It was our last day in Bali, and we still had a few things to check off the bucket list. The volcanoes and rice terraces were spectacular, no doubt. But we still hadn’t found Bali’s best beaches.
Truth be told, we hadn’t found any great beaches. The famous backpacker haven of Kuta Beach was quite the disappointment. And while the volcanic backdrop of Amed was stunning, the actual beach was nothing but rocks and stones.
There was no way we could leave this island paradise without finding at least one amazing beach.
So, over a delicious breakfast of buckwheat crepes at Le Moulin in Ubud, we scoured Google one final time. We knew there was a black sand beach somewhere – a beach that was actually made of sand.
Finally, in an old TripAdvisor forum, I saw a recommendation for a place called Keramas Beach. Google maps said it was 32 minutes away. That was good enough for us!
We checked out of the charming Kamandhandi Hostel and headed south out of Ubud. Approximately half an hour later, we hit the southeast coast (north of Denpasar) and made a comical U-turn to find this “hidden beach.”
We turned off the main road and onto a completely deserted, bumpy dirt road. We were surrounded on both sides by rice fields, one of which held the remains of an abandoned cargo plane.
Sure enough, the road dumped us out right on the coast. And, as promised in the forum, we were the only souls in sight on the stunning black sand of Keramas Beach.
I can’t say how cool it was to have the entire beach to ourselves – especially a rare black sand beach! If you want to get away from the crowds, this is definitely the beach to visit.
The afternoon was slipping away, and we still had a few more stops on our list. Reluctantly we bid goodbye to Keramas Beach and continued south, past Denpasar and Nusa Dua to the very bottom of Bali.
Our earlier internet search had yielded another hidden gem: Green Bowl Beach. Tucked away at the bottom of South Kuta, this beach is not marked and only accessible via a steep 300-step stone staircase.
Was it worth the effort of driving all the way to the bottom of Bali to a basically unknown beach? HECK. YEAH.
There were a few stragglers lounging around in the late afternoon sun, but once again we almost had the place to ourselves. The water was warm and clear as glass, providing a perfect view of the colorful coral rocks.
My only regret is that we didn’t find this gorgeous spot until about 4 pm! Bali travel tip #27: Head to Green Bowl Beach EARLY and plan to spend the day there, because you’ll never want to leave.
But alas, we did have to leave, because we still had one more stop to make. We climbed the 300 steps and got back in our trusty Honda Brio, heading west to Uluwatu. Uluwatu is ranked the #4 surf destination on earth, and it’s easy to understand when you see the ENORMOUS swells rolling in from the open ocean.
Uluwatu is ranked the #4 surf destination on earth, and it’s easy to understand when you see the ENORMOUS swells rolling in from the open ocean. We didn’t go to Uluwatu to surf, though. We went to visit the famous 11th-century Hindu temple, Pura Luhur Uluwatu.
Our goal was to watch the sunset, as this spot supposedly has the best sunsets in Bali. However, due to a sudden rainstorm and one of the worst traffic jams I’ve ever seen, it didn’t exactly work out that way. I jumped out and walked a good distance to the temple while Jeremy tried (and failed) to find a parking space in the chaos.
I got drenched and a monkey nearly stole my camera (literally) but I did manage to snag a few shots of the Uluwatu sunset.
My advice if you want to see an Uluwatu sunset? GO EARLY. The crowds were insane, even in the downpour.
After sitting in more rain and more traffic, we arrived at the lovely Mahogany Hotel in South Kuta. It was a last-minute find, and it turned out to be the nicest place we stayed all week. They even have a ban on durian, which was just fine with us!
Overall impressions of Bali? I’m very glad I went. There are definitely some beautiful sights to see.
Am I dreaming of the day I get to go back? No, I can’t honestly say that I am. I think it’s an amazing island to visit once…but there are so many other places to explore, too!
What’s the next destination on our hit list? That remains to be seen!
It was another beautiful morning in Ubud, Bali. Today was sure to be one of the highlights of our trip: a visit to the famous Tegalalang rice terraces and a drive around the still-active volcanic peak of Mount Batur.
Breakfast was at the fabulous little French cafe, Le Moulin, just a few minutes’ walk from Kamandhani Guesthouse. One of our favorite things about Ubud is the amount of truly stellar food you can find. On one little stretch of road near our guesthouse, you pass Greek, French, Italian, Mexican, and Turkish restaurants, not to mention the local cuisine!
Sufficiently stuffed and ready for the day’s adventure, we set off on the main road leading north out of Ubud. The sun was in and out of the clouds as we drove around half an hour to the tiny town of Tegalalang and their idyllic rice terraces.
We parked across the street and began winding our way down the steep hillside (lots of stairs!) towards the stunning rice terraces. Although technically free to tour, the locals have set up little “toll stations” with suggested donations (less than $1) for your visit.
We didn’t mind our first “toll” – these people do need to make a living, after all – but by the third “toll” we felt empowered to say no and continue on our way. Use your own judgment here, and do whatever your conscience moves you to do. It’s a minor annoyance in what’s otherwise a beautiful and awe-inspiring place.
As usual, we got so caught up in exploring and taking photos that we soon found ourselves off the beaten path…well off the beaten path! We started backtracking until we met a kindly old farmer who showed us a shorter (and more scenic) way back.
While I don’t recommend purposely getting lost, I must say it was nice to have the place to ourselves. While the rest of the tourists were jammed up on the main trail, we were the only souls in sight for close to an hour, save for a few hard-working locals.
Eventually we found our way back to the main path, where we joined the rest of the tourists in completing the circuit (granted, our tour was probably a tad longer than theirs was).
The Tegalalang rice terraces were stunning, but it was time to move on! We retrieved our car, consulted Google maps, and continued north towards the volcanic peak of Mount Batur.
This area is truly unique because the volcano is actually made of two calderas. The large inner caldera is now home to Lake Batur, while the majestic (and still active) stratovolcano peak rises over 2,000 feet (700m) from the water’s edge.
The rain and clouds that had chased us from Ubud cleared long enough for us to enjoy some breath-taking views of the peak and lake. Eager for a closer look, we started down the long, winding road towards the lakeside. Along the way we discovered Batur Natural Hot Spring, perched right on the edge of the scenic lake.
We weren’t prepared for hot springs (and the weather was a bit too warm, anyway), but we took the opportunity to stop for lunch and enjoy the unique scenery. Then we studied the map to determine if we would return to Ubud the same way, or take the more scenic route around the backside of the volcano.
As you probably guessed, we opted for the scenic route.
In an unexpected treat, we reached an area where the lava flow occurred during the most recent eruption in 1968. Not about to pass up the opportunity, we parked the car and hiked up to check out the dried lava.
It was like visiting another planet! The lava dries razor sharp and very uneven, so you definitely have to be careful as you traverse it. It was really incredible, though, to see plants pushing their way up and nature slowly restoring itself.
A steep switchback road led us up out of the caldera and back onto the road to Ubud. Dinner that night was at a funky little restaurant on Monkey Forest Road called De’Warung. We ordered a Balinese feast (literally) and washed it down with some amazing lemongrass mojitos (why has no one else thought of this?) as we watched the tourists go by.
Bali’s eastern beaches are lovely, but its central interior is TRULY spectacular. A visit to the Tegalalang rice terraces and Mount Batur are a must on any Bali road trip itinerary!
And in case you missed it, be sure to check out my blog on Ubud Horse Stables, too – definitely the best way to explore Bali’s lush interior.
Next up on our road trip…two of Bali’s most beautiful (and hidden!) beaches.
I don’t often wake up before my alarm. I’m not what you’d call a “morning person.” However, there are exceptions.
And one of those is when I’m about to go horse riding in Bali.
I awoke at 6am on the outskirts of Ubud at the charming Kamandhani Hostel. (A little gem of a place, tucked at the end of a very quiet street but only a few minutes’ walk from the liveliness of Ubud.)
A few cups of insanely delicious Balinese tea later, and I was ready to go when my driver arrived. We cruised north through Ubud and out into the endless green of Bali’s interior.
Where does one go for the best horse riding in Bali? I’d done my research ahead of time and decided on the 3-hour advanced ride at Ubud Horse Stables. This establishment has received stellar reviews, and rightfully so. No skinny, neglected Asian horses here. Their herd of imported Thoroughbreds and Appaloosas are beautifully cared for and professionally trained. The level of care, riding, and service are comparable to any reputable stables in the western world.
Upon my arrival, I met Duke, Raja, and Cola (the black, white, and chestnut horses, respectively). All were beautifully groomed and had lovely dispositions. After signing the appropriate forms and discussing my riding history, I was paired up with Cola for the day.
My only regret of the day is that it wasn’t sunnier. But hey, it could have been pouring rain, and that would’ve been worse! Despite the overcast and the stickiness of the morning, spirits were high as I set out with a French woman named Mathilde and our Balinese guide. We also had a photographer following us on his motorbike!
What’s horse riding in Bali like? It’s AWESOME. The trail wound through a local village and out into the rice terraces. All the greenery and water reminded me a lot of Florida, where I grew up and learned to ride. Once we were used to our horses and the landscape, it was time to open up and let manes fly.
A word of warning to those dreaming of galloping through rice fields: When they say “advanced ride,” they MEAN it. We hauled butt down these trails and up several very steep hills. If you’re not extremely comfortable in the saddle at all speeds and terrains, better stick with the beginner or intermediate rides!
For me, it was heaven. Cola behaved wonderfully all day, whether we were blazing along or enjoying a stroll through the flooded fields.
Our ride included a mid-morning stop at a local warung (restaurant) for breakfast and tea. After a few more gallops we stopped at an orange grove to rest the horses and enjoy some local produce.
My awesome day of horse riding in Bali was winding to a close. We gave our hard-working horses a nice long rein as we walked through the village back to the stables.
Having had the privilege to do a lot of cool rides around the world, I have to say that my experience at Ubud Horse Stables was one of the best! The staff was experienced, friendly, and spoke excellent English. Most importantly, the horses were well cared for and well-trained (always a concern in a foreign land). And we got to ride at all paces, which is always a bonus for advanced riders!
After bidding farewell to Cola, I returned to Ubud and enjoyed a much-needed massage at the fabulous Spa Bali Ubud. Then it was time to meet up with hubby for some happy hour cocktails at Mingle Cafe & Bar.
My day of horse riding in Bali was awesome, but it was time to get back on the road. Stay tuned for our next adventure!
The gentle sound of lapping waves stirs you awake. Warm sunlight pours through the balcony doors, illuminating the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean. The scent of salt and blooming frangipani drift in through the windows. And right in your backyard, the towering peak of a still-active volcano casts a long shadow.
Welcome to Amed Beach, Bali.
This beautiful little beach town is truly one of Bali’s hidden gems. Set way off the beaten tourist trail, it will take you several hours to get there from the southern cities of Kuta and Denpasar. If you want to take the scenic route, turn off at Amlapura and drive the narrow, winding coastal road. If that’s too daunting, you can take the main road north through Tirta Gangga.
Either way, you’re on your way to a true island paradise.
We awoke to the opening scene at the lovely Beten Waru Bungalow. After a hearty breakfast of banana pancakes and Balinese tea (seriously…my favorite tea EVER), we rented snorkeling gear, hopped in our rental car, and backtracked a few miles to Amed’s Japanese shipwreck.
Scuba diving is one of the main draws to this side of Bali. But even if you aren’t certified (we’re not), there’s an incredible site to explore just a few feet offshore. The Japanese wreck is about 65feet (20m) long and lies at a depth of 10-30 feet (3-10m). Apparently, this was a Japanese patrol boat which sank during the island’s occupation in World War II.
It’s covered with countless soft corals and a huge variety of fish. The sea floor is sometimes sandy, in other places covered with black coral, sponges, and gorgonian sea fans. Besides the typical varieties of tropical fish, you might also spot scorpion fish, ghost pipefish, seahorses, white-tip reef sharks, or sea turtles!
The wreck is easily accessible from the beach. Look for the parking lot and sign between Baliku Dive Resort and Eka Purnama Cottages. You can also access the beach from Kawi Karma Beach Cottages. Head down the steps onto the tree-lined coast, where you’ll find divers and snorkelers getting ready to wade into the water.
(Tip: GO EARLY! We arrived around 9am and had the wreck to ourselves for about 20 minutes. By the time we headed back to shore around 9:30, there were dozens of divers arriving.)
The wreck did not disappoint. The water was clear and fairly warm (I’m a Floridian, so take my temperature gauge with a grain of salt). It’s an easy swim from shore, no more than 50 feet (15m) to the first part of the wreck, and plenty of coral and fish to see on the way!
The best part? Aside from 10,000 rupiah (75 cents) to park your car, snorkeling this beautiful wreck is absolutely free!
We enjoyed a yummy brunch of nasi campur on the beach, settling in to watch the divers head out to the wreck. Then we headed back to our bungalow, soaked up a little more sun, and reluctantly bid farewell to Amed. There was still so much more of Bali to see!
I’d love to tell you that the 3-hour drive from Amed to the far northern shore around Lovina Beach is a scenic wonder. But compared to the mountain road between Amlapura and Amed, it was kinda boring. The one cool sight was the peak of Mount Batur, partially obscured by passing clouds.
We passed through Singaraja and Lovina on the north central coast. Again, not much of note. After a relaxing evening at Lovina Beach (including Balinese massages in a beachside bungalow), we awoke early and continued our scenic road trip.
Turning south from the coast towards the central highlands, we climbed steadily towards the hilltop towns of Gobleg and Munduk. Both towns sit around 2,000 feet (600m) in elevation and offer 360 views of Bali’s majesty. Distant volcano peaks, vibrant green rice terraces, towering palms and banana trees – it’s a dizzying palette of color.
We regretted only passing through this stunning area. I actually felt quite jealous when we passed a few tourists with day bags, on their way to a nearby trailhead. On our next trip to Bali, we’ll definitely set aside a few nights to explore the surrounding area, which features scenic hikes to hidden waterfalls.
As we descended towards the twin lakes of Danau Tamblingan and Danau Buyan, we passed a roadside viewpoint. Not only was it an awesome photo of the lakes and mountains, but we got to meet some of the local wildlife. One species, in particular. While Jeremy kept a very safe distance, I stepped right up to meet Petrie the Giant Fruit Bat.
Okay, I don’t actually know what his name is. But he reminded me of Petrie from The Land Before Time (the pterodactyl), so that’s what I called him. Petrie was friendly, calm, very much alive, and HUGE – easily 4 or 5 pounds!!
We said goodbye to Petrie and continued down to the lakefront, stopping briefly at the abandoned Pura Ulun Danu Buyan temple.
Then we drove the short distance into Bedugul and the much more popular Danau Bratan (Water Temple). This beautiful Shaivite temple dates all the way back to 1633!
It continues to be used for ceremonies and offerings to the water goddess Dewi Danu. And at almost 4,000 feet (1200m) above sea level, Bedugul enjoys a cooler climate than the lowlands.
(Side note for ladies and gents: If you show up at a temple in Bali wearing shorts or a short skirt, you’ll be given a sarong to wear for modesty.)
After jostling through the crowds for the best photo ops, we continued south on the main highway out of Bedugul. Our plan was to drive straight to Ubud, but we couldn’t resist another roadside stop along the way. “Pure luwak coffee” jumped out at us in big bold letters – and like any good foodies, we couldn’t pass it up!
We received a little tour of the roadside coffee plantation, where we saw coffee beans at all stages of processing. Then we took a seat and prepared to sample their many specialty teas and coffees – including kopi luwak.
And what is kopi luwak, you may ask?
To start, I’ll tell you what a luwak is. It’s a catlike creature (similar to a mongoose) that lives in Southeast Asia. What does this have to do with coffee? Well, luwaks are particularly fond of coffee beans. In fact, they eat them all the time.
And somewhere along the way, someone decided it would be a great idea to pluck the undigested coffee beans from the luwak’s excrement and make coffee out of it.
Yes. Kopi luwak is, in fact, made from coffee beans that have passed through an animal’s digestive tract.
Before you start gagging, let me assure you that this is no tourist gimmick. Kopi luwak is the most expensive coffee on earth, selling for hundreds of dollars per pound. Why would anyone pay that much for coffee made from – well, cat poop?
Because it’s delicious.
Let me add that I actually hate coffee. Won’t touch the stuff. It’s way too bitter for my taste. But kopi luwak doesn’t have that bitter taste. It reminded me more of roasted nuts. It was smooth, nutty, and utterly delicious. I totally understand the price tag now. (Although in Bali, you can sample a roadside cup for just a few dollars.)
The plantation also offered coconut coffee (like drinking a Mounds bar), and a dozen varieties of tea. Sufficiently hyped up on all the caffeine, we got back in the car and continued on to Ubud.
What adventures awaited us in Ubud? Stay tuned to find out!
Ah, Bali. The famed island paradise. The stuff postcards and honeymoons are made of.
If you’re planning a visit to Bali, you’re not alone. 2016 saw a record 4.4 million foreigners descend on the tiny Indonesian island!
So where can you go to escape the masses? If you’re feeling adventurous, why not explore one of Bali’s less-traveled routes – the coastal road from Kuta to Amed Beach.
Arriving in Kuta
Bali Tip #1: SKIP KUTA. (Note: This does not apply to South Kuta or Nusa Dua, which we’ll get to later).
Unless you’re an aspiring surfer or you want to party all night with thousands of drunk Aussies, there is absolutely zero reason to go to Kuta.
There. I said it. (In case no one else did.)
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the place. There are lots of cheap little restaurants (warungs) where you can get delicious Indonesian food. As soon as we checked into our guesthouse, we headed for the closest one and had a phenomenal meal for less than $3US.
I’ll write a separate post about the food in Bali, but for now, suffice to say it’s superb. Thanks to its strategic location along the trade routes between China and India (and 350 years of Dutch rule), the Indonesian food has claimed the best flavors from around the globe and combined them in ways that are truly magical.
Our intro to this wonderful world of flavors consisted of nasi campur (mixed meat and vegetable dishes with rice and plenty of spicy sambal chili) and ayam pedas (chicken and fragrant rice steamed in banana leaf). No joke – each dish cost about $1. And they were insanely delicious.
But wait, aren’t I supposed to be talking you out of Kuta?
Yes, for the aforementioned reasons (#1: You’re a surfer. #2: You like drunk Australians. Or #3: You’re a drunk Australian surfer). That’s pretty much all you’re going to find in Kuta. So if this describes you, you’ll be right at home. If not, you’ll be bored and annoyed in about 20 minutes.
Sadly, Kuta is the beginning and the end of most people’s visit to Bali. All they see of this incredible island is a mediocre (dirty) beach, shady massage parlors, rundown nightclubs, and endless touts selling cheap souvenirs. Add in maniacal motorbike drivers and terrible traffic jams, and you’ll quickly be wondering where all those idyllic rice fields are.
Hint: They’re not in Kuta.
If you want to party in Kuta, by all means…do so. Get your drink on, practice your fake (or real) Aussie accent…and then GET OUT to see the rest of Bali. The real Bali.
Bali Road Trip 101
This may seem like a strange piece of advice in an article about road-tripping, but here it is: Unless you’re already very experienced in driving in congested third-world countries (on the left), I DO NOT recommend attempting to drive here.
Repeat: DO NOT attempt to drive in Bali unless you already have experience driving someplace like Vietnam, the Philippines, or Malaysia. The roads in Bali are more like…bicycle paths. With an endless flow of cars, trucks, buses, and motorbikes competing for space that doesn’t exist.
Or, if you do manage to get out of the city, you enter miles and miles of hairpin turns with no lane markings, no guard rails, and no one to save you when you go careening over a cliff. (Okay, maybe that was a tad dramatic.)
Still, the warning needs to be given. Travel agencies are eager to rent you cars (or, God forbid, motorbikes) for your “relaxing, fun-filled holiday” in Bali. Let me be the first to say that driving here is ANYTHING but relaxing and fun-filled.
Is it impossible? No. Obviously, people (like us) manage to do it – although we’ve lived and driven in Asia for two years so we’re kind of used to it. If you do decide to rent a car (only rent a motorcycle if you have a death wish), then please be prepared for the most exhausting, intensive driving you’ve ever done.
If this is all sounding a little intimidating, don’t despair. You can still have an amazing road trip by hiring a driver who’s used to the chaos. There are also plenty of buses and shuttle companies that will haul you to the most popular parts of the island.
Okay. Lecture done. Onto the adventure.
First Stop: Candidasa
Let’s assume you’ve hired a driver or have mentally prepared yourself to drive in Bali. Leaving the chaos of Kuta behind, you’ll drive through an unremarkable stretch along Sanur and Bali’s southwest coast. The only real place of note here is the Safari Park (if that’s your kinda thing).
If not, drive straight on to the delightful seaside village of Candidasa.
Once you’ve dipped your toes in the water and marveled at the volcanic rocks along the shore, hop back in your car to continue your Bali road trip.
Next Stop: Ujung Water Palace
If you’re following Google Maps to Amed, it will lead you inland through Tirta Gangga along the main road to Kubu. Since your goal is to explore Bali “off the beaten path,” ignore Google. Instead, when you reach the town of Amlapura, follow the signs south to the seaside Ujung Water Palace.
We stumbled upon this place by accident, having never even heard of it. As it turns out, the complex dates back to Bali’s Dutch colonial days and was built between 1909 and 1921. Once a playground for Balinese royalty, these days it serves as a beautiful park for locals and tourists alike to enjoy.
Bali Road Trip: The Scenic Route From Amlapura to Amed Beach
Okay, now we’re getting to the good stuff!
Once you leave the Water Palace and start heading north, your Bali road trip really kicks into high gear! The road begins twisting and turning its way up the twin peaks of Gunung Seraya and Gunung Lempuyang, both reaching about 3500 feet/1050 m in elevation.
What does this mean for you? Aside from the sensation that you’re driving along a jungle go-kart track, each new hairpin turn offers a new breathtaking view of the Indian Ocean.
For an hour or two (depending on how fast you dare to drive), you’ll wind through lush forest, tiny villages, and roadside markets. Chances are you’ll be the only vehicle on the road – this is definitely the path less traveled! If you’re looking to carve out your own little private chunk of Bali, this is the place to do it.
As a small aside, the east coast of Bali is renowned for its “black sand” beaches. We didn’t find too many sand beaches (black or otherwise) – instead, these beaches are actually composed of smooth, black volcanic stones. Awesome.
At last you arrive in the seaside village of Amed, where you really feel like you have the place to yourself. We chose to stay in the Beten Waru Bungalows. With an incredible view of the pool, frangipani trees, and a huge balcony that opened up over the ocean, it was awesome!
With the remaining daylight, walk the short distance to Waeni’s Sunset View Bar & Restaurant. Do not go anywhere else in Amed for the sunset, or else you’ll miss this:
Order a cocktail, sink into a bean bag chair, and watch the sun sink behind Bali’s largest volcano, Mount Agung. Not a bad way to end Day One of your Bali road trip!
What’s next on your Bali road trip? Click here for Days 2 and 3!
Remember the time we illegally crossed the Thailand-Myanmar border…TWICE?
Oh, wait. That was today.
Since there’s already plenty of (boring) advice floating around about how to make visa runs from Bangkok to a neighboring country, let me share with you a humorous story of how NOT to do it.
Why visa runs?
Any foreigner who’s spent any time in Thailand knows the aggravation of visa runs. Truthfully, they’re the bane of our existence. While having a built-in vacation every 2-3 months SOUNDS wonderful, the reality is that they can be very expensive or stressful – or both.
But alas, it’s the price you pay to live in “paradise.” Every 60-90 days, you dutifully jump out of the country to get a fresh stamp in your passport and come back in for your next go-round. I don’t make the rules, I just follow them!
At least, I usually do, when I know about them. You see, Thai immigration laws change about as often as Taylor Swift’s boyfriends. Every other month, it seems like there’s some new rule or regulation to follow (translation = new way to get money from foreigners).
When we went to file our 30-day extensions yesterday (the only way to turn a 60-day stay into a 90-day stay), we were informed that because we hadn’t “registered” our address via our landlord, we would have to pay fines before we could get our extensions.
Like, several hundred DOLLARS in fines.
I love Thailand and everything, but I wasn’t too keen on paying through the nose just to get another 28 days in the country (since we already have our real visa run booked in late June). So we had three options: 1) Pay the fines, 2) Hop a quick flight to Malaysia, or 3), Drive out to the Myanmar border and do a land crossing.
Judging by the title of this post, you can probably guess we went with Option #3. Sounds easy enough, right? Hop in a car, drive out to the border, get a few stamps in the passport, and we’re good to go.
Not so fast, amigos. Not so fast.
Journey to Kanchanaburi
The day began innocently enough. Our South African friend Dee jumped at the opportunity to get out of Bangkok for the day and graciously offered to drive us the 120 or so miles to the border.
So we hop in his car around 6:30 am and begin the 4-hour drive out the Myanmar border, through lots of lush green farmland, palm trees, and banana trees. As we neared the border, the terrain grew increasingly hilly, with dramatic green karst cliffs pushing out of the earth.
Around 10:30, we begin nearing a series of checkpoints leading up to the Thailand-Myanmar border at Ban Phu Nam Ron. Security is lax at best – in one town, the soldiers were joining in with a passing street parade – so it was smooth sailing all the way until we lost reception on our cell phones.
In retrospect, that should have been our first clue.
Crossing the border at Ban Phu Nam Ron
Driving along past several makeshift security posts (translation = bored Thai policemen playing on their cell phones while traffic goes by), we reached a point where a pickup truck was stopped in the middle of the road. After waiting for several minutes, the cars behind us started to go around the truck and keep going.
Deciding to follow suit, we also pulled around the parked (and empty, we discovered) pickup truck and continued on our way. A moment later we hit a slightly more official-looking roadblock. Dee waits in the car (since he’s not making the crossing) while Jeremy and I get out to ask the officers in the bamboo hut about exit formalities.
As you can imagine, not much English is spoken, and our Thai is definitely not advanced enough to be asking questions about immigration. The officers looked at our passports and then waved us onward, so onward we went. The same thing happened at the next checkpoint down the road, and the next, where the road suddenly turned from smooth pavement to bumpy red clay.
Faithfully we stop at every checkpoint and show our passports, and every time we’re waved further onward. At last, we spot a dilapidated building with the word “IMMIGRATION” written on a wooden sign. We’d made it!
So Dee parks the car and waits while Jeremy and I head inside to get our exit stamps out of Thailand. The immigration “office” is basically a dusty wooden shed with a makeshift desk, two bored-looking officers, and four sleeping dogs. With smiles on our faces (this has been the easiest visa run EVER!), we hand over our passports to officer #1.
“Exit stamp?” he asks.
Our smiles fade. “We get stamp here,” we reply.
The language barrier limits understanding for both parties. “Thailand stamp?” he tries again.
Jeremy and I are thoroughly confused at this point. “We get stamp here?” we repeat, but this time it’s a question.
Officer #2 comes in at this point, and they spend the next 10 minutes pouring through our passports for exit stamps that don’t exist. It’s at this point we finally realize:
We have crossed into Myanmar…ILLEGALLY.
We are almost THREE MILES into Myanmar…ILLEGALLY.
(Let me stress that Myanmar is not like Thailand. Until about 10 years ago, it was a socialist country completely cut off from the outside world. The Burmese experienced decades of oppression and harsh rule under a military regime. Even now, Myanmar is light years behind the rest of Asia).
And we’ve just unwittingly entered it…ILLEGALLY.
This is a big enough problem for Jeremy and I, as American citizens. But for our South African friend Dee (whose passport hasn’t been checked once during this whole process), it presents a whole new problem.
South Africans are NOT eligible for visas on arrival in Myanmar like Americans are. So not only is Dee illegally across the border, but he’s not even ALLOWED to receive a visa to be there!
There and Back Again
Fortunately, the immigration officers were in a fabulous mood today. Rather than throwing us all in Burmese prison, he returned our passports and instructed us to drive back to Thailand to get our exit stamps. (And then return to Myanmar.)
And at which of the 27 checkpoints were we supposed to do this? That part, of course, got lost in translation.
So we began the bumpy journey back through all those lovely checkpoints, half laughing at and half terrified by our current predicament. Jeremy and I hop out again at – checkpoint #3, maybe? – and use Google translate to try to get our point across.
Again, communication is limited. But we manage to understand that we need to keep going until we reach (something?) that looks like an official building.
So back we go, until the dirt road turns to pavement again. We pass through another checkpoint before we FINALLY see a little blue building with a thatched roof that says “IMMIGRATION” on it. To our surprise, there’s now a queue of cars leading up to the building, and the road is now blocked by a gigantic red and white striped gate.
Where the heck was THAT when we drove through earlier?
So yes…we had unknowingly driven right past the border patrol, right past the immigration office, and almost three miles into another country. AND NOBODY NOTICED.
Crossing Ban Phu Nam Ron Border – Take Two!
Now that Dee (and his car) were safely back on Thai soil, he wisely decided to park and let us sort ourselves out. Jeremy and I walk over to the immigration office and fill out the appropriate paperwork before we’re herded onto a “shuttle” (translation = pickup truck) to take us across the border.
We’re crammed into the truck with 3 young women and the surly old driver. It doesn’t take us long to realize that everyone on both sides of the border has heard our story by now.
At every checkpoint along the way, the soldiers all laugh and wave at us, like we’re visiting celebrities. Our fellow passengers are snickering with the driver and *secretly* taking photos of us (as if we wouldn’t notice). Once we receive our much-awaited Myanmar entry and exit stamps, even we’re starting to laugh.
We’re about to make our 4th trip across the border in under an hour…and only the 2nd legal crossing!
At last, we arrive back at the Thai immigration office, where we’re stamped in for another 60 days (in this case, 28 days, since we’re already booked to go to Bali at the end of June). And then we do what any relieved persons would do in this instance – celebrate with cold, frothy, heavenly cups of Thai iced tea.
After all, you know what they say: Any day you DON’T end up in Burmese prison is a good day!
Visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai
Astonishingly, it’s not even NOON. We’ve driven 4 hours from Bangkok and crossed the border a record 4 times…before noon.
Dang, we’re good.
Dee has been loyally waiting for us in the small parking lot near the immigration office. Famished and relieved, we backtrack an hour to the city of Kanchanaburi. After a quick lunch on the river, we set off to tour the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.
In case you missed the old movie with Alec Guinness, this bridge was built during World War II and is part of what’s known as “The Death Railway.” An estimated 9,000 laborers lost their lives constructing the railway line that ran between Thailand and Myanmar (then Burma).
After our visit to Kanchanaburi, we headed for Bangkok and arrived home around 6 pm – twelve hours after we left! Not only did we get an incredible story out of the ordeal, but the entire day cost us around $50. (Considering the fines and extensions would’ve cost us $230, I’d say we made out pretty well!)
In conclusion, dear friends, now you know how NOT to do a visa run across the Thailand-Myanmar border.
Please note: This travel tale is meant to entertain, and also shed some light on the realities of living abroad. I am in NO WAY suggesting that you ever attempt to cross this border (or any other border) illegally. The truth is that we are all very, VERY fortunate that there were no repercussions for our blunder!
Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 3: Ghorepani to Tadapani
When I first started researching the Poon Hill Trek, I read countless accounts of exhausted hikers waking up at 5am and climbing the “hill” (translation = a 10,000-foot peak that would be classified as a “very tall mountain” anywhere else) in the freezing cold to watch the sun rise.
“Dumb morning people,” I muttered to myself, knowing that I’d never be seen among those idiots who awoke that early and climbed an icy mountainside…in the dark.
I mean, what’s wrong with waiting until later in the day? It’s not like Poon Hill (or the Himalayas) are going anywhere. It’s not as if they won’t be there at midday or late afternoon.
Well, that’s kinda true…but also kinda not. You see, at this altitude, the mountains basically create their own weather. All those glorious photos you see of the bare snowcapped Himalayan peaks? I can almost guarantee that those pictures were taken before the hour of 9am. Because once that magical hour hits, the clouds start to form, obscuring the peaks for the remainder of the day.
Akash explained all of this to us on the trek up, so I already knew what I was going to be doing at 5am today.
I was going to wake up – freezing – and hike up an icy mountainside in the dark – freezing – just like all of those idiots I’d read about (and pitied, because I knew they were freezing).
And indeed, at the gloriously dark hour of 5am, Jeremy, Akash, and I set off from our guesthouse, armed with the flashlights from our trusty cell phones, and joined dozens of other bleary-eyed tourists in trudging up, up, up Poon Hill. From the village of Ghorepani (9,429 feet/2,874m), we had to climb an additional 1,000 feet to the hilltop – the highest point in the trek – which maxes out at 10,475 feet (3,210m).
I was already struggling with the altitude the day before. (Did I mention this is classified as the “easiest trek” in Nepal?) I really, really didn’t stand a chance of having an easy hike.
But I know now why mountain climbers feel so incredibly victorious when they reach the summit. For over an hour, I gasped, wheezed, sweated profusely, shivered, stopped a million times to catch my breath, nearly slipped on icy steps, wanted to scream, shout, burst into tears, and quit, almost turned around and gave up on several occasions…
And then – and THEN – two stone pillars and string of colorful prayer flags are there to greet you, assuring you that you did it. You made it to the top. With the last vestige of my energy and determination, I climbed the final step and set foot on the top of Poon Hill, just as the sky was growing pink and the perfectly clear, cloudless peaks became visible…and I suddenly understood.
I was standing on top of the world.
We limped over to the conveniently placed coffee shack (the only sign of civilization for miles around) and ordered three life-saving cups of masala tea, warming our frozen hands on the tin mugs while we awaited the sunrise. I met the tired eyes of other trekkers, and unspoken communication passed seamlessly between us: “I know…This totally sucks…I hate life right now too…It’s going to be alright…It’ll all be worth it…Right?”
A few minutes later we got our answer, in the form of a gloriously golden sunrise that lit up the peaks like a bonfire in the sky. Directly in front of us were some of the tallest mountains on the face of the earth: Dhaulagiri (26,817 feet/8177m), Annapurna (26,545 feet/8091m), Annapurna South (23,920 feet/7219m), and Machapuchare or “Fish Tail Peak” (22,956 feet/6991m).
I’m a writer, but I don’t have words to describe what it was like to stand there, on the rooftop of the world, and behold such a sight. Whatever it is that passes through your mind and heart at that moment – be it spiritual, religious, a sense of inner peace or personal enlightenment – there’s no way you can be unaffected by what you’re seeing.
And all of the sweat, tears, and effort it took to get to this point all magically melt away, like it never even happened.
Of course, you’re reminded of it pretty quickly when you turn around and start heading down the hill. The trek down was a breeze compared to the trek up, but our day was just getting started. Akash told us that we had the longest and highest day ahead of us – seven hours, at best, along the ridgeline…and we’d be hitting snow and ice along the way.
Since that was the case, we thought it best to enjoy a little levity (and more breathtaking views) on the way down.
So! After downing more amazing potato roasties for breakfast, we set off in the opposite direction from Poon Hill, climbing for a brutal hour to the top of Gurung Hill. The views were spectacular, although the clouds were rolling in to obscure the peaks (aren’t we glad we got up at 5am to see them?).
As we pressed onward, the sky grew grayer and the temperature dropped, promising fresh snow in the future.
Sure enough, right as we entered the village of Deurali, the skies opened up and big white snowflakes began swirling through the air. This just happened to coincide with the most treacherous part of our trek – the steep, narrow winding canyon between Deurali and Banthanti. We were informed, in fact, that the previous day an unfortunate Japanese man had just broken his leg in that canyon and had to be air-evacuated out!
Fortunately for us, we had Akash. And Akash had done his homework – he knew this area would be snowy and icy, so he’d told us ahead of time to buy crampons for the trek. So out come our shiny new crampons – basically metal spikes you affix to your shoes – and down we go.
Without the crampons, it would have been a terrifying and dangerous trek. The stone steps were covered in thick ice, the trail was frozen solid, and the bridges were a scary mix of snow and slush. With our trusty crampons, though, we traversed the frozen landscape without incident – although we definitely had to take it slower than planned.
We were so slow, in fact, that by the time we reached the village of Banthanti we realized that we weren’t going to reach our goal of Ghandruk before nightfall. But we were all safe and uninjured, so that was the most important thing, right?
The great thing about this trek is that you have plenty of options for food and accommodation. When I pictured hiking in the Himalayas, I pictured starkness and miles and miles of empty nothingness. Higher up, I’m sure it’s like that. But “down” where we were (hard to imagine that 10,000 feet is considered “low”), guesthouses and teahouses abound, so you’re not forced to stick to a tight schedule. You can simply go at your own pace – or the pace Mother Nature forces you to go at!
After a solid 9 hours of trekking (including our early climb up Poon Hill) we reached the beautiful village of Tadapani, nestled below the impressive peak of Machapuchare (elevation 22,942 feet/6993m).
(Fun side note: Machapuchare, also called “Fish Tail Peak,” is a sacred mountain in Nepal, said to be home to the Hindu god Shiva. The summit is one of very few places on earth where no man has ever set foot. A British expedition set out to climb the mountain in 1957 and – at the request of the Nepalese King – stopped 150 feet short of the summit.)
Dead to the world, we dragged our weary bodies into the common room (with a wood-burning stove – THANK GOD) and basically collapsed there through a late lunch, early dinner, and painfully slow WiFi. (Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I still can’t believe it’s possible to GET WiFi up there!)
It was an epic day – a day I’ll remember forever – but I won’t lie…it was TOUGH.
And we still have one more day to go…
Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 2: Ulleri to Ghorepani
Well, the good news is…we survived the night. I was rather happy to wake up alive this morning.
(Just for the record, though, midnight bathroom runs in a Nepali guesthouse with no heat are NOT fun. That’ll teach me to drink a gigantic pot of tea before bedtime!)
Anyway, considering the brutal nature of our first-day climb, we expected to be basically immobilized this morning. I’m not going to lie and say there was no pain – we both had sore legs and blistered toes – but it was nowhere NEAR as bad as I thought it would be. The relentless cold was actually harder to deal with than the aftereffects of the hike.
And on that note, too, let me say that it’s not actually THAT cold, at least according to the thermostat. I don’t think it’s gotten below freezing (33F/0C) the whole time we’ve been here. Being outside, warmly dressed, walking or climbing, is usually pretty comfortable. The hard part is afterwards, when you’re tired and damp and chilled and just want to get warmed up…and you can’t.
That’s what we’re struggling with. Despite our “-20C” sleeping bags and two heavy blankets, I still woke up every hour last night shivering, simply because I’ve never slept in a room this cold. And the common room/dining room is about the same temperature as the outside air, so when you’re just sitting there, weary from the trek…it gets cold really fast.
But anyway, enough about the cold. If you come trekking in the wintertime, consider yourself warned!
Dinner, breakfast, and two beds at the guesthouse in Ulleri came to a total of $23, which seemed more than fair considering we were basically in the middle of nowhere. Since it was dark when we arrived last night, we had no idea of the view that awaited us until we stepped outside and saw the magnificent peak of Annapurna South, soaring to an impressive 23,683 feet (7219m) into a cloudless sky.
Now this was the Nepal I came to see!
Today we had another 3,000 feet (900m) in elevation to climb, topping out at 9,429 feet (2874m) at the top. My Colorado-turned-Thai lungs sure aren’t used to this thin air anymore, because I was huffing harder than a 90-year old with emphysema on the way up. Okay, maybe not quite that bad…but it was a serious workout.
Today’s trek was definitely different scenery than yesterday, starting with a killer view of the mountains from the beautiful little village of Ulleri. Were we in Nepal, or the Swiss Alps? For a moment, we couldn’t be sure.
The next several hours’ trekking was very pleasant, through thick green forests, waterfalls, and the villages of Banthanti and Nagethanti.
We also made friends with some furry mountain puppies, fuzzy ponies, and adorable little goats, and we passed more than a few water buffalo and baby yaks along the way!
After a solid five hours of climbing up undoubtedly thousands of additional stone steps (because the Steps of Ulleri weren’t torturous enough), we entered the village of Ghorepani and received a wonderful surprise from Akash – we were done for the day! We thought we were only having lunch here and pressing on, so that was a wonderful surprise for our weary lungs and legs.
Another wonderful surprise? An honest to goodness fireplace in the common room of our Ghorepani guesthouse. It doesn’t give off a ton of heat – I’m still wearing four layers and my snowboarding socks, fireside – but it’s definitely warmer than any other room we’ve sat in this week.
How cold our bedroom will be remains to be seen…but let’s not think about that yet.
Dinner tonight (and lunch, come to think of it) was an incredible Nepali concoction called a potato roasty. What is this delicious delicacy? Diced potato, onion, cheese, and spices, pressed together into a thick, crispy-on-the-outside-gooey-in-the-middle-pancake, pan fried to perfection, and topped with a fried egg. It is the ultimate comfort food, and just perfect for a starving trekker!
Oh, have I mentioned the showers yet? Most of the guesthouses along the trekking route offer a hot shower option (usually 100 rupees or $1), and this may sound like a wonderful option to have, but…
Remember that there is no heat in the building (if the shower is even inside the building – in some cases, it’s basically a “shower outhouse”). I decided I was tired of being cold and indulged in a $1 high-altitude hot shower in just such a detached room.
And I thought I was cold BEFORE? Ha!! The water is indeed hot, but it barely trickles out enough to dampen your skin, leaving you soaking wet, shivering, in a steamy makeshift “room” that’s the same temperature as the winter air outside. Then there was that wonderful moment when I’d had enough shivering, turned off the water, and realized I DIDN’T HAVE A TOWEL.
Because…why on earth would I have a towel with me, trekking into the Himalayas? I’m carrying enough crap in my backpack as it is, and I hadn’t planned on taking any showers en route.
So what does my freezing, shivering, soaking wet self do? The only thing I could do – I used two shirts to dry off as well as I could, then hung them up over the fire in hopes they’d dry overnight. And they did (kind of). Then I limped off to my below-freezing room and attempted to sleep, but between the cold and the altitude, I didn’t stand a chance.
Luxury, you guys. I’m telling you, it’s all luxury over here.
But at least our room comes with a pretty sweet view…
Apparently I forgot that I was waking up this morning to go trekking in THE HIMALAYAS. Apparently I whined about sitting on a bus for eight hours without thinking about the miles and miles and miles of steep mountains – the tallest mountain range in the world, in fact – that I was about to climb!
Silly ol’ me.
What was I thinking, anyway?
Today I did something I’ve never purposely done in my entire life: I got up to watch the sunrise. That may sound ridiculous to some of you, but I’m the first to admit that I’m not a morning person. If it were up to me, mornings wouldn’t exist in the first place. The world would go from pitch black night to – POOF! – instant noontime, with no transition.
However, personal feelings aside, when one is staying in the beautiful lakeside city of Pokhara, Nepal, one gets up at 6:30am to watch the sunrise over the Himalayas. Because, you know…you have to. It would be a crime to sleep in while the morning sun illuminates the world’s most spectacular peaks right outside your hotel window.
Plus – travel tip #37 – your best shot at seeing any peaks in the Himalayas is first thing in the morning, because the mountains create their own weather, and they’re frequently obscured by clouds by midday. That was the case today – before we even went downstairs to have breakfast, the peak of Machapuchare was invisible behind puffy white clouds.
But early this morning? Atmospheric perfection. Not a hint of a cloud anywhere in the sky as the sun crept over the horizon and turned those peaks into a dazzling palette of gold and pink. It was truly a sight worth waking up for, even for me, who wishes mornings didn’t even exist.
It was a good thing we were up early, though, because we still had a lot to do to get ready for our trek. We sorted our belongings into a “take with us” pile and a “leave at the hotel” pile, cutting down to only the barest essentials for our 4-day journey.
(Hotel Orchid, incidentally, is a fantastic place to stay in Pokhara. Aside from wonderful staff, they have a killer location right in town, close to the lake and lots of restaurants, and also a magnificent view of the mountains from the balconies and rooftop. Added bonus: Their rooms comes equipped with A/C and HEAT!)
Anyway, we had to complete the paperwork and wait for our trekking permits to be processed, which didn’t actually happen until 11am. We also had to dash back to the gear rental store for crampons (metal spikes you attach to your shoes) when our guide Akash informed us that the highest sections of the trail would be snowy and icy!
Whose idea was it to go trekking in the dead of winter, anyway? Oh, right. It was mine.
When everything was finally in order, we jumped into a cab and began the trek before the trek – a 1.5-hour drive up out of Pokhara to the tiny town of Nayapul (elevation 3510 feet/1070m). We bid farewell to our cab driver, showed our shiny new trekking permits to the appropriate authorities, and off we went!
Like everything else on this trip, the scenery was nothing like I anticipated. We wound around the valley floor for a couple of hours, past lush green farmland, rice paddies, and a crystal-clear river. The trail was flanked by tall trees and nearly vertical hills that somehow had been terraced to perfection.
Along the way we passed through lots of little villages – Mathathanti, Lamdali, Sudame, Hile, and Tikhedhunga – getting a nice glimpse at the local rural lifestyle. The trek is nowhere near as isolated or desolate as we expected – we passed plenty of other hikers on their way up or down, porters carrying impossibly heavy loads of luggage, an occasional Jeep that definitely had 4-wheel drive, and lots of friendly locals offering us food, tea, or a room in their guesthouse.
Because of our late start, however, we didn’t have much time to lollygag. Akash (kindly but firmly) pushed us uphill for a solid 3 hours before we stopped in Tikhedhunga for a late lunch – fried rice, vegetable momos, and Nepali’s famous dal baht.
After lunch was when things REALLY got interesting, as we were trying to reach the town of Ulleri before nightfall. With the sun sinking in the sky and rainclouds rolling in, we began a journey up the infamous “Ulleri Steps” – 3,421 carefully laid stone steps STRAIGHT UP the mountainside.
Yes, some poor soul actually counted. And we poor souls had to CLIMB them.
And climb we did…straight up, past more terraces, over rickety suspension bridges, and more guesthouses and teahouses. Up and up and up we climbed – drenched in sweat, despite the chill in the air – until our lungs were burning and our legs were screaming for mercy. The Ulleri Steps are the equivalent of climbing a 342-story building, if you can imagine such a horrific thing.
It is, quite literally, the Staircase from Hell. It was so hellacious that I couldn’t be bothered to take a single photograph of it.
Just picture a staircase. In hell. And that’s the Ulleri Steps.
With the first drops of rain falling and the sky nearly black, we finally – FINALLY – dragged our panting, wheezing, gasping, pathetically out-of-shape selves into the village of Ulleri (elevation 6400 feet/1960m), which means we gained an impressive 3,000 feet (900m) in elevation in one afternoon.
The victory celebration would come later, though. The first thing we did when we arrived at our little $5/night teahouse was collapse.
The only one of us who wasn’t exhausted (I don’t even think he broke a sweat) was our 21-year old, half mountain-goat guide Akash, who we affectionately nicknamed “The Beast of Annapurna.” Seriously, he’s a beast. He became not only our guide but also our porter once we realized that carrying our own backpacks was going to be impossible.
(Travel tip #29: HIRE A PORTER if you go trekking in Nepal. Don’t attempt to carry your own stuff unless you’re the Incredible Hulk or you’re on a suicide mission. These guys do this trek every day and they’re in better shape than you’ll ever be. So fork over $15/day and hire a porter, help feed their families, and treat them like rockstars, because they deserve it – they’re making your life SO much easier!)
Oh, and in case you’re wondering where we found Akash, look no further than ABC Trek and Tour. These guys seriously took care of us and told us exactly what we needed to be prepared for our trek. If you go to Pokhara, use them…they’ll do everything for you except the actual walking (that part you gotta do yourself)!
I’d love to recount you with exciting tales of village nightlife in the Himalayas, but after a big pot of ginger tea, a few bowls of soup, and one deliciously hot shower, I am signing off. At the ripe ol’ hour of 8pm.
Because guess what I get to do tomorrow? You guessed it…keep on trekking!
From Heritage Sites to Hill Stations: Bhaktapur, Nepal
The employees at the Madhuban Guesthouse where we’ve been staying in Kathmandu have been awesome.
More than awesome, in fact. With only one day left in Kathmandu Valley and two different areas we wanted to hit, we asked about the possibility of hiring a car and driver for the day. (I would not attempt to navigate the psychotic traffic in a car or on a moped if my life depended on it!) The guesthouse kindly arranged a driver for the day to shuttle us 15 miles west to the ancient city of Bhaktapur, then an additional 20 miles up into the foothills to the little hill station town of Nagarkot.
Cost for car and driver all day = $40. A tour to Bhaktapur alone would’ve cost $40 each, so I think we got ourselves a pretty sweet deal. (Always research your options for stuff like this – sometimes it pays to join a tour group, and sometimes it pays to go private!)
So we climb into said car, and said driver whisks away through the dust (have I mentioned the dust yet?), traffic, and smog to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site of Bhaktapur.
Literally translated as “Place of Devotees,” Bhaktapur was once the greatest of the three Newar kingdoms in Kathmandu Valley. Until recently, it was the best preserved of the ancient cities, but the 2015 earthquake sadly brought down many of its beautiful buildings.
One building that emerged unscathed in Bhaktapur is the beautiful Nyatapola Temple, a 5-storey pagoda that happens to be the tallest in all of Nepal. It was built in 1701 and has withstood several major earthquakes.
We enjoyed a rooftop lunch at a guesthouse just behind the temple, giving us an amazing view of the city and the surrounding foothills. Even better? It got warm enough to shed our coats!
After lunch we wandered down to Potter’s Square, where Bhaktapur craftsmen have been making pottery the same way for centuries.
On our way back to the car, we stopped for a specialty one can find only in Bhaktapur – Ju Ju Dhau, or “King Curd.” This is a slightly sweet, slightly sour curd made from water buffalo milk, with a texture similar to ricotta cheese. Like all the other dairy products we’ve tried in Nepal, it was delicious!
The 15-mile drive up to hilltop Nagarkot took well over an hour because….well, let’s just say the roads in Nepal aren’t exactly in the best condition. In fact, I read in a travel guide that you are THIRTY TIMES more likely to die in a road accident in Nepal than any other country on earth!
Not only are the roads narrow, winding, and without guardrails, but they’re alternately paved, dirt, mud, broken rocks, gigantic potholes, or any other type of material. Add in maniacal drivers, motorbikes, pedestrians, rogue cows and other livestock, and you’ve got a pretty decent recipe for disaster.
Not that any of that should deter you from visiting. Far from it! It’s all just part of the experience.
Chaos aside, it was a spectacular view on the drive up out of the valley. If you’re anything like me, you pictured Nepal as a land of barren rocks, open spaces, and mountain peaks, because that’s pretty much the only photos you ever see. And to be sure, the mountains look exactly like that.
But the valleys? They are LUSH. Green, tropical, and vibrant, full of terraced rice fields, banana trees, bamboo forests, even the occasional palm tree!
As we climbed higher we passed through an enormous pine forest that obscured the view for a while…and then we emerged at the top of the hill.
Nagarkot itself isn’t much to look at – a handful of guesthouses and roadside snack shacks. But drive a little higher (7000 feet or 2000m), and you reach a viewing tower that offers a 360 panorama of Kathmandu Valley and the Himalayas.
On a clear day, you can see Mt. Everest from the tower, but alas…there was just enough cloud cover to obscure the highest peaks.
No worries, though! Everest isn’t going anywhere anytime soon – there’s always next time! It was still a spectacular view…even if the climb up the ladder to the top of the viewing tower was a little nerve-wracking.
Upon our return to dusty Kathmandu, we headed into the lively neighborhood of Thamel and into a restaurant that came highly recommended – OR2K. Strange name, amazing atmosphere.
The first thing you notice when you walk in is the HEAT that wraps around you like a warm, cozy blanket. This is the first place we felt indoor heating, courtesy of the enormous heat lamps scattered around the restuarants (which I’m fairly sure would be a health care violation and fire hazard in any other country, but hey, when in Nepal…). Black lights line the ceiling and candles illuminate the tables that sit low to the ground, with comfy cushions for patrons to dine on. Take off your shoes, be escorted to said table, and be handed a glow in the dark menu.
Seriously, this place was awesome.
We selected a cheese platter for two, comprised of a variety of locally made cheeses – cow, water buffalo, yak, and goat were all on offer, with veggies and freshly baked breads (even gluten free buckwheat roti for Jeremy!) Dessert was a chocolate-pumpkin tart on a gluten free pecan crust.
Hands down, best meal of the trip so far, and one of the coolest restaurants I’ve ever eaten in!
Bus Journey to Pokhara
Our day began at 6am – still pitch black and near freezing outside. We awoke to discover there was a taxi strike (apparently this happens all the time here), so chances of getting a taxi to the bus station were zero.
So what did the awesome staff at our guesthouse do? They WALKED us probably a mile through the dark, winding streets of Kathmandu to the road where our bus to Pokhara sat waiting. And I’m glad they did, because even with Google Maps I’m pretty sure we would have gotten lost!
The first thing we noticed when we boarded the $8 bus was a big sign advertising Free Wifi. We’re in a country with almost no infrastructure, no indoor heating, barely passable roadways, and frequent power cuts…but they have FREE WIFI on their long distance buses.
Anyway, we grabbed a few hard-boiled eggs on the roadside for “breakfast” before we set on our six hour (make that eight-and-a-half hour) bus ride 130 miles (200km) northwest to the scenic lakeside town of Pokhara. Even for the well-seasoned traveler, this bus ride will test every ounce of your physical, mental, and emotional energy.
For starters (you guessed it) there’s no heat onboard. I was SO RELIEVED to see AIR CONDITIONING vents for travelers in the summertime, but those of us who visit in the winter? We can freeze our butts off, apparently, because that’s exactly what we did. Huddled under every layer of clothing we owned, hands buried in gloves and extra beanies, double layers of snowboarding socks…all to stay alive.
Okay, maybe not STAY ALIVE, but it was pretty darn cold.
Then there’s the road itself. I don’t think “hairpin turns” does this road justice, because you’re not factoring in the completely vertical valley walls, thousands of feet above (and below) you, nor the noticeable lack of guard rails, nor the reduced visibility from dust or fog, nor the maniacal drivers of buses, trucks, cars, and motorbikes, nor the occasional rogue cow or herd of goats, nor the many incidents of rockfall that have splayed across the roadways (creating major backups while people attempt to clean the mess).
That whole 30-times-more-likely-to-die-on-Nepal-roads-than-anywhere-else-in-the-world-thing? I understand now. Loud and clear.
Obviously, we survived the ordeal, because I am sitting here writing to you. But between the cold, the bumps, the wild careening around turns, the hacking Chinese tourists behind us, the relentless screeching of the brakes and shifting of the gears…it was a long, looooooooooooooooooooooong day.
But the scenery, I have to say, made it worth it. Beautiful river valleys, terraced hillsides, lush green forests, banana trees, tiny towns, and an occasional glimpse of the Himalayas…it was spectacular. Staring out the window gave us something to do other than think about our imminent cases of frostbite. Along the way, the bus stopped for both buffet breakfast and lunch, at cute little roadside restaurants, which was unexpectedly nice and gave us a chance to get the ice cold blood moving again.
As we neared Pokhara, the mighty peaks of the Annapurna range glistened on the horizon. We’re still traveling through thick jungle, mind you, but just above it are these glittering white peaks between 25,000-27,500 feet (7,500-8,100m) high.
Truly, utterly mind-blowing.
After aforementioned bus escapades and one lengthy traffic jam less than a mile from our destination, we arrived in the idyllic town of Pokhara. Thrilled to be getting OFF THE BUS, we took a short taxi ride to our lovely $20/night accommodation at Hotel Orchid. Our local trekking guide, Akash, was there to greet us and discuss the details of the trek we decided upon – the 4-day Poon Hill trek at the beginning of the Annapurna Circuit.
After the necessary trekking permit paperwork was complete, we headed to a nearby store to rent sleeping bags and decent hiking shoes for the journey. With the last of our energy, we stumbled up to our sixth-floor room (no elevator, of course) just in time to see the sun setting and the Himalayas lit up in golden-pink alpenglow.