It was another early start for me as I was playing tourist again today. This time I was off to Doi Inthanon National Park – the highest point in Thailand. Technically it was part of the Himalayan mountain ranges but I must admit after hiking to Everest Base Camp, every other mountain seemed like a small bump in the ground but I put aside my mountain snobbery and was ready to see the view from the top!
The van picked me up from my AirBnb apartment and we headed off. There was about eight other people in my group and we shared small talk as the van scuttled along the busy highway. We drove for about forty-five minutes before stopping for a food break. One thing about these tours, they like to make sure you never go hungry. I was thankful there was somewhere to get coffee because I was still a bit tired from yesterdays efforts to Chiang Rai. We continued on for about an hour, making the steady climb up the mountain to the top. We drove high into the clouds and I could feel the temperature starting to drop. Thankfully one of the girls from my group yesterday warned me that it can get quite chilly up the top of Doi Inthanon so I had dressed appropriately . There were a few people in today's group who would definitely be feeling the cold in their shorts and singlets!
We reached the top and stepped out into the foggy, cool air. Walking through a small information centre about the National Park, where I learnt the highest point in Thailand was 2565 metres above sea level (similar to Lukla, which was only our starting point for Base Camp!) we followed the wooden path that lead us through to the peak. It was hardly a walk to brag about but the chilly air was a refreshing change from the heat of Chiang Mai! Today was a bit more of a 'stop – take a photo – get back in the van' show. I'd barely had a chance to wander around before we were being ushered on to the next spot. Ah the joy of organised day trips!
Our next stop was the two stupas dedicated to the King and Queens's 60th birthday anniversary. These huge purple and gold stupas and their immaculate gardens would have had a brilliant view on a clear day however today was so foggy that sometimes we couldn't even see both temples at the same time! Nonetheless, the beautifully kept gardens were lovely to wander through.
Our next stop was a horticultural project set up by the late king. This beautiful garden was set up to educate hill tribe people about farming and land allocation. There are an abundance of different types of flora in this royal garden. It is beautifully kept with cool-temperature plants, rice terraces, coffee plantations and a strawberry orchard among some of the types of gardens there. I walked through amazed at all the beautiful gardens and flowers! Obviously my mum's love for gardening has rubbed off a little bit!
We were then taken to our spot for lunch near a huge waterfall. It was another buffet-style lunch with some local dishes. After lunch we wandered up to the waterfall and got in line to take photos. As it was the middle of the day, it was packed with tourists. The serene location was sort of ruined by the tourists but I guess nothing can avoid that! We jumped back in the van after a couple of hours and headed to our final stop, another hill tribe village. This one was a little more authentic but it still felt a bit weird to just wander through someone's backyard and peer into their home. I know they are just trying to make some money and give us foreigners an insight into their life but I couldn't help and feel like I was just an intruder. At least this time we weren't being constantly pressured into buying things like the village yesterday.
After the village visit it was time to head back to Chiang Mai. The drive only took about an hour and it was late afternoon by the time I got home. I rode my bike to the night market to visit my favourite two stalls. I discovered them when I first arrived in Chiang Mai and have become quite the frequent visitor! The Pad Thai lady who cooks a mean Pad Thai for AUD$2 and the mango sticky rice lady who serves the biggest portion of mango sticky rice for just AUD$2! For $4 I have a delicious two course meal which I get to take away and eat in my apartment. It's a tough life but someone has to live it I guess! 😛
My days in Chiang Mai are coming to an end! I have two days left which I'm a little sad about. It's been a lovely two weeks here and I feel like i really know my way around the place. This is honestly my favourite way to travel. Slowly and thoroughly! I'll be heading to Bangkok and then onto Malaysia for the second time! Stay tuned!
After my stint being a Chiang Mai local, I felt it was time to act be a tourist again and see what everyone else was coming here to see. I had originally planned to stay in Chiang Rai for a couple of days but changed my mind because they only thing I really wanted to see there was Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple, which could be done on a day tour. I chose one where I could combine seeing the White Temple and the Golden Triangle – talk about killing two birds with one stone!
I was picked up at 7am by my vivacious guide Sara, who I think used to be a Steven. I'd see a few ladyboys around Chiang Mai but it definitely wasnt as prominent as in the south of Thailand. There's always that initial awkward moment with ladyboys, standing in front of you is a girl with a deep voice and big hands. Nonetheless, Sara was lovely and had this thick, lucious hair I could only dream of having. As we drove along the busy highway towards Chiang Rai she gave us a lowdown of the history of North Thailand. We were smack in the centre of the Lanna Kingdom, a fact that people from the North like to remind us of. It's like they prefer to say they're Lanna people instead of Thai people, which I guess would be a similar rivalry to people from NSW and QLD. We drove for about and hour and a half before having a quick stop at a small hot spring. It was more of a large market that had a tiny but smelly hot spring in the centre of it. I tracked down an iced coffee to wake me up and chatted to some of the others in the group. We were a mixed bunch from all over but the conversation was the same. "Where are you from", "How long have you been travelling for?", "Where to next". It's such a predictable conversation between travellers, but I guess it's always a good way to break the ice.
Jumping back in the van we drove for another hour or so before reaching Wat Rong Khun or more commonly known as the White temple. It was one of those rare occasions where you see something in real life that you've been looking at online and you're still impressed with what you see. The huge, intricately designed temple glowed under the clear, blue sky. We'd arrived at the perfect time, the clouds had cleared and honestly it hurt to look at this giant structure in front of us, the white was blinding.
Wat Rong Khun is the masterpiece by local artist Chaloemchai Kositpipat. After years of the temple being abandoned, Kositpipat decided to reconstruct the temple, as an offering to Buddha. Kositpipat vision is simple, one must overcome hell (the cycle of death and rebirth) to reach heaven and nirvana. Instead of the traditional temples, ornate with gold trimmings, Kositpipat has used white to cover the exterior of the main hall, symbolising the purity of Buddha and fragments of glistening mirror to reflect his wisdom. To reach the main hall, visitors must cross a bridge over the 'sea of suffering' which is represented by hundreds of ghostly hands reaching out in eerie desperation, personifying untamed desire and greed. Once past the sea of suffering, it gets even more interesting.
Instead of intricately designed, golden arcs and arches inside the main hall, Wat Rong Khun is emblazoned with an unusual juxtaposition of Buddha and pop culture references, such as Superman and Michael Jackson. It's a strange contrast, which drew controversy amongst the Thai people for disprecting the Buddhist faith, however its a clever move to attract the younger generation towards the temple. By using modern images, Kositpipat has given a cool new outlook on the faith, attracting not only thousands of tourists but the younger Thai generation.
I wandered around the temple complex, completely smitten with the tiny details, like the small skulls lining the fence posts, the Marvel superheroes sporadically popping up around the place and the shimmering silver prayer charms that hung from the roof of the walkway. Even the bathroom was this grand golden building that could have easily been mistaken for another temple! The only bad part of the temple was the hordes of tourists around the place, if I'd stayed in Chiang Rai overnight I could have gone earlier to avoid the crowds but it was just too easy to go with a tour and be led around.
After about an hour and a half at the temple, we jumped back in the van to our next destination. We had a quick stop at a hill tribe village which didnt feel authentic at all! It was basically a set-up of huts filled with touristy souvenirs. I'd heard about the exploitation of hill tribes and it suddenly was very apparent. The rest of the group had the same thought as me and it was a quick walk through the 'village' before getting back in the van to go towards the Golden Triangle. It was another hour or so and we were getting close to the borders of Myanmar and Laos. It was pretty exciting actually, even though the Golden Triangle is such a popular tourist hotspot, it felt like we were crossing foreign borders! I don't know, perhaps that's just my inner geography nerd coming out!
Stopping for lunch first, we had a buffet style meal before heading up to a lookout that gave us a perfect view of the Golden Triangle. Fun fact – the Golden Triangle has been one of the most extensive opium-producing areas in the world and as a result, most of the heroin in the world came from here. This was until the early 21st century when Afghanistan took over and became the worlds largest producer. The Thai people are quick to abolish rumours that opium is still produced this far north. They say that the late King came to North Thailand to negotiate deals with illegal opium farmers. In exchange of changing their crops to something less damaging as opium – such as tropical fruits – these farmers who are usually also refugees, will receive Thai citizenship. It seemed like a sweet deal however fruits and vegetables don't bring on quite the profit as opium once did so it's believed that undercover opium sales are still occurring, mainly on Myanmar's borders though. This is proven by evidence that opium production has tripled since 2006 however as it seems to not be officially on Thai soil but criss-crossing between the waters of the Mekong, the locals are pressing hard to spread word that North Thailand is out of the opium trade.
We took our obligatory photos with the view of the Mekong River and looked out to the grassy plains of Myanmar and Laos. It's funny to thing that just a stretch of water separates these countries, but I guess its not different to an imaginary line that make up land border crossings. Some of the group took the boat cruise along the Mekong that stopped on the edges of each of these countries. The rest of us stayed behind and wandered around the markets surrounding the area. From the tourists eye, the Golden Triangle seemed like one big tourist trap, though it was interesting to think that all around us was potentially one of the biggest drug trades in the world!
After the rest of the group got back from their tri-country boat ride we got back in the van and headed south to Chiang Mai. It was a long drive and we didn't get back until about 9:30pm. It was a big day and I was glad to be back in my little apartment for a solid nights sleep! Tomorrow I head to Doi Inthanon National Park to go to the highest point in Thailand!
After our little adventure getting very close to nature, we had no time to catch our breath. Next stop was the elephant breeding centre to play with some baby elephants. If you know me well, then you know that I’m a bit animal mad. Particularly when it comes to baby animals, especially large baby animals such as elephants. I’ve only seen them a couple of times in my life but every time is as good as the next. There’s something so adorable about a clumsy, leathery goofball who just looks like a naughty child. I may be a little obsessed but baby elephants just make my heart melt.
We arrived at the breeding centre at about 10am. The elephants get let out in the jungle from 10:30-4:30pm so we’d arrived just in time. Unfortunately the elephants were all chained up minus one of the babies, but our guide said it was for our protection mainly, as well as monitoring the elephants. Because there was only a waist high fence between up and the elephants, if they were running loose and got mad at too many people milling around, it could become a bit chaotic. It was sad to see them chained up but the Chitwan National Park is one of the only places in the world that has successfully rehabilitated these beautiful giants to a substantial population number, so I guess they are doing the right thing. The majority of funding for the breeding centre comes from tourism, so without visitors, this centre would cease to exist and the elephant population would probably decrease. So while some people see the captivity of elephants cruel, it’s actually beneficial for both Nepal and the elephants. Of the 20+ elephants here, none of them are used for work purposes. They are solely here just to breed and look after their little ones.
The one baby elephant who was loose was the biggest ratbag ever. He marched over to the four of us and tried to grab out water bottles out of our hands with his trunk and sniffed us all over. He was just five months old but had the attitude of a teenager, for an elephant he raced around quite quickly and was a bit rough when he played. It was beautiful to watch the interaction between the mother and babies and I could have happily stayed there all day!
We had to move on though, it was time for an ‘elephant shower’ and lunch. I quickly dropped my things off at the Safari Club and headed down to the river where some of the elephants were having a bath. This was a bit of a touristy gimmick, but one I was quite happy to oblige in. While people get quite worked up about riding elephants, I wasn’t so worried after seeing the treatment of these beautiful creatures. I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve ridden horses my entire life and have lived on a farm but I don’t see the treatment of these animals that cruel. Yes, I realise in some countries, elephants are treated cruelly and that’s unacceptable but from what I saw here in Nepal, these elephants actually looked happy. Elephant training isn’t that different from breaking in a horse. Of course, the size and strength brings on some differences but it’s not always that pleasant to break a horse in. I mean, we’ve tied up horses for hours to get them to behave, which from an outsider who has never witnessed this before might consider this cruel. But our horses are given so much love that this discipline is usually overshadowed. In a way, it’s the same for elephant trainers. They will usually only have one elephant for life and its their main source of income so while there is strong discipline used by the trainer, there would be a huge amount of care put into the animal. The trainer needs the elephant as much as the elephant needs the trainer so it is all relevant. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, the people that get really worked up about elephant training are people who haven’t been exposed to other forms of animal treatment. Anyway that’s enough of an essay. I love animals and it’s my personal choice to interact with the elephants this way. I’m still not entirely sold on elephant safaris, but this was a natural experience that I was going to be a part of. Elephants love the water, they spend quite a bit of time bathing themselves in the river and I was merely there to be a proverbial fly on the elephants back.
I walked up the wooden platform to get onto the elephants back and we waded into the river. This was the very river we had canoed down this morning so I was very aware that there were crocodiles swimming around me. I just hoped I wasnt going to become a snack! The elephant was about belly-deep in the water and proceeded to start splashing me with river water using his trunk. It was quite funny and a great way to cool down. I think the elephant and the trainer got more enjoyment out of it than me! This went on for about five minutes and then the elephant kneeled down and started to roll over! I was thrown into the river, where I hastily exited because of the aforementioned crocodiles!
It was a quick experience but a lovely one. I got one more cuddle from the elephant (well actually it was mainly me cuddling him!) before I had to head back for lunch. A quick lunch break and then we were back out in the jungle for a jeep safari. It was here that we might get the chance of seeing the elusive tiger or leopard. I didn’t have high hopes but with the amount of rhinos we’d seen in the wild, it may just happen!
We canoed across the river to where the jeeps were and got comfy. It was going to be about five hours of driving around the jungle so I was glad I had a good seat. The safari was quite good, we saw more rhinos – even another baby one! There were plenty of monkeys and deer, who actually coincide together and look out for each other. We also saw a few monitor lizards, crocodiles and different kinds of birds. Unfortunately no tigers or leopards but I’ seen that many wild rhinos, I wasnt disappointed!
After the safari we had a drink on the riverbank to watch the sunset before heading back to the Safari Club for dinner. I was heading back to Kathmandu tomorrow at 6am, so I went to bed early knackered from my massive day!
The following morning it was raining when I woke up, must be time to go! The bus ride back to Kathmandu was bloody awful. It took 14 hours this time, with only two spots. I definitely have had enough of buses in Nepal! We got into Kathmandu around 10:30pm and I headed straight to my hostel to pass out! Tomorrow I fly to Chiang Mai to see the north of Thailand. Nepal has been a fabulous experience and I’m definitely keen to return to do more hiking, but no more buses!!
The three of us bolted, following the zig-zag pattern that our guide was doing to throw them off course. My camera bag bounced against my hip as I ran, my heart raced and the sweat started to drip down my face. The branches on the ground crunched as we trod on them heavily, being completely silent wasn’t an issue anymore – getting out alive was.
How I’d found myself running away from a rampant female rhinoceros, I’m still trying to work out but here I was in the Chitwan National Park in south-west Nepal trying to outrun a pissed off mother rhino whose bath was rudely interrupted by humans.
This morning when I’d left the Safari Club Lodge where I was staying, I was under the impression that we would be going for a lovely canoe ride down the river, followed by a short walk through a part of the national park to hopefully see some animals. I had assumed that the short walk was just a way of making it back to the lodge and they’d called it a jungle walk to make it seem more exciting. However, this is Nepal and after three weeks of being in this crazy, chaotic country that a short walk actually means two hours of trawling through dense grasslands in search of animals.
The canoe ride was indeed very lovely. There were two guys from the Czech Republic – who were also staying at the Safari Club – who had come along with me. Before we even got into the canoe our guide spotted two rhinos further down the river. One was cooling off in the river and the other was on the banks out of sight, sussing out whether he should invade the other rhinos territory. It was my first time seeing a rhinoceros in the wild and it was quite exciting to be up close to such an exotic animal. Little did I know I was about to get a whole lot closer.
There were over 600 rhinoceros in Chitwan National Park, the largest population in Nepal. They are some of the most protected animals in the park and years of poaching culling numbers dramatically. However since the 1970’s, many conservation laws have been put in place to protect the species. This has been very successful, with rhino population numbers higher than they’re been in years. The past three years the park has had zero poaching attempts, a number that they’re very proud of.
When I first decided to go to Chitwan I hadn’t expected to see any of the exciting animal in the wild, like rhinos, tigers or elephants. I thought it would be a glorified trip to the jungle where the most exciting thing you’ll see is a monkey or deer. So to see a rhino straight away, I was stoked!
As the canoe ride went on, we floated past locals fishing on their wooden rafts. Everyone seemed to know each other and yelled out conversations as they passed. Rain started to sprinkle on us and I was annoyed that I forgot my rain coat. A rookie error in monsoon season. We passed an elephant having a bath and a snack and a few diffferent varieties of birds. After about an hour, we pulled up to the sandy bank and climbed out, ready for saunter through the jungle.
Like I said earlier, I thought this would be a quick stroll through some of the jungle before heading on to the elephant breeding centre and the tour guide wanted to make the day’s program sound more exciting. However, I was wrong and we were actually going to stalking around the jungle for about two hours! Before we started, our guide gave us the lowdown on how to act if an animal turns on you. As he went on about running in a zigzag pattern and climbing trees for rhinos and standing still and making eye contact with tigers I had a little laugh to myself. These guides sure have been taught well on how to wind up tourists! He was so sincere in his monologue I almost believed him but thought that there would be no way they’d let us out in the wild with potentially deadly animals. Now you’d think for someone who’s done some pretty wild things in her travels, such as letting off explosives in a silver mine in Bolivia and hiking the illegal Stairway to Heaven in Hawaii that I would be a little less naive about safety regulations around the world (or more, the lack of) But no, having come from Australia where everyone is wrapped up in cotton wool and treated like a baby I still believed that everything will always be sunshine and dandy and danger would never come my way.
I was going to be proven wrong, yet again..
After the safety briefing we hiked in a single file silently through the jungle. The humidity was even worse under the canopy of the jungle and my shirt clung to my sweaty back instantly. We walked for about fifteen minutes, treading carefully on the grassy plain below us, the only sound being the crunch of twigs breaking beneath our feet. I was already bored of the walk when my guide stopped suddenly and turned his head to listen.
‘This way… Rhino” he whispered, indicating that we follow him behind a huge shrubby bush. As he pushed the bush away there was a small lagoon filled with lilyponds a few metres away. At first I couldn’t tell what he was pointing to but then I saw the dark grey blob amongst the bright green reeds. A rhino was bathing just 10 or so metres from us! Completely oblivious to his audience, the rhino looked so content as he wallowed in the reedy water. One of the guys inched closer and trod on some broken branches. The rhino turned his head towards us and looked us directly in the eye. We stood still waiting to see what would happen but the rhino just turned back around and continued his bath. He wasnt camera shy. We watched for a little longer before moving on deeper into the jungle.
Excited that this dull jungle walk was more than what I was expecting, I picked up my pace and kept my eyes peeled for anymore animals. Another 10 minutes passed with nothing and then we spotted some monkeys and deer going about their day. The deer with the excellent hearing ran off just as we got got but the monkeys weren’t afraid being so high up. We walked further and my hopes were slowly disappearing again.
Just as I was about to give up on expecting any more animals, our guide made a sign to be quiet and follow him. We tiptoed behind him and he pointed out a muddy water hole to our left. We walked past the waterhole to the hide behind a couple of trees. Just 20 metres away was a mother rhino and her baby having a bath in the muddy water. The baby rhino was quite possibly the cutest and ugliest thing I’d ever seen! We watched for a few minutes before trying to edge closer for a better look. As the branches crunched underneath our feet, the overprotective mother looked our way with her little ears pricked in attention. We halted abruptly and waited for our guides next move. Paused a moment, I got the chance to take a quick photo before the mother rhino turned towards us and started moving.
“Okay, go, GO!’ Our guide said and he took off – there was no protecting hotel guests here! We followed hastily, trying to run in a zigzag and not lose our guide. I didn’t dare look behind me but kept an eye out for any trees that might be climb-able. I wondered if my travel insurance would cover being trampled by a rhino. Even though it was only a handful of seconds, it felt like we were running for an eternity. Finally our guide launched into some bushes and waved us to get behind him. We squatted, panting for breath hoping that the rhino had been thrown off course. Thankfully we’d made so much noise running like idiots through the jungle that she was too startled to chase and ran off in a different direction. We stayed squatting for a minute to catch our breath.
“She gone, we are safe” our guide said. The three of us looked back at him bewildered. What happened to the mundane jungle walk!? We all looked at each other and burst into nervous laughter, talk about dodging a big, grey leathery bullet! Continuing on, I kept very close to our guide as we made a quick exit out of the jungle. That was enough cardio for the morning! We reached the edge of the dense jungle and walked down the beaten 4WD path until we reached the elephant breeding centre, sweaty and muddy. So much for an easy jungle walk!
After a day in Kathmandu, I said goodbye to C and made my way to Chitwan National Park. After another deeeelightful bus journey that was supposed to take five hours but took nine, I finally made it to my destination. It was hot, humid and nowhere as busy as Kathmandu! I liked it already.
Chitwan National Park is a World Heritage Site that covers about 900 square kilometres. This massive space of land is home to many wild animals such as leopards, tigers, rhinoceros and elephants. Years ago it was the stomping ground of poachers and animal numbers diminished rapidly, however the Nepalese government stepped in to stop the poachers and rehabilitate animal population. They’ve had much success, with nearly three years of zero poaching, population of animals re-establishing and animal conservation becoming the most important priority.
I was only spending about two days in Chitwan but had a jam-packed program to see as much as I could! Once I arrived to accommodation – The Safari Club – and dropped off my belongings, I was taken on a river walk with my guide for the trip. The humidity was insane and outside my cool room, the sweat covered my skin instantly. We walked through the small town of Sauraha, which is one of the main tourist towns in Chitwan and made it to the riverbanks of the National Park. Beyond the river, grassy plains stretched out until the eye could see. My guide pointed out crocodiles in the river and explained by the different breeds here in Nepal. They weren’t the massive chompers that we have in Australia but they would still happily take a snap at you, given the opportunity!
We walked further down the river when my guide ran into one of his friends, they chattered in Nepalese and then told me there’s a rhino bathing just down the river. We quickly walked down the path until we saw the huge animal submerged in the river, looking a lot cooler than we felt! This was the first time I’d seen a rhino in the wild and I was just a tad excited. It had been less than an hour in Chitwan and I’d already spotted a rhino, I couldn’t imagine what else was to come!
We walked further down the river to see if there were any more animals about but unfortunately the rhino was the only one out to play today. Heading back to the where the town meets the river, we stopped for a drink to watch the sunset. Unfortunately it was a little cloudy so the sunset wasn’t in full swing but it was still lovely to be surrounded by nature instead of the smoggy city. After sunset we headed back to the Safari Club where I had dinner and a quick shower before going to a cultural dance. It was a bit touristy, full of loud Chinese tourists and their flashing cameras but still nice to watch. It was about 9:30pm by the time that finished so I headed straight to bed after that Because i had an early start in the morning!
This morning was an early start. C and I had to be at the bus station 6:15am for our bus to Pokhara and after a pretty cruisy couple of days, it was a bit hard to function at this hour of the morning. Thankfully the bus station was easy to find and by 6:30am we were on our way to Pokhara in an air conditioned coach with wifi! Not too bad for about AUD$8!
Five hours later, we were not quite as chirpy as the bus bounced and jerked along the road. To say that Nepal’s roads were awful would be the understatement of the century – THEY WERE THE WORST IN THE WORLD!! Let me just backtrack a little and really give you some perspective as to how terrible they are. Kathmandu to Pokhara is 204.5 kilometres, which in Australia would probably take under two hours to get there. However this is Nepal and nothing happens quickly here. It took us two hours just to get out of Kathmandu! It was a bouncy old show as well, the roads which were continually under construction were a pot-holed, often dirt lane that hundreds of vehicles and bikes fight to race to the front. C and I were slowly losing our minds as we bounced around the back of the bus, wishing we’d worn sports bra’s but the locals on the bus weren’t fazed. Despite it being six hours in and not even close to Pokhara they just sat happily, eating their chips and playing on their phones. I’ll give the Nepalese some credit, they’re patient as hell. By the time we reached the outskirts of Pokhara, C and I were ready to get off and walk. I may be sounding like a drama queen but I’ve done some hellish bus rides in my time and this takes the cake. As a forewarning for any future travellers to Nepal, the bus rides bloody suck!
We finnnnaaaallly got to Pokhara and found a place to stay easily. On the taxi ride there were drove past the lake and any disgruntled-ness I felt from the bus ride disappeared. Pokhara has a serene and calm place and the chilled vibe was very contagious. Our little guest house, the Harvest Moon, was costing us a huge AUD$6 a night and was just a couple of streets away from the lakeside. As the most touristic area, the Lakeside is filled with restaurants, cafes, spas and travel agents. We found a spot to grab a snack by the lake and relaxed in the afternoon sun and tried to plan out what we wanted to do here. After walking past the many spas and wellness centres, we decided we deserved to treat ourselves to a spa day. After all, we had just hiked Everest Base Camp and survived that God-awful bus ride. We booked in for a massage, facial, manicure and pedicure for the following afternoon and I was already feeling calmer.
Finding dinner nearby to our guest house, we had an early dinner and headed to bed. It’s really quite tiring sitting on a bus all day! The following morning we woke early and set out to hike to the World Peace Pagoda. It was lovely and cool as we began our hike but as soon as we reached the forest where the main trail lay, the humidity set in and we were sweating in minutes. It took over an hour to get to the top. It was so much easier to hike in low altitude, if I wasnt dying from the heat I could have ran up there! (not really, lets be honest) but it felt good to actually do some proper exercise again! I’d done a couple of yoga classes in Kathmandu but nothing strenous like this uphill hike. We reached the top and cooled down by wandering around the large, white stupa. Here we met a couple of other travellers so after we’d done looking out at the beautiful view, we headed down the hill to a little boat station and got a boat back to the Lakeside.
C and I hadn’t eaten brekkie yet and it was getting close to noon so we sussed out where this cafe that we spotted yesterday on the taxi ride in was and made a beeline for it. AM/PM Organic Cafe was a little slice of hipster heaven in central Nepal. They offered things like smoothie bowls, kombucha and cold brew coffee. A little more exxy than other restaurants in town but we reasoned that it was actually brekkie and lunch so thefore it actually worked out cheaper! I ordered an iced coffee and scrambled eggs and C got a smoothie bowl with her iced coffee. It was delicious and exactly what I’d been hoping for!
After our brunch we had about an hour to refresh before heading to Jiva Spa for our spa afternoon. I have to say, this is the first time I’ve done something like this. Usually if I’m spending money when travelling, its on good food or fun activities but something about this spa day was so exciting! However after my feet had spent two weeks in hiking boots, I felt bad for the lady who had to deal with them. The whole experience was about four hours long and by the time we got out I was feeling totally new. We topped off our afternoon with a peanut butter and banana smoothie and that shocking bus ride was a far, distant memory in my head. I was so zen right now!
That night we had dinner at the Pokhara OR2K restaurant, it had basically the same menu at Kathmandu, minus the espresso martinis! It was a great end to a good day though! We headed to bed early as our massages had put us in too much of a relaxed mood to do anything else!
The following morning we had another early start as we had booked to go zip-lining. The weather was brilliant and I could even see a tip of one of the Annapurna mountains from our room! The drive to the top of the zip line was a little hairy. It was a one-lane road and i think our driver thought he was in the Formula 1, not taking up bunch of tourists up a hill! We made it there safely though and had a beautiful clear view of the Annapurna range.
As per usual, things were moving in Nepali time (aka – slowly) so it was a good half hour before the first person went down the zip line. C and I were last to go and had to wait another hour for our 90 seconds of adrenaline rush! by the time it was our go I was so hungry for breakfast that I wasnt even excited about the zip line anymore! It was fun, don’t get me wrong but it was over so quickly! Everyone was ready to go by the time we were unharnessed so we had two seconds to catch our breath before jumping back in the van to head back to the lakeside.
That meant breakfast though! C was still buzzing from the zip line and decided to spontaneously book a paragliding flight because of the beautiful clear skies. I wanted to save my money for later (plus I’ve already paraglided in Oludeniz, Turkey – the best in the world! 😛 )so we split up for a couple of hours. C ran off a cliff with a parachute and I grabbed a coffee and my iPad to do some writing before going to the weirdest yoga class I’ve ever been to! I was the only person in the class and this guy was kook-city. A sweetheart but not on a whole other planet! I met up with C afterwards and got reorganised to have dinner at Pokhara Thakali Restaurant, which apparently serves the best Thakali cuisine in Pokhara!
The Thakali are an ethnolinguistic group originated from the Thak Khola region of the Mustang District in the Dhaulagiri zone of Nepal. There’s only about 30,000 Thakali in Nepal however most of them are successful businessmen, dominating the hotel game. They have a certain cuisine which is a combination of different curries served with rice, pappadums and condiments such as pickles and chutneys. The best part is the usually have free refills! We were having dinner early so were the only ones in the restaurant. The staff didn’t speak the best English so we ordered what we thought was the traditional Thakali meal and hoped for the best! While it lacked in presentation, it made up for it in flavour! The tiny bowls of curry were delicious and the sweet chutney was good enough to bottle and take home! After dinner we headed a couple of doors down for a brownie and ice-cream at AM/PM Organic!
The following morning we were up at 6am to catch the bus to Lumbini. Unfortunately the man who sold us the ticket was a bit dodgy and the bus he promised never showed. We were put on a bus that was going to India, that would drop us in Lumbini but after waiting an extra 45 minutes, we bailed and decided to head back to Kathmandu. C was due to fly out the next day and we weren’t sure how long it would take us to get back to Kathmandu this time!
Before we left for Base Camp, our lead guide Dawa had said that reaching Base Camp would change your life. He hadn’t elaborated much on it, but his words lingered on my mind as we hiked back to Gorak Shep from Base Camp. Had it changed my life? Not yet I didn’t think. I was half expecting Ghandi or Buddha or even the Dalai Lama – some sort of spiritual presence to appear to tell me how to live this new existence I had hiked toward. For me, Base Camp was a bit of a bore after the incredible hike we had completed over the 8 days, that I think the only thing that had changed about me was my tolerance level towards body odour. However I was unaware from tomorrow was bringing me and that, my friends, definitely changed me..
After my dinner of tomato soup it wasn’t long before the five of us hiking to Kala Patthar headed for bed. I’d had a strange feeling in my tummy pretty much straight after dinner but put it down as altitude and tried to ignore it. I fell asleep at 7:30pm while it was still light outside, ready to be woken at 3:50am. However about two hours later I woke up to searing pains in my stomach. Either I was having a very late case of altitude sickness or something I ate didn’t agree with me. I won’t go into vast detail here, no-one wants to hear about trying to negotiate stomach issues with a hole-in-the-ground toilet BUT it wasn’t my finest moment, I’ll tell you that much. I had about an hours sleep that night and went back on forth about my decision to hike Kala Patthar or not.
3:50am rolled around and my alarm started going off. I’d popped an Imodium a few hours earlier and felt the tiniest bit better albeit very empty! I lay there for a moment, thinking I could just stay in bed and sleep but I didn’t want to miss out on this last chance to see Everest. Base Camp had been such an anti-climax, I needed something else to feel like this hike was definitely worth it. My stubbornness got the best of me and I slowly got out of bed and tied up my hiking boots for the last time in this altitude.
I met the rest of the group in the hallway and by 4:05am we were outside, ready to tackle this last viewpoint. The five of us plus two of our guides Krishna & Dipak (Lead guide Dawa had the privilege of sleeping in!) all looked worn out and un-enthusiastic. I said to C & B, the two other Aussie girls that I’d had a dreadful night sleep and C said she’d gone through the same drama. We must of been playing tag with the bathroom and she looked like how I felt. Pale, drained and not wanting to be there.
Nonetheless, we set off behind Dipak with our feet dragging and bodies wrapped in many layers of clothes. It was the coldest it had been on the trek, but the chilly morning air was a nice change from the stuffy lodge. Being up this high, we were breathing in probably the cleanest air in the world so even though my stomach hated me, my lungs should be happy at least. The hike to Kala Patthar was about 400m higher in altitude and pretty much uphill the whole way. It was still dark so led by our head torches, we slowly made our way up step by step.
I was moving at glacial pace (pun intended) Between gasping for air every two steps and unsure whether I was going projectile my insides everywhere, I was not in good shape. Dropping behind the group I shuffled forward slowly. Poor Krishna who had to remain at the back of the group just stood still for awhile to let me get ahead a bit. The upside to this whole experience was the view. Dawn was starting to wash away the night sky and expose us to our surroundings. We couldn’t have picked a clearer day and as the mountains came into the light, Krishna pointed out which one was which. Including Mt Everest, who finally, FINALLY showed her face! This was the best view of Everest we’d get in Nepal. I’d have to bounce over to Tibet for a more grand view.
I sat down and set up my cameras as the sunrise brought on an epic light show. I felt so crook that I didn’t even care about going to the top of Kala Patthar. I’d gone about halfway, seen Everest in clear view and I was done. My stomach wanted to punish me for eating white rice and white potatoes for a week and I was willing to accept what it was going to throw at me. I told the group to keep going and that i wanted to shoot a time-lapse of the sunrise, when actually I just wanted to curl up in the dirt and nurse my aching stomach. Krishna was hesitant to leave one of the group behind but I said I’d sit there and wait until they came back done. This little black duck was staying put.
The sunrise was fabulous, the sky shone colours I didnt think it could and again I was swept away with mountain madness. These snowy peaks could stare down at me alllllllllll day. As daylight seeped in past the mountain and the sky faded to blue, the sunrise was over and I was suddenly sitting alone as everyone else had hiked on. I had a sudden urge to keep walking. The little voice inside my head who tells me to harden up whenever I get tired or out of breath was back and she was in a right proper mood. Before I could protest, she was pulling out all stops – I’d come so far, I’d paid all this money, there was a 50 year man who was ahead of me – this little voice was downright pushy! She finally talked me into going to the top so I pulled my backpack on and started the slow trek to the top of Kala Patthar.
Cursing the little voice in my head as I hiked uphill, I knew she would be right, she always bloody was! It was here I discovered an awful habit that I have. I hate going slow. I should have realised this earlier in life but as Dawa said, Base Camp will change your life – even if this means discovering things about yourself. I’m one of those people that watch what level the person next to me on the treadmill is on so I can run faster. When I swim laps I race the person in the lane beside me. Slow walkers are a pet hate and I’ve never stuck with yoga because everything about it is so slow! This habit had subsided for most of the trek, I’d bounce ahead at times but wanting to stay with my group, I would steady my pace by falling in behind someone. It’s not to say that sometimes I physically cannot go any pace but slow, I’m not super fit. But being beaten by someone is what drives me to go faster and I do it without even realising. Here I was standing about 5,300m above sea level, with minimal air and I was still trying to race. Without someone in front of me steadying my pace, I would take 10 steps really quickly before having to stop, hunch over panting like an unfit racehorse for a minute before starting the vicious cycle again. With my group well ahead of me, I was on a time restraint to get to the top. A time restraint that only I had inflicted upon myself.
It wasn’t long before I’d caught up to Krishna (I think he’d just sat down for awhile) and about forty minutes later I could see the tip of Kala Patthar and my group staggering towards the top. Two of the group had already made it but there were still two not far from me now. With my pattern of taking five quick steps and then stopping for air for a minute, I was only fifty or so metres from the top of Kala Patthar but I seemed to be getting nowhere. To get to the top wouldn’t just require walking though. It was pretty much a precariously stacked pile of rocks, covered in prayer flags and early morning frost. If I thought the view was good before, I was shook by the landscape now.
As I climbed higher on the rocks (yes actually climb, this was far more intense than I had bargained for) I was welcome by 360 degrees of spectacular views. From the Everest mountain range, to glacial pools glowing below, to an extremely sharp drop down a glacier on one side – I now understood why Kala Patthar was such a highlight. The view was ridiculous! I negotiated myself to the very top that stood at 5612m above sea level and felt like I was on top of the world! This was the highest I’d ever been (probably the highest I’ll ever be!) and the sick feeling I was feeling early was like a distant memory. I carefully took my photos – we’ve all been warned about people dying trying to take selfies on mountain edges – and breathed in the cleanest air I ever have. The adrenaline was running through my veins and this endorphin rush had blown away my sickness and replaced it with absolute euphoria. Life was good!
As I had taken a billion years to reach the top, I was only at the top of Kala Patthar for 15 minutes for so before it was time to head back to Gorak Shep. This was the only downfall of going with an organised tour – deadlines are everything. I slowly made my way off the lookout point by gracefully (not!) sliding down the icy rocks until I was in a safer place. The clouds had rolled in and created a layer between us and Gorak Shep – yep, we were so high that we were above the clouds!. The hike back down took about an hour and we were in Gorak Shep before 8am.We were in dining room before the others and they couldn’t believe we’d already been and gone to Kala Patthar. We showed them pictures and I felt slightly superior that I’d been tough enough to be one of the few to make it all the way. Plus all three of us Aussie girls made it, proving that girl power is really a thing!
After breakfast – which I gingerly ate, I felt better but still worried about what my stomach might do – we began the hike home. It was going to take four days to reach Lukla and now that we’d done what we’d come to do, I had no motivation left. I was in good company too, everyone struggled to find the will to hike. We tried to justify lashing out on a helicopter ride back but in the end put our headphones in and hiked silently back down. There’s a lot to be said about willpower on this trek. It’s absolutely essential to be strong on the way to Base Camp but I think it’s more important on the way back down. With nothing to hike towards except a hot shower and a good meal, every step hurt just a little bit more.
The four days dragged on a bit but we finally made it back to Lukla for one last scary ride to Kathmandu. Base Camp had been an amazing experience and I’m so happy I got to share it with these fantastic group of people. When the random thought of hiking to Base Camp crossed my mind at the start of the year, I thought it would be pushed back into the ‘too hard’ pile in my head. However every other plan I made or trip I researched just didnt sound as appealing so I stuck with visiting Nepal and here I am, having just climbed to the base of the highest mountain in the world. That little voice in my head was right again and even though I’m smelly with greasy hair and sore feet, I couldnt be happier!
Now for a couple of weeks to explore the rest of Nepal!