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Trip Report Bhutan - My Shangrila

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Just returned from a wonderful vacation in Bhutan. I saw many unique sights, and experienced a genuiness and warmth from the people that I have not felt anywhere else.

Thursday – Departure Day
My driver reluctantly agreed to leave his bed early and pick me up at 0645 to head to Riyadh airport to begin my journey of six flights on four airlines with three visas. So far so good. First leg of journey, Riyadh to Sharjah, plane on time, had an hour and a half transit time, then boarded flight to Kathmandu. Plane almost empty, had a row to myself and quite happily read throughout the four hour journey. Did meet one South African man from Dubai who was going to Kathmandu for the first time. Giving him the benefit of knowledge gained from a previous visit to Kathmandu, I asked him if he had downloaded his visa and if he had passport pictures with him, he had a blank look and said he had never considered visas. No worries I told him, unless things have changed you can do this at the airport, and that there will be someone with a camera to take his picture. Then asked if he had US dollars, again he did not. Arrived at the airport, we were the only plane, and apart from the South African and myself, everyone else was Napalese, which meant there was no line up at the foreigners desk. I was prepared with my visa and money and went straight to the desk, five minutes later was on my way to collect my luggage. My South African friend was looking perplexed and unhappy as the camera man was taking his break, would be back in an hour. (An hour Nepali time, does not mean the same thing as an hour Canadian time). Unlike my last visit where a man with a Polaroid camera took photos against the pillar, there is now a dedicated, professional looking, photograph room. My luggage was waiting when I went downstairs and I was soon outside listening to the calls of Taxi, Taxi Madame. I had arranged for transport to my hotel, and was peering through the gloom for Sunrise Travel. Success. Met my driver and drove to the hotel. In researching the hotel it said it was close to the airport, should be a quick ride I had naively thought. No so, “close” was a relative term and apparently it may be close for crows, but not so close for cars for it was 30 minutes later after bumping over surfaces masquerading as roads, listening to a chorus of honking horns, and navigating around cattle, people and motorcycles, that we reached the hotel. It was now 2130 local time. The Hotel lobby was a welcome refuge and I eagerly accepted the offered juice. The tour company had taken care of the administrative bits and pieces and I just had to sign the registration card. I went up to my room which had a lovely view of the gardens, complete with a god, not sure which one, keeping watch over my room. I refreshed myself with a soak in the tub and had quite a restful sleep. Because I had only a few hours before I had to be at the airport, I was picked up at 0800 for my tour of Bhaktapur. I recognized it as a place I had visited with mom, but it was nice to see again, there are many monuments and it is a colourful old city. Had a 2 hour walking tour of the city with my guide explaining they are most famous for their yoghurt; however, he did not suggest I try any. At 1100 it was time to get back in the car for the trip to the airport. Three physical pat downs in public, then I reached the Drukair counter. Luggage was checked and boarding pass was in hand, up to the departures lounge. One of the important sights missed on my walking tour was a toilet and I was now forced to use the public facilities at the airport. There were many ladies with cleaning supplies and wearing a uniform that again I naively thought the toilets would be clean. These ladies, it seems, are employed to chat throughout the day, I don’t know when the toilets get clean, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. In retrospect, perhaps a refill of tea with breakfast was not such a smart idea. I rolled up my pants legs, the floor was wet, put my bag on the hook and squatted. Fortunately I had the forethought to bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer with me, both were essential to the task.

I was surprised when the garbled overhead announcement said we should report to security, this was 1.5 hours ahead of our flight. At least I believe that’s what the announcement said, I heard Drukaaaaa, Paro, Security. They had a line for women, and one for men, another pat down. The departure area, far too basic to call it a lounge, soon filled up and then curtains opened, men were ushered in one line and women in another for yet another pat down before 24 passengers boarded our little propeller plane for the journey. Shortly after takeoff the captain announced it was too cloudy to see the mountains, we had been promised a view of the Himalayas including Mount Everest. It was only a one hour flight and I was quite surprised when the cabin crew came by with refreshments and beverage service. I had read about the landing in Paro and was prepared for the worst. I saw the ground growing closer as we made our descent. The mountains on my side of the plane were a little close, but not so close as to cause alarm, and before I knew it we touched down. The doors were opened, the stairs let down and passengers emptied out onto the tarmac wondering where to go. Someone was pointing so we headed off in the direction of a building. When we got close we could see that one door said Departures, the next must be Arrivals. Into the Arrivals Hall, one line for Bhutanese, one for Foreigners and one for VIPs and dignitaries. I waited patiently in the foreigners line and was called over to the VIP line, a quick check of the passport and visa, stamps and then through. My luggage quickly arrived and before I knew it I was in the fresh mountain air. I looked for a sign with my name or Yetis and Dragons tour company, I saw neither. There were some men in national dress, all of whom had signs, asking who was meeting me. (There is no independent travel in Bhutan, you must be with a registered tour company). I told them the name of the company, they did not recognize it. They phoned the numbers for me, there was no answer at either. I became slightly anxious. I was led over to a row of seats, just wait here, they said, the guide is probably on his way. I was very well attended, frequently asked if I wanted tea, and with offers to let me join their group, for a fee of course. A young man joined the group, there was some heated discussion and pointing in my direction. A very apologetic tour guide came and escorted me to his car. He said we would now drive from Paro to Thimphu, about 2 hours and begin our tour. Along the way he told me the national tree was cypress, blue poppy the national flower, archery the national sport, Takin the national animal and that he was wearing the national dress.
It started to rain, but a gentle cleansing rain. I noticed that the landscape was myriad of lush greens, with dense vegetation leading down to the river. Each province we entered had an ornate gate announcing itself. We passed old mud houses and I was told this was the only good road in the country, it was paved and was rarely blocked by land rock or mud slides. They are building more good roads, but this takes time. On arrival in Thimphu we visited a Stuppa, unfortunately my guide informed me that there was no photography anywhere where you are required to remove your shoes. Most of the interesting bits were inside the monastery. I was guided in the art of spinning the prayer wheels, although mine were spun without reciting the mantra. We walked clockwise around the stupa, joining the faithful . We investigated the butter lamps, previously the only form of lighting, and I was told, the source of many fires. Eventually we had to leave. Next stop my lodging for the night. Whilst it is listed as a hotel, I am hesitant to refer to it as such. From the outside it looked quite nice, built in the Bhutanese style, and quite colourful, a dutiful security guard controlling the limited parking, the ground floor housed shops, the 2nd floor reception and the dining area. I did not have to do a thing, my registration card was filled out and my guide took care of everything. He asked what time I wanted dinner and breakfast, 7 and 7, I told him, he relayed this to the reception staff. So far so good. Upstairs with luggage, thankfully only one floor, Buddha was outside my room, hopefully a good night’s sleep. Open the door, the room looks ok, two beds, tidily made. Both myself and my guide tripped on the uneven floor, that had warped because as I was soon to discover my room was directly above the kitchen. My guide said he would pick me up at 0900 tomorrow and that the reception had his number should I need anything. The room was warm so I opened the window, huge mistake, it overlooked a kind of social club and my room was instantly violated by a cacophony of voices, they are big football fans here in Bhutan and the European Cup was on. I also was serenaded by several noisy pigeons. Charming at first, their cooing soon lost its appeal and lacking a screen on the window I had to be particularly vigilant about keeping them out. I went for a brief walk before dinner, returning earlier than planned as Mother Nature again decided to open the skies. Reading in my room I could soon smell cooking and hear pots and pans and shouts from the kitchen below me. It’s only two nights I told myself, it won’t be so bad. Down to dinner at 1900. I met an interesting couple from Indonesia who invited me to join them. They travel the world in search of Buddhist locales. The food this night was Chinese and quite tasty. My new companions and I compared travel stories and experiences. My hair, becoming a sponge in the humid, rainy air, began its transformation. Time to retire for bed.

Guide arrived a few minutes late, this seems to be a trend. We start off, our first stop being the giant bronze Buddha. He explains it is 167 feet tall. Because Bhutan has no bronze factories it was made in China, then flown over and is being assembled by Chinese workmen. The completion has been delayed, but it is hoped to be ready by the end of the year. We drove up the mountain, parked and walked through the construction site for a better view, it is truly impressive. Next we went to the Takin sanctuary. Unfortunately these strange creatures were shy and gathered in the furthest corner from the access point. I could make out shapes, but did not get as close as I had hoped. We then returned to the city and had lunch After lunch we returned to the hotel for “rest”. At 1400 I was picked up again and we went to our first Dzong or fortress. Half the structure is dedicated to the municipal offices, the other half a monastery. All the fortresses were built in the 17th century and have been restored and maintained. Most are not modernized, still using butter lamps for lighting. Sherab, my guide, explained that when entering government buildings he had to be dressed formally, that is in addition to his national dress, western dress is not permitted for Bhutanese people conducting business, he also had to wear a woolen shawl that announced his civil status, Yellow for the King, Red for the Chief Abbot, white with stripes for the town leader (mayor) and plain white for the populous. While he donned his shawl, tying it in a complicated manner, he noted with approval that I had all important bits covered, I took some pictures of the outside of the Dzong. I was cautioned not to photograph the King’s palace, while it may not be apparent, it is quite well guarded. We entered and my first encounter with the thousands of stairs I would climb began. The initial stairs have regular risers and are just like any staircase, the 2nd set of stairs is quite vertical and I could definitely see that it would be quite difficult to rush the fortress with these steep stairs. The buildings themselves are impressive, mud brick painted white, wood on top painted in yellow, black, and red. Dragons, lions and garudas adorn the walls and the elaborately carved windows were quite stunning. At the monastery we had to remove our shoes to enter. Photography is forbidden. A giant Buddha statue greeted us, along with several smaller statues representing local deities. The walls house 1000 miniature Buddha statues, and I was shown the prayer books, the seat reserved for the king and the daily offerings. This, as all the monasteries, was a very spiritual place. There were no blank walls, all were painted or carved, depicting the enlightenment of Buddha or, as in the ceiling, 100’s of dragons were carved and painted. A monk sat in front of a prayer book and recited the mantra. He seemed unfazed at the few tourists admiring the artistry of the place. Outside we put on shoes and continued our walk round the courtyard. I was confused at first, Shareb kept telling me about the courteeards. I was quite unfamiliar with this word and listened intently for a clue as to its meaning. When Sherab announced that this was the first courteeard it dawned on me that he meant courtyard, including the “y” with the first, instead of second syllable. Now it made sense.
We stopped in town and visited the local market, mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, dogs and cattle were everywhere and there was a conspicuous lack of urgency and stress. The capital city was very laid back and relaxed. Back to the “hotel”. This nights dinner was Indian themed. Later that night I could imagine the 2 manifestations of Buddha, that were devil like, doing battle in my tummy.

I had struggled since awakening with the stuff on top my head. It was now so frizzy and voluminous that my brush would not go through it. There was too much of it to gather up and put in my clip. Not even my hat came close to taming this beast. Politely, everyone pretended not to notice, and I envied the Bhutanese ladies with their straight hair. Why did I not wash it, I hear you ask. Well, the water this morning was of a brownish hue, and lacked pressure. I felt sure I would have a worse mess than what I started with.

This morning Sherab was on time, we checked out of the “hotel” and our first stop was to a monastery up a mountain. Since there was only a primitive trail leading to the monastery we hiked up and were greeted with the most amazing view. The rain had conveniently stopped during our saunter. Upon entering the monastery the monks were quite busy and were sweeping the stone floor with branches and wrapping the prayer books before putting them away. Again a large Buddah statue graced the inside. I was shown the world’s largest prayer book, not secured in any way, but sitting on its stand in a corner of the room. When we were exiting one of the elder monks stopped me and asked if he could do a reading. I looked to Sherab who was no help at all, saying only “it’s up to you”. I agreed, the Monk asked some questions about my date of birth and experiences. He correctly told me that I had had health issues with my leg, that I have much worldly experience (I am hoping he meant through travel, and suspect this is true of most of the visitors), and told me some other things that quite surprised me as they were true. He suggested that hoisting 3 prayer flags would bring me good luck, he also said that most people benefit from five prayer flags, one in each colour, but that I only needed three as I had enough of the other elements. A small donation was all that was required. The experience had been both fun and enlightening and the cost minimal so I happily parted with some dollars. Sherab explained there were a few places where we could hoist the flags in the next few days.

We then began our drive to Punakha. This was a lengthy drive through the mountains. As I was told the day of my arrival the good road ended and we found ourselves on a mud road, made even more muddy by the daily rains, gentle as they may be. The road snaked its way up the mountain and we went through several tree growths until we reached the pine forest. The air here was magical, it was clean and fresh and pure as air should be. Poor Sherab was perplexed when on several occasions I asked if we could stop so I could take a picture, but ever the font of patience he found a slightly wider section of road and stopped. This often left me to trudge through the mud to get to where I wanted to be, by the end of the day, his spotless car, was not quite so spotless. I admired his driving skills and his calmness, as we made our way through the narrow muddy roads. We were stopped by rock and mud slide. Sometimes heavy equipment was clearing it, other times the Indian labourers that they import for these jobs were clearing by hand. There is a curious system of right of way which I never figured out. Sometimes we would pull over and stop to let other vehicles through, whilst at other times we continued and the other vehicles would pull over and stop. Along the way we passed several water prayer wheels, small buildings with a prayer wheel driven by water. There were often many clay pots at these which I was told people would put prayers in for those who are sick, or who have passed on. The windows were open during the tip adding to the transformation of my hair.

We arrived at the Duchla Pass, a place where 108 chortens were built in 3 months. It was misty and there was a mystical air about the place. I was shown the King’s temple, with only one airport in the country when he travels, he too has to drive and stops along the way to rest at these dedicated places. Back in the car and another hour to Punakha. We stopped for lunch, fortunately the warring Buddas had called a truce, and I was able to enjoy some of the tasty Chinese fare. We then began our hike to the fertility temple. I assured Sherab that I did not need a blessing at this temple. We walked through the rice paddies, noting several phalluses painted on the fronts and sides of houses. These were neither small, nor discreet and filled the entire space. Like all such buildings the final pathway led up a quite steep path and I was quite pleased to sit on the bench under the very old and very large tree at the top. In addition to the usual Buddha statues and prayer books, there was a large wooden penis which the monks used to perform the blessing, I was also shown a photo album with women who had visited here and become pregnant after trying for years without success, they sent a picture of themselves and their baby following the birth. Perhaps this was a magical place. Back through the rice paddies and a slip left me in ankle deep in some very foul water. I do believe that there is dung of at least one species in here, and I suspect more than one. Bottom line, my socks did not return with me, being somewhat fragrant. I had to keep my shoes, although they have since had the benefit of a wash.

Off to the local Dzong. This time there was a pretty bridge spanning the river. No surprises here, steps, steps and more steps, giant Buddha statue. A wall of dragons, very nice. I was taken up to the rafters, yes more stairs, these were quite steep, where I could get a better view. It seems apart from the municipal section, nowhere is off limits. Legs tired now, pleased we went to our hotel. This was peaceful, right on a river and quite nice gardens.

Dinner was Indian, decided rice was the best thing, didn’t want fighting Buddha devils again, and had had a decent lunch. Took some pictures by the river. Heard sirens, and was told at dinner that the Dzong in the next town had caught fire.

One of the ironies of Bhutan is that their biggest source of revenue is the export to India of hydroelectric power. Apparently they were so efficient at the export that they forget to keep some for themselves and we were plunged into darkness before dinner, during dinner, and then later in the evening. The first two times were fine, I had read the advice and brought a flashlight along. During dinner the restaurant staff were quite familiar with the routine and soon had portable lights out and working. The third time was a bit different. I was reading a book when the lights went out. Believing it would not last long I waited for lights to return and fell asleep. About two hours later, near to midnight in fact, the lights came on waking me from a sound sleep. I sincerely believe there is a global conspiracy to prevent me from getting a decent night’s sleep.

The next morning Sherab gave me details about the fire. The fortress was destroyed. Most of the religious artifacts had been saved, but none of the municipal documents were spared. The Buddha statue had been relocated to the Dzong we visited yesterday. He asked if I would like to see the site. I agreed this would be a good detour. When we were on the road he told me that he would have to drive a little fast as we had to be at a certain place before 1030. No problem I assured him. Thankfully he is a very good driver and we navigated hairpin turns, mud, vehicles, cattle and dogs without incident. As we neared the Dzong, we could smell the fire, and soon we could see plumes of smoke. We stopped on the opposite side of the river and looked at the devastation. The lower part of the Dzong is constructed of mud brick or concrete and was more or less intact, the upper part is wood and was completely absent. There were many orange jumpsuit clad people on the hillside, they are looking for the items the monks tossed through the windows, Sherab told me. We were joined by others who also came to survey the damage and were told it was very windy last night which is why the fire spread so fast. Fortunately, no one was injured and most of the religious artifacts were saved. I can only imagine how challenging it was for the fireman to carry their hoses and equipment up the hill, as there was no roadway leading to it. The people appeared somber but all said the Dzong would be rebuilt.

Back in the car and more travelling at breakneck speeds to get to the pass before it closed. Along the way we had to pull over as a motorcade passed us heading towards the scene of the fire. Sherab told me that there are only 3 cars with the license place “BHUTAN”, one for the King, one for the Chief Minister and this one for the Chief Abbot. There was also several cabinet members with the group. All the cars were a navy blue colour, and apart from the lead police car, they did not have much security.

We continued on our way, at times coming worryingly close to the edge, I might have found the drive easier if I were on the side closest to the mountain, instead of closest to the steep edge. Along the way the radio announced that all government offices were closed today because of the fire. We saw schoolchildren returning from closed schools, and I was told that some of the places on our itinerary would also be closed as the Museum and Handicrafts Centre were operated by the government. The good news was that the roadblock we had been trying to beat, would not be operating today, we could now drive at a more leisurely pace. Sherab joked that he hoped I had enjoyed my free Bhutanese massage as we continued to drive over corduroy roads.
We drove through Thimphu, then onto Paro which we reached at lunch time. I was offered some of the local wine, which was quite tasty. The wine was served from a traditional decanter and served in a small blue and white porcelain bowl. I did not refuse the 2nd or even 3rd helping. I consulted with the warring Buddha’s in my stomach, they advised the truce would hold if they had Chinese, the restaurant was happy to oblige.

We visited another Dzong, I was quite expert now at quickly removing and putting on my shoes, also was finding scaling the mountains and steps much easier, could usually make it to the top without being too much out of breath. The Dzong overlooked the city of Paro which surrounded rice paddies. The shades of green were incredible. Rice farming is quite a manual process and looked like tremendously hard work. This particular Dzong had two temples in the monastery, one for the regular Buddha and one for the goddess of compassion. This was the most beautiful of all that I have seen and I was disappointed that I could not take pictures. I found a cushion on the floor and stayed in the monastery, most likely my last of this trip, for quite a while. I heard the soothing voice of the monk as he read from his prayer book, smelled the incense being burned and admired the incredible artistry of the dioramas and carvings, as well as the many statues and their robes. I felt quite at peace. Eventually we had to leave this place, and in the courtyard I was shown an orange tree and Sherab explained that it is forbidden to eat the fruit of this tree, and especially to pick the fruit, if anyone does, they will sicken and probably die. It is allowed to pick up fallen fruit and offer to your home altar, you will be blessed with good luck. The luck must have taken hold immediately for instead of hiking to the next attraction, which we could see from the Dzong, we returned to our car at the bottom of the steep hill and headed for the city. We stopped at the bridge spanning the river, again Sherab told me this was from the 17th century. My hair by now was quite frightening. I was sporting an untamed mess of kinky uncontrollable mane, that defied all efforts to restrain it. I am sure that I would have frightened small children had we encountered any, and people, if not staring, were now giving me double takes.

I had said I would like to purchase a small dragon as a souvenir, after all I was in the land of the Thunder Dragon and dragons were prominent on many of the buildings. We stopped in several shops, there were dragon wall hangings, door handles, ashtrays, as well as gaudy brightly coloured plastic dragons, sadly no little dragon carving that could join my dragon family at home. We left the market area empty handed.
We bounced over trails to reach my hotel, and I was pleasantly surprised, it was by far the most luxurious of the trip. That night there was a large Indonesian group staying at the hotel. They had arranged for a cultural show and I had been invited to join them. There was traditional dancing with costumes and masks, singing and instruments. The air was chilly so we had a nice bonfire and sipped on local whiskey.
I was scheduled to climb to the Tiger’s nest, but rain had made the trail too slippery and I did not want to chance another injury to my ankle. Instead we visited the museum which housed an impressive display of masks, costumes, weapons, photographs and wall hangings. We also drove to one of the oldest fortresses, long ago abandoned and being reclaimed by mother nature. We did try to get a peak at the Tiger’s nest, but rain and clouds sabotaged our efforts. Along the way we happened across an interesting lawn ornament. Not sure what they neighbours would think if we had one on our lawn.
I enjoyed the fresh air, lack of factories means no pollution. I enjoyed the many shades of green and the colours that were so evident in their buildings and their daily life, I enjoyed learning some of the history of this unique country and the sense of calm that everyone seems to have. The Bhutanese people themselves are quite unique, although Sherab told me that many of the young people are leaving the country to find work, I wonder how long the country will retain its uniqueness. The government has introduced some less than popular initiatives in an effort to minimize the carbon footprint and to keep the Bhutanese people healthy. The first is no car day on Tuesday. Only cars carrying tourists, taxis, busses and emergency vehicles are allowed to travel on this day. Police were out in force and we were stopped several times and asked to show the tourist permit. The government has also banned tobacco. Unfortunately like most things banned this has led to a thriving underground market. I have given up on my hair, I have unsuccessfully corralled some of it into my clip, this has had the effect of shifting volume from evenly dispersed to mostly in the back. How I would love short hair right now.
On the flight from Paro to Kathmandu I was seated next to an Austrian Professor of Forestry who was consulting with the Bhutanese government on a long-term project. We enjoyed lengthy discussion of the changes he has seen, the uniqueness of the country and the fact that many people he meets do not enjoy their time in Bhutan. They feel the points of interest are spread too thin, and the lack of western conveniences does not agree with them. For me it was the opposite. I appreciated that this place was different from any other that I have visited, and that I was able to breathe unpolluted air. We were also fortunate to catch sight of the Himalayas with Mount Everest proudly rising above the clouds.

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