Category: Travel Planning: What to Do

Day 2 in Bhutan: Sunday Market in Paro and Namsiling Valley

We spent our first full morning at the Paro Sunday Market where we joined the locals selling and buying different kinds of produce. We just had breakfast in our hotel, but as soon as I saw one of the sellers eating momos with chile sauce, I asked Dorji where we could buy them. He eventually found the lady selling the Bhutanese dumplings in a plastic bucket and we bought 5 pieces stuffed with cabbage and beef. My numb lips finally understood what kind of spice Bhutanese cuisine uses: Sichuan peppers!

Throughout our walk in the market, we also bought fried dumplings, vegetable fritters, and a papadum-like chip–everything dipped in the same chile sauce. I think Dorji immediately realized what kind of tourists he was dealing with.

We started our drive towards the east and made a stop at Namsiling Valley and hiked along a rice field to visit an old temple. Unfortunately, the caretaker was not there but it was still a beautiful morning to walk off all the food we ate under the sun, sweat a little and cross a bridge with prayer flags.

Related article/s:
Photos of the Paro Sunday Market on Flickr
Photos of Namsiling, Bhutan on Flickr
I highly recommend using Smile Bhutan as your guide

Day 1 in Bhutan: Rinpung Dzong and the National Museum in Paro

After a long flight from New York to Dubai and a brief stop in Kathmandu, Nepal, we boarded a small plane to Bhutan. We were on a small propeller plane and saw Mount Everest. It’s the world’s highest mountain at 29,029 feet and it’s that black one towards the left. The view blew every Instagram photo anyone has ever taken from a seat of a plane:

The light was beautiful in Bhutan that it was difficult not to keep snapping photos. We saw a lot of this kind of view: mountain ranges in different layers and shades just like how a painting would depict them.

In Paro, we met our guide and driver for the duration of our trip: Dorji and Karma. They were wearing the traditional dress for men called gho and they welcomed us with silk saffron scarves just like how Hawaiians welcome their guests with leis. (The saffron color is the Theravada Buddhist monk color, the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism.) I might have drank the Kool-Aid early, but I swear I instantly felt some kind of peace as soon as that happened. The moment reminded me of when I was welcomed the same way in Luang Prabang in Laos, but this time, I was glad to be traveling with friends and not solo.

After we stopped for tea at a local shop in Paro, we drove to our first dzong, the Rinpung Dzong, a fortress architecture that now serves as both administrative and religious building to the district. The conch-shaped watch tower now-museum was under construction after the 2010 earthquake, so we went inside the temporary space across the alley instead.

One of the many giant prayer wheels we spun on our trip:

And the ubiquitous prayer flags:

In the beginning I made wishes for myself, but as our trip progressed, I found myself wishing good things for my family and friends; I found myself sharing the fortune I had in being in the Kingdom of Bhutan. It sounds cliché, but this trip was very enlightening for me.

Related article/s:
Photos of the National Museum of Bhutan on Flickr
Up in the Air photos from Nepal to Bhutan on Flickr
I highly recommend using Smile Bhutan as your guide

Staying in a Treehouse in Santa Cruz, California

Kara handed us two empty plastic quart yogurt containers from Trader Joe’s: If you have to go in the middle of the night and you don’t feel like getting out of the treehouse. I looked at my travel partner to quietly tell him that there was no way I’ll be squatting and peeing right next to him while he slept tonight! Even if he paid for dinner! And thus, our Santa Cruz adventure to welcome 2012 officially began.

I didn’t grow up in the Philippines in a hut; in fact, quite the opposite surrounded by concrete and marble. But I remember climbing a lot of trees and getting in trouble with our nannies and parents for it. I also remember flat bamboo beds tucked in a nook inside my grandmother’s house in the province of Pampanga for cool afternoon naps during the summer. In the last 10 years of my travel life, I’ve stayed in all sorts of places: old castles in Ireland, yurts in Big Sur, tents in Patagonia, clay houses in Tunisia and 3-sided huts in Isla Bastimentos where you wake facing the open sea, but nothing has made me feel like a kid again more than this treehouse in Santa Cruz, California.

Renting the treehouse was my first Airbnb experience. Working for a tech and business publishing company, I’ve read the bad press about the Web site, but I was willing to give it a shot when we were looking for a place to stay a few hours outside of San Francisco. Santa Cruz is a California beach town and it’s teeming with small hotels situated near the boardwalk and the ocean, but I wanted to share a unique experience with my new travel partner and have a different story to tell upon returning to New York City.

I immediately started emailing with Claudine, the treehouse owner, as soon as she approved of the date I wanted to rent the treehouse for. I paid the nightly rate and a $100 deposit was put on hold in my credit card for incidentals. What makes the treehouse even more quirky is that it had been built on a homeowner’s backyard. We laughed with half giddiness and half nervousness when we drove around the downtown area of Santa Cruz and realized that we would be sleeping 30 feet up above the neighbors’ private homes. Kara was taking care of the main house during the holidays, so I only had the pleasure of making arrangements with Claudine via email and SMS, but both were so welcoming that even this New Yorker softened up a bit. We entered their hippie-centric home to use the bathroom at night and in the morning, but we pretty much stayed up in the treehouse before and after New Year’s Eve dinner.

A very sturdy cable wire was installed to make climbing up and down the treehouse stable and easy. Even in the dark, before retiring for the night, we were pretty comfortable going up with just my headlamp illuminating our way. (Kara also lent us a flashlight when she gave us our pee cups!) A trapdoor let us in and we just had to carefully hoist ourselves up to be fully inside. A twin-sized bed was on the left and a narrow side table on the right, plus a floor cushion, but not much else other than finger paintings on the wall. One side was painted with splatters of red, a Jackson Pollock attempt perhaps, but unfortunately looked like gunshot wounds. (Ah, west coast self-expression!)

Besides the Tibetan flags outside the treehouse, my favorite was the plastic basket that was attached to an industrial pulley to help us bring our stuff up. Being the OCD person that I am, I packed our own comforter and my much-loved bamboo flat sheets from 3,000 miles away. (Seriously.) There was no heat the night of our stay and we were much too scared to light candles inside, so we mostly kept ourselves warm throughout the night using, well, body heat. Taking into consideration how cold I felt sleeping inside a tent in Kilimanjaro just two years ago, the “cold” California temperature was harmless.

A few hours of sleep later, we caught the first sign of sunlight from a small window right above the bed. Maybe people were slowly enjoying their mornings, but the street was very quiet. For a few minutes, we forgot that there was an entire neighborhood right below us waking up for their first breakfast of the new year.

I only had a vague idea of my partner’s travel sensibilities because of the circumstances of how we first met, so I was quite worried of how he would react to this experience. Would he be picky? Would he be freaked out? At the end of our stay, he let me know that he also enjoyed our time in Claudine’s treehouse and appreciated the fact that I tried to find a different kind of place to wake up in for our first trip alone together. I wouldn’t mind traveling with this one again.

Thanks, Kara and Claudine!

Related post/s:
San Francisco and Santa Cruz photos on Flickr
Rent Claudine’s treehouse when you’re in Santa Cruz, California

Day 2 in Stockholm, Sweden: Södermalm and Glenfiddich Warehouse

Our last full day in Stockholm, Francine and I hit the hotel breakfast buffet to power up with more herring, more fresh fruits and more charcuterie before we walked around the hip Södermalm neighborhood. We scoured so many stores that we forgot to eat lunch. Towards mid-afternoon, we walked by Louie Louie and decided to join the pretty people inside–I was already convinced by the pretty typeface they used on their sign. (We later realized that it was on our list of places to eat that we’d left back in our hotel room.) While Francine saved a couch and coffee table for us, I managed to talk to the guy at the counter and asked him to order two things he would like for us to try. He chose a warm open-faced roast beef sandwich and a blueberry pie. How do you feel about vanilla sauce? he asked. I flirted back that if he liked it, I would like it. It was an eye-rolling experience. The pie and the vanilla sauce, of course, not the guy, though he was very easy on the eyes. By the end of our day, I ended with vintage dish towels, a clutch and a necklace while Francine fell in love with another hat. Both of us had several items of clothing on our tallies.

We put our feet up back in Gamla Stan at Wirströms Pub and drank a couple of pints to while away the rest of our afternoon. We were pretty desperate to eat reindeer during dinner time. The one place I was dying to go to was closed for the day (also used a good-looking typeface in their logo) and the one recommended by the concierge didn’t serve it. (Thirty-one countries and not once did concierge ever give me a good restaurant recommendation.) We remembered seeing reindeer on the menu when we walked by Glenfiddich Warehouse back in Gamla Stan the day before, so I called to confirm.

We expected a dark and cavernous space full of old barrels and the menu to have some heavy stews. It had been drizzling all day and we were quite ready for a satisfying meal. To our surprise, the kitchen whipped up some beautifully-presented dishes that you would see at a modern restaurant. Ordering veal carpaccio for an appetizer before the reindeer fillet main course sounded a little much at first, but they were perfect split in two.

For a nightcap, we stopped by Akkurat for some scotch before we decided to end the night with a second one in the lobby of our hotel. We counted down the minutes until Francine’s birthday and then toasted turning a year older before we called it a night.

It was a little sad back in our room, packing up and saying goodbye to Stockholm. Though we felt like we did a lot in the short time we had, we agreed we could stay for another day, but alas, real life was waiting for us back in New York City.

Louie Louie is at Bondegatan 13 in the Södermalm neighborhood of Stockholm. Glenfiddich Warehouse is at Västerlånggatan 68 in Gamla Stan.

Related post/s:
Stockholm, Sweden photos on Flickr

Day 1 in Stockholm, Sweden: Gamla Stan and Pelikan

Swedish efficiencies were immediately experienced upon our arrival six hours after taking off from JFK: no immigration forms, no lines at customs, a superfast Arlanda Express train to downtown, smooth check-in at the Nordic Light Hotel conveniently located right next to the train station, a much larger shared room than expected, a good breakfast of herring, paté, fresh fruits, cheeses and charcuterie at the lobby.

Francine and I only had two full days to spend in Stockholm, Sweden and we were going to be as efficient as any Swede. We freshened up after breakfast and picked the nearest neighborhood to explore first. Filled up and energized to walk around Gamla Stan, or Old Town, we looked up old buildings, took photos of the water coming in from the Baltic Sea, crossed bridges and checked out several vintage and specialty stores. Francine scored a cute hat from the “antikt” store on Drakens, or Dragon’s Alley, and I poured over different fabrics with loud Swedish prints and contemplated buying a very pricey wooden sculpture of a mackerel. (For US$200, I changed my mind.)

Kronor still intact in our wallets, we decided it was time to eat again after a couple of hours of walking. If you think Americans are gluttons of the world, you better check the Swedes’ all-time world record when it comes to eating candy. Every Friday, or fredagsmys–literally “cozy Friday”–the Swedes unwind and reward themselves with something sweet. The pastry shops and bakeries we walked past displayed wares that made my mouth ache. Café & Brödbod looked more chill inside and so we grabbed a table and bought the two prettiest things behind the glass. My pastry was filled with almond paste and sprinkled with cardamom seeds that made it oh-so-savory. Francine opted for the ultra-light choux with the perfectly sweet cream topping.

We walked off the snacks and snuck into some more alleys to window-shop for souvenirs. I checked out a small gallery where people were drinking while hovering around some art. We went inside several gift shops to look for fridge magnets that also doubled as bottle openers to add to my collection. It took us a few more blocks before we decided that it was time for an afternoon drink. We ducked into Pubologi, a bar decorated after my own heart, and sat at one of the long tables for some hefty and not-so-hefty beers. They were closing to prepare for dinner service, but the bartender let us move to the bar by the front window so we could drink our second and third pints.

After a quick nap back at our hotel room, we joined the tourists for more beers at Pelikan before we shared home-style Swedish cooking of meatballs (much better than what you can get at Ikea’s) with cream sauce and lingonberries and a roasted pork knuckle as big as our faces. A salad would have been nice, but naturally, there were no vegetables on the menu except for an artichoke pie. Pelikan’s cathedral-high ceilings reminded me of the old pubs in Prague and the group next to us singing beer songs reminded me of the camaraderie in Ireland. We spent our last few hours of our first day congratulating ourselves at how well we did even with jet lag and a six-hour time difference.

We were falling in love with Sweden. We didn’t need to worry about the language whenever we had to inquire about something. Almost every person we assumed was local was mad beautiful with their height, skin tone and ridiculously blonde hair, and yet there were a lot of people who looked like us. (I later found out that by 1996, approximately 26% of Stockholm’s residents are of an immigrant or non-Swedish background.) Metro attendants were friendly and everything was convenient and easy to get to. The city may not be on an easy-to-understand grid, but it’s divided into smaller neighborhoods that are explorable by foot.

I could create a long list of the things I love about European countries someday, but for now, I was happy to experience that Stockholm had a lot of them in one place.

Pubologi is at Stora Nygatan 20 in the Gamla Stan neighborhood. Pelikan is at Blekingegatan 40 off the Skanstull metro stop.

Related post/s:
Stockholm, Sweden photos on Flickr
I highly recommend the Nordic Light Hotel for your weekend getaway
I am so jealous that we don’t have the equivalent of Arlanda Express in New York City