We spent nearly two weeks in Pokhara. It’s the second largest city in Nepal, and yet it has the feel of a small town. Because we were under the weather most of the time we were there, or maybe because we just weren’t motivated after nearly five months of continuous travel, we didn’t take a boat ride on the lake, or book a hot air balloon, or explore the nearby caves, or hike up the hill to the Peace Pagoda, or do any trekking. No, we did none of that. We wandered the streets of the town, some days toward the tourist area packed with shops supplying trekking gear and camping supplies; other days in the opposite direction where the locals who aren’t involved in the tourist industry go about their daily business. We like this mode of travel, where we just settle into a place and become part of the community if only for a short time.
On sunny days this man carves slate plaques. Most of his wares were too large for us so we asked if he could make a van-sized one. He happily obliged and we now have a colorful representation of the Sanskrit mantra “Om mani padmi hum,” an untranslatable phrase that’s said to embody the sum of Buddhist teachings. I think affixing it to the entrance of our camper will have the same effect as a mezuzah, a reminder of our home as sacred space, and to do good works as we go out in the world.
We would like to have seen how they managed to carve a golf course out of this terrain but we never got there.
One day we came upon a sculpture park. There were no signs, so we don’t know who the artist or artists were and no amount of Googling answered our questions, not unusual for Nepal.
This end of town is quiet and domestic, a nice break from the hundreds of tourist shops toward the center.
Our daily routine of predawn mountain watch paid off a few more times culminating in this breathtaking view of the Annapurnas from our hotel room. Any view of the Top of the World is a gift.
After our thrilling first look at the Annapurna range we’re determined to maximize the sightings, even though we’re here in exactly the wrong season for clear mountain views. We go about our daily business, exploring the streets and pathways of Pokhara but with a keen eye to the sky and the weather.
One afternoon we had a pretty good rain shower and that prompted us to plan a dawn trek to the Annapurna Cable Car, which takes you up the nearby mountain for a better view of the Himalayas. I asked the hotel to order a predawn taxi for the 20-minute ride to the cable car.
When the alarm went off the next morning I looked out the window to assess the conditions. It didn’t look good. But maybe it’ll clear up? At the cable car station we were the only passengers. Another bad sign.
The ride up was mostly in the dark, and from the top station there was quite a steep and rocky walk to the Sarangkot View Tower.
As we feared, there were no mountains visible through the dense smoky haze. We were disappointed but there’s still much to enjoy being up there. We parked ourselves at a cafe, had some coffee, watched the activity around us. More and more people arrived, and none of them seemed too disappointed either.
Jack, always wanting to get to the top of anything, climbed a narrow spiral staircase to the upper deck of the cafe while I stayed on the main deck enjoying what view there was. I was staring out toward the mountains lost in thought when I became aware of a person standing quite close to me. Then I noticed someone taking a photo of — me? I turned my head and standing right beside me was a very happy Indian woman leaning toward me. I was an inadvertent subject of a selfie! I laughed and smiled at my co-star, then all of her companions wanted to take turns having their picture taken with me. I happily obliged for at least 8 or 10 people, and some of the ladies even hugged me for the photo. After all the women took turns, the men started in too, and at this point Jack, on the upper deck, noticed what was going on.
Finally I had the presence of mind to turn my camera back on some of them. I haven’t been the object of such attention since our sail through Indonesia, where selfies were just part of our everyday travels, although it’s happened to a lesser extent everywhere we’ve been. I never know whether it’s the white hair, or my foreign looks or something else that makes people want to include me in their vacation memories. It happens to Jack, too.
Eventually we started back down toward the cable car and detoured to the other lookout point. Jack, as always, took the high route, showing off his bionic knees.
It’s so frustrating that the sky can be clear blue directly above but around the horizon it’s opaque haze. No matter, we parked ourselves at another cafe and had a plate of mo:mos, just enjoying being up in the hills.
We took the cable car back down, and in the daylight we could appreciate the beautiful terraced hillside. We’ll keep looking for the Himalayas but what’s nearby is nice too.
A loud grating sound came from somewhere high above me. It rudely brought me close enough to consciousness that I could open one eye. Darkness, nothing but darkness. Eye quickly closed, I began to slowly drift down into the ether. Sweet Jesus, there it is again. In the name of all that is holy, surely someone will turn that damn thing off. But wait there’s more. Now in a strange juxtaposition, a disturbing ascending wave of sound, over and over in seeming endless repeat, but now there’s that klaxon thing again with, oh my god, I actually know this one, it’s the iPhone classic Apex.
Well that puts paid to my night because, by now, I’ve remembered why we need to get up before dawn. It rained last night and with any luck at all, we have a date with Fishtail and the Annapurna range of the Himalayas.
Pokhara is nestled lakeside between high hills that tend to trap it’s considerable smoky-foggy air pollution so it takes a little rain and proper air currents to see the big boys.
Hot coffee in hand we eagerly wait for dawn’s early light, sitting on the edge of our bed staring through a large picture window, trying to make out what looks like the outline of the Himalayas. Minute by minute the view coalesces into a sharper image. The mood is buoyant. We see the first of the sun’s rays strike Fishtail.
Without a word we head to the elevator and punch a higher floor, climb the spiral stairs and out on the frosty roof we behold magnificence.
So much higher than the surrounding hills, it almost seems like a massive set of rogue waves, white with frothy foam, topping the hills only to topple and inundate Pokhara. It was kinda mystical.
We spent about two hours. In that time the Hotel Orchid’s manager stopped by to make sure we were up and enjoying the show, which was awfully nice. Ultralights, airplanes, and hot air balloons were all up too.
At this point of the story, dear Escapees, I’m reminded of our fat old black cat Margaret. Once, in an effort to get her to exercise, we bought a Wacky Wall Walker, a jiggly gummy bug-like toy that “walks” down the wall. We were told cats love them. Surprisingly, Margaret perked up and waddled over to the wall and attempted to jump up and grab the Wall Walker, except that her bunty little legs couldn’t lift her caboose off the ground. We also had an athletic calico cat who came over to see what the fuss was all about, waited for the toy to get within her range, gave a mighty leap, snagged the Wall Walker and trotted off with that smug expression she used. Margaret remained there waiting for the magic bug to return. From that moment on we would periodically see her sitting patiently beside the wall, quite content, watching for that magical Wall Walker. Let’s agree to call this the Margaret Method, or MM.
For the rest of our stay in Pokhara we practiced the Margaret Method as applied to the Dawn Himalaya Reappearance. MM mainly consisted of an alarm at dawn, two cups of coffee using our Aero-Press, which is a fiddly thing to do at dawn, and a fruitless wait with little to show for it. You have to admire the family’s tenacity.
We’ve been enjoying the color and chaos of Kathmandu. Sometimes as we’re dodging motorbikes or pushcarts, waving off shopkeepers hawking their wares, peeking down a dark alley that invites exploration, we look at each other in awe and laugh that we’re in this crazy place.
We’d been advised by nearly everyone who’s been to Nepal that Kathmandu should only be considered a waypoint, and it’s true that after nearly a week of dense pollution and crowded streets we are ready to find cleaner air and some mountain views. Pokhara sounds like just the ticket.
Pokhara is the center of trekking and other outdoor activities in Nepal. It’s located on a lake at the base of the Annapurna range and a bone-rattling ten-hour bus ride away. It’s also possible to fly there, and while the flight is slightly beyond our budget, we splurged to save a day of travel time and our kidneys. The taxi ride back to the airport, however, was not for the faint of heart. I shared with Jack my method for remaining calm during harrowing rides, a technique that’s served me well from a dizzying cliff-edge Jeep tour of Hiva Oa to a rush-hour tuktuk tear through Ho Chi Minh City with nonstop horns pounding a tattoo through my brain: Look away, enjoy the scenery and trust the driver. I know Jack tried, but I could see him sneaking glances out the front, and heard the occasional gasp. The driver, a carhorn virtuoso, was undaunted.
As usual in this part of the world, there are no jetways so we were driven out to the tarmac in a bus.
Our randomly chosen hotel was perfect, in a quiet part of town, with wonderful staff and a great view from the rooftop deck. This meant a lot, as by the time we reached Pokhara we both had full blown travelers colds. That put the kibosh on any thoughts we may have had of trekking and our normally sedate travel tempo slipped even further down to a snail’s pace.
While our new friend Peter took off on a 4-day trek, we set about exploring the town on daily walks. We were hoping for dazzling views of the Himalayas but apparently the sky is clearer in October and November. Still, our hotel people told us that when it rains the sky clears, so we hoped for rain.
From our balcony we watched the neighbor harvest mustard.
Down at the lake there are lots of boats, and of course boat work.
We made it a point to try a different restaurant every day. The food is basic, filling, delicious and inexpensive, similar to Indian food but with a decided Chinese influence.
One day we got caught in a sudden hailstorm that turned into rain. We took refuge in the nearest restaurant, and as the wind kicked up and the temperature dropped they built a fire to warm us.
Eventually the rain let up and we scurried back along the lake to our hotel before the next shower. I hope the rain means we’ll see the mountains tomorrow.
I’ve been searching for Kathmandu. The real Kathmandu. Prowling the narrow streets and alleyways almost every day. It’s dirty work. Maybe even a little dangerous. There are stone culverts running along the sides of the alleyways that you are sharing with fellow pedestrians, scooters, cars and trucks, that you are expected to repair to if the hell-bent-for-leather scooter heading straight at you decides he needs the space you’re currently occupying more than you do.
Dirty work. Every morning the shopkeepers brush yesterday’s dust and dirt into the street where you’re walking, using a broom made out of natural grasses. I see the broom man pushing his impossibly overstacked bike everyday. I marvel at the skill needed to keep ten feet of brooms stacked on a bike without using any line.
You can really get lost In Kathmandu but I’ve noticed that each street has a different character or special product. While name-brand technical gear can be found spread around just about anywhere, it’s mostly found on a specific street. Some of it is even real. After all, Kathmandu is staging for serious trekkers.
The city was hit by the 2015 earthquake more than I would have thought. Most buildings had some damage, some just slumped down into a pile of rubble. (The Netflix 3-part documentary Aftershock about the quake is worth watching.)
I had my first mo:mo, on a five floor walk up restaurant in Durbar Square.
Make sure you get them fried, not just steamed!
I find myself warming to Kathmandu.
Lately on my walks I finding certain parts of Kathmandu to be almost charming.
It’s said that travel changes you and I’d have to agree with that. I know it has me. We’ve spent so much time in Asia that now I have to smile if a mall has a fourth floor and I’m surprised if the elevator has the “unlucky” #4 button. In Penang we lived on the 29th floor of a high rise and on the way down the floor readout had a hiccup at the 24th floor which read 23b, 14th floor read 13a, and the fourth floor read 3ab, just to be safe. We got down just the same. My hospital in Penang had no 4th floor even though I had physical therapy on the fourth floor every day. Yours Truly found that a little disconcerting.
I’m not about to reach out for the chicken bones to find what it all means but I find I’m a little more aware of things like how the flow of my day seems to be going or why an older gentleman dressed in denim who also just arrived at the Kathmandu Airport just asked me where I got my shoes. Turns out that’s a long story but, “No, I’m not going trekking. These Merrells are my everyday shoes.” The affable Dutchman named Peter wished us good day and with it getting dark, we all busied ourselves with procuring ground transportation.
Ours turned out to be to be another yellow 4-door Speck with doors as thin as a sheet of corrugated cardboard. The driver applied himself diligently and soon we were being tossed about like dice in a dice box.
Outside the cab a horrible scene had developed into the intimidating kind of nighttime chaos that would fit right in to that river night scene in apocalypse now. You know the one. The traffic was horrendous but there were thousands of people partying out in the streets, bundled against the cold. It was an “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” moment.
That’s when I recalled how everyone reacted when we said we’re going to Kathmandu. “It’s a shithole.” Hard to believe it could be that bad. Well, everything looks worse at night. We hadn’t yet arrived but I wouldn’t say it’s a bad omen. The driver, all things considered, knew every path and alley in this city but he could not find our hotel. Ok, that’s an omen. Finally he stopped in an alley to call our hotel while completely blocking the knife & dagger shop we were practically stopped inside of. The hotel sent out a search and rescue party to find and guide us back on foot so our taxi left. The alleyways are paved in rough brick which caused our wheeled duffels to flop over but I liked the clickity-clack sound. I told Marce that we’d laugh about this later.
Eight flights of solid marble stairs later, we had arrived. Kathmandu. Yeah, so far it’s a shithole.
In the morning another flight of stairs led to al fresco breakfast on the roof. The temperature was a reach for us but I enjoyed the raven’s company.
Stepping out of our alley who should be the first person we see? It’s Peter, the affable Dutchman from the airport. Like us he’s a head taller than anyone else. He quickly suggested an afternoon foray to the Pashupatinath Temple on the Bagmati River. Of course, of course, sounds great.
The taxi let us off at the top of a ridge that led down to a tiny river where a great pall of smoke and incense lay in the valley choking us.
The heavy air is the kind of thing that Marce hates.
It quickly got serious though. Oh my god, these are funeral pyres.
It’s the Hindu festival MahaShivaratriandlines of faithful chant and dance through the temples.
Meanwhile, down at the river families are performing rights and ablutions before our very eyes.
Some have to be instructed, some corrected, some families stand there stunned.
What a scene. Sobering to think about what we’re breathing in. I’m told some are brought to a low lying building to await death. Too real.
We eventually hiked our way up the hill past every huckster in the valley to the temples on top and some of them still show serious damage from the 2015 earthquake.
By this point the grounds were overwhelmed with people making taxis fairly scarce so suddenly negotiating with them became much tougher. That’s how it goes in Kathmandu. It’s tough, but maybe it’s not a shithole.
Our Thai visas are due to expire shortly and rather than spend our last days in Bangkok we chose to stay in Kanchanaburi. There’s not much here beyond the Death Railway and related activities but the days are relaxing and quiet.
After the hot hike to Hellfire pass and back we both deserve a good massage. I opted for a one-hour foot massage, and Jack chose neck and shoulders. His masseuse must have felt he needed more than that and ended up completely working him over head to toe. As for me, I could go for a foot massage every day.
We find it disconcerting wherever we travel to see the penetration of Western brands into local culture, but at least here Ronald McDonald is being respectful with the usual Thai greeting.
Once again we were up early for the train back to Bangkok but this time we ordered up a tuktuk so we didn’t have to schlep our luggage the mile to the station. Our driver asked for my phone and enthusiastically took about ten photos of us, posing us here and there, trying different angles.
We probably could have gone directly to the airport but I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to make the connection from the train to the plane so we spent a final night in Bangkok. That gave me the opportunity to hit Uniqlo for some warm clothing for our next destination, and Jack a chance to have his last full English before we return to the UK in April.
Then it was off to the airport and goodby to Thailand. It’s been a great visit and we’ll definitely be back. Now, Westward Ho!
To get a real sense of what the laborers endured building the Thai-Burma Railway it’s best to make the journey to Hellfire Pass, the deepest cut through the mountains on the line. It’s not the easiest place to get to if you’re relying on public transportation. We got up at 5am, and walked a mile to the train station for the predawn train. This is the last bit of the line in existence. The British dismantled most of it after the war because it would have been too difficult to maintain, given the terrain and conditions.
We rumbled over the Kwai River as the sky began to lighten, and for the next two hours we traveled through fields of manioc toward the mountains, stopping for school children on the way.
Along the journey the train slows way down to traverse one of the few remaining original wooden trestles. The train passes inches from the rock wall on one side (no photos of that side, but there’s a great shot of it in the movie The Railway Man,) and curving around the cut high above the river on the other side. Lots of people ride the train just to see the trestle and get off at the next stop to take pictures, then ride the train right back to Kanchanaburi. Our train had a large Japanese tour group.
The train doesn’t go as far as Hellfire Pass, so you have to take a bus for a half hour then walk another half mile to the visitors center. We walked through the little village to the highway for the bus only to learn it wouldn’t come for an hour. The cook at a nearby food stall struck up a conversation with us, then offered to ride us up the mountain in his truck. Yes, please!
The interpretive center and the memorial walkway were built by the Australians to honor the prisoners of war who died during construction. The videos and displays describe the dire conditions — no shoes or proper clothing, barely subsistence rations, no medicines against tropical diseases or injuries — and we took our time through the galleries, difficult as it was to learn the brutality of the Japanese captors.
Then it was time to start the walkway. There are two options, a shorter one-hour walk to Hellfire Pass, and a longer, more challenging hike over uneven terrain through more passes and points of interest. We opted for the longer one, which required us to carry a safety radio, and someone from the visitors center checked in with us every hour to ask our position and make sure we were ok. Both walks are enhanced by an audio tour.
The beginning of the walk reminded me of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, where friends and family members leave notes and memorabilia near their loved ones’ names. Here, fellow prisoners of war leave flags, service pins and other memories to honor their friends who didn’t make it.
The entire railway line was constructed with hand tools, including cutting through solid rock along the cliff edge. Hellfire Pass is the deepest of those cuts and standing between the walls it’s hard to imagine how anyone survived this brutal work, half starved and barefoot in dry-season heat and monsoon mud.
At the end of the easier part of the walk are the flags of the countries whose prisoners are honored, and a place to sit down in the shade. The temperature was rising and I suspect we were approaching 35°C/95°F without a breath of air.
We forged ahead on the extended trail, listening to ever-more frightening stories on the audio tour, dragging our feet up steep uneven steps, scrambling down rocky slopes, trying to understand how human beings can treat other humans with such cruelty. It was not an easy walk, both physically and emotionally and we were relieved when it was time to turn back.
At one resting spot on the audio tour an ex-POW described the beauty of the valley they worked beside every day, covered in dense teak forest. He vowed to return after the war but by the time he came back some time later the teak was completely gone. Many of the sleepers on the railway were teak, a wood so heavy it took six men to carry one sleeper.
Back at the interpretive center we cooled off with a couple of smoothies, then waited on the highway for a bus to take us the two hours back to Kanchanaburi. The entire trip took more than twelve hours.
Before this trip all we knew about this chapter in WWII history was the fictionalized story in the movie Bridge on the River Kwai. The real story is much more brutal and we’re both glad we were able to understand in a small way what so many men suffered in the name of war, and to pay our respects.
For years I’ve been adding flags to my Google map whenever I read about a place we might want to visit. Bangkok is hot and dirty and wasn’t piquing our interest so we cast about for someplace to get away from the crowds and pollution.
There’s a mark on my map at the River Kwai bridge because who doesn’t love Alec Guinness and William Holden? And who doesn’t wish they could whistle the theme song from the movie? (My dad could. He was as good a whistler as Der Bingle.)
The bridge is in a small town called Kanchanaburi, and it took a few days to learn how to pronounce that. You get there on the Death Railway and to get to the train you take a ferry, which may or may not come in time to catch the train, or you take a taxi. We went for the taxi.
The train was slow and bumpy but it was nice to get away from the Big Mango. In about three hours we were checked in to a rustic cabin on stilts on the River Kwai. A cold shower and a couple of beers later and we felt good enough for the hot mile walk to see the famous bridge.
It’s important to point out at this juncture that the book the movie was based on is a novel, and while the basic underpinnings of the story are true, the plot is completely fiction and the author took some serious historical license in crafting his tale. For example, the wooden bridge depicted in the movie isn’t the actual bridge over the River Kwai that we’re about to walk over. In fact, there were more than 600 bridges on the Thai-Burma Railway. Let’s back up a little.
By 1942 Japan had invaded Thailand, then Burma. To supply their troops in Burma and prepare to invade India, they relied on the shipping lanes through the Malacca Strait and the Andaman Sea. But after their defeat at Midway the sea route was too dangerous, as it was patrolled by Allied submarines. A railway connecting Bangkok with Burma was the answer, despite the fact that the British had surveyed the land decades before and rejected the route, through mountainous, mosquito-infested jungle terrain, as impossible.
The Japanese were undaunted and in June 1942 began transporting about 200,000 Southeast Asian slave laborers and about 60,000 British, Australian, Dutch and American prisoners of war to start work. The conditions by all accounts were much worse than what was depicted in the movie. By the time the railway was completed, it’s estimated that about 100,000 civilians and 12,000 prisoners of war died from the inhumane treatment and severe tropical conditions. After the war many of the Japanese commanders were tried and convicted of war crimes, some sentenced to death.
Of the more than 600 bridges on the railway only a few were built of concrete and steel. The real bridge over the River Kwai is one of them, and while it was bombed by the Allies, it was rebuilt and stands today as the original. The magnificent wooden bridge at the center of the movie plot is likely based on one of the long wooden trestles elsewhere along the route.
The existing bridge is a tourist destination and why we’re here too. People walk along the tracks over the bridge until one of the two daily trains signals its approach.
Kanchanaburi is also the site of a museum about the death railway, as well as the War Cemetery, containing nearly 7000 graves of personnel whose remains were moved from various POW camps and other lone graves along the railway route. What’s striking about this war cemetery is that these are not the young men barely out of their teens we usually think of, but older men, mostly in their 30s and 40s, probably with wives and children. The thought of all these broken families brought me to tears.
The museum is moving and well presented, covering the history of the conflict, the engineering of the railway, the treatment of the workers and the conditions they endured, as well as the aftermath of the ordeal. There are effective graphic displays of the death toll by group, and art work by prisoners determined to record the hell they barely survived.
We got quite the education on the day, and at the museum cafe we were amazed at all the histories and memoirs written about this brutal chapter of World War II. But even this isn’t the whole story. That will come when we travel the last remaining bit of the Death Railway to Hellfire Pass. But that’s a story for another day.
(For a realistic depiction of the conditions of the Death railway construction, watch The Railway Man on Netflix, starring Colin Firth.)
After two months in beautiful northern Thailand, hot and dusty Bangkok isn’t quite hitting the sweet spot for us. We scour top ten lists of things to do and not much is piquing our interest so we’re reverting to our default travel mode, randomly exploring by public transportation, shopping, and eating.
We found an Ethiopian restaurant — one of our favorite cuisines — but getting there was going to be a bit of a challenge. We started with the riverboat, which was supposed to connect with a canal boat but when we got to the canal landing some locals told us the boat wasn’t running. A hot walk lead us to a bus stop and eventually to the restaurant. It took nearly two hours to get there but it was worth it!
We wisely sprung for a tuktuk ride back to the hotel.
One thing on everyone’s top ten list is a visit to the Golden Mount Temple, and while we’ve seen some fine temples during our time in SE Asia, this one promised a panoramic view of the city. So it was back on the riverboat and the long walk up the steps to the top.
In 1820 Bangkok suffered a cholera epidemic and so many bodies piled up that in some areas they resorted to allowing vultures to reduce the backup. This monument below the temple commemorates that gruesome period.
It was another oppressively hot day but luckily the temple grounds hosts a cafe with cold drinks, cooling towels and welcome shade.
As always we explored local markets.
One of the best ways to cool off in hot Asian cities is to go shopping in one of the massive malls. This is also an opportunity to get ice cream, always a noble pursuit.
This mall had the largest Starbucks we’ve ever seen, three levels plus an enormous outdoor patio with a fantastic view of the city.
The heat and dust are really getting to us. It’s time to move on.