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.
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)!
Its our forth day in Kathmandu! We originally planned to head up to the mountains today to start our trek around Annapurna, but our hotel advised us to wait until Monday. Nepal is holding its first local elections in 20 years on Sunday. There is a chance transportation could be disrupted due to a strike today or difficult to arrange as many people are traveling to smaller towns to vote. Transit is not running on Election Day. We now have two extra days in Kathmandu and can relax a little more before spending 20+ days hiking.
Here’s the scoop on Kathmandu so far…
Getting our visas and going through security at the airport on Wednesday was uneventful, but as soon as we exited the airport it felt like there were dozens of taxi drivers coming up to us or hollering at us. We knew this was going to happen but it was still jarring (especially being so tired and jet lagged). We have still not gotten used to the culture of haggling! I am glad that on the trek the tourism board has fixed the prices at the tea houses so we won’t have to worry about either getting a bad deal or not spending enough in the local economy. I’m sure this is something we’ll have to get used to during our trip.
Our first afternoon we got ourselves situated at the hotel and explored Thamel and had dinner (dal baht, Nepal’s “national dish,” and mutter paneer). Thamel is the “backpackers” neighborhood in Kathmandu and is geared for tourists and trekkers. There are hundreds of outfitters and shops hawking inexpensive, knock-off outdoor gear. Lots of restaurants too and so we’ve eaten most of our meals here.
On our first full day we went to Durbar. There are several Durbar Squares in Nepal that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Kathmandu Valley. The Square is a mix of temples and palaces. The palace used to be the King’s residence until 1896. After that it was used for special events and later as a museum. The monarchy was abolished in 2008 when Nepal became a republic.
It was very sad to see the destruction from the 2015 earthquake on these incredibly significant historic and religious sites (not to mention the loss of life and impact on the people). Several of the temples were severely damaged. Just looking at before and after pictures is heartbreaking. That being said, it was still a wonder to see temples still in use that were built in the 16th and 17th centuries.
We also got our TIMS trekking permits, our entry permits for the Annapurna Conservation Area, we ate momo for lunch (Nepalese dumplings) and picked up some trekking stuff. Through a quick internet search I found a place in Thamel called Shona’s Alpine that makes their own down sleeping bags and had really good reviews. We ended up renting a down sleeping bag for me for 80 rupees per day (about 80 cents USD) and picking up a few other things.
Yesterday, we walked over to the Swayambhu Temple (or Monkey Temple). It was incredible!
Stupa at Swayambhu (Monkey Temple)
While the stupa was cracked during the earthquake, and some of the outer temples were damaged, repairs are underway and it still looks amazing. The temple is up on a hill and gave us a really great view of Kathmandu.
After that we wandered back to Thamel and ate lunch on a roof deck with another great view and just relaxed. The food here is pretty inexpensive (you can get a full meal of dal bhat, lentils, rice and some accompaniments, for $3-4) and its pretty good. We’ve been eating only vegetarian (the sanitation relating to meat does not seem very good so we figured better to be on the safe side) and there are a lot of veggie options. We are very much looking to experiencing street food in Asia, but not in Nepal. Its just not considered safe for visitors. We did end up having dinner at a very hippy/backpacker/trendy spot the other night which was fun but it was a little too cool.
To be honest, I can’t wait to get out of Kathmandu and into the mountains and start our trek (no offense KTM! I just want to see the Himalayas). But, we’re here for two more days and so we plan to visit Patan (a town just south of Kathmandu) and see some more sights in the city before grabbing a bus to Besisahar on Monday. Wish us luck!