Subject: The Tour: Bangladesh, Sikkim and Bhutan
Ziners,

The Emails and spam are cleared off, the wash is done, the cat is placated so I can pull together some impressions of the three weeks in Bangladesh, Sikkim and Bhutan.

I was on tour with Explore Worldwide, a British company and it was a well planned and executed itinerary. It was their third trip out as they had just added this tour to their repetoire. There was a lot of driving on often barely existant roads, a neccessity if we were to see as much as possible. We were in van, bus and jeeps. Given that part of the world, accommodations were excellent. That does mean there weren't any glitches, eg: occasional lack of hot water, trouble with the toilets - that sort of thing. Some of the places were quite comfortable, some very charming and all were adequate.

In a few words, Bangladesh, where the tour began, was hot and humid. They had late moonson weather but we were fortunate; no serious rains while we were there. We started in Dhaka where we viewed the ciity from from the water as we rode the local sightseeing boat and progressed toward India via Puthia and Rajshshi, Pahapur Buddist Monastary , Dinajpur and Rangpur. There was an opportunity to talk with local villagers as well as view marvelous old artifacts, buildings and ruins.

It was evident Bangladesh had not had a lot of Western tourists for we were the center of friendly attention whereever! Also, despite unrest in Bangladesh, the government was not going to have anything occur to our van load of tourists: we had police protection throughout. A jeep load of police proceeded us and stayed with us, wherever we went. It was impossible to be inconspicious. No way!

When we entered India, we acquired a rather beat up, desiel powered bus that was able to navigate the often one lane roads that had suffered the monsoon's effects. From air conditioned to desiel aired. We had a long days drive to Darjeeling where we hunkered down for a couple of nights. In a quite elegent hotel, I must say. It was the best in town and I believe it. The New Elgin. Lovely. The next morning, we were up at dawn (literally) to view the sunrise and the Himalayan chain including Mts Everest and Kanchenjunga. The Zoological Park had a rather mangy snow leopard, the Mountaineering Institute featured an Mt Everest exhitiit, and several of our group bought rugs at the Tibetan Refugee Centre.We also took the Toy Train, a well used miniture train that ran to Ghoom where there was a nearby monastary; a group of us walked back to Darjeeling from there, glad to get some exercise. Though we did do a lot a step climbling.

Then onto Sikkim, now an Indian state but once part of the Northwest Provinces where the Great Game was played during the time of the British Raj. All of us had to be cleared for militarily, this is a Security area. Containments once used by the Brits were occupied by Indian Army troops and were frequent. The roads deteriorated as we piled into jeeps (which I was told, last about three years in these conditions); they seemed more confortable than the bus - and less smelly. Our first stop was at Pelling where we stayed over night so we could see the Pemayangste monastary, established in the 8th Century. It was good sized, impressive and colorful. The next day, we stopped at the 16 Century capital of Sikkim, now ruins, through tropical forests ands into Gantok, the present capital of Sikkim. We spent a day visiting nearby monasteries and their libraries, before heading up to Lachung and the Yumthang Valley. At one point we were ten miles from the Tibetian border. It was a lovely area and we walked around the local village and enjoyed the time there.

Then an early departure down to Kalimpong. Enroute, we stopped at the monastary where Alexandra David Neal spent time studying - she is a Frenchwoman who spent a lot of time in the Himalayans studying Buddahism and then spent two years sneaking into Tibet, all prior to WW2.

From Kalimpong, we moved onto Phuentsholing, Bhutanese border town - and there was certainly a difference between the Indian andBhutanese sides of the border. The Indian side was grubby with plastic wraps and papers lining the road; the Bhutanese side was neat and orderly. Almost everyone wore the Bhutanese national custom to a greater or lessor degree. Also the Bhutanese kept track of you; at various check points, our local guide had to check our group in and/or out of the area. They do not want unaccounted for travelers. The itinerary must be approved in advance and a local guide assigned, whether you be a large group or a solo tourist. Minimum cost for all expenses is $200/day pp.

At least 60% of the land is protected but then, the Bhutanese do not have an overpopulation problem. Countryside is wild and untamed and magnificant. We drove on, in a another newish van/bus, to Thimpu. Visited the Memorial Chorten and also were introduced to the Takin, Bhutan's National Beast, the homliest animal alive. Somewhere between an ox and a goat.

From Thimpu, we headed out to Wangdi to see the first of the two festivals. About half a dozen of the group bought the national dress to wear; the rest settled for covered arms, legs and feet. The festival dances went on and on, were colorful and full of religious rituals. I was able to talk with a young man who was attending the Dance school and was to perform the folloring day. There were other Westerners - and a Japanese group - attending, all with their assigned guides. Ended up in Punakhu for the night. Up early and onto the local Dsong to see the unveiling of the tapestry, part of their celebration, but we were too late. Drove back to Thimpu to watch the dancing at their fest ival - acting/dancing a comic religious legend - before heading to Paro for the night.

Early in the monring, most of us hiked upseveral miles or more - and I mean up - to a tea house to view the Tigers Nest Monastary; another half dozen of our group, mountain goats all, then climbed further up to get a even closer view. In the afternoon, we went to the National Museum, a lovely round building, at one time a monastary. Then to the dzong below.

The next day saw us flying out to Kolkata (Calcutta), with Paro Air almost on time. A half day tour was scheduled for us there and we had lunch at the place of indiividual choice downtown. Did see the Victoria Memorial, buildings from the British Raj and a magnificant Jain temple. That evening we flew back to Dhaka and the end of the tour.

There were sixteen on the tour with a Tour leader and a local guide. Ages ranged from 29-75; two men and fourteen women; eight Brits, 2 Irish, i Australian, I Canadian, 1 Scot, 3 Americans and a Brazilian - a cosmopolitan lot. All had traveled quite a bit and most with Explore. The Tour Leader was outstanding as was the Indian-Sikkim guide: a Mr. Ali who was a larger than life personality. The other two local guides were knowledgeable and excellent but were overshadowed by Mr. Ali. (Oh, if you want him to arrange a itinerary for you, I have his Email address; also the Email address for the Bangladesh guide.)

Cost: The 19 day tour, which included all accommodations, transportation and some meals, totalled $2210. Roundtrip airfare from SFO to Dhaka was $1307.50 (Singapore Air!). Going over, I had enough of a layaover at Changi airport that I rented a room at the Transit Hotel for several hoursso I could have shower and nap. Explore can be found on the internet: Exploreworldwide.com though I booked through The Adventure Center in Emoryville (800-227-8747 or Adventurecenter.com)

It was a good excursion though at times, arduous. But well worth any hassle.

Cheers! Jo