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Published: October 25th 2012
As you fly into Bhutan you are quickly reminded that this is a country of mountains. Most of the towns are built in the valleys between the mountains but a few villages are perched high up in the clouds. This country is green and lush due to the many evergreen trees along with a smattering of deciduous trees that are now currently turning soft fall colors. It is such a treat. Not that much snow falls on most of the mountains due to the latitude of Bhutan and the current weather patterns. We are told if you come in April all the spring flowers will be in bloom and it is amazing.
This portion of our voyage brought us to some of the places that many westerners do not have the opportunity to visit, mainly due to time constraints. Travel within this country is exclusively by car on roads that rarely allow speeds above 25 mph (40 kph) due to many curves, uneven pavement and of course the fact that they are extremely narrow. This barely allows two vehicles to pass each other in opposite directions and many times has one of the vehicles partially off the road
Yak it up
Very cool animal
to allow this to happen. Traveling some 160 km in one day will take you seven hours plus.
We noticed that our guide and driver did not wear their seat belts so we asked about seat belt laws. They said they had them for about 3 months and no one would wear them so they cancelled the requirement. Sangey our guide said he didn’t wear one because he wanted an opportunity to be ejected from the car if it went tumbling down the mountain. He did not like the idea of being tied to the car until it hit the bottom of the ravine. Ok, not so re-assuring. More good news!
The mountain roads of Bhutan are in much better shape than the roads in Nepal, at least to this point. There is a caveat to that statement. There is far less traffic on the roads so even when they are narrow you often have the road to yourself. In Nepal, there was a steady stream of traffic flying in both directions and it was nerve wrecking. They do have some major repairs that are needed in some locations but we saw cranes and
backhoes, so it gives one the impression they are actually going to do some repairs……someday.
We learned that all of the road workers are brought in from India. The Bhutanese are not doing this hard labor. The Indian road workers are being paid $120 a month. They used to pay them in rice and other staples but that changed in recent years. We did pass several camps in the mountains where the road crews were living and working.
And so, we set off and traveled over mountain passes to see the towns of Punakha, Phobjika, Trongsa and Bumthang.
As we explored each one we found it prettier than the last. Each has things in common such as hotels, general stores and medicine shops, but they have a distinct personality.
In Punakha we hiked 45 minutes to the Temple of the Mind, Body and Speech. We ascended to the very top of the temple and were rewarded. It has one of the more outstanding views we have experienced in our lives. A river weaves through the floor of the valley, surrounded by amazing mountains and puffy white clouds. We stood atop the
a serene setting
shrine in awe and wonder. Truly this is an amazingly beautiful country.
Our favorite dzong sits on the riverbank in Punakha. They are all so uniquely different from the outside. This one sits at the confluence of two rivers. Actually, Punakha had two dzongs but one of the caught on fire and nearly burnt down in June of this year. When you build a dzong in the 17th
century up on hill that is not easy to reach and without modern water pumping technology, a fire can be disastrous, and this one was. The locals were crushed by the fire, but renovation of this most sacred edifice will happen.
Also in Punakha we toured the temple and watched the young monks study and chant the mantras.
Another half-day drive took us to Phobjika. This area is known at the Phobjika Valley or Gantey Valley. Several local people told us not to leave Bhutan without seeing this area. This valley is most famous for being the winter home to more than 100 black neck cranes that migrate from Tibet for the winter. When you stop and think about this, the distance is
not so great, but they fly over the Himalayas, which are the tallest chain in the world. Sadly, we didn’t see any. They start their trek in mid-November and stay until March. While visiting the black-necked crane nature center we did watch an excellent video that told us more about these creatures and they would be fascinating to see. We are told they are on the endangered species list as there are only 800 remaining in the world.
As we drive the mountain roads we have enjoyed seeing yaks as we had only seen them in a zoo up to this point.
We ventured out and stood in the valley and slowly turned 360 degrees, taking in the beauty. It makes sense that the cranes would love this isolated area. Not to mention the fact that this area has all kind of roots and grubs for them to feed on. There are also no predators making their lives complicated. So they have a beautiful and safe place with lots to eat. Cool deal for them.
Trongsa provided us yet another unique town and dzong. We stopped to take in an archery contest briefly. Archery is
A study in concentration.
the national sport here and it is impressive when you consider the targets are some 150 meters ( 487 ft.) away and the idea is to hit them with an arrow.
The Trongsa dzong did not disappoint. Its architecture was unique as they all are. Its location next to the river and hundreds of marigolds in bloom was quite a site. Trongsa is important from a historical perspective as well and the governor is usually the son of the king (or in this case, the father of the king as his son has yet to bear children).
Our last stop was Bumthang where we struck the mother lode. We arrived by chance in time for their annual festival, which includes the monks performing the famous “mask dance.” Each dance can take hours and has a specific purpose. We witnessed the mask dance that drives off the evil spirits. It was impressive. The dzong was overflowing with locals and tourists alike, all taking in the ritual dance. The festival goes on for three days and that my friends, is a lot of dancing.
Some other observations is how clean everything is in
this tiny nation. Most people are not wealthy, but they generally take pride in keeping the place clean. A most welcome sight after Nepal. We see little garbage along the roadways. We actually saw a garbage truck one day and both looked at each other. We didn’t expect to see that here. The rivers are clean and the minerals from the mountains make the waters a soft green color that is beautiful. Hydroelectric power is one the main source of income for this tiny nation. They currently have 4 power plants and are building 5 more, thanks in part to a partnership with neighboring India.
We had some great questions after the publication of our first Bhutan blog, so we have a few additional comments.
Gross National Happiness may be a great marketing ploy but it seems to have taken hold because many of the locals will talk with you about it. This is a small and isolated country that has work to do to make a better life for the residents but they seem to have identified a short list of important things to start work on and are ticking those
items off the list. Bhutan “appears” to be doing better than many of the countries we have visited. It would take an extended stay to know that for sure.
It is our belief that in any country that has a King there is a lot of financial waste to support the royal family but we do think our tourist dollars are also being funneled into things that will make and better and safer life for the residents of this isolated mountain country.
We believe for a county to improve they must be able to articulate a plan and Bhutan has that identified. They are focused on a holistic development of the individual and society. Bhutan is seeking a sustainable balance between the economic, social, emotional, spiritual and cultural needs. The people we have encountered have a glint in their eye.
We have talked with many locals in the towns and villages and they truly “seem” content. Who can say for sure ? The people are clean and have smiles on their faces and we didn’t see much of that in Nepal. In Nepal, many people told us they believed their government
was corrupt. The people we met in Nepal lacked hope for the future.
The government pays for education, medical care and assist in many other ways. They provide the mountain people with cows and basic needs.
Lots of work remains but the physicians at the hospital were happy with the money that has been invested in the hospital. They have a new wing that is less than 3 years old. They have a new MRI and CT scanner. The nursing superintendent is a neo-natologists and he is working to educate women on pre-natal care in hopes to decrease the infant mortality rate. It seems as if a genuine effort is being made to improve the health of local citizens.
Residents seem to love the King and his new bride. The King has a 5-year plan to improve the roads and a 3-year plan to improve telecommunications and the internet. They may have been sold a bill of goods, but from outward appearances they are content with all that is going on. This nation has made many leaps forward in the past ten years. Remember that this was a very isolated place
(by choice) for many centuries.
A fellow travel blogger mentioned that the government requires the residents of Bhutan to wear the National dress. We can confirm this. They are required to wear the traditional dress while in public. Many seem proud to have a national dress and ask us what we think of it. This national dress started in the 7th
century so it is rich in history and tradition. We find the people to be very proud of their country and traditions. I’m sure many would rather wear jeans and many do once they are at home. On the up side the national dress has some really cool pockets and allows them to carry many things. Places we stayed:
Punakha = Hotel Phunsum
Phobjika = Gakiling Guest house
Trongsa = Tashi ninjay G House
Bumthang = Swiss G House
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