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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 14th, 2012, 06:04 AM
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To let everyone in on Hanuman's comment above, I recently posted a photo of a cannabis sativa plant on Facebook. Jeane and I were walking back from the Temple of the Divine Madman with our guide Sonam, who spotted the plant not far from the aforementioned restaurant...
Craig is offline  
Nov 14th, 2012, 08:57 AM
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Day 5: Punakha to the Bumthang Valley

We got up early to get ready for our 8 AM departure. While the restaurant “officially” opened at 7, breakfast was already being served when we arrived at 6:45 to use the Wifi. So we were able to get going a little before 8 AM. It was sad to leave as the weather here had been warm and pleasant with temps during the day in the 70's. From Punakha, we drove to the main road at Wangdue and headed east. Sonam joked that we were on Highway 1 and that when we returned on the same road, we would be on Highway 2. As I explained earlier, this was not much of a highway at all. For most of the drive the road had only one lane. So any time we encountered another vehicle, one of us had to pull over to allow the other to get by. Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic in either direction. Because of the mountainous terrain there were lots of twists and turns but because we were going so slow, that wasn’t really bothersome. What was bothersome however, were the bumps, especially in areas where the road was unpaved or in the process of being repaired. That really took its toll on us.

About 2 hours into our trip we had our first yak sighting - they were conveniently on the side of the road, close enough to photograph from our SUV. Shortly thereafter we arrived at Pele La, the 2nd mountain pass which is traditionally considered to be the boundary between western and central Bhutan. The altitude here was 10,000 feet and there was a chill in the air. And while there were plenty of prayer flags and a vendor selling stuff, there were no restrooms, which is a problem throughout Bhutan. Jeane set off down a dirt road to find a bush while I attempted to photograph a local yak herder that happened to be walking by. Jeane came back and I took my turn, while observing that more than a few tourists had used this dirt road for a toilet stop.

Feeling better, we set off for Trongsa, the next big town (population 15,000), 2-1/2 hours away. After an hour of driving, we came upon a large stupa decorated with prayer flags, Chendbji Chorten. Sonam told us it was built in the Nepalese style in the 18th century and patterned after the Swayambhunath temple in Kathmandu. Soon thereafter, the imposing Trongsa Dzong came into view, even though we were an hour away. We finally arrived at the Yangkhil Resort in Trongsa for another buffet lunch. The setting was pleasant as we sat outdoors with a view of the dzong. I imagine that the Yangkhil Resort would be a good place to spend the night, if we weren’t moving on.

After lunch, we headed over to the dzong and learned from Sonam about some more of the local history. I have not shared much Bhutanese history in this report but on our tour we come away with the following (and a lot more):
1. Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan in the 8th century by a highly revered Guru from Tibet
2. Until the 17th century the various districts of Bhutan were ruled by the local monks
3. Almost all of the dzongs in Bhutan were built in the 17th century to defend against invading Tibetans. During that period Bhutan was founded and unified as a country, although the regional governors enjoyed pretty much autonomous rule
4. By the mid-19th century, Bhutan was at peace with Tibet
5. In the early 20th century, the first of a succession of 5 kings came into power
6. Bhutan began its transition from an absolute monarchy to a multi-party democracy in 2007

From Trongsa, it was another 2-1/2 hours to the town of Jakar in the Bumthang Valley. There is a third pass, Yutong La about an hour outside of Trongsa. It was the least interesting of the 3, and we did not bother to stop. When we reached the outskirts of Jakar, we stopped at a shop selling kiras and other textiles for a much needed restroom break. Jeane spent some time here and eventually wound up buying a fairly expensive, colorful traditional kira, which she intends to use as a wall hanging. With Jeane’s purchase in hand, we headed to Swiss Guest House, our hotel for the next 3 nights. It was getting late in the day and a chill was starting to set in. Sonam offered to call the hotel on his cell phone and ask them to start the fire in the wood stove in our room. This is indicative of the type of service we received from Sonam throughout the trip.

Upon arrival, we were checked in quickly and our bags were brought to our room. Sonam told us he’d meet us the next day at 8:30 AM (ugh!) to take us to the first of our 2 festivals. The wood stove had already warmed things up nicely and we noticed that we had an electric heater in the room which could be used if the wood stove went out in the middle of the night. Our room #38 was on the lower of 2 floors and was again the farthest from the reception and the restaurant. It would be the smallest room we had on our tour but it was still quite spacious. There were windows on 3 of its 4 sides affording views of the surrounding apple orchard and a local neighbor's home in the distance. The owner/manager is a 2nd generation Swiss/Bhutanese women. When we arrived, the hotel was full with a large photographic tour group and several other tourists there to attend the festivals. We thought that the staff seemed a bit overwhelmed by this but for the most part, we were well taken care of.

The food at Swiss Guest House was the best we had in Bhutan - homemade soups, assorted pastas and meat sauces, homemade jam for breakfast and locally brewed Red Panda beer on tap! Everything was still served buffet style, but following meal after meal of bland food, it worked out well. We had a nice dinner that first night and turned in early.

Next: Our first festival and a short hike to some local sights
Craig is offline  
Nov 14th, 2012, 11:36 AM
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Craig, I continue to enjoy tagging along with you. Compared to the other countries you've visited in Asia, how would you rank Bhutan?
tripplanner001 is offline  
Nov 14th, 2012, 12:06 PM
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tripplanner - the jury is still out on that one. We found Bhutan to be similar to Bali (which we rank very high), especially in how the people's religion permeates every aspect of their lives. We thought the Bhutanese countryside was as beautiful as any place on earth. There was an awful lot of driving, not much down time and we had to get up early almost every day. So it was not the relaxing experience we would have had by going at our own pace. We don't usually like to travel with guides, but Sonam was outstanding in every way - the best we've ever had. Our driver, Dorji was excellent too. I had very little planning to do for this trip because Kencho of Snow White Tours did all of the work (and she pretty much nailed it). I hope this helps...
Craig is offline  
Nov 14th, 2012, 12:39 PM
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Thanks, Craig, I was just curious and this gives me a better idea.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Nov 14th, 2012, 12:59 PM
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Day 6: Jakar, Bumthang Valley

We awoke to a chilly morning and headed over to the restaurant for a nice breakfast. Afterwards, we bundled up in layers, and were ready to head out at 8:30 AM. The thermometer in our SUV read “0” (Celsius) so we knew it was cold outside. The Jambey Lhakhang Drub Festival, is named after 7th century temple adjacent to the festival grounds. There was always a good reason when Sonam pushed us for an early start. Today we got going early so we could get the best seats. And we did - right in front, close to the action, with the sun behind us for high quality photos. Most of the tourists that arrived later had to stand and face into the sun while watching the dances.

While waiting for the dances to start, we enjoyed observing the locals as they entered the venue. Many of the women especially, were dressed in colorful clothing that was absolutely stunning. In addition to being an important religious event, festivals are big social gatherings where people bring out their best finery. The dances at this festival were performed by local people and these dances are pretty much the same dances that are performed at all of the other festivals in Bhutan. The dances are carried out to bless onlookers, teach them the Buddhist philosophy, protect them from misfortune and exorcise all evils. The dancers’ colorful costumes represent wrathful and compassionate deities, demons and animals. We took many photos. I got up to walk around and stretch my legs at one point and noticed that there were also games for the locals (like those found at any carnival) and vendors selling food and souvenirs.

At one point about a dozen young ladies lined up in a row. A character that Sonam referred to as a “clown” asked them one-by-one what their wishes were (typically they ask for a boyfriend or for fertility). When each lady finished, he blessed her with a wooden phallus.

After 2 or 3 hours of watching the dances, we had had enough, knowing we would be attending another festival the next day. I let Sonam know that we were ready to go and we returned to Swiss Guest House for lunch. Lunch would not be available until 1 PM so while we were waiting for the hotel to set up the buffet, we took advantage of the Wifi in the restaurant.

After lunch we met up with Sonam again for a short hike that took us from Tamshing Lhakhang, a 16th century temple that contained some unrestored Buddhist paintings, to the Kurje Monastery and then to Jambey Lhakhang to see the temple, which was not open that morning. Afterward, Jeane wanted to shop the vendors at the festival so I asked Sonam to accompany her while Dorji returned me to the hotel. Sonam had led Jeane to believe that the vendors would accept credit cards since many of them came from the shops in Jakar. That was not the case and Jeane ran out of Bhutanese currency with her first purchase, a small decorative metal tea pot. Since Bhutanese banks are closed during the festival, Jeane was now finished shopping. She and Sonam started back to the hotel on foot and were met by Dorji as he was returning from dropping me off. Sonam and Dorji had of course, been in touch via their cell phones.

After Jeane returned, we just sat and read for the remainder of the afternoon. Sonam had told Jeane to be ready at 8 AM for the next day’s festival. We shared a table at dinner with a charming young couple from Italy, also traveling on their own, who had just finished a 2-night trek and were continuing eastward after the festivals. It was a very pleasant evening.

Next: Another festival, even better than the first
Craig is offline  
Nov 14th, 2012, 01:07 PM
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Looking forward to more!
Where can I find your pictures you took?
ditto97 is offline  
Nov 14th, 2012, 01:14 PM
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ditto - Photos have not been posted yet and will be posted on Smugmug once I've sorted through them. This will happen after I've finished my trip report.
Craig is offline  
Nov 14th, 2012, 01:15 PM
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Very interesting. Thanks.
Marija is offline  
Nov 14th, 2012, 01:18 PM
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Alright, sounds great.
ditto97 is offline  
Nov 14th, 2012, 03:42 PM
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Enjoying your report, Craig. Did you enjoy Bhutan as much as you enjoyed Myanmar? I'm glad I took your recommendation to visit Myanmar, and wonder if you feel the same enthusiasm for recommending visiting Bhutan, especially considering the high cost of visiting Bhutan.
shelleyk is offline  
Nov 15th, 2012, 02:54 AM
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shelley - we had more control of the pacing on our trip to Myanmar (except on those mornings when we had to get up early to catch a flight). If you can tolerate getting up early almost every day with lots of packing and unpacking, along with an awful lot of driving and not much down time, then I would recommend a visit to Bhutan. We felt it was worth the cost.
Craig is offline  
Nov 15th, 2012, 08:32 AM
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Glad to hear your thoughts about Bhutan. I am enjoying your report very much! Feels like I'm there with you and Jeane - can't wait to see the photos!
Florida1 is offline  
Nov 15th, 2012, 09:19 AM
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Day 7: Jakar, Bumthang Valley

Our new Italian friends joined us for a quick breakfast. They were moving on today so we wished them well. We set off at 8 AM for the Prakhar Lhakhang festival, about 45 minutes away. The thermometer in our vehicle said “-1” when we started but we knew from the previous day that it would warm up quickly once the sun rose. After a short walk, we arrived at the courtyard where the festival would be held. It was empty. Sonam assured us that the festival would start on time at 9 AM. And it did. This festival was different in that the monks living at the temple did the dances, not the locals.

On one side of the courtyard was a set of stairs that led up to guest quarters. The monks were housed in a separate building. We thought that the guest quarters would provide a unique vantage point for photos and asked Sonam if it would be okay to watch from there. He asked around. No one objected since the guest quarters were unoccupied. So for the 2nd day in a row, we had "VIP seating" for a festival.

The Prakhar festival was smaller and seemed more locally oriented giving it a much different feel to it than the first one we went to. The women were still wearing their finery but there were few vendors and no games at this one. Everyone seemed to be having a really good time - lots of smiles. The “clowns” were out in force with their wooden phalluses, blessing everyone - men, women, locals and tourists. The dances were the same. We couldn’t tell much difference between the monks' performances today and the locals' performances on the previous day. Again, we took lots of photos.

After about 2-1/2 hours we were satisfied that we had seen enough. The textile shop that we had stopped at previously on the way to Jakar was nearby. We stopped there for a while and Jeane purchased a couple more items using her credit card. Then we headed back to Swiss Guest House for lunch.

After lunch, I stayed in the restaurant to use the Wifi. I had given Jeane some of my local currency so she could do more shopping. She went with Sonam and Dorji to a local shop that sold homemade jams and honey. She wanted to purchase some things to give to friends back home. Jeane soon returned with some purchases and by that time, I had settled into our room with my book. We had some packing to do before hitting the road again the next day. It was rather quiet in the restaurant at dinner as many had moved on, including the large tour group. We would be departing at 8 AM again, so we turned in early.

Next: A Drive to Gangtey, a short hike and a black-necked crane sighting
Craig is offline  
Nov 15th, 2012, 11:22 AM
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Day 8: Bumthang to Gangtey

After one last Swiss Guest House breakfast, we loaded up our vehicle and headed out. Jakar was as far east as our itinerary would take us so now we were retracing our route, heading west. It was a 5 hour drive to Gangtey plus time for the buffet lunch at the Chendbji Restaurant near the large stupa we had seen while heading east. Gangtey is located in a valley south of the main highway. Sonam explained that electric power had only recently been brought to the area. He said that our hotel used to use a generator for power and that it would be turned off at 9 every evening.

On arrival in Gangtey, Sonam had planned a short hike. We walked through a village and a forested area to a viewpoint overlooking a marsh where the black-necked cranes were known to feed. The hike, on generally flat terrain, lasted about 1-1/4 hours. When we reached the viewpoint, Sonam told us to look for black dots in the marsh - those would be the birds. No luck. We walked a bit further and met up with Dorji and our vehicle. Dorji had dropped off our bags at the hotel while we were hiking. We had one more stop at the information center. As we approached, I saw dozens of black dots on the marsh. “Is that them?” I asked. Sonam replied in the affirmative.

There was a high powered telescope at the information center. No one was using it, so I went over and honed in on the cranes. I could make them out clearly, black necks and all. There must have been 50 of them. We took turns looking. The black necked cranes had purposely not been mentioned on our itinerary. They usually fly south for the winter from Tibet and arrive in Bhutan in early November - there was no guarantee that they would be there. We just got lucky.

The sun was quickly disappearing behind the mountains so we headed to our hotel, the Dewachen. On arrival we were greeted with hot towels, a nice touch. Since our bags had already arrived, we headed straight to our room (#9). It was a beautiful, spacious corner room with floor to ceiling windows on 2 sides. Again, we had the farthest room from the restaurant and reception. This was the first place we stayed that had “designer” toiletries in the bath. Sonam showed us how to fire up the wood stove. We noted that there was no electric heater but the room heated up quickly and stayed warm all night.

Sonam gave us some bad news - we would have to leave the next day at 7:30 AM so that we could get through a construction area before the road was shut down. Breakfast would be served at 6:30 AM to accommodate us. I should mention here that Sonam has an excellent network of friends who constantly keep him informed about things like this. He was never out of touch as cellular service is available even in the remotest areas of Bhutan.

The buffet dinner was a bit of a letdown after the good food we had at Swiss Guest House. There was no Wifi in the restaurant (or anywhere else) at Hotel Dewachen. After dinner we returned to the room, fired up the wood stove again (very easy to do) and hit the sack early.

Next: A long drive and pizza with Kencho
Craig is offline  
Nov 16th, 2012, 10:08 AM
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Day 9: Gangtey to Paro

My first task of the morning was to light our wood stove. It wasn’t that cold in our room but there’s nothing like waking up to a nice warm fire. After a shower and breakfast, I still had time for some photos. The sun was hitting our architecturally striking hotel just right so I took some shots. After that we finished packing and hit the road - 7 hours of driving, with a break for lunch in Thimphu with Kencho. The lunch was at Season Pizza, and their pizza was very good. All of the usual toppings were available, plus chilies for the locals. The crusts were thin and crispy, which I prefer. Jeane ordered a small pie and I ordered a medium - both with multiple toppings. Kencho also ordered a pizza with several toppings, one of which was chilies. I'm not sure why she proceded to remove them after her pizza was delivered. I had a glass of wine - an Australian merlot that was good enough that I ordered a 2nd...

Anyway the conversation was great. I had a burning question - why did she name her company “Snow White Tours”? Kencho told us it was a last minute decision made when she went to register her company name with the government. Her preferred choices had already been taken and she was forced to choose on the spot. She figured potential clients would associate Snow White Tours with the the snow-capped Himalayas in Bhutan and went with that. The name has worked well for her so far so she is not planning on changing it.

Our discussion moved to politics, and in particular Gross National Happiness, or as the Bhutanese call it, “GNH”. Our guide, Sonam had explained it to us fairly succinctly. It is not a measurement of individual(s) happiness. It is a set of guidelines that when followed will enhance the general happiness of the Bhutanese population. There are 4 main components:

1. Preservation of Bhutanese traditions
2. Preservation of the environment
3. Self-sufficiency, especially in agriculture, natural resources and construction
4. Availability of education, healthcare and infrastructure

The first 2 components are pretty self-explanatory. One example of preservation of traditions is the requirement that Bhutanese wear the traditional gho during working hours. An example of preservation of the environment is the goal that 70% of the land remain forested (it is currently 74%). The self-sufficiency component exists because Bhutan has been very reliant on other countries (India, especially) for almost everything. There is a movement now to grow more crops locally instead of importing them. Water is abundant in Bhutan and, if properly harnessed should allow the Bhutanese to generate all of the electricity it needs. The Bhutanese government has stepped up its efforts to train its own workers to build roads, etc. rather than bringing workers in from elsewhere. The final component is the government’s role in making education, healthcare and infrastructure available to the entire population. This means upgrading the east-west national highway to one lane in each direction countrywide, bringing electric power to citizens in the remotest regions, building new schools and hospitals and training more teachers and doctors.

Ask any Bhutanese and they will have an opinion about GNH. And it won't always be positive. After all, the 4 components tend to work at cross-purposes. When satellite TV is available to anyone that has electricity, how will that affect the preservation of Bhutanese tradition? How will improving roads or building dams affect the environment? Only time will tell. Kencho had a beef with the no less than 70% forested land goal. I think she felt it was rather arbitrary and unnecessary.

We talked about her business model and how it contrasts with what her competitors are doing. Her model is to give her clients the best service and accommodations available for the money. Pretty simple, really. She gets that travelers really don’t care for all of the non-stop buffet meals. She said that the hotel owners are lazy - they see something that works and then they all copy one another. She was vehemently opposed to lowering the minimum daily tariff to increase tourism from 70,000 per year now to the 300,000 that the government has suggested as a goal.

After talking for 2-1/2 hours, it was time to get going. We had 2 more hours of driving to get to Paro. When we reached Paro, we stopped at the airport to exchange some currency. The banks had closed at noon because it was Saturday, and I needed more Ngultrum to tip our guide and driver at the end of the tour. The lady at the exchange window asked me where I had flown in from. I explained that I had come by car with my guide. No problem - I was in and out in less than 5 minutes.

We finally arrived at our Paro Hotel, the Metta Resort and Spa, about 20 minutes north of the main town. Jeane and I were shown to our room #205. Sonam had explained to us that it was the largest suite in the hotel. The large room would ensure that we had a comfortable stay for our final 3 nights in Bhutan. However, my feelings about the Metta are mixed. On the first night, we had noisy neighbors in the units next to us and behind us. So Jeane had trouble getting to sleep. The 2nd and 3rd nights were quieter. Apparently, the hotel does not run its water pump all the time, so the shower doesn't work before 6 AM. On our first morning however, there was no water pressure until 6:30 AM. Wifi was available but inconsistent. It never seemed to be on in the afternoon. When it was available, I could pick up a signal in my room, which was nice. The buffet breakfasts and dinners at the Metta were above average with some additional variety beyond the standard tourist offerings.

Jeane and I unpacked, went to dinner and settled in for the evening.

Next: A hike to a nunnery, an 8th century temple, and dzong in ruins.
Craig is offline  
Nov 16th, 2012, 11:36 AM
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I'm enjoying reading about your trip--quite different from dogster's encounter with Bhutan.
Marija is offline  
Nov 16th, 2012, 04:08 PM
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Funny...I did not realize that the red clowns were blessing people with wooden phalluses. I just thought they were sticks. It must have been the altitude.

We ate our best lunch of the trip at a restaurant (that seemed to have hopes of becoming an inn) right outside the gate of the Dewachen Hotel. The Dewachen was not yet finished.

We also had a day where everything was planned around getting thru the barrier at the road construction site. We were the last vehicle to get thru. Behind us were several trucks that were not allowed thru. It was a rather remote area and I do not know where we would have gone if we had been stopped. It was late in the afternoon and getting dark.

I was impressed when I talked with children because they were learning English in school from a very early grade. I do not know if this was only in the cities/towns or in all the schools. There were articles in the Bhutan English newspaper about the difficulty of getting teachers for the rural school and getting the kids there when the weather was bad or their parents needed them for farm work.

At the Paro festival there was a large medical tent with warnings about high blood pressure and unprotected sex. At this festival no food was sold because it was in the religious building. There was a "fair" nearby where the biggest attractions were farm equipment and the bar.
Bhutan is a special experience.
Elainee is offline  
Nov 16th, 2012, 06:44 PM
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Greetings Craig and many thanks for the fine writing; a pleasure to read just now at SFO.

The nocturnal barking dog brings back memories of similar creatures outside a little abode in Tingri (Dingri), Tibet; that evening was back in the early '90s, involving a memorable mountaineering expedition with good friends.

And, you mentioned a gentleman named Dorji. That same expedition of ours involved such a wonderful climbing Sherpa named Ang Dorji. Thanks for triggering some good thoughts.

Now, can't resist giving a flight recco for your next yearly Asia journey : SQ 21/22, that fine all business class, non-stop service, EWR-SIN-EWR. SIA will cease flying those non-stops late next year. I've loved my SQ ultra long-hauls for work and plan to get in at least one more before stoppage. (In my case, SQ 38/37, SIN-LAX, return.)

Thanks again and signing off from SFO. Get to fly SQ1 to Hong Kong in a few hours; always a pleasure.

Warm weekend wishes to you and all,

macintosh (robert)

... Singapore Airlines, You're a Great Way to Fly ...
AskOksena is offline  
Nov 16th, 2012, 07:39 PM
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Great reporting, So interesting how they culturally stray from the norm in such a determined way. Could it be because of their chaotic neighbor to the south? Happiness is such a lofty goal for a whole country. I wonder how many other nations even think about going there.

I do remember dogster's report - he had a lousy guide and just wasn't in the mood. I do think it would be difficult to do Bhutan on your own, that a travel partner is crucial to help process everything. Did the festivals feel authentic or somewhat staged?
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