There are a lot of reasons not to travel in Laos during the rainy season. The best laid plans can be derailed by a monsoon. The roads can get really muddy. Its shockingly humid. But, in my humble opinion, the beauty outweighs these obstacles. It’s cheaper and less crowded. And I’ve never in my life seen a green so vibrant as the rice fields after a rain shower. Our twenty days in Laos were magical and I hope to return.
Rice field in Xiang Khouang province
Luang Prabang. We flew from Chiang Mai, Thailand. While we’re doing a lot of our travels by ground transport, the convenience of a one hour flight won out over a 24 hour bus over mountain roads. The old town of Luang Prabang is an UNESCO site filled to the brim with temples, bakeries, restaurants and shops. The French influence is really felt here. This was our first stop in Indochina and has been interesting to see the French food/architecture throughout Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The town is situated on a peninsula between the mighty Mekong and smaller Nam Khan rivers. Its a real treat to wander through LP and our inexpensive guesthouse had a lot of perks: excellent banana pancakes, a fresh fruit drink each afternoon and two adorable puppies who patrolled the patio. Across the street was Manda de Laos, an upscale Lao restaurant where food is served next to a beautiful Lotus pond. Thanks to a generous send-off gift from my former DC co-workers, we had a wonderful date night here. On the opposite end of the food spectrum we also went to an all-you-can-eat $2 buffet in an alleyway.
We took a songthaew (benches in the bed of a pickup truck) to Kuang Si waterfall. The waterfall is known for bright blue pools of water because of mineral deposits. Because we’d had a big rain the day before the water was moving too fast to have the turquoise color, but the falls were impressive nonetheless. We also spent an afternoon bowling at one of only 3 or 4 bowling alleys in the entire country. It had been years since either of us had gone bowling and a great way to escape the afternoon heat!
Kuang Si Falls
Phonsavan. From Luang Prabang we took a bus to the town of Phonsavan in Xieng Khouang province. This area, known as the Plain of Jars, has thousands of megalithic stone jars scattered in dozens of sights around the region. Xieng Khouang is also known as one of the most heavily bombed areas by the United States during the Vietnam War. We visited sites of the “Secret War” with our guide, Mr. Vang. The legacy of the war is still visible today in bomb craters across the landscape and thousands of unexploded ordinance that continue to injure and kill in the community to this day.
Vientiane. The capital of Laos. Unlike other big cities in the region, Vientiane doesn’t have a ton going on. For me, that’s kind of the charm of Laos. There’s a nice night market and strip of restaurants along the Mekong. We found some really good and cheap ex-pat food. The “sights” like the historic Sisaket Temple and Patuxay Monument can all be seen in about half a day. At this point in the trip we needed a place to spend a day with good internet to plan out the next couple months and Vientiane was a great location. We also knew there was another bowling alley here! We can now proudly say we have bowled in at least half of the alleys in Laos.
Wat Si Muang
Pakse and the Bolevan Plateau. From Vientiane we took the “King of Bus” (see on our instagram!) overnight to the town of Pakse and launched into a 3-day motorbike loop around the Bolevan Plateau. This is a popular backpacker loop and the Bolevan Plateau is known for beautiful scenery, waterfalls and coffee. The Plateau is also a higher elevation and so was an escape from the heat and humidity. We visited the ancient city of Champasak and Wat Phou. This Wat (temple) is from the Angkor period and was actually built before Angkor Wat. Our first full day on the loop we drove through rain and fog, obscuring the waterfalls. However, it felt great to be off the tourist path and we found a small guesthouse in the tiny town of Paksong. The next day the weather cleared and we were treated with spectacular views of rice paddies and coffee fields. We stopped at a homestay in an ethnic minority village for a cup of coffee (hand round in mortar & pestle and served in a bamboo stalk pour over) and stayed the night by the Tad Lo waterfall.
Wat Phou, Champasak
On the road on Bolevan Plateau
Si Phan Don. Si Phan Don, or 4,000 Islands, is an archipelago in southern Laos along the Mekong River. A French couple we met in Tad Lo had just come from here and recommended the guesthouse Mama Leauh on the island Don Det. In all our travels so far, I have never heard people recommend a place more vehemently than this couple so we knew we had to stay here. It did not disappoint. We stayed in a charming riverside bungalow and just relaxed and explored the islands for five days. The food was phenomenal. Not all traditionally Lao (their specialty was Schnitzel!) but super scrumptious. Despite the humidity, Ryan was able to get some runs in around the island and I rented a bicycle with no brakes for $1 to explore.
In the back half of our stay in Thailand we headed north to Chiang Mai and Pai. We had a lot of firsts in Northern Thailand. Ryan had his first experience on a sleeper train as we took an overnight ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I had my first taste of Khao Soi, which became my favorite Thai dish. And we both rode motorbikes for the first time!
Chiang Mai is an incredibly charming city. The Old City, where we stayed, is one square mile surrounded by ancient walls and packed to the brim with temples. Its also incredibly walkable compared to the much larger Bangkok. Because the canal and square city walls were flanked by wide sidewalks it also made a great running loop (something that can be hard to come by in hectic Asian cities). Northern Thailand is also generally less expensive than the coast or Bangkok.
We spent the better part of our first day just wandering around the Old City. There are literally hundreds of temples in this small geographic area. We visited:
Wat Chedi Luang. Temple complex includes ruins of a chedi from the old city.
Wat Phan Tao. The teak temple. Smaller temple made from beautiful teak wood.
Phra Singh Temple. Biggest temple (I think) in Chiang Mai. Several buildings on the complex, including gold covered stupa with elephants.
Wat Srisuphan. The silver temple. A one of a kind temple that is made from silver. Apparently the area it is located (just south of the Old City) was known for silver smiths. Gorgeous outside, but the inside is off limit to women.
There are a couple small museums in the city center. We spent about an hour looking through the Chiang Mai Historical Center. The museum goes through the history of the region chronologically and was a nice way to get out of the afternoon heat.
One of the most quintessential things to do in Chiang Mai is to take a Thai cooking class. We took the full day course with the Asia Scenic Cooking School. We made Pad See Ew and Pad Thai, papaya salad and spicy chicken salad, fried bananas and mango sticky rice, ground red and green curry paste, and rolled and fried our own spring rolls. I’m probably forgetting something but we left the day completely stuffed and satisfied.
Chiang Mai was also our jumping off point for a full day excursion to Doi Inthanon National Park with a trip to an elephant park. When you book these tours usually you expect to be accompanied by a van full of other people, but we lucked into getting the tour all to ourselves this time! I think it is a perk of traveling in the low season is that that is more likely. We went on a nature walk in the national park with our guide Nop and and then spent the afternoon feeding and bathing a group of elephants. I have some mixed feelings about the exploitation of animals, but we went to a park where they explicitly don’t let guests ride the elephants and they seemed to have a lot of land to roam. In any case, it was absolutely incredible to get up close with the animals and play with them in the stream.
The other thing I have to mention about Chiang Mai is the Sunday Night Market. Night markets in general have been one of our favorite things in Asia. The Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai is one of the biggest night markets I’ve seen yet. It sprawls through the old city and there are so many items for sale. In addition to a lot of food there were clothes and lots of knick knacks and souvenirs for sale. It was quite an experience and I think not to be missed on a trip to Chiang Mai.
After 5 nights in Chiang Mai we ventured further north to the town of Pai. What to say about Pai. Its a really, really popular backpacker destination. That means the town and surrounding area is very touristy and there are a lot of hippies. The countryside is beautiful. Once you get a bit outside of town, everywhere you look you can see lush green rice fields and rolling hills.
Our first day in Pai we decided to hike to the Mae Yen waterfall. Out of the several waterfalls around Pai, this is the only one you have to hike to get to. The hike to the waterfall took about three hours and we had to wade across a river to get to the trailhead.
The trail follows a river upstream and criss crosses the stream throughout the whole hike. I bet we spent 50% of the time wading across the stream vs. walking on land. The last bit involved a pretty steep and slippery uphill climb but in the end, we made it!
The other amazing activity we did in Pai was learn to ride motorbikes. We rented scooters for the day from Vespai (the businesses in town are really great at making Pai puns) and paid a little extra to get a proper lesson. 30 minutes on the side road in front of our guesthouse and we were ready to go! There is a loop around Pai that hits up some of the super kitschy tourist attractions that line the highways around Pai. The loop takes only 45 minutes, so its a great place for beginners. We stopped at “Coffee in Love” (one of the uber kitschy roadside stops) and Pai Canyon before looping back around to the main town. We also biked up to a sunset overlook but only had an overcast view of the valley below.
In the end, I have really fond feelings about our short stay in Pai. Its probably less because of the town itself and more because of the motorbikes. There was also a really good burger place.
Ok, we've been in Laos for ten days and I am finally getting around to posting about our time in Thailand! Here's a bit about the first half of our 20 day trip…
After a quick overnight stop in Krabi Town, we set off for a relaxing few days on the Andaman Sea. Though not an island, Railay Beach is still only accessible by boat. The iconic karst cliffs that cut off Railay from the mainland are formed through the erosion of limestone and can be found throughout the region. We waited around the dock until another backpacker joined us to share a longtail boat to Railay.
We came just after the high season, so while we had more rainy afternoons, there were also smaller crowds and cheaper accommodations. The coast was probably the most expensive part of our Thailand trip. We splurged and stayed at the Avatar Railay Resort. A splurge for our budget was $45/night. In real vacation terms it was a total steal and the pool alone was well worth it. Railay is tiny (the walk from East Railay to West took 4 minutes) but there is still a lot to do. Beside relaxing by the pool or on the beach we rented kayaks and spent two nights hanging out at Kamar Bar where the wildly entertaining owner Ning had us laughing all night.
On our last full day, we went on a Phi Phi Islands Tour. We snorkeled, swam in an absolutely stunning lagoon and stopped for a photo op at Maya Bay where the movie The Beach was filmed.
From the beach we took a night bus from Krabi to Bangkok. On our first day we hit up some of the quintessential sightseeing spots like the famous temples Wat Pho and Wat Arun. These temples are across the river from one another so there is a ferry that runs between them every couple of minutes.
Our first night in Bangkok we walked around the famous backpacker area Khoasan Road. Right next to Khoasan Road is the street Soi Rambuttri. Soi Rambuttri is basically a older, tamer version of Khoasan Road. For example, Khoasan Road is where you go to see young drunk people get stupid tattoos on the street. On Soi Rambuttri, the 30s crowd is still knocking back Chang beers, but they at least get their tattoos inside actual parlors.
We also explored several Bangkok markets and night markets, visited the Jim Thompson house, and even went to a free Sunday taping of Muy Thai boxing at the Chanel 7 Stadium. My favorite meal in Bangkok was seafood barbecue at the Ratchada Night Market. It was basically a Thai-style Louisiana boil. They dumped a pile of saucey seafood on our table and handed us each a pair of plastic gloves. No utensils required.
Next up… we take a Thai cooking class, play with elephants and learn to ride motorbikes in Northern Thailand! Stay tuned…
I need to get a lot better at posting on the blog! At this point I’m one country and about twenty days behind updating what we’re up to in real-time.
On June 13th we headed north from Singapore for a 12 day stint in Malaysia. We went from the concrete jungle of Kuala Lumpur to the actual jungle of Taman Negara. We also visited Melaka and Georgetown, two of Malaysia’s UNESCO world heritage cities. All in all I’d say Malaysia was a culinary delight.
Melaka. Melaka/Malacca fell under Portuguese, Dutch and British rule and so is a hodge podge of colonial influence that is visible in the architecture and historical sites around town. We walked around the historic downtown, saw the iconic Christ Church, Jonker Walk and fort ruins. Our guesthouse, Cafe 1511, was just a block from Jonker Walk within the world heritage area and was actually part of the Baba and Nonya Peranakan Museum. Peranakan people are of mixed Chinese/Malay decent and have distinct food and culture. The Baba and Nonya house tour, a highlight from our trip, was through the old house of a wealthy Peranakan family. The third house connected to the complex (what was the servants house) is now Cafe 1511 and where we stayed. We ate chicken & rice balls at Chung Wah Chicken Rice and Laksa, a traditional peranakan dish, at Calanthe Art Cafe two nights in a row.
The canal walk in old town Melaka
The Iconic Christ Church
Highly recommend taking the guided tour through this private museum. We learned a ton and the home is beautiful.
We stayed in an attic room above Cafe 1511 in the old Peranakan servant house.
Laksa! This traditional noodle and seafood soup was so delicious we went to Calanthe Art Cafe two nights in a row!
Kuala Lumpur. Our food journey continued in Kuala Lumpur. We spent 3 of our 5 nights in KL at the Jalon Aloor night market. We had everything from noodle dishes and stir fried veggies to dim sum and chinese chicken wings. Desert was just as good too. I had pandan layer cake and Ryan got his favorite SE Asian treat called cendol. Cendol is a mix of little worm-like green rice flour things with red beans, syrup and coconut milk over shaved ice. We explored Petaling Street and the 1920s Art Deco Central Market. On the museum front, the only one I recommend is the Museum of Islamic Art. This gorgeous building overlooks the dome of the National Mosque and is absolutely stunning. My favorite sections was all about mosque architecture around the world and the museum paid special attention to Malay, Chinese and Indian Islamic art as these are the three main ethnic groups in the country.
View of the national mosque from the Museum of Islamic Art.
Entrance to Batu Caves outside of KL.
Taman Negara. On to the jungle! We took a 3 night, 2 day trip to Taman Negara and learned that the words “taman negara” literally mean “national park” in Malay. After a 3 hour van ride and a 3 hour boat ride we got to the park. We stayed at a place called Han Rainforest Resort. All the accommodations, apart from one fancy resort, are across the river from the park itself in a small town called Kuala Tahan. Whenever we wanted to get into the park itself we had to take a little boat ferry across the river. We went on a night walk in the jungle. This was pretty tame (lots of tour groups and lights and we walked only on the boardwalk section of the park within the resorts boundaries) but we still got to see some creepy crawlies like centipedes and scorpions out at night. We did the Canopy Walk and hiked around the jungle. You may be wondering, are there leeches in the jungle? The answer is yes and I felt like I had to stop every 5 minutes to freak out about it. That afternoon we also went on the much advertised “rapid shooting” tour. This amounted to our tour company taking us on a 45 minute ride up and down the river and rocking the river boat to make sure we all got soaked. In all sincerity it was a ton a fun.
Hiking among the giant trees of the jungle.
Ryan descending from the canopy walk. At the highest point we were probably 120 feet above the jungle floor.
View from our lunch spot on one of the floating restaurants.
Getting new ideas to rig out our truck back home?
Ready to get wet on the rapid shooting trip.
Penang. Georgetown, Penang is another UNESCO heritage old town, a foodie destination and the street art capital of Malaysia. We originally wanted to take the train to Penang from KL, but because our travel coincided with the last days of Ramadan, all the trains were booked with people traveling for the holidays. Sightseeing on the island included a little self guided walking tour of Georgetown’s historic landmarks and a trip up to Penang Hill. Penang Hill sort of has the vibe of a roadside tourist trap. You can buy heart shaped balloons from a scary clown and visit an “owl museum” that is targeted at little kids. As far as I could tell was basically a room full of owl images and stuffed animals. We didn’t do either of these things, however, I always find a funicular ride enjoyable, and the views from the top were beautiful. Our food journey continued with more satay, Char Kway Teow, and Wan Tan Mee. We also had breakfast two days in a row at Zim Sum Restaurant. Dim Sum for breakfast? That’s right! The place was absolutely packed, the food was delicious and we got to try loads of new stuff from the self service area.
Street art on Armenian Street in Georgetown, Penang.
Kapitan Keling Mosque was built in 1801 by Penang’s first Indian Muslim settlers.
The grave of Sir Francis Light in the old Protestant cemetery.
Armenian Street at night.
CF Food Market. Right next to our hotel and frequented by Anthony Bordain for an episode of No Reservations.
Our favorite breakfast place!
A beautiful sight for hungry eyes.
View of Penang and the Straights of Malacca from atop Penang Hill.
After our month in Nepal, we flew on to our next destination. Singapore! From here we launched the SE Asia portion of our adventure that will take us to Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam through the end of August.
We arrived in Singapore on Friday, June 9th and stayed through the 13th when we took a bus a few hours north to Melaka, Malaysia. Coming from Nepal, one of the least developed countries either of us has ever traveled in, we had a bit of reverse culture shock landing in a big modern city like Singapore! I have to admit it was very nice to be in a place with sidewalks and street lights and very good public transit after trying to cross traffic in Kathmandu.
Singaporeans are a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian people and culture. As you can imagine, that meant the food was absolutely amazing and there was a ton of variety. We tried satay, chicken rice, noodles galore, roti for breakfast, dim sum… We ate most of our meals at hawker centres, which are food markets with lots of different stalls and types of dishes. My main strategy was to find the longest line at the hawker center and just get that.
A big highlight from our time in Singapore was meeting up with Gim, a friend of a friend back home. Gim was gracious enough to spend all day Saturday with us showing us around Singapore, touring The National Gallery Singapore and Gardens by the Bay, treating us to some delicious local food and even letting us relax and swim at her pool! I can’t say enough what a great time we had. Thank you, Gim!
Since we had such a whirlwind couple of days, I think the best way to share our experience is to share some of our favorite photos:
Our first night in Singapore we had dinner at the Lau Pa Set food center (satay and dim sum!) and walked around Clarke Quay and the Marina Bay Area.
View of Clarke Quay (pronounced “key”). We followed the lead of some other tourists & locals and bought beers at the 7-11 and chilled on the bridge rather than at one of the overpriced bars.
Our first view of Singapore’s famous Gardens by the Bay. You can see the domes and one patch of “Supertrees.”
Inside the supertree grove around 10 PM. The outdoor area of the gardens are free and open until 2 AM.
On Saturday we met up with our new friend Gim. Our first stop was The National Gallery Singapore. Lucky for us a new exhibit of Yayoi Kusama’s work had just opened! This is the second Kusama exhibit of our trip!
The exhibit was titled “Life is the Heart of a Rainbow.”
…and polka dots!
Ryan and Gim in one of Kusama’s infinity mirror rooms.
Venus de Milo covered in Kusama’s hallmark colored nets.
After the museum and lunch we headed to Gardens by the Bay. Here are the supertrees by day!
Inside the Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay. You can see the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in the background through the glass.
Gim, Ryan and me at the Flower Dome.
Waterfall inside the Cloud Forest Dome.
Walkway around the cloud forest.
Example of peranakan style homes in Singapore.
View from Gim’s balcony overlooking the pool. We took a late afternoon dip!
Chili crab! As a grand finale to our amazing day, Gim took us to the East Coast Food Village to chow down on chili crab, veggies, BBQ stingray, salted egg chicken and more! It was a delicious feast.
This is the entrance to the Ramadan Bazaar on Geylang Street. Thousands of people, lights and vendors selling everything from unicorn milkshakes to carpets and clothes.
On Sunday we went to lunch in Little India. Ryan enjoyed his masala dosa and mango lassi.
Umbrella tree art installation in Little India.
That night we enjoyed fancy cocktails from a rooftop bar. Here’s the view of Lantern, the bar on top of the Fullerton Hotel on Marina Bay.
Enjoying a cocktail overlooking Marina Bay Sands.
Ryan and his Singapore Sling.
On our last full day in Singapore we started out with a tour of the Tiger Brewery.
I was happy to see that Tiger has several solar arrays on their facility! I’ll drink to that.
Ryan and his inner tiger.
Tourguide Mark showing us the ropes. Ryan and one of the other participants got to try their hand at the perfect pour. Cheers!
The tour ended with a beer and 45 minute tasting in Tiger’s pub. Singapore is pretty expensive so these were probably the cheapest drinks in town!
After the brewery we headed over to Bukit Timah for an afternoon walk.
We reached the summit! This is the end of our pics from Singapore. The next day we caught a bus to Melaka and began our tour of Malaysia!
Sorry for the delay! We’ve been seriously enjoying our time in SE Asia. So far we’ve spent time in Singapore, Melaka and now Kuala Lumpur. More to come on that, but first here’s the second part of our Annapurna trek:
We made it up and over the Thorung Pass during the second week of our Annapurna trek. This was a really interesting couple of days because we took a 2-day sidetrip up to Tilicho Lake, made it over the pass, and entered the region of Mustang.
Day 7: Manang to Tilicho Lake Base Camp. After two nights in Manang we headed back out on the trail. From here we took a side detour from Manang to Tilicho Lake. Instead of hiking from Manang to Yak Karka (our next stop on the main Annapurna trail) we took a side trail to the Tilicho Lake Base Camp. The hike probably took us 8 hours (incl. breaks and lunch). It was pretty steep getting up to Shree Karka (a small enclave of a couple guesthouses on the trail) but we were rewarded with spectacular views. After the lunch spot we got to an infamous landslide area on the trail. We’d read about this on other blogs. While mostly fine, there were definitely a few treacherous spots. You can see our pics from this section! After such a long day, when we finally made it to the base campe, I rewarded myself with a chocolate pancake for dinner. I really wish I had a picture of it. Sleeping at this elevation and hiking to Tilicho Lake the next day also helped us acclimate before tackling Thorung La pass.
Day 8: Tilicho Lake Day Hike.Tilicho Lake is one of the highest lakes in Nepal and the world. The lake sits at an elevation above 16,000 ft. While the hike was fairly steep, it felt amazing to spend a day hiking without having to carry our full packs. The views of the valley, the mountains and the lake were absolutely amazing. I don’t think this is something I’ll ever forget.
Water break on the hike up to Tilicho Lake
Tilicho Lake Hike
Tilicho Lake Profile
Tilicho Lake. One of the highest lakes in the world at almost 5000 meters. Absolutely stunning.
Snow and ice feeding Tilicho Lake. We witnessed 2 small avalanches in the distance while at the lake.
Day 9: Tilicho Lake Base Camp – Yak Karka. Fortunately we did not have to trek all the way back to Manang to get back on the main Annapurna trail. From base camp we backtracked through the landslide area again (how fun!) and stopped for lunch at the same restaurant in Shree Karka. From there we were able to take a new path on to the village of Yak Karka, cutting over to a new section of trail. I don’t have pics from this section because, to be honest, I was pretty exhausted. The village of Yak Karka is quaint and one of the last real settlements we went through until we hiked to the other side of the pass. Fun fact: At this elevation hot showers aren’t really available!
Day 10: Yak Karka – Thorong Phedi. Yak Karka to Thorung Phedi is a relatively short day. At this elevation, you should only gain so much elevation in one day to avoid feeling sick. At this point there are two sleeping options before tackling the pass. You can sleep at Thorung Phedi or Thorung High Camp. High Camp is about an hour or so past Phedi and there is a very steep climb between the two. The benefit to continuing on is that you can start your ascent with a bit of a head start the next day. The downside is its colder at high camp and your quality of sleep with probably be diminished. We decided to stay at Thorung Phedi for the night. The food here is actually decent! Better than I expected. We had soup, spring rolls, lots of tea and a tomato pasta dish for dinner. The vibe here was also the most backpacker-y/hippy-dippy so far because its not an actual village where Nepalese live but instead just an outpost on the trek.
Day 11: Thorong Phedi – Thorong La – Muktinath. Today was the big day! We got a very early start at 4:30 AM with a breakfast of cinnamon rolls, boiled eggs and tea. There were actually really good baked goods up here. The most difficult part of the day physically was the first hour or so getting from Thorong Phedi to High Camp. From there it was a few more hours to reach the pass, but the grade was much more gradual. The weather was incredibly foggy and overcast and so it was difficult to see more than a few yards ahead at a time. But we finally made it to Thorong La! It felt like an incredible achievement. For me, mentally, the more difficult part of the day was getting down to the village of Muktinath. I think I had a lot of adrenaline flowing to get me over the high point and then it all vanished as we started making our way down. I’m sure a touch of altitude sickness played a part too. It felt like it took forever to get to Muktinath. It also didn’t help that we were still shrouded in fog. Once we broke through you could see the layer of fog hanging over the mountains and then the sun shining on the lower villages. Muktinath is a really interesting town because its the site to several important Buddhist and Hindu temples. Lots of Indian folks make a pilgrimage here. It was really interesting to see a lot of tourists and pilgrims around when for days we’d only seen locals or other trekkers.
Day 12: Muktinath – Kagbeni. The next day we walked along the road from Muktinath through the town of Jarkhot to Kagbeni. Kagbeni is an incredible village. Its medieval, decently large, has a large monastery and beautiful views of the Mustang region. Mustang is more desert-like than Manang (the region we were in before crossing over the Thorung Pass). Kagbeni is also the entryway to Upper Mustang, which is a restricted region in Nepal. To trek further into Upper Mustang you need a guide and a special permit that runs $50 USD/day/person. We were really excited to stay in Kagbeni to get just a taste of Mustang and its certainly an area I would return to. Upper Mustang is formerly the Lo Kingdom and was off limits to foreigners until 1992. Because of this its cultural heritage is incredibly well maintained. Very Tibetan.
The other big draw of Kagbeni is the Yac Donald’s! Ryan had read about this restaurant online and we had even heard a few positive reviews from others on the trail so we were very excited to eat here. The food did not disappoint! We ended up staying at the guesthouse attached to Yac Donald’s and had yak burgers with cheese for lunch and dinner. Kagbeni was a bit more expensive than some fo the other villages we have stayed in. For example, our room at the hotel was 500 rupees (or $5 USD). It was actually a very nice place and we had a private bathroom with a shower attached to our room. Comparatively, many of our guesthouses in Manang did not charge for the room itself (assuming we ate dinner and breakfast there) or were only $2 or $3.
Day 13: Kagbeni – Marpha. Today we planned to trek to the village of Marpha where we would have a rest day. The day started out great as this was supposed to be a pretty light day or hiking. However, in this area, most of the trek is along the road, which is not as enjoyable as hiking on a trail. We had the idea to try and find the alternate trail on the other side of the river for a more scenic hike. This did not go well. After four extra hours of losing the trail, backtracking, finding the trail, finding out that the trail had been washed out, backtracking again, we had to give up and go back to the road. Of course at this point it started raining and our spirits were low. Luckily, once we’d gotten ourselves going the right way, we ran into a lovely Scottish fellow named Colin. His company could not have come at a better time! We finished walking to the village of Jomsom with him and his company was entertaining and diverting. Jomsom is a relatively large village as it is a transit hub and there is an airport here. It didn’t seem like the most pleasant village, so I would recommend continuing on to Marpha, which is incredibly charming.
Day 14: Rest day in Marpha. It was so nice to spend a day relaxing in Marpha! We wandered around town, we did laundry, we drank the local brandy. Marpha is known for its apple orchards and so apple cider, apple juice and apple brandy are all local. Ryan also tried apricot brandy, which was very good.
Day 15: Marpha to Ghasa. Pretty uneventful day. Right after Marpha there is a Tibetan village where people settled after the Chinese annexation of Tibet.
Yak head seen in Tibetan village outside of Marpha.
Day 16: Ghasa to Tatopani. In Nepalese the words tato and pani literally mean hot water. Tatopani has hot springs! We settled into a charming little guesthouse right by the hot springs that seemed very popular with trekkers and went out to enjoy the hot springs pools. The water was super hot and felt amazing after over 2 weeks trekking. At the hot springs we also met three Nepalese guys on a mini vacation. They were so nice and we sat with them for a few hours enjoying some beers and chatting. It was super fun to talk to them about Nepal, the US, look at pictures of their kids and just hang out. We had a great time!
Day 17: Ghorepani failure, back to Tatopani. Our original intent was to walk the entire Annapurna Circuit trek, which ends in a village called Nayapul. Our plan was to trek to the village of Ghorepani on this day, get up early the next day to hike up Poon Hill (known as a wonderful view point) and then onto the end. However, to get to Ghorepani you have to hike up some major hills. We were back in the humid forest area and at this time of year its getting hot and rainy. It was just too hot and humid for me so after an hour or two of trekking we decided to head back, call it a day, and take the bus to the lakeside town of Pokhara the next day.
So, our Annapurna Circuit trek came to an end. This was one of the most amazing adventures. We met some great people and saw incredible landscapes. I would recommend this trek in a heartbeat.
Day 18: Bus from Tatopani to Pokhara. Another 6 hour bumpy bus ride! It felt amazing to pull in Pokhara. After nearly 3 weeks of trekking it felt incredible to relax in this lakeside town for a few days and take a load off.
A couple photos from Pokhara:
Sunset over Phewa Lake from the river walk
View of Pokhara and Phewa Lake from the Peace Pagoda
We have finished our Annapurna trek! We began trekking in the village of Syange and ended about 18 days later in the village of Tatopani. Now we are relaxing in the lovely lake town of Pokhara where we can enjoy the beautiful Himalayas from a distance. To make posting about the trek more manageable, I’m going to divide the trip into three posts: intro and up to Manang, Manang to Thorung La, and after the pass to the end.
The Annapurna Circuit is a trekking route around the Annapurna mountain range in the Himalayas. The highest point of the trail is Thorung La (La means Pass) at 17,769 ft/5416m! This is one of the most popular treks in the world. You can get up close to the Himalayas without needing much equipment or summiting a peak. Most folks, like us, follow the trail counter clock-wise. The official start is in the town of Besisahar and ends in Nayapul. With today’s roads its now possible to start and end at various points along the trail. Before getting to Nepal I saw much chatter online about how the development of roads has impacted the quality of this trek. I have to say this did not detract from our enjoyment of the trek at all.
Another reason the Annapurna Circuit is so popular is the trail goes through dozens of villages and a wide variety of landscapes. We started and ended in humid, forested country, hiked through more alpine terrains and got a taste of the desert-like Mustang region. Instead of camping, we stayed in guesthouses and ate our meals at guesthouses or restaurants along the way. Its also popular to take a mid morning tea break! The accommodations run from fairly nice to basic (and usually more basic the higher the elevation), but we had mostly great experiences.
Day 0: Transportation Day. This was a loooong day in transit. After a six hour bus ride from Kathmandu we were dropped off in the town of Besisahar. Its possible to start the trek here. Some folks walk 2 hours to the town of Bhulbhule (or take a quick jeep ride). Since we’d been held up in Kathmandu an extra two days we decided to hop in a jeep and get a ride a bit further up the trail. The jeep ride cost about $10 and included 3 other travelers in the cab as well as a crew of Nepalis riding in the truck bed. About 2 hours later we got off in the town of Syange to spend the night.
Entering the Annapurna Conservation Area
Day 1: Syange to Tal. This was a rough day for me by the end. We hiked through the villages of Jagat and Chamje. In Chamje we stopped for a pumpkin curry lunch. Just after Chamje we crossed our first suspension bridge and then had a long climb up to the village of Tal. Tal is a very nice town along the river with a beautiful waterfall. After the long climb I got pretty sick from dehydration and exhaustion. I think it was just the shock of a long day and luckily I felt fine by the next day. While we were in Tal we saw some kind of political demonstration. Not sure if it was a protest or celebration but many of the townsfolk were walking up and down the streets with the banner of their political party and chanting.
First day trekking. Just leaving the village of Syange.
Street view in the village of Tal.
Day 2: Tal to Danaque. This was a really pleasant day. The walking was, thankfully, much less steep. Just before lunch we got caught in a downpour and stopped in the town of Dharapani. Here we had Veg and Potato Momo (dumplings), which has become one of our favorite dishes in Nepal. Along the way to Danaque we also had our first sighting of Annapurna II (just the tippy top of the peak behind another mountain range) outside the small village of Bagarchhap. In Danaque we found a very cute little guest house to stay in. For dinner we had fried rice and fried noodles, which was delicious, and a happy break from dal bhat.
Day 3: Danaque to Chame. For breakfast today we had Tibetan bread. Tibetan bread is so good! It has a similar taste to funnel cake or an elephant ear (minus the powdered sugar). The first part of our walk today was shady and lovely. The path, after some steep stone steps, meandered through a wooded area. From there we passed through three other towns on the way to Chame: Timang, Thanchowk and Koto. Timang was a really beautiful little town. It has a lot of pasture land and horses. The buildings were quaint and looked well taken care of. We didn’t stop here but its somewhere I definitely would recommend for a tea break, lunch or even a night. Chame is a much bigger town (I think its the district HQ) and we stayed here for the night. At dinner, we tried a spicy local pickle. I think it might have been okra.
View from our guesthouse in Danaque
Day 4: Chame to Upper Pisang. This is the day the landscape really starts to change and the mountain views get good. We also started seeing more trekkers on the trail. This is also where we first saw the Paunga Danda rock face (or “Gateway to Heaven”). We were able to make it all the way to Upper Pisang before taking lunch so we would have more time to chill out here and explore. I think Pisang was one of my favorite villages. We stayed in the upper section because the views of Annapurna II are better. A lot of the guide books recommend staying in Lower Pisang because the accommodations are nicer, but I feel this is outdated advice. While there are sort of sketchy looking guest houses everywhere, there was a bunch of new construction in the upper section. From the road we saw this beautiful wooden, cabin-looking place and really wanted to stay there. It seemed a lot of people had the same idea because eventually most of the folks we’d seen that day on the trail also ended up there and the place was full. (This was rare since its the off season and there are less trekkers than in Oct/Nov or Feb/March. At times we’ve been the only guests at our lodging).
Crossing the bridge out of Chame
Gompa exiting Chame
Almost to Pisang. View of the “Gateway to Heaven” Rock Face.
Welcome sign on our walk from Lower Pisang to Upper Pisang
Beautiful Mount Kailash Hotel in Upper Pisang
Day 5: Pisang to Ngawal. We decided to take the upper route out of Pisang. (There is a lower route that goes along the road and through a valley. It isn’t as steep but also doesn’t have as good views.) We had to go up super steep switch backs along this hillside to get up to the town of Ghyaru. About 3/4 of the way up we stopped at a tea house for a masala tea break. Both Ghyaru and the next village Ngawal are medieval-era and have traditional mud houses. After that super steer climb up to Ghyaru, most of the road to Ngawal was flat and offered infinitely amazing views of Annapurna II and III and the Gateway to Heaven. By far one of our most beautiful days. In Ngawal we stayed at the “Peaceful Hotel.” Ryan ordered spring rolls, which were delicious, but looked and tasted more like giant empanadas.
View of Annapurna II from guesthouse
Ryan hiking out of Upper Pisang with Annapurna II in the background
Somewhere on the trail between Ghyaru and Ngawal
Hiking into Ngawal
Veggie “spring rolls” in Ngawal
Day 6: Ngawal to Manang. This was a fairly short day since most people go straight from Pisang to Manang. Manang is a bigger village and the place where most people take an extra day to rest and help acclimate to the altitude. Before we got to Manang we passed through the villages of Munji and Bracka/Braga (which are very close together). In Munji we ran into two women we’d met on the trail and stopped for lunch. Here we had our first taste of seabuckthorn juice. This delicious local juice is bright orange and made from the berries of the seabuckthorn, which is a high altitude shrub. Its supposed to be high in. Vitamin c and really good for you. Braga is also home to one of the oldest monasteries in the region. The other great thing about Manang is there are three different “cinemas” in town. We went to one of the projector halls to see Seven Years in Tibet.
Day 7: Rest day in Manang. On our second day in Manang we went on a short day hike up to help acclimatize and get a closer look at the Gangapurna glacier. This was a nice and relaxing day. Got to sleep in, eat a late breakfast, and play a bunch of cards.
Up next: Week two: Manang to the Thorung Pass (with Tilicho Lake side trip)!