We rolled into Thimpu after coming back over the Dochu La pass. The guides weren’t flattering about Thimphu as it has been significantly developed in the past few years. While much of the new architecture isn’t lovely, it isn’t anywhere near as bad as most capital cities. We checked in to the glamorous Taj Tashi, and hubby headed to bed for the afternoon (he had been ill on some dodgy fish for 20 hours), and I had a sandwich and went for a long walk around town.
Thimphu is quite adorable! They had installed Bhutan’s only set of traffic lights on the Main Street a few years ago. So many people complained, that they took them out and went back to the original model of a man with a white glove directing traffic. I wandered past a few sights, and the highlight of the afternoon was watching worshipers circumambulate the National Chorten Memorial…., it was super calming sitting in the sun listening to the prayer wheels spin and the monks hum their mantras.
I wandered past the archery stadium, where the archers were using the modern carbon bows (apparently they cost $3000, and bhutanese men are as likely to buy a bow as a car). Today’s competition appeared more serious (and definitely more sober) than the one we watched in Paro.
Wandering along the river I chatted to some locals. Everyone here smiles, and they smile even more if you give them a hearty Guzuzamphola (Dzongkha for ‘hello’). I stumbled across the Zangto Pelri Lhakhang Temple, which appeared to be in the middle of a some sewerage pipes. I did three tours of spinning the prayer wheels for extra good karma.
I headed to the market for a quick wander around, though I planned to come back tomorrow as the weekend is when it all happens at the Thimphu market. The sun drops behind the mountains early in Bhutan, and it gets chilly, so at 4pm I headed back to the hotel for a long bath and a light dinner.
The next morning, hubby was somewhat recovered, and we headed up the valley to visit two important monasteries. First stop, a quick stop to see the fantastic Tashi Dzong – another fantastic fortress housing the administration of the government.
Then we headed up the river valley, pausing again to check out the gold rock painting of Guru RImpoche with his crazy moustache.
Then off to Tango Goemba – hiking up a nice steep hill (300m of climb) to visit this monastery is named for a natural rock formation which looks like a horses head (ta = horse, ngo = head).
The monastery was built by the Divine Madman in the 15th century. It is a beautiful curved building, and is undergoing renovation. I wanted a good photo so we clambered up a precarious ramp built for the building materials, to get a picture of the outside of the building, and ended up having to come down on all fours so I wouldn’t fall off. We had tonnes of fun with the cheeky monkeys on the site, who were helping themselves liberally to the fruit offerings that the monks had left. Most of the visitors to the monastery were locals (we only saw two other foreigners), so it was an entirely different atmosphere than the Tigers nest.
After Tango, we crossed the valley and then headed up to Cheri Goemba – which was the very first monastery built in Bhutan to educate the monks. Cheri was also under renovation, but was a total delight.
We spotted some adorable wild mountain goats (goral) in amongst the villas where the monks go to meditate for three months, three weeks and three days – inconceivable.
The trail up to the monastery was lovely, so I couldn’t resist jogging back down instead of hiking – 9 minutes to come down :-), and quite a few raised eyebrows from the pilgrims coming up who can’t fathom why anyone would jog. We met some lovely friendly locals at the bottom, as we were spinning the prayer wheels, and we had a chat about how lovely Bhutan is. The Bhutanese are incredibly proud of their country, and rightly so. Everyone we met was lovely!!!
The Bhutanese are immensely proud of their approach to gross national happiness, rather than gross domestic product. The government priorities are all anchored around sustainable development, protecting the environment, providing free healthy care and schooling and preserving the culture. It seems to be working. While there are downsides to GNH in terms of personal freedom (i.e you can’t buy tobacco in Bhutan, meat is allowed but only if it is imported, you must wear national dress inside any government office or temple and western advertising is banned), the upsides in terms of quality of life are worth it. I wish NZ had a similar approach.
We headed back down into Thimphu town for lunch and then went down to the weekend market. They had amazing dried cheese, a great assortment of vegetables and some truly unique dried pork. Modernisation has clearly taken hold as almost everyone in the market under the age of 40 was glued to their smart phone. Young girls shelling peas whilst simultaneously looking at snapchat was amusing……, but I preferred the two old ladies we photographed who were having a long afternoon gossip.
It was our last evening in Thimphu, so we were good tourists and went to the dancing demonstration at the hotel accompanied by some of the prized local butter tea (its as vile as it was when I tried it in Kathmandu years go). The dancing was lovely, but thirty minutes is probably all the Bhutanese dancing I need to see in my life. Another huge dinner and then off to bed.
We were really sad heading back to the airport. Bhutan is expensive, as the government has adopted a wise policy of high value low impact tourists. It costs a minimum of $200 per day per person, but this does include food, a guide, hotel and transportation. However, this will only cover a basic level of accommodation, so if you want luxury, expect to pay more. Honestly for us, it was worth it, as one of those few holidays in our lives where we really went luxurious. Bhutan is delightful, and I cannot wait to come back.
Our next stop was the lovely Punakha valley…..The weather was wonderful for our drive from Paro to Punakha. While it is only 120km, it would take 4 hours on the ‘main highway’ of Bhutan which was built by Indian workers 40 years ago, and is still managed by them to this day. I was looking forward to the drive, as we were heading over the pass at Dochu La – at 3000 metres, this pass has stunning views to the Himalayan range on a clear day. And it was a stunning clear day, and it seems every day in Bhutan in December is like this!
From the pass, we headed down to the Punakha valley. At 1200m in altitude, it is a lush green valley in comparison to Paro and Thimpu, where they grow great fruit and vegetables. The first thing you see is Punakha dzong, situated at the confluence of the Mama and Papa rivers in the Punakha valley. Apparently the Mama river is calm and zen and the Papa river is a bit violent. This fits nicely with what I have been learning about buddhism from our guide – women apparently stand for wisdom and compassion, and men stand for power and energy. We didn’t stop at the Dzong, but headed on to the Uma Punakha, further up the valley. It is a stunning tiny resort with 10 rooms and an amazing view up the green river valley.
We had another huge lunch (chicken wings, a club sandwich and ice-cream), and then summoned up the courage to go for a stroll. We headed up the hill to Chorten Nibu which is famous for when Drukpa Kunley (the ‘divine madman’ – more on him later) observed a witches coven plotting to hurt some villagers so he threw a stick at them from a distant hilltop. The stick eventually turned into a beautiful tree where they built the monastery Chorten Nibu. We then strolled down through the rice fields back to the hotel for more food and a big nights sleep.
The next morning, it was another glorious day and we took a stroll along the Mama river in the Punakha valley. We started from the ‘Aman bridge’, so named as it is near the Aman hotel, which doesn’t have a road, the guests get shuttled up from the bridge in golf buggies. We were met by a gorgeous fat dog who lives at the Aman (apparently he used to live at the Uma Punakha, but he upgraded a few months ago to the Aman, where he appears remarkably well fed). He guided us across the rice fields and through a little village full of friendly Bhutanese, including some cute kids who showed us their bows. They couldn’t have been more than about 6 years old but they were pretty good shots.
The dog then took us up the hill to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten. It is a lovely temple dedicated to the current king and built by his mum, who lives just behind, and it was consecrated in 1999. The paintings were some of the nicest we saw in Bhutan. From the Chorten we wandered down the hill and through some more fields, helping ourselves to some delicious tomatillos and guavas from the trees on the hillside farms. I did ask our guide whether this constituted theft, and in true buddhist style, he responded that it was fine as the farmers had an abundance.
We wandered along the glacial Mama Chu river, which reminded me of the rivers in NZ, and found some illegal fishing nets in the river. It is technically against the law to kill any animals in Bhutan (all meat is imported from India or Bangladesh), and fishing in the national park is completely outlawed. We took the nets out of the river and shredded them, popping them in the backpack to dispose of later.
Heading up from the river to the hotel we met some cool young boys playing cowboys. They told us how many cows they each had. Like most young bhutanese boys they had knives tied around their waists and were ready for anything. Within a minute or two they had denied all knowledge of the fishing nets but one of them scurried off to the village to find the culprits, two entrepreneurial teenagers who had been selling fish to some of the locals and who were very upset that we had ruined their fishing nets. But like most bhutanese, there wasn’t an ounce of aggression. After a chat about the fishing rules we were back to the hotel for another enormous lunch…., beef skewers, amazing Caesar salad and more cake and ice-cream.
In the afternoon we headed down to Punakha to see the fortress. – Punakha Dzong. Its winter, so the fortress is home to all the monks who decamp from Thimpu during the winter. As a result, opening hours were really curtailed and we had to wrestle a scrum of Indian tourists to get in the door. Punakha Dzong was the second fortress built in Bhutan and it is definitely the loveliest.
The light was magical, and husband and I were forced to pose in front of the famous window in the Dzong where the king and queen had their photo taken.
After a strenuous day of sightseeing, we had a fabulous massage overlooking the river, followed by another enormous meal. At this rate I will be rolling home.
The next morning, fortified by a breakfast of French toast and bacon, it was time to head back to Thimphu. Our last stop in Punakha was at Chimi Lakhang (no dog temple), built in 1499 to honour Drukpa Kunley – the divine madman.
Drukpa Kunley apparently had a creative way of practising buddhism through sex and alcohol – the rock n roll buddhist! He apparently slept with over 5000 women, but it was all honourable as his outrageous behaviour encouraged people to think about things differently. He is still very honoured today, and there are souvenir phalluses galore for the tourists. Apparently it is a great place to go for a fertility blessing.
After that we headed back to Thimphu….to be continued
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.