Back to Basics in Bhutan (2013)

Bhutan has been a place I’d dreamt of visiting for many years.  In 2006, I had seriously started looking for photography trips to the kingdom – I found a company called Rainbow Photography Tours owned by Robin Smillie. It sounded perfect – a small group of photography enthusiasts, travelling in 4WDs, photography students to carry one’s gear and help set shots up, access to areas otherwise inaccessible (tsechu – or festival – dressing rooms, inner sanctums of temples, etc.)  A flurry of emails with Robin ensued, with Robin sending me a promotional CD and festival dates, and assurances of tailoring something if the standard dates didn’t work out.  My potential travel partners ranged from Renu (who wanted to do a cooking tour more than a photography one) and Brendan (who was veering towards a motorbike tour through the mountains of Bhutan), to Renu, Brendan and their friends Janice and Noel, to Shobs and at some point, as it got too difficult to coordinate dates, I seriously contemplated going by myself.

As it turned out though, all plans for Bhutan in 2007 came to nought.  Between being around for the children’s school term and Vinodh’s O Levels, and personally checking out Singapore’s oncology services (which were excellent, I’m glad to report!), travelling to Bhutan got relegated to the back burner.

Nothing much happened by way of re-planning a trip, till January of 2013, when Shobs said “Shall we go to Bhutan?”  I said yes, we blocked out some dates in March, and proceeded to look for companies doing trips to Bhutan.  Country Holidays had a great itinerary but flight dates didn’t work out.  Eventually we went with Druk Asia, on the recommendation of a friend of Shobs’.

The initial itinerary sent by Mindu of Druk Asia was an extremely involved one which had us crossing the length and breadth of the country in 7 days on roads that, we read, weren’t “the best.”  I ended up doing some online research, and proposed an itinerary that I thought would be more do-able – an itinerary that was more about photography than about hard treks and birds. Mindu confirmed that it was indeed ‘do-able’ and so bookings were made, and the preparations started in earnest.

We (I?) may have read a bit too much about altitude sickness and the climb to Tiger’s Nest…practically all accounts described it as a ‘hard trek’, and I was more than slightly worried – especially given my fear of heights. The gym routine kicked in with a vengeance, with Mattew including more ‘stamina building’ routines and tips on breathing. We got our hiking boots, and hit the stairs at our respective apartment blocks; I eventually was doing 80 floors up and down in half an hour or so, without too much problem (…eventually!).  One Sunday morning, we went up and down Bukit Timah Hill twice…the highlight of that morning was the prata and mutton curry breakfast we had at Rail Mall after our walk.

We also visited Campers’ Corner – and, given the amount we spent on ‘gear’, are now set for all manner of mountainous holidays for the rest of our lives.

Finally, it was the day before we left on our Trip to Bhutan.  We’d read that Druk Air is strict about cabin luggage so I reluctantly removed my laptop from my backpack…which left me still over the 7kg limit.  After dinner at home, it was off to Shobs’ for a few hours sleep before getting to the airport at 4.30AM the next morning.

An Everest Sighting & Expecting the Unexpected

Thursday 21st March 2013

Singapore – Thimphu, Bhutan

After 2 hours of sleep, we were up at 2.30AM for a taxi pick-up at 3.45AM.  Shobs had started on Diamox, and I thought maybe I should too…bad idea.  By the time we had checked in (I managed to check my tripod in too which was a relief), my fingers and soon, my hands up to my wrists were alternating between tingling and feeling numb…the literature said “Seek medical attention immediately” should these symptoms occur.  I instead drank lots of water and hoped that this would flush the Diamox out of my system, and continued walking in the direction of ‘boarding gate’ rather than ‘clinic’.

At our gate, while we waited to board and I tried to ignore my tingling hands, we people-watched. There was a European family with three young sons – the older 2 busy with some handheld game, the youngest trying to get in on the action and failing miserably. The mother looked slightly harried while the father was engrossed in a book, quite oblivious to the goings-on around him…in fact for the longest time, we didn’t realise he was the fifth member of the family!  There was a group of girlfriends obviously off on a serious trek from the sound of their conversation.  This was confirmed through further eavesdropping and reading their itinerary from where I sat in the row behind them on the flight…theirs was the kind of trek that involved tents, cooking utensils and required ‘permits’. One other observation was that everyone was wearing their trekking shoes (with Shobs making mental notes of which leather pair she would like to get next) while we were wearing our normal walking shoes, having packed our hiking boots. Note to self: ‘normal’ shoes are not necessary on trips like this.

Our pre-trip information from Druk Asia and our online research had recommended getting seats on the left side of the plane for a view of Everest – and happily, we had managed to get seats on the left.  The service on Druk Air was very good – as was the breakfast.  I had tea with an omelette and a croissant with some very yummy butter; Shobs had roti with potato curry. Breakfast done, the inflight magazine read (and basic Bhutanese ‘mastered’), we slept for most of the flight.  When I woke up just before we landed in Calcutta for a half hour refuelling stop, the tingling in my hands had stopped. Big sigh of relief…and no more Diamox for me.

The half an hour in Calcutta went by quickly and we were soon airborne again, and it was time for Breakfast #2 – a chicken sandwich which tasted like tuna…maybe it was a tuna sandwich.

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Everest Sighting – we sat on the left!

It was with much excitement that Mount Everest was sighted.  There was no announcement from the pilot (we’d read that the pilot would usually alert the passengers on the left to look out the window) but it was hard to miss. That peak – familiar from years of National Geographic, and TV documentaries – rose from the clouds and amazingly seemed closer to the plane than it did to the ground (which we couldn’t see).  We had got our cameras out in Calcutta (much to the amusement of an elderly couple across the aisle…who said, supposedly under their breaths, “Must be Singaporeans.”) and got some pretty awesome shots (according to me).

The next bit of excitement was landing in Paro.  Wikipedia (which was consulted extensively pre-departure) describes the airport at Paro as “one of the most challenging”, where flights can only take off and land during daylight hours, and only when it is clear enough to land ‘by vision’ (as opposed to landing ‘by instrumentation’ I suppose). It also said that as of 2009, only 8 pilots were qualified to fly into (and presumably out of) Paro…we hoped that our pilot was one of them.

The flight path between the mountains was dramatic, to say the least. The wingtips were not really within touching distance of the mountainsides as some websites had described, but close enough to generate awe and wonder.

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Paro airport has to be the most photogenic airport in the world. The beautiful traditional architecture of the terminal, coupled with a super-relaxed atmosphere made for a wonderful welcome to Bhutan.  No one hurried us to the terminal, passengers were milling about on the tarmac taking photos – of the plane, of the huge billboard with the other photogenic icons of Bhutan (King Jigme and Queen Jetsun), of the terminal building with the mountains as a dramatic backdrop…brilliant!  And to top it all off, the toilet in the terminal building was squeaky clean.

Bags and tripod collected, and immigration cleared, we walked out and the “2 madams” (as we were referred to several times on this trip) were met by our guide, Rinxin Dorji, and driver, Namgay Wangchuk – who were to be our ‘constant companions’ for the next week.  We each got a traditional welcome, with a white silk shawl placed across our shoulders, by these two traditionally dressed young men.

It was to be a one and a half hour drive to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The Druk Asia info sheet had said to expect the unexpected…and before long we had our first experience of ‘the unexpected’ – a landslide that blocked the road. A long queue of cars, 4WDs, pick-ups all waited patiently as the road was cleared.  We walked down the road with Rinxin to a 15th century iron wire bridge.  The downhill slope to the bridge proved a bit too much for our ‘normal shoes’ and we had to get back to the car to change shoes before attempting the slope again.  This was the first of many slopes…we asked Rinxin, “Is the climb to Tiger’s Nest like this?” and he replied with an apologetic shake of his head, “No madam, steeper.”…which added to my anxiety in anticipation of the climb that would happen towards the end of our trip.

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Landslide!

The bridge was literally made of iron mesh and faint-hearted me decided against crossing the bridge.  We had just enough time to walk to the bridge and back, before the landslide was cleared and we were on our way again.
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At Thimphu, it was directly to lunch at the Cafe Edelweiss, which was wasn’t small or white, though it was clean and bright.  We had our first encounter with the national dish of Bhutan, ema deshi – chilli with cheese.  Shobs was in heaven and I was close. I was told by friends in Singapore that Bhutanese food is ‘basic’…it may have been basic but deliciously so.  After lunch, we checked into the Hotel Kisa (now that was basic, and had a view of…the side wall of the building next door) and by 3PM were out again.  Our first stop was the Post Office – another very traditional building.  We got some stamps, First Day Covers…and got stamps with us on them! The peace of the afternoon was shattered when a large group of Chinese tourists stampeded in, snatched the stamps out of our hands without so much as a “May I…”, and generally created a ruckus and an imbalance of chi (am I confusing cultures??).


Our next stop was the Memorial Chorten, built fairly recently in the 1970s to honour the 3rd king of Bhutan.  We circumambulated (clockwise) once while trying to sneak some pictures of other circumambulators …though mostly we asked permission and almost always permission was granted.  The evening light was lovely, as were the faces of the many elderly people at the Chorten who were there, it seemed for both social and religious reasons.
Buddha Point was next. While not yet complete, the 52 metre high bronze Buddha was still imposing.  Rinxin said that when it is complete, the big Buddha will contain many many smaller Buddhas.  The walk up the hill to Buddha Point got me breathing hard; this was the first time I was really feeing the altitude (Thimphu is at an altitude of about 7,000 feet).  The sun had gone down by now and it was windy and quite cold. While we stood there, taking in the magnificent view of the valley, Rinxin spotted a small forest fire on one of the hillsides across the valley.  As we watched, the fire spread, getting bigger and bigger before our eyes. The civic conscious Rinxin whipped out his phone and called the police; they were already on to it.


We then drove to the Thimphu Dzong.  The Dzongs are a happy combination of government offices, monasteries/temples and accommodation for monks. Before entering a dzong, Bhutanese have to be in traditional garb – the gho for men and the kira for women. In addition, the men have to wear a white sash – which Rinxin put on before we went in. Given that it was quite cold by now and we were in our jackets, we more than met the dress code and modesty criteria for tourists.
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This was the first of many Dzongs.

Lesson #1 – the benches outside the temple area are not for tourists to rest on or to sit on while taking off/putting on their hiking boots.  They are strictly for the monks’ use.

As we came back out from the temple area, we saw a man fall over across the courtyard. He appeared to be having a seizure. Having just been asked by Rinxin what I do back in Singapore (and having told him) I thought I’d ‘better’ see if I could help. A security guard had started chest compressions, which wasn’t necessary. The man was at the tail end of a seizure and his tongue and mouth were all red; from above my shoulder, I heard Shobs say that he “must’ve bitten his tongue”.

Lesson #2 – most older Bhutanese have red tongues/mouths from chewing a form of betel nut. Post-script : the man was fine.

Dinner was at The Bhutan Kitchen, not far from Kisa. I ate far too much – beef curry, egg, corn rice, red rice, spinach, and had a Bhutan lager to wash it all down. We were soon falling on our faces – it had been a long day but a most satisfying introduction to the Land of the Thunder Dragon., Bhutan

Breathless in Bhutan

Friday 22nd March 2013

Thimphu, Bhutan

After a nice breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, bread and coffee at the Kisa dining room (we realised we could see Buddha Point in the distance from where we sat), it was time to meet Rinxin and Namgay for the day’s activities.  In the lobby we picked up a local newspaper – yesterday’s forest fire was on the front page. 50 acres of forest had been destroyed, fortunately no one was injured.

First stop was the Folk Heritage Museum.  It was set on a little hillock (most things of importance we were beginning to realise, were elevated, and required some effort to get to)…and it got us huffing and puffing.  I was wearing my heart rate monitor and almost had a heart attack when I saw my heart rate.. 210 per minute!!  I did not think my pulse was racing that much, and after a while I switched the monitor off as it was causing more anxiety than was good for me (and perhaps Shobs too who looked a tad worried when I told her).  What was even more anxiety-causing was the thought of the Tiger’s Nest trek in 5 days…would we have acclimatised by then?

The Heritage Museum was a quaint little place with replicas of village homes, complete with steep ladders to get from floor to floor.  All quite fascinating once my breathing and heart rate went back to normal.  I had read about the Institute of Traditional Medical Services which had a museum attached to it, and thought it might be interesting to visit, so although it wasn’t on the itinerary, we made a detour to visit this Institute (also located on a hilltop). The highlight for me was the clinic set-up which was a wonderful mix of traditional and modern. Just outside the clinic rooms and pharmacy counter, there was a prayer wheel, which one could spin while waiting for one’s number to be called – which was done using a modern-looking Q-matic system. The set-up covered the two most important bases, I thought, for those who were unwell – prayer and medicine.
Traditional Medicine Institute - pharmacy covers all bases...a spin of the prayer wheel before collecting your medicine (complete with Q-matic system)
The next stop – which was on the itinerary – was the Takin Reserve.  The Takin is Bhutan’s national animal and as legend has it, was created by a Tibetan saint who was also known as the Divine Madman.

National animal - the Takin.
Takin

The story goes that he fixed the skull of a goat to the skeleton of a cow (after having both these animals for lunch), and created this rather strange-looking creature as proof of his miracle-performing abilities. The reserve, needless to say, was also on a hill, and getting there required some deep breathing on my part, though the saving grace was that the route was well paved. On the way down, we stopped to buy some scarves directly from the lady who was weaving them at great speed (things are always cheaper at Ground Zero?).


The Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) Tower was next on the agenda, and also on a hill (which perhaps is necessary for a broadcasting station).  We had a magnificent view of Thimphu from the top, amongst the hundreds of prayer flags flapping in the cool wind. I realised today that I don’t have an issue going uphill…the sweaty palms start when I’m going downhill. The gallant Namgay came to the rescue, offering his hand and guiding me down via the less steep paths. Shobs, the mountain goat, of course was not hampered by these trivialities.


It was then on to the Centenary Farmers’ Market, a market selling fresh produce, which very much reminded me of the Pasar Besar Seremban. It was wonderful strolling through the market, not having to take photos surreptitiously as everyone was happy to be photographed, with the children even posing for numerous portrait shots. We also saw the first of many covered bridges, a-flap with hundreds of prayer flags.


We were famished by this time and after another yummy lunch, we walked through a row of stalls selling handicrafts, and visited a weaving centre where the scarves were more expensive than the ones we had bought at the Takin Reserve.

Healthy lunch...red rice, buckwheat noodles

I had read somewhere that for good coffee in Thimphu, Karma Coffee is a must-visit…Rinxin and Namgay hadn’t heard of it but after a couple of phone calls, we were at Karma Coffee, having the most delicious coffee and brownies with Rinxin and Namgay – our treat. We were chatting away when mid-sentence, Rinxin and Namgay both sat bolt upright; I thought they were almost going to stand at attention. My first thought was that the man who had walked in was their boss and they weren’t supposed to be fraternising with the clients…but no, the very dashing chap who had just walked in, dressed non-traditionally in a black polo neck sweater and jeans was the prince, the younger brother of King Jigme! He said hello to a couple who were sitting behind us then disappeared into a back room. Later when I used the (very clean) washroom, I saw the prince sitting in a smoke-filled back room in a very serious discussion on some government policy or other. It also confirmed rumours that Bhutan isn’t really 100% smoke-free even among the locals. So, royal-spotting – check. Karma Coffee is clearly the place to be!

We mentioned that we would be interested to visit some local art galleries. The ever-obliging Rinxin and Namgay (who by now had taken it upon himself to carry my backpack, despite my (feeble) protests) drove us to two art galleries – I saw a piece that I really liked in one of them but thought I had to ‘think about it’. In the other, we met the artist, Rinchen Wangdi, who had been in Singapore for an exhibition, and had an ST cutting on his wall to show for it. We bought a piece each from Rinchen, who had them nicely packed, with a written message for each of us, and delivered via Rinxin to the Kisa that evening.

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With Rinchen Wangdi

Dinner was back at the Kisa…too much food but oh so delicious.  End of Day 2 – another full day with all manner of new sights, sounds and smells – and no bad meals so far. Tomorrow – Punakha.

Divine Dochula and a Dramatic Dzong

Saturday 23rd March 2013

Wangdu Phodrang, Bhutan

We checked out of Kisa after another good breakfast. Today we journey to Punakha, about 80km east of Thimphu – a 3-hour drive on mountainside single-lane roads which boast 10 to 12 hairpin bends per kilometre according to some pre-departure reading. It was a lovely day, clear blue skies, crisp morning air, and many many hairy hairpins. I didn’t dare ask the carsick-prone Shobs if she was feeling okay…in case that inspired a bout of nausea, and worse, inspired her to whip out her trusty Axe Brand Oil…which then would’ve gotten me nauseous. Namgay, fortunately is an excellent driver, with a light touch on the accelerator and the brakes, and judicious use of the horn (are Bhutanese drivers genetically different from Indian ones?).

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I hadn’t read a lot about Dochula Pass which was about 30km out of Thimphu…this was just as well…the awe it inspired as we turned a corner and came face-to-face with the Pass took our collective breaths away. There were 108 stupas, prayer flags, and directly across from us, the heavenly Himalayas. The air was pristine, cold and I remember thinking “What crystal clear air!” It was so clear, we could see for miles, with the different shades of white and bluish white of the mountains looking like an Ansel Adams landscape. We were at about 3100 metres, just slightly lower than Tiger’s Nest. We were beginning to cope better with the altitude, at least Diamox-less I was…I was still slightly short of breath when climbing the stairs to the stupas but attributed this more to my breath being taken away by the stunning vistas, than the lack of oxygen. It also was comforting to note that Rinxin was breathing a bit harder than normal.

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Many photos, and much awe later, we reluctantly went back to the car where Namgay was waiting (and chatting up a pretty girl) and got back on our way to Punakha. We stopped for photos of a yak and more mountain scenes along the way, with Rinxin and Namgay also joining in with Rinixin’s camera.

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We stopped for lunch at the phallic-filled village of Sopsokha. Walking down to the Chimmi Lakhang Teahouse from the car, we passed homes and shops with elaborate (!) penises painted on the walls and 3D versions on display in the shop windows, and when we got to the restaurant, a giant version next to the buffet table greeted us. Most intriguing. After lunch (delicious as usual) and a loo stop (another clean and very large loo), as we walked on narrow paths through the paddy fields to the Chimmi Lakhang Monastery, Rinxin told us the story of Drukpa Kunley, aka The Divine Madman (one and the same of Takin fame) who is also known as the saint of fertility. The monastery is one visited by couples wanting some help in this department.

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It was a lovely walk through the paddy fields and on the non-touristy path (a Rinxin special) through a village, up to the monastery about 20 minutes from the teahouse. Young monks were out and about, going about their chores or just chilling under the bodhi tree. In a corner beyond a whole lot of prayer flags and down a steep slope, four or five novice monks were in the midst of a game which looked like marbles but with pebbles. Just beyond where they played was a ridge that fell off to nothing but which offered a magnificent view of the valley and meandering river. Getting to that ridge to get some photos was slightly sweaty-palm-inducing but Rinxin got me there with instructions to step sideways down the slope, and using his foot as a wedge – quite ingenious – and effective, since I didn’t slide off the edge!

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Inside the monastery, prayers were in session and the priest came around blessing everyone with what we realised later was a wood and ivory phallus…so we were blessed with some entirely unnecessary fertility.

Today, my shoelaces kept coming loose with a vengeance…resulting in the kind Rinxin tying them for me…twice. This was cause for much mirth, with Shobs recording the scene for posterity, and possibly blackmail and/or cause for embarrassment on some future occassion.

It was a peaceful walk back down to Sopsokha and our car where Namgay waited…I can’t think of a better way to describe it – it was peaceful – just the sound of the breeze, the rustling of leaves, no man-made sounds. Even the people we passed seemed to be ‘one’ with the surroundings; it was all very Zen and good for the soul.

Our next stop was a nunnery – a hilltop nunnery, of course. The building was a splash of sparkling white against a polarised blue sky. The nuns were mostly out on the lawn painting mini stupas, with a magnificent view of valleys and mountains.

It was then a long drive to our next stop. We turned a corner and once again were floored – the scene before us was majestic and unreal. The Punakha Dzong with the river Po (Po Chuu) running past it, the mountains once again in Ansel Adam shades as a backdrop – simply beautiful. Before we got to the Dzong we visited the Punakha suspension bridge, which as suspension bridges go was quite solid and swayed only slightly in the wind. Monks crossing the bridge, robes flowing in the wind, provided many photo opps.

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We then visited the Dzong, There were 3 flights of stairs going up to the main building. Rinxin told us that the centre flight was for ‘rich people’…but all stairs led to the tax collector. We spent some time wandering around the Dzong; there were many ‘red-robed-monk-against-white-wall’ moments. There were quite a few tourists here; we saw the family with the three boys (that we’d seen at Changi Airport) – their guide was describing, quite animatedly,  the stories inscribed in the murals on the wall – the boys were sitting cross-legged listening, enthralled. We also encountered the ugly Indian tourist – a man who asked Rinxin where the loo was, in a supercilious tone and without so much as a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’.

One of many monk-against-white-wall moments

Tonight we stay at the Kichu Resort in Wangdue. It was almost dark by the time we got there, once again on winding mountainside roads. The Kichu is also known as ‘mini Switzerland’ on account of its chalets. Dinner that night was vegetarian, and I thought it was the best meal so far.

The river (the Ki Chuu??) ran right outside our chalet and we went to sleep to the sounds of the river, dreaming of our lovely lovely day with not one but two breathtaking moments – a good for the soul sort of day.

Gorgeous Gangtey & A Happy Hike

Sunday 24th March 2013

Kichu Resort, Wangdu Phodrang, Bhutan

Today we had an early start – we were off to Phobjikha Valley, a 3-hour drive away. Not long into the drive, as we drove through a little village, Namgay’s Zen driving (and our car’s brakes) was put to the test as a little girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old, dashed across the road, almost right under the wheels of our 4WD. Namgay slammed on the brakes, murmured something (which sounded more like a prayer than a curse), wagged a finger at the blissfully ignorant child – and DIDN’T HORN! Good man, this Namgay Wangchuk.

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After that bit of excitement, we pulled up at a ‘bus stop’ to stock up on water for the day, before we were on our way again. Just outside the village, there was more excitement – a family of monkeys by the road. According to Namgay and Rinxin, seeing this particular species of monkey at the start of a journey augured well for the day.

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It was a drive with magnificent views (which seems to be the norm in Bhutan), narrow winding roads that clung to the mountainside (and in some parts fell away) and endless hairpins and blind corners. We eventually reached the entrance to the Gangtey Nature Trail. At 2900m, this would be a practice hike before the big one to Tatsang…though Rinxin (trying to suppress an amused smile) said we would not need our hiking sticks for this hike, which he said would take about 90 minutes. In all our walks so far, we haven’t been able to get a “Yes, Tiger’s Nest will be like this” reply out of Rinxin so we had no inkling how it would Really be.  At some point on our walk today, we asked Rinxin about the people he had accompanied up to Tiger’s Nest. He said the oldest was a 60 something lady from Australia – the trek with her took all day! He assured us we’d be fine and that we’re ‘young’ – we said we aren’t that young and asked him to guess our age – late 30s/early 40s…ha ha ha. He literally stopped in his tracks when we told him our age!

 The Gangtey Nature Trail was a beautiful easy 4km hike, part of the way through farms, then through a forest before we reached Phobjikha Valley and a look-out point for black-necked cranes – the cranes which flock to the valley in winter were no longer to be seen, but what a view from that look-out point. It was a perfect day – blue skies, cool breeze, once again crystal clear air and that soul-filling quietness. It was a happy hike across the valley from there, across little streams, with no other human being in sight, until we reached the end of our hike and spotted Namgay, looking like Highlander, waiting by the car. We had taken an hour for the hike – faster than anticipated, and happily with no breathing issues…but this was an easy hike, even for me.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep?

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Our lunch stop was an unexpected bonus – Rinxin thought we might enjoy an authentic farmhouse lunch and had arranged for us to have lunch with a farmer and his family. I know I’ve said this more than once in the last few entries, but today’s lunch was hands down the best meal I’d had on this trip. It was simple, home-made and simply delicious – right from the tea and biscuits we were served before lunch, to the rice, vegetable, omelette and oh so sweet carrots – and the chilli paste which was rapturously delicious. The paste was made from coriander, chilli and yak cheese – all from the farm. We finished with a bit of homemade rice wine which was poured from a gasoline container! The farmer’s son, who was about 5, was like kids around the world and refused to eat his vegetables. The farmer showed us around their home; he was particularly proud of the prayer room with the extremely ornate carvings – done himself.

Post-lunch we stopped at the Gangtey Gompa, a 17th century monastery before the long drive back to Kichu, for a relaxing evening on our balcony and an early night. Another wonderful day.

Giving in to a Dream & A Different Dochula

Monday 25th March 2013

Metta Resort & Spa, Paro, Bhutan

Today – the long journey back to Paro, where we started. The morning started out quite blue-skied but got steadily greyer. By the time we got to Dochula Pass, it was cold, raining and the magnificent view of a few days ago was completely obliterated by the clouds and fog. We were so thankful we had seen the Pass when we did. We stopped for a bio break at the Druk Cafe – it was a short walk up a steep hill. The wind and the drizzle made for some rather cold people by the time we got to the cafe. The cafe was also home to an art and handicraft shop. Shobs got a quite beautiful traditional thangka…there was a short bated breath moment as the cashier dialled in to the credit card centre – with the weather, it was more likely than not, that there would be no connection. Fortunately, the call went through, payment was made and we were on our way again.

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It was a slow slow drive down the winding, and now wet, roads and we dozed for most of it. The weather had cleared by the time we got to Thimphu for lunch. Rinxin thought we might appreciate pizzas at Thimphu’s best pizza place, but we opted for traditional Bhutanese and went to The Orchid. We were joined by Mindu (from DrukAir, whom we’d corresponded with in the planning of this trip) and her friend, also Rinxin…but a female one. Bhutanese names are unisex! They came laden with gifts from DrukAir – lemon grass room spray, soaps, etc. It was a fun lunch with the ever popular chilli and cheese…much better than pizza.

While at the Kichu Resort in Wangdue, I had dreamt about the painting I’d seen at the Water Dragon Gallery in Thimphu – the gallery we’d visited after our coffee at Karma Coffee, and which I’d earlier said I needed to think about. I figured that dreaming about it was sign enough that I should get it, so back to the gallery it was…but it was closed! Rinxin called the number on the door and after about half an hour, a very well spoken, beautifully turned out young lady arrived, apologising for keeping us waiting. The painting was still there…Rinxin and Namgay looked a bit bemused at why I’d be buying this rather unconventional and minimalist painting of monks…but I loved it and thought it would be a good match for my other minimalist painting of monks by Thep Thavonsouk, the Canadian artist from Luang Prabang. Painting safely in hand, next stop was a little philately and art shop. Here we got the painting properly packed in a roll, and got some bookmarks and cards with the ubiquitous prayer flags.

Then it was back on the road again. Sometime before we reached Paro, I was beginning to feel a bit flu-ey and feverish. Not a good feeling, especially with the impending Tiger’s Nest trek in two days. At the Metta Resort in Paro, we met Shireen, the Malaysian ‘lady boss’ who, while I sipped hot green tea, regaled us with her fascinating life story, and how she ended up in Bhutan, marrying the Bhutanese owner of the Metta – a very dashing Indiana Jones-like character. Shireen had some good advice for us for our trek to Tiger’s Nest – go slow (it’s not a race), stay hydrated, be careful coming down (use our sticks; coming down is hard on the knees), and…book a post-trek hot stone bath and massage!

Metta Resort, Paro

We were both quite tired after the long drive.  Dinner was early-ish – the Metta naan has to be the best I’ve had, just delicious on it’s own, and once you start, you can’t stop. The buffet spread had a few hints of Malaysia/Singapore and was very very yummy. At dinner we met an older German couple who had just been to Tiger’s Nest that day, having arrived from Nepal the day before. They said the stairs (where there were stairs) were steep and took some effort, but added if they did it, we ‘young and fit’ people should have no problem!

That night, I stuffed myself with Vitamin C, Manuka honey, popped some Panadol and Clarityne and prayed I would feel better the next day – Paro Tsechu day.

Earning Karmic Points at the Paro Tsechu

Tuesday 26th March 2013

Metta Resort & Spa, Paro, Bhutan

The medicines worked and I woke up feeling better. We had nasi lemak for breakfast – a special prepared just for us by our fellow Malaysian, the lady boss Shireen!

Breakfast done we were off for the Paro Tsechu. All along the way, we saw Bhutanese, in their Sunday (or tsechu) best, walking towards the Paro Dzong. As we got to Paro town, the crowds thickened and there was an air of palpable festivity. Namgay dropped us off and went to look for parking while we joined the crowds walking uphill towards the very pretty Paro Dzong. Tribal women sold trinkets along the way, and young men had the finishing touches put on their ghos by helpful friends and parents.

We finally got to the open air venue of the festival, having stopped to take many photos of the very good-looking Bhutanese resplendent in their traditional gear. The crowd was already huge and the entire hillside overlooking the central court was dotted with people. We managed to squeeze our way between people who very good-naturedly made space for us…despite there really not being much space at all. There was a Caucasian man in a gho who had set up his tripod in a perfect spot – he must have arrived hours ahead of us!

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We spent most of the morning at the tsechu grounds, just soaking up the sights, smells and sounds – and the colours! There were monks and perhaps some of Bhutan’s privileged lot who had seats in an elevated structure, ‘community police’ (all volunteers we were told) who tried to keep order and who tried to maintain an unobstructed view for the Privileged Ones in Elevated Structure, there was a local jester who mimicked the masked dancers and had a little audience of his own. There were health promotion messages telling people to eat vegetables, stay active and use condoms…all very HPB (Health Promotion Bhutan). We watched the Raksha Mang-Cham, or the dance of the judgement of the dead – those who witness this dance or cham are said to earn karmic brownie points, so we thought we should stay and watch.

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The tsechu would continue all day but we left at around lunch time to visit the Paro Dzong. Once again Rinxin met someone he knew (this happened several times each day) – this time a lawyer in a very smart-looking black gho, and whose office was in the Dzong. At the Dzong we once again encountered that family with the 3 sons, who once again looked enthralled with the story their guide was telling them about some of the murals on the monastery wall.

After lunch, we visited the national museum and then a very impressive burnt (but not quite entirely burnt down) monastery (on a hill, need I say) – as the story goes, a monk left a lamp burning when he and his brethren went for the Paro Tsechu. By the time they returned, the monastery had burned. I thought it was fitting that we visited this monastery on Tsechu day.

By now, my cold was starting up again, and climbing those stairs to the monastery was a bit of a chore. There were more steep slopes and a sheer drop and once again Namgay came to my rescue, and as Shobs said, we waltzed down the slope quite safely.

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On the way to the monastery, there was a point where the Taktsang Monastery (aka Tiger’s Nest) could be seen…far far away and high above from where we were…it was almost in the clouds. It was with some trepidation that we stood there taking photos of the place we were to climb to the next day.

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Driving back, we stopped at one of the oldest monasteries in Paro – one of 108 that were built in a day (or more accurately a night) by King Gampo to subdue an ogress. Each of the 108 monasteries pinned down a particular body part of the ogress. I’m not sure which body part this monastery pinned down.

In the late afternoon, we went back into Paro town. The light was brilliant, everything had a golden glow. Paro town is very picturesque; we walked down the one main street, popping in an out of shops selling shawls, art and antiques, generally feeling happy with the world – not least because everyone had a ready smile and was happy to have their photos taken. I chanced upon a group of young men who were obviously having a smoke and trying to be discreet, in this land which prides itself to be a non-smoking nation – no photos for this lot.

Paro Dzong

The tsechu had ended by this time but a village market was very much open and bustling. Villagers from outside Paro, who had probably travelled for days to get there, were plying their ware. It was crowded, dusty – and still, a lovely light.

It was then back to the Metta and another yummy dinner. My cold was back with a vengeance and I was starting to Really Worry about tomorrow. I must’ve downed half a bottle of Manuka honey and at least 3 grams of Vitamin C, in addition to more Panadol and Clarityne. Shobs suggested I give Tiger’s Nest a miss…WHAAAAATT?? No way I was missing that…a trip to Bhutan without trekking to the Taktsang might as well be declared null and void. With that thought I went to sleep, once again praying to be well enough by morning.

A Penance-Like Pilgrimage & A Magical Moment

Wednesday 26th March 2013

Metta Resort & Spa, Paro, Bhutan

Despite the stuffed nose and the cold I think I slept quite well. At some point in the middle of the night, I woke up and found Shobs peering across at me from her bed. Apparently I’d been breathing noisily all night and had suddenly gone silent…she was quite relieved to find that this was probably because the Clarityne was kicking in and not because of any other more dramatic reasons.

When I eventually woke up that morning, I, once again, felt all right – a result of all the megadoses I’d had of everything the previous night, I’m sure. After an early breakfast (it was just us in the Metta dining room at that early hour), then checking that we had all our gear, it was 7.30AM and time to go. We had booked a hot stone bath and massage for about 4.30PM, and hoped we weren’t being too optimistic to think we’d be back at the Metta by then.

At about 8AM we were at the start of trail, with quite a few others, of various shapes, sizes and nationalities. The tourists were easily identified – they were the ones with hiking poles, Marmot jackets, hiking boots, camera gear…oh wait, I’m describing Shobs and me. The locals, on the other hand, looked like they were going for a walk in the park…there were little old ladies carrying plastic bags (supplies for the monks at the monastery?), wearing flip flops and who nonchalantly strode off at a brisk clip.

The ponies were ready and waiting – but no ponies for us, having read that the ponies tend to walk close to the edge of the path (the edge where the path drops off i.e.!). Besides, my one encounter with pony riding has traumatised me for life –  when I was probably 4 or 5, I went for a pony ride at some fair in London; I would’ve slid completely off the pony were it not for the guide who was literally leaning on me to prop me back up into the saddle (I have an old black-and-white photo somewhere that shows this sliding-off-while-being-propped-up state).

After a few ‘perspective photos’ with the monastery a minuscule speck in the background and with us at the start of the trail (Cue photo caption : “We have to climb to WHERE???”), we were off. Namgay decided to do the hike too and joined the three of us; needless to say he carried my backpack while I concentrated on walking. Rinxin had done this trek 17 times in the last year!!

It wasn’t long before the thin air got us breathing hard.Shobs and I remembered Nelson’s and Mattew’s instructions to exhale forcibly, and we got into some sort of rhythm, walking and breathing. Rinxin and Namgay did a whistling thing on exhaling, which I suppose served the same purpose. There were very regular stops for water and photos. One hour into the hike and the Tatsang still looked impossibly high up and far away.

Today again, we bumped into the family of five whom we’d seen at Changi Airport. The youngest boy was on a pony; the other two boys were effortlessly bounding up the slopes. At one point, while we stopped to catch our breath, we were overtaken by this quite elderly gentleman and his guide. He must have been more than 70. Oh the focus…he was completely ‘in the zone’, concentrating on walking and breathing, as he passed us. Then there was this group of South Asian men, some in lungis, all in chappals, and all looking like they might keel over at any time.

One and a half hours after we started we reached the cafeteria which is known as the ‘mid-point’. By this time we had gotten into the zone too (at least I’d like to think so) and decided we would press on and not stop at the cafè. Things got pretty steep and less defined after this point – much narrower paths which proved to be a challenge especially when we had to share the path with ponies. Shobs almost lost a lens cap when it popped off and rolled off the edge into some bramble-like bushes – Rinxin quite heroically (and unnecessarily) rescued it. There was another heart-stopping moment when Rinxin slipped on some loose gravel.

As we walked through countless vertical switchbacks, we would turn a bend and catch a glimpse of the monastery, each time getting just slightly larger and clearer. We finally reached a rock outcrop with a chaotic mass of prayer flags and where the Tatsang was right across from where we stood. This is the famous point where one gets the first close-up view of the monastery, impossibly built into the mountainside – breathtaking. To get the best shot one has to duck under the prayer flags and stand in touching distance of the edge….which I did (and surprised myself, given my fear of heights). Rinxin was protectively standing right next to us – I guess to make sure we didn’t end up like the Japanese photographer who, overawed by the view, was clicking away and stepped right off the edge, into the chasm, falling to his death.

From where we stood it would have been so easy had there been a bridge across the two peaks so we just could’ve walked across to the monastery. But no, now came the stairs into the gorge. About 850 steep stairs cut into the mountain side, going down, then crossing a little wooden bridge past a waterfall, then up another lot of steep stairs, literally coming up under the monastery. I was so relieved to see there were handrails which are a relatively new addition – I think the trek for me would have ended if there were no handrails; no way I was going down stairs most of which were uneven and many of which were crumbling, if there had not been railings separating me from the chasm which I couldn’t even bring myself to look into. I later thought – if I were to have fallen, I doubt those flimsy railings would have protected me much.

3 hours after we started we arrived at the monastery, which is about 3100m above sea level. As legend has it, Guru Rinpoche flew to this location from Tibet on a tigress’ back (the tigress in a previous form was the Guru’s concubine) in the 8th century. He is said to have meditated in a cave in the mountainside for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours (maybe it was significant that we took 3 hours to get there!). After this period of meditation, the demons of the mountainside were subdued and the Guru spread Buddhism to the Bhutanese. In 1692 a temple complex was built around the cave.

Cameras weren’t allowed inside the temple complex, and we had to check in our gear in a locker room before entering the complex. The monastery is a maze of stairs and prayer rooms. I think it was the second prayer room that we entered – there was a monk in prayer in one corner and surprisingly no one else. It was an incense-filled room with a small window looking out to the mountains on one side. It was quite inexplicable but I entered that room and felt a most overwhelming feeling of happiness, unlike anything I’d felt before. It was a soul-soaring kind of happiness, and in my head I saw what perhaps could be described as a high speed movie reel of the many happy moments in my life, with an especially vivid image of my father smiling at me. It all lasted probably a few seconds; I still don’t know what happened but I felt ‘privileged’ that it did.

Rinxin took us through the maze that was the complex. We peered into the Guru’s Rinpoche’s cave and saw some of the original parts of the monastery that weren’t destroyed by a huge fire in the 1990s. After about an hour of wandering around, it was time for the trek back.

We stopped for a lovely hot lunch at the cafeteria. Signs of my cold were returning but I really didn’t care by now. We stopped at little makeshift stalls selling artefacts but didn’t buy anything, thinking we’d also look at the shops in town tomorrow.

The downhill trek I thought was far easier and we were back where we started in 2 hours. We did make it back to the Metta with plenty of time to spare before our 4.30PM hot stone bath and massage appointment. By the time we were done with that, the cold was getting the better of me, and after an early dinner, I fell into bed and into a dead, but happy, sleep.

What an amazing day. We did it! Rinxin too seemed quite proud of us (probably additionally so as he now knew our age!) and said that he’d taken 5 groups of Singaporean visitors up to Tatsang in the past – they’d either used horse/pony power or had ended their trek at the cafeteria – we were the first to make it up on our own steam! Not bad for 2 oldies 🙂

The Day After Tatsang

Thursday 27th March 2013

Metta Resort & Spa, Paro, Bhutan

We had quite cleverly arranged for ‘The Day After Tatsang’ to be a light day, correctly anticipating that we’d be knackered. We had planned to go into Paro town to check out the souvenir shops and art galleries after an early lunch. Today we slept in – or at least tried to. We were woken up by a Very Loud Indian-accented telephone conversation that sounded like it was happening right outside our door. Shobs finally couldn’t stand it anymore, got out of bed and opened the front door – the rather large Indian man in the room opposite ours was indeed on the phone and he had his room door open. I think Shobs may have intimidated him as he sheepishly waved his apologies and beat a hasty retreat, shutting the door behind him.

We made it for breakfast before 9.30AM and then came back to the room. I promptly went right back to sleep and slept till lunch time. Seeing me so fast asleep, Shobs had called Rinxin to say we’d go out in the afternoon instead. While I was dead to the world, Shobs very kindly set about cleaning our boots, picking out all the sand and gravel from the soles, and then doing some laundry too.

Finally, at about 3PM I felt human enough to get out of bed, get dressed and go out. It was an overcast day today with none of the brilliant light we had had two days ago during the Paro Tsechu. For the first time on this trip, we didn’t carry our cameras with us. We wandered in and out of little shops that sold artefacts, shawls, bracelets and tangkas (none as beautiful as the one Shobs had got at Dochula Pass); Shobs was in search of an incense holder that she’d seen at one of the makeshift stalls at the start of the trek to Tatsang. No luck – none of the shops had it. So what did we do…we drove back to the start of the Tatsang trek. We got there just after 5.30PM and almost all the stalls had closed for the day. On the drive up to ‘base camp’ we saw one of the ladies who had been selling her ware, walking down to the main road, on her way home. A quick conversation later, she jumped in with us and we drove her back the way she had come from, to her stall – everything was opened up again and the aforementioned incense holder was found. I also got a traditional Bhutanese teapot for Sunil, and the lady persuaded us to buy several beaded bracelets as well.

Mission accomplished, it was back into Paro for dinner at a local restaurant – we had our staple ema deshi, rice, veg and a most delicious fried beef. Rinxin and Namgay ate with us and spoke about their homes, how much the average Bhutanese earns (not much) and the fact that most of their meals don’t include meat as this was quite expensive. After dinner we tried withdrawing money from an ATM as we were running low – but no luck, none of our cards worked. We only had one full day left in Bhutan so hoped that we wouldn’t need more cash. Then it was back to the Metta and to sleep.

Haa-Chu Is Not a Sneeze

Friday 28th March 2013

Metta Resort & Spa, Paro, Bhutan

Our last full day in Bhutan, and it was another special day. Today we drove to the Haa district, and the town of Haa, through which the Haa Chuu (River) runs. We drove through the snow-lined Chelela Pass, the highest pass in Bhutan, to get to Haa which borders Tibet. An Indian Military Training Camp occupies a large part of this small town.

For some strange reason (the thin air maybe!) my memories of today are almost dream-like – the hairpin bends to get to Haa, the brilliant blue skies and crystal clear fresh air, the one-street town in which archery shops are as commonplace as 7-11s back home; the health promotion signs exhorting Bhutanese folk to stay safe and protect themselves from HIV; Rinxin buying a string of dried cheese which he declared one of his favourite things, but which Shobs and I didn’t quite ‘get’ as we almost cracked a tooth each biting down on it; Rinxin and Namgay very respectfully bowing as a man walked past us – the leader of the opposition party whom we were told was “a good man”; the little boy who became my new best friend at the tea place, and his grandmother who happily posed for photos; our planned riverside picnic that became a hilltop picnic – which I thought was significant given my earlier view that all things of importance were on hilltops. Rinxin and Namgay outdid themselves with the picnic. At last night’s dinner we had this delicious fried beef and chilly dish – picking up on our enthusiasm for the dish, Rinxin got more of the same for our hilltop picnic. What a good man! And what a lovely way to end our stay – a hilltop picnic, delicious food, the clear skies, the cool air, the quiet…

 

Tomorrow we leave, but I have no doubt I’ll be back to this magical kingdom, with its lovely people and which offered me a supreme sense of peace.

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