Bhutan – Punakha & Paro

Day 238: November 5, 2018

We had breakfast in the hotel then met our guide, Gelcen, for a walk through the village passed the rice fields to Chime Lhakhang.

Rice fields, Punakha

Chime Lhakhang or The Fertility Temple was built in the late 15th century by the cousin brother of Lam Drukpa Kuenley. Kuenley, also known as the “Divine Madman”, was a Tibetan Buddhist master. He was unconventional and a bit outrageous in his teaching style. He was known to hunt, drink and womanize, all against the established order. He tamed many demons that had been tormenting Bhutan. The demoness, Dochula, was vanquished by him and buried where Chime Lhakhang was built. A stupa now stands over the burial site.

Stupa where Dochula is buried

Childless couples come to the temple to pray for children. The woman holds a phallus and walks around the temple three times thinking of her wish. The monks then perform a blessing. A photo book inside the temple showed many foreign couples who had received their wish. Twins are common.

We walked back to the main road passing many stores with phalluses painted on the outside and for sale inside. Once back at our vehicle we drove three hours back to Paro. The road up, then down the pass made me start to feel nauseous.

Stores along the road to Chime Lhakhang

In Paro, we went to a restaurant for lunch then drove to Paro Ta Dzong which was an old watch tower built in 1649. In the 20th century the third king opened it as the Bhutan National Museum. We saw the many masks used for their traditional dances along with a video showing examples of the dances. Next were two rooms with photos of Bhutan’s kings with the Indian leaders over the years. The photos were to celebrate their 50 year friendship. The last exhibit showed the different flora and fauna of the different regions in Bhutan.

Paro Ta Dzong

After the museum, we walked down the hill to Paro Dzong which was built in the 17th century. The interior was very similar to Punakha Dzong, but a bit smaller. Paro Dzong is also known as the “Fortress of the Heap of Jewels”. There was a view down to the town with the river flowing through.

View from Paro Dzong

We continued walking down to a cantilever bridge. On the way we talked with Gelcen about life in Bhutan. He mentioned that women in Bhutan get six months maternity leave and the normal retirement age is 65. Bhutan’s unemployment rate is 2.5% (Canada’s sits around 5.8%). Many young people go to Japan for school or to work in industry. Others go to Qatar or Kuwait to work in hotels.

Paro Dzong

Back at the main road we walked into town and visited some of the shops selling mostly souvenirs. Then we headed to our hotel which sat on the hill just above the airport. We had supper at 7:00 pm then went to bed.

Day 239: November 6, 2018

We were up early this morning. We received confirmation from GAdventures for our 10 day tour through Cambodia starting in Bangkok and ending in Ho Chi Minh City. We scrambled in the morning to apply for our Vietnam visas online. We will have to apply for our Cambodia visa on arrival as we don’t have time to get an online one back in time for our entry.

We had a quick breakfast then at 7:30 am we drove to Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest. The start of our hike was about 25 minutes from our hotel. Paro Taktsang is a world famous monastery in Bhutan that hangs on the side of a cliff. The front of the rocks look like the face of a tiger. The first temple was built there in 1692 after Guru Padmasambhava meditated in the caves there in the 8th century. The monastery is at 3,120 m, about 900 m above the valley.

Paro Taktsang

The hike started with a steep climb up a path through the trees. Gelcen told us it would take 1.5 hours to reach the café at the midway point. It took us about 45 minutes and I didn’t even think we were going very quickly.

We kept walking and I think we caught our second wind. The climb continued, but it was slightly less steep. There was an amazing view across to the monastery once we reached the highest point. Stairs then took us down to a waterfall then back up to the monastery.

Hiking to Paro Taktsang

Within the monastery, we were shown the cave the Guru meditated in for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. We went through the various temples, many with statues of the Guru. He was the one to establish Buddhism and the Nyingmapa school in Bhutan.

In 1998, a fire damaged much of the complex, but it has since been restored. Only three or four monks live there as caretakers along with a security guard. They only stay up there for part of the year. The monastery was very cold inside and the stone was chilly on my socked feet.

We hiked back down stopping at the café for some tea and cookie-crackers. Then we continued downwards. It is always so much easier on the way down. We reached the bottom almost exactly four hours after we had left. Apparently it usually takes six hours. There were people just starting when we reached the bottom and the sun was really warming up.

We drove back in to Paro for lunch then went back to the hotel to rest for a bit. At 5:00 pm we went back into Paro to Penlop Dawa Penjor Heritage Farmhouse. It was built in the late 18th century and offered a hot stone bath. A wooden tub was filled with water and hot stones were added on one end. The water was mixed to heat it all around and artemisia leaves (also known as wormwood or sagebrush) were added on top to help relax the joints.

We dipped in our toes, but the water was scalding so we added cold water to cool our individual tubs down. Eventually, we were able to sink down and enjoy a relaxing bath. After, we were given a tumbler of rice wine before we returned to the hotel for supper.

View from our hotel, Paro

Our guide and driver sat with us after dinner. Danny invited them up to our room to play cards. They changed out of their traditional clothes then met us upstairs. We played a couple rounds of Hidden 31 then they left and we went to bed.

Day 240: November 7, 2018

We woke up and went down to breakfast at 8:00 am. On our walk back to our room we met a very friendly, meowy kitty who followed us. We relaxed in our room until our ride to the airport at 11:30 am. We said goodbye to our guide and driver there.

I had forgotten to get any pictures of the many photographs of the Royal Family that we have seen inside homes, stores and around town. Below is a photo at the airport showing the current king, his wife and son. They seriously look like models.

Photo of the Royal Family at the airport

The airport had three gates and no lines for anything. We used our remaining Ngultrum (Bhutan’s currency) to get some water and a treat. Our flight left at 1:30 pm and we flew out the same way we had come in. The clouds cleared enough for us to have a wonderful view of the Himalayas including Mount Everest.

View of Mount Everest from the plane

We were fed a nice curry on the plane. We arrived in Bangkok at 5:25 pm and took a cab from the airport to our hotel in the centre which took over an hour. Traffic was brutal.

We arrived at the hotel around 7:30 pm and checked in. Our GAdventures tour group had met at 6:00 pm and went for supper. We weren’t sure when they would be done so we just ate supper at the hotel. Our guide called our room when we got back and told us the plans for the next day and we went to bed.

Bhutan felt more like home than anywhere we have been in months. It was quiet. There were mountains. The people were friendly. It felt nice to be somewhere that seemed familiar even though the culture and architecture were nothing like home. I wish we could have spent more time in Bhutan. It was a very expensive trip, but well worth it. Now we are on to our GAdventures trip through Cambodia!


Bhutan – Thimphu & Punakha

Day 236: November 3, 2018

Waking up at 2:30 am is never fun. We threw on our clothes and went down to the lobby of our hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. The hotel provided a free shuttle to the airport. We checked in to our flight, but the lady at the airline complained that we didn’t have our visa clearance printed. After we dropped our bags, we went to the tourist police who printed the pages for us just in case anyone else wanted the paper copy.

We had Thai food for breakfast in the airport then boarded our DrukAir flight to Paro, Bhutan. It was a three hour flight and the plane was only about two thirds full. The flight to Bhutan was quite pricey. There are only a small number of pilots who are allowed to land at the Paro airport. The view flying in was amazing and we soon understood the danger of landing at the airport. The plane flies through a narrow valley in order to get to the landing strip.

Landing at Paro International Airport

We arrived and went through immigration. They didn’t even want to see our visa clearance. We took out some cash and picked up our bags. Outside all the tour operators were waiting with signs, but we couldn’t see our names. Eventually, a guy came over and asked us what company we were booked with. He then announced it and a guide came over, but our names weren’t on his sign. He went and called his company and they had given him the incorrect names. Luckily, we weren’t abandoned.

Our guide was dressed in the traditional Bhutanese style: a Gho (knee length robe) tied at the waist with a sash and socks up to his knees. He took us to our SUV and introduced us to our driver.

Bhutan has a population of 700,000. Their language is Dzongkha and it has three different dialects. English is taught from a very young age. Street signs and almost all shop signs are written in English. Over 70% of the country is covered in trees and they are one of the only countries that are carbon negative meaning their territory absorbs more carbon than it emits.

Most people use the bus system to get between cities. Taxis are also often used. Personal vehicles are too expensive for the majority of the population and there is a 100% tax on vehicles.

We left the airport and along the drive we stopped at a viewpoint of Tamchog Lhakhang, a 15th century temple. Crossing the river to the temple was an iron bridge also built in the 15th century. It felt so nice to be away from crowds and noise. Thailand felt non-stop. Bhutan, makes me feel able to breathe and hear my own thoughts again.

Iron bridge to Tamchog Lhakhang

From the bridge, we drove to Thimphu which is the capital city of Bhutan. There are 100,000 people living in the city. None of the buildings were very tall as there is a height restriction on buildings at six stories.

We drove up one of the hills around Thimphu to Buddha Point where there is a four sided view. A 52 m tall bronze statue of sitting Buddha was built there in 2006. Eventually, they hope to also have a monastery there as well. In Bhutan, 75% of the population is Buddhist and 25% is Hindu.

Buddha Point, Thimphu

Next we drove to the Folk Heritage Museum. We were given some rice wine to try. We saw photos of all the past kings. The guide explained that a scarf hung over a portrait shows that a person is dead while a scarf under the portrait shows they are alive.

In 1616, a lama from Tibet named Ngawang Namgyal united Bhutan. Following his death civil war occurred between different factions. British and Tibetan influence was seen throughout this time. Eventually, Ugyen Wangchuck, who was pro-British came to power and a monarchy was established in 1907. There have been five Druk Gyalpos (Dragon Kings) of the Wangchuck Dynasty since then. The kingdom went into isolation from international affairs until democratization and modernization were started by the third king. This included creating a National Assembly in 1952. In 2008, the country became a constitutional monarchy.

We were shown how the Bhutanese mud homes were built. Men would carry red soil and place it into forms. The women would pound it down with staffs and sing religious songs for the insects and worms they were killing. Two girls demonstrated the singing.

We saw a garden of fertility showing phalluses (penises). The fertility saint, Lama Drukpa Kunley or the “Divine Madman” introduced phalluses as good luck and fertility.

Garden of fertility

We were shown a churner used to make butter tea (tea leaves, hot water, butter and salt) and a press to make puta (buckwheat noodles). We were given some butter tea with puffed rice on top to try. I quite enjoyed it. We also saw dried chilies, eggplant, pumpkin, corn and yak cheese that is used during the winter.

Dried food for the winter

We ate a very nice lunch there: rice, buckwheat pancakes, beans, peppers, chicken and chilies.

Bhutanese meal

Our guide and driver didn’t eat their desserts, stating that they don’t like sweets. After lunch, they bought a leaf package and said that was their dessert. I didn’t know what it was, but Danny did. Our guide asked if we wanted to try and Danny said no, but I said sure. Big mistake.

I bit off a piece of the nut and it was the worst thing I have ever put in my mouth. Danny explained after that it was a betel nut. It is typically wrapped in betel leaf with slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) inside. It is a mild stimulant causing you to feel warm inside and it is highly addictive. It has become a huge health issue in Southern Asia as it is known to have lots of harmful effects. I’m not sure how you would continue to eat it as I wanted no more.

After lunch, we drove to the Royal Takin Preserve. Takin are the national animal of Bhutan and look like a combination of a cow and a goat. The males can weigh up to 350 kg and the females can weigh up to 280 kg. They are currently classified as a vulnerable species.

Royal Takin Preserve, Thimphu

Next we went into the city and looked at the handicraft vendors. We walked down the main street and saw the main square with the clock tower. Then we went to the Centenary Farmers Market which had tons of produce, fruit and grains. There was local food, but also a lot was imported from India.

Centenary Farmers Market, Thimphu

On our way to our hotel we watched some locals practicing archery with compound bows. Archery is Bhutan’s national sport. They are required to wear their traditional clothing when practicing. Traditionally, simple bows are used to try to hit a target 150 m away.

Archery practice, Thimphu

After we were taken to our hotel. Our room had a spectacular view of Memorial Chorten, a stupa built in 1974 to honour the third king. There was a huge number of people walking around it. Our guide told us old people do this every day, others only on weekends. They were walking from when we arrived until when we went to sleep and then when we woke up there was still quite a few people doing their rounds.

Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

I called my mom and Danny went for a walk around town. He ended up at a soccer stadium watching a high school match.

High school soccer match

At 7:00 pm we went downstairs for supper. It was a buffet with many different dishes. After we went back to our room and fell to our beds after a very long, full day.

Day 237: November 4, 2018

I woke up early this morning to FaceTime Kaleen. Then we had breakfast and finished packing our bags. We started our drive out of Thimphu and drove to Dochula Pass at 3,140 m.

In 2003, the queen mother built 108 memorial stupas there that are known as “Druk Wangyal Chortens” for the Bhutanese soldiers killed during the fight against insurgents from India. Typically, there is a beautiful view out to the Himalayas, but it was a bit too cloudy when we were there.

Druk Wangyal Chortens

We walked through the stupas then crossed the road where there was a path up into the trees. There were little temples with Buddha relief inside spotted on the hill. It felt like a very spiritual location. I enjoyed taking the time to sit there in the quiet.

Tiny temples in the woods

We returned to a nearby cafe to use the washroom then continued our drive to Punakha. We had lunch in the city which was similar food to the previous day.

Next we went rafting on the Mo Chu river. It wasn’t originally on the itinerary so we had to pay extra. The rafting wasn’t too extreme, but it was nice. The view of the rice fields on the hills added to the experience.

Rafting, Punakha

After rafting we went to Punakha Dzong which is located at the meeting of the Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers. The fortress was built there in 1637 by Ngawang Namgyal or the “Bearded Lama” who was a Tibetan lama that was the first to unify Bhutan. He brought with him sacred relics from Tibet to Bhutan. This caused many invasions by Tibet.

Punakha Dzong

Inside the fortress there were three courtyards. The fortress is split into two parts: administrative and monasteric. As in the past, the monks, of which there are currently 400-500, migrate between the Thimphu and Punakha monasteries. Soon they will return to Punakha for the winter.

Inside Punakha Dzong

Within the monasteric portion there were two temples: one houses the relics as well as Namgyal’s remains (only select people can enter) and the other is a temple everyone can enter. There were paintings inside showing the twelve days of Buddha which outlines his life from birth to nirvana.

Buddha was the son of a king who realized that life is suffering. He left his family and struggled to find the meaning of life. When he finally reached enlightenment he went to heaven to bring what he learned to his mother. The earth needed him so he descended back down. Descending Day is also Mother’s Day in Bhutan.

We saw a bodhi tree in one courtyard as well as a stupa. There are eight different shapes of stupas, each representing different events in Buddha’s life.

We returned to the vehicle and were taken to our hotel where we relaxed until supper at 7:00 pm. We tried out the local beer and wine which were pretty tasty. After supper, we sat out on a porch swing and looked up at the stars. We reflected on our trip and what it will be like going back home. When we got cold we went inside to go to bed.

Bhutan seems to have come to us at exactly the perfect time. I was feeling a bit run down by Thailand again and I feel refreshed in Bhutan. The coolness of the air, the lack of crowds and the silence are wonderful. I can’t wait to see what else Bhutan has in store for us.