Bhutan is a Himalayan Kingdom that has long fascinated us. A small Asian nation landlocked between China and India, Bhutan has managed to use its isolation to preserve a rich cultural history. A little bit of research revealed that Bhutan has been extremely cautious in opening up its doors to the outside world. Especially after witnessing how neighboring country Nepal’s open door policy allowed a deluge of undesirables. Such as rowdy, unkempt, sexually liberated, and drugged out hippies who led to the creation of Katmandu’s “Freak Street”. The Bhutanese officials were horrified at the thought of disheveled hippies attempting to visit holy shrines and temples, and Bhutan’s borders remained tightly controlled for decades. In fact, tourists who visited in the 1960’s and even into the 70’s had to be personal guests (and invitees) of Bhutan’s reigning monarch. However, after much debate and careful planning, Bhutan did agree to allow a small percentage of travelers to visit. These select few guests’ every movement would be tightly controlled, and Bhutan refused to grant visitors free access to any site. Only under the watchful eye of a Bhutan guide, special permits had to be arranged in order for tourists to visit certain sights and dzongs (monasteries). Even today, a restrictive policy exists, and each foreign visitor must book a tour through a Bhutanese tour operator (who in turn will coordinate a Bhutanese visa to be received upon arrival at the Paro International airport). The tour operators are forced to impose a mandatory $200 per day per traveler fee (which includes all guide services, lodging, food, transport).
This prohibitively high surcharge has deterred many a budget backpacker, and is perhaps Bhutan’s most ingenious method of attracting a particular kind of clientele. The policy has been highly effective in preserving Bhutan’s cultural identity. Visiting Bhutan is an amazing experience, as parts of the country appear to be effectively frozen in a time warp, where the men, women, and children all wear traditional attire, and the countryside is dotted with spectacular castle-like dzongs. We planned our Bhutan visit to coincide with the annual Paro Tshechu (festival). Tshechu festivals are traditionally held on the 10th day of the month, and we heard that the Spring festival was one of the best. What a colorful and unforgettable experience!
We booked our Bhutan tour through a Nepalese trekking company called Getaway! (www.trekking-in-nepal.com). Very efficient and organized, Getaway had partnered with a local Bhutanese company (Bhutan Travel Services) to support our 6 day Paro festival tour in April. We thought we’d throw Getaway for a loop when we requested an open jaw ticket in/out of Paro, but no worries. Getaway had it all under control and took care of the Druk air ticket bookings for us. Since Myanmar was the first portion of our vacation, our gateway into Bhutan was Bangkok. But because we had to be back at work in Kabul a few days after our Bhutan excursion, we decided not to backtrack to Bangkok but fly into Delhi for a connecting flight into Afghanistan. Talk about complicated! But the very friendly Getaway staff helped us organize our trip dates and itinerary, which focused primarily on experiencing the wonders of the Paro Tshechu.
Most visitors to Bhutan engage in a bit of trekking, but with the hefty $200/day minimum charge, we figured we’d stick to the cultural aspects instead. We did opt for a one day hike up to the Taksang monastery, one of the “must sees” for Bhutan. Prior to organizing the trip, we had heard a lot about the Paro Festival. Tourists had raved about how colorful, authentic and exciting the 5 day festivities were, and we were definitely urged to make sure our vacation coincided with this event. So our whirlwind Bhutan tour included: fly into Paro from Bangkok, visit to the Paro Museum, full day at Paro festival, early morning for Thangka unveiling, day hike to Tiger’s nest monastery, Thimpu sightseeing, scenic drive to Punakha and Wangdi, fly out of Paro to Delhi.
Tuesday, 11 April: We checked into our Druk air flight from Bangkok to Paro early in the morning, and were told that it was a full flight (of course, the Paro festival is only once a year!) Before issuing us our boarding passes, the Druk Air staff ensured that we had the Bhutan Visa approval document handy. They carefully scrutinized our passport against the approval form, and granted us our emergency aisle requested seats. The majority of our fellow passengers hailed from the US, so the airport was abuzz with tangible excitement in the wee hours of the morning. We were exhausted from the night before, and were probably the only ones to fall asleep before boarding the flight, completely ignoring everyone else’s introductions.
The flight from Bangkok to Paro is indirect, stopping in Calcutta midway. The pilot made an announcement shortly before landing in Bhutan to reassure everyone that he was a professional, and not to panic at the sight of the high, mountainous peaks that would soon appear to the left and right sides of the plane. And sure enough, we appeared to dive down between these jagged mountains that looked close enough to reach out and touch. Those passengers sitting beside the coveted window seats hogged the scenic view, as everyone else clamored to catch a glimpse of this amazing flight. The landing was pretty smooth, and we later read that Druk air is oftentimes forced to cancel flights due to bad weather…and they highly recommend at least 24 hours in between any connection flights both to/from Paro. Ignorance is bliss though, and we didn’t realize just how fluid the Druk air schedule can be.
Getting through passport control is a mess, as the Bhutan visas are issued on a group basis. That means that if a group has booked the same tour, the entire group must consolidate to get processed together. We were a two pax group, and after looking at the larger group sizes, were very happy not to be stuck with a dozen or more strangers. We just liked the flexibility that traveling by ourselves afforded us, as we soon saw the larger groups give their group members strict timelines/schedules.
The currency in Bhutan is the Nugltrum, and at the time we went, US$1 was worth about 44 Nugltrums. Since we had Indian Rupees (and these are widely accepted in Bhutan on a one for one basis with the Nugltrum), we didn’t change any money at the airport. Note: India will not accept Bhutanese currency, so make sure you either change it back into Rupees or spend all your Nugltrum before departing Bhutan!
After having our mangoes confiscated by customs (they wouldn’t take the dried squid though, much to Robby’s dismay), we were greeted by our Bhutan Travel Services’ local guide, Mr. Arya Dewar (email@example.com) and our driver, Mr. Tshering. Aryan (as he preferred to be called) was a bit shy initially, and didn’t say too much along our drive to our Paro lodgings. Actually, we quickly found out that we had been booted out of our Paro based lodgings due to the festival, and were being housed at a farmhouse-cum-hotel approximately 14 KM outside of Paro. The drive was scenic, and we had enough adrenaline from being in a new country to keep us awake for the trip. We checked into our rooms, and were offered a cup of traditional tea (suja: a mixture of tea/butter/salt)…Aryan told us that the Dalai Lama also drinks this, but it didn’t make it any more palatable!
After tea and cookies, we headed back down towards Paro where we saw throngs of locals flocking towards the Paro Tshechu. Before we could join them however, we first had to make a visit to the National Museum of Bhutan at the Ta-Dzong. The museum houses a rare collection of Bhutan’s historical, religious, cultural and artistic heritage, all beautifully preserved and displayed in a unique setting. The museum was established at Paro’s watchtower/fortress, which has occupied the premier position overlooking Paro valley for over 350 years. In 1968, the watch tower was converted into a 7 storied museum to house thangka art, stuffed animals, pottery, a 3D Mandala (on the 7th floor), and Neolithic tools. No cameras were allowed inside the museum’s grounds, so we weren’t able to take any photographs of the exhibits. From the Ta-Dzong, we had a bird’s eye view upon the festival grounds, and we could see the huge crowd that had gathered to watch the ongoing performances. Aryan promised we were on our way there…after a quick bit of lunch.
Lunch was held at the All Season’s restaurant, where small dishes of wild rice, curried beef/pork, fresh asparagus, hot chilies, and potatoes with cheese sauce (kewa datse) were served. The dishes of veggies and cheese are delicious! Definitely dig in and serve yourself a huge portion if you see the potato/cheese or mushroom/cheese dish being served. We quickly grew to love the fresh vegetable dishes…especially the asparagus. We ended up becoming big fans of the hearty and healthy dishes we were served during each meal of the day in Bhutan. The food definitely got a thumbs up from both of us!
Finally, after lunch, we were on our way towards the Paro Dzong to partake as spectators in the Paro Tsechu. We had done a bit of research on the festival, so we had a good idea of what to expect. Our pre-departure itinerary boasted, “Enjoy the fascinating Tsechu festivals of Bhutan. Tsechus are Buddhist religious festivals where masked dances depicting the events from the life of Padmasambhava, the 8th Century Buddhist teacher, are staged. The Tsechu festival provides the local populace the opportunity to dress up, gather together, and enjoy (in a light-hearted atmosphere). It is also an excellent occasion to renew their faith and receive blessings by watching the sacred dances, or receive ‘empowerment’ from a lama or Buddhist monk. The dances are all performed by trained monks wearing ornate costumes and impressive masks. At the Paro festival, it culminates in the unraveling of a large and beautifully appliquéd ‘Thanka’ scroll known at the Tongdrol. This antique scroll is unveiled at 2 am on the final day of the festival, and exhibited for only a few brief hours before the morning’s sunrise. The majority of the visitors arrive early on the last day to view this amazing spectacle, and receive an official blessing (the holy scroll provides this blessing to the people who merely gaze upon it).”
We were happy to attend Day 3 of the festival, as it was not originally scheduled in our itinerary. Aryan led us up towards the Paro Dzong, which was a gradual incline uphill. Due to the high elevation, we were a bit winded by the time we reached the top of the hill, where the masked dance dramas were staged. We were amazed to see huge crowds of Bhutanese who also had converged up on the hill top to witness the age-old, colorful religious masked dances performed by specially trained groups of monks. The crowds at the base of the performance were too thick for us to compete with, so we climbed further uphill and clamored on an empty space of stone wall for a bird’s eye view of the drama. We were warmly welcomed by local Bhutanese, all of whom were wearing the traditional attire. Men were smartly outfitted in a “Gho” (think of a Himalayan Kilt) and women wore the beautifully ornate “Kira”. We read that all Tsechu participants are to wear their formal best, even foreigners! The crowded sea of people wearing their traditional attire made for a photographer’s paradise, and we spent more time taking photos of our fellow spectators than the masked dancers below us.
Aryan had given us free time until 1630 that afternoon, which was plenty of time for us to become fully assimilated into the Tsechu’s events. From squatting alongside the locals to pee in the bushes (when in Rome…) to gazing longingly at the overpriced souvenirs for sale by various vendors, we had a blast at the festival and were completely overwhelmed with how this wasn’t a spectacle put on for foreigners. Rather, it is a completely traditional Bhutanese celebration, that we were privileged enough to witness.
Bhutan is not the place to buy souvenirs! We found similar items for sale in Nepal for a fraction of the price. To give you an idea for comparison: we priced a prayer wheel at $10 in Nepal that went for a whopping $120 in Bhutan. And despite bargaining hard, the price didn’t budge much. So we decided to forego any purchases in Bhutan. But for anyone who simply has to have that silver-inlaid conch shell…buy your souvenirs at the festival stands. The prices are far better there than in the handicraft stores or emporiums or even the Thimpu weekend market. Becky was amazed that the prices of various artifacts doubled at Thimpu’s bustling weekend market from those at the Paro festival.
After enjoying the day’s festivities, we realized we’d be up here all day tomorrow for more of the same. But the atmosphere was wonderful, despite the fierce wind blowing up a mess and ruffling up our clothes and hair. We linked up with Aryan at the base of Paro Dzong, where the traditional wooden covered bridge (Nyamai Zam) crossed over the Paro Chhu (Paro River).
Sleep deprivation soon reared its ugly head and we both passed out on the journey back to our guesthouse. Aryan organized our dinner for later that night, giving us a chance for a hop in the shower, followed by a quick nap. We awoke rejuvenated and eager to meet our house mates, who included two very loud and super friendly Italians hell bent on trekking as much of Bhutan as possible. Even though they had planned their trek to coincide with the Paro Tsechu, they weren’t as keen on the cultural aspects of the tour and wanted to get started on their 18 day trek around Bhutan. We soon overheard their frantic renegotiations with their Bhutanese guide and tour operator. It was quickly evident that especially during peak season (festivals especially), lodging becomes scarce and itineraries are virtually set in stone. To try to change an itinerary on the fly was to spell disaster, and the tour operator strongly recommended against making any changes. However, once they came to a sort of compromise, the smiles returned and we joined them in a very pleasant dinner.
The guesthouse we were staying at is owned by Ms. Thinley Dem (managing director of a new company called Bara Lynka). Her company offers treks/cultural tours of Bhutan. We didn’t realize it at first, but we were quite lucky to get a solid roof over our heads during the festival! This is because Paro has very limited accommodations to meet a growing number of tourists. There were so many tourists this year that some had to be housed in make-shift tents! But we were grateful for Thinley’s guesthouse and were very impressed with the service and hospitality there. It was a very nice first impression of Bhutan, and set the tone for the rest of the trip.
Wednesday, 12 April: After breakfast, we linked up with Aryan for our drive back to Paro. Today, we had a full day to enjoy the festivities of the Tsechu. But first, we wanted to visit the Paro Dzong, the massive white monolith that dominates the Paro landscape. Some scenes from the 1995 film “Little Buddha” were filmed here at the Paro Dzong, and we were curious about how the inner courtyards would appear. Over 200 monks call the Dzong their home, and the series of courtyards had amazing wood beam carvings.
Afterwards, we headed outside towards the archery competition field (converted into booths catering for the tsechu visitors), and the stone-paved area where there were already thousands of spectators gathered to view the dancers perform a series of plays in honor of Guru Rinpoche. Becky pushed her way into a front row seat, and grabbed Robby to join her. Boy, it was tough getting a good seat, considering people were constantly flowing in/out of the staging area. The sun beat down on us, and we were both glad for sunscreen and baseball caps. Because we were in the front row, the court jesters sauntered right up to us, and invited us to eat some watermelon. The crowd roared when Becky took a bite, but Robby refused because tons of other participants had already bit into the watermelon…it was all in good fun and we were in excellent position to get some really close up photos of the dancers.
Today was day 4 of the 5 day event, and we took some time to read about the tsechu and all its dances. The 12-episode dance drama is a series of dances performed by monks to re-enact the biography of Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava) is more famously known as the ‘lotus-born’ Buddha. He was in fact an 8th Century Indian missionary/saint who visited Bhutan in AD 746. He is worshiped throughout Bhutan as the “second” Buddha and is often depicted on monastery walls in eight different manifestations. In fact, upon entering a temple, the central figure will have a statue of the Guru instead of a statue of Buddha! Guru contributed enormously into the spreading of Tantric Buddhism to the remote areas of Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan.
There were four main dances to be performed today on Day 4 to include: Dance of the Lord of Death and his Consort, Dance of the four Stags, Dance of the Judgment of the Dead, and Dance of the Drum from Dramitse. Even though we didn’t always understand what was going on, we joined in the crowd’s laughter at the comical moments, and celebrated along with thousands of other tsechu spectators. It is widely believed that just by attending the tsechu, one gains merit. That explains the thousands of Bhutanese who camped out in their finest clothes and jewelry to celebrate this festival. Very very cool for us to experience such a unique cultural event.
We linked up with Aryan for lunch at around 1230 and saw that most of the Bhutanese were enjoying a picnic lunch under the shade of the trees. Our lunch was at the Zamling hotel, which served a buffet lunch of momos (dumplings), mushrooms, dried beef, and curry. It was nice to wash off all the dirt/dust from our faces and use a real restroom (versus the bushes near the festival grounds). The wind tended to pick up strongly throughout the course of the day, mixing bits of brush, grass, and dirt into our hair and clothes. But it was awesome…we were anxious to eat up and rush back to the festival grounds to catch more of the action.
Upon returning back after lunch, we scouted out some bench style seats close to the performances. And what an improvement! We no longer had to worry about spectators inadvertently walking in front of us while we were trying to take photos, since we now had elevated seats to view the performance. Some of our best festival photos were taken this afternoon, and we agreed to link back up with Aryan at 1630 that afternoon.
Time flies when you are having fun, and before we knew it, the fourth day of the festival was drawing to a close. We walked down the hill towards Paro town, and figured we stop by the local grocery store to buy some supplies. A mini-fair was going on in town, complete with a Ferris wheel and magic show (all imported from India). We hung out downtown Paro for a while before making the journey towards our guesthouse.
Aryan started opening up a lot more today, and we learned a bit of Bhutanese history. The locals refer to Bhutan as Druk Yul which means “Land of the Thunder Dragon”. And the people of Bhutan are referred to as Drukpa or “people of the Thunder Dragon”. Hence the national airline is known as Druk air.
Upon reaching the guesthouse, we were told that an early dinner (1900) would be served since we had to get up super early tomorrow to witness the last day’s festivities. The unveiling of the scroll was supposed to be the highlight, and we were fine with an early night to bed. However, other members staying at our guesthouse included some folks making a documentary on ‘rebirth’. They sent out a scouting party to recon the lighting and set up area to film the huge thondrol’s unveiling. And they didn’t return until about 2100 that night!
We felt really bad for the chef as he wasn’t informed about the second group’s late arrival to dinner and had prepared a feast for us at 1900. So we ate by ourselves, and the second group ate their dinner much later. Which was crazy considering breakfast was requested at 0130 for the 0200 viewing of the thangka. In any case, we had a delicious dinner that we enjoyed all by ourselves, before calling it a day.
Thursday, 13 April: Our alarm sounded way too early the next morning, but we got up and dressed warmly as we were forewarned that without the sun’s rays to warm us up on the Paro hilltop, we’d be freezing. Breakfast was served by our tired chef, and we waited around to be picked up by Aryan and our driver. Although we had all agreed on the pick up time, we feared that Aryan and Mr. Tshering had overslept. 20 minutes later, Aryan came running up the hill frantically, hoping that we had overslept and apologizing for the delay. We were a bit annoyed as we wanted to get to the festival as early as possible in order to get decent seats. However, Aryan pacified us when he showed us a shortcut route to take to reach the festival grounds. Even though we scrambled uphill and had to dodge runny, watery obstacles, we made it to the top in record time and agreed to link back up at the base of the hill at 0930.
The first thing we quickly noticed was how super crowded the last day of the Paro Tsechu was! It appeared that thousands of families had gathered in the early morning to witness the spectacular dawn ceremonies. We had read up on the formal portion of today’s events: “A huge thangka (known as the Thondrol) that spans 18 square meters is unfurled on Day 5 of the Paro tsechu. It was commissioned in the 18th century, and is a fragile piece of cloth. So fragile that it is only displayed once a year on the last day of the Paro festival, from 0200 until the beginning rays of the sun start to appear. Then it is quickly rolled back up and protected before the first damaging rays of the sun hit the thangka. The thangka survived the 1907 fire, and depicts Guru Rinpoche as the central figure.” But nothing prepared us to see the thangka in the flesh, and we were really amazed at its massive size and good condition.
We managed to find two seats that gave us a high enough vantage point to observe the monks in red robes performing their chants. Unfortunately, Becky sat directly behind an incense burner, so depending on which way the wind blew, the smoke obscured her view of the proceedings. We were enveloped in a sea of Bhutanese families who had lugged up breakfast in plastic basket bags. Young and old were there, dressed to the hilt in their very finest traditional attire. And it sure was cold! We shivered until the first rays of sunlight appeared on the distant horizon. But as soon as the monks saw the sunlight, directions were given to take down the thangka. For over 200 years, the thangka was only displayed for a few hours once a year, and it never came into any contact with the sun. We watched as the thangka was neatly folded and covered and brought back to the Paro Dzong.
But we had much more on our plate for today. A hike up to the Taksang Monastery was next on our plate, so we headed back down to the base of the hill to link up with Aryan.
The Taksang Monastery is Bhutan’s most revered and certainly most famous site. More commonly known as “Tiger’s Nest”, it is believed that Guru Rimpoche (Buddhist teacher) flew up here on a tiger’s back. Thereafter, this amazing location became known as the Tiger’s Nest. It is a steep hike to reach the top of the towering vertical cliffs, over 2000 feet above the valley floor. The view alone is worth the immense physical exertion to get to the top.
We had no idea what we were in for when we agreed to hike up to Taksang. The pack donkeys and horses at the base of the hill should have given us a clue, we naively thought it would just be a short hike to the top. It wasn’t that bad, but it was steep and took us about 45 minutes to reach the level that the cafeteria was on. It was the elevation that kicked our butts! Our lungs were burning with the constant climb uphill. The cafeteria was a great place to sip a cup of tea and admire the view of Taksang, but Aryan burst our bubble when he told us we were only halfway there! He had arranged for a special permit that allowed us to climb inside the monastery, and he said we weren’t going to stop until we reached the top. The view of Taksang actually improves the closer you get to it. It really is a “must see” for Bhutan, and we were glad that we climbed the hill, rather than ride on a donkey or horse to get there. For us, that would have been cheating, since all the locals huffed and puffed their way to the top on foot. One Bhutanese woman really amazed us as she sauntered pass us in high heels! Even with high heels, she had the grace and stamina to overtake us in her traditional kira (a floor length skirt and formal jacket)…unbelievable!
The visit inside Taksang monastery provided us fantastic insight into the austere living conditions of the monks residing here. Only in the Himalayans would such a remote, mountainous location be chosen to build one of the most revered, holy shrine! But we were definitely glad that the Tiger’s Nest was on our itinerary, and even more glad that we had nothing but downhill to look forward to!
In a way, going downhill was a bit trickier for us than struggling uphill. Going downhill, we had to be careful not to slip on the treacherous terrain. Later on we found out that one of the Japanese tourists who was staying at Thinley’s other guesthouse had hired a donkey to climb up Taksang. However, she slipped and fell off her donkey and tumbled down the hill, suffering a painful back injury. So be careful going up and down Taksang…it is a challenging climb. And also a good way to gauge if you are ready for trekking elsewhere in Bhutan!
We made it back down to the cafeteria for lunch, where a buffet meal was being served. We chowed down before relaxing in the sun, overlooking the view of the mighty Taksang. The last downhill portion didn’t take us too long, and we both took a snooze once we hit our vehicle for the short ride back to our guesthouse.
We had already packed our gear for our afternoon ride to Thimpu (the capital of Bhutan). But first, an obligatory cup of tea. Thinley had laid out two Bhutan books for us, and we enjoyed talking to her about life in Bhutan. She was very excited to be opening up her own tour agency, and told us she’d lead all the treks. After our mini-trek today, we had a whole new respect for everyone who treks Bhutan…it is indeed something only for the fittest to attempt!
Due to ongoing construction, a section of the road from Paro to Thimpu was closed from 1400 – 1700 daily. We arrived at the standstill at 1655, and only had to wait a little while for the road to be opened again. As soon as we entered into Thimpu, we saw hundreds of school children running up and down the main road. Aryan explained that they were practicing for an upcoming marathon. The children of Bhutan certainly don’t have to worry about being out of shape. Most of the kids were running at full sprint at a high elevation, and none of them were showing any signs of physical exertion!
We checked into the Hotel Pedling, where tea was awaiting us. After agreeing on a start time tomorrow (0830), we relaxed in the room until dinner time. And the entire hotel lost electricity in a blackout, so we enjoyed a romantic candlelit dinner! If you are craving alcohol, stick to beer! Becky ordered a cocktail, but got a weird concoction in a shot glass instead…she quickly learned her lesson that Bhutan probably isn’t the best place to sling back a drink or two. Our room was warm and toasty, so we easily fell asleep amidst the loud barking of a pack of dogs that seemed to have camped right outside our hotel window.
Friday, 14 April: Today was dedicated to exploring Thimphu. Our sightseeing agenda was pretty flexible, and Aryan pretty much let us dictate our schedule for today. Our first stop was to the National Memorial Chorten (Druk Wang Gyal Chorten). This Tibetan style chorten or stupa was built in 1974 to honor Bhutan’s third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. We shouldn’t have been surprised to see so many visitors so early in the morning, but dozens of locals were circumambulating the stupa while spinning their prayer wheels or counting their prayer beads.
We decided the morning would be the busiest (and best) time to visit the Thimphu weekend market, but before heading over there, we made a quick stop at the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving center to watch Bhutanese weavers painstakingly weaving gho and kira (the traditional dress). The garments were gorgeous, but we figured since the Tsechu was over, we wouldn’t have a need to dress up in Bhutanese traditional garb!
The weekend market was bustling with activity as vendors sold their fresh vegetables, fruits, beetle-nut, dried fish or pork fat. The handicrafts section appeared to cater primarily to tourists, and the prices reflected as such. Outrageous quotes for $200 for a turquoise necklace or $150 for a prayer wheel, and we quickly knew that Bhutan is not the ideal place to purchase handicrafts as neighboring Nepal’s goods are a fraction of the price. Nevertheless, it interesting to stroll around the weekend market to see what fresh produce was on offer.
Afterwards, we made our way towards the National Library, a four story building housing modern and traditional books (some ancient Dzongkha and Tibetan texts). Before entering the library, Aryan had us circumambulate it once. This was because the library also houses sacred statues of religious figures, as well as numerous holy books. On the first floor, we were amazed to see the world’s largest book, complete with the Guinness Book of World Record’s seal. The book weighs 133 lbs, and stands at over 7 feet high, entitled “Bhutan”. The book itself is not for sale, but several hundred individuals are proud owners after each gave a generous $10,000 donation to a local cause.
Afterwards, Aryan asked us if we wanted to visit the Folk Heritage Museum, but neither of us were keen on visiting more museums. So we opted to visit the Zangto Pelri Lhakhang, a private chapel built in 1990 by Dasho Aku Tongmi, the musician who penned Bhutan’s national anthem. The kindly caretaker allowed us to take photos of Guru Rinpoche and other interior shots of the chapel.
Next stop was a visit to the Jungshi Handmade traditional paper factory, where daphne fiber is used in a crude process to create durable and long lasting paper, which is often used for religious scrolls. The paper has a lifetime of approximately 2000 years, and the factory produces about 1000 sheets of paper on any given day. The entire process was fairly interesting, and we especially liked the specialty sheets made with marijuana leafs…unique touch!
Aryan suggested that we drive up to Telecom Hill, for a panorama view overlooking Thimphu. We readily agreed, and within minutes, were speeding up the twists and curves to the lookout point. Prayer flags were mounted all along the hillside, obscuring what would be a fine view of Thimphu. The wind was kicking up a storm, so we head back down and decided to take a detour to check out the mini-zoo, more famously known as the home of the Takin (Bhutan’s national animal). With a cow’s body, and a goat’s head, the takin is a unique animal. In fact, scientists have not been able to place the Takin into any current taxonomy category, so a brand new one was created especially for the Takin! This reclusive animal was not as friendly as the barking deer that also inhabit the park, so we started feeding the deer that were much bolder and allowed themselves to be scratched.
Our last stop before lunch was a quick hop in to the Changangkha Lhakhang monastery, but unfortunately, the caretaker was off for lunch. Aryan wanted us to see the main attraction of the fortress style monastery: a 11-headed manifestation of Chenresig. However, we satisfied ourselves with the fine views overlooking Thimphu before telling Aryan it was OK for us to skip this and grab some lunch.
Lunch was downtown at Plum’s Café, obscurely hidden from view. The small restaurant was packed with other tourists who enjoyed the buffet style lunch. Bhutan is definitely not a carnivore’s delight! The meat dishes (when offered) consisted of stringy beef or fried bony fish…but the vegetarian dishes were a delight, so we definitely didn’t go hungry in Bhutan.
After lunch, Aryan gave us the option to relax in our hotel room or head directly to the outskirts of Thimpu for a “short” hike. We knew better than to take a rest in the hotel, so we told him we were up for a hike straightaway. On our drive out of town, we stopped to take a photo of the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, a 12th century monastery that currently houses Bhutan’s secretariat, throne room, and king/ministry of home affairs/finance offices. Our Lonely Planet guidebook gave a long description of the Dzong, but since no visitors are allowed, we could only admire it from a distance.
We made our way up to the Begana Choten, a stupa that reminded us of the massive stupa in Katmandu, Nepal. The only other visitors here were monks clad in red robes, who were circling the stupa while rotating their prayer wheels. Only in Bhutan is a scene like this commonplace. It is replayed at countless stupas or chortens throughout the country on a daily basis. Our hike started of by going downhill (we liked this hike already), walking through farmers’ pastures, and crossing over the river on a traditional style bridge. Little did we realize it at the time, but we were headed towards Aryan’s village. The hike was scenic, hilly, and peaceful. It wasn’t until school was released that things began to get interesting!
We first saw three young boys standing on top of a wooden shack. They were dressed in traditional gray gho (the school uniforms dictate traditional dress for both sexes), and once they spotted us, they began laughing and tumbling down the side of the hill for their portrait. After taking their photos (in both solemn and laughing poses), they followed us on the trail until Aryan chases them away. Then they ran away laughing and waving goodbye. These three boys were the lead element for a much larger pack of school children eager to be on their way home from school. We soon found ourselves in the midst of dozens of children who were as curious about us as we were of them. So we decided to invite them for a group photo. Once we did, kids came running out of the woodwork to join in. Every time Aryan raised the camera and counted to three, children were seen scrambling at break neck speed on the trail asking Aryan to wait, so they wouldn’t miss out on the photo opportunity! It was truly impossible to take photos of them all, as the children numbered in the hundreds! But we were very impressed with their English (mandatory in school), and their manners…Bhutan children are very well behaved (at least from a quick glance).
We stopped to take a photo of a rustic whitewashed cottage, with paintings decorating its outside walls. The funniest painting was that of a huge, massive penis, fully erect. Aryan told us it was a symbol of the inhabitants’ fertility. Nevertheless, we thought it was a hoot to decorate one’s house with penises and dragons, and soon the lady of the house came rushing out to see what all the commotion was about. She told us that the painter was inside working on a painting, and asked us if we’d like to see his smaller artwork. We agreed, and soon were the proud owners of a dragon painting.
Meeting the painter was probably a little anticlimactic, as Aryan has planned a stop for us to visit the Choki Traditional Art School, where young boys of all ages were sent to learn Bhutan’s traditional arts and crafts skills. This seven year school was extremely disciplined, and we were surprised to learn that the boys had to pay a hefty tuition in order to attend school to learn how to paint, carve wood, embroider, and build statues. We were led to the various levels of the school, starting at Level 1, basic drawing and tracing. Each level had a handbook to show the students what they would be able to accomplish at the end of the year. If the master instructor deemed that the student hadn’t sufficiently graduated to the next level, the student would remain in the current level until his skill sets had improved! We saw one older student who looked absolutely miserable in comparison to his younger companions. He obviously had been kept behind several years at the same level. Level VII was the most impressive, as the young men had obviously graduated to a master artisan level, and were almost ready to leave the school and start earning money as fully commissioned artists. Their thangka paintings were quite good, and at the culmination of the tour, we were invited to visit the Choki art school store, where all the students’ carvings, painting, and handicrafts were on display for sale. Since we had just bought a dragon painting, we didn’t purchase anything here, but were quite impressed at the workmanship and the school’s overall curricula.
We were surprised that our hike had taken so long. Aryan invited us to visit his parent’s house and stop by for some tea, but we declined, as we still wanted to stroll down Thimphu’s main street and check out the stores before they closed. Our driver was in a foul mood when we returned, chiding us on the time. But we feigned ignorance, and pretended not to notice how late it was in the day. Once we arrived at our hotel, we spoke to Aryan and agreed on a checkout/meeting time for tomorrow morning, before splitting off on our own to see what Thimphu town had to offer.
Norzin Lam is the main street in town, and Thimphu is the only capital in the world without traffic lights! Instead, policemen manually direct traffic at the Northern and Southern traffic circles. We heard that a couple of years ago, electric traffic lights were installed. But Thimphu’s residents complained so much about the lack of personality of the traffic lights that they were quickly brought down. We found it charming, as the traffic policeman put on a show for us when he saw us taking a photo of him. He greatly exaggerated his movements in a comical manner, and we laughed at his animated arm and hand signals.
There are dozens of traditional storefronts on Norzin Lam, but all the souvenir stores’ merchandise was priced way out of our budget. Even the large government sponsored “Handicrafts Emporium” where fixed prices were instituted was ridiculously high for our pocketbooks. But we just had to find that out for ourselves, as we couldn’t believe how much more expensive Bhutan is compared to Nepal. Dinner was buffet style at the Hotel Pedling. The restaurant was packed with French, American, and Indian tourists, and we could easily tell that we were in Bhutan during high season. There wasn’t a single empty chair or table! Most of the groups were quite large, and we were grateful that our tour was catered specially for the two of us.
Saturday, 15 April: After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel for our day trip from Thimphu to Punakha and Wangdi, and return all the way back to Paro. It was a long, aggressive itinerary, but we were up to it! Our program read “It is a 3 hour drive from Thimpu to Punakha. This drive takes us past picturesque valleys and mountain slopes dotted with typical Bhutanese villages.” What it should have read instead is “don’t drink too much water or else be prepared to pee behind a bush in the national park, as bathroom stops are few and far between”.
Our morning drive leaving Thimphu was very scenic. Our first segment was from Thimphu to Dochu La, which is a high mountain pass at over 10,000 feet. We drove pass the Simtokha Dzong, and had to stop at a mandatory checkpoint at Hongtsho where they checked to make sure we had the necessary paperwork in order to continue. Thankfully, all of the paperwork is taken care of by Bhutan Travel Services behind the scenes, so it is almost invisible to us. Once we reached Dochu La, the weather was freezing! Situated at 3140 meters, there are thousands of prayer flags fluttering in the chilly wind. From the Dochu La pass on a clear day, the panoramic views of mountains in the distance are supposedly mesmerizing. In fact, on a really clear day, the Bhutanese Himalayas can be seen. Today it was way too foggy out for us to make out much more than high mountain silhouettes. We stopped for a nice cup of warm tea at the Dochu La Cafeteria before continuing on with our journey.
From the Dochu La pass onward, we made our way steadily down hill, with Mr. Tshering liberally using his brakes. The roads are quite narrow, and definitely not large enough to support traffic on two lanes. Therefore, every time we’d see traffic coming in the opposite direction, Mr. Tshering would stomp on the brakes and gingerly bring us on the side of the road so that we could safely pass. Sometimes it was a bit scary as the cliffs were quite sheer in some areas. We could only imagine what would happen if we were to skirt off the edge of the road! But the gods were looking out for us, and we safely arrived to warm and balmy Punakha Dzong with little fanfare.
The Punakha Dzong is situated in a very scenic location, with the Mo Chhu and the Pho Chhu rivers converging. Aryan told us that according to legend, the two rivers used to be joined as one in a husband/wife union. However, the two had a big fight, and separated in their own two ways. The husband (Pho Chhu) has been angrily chasing after his wife, who has kept her silence for all these years. And indeed, as we looked at the Punakha Dzong, the Mo Chhu was silently inching her way along, while the Pho Chhu noisily passed by in an angry, torrential flow.
Built in 1637, the Punakha Dzong is the second oldest monastery in Bhutan. It used to serve as the old capital of Bhutan, and today is used by over 600 monks as their winter residence. This is due to Punakha’s very pleasant year round temperatures! It is 180 meters long, 72 meters wide, and six stories high. Aryan forgot to tell us that men have to wear closed toe shoes (sandals aren’t allowed), but the guards let Robby visit barefoot. We visited the main assembly hall, which is called the “hundred pillar congregation hall”. In reality, there are just over 50 pillars, but the interior of this hall is amazing. The entire life story of Buddha is painted on its interior walls, and a massive collection of sacred statues are stored in glass cases up against the main alter of the hall. We could only picture what the Dzong would look like during the annual Punakha Tsechu. Situated in such a scenic location, the Punakha Tsechu must truly look amazing! Younger monks approached us, and asked us to take their photos, for which they proudly posed. We were surprised because many of the rules that the Thai and Cambodian monks had told us about were not evident here. It was no problem for Becky to pose with the monks, or even for them to make physical contact with her. Nor was it unusual to see monks laughing, playing, or just relaxing, instead of their usual pose of being hunched over religious manuscripts. What caught us off guard were what photo hounds they were! They definitely were not bashful to ask us to take their photos. Every time they saw our cameras, they’d come running to pose in a photo for us. Of course they expected instant gratification of viewing their own photos on the image display…can you imagine the tourist who dares to us 35mm film? How would that be explained, when the monks here are so used to digital?
Lunch was prearranged for us in Punakha, and not only was it plentiful, but it was delicious. And way too much food. To our mirth, we noticed a single traveler served the same bowls of food that we were served, along with the same massive portions. There is no way a single human being can consume that much food, but we sure did laugh at our new found friend’s attempt to break the record. We left Punakha and had a short drive towards Wangdu Phodrang town. Robby freaked out when he saw Mr. Tshering’s head bobbing up and down after lunch, and demanded that he pull over and stretch his legs. Robby filled us with dreadful images of careening over the edge of a sharp cliff, and Mr. Tshering sullenly denied being sleepy or tired. Nevertheless, all eyes were on our driver once we continued on, and he was too conscious of our stares to drift back to sleep again.
Wangdu Phodrang town is touted as the cleanest town in Bhutan, thanks to its strict administrator. The town is situated on top of a rocky promontory overlooking the river, and was quite windy as a result. We headed directly for the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, which was built in 1638. The young monks in session here had just been released for the day, and the courtyard was filled with dozens of monks wetting down their wash clothes to scrub the courtyard floor. We were soon surrounded by monks who were quite eager to pose for photos for us. It was wonderful to see the Wangdue Dzong brought to life with so many young, friendly faces.
We still had a long drive to return back to Paro, so we didn’t delay in Wangdu but headed straight back to link up with Mr. Tshering. On our return trip back, we found it a lot easier to climb up the hill, because the common practice was for the traffic descending down to pull off the road and let us pass. So we made good time back towards Thimphu. On our way back, we were surprised to see yak herders guiding their yaks safely to greener pastures. Due to Punakha and Wangdu’s warm sunny climes, we had quite literally forgotten that we were in the Himalayas! Seeing the yaks and experiencing the cooler temperatures of Dochu La pass gently reminded us that the weather here can certainly change quite rapidly when a change in elevation occurs.
We made it back to Paro at around 7 pm, which pleased Mr. Tshering who had gloomily predicted we’d be back well past 8 pm. Just in time for a buffet dinner, followed by our check in at our Paro based lodgings. We were grateful that the airport was close by, as it prevented us from having to wake up super early for our morning departure. Aryan gave us a customer comment form to fill out, and bid us a good night.
Sunday, 16 April: We were woken up early by the sounds of footsteps noisily packing back and forth on the wooden corridor outside our room. It sounded a lot like ladies high heels, and we wondered who was up at this ungodly hour, and more importantly, why they were walking in an endless pattern immediately outside our door. The mystery was soon solved, as we received an urgent rapping at our door, and were greeted by Aryan and our driver. They were both anxious that we not be late for our flight, and were in their formal gho. And the high heels? Just their men’s dress shoes which accompanied their argyle socks. We laughed at their worry, and told them we’d be downstairs in two minutes. After sipping on a cup of tea and munching on breakfast pastries, we zoomed off to the airport and arrived there in 10 minutes. Aryan had thick scrolls sitting in his front seat, and told us that his uncle, an ex-monk, created them in his spare time. After looking at several of them, we decided to purchase a scroll with the image of Buddha for $20. Now that was one souvenir we could certainly afford!
We thanked and tipped both Mr. Tshering and Aryan for their services, before heading into Paro’s tiny international airport. Our Druk air flight from Paro – Katmandu – Delhi was packed, but we both managed to get aisle seats across from each other. The airport was full of tourists with rosy red cheeks excitedly reminiscing about their trip to this tiny Himalayan kingdom. We were doing the same thing! Our whirlwind Bhutan excursion was fantastic, and we were grateful to have run into travelers who had raved about the Tsechu so much that we were intrigued enough to add it to our list of “must experience”. Bhutan is a magical kingdom that has definitely touched both of us forever. For those of you who want to experience it for yourself, below is a short list of contacts that can assist you with your planning.
Bhutan Operator: Bhutan Travel Service (ask for guide Arya Dewar firstname.lastname@example.org) Address: Clock Tower, Thimpu, Bhutan Tel: (+975-2) 325785
Nepal Operator: Getaway! Himalayan Eco-Trekking (ask for either Devendra or Praveen) Address: www.trekking-in-Nepal.com Tel: (+977) 984-1207922 or 1251864
Bhutan Operator: Bara Lynka (ask for Thinley Dem)