our spot, right at the bottom of the area where I had lived all these years ago, at Cremorne point. Down on the rocks, by the sea with a clear view of the bridge, opera and skyline. We were happily joined by a couple of friends who had just landed in Sydney that evening , watched the stunning fireworks display like kids and then went for late pizza and wine… Nothing major for party and booze up but at least I got to see the show this time (for those who know the story!)

Sydney fireworks

The next day was our last before flying to Santiago de Chile, so despite the not-so-sunny weather, we took the walk along the beach fronts from Bondi to Coogee, taking a brief swim in the waves of the former for good measure, and sitting for a while inside the eroded cliffs to enjoy the peaceful sound of waves crashing on the rocks below…

Though initially frustrated to spend so little time in Australia, we were glad to head for the South American continent for yet more things to discover 🙂

15/12 – 27/12/2013

After nearly 2.5 months travelling, packing and unpacking the rucksacks, hopping on and off buses/trains, checking in and out of more or less dodgy rooms… it was time to find a nice beach and chill out. So for those stuck in the middle of a bleak winter, you might want to skip this post. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Given the time of year we were heading South, the coast of the Andaman Sea was the preferred choice for the best chance of finding sunny weather. First, we hit Railay beach, which can be reached by boat just off Krabi. It has 2 main beaches, namely West and East. The former is a beautiful stretch of sand, with hardly any visible constructions, and a good place to enjoy our first swim in the sea after walking a little away from the long boat parking area. The latter is not so glorious, with mangrove trapping a lot of plastic waste, glass bottles, etc… Still, if you walk to the left as you face the sea, past all the hotels, bars and restaurants, there is a nice path that follows the shore and ends at a lush resort with private cabins (Railay Great View), where we indulged for one night. Not exactly our standard backpacking style and budget, but still a nice touch once in a while!

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While Amber decided to sunbathe and quickly turn her usual brown colour, I went for the sporty option of a couple of hours kayaking along the stunning scenery of lime stone formations. Not a bad choice, just to be at the foot of these vertical stone walls that plunge into the sea, and the occasional spot of tropical forest nested between a small stretch of beach and the nearby cliffs…

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Phi Phi hidden forest

Next was Koh Phi Phi, which has 2 islands: Don and Le. The latter is a supposedly ‘protected’ national park, where one cannot stay overnight except for camping with permit. There is the beach made famous by the movie ‘The Beach’, the making of which has caused environmental damage. We didn’t go, since that stretch of beach apparently becomes a parking lot of noisy long boats all day. And apparently, there are plans to start building bungalows in the area. So much for saving some natural wonders. Especially when you see what has happened to the other island. One arrives in the central village which is basically a mini-Ibiza, full of bars, tattoo parlours, cheap souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels, all concentrated to an extreme. Plain ugly, and you just have to walk away from it all to find nicer beaches. We did so, following a nice path to Long Beach and on to Moo Dee Beach, which is more exposed to wind and the open ocean, but with absolutely no one there… bliss!

Moo Dee beach

The last area was Koh Lanta, one the largest islands, and most populated in terms of hotels (with over 130 of them!) There are several beaches along the island, mostly on the West side, which come to an end at the national park with its lighthouse (entry fee to get there). The best way to enjoy the island is to hire a scooter, and that’s just what we did, stopping by at various spots, the nicest of which are in the South, away from the crowds, with small bays rather than long stretches of sand.

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Meeting up with Amber’s parents and a few other members of her family who happened to be holidaying in the area allowed us to relax in the presence of familiar faces. She naturally enjoyed a few perks that she had been missing for a while, namely wearing a nice dress, doing her hair properly, and leaving her heavy hiking boots aside for a few days. Sometimes, it’s just what you need to feel good and realise the little things you’ve been missing 🙂

The added bonus of a French food delivery of saucisson, cheese and wine was of course much appreciated and needless to say it was very quickly consumed!

This brings the Asia chapter to an end (finally!!) with Sydney in sight for the New Year…

 

Comme je vous le disais, la curiosité de notre cher Marco est aiguisée à la vue d’un petit toit couvert d’or. Il n’en fallait pas plus pour qu’il m’emmène à sa recherche. Non pas dans son grand condor mais plutôt dans un dédale de ruelles parfois douteuses ou des avenues au coeur desquelles les manif battent leur plein.

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Malheureusement, ce toit se voit de loin et plus on s’en approche, moins on l’aperçoit…Après maintes et maintes ruelles, nous décidons de rebrousser chemin. Puis soudain, le visage de mon compagnon s’illumine. Je regarde autour de moi et pourtant je ne vois rien qui puisse lui faire crier victoire!? Une vieille épicerie qui tient à peine sur ses pieds, une moto en vrac sur le trottoir et une petite porte à moitié défoncée. Un regard alentour, nous poussons le vieux portillon…

Et là, un véritable trésor s’offre à nous. Un temple immense dont les murs sont couverts de fresques représentant le Tibet: On y est!!!!

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Nous ne sommes pas vraiment sûrs quant à notre droit d’être là, alors lorsqu’un moine se présente à nous, nous nous excusons presque. Mais celui-ci est des plus heureux de nous accueillir en ses murs, il nous souhaite la bienvenue  et nous laisse nous balader à notre guise dans le monastère.

Nous sommes époustouflés par la beauté des lieux. L’intérieur du Monastère est on ne peut plus coloré, les murs sont couverts de fresques incroyables, on se sent basculer dans un autre monde.

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On visite le temple de fond en comble, on s’émerveille devant chaque mur, chaque représentation de Bouddha, la photo du Dalaï Lama trône au centre de la pièce.

Dans un coin, quelques moines sont en plein préparatifs d’une fête on dirait. L’un d’entre eux vient nous voir et nous explique que demain, ils fêteront l’anniversaire du lama fondateur du monastère. Les regards des petits moines sont furtifs mais souriants et curieux.

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Puis le moine “en chef” nous propose de revenir pour la puja des plus jeunes , la prière de 16h. Nous sommes comblés.

Pendant qu’ils récitent et chantent, les petits nous regardent du coin de l’oeil et se marrent, notre présence les dissipent. Après tout, ce ne sont que des enfants! C’est à la fois prenant et extrêmement drôle. L’un d ‘entre eux en loupe son coup de trompette, ce qui ne passe pas inaperçu aux yeux des anciens et les autres le raillent. L’ambiance est à la fois mystique et bon enfant, deux “adjectifs” que je n’aurais jamais imaginé mettre côte à côte un jour.

Nous sortons du monastère un peu sonné mais rayonnants de bonheur, encore un chouette cadeau nous a été fait là!

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Le lendemain, nous partons faire une petite balade jusqu’à Pashupatinath, un temple dédié à Shivah qui en fait le plus haut lieu de pèlerinage du Népal pour les hindous. C’est ici quon procède à la crémation des corps, comme à Varanasi.

Cette fois, c’est encore plus trash que l’Inde…

Notre bourse étant bien légère, délestée par toutes les sommes payées pour accéder aux sites de la vallée de Katmanduh, on décide de ruser un peu et de passer par les champs pour entrer à Pashupatinah. Ce qu’on ne savait pas, c’est que l’endroit où l’on atterrit n’est autre que celui destiné aux familles procédant aux derniers rituels avec le corps de leur défunt. Canous apprendra!

Nous voilà spectateurs malgré nous, au milieu des proches. Autant vous dire qu’on se sent très mal à l’aise…

On finit par traverser la foule discrètement puis on s’asseoit au milieu des touristes, histoire de reprendre nos esprits. C’est alors que se produit l’impensable…

Le corps du défunt est sorti par son fils de son cercueil pour être purifié par l’eau du fleuve et être transporté au ghât de crémation. Lorsque 2 gamins sortis de nulle part, nus comme des vers et riant aux éclats s’emparent du cercueil vide, le jette dans le fleuve, grimpe à l’intérieur en toute hâte et la transforment en embarcation!!!

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On en a le souffle coupé…

Les gens autour de nous finissent par rire en réponse aux cris de joie des enfants. Puis comme dans un dessin animé, un gardien en képi apparaît,  use de son petit sifflet, ce qui fait davantage rire les foules hallucinées par la situation. Tout le monde se joue de lui! On en croit pas nos yeux! Vous vous souvenez de Walligtor? La même!!!

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La vue du gardien nous fait tout de même réaliser qu’il ne faut pas trop qu’on traîne dans les parages…On n’a pas vraiment de ticket à présenter…

La fin de notre trip au Népal approche et nous voulons quitter ce fabuleux pays en beauté. Alors, pour notre Noêl, on s’offre une petite folie…

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L’Himalaya vue du ciel!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Dont l’Everest vu depuis le cockpit!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

Voilà, je pense qu’à travers ces quelques récits et images, vous aurez compris que le Népal est un pays merveilleux, tant par ses paysages que par ses gens. Ici, chaque jour est une nouvelle aventure qui commence et qui laissera des traces indélébiles.

Ce que vous avez lu là n’est, bien évidemment, qu’une mince partie de ce que nous avons vécu, nous ne nous lasserons pas de tout vous raconter à notre retour.

 

 

 

08/12 – 14/12/2013

By the time we finished our journey through Myanmar, we were craving for some rest after the long hours spent in buses, so we opted for a nice comfortable hotel with swimming pool when we arrived in Chiang Rai. After the previous stop in Bangkok, we still couldn’t find much attraction in the second city we visited in Thailand. The first landmark was the clock tower at a random crossroads, which plays a carillon tune together with changes in colour on the hour. It is supposed to be one of the highlights of Chiang Rai, which left us thinking we should aim a little outside. We had no interest in tours and mainly wanted to be free to move about. So we hired a scooter for the next day. Despite being an ex-motorbike rider, I was first put to the test by my dearest in order to prove I could handle the incredible power and turning angle of our 110cc “beast”. Much to my relief, I managed to pass the test… or so I thought. Because the testing part was not the figure of 8 in the parking lot, but rather the feeling of heightened stress due to a passenger who would clasp her hands and thighs around me, together with a “I”m-so-scared-I-have-to-hiss-out-of-fear” sound at every bend, turn, vehicle, person, animal or leaf falling from a tree nearby. Anyway, we merrily went a few kilometers South to visit the White temple, or Wat Rong Khun. This place is not your traditional Buddhist temple, but the contemporary work of a rather eccentric individual.

White temple

White temple hands

It contains some of the traditional elements, such as representations of Buddha in the main temple, but the rest is completely surreal. Pits of hands reaching out at the entrance, ghoulish traffic cones… And a wall painting opposite the Buddha with a mix of characters from Marvel comics (Batman, Superman…), space crafts, the twin towers of New York in flames, an erupting volcano, etc. which all seem to symbolize some of the evils and distractions of modern society preventing the individuals from reaching out to Buddha. Or something like that anyway. Several structures outside are used to hang good wishes in the form of a pendant, which we did, good tourists that we are. The visit is very well worth it for the originality of the place.

Other than that, we wandered around, found an interesting second-hand bookstore, ate some nice thai food interspersed with western-style food to restore our digestive system, briefly visited a couple of temples and went to the night market. Since we could not find much original handcraft there, we went for a quiet drink while watching the local dancers.

We did not do much else around Chiang Rai, but came out relaxed and ready to take on Chiang Mai.

We spent our first afternoon there doing the usual: visiting some temples (you’d think we would be tired of this by now, and you would probably be right, but some can still present an interest), such as Wat Phan Tao, one of the oldest in the city, the structure of which is made out of teak wood, and Wat Chedi Luang. The next day, we hired another scooter to visit a few places West of Chiang Mai. Sadly for my favorite passenger, the trip involved a long way up a windy road with quite a bit of traffic, since plenty of people use it to visit a major temple and a royal residence. But with our mind set on quieter things, we pushed on till the end of the road, and some more, to a little coffee plantation where we enjoyed a truly delightful cup a coffee, and walk in the surroundings.

Coffee tree

Coffee tree

We finished our day in a Mon hill tribe village, where we were disappointed to find pretty much the same goods that we had seen in Chiang Rai. It turns out that this is sadly an issue for all hill tribes in Thailand, caused by a massive tourism industry led by unscrupulous individuals. In short, these people (Mon, Lahu, Akha, Karen – the famous long neck women) mostly come from Myanmar and arrive in Thailand as refugees. And since they draw scores of tourists, they are taken out of refugee camps, where they still have some rights, to made-up villages where they are stripped from all rights, with no form of identification that would allow them to move within Thailand, and forced to wear their traditional outfits in order to earn a pittance that barely allows them to survive. We found more on this in an incredible story from a local magazine. Very informative, especially for those who plan to go to Thailand (click on the link: Karen hill tribe article – Chiang Mai city news).

Another article from the same magazine dealt with corrupt Buddhist monks, quite a edifying surprise… (Corrupt monks – Chiang Mai city news)

Chiang Mai is also the place where I had experienced my first tropical forest trek/elephant ride/bamboo rafting trip 16 years ago, and we were set to do another one, though we thoroughly studied the subject of animal welfare before doing so. We had found a couple of places (Patara Elephant Farm and Elephant Nature Park), but could not book with them during our stay. So we opted for another, Baan Chang  Elephant Park, which had good reviews in terms of caring for their elephants. We came out dubious about the experience, with mahouts (guys paired with the elephants) that hold and sometimes use the bull hook, supposedly to control a temperamental elephant, animals tied by one leg to a fairly short length of chain, while at the same time hearing that their animals have been saved from bad living conditions and that they well cared for in this park. We, and others in our group, could have been convinced by their arguments if it hadn’t been for some discrepancies in the activities included in our stay: a walk in the jungle on the elephants’ bare back that turned into 2 short walks around the campsite; one hour of white water rafting that turned into 20 minutes, with less-than-friendly staff on the rafts who shouted at us when we started playing with the water, complaining it was cold when one of their colleagues had started the water fight, 20 minutes of bamboo rafting that turned into 3 minutes, just for a group photo you had to buy… As always, it is difficult to get a clear view of what is right and what isn’t when you don’t have all the information at hand, but the gut feelings were not so positive. Still, it is a privilege to experience a close encounter with these majestic creatures, and one cannot but feel sadness in view of their exploitation and reduced natural habitat. From the information we gathered during our stay and after, the Elephant Nature Park is the best and most respectful option for the animals: no riding, only bathing and feeding, no chain, and comprehensive information in order to understand their behaviour, identify the signs of their well-being, and so on, and one of the rare places where breeding has been successful. It certainly come at a price, but we believe it’s a fair one when it comes to any living creature…

Elephant

From there, it was time to head South to enjoy the beach…

Après notre échec cuisant du Panchase trek, retour donc à Pokhara.

Quelques jours avant le trek, nous avions été témoins dans un resto d’une injustice qui m’avait fait hurler.

C’était le jour du Tihar, fête symbolique des frères et soeurs qui donne lieu à des danses dans la ville avec des dessins de sable colorés au sol entourés de bougies. Cela signifiait également que les Népalais jouissaient d’un jour férié. Mais comme c’est la saison haute, pas question de fermer pour autant les restos, même s’il n’y a qu’un serveur pour assurer 100 couverts.

Un abruti de touriste qui a dû attendre 10mn pour passer commande, s’en est bien sûr pris au pauvre gars qui se démenait comme un dingue pour préparer, servir et encaisser.

Si vous me connaissez bien, vous savez déjà la suite de l’histoire…je n’ai pu réprimer l’envie d’intervenir en disant bien haut et fort au serveur qu’il faisait très bien son boulot, qu’il était très pro (c’était le cas) et que si Mr le touriste à 2 balles n’était pas content et ben il ne partait pas en vacances et il restait avec bobonne à la maison, comme ça il sera servi à l’heure!!!!

L’autre a fait un scandale au patron qui finalement s’est entiché de nous. Il règle le probleme et s’nstalle à notre table. On fait connaissance et quelques minutes plus tard, il demande à son serveur d’offrir à tout le monde des fruits frais et des cafés. Il voit notre surprise et notre gêne et nous explique qu’aujourd’hui est un jour important au Népal. Qu’il a de la chance, son resto tourne bien, il gagne beaucoup d’argent mais à quoi cela sert-il si on ne le partage pas? On se croirait chez Harsch…Il ne s’arrête pas là, va chercher toutes les réfugiées tibétaines qui vendent des bracelets le long du lac et leur offre 2 énormes gâteaux à la crème ainsi que thé et café. Les réfugiées repartent discrètement, les bras chargés de ces trésors. Autant vous dire qu’on est heureux de revivre ici de telles scènes que l’on croyait propres à l’Inde!

Ganesh, le patron, nous invite à manger le soir même. Notre départ de trek étant prévu à 5h du mat, nous refusons mais reportons à notre retour.

Nous nous recroisons  par hasard 3j plus tard et il nous donne rdv à son resto. Nous avons été reçus comme des rois, des invités de prestige. Nous nous sommes retrouvés à table avec ses frères et amis et avons refait le monde autour d’un fabuleux whisky, plats succulents et vins étonnants. L’échange qui s’est fait ce soir là entre nous tous  a été d’une richesse absolue. Inutile de vous dire qu’il n’a jamais voulu qu’on paye quoi que ce soit!

Qui plus est, il nous a avoué que lui a essayé 3 fois de faire le même trek que nous  et qu’il n’avit jamais trouvé le chemin malgre les cartes et indications. Le Panchase trek restera un  grand mystère!

Avant de quitter Pokhara, nous allons visiter le village des réfugiés tibétains . On y suivra nos premières pujas avec beaucoup de plaisir.

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Les éléctions approchent à grand pas et le pays est toujours en grève, cela fait 10j mais nous devons  rejoindre Katmandu. Nous trouvons in extremis un bus qui sera escorté par la police sous les yeux médusés des passants.

La route est magnifique et nous découvrons des descentes de rafting à couper le souffle.

L’arrivée dans la capitale nous  fait un choc! Nous nous attendions à du bruit, une pollution intense.Que nenni!!!c’est la grève! la ville est desérte, les véhicules n’ont pas le droit de circuler. Génial, on échappe aux masques en papier que tout le monde porte habituellement ici.

Puis nous arrivons à Thamel, le quartier des backpackers. Une toute autre ambiance! Les touristes, eux, sont bien présents, et les boutiques de souvenirs couvrent une 20aine de rues.

On décide à  nouveau de fuir tout ça et refaisons nos sacs le lendemain à la 1ere heure, direction Bhaktapur.

Petite cité médiévale autrefois capitale royale, cet endroit est un véritable paradis architectural, un musée à ciel ouvert où le temps semble s’être arrêté.

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On se trouve une petite chambre chez l’habitant avec lit traditionnel. Un ptit mot sur la porte de notre chambre indique que ce lit est idéal pour le dos, qu’il ne peut pas provoquer de douleurs…Ils sont cinglés!!!Nous avons dormi sur une planche en bois…!!!J’arrivais même plus à marcher le lendemain!

Bref, Bhaktapur est un joyau. Les femmes sèchent le mil sur la place publique et les potiers s’activent tandis que des enfants et les chiens les observent depuis les moucharabieh newar et que les vieux refont le monde sous le porche du coin jusqu’à la tombée de la nuit. On se sent bien ici, nos hôtes sont adorables et bien que la planche de bois me lamine, on s’installe pour plusieurs nuits.

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Et dès le lendemain, c’est parti pour une chouette rando: Nagarkot en passant par le village de Changun Narayan. Nos hôtes nous disent qu’on le fait tranquille A/R dans la journée et que la vue sur l’Himalaya est une des plus belles là-haut.

Je chausse mon 42 (si si je vous jure!!!suis passée du 39 au 42 en pompes de rando, et hormis dans les descentes, ça me réussit pas mal mais esthétiquement parlant, ça fait pas très bombasse…), et au lever du jour , on attaque. Les premiers paysages sont déjà très sympa jusqu’à Changun et un paquet de locaux montent la colline à nos côtés. Super chanceux, aujourd’hui c’est le festival du temple du village donc y’a de l’ambiance!

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On se fait prendre en photos par les locaux plutôt surpris de voir des touristes au milieu de toute cette effervescence, certains prendront le temps de nous expliquer la place de l’homme dans le monde, d’autres joueront divers instruments pour faire danser, voire entrer en transe quelques femmes de type bohemiennes au corps endiablé.

Nous poursuivons notre route vers Nagarkot car il est déjà plus de 10h. Nous traversons une jolie forêt et 4 chiens nous accompagnent sur plusieurs km,exactement comme à Tansen. On découvre quelques temples avec vue imprenable sur la vallée, et des VRAIS saddhus retirés dans les montagnes pour prier.

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On demande à un homme combien de temps de marche pour Nagarkot, il nous affirme 2H. Ok…Au bout d’une nouvelle heure, nous réitérons notre question à un groupe de personnes, ceux-ci nous indiquent de nouveau 2H de route. On commence à s’inquiéter, on n’est décidément pas doué ou malchanceux dans nos choix…Quand soudain, nous rencontrons 4 Français qui eux, reviennent de Nagarkot. Pour le coup, il nous reste plus de 3h et eux ont eu le même problème les jours précédents. En fait, pour tous les Népalais, peu importe le coin, c’est toujours tout droit et toujours 2h de route. Ils n’ont aucune notion du temps lorsqu’ils marchent! On est crevé et on n’arrête plus de grimper…mais cette fois, hors de question d’abandonner.

Puis soudain, tout s’éclaire, un dernier effort et nous arrivons sur la crête de Nagarkot d’où la vue est juste incroyable. L’Himalaya semble à portée de main. On est comme des dingues bien que fatigués et frigorifiés.

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Il est presque 17h, la nuit va tomber  et c’est exactement le nombre de km qu’il nous reste à parcourir pour rentrer à Bhaktapur: 17!!!

Mais c’est encore notre jour de chance, un bus est en train de partir au moment où l’on se renseigne, nous voilà donc à courir comme des dératés à flanc de montagne pour le rattraper.  C’est un peu stupéfaits que nous découvrons notre chauffeur: environ 20 ans, rocker dans l’âme et jusqu’au bout des ongles…noirs de crasse, accompagné de ses potes chevelus qui ramassent l’argent! C’est reparti On se la joue Satanas et Diabolos dans les courbes inquiétantes sur fond de Métallica à fond de balle. Que du bonheur! Sérieusement!

Après quelques jours à silloner  le coin, nous décidons de définitivement oublier le centre de la capitale et partons pour Bodnath.

L’énorme Stupa nous laisse toute chose, on ne peut en détacher nos yeux. On le regarde sous tous les angles, on tourne autour, entrainés par les pèlerins qui tournent les roues sacrées en égrénant leur châpelet dans les vapeurs d’encens. Les tibétaines aux tresses parfaites et tabliers colorés ont des visages de cuir marqués saisissants.

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Il règne ici quelque chose d’assez indescriptible. La ferveur, le repect profond, la paix font de ce lieu un endroit exceptionnel.

Marco repère au loin un toit d’or qui l’intrigue. Il m’emmène à sa recherche telle une mystérieuse cité…Il se croit “enfant du soleil, tu parcoures la terre et le ciel, cherches ton chemin, c’est ta vie, c’est ton destin…”

A demain pour de nouvelles aventures!

We arrived in Myanmar full of expectation given all that we’d heard and read about it. The idea of a country just opening up after years of an oppressive regime was as exciting as it gets.

We landed in Yangon and embarked on a mini-van to the city center, not entirely sure of where the hotel we had booked was located. Turns out it was a fair walk from the drop off point, and in a city yet again very hot and humid. Along the way, people kept smiling and saying hello, which helped. We stopped in a hotel to check we were headed the right way, and the staff invited us to sit down, brought us the WiFi code and some refreshments without hesitation, despite the fact we we not staying there. And once at our destination, we were again greeted by a very warm and helpful welcome. It was starting well.

Early in the evening, we decided to head out to the Shwedagon pagoda, one of the highlights of Yangon and the most impressive gold stupas in the world. The walk would have been a nice one if we had been allowed to go along the path that lines the Kandawgyi lake, but just as we were reaching the gate, someone shut it and locked in our face, without much explanation. Slightly frustrating, especially when we noticed there were other people using it, though none was foreign. Ok.

As we turned a corner along the road, we noticed a nice looking hotel and, wandered in for a drink. Discovering how luxurious the place was, we felt a little out of place but went ahead, and took advantage of the happy hour on cocktails to celebrate our arrival in Myanmar. It turns out this was one of the most luxurious hotels in Yangon, at 250EUR/night 🙂

We ended up at the pagoda 2 hours before closing time, and after paying the “foreigner” entrance fee (recently stamped at 8$ instead of 5…), we were in for the astounding sight of the place illuminated at night.

Shwedagon pagoda

The place is both amazing for the sheer amount of small temples, statues, etc dedicated to Buddha, although we found it hard to be in awe of the Buddhas with their multi-coloured animated neon lights that seem to be systematically placed behind their porcelain white heads. Felt as if we were in a funfair, but a very solemn one.

The next day, on our way to a travel agency by Inya lake, we discovered a few things: people are very friendly, traffic is a nightmare and cautions the fact that taxis charge a lot for small journeys, foreigners can’t take public buses, foreigners have to pay to access every single park or monument, even when it’s not in the least bit interesting, there is not a single motorbike or scooter in Yangon (quite a shock in Asia, but apparently, it’s because the junta is afraid of random attacks perpetrated on such vehicles, even though they tell you it’s for environmental reasons…) but the cars in the city are often modern and quite luxurious; and finally, the technique for painting huge structures appears to be somewhat challenging and retarded, as the picture shows (still, the bucket of paint is strategically placed at a distance where the man can dip the tip!), but at least it guarantees long-term work!

Paintwork

 

Then it was time to do another overnight bus journey (boy do we like those!) but with the VIP option, it turned out to be ultra comfortable and the main roads in Myanmar are not as bumpy as those we had experienced so far. The famous Inle lake was our destination, and we were in for a treat. We took a day trip through the lake and onto the one located South (Sagar), navigating by long boat among the floating gardens, villages and temples on stilts, narrow waterways meandering through high grasses, fishermen with their unique paddling technique while balanced on the edge of their boats, all this surrounded by a hilly backdrop dotted with temples. The area is simply stunning.

Inle lake

However, as usual with such places, we can only but wonder about the consequences of the unstoppable development of hotels and the increasing number of long boats that will undoubtedly pollute the area, causing long lasting problems for the lake’s environment and for the local population that relies on the water from the lake. We kept hearing that Myanmar is one of the most corrupted countries in the world, so developers will surely find ways to avoid considerate measures of environmental protection. Usual story…

On the first day, we took bicycles in an attempt to reach the lake via the small paths that interconnect the small communities, but soon found ourselves stopped in our track either by cul-de-sacs or streams that we could not cross.  Still, we had the usual welcoming smiles of children and adults alike, while they watched us on the edge of falling over at every wobbly bridge we crossed.

One cannot but wonder how mass tourism will affect such an area, both in terms of the natural environment and the local people, who will undoubtedly face the effects of excess used water discharge from oversized hotels and pollution from too many long boats. But such a reflection on the consequences of mass tourism could be made in countless places that we see. In a book I recently read, I found a sentence that perfectly sums up the feeling we tend to experience:

“It is of course hypocritical to rail against tourists when you are one yourself, but nonetheless mass tourism is ruining the very things it comes to celebrate. And it can only get worse as the Japanese and other rich Asians become bolder travellers. When you add in the tens of millions of Eastern Europeans who are free at last to go where they want, we could be looking back on the last thirty years as the golden age of travel. God help us all.” (Bill Bryson in Neither here nor there)

In any case, we had an amazing time taking in the landscapes of the area. Even the unavoidable commercial tourist spots (various workshops for silver jewellery, silk weaving, cigar making, etc) that we tend to avoid were undeniably interesting for the astounding skills on display, on top of their unique location.

We navigated on another area of the lake the next day as we set off for a 3-day trek to Kalaw, our next stop. A blissful early morning ride with still water creating stunning mirror effects: good start ahead of 6 hours of walking in the heat, uphill first… just to get in the groove. Our guide was a young guy who proved to be very kind and watchful, though a little on the shy side. Since there were only the 3 of us, we were expecting some exchange and information about the country, what people felt and thought after years of a military junta in power, or the local culture and way of life in the places we saw, but we were sadly disappointed that he seemed uneasy to talk about it or unknowing. We assumed this was the remnants of a freedom of speech repressed for too long, or the fear of speaking openly to strangers, but this could not be an excuse for every subject. So we just walked, exchanging the occasional words relating to how fine or tired we felt, and a few basic questions along the way. Our eyes however feasted on the various landscapes on offer, varying from luxurious exotic forests to barren expanses of red soil with desert-like vegetation, interspersed with cultivated fields. An image struck me at some stage, when we were overtaken by a mother with her 2 young children riding on a archaic cattle-drawn cart, with a brand new modern 4WD in the distance. An illustration of the stark contrast of means available to the people…

We stopped in a village that turned out to be a stopping stage for many other tourists on that trek, even though we were not following the same path. We were hosted by a family who arranged our bed in the main room of the house, just under their wall-mounted shrine (usual mistake: we lay down in the wrong direction, with our feet facing the shrine, and were kindly asked to turn the other way…). It was back to basics for the shower, with a scoop, tank of rainwater and bar of soap, but it felt great after the long hot day. Though being made welcome and shown to everything we might need, with endless smiles and courtesy, we were again disappointed to find ourselves eating on our own while our guide and the family gathered and talked in the kitchen. With not much else to do, we went to bed while the daughter watched Mr Bean on the television…

The next day started well, with yet more beautiful images of the rich countryside, water buffalos being ridden, terraced rice fields… There was just that slight churning of my stomach that started. It quickly turned into a nightmare for the next 30 hours. No need to add any more details than needed, but I guess most of my weight loss came from this bout of intestine trouble. And when you think you have to hike 5-6 hours in the blazing heat with no energy in the system and a feeling of complete dehydration, you just no longer care about how gorgeous the landscape is. You look at your feet, walk on and hope to reach the next resting point asap! So Amber made sure she took many photos so I would not miss out on everything. She had her own demon to face as well: large hairy spiders in every toilet cubicle, all located at the back of the garden: great feeling, especially at night when all come out to play and their eyes shine with your torch light!

Spider scare

Finally reaching our second stopover, I just collapsed of exhaustion in the main room, sipping on litchi juice diluted in bottled water. This time, no shower since the water tank was in full view of a group of people working on a generator plugged into the engine of a truck. There seemed to be a power cut and they were keen to have electricity running. We initially thought this might be because of us being there. But later in the evening, we wished they had not succeeded since it powered the television plugged into loud-speakers located just next to our sleeping area (once again arranged in a corner of the main room). And the choice of DVD that evening was the complete collection of the most diabolical singing contest for youngsters. I don’t recall one singing in tune. And I don’t know if it’s because of the country’s recent openness to expressing feelings, but their music seems to solely revolve around cheesy love songs pushed to the extreme (with accompanying painful-to-watch video clips). I soon understood why a few of the people present were getting drunk in the adjoining room, and would have joined them if it hadn’t been for my already troubled stomach…

The last day thankfully involved a shorter hike to reach Kalaw, with a final stretch through hilly pine forests. Our rucksacks had been brought over to our hotel, where we were quick to enjoy a decent shower. The town itself is of no interest except for a couple of decent restaurants that cater for the tourists who trek in the area.

Mandalay, the second largest city of Myanmar, was our next stop. And again, we would reach it with an overnight bus. Except that with no VIP seats available, we took the second best option available. When our bus stopped to pick us up, we hopped in to find all other passengers either asleep, or glued to the television set that played yet another cheesy soap opera, with acting so bad you can’t help but watch and laugh silently. We tried to get some sleep but between that and people playing the usual music on their phone during the night, it proved difficult. At some point, we may have succeeded from suffocation when our coach parked for at least 2 hours in the middle of nowhere, with engine and ventilation stopped, all windows closed and 50 or so people inside. We never quite figured out why it did, but I envied the driver who went outside and just took a nap on a mat laid behind the coach. I decided I preferred to live so chose to open our window. From the long line of vehicles who had done the same, we believe there may have been a regional check point – common feature in the country – where we had to wait for the staff to wake up.

We did not find much interest in Mandalay for the time we spent there, except for U’bein, an ancient bridge entirely made of teak and used by many monks, tourists and locals, for the scenery or to reach the village and temple on the opposite bank of the river. It does provide a superb setting for the sunset when you find the right location, with marked silhouettes walking on the bridge with the large orange glow of the sun.

From Mandalay, we took a 5-hour boat cruise along the river to Bagan, one of the most visited sites in Myanmar. Not the most entertaining scenery save for a few stupas and settlements along the way, and with a level of comfort that was not quite as we had expected (no long chairs to relax, crowded with tourists who typically kept the habit of marking their chair with their belonging despite the obvious lack of seats available…). Anyway, we got there and stayed in the village located north of Old Bagan. For the story, there is New Bagan and Old Bagan, the former being a city constructed as a relocation for the people who used to live in the latter to make place for the demands of the tourism industry. Another great example of the effects of mass tourism… Still, the site is astounding. One can just hire a bicycle for the day and roam around the huge area of interest, going from the ruins of isolated temples and feeling a little like Indiana Jones to the largest and most visited ones with the usual crowds of photo-crazed coaches of visitors. The main goal seems to involve finding the perfect spot to catch the sunset and sunrise. When you arrive, it seems these are the only two moments that make the place worthwhile, but I gather it has more to do with the day’s heat that discourages people from wandering about. The location in itself is an invitation to go and discover by yourself, and each place where you find yourself on your own makes you feel like you have uncovered a little hidden treasure, be it an old temple, frescoes, meditation caves, a good viewpoint or simply a sandy path running through the countryside. Of course, you are a foreign tourist so you pay an entrance fee for the entire site, but at least you are for once free to visit as you wish.

After this and some debate, we decided we would go to the Golden Rock, a highly sacred place for Buddhists in Myanmar, despite the 17-hour bus journey it involved. We found VIP tickets for the section to Yangon, and then hopped onto the more local bus to Kyaikhtiyo. As we were pressed for time, we did not consider the option of hiking either up to or down from the famous rock, and opted for the local pick-up truck, which offers good views of the surrounding lush-green hills as well as some sensations on the bendy and fairly steep road. The place reminded us of other open religious sites where families and groups gather for prayer, give offerings… The way the rock is set is impressive from a distance, as it looks in delicate balance. According to legend, the rock is placed upon some of the hair of Buddha, and if it should fall, it will mark the end of Buddhism.

The next day was yet another bus journey to Yangon airport, and our last in a country that left us with a slight sense of disappointment. Tourism is definitely well known and well organised, and contrary to many other Asian countries, it is expensive (at least at this stage). The fact that several areas are not yet accessible allows for little variation in terms of destinations, and the journeys to go from one to the other are quite long (flights are available but at a cost and with airlines that do not hold a great reputation in terms of safety). Food hygiene is also a concern, and we found ourselves frequently seeking restaurants held by foreigners (usually married to a local) to be on the safe side and simply for food we enjoyed. Other than that, we have once again gathered some memorable images and experiences, though not to the level of India and Nepal.