25.10.2015 - 01.11.2015
Bhutan. October 25th – November 1st 2015.
Having spent an afternoon and evening enjoying the delights of Singapore (great Chinese food from Sichuan Province, a relaxing wander through the Gardens on the Bay, a visit to the space age type building above the bay and some relatively uninspiring street theatre) we boarded our Druk Air flight to Paro, Bhutan, long before most people on a week’s holiday would have even contemplated awakening. A short stop in India and we were soon soaring alongside Everest and the Himalayas in the distance rising majestically above the clouds.
It was still morning by the time we somehow navigated around the mountains and hills sometimes only a couple of hundred yards from the wing tips and landed at the tiny airport. The pilot welcomed us all as well as ‘His Royal Highness’. From our window we watched as a young Royal disembarked and was immediately surrounded by bowing dignitaries competing for His attention. We, however departed the plane to a slightly more muted reception and negotiated our way through customs and its numerous pieces of paper demanding our names and passport expiry dates etc… All very important I’m sure.
Anyhow, eventually we were officially in Bhutan and outside the tiny terminal building we were met by our tour guides. In Bhutan, you must have organised a guided tour for the week. Without it, you won’t get a visa and you won’t be allowed in.
Our guide’s name was Wang Chack and he took us to our hotel (Kyichu Resort) (from which I could have driven a golf ball onto the runway). Planes landed several times a day – their engines echoing around the valley announcing the arrival of more tourists. It was actually quite exciting watching them fly in from time to time. It was also a reasonably good alarm call as we found out the following morning when we were awoken at about 7am by what sounded like a jet plane landing in our bedroom.
The hotel was about 2km from the centre of Paro town. The walk in was relatively easy, although the place sits at well over 2000 metres in the sky and we felt the lack of oxygen. Paro town sits on a small river adorned with colourful prayer flags. Mountains surround the valley towering over the decorative buildings reaching up to 5000 metres into the sky. Far in the distance we spied the snowy peak of a 7500 metre mountain. It was stunning.
As we wandered we reminisced our travels to Tibet and Nepal and compared. Bhutan definitely had its own thing going on – but the scenery and some of the buildings and clothing were similar. We ambled through a local market – the vegetables looked great and plenty of chilies, which boded well for the week from a gastronomic perspective. In Tibet we never encountered anything other than bread and various products made from Yak milk or just bits of Yak generally, which is actually even more unpleasant than it sounds.
We popped into a couple of shops, had a drink and a cake at a café and wandered by the river. At one point we came across some fellas playing darts (not your Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor type darts, but a game of a far more energetic kind). Hurling large fist sized wooden darts with a long spike some 30 metres across a park aiming for a wooden post little bigger than a bottle of wine, we watched in admiration. Every single dart finished no more than a foot or two away, most missing by inches with the occasional dart spearing the post. It really was hugely impressive.
Back at our hotel we had dinner, which probably could have fed a small family for a week. Rather a westernised set menu was offered, which was ok, but we made sure we let our guides (who arrange everything!) know that we’d prefer to try the Bhutanese cuisine whilst in the country rather than be treated to burgers and chips etc…
The next morning we were served a gargantuan breakfast, which we barely dented. Afterwards we met our guide who sadly informed us of his father who was ill and as we ventured up the valley to visit our first site in the Paro valley of the day we dropped him off and were joined by Sring who was to be our new guide for the week. Sring was very easy-going and good natured and both of us were actually pleased he was coming along for the ride.
We visited several places in the beautiful Paro valley during the day. An old burnt out Dzong (Drukyel Dzong) at the top of the valley, littered with prayer flags and boasting some of the best views I’ve ever seen from a building. The 7300 metre tall Himalayan mountain in the distance peaking out behind 5000 metre mountains in the foreground. It was sometimes easy to take the hills around us for granted not thinking about the fact that they were taller than just about anything you’d find in Europe. From there we visited various other temples and monasteries. We walked for an hour between the National Museum to a temple into which we were invited. Climbing the dimly-lit steep stairs we felt adventurous until we met a bunch of nuns coming the other way, none of them a day younger than about 400 years old. At the top of the 14th century wooden building our knowledgeable guide explained some of the multi-faceted concepts involved in the Buddhist religion and depicted in the small shrine located there. The views up the valley were simply amazing. We then went down to Rinpung Dzong.
We left our guide and driver in the late afternoon and had another wander through town. This time we encountered archers (Archery is the national sport of Bhutan) firing (shooting? twanging?) arrows well over 100 metres to a ridiculously small target and hitting it more often than not. Amazing.
Back at the hotel we joined a big tour group in the garden round a bonfire as a cultural dance was performed. Marsha was excited, as was I of course, as masked men danced around and beat drums and women sang local songs. It gets really cold at night and the warmth from the fire was good. Afterwards we had a similar dinner as the night before but requested a chicken curry as well, which was good.
And, so, to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. An hour away along the valley – we stopped so many times for photos of the scenery: bridges covered in prayer flags, mountains, rivers, temples and buildings perched on hills, small children playing and the odd monk thrown in for good measure. Once in Thimpu we visited monasteries, temples, Drupthob nunnery, important sacred sites, paper making places, an art school, a mini zoo ( Motithang Zoo) housing Takins and the library, which houses the largest book in the world! We also drove up to the massive golden Buddha sitting atop a huge temple overlooking the town. The view he had day after day was very impressive.
The first place we stopped at was teeming with people – mostly fairly old. A large Stupa with prayer wheels surrounding it kept people occupied as they circled in prayer. Nearby others fell to their knees and then stretched out prostrate on the ground praying, and then heaving themselves up and starting again. Apparently they’d repeat the process over 100 times – exhausting, but worth it I’m sure. A building housing larger prayer wheels sat a little further back from the stupa and was crammed with people. Each of them spinning the wheels, often holding a small one in their hand as well. Apparently people would spend every waking hour at this place spinning the wheels. Our excellent guide explained why and I listened and refrained from suggesting that perhaps time could be better spent doing just about anything else instead.
For lunch we visited the Bhutan Kitchen. We’d asked for Bhutanese cuisine. Sring (our guide) warned us that it might be quite spicy. “That’s fine,” we said and piled loads of a dish called Chilli Cheese onto our plates without really looking at what it was. The dish consisted of chillis in a cheese sauce; that’s it. It was indescribably hot and after one mouthful Marsha spontaneously combusted in a puff of smoke. That actually didn’t happen – but it really was super-hot!!
Later we were dropped off at the hotel, which sat above the river and opposite the national stadium (apparently situated directly on top of the site where a previous king of Bhutan had beaten those pesky Tibetans in a battle). We walked into town and visited the stadium on the way. A footy game was going on – the standard was about as bad as you could possibly imagine. It wasn’t helped when a dog ran on to the pitch at one point. Apparently Bhutan is the very lowest in FIFAs rankings. For once, I think they might have got the rankings about right.
There are no traffic lights in Bhutan. Instead they have smart traffic controllers stationed in small huts standing in the middle of the road waving the oncoming cars in various directions with their white-gloved hands. When the government decided that they’d use traffic lights instead, the people complained that it was all too impersonal and the controllers returned.
At dinner we ate more Bhutanese food – but less of it compared to previous days. Good, Indian curry inspired food. Lovely. And, then bed before 9pm again, which is great!
We took a drive today to Wangdi (Wangduephodrang) via Punakha. We can’t have covered more than 100km but it took all day. Part of the reason it took so long was the state of the roads. One lane mud tracks with sheer drops far below just waiting for a landslide or driver error. The rutted tracks resembled more of a direction than a road. Bizarrely, from time to time, even though we could only go at a top speed of about 8mph, the local council (or equivalent) had felt the need to build a sleeping policeman just to slow us down even more.
The other reason was because we stopped so often. It seemed as though every time we turned a corner we’d be afforded yet another magnificent view of a valley and mountains and river and rice fields and stupas and temples and palaces…
We stopped for a long time at the Dochu La Pass. At well over 3000 metres in the air we had great views of the valleys below stretching off into the distance. But, ahead and up – way up – were the Himalayas. These stunning white peaks formed an astonishingly beautiful horizon that stretched as far as we could see. Photos simply couldn’t do justice. We stared, we walked a bit and stared. We climbed a little hill and stared. We immersed ourselves in the prayer flags littering the site and stared. Then we had a coffee and sat together in awe and just stared at the Himalayan mountains. We’ve seen them several times before but they really are just the most amazing thing to behold. Sometimes I’d take a photo of something in the foreground – a hill, some stupas, Marsha – and then realize that I’ve cut off the Himalayas at the top of the photo – they are simply that tall. The highest one in view was Mt Gangar Punsum (7520m) and the highest in Bhutan.
Reluctantly, we eventually left the pass and descended about two thousand metres into a more tropical climate. Along the way we stopped for another spicy lunch at the Happy Village restaurant nestled in the hills by a small stream. Afterwards we walked up to a temple dedicated to the Divine Madman who gets ever more irreverent the more I hear about him. Inside there was the usual atmospheric colourful temple alive with monks and old ladies chanting and swinging hand-held prayer wheels amidst the haze of perfumed smoke.
In a nearby building, monks loudly chanted from their texts. Sring told us that they had exams coming up where they simply had to memorise vast texts, which is somewhat at odds with current educational research and practice, but still.
We walked through a small village and encountered yet more phallic symbols adorning walls and shop fronts – they really do have a thing about it here.
Later we visited Punakha Dzong that lay between two rivers (a male and a female one apparently). With three inner courtyards and containing numerous temples it was very impressive. The main temple was about as detailed and colourful and atmospheric as any religious place of worship I’ve ever seen.
We travelled further down the valley, passing the Queen’s residence high on a hill on the opposite side of the river. At times the mud track barely provided enough room for a single car to pass and yet we occasionally met trucks going the other way. And, there was a sheer drop at times many hundreds of metres to our right. We were pretty grateful to eventually arrive at the hotel. A lovely little place known as the Happiness Hotel (or more officially: Wangdi Kyichu Resort) sitting next to a surging, bubbling river that provided a habitat for hundreds of birds.
Waking to the sound of the rushing river just a few yards from our balcony was a soothing way to begin the day. After breakfast we took the road eastwards. The only road connecting the east is impassable in the winter and barely navigable at other times. Tiny dirt tracks carved into the ridiculously steep mountains spiraled upwards. We feared for our lives every time we passed another sheer drop only inches from our wheels, and every time we saw evidence of yet another landslide of huge boulders cascading down the mountainside taking everything in its path. Our guide told us of a truck the other day that was caught up in one and was tumbled down the mountain. At one point we stopped – there was a queue. We got talking to someone on the roadside who told us of how he’d been delayed several times for landslips to be cleared and for the road to be made ‘safe’ again.
The whole journey up to the 3100 metre pass was terrifying but, ultimately worth it (I may have had a different opinion had we taken an involuntary ride down the mountainside at any stage). Although a little cloudier than the previous day, parts of the mighty Himalaya were in view. Sadly my photography skills were not up to the task of doing justice to the view. Snow-topped jagged peaks, misty mountains below and hills in the foreground carpeted in forest – stunning.
We visited the valley of the Black Crane and Gangtey Gompa (a Buddhist complex) inhabited by young monks. It was just so incredibly peaceful. We went on a walk through the wetlands valley (The Gangtey Gumpa Valley) for a couple of hours (sadly the Cranes were off migrating, which we all agreed was a little selfish of them) and admired the scenery: the sloping hills and green pastures – it was hard to believe we were nearly 3000 metres in the air.
Lunch in the valley consisted of a lot of food, enough to feed us several times over. We made a pretty big dent in it and even finished 1 or 2 of the dishes. But, outside afterwards our guide thought we hadn’t enjoyed it as we’d left so much. After we explained that a small family of elephants might have struggled to finish all that was on offer, he told us that for Bhutanese people this was a normal amount!
Back over the pass and a return to the hotel by the river. A relaxing day in which we didn’t really do too much, but once again enjoyed the wonderful scenery in this country.
A day in which we traveled back over the Dochu La Pass, via Thimpu to Paro. We stopped a few times on the way to admire the view. The pass was cloudier than before – occasionally Himilayan mountain peaks would reveal themselves briefly before being smothered in atmospheric mist.
In Paro we walked into town and sat and watched an Archery match. Firing arrows from an estimated distance of about 130 metres the contestants held incredible faith in each other, standing only about 5 metres from the target. Still, most of the time they either hit it or scuffed the ground alongside. The seemingly self-appointed referee/commentator loudly announced the fate of each arrow with cheers and whoops.
Dinner was the best food yet – back at the hotel. We ordered Indian styled dishes from the menu.
Our earliest morning so far. Having enjoyed early nights and late mornings we set the alarm for just after 6am this morning. The reason? – we were hiking up to the famous Tiger’s Nest Temple situated 900 metres above the valley floor at 3100 metres above sea level. The only way to get there is to walk up.
As we set off we became acutely aware that it was much colder than it had been previously. And, sure enough, the mountains surrounding the town were dusted with snow.
Horses carried the infirm, elderly and lazy and we soon left them behind as we followed the trail as it spiraled upwards. The steep track was littered with prayer flags and we stopped often for amazing views of the snow covered foothills of the Himalays that stretched above us – even though we were approaching 3km above sea level.
After a couple of hours we found ourselves looking down upon our destination. Perched upon an impossibly narrow ledge clinging to the mountainside with a vertical rock face both below and above, there was no doubt the walk to Tiger’s Nest was worth it. Unfortunately we were not permitted to take photos once in the temple complex, but it allowed us to absorb the wonderful spaces and individual temples instead. It was so incredibly atmospheric and colourful. Our guide explained all of the different figures depicted in the temples as monks chanted and prayed in each. Out of the windows we could look straight down to the valley floor – stunning!
Eventually we started the long trudge back, albeit mostly downhill. It started to rain (snow only a little further above us).
Back at base we had lunch and visited a couple more temples before going back to the hotel. The last temple was a little different – it had 3 layers: Hell, Earth, Heaven. In many of the illustrations we’ve come across in Buddhist cultures the images of hell have always been prominent – and fairly graphic as well. It’s certainly not a place you’d particularly want to end up, which is probably part of the reason why all these elderly people surrounded themselves with prayer wheels every day.
The plane out of Bhutan for us was in the morning. So, we had another short walk into town and Marsha went shopping and I intended to find a café and write this, but instead found a celebration/show/festival going on in town with dances and singing etc… I sat and watched for a while observing the genuine pleasure people were taking in the entertainment. Local people offered me a seat several times – I was made to feel welcome. People were smiling and laughing. Bhutan may have taken commercial advantage of their ‘Gross National Happiness’ reputation, but there have been very few times this visit where we felt reason to disagree.
It has been expensive, but the two of us are already planning our return…