Wow!!! Wow is an understatement for this elusive unspoiled country nestled and hidden in the foot of the Himalayas. Our 12 amazing days in Bhutan was a journey of exploring its sights, tastes and culture and of appreciating what true happiness means in the form of a collective society.
A tiny Buddhist country with a population a little over 700,000, the people of Bhutan are extremely warm, friendly and welcoming, eager for us to experience and learn their culture and way of life. Their history as well as culture and lifestyle are all deeply rooted in the teachings of Buddhism and in their spiritual connections to their natural surroundings. This is a land of unparalleled natural beauty, of high mountains and rolling valleys, of pristine rivers and untouched countryside.
Once an isolated landlocked country until 1974, modern world is slowly catching up with them – electricity has reached most rural households and mobile connectivity, internet and smartphones have allowed the Bhutanese to reach the world. Thimphu, its capital city, is increasingly congested by the growing number of cars whilst resisting installing the country’s first set of traffic lights.
We were so fortunate to meet many local Bhutanese, from our guide, Sonam and driver, Choki, to their friends Dopi the blanket trader and a pair of winter jacket traders, Choki’s brother the monk, the farmhouse lady, the famous photographer and lodge owner and the travel guide trainer. They all evoked such pride in their history and heritage, love for their king and country, passion in sustainability and nature and devotion in the profound teachings of Buddhism. We were truly moved by their warmth and hospitality and appreciated their sharing with us a glimpse of what makes their country so intriguing and unique.
Here’s an overview of our 12 day itinerary:
Day 1: Paro
Paro airport is one of the most isolated and dangerous airports to land. 20 mins before landing, the captain explained to us the names of the mountain peaks jutting out of the clouds in the far distance. One of such majestic white mountain peaks is Mount Everest. Being 29,029 ft high and our plane cruising at an altitude of around 30,000 ft, we were in near parallel to the highest peak in the world! The feeling was exhilarating!
Then we prepared for the landing! The pilot basically navigated through the narrow mountain valleys flying just above the alpine trees and made at least 2 turns around each mountain bends before landing into the Paro airstrip. It was hair-raisingly spectacular!
Once we cleared immigration and customs, Sonam and Choki, our guide and driver were waiting for us and drove the short distance to our hotel, Le Meridian Paro. As we had not slept the night before, he suggested that we take a 2-hour rest before meeting up at noon for lunch and a tour around Paro.
Our first stop after lunch at a local tourist restaurant was the Kyichu Lhakhang temple believed to have been built in the 7th Century by the Tibeten King, Songtsen Gampo, as one of 108 temples to pin down a giant demoness onto the earth. This demoness was said to be thwarting the spread of Buddhism from Tibet to Bhutan, and this temple is fabled to have pinned down her left foot. Nearly 1500 years later, this importantly spiritual yet fragile temple is still standing, hopefully for many more years to come.
Our next stop was the impressive Paro Dzong which has a commanding location high on the hillside overlooking the entire valley below. We learnt that Dzong means a fortress-like architecture which houses administrative offices, temples, monastic quarters and in some of them, the throne room. While the whitewashed walls are distinctive and standout from miles away, the roofs, beams and window frames are elaborately painted in a variety of earthen colors giving them a grandiose and prominent presence.
Not to over exert ourselves on the first day in a higher altitude location, we returned to the hotel after the Dzong visit. The key for this first day was to take it easy, acclimatize the best we can to the altitude and the clear crisp mountain air.
Day 2: Thimphu / Wangdue (4 hours drive)
Early morning, we set off to Wangdue via the capital city of Thimphu. Just before we entered Thimphu, we rode up the hill to visit the 50m tall Buddha – the largest outdoor sitting Buddha in the world. This day happened to be the last day of an important 3 months long prayer-reciting event. Over 6000 people sat under a huge marquee in the large forecourt in front of the Buddha listening to the prayer chants. All the important religious leaders as well as the government ministers were present awaiting the arrival of the Bhutanese King and Queen. After a bit of a wait, the royals finally arrived in their black Land Rover with its distinctive golden number plate bearing the word “Bhutan” (only the King’s car plates has no numbers on it). So, as Sonam said, we were extremely lucky to have seen the King and Queen in person as it is a rare sighting even for locals.
We then took a short stop at the Motithang Takin Preserve to see the cute yet odd-looking national animal of Bhutan, the Takin. Takins are a breed of goat antelope usually from the northern mountains, but are now endangered and very rarely found in the wild.
The most impressive building in Thimphu is the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, built at the base of the valley on the west bank of the Wang Chhu River. It is still a functioning building which now houses the secretariat, the throne room, the offices of the King, other ministries as well as the temple and monastic quarters. Upon entering the enormous imposing courtyard, the shear size ignites a sense of awe and immediately commands respect and reverence.
Onwards to Wangdue, we left Thimphu witnessing the famous police directing the traffic in lieu of any traffic lights in town. With the increasing traffic and congestion, it has become a demanding job and each policeman takes 2 hour shifts at the traffic post. Continuing on, we passed through the Dochu La pass at 3140m which has panoramic views of the Bhutanese Himalayan mountain range. It was a little cloudy, so we hoped to get a better view on our return journey passing this point.
We arrived at the Wangdue Eco Lodge just before nightfall. At dinnertime, we had a lovely and engaging conversation with the owner of the lodge and a visiting local Bhutanese (who trains guides and used to live in Hong Kong) all about life in Bhutan and its challenges as it slowly opens its doors to the world.
Day 3: Wangdue to Jakar/Bumthang (8 hours drive)
Today, we embarked on a long drive of around 8 hours to Bumthang. Even though we were only going 180km, most of the road was on the windy mountainside and is currently being widened and paved. So many sections were under construction which made for a very bumpy ride. Luckily, our guide had planned a few stops along the way to make this long trip a bit more bearable.
- Pele la Pass (3420m) – at this high point, there were a few stalls selling textiles, souvenirs, dried yak cheese and our guide introduced us to this strange and stinky nut wrapped in green Betel leaves and lime that the Bhutanese love chewing on.
- Tashita Café – a little café with sweeping views of the valley below 8km from Pele la Pass. Great for a toilet break to stretch the legs before continuing on our journey.
- Chendebji Chorten – just before Tsongsa, there was a large white Tibetan stupa along the riverside which had special characteristics of having eyes painted on all four sides. On this day, there were many locals preparing for a large religious festival in the next few day, and were tremendously welcoming by sharing their hot butter tea topped with rice crispies with us.
- Yangkhil Resort – I had wanted to book a stay at this hotel in Tsongsa to break up the long drive. However, everyone had the same idea so it was booked out a year in advance. Instead, we took lunch here and had to keep going on our way.
- Tsongsa Dzong – This has to be the most scenic and well-guarded of all the Dzongs we visited. Built on a spur overlooking the gorge of the Mangde River, it is narrow, long and the largest, and the one Dzong that felt very much like a fortress built for defence. Today, it is a peaceful place with incredible views where locals come by to play a game of archery on its grounds.
The last 1.5 hours of the drive seemed much easier and we finally arrived into Bumthang, Jakar Valley at our hotel, Yagharling Resort by 6pm. After such a long day on the road, we were so happy to stretch our legs, have a warm meal and hit the sheets!
Day 4: Festival Day at Jambay lhakhang Drup
One of the most spectacular festivals in Bhutan, the Jambay Lhakhang Drup, is hosted at the 16th Century temple of Jambay Lhakhang. On the first day of our journey, we visited Kyichu Lhakhang which was the temple that pinned down the left foot of the demoness. This temple here in the Jakar Valley was another temple built to pin down the knee of the same demoness.
This festival lasts for five days with the highlight being the fire ritual that is held at midnight where crowds gather to witness the ritualistic naked men dance. During the day, the festival featured many acts, with ladies dancing and singing folk songs, jesters wearing elaborate masks and making everyone laugh and dancers performing a ceremonial dance in decorative costumes and reindeer masks. Some of these dances and rituals can each last up to 30-60 mins long.
Local Bhutanese of all ages participate in the festival in their best and most colorful outfits – making it a kaleidoscope of colors. They bring large flasks of butter tea, corn and rice crispies and probably enough Betel for the day, and sit on the grounds to enjoy the festivities all day long.
We took a break to have lunch at a nearby farmhouse where we tried for the first time, Ara, the traditional local rice/wheat distilled liquor. Bhutanese share their strong Ara brew to guests as a sign of welcome and generous hospitality. In the evening, we returned to the festival at around 11pm to wait for the start of the naked men dance. While we waited, we joined a group of Bhutanese traders who have travelled far and wide to set up tent shops during the days of the festival. They treated us to various types of Ara: a warm clear liquid one, a rose-colored liquid tainted with sandalwood and one heated brew mixed with egg. All potent and extremely high in alcohol content yet perfect in near freezing temperatures in front of a fire stove. Regardless of whatever culture we’ve encountered in our travels, alcohol ensures great conversations, merriment and entertaining cultural exchanges!!
Midnight approached and a large crowd gathered in the forecourt of the temple to witness 18 brave naked men (with masks on!) perform their ritualistic dance for over an hour in below freezing temperatures around a bonfire! The ritual was said to warn off demons who wish to destroy the temple at night.
Perhaps the masks the men wore gave them courage as they were really strutting and swinging their members all night long! This dance is really one of a kind and you need to see it to believe it! Without doubt, this certainly was one of the highlights of our trip!
Day 5: Ura Valley
Sonam assured us that the Ura Valley is one of the most beautiful and we were not disappointed. It is the highest of the Bumthang valleys, and when we made it to the Shertang La pass (at 3590m), the majesty of the white Gangkhar Puensum peak (7541m) greeted us – it is the highest Himalayan peak that has not been climbed by humans as it is prohibited to do so in Bhutan.
From the Shertang La pass, we trekked down the mountain towards Ura Village (3100m). We walked down the alpine forest relishing the pure sounds of nature and witnessing how the vegetation changes the further down we go. On route, a herd of cows and ponies joined us with a few nomads leading them to the lower pastures.
By the time we reached Ura Village, we lunched at a local farmhouse of a once noble family (in fact, the matron of the house is the sister-in-law of the commissioner who works at the Gross National Happiness Department in Thimphu). She was extremely generous in preparing a variety of vegetarian dishes, lentil soup and some homemade buckwheat pancakes just for us.
After lunch, we bade farewell to this picturesque valley and returned to Jakar for an afternoon siesta. Just before sunset, we toured the Wangdichholing Palace, the birth place of Bhutan’s first king and the summer residence of the third king. Having been abandoned and left to be a bit of a ruin, it is currently being renovated, restored and converted into a museum. It was supposed to finish 2 months ago, but by the looks of it, there is still a lot of work left to do.
Day 6: Tang Valley
Tang Valley is the most remote of the Bumthang valleys and as such, the least visited. We arrived after around 2 hours drive from Jakar, and took a hike uphill towards the Ogyen Chholing Palace. In this hour-long walk, we passed through farmhouses, ancient rocky roads, walked through pastures and hazelnut fields, climbed over wooden fences and crossed over small brooks. There was really no set path so the experience was truly unique!
When we arrived into the tiny village, we saw men and women filling up sacks with small harvested potatoes and loading the sacks in large trucks ready to be driven across to India for sale. It looked like a hard day’s work for a farmer.
Ogyen Chholing Palace, once a palace of the local noble lord, has now been turned into a museum by a famous Bhutanese writer and her Swiss husband, Roger. Across 4 floors, there were a variety of artifacts explaining life in Bhutan in the 16th Century: How the Bhutanese traded rice with Tibet for salt, the measuring standard of a Dri, the origins of the Bhutanese’s habit of chewing Betel, and the base ingredients of the colored dyes to produce the colorful textiles. The couple also runs a simple guesthouse in the complex together with a small restaurant.
After our visit, we drove back towards Jakar and stopped on a hillside with panoramic views of the surrounding valleys and distant snow-capped mountains. Here, we enjoyed a simple Bhutanese picnic lunch of steamed white rice with a variety of vegetable dishes,
beef jerky with dried chilies and the staple, fresh green chilies with cheese. The incredible view, the peaceful serenity of the surroundings and the warm sun on our faces made it an unforgettable picnic experience.
Close to our picnic spot is a large nunnery, Pema Tekchok Choeling Shedra, housing up to 160 young nuns. Some we met were only in their teens. They were warm and friendly, letting us into their quarters to show us the simple life in which they lived and exchanging photos with me with our respective smart phones.
The last stop for our day trip was Membartsho or the Burning Lake. It is not so much a lake as a large deep pool of water formed by the Tang Chuu River as it turns through a rocky gorge. Here, the legend goes that the Bhutanese saint, Pema Lingpa, jumped into the “lake” with a burning lamp and later emerged back on the rock with the lamp still burning and holding a statute and a treasure chest. It is a deeply spiritual place as evidenced by all the prayer flags strewn across the gorge and the tiny wooden bridge which led us to the vantage point of where Pema Lingpa jumped in.
Itinerary to continue in Part 2….
Tips and Tidbits:
- The Bhutan Airlines flight to Paro from Bangkok was scheduled for 6.30am but our agent told us to get to the airport early and line up at the counter by 3.30 – 4am. This was so to secure seats on the left hand side of the plane, which offers amazing views of Mount Everest and surrounding Himalayan mountain ranges.
- As we had to be at the airport by 3.30am, there was no point in booking a hotel that evening. Instead, during our Bangkok transit, we left our luggage at the “24 hr Left Baggage” at the airport, headed out for some Thai street food and then enjoyed a 4 hour massage at the Asia Herb Association from 10pm to 2am where we managed to get some good rest before heading back to the airport.
- Asia Herb Association is the only massage place in Bangkok that I managed to find on the internet that opened until 2am so it was perfect for our plans. The price for 2 of us to enjoy a 4 hours massage was less than the cost of a hotel room!
- On our way back, we sat on the right hand side of the plane so to have another glimpse of those remarkable mountain peaks before heading home.
- Altitude sickness: the places we were staying were all around the 2600m altitude level or under (though we did have to travel up to a few passes that were around 3500m) so I didn’t bring any altitude sickness medicines with us. Instead, following a friend’s recommendation from a Chinese doctor, we drank American ginseng tea and Pocari drink each day and took it really easy the first day in Paro to acclimatize. It seemed to have worked as we did not encounter any problems.
- Motion sickness: Get use to bumpy roads!! We don’t usually get motion sickness but I can imagine those who do, come to Bhutan armed with your meds!
- Internet/Wifi: We bought a SIM card with 400MB data at Thimpu for 250Nu (around US$5). The speed was okay, enough for checking emails and sending messages. Most of the local hotels have wifi in the reception areas but the speed was frustratingly slow.
- Foreign Exchange: We exchanged some local currencies at the airport for buying drinks, snacks and small souvenirs. Any leftover, we gave to our guide and driver as part of their tips.
- Locals: Most local people’s English proficiency was generally very high so it was easy to converse with them. We were told that Bhutanese respect other people’s privacy so they won’t talk to us unless we start the conversation first. All it took was a simple “hi” and a smile!
- Weather: In November, the weather varies from up to 20°C in the daytime when the sun is out to below 0°C in the evenings. That’s why we wore layers of the Uniqlo Heattechs which were excellent in keeping us very warm without being bulky.
- Hygiene: I carried a roll of toilet paper everywhere with me, which served me very well. Also, we brought our own shampoo, conditioner and body wash which was great in hindsight as not many of the local hotels offered such amenities.
Continuing reading: Bhutan: On the Back of the Thunder Dragon (Part 2)