BHUTAN Oct 29-Nov 5, 2013
After many trials and errors, I was finally going to see Bhutan. Last April, I had to cancel the entire arranged trip because of difficulties getting an Indian Transit Visa to fly from the Maldives to Bhutan. This year, everything was arranged for the week of October 18th, then I missed my flight and all the subsequent connections! I was able to rebook everything and arrived in Paro on October 29th.
It was a huge flying day – Comox-Vancouver-Hong Kong-Bangkok (where I spent the 7 hour layover in the airport) – Dhaka, Bangladesh-Paro. The daytime landing in Dhaka was worthwhile. This place has water everywhere. A tsunami would destroy huge amounts of land. Poverty was visible from the air. A couple boarded after spending 2 weeks in Bangladesh. They were scheduled for 5 days but the subsequent 9 days in Sikkim and Darjeeling was cancelled because of unrest in India. Five days was more than enough – there was not much to see.
As we entered Bhutan, the views of the Himalayas were impressive. The plane carved turns down a high mountain valley before landing in Paro, the only international airport in Bhutan. The first thing noticed is that all locals are wearing traditional dress. The men have a knee-length tunic tied at the waist and knee socks. The odd part is the 12″ white cuff on the arms. The baggy top of the tunic functions as a man-purse. Women wear a floor length skirt with a short jacket. As it turns out, this is how virtually everyone in this country dresses, from little children, on up. It is the school uniform. I was met by my guide, Sangay and our driver, both in their mid 20’s.
Bhutan is easily the most expensive country in the world to travel for the backpacker. The normal daily all-inclusive rate is $250 and I am paying an additional $40/day single supplement. With the $50 visa fee, seven days in Bhutan costs $2,080. Add the $900 airfare from Bangkok and you have a $3,000 week. Drinks excluding water and tea are extra and a tip is expected for the guide. It is suggested that $100 cash is all that is needed. The $250 per day is divided between the government – $85, driver and car – $55, and guide -$13. The rest is hotel and food for the three of us and profit for the tour company. The hotels though are far superior to “normal” backpacker accommodation. I was surprised at how little my guide, with a degree in English, is being paid. It is still by far the best job he can get and 6x the minimum wage. All the money is paid at least 2 weeks in advance in order to get the visa which is necessary to board the plane. I had hoped to join a group but that is only possible through Western tour companies, adding another 50% to the cost. So I had emailed several local Bhutan tour companies for itineraries and information and picked one of them. Make sure to exchange your Bhutan money back to $US before you leave the country. It seems impossible to exchange outside Bhutan.
Lunch was barely edible. Two kinds of rice, a very tough beef stew, chili cheese, and seaweed soup. I can see that I will be food challenged. The only seasoning is chili and everything is piquante. My gustatory hyperhydrosis is in full gear. We drove the 54kms east to Thimphu, the capital. Speeds rarely exceeded 50km/hour along the twisty road. I could have been transplanted into the mountainous West Kootenay of BC – steep valleys surrounded by forested mountains. 72% of the countries forests remain and the constitution mandates that the amount of forest not go below 60%. All housing is low down in the valleys and farms are surrounded by terraced rice paddies. Bhutan has 700,000 people and 100,000 of those live in Thimpu. The city extends up and down the valley. There are no traffic lights in Bhutan, and the only traffic control in the country is a traffic cop in the busiest intersection in Thimphu.
Besides the dress, the architecture stands out. Every building and house is built basically the same way, three stories for houses and 6 for apartments and other buildings. All are built of reinforced concrete and bricks then all is plastered. The exteriors are then lavishly decorated – pictures on the outside walls, wood windows surrounded by painted designs and lintels, and just below the attic, an elaborate structure of painted end beams that flare out from the wall. This adds little to the structure and is purely decorative. Most have an open air “attic” sometimes closed with mats. This is where feed for the animals was stored on farms. Swathes of red chilis drying in the sun cover most farm roofs. Interesting, they use no insulation in any building (fibreglass, styrofoam or foam) so one must question the efficiency of their buildings. When I visited the two major Buddhist sites last year, Lumbini in Nepal and Bodh Gaya in India, where the Buddhist countries around the world showcase their monasteries, I thought, of all the countries, Bhutan’s monasteries were the nicest.
We went first to the Painting School. Besides painting there are 4-6 year apprenticeships in 12 other disciplines including wood carving, sculpture, carpentry, woodturning, gold, silver and black smithing, cane and bamboo work, weaving, needlework, bronze casting, pottery, masonry and paper making. Paintings sold in the nearby store sold for up to $7-9,000. Those most expensive ones took up to a year to do and were unbelievably intricate. All these disciplines are involved in producing the architectural detail that is so characteristic of this tiny mountain kingdom. Monasteries and my nice hotel are a model for them all. The six-story central lobby is a riot of painted carved wood – geometric designs, flowers, birds, dragons and gods. All the doors, columns, and furniture was similarly carved. My room is huge with a separate sitting room and marble bathroom – easily the nicest I have stayed in my 8 years of travel.
Buddha Point, at 167′ tall, is the tallest sitting Buddha in the world. It sits high above Thimphu giving panoramic views of the valley and city. Made of bronze and studded with semi precious stones, Bhutan does not have the ability to cast the large pieces. They were manufactured in China and then assembled here. A temple is built in the base but the large plaza in front is still under construction. We then drove to a viewpoint above the Kings Palace or Tashichho Dzhong. This monarchy started in 1907 and this was the summer residence. Built in 1641 by the architect on top of another dzhong originating in 1216, it became the permanent seat of government in 1955. Like all dzhongs, it serves as a fortress, government administrative center and summer home of the Central Monk Body. It is closed to tourists. The present king is extremely popular. With his ‘pompadour’ hair style and side burns, he has an uncanny resemblance to Elvis Presley. Educated at Oxford, he was married in 2011. In the restaurant that evening, 3 men wearing the fancy traditional boots entered. I learned later that one was the Prime Minister. Stray dogs are as common here as in India. Well fed by the local restaurants, they sleep during the day, but bark all night. Some control was achieved by a secret extermination program that has unfortunately been abandoned. Hinduism and Buddhism have problems dealing with animals.
Day 2. We drove about an hour north to visit the Tango University of Buddhism. In 1619, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal came to Bhutan. Called the architect, he was responsible for building most of the monasteries and dzhongs (fortresses) still standing in Bhutan today. He built this monastery in 1620 as an institute for monks. It has the same function today and monks commit 3 years, 3 months and 3 days to study. The 45 minute walk up to the monastery is through an oak forest. Buddhist sayings pepper the trail. Gorgeous langur monkeys with black faces, white heads and chests, a grey body and long prehensile tails were scrambling and fighting in the trees. On the drive here, we had passed a stream with several small “houses” perched over it. I was impressed with what appeared to be a run-of-the-river hydroelectric project. However, the only thing being turned were prayer wheels. We stopped to watch a group of men playing darts. The large darts are thrown at a tiny 3″x12″ target fifty meters away. When the target is hit the competitors do a chant and dance. The courtyard of the Astrology Monastery had two enormous cypress trees, now rarely seen in nature. A virtual look-alike to our western red cedar, these were as big as our largest. I counted 17 dogs snoozing, preparing for their night of mayhem.
The Thimphu Zoo holds a few deer and the takin, the national animal. Several years ago, the king decreed that it was improper for a Buddhist nation to keep an animal in captivity. The animals were set free and the zoo closed, but the takin refused to leave the area. They were soon roaming the streets of town. The present minimalist preserve was then built. The takin is unrelated to any other animal and has an unusual appearance – the head of a goat and the body of a cow.
The Folk Heritage Museum is in a traditional farmhouse and displays all the artifacts present in a home. The first floor held animals, the second was a storeroom for rice and grain, and the third was the living space with a kitchen, living room and altar room for prayer. The attic was accessed from the outside.
The National Memorial Chorten memorializes the third king, the father of modern Bhutan. Carrying the message of world peace and prosperity, it has a classical stupa shape, but with rooms inside, wall paintings and statues. Many elderly were sitting with their prayer beads or circumnavigating the stupa.
Thimphu has a great deal of construction happening, mainly hotels and apartments. All construction is done my itinerant Indian labor, here on 3 month work permits. Bhutanese are more expensive both for wages and the necessity to provide accomodation and food. Their housing is a distiinct difference – basically temporary slum housing situated near the building sites.
Day 3. The 71km drive north-east to Punakha crosses the Do Chula Pass (3150m). A mound at the pass is festooned with 108 small square chortens built as a tribute to the kings of Bhutan for their selfless service and leadership. The potential view of the Himalayas was obscured in the mist. A clever sign at the pass was “Don’t Drink and DrIvE”. Vendors sell apples on the side of the road. The Punakha Valley is 1,000 meters lower than Thimphu and as a result manages two rice harvests per year. The fall harvest was just starting here where is was well over in the west part of the country. Oranges, guava, and prickly pear cactus all grow here. The Divine Mad Man’s Temple was built in 1499 on a hillock in the center of the valley. He used humor, songs, and sometimes bizarre and shocking behavior with deep sexual overtones to dramatize his teachings. The temple has several wooden phalluses brought from Tibet by the lama. Penises complete with testicles are painted on most commercial buildings and carved phalluses are for sale everywhere. One store is called Phallus Handicrafts. Pilgrims receive a blessing to ward off evil by being struck on the head with a ten-inch wooden phallus. It is believed that childless couples that pray here will be blessed with children and women visit from all over the world. This is the only temple where alcohol is seen on altars – the Divine Madman liked his booze. The temple is accessed by a lovely 20 minute walk across rice paddies. Small groups of teenage monks were practicing playing the musical instruments that are part of Buddhist rituals.
The Punakha Dzhong was built in 1638 by the architect right at the confluence of the Mo Chuu and Po Chhu Rivers at the exact spot prophesied by the founder of Bhutanese Buddhism, Guru Rinpoche, 800 years previously. It is easily the most impressive building and dzhong in Bhutan. Tall white stone walls enclose two huge rectangular towers. One showcases all of Bhutan art forms. Elaborate worked gold metal surrounds the many columns. Intricate paintings of the story of Buddha cover every wall and embroidered cloth hangings adorn everything. I watched a monk do a butter sculpture. With 8 mounds of differently colored butter, he applied it using his thumb constructing intricate flowers. This dzhong served as the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and is still the winter residence of the central monastic body. the ruling organization of the Drukpa Kagyu School of Buddhism. After visiting the dzhong, we walked over to an impressive suspension bridge over the big river.
Day 4. This is a national holiday, Coronation Day. We drove up the Mo Chhu River, walked across a suspension bridge and climbed up to the Khamsum Yulley Namhyal Chorten or “Queens Chorten”. It took 9 years to build and was finished in 2004 by the mother of the present king. Sitting high above the valley, there are commanding views in all directions. The temple is considered one of the finest examples of the use of traditional Bhutanese architectural style in modern times. The inside has 4 levels adorned in the best architectural style. It is impossible to describe the wood carving and fantasticly painted interiors. Each has statues to all the important people in Bhutans Buddhist culture – Guru Rinpoche, the Architect and the pantheon of Buddhist gods. Every altar has bowls of holy water filled before sunrise and emptied after sunset daily. Lotus blossoms float in the water. Butter lanterns give a musky scent to the air. Donations of food and money compete with butter sculptures and candle driven prayer wheels. Ancient elephant tusks flank the altar. On the roof, we enjoyed the stupendous views. The rice harvest is just starting here and paddies of yellow cascade up the hillsides. The harvest is labour intensive – a bunch is cut by hand and laid flat to dry. The threshing is a group effort. Sheaves of rice are tied and swung with two hands overhead onto a round of wood, releasing the rice onto tarps laid in the ground. it is eventually bagged in burlap bags, stored and subsequently taken to hulling machines. Round stacks of hay straw dot the paddies. It is used as animal food over the winter.
Down in the valley, we stopped at an archery tournament. Archery is the national sport and most men partake. This was an informal group of friends playing on a rough patch of ground next to the river. Two targets about 15×36 inches were stuck in the ground 350 meters apart with half of each team at each end. The fellows were using traditional bows and arrows made of bamboo, rarely seen today. Most official tournaments use modern bows and arrows. As it is difficult to hold a drawn traditional bow, and the shooting motion is fluid with no pause to take aim. Their accuracy was impressive. Each shoots two arrows and about 10% hit the target. A direct hit scores 2 points and an arrow landing within a shaft length of the target scores one. The games goes to 25. As it is impossible to see the end of the arrow’s flight except for a puff of dust sometimes, the receiving end signals the result using hand signals, three colored ribbons of cloth on either side of the target and a lot of yelling. It can be quite dangerous as some arrows fall well short, fly past into the bush or more dangerously are well off to the side. A shot far off the target is derided with yells of “flies like a fish”. If the target is hit, a chant and dance is performed and the archer gets a colored scarf to hang from his belt. Surprisingly, Bhutan has not won international archery tournaments but none of those are run like in Bhutan.
After lunch, we drove 1000m to the top of the mountain behind our hotel to Talo, the home town of the present queen. The 8 foot wide road has been paved since her marriage, We visited an ancient monastery with all the usual over the top interiors. Here the 400 year old paintings were directly on the concrete but in amazingly good condition. Four young monks were playing darts and they let me join them. It took several attempts to get my range (50m is a long throw), but I still never got very close. On the way down, we visited a nunnery, one of three in the country. Small groups of tonsured women were sitting on the grass practicing their prayers and chants. They were a much more serious group than any male monks. The monastery was as fantastic as all the others. An imposing statue of Chenrizig, the 11 headed, thousand armed god of compassion, was the main deity. Anybody who says Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion, have not seen this religion in action.
Day 5. Today we drove back to Paro over the Do Chula Pass through cloud and mist. With speeds that never got over 40 it was a long 3 1/2 hour drive. Most tours to Bhutan head east from Punakha to the Phobjikha Valley in central Bhutan from here. It is best known for its black necked cranes that migrate over the Himalayas from Tibet. They are just starting to arrive in early November and we have heard that 4 cranes have arrived. Of the 11,000 cranes known to exist, only 500 migrate to Bhutan. A festival for the crane is held in mid November. Going there and back would have meant an entire day of driving on bad roads. We stopped in Thimphu and watched part of an archery tournament. This was much more formal and all the archers used modern compound bows and modern arrows. A compound bow allows the archer to hold the drawn bow and they took several seconds to aim properly. Their accuracy was prodigious, hitting the target about 40% of the time.
Once in Paro, we drove up to the Ta Dzhong or National Museum. Originally a huge, 6 storied, round watchtower built in 1641, it was converted to the museum in 1968. It holds a priceless collection of textiles, Thangka paintings, weapons, armour, jewellery, masks used in the traditional dances, and an excellent nature section, that showcases the geology, flora, animals and birds of the country. Bhutan is a popular birding destination with many endemic species. Just below the museum is the Paro Dzhong, another huge fortress with two large rectangular towers inside. Sitting high on a steep hill above the Paro Chu River, there are imposing views of the flat valley filled with rice paddies. I contains administrative offices for the district and district monk body. We then walked down and crossed the covered cantilevered bridge.
My hotel here was the Gangtay Palace, built in a huge, 100-year-old house. The interior of my room was decorated in the best Bhutanese fashion. Dogs barking all night kept me awake again. Bring your best ear plugs if you want to have a decent nights sleep in Bhutan. Because of their respect for animals, they seem powerless to deal with the problem.
Day 6. Today, we climbed up to the Tigers Nest, the iconic and most famous Bhutan tourist site. It has been listed as one of the ten holiest places in the world. It is called the Tigers Nest as Guru Rimpoche is said to have flown to the site on the back of a tigress and the monastery was built in 1692. Fire damaged the monasteries in 1951 and 1998, after which a major reconstruction was undertaken. After a 30 minute drive north of Paro, we joined the throngs starting the hike. Horses are available for rent. Supposedly a 900m elevation gain, it is probably more like 600m. It took me 1 1/2 hours at my slow steady pace, and I lost count after passing the 100th person. This was a physical test for most. Prayer flags are everywhere in Bhutan, but the number here were over the top. Some spanned impossible distances. The high point of the trail is reached at a viewpoint – both of the valley below and the monastery perched on a ledge on a vertical granite wall. There are at least 10 other monasteries dotted across the cliff above the one at Tigers Nest. The location is spectacular. One descends many steps built on the cliff to the base of a stunning waterfall, and then a tiring ascent to the monastery. I was frisked for the first time in Bhutan. The monastery is a series of seven or so small temples, each with its own gods and statues. I had beaten all the people and was alone in most of them. I wandered through them over 50 minutes and then the crowds arrived. On the way down we stopped at a cafeteria for a welcome rest. I counted 50 cars and buses in the parking lot.
After lunch, we visited a ruined dzong north of Paro. It was destroyed by fire and was interesting to wander around the grounds and walk on the walls. We then went to the Jowo Temple of Kyichu, the oldest existing temple in Bhutan built in the 7th century. A funeral was happening and the queen mother visited while we were there. The place was packed. Besides ancient relics, the painted walls were obscured by the soot of butter lamps. Hundreds of prayer wheels fill niches in the exterior walls. Handicraft emporiums are in 4 cities in Bhutan. Most are produced by farmers over the winter.
Day 7. We drove west over Chele La Pass (at 3980m, the highest road pass in Bhutan) to the Haa Valley (2700m). The narrow but good road switchbacked up through a wonderful forest of large mature spruce, fir and larch (latter a golden-yellow before all the needles fall). At the pass we had good views of the Himalayas including the highest mountain in Bhutan. Few tourists come here and it is a very quiet place. There is a large Indian army camp here. Visited 2 temples, the Black and the White Monasteries, both very old, had a picnic lunch next to the river and then drove back to Paro.
Road building in Bhutan is a major challenge. The only reasonable two-lane road outside cities is between Paro and Thimphu. The rest are narrow potholed pavement and dirt. Small crews of locals, mostly women do maintenance, clearing the drainage ditches and building retaining walls. Every creek poses washout risks. The road to the Tigers Nest was a mess of construction. Because of the irrigation needed to grow rice, many small waterways have to be dealt with. Elaborate concrete culverts were labour intensive. Like on building sites, all the laborers are Indian. Despite an unemployment rate of 14%, it turns out than Bhutanese don’t like doing labour. The minimum wage is to be raised to 125 Nu, about $2/day, next year. The Nu is pegged to the Indian rupee, 68 to the $US.
It is surprising how dependent Bhutan is on India. Vegetarianism is rare. Buddhists kill no animals and all beef, chicken and pork comes from India. Likewise virtually all vegetables come from India. Bhutan only grows rice. Gas is subsidized by India and diesel is about 80 cents a liter. Most Bhutanese are educated in India on government scholarships. 70% of the Bhutan’s economy is based on agriculture. Tourism and hydroelectric power are the only other significant sources of income. Bhutan produces most of its milk, cheese and butter but all the butter used in the butter lamps comes from India. Like in India, most men chew betel, but never spit in public. There are many Indian army posts in Bhutan.
Smoking is illegal here. Locals caught are apparently sentenced to jail. Some local shop keepers in Paro were caught by Narcotics Control Officers for selling black market cigarettes.
The type of tourist in Bhutan is distinctly different from most in other parts of the world. Because of the cost, they are wealthy and thus older. No 20-somethings here. None are backpackers and everyone is here on a short, usually guided tour including time in India. I have met 2 other solo travelers, several couples and many larger groups. Surprisingly, almost all the big groups have been American. One group, all women from the States, were on a bicycle tour. They were driven to the top of the passes and then released for the big switchbacking downhills. Because of the rough roads, they were using mountain bikes. About half the day was spent cycling and the other half sight-seeing. Many younger people come to trek. The 29 day Snowman Trek is legendary but most are doing short 4 day treks (I’m sure because of the cost). Horses serves as the porters. Several groups have been rafting on the Mo Chu River in the Punahka Valley. Indian tourists don’t need a visa or guide and are also common. At Tigers Nest, I met a group of 30 Danish doctors. They were attending a continuing medical education course, a great way to make the trip tax-deductible. Many groups concentrate on birding and photography.
Summary. I thoroughly enjoyed Bhutan. I think much of that was due to my good guide. The people are very sweet and courteous. Bhutan strives like few other countries in the world to maintain their culture intact. Their dress, architecture, and craft heritage are unlike anywhere else. Everything revolves around Buddhism. It is still a third world country. Wages are low and 70% of the economy is based on agriculture, basically growing rice. They seem too dependent on India for food, gas, and everything manufactured. Gross National Happiness seems to be more a figment of the kings imagination than anything. It ranks 141 on the 2012 United Nations Happiness Index. Unless trekking, one week is more than enough, especially with the high cost.