The traditional dress for women is called a Kira. If you work for the government, tourism industry or school children are obliged to wear this national dress. When leaving the airport the first thing we notice is the tranquility. No more motorcycles and no crowded roads with cars honking their horns every other second. What a relieve after Kathmandu. The contrast couldn’t be any bigger. The Paro valley is dotted with the typical Bhutanese houses made of white stone walls and ornate, wooden windows. As it is too late in the afternoon to do some sightseeing we head straight to our hotel, the Nak Sel Spa Resort. Beautifully located in the forest and what a luxury room we have! Even better news is that we stay here for 2 nights. At dinner we are immediately introduced into the Bhutanese cuisine. One of the dishes is the national dish: Chillies with Cheese (Ema Datse). In Bhutan chilli peppers are not used as a condiment for your dish, no it is a dish in itself, sometimes mixed with other vegetables and a creamy cheese sauce. Believe me it is SPICY! The next day it is time to do some sightseeing. A short drive through the Paro valley brings us to the start off point for the hike to Thaktsang Goemba aka Tigers Nest Monastery. It is one of the famous temples in Bhutan. It is perched on a high Cliff Ridge and on the hike you get beautiful views of the dramatic setting of this monastery. You pass several water powered prayer wheels, chapels with butter lamps and colorful prayer flags between the cliffs. The temple was build here because Guru Rinpoche (the second Buddha) arrived here on the back of a Tiger and meditated here for 3 months, hence the name Tiger Nest. What a great introduction to Bhutan this monastery is. Next we visited the Dzong of Paro.
Dzongs you will find all over the country. Every big village has one of these Dzongs. A Dzong is usually meant as a defense building. In the entrance you will find paintings of the 4 deities that protect the Dzong. The Dzong is divided into two parts around two courtyards with a main building, the utze, between the courtyards. One part is for governmental use and the other part is the monastic part. The buildings around the courtyard have huge wooden and beautifully decorated windows. On this trip we have visited several of these Dzongs but I won’t bother you with all the names and differences between these Dzongs. In Paro we also visited one of the oldest temples in Bhutan the Kyichu Lhakhang. This is one of the 108 temples that were built in one day by Songten Gampo in the 7th
century to subdue the demoness that was wandering around. The temples are built on the joints of this demoness and the two that are in Bhutan are built on the joints of the left knee and left foot. The most interesting part of the Lhakang is the room where they usually have the statues of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (the founder of Bhutan) The statues are usually accompanied by statues of their guardians or manifestations. Monks and people will pray here and bring offerings. Butter lamps are burning and the whole setting makes it a real serene and mystical place. Like the Dzongs you will find Lhakhangs all over Bhutan and we visited several of them and all with their own atmosphere. From Paro we went to Thimpu the capital of Bhutan.
It is a relatively small capital with no traffic lights but on the major junction there is a traffic officer doing break dance kind of movements (but without the music!) to guide the cars safely across the junction. In Thimpu you can see the clash of Bruto National Happiness with our western belief of Gross National Product. Thimpu is vastly expanding. People are migrating from the countryside to the capital and construction of houses is everywhere. The younger generation is more into mobile phones and Internet and the cars are newer and bigger. Let’s just hope the Bhutanese find a better balance between the Bruto National Happiness and the greedy Bruto National Product than we have done. Just google Bruto National Happiness and you’ll get an idea of what it means and how to achieve it. In Thimpu we visited the Simtokha Dzong where the monks were getting the interior ready for the King’s visit the next day so all the Statues were nicely dressed up. We went for a hike to Cheri monastery and visited the National Memorial Chorten, a major pilgrimage site for the Bhutanese. Chortens are also a common sight in Bhutan, like in Tibet and Nepal. These Chortens contain either relics of Buddha, religious texts or other types of relics. You’ll find chortens big or small and of different types along the road, at mountain passes or in villages. Apart from the Dzong and Lhakangs we also visited a school where they study one of the thirteen traditional arts or crafts. The next day before we headed off to Wangdi we witnessed the number one sport of Bhutan: Archery. On the major archery ground of Thimpu they were practicing for a tournament. Here they were doing the modern version with fancy expensive looking bows. Even a member of the royal family was practicing.The target is at 150 meters and is very, very small. But when they hit the target they all do a little dance to celebrate. After watching the game we started a new leg of the trip. First we went over the mountain pass Dochu La where an impressive array of 108 chortens is build.
As it was quite misty on the pass it was quite a surreal sight. The mist unfortunately blocked the views of the Himalayan ranges that you could see here on a clear day. Before we reach Wangdi we visit the impressive Dzong of Punakha and the Chimi Lhakhang. This Chimi Lhakhang temple was build by the cousin of Lama Drukpa Kunley. This Lama is aka 'The Divine Madman’. Again, just google Divine Madman, Bhutan, to learn more about his beliefs. But it is in his honor that people paint red phallus symbols in the weirdest forms on their houses. It doesn’t have a sexual meaning it is just to keep off evil! I must admit we had to laugh every now and then at the sight of them. You probably will as well when you see the photos! From Wangdi it was a long but beautiful ride to the Bumthang valley. We visited the colorful weekend market of Wangdi. On the way we went over a high snow covered mountain pass but here we did what most Bhutanese do when they cross a mountain pass and that is to put up an array of prayer flags. Mountain passes here are full of these prayer flags. You also find, scattered along the countryside, large white prayer flags on huge bamboo sticks clustered together. These are to commemorate the deceased. These prayer flags have printed mantras to help the swift passing of the deceased’s soul. After 5 days with lots of driving and sightseeing it is time to do some hiking. So we went for a three day hike, the Owl trek. Putting up the prayer flags definitely helped as on the start of the trek the weather changed from overcast to clear skies! This time we didn’t have to carry our heavy backpacks. Together with another Dutch couple our trekking team consisted of 15 horses, 3 horsemen, 1 horsewoman and 2 cooks! The hike started with climbing through thick pine forest, with small villages, a traditional water driven Buckwheat mill on the way, in order to reach our first campsite with beautiful views of the snow capped Bhutanese Himalayas.
The food was absolutely great, the best food ever on a trek. Before we went to sleep in our tents they even gave us a warm water bottle to keep our feet warm!! The next day again Cristal clear skies. The first hour we climbed through a thick forest to reach a pass and as we are getting into hanging prayer flags on passes you can imagine we put up some flags here as well. The views are spectacular with snow capped mountains everywhere. We come across a small Yak herders hut and stop here for some fresher than fresh warm Yak milk. They were still milking the Yaks when we arrived. The Bhutanese even put chilli powder in the milk and I must admit that really tastes nice! Next stop was, at what was supposed to be our next camp, for lunch. As it was too windy to sleep here at 3850 meters we only had lunch here. I decided to have some more views and climbed up to a prayer flag covered hill at 4050 meters.When I got to the top I put up some prayer flags and then enjoyed one the most magnificent views I have ever seen. Nearly 360 degrees of unobstructed views of the Himalayas and the whispering of the prayer flags just added that little extra. Absolutely breathtaking and I still get goosebumps when I think of it. Our second camp was near a monastery and not as cold as our first night. Because we stayed near the monastery the hike turned out to be more of a two day hike than a three day hike but we didn’t mind as we had one of our nicest hikes ever and decided to relax a little bit in the Bhumtang Valley. In the Swiss Guesthouse where we were staying they had Red Panda White Beer on draught and two kinds of delicious cheese for breakfast so you can imagine we had a good time there. We were also in the Bhumtang valley to visit one of the many dance festivals they have in Bhutan. These yearly festivals are called Tsechus. They are held in the courtyards of the Dzongs or Lhakangs, they last between 3-5 days and the masked dances are performed by the monks and the local people. We visited the Jampey Lhakhang festival. This Lhakhang is the other of the two temples that was built in a day to subdue the demoness. Outside the Lhakhang tents are put up where you can buy all kinds of things, you can have something to eat or drink or you can play gambling games like throwing darts. On the opening night besides the dances the main event is the fire ritual. The courtyard is packed with people and between the dances on a field outside the Lhakhang they set a big archway with huge trees alight and you are supposed to walk through the burning arch to clean your soul.
Quite a dangerous thing to do as at a certain moment these burning trees come falling down. Quite a spectacle to watch. The next day we also visited the festival and saw three different types of dances. Actually the dances are more or less the same it is the costumes and masks that change every dance. The costumes and masks are very elaborate and colorful but the dances are quite simple. It is these masks and costumes that tell the story of the dance. From the Bumthang valley we headed eastwards. A couple of long but very beautiful and spectacular drives along thick forested mountains and valleys. Most of the villages and settlements in the east are not built in the valleys but are perched on the cliffs of the mountains. We even watched a traditional Archery tournament with bamboo bows. The drive down to the border town Samdrup Jongkhar was a long and bumpy one. Again thick forests and along the way our favorite road sign appeared: It is not a rally, enjoy the valley. That's exactly what we did!! All good things must end and so does this trip in Bhutan. We had a superb time in this peaceful, relaxing, quiet and beautiful Himalayan country. We enjoyed every bit of it and we thought it would be once in a lifetime experience but all three of us would love to come back here.
Sadly we had to say goodbye to our guide Dorji and driver Wangdi and Dorji if you read this, as you are on Facebook now (!), thanks again for showing us around and being an excellent guide.
It is time to start a new chapter of this trip. Time to leave the busy, crowded and noisy streets of Kathmandu behind us. The flight from Kathmandu to Paro (Bhutan) was quite a spectacular one. First we got to see the top of Mt Everest and then the final descent into Paro was breathtaking as we zigzagged through the mountains before landing. We have arrived in the land of Gross National Happiness. From now on we don't need to worry anymore about where to eat and sleep how to get from one place to another, as the trip in Bhutan is more or less an all inclusive one. We meet with our guide Phub Dorji and our driver Wangdi both dressed in a Gho, which is a traditional cloak for men.