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Craig and Jeane Visit the Last Shangri La: Bhutan 2012

Craig and Jeane Visit the Last Shangri La: Bhutan 2012

Nov 12th, 2012, 01:25 PM
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Kathie, we had an electric heater in our room in Thimphu that was more than adequate. Temps were sometimes in the 30's at night but we were always fine. I'll try to remember to report the heating facilities at each of our destinations.

The food, especially early on was not great, although the lunches we had with Kencho were quite good. The chilies and cheese offered at most buffets was spicy (but not as spicy as the locals like it) however much of the food at the buffets was bland.

I actually felt that we ate well for the most part, as you will see as my report evolves...
Craig is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 01:34 PM
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Day 2: Thimphu

I started my day with coffee on our balcony while Jeane slept in a bit. It must have been 15 to 20 years ago that I purchased a Braun travel coffee maker and it has served me well over that time. Unfortunately you can no longer buy one. From what I heard, hotel coffee is weak - probably instant. After coffee, I showered, Jeane got up and we went down to the restaurant for the standard buffet breakfast - scrambled or fried eggs (no choice), toast with butter and jam, fruit juice and coffee or tea. Sonam was waiting for us at 9 and we headed to our first stop, the dental clinic at the “modern” hospital in Thimphu. I say modern because as Sonam explained to us, there are two types of medicine practiced in Bhutan (and paid for by the Government): modern and traditional. Sonam told us he prefers modern medicine because it is “quicker”. Anyway, as some of you know, Jeane is a dentist and I thought it would be interesting for her to visit a dental clinic. I asked Kencho to set it up and now we were going to meet with the Chief Administrator of the clinic. It took awhile for Sonam to track him down at the hospital, but after we found him, we spent about 45 minutes comparing techniques and taking a tour of the facility. Without going into excruciating detail, it suffices to say that dentistry in Bhutan is pretty much up-to-date. The Chief Administrator was intelligent and articulate. It was obvious that he had accomplished much during his tenure at the hospital. We finished our conversation with a friendly discussion about the pros and cons of “Obamacare”. Since he functions in an environment where all health care is paid for by the government, you can guess what his feelings on the topic were.

Next was a visit to the school of arts and painting where youth spend 4 to 6 years learning to reproduce (mostly) religious paintings and sculpture. It was fascinating to watch with lots of photo opportunities. There were many tourists here but fortunately the school is only open to visitors for a couple of hours each morning.

We visited the traditional hospital next. Currently, it is simply a place where the locals can obtain herbal medicines for their maladies. There is a small display area where tourists learn how the medicines are made and distributed.

Our next stop was the Folk Heritage Museum which is essentially a replica of a century-old 3-story village farm house that provided a glimpse into traditional Bhutanese life. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed here.

Our last stop before lunch was the Textile Museum. The tour there starts with a short video on the making of a gho, the traditional garment worn by Bhutanese women. In the museum itself, there were traditional weavers demonstrating their techniques and displays of some older garments. No photography allowed here either.

Our lunch with Kencho was at Khamsa Coffee in the main part of town. Kencho had pre-ordered both veggie and meat dumplings with chili sauce for us. I ordered a cafe mocha and Jeane ordered tea. Jeane tried the dumplings but opted for a tuna sandwich instead after tasting cilantro in them. We continued our friendly conversation with Kencho. There was much to talk about - Bhutanese politics being one of the topics.

After lunch, Kencho accompanied Jeane and I to several shops in town. Jeane picked up some small items but the shopping wasn’t great. At one point I ducked out to take a photo of the policeman at the main intersection in the center of town. Apparently the Government tried to replace the policeman with a traffic light at one time but the locals resisted and the policeman was brought back. After the shopping was finished, we parted ways with Kencho. She invited us to join her for pizza when we passed through Thimphu again near the end of our tour. We told her we’d be delighted.

Our final stop was the 17th century Thimphu Dzong which was built as a fort but now houses government offices and the central monk body. We spent some time photographing some of its unique architectural features and visited the small temple inside. This was the first of many temples we would visit. At each one we had to remove our shoes and refrain from taking photographs.

As we were driving back to the hotel, Sonam asked us if we wanted to eat dinner in town that evening. After considering the limited options and the time it would take to drive back and forth, we decided to pass and go with the buffet again at the hotel. Sonam told us that we needed to get off to an earlier start the next day - 8:30 AM. Since we would have to be packed and ready to go, I was doubly glad that we didn’t head into town for dinner.

The hot water had run out on Jeane during her shower in the morning and when I followed her afterward the water was absolutely frigid. So we decided that for the remainder of the tour, Jeane would shower at night and I would shower in the morning. We never ran out of hot water after that. That night there was one dog that barked continuously - just never stopped. We did not sleep well at all. The Peaceful Resort was anything but peaceful...

Next: the Takin Preserve, our first hike, the weekend vegetable market and the drive to Punakha
Craig is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 06:16 PM
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Great report, Craig. What an interesting vaca destination!!! More, please.
simpsonc510 is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 06:33 PM
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Welcome back, Craig. I'm enjoying your report so far and will continue to follow. Have to admit though, I've never considered visiting Bhutan, but you've piqued my interest.
tripplanner001 is online now  
Nov 12th, 2012, 06:43 PM
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loving all the detail... based on the reporting thus far i will visit Bhutan only thru your comprehensive eyes.
rhkkmk is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 06:53 PM
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Following along, Craig.
Kathie is online now  
Nov 12th, 2012, 08:35 PM
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This is great. Wonderful detail. I am sitting here in Boston quite bothered by the incessantly barking dog in Bhutan -- that's how vivid the experience is as reported. Keep it coming!
marya_ is offline  
Nov 13th, 2012, 02:26 AM
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Craig, have you read "Radio Shangra-La" by Lisa Napoli? Your descriptions of chilies and cheese are similar to hers.
indianapearl is offline  
Nov 13th, 2012, 03:35 AM
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Bob, its no surprise that you won't be visiting Bhutan. For one thing, there isn't a single swimming pool in the entire country. Read on if you need further convincing. We actually discussed your travel style with Kencho to see if she could offer an itinerary that would fit. She responded rather firmly that Thailand would be a more suitable destination for you and Karen...

indiana - both Jeane read the excellent "Radio Shangri-La" before we went. Two other books worth reading are "Married to Bhutan" by Linda Leaming and "Beyond the Sky and the Earth, a Journey into Bhutan" by Jamie Zeppa.
Craig is offline  
Nov 13th, 2012, 05:04 AM
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i bet they don't have king beds either. we need showers both morning and night if desired... we hate dinner and lunch buffets.. i hate hikes. we have mountains in NE... just drive around CT.

what flavor smoothie do they offer? Yak.
rhkkmk is offline  
Nov 13th, 2012, 09:47 AM
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Day 3: Thimphu to Punakha

Jeane and I managed to wake up, eat breakfast, finish packing and checkout by 8:30. We started our day with a drive to the Takin Preserve, which was just 5 minutes from our hotel. The takin is the national animal of Bhutan and is said to be a cross between a goat and a cow. The preserve was actually a small zoo at one time but in keeping with Bhutan’s environmental policies, the animals were all released into the wild. The takins however, decided they didn’t want to leave and roamed the streets of Thimphu looking for food. As a result, they were placed back into the large fenced in area where the animals were formerly kept. There were a half dozen of these odd-looking animals close enough to the fence to get some good photos. The government is in the process of building a visitors center and will eventually charge admission to the preserve.

After leaving the preserve, we had a half-hour drive to the trailhead for our first short hike. On the way, we stopped at an excellent viewpoint for taking photographs of the dzong we had visited the day before. Sonam had told us the day before that we needed shoes with good traction so we were prepared. Today’s hike took us uphill through shady forest to Tango Monastery. Since we had been in Bhutan for a couple of days, we were somewhat acclimated to the 8,000 foot altitude. But the trail was steep - we had to stop and rest several times along the way. We also took frequent water breaks as it is very easy to dehydrate in the dry air and higher altitude. Sonam carried Jeane’s camera equipment (and would continue to do so throughout the tour) so that helped. We saw just a few other tourists and some locals hiking that day.

It took us about an hour to reach the monastery, which was founded in the 12th century. The present structure was built in the 15th century by a character known in Bhutan as the “Divine Madman”. Tango currently functions as a university of Buddhist studies for about 300 monks and is the residence of an important young reincarnated lama. We visited the temple inside and Sonam explained Tango’s history in more detail. A couple of side notes - hats must be removed when visiting monasteries and shoes must be removed when entering temples. Also, photography is not allowed inside temples.

The 45 minute hike down was easier but the trail was slippery in places. We headed back to Thimphu for lunch at Edelweiss, a locally-owned restaurant. It offered the usual tourist buffet with a few other items (pasta and a sweet and sour dish). We were joined at our table by a young woman from New Zealand who had just arrived in Bhutan after 5 weeks in Nepal. She was only planning to spend a few days in Bhutan because of the cost and seemed disappointed by how modern Thimphu was. I shared with her that we were looking forward to moving on to the more rural and less modern parts of the country. We talked some more about her travels in Nepal and how she was enamored with the people there. The time went by quickly and soon Sonam appeared at our table, hinting that it was time to go.

Before heading out of Thimphu, we had one more stop - the Vegetable Weekend Market, which runs Friday to Sunday. Unlike most markets we have seen in Asia, this was the most organized, neatly laid out market we had ever seen - stall after stall of locals selling the same vegetables. I asked Sonam, a Thimphu resident, how do the people decide which stall to buy from? He replied that they check prices carefully and tend to buy from their friends (just like anywhere else, I suppose). There was a market next door where crafts and clothing were being sold. We spent some time there but made no purchases.

The drive to Punakha took about 2¾ hours on a fairly good road. Our average speed throughout Bhutan was about 30 km/hr (20 mph) so everything is relative. At about 45 minutes outside of Thimphu, we stopped at Dochu La, the first of 3 mountain passes we would encounter as we headed east. The views of the distant snow-capped Himalayas near the Bhutan-Tibet border were spectacular. There was a large array of prayer flags and a collection of several dozen stupas at the site. A good spot for photographs...

When we arrived at Meri Puensum Resort, the sun was just about to set. Sonam told us that the name of the hotel refers to the “family of 3” that runs it. We were quickly checked in and escorted along with our bags to room #101. The rooms at this hotel were laid out as a series of 2-story cottages. Our unit was on an upper floor some distance from the reception and the restaurant, ensuring a quiet stay. We were again happy that we had a very spacious room with a king bed and a little porch with a great view of the Punakha Valley. Since the room had no heater, Jeane requested one along with some extra towels which were brought quickly. Unlike our previous stay, there was no Wifi in our room. There was Wifi in the restaurant but it was maddeningly slow.

Sonam reminded us to wear shoes with good traction again for our hike the next day. He told us he wanted to get going at 8:30 AM again. I kind of groaned and he bid us good night. During what remained of the day, we relaxed in our room and had a not-so-memorable dinner.

Next: A wonderful hike, a beautiful dzong and the Temple of the Divine Madman
Craig is offline  
Nov 13th, 2012, 10:05 AM
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Smeagol is offline  
Nov 13th, 2012, 10:52 AM
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Great report - keep it coming.
Bhutan is on my maybe list.
emdee is offline  
Nov 13th, 2012, 02:10 PM
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So good to read your report. But. Bob could go...the Uma in Paro has a lovely indoor pool.
Elainee is offline  
Nov 13th, 2012, 02:22 PM
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Elainee, I stand corrected. Bob could just hang out at the Uma pool and drink yak smoothies...
Craig is offline  
Nov 13th, 2012, 02:34 PM
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Day 4: Punakha

After a really good night’s sleep, Jeane and I headed over to the restaurant for breakfast. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that we would be served a la carte and could order our eggs any way we wanted them. I ordered an omelet with “everything” and Jeane ordered scrambled. They arrived very quickly. Of course the other menu selections were limited to toast and jam, 1 kind of juice and tea or coffee. But sometimes its the little things that can make you happy...

We set out for our second hike promptly at 8:30. It was a 20-minute drive to the trailhead with a stop along the way where I took a nice photo of Punakha Dzong with the river junction in the foreground. The hike was uphill again to the recently built Khamsum Yueling Temple. We wouldn’t always be hiking in the shade this time, the reason for the early start. It turned out that this hike wasn’t nearly as difficult as the previous one and the views of the Punakha Valley at every turn were stunning. The water in the two rivers in the valley was a beautiful shade of blue which when set against the mountain backdrop made every photo a keeper.

It took us about 45 minutes to reach the temple. While there were 4 or 5 other tourists on the trail, we were the first to arrive. Sonam had to get one of the local monks to let us in. The temple has 3 levels plus an open rooftop that allowed more great views of the valley. It took 8 years to build the temple which was consecrated in 1999. The religious artwork inside was absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed. It took us another 45 minutes to return to our vehicle after exploring the temple.

Our next stop was Punakha Dzong which is accessed by a bridge over 1 of the 2 rivers it abuts. This 17th century fort is widely considered to be the most beautiful dzong in all of Bhutan and over the years has been the victim of 4 fires and an earthquake. It has since been fully restored. Generally, the artwork in Bhutanese restorations is far more elaborate than what was done in the 17th century. Some posters have objected to this in previous reports but I am in favor of the modern restorations. First, these restorations provide employment for the numerous artisans who have trained for years at the arts school in Thimphu and second, even Bhutan can and should evolve in some ways. This all ties into Gross National Happiness, which I promise to talk about later in this report.

After visiting the Dzong we drove to the Chimi Lhakhang Cafeteria for a very bad buffet lunch. Chimi Lhakhang is the formal name for the Temple of the Divine Madman. The restaurant is located in a really nice setting with outdoor seating, overlooking rice fields, a small village and the temple in the distance. However, the selection of rice, veggies, chicken and chilies/cheese had been sitting for awhile and was lukewarm. Jeane smartly avoided the chicken but I had a small piece then thought the better of it. The next day I was feeling achy and from previous experience, I knew what that meant. Before going to bed that night I started the series of Ciprofloxacin that my travel doc prescribed for me. Problem solved - I felt much better the next morning and continued taking the Cipro as prescribed. Now I can hear Kathie groaning all the way from Seattle because I did two bad things: (1)I ate from a lukewarm buffet and (2)I took antibiotics somewhat indiscriminately.

It was a 20 minute walk to the temple from the restaurant. We stopped at a farmhouse along the way to have a peek inside and greet the elderly woman living there with her granddaughters. The Divine Madman is so-named because he revolted against orthodox Buddhism in the late 1400’s, teaching the common man that religion is an inner feeling and that one needn’t be an ordained monk. His sexual exploits were legendary. On account of this, he is believed to be a symbol of fertility and childless women go to this temple (built by a cousin in the Divine Madman’s honor) to be blessed.

The temple was the last stop of the day and we were actually able to return to the hotel and relax for a few hours prior to dinner. Sonam informed us that we would be departing at 8 the following morning as we had a lot of driving to do.

Next: A long drive with a stop in Trongsa
Craig is offline  
Nov 13th, 2012, 06:37 PM
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I think we ate in the same restaurant. But when we were there the fields had just been fertilized with natural fertilizer and there were giant flies everywhere which loved our food. We did not get sick since none of us ate anything. Good I brought granola bars and my daughter brought peanut butter and bread for the kids.
But the walk was very nice and the temple good. Was that where we were blessed with a penis (wooden)?
Elainee is offline  
Nov 13th, 2012, 09:34 PM
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Barking dogs? Yak smoothies? Lukewarm buffets? Blessed by a wooden penis? Sounds like something out of Borat.
crosscheck is offline  
Nov 14th, 2012, 02:16 AM
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Elainee - there were flies in that restaurant when we were there too, although not as many as you experienced. The rice had just been harvested. We had g-bars but didn't think to eat them. If you went to any festivals you would have seen lots of folks - locals and tourists alike, being blessed with wooden phalluses - that part of my report will follow shortly. Chimi Lhakhang is a fertility temple so while we did not receive a blessing, it is likely your family could have been blessed there...
Craig is offline  
Nov 14th, 2012, 04:47 AM
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Who cares about flies when you have free cannabis!
Hanuman is offline  

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