Bhutan – Thimphu & Punakha

Day 236: November 3, 2018

Waking up at 2:30 am is never fun. We threw on our clothes and went down to the lobby of our hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. The hotel provided a free shuttle to the airport. We checked in to our flight, but the lady at the airline complained that we didn’t have our visa clearance printed. After we dropped our bags, we went to the tourist police who printed the pages for us just in case anyone else wanted the paper copy.

We had Thai food for breakfast in the airport then boarded our DrukAir flight to Paro, Bhutan. It was a three hour flight and the plane was only about two thirds full. The flight to Bhutan was quite pricey. There are only a small number of pilots who are allowed to land at the Paro airport. The view flying in was amazing and we soon understood the danger of landing at the airport. The plane flies through a narrow valley in order to get to the landing strip.

Landing at Paro International Airport

We arrived and went through immigration. They didn’t even want to see our visa clearance. We took out some cash and picked up our bags. Outside all the tour operators were waiting with signs, but we couldn’t see our names. Eventually, a guy came over and asked us what company we were booked with. He then announced it and a guide came over, but our names weren’t on his sign. He went and called his company and they had given him the incorrect names. Luckily, we weren’t abandoned.

Our guide was dressed in the traditional Bhutanese style: a Gho (knee length robe) tied at the waist with a sash and socks up to his knees. He took us to our SUV and introduced us to our driver.

Bhutan has a population of 700,000. Their language is Dzongkha and it has three different dialects. English is taught from a very young age. Street signs and almost all shop signs are written in English. Over 70% of the country is covered in trees and they are one of the only countries that are carbon negative meaning their territory absorbs more carbon than it emits.

Most people use the bus system to get between cities. Taxis are also often used. Personal vehicles are too expensive for the majority of the population and there is a 100% tax on vehicles.

We left the airport and along the drive we stopped at a viewpoint of Tamchog Lhakhang, a 15th century temple. Crossing the river to the temple was an iron bridge also built in the 15th century. It felt so nice to be away from crowds and noise. Thailand felt non-stop. Bhutan, makes me feel able to breathe and hear my own thoughts again.

Iron bridge to Tamchog Lhakhang

From the bridge, we drove to Thimphu which is the capital city of Bhutan. There are 100,000 people living in the city. None of the buildings were very tall as there is a height restriction on buildings at six stories.

We drove up one of the hills around Thimphu to Buddha Point where there is a four sided view. A 52 m tall bronze statue of sitting Buddha was built there in 2006. Eventually, they hope to also have a monastery there as well. In Bhutan, 75% of the population is Buddhist and 25% is Hindu.

Buddha Point, Thimphu

Next we drove to the Folk Heritage Museum. We were given some rice wine to try. We saw photos of all the past kings. The guide explained that a scarf hung over a portrait shows that a person is dead while a scarf under the portrait shows they are alive.

In 1616, a lama from Tibet named Ngawang Namgyal united Bhutan. Following his death civil war occurred between different factions. British and Tibetan influence was seen throughout this time. Eventually, Ugyen Wangchuck, who was pro-British came to power and a monarchy was established in 1907. There have been five Druk Gyalpos (Dragon Kings) of the Wangchuck Dynasty since then. The kingdom went into isolation from international affairs until democratization and modernization were started by the third king. This included creating a National Assembly in 1952. In 2008, the country became a constitutional monarchy.

We were shown how the Bhutanese mud homes were built. Men would carry red soil and place it into forms. The women would pound it down with staffs and sing religious songs for the insects and worms they were killing. Two girls demonstrated the singing.

We saw a garden of fertility showing phalluses (penises). The fertility saint, Lama Drukpa Kunley or the “Divine Madman” introduced phalluses as good luck and fertility.

Garden of fertility

We were shown a churner used to make butter tea (tea leaves, hot water, butter and salt) and a press to make puta (buckwheat noodles). We were given some butter tea with puffed rice on top to try. I quite enjoyed it. We also saw dried chilies, eggplant, pumpkin, corn and yak cheese that is used during the winter.

Dried food for the winter

We ate a very nice lunch there: rice, buckwheat pancakes, beans, peppers, chicken and chilies.

Bhutanese meal

Our guide and driver didn’t eat their desserts, stating that they don’t like sweets. After lunch, they bought a leaf package and said that was their dessert. I didn’t know what it was, but Danny did. Our guide asked if we wanted to try and Danny said no, but I said sure. Big mistake.

I bit off a piece of the nut and it was the worst thing I have ever put in my mouth. Danny explained after that it was a betel nut. It is typically wrapped in betel leaf with slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) inside. It is a mild stimulant causing you to feel warm inside and it is highly addictive. It has become a huge health issue in Southern Asia as it is known to have lots of harmful effects. I’m not sure how you would continue to eat it as I wanted no more.

After lunch, we drove to the Royal Takin Preserve. Takin are the national animal of Bhutan and look like a combination of a cow and a goat. The males can weigh up to 350 kg and the females can weigh up to 280 kg. They are currently classified as a vulnerable species.

Royal Takin Preserve, Thimphu

Next we went into the city and looked at the handicraft vendors. We walked down the main street and saw the main square with the clock tower. Then we went to the Centenary Farmers Market which had tons of produce, fruit and grains. There was local food, but also a lot was imported from India.

Centenary Farmers Market, Thimphu

On our way to our hotel we watched some locals practicing archery with compound bows. Archery is Bhutan’s national sport. They are required to wear their traditional clothing when practicing. Traditionally, simple bows are used to try to hit a target 150 m away.

Archery practice, Thimphu

After we were taken to our hotel. Our room had a spectacular view of Memorial Chorten, a stupa built in 1974 to honour the third king. There was a huge number of people walking around it. Our guide told us old people do this every day, others only on weekends. They were walking from when we arrived until when we went to sleep and then when we woke up there was still quite a few people doing their rounds.

Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

I called my mom and Danny went for a walk around town. He ended up at a soccer stadium watching a high school match.

High school soccer match

At 7:00 pm we went downstairs for supper. It was a buffet with many different dishes. After we went back to our room and fell to our beds after a very long, full day.

Day 237: November 4, 2018

I woke up early this morning to FaceTime Kaleen. Then we had breakfast and finished packing our bags. We started our drive out of Thimphu and drove to Dochula Pass at 3,140 m.

In 2003, the queen mother built 108 memorial stupas there that are known as “Druk Wangyal Chortens” for the Bhutanese soldiers killed during the fight against insurgents from India. Typically, there is a beautiful view out to the Himalayas, but it was a bit too cloudy when we were there.

Druk Wangyal Chortens

We walked through the stupas then crossed the road where there was a path up into the trees. There were little temples with Buddha relief inside spotted on the hill. It felt like a very spiritual location. I enjoyed taking the time to sit there in the quiet.

Tiny temples in the woods

We returned to a nearby cafe to use the washroom then continued our drive to Punakha. We had lunch in the city which was similar food to the previous day.

Next we went rafting on the Mo Chu river. It wasn’t originally on the itinerary so we had to pay extra. The rafting wasn’t too extreme, but it was nice. The view of the rice fields on the hills added to the experience.

Rafting, Punakha

After rafting we went to Punakha Dzong which is located at the meeting of the Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers. The fortress was built there in 1637 by Ngawang Namgyal or the “Bearded Lama” who was a Tibetan lama that was the first to unify Bhutan. He brought with him sacred relics from Tibet to Bhutan. This caused many invasions by Tibet.

Punakha Dzong

Inside the fortress there were three courtyards. The fortress is split into two parts: administrative and monasteric. As in the past, the monks, of which there are currently 400-500, migrate between the Thimphu and Punakha monasteries. Soon they will return to Punakha for the winter.

Inside Punakha Dzong

Within the monasteric portion there were two temples: one houses the relics as well as Namgyal’s remains (only select people can enter) and the other is a temple everyone can enter. There were paintings inside showing the twelve days of Buddha which outlines his life from birth to nirvana.

Buddha was the son of a king who realized that life is suffering. He left his family and struggled to find the meaning of life. When he finally reached enlightenment he went to heaven to bring what he learned to his mother. The earth needed him so he descended back down. Descending Day is also Mother’s Day in Bhutan.

We saw a bodhi tree in one courtyard as well as a stupa. There are eight different shapes of stupas, each representing different events in Buddha’s life.

We returned to the vehicle and were taken to our hotel where we relaxed until supper at 7:00 pm. We tried out the local beer and wine which were pretty tasty. After supper, we sat out on a porch swing and looked up at the stars. We reflected on our trip and what it will be like going back home. When we got cold we went inside to go to bed.

Bhutan seems to have come to us at exactly the perfect time. I was feeling a bit run down by Thailand again and I feel refreshed in Bhutan. The coolness of the air, the lack of crowds and the silence are wonderful. I can’t wait to see what else Bhutan has in store for us.


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