A Travellerspoint blog


Hiking to Tiger’s Nest is a Thrill for the Soul

Grueling walk in the mud and rain is worth every step taken

rain 72 °F

Tiger’s Nest monastery - a world class site that is a key reason I came to Bhutan

There are those world-class sites, that when you first glimpse them with your own eyes, stop you in your tracks. I was on a rough, stone staircase leading to Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan. My guide went ahead, not noticing me frozen in place. “This was why I came here,” I mumbled to myself. A lump rose in my throat as I said my thanks for being able to see another amazing place in our world created by man.

Looming high up in the mist, Tiger’s Nest is worth coming to Bhutan to see

It was images online of Tiger’s Nest that convinced me to choose Bhutan as a destination, months ago. Everything about the country sounded intriguing - it’s difficulty in actually getting there, the relatively few amount of tourists allowed in, and its unique embrace of Buddhism in creating its modern world. It does not measure Gross National Product, but instead created its own Gross Happiness Index. It had been difficult to get here, and expensive, as well. But as I raised my camera and began taking pictures of the gorgeous white, red, and gold buildings, I knew it had been worth it.

The view of the hillsides and valley as we begin our climb

It had also been worth the climb. I woke up almost two hours earlier than I had planned, so anxious about my visit was I. I was praying for sunshine, or at least not pouring rain. I wasn’t sure if they’d cancel the hike if it was storming. The path was mostly mud and rock, and I imagine could be treacherous if it became a river. After showering and getting ready, I held my breath and opened the curtains of my hotel room windows. My second story room had a great view of Tiger’s Nest. Paro is in a valley hemmed in by tall, forested hillsides. I could see clouds drifting across the hillsides, and a gentle rain falling. The hills were not completely socked in with clouds, though. The fact that I could see the hillsides at all, and the entire valley was not fogbound, was good news.

Prayer flags are a common sight everywhere in Bhutan, including the trail on the hike

At 7am, I walked downstairs and out the front doors of the hotel to see if anything had changed. The rain had stopped, and it seemed to be getting steadily lighter. I ate breakfast, and went back up to the room to begin preparations for my departure tomorrow. My guide and driver were picking me up at 8:30, so I drifted back downstairs at 8:15 - I have made it my goal to be early every morning. To my surprise, my guide Sonam and driver Niwas were having coffee in the lobby. They’d beaten me, for the first time all trip!

Slackers, er tourists, mount up on horses to cover half the hike to the monastery

The drive to the trailhead took about 15 minutes, the road narrowing and become more potholed as we climbed. We passed strings of horses going the same direction. Sonam told me that some tourists ride horses halfway up, and it was obvious he disapproved. As we began our hike we talked about it more. I agreed that it kind of defeated the purpose to ride a horse on a hike. Plus, going to a monastery is somewhat like a pilgrimage. And pilgrimages are meant to be walked, to suffer physically for your spiritual quest. You could argue that if you’re a non-Buddhist like me, what does it matter? Sonam and I were of the same heart on this, though. Besides, horses on the trail meant watching out for poop going up and down!

The cafe at bottom left, with the monastery looming in the mist above it

The day was foggy and damp, and clouds drifted up and across the hillside as we hiked. Sometimes, Tiger’s Nest was cloaked in mist, other times it shone clear, beckoning us upwards. Within 15 minutes, I shed my rain coat. It was very humid, and I began to sweat freely. My pace didn’t slacken, though, and Sonam said we were making good time. It was two hours up, and two hours down. At the halfway point of the climb would be a cafe, where we’d rest and have refreshments.

Even the dogs in Bhutan know how to enjoy a scenic view

I took photos as we continued upwards, either of the monastery coming slowly closer, or of the views down below as we hiked higher and higher. Seemingly stray dogs are everywhere in Bhutan, and this hike was no exception. Some of them were even perched on rocks with amazing views beneath them. Do dogs appreciate beautiful scenery, too? In Bhutan, they appear to! We encountered few other hikers, perhaps our early start or the intermittent clouds were the reasons. We did encounter Gray Langur monkeys, lounging high in the cloud forest trees, though. Sonam spotted them first, and declared it good luck (or at least that is the tradition in Bhutan). As I zoomed in on them with my telephoto lens, I agreed wholeheartedly.

Spotting a Gray Langur monkey is good luck, according to Bhutanese tradition

Spanish moss appeared on the trees, too, at a certain elevation as we climbed. The fog and lichen and moss-encrusted trees gave the surrounding forest a magical appearance. We passed prayer flags, alternating in blue, white, red, yellow, and green. You see strings of them everywhere in this Buddhist kingdom. Some have been hanging in the weather so long they are faded to white, the prayers written on them long since faded away. Eventually, we came to a tall pole affixed with red prayer flags. Sonam had pointed it out to me yesterday from my hotel where we could barely make it out high near the summit. This was our highest point in the hike. From here, we would actually descend slightly to the bridge that led to Tiger’s Nest.

Lichen and moss hangs from the trees, giving the hike a magical feel

We stopped for awhile, though, and enjoyed the view. Sonam said this is the most famous view of the monastery buildings, but I would find dozens of stupendous viewpoints as we got closer and closer. A short time later, we rounded a shoulder of the mountain and came to the rough, stone stair. Here is where I froze in my tracks. There, slightly beneath us, Tiger’s Nest stood proudly in all its glory. My pace slowed to a crawl, as my eyes drank in this world-class sight and every nerve in my body thrilled to the experience.

Tiger’s Nest monastery looming high above the valley

The hardest part of the hike, in my opinion, actually still lay ahead. The monastery is at more than 10,000 feet elevation, and the stone staircase leading up the final hundred yards kicked my butt like no other part of the hike. It was the altitude, I knew, but it was humbling nevertheless. One of the coolest parts of exploring the monastery buildings was the service going on in one temple. Two dozen monks chanted their prayers in unison, with older monks beating drums and blowing long trumpets. The monks were of all ages, from the elderly priest who led the chant to elementary school age boys. All were dressed in their deep, burgundy-red robes. Sonam was obviously moved to be there and prayed and prostrated himself in every building.

Buddhist monks visible in front of the right hand buildings, enjoy the views from a railing

After we had explored the monastery - as much as we were allowed to - and enjoyed the amazing views, we began our trek down. The rain started about halfway down, and came and went all the way till the end. Going down was trickier, easier to lose your footing. Luckily (thanks monkey!), neither of us fell. For some reason, the way down seemed to take longer, and I was happy when we reached the parking lot. On the climb I had talked Sonam into stopping at the brewpub in town that I’d found out about yesterday. What better way to reward yourself for more than four hours of sweat and exertion than in a cold beer? I was tired of the traditional lunches I had eaten the previous four days, and pub grub would be a welcome change! Not that I am complaining - my tour with Bhutan Exist Tours and Travel had arranged a great tour for me. They were always available to answer questions and I’d highly recommend them: http://bhutanexist.com/

At Namgay Artesianal Brewery in Paro, Bhutan - a reward for a tough hike!

After lunch, Sonam helped me shop for souvenirs, then took me to one last dzong, nearby. He said it wasn’t open and was still being renovated, but it looked pristine on the outside. Drukyul Dzong was built in the 16th century and was instrumental in Bhutan’s defeat of a Tibetan invasion. I couldn’t get too excited about it because, for me, I had already experienced my high point of the trip. When I came face to face with Tiger’s Nest lording over stupendous view’s high above the valley, I had seen all that I needed to see. Bhutan had been a great trip and worth the trouble to get here. However, the memory of Tiger’s Nest will stay with me forever, and of the grueling hike across rock and mud to get there.

Drukyul Dzong - a smaller fortress currently being renovated

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:43 Archived in Bhutan Comments (1)

Retracing my Steps to Paro, Bhutan

Abbreviated day of sightseeing takes in temples and dzongs

semi-overcast 79 °F

The Paro valley stretched out below its dzong

Even with six days in Bhutan, I was covering only a small slice of this 200-mile wide mountain kingdom. What’s more, the country’s limited road network and only one international airport meant that travelers are bound to retrace their steps, sooner or later. Today was my day. We drove from Punakha to Thimphu, and on to Paro, where the airport is located. Though I saw a lot of countryside, the scenery was pretty much a repeat of day’s one and three.

Paro Valley, hemmed on on all sides by high hills

Once in Paro, we had lunch, then began our half day of sightseeing. This started at the National Museum, or more accurately, the stand-in for the museum which is being renovated after a fire a few years ago. It is now housed in a stone building just steps away from its former location, a round medieval watchtower located atop a hill overlooking the Paro valley.

The round medieval watchtower that normally houses the National Museum

It is a small museum, with only three rooms of exhibits. The best is the first room with the masks that are worn in cultural dances covering the walls. The masks are grouped according to the dances they are used in, and well labeled in English. There is a placard explaining the origin and purpose of each dance, and what the masks are meant to represent. In addition, there is a decent video running every five minutes showing the dances being performed, with commentary.

The watchtower and dzong share a hillside overlooking the town

The second room is merely photographs of Bhutan’s kings, while the third covers the animal and plant life of the country. There are a mix of photographs and taxidermy (complete animals, or their heads for larger ones). The information is good, and it is arranged by Bhutan’s very vertical climate system or habitats. It doesn’t take long to work your way through the museum. Afterwards, we walked down to look at the watchtower, whose exterior is in great shape (must have been mostly interior fire damage). We were supposed to hike down to the dzong next, but Sonam got spooked by the rain clouds rolling over the hilltops at the far end of the valley. So we drove down.

Looking down at the fortress dzong from the watchtower

The dzong was the smallest of the three palace fortresses I saw in my time here. It was also the quietest, with a half-dozen tourists and mostly just monks in residence. Once again, no photos were allowed in the temple, which was the only building we were allowed inside. As usual, I was free to explore otherwise, making a circuit of the interior walls and courtyards. The decoration was amazing, as always for Bhutan’s historic dzongs. I probably spent the least amount of time here of the three, but it was also the smallest. Or perhaps I am getting “dzonged out!”

The interior courtyard of Paro’s dzong

From there, we drove to one of Bhutan’s oldest temples, Kichu - built in the 7th century, according to Sonam. Apparently, it was constructed by a Tibetan king who built 13 temples in Bhutan in all. The coolest part about it was the active service going on when we arrived. The monks were droning their prayers and there was, I believe, recorded music accompanying them. It was very small and somewhat claustrophobic inside, with all of the worshippers, bowing and prostrating themselves. The monks were scurrying around dealing with all of the offerings of food and money being left by worshippers. I did my best to stay out of the way.

Faded colors don’t spoil the beauty of the palace’s decoration

The temple did look older, and had different types of statues than the others I’d seen, so far. More bronze, and almost Hindu looking, with multi-armed goddesses. In an even smaller side chapel built less than 200 years ago, another service was going on. About a half dozen monks were chanting in unison. Suddenly, I saw two get out their cell phones (yes, Buddhist monks across the world seem to carry them). My first thought was, “Ah-ha! Monasteries are having the same problems with cellphones as teachers!” When I circled back around I saw that I was wrong. The monks had been pulling up an app that had the chant listed. They were reading from their cellphone screen - technology changing the way an ancient religion is performed!

Kichu Temple’s interior courtyard

That wrapped up the day’s abbreviated sightseeing. I was driven to my hotel - The Tiger’s Nest Resort - and checked in. My room did indeed have a view of the cliff face where the monastery is located. That was the good news. The bad news is it is a 10-minute drive out of town, and neither my guide nor driver are staying here. So. I am kind of marooned out here. The grounds and view are beautiful, yes. But I was actually planning on doing some shopping tonight since Paro is kind of a handicraft headquarters in Bhutan. Driving through town today I saw tons of shops. Plus, there is a microbrewery here! Will I be retracing my steps into town tonight via taxi? Hmmmm...

Dusk falls, looking out the window of my hotel room at Tiger’s Nest Resort

Posted by world_wide_mike 06:07 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Bhutan’s Stunning Mountain Scenery

...and more penis jokes than you can stand

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Gorgeous views along the road from Thimphu to Punakha

Deep gorges and sheer cliffs fell away to one side of the car as I looked out my window. Beyond those drops, isolated farmsteads, tiny hamlets, and colorful towns stretched into the distance. The road from Thimphu to Punakha, Bhutan, was one of the most scenic I have ever traveled. I tried to imagine what it was like to for these poor villagers to wake up to million dollar views every morning. Did it grow old after awhile? My guess was no - based on the number of road side stands selling chilis, tomatoes, corn, and other vegetables from their fields. All were cleverly sited exactly where you’d want to pull over to take pictures of the incredible panorama opening up before your eyes. They knew they lived amidst soul-searing beauty.

Clouds obscure the view from Dochula Pass

My morning had begun with a heartfelt prayer for good weather and clear skies that day. We would be traveling through the Dochula Pass on the way to Punakha. On a clear day, you can see the peaks of the Himalayas from the pass. Yes, yes, I had been incredibly lucky and seen them on my flight in. But how many times can you view the Roof of the World before you grow tired of it? My guess is never, and thus, my hope to see those icecaps on this morning.

A line of mountain peaks of plays hide and seek n the clouds

When we arrived at Dochula Pass, we were greeted by a dense cloud cover, wrapping us in a blanket of fog. My guide Sonam was positive, and said it might clear up. He led me around what was essentially a roadside park, pointing out the display illustrating Bhutan’s Himalayan peaks, the best viewpoints, and the monument at the center of the park. It was built by the Queen in honor of the 108 soldiers who lost their lives suppressing an Indian rebel movement that had based themselves in Bhutan along its border with India. An oval of 108 man-high, brick stupas crowned the park - one for each soldier.

A villager’s home standing on a hill above a deep valley

Sonam led me slowly through the mist, each of purposively dragging our feet to give time for the skies to clear. As we finished our circuit, I suggested we climb the monument and walk amongst the stupas, which seemed to have a great viewpoint - if the day were clear instead of fogbound. The stupas are in an oval on a hilltop, and as we reached the summit, I saw a patch of blue amidst the gray, and pointed it out to Sonam. He looked around, seeming to sniff the air, and declared it was clearing up.

More Mountain scenery on the road to Punakha

We waited patiently for almost an hour. Breaks would appear in the cloud cover and jagged peaks would loom out of the gray. The openings would expand, and soon we could see an indistinct line of mountain tops. But each time, the clouds would pull their blanket back over our hilltop. I looked up at the hazy disc of the sun, praying for it to do its job and burn away the mist. We both joked that if we had superpowers, we would pull the clouds aside like a lace curtain. After an hour of Dochula Pass’s teasing, we finally gave up, and drove down the winding, two lane road towards Punakha.

A town looms above its rice paddies in Bhutan

It was then that I saw those Bhutanese villagers’ million dollar views. Dochula Pass paled before these dramatic panoramas. This was life lived on a raw, elemental scale. Steep mountains loomed over valleys of rice paddies, which surrounded clusters of three-story, Bhutanese homes. Monasteries stood proudly on summits, seemingly inaccessible, above tiny villages. Forests cloaked the hillsides, wrapping them up in green mantles that made you wonder how isolated and cut off those villagers were before modern roads came. How many weeks would it take to travel the route we were covering in a few hours?

Imagine waking up every morning in this house to those views

At the halfway point in my trip, I had seen a good bit of what Bhutan had to offer. I had seen the incredibly detailed and decorative dzongs. I had paced through Buddhist temples, admiring their wall paintings and marveling at their ornate, otherworldly statues. I had learned about its culture in its museums. I had sat amidst a night time crowd In Thimphu and listened to an outdoor concert. But this - the drama of the geography of a mountain kingdom - was the true soul of the land. This was why I had come to visit this Himalayan mountain kingdom. I soaked up the sights I saw through my window, and every time I asked my driver to pull over, he courteously did. Sonam immediately popped out, too, offering up my telephoto lens and being as good as an assistant photographer as I had any right to ask for. I could have done this all day, but we reached our destination all too soon.

Hiking through the rice paddies towards the temple of the Divine Madman

One reason most tours of Bhutan stop in Punakha is to visit Chime Lhakhang, the temple of the divine madman - Bhutan’s most beloved Buddhist saint. Lam Drukpa Kuenly lived an unorthodox life in the 15th century. Wandering the countryside as a vagabond, indulging in booze and women. He decided that the ultimate weapon to confront the dangers to the soul that every Buddhist faced was, ahem, the phallus. And so wooden phalluses are his symbol, and the village in the shadow of his temple is adorned with more images of male genitalia than any high school bathroom could ever have.

The Temple of Chime Lhakhang

In fact, selling painted phalluses of every size, shape, and use imaginable is their business. And - dare I say it - business is growing. Lots of construction is going on, with new hotels, restaurants, and craft shops being erected (sorry, couldn’t resist) on a weekly basis. I mean, really, how many places can you walk into a shop, and with a straight face and ask, “How much is that phallus in the window?”

A woman seeks the Divine Madman’s blessing, circling the temple carrying a giant, wooden phallus

Of course, the climax of any trip to Punakha is visiting the Divine Madman’s temple. In fact, couples having trouble conceiving often visit here - some coming (hee, hee) from around the world. The women circle the temple three times, cradling a giant wooden phallus in their arms. As you’d expect, miracle stories rise from Chime Lhakhang’s potency. The temple was actually smaller than I expected (a common complaint of women worldwide, I think). Sonam dutifully explained the “birds and bees” of the temple - the meaning of all the paintings and statues. He and all of the other Buddhists present donated money or food. I asked Sonam if, having four children already, he really desired the Divine Madmen’s unique blessing of fertility?

Hand-painted “souvenirs” for sale in the village

After lunch, and an end to my sophomoric double entendres, we checked in to our hotel. From there, we visited the Punakha Dzong - the winter palace of Bhutan’s kings. The fortress is wedged in the triangle of land between two rivers which join together as one (honest, I am trying to stop!). It is smaller than Thimphu’s Tasiche Dzong, but seems to cram the same amount of decoration into half the space. Once again, we could visit only the main temple. And once again, I took my time wandering the fort, admiring the thick walls (blame yourself, not me, for that one!), taking tons of photographs of the decorations, and imagining what this fort was like when it fought off an invasion of Tibetans and Mongols.

Punakha’s dzong stands proudly at the strategic junction of two rivers

My guidebook recommended a scenic overlook, and Sonam recognized it and agreed wholeheartedly. We wound our way up hairpin turns until emerging high above the riverside town. The view was every bit as good as expected. It was a gratifying finish to a thrilling day. I felt I had touched the soul of Bhutan. It’s landscape, its beliefs, and its achievements were everything I could ask for. I had no idea what tomorrow would bring, but could only hope it was as good as today. And if you take that the wrong way, you have only yourself to blame!

The Dzong gleams in the afternoon sunshine

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:55 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Two Unequal Halves of a Day of Sightseeing

The key question is always “What do you want to see?”


The sumptuous Tasiche Dzong is visually spectacular

So, what do you want to see? I think, more than any other question, that is what a traveler must ask themself when planning a trip. And it is one of the drawbacks, in my opinion, of a guided tour. Although you may be able to tweak a planned itinerary and squeeze in or rearrange stops on it, you have given up essential control of what you will see. And what may excite me, may bore another traveler. That is why I have always preferred arranging my own trips, and don’t mind solo travel at all.

One of the ancient Buddhist tracts on display at the National Library

Here in Bhutan, the itinerary was basically set. Today’s stops were heavy on folk museums and cultural sights. My guide Sonam seemed surprised and a bit disappointed that our first stop, the Postal Museum, didn’t really thrill me. Bhutan is known for its colorful and interesting stamps, but this seemed less museum and more shopping stop to me. The prospect of getting your own picture (and face) on a kingdom’s actual, valid stamp may seem the coolest thing in the world to many. Not being a selfie guy, I wasn’t interested. The museum essentially consisted of four binders and a couple glass displays of past Bhutanese stamps (all of which were for sale, of course). Not being much of a shopper either, we were out of the Postal Museum rather quickly, compared to most tourists, I imagine.

A traditionally dressed Bhutanese woman explains the significance of sights at Simply Bhutan

The National Library, and a chance to examine historical Buddhist manuscripts, seemed much more interesting to me. However, there were very few really old documents on display, actually. It was more of a working library for monks and Buddhist scholars to come examine and study from copies of ancient works. It was cool to see how many Buddhist tracts were wrapped up in colorful silk cloth to preserve them. But how many colorful silk bundles behind glass can you really look at? Speaking of colorful, seeing the world’s largest book - a very colorfully printed examination of animal life in Bhutan - was neat. But it was also behind glass for safekeeping, with only one set of pages on display.

The Land of the Thunder Dragon means, well, occasional thunderstorms

Our next stop was the Folk Heritage Museum, which are always hit or miss with me. The no photos rule was an immediate strike, and the displays of tools and household implements were very static. Sonam tried to inject life into it, but the best part was the chance to climb around inside of a reconstructed three-story, traditional Bhutanese home. A later stop in the morning, called Simply Bhutan, was much more interactive, though it was essentially a repeat of information. Each visitor to Simply Bhutan was assigned a young, dedicated Bhutanese guide who explained everything thoroughly. You had a chance to taste the traditional alcohol, Ara, and shoot a traditional Bhutanese bow. There was a lot more life in this stop, though they both covered the same topics.

The day’s highlight - Tasiche Dzong

After lunch, we drove high in the hills overlooking Thimphu for a scheduled scenic overlook of the city. They day had dawned warm, clear, and sunny, which had delighted me as every day’s forecast showed unending thunderstorms. While eating lunch at Simply Bhutan, though, I heard my first crack of thunder in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Sure enough, by the time we arrived atop the hill, a steady rain had set in. Clouds all but obscured the city below. We waited a few moments for it to stop, but another rumble of the dragon convinced us that this stop was a bust. There was little else to do except have them drop me off at the hotel before picking me up for the late afternoon portion of our tour at 4pm. I stretched out on my bed and napped, wishing I had urged Sonam to rearrange the stops that morning and do the viewpoint right away since it had been sunny.

Pomp and circumstance at the flag-lowering ceremony

The sun was out again when we set out for the day’s highlight - a visit to Tasiche Dzong. A dzong is a combination fortress and palace, with this one being the actual, working center of government. The king and religious leaders have offices here, as do the nation’s ministers. Since it is a working administrative office, it doesn’t open until 5pm (or as we found out, until the last minister closes up his office and goes home). Beforehand, though, is a flag-lowering ceremony, which we could see through the fence. A color guard lowers the huge Bhutanese flag flying in front of the dzong with pomp and ceremony, attended by three Buddhist priests.

The main temple at the dzong, where royal weddings and coronations are held

Remember when I said things that may excite one person may bore another? Most of part one of the day’s sights had fallen flat with me. However, the palace was right up my alley! Bhutanese architecture is colorful and decorative in even ordinary homes. However, they pulled out all the stops for the dzong, and it was encrusted with carvings and paintings that overwhelm the eye. Entering the courtyard, the visitor is surrounded by a visual feast. Sonam started me off in the complex’s main temple. No photos were allowed inside, I was told to my disappointment. Otherwise, the temple was gorgeous.

Beautiful decoration on the exteriors of the buildings of the palace complex

Sonam pointed out and explained the meaning of the statues and paintings. This temple is where royal coronations and weddings were held. Both he and our driver seemed awed to be there, and the reverence sunk in. A guard patrolled the interior to make sure I or the other visitors weren’t tempted to sneak in a photo (trust me, I was!). Even when we stepped back outside, and Sonam explained the facade of the building (where pictures were allowed), I was reminded not to try to sneak an interior shot in by including the open doorway in my focus. Trust me, I had every intention of doing that - darn!

A monk prowls an inner courtyard of the dzong

In such a sprawling complex, the temple was the only part of the interior we were allowed to visit, I was told. I was free to roam the courtyard and photograph the exteriors of the sumptuous buildings, though. At this point, I took off on my own and roamed the complex. I photographed the other buildings, the long covered hallways leading between them, the statues and carvings covering nearly every foot of their walls, and the tiny courtyards I could glimpse past gateways. Half of the palace is devoted to the religious officials and the other half to the secular ones, led by the king. Monks roamed the complex in their deep, almost burgundy colored robes. All officials and civil servants wore their ceremonial sashes (my guide and driver had donned their’s prior to entering).

Carvings watch over a doorway

I am sure I spent much more time photographing the dzong than the average visitor. The dozen or so other tourists who had entered when we did were long since gone. But the sheer aesthetic joy of lining up different angles and unusual shots excite the artist in me. Remember: what do you want to see? My visit to Tasiche Dzong is the kind of thing that tingles my travel nerve. Others may have popped in and out, as I did in the Postal Museum, earlier. But when you get to that sight you’ve been longing to see, devour it, make it last, save every moment.

Long galleries cover the corridors between buildings


Posted by world_wide_mike 08:47 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Into the Himalayas and Bhutan

Sunshine breaks through in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

sunny 78 °F

Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu gleams in the sunshine

I couldn’t have asked for a more auspicious omen to begin my trip to the Himalayan Mountain Kingdom of Bhutan. As I sat in my window seat looking down, the sun was rising above the clouds. I suddenly spotted what I had fervently hoped to see - the white peaks of the Himalayas. I watched in awe as the dawn made them stand out more and more clearly. I snapped a few photos with my camera phone, then pulled out my digital SLR with its 300mm lens. All the way until we landed, I was either admiring, photographing, or video recording the view. We landed to a sunny, gorgeous morning in Paro, Bhutan. I had been worried about the weather, as it was supposed to be rainy season, and the forecast showed unending thunderstorms. But here it was, the mountain kingdom revealed in all its glory!

A lifelong dream come true - seeing the Himalayas

Visiting Bhutan is neither easy, nor cheap. The only way to be granted a visa is to sign up for a guided tour with one of their agencies. The fee is $250 a day, but that includes everything - hotels (or homestays, if you prefer), transportation, car, driver, and all your meals and site admissions. Plus, being off-season, my rate was dropped to $200 a day. And did I mention that I was receiving an individual tour - not a group one? Only a limited number of people are permitted to visit Bhutan, a fact I could tell by the emptiest flight I had ever flown. We had 16 passengers on a normal passenger jet designed to hold around 120.

The beautiful Bhutan countryside

I was met by my driver and guide, and the tour began right away. I let them know that I enjoy taking photos and they encouraged me to let them know whenever I wanted the car to pull over. This started right away when we halted at the river crossing guarded by Dungtse Lhakhang temple. It was originally begun as a bridge toll booth in 1421, when an iron bridge was built over the river by a man named Thangton Gyelpo - who was famous for building dozens of iron bridges in Tibet and Bhutan. A watchtower stands as a toll booth on either side of the river, and the temple is a short walk up from there.

Chain bridge stretching across the river between two watchtowers

It was cool to climb around inside one of the medieval watchtowers, though you can’t walk on the reconstructed iron bridge. When they say iron, they don’t mean beams of steel, but instead a chain link construction. Prayer flags adorn the modern chain link reconstruction of it, while next to it, a swaying wooden footbridge stands for people to cross today. The spot is incredibly scenic with the river rushing past, the colorful prayer flags, and the temple and watchtowers.

Traditional Bhutanese dwellings overlooking rice paddies

The rest of the 45-minute drive from the airport to the capital city of Thimphu was beautiful. I had to resist making the driver pull over around every bend. One of the coolest things about driving through Bhutan’s countryside is that nearly all buildings look like temples - even if they are just farmer’s dwellings. The king of Bhutan decreed that all new construction should be done in the traditional, highly decorative style. Most are three stories tall. In the old days, farmers brought in their animals at night into the ground floor to protect them from predators. The second floor was for the family’s living space, and the third held shrines for praying.

All new buildings in Bhutan must use traditional architecture

The buildings would cluster in groups of a half dozen or so, surrounded by rice paddies and pastureland. They would usually loom about a third of the way up a hillside, overlooking the fields. Honestly, it is hard to identify which are family homes, which are government administration buildings, and which are temples. They all look so ornate and gorgeous.

Traditional and modern, one in the same in Thimphu

As we arrived in Thimphu, Bhutan’s largest town - holding about 1/5th of the nation’s 750,000 or so residents - the buildings clustered closed and closer together. The palace fortresses, called Dzongs, were much larger, though. From hilltops, temples and monasteries looked over Thimphu’s modern sprawl along the valley floor. The capital is a relatively recent phenomenon, being nothing but scattered hamlets in the 1960s and 1970s. Still, even the stores, banks, hotels, and commercial buildings had the ornate Bhutanese roofs, decorated windows and trim, and carved wooden designs.

Thimphu stores

My guide dropped me at my hotel for an hour to check in and unpack, figuring I was tired and might need some rest. I was fired up to see more of this fascinating kingdom, though, and was back in the lobby early. We drove to the Memorial Chorten, built in honor of Bhutan’s long-reigning third king. Chorten is Bhutan’s word for stupa, which is a Buddhist memorial usually containing a relic of the deceased person, often a saint. This one apparently does not, but is supposed to be lavishly decorated on the inside, with paintings explaining the Buddhist faith. I was disappointed we could not go in, though. I was 0 for 2 today at seeing temple interiors, so far. The bright golden spire of the stupa shone in the day’s amazing sunshine. We circled the temple, my guide explaining and spinning the prayer wheels. I never knew that inside the drum shaped wheels were written Buddhist prayers. My guide explained that, by spinning them, illiterate worshippers earned the same blessings as if they had said them.

Memorial Chorten in Thimphu

We struck out on our next temple, Thimphu’s oldest, which was closed for restoration. However, we were in the Motihang neighborhood, which was where the Takin Preserve was located. He knew I wanted to see a takin, so we added that to the itinerary. What’s a takin? Well, it is Bhutan’s national animal - kind of a cross between a wildebeest, a cow, and a massive mountain goat. Bhutanese mythology says they were created by its most beloved saint, the Divine Madman, to prove his magical powers. Some remain in the wild, of course, but the preserve has a herd of about 20 or so, from the looks of it. There were also several varieties of deer particular to the Himalayas inside the preserve. My guide stressed it wasn’t a zoo, but it looked for all the world like one to me.

Bhutan’s national animal - the takin

Next up, was a visit to a nunnery perched on a hill with dramatic views of Thimphu. Thangthong Dewachen is relatively new, built in the 1960s, and is run privately rather than by the government (like most monasteries and nunneries in Bhutan). It was founded when a child was discovered to be the reincarnation of the iron bridge builder by Buddhist monks. Reincarnations of saints are a big part of Buddhist beliefs. I was happy that I was able to go inside the temple in the nunnery. The paintings were very interesting, and my guide identified the Who’s who of what I consider the very confusing Buddhist theology. Many of its benevolent gods look fearsome, and sport teeth and claws which look like they could rend a human limb from limb. Apparently, this is to cow and subdue demons, so you can’t judge a Buddhist deity by its cover.

Decorative windows at a Buddhist nunnery

It was lunch time next, and I have to admit that I was actually hungry. I was taken to a restaurant buffet and sampled most of what was being offered. Bhutanese food is definitely fiery, and I had to order a second drink to cool my scorched tongue. I liked the spicy beef best, and had a second helping. From there, we were off to a Thimphu landmark - a towering, 203’ tall golden statue of Buddha, on a hill overlooking the city.

A landmark in Thimphu - a towering Buddha statue atop a hill overlooking town

My guide explained that we were lucky because the senior priest in the kingdom was holding a service there all day to bless worshippers. That this would be popular was immediately obvious by the bumper-to-bumper string of cars, buses, and taxis headed up and up the six kilometer road to there. Our fine, sunny day was quickly turning into a scorcher. I felt myself nodding off as we inched along in the car. The road was lined with parked cars of worshippers who decided to hike the rest of the way up. Eventually we reached the summit, well kind of, as there were a lot of stone steps still to climb. As we ascended, it seemed fairly crowded. However, when we created the top of the staircase, I realized what an understatement “popular” had been. There were throngs there - many sitting cross-legged under umbrellas or in the hot sun. Others circled the statue, like we did, and still others seemed to be just enjoying the festive atmosphere.

Worshippers in the hot sun receiving their blessing

The voice of the Buddhist priest droned mantras over the loudspeakers, as my guide pointed out various features of the site. Senior government and religious figures sat together in a gallery to the left of the statue, while an immense number of red-robed monks sat directly in front. Behind them, were the throngs of worshippers patiently enduring the heat and sun. In the shadow of the towering Buddha, a dozen beautiful golden statues of Buddhist goddesses were placed around the platform. It was an impressive sight, and I did indeed feel lucky to be there on this special holy day. All day, the three of us (guide, driver, and myself) had great discussions about Bhutan, America, and what is truly important in life. In talking about my photography, I had said that every site tells its story in the pictures you take. Today’s story at Buddha Dordenma was about devotion. The devotion of those who sat in the hot sun to show their faith. Also the devotion of the Hong Kong and Singapore Buddhists whose donations had paid for this monstrous mark of their faith.

Built from donations by Buddhist abroad, this statue is one of the largest Buddhas in the world

Perhaps noticing my nodding off on the drive, my guide called an end to the day’s sightseeing. He encouraged me to rest a little, then explore Thimphu on my own. Honestly, I wanted to keep going, but once dropped off at the hotel, I did find myself napping for about an hour. I woke up incredibly disoriented, not sure where I really was. However, I soon got my head about me and ventured forth to find an ATM to finally withdraw some local currency. After that, I spent the afternoon wandering the area around my hotel. I watched archery practice (Bhutan’s national sport), checked out the soccer stadium, and took lots of pictures of ornately decorated buildings.

Buddhist monks

Eventually I wandered back to my hotel, and ordering a Bhutanese beer from the bar, spent the rest of the time until dinner looking over and editing my photos. My adventures in the Land of the Thunder Dragon were off to an incredible start. Despite my lack of sleep, I found myself looking forward to tomorrow’s sights.

Practicing their national sport - archery

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:03 Archived in Bhutan Comments (4)

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