Dogster ? Bhutan

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Jan 15th, 2008, 11:25 AM
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Dogster ? Bhutan

Dogster did you get to Bhutan in Dec? Just wondering how it all went?? Favorite things? Least favorite?

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Jan 15th, 2008, 08:36 PM
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Ahhh Jules39. Yup, dogster made it to Bhutan - BUT - it was not a good experience.

I travel a lot. Every so often, maybe one trip in ten, a combination of circumstances arises that defeat me. Bad timing, bad planning, bad luck, my own unique capacity for stupidity - all unite in a sweet bonfire of my own vanities. Bhutan and Dogster did not get on well.

So much so that after four days [of a pre-paid 17 day trip - driving Phuntsholing - Thimpu - Punakha - Wangdi] I manoevred my guide and driver to Paro, sacked them and bunkered down in the Uma Paro. Which is a very nice place indeed for a confused, stranded solo gentleman to bunker down in. It took four days before I could get a flight out.

Do I dare tell the story of why Dogster fled Bhutan? Was my local tour company just a smart operator, a website and a mobile phone? Was my oafish, lumpen child-guide really spawned from Satan? Was everything in Bhutan built last year? Have they actually dug up every inch of road in Bhutan? Was it really that... er... dull?

Or had the dog gone, briefly, mad?

The good bits of Bhutan became submerged in every solo travellers nightmare - when you're stuck with a guide you really don't like, heading off in a car deep into the country, way, way out of rescue, ten, twelve hours from the nearest airport, knowing that it's either bail out now - or be stuck with a nightmare for the next ten days...

Was I thinking straight when I jumped ship? Probably not.Was I smart to refuse to trust the tour company again when they offered another guide? Probably not. Was I in an uncomfortable situation? Yup. Did I handle it calmly? Yup. Do I regret bailing out? Nope.

So I've been hesitating about writing about that part of my trip. It fell apart around my ears. Thank God for Uma Paro.

Am I in the mood to shriek, complain and carry on about it? Not really. I'm more depressed about it than anything. The mistake was mine. Bhutan was not Shangri-la. I stupidly trusted a website and a smart operator. He sold me on to a dud freelance guide. Caveat Emptor.

I wouldn't let my experience influence any of you, either way. I just struck out. It happens to the best of us.

Would I go back again? Mmmmm [long pause] maybe. For a festival. I'd base myself at Uma Paro, organise the whole thing through them and wait till mid-2008, when the roadworks and construction works are finished and the new King is crowned. By then everything will have been renovated, rebuilt, reconstructed and look just like new.

Some people will find this artificial. Some people will love it. It's certainly very pretty.

The rest of my trip: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Kolkata, Darjeeling, Sikkim - went fine.



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Jan 15th, 2008, 09:17 PM
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Wow, sorry you had such a bad trip! I thought Bhutan was fascinating, despite the poor roads and boring hotel buffets, but I wasn't on my own with a lousy guide. I suffered with a rotten guide on my own in Romania, and definitely sympathize.
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Jan 15th, 2008, 11:28 PM
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Dogster,

I appreciate how awful a bad guide can be.

A few years ago we went to Iran. We'd organized the whole thing through an agent in Shiraz which was a big risk and we paid in cash when we arrived at the airport. The local guide we had on the first day in Tehran was just awful. I was terrified that we'd have to have a big showdown with the company the next day as we were meeting our main guide who was driving us around for the rest of the two weeks. I was beside myself.

It's hard to even explain how bad the guide was, he was so arrogant and he just made things up if he didn't know the answer. At one museum he literally pushed through other people to open up the way for us and thought this would be good service we'd appreciate. He spoke at one volume, a shout, and stood too close to you, when you moved he moved closer! At another museum he read aloud the signage which listed inane things in English," carpet, desk, table" he shouted. Now I can laugh but at the time I thought that the whole trip was going to be like this!

Luckily for us the company ensured we had a different guide when we returned to Tehran and the guide we had for the balance of the trip was probably the best guide I'll ever have, gracious, intelligent, warm, we loved him.

However, I don't think I could have lasted two days with the other chap. It was incredibly stressful and I wasn't on my own.

On a happier note could you give an further details of your trip to Darjeeling and Sikkim? We're considering the overland trip into Bhutan.
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Jan 16th, 2008, 12:16 AM
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Thanks guys.

welltravelledbrit: Here's how I did Sikkim and Darjeeling. On this leg of the trip I stumbled on exactly the right combination. The clue to all of this is Glenburn Tea Estate. I followed their recommendations. It was a smart move.

Kolkata to Bagdogra. Hang around Bagdogra airport, then catch the HELICOPTER to Gangtok. It's Government subsidised and very cheap. And a great way to avoid 4 - 6 hours driving. And a real adventure to boot.

Transfer about 45 minutes thru beautiful scenery to BAMBOO FOREST RESORT, kinda close to Rumtek Monastery. 3 nights there. Recommended. [Next time I'd stay a night in Gangtok at NORKHILL, then transfer out of town.] I was the only guest. No problems with attentive service.

Two days touring monasteries, villages and the 'sights' of Gantok - all arranged through Bamboo Resort. I can't think why I liked Gangtok - there's little to recommend it - but I did, just the same.

Then a six hour drive right across Sikkim to Rinchenpong. Mostly I don't care for epic drives, but this one was particularly pretty. It was a breeze.

Mid-afternoon arrival at YANGSUM FARM. Now, here's a REAL find. Astounding organic food - a revelation. It's a homestay - not a hotel. Kind, interesting host, attentive service, warm self-contained cabin on a farm - with chickens and geese and a dog who will adopt you. I was the only one there. I needed that dog.

Three nights, one day touring up to Pelling and back. Astounding scenery, lousy road. Wonderful evening prayers up at the local monastery. The food... ahhh.

Darjeeling - and the roads surrounding it - were suddenly closed for six days because of a strike - leaving me potentially stranded. But Neena from GLENBURN got me through - via the back door.

Glenburn is simply excellent. Check out the website. Just go. It's a restored, reinvigorated tea-estate about an hour out of Darjeeling. In the style of Tea Trails in Sri Lanka. 3 nights.

Then, up the road to Darjeeling. The WINDERMERE Hotel. I extended my stay there. Just great fun. I loved every thing about it - even the boarding school food. It's just perfect. Think Enid Blyton.

The drive from Darjeeling to Phuntsholing was six hours of dust, horns, dirt, pollution, roadworks, scrappy towns along the road, reaching a climax of awfulness just before the border. Enjoy.

There I met my Bhutan guide.....




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Jan 16th, 2008, 12:39 AM
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dogster,
Thanks so much for your post, I happened to have already emailed Glenburn and received their recommendations including the farm you mentioned. It's very very helpful to hear your experience.

Did Glenburn organize a car/transfers or did you use taxis? Did you book the helicopter in advance or is this something you can arrange at the airport?

I can't believe you enjoyed the boarding school food at Windemere. I'm not sure that's a nostalgia that will work for me...although now I think if it we did get a great treacle pudding!

Thanks again.
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Jan 16th, 2008, 12:56 AM
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welltraveled:

I organised it all thru Darlene at the Glenburn office in Kolkata. For the two stays at Bamboo Resort and Yangsum Farm I used their cars and guides. Each place got me to the next place - courtesy sole-use local taxis. It was all pre-arranged and ran like clockwork. Once you get close to Glenburn Neena the manager will totally look after you. She's a miracle.

Glenburn will, for $75 extra, get you from there to Phuntsholing. I'd recommend that. No stress and a very nice picnic lunch on the way.
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Jan 16th, 2008, 06:40 AM
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welltraveled: definitely consider the Windamere! It's a piece of living history, with hot water bottles, and a man delivering a flashlight while you're getting ready for dinner, and notices left over from the Edwardian era. When I was there in 2001 the meals were half British and half Indian, but the manager has likely changed since then. Make sure you leave time for afternoon tea.

I also highly recommend riding the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (the "toy" train) at least part of the way to Darjeeling. I had intended to ride it all the way from Siliguri, but since part of the track was out I only took it from Kurseong. (Trip report at www.wilhelmswords.com/asia2001)

dogster: I did the drive from Phuentsholing to Siliguri, it was my introduction to India and I found lots to look at. We were stopped by a road block a couple of times, by young men collecting "donations" for the upcoming Durga Puja festival!

I kept my Romanian guide, even though I had a bad feeling about him as soon as he met me off the bus in Suceava, as I didn't want to waste time trying to find another one - I had arranged the trip directly with him. He didn't totally ruin Romania for me, but he certainly made me much warier about hiring a guide and driver just for me.

BTW, I was in Bhutan for two weeks, and I have to admit that by the end I was starting to get a bit bored with everything being the same. I loved the festivals, and the scenery, and the feeling of being outside time, but I think I should have done some hiking instead of just being driven around.
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Jan 16th, 2008, 06:44 AM
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Dogster, I know I've learned at least as much from my bad experiences as I have from my good experiences... and I probably remember the lessons from my bad experiences longer. I appreciate your brief review of the trip gone bad, but I wonder if you would be willing to give us more detail about exactly what went wrong, the tour company's response, etc.
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Jan 16th, 2008, 08:40 AM
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Dogster I am so sorry I opened a wound for you! I guess it is a risk we all take when we venture off. I like Kathie would love to know some more details is you could share. Basically the questions that Kathie asked. Thanks so much for responding Dogster. We all appreciate it.
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Jan 16th, 2008, 08:50 AM
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Sorry Dogster one thing I mean to ask was what you meant by being talked into a freelance guide?

Thanks again J
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Jan 16th, 2008, 08:20 PM
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Yup Jules - you did re-open a wound - but I've been puzzling about it ever since. It's been a while since things fell apart on me quite so comprehensibly - I quite pride myself on my ability to stumble thru the world unaided - but, as noted, Bhutan did me in.

I researched the tour company. Good feedback in Lonely Planet Thornbird etc. Great, immediate feedback from the manager. A lot of to and fro as we sorted the itinerary. A fun E-mail relationship developed. I'm going to be safe here, I thought.

Everything totally to my satisfaction right up until my arrival in Phuntsholing. Like a lamb to the slaughter.

What I didn't know was that my tour company would simply sell me on to whatever freelance guide was available for 17 days. All of their 'personalised service', their pre-sales spiel and friendly E mails were useless - in the end they were just going to grab whoever was available and chuck him at me. This they did.

My guide was built like a sumo wrestler, wearing a beanie and wrap around black sunglasses. I don't recall ever seeing his eyes - I suppose I must have - but, almost immediately I made an instinctive choice not to look in them, for fear of what I might see...

He was 23 - very smart and very dumb - simultaneously; full of grovel and suck, an unctious Uriah Heep, all blather and bulls**t. No style - all service. He'd been a guide for about 18 months and, as far as he was concerned, was very, very good at it - which, in his terms, meant that he was very, very good at getting large tips.

As we drove to Thimpu the next day he spent some considerable time telling me about his tips. One thousand pounds [yes, British Pounds] from one woman for a ten day trip, $1800 from another client for ten days - it was clear that I was expected to cough up a similar amount - in fact, these figures were just a guide - I was to be with him for 17 days; my tip would logically be much, much more....

We were an hour out of Phuntsholing. I knew I was in trouble.

The subject of tipping was the one topic he showed any enthusiasm for. All other conversation was initiated by me; 'Tell me about...' 'What is that?' What does that sign mean?' He would answer - then fall silent. The driver's command of English dried up. He made it very clear that he was there to drive, not talk.

I sat in the front passenger seat. This neither of them liked. My job was to sit in my correct tourist position in the back while they ignored me and chatted in the front.

The road from Phuntsholing to Thimpu is being dug up. For about 3/4 of the time any wonderful view was obscured by dust. It was a long six hours.

We arrived at Thimpu - and promptly drove out of town. The driver sighed heavily, theatrically - as I asked [not very meekly] to be at least shown the town I had driven six hours to see. That didn't take long, then I was driven to the other side of the river and dropped off at the Riverside Hotel - a vast, empty concrete crap hole. I was out of town, trapped. There I would remain - one of only two guests, rattling around in a hotel full of blank-faced, unhappy staff. It was 4.00 p.m. on my first day. Things were not going at all well.

It took an hour before I decided that life was way too short for this. I needed a hotel in town - then I, at least, had walking around options. I had a book of Bhutan hotels. The guide was summoned and I was moved to the Jumolhari Hotel, the best in town. The only way I could achieve this was to simply book the suite and say 'I'll pay.'

It was a smart move, but not achieved without 90 minutes of mega-drama between the guide, the driver, the local representative and the manager - who lived in London. I could see that changing plans wasn't going to be easy.

I was traveling off-season. The hotels were empty, barely another tourist in sight. My hotel book showed me the current prices - all about 1500 rupees. About $40 [?]. This whole hotel drama was about getting the pre-paid $40 back from the hotel. I didn't give a rat's arse about $40 - I just wanted to change hotels.

You get what you pay for. The suite at the Jolmohari was really rather nice. Even the sound of Thimpu's feral dogs howling and fighting all night didn't keep me awake. There weren't enough people there for a dreaded buffet, so my food was from the a la carte menu. Perfectly fine.

Next day the sumo wrestler and I were off to see the sights of Thimpu. There was once nice temple up on top of a hill that may, or may not have had some importance - but my guide failed to mention it. He was anxious to get to the next stop on our tour - the radio tower.
Thrill piled upon thrill as I observed the radio tower - and the pretty view. We even opted for exercise and walked down the hill to see the 'zoo' - an enclosure with three of the national animals standing stupidly under a tree. The guide grunted and said 'Taksin' - or something like that.

Having seen the Taksin I was bundled back into the car and driven to the school of something or other. This was classrooms of children making stuff followed by a compulsory stop at the shop where, as my guide enthusiastically told me, 'everything is made - not by the students - but by their teachers! Very cheap...'

Those teachers must have been very busy - their stuff was in every shop from Kathmandu to Darjeeling..

I looked deep into the wrap-around sunglasses. 'Don't lie to me,' I whispered, 'and don't bring to me to shops like this again.'

He was a big lad, this guide, strangely threatening, always too close, always in the way - a hunking, looming presence in the corner of my eye. I think he saw me as his property - certainly, at no point did he ever let me communicate with anybody else. I was his.

I was delivered to 'a local restaurant' - words that send a chill down any traveler's spine. It was, of course, the obligatory tourist hell-hole, serving crap to cretins.

This cretin took one look at the many bowls of grey gristle delivered proudly to the table, stood up and walked quietly away. No drama, no complaint - I just walked out. The guide's face fell. I left him gasping, told him I'd meet him later, wandered off and bought a plate of mo-mos up the road.

He arrived, panting at the hotel, beside himself that things weren't going to plan. 'No problem,' I told him calmly. 'I just won't eat bad food.'

He had no idea what I was talking about. He was 23. He knew of no world but Bhutan - nor, as was clear, had any interest in it. Or me. I was 'a thing' he must endure for 17 days in order to get the big tip at the end.

It was lunchtime, day two.

So far my trip to Bhutan had been a six hour hell drive from Darjeeling to Phuntsholing, a night in the Druk Hotel with surly staff, but surprisingly good Indian food, a six hour drive through road works from Puntsholing to Thimpu, via the obligatory tourist restaurant on the way, an awful hotel in Thimpu, a drama, a change of hotels, a trip to the radio tower, a school for bad handicrafts, the obligatory shop, a stupid Thaksin and, oh yes, I forgot, the Folk Museum - that was before the grey gristle for lunch.

Where was Shangri-La? Thimpu was a construction zone. We toured the many construction sites after lunch. I took to taking pictures of stray dogs and scaffolding. The National Memorial Chorten, built in 1976, was being renovated. That was covered in scaffolding. The markets were being relocated and built anew, just near a very beautiful old covered bridge. It was a perfect photo opportunity, so, naturally, I took many photos. We stopped and walked across, admiring the prayer flags - the sunlight. Ahh, finally.. this is what I came here to see, I thought...

'When was this built?' I asked the sumo wrestler.

'Last year,' he said proudly.

I sighed and went back to photographing the dogs. As it turned out, they were older than the bridge.












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Jan 16th, 2008, 08:32 PM
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Fabulous trip report so far - keep it coming. It will be educational for us and cathartic for you.
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Jan 16th, 2008, 09:23 PM
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The day stuttered to a conclusion with a visit to the Textile Museum and a paper-making factory.

This is not thrilling tourism. Time for a conference. It's already evident I'm just going to be dragged from one tourist hell-hole to another, dumped and abandoned while my guide goes back to his mobile phone. Time to gently tweak the tour.

A meeting with the guide, the driver - by now completely mute - and the local manager where I gently explain, as reassuringly as I could, that everything was fine - except their initial choice of hotel, the food and the itinerary.

There's three of them and one of me.
the group dynamics are not on my side - but we come to many agreements and part, as far as they are concerned, good friends. I go shopping.

I reel away from the shops, boggled at the prices. Think Kathmandu. Exactly the same stuff. Multiply the prices by five.

'Show me some things that are from Bhutan,' I asked repeatedly.

'There aren't any.'

The shopkeepers couldn't have cared less whether I bought anything or not. Several mentioned the famous Bhutanese textiles.

'Show me some of that, then.'

'We don't have any.'

No wonder, the weavings take three months to complete - they sell for thousands of dollars to collectors.

'It's expensive, this stuff.'

'Yes,' the shopkeepers would answer and smile. One looked at me with gimlet eyes.

'You can afford it,' she said.

And she was right. All of us tourists to Bhutan could afford it. We were all paying through the nose to be there.


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Jan 16th, 2008, 10:29 PM
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Dogster,
I'm transfixed by your tale, excellent stuff, do you write professionally?

The opening gambit on the question of tips sounded very familiar, the guide I mentioned above had covered this ground before we made it into town from the airport. I'm not surprised you knew it was going wrong immediately. That's when you know there's no possibility of common ground and that you're nothing but a walking wallet. It is so coercive.
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Jan 17th, 2008, 12:56 AM
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Knowledge is power.

The sumo wrestler kept all information to himself. Where we were going next, what was there, when was lunch, how long we would stay, how long was the drive. I was being manouevred into an attitude of dumb compliance.

Strangely enough, this does not come naturally to the dog.

He also decided to reserve any explanation about what I was seeing until, in short, not very well prepared speeches, I would get a potted history of whatever it was. He would loom impatiently, waiting for me to take my stupid tourist pictures, always hovering at the door, always anxious to go.

This was his way of control. I was to be told what he wanted me to hear - and nothing else. This worked fine - for a day - until I went out and bought myself a guidebook in Thimpu.

I had, stupidly, decided to not research Bhutan very much, let the trip flow and have Bhutan unfold in front of me. Not a smart move. It was time for some rapid homework. That's when I started to realise just what I WASN'T seeing - or hearing.

But it was too late for Thimpu.

The next morning I was in the front seat of the car en route to Punakha. This was the first road I'd been on that hadn't been dug up. And very beautiful it was. Very autumnal, very clean. Forests of prayer flags arranged artistically atop rocky crags, as if placed there by some Bhutanese scenic designer.

Right up at the top, at Duchula Pass, just before the obligatory tourist tea and pee stop, we stopped at a wonderful old memorial thing. Many prayer flags over the road. Beautiful view.

It was obviously very important, but I forget why. Something about being built for 'the peace and prosperity of the nation.'I'm sure I had the prepared speech from my guide but it has vanished from my memory. There were lots of little square chortens [108 in fact] around a big square chorten, all painted white, with crumbling old bricks and gold circles stuck on. My guide was very reverential. I took many pictures.

In an attempt to counteract his lumpen personality, today I had chosen an attitude of positive reinforcement and limitless enthusiasm. I hadn't much option. Hating him wasn't going to help. So, adopt Plan B - approach him with love.

'Wow, this is a great place.'

There was a tiny grunt of pleasure from my guide. He looked rather like a clown, standing there in his striped national costume, legs splayed, fat stomach poking out at the distant mountains, looking up at the big square thing with pride.

'When was this built?'

'2004.'

The Great Bhutanese Scenic Designer had struck again.

We walked the short distance to the Tea 'n Pee in silence. [No, that's not the real name.] While he made many, many calls on his mobile I had tea and hovered over the heater. It was cold up there.

The building was a ramshackle dump with awful souvenirs and pictures of all five Bhtanese kings. Only tourists went there. But it was, at least, more than five years old - ratty and real.

Just above it, fifty yeards up the hill, there's a nearly finished brand-NEW Tea 'n Pee. Obviously ratty and real doesn't cut too much mustard with the Great Scenic Designer of Bhutan. The present one may already, by now, be ripped down.

But not to worry. I'm sure the new one will look even older than the old one.





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Jan 17th, 2008, 07:30 AM
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Thanks for the report, dogster. A great example of how a lousy guide can ruin a trip. My "guide from hell" in Romania actually didn't talk about tips, but he had figured out other ways to try to extract extra money. He also gave only limited info unless I asked questions, but then he got angry when he didn't know the answer!

I actually thought the takin were rather cute, but there were more of them back in 2001. I also quite liked the National Library and the folk museum, but really, Bhutan doesn't have many "sights" in the usual sense. I thought the real reasons to go were the scenery, the buildings, and the festivals, plus the whole way of life.

I think road works are a permanent condition, we certainly saw plenty! Interested to hear that the souvenir situation seems to have changed, we mostly only saw shops catering for the locals, although I do have a dragon on hand-made paper hanging on my wall, but that came from a paper-making place, not a shop. So sorry it didn't work out for you.
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Jan 17th, 2008, 10:41 AM
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Jan 17th, 2008, 10:58 AM
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Thank you so much for posting this dogster! So sorry to hear about your experience. I've had bad guides before too, but never quite like this...

This is extremely helpful to me as I've been considering a trip to Bhutan & Tibet later this fall. For a variety of reasons - but now including your experiences - I might just concentrate on Tibet.
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Jan 17th, 2008, 11:11 AM
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It was all downhill from the Tea'n Pee, quite literally. We dropped steadily down into the valley, farming land, farmhouses dotted around, all looking freshly painted, newly built - and all looking, to my untrained eye, exactly the same.

I was getting hungry but Sumo refused to tell me where or when lunch might be. Perhaps he had memories of yesterdays lunch. It was nearly 2.00 p.m. before we came to an abrupt stop up a side street in a village I knew nothing about.

I was ushered down some steps into a windowless dungeon filled with tables and chairs. I was, of course, the only one there. Many plates of food were proudly placed in front of me by the owner/cook and, under the watchful eye of him, his wife and daughter I ate everything in front of me. As it turned out the food in this dungeon was terrific. I guzzled beer in an effort to keep my good humour for the afternoon's excitements.

We rounded a bend and there it was; the Punakha Dzong, settled gracefully on her perch at the confluence of two rivers. There isn't a tourist or a photographer who doesn't take that shot. It's the most magnificent of buildings - a national treasure.

In 1994 this place was in wreckage, nearly half washed away by a freak glacial flood. As a matter of national pride the king assembled his artisans and began the long process of rebuilding, restoring - and where necessary recreating what had been there. With a few improvements on the way.

The reconstruction of the dzong brought about a revival in traditional buiding skills in Bhutan - and a huge labour force of skilled men and women able to produce instant antiques. I was walking around their supreme achievement. And a most remarkable place it was.

Vast, meticulously restored or recreated, it was impossible to say which, the slate courtyard was like an empty stage. Clearly we were late for the show - all the actors had gone home.

The place was empty, apart from two monklets watching a man in a basket being hoisted up a very high white wall with a paintbrush in his hand. I took pictures of that, of course, prompting a hurrumph from the guide. 'No cameras from now on,' he said. He swiftly led me further in to this extraordinary structure and deposited me in vast, empty hall.

It must have been three stories high, covered from top to bottom with rich, intricate wall paintings and those long dangly things they seem to like in temples. I was gobsmacked. My little Sony was heating up in my pocket in frustration.

'Take me out! Take me out and USE me! it was saying.

'No pictures..'

Sumo could read my mind. What's more he was going to be po-faced and precious about it. He hovered at the door, ready to bodyslam me into the carpet if I took a picture. He was, of course, anxious to go. I made him wait.

It was three tries before he got me out but not before my inevitable question.

'So when was this built?'

He had to think for a minute. Then, with all the grace of a hen laying an egg, he reached deep into that vacant mind and words began to tumble out of his mouth.

'The reconstruction and restoration of the Punakha Dzong,' he said, 'is widely acclaimed as a historical accomplishment in the preservation of Bhutan’s rich heritage and an important spiritual legacy for all Buddhists.'

He took a deep breath. Clearly more was to come.

'But when was it built?'

'This dzong has been here for 500 years.. ' he droned.

'But when was where we're standing now built?

'Three years ago.'

I was beginning to get confused. Everything I was seeing was either a restoration, a replica or a new thing entirely. And it was impossible to tell which was which.

I guess the real question was; did it matter anyway?

Soon, across one of the rivers that surround this amazing building, there will be another, perfectly recreated, covered bridge. I've seen the plans. It will look a thousand years old the day it opens. All those skills learnt on the restoration of the Punakha Dzong are travelling the country, transforming dzong after dzong, tarting them up to within an inch of their former selves. Better than their former selves, in fact.

Any why shoudn't they? What was this feeling rattling around in my craw? Why was I feeling somehow cheated? Why did it all feel like I was visiting a movie set? Why was it all so.. artificial?

And what set of expectations led me to think otherwise? Maybe I have a case of Shangri-La syndrome.

Next stop, a way down the valley, was a temple on a hill that attracts barren couples in the hope of blessed intervention. I hoped it wouldn't happen to me and my newest partner, Lump the Sumo guide.

We trudged down a hill then up the other side. Saw the temple. No pictures allowed. Took one anyway. Then trudged down the same hill and up the other side. Silence. The sun was setting as I watched his great fat arse waddle up the hill in front of me. I had a strange urge to kick it.

He won't tell me how much further we have to drive or when we'll get there, but after about an hour of that game we arrive at Kichu Lodge to the usual Bhutanese welcome of blank faces and whispered commands. A menu is dispatched so I can select my dinner. I settle in to my very basic room in a very great location. I don't mind that trade off. This was a balcony room right on top of a raging stream. I nodded off that night, after a very good organic vegetarian dinner and a bottle of Bhutanese beer, to the sounds of rushing water.

But not before one very strange event. At the end of dinner the guide came by. He wasn't in his clown uniform. It was the first time I'd seen him in civvies. He loomed over me while I sat, cocked his head and smiled.

'Have you had a good dinner?'

'Yes, I nodded.

'Have you had a very great dinner?'

'Yes,' I said, not knowing where this was leading.

'Have you had a very wonderful day?'

I sighed.

'I did that for you. I arranged everything. Anything you want I can do. I am your host. You are my guest. You are in my hands. I will make sure you get the best room in the hotel, the best food...'

He went on in this vein, uncomfortably so, for a long time. It was the grovel of grovels delivered in a strangely threatening way. He loomed over me, a dead look in his eyes.

'Make sure you remember that.'

With those choice words, he lurched away. Gawd, I thought. Get me outta here...

We were heading deep into Bhutan, hours and hours of driving away from civilization. Just the sumo wrestler, the mute driver - and me. For the next ten days. This wasn't going to be fun.
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