Gross National Happiness

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August 24th 2018
Published: October 5th 2018
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I dragged myself out of bed at 15 minutes past midnight grabbed my suitcase and headed downstairs to the cab rank, 20 minutes later I was in the queue to check in, for some reason I couldn't do it online. There were hundreds of people lined up and after standing in that line for almost an hour I was becoming a tad concerned, then I heard Kathmandu yelled out I made my way past all the other cattle to the check in counter, ten minutes after that I had exchanged money and was patiently waiting at gate six. Half an hour later I was on the bus to the plane, row two aisle seat is my preference and I settled in to watch a few episodes of the Vampire Diaries.

I arrived in Kathmandu for the second time in two months at 830am and headed for the transit desk expecting to be issued a boarding pass and escorted to departures, I should have known better the Nepali capitals airport is probably the world's most inefficient and as a result most frustrating. Two hours and an unnecessary transit visa later I was sitting in departures waiting for the boarding call for my Druk (Dragon) Air flight which came much earlier than I expected, we were soon in the air in a mostly empty aircraft everyone scrambling for window seats, well almost everyone I will get a window seat on the way out.

My first thoughts of Bhutan are positive, the Airport at Paro is in a beautiful valley and the Airport itself has much character and is efficient, so I was outside waiting for my guide a full hour before the plane was supposed to arrive. As I stood there inserting a local SIM in my phone a guide approached me asked what company I was travelling with and then called them, a very good sign. Bhutan has chosen to limit the number of tourists who come here and as a result they are expert at providing value for money and great service, for once I won't have to lift a finger or worry about being ripped off, why would anyone go to Nepal when they can come here.

My driver and guide arrived a short time later, they were very embarrassed that I had to wait, both have fluent English and are good fun. I paid 1600 USD for eight days everything included (except beer) to the Bhutan government who only pay the travel company if they deliver. Paro is 90 minutes from Thimpu so the guys dosed me with butter tea then took me to the small National museum, the impressive fortress which is also an active monastery and a watchtower circa 1630 before visiting two really cool old bridges.

We then drove to the capital Thimpu, much building is going on as the small capital expands, my hotel sits on the main square and is much better than I expected, in fact my big double has everything, but air conditioning and the restaurant served a huge very good meal. Tomorrow I spend the day seeing the sights of the capital, I am exhausted three hours sleep in two days doesn’t cut it.

My room has a view of the surrounding mountains but a few mossies sabotaged my sleep, breakfast was not very exciting so I requested a cheese omelette which was fine. First stop of the morning was Gongzur Chorten built as a memorial for the Third Wangchuck king the father of modern Bhutan, the citizens of Thimpu leave their elderly here during the day to socialise and pray.

Next was the world’s largest sitting Buddha which is located on a mountainside on the Western side of the Wang Chu river. The Buddha was made in China around 2006 and was transported in pieces via India to Bhutan, inside there will eventually be 125,000 statues of the Buddha Dordenma. My sneaky guide suggested we take a “very short easy” hike up and around the mountain behind the Buddha, just a leisurely walk he said, and it was a nice walk, but did I struggle, the altitude and my poor fitness level did me no favours. Next was the National Postal museum where I had them create a sheet of personalised stamps before checking out the farmers market most of the produce you would see anywhere but there was some strange weird tasting fungus.

The 500 year old TashiChho Dzong otherwise known as the Fortress of Splendid Religion was certainly a highlight and has the golden throne of the dragon King, some public buildings and a working monastery within its walls. The king’s palace and the House of Assembly was within walking distance, as was the restaurant we visited for lunch. Next was Simply Bhutan a living cultural museum where I tried a few cups of the local rice wine then I shot some arrows at a target, when I hit on my third attempt the crowd went wild.

The Tarkin reserve was next, the Third king closed the Zoo as it wasn't in keeping with Bhutan's environmental policy so all animals were released into the wild but a few including all the tarkin which is a strange looking high altitude dwelling goat like creature decided to stay in town and were wandering the streets digging in bins, so they had to be rounded up and returned to the reserve with the odd samba, a ghoral, a barking dear and serow.

We visited one more temple before heading to the craft market where I purchased one or two items then headed back to the hotel. I chilled for a few hours then went looking for dinner, I didn't get far as on the square is a trendy cafe that was as good as any anywhere, it had good food, good music and great service. The fungi pizza was excellent, and I tried two more beers, the Druk supreme which is a clear and crisp premium lager and a Red Panda which is a yeasty beer that tastes like my dad's home brew.

Departing Timphu the town with no traffic lights we made our way to the 3150m Dochulaa pass unfortunately it was cloudy so I couldn't see the snow-capped peaks. There are 108 Stupas here built to remember the 12 soldiers who fell when the Royal Bhutan army attacked and destroyed some anti-Indian militants hiding on its territory. Opposite the Stupa is the Druk Wangyei Lhakhang aka the Victory temple.

We continued our journey to Punakha Valley stopping to visit the Chime Lhakhang (fertility temple) trekking through a rice paddy in severe heat, the temple is five centuries old and has an entourage of child monks. From here we travelled mountain roads prone to landslides which was a little unnerving especially when we navigated around a chunk of highway that wasn't there anymore. Stunning scenery everywhere I looked.

Finally, we arrived in the Phobjika valley were we visited the Crane Observation centre, I watched a video about the conservation of the Black Neck Cranes that nest in the valley during the winter months. They had one injured crane in captivity, she was beautiful but had a damaged wing, I donated some funds and purchased a t-shirt. The hotel was on the edge of the farm village and was again top notch the Bhutanese know how to set up and run a hotel, the views across the valley from the bar were superb.

That evening we went to the home of some potato farmers for a traditional dinner, I had cheese and potatoes which were great and drank too much rice wine before heading back to my fine room to sleep.

The day began with a mild hang over, a poor breakfast and another two hour four kilometre hike across the valley floor and up through forested hills to the Gangtey goemba, one section was particularly steep near the end. The monastery is undergoing significant renovation, but the temple was extremely colourful.

The two hour drive back down the valley to Punakha the old capital was equally scenic, after a stop for lunch we visited the longest, at 180 metres, iron suspension bridge in the country before continuing on to the Palace of Great Bliss a picture perfect fortress located on the fork of two rivers. The embalmed body of the unifier is stored here, and the large central temple is very impressive.

On to the hotel after that, a pescatarian diet can be a little dull in countries where fish is generally not available, so I am eating less, this hotel is also excellent and has all the comforts. I am coming down with a cold which is annoying particularly with a gruelling hike coming up in the next few days.

The next day started with some nice toast, grilled tomatoes and mint tea and was followed by a visit to a working nunnery. The complex was smaller but much cleaner than the monasteries I have seen so far, and the view of the valley below was wonderful. Next stop was the Royal Botanical Gardens which is also a corridor for large mammals to move from one national park to another and is a beautiful area. Bhutan is 72% forested and may be the saviour for endangered species such as the Tiger and the Clouded leopard.

A quick visit to the original Dzong in Thimpu was cool this one is a monastery only and much more compact than those visited on previous days, the temple itself was just as colourful and a monk was banging away on a drum. A few quick photos of the unique traffic police on the way to Druk Pizza bar and lunch.

An hour later I was sitting in a barber’s chair just off the main road getting a $2 haircut before continuing to the hotel at the foot of a mountain only a few minutes’ drive away from the trailhead to Tiger's Nest. The hotel is of the same high quality as the others except the Wi-Fi dropped out and hasn’t restarted, and the waiting staff gave my specially prepared mushroom ravioli to the only other guest by mistake, so it was an omelette again for dinner.

I am dosing myself with medicine as there is no way I can climb that bloody mountain sick, it will be really hard anyway considering my poor fitness level still I have a few more days.

Last night I called the chef out and gave him specific instructions on how to prepare my breakfast and he did a great job - the food here isn't very exciting after the first three or four days. Today we head to the Haa valley crossing over the Chelesea pass (3988m) Bhutan's highest road pass. Travelling through mist enshrouded forests full of bird species was surreal as were the monasteries located high on cliff faces and the number of prayer flags draped across the mountain pass.

Arriving in Haa town we had another plain lunch in a local restaurant then walked down a muddy path to nowhere, the boys seem to think they must find something for me to do from dawn to dusk. We visited the white temple and were lucky enough to see the monks practicing their festival dances before heading to the hotel. It is raining, I am sick and a nap and a chill out afternoon is in order.

No photos today in fact I didn't do much and most disappointingly I won't be making the climb to Tigers Nest tomorrow. I have been getting sicker as each day passes so what had been a great trip has petered out. My advice is to climb the mountain the day after arrival then it doesn't matter if you don't or can’t do any other hikes.

On a brighter note I have had the hotels too myself the last few days, so the chefs are making custom meals with the assistance of my guide, tonight's egg and cheese thing was pretty good.

After some traditional archery practice which was great fun I went shopping for a few souvenirs before getting the lads to take me to one of Bhutan's few animal charities. The lady who runs it is incredible she does such wonderful work and pays for most of it herself. The people here have free everything but still see animals as little more than a commodity not understanding that a well cared for animal is worth more in the long run.

I donated a few hundred bucks then went and helped her rescue a cow, we drove off into the countryside looking for and eventually finding her up a back lane on the slopes of a mountain. She was in terrible shape the owners had left her lying in her own shit for a week, the dogs had eaten her tail and she emaciated. We rolled her onto a blanket and lifted her into the back of a ute, she was so weak and about 100 kilos underweight.

It was one of the best things I have done and I would like to come back and volunteer here but visas are near impossible to get.

Additional photos below
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6th October 2018

As much as I enjoyed reading about your days in Bhutan and your photos, my favorite was reading about your concern for animals and you helping the lady rescue that poor cow! Wish everyone felt that animals were more than just commodities.
6th October 2018

Gross National Happiness
Thank you for that I see heart braking things on my travels and it just reinforces things for me western countries hide a lot of this type of abuse and pain
10th October 2018
Watch tower

Gross National Happiness
We loved our time in Bhutan. One of those special places. I'm glad they are controlling the tourism so it does not end up like Nepal. MJ

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