an asian adventure Part Two: Bhutan

It's about 4:30 AM here on the ramp at Bangkok airport and we're about to board our flight to Bhutan. On the rudder of our Drukair Airbus A319 is the Thunder Dragon, national symbol of Bhutan. So-named after the thunderstorms that frequently occur in the mountains. Hopefully there won't be any bad weather at the end of our three-hour flight from Bangkok.

Legendary among travellers is the hair-raising approach to the airport at Paro. Never have I flown so close to the ground so far from an airport.

Fortunately for us that day, the weather was good and the pilot was old.

Situated in a narrow valley, the airport at Paro is located in the only place in the country where there's enough flat land to build an airport. The other cities we'll visit are Thimphu and Punakha.

Carol enjoys the single-digit air temperature on this perfect March morning, a welcome relief after steamy Bangkok.

Bhutan is a nation of narrow valleys and rivers so bridges are and were a vital part of Bhutanese life. Less than an hour after landing, this ancient bridge was our first visit. Accompanying Carol is Ugyen Chophel Dorji, our full-time guide.

Ugyen begins his week-long introduction to Bhutan history, geography and culture. He's wearing the national dress of the Bhutanese, still very common everywhere, despite the Internet age.

This historic bridge is now replaced by a more modern structure next to it, and that's how we'll cross the river.

Prayer flags are ubiquitous in Bhutan. Ugyen explains their contents.

Inside the ancient bridge tower, Ugyen continues his story. One can't overestimate the value of a guide, especially if it's the same person, day after day. His contribution to our understanding of Bhutan was invaluable.

Nearly as valuable as a guide is the convenience of having your own driver. Kencho relieved us of the problems of navigation and parking and learning to drive on the left side of the road. Our recent model Hyundai Santa Fe proved both comfortable and competent.

Later that first day, we'd travelled to Thimphu, the largest city in Bhutan. There, we visited a handcrafts school where students learn woodcarving, sculpture, painting and other skills.

These students were taking a break from their studies and engaging in a game of what I termed "cooperative hackysack", where the object was to keep the ball in the air, but without losing contact with each other.

Happy and engaged, these students take a break in the warm spring sunshine. Like the Japanese, Bhutanese wear masks when they have a cold.

Public messages from the King are common. The Bhutanese honor and respect their kings, of which there have been only five since the monarchy was established in 1907.

We visited The National Textile Museum. Like in many South Asian nations, textiles play a big part in the cultural life of the Bhutanese. This museum is also a school. The museum has also engaged two permanent weavers – one for pangtha (spinning) and another for thuetha (colouring) – to display the process of weaving. A small group of loom weavers at the museum produce work deriving from Lhuentse Dzongkhag, the ancestral home of the Bhutanese Royal Family in northeastern Bhutan

These weavings use the "discontinuous weft" technique. The discontinuous weft patterns motifs resemble embroidery and are indigenous to Bhutan.

This is not a painting. This is a textile. It's over a meter high.

Also on display are many other artifacts, including these magnificent musical instruments used in Buddhist ceremonies.

Early one morning in Thimphu, we take a before-breakfast stroll. There, we meet the other residents of Bhutan: dogs. They're everywhere, living alongside people in a kind of parallel society. Generally well cared-for and relatively healthy, "street dogs" are a unique part of life in Bhutan.

The doggies, of course, took to Carol immediately. Mostly, we avoided petting them because, well, you never know. But by and large they were friendly and not in the least agressive. Buddhists believe that dogs are a level of reincarnation just below humans, so they're respected. A national neutering program has controlled their population well.

The entire country of Bhutan has no traffic lights. They did have one, but the residents hated it and they reverted to this more picturesque system. This guy was pure elegance, his movements and instructions worthy of any dancer.

Our destination this morning is blocked by a school outing. They had precedence, so we had to wait.

This was our destination.

Apart from commemorating the centennial of the Bhutanese monarchy, this magnificent installation fulfills an ancient prophesy that a large statue of Buddha of a would be built in the region to bestow blessings, peace and happiness on the world. The statue itself is 177 feet high and was built with contributions from nearly 30 countries, including Canada.

It might appear that this is a dedicated photographer, getting a unique angle on the statue. But no. He is offering himself.

A truly inspiring location, the surroundings views were amazing. For the first time I felt that I had truly arrived in the Himalayas.

It's also a great location to view the city of Thimphu. Ugyen and Carol enjoy the view.

Below, the city of Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The roof colours encode the building's use. Green for residential, red for government.

We visited a nature park where several national animals are kept in large outdoor enclosures. Here, a type of goat called a Goral poses nicely.

The national animal of Bhutan is the Taken, found only in the Himalayas.

This astonishingly colourful bird is a Himalayan Monal.

In Thimphu, we visited a weekend market, accessed by crossing this bridge.

Markets are always fun to visit, whatever the country. People and produce - a delightful combination.

Ugyen explains how the various produce is used in Bhutanese cooking. Much of Bhutan's garden items come from the southern lowlands bordering India where the climate is much warmer.

A staple of Bhutanese food is their "red" rice. Ugyen and the inevitable onlookers ensure that Carol gets her money's worth.

Bhutanese men love archery. This weekend warrior is a stock market IT tech during the week. He explained in detail to me how they compete on weekends. Ever-friendly, the Bhutanese are delightful to talk with.

These guys are able to hit a target less than a food in diameter from 300 feet away. The arrows are impossible to see in flight, they simply arrive, silently, at the target.

The archers work in teams and as each shot is executed, the team members (or their competitors) jeer and cheer, dance and sing as the arrows arrive and the points accumulate. Yes, there is alcohol involved.

Our travels next take us east, from Thimphu to Punakha, two hours drive away. To get there we cross Dochula Pass. At over 10,000 feet, it's usually closed in winter. Beyond those distant mountains? China.

At the summit there's a tourist cafe, a parking lot and, yes, dogs. They're not dead, they're just sleeping. Hey, it's March, we're ten thousand feet up and that asphalt is cozy and warm! You have to be careful, backing out of your parking spot.

At the top of the pass, 108 memorial chortens or stupas known as "Druk Wangyal Chortens" were built by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the eldest Queen Mother.

Nearby are dozens of meditation caves.

Even at this high elevation, spring has arrived.

It was the very beginning of tourist season and this restaurant was not yet open.

Nearing Punakha, we visit a botanical park. Here, the lower elevation has advanced springime by several weeks and instead of a few low flowering plants, there are whole trees in flower.

I couldn't resist these prayer flags reflected in a little pond.

On our way to Punakha, we stopped for lunch in the little town of Lobesa. This valley is lower in elevation than either Thimphu or Paro and agriculture is more important here. The green terraces are a winter crop of animal fodder, but soon all the terraces will be flooded and planted with rice.

Springtime has definitely arrived here. The residents were preparing the garden for the growing season. This is the view from my restaurant seat.

Also shot from my lunchtime restaurant seat, this little boy enjoys our shared view of the farmyard below.

After lunch, we strolled through the market, and then drove to the site of our afternoon hike.

As we walked through the small town, we couldn't help but notice quite a few penises - most of them standing up straight. They were everywhere - painted on walls, and displayed in windows. Some were for sale, but many of them just part of the overall decoration. It turns out that the afternoon's hike was to a temple revered for its ability to ensure fertility for those who visit. People come from around the world to receive the blessings of this temple and the displays are in support of that. I must admit, however, I've never seen a penis airplane before.

As with many journeys in Bhutan, our afternoon hike involved bridges - narrow suspension bridges over rivers that looked much like those at home.

Our hike took us through farmlands rich with the smells of growing things.

Carol and Ugyen rest at the top of the hike to the temple. The hike took us quite far above the river, winding for an hour or so through the fields. Once on top, the views were lovely.

Like most Buddhist temples, the interior was off-limits for photography, but the hike was well worth the somewhat strenuous climb. Little did we know. Our hike to the Tiger's Nest two days hence was to eclipse today's walk by a wide margin.

This was the middle of March, and even now the crops are well advanced.

We encountered this group of workers who were building a hot tub. An excellent idea, given the number of tired hikers who pass by this way. We promised to return in two years to test their installation.

Our hotel in Punakha provided this superb view. Dawn, in this case. Below is the Pungtang Dewa chhenbi Phodrang (meaning "the palace of great happiness or bliss"). Begun in 1637, it is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan. A dzong consists of these massive buildings, surrounding a complex of courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monks' accommodations.

Like walking into the distant past, these stone passageways.

Seen in the centers of villages throughout the subcontinent, this ancient bodhi tree was brought as a sapling from India.

Carol negotiates a set of steep, copper-covered stairs.

Of course, there had to be a cat or two here to balance out all those dogs.

Before leaving Punakha, we had one more bridge to cross. This one was among the longest in Bhutan and we had to cross in harrowing high winds. Notice the long arcs of the guy wires, stabilizing the bridge.

The bridge led to what appeared to be a restaurant under construction. Rammed earth and timber framing techniques are used everywhere. Bhutan is expecting a tourism boom and hotels and restaurants were under construction everywhere.

Bamboo is nothing if not versatile. Here, hand-laced scaffolding is as secure and safe as anything in the west. Renewable and sustainable, too.

Indian trucks park along with our Hyundai at this agricultural border checkpoint. It was time to hit the road again, all the way back to Paro where we began our journey. We have just two days left in Bhutan.

On the way back to Paro, we stop in Thimphu for a traditional Bhutanese lunch.

At a nearby table, several guides check up on their responsibilities. Seemingly, most Bhutanese have cell phones. They certainly helped us with bookings for lunches and locating our Kensho and our vehicle when we returned from excursions.

In Paro, we visited another dzong. This one impressively decorated for the Festival of Paro, an annual event that determined the timing of our visit to Bhutan.

Carol spins prayer wheels. There are a lot of them, and it's important that they be spun in the correct direction.

Breakfast in our hotel in Paro. Today, we visit the Festival.

The Festival of Paro is a multi-day, annual event, drawing performers and audience members from across the nation.

Perhaps just as interesting and attractive as the performers are the audience, most of whom arrive in their best dress.

And, of course there's always someone doing a "quick whip around" for the performers.

And, of course, the inevitable dogs, supervising the proceedings. They really are part of the populace.

Now, we're ready for the grand finale of our trip: the hike to the Tiger's Nest temple.

This temple complex was begun in 1692, around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century.

The climb is daunting, to say the least. You have to climb an elevation change of nearly 2,000 feet (both up and down!) and the elevation at the top is over 10,000 feet.

If you're lazy (or smart) you can do most of the uphill part by horse. But we were neither lazy nor smart. For better or for worse, we chose to climb the old fashioned way.

It took a couple of hours, but it was absolutely worth the effort.

Near the top of the climb, we met these three monks who were venturing even higher to their accommodations above.

The Himalayan forest was amazing, with huge rhododendron trees, draped with mosses and lichens.

We're nearly at the top, now. Just around the corner, behind Carol, is our goal.

It's always fun to meet an iconic image like this in person. Like seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time, a sight such as this confirms your presence at somewhere special. On first viewing the monastery, I asked Ugyen, "What were they thinking?"

Our stay in Bhutan stretched just seven days. It's hard to imagine how we'd managed to pack so much experience in to such a short time. But that's travel, right? It's all about the experience. We certainly had lots of that.

My heartfelt thanks to Ugyen, whose knowledge, compassion and friendship will remain in my memory forever. And thanks, too, to Carol, without whose sense of companionship, adventure and generosity this trip would have never been possible.

Created By
Peter Mclennan


Photos by Peter McLennan

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