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Published: October 22nd 2012
Tashi Delek:A wonderful saying which means many nice things in Bhutan but mainly best wishes and good luck.
We fly to Paro (the only international airport in Bhutan as this is the only valley big enough to accommodate one!) from Kathmandu at about 4pm. C ensconces herself merrily in Business Class while M goes cattle class due to some mix up by the booking agency (that or a scam by the Druk Air team to extract $50 for M to upgrade which he refuses to do). The only difference really is the quality of the cutlery, a glass of wine and bigger seats. The flight in is quite short but packed with awesome views of the 3 highest peaks of the Himalaya. Unfortunately we are both on the right hand side of the plane and the views are on the left but we get glimpses through our neighbour’s windows.
Coming in to land is pretty fabulous as you go into a deep valley, with lush rice fields all around and roof tops with red & green chillies drying out to make the national dish Ema Datse. We the exit the plane to a very elegantly decorated airport
– the prettiest in the world we’ve seen – very Bhutanese style architecture. Beats Heathrow hands down!!
We start and end our visit here. We are met by Choki (guide) and Jamba (driver) and taken to our hotel on the outskirts of Paro – the Gangtey Palace. It’s absolutely beautiful – very ornately decorated and with lovely carved wooden doors and windows that are hand painted. A building with a lot of history now owned by a family from Sikkim. It only gets better as we are taken to our room – despite the 3 flights of very steep stairs. We have the King’s room (301 if you plan to visit) – used by kings, governors and royalty in the past. It is sumptuously furnished and has amazing views of Paro Dzong which is lit up at night. A great start.
Dinner and breakfast don’t quite live up to the splendour of the place – buffet style with bland western food until Choki orders us some Ema Datse – chillies cooked in cheese –which is really good and just a bit pokey! C also tries the local beer – Druk 11000 – pretty good
she says (M is on antibiotics for a chest infection so has a few dry days).
On returning to Paro for our final 2 days, we are put up in the Tashi Namgay Resort, by the river opposite the airport. It’s pretty swish – about 4 star and expensive. Dinner was ok after they found some Ema Datse but they couldn’t run to a cold beer! Breakfast was also poor! They did however, provide us with bottles of drinking water free (shock!!) in the room and had cable so M could watch the 20/20 World Cup Final which West Indies won.
We spend some time exploring old and new Paro town which is pretty fascinating – a living example of how old and new Bhutan might look like in the future. The old town is lovely and has charm, history & character, while the new town - a block apart is built in concrete and seems sterile and soulless.
The shops are generally small and packed with whatever goods they are selling. A lot of stuff comes in from India. Every so often you get a waft of dried fish or drying meat from the butchers shop
– they slice it up out back (surrounded by drooling dogs) and hang the strips outside the shops and houses to dry.
For our final night we go with Choki & Jamba for dinner at Yue-Ling in town and have a great meal though the beers were pretty expensive – 200Nu each – more than some of the hotels!! So beware – by some cold beers from the local shop for about 50Nu and take it to the hotel to polish off before going for dinner if you want to save some money.
For our final morning, before our afternoon flight back to Kathmandu, we visit Paro Dzong (which is being renovated). When we first arrived in Bhutan this seemed very impressive, however, having seen Punakha and Trongsa Dzongs since, we now realise it is really quite modest. As with the other Dzongs, half is given over to local administration and half is a monastery. The watchtower above however, is closed since an earthquake damaged it exactly a year ago.
Our final morning finishes with a very unmemorable lunch at Travellers restaurant in Paro before we bid farewell to our “minders” and get the flight out to
Kathmandu (this time sitting on the correct side of the plane and enjoying the views of Everest etc).
On our second day we drive to Thimpu - the capital of Bhutan where 15%!o(MISSING)f the population live and most have migrated from the East. We stay at the Taktshang Hotel. It has the upside of being in the centre of town but is really pretty basic, and obviously just finished being refurbished – the smell of varnish drying is everywhere. The staff are really attentive and ensure that we have everything we need. Ugyen Tshomo is the manager (we think - at least she pretty much seems to run the place) and Norzam takes care of us in the restaurant.
The highlight of our visit to Thimpu is the local Tsechu (festival). It’s the reason for us being here at this time. It is beyond what we’d imagined. Not least because all the local folks turn out in the finest garb – the Gho for men (a long quilted jacket folded in a very precise way, which must be hot as hell in the heat of the day - 28 degrees), and Kira for
women (a long length of fabric folded around the body to make a skirt held up with a wide belt and with a short jacket on top – all beautiful colours and designs). M has to borrow one of Choki’s shits for the 2nd
day as the officials won’t let him without a collared shirt! We spend 2 days at the Festival and the crowds increase by the day.
The main feature of the festival is traditional dancing and singing by local folks and monks in costumes that are colourful and elaborate in the Dzong square. We both take hundreds of photos as the dancers swirl around – and equally as many of the local folk in all their finery. The kids and older folk in particular have faces designed for amazing photos.
We also visit Tango monastery, just outside Thimpu. This is essentially a higher University for monks and the temple inside is beautiful. Around the walls are a 1000 Buddha’s and the inner temple has images of Buddha and Guru Ringpoche (the 2nd Buddha in Bhutan). Unfortunately, in Bhutan, unlike Nepal, you can’t take photos in the temples. We see a Barking Deer which is quite
tame here (though normally shy & easily frightened) because of the care and attention of the monks.
On our way back from the Trek we stop off in Thimpu to visit the Post Office to see the amazing collection of stamps Bhutan has produced over the years – there are stamps of Einstein, of the England football team (God knows why?) and even stamps of Gazza with the blonde hairdo!! Whatever next?
Then off to the weekend market which lasts from Thursday evening to Sunday. It’s pretty big, very clean, organised and impressive. The market on one side of the river is for food – vegetables, fruit, spices, rice, some dried meat & fish etc and the other side(crossed by a very colourful bridge decked with prayer flags) is for clothes and crafts. We are surprised by how many things on sale here are imported from India.
We have lunch at the Bhutan Kitchen and meet Tashi – the owner of Yana Expeditions. He’s quite impressive and we have a wide ranging discussion on the challenges facing Bhutan and he seems to share our concerns for his country due to uncontrolled growth and the erosion of the
Bhutanese way of life.
It’s off to the Changangkha Lhakhang Temple for a brief visit where we see a young boy aged about 7years old sitting centre stage eating rice from his small bowl with his thumb, in the main hall flanked by 2 elderly monks. We were informed that he was one of many reincarnations of Guru Rinpoche in Bhutan. We did wonder about his life in Monastic solitude.
And then the surprise package of the day – The National Memorial Chorten which is a very large Chorten built by the mother of the 3rd
King in his memory. It has a temple inside on three levels and we enter just when the monks are in the middle of a colourful ritual and prayer session which involves them reciting prayers and playing the traditional horns, trumpets, drums etc – all very musical and finishing off with a procession in traditional Buddhist regalia (Yellow & Red ceremonial headgear) All the time throngs of locals are worshipping outside by moving clockwise around the Chorten/Stupa. It’s a photographer’s delight.
Finally we make our way to a massive statue of the Buddha being finished off by Chinese engineers,
on a hill overlooking the city. It has been about 5 years in the making and must be finished this year. The size of the Thimpu sprawl becomes apparent from the hill.
We drive the next 1.5 hours to Paro for our last 2 nights in Bhutan
The road to Trongsa is long (7 hours) and windy – and bumpy as hell, thanks to all the road works and heavy trucks for the hydroelectric construction project (Bhutan sells electricity to India which is its main income generator). The upside of the journey though is you get to see plenty of the countryside – mainly forest and rice paddies – and villages.
A “feature” of houses here is the drawings on the outside – usually animals to ward off demons but also the occasional flying or ribbon wrapped penis. Apparently it’s a product of a guru called “the Divine Madman” who used his to ward off evil demons and to promote fertility!!
En route we go through two high passes – first Dochula, which has a mound with 108 stupa’s on (built to celebrate victory over Indian insurgents from Assam about 10 years
ago) and great views (on a clear day) of the eastern high Himalaya, and the second Pele la – which is marked by a stupa in the middle of the road which cars go around 3 times for luck!! It has lots of prayer flags on the hill side.
We also discover what the “picnic” referred to in our trip notes means. Two chairs, one table, tablecloth, cutlery, plates, serviettes, and a full hot cooked meal served by the trip guide and driver!! And honestly that’s what happens every time we have a picnic lunch. You get used to folk laughing at you!
Trongsa itself used to be the capital of Bhutan – it’s a small attractive town dominated by a huge Dzong that we visit on our way back from the trek. Dzongs have 2 functions – local administration and also as a monastery. They are generally large white stone buildings with red upper walls and roofs of gold and yellow to denote a temple. Inside are lots of courtyards, offices, monk’s quarters and a temple – all elaborately decorated in the local style. Amazing places and so photogenic with the monks.
We also visit the
Watchtower – overlooking the town up many, many steps it is now a museum of the history of Bhutan, its Buddhism and Royal heritage – shown with exhibits and a very good, short video show. And after even more steps you get fantastic views over the town and countryside – but as they won’t allow cameras in, we have to just enjoy the sights.
We are staying at the Yangkhil Resort just outside town which is pretty decent. Nice rooms, great service (other than not telling us about the leeches before we went on the trek!), lovely views of the Dzong and Watchtower and not bad food. Most of the hotels we stay at have buffet service with rice, noodles, a meat curry, veg dishes, (some paste for the for the faint hearted) and side portions of Ema Datse. Here they do it well. Oh, and the beer is cheap!!
On our way back from Trongsa to Punaka we unexpectedly have our final picnic at the most unique spot – The Chendebji Chorten a large stupa in the Nepalese style based on the style of Swambhunath in Kathmandu. We’ll remember this spot forever.
normal;">The Nabji trail – the land of beautiful butterflies, golden langurs, landslides ..............and leeches!
The trek starts with a 4 hr (rather than the usual 2 hr) drive from the Trongsa Hotel to the start point at Riotola, thanks to the appalling state of the roads. From here we set off like Livingston with a party of Trip guide, 2 cooks (Dorje and Passa), and 9 porters – mainly women, and the driver who volunteered to come as he had never been. This was a great surprise to us as we were told there would be only 2 porters as no Yaks or horses could be used. The weather is warm but feels hotter due to the humidity, so it’s time to sweat profusely & lose some pounds (in more ways than one we find out) – one way to lose weight we suppose.
We climb down over land slipped roads. Post picnic lunch by the swing bridge – still with table, chairs, serviettes and a cooked meal! - It’s uphill to Nimshong village. We see some amazing Golden Langurs and a variety of the most beautiful butterflies of all sizes and colours we have never seen anywhere
else. The campsite on the edge of the village is basic but ok. The camping equipment is pretty good & comfortable. The cooks come up trumps with some good Bhutanese food. However, we find there is no interaction with the community which is what this trip is supposed to be all about. Local lazy dogs do their thing at night trying to out howl each other till frightened off by M with sticks and stones. The evenings event with locals dancing etc does not happen & we are not told why?!
Next day we have 10 porters as one of the women complained about her heavy load. They get paid just under $3 US for their effort – agreed by the Travel Association of Bhutan - ridiculous when you consider how much we pay per day to visit Bhutan. We set off for what can only be described as an eventful cross country challenge as we traverse (as do the porters with their heavy loads and oversized flip flops!) about 6 land slide areas where the trail has disappeared!! However, everyone managed it across to the next village – Nabji.
We camp for 2 nights here. The facilities
aren’t bad though this is a relative concept! We do a day trip to neighbouring village, Korphu, via the temple in Nabji which is famous for the stone pillar that has the handprints of the Guru Ringpoche and two local rulers who swore a peace pact. We take a short cut through rice fields which are lethally slippy –yet local folk skip along them. Korphu also has a temple with artefacts but our trip guide forgot to tell us about them! Again no interaction with the communities or locals.
Next day is the day from hell!! We head to the small (3 houses!) settlement of Kubdra. A short walk from Nabji we have to wade across the river as the bridge has collapsed - this is the best bit. The water is cool and clean. But then it starts to rain and we discover that this is leech territory. C thought her thick socks would deter the little blighters but oh no – they just burrow through till they find skin and blood. Gross! When we get to Kubdra humour failure abounds and C is seriously questioning her choice of 50th
birthday celebration trip!! After picking off the leeches
and cleaning up the blood we spend a “happy” couple of hours “smoking” ourselves by a huge campfire to dry out! And then we find out that we have an additional days trekking that we had “lost” in our calculations. It just gets better!
Our lost day turns out to be a highlight. We head to Janbi – home of the Monpa people, ex nomads who were given citizenship to settle and grants to build homes. Along the route we meet a local family travelling with chicken, chick – kept safe in mums jumper, kids, dog and kitten. No idea where they were going but they were very happy to be photographed. Then as we got nearer to the village we heard drums and trumpets. We thought it was a welcoming ceremony – in fact it was a cremation ceremony on the path we were due to follow. A short detour and we did in fact get a welcoming ceremony from a group of women who brought food and local corn based alcohol (Arra) which we tried but resisted more of (it was the sort of brew you needed a proper bathroom for!).
The campsite (like the rest
well away from the village) is being renovated and local folk are weaving bamboo to replace the roof of the covered seating area. The toilets were blocked with rubble. We hear exuberant talking and discover that our trip guide has partaken of the local brew and is now very pissed! After another great dinner courtesy of the cooks who do wonders with limited facilities (though by this stage we’ve stopped eating the meat dishes as they smell a bit pungent as the meat has travelled from Thimphu through the heat & humidity!!). We are serenaded by the guide snoring, we are surprised to receive a delegation of local women with an amazing offering of vegetables and fruit and 5 (there are only 2 of us!) bottles of local brew! Without our trip leader to guide us we’re a bit nonplussed – as are the women, but the cooks put on some tea and soon has us all dancing and singing traditional Butanese songs. Although they get paid by the company for doing this, it’s a great way to finish our trek.
And so the last day of the trek, a short walk down to the river and back up
to the road. The cook decides to smuggle a load of wild orchids from the forest to take home. So much for sustainability and the Bhutanese vision of being at one with nature and preserving it!! We stop for an early lunch and a beer to celebrate (when the guide who clearly can’t hold his booze gets pissed again and sleeps off on the journey back to the hotel). It’s back back to Trongsa to delouse, do some washing and enjoy a little bit of comfort.
Overall our view is that the Trail is poorly managed and co-ordinated and does not deliver on the vision it sets out in the brochures. So travellers beware – it is poor value for the money they charge and we’d not recommend this trek.
We start the day with a cold shower as the hot water in the hotel doesn’t work. Punatsangchhu Cottages in Wangdue where we stay is a real disappointment, despite its location by the river. It’s expensive & won’t allow the guides to eat with their clients. We are not sure how they got a 4 star rating on Trip Advisor, not sure they warrant
more than 2!! The staff (aside from the surly and most unwelcoming looking woman owner) are really helpful though – it’s only redeeming feature. The place even charges for Skype here (a first in our worldwide travels – though internet is free!!)
After an underwhelming breakfast we are off to visit a modern constructed Khamsum Yuelay Namgyal Chortenwhich is 45 mins drive away and a 45 min hike up a hill. Despite being relatively new (built for the Crown Prince before he became King in 2008) it’s an impressive temple on 5 levels. At the top we get amazing views over the valley.
After the walk it’s time to visit the big one – The Punakha Dzong which is considered to be the biggest and the most beautiful. Right on both counts in our view. Built (or should we say rebuilt) on the confluence of 2 rivers (down which Bhutan’s White Water rafting takes place in Summer – a grade 3 we think), it stands majestically. It has 3 blocks and central courtyards and the most beautifully decorated windows, doors and facades. The main Temple is a knock out with large statues of the Buddha (here
for once centre stage), flanked by statues of Guru Rinpoche (who in Butan normally gets the central spot) and the Tibetan Monk – Shabdrung - who is credited with unifying Bhutan and building the Dzongs.
Lunch is a lovely Bhutanese affair in a local restaurant. Followed by a walk down the terraced rice fields to the Temple of the “Divine Madman (or Mad Monk)” depending on which guide you listen to. The Bhutanese in this part of the country are pre occupation with Phallic symbols painted on their homes/properties – which is credited to the Divine Madman. They are considered as symbols to ward off evil spirits and a sign of fertility – many people visit from around the globe to get a blessing for a child in the temple.
The stories of The Divine Madman (he was from Tibet) make interesting folklore – he seems to have broken all the rules, was anti-establishment, taught Buddhism to young people in unorthodox ways, fornicated with many women including his mother, drank a lot and encouraged drinking etc etc. Yet he is recognised for having great powers & being a true Guru especially in western Bhutan – he never did
go to the east so is hardly known there. The place is also a school for young monks who we find learning their teachings by rote.
We call it a day early (3pm) to catch up with emails etc and have some tea. M goes to watch the 2nd
semi-final of the 20/20 Cricket World Cup as we have cable TV in the room, while C does some research on the net.
Next morning we head back to Paro via Thimpu (details on both above).
Tiger’s Nest Monastery
Saving the best for last, on our final full day we set off for “the big one” – a hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The trail up is relatively gentle with sights of the monastery all the way – which means hundreds of pics!. There are 2 key viewpoints – one about an hour up where there is a cafeteria where folks stop for tea and a comfort break, and the second a further hour away which is much closer to the Monastery. There are a few stupas etc to provide some distraction from the climb. You can hire a horse to take you all
the way for 600Nu ($12). We only saw one couple take up this option.
Once at the second view point (which is the one where all the pics seen on adverts for Bhutan are taken from) there is a steepish decent and then an equally steep ascent to get to the entry to the Monastery where you need to be suitably dressed (shirts a minimum and not showing any leg) to be allowed to enter. We have to leave cameras and bags at a store area.
Then on to view the 3 temples where you remove your shoes before you enter. The stories are the same regarding the history, stories & religious significance of the place. Guru Rinpoche came here on a flaming tiger that was his consort and defeated the demon spirits that plagued the local people. The Tiger’s Nest is the cave in the middle of the Monastery in which his consort as a tiger lived & the place is named after this.
The Monastery has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt twice. The latest restoration after a fire in 1998 was completed in 2000. So what you see is quite modern. However, the place
is pretty impressive and quite superb and you can’t stop yourself taking many pictures of it from all angles.
We finish off with lunch back at the cafeteria (where we exchange email details with Massa a Eco Tourism Consultant from Mt Fuji in Japan who we hope will help us on our trip to his country and Sikkim where he has contacts). Most if not all of the other visitors eat here.
En route to town, we get the opportunity to see the national sport in practice; a group of local men (22 in all) having an archery competition. Traditionally the bows are made of bamboo but now they import sophisticated ones from the US. They cost a fortune (60,000 Nu typically) but even rural households have them. When an archer hits the target they get a colourful sash to wear and their entire team dance and sing a song.
The currency is called Nu which is pegged to the Indian Rupee. 1$US = 52Nu, £1 = 85 Nu, Beer – Druk 11000 – 60Nu in a local shop; about 200 Nu in a hotel. Water – 15Nu cold in a local
shop; 30 to 40Nu (just under a $1 per meal extra) in a Hotel or restaurant which is a nerve given the cost of the all-inclusive deal foreigners must have so we reckon water is a basic need which should be included.
Ensure you get a morning flight in and an evening flight out to get value for your buck as they will charge the full tax irrespective of what % of a day you are in Bhutan.
Bring ear plugs if you are staying in the centre of a city or town or the dogs will keep you up at night.
Check before you buy mementos from the local crafts shops – most of the products are imported via Nepal from Tibet & are cheaper in Kathmandu. Woven goods and Thangka’s (canvas paintings) are authentic.
Unfortunately independent travel is not permitted – everything is regulated including flights in & out via Druk Airways, the national carrier (the only way to get your visa as well)!! All travel is then via a local agent and is on an all-inclusive basis for which you pay $250 per day if in a group or $280 per day each
if 2 or less!!
We think this is definitely excessive if you are on a trek and it’s debateable if it represents value for money from our experience as some of the hotels are not up to par and the food in some of these establishments pretty awful for the cost, even allowing for the fact that $65 of the Tax is taken by the government for providing local people free Health & Education.
Food & Drink
Bhutanese food is heavily influenced by Indian and Chinese cooking. The national dish if one could call it that is Ema Datse – a chillies and cheese dish served at all meals with rice. Red rice is a speciality and has a great taste. Meat is rarely eaten by the locals – only on special occasions. So if you like Indian and Chinese food you will love Bhutanese cuisine.
Bhutan is a mountainous with roads that wind their way around the country. It is opening up to tourism more, however, does not have the infrastructure to adequately cope. Most roads are worn (like dirt tracks rather than tarmac) and riddled with holes/craters which
makes travel a challenge. The country looks like a massive building project in progress as they are widening roads and building hydroelectric dams. To add to the chaos the main road across the country (and there is only one) is used by grazing cattle, horses and goats – all pretty chilled out. The Truck drivers add to the fun by stopping to chat while passing each other (or pass on traffic news?) disregarding all other road users. On the other hand they can be very polite and move aside to let faster traffic through. Some roads are not designed to allow two vehicular traffic but manage it!
We saw very few motor bikes – most of them in Thimpu and then again in the area beyond Trongsa.
One feature of Bhutan is the number of stray dogs there are in the cities, towns and villages who seem to sleep anywhere (regardless of traffic, people etc) and make a point of howling at night for no earthly reason. The problem has been recognised by the powers that be and a whole sale neutering programme is under way.
Bhutan has a significant partnership with India which provides all its
oil via India Oil. Petrol/Diesel is subsidised and cost about a $US per litre. Its largest export earner is the sale of hydroelectric power to India. Every river is dammed. India provides a significant number of migrant workers from Bihar & has done so for years. They earn about $3 or 4 US a day – 3 times what they would get in India. They work mainly in the construction industry.
The other main player is China which shares its border and only recently took about 42,000 sq metres of disputed land away from Bhutan. Relationships are currently easier. There is a healthy illegal trade with China overland via Tibet into Bhutan.
The next income generator is tourism. Last year they had 38,000 visitors (some say 70% of these were Indian who don’t pay the $250 per day tax for foreign visitors). The population is 700,000 most of whom are rural dwellers in the Eastern provinces where there is little or no roads or infrastructure. The western sector is the most developed with Paro, Thimpu (the capital) and Punaka. We also notice that especially in Thimpu there are a number of women guides unlike Nepal where the guides
are all men.
Apparently, the government paid McKinsey’s $8.1m last year (4 years tourism income we estiate) to advise on its future strategy and their advice was they should target 300,000 tourists p.a. They adjusted this down to 100,000 when the Tourist Association pointed out they hadn’t the hotel, people or infrastructure capacity to deal with this volume of visitors! In fact it will take them some years until the roads are good enough for even 50,000 visitors.
Tobacco and its products are frowned on in Bhutan (very few people smoke openly at least), though alcohol abuse presents more of a challenge and drink driving a major concern.
Culturally and religiously Bhutanese are Buddhist and a complex history with a mix of divine philosophies, religious concepts, mythical deities, tantric magicians and exotic stories weaved together to provide a lot of colour and pageants which make Bhutan somewhat unique. It is the last remaining Buddhist country in the world.
Its history, cultural and religious evolution is linked to India and Tibet – though the Dalai Lama is not a key figure here as they follow a different strand of Buddhism. The key figures are Guru Rinpoche (from
India) and the Tibetan monk Shabdrung.
The average wage in the civil service is about $200 per month and a bit more in the private sector. Rural people (the majority) are largely subsistence farmers & earn very little. Health and Education are free for the people. Though the 4th
King abdicated in 2004, he is held in very high esteem as is the monarchy despite this being a democracy. The concept of Happiness being a Gross National product is taken seriously and people are generally very polite and friendly. They have an annual population survey of 75 questions to monitor progress.
Bhutan tries (against the odds it seems to us) to preserve it’s environmental credentials. There are many recycling points for glass, plastics etc near small market shed provided by the road sides at frequent intervals for local farmers to sell their produce – however, the signs are that sustainable development and tourism have given into the quest for money ( not a new story for emerging tourist centres around the globe). There are examples of uncontrolled development, waste of limited resources and it’s difficult for people on the survival threshold to worry about sustainability. What seems to
keep the peace is the Buddhist philosophy at the heart of the countries values; however, these appear to being eroded amongst the young who aspire to a more western life style.
Bhutan is at the cross roads in many ways and it seems to us that they risk killing the goose that laid the golden egg by not managing change adequately and trying to get foreigners to pay for poor services, despite the charm of the country.
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