Ta Prohm, Our First Day in the Ancient City of Angkor

The first place we visited was one of our favorites, Ta Prohm, also known as the “Tomb Raider” temple as in the movie with Angelina Jolie. Let me set the atmospherics with our own video:

Ta Prohm 

We walked through the forest to the one of the gates surrounding the complex. It was an opportunity to spot some of the wildlife.

Can you spot the parrots?
Bee Hives

The gate

Ta Prohm is one of many temple complexes that made up the ancient city of Angkor. It was one of our favorites. It has been purposely “unpreserved,” and gives you the feeling of discovery as you walk the grounds. The trees and vines have found purchase between the stones of the structure, slowly pushing apart what men put together, giving the place both a timeless and yet fragile atmosphere.

Angkor and its suburbs were over 400 square km, larger than New York City, and with an estimated population of over 750,000 it was the largest city of the pre-industrial world.

The stone works were carefully fitted together by mortise and tenon joints

If you could travel back in time and show the residents of the city a picture of their labors being pushed aside by nature, what would they think? What would you think if someone showed you a similar picture of your city? By the way, one of the reasons suggested for the city’s eventual failure was climate change. Ponder that!

Will future visitors of the ‘Ancient City of Los Angeles’ wonder the same?

A civilization lost in time
Slowly disappearing

Lost in time…. Wait! What was this relief of a stegosaurus doing at Ta Prohm?

This was not our hotel in Bangkok, …

Not our hotel’s lobby

This was not our hotel in Bangkok, we were staying in the nearby Novotel. The picture above though shows a very pleasant lobby with my favorite coffee shop, a ubiquitous sight throughout Bangkok.

One of our objectives on this trip was to get thorough physicals. Several of our friends had done that in Bangkok, and I remembered seeing “medical vacations” featured on the American tv news program “The Today Show”. The agent for our insurance provider suggested Bumrungrad International Medical Center. We had no idea what to expect. The name “Bum Run,” along with my unfortunate pronunciation of the neighborhood, “Ploen Chit,” lead to some of my typical poor attempts at humor.

We went into the medical center at 8AM and by 11:30 we were having lunch near by. We went to Bumrungrad for the Executive package with 28 various tests, including a cardio stress test for me.

It was quiet a process that ended as it began with a visit to the doctor’s office where the doctor reviews the results of the tests with you. It was a long session in which I kept expecting the other shoe to drop, however, the results for both our doctor visits were summed up in the picture below:

This is not our hotel’s lobby, but it is an example of the type of building going on here. We have been visiting Bangkok since 1983, as a couple, then with our kids, for pleasure, for business, and now back as a couple.

Not our hotel’s lobby

It has changed a lot over the years. Large condominium/apartment towers have sprung up round the city, dwarfing the classical single family homes. The vehicle traffic, that use to be dominated by the three wheeled tuk tuk and buses, now compete with new SUVs and luxury sedans. This place seems to be thriving.

So if is not our hotel’s lobby, what is it? It’s the Bumrungrad International Medical Center!

A very quiet day in Kathmandu

Why? Well, it is related to a post I wrote, but didn’t publish on October 24th of last year:

I was on the Turkish Air red-eye from Istanbul last night, set to arrive in Kathmandu at 6:15 in the morning. A fortunate seating had me with 4 seats to myself at the back, guaranteed sleep and a full day of work the next day. At least in theory! It was the same flight my brother and his wife were on a month before, and the same flight my children were on last December.

The sleep part worked great, I was up and ready to go as we approached the airport. Then the first announcement: We were not cleared for landing, we needed to circle for a half hour. That was ok. It was the first flight of the day for the Tribhuvan International Airport, the only airport in the region. My fellow passengers, mostly Germans, gazed out the windows at the Himalayas breaking through the clouds on either side as we circled the valley. At the end of the half hour we descended into the valley, into the clouds. In my mind’s eye, I imagined the descent as it was on clear days, flying through the gap that leads down to the plains of Nepal and the border of India. The foothills that seem to rise up quickly as the jet approaches Kathmandu… but my recollection was interrupted by the roar of the engines and the plane tilted into a sudden steep climb. The voices in the cabin stopped. There was something wrong. We were pushed back into our seats. We popped out of the cloud cover. Nothing gentle about it. We were in a steep climb. “Were the mountains supposed to be so close?” I thought. 

The pilot calmly said that the runway wasn’t ready. We circled awhile longer. Then the pilot came on again and stated we were going to Dhaka, in Bangladesh, an hour away. Dhaka was clear and we had no problems landing there. The plane parked and was refueled as we waited in the plane. I searched for a wifi signal, but none to be had. What was Linda thinking? Around noon, we took off from Dhaka and headed back to Kathmandu, and without any issues, we were safe, but late, back home.

So what does that story have to do with a quiet weekend? The Kathmandu valley is not large, but it is surrounded on three sides by some of the largest mountains in the world. When the large jets leave the airport, they generally do a circle climbing out. The common joke is that if you live in Kathmandu, you live in the flight path of the airport.

Last Wednesday morning, the Turkish Air flight tried to make a landing, but there was too much fog. It circled the airport, then tried again. For reasons still to be determined, it missed the center line of the runway and skidded into the grassy (and damp) area between the runway and the taxi way. No one was hurt, but the front landing gear sunk into the mud and the plane blocked the runway.

It is still there, 72 hours later. Blocking the only way by air into the valley.

Niranjan Shreshta/AP

Apparently, up to 40 thousand people are affected. Travelers, business people, and workers returning home, or trying to get back to jobs overseas. I feel sorry for them.

But here in the valley, it is oddly quiet.

More can be found here.

Update: As we were departing to Bangkok I saw the Turkish air jet is still here, but in disguise. 

No logo!

Going to pot(tery)

The Transportation officer at work said “Do not go into the center of Kathmandu on Saturday!” There was a large protest by the opposition parties, mainly the “Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist,” so we journeyed around it… literally.

Our Journey today
Our destination was Thimi. It is the ancient center of pottery in Nepal. The town was famous for its daily use items, made from the local clay. Pottery now competes with cheap plastics from China. What was the impact on the town? The driver dropped us off, however Thimi is not a tourist destination, so we were not sure where to go, the road we were on was one small temple after another. We followed the temples down the road, but we grew skeptical about the destination. Then we found a small square with pottery. A old gentleman waved to us to follow. We did, and the magic began. It opened our eyes to an interesting location.

Checkout our exhibit below:

After Thimi, we continued on our journey around Kathmandu to Boudhanath for lunch and some shopping. However…. we got stuck in the traffic in the middle of streams of buses and motorcycles on their way to the protest.

Finally we reach a corner and the protesters were let off. Their buses did a u-turn and left the road clear for us to travel.

We ate lunch at the Roadhouse Cafe. Then we spun the prayer wheels and sent off our hopes for our kids.

The trip around the other side of Kathmandu was uneventful, and we were home!

A visit to an interesting nearby temple

Saturdays are often our shopping days. We had our three regular shopping stops, then back to home. We were in a rut.

The weather is warming up and it is inspirational, we are now mixing it up. Exploring valley sites and trying out new places to eat… then go shopping.

Today it was a drive just 15 minutes away to the small town of Chobhar.

The driver initially took us to the gorge that drains the Kathmandu valley. Unfortunately more than water is draining from the valley and the smell was overwhelming.

grey water rapids

Our destination was back toward town, up a very narrow road, and fortunately on top of a hill. It was an incredible find.

For years, the Adinath Lokeshwar Temple in Chobhar has been where newlyweds tacked on kitchen pots to the walls of the temple and the courtyard.

Since it was a Saturday, the temple was busy: prayers, vendors, kids, and neighbors visiting, and doing a wonderful job ignoring us. Our photos below use Google’s OpenGallery technology. If you click on the photos, you can zoom in on various parts of the shots.

A Walk in the Woods

What was the monkey thinking about?

On our first full day at Chitwan, our naturalist, Tulsi, suggested a jungle walk. “Wear good hiking shoes, long trousers, no bright colors, bring water, and don’t forget: lots of bug repellent.” We did so, then realized that our brightly colored day packs spoiled the intended effect.

We canoed to the start of journey inside the national park. The dugout was manned by two locals fore and aft with long sticks. The river was swift albeit shallow. When we landed at the trailhead, Tulsi (“to see”) gave us the jungle trek lecture, as we quickly spotted the tracks of deer and a tiger:

At the time, I didn’t appreciated how important that lecture was, but if I had done my due diligence of research on Chitwan, I would have found that tiger and rhino attacks are not uncommon:

Perhaps if I had known about those dangers, I might not have enjoyed the walk as much as I did. Watching for bird life, spotting the tracks of deer and wild boar, learning the difference between the droppings of elephant and rhino, the distant growl of the tiger (yes!), interesting bugs that loved the deer dung, and did I mention RHINO. Here is a video of the rhino:

Fortunately that video was atop an elephant the next day. But could you imagine if we had come across that rhino and her calf while on foot? They are so well camouflaged that you are on top of them before you know it, and we too could have been a headline.

Back to the walk….

The only creature that caused me harm was the leech. He nabbed me in the ankle somewhere on the journey and I didn’t notice it until I stripped off the bloody sock in my room. Here is a picture of our guide talking about the leeches during the walk:

Fascinating (for me!) were the small red bugs that were sucking on the dung of the deer. They were not dung beetles, but actual Hemiptera, that normally you see sucking plant juice.

Iphita limbata?

Our guide was extremely good. We saw two types of deer, forest hens, and a wild boar. We also saw numerous birds.

Barking Deer

Then, just past the park headquarters we walked up a bridge to see the sunset. Then we actually did see a rhino in the water.

Really! That is a rhino in the water.

I spotted a goat at the edge of the water. On closer inspection, we realized that the goat was in the jaws of a crocodile!

As we were ending the hike on the bridge, I noticed a solitary monkey. Sitting on the railing, watching the sunset. He was murmuring to himself. Was he lamenting the fate of the goat below, or contemplating the bending of light near large gravity wells?

Gods, Games, and Alcohol

We entered into the last part of the festival season, Tihar, the festival of lights. A five day festival that starts with the day of the crows in which offerings are made to the birds. That was a work day, at the end of which the local staff put on a wonderful party for the whole staff that featured gambling, a powerful local liquor, raksi, and dancing. After working for twenty-eight years in Islamic countries, it was quite a contrast.

Flashing wads of money…. 10 Nepal Rupees is about 10 cents in the US

I have no idea what caused money to change hands, but it involved a pair of dice. In the previous week in Bhaktapur, we saw a very serious game of Sorry played with stacks of money.


Gambling is not illegal in Nepal, in fact many of the major hotels have a Casino, however it is just not a common sight to see gambling on the street except during the festival season.

Card game in Paten
I was served the local liquor, raksi, in a small cup. I wasn’t sure what it was at first. The same cup holds the small flames that surround the Mandalas during the holiday. Indeed, the liquid in the cup was ignitable, and burned as it went down.
Pouring Raksi
Raksi is the general term for a number of home brew recipes, depending on the location, family, and the available materials. You should be thinking “Moonshine!” I have found recipes online for versions made with millet, rice, and even mulberries. When trekking it is not uncommon to find backyard stills. You never will catch dysentery from drinking raksi in a remote village… you may go blind, but odds are the liquid will warm you up and give you a pleasant glow.

A Raksi still we saw on trek in 2010
The Nepali staff entertained us with song and dance, and then fed us a wonderful meal. A very pleasant way to start the holiday.
During the Tihar festival families welcome the Goddess Lakshmi to their homes. She is the goddess of prosperity. People light up their homes and create elaborate Mandalas in front. This is a time-lapse film from our rooftop on the second day of the festival. 
The homes also have garlands of marigolds strung over the doorways.
A home we passed in Patan
We used the holiday to finally go to Patan, a mere twenty minutes down the road. It is another one of the ancient capitals of the Kathmandu valley. We actually had been to Patan many times, but to the section with all the trendy restaurants, not to the ancient center, or “Durbar” square. 
Durbar Square in Patan
As it was time for lunch, we climbed the six flights of stairs to a restaurant high over the square. It was a great location to catch the sights below.
Looking down on to the Dubar square of Patan
Lots of colors to choose from
Looking down on the fruits and vegetable stand
Close to the square are many tea houses, coffee shops and craft shops. We particularly liked the one below:
Notice the garlands for Lakshmi

Then we walked down a lane with lots of copper and brass. Many tempting pieces but we didn’t buy….yet!

How do they keep them so shiny?
We started the festival season with rain in Bhaktapur, but that quickly ended and we enjoyed beautiful weather, in time for Lakshmi’s arrival.
Did she bring prosperity? She already did for me, over thirty years ago. What other great gifts are coming our way? Let me sip some raksi and think about it…

A rainy visit to Bhaktapur

Palace Square in Bhaktapur
It was the start of the festival season in Nepal, Dashain followed 15 days later by Tihar, and according to local knowledge, it never rains… well almost never. That was before a powerful cyclone slammed into the northeast coast of India and splashed onto the Himalayas. 
We had the week of Dashain off. It is a time for Nepali families to gather together. Cities empty as many of the people go back to their villages. A great time to explore the treasures around the Kathmandu valley, or so we thought. 
We reserved a nice room at the Pagoda Guest House. A nice family run establishment with a good restaurant. The room was on the top floor overlooking the Nyatapola Pagoda. 
from our balcony

We went out in the soggy day to explore the ancient former capital of the Malla kingdom in the Kathmandu valley.

The ancient city is brick and timber. The brick foundries can be seen as you drive into the town. The rice famers become the brick makers during the dry winter months. The wood is finely carved, every corner we turned a new wonder, even in the rain.
close up of a door

Nyatapola Pagoda
We followed a band as we left the guesthouse. We saw many bands marching through the streets, even late at night when the rain was at its most miserable. The march was part of a “puja,” or ritual that is common in Nepali Hindu ceremonies to honor deities, important people, or guests.  Click below to hear a sample.
Dashain is a long festival that lasts over a week, we were in Bhaktapur during the blessing of all forms of transport: Bicycles, cars, motorbikes, tractors, vans, and buses. Goats were sacrificed for the blessing, their blood was used in the markings on modes of transport. It took us a while to realize that it wasn’t a balloon wrapped around the bumpers of some of the vehicles.
The tractor was richly blessed. This reminded me on the time I studied human physiology in university. I remember noting that we are just worms with appendages.  I didn’t fair well in that course.
Bhaktapur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is mainly pedestrian and easy to walk around. The people of the city, like most of the Kathmandu valley are Newari. An ethnic group that has ruled the valley for over a millennia. 
Getting water from the well
Along the narrow roads (more like paved paths) we came across vendors selling fruits, bells, and souvenirs.

In Potter’s Square we came across a number of Newari men sitting together. At first, I didn’t notice the instruments. Then the oldest of them, holding a young sleeping child, began to sing. I took out my digital audio recorder and placed it nearby, stepped back, and enjoyed the song as all of the men played instruments and sang. It was one of those magical moments you wish on all travelers. The young child slept through the whole performance. Click below for the performance:

After watching the performance, I realized the true treasure of Bhaktapur was not the bricks, or the carvings, or the multitude of festivals. It was, like my other experiences in Nepal, the people.

An Auspicious Day

I think this was an auspicious day.

I flew to Kathmandu today for brief visit with my new school.

At the very busy Abu Dhabi Airport I shared a table at the Costa Cafe outside my boarding gate. I noticed my table mate was also eyeing the gate. “Going to Kathmandu?” he asks. “I am,” I reply. Then I ask, “What takes you to Kathmandu?” “I’m climbing Everest.”

Turns out I’ve met a professional explorer named Mark Wood.

A very pleasant gentleman who literally goes to the ends of the earth, sharing his experiences with a community of Skype Educators. North Pole, South Pole – been there, done that. In fact he did it solo. He showed me the gear bag he will be taking to the top of Everest that will allow him to conduct an interview from the top of the world to schools around the world.

I have been to one place that Mark could not go. As we were entering the plane, the stewardess told Mark, “You sir go to the right,” then she looked at me and said “Mr. Willis, you go to the left.” Instant bump at the gate! Sweet!

You know your not in economy anymore when you see the usual notice:

but it ends with:

I did enjoy that full horizontal position after a wonderful meal. My choice for first course a nice Arabic mezze:

Followed by Arabic lamb:

I skipped the 3rd course. By then I was ready for sleep.

What did I learn? Going to Nepal means I will meet interesting people while being treated like a prince.

Well at least today that was true.

A bookshelf tells volumes

When we first arrived in Abu Dhabi seventeen years ago, there were no bookstores. There was, and still is, “All Prints,” a rambling collection of books, magazines, and stationary. A great place to find a binder, but not a best seller. The closest bookstore was McGrudy’s in Dubai along the Beach Road. A wonderful store with lots of treasures to discover. With a nearby coffee kiosk and ice store, it was a regular part of our Dubai shopping trips. Nowadays you can find many bookstores in Abu Dhabi, including our own branch of McGrudy’s.

There is little wonder that a major part of our shipments to either the US or Nepal this June will be books. Not only do we have the accumulation of 17 years of books collected here, but I still have my copy of “Borror and Delong’s Introduction to the Study of Insects” from my university days. A handy reference when I get those requests “can you identify this?”

“Yes, that’s a bed bug.”

A lot of sifting and sorting coming up: What to toss, what to read, what can’t we give up.

The books we can’t give up tell a story. When I enter the home of a new acquaintance, their bookshelf tells volumes. With us, our collection of guide books define our life experiences:  jungles, mountains, England, New Zealand and everything in-between either chronicle our journeys or our desired destinations. As our children sped into adulthood, their authors became ours, a shared family experience going through JK Rowling and George RR Martin. It was fun to see it go the other way too as they too discovered my favorites “A Canticle for Liebowiez”, Asimov and the works of Ray Bradbury. Which of those books will grace our shelves in either California or Nepal? What story will our bookshelf tell our new neighbors and colleagues?

All of this bookshelf nostalgia is being redefined. My digital bookshelf on my iPad is not shared with casual strangers who cross my threshold though I’m sure there’s an app for that. However this book rambling was inspired by the online discovery of a bookstore in Kathmandu called the Quixote’s Cove. Here’s a description from the site:

“The building, in which Quixote’s Cove is located was built in the early 1930s and has a rich history. During the 1930s and 40s, it was used as a catholic church by the Jesuits and was a central but secret convening ground for the Praja Parishad, the first pro-democracy and anti-Rana regime revolutionary party. As a secret gathering ground, the building has witnessed clandestine meetings between some of Nepal’s most prominent political leaders and poets including Ganesh Man Singh and B.P. Koirala along with Martyrs Shukra Raj Shastri and Ganga lal Shrestha. The walls still reverberate with their spirit of freedom and the words of the poet Lekhnath Paudel, who used to recite his poem there regularly, still float in the air. The bookstore shall seek to revive its past in a more public manner and become the convening ground for today’s thinkers and doers.”

No doubt, some new (or old) books from the Quixote’s Cove will grace our bookshelves in the future. Another story to tell.