Bhutan – Punakha & Paro

Day 238: November 5, 2018

We had breakfast in the hotel then met our guide, Gelcen, for a walk through the village passed the rice fields to Chime Lhakhang.

Rice fields, Punakha

Chime Lhakhang or The Fertility Temple was built in the late 15th century by the cousin brother of Lam Drukpa Kuenley. Kuenley, also known as the “Divine Madman”, was a Tibetan Buddhist master. He was unconventional and a bit outrageous in his teaching style. He was known to hunt, drink and womanize, all against the established order. He tamed many demons that had been tormenting Bhutan. The demoness, Dochula, was vanquished by him and buried where Chime Lhakhang was built. A stupa now stands over the burial site.

Stupa where Dochula is buried

Childless couples come to the temple to pray for children. The woman holds a phallus and walks around the temple three times thinking of her wish. The monks then perform a blessing. A photo book inside the temple showed many foreign couples who had received their wish. Twins are common.

We walked back to the main road passing many stores with phalluses painted on the outside and for sale inside. Once back at our vehicle we drove three hours back to Paro. The road up, then down the pass made me start to feel nauseous.

Stores along the road to Chime Lhakhang

In Paro, we went to a restaurant for lunch then drove to Paro Ta Dzong which was an old watch tower built in 1649. In the 20th century the third king opened it as the Bhutan National Museum. We saw the many masks used for their traditional dances along with a video showing examples of the dances. Next were two rooms with photos of Bhutan’s kings with the Indian leaders over the years. The photos were to celebrate their 50 year friendship. The last exhibit showed the different flora and fauna of the different regions in Bhutan.

Paro Ta Dzong

After the museum, we walked down the hill to Paro Dzong which was built in the 17th century. The interior was very similar to Punakha Dzong, but a bit smaller. Paro Dzong is also known as the “Fortress of the Heap of Jewels”. There was a view down to the town with the river flowing through.

View from Paro Dzong

We continued walking down to a cantilever bridge. On the way we talked with Gelcen about life in Bhutan. He mentioned that women in Bhutan get six months maternity leave and the normal retirement age is 65. Bhutan’s unemployment rate is 2.5% (Canada’s sits around 5.8%). Many young people go to Japan for school or to work in industry. Others go to Qatar or Kuwait to work in hotels.

Paro Dzong

Back at the main road we walked into town and visited some of the shops selling mostly souvenirs. Then we headed to our hotel which sat on the hill just above the airport. We had supper at 7:00 pm then went to bed.

Day 239: November 6, 2018

We were up early this morning. We received confirmation from GAdventures for our 10 day tour through Cambodia starting in Bangkok and ending in Ho Chi Minh City. We scrambled in the morning to apply for our Vietnam visas online. We will have to apply for our Cambodia visa on arrival as we don’t have time to get an online one back in time for our entry.

We had a quick breakfast then at 7:30 am we drove to Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest. The start of our hike was about 25 minutes from our hotel. Paro Taktsang is a world famous monastery in Bhutan that hangs on the side of a cliff. The front of the rocks look like the face of a tiger. The first temple was built there in 1692 after Guru Padmasambhava meditated in the caves there in the 8th century. The monastery is at 3,120 m, about 900 m above the valley.

Paro Taktsang

The hike started with a steep climb up a path through the trees. Gelcen told us it would take 1.5 hours to reach the café at the midway point. It took us about 45 minutes and I didn’t even think we were going very quickly.

We kept walking and I think we caught our second wind. The climb continued, but it was slightly less steep. There was an amazing view across to the monastery once we reached the highest point. Stairs then took us down to a waterfall then back up to the monastery.

Hiking to Paro Taktsang

Within the monastery, we were shown the cave the Guru meditated in for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. We went through the various temples, many with statues of the Guru. He was the one to establish Buddhism and the Nyingmapa school in Bhutan.

In 1998, a fire damaged much of the complex, but it has since been restored. Only three or four monks live there as caretakers along with a security guard. They only stay up there for part of the year. The monastery was very cold inside and the stone was chilly on my socked feet.

We hiked back down stopping at the café for some tea and cookie-crackers. Then we continued downwards. It is always so much easier on the way down. We reached the bottom almost exactly four hours after we had left. Apparently it usually takes six hours. There were people just starting when we reached the bottom and the sun was really warming up.

We drove back in to Paro for lunch then went back to the hotel to rest for a bit. At 5:00 pm we went back into Paro to Penlop Dawa Penjor Heritage Farmhouse. It was built in the late 18th century and offered a hot stone bath. A wooden tub was filled with water and hot stones were added on one end. The water was mixed to heat it all around and artemisia leaves (also known as wormwood or sagebrush) were added on top to help relax the joints.

We dipped in our toes, but the water was scalding so we added cold water to cool our individual tubs down. Eventually, we were able to sink down and enjoy a relaxing bath. After, we were given a tumbler of rice wine before we returned to the hotel for supper.

View from our hotel, Paro

Our guide and driver sat with us after dinner. Danny invited them up to our room to play cards. They changed out of their traditional clothes then met us upstairs. We played a couple rounds of Hidden 31 then they left and we went to bed.

Day 240: November 7, 2018

We woke up and went down to breakfast at 8:00 am. On our walk back to our room we met a very friendly, meowy kitty who followed us. We relaxed in our room until our ride to the airport at 11:30 am. We said goodbye to our guide and driver there.

I had forgotten to get any pictures of the many photographs of the Royal Family that we have seen inside homes, stores and around town. Below is a photo at the airport showing the current king, his wife and son. They seriously look like models.

Photo of the Royal Family at the airport

The airport had three gates and no lines for anything. We used our remaining Ngultrum (Bhutan’s currency) to get some water and a treat. Our flight left at 1:30 pm and we flew out the same way we had come in. The clouds cleared enough for us to have a wonderful view of the Himalayas including Mount Everest.

View of Mount Everest from the plane

We were fed a nice curry on the plane. We arrived in Bangkok at 5:25 pm and took a cab from the airport to our hotel in the centre which took over an hour. Traffic was brutal.

We arrived at the hotel around 7:30 pm and checked in. Our GAdventures tour group had met at 6:00 pm and went for supper. We weren’t sure when they would be done so we just ate supper at the hotel. Our guide called our room when we got back and told us the plans for the next day and we went to bed.

Bhutan felt more like home than anywhere we have been in months. It was quiet. There were mountains. The people were friendly. It felt nice to be somewhere that seemed familiar even though the culture and architecture were nothing like home. I wish we could have spent more time in Bhutan. It was a very expensive trip, but well worth it. Now we are on to our GAdventures trip through Cambodia!