Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Nepal Getaway! (Day 5)

Last day in Nepal. 

I spent the night at Thamel in Hotel Mums Home. It is a nice hotel, serves its purpose if you are just staying over the night at Thamel. It is very close to the shops and is walking proximity to places like the Garden of Dreams and Kathmandu Durbar Square. It is not a four-five star hotel but it is clean and the staff is very accommodating.

The previous night, I booked  for a spa treatment. I wanted to take this opportunity because spa treatments back at Doha are very expensive. The hotel did not have spa facilities but it had recommended me one, which they helped me book. A staff from Tranquility Spa came and fetched me from the hotel at 8:30am. We walked through the streets of Thamel. The spa was less than 10 minutes away from the hotel. I had a deep tissue massage, facial and pedicure for USD37. Not bad. The place was clean. They service was adequate and they had the right facilities for their services. The Spa also has branches in different parts of Kathmandu Valley and Nepal. They cater to a lot of tourists.

Tranquility Spa.

Breakfast was served from 7:00 to 11:00am at Hotel Mums. I managed to get back to the hotel by 10:55am. The waiter and kitchen staff were just clearing out the buffet. They were very kind because they still let me have breakfast. Checkout was at 12:00nn and the hotel had helped in booking a taxi for me to get to the airport at 1:30pm.While waiting for the taxi, I wondered around the streets of Thamel, bought some gifts for friends, tried to bargain, was somehow successful. I didn't want to bargain too much because the prices were already very cheap for many of the vendors. Shopping for souvenirs and stuff at Thamel can be very addicting and you must learn to stop yourself from buying too much because you might not have enough space in your luggage.

Breakfast at Hotel Mums Home

When walking at the streets and alley you will get to find a lot of interesting shops that might interest you. Near Hotel Mums is another hotel which caught my attention, Kantipur Temple Hotel. It is a red-bricked building and had a very relaxing and inviting ambiance. I asked for rates at the reception. They also gave me permission to take pictures so I can show it around if friends wanted a place to stay at Thamel.

Streets of Thamel

Shops at Thamel

Souvenirs, gifts, local handicrafts.

Kantipur Temple Hotel

Garden at Kantipur Temple Hotel

Kantipur Temple Hotel

My flight was at 4:35pm though Jet Airways. The taxi arrived at the hotel promptly. It charged Rs 500 (USD 5) to get to the airport. Check in was fast. I then proceeded to the Executive Lounge, Diner's Club card holders get a free access to this lounge. Had my lunch there and met two gentlemen from Oslo, Bjorn and John. Exchanged shorts stories and conversed. I then moved on to security for boarding the plane. I was held at the security check for about five minutes because they found a sharp object in my bag. Later on they were able to determine what it was. They were the two wings from my die-cast scale model plane that I bought from Etihad Airways. Make sure that the security stamps the boarding pass and the carried luggage label. This stamp is required for boarding. After that it was off to boarding gate. Prior to boarding the plane, another security check was conducted by ground security. 

Then while on the plane to Delhi, I learned that the pilot and first officer flying the plane were both women, that was another first for me. I wanted to get some selfies with them, but I was too shy to ask. :)

Lunch at the Executive Lounge, KTM Airport.

Another security check at KTM prior to boarding the plane.

I had a short lay over at New Delhi's Indira Ghandi International Airport. The airport was clean, spacious and had lots of shops. I didn't get enough time to stop by the lounge because the lay over was just an hour. Security check was similar to Kathmandu. My scale model plane was the culprit for a five minute scrutiny. The service by Jet Airways was satisfactory. I just was concerned about their safety practices, not all passengers were asked to put their seats at the upright position prior to landing.

I arrived at Doha's airport at 9:00pm and headed back home to get some rest. It's a whole new ballgame at work leading to summer break. 

Next Stop, let's just say that I'm looking forward to my very first trans-Pacific flight! :)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Nepal Getaway! (Day 4)

When my day began, I went to the Wellness Center within the Park Village Hotel compound. I had booked for a yoga session the day before. Lucky me, I was the only person who booked the class; hence, it was a one on one session. It was the very first yoga session I have ever attended in my entire life. The yogi, Raj, was very informative and supportive. I told him that it was my first time, so he customized the program based on how I adapted. He gave important info on how yoga can help keep the body healthy if done consistently.

After the Yoga, I headed off for breakfast at the hotel restaurant. There was a buffet, which served continental and regional dishes.

One of today's itinerary was to trek at Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park, a forest reserve north of Kathmandu Valley. This national park has been given this status because of the country's efforts to preserve the wildlife in the area. I packed my bags and left them at the hotel reception as early as 10:00am. I have asked assistance from the hotel if they could help me find a guide, however they did not have a list of affiliated professional guides. It has been discouraged for trekkers to travel alone because of the wildlife in the park. The hotel did something extra ordinary, they asked a couple of their staff, who were available to accompany me in the trek. That's a different level of service. I was very impressed. So, I was accompanied by Anil and Kumal to the trek.

What was there to see at Shivapuri National Park? Wildlife like deers, monkeys and maybe even leopards (they say). At the peak, you can visit the Nagigumba, at 2,732m above sea level, is a temple and monastery for female Buddhist monks.  At the entrance of the park foreigners are asked to pay Rs. 250 (USD 2.50), while locals pay Rs. 10 (USD 0.10).

The climb to the peak was a challenge. We encountered steep slopes, bodies grasping for air, and the heat of the sun for some unshaded areas of the trek. It took us above an hour to get the peak. Once we reached the temple we stayed there to admire the beauty of the place and took pictures. One of the things that fascinates me about Buddhist shrines is the peace and cleanliness of the vicinity. On the way up during the trek and once you get to the peak, you will be able to see the surrounding Kathmandu Valley. Unfortunately, there was poor visibility, not everything could be seen from our vantage point.

The trek back down was faster. We even managed to get pictures of a monkey, who knew how to pose for shots. The whole journey took three hours. Upon reaching the parking space, there were a couple of restaurants there. We ate at one of them while waiting for the taxi driver to come pick us up. I had a different Nepali set meal called Chicken Khana. It was spicy and flavorful. Instead of rice, it was served with rolled and flattened wheat flakes.

After lunch, we headed back to Park Village Hotel and collected my things. I then made a move to my next stop, Thamel. Thamel is a district with many small clean hotels, and not so clean ones. It caters to foreigners. You can get a lot of cheap souvenir and gift items here. So far, it is cheaper here compared to the other places I've gone to. Anil and Kumal were kind enough to accompany me and made sure I found the hotel, Hotel Mums Home.

I was convinced to book this hotel through the positive reviews I read about it online. So far, based on what I have encountered, the reviews prove to be true. Then again, nothing beats my "home away from home" hotel at Bhaktapur!

I checked in at around 3:30pm. Had a shower, rested for a while and went on to my next adventure.

My first stop at Thamel was the Garden of Dreams. It is about fifteen minutes walk aways from the hotel. It is a place of solace in the midst of a buzzing life at the city. Let the pictures speak to you. Originally a private property, but was later on turned over to the government. An entrance fee of Rs. 200 (USD 2). It was a place of beauty and peace. I admired the place.  I had a snack there before I moved on to my next stop. It was yoghurt lime cake and herbal tea. Good combination.

My second stop was to look for the Kathmandu Durbar Square a few kilometers way from the Garden of Dreams. I tried to walk, but when I was close to giving up, I found a Rickshaw in the market place and asked him to take me to the square. He charged me Rs. 300 for the service. We cycled through alleys and small roads where locals would do their shopping. It was a lot of noise and chaos at the market place because of the vast number of people, yet it was still fun.

I got to Durbar Square. Was not so happy with it. It was still good architecture, it still had the art and elegance as it stood amidst the people; however, the place was too crowded and cars passed by. The Bakhtapur Durbar Square did not have cars passing through, vehicles were prohibited in the Bakhtapur square.

On my way back to the hotel, I decided to be adventurous and tried to walk on my own. The hotel is just 15minutes away from the square by walking. So, map on hand, asked people for directions. The barista at the Himalayan Coffee Shop even offered to help me. That proved to be a failure. I ended up getting ripped off by a taxi so that I can just get back to the hotel.

Other things I learned from today:
  • It's hard to find a good place to eat in Thamel that will be clean. Either eat at an expensive restaurant, or check if you can trust your hotel's kitchen then go for that one instead. I had a hard time looking for a good place to have dinner because a lot of the restaurants in Thamel have very poor hygienic practices.
  • There are two places to hang out to eat and drink at Garden of Dreams. These places are clean and can be trusted.
  • Most of the shops at Thamel close at 9:00pm.
  • Cetain corners of Thamel become a part of a "red light district" after 9:00pm.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Nepal Getaway! (Day 3)

Today was my last day at Hotel Planet Bhaktapur. I took advantage of the garden at the back of the hotel. I noticed that people also sat there to chat and eat. It was a beautiful setting. It would be nice to have friends with you when you visit places like this, it makes it more interactive.

My stay at Planet Bhaktapur was a reasonable one. I only added USD 120 to cover my 6-hour guided tour on Day 2, two night's dinner (breakfast was already included in the booking), private taxis and tour on Day 3.   

Sadly, I left my "home away from home" hotel at Bhaktapur. Yes, Hotel Planet Bhaktapur deserves that recognition. For the two days I was with them, I was pampered and well-attended to. The staff offered relevant information and was very proactive to the guests needs. I highly recommend them. These three gentlemen, Martin, Bishnu and Rajan and the hotel management were very helpful. There are no words to describe how thankful I am for their assistance.

I have arranged a transport from Bhaktapur (through the hotel) to go to Park Village Resort along Budanilkantha Rd, somewhere north of the capital city. Before leaving, I asked them if there are any sights to see before I make my final stop at my next hotel, they gladly arranged it for me. I just added Rs. 1000 (approx USD 10) to the original fare and the taxi driver would take me to these three places:

1. Pashupati (Pashupatinath) Temple - the place where the dead are cremated and is considered a world heritage site. Paid Rs. 1000 (approx USD 10 at the entrance) Stayed there for about 30mins. I found the place's aura too sad. Why? Read on.

What is my feedback of the place when I got there? First a local tourist guide approached me, asked me questions. I already had a hint of what he wanted, having no need for a guide at this point, I dismissed him politely. I witness a Hindu cremation being prepared when I got there. I take deaths very seriously, I felt very sad when I was there. It was an additional life learning experience for me because it showed me how other faiths dealt with death. I took pictures of the temples in the area. All, if not most, were dedicated to Shiva (destroyer god). There were a lot of monkeys and cows in the area. I know that it has religious significance that my guide (Krishnu) told me about yesterday, but I forgot.

An old people's home outside the temple.

Shops for tourists and devotees.

2. Boudhanath - another World Heritage Site. A sacred site to many Buddhists (known as a Buddhist stupa).  Roamed around the place for a little over an hour. Had an entrance fee of Rs. 150 (about USD 1.50).

In Nepal, SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) nationals get a discounted rate if they want to enter sacred sites and tourist places. SAARC member countries are India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldive, Bhutan and the recently joined Afghanistan. This term was new to me, I was only used to UN, NATO, ASEAN and EU.

What is my feedback about the place? I found the place very pleasant and had a very positive environment. There were many shops, cafes and restaurants. Vendors greeted you "namaste!" every time you entered a shop. ("namaste" rough translation - "I bow to the god within you." or "The spirit within me salutes the spirit in you.") This was a fun experience. I bought small gifts for friends, took pictures, a couple of selfies. According to the brochure that was given to me at the entrance, this "stupa is commonly known as Boudha or Boudhanath meaning lord of wisdom. It is a protective, purificatory and wish-granting stupa." I guess this was the reason why the place had a positive impression on me.

3. Budhanilkantha - the sacred temple of the sleeping Lord Vishnu. There was no entrance fee. Cameras and mobile phones were not allowed. There were people offering prayers to the sleeping god Vishnu. When I saw a pilgrim sneak a shot, I also did. I just felt that this is something important and should have a picture. After all, there are loads of it online. I just stayed there for less than 5 minutes.

I arrived at my next stop, Village Park Resort at around 2:30PM. Checked in, went to the wellness center to inquire about its services. Had lunch, took a shower, headed back to the wellness center for my 4:00PM massage appointment. Village Park is a typical hotel. It had the basic needs. It has courteous staff who smiled and helped when required, but I was missing the pampering that I got from Hotel Planet Bhaktapur. 

After my massage, I wondered a bit in the compound and took some lovely shots of the houses and cottages. This hotel is just at the foot of the Himalayas. Lovely ambiance. As my stay progresses in the night the staff continues to prove that they are also taking care of their guests.

The Wellness Center, got my massage here. It was amazing.

Lunch: Chicken Chowmein
Dinner: Chicken Biryani