Flying into Bhutan was a hell of an experience – better than a roller coaster….! There aren’t many places in central Bhutan where you can put an airport…Paro is an hour from the capital of Thimphu (where there isn’t space for a runway). They have fit a runway in the Paro valley, but the runway is shorter and higher than most in the world and only suits smaller planes. On a clear fine day the planes bank in tightly through the mountains and turn into the valley, weaving through the hills and juddering to halt about 10 metres from the end of the runway. On a cloudy day (or at night), no flights come in or out.
The friendliness of the Bhutanese was reinforced from the outset. The immigration officer was very friendly. Their sense of humour was pretty evident also – Hubby asked were the bathroom was and was told that the nearest toilet was ok for a ‘short vacation’ but if he needed a ‘longer vacation’ to try the one further away. Hilarious!
It is rare for me to do a luxury holiday…. Camping in my one person tent or staying in a backpackers is definitely more my style. However, every now and then it is nice to go five star, and there is honestly no better place to try out luxury than Bhutan. Our first few nights were at the Uma Paro, a luxurious version of a traditional bhutanese building with stunning views down the paro valley. Stunning rooms, wonderful free yoga classes, and they gave us the best ginger and lemon tea I have ever had (which I had at every meal for the eight days we were in Bhutan). Our first night was Christmas Eve, so instead of the Bhutanese fare of momos and thukpa we were expecting, we had a nine course Christmas dinner with foie gras, scallops, turkey, bisque and mousse.
After a horrible jetlagged nights sleep, I fortified myself with an enormous buffet breakfast and we headed out to ‘hike’ to town. ‘Hike’ as what they call a ‘hike’ here tends to be a casual stroll for relatively short distances. Our guide adapted our itinerary to add walking wherever possible, but I was always surprised by the short distances and he was surprised by how quickly we covered them. Our hike that morning was the standard ‘first day’ hike that the guide took all tourists on to see how fit they were. It was a lovely stroll up the hill and past Zuri Dzong down to the National Museum. It took us about an hour, and we did feel the uphills in our lungs at 2500 metres. Apparently we did pretty well, compared to some of the other tourists who took 2-4 hours to cover the same terrain.
The real National Museum is a beautiful old round watch tower on a hill overlooking the valley. The real museum has been closed since 2009 when much of it was damaged in an earthquake. There is a temporary exhibit next door with some fabulous masks (my favourites are the angry blue gods with skulls adorning the top), and a documentary outlining the different types of famous bhutanese mask dances. Honestly the dances all looked identical to me except the dancers wore a different mask – suspect that is entirely not the case, but I am a bit of a cultural heathen.
Next up, a visit to the Paro Dzong (or fortress) constructed in 1644. It is stunning! We wandered around admiring the stunning architecture, but I was most impressed by the private loo for the main monk. From the fortress we wandered down to the lovely Nyamai Zam bridge which cuts across the Paro Chhu (or River), practising my Dzongkha greetings on all the people we passed by.
Strolling into town for lunch we went past the paro archery field. It was hilarious and quite lethal. The archers (all in traditional national dress) are at one end of the 150m field firing into the distance. At the target end, a variety of inebriated men taunt the archers when they miss, and they stand surprisingly close to the target and no-one seemed to get hit. When an archer hits the target he (and yes it is mostly a he, as women are only allowed to compete occasionally) gets awarded a scarf to hang of his belt and is serenaded with a victory song by his friends.
I could have sat and watched archery for hours, but we got hungry, so headed into town for a spectacularly bad buffet lunch – unrecognisable poultry, cold rice and soggy aubergine…. a good warning to always eat at the posh hotel!
We wandered around the unremarkable town of Paro, which is over-blessed with tourist shops, and then headed up the valley to the end of the road – Drukyel Dzong an old fort which was built in 1649 to commemorate the victory of Bhutan over Tibetan invaders who had followed the river to Paro. Its a lovely spot, and it literally is the end of the road.
We then went to visit the lovely Kyichu Lakhang with its magical orange tree (so called as oranges shouldn’t be able to grow at this altitude). It is one of Bhutan’s oldest and most beautiful temples, believed to have been built by a Tibetan king in 659, as part of a network of temples built to pin down a demoness. Kyichu is pinning down her left foot. After watching the devotees spinning the prayer wheels in the late afternoon sun, we headed back to the hotel for candlelit yoga and an amazing Christmas dinner! We opted for the bhutanese set meal – great thukpa soup, momos, stunning cheese and green bean curry (with crazy hot green chilis) and chicken curry with red rice….
The next day we were up early to hike to the most popular site in Bhutan – Taktshang Goemba – literally the Tigers Nest Monastery – which hangs from the cliffside 900metres above the valley. The monastery is so named as Guru Rinpoche (who bought buddhism to Bhutan), flew up to the monastery on the back of a tiger to defeat the local demons. All true buddhists apparently need to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives.
The hike was apparently supposed to take a couple of hours, although our guide had warned us that Indians and Chinese typically took 3-4 hours to get to the top. Alexander McQueen apparently took 9 hours to get up and back, as he stopped for a cigarette after every ten minutes of hiking. It was quite steep, and it was amusing to see the lazier tourists on the back of mules who you can hire to take you half way up. I hiked up halfway and then jogged back down to pick up hubby and the guide. And then I went to the top of the trail and jogged back again…. A perfect morning work out, though it did raise some eyebrows with the hikers who I kept passing going up and back down again.
It probably took about 45 minutes to get to the monastery, and it was a great trail, with lots of fantastic views of the en route. The monastery was worth the hike. We only went to a handful of the temples (there are many), and we made offerings to Guru Rinpoche, and even meditated for a few minutes.
After that, we had some ginger tea and muffins in the sun, and then I ran down the trail to see how long it would take (22 minutes at a cruisy pace – even going downhill at this altitude is tiring). I then hiked back up again to pick up the hubby. The guides nicknamed me yaomaoyaomao which means up down up down, as apparently it is unusual for people to voluntarily hike more than they needed to. A glorious visit!!!
We had a late lunch and then spent the afternoon trying to learn how to play bhutanese darts and archery. I was pretty rubbish at both, but did manage to hit the target once with the arrow!!!!
One last night of yoga, delicious food, and a great night sleep at the Uma Paro, we were headed for the Punakha valley in the morning.