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Trip Report Tashi Delek: trip report from Bhutan 2015

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Te hour flight from Kathmandu took us quite dramatically from one world to another passing over spectacular views of the Himalayas on the way. In contrast to a feeling of disorder at KTM, Paro is a small airport, we walked out of the plane onto the runway--clean air, peaceful atmosphere, lovely architecture, and, as we would find everywhere, a picture of the fifth king and his lovely queen, who, if any one is interested, is expecting the birth of a boy, who will become heir to the throne and will have a hard act to follow. While at times the pictures one sees everywhere of the Royal Family can feel a bit much to a Westcoast liberal U.S. Citizen, there is no doubt in my mind that the Royal Family has devoted itself to the welfare of Bhutan and they are much loved by their people, as far as I could tell. Across education and social class.

We were greeted at the airport by our guide Lakey and driver Tandin, a Korean SUV (supercomfortable), and a pair of air-cushioned insoles for my hiking boots which our excellent tour operator, Dhamey Tensing, owner of the NobleTraveller, and youngest son of the Sherpa Tensing Norgay, who had made the first summit of Mt Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary some sixty years before. how he found these cushions in a land which does not carry Dr Scholl's I
I don't know, but it made it possible for me to do the Druk Trek, and with the accompanying welcome kitas, left me feeling immediately surrounded by pleasant competence and grace, an experience which would not change over our 16 day stay there.

Partly because of an anniversary, partly because we didn't like the idea of traveling in a group, DH and I travelled as a couple. I am glad we paid the extra money to do that, in part because our experience with Lakey, Tanden, PT (our trek guide) and to a lesser extent, other members of the Noble Traveller crew, was a central part of what made Bhutan special to us. Dhamey has the gift of leadership of bringing together a first rate team, competent, going the extra mile, and often with the easy companionship one would like to find in a family. Dhamey and his wife Sonam are lovely --we spent a brief time with them on our first day and a wonderful evening at the end of our journey.

...tbc. It's almost time to go to the gate for our flight home to San Francisco. We were sad to leave Bhutan but are more than ready to be home--have learned on this trip that four weeks is too long for us to be away .

t

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    HI guys, here's the next installment. I kept trying to shape it into a more normal trip report, but could only come out with the following ode to the the group that we traveled with, so here it is.

    …..A week after landing I still find myself wanting to tell you about the Bhutanese people that we traveled with: being with them, under their care and caring for them was as central a part of our experience of Bhutan as was the country’s incredible beauty and stillness,the sacred mountain, the omnipresence of the Himalayas, especially the sacred mountain Jomolari and of Bhuddism, the Royal Family and the the rigors of the Druk trek. We bonded.

    There was our competent, charming, authoritative yet youthful and eager guide, Lakey, knowledgable, flexible, gracefully explaining his Buddhism and the meaning of offerings and prostrations.  When he saw we were tired and overdosing on dzongs, Lakey adjusted our days to include rest and a walk.  He responded to our requests as well, offered to let us take turns in the front seat ( a big deal and not often done on these trips), something also encouraged by Dhamey. We learned about his childhood and walking to school two hours each way, being one of seven children on a farm which always needed work.  He has been awarded a job of leading a group to Japan, a scholarship to Thailand to study intensive Thai. He also misses his farm and hopes to someday build a small guesthouse there in the beautiful district of Punakha with Pem, his fiancé of years whose parents keep putting off their marriage, looking to the astrologer to find a good day on a good year. Lakey is honest and sweet and kind and ambitious. 

    27 year old Tandin, our driver, is a reincarnation of Zorba the Greek (if not the Divine Madman) and and an amazing driver: I never once felt unsafe on Bhutan’s famous windy bumpy roads, which are worse right now because of being in the process of being widened. Without much English, he became an endeared companion. Then there was PT on the trek, a naturalist who took the first closeup shot of a Bhutanese snow leopard, taciturn, becoming more and more open about his devotion to his family, his country, Buddhism, his king. And me—I had balance problems left over from lack of youth and a displaced elbow. PT praised my perserverance, encouraged me to go slow, and when it got dark, along with the cook’s assistance, became my walking pole, holding my hand as I focused on “next step”. He introduced us to two nomad families and their yaks, he gave me a going away present of a book at the end of the trek. We in turn left our down jackets, gloves, sunscreen and energy bars. The Bhutanese are not rich and our group was short of Western equipment. The cook, who was hiking with us, ran ahead at the end of the day to make popcorn, which I love, have a bonfire started, and somehow, with no oven, he made a cake that was delicious.

    I know that this is not the standard trip report, but for us, much of the core of Bhutan was feeling like family and a princess all at the same time, truly cared for and caring. We were surprised by a visit to a nunnery where the nuns sang for our long life and happiness in honor of our anniversary. A cafe a friend gave Lakey and Tandim a free apple cake for our hike up to Tiger Nest Monastery. The love for the royal family and literal and metaphorical prayer flags fluttered everywhere. Wonderful treatment by shop owners. "Hello" and "thank you" in Dzonga got us a long way. For us, This was a country of great kindness. We were lucky to travel with the Noble Traveler, where we even sometimes got the front seat and the day’s plans were always flexible to be changed to meet our wishes and needs. I cried (a lot, uncharacteristically)at the airport, and still feel sad and unreal that Lakey and Tandim and PT will no longer be a part of our lives. The tour operators, who made it all happen, felt like home, travel in the States and I know we will someday see again. And PT told me if we want to to the Jomolari trek in three years, he would try to join us. I was not the strongest hiker and he told me to be sure to go with same group and that he would be glad to help me. He also gave me a book and a handicraft wallet as a good-bye present.

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    I'm afraid that this trip report is going to continue in an unconventional form if it is going to happen at all; I keep starting it and stopping, feel a bit like a college student stuck on an essay.
    Our overall impression of Bhutan was that although it is not Shangri-La, it is a spectacularly beautiful country, with a contrast between rice fields and high mountains, many different kinds of forest, for us, the most spectacular, the dwarf rhododendron forest we saw on the Druk Trek, which even without flowers, looked like a web of green magic, something out of a Midsummer Night's Dream. It is also a country, where in contrast to the outside world (we were there during the Paris bombings and in this week after our return there has been one more mass shooting in San Bernadino), people seem to be at peace with each other and where five generation of kings have truly done their best to offer good government and think of the welfare of their country and how to integrate it into the modern world without losing its cultural identity. Someone explained to me that the wearing of the gho and the kira during work hours was one way of keeping small Bhutan with a distinct identity, a physical manifestation of its separateness from the surrounding giants of India and China. It made sense to me although I had trouble imagining walking around in a kira.
    Perhaps because of the special experience we had with the Noble Traveller, we did not find traveling with guide and driver oppressive, and we never felt pressured into following a military set schedule. Often, we wanted to start the day earlier than scheduled, we had things we wanted to see that were not on the agenda, and occasionally we got dzonged out and substituted a walk or a hike. I would strongly recommend either going as a couple, or as a small group (5-6) with people you already know. Not only does this allow for more flexibility, but it makes for a more intimate experience with the Bhutanese you are traveling with. We were given lots of privacy, but we felt like our most rewarding glimpses into Bhutanese culture came from getting to know the staff we were traveling with, and they in turn, introducing us to their world (for example, our naturalist trek guide has many connections with nomad groups and arranged for us to have lunch with one nomad family in their hut and arrive for the morning milking of the yaks with another).
    We thought the prices were fair, paid to upgrade our hotels in Thimphu (the Druk Hotel) and in Paro after the trek (the truly amazing Diwa Ling) and were happy with the choices.
    What we would do differently (actually what I would do differently, my husband and I disagree about this) is do fewer one night stands. Although the Swiss Guest House was my favorite hotel by far for food and I very much enjoyed our stay in Bumthang, I think I would have preferred to cover less ground (probably limiting ourselves to Western Bhutan cultural events and the Druk Trek), spending 2-3 nights in each place, rather than 1-2. Our usual style is to stay in one place for one week and moving so frequently was
    somethings frustrating.
    This was particularly true in Punakha--we loved the hotel we stayed in (Dragon's Nest Resort) and found Punakha itself to be magical. The rice fields, the river, the surrounding hills. We also very much liked the dzong, the monastery and the temple to the Divine Madman. We found them to be be moving, magnificent, and I think the quality of the art was much higher than in any other temple or dzong that we saw.
    The buffet food ranged, generally bland, some places better than others, with the exemption of the Swiss Guest House, where the food was excellent. Upon the advice of some Fodorite, we avoided any chicken or pork which was lukewarm and seemed to have been sitting--had no problems with food sickness in our whole trip. We also went to a restaurant at least once a day, sometimes twice, and here the food was consistently fresher and more interesting.
    We particularly enjoyed the Ambient Cafe and the Zone in Thimphu and the Champaca Cafe in Paro, for their fresh pastries, excellent coffee, lattes and cappuchino, nice ambience, warm staff. Champaca Cafe and Ambient Cafe also sell real coffee.
    A friend, John Leupold, who leads cultural trips to Bhutan (including one on textiles) gave us two excellent tips for shopping in Paro. Yuesel Handicraft on the Main Street across from Champaca cafe and Buddhist art gallery, where a group of six talented painters work by the bridge by the Dzong in Paro. The quality of the work was exquisite and prices ranged from inexpensive to very moderate to quite expensive. We bought five pieces including a magnificent silk scroll of Buddha in sexual union with Tara from the painter's gallery, and everything from a Bhudda who is truly a work of art to t-shirts at the Yuesel Handicraft. The quality was excellent.
    The Druk Trek was probably the highlight of our trip. It was truly beautiful and we had the advantage of a senior forester who was able to whistle and call birds to us. I would warn that this trek is advertised as the easiest in Bhutan. Its distances are moderate, but I found the trail very difficult, alternately rocky, muddy, and had considerable trouble with my balance (had recently dislocated an elbow which didn't help). I was told that I had strength, stamina and will power and would probably have found the Jomhalari trek easier, though it has longer distances, because its trails are better groomed.
    In contrast, we found the hike to Tiger Nest Monastery, which looks pretty intimidating since the monastery was built into the mountain, actually not difficult at all, and at no point were we in danger of falling in a way that we could be harmed. For California hikers, it was very much like the hike to Nevada Falls and back going by way of the Mist trail, strenuous, but not arduous, and there are railings for the most difficult third and final section.
    They are widening roads in Bhutan, which makes driving at this moment challenging, but we would highly recommend going now, before there are yet more changes and the serenity and calm and awe inspiring beauty risks being tamed and becoming cute.
    A final note: the Ziwa Ling hotel in Paro is Bhutanese owned and managed (unlike the very beautiful but more universal five star quality of the Uma hotels); its design is gorgeous and very Bhutanese, beautiful textiles in rooms, excellent food, along with the Dwarika in Nepal, two of the the three nicest hotels I've ever stayed in (the other being the Tah'aa Resort and Spa in French Polynesia).
    I again apologize for the somewhat scattered quality of this trip report--for some reason finding words to write about Bhutan was an ongoing internal battle. Thank all you Fodorites for your pre trip suggestions.

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    Thanks for sharing! This sort of trip has been on my radar for awhile. It will have to remain on the back burner for now due to elder care, but your report has prompted me to start reading and researching again.

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    Warm greetings from Patagonia to the OP, cmstraf - and thank you kindly for your thoughtful and brilliant writing. Brings back fine memories of our times in Bhutan and Nepal this past July. Well done.

    Here's to many more lovely adventures to you. Our recent Bhutan / Nepal experiences played a role in booking this somewhat last-minute Patagonia holiday, with future flight to inland Antarctica. Love travelling to new regions.

    Keep up the great writing, cmstraf. Warm holiday wishes to you and all from Patagonia,

    robert


    ... Singapore Airlines, You're a Great Way to Fly ...

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    Hi Kathie,
    What are the two sides of the debate? Perhaps I can respond more helpfully than the above.
    And If you belong to Facebook, DH is Marco Straforini. His journal is open to the public,was written in real time and has pictures.
    I do think that if you go, you should try to do so in the next 2-3 years before full size buses arrive.

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    Hi cm, I am not on Facebook.

    Factors in our debate are mostly around the requirement that you have a guide with you all the time. In my experience a guide can insulate me from the actual experience of being in a place. We do hire guides from time to time for specific reasons such as in Sri Lanka we hired guides at several of the sites because we had so little background about them. But many places, we have read extensively, so opted for no guides at places like Angkor. Having a guide makes the experience intellectual, which is fine, but it interferes with getting caught up in the spiritual aspect of the Buddhist sites, in my experience.

    And having a guide with me all the time means I do not get a chance to converse with locals (whether or not we share a language), as guides want to translate for you - I want to experience.

    Many people love having a guide and find it very useful - they feel they get so much more out of a place with a guide. That isn't me.

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    Hi Kathie,

    I'm with you on the subject of guides. This was the first time we have ever had one, with the exception of having a guide show us through the Vatican Museum as part of a special treat where later my husband and I got to be in the Sistine Chapel alone with maybe 25 other people when it was closed for his giving a 2 hour lecture on Michelangelo and creativity. It was an amazing experience and now when we go to the Vatican museum, we kind of rush through the Sistine Chapel to keep the memories of that day intact.

    On our trip, I was hesitant both about groups and guides. I'm glad we paid the $60 a day more to opt out of a group. But we had a very special chemistry with our guides -- we all really bonded and knowing them and their lives more intimately made me feel more connected with the culture. Our cultural guide showed us about the rituals of Buddhism by himself prostrating and explaining the different parts of it. When we were in temples and monasteries, he told us a bit about history, but there was much more silence...and him and our driver worshipping.

    When DH decided he did not want to see Bangkok, but rather relax in hotel and soak in Bhutan, I thought of getting a guide, but didn't, for the reasons you described above, not knowing that Bangkok was full of knowledgeable Fodorites at that very moment. I'm half sorry now, half not that I didn't (did no reading on Bangkok before we arrived there, only Nepal and Bhutan).

    We are hoping to go back to Bhutan for my 70th birthday/our 25th anniversary in 2018 and do the Jomolari trek as well as spending more time in Punakha, but with the same guides.

    We also asked for and got half days alone on our own in towns (not in official temples etc).

    I also want to go back to Nepal. I guess I've fallen in love with the Himalayas.

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