In this segment, I will talk about the tour of Paro, Bhutan and the visit to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Also, I have developed a new format for sending my photos. I hope this is an improvement and you enjoy the new format.
My first impression of Paro, Bhutan was extremely positive! Located in western Bhutan, the whole area seemed so much cleaner than Kathmandu, Nepal. The buildings at the airport were extremely modern and constructed in the traditional Bhutanese architecture. Furthermore, there was a welcomed cooling in the air and I could detect a noticeable lack of humidity as we walked to the terminal building to retrieve our luggage. Again, the terminal was very clean, modern, well maintained, and totally uncrowded. Our flight injected the only passengers at the terminal. During the short wait for our luggage, I and other passengers remarked about the distinct differences between Paro and the Kathmandu airport terminals. Everyone seemed to be happy to be in Paro, Bhutan. We were complying with the law! I’ll explain that, later.
All my travel plans to Bhutan had been made with Druk Asia Tours and Treks via the internet. Everything, including permission to enter the country, airline tickets, e-Visa Clearance, transportation arrangements, and my tour itinerary were provided to me by way of e-mail, well in advance of my arrival in Bhutan. They even gave me the name of the guide who would greet me at the airport. All I had to do was print the copies of the documents and have them with me when I entered the country. With documents in hand, my immigration was quick, easy, and without any difficulty. Again, a totally different experience from Kathmandu, Nepal.
Exiting the customs area, I was pleased to see my guide, Younten Jamtsho (nicknamed Jimmy) waiting for me with a sign saying “Mr. James Thomas.” Again. my positive first impression continued. Since I was traveling much lighter than my travels to the other cities, we were able to quickly get to the car with our driver Ugyen Tshering (nicknamed Uncle Rock). The next pleasant surprise was the car. It was a Nissan station wagon that permitted easy access for this tourist! Since I arrived in Paro during the mid-morning, it was way too early to check into my hotel. The plan was to take a tour of Paro and the key sites before retiring to the hotel for the first night’s stay.
Prior to this visit, many people that I encountered asked me about my itinerary. I was surprised at how many people hadn’t heard of Bhutan, nor knew where it was. These were people in China and Tibet. That is like living in New York and not knowing where Iowa was. Come to think of it, I’ve encountered many New Yorkers that didn’t know where Iowa was, either. However, I think you get my point.
Bhutan is a totally unique country. The entire country of Bhutan is about the same size of Clark County, Nevada where I live. It has a current population of 817,205. That equates to 18 people per sq. km. Allow me to put that in perspective. The population of Nepal is 29.96 million! No wonder the difference was so readily obvious. The elevation of Paro is 7,200 ft. That is 2,000 ft higher than Denver, CO. While the effects of altitude were not as dramatic as they were in Lhasa, Tibet, I did feel a bit woozy. It was more noticeable when climbing up hills or long flights of stairs.
The customs and traditions of Bhutan are also unique. The country is predominantly Buddhist which is openly practiced by the citizens of Bhutan. These customs and traditions have been intact for thousands of years. For centuries, Bhutan was closed to the outside world and only recently have they allowed visitors to the county. Because of this, Bhutan has made rapid advances in the 21st century. It is said that Bhutan has advanced more in the past 65 years than it had in the previous 400 years. Men and women share equal rights and there appears to be no clan nor cast system in this country. Yet men and women are required by law since 1990 to wear their national dress in public. Men wear robes called the gho and women wear the kira, a wrap-around dress in bright colors. Ornate brooches are used to compliment a kira. Both Jimmy and our driver were dressed in the traditional Bhutanese attire. I have included a photo of Jimmy in his national “uniform.” There are other interesting laws and customs in Bhutan. The sale of tobacco products is illegal and smoking in any public place is strictly prohibited. Tipping in Bhutan is not very commonplace. Heck, no smoking and no tipping, Bhutan definitely has its possibilities! With that, I wouldn’t mind wearing that robe all the time. The irony is that it looks like the old-fashioned smoking jackets, yet there is no smoking allowed!
Finally, there is one more unique aspect of Bhutan, the GNH. This is the Gross National Happiness, a philosophy that guides the government of Bhutan. On July 18, 2008, the government of Bhutan made GNH part of their Constitution. While our Declaration of Independence only affords the opportunity for the “Pursuit of Happiness,” the Bhutanese Constitution makes happiness the law! Thus, refer to my earlier comment about complying with the law. The government uses an index to measure the collective happiness and well-being of the population. Many in the Bhutanese government, including their King, consider the GNH to be more important than their Gross National Product. Their GNP is based on agriculture, forestry, mineral mining, exporting hydro power, and, in recent years, tourism.
As we drove away from the airport, the sky was a mix of clear blue and puffy white clouds that indicated rain could be in our future this day. However, for the moment, the billowy white clouds added beautiful contrast to the photographs. Bhutan is in the valley of the Paro Chhu River that runs the length of the town. The brightly colored homes dotted both sides of the river bank and up the side of the hills that progressed into the mountains.
We drove up into the hills to our first destination, the Paro Dzong – AKA Ringpung Dzong or as the locals refer to it as the “fortress of a heap of jewels.” A Dzong is fortress built in a distinctive type architecture that is common to Bhutan and the former parts of Tibet. Built in 1646, this magnificent and colorful 5 story structure
built in the Bhutanese architectural style served as both a fortress and a monastery. Standing imposingly on top of a hill overlooking the Paro township, the Dzong serves today as a monastic and district governmental administrative center. However, from a tourist perspective, the view of the Paro Valley is spectacular and well worth the uphill walk and the stair climbing. The magnificent wood carved and painted interiors of the monastery are a must see!
Having completed our tour of the Paro Dzong, we went up to the ridge immediately above the fortress to visit the small, but interesting, first National Museum of Bhutan. The museum provides a brief history of Bhutan as well as works of art, relics, and other historical artifacts. While not the Smithsonian, it is still worth the climb up the hill for a visit.
Our visit to the Dzong and the National Museum completed, we drove a little way down the hill to a scenic spot that afforded a spectacular view of the valley as well as the beautiful Paro Dzong in all its grandeur. I took considerable time taking pictures as well as just sitting and enjoying the view. The township of Paro stretched along the Paro Chhu River which divided the valley evenly. The flat flood plains gently transitioned into hills and then mountains. Once outside the center of town, single family homes and small farms dotted the entire valley. In fact, the design of the homes reminded me of mountain chalets in Germany, Austria, and
Switzerland. Suddenly, I realized that this was the first place on the entire trip where I actually saw single family homes! I didn’t see any in China, Tibet, and certainly not Kathmandu, Nepal! No wonder I was truly liking Bhutan. It was clean. The air was pure. It was a lovely colorful area. The mountains and river valley were majestic. And, it was NOT crowded! There were no traffic jams and the roads were great! My favorable impression continued and got even better!
By now, it was lunch time. We made our way to the center of Paro, where we parked the car and Jimmy took me to a lovely restaurant on the second floor of corner building. My table gave me a view of the main street in both directions. Bhutanese shoppers and a few tourists were moving from shop to shop making purchases or just looking. My lunch consisted of a rice – chicken dish with asparagus. It was quite good. However, Jimmy and Uncle Rock did not eat in the dining room. I guess they needed a break, too.
After lunch, we walked the main street of Paro looking for souvenirs. With Jimmy’s help I found two “Terrifying” masks, 1 man and 1 woman, whose purpose was to ward off evil spirits. They were an appropriate choice from Paro and small enough to put in my suitcase after being properly wrapped for protection, because they were very fragile. As a side note, I was grateful that they made it safely home.
As we made our way back to the car, the rain, that I predicted earlier, had arrived. That was okay. We made our way to the last stop on today’s tour, The Paro Penlop Heritage Farmhouse. This was an 18th century farmhouse that depicted farm life and conditions during that period of time. It reminded me of the living history farms we see in America or Colonial Williamsburg, but on a much, much smaller scale. The staff was dressed in the costumes of the period. To my surprise and appreciation, the staff guide spoke English. It was an interesting tour, but the whole environment had poor lighting and the inclement weather created unfavorable conditions for photos. The tour ended with a chance to shoot a Bhutanese bow and arrow from that period of time. After watching several people shoot with varying degrees of success, I learned from both their successes and mistakes. I was able to put my arrow on target near the center. I did not try a second arrow. Why chance it!
Rain was heavier now, as we made our way outside of town, down the valley, toward the Le Meridien Hotel. It was a lovely property located on the Paro Chhu River. The hotel was clean and modern. I was happy to be there.
All day long I had been concerned about the tour for the following day. We were scheduled to go up the mountain side to the famous Takstang Monastery that was also known as the “Tiger’s Nest.” This Buddhist relic is considered by some to be the iconic symbol of Bhutan. However, to reach the Tiger’s Nest, one had to climb up a narrow trail of rocks and mud. The climb took at least 3 hours up and 3 hours down. I had talked to other
people who had made the climb and they said in good conditions, the trek up to the Tiger’s Nest made the climb up to the top of the Potala Palace seem like a walk in the Park. With the drenching rains today and the forecast for the same tomorrow, I discussed our options with Jimmy. When I expressed my concerns, Jimmy got a broad grin on his face. He wasn’t looking forward to a six hour trek up and down a rocky, muddy trail in the rain either. He suggested that we cancel the trek to the Tiger’s Nest and substitute a trip to Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. Being a political science and history major in undergrad, I thought visiting a nation’s capital was much better than a 6-hour hike in the mud. It was agreed!
An enjoyable meal was soon followed by a very restful night’s sleep. It had been a long day filled with exciting views of Everest, visiting a new country, and trekking up and down hills at 8,000 feet. I was tired!
After a great breakfast, Jimmy and Uncle Rock were right on time. We departed for Thimphu at 09:00. However, before we went to the nation’s capital, we drove over to where the Tiger’s Nest was located. Sure enough, the trail looked as treacherous as anticipated. However, from the location where we parked the car, I could get some great photos! At least I had the opportunity to see the Tiger’s nest much the same way I saw Everest, but without a window.
The drive to Thimphu was a lovely road trip along a two-lane highway where we followed the winding Paro Chhu River, crossing it about halfway along the journey. Occasionally, we stopped to take some pictures or simply enjoy the view. I’ve included some of those photos in this travelogue. They show the true beauty of this small mountainous country. I will let them speak for themselves.
After about two hours of traveling through some of the most scenic countryside that I had seen on the entire trip, we arrived on the outskirts of Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. It is also the largest city in Bhutan, occupying over 10 sq miles and having a population of over 98,600 people. After a quick drive around the city,
we proceeded up the mountain to the Kuenselphodrang Nature Park. There on a hill top that overlooked the Southern entrance to the Thimphu Valley stood one of the Buddha Dorendma. Cast in bronze and gilded gold, the 169 ft statue is one of the largest Buddhas in the world. Thimphu has an elevation of over 7,700 ft. Since we parked the car below the hillside, we had a challenging hike to reach the Buddha, which was at least an additional 2,000 ft above the valley. The altitude was a definite factor.
We spent more than an hour viewing the magnificent Buddha from almost every angle. Part of the site was still under construction. Furthermore, a conference center was being built next to the Buddha’s compound. When it is completed, the center will be a popular site to Buddhist pilgrims and tourists. It will also be a boon to the economy of Thimphu. I hope you enjoy my photos of this beautiful Buddha.
We made our way down the hill to our car and experienced our first traffic jam in Bhutan. Cars and buses were crowding the road trying to reach the nature park, while we and others were trying to leave. The jam only lasted a few minutes and was nothing like what I had experienced in Kathmandu.
Returning to the town center, we went to a local restaurant for lunch. It, too, was on the second floor overlooking one of the main streets of Thimphu. A chicken and rice dish was being served. However, as I began to eat the chicken I noticed something was strange. The small chunks of chicken had bones in it. I immediately stopped eating it. However, I soon realized the damage had been done. Within two hours my stomach was feeling the effects of the bad chicken. Now I began to understand why Jimmy and Uncle Rock didn’t eat at these restaurants
Out next stop on the tour was the Thimphu Memorial Chorten located in the south-central part of the city. The white dome structure with its beautiful golden spires and bells was reminiscent of the Buddhist Stupas
that we saw in Nepal. Known as the most visible religious landmark in Bhutan, this chorten is a popular destination of Buddhist pilgrims and tourists.
Next to the chorten was a grouping of gigantic Buddhist prayer wheels. These cylindrical spiritual tools are made of metal, wood, stone, or other materials. The mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” is written on the outside of the wheel. These wheels represent thousands, or with the larger wheels, millions of prayers. Spinning the wheels distributes prayers, blessings and well wishes for you and those for whom you pray. The wheels are easy to turn with one hand. More spins on more wheels equal more prayers. It is common to see Buddhists, almost unconsciously spinning the wheels as they pass by. It seems
much easier than getting on your knees and reciting prayers from rote memory. I’ll leave the prayer wheels’ effectiveness up to the believer.
The predicted rain was arriving as we finished our last stop on the tour. Also, arriving was a queasy stomach, a result of my suspicious lunch. After taking photos of both the Chorten and the prayer wheels, we made our way to the car. I had one more request before we left town for our trip back to Paro. I wanted to see the “seat” of Bhutanese Government. Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy with a king and a prime minister. The king and his young queen are encouraging the democratization of Bhutan through reforms and emphasis on education. As a result of his programs, the king enjoys immense popularity among his subjects. We stopped the car on a hill that provided an excellent view of the Bhutanese Parliament, The Supreme Court, and the Royal Palace. All were of the same architectural design. I quickly took photos of each as the rain was increasing.
As we drove back to Paro, I realized how winding the road really was. This was having an effect on my stomach. Finally making it back to the hotel, I asked Jimmy and Uncle Rock to pick me up well before the flight time. This allowed me to, once again, get my seat assignment. After explaining this to my guide, they agreed.
There was a Bhutanese wedding at the hotel. Normally, I would have observed this cultural experience from the sidelines. However, I was not feeling at all well. I even skipped dinner and tried to sleep it off. Unfortunately, the symptoms didn’t leave me during the night and were there in the morning. I skipped breakfast, too, because I wasn’t able to retain anything. Thank God for bottled water and the stack of Quest Protein bars that I had brought with me just for this type of emergency. Unfortunately, I discovered that my antibiotic pills that I had received from my physician for use in such emergencies were missing. I suspect that the Chinese security took them.
I was grateful that Jimmy and Uncle Rock were on time. The both agreed that I didn’t look my best and were eager to get me to the airport. My plan for early arrival worked. I was able to secure a seat, this time on the right side of the plane. That was where Everest would be on my return flight to Kathmandu. I was sad to leave beautiful Bhutan on such a sour note. It is truly a unique and lovely country. If it hadn’t been for the bad chicken, my Bhutan adventure would have been 100% positive. Unfortunately, my current focus was on keeping the symptoms of the stomach disorder in check and not reflecting on my fabulous experience in Paro and Thimphu. I bade farewell to Jimmy and Uncle Rock and broke a Bhutanese custom by giving them a generous tip for providing a great tour and assistance. They broke a Bhutanese custom by accepting it.
In my next update I will discuss my brief return to Kathmandu, my unusual journey to Shanghai, and my wonderful visit to that city. I hope you enjoyed my travelogue on Bhutan and the accompanying photos. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.