It was some time ago that Bhutan caught my attention. As a country that puts Gross Domestic Happiness ahead of Gross Domestic Product I watched a programme about the country and was fascinated. The fact that it sits landlocked between India and China in the foothills of the Himalayas was something that was so intriguing – and the more I read about this tiny country and its independent people, the more I wanted to go. However, it was clear from the protestations of “I don’t want to look at temples” from the kids and “mmmh, not sure I’m that interested in treks” from the husband that this was somewhere I’d have to explore on my own.
So I did. In a way that I had never explored a country before. Part tourist, part volunteer, part working, here’s the journey I took…
With an early start, and despite being one of the first at the airport, I wasn’t able to get a window seat – which I’d been told to try to do so that I could get the full experience of flying in over the Himalayas. I needn’t have worried though – the excitement on the plane is palpable. The flight was fine, a little cramped as you’d expect from a small airbus but the service was good. After a quick stop in Kolcatta where half the plane got off and new passengers got on we take off again for the 40 minute journey to Bhutan.
Soon enough the range comes in to view, the snowy cap of Mount Everest can be seen if you are lucky enough to be sat on the left, the rest of us have to crane our necks and hope for a glimpse. Before you know it you are gasping at the wonder around you – left and right on our journey. At one point it felt like we got so close to the side of the mountain that we could have reached out and touched it.
The slight swerve and sharp pull on the brakes as we land reminds us how tricky a landing this is and once we’re done there is a ripple of applause. Apparently there are only a handful of pilots trained to do this landing and I can see why. Skill is an understatement.
Bhutan airport is a straightforward, old-fashioned type affair where you walk down the steps of the plane on to the tarmac and trundle off to go through customs. I love that kind of arrival – you feel like you’ve arrived in a new country, rather than just a waiting room. Having said that, as I’d find out all over Bhutan, the building itself is like a museum itself. Beautiful carvings, paintings and architecture.
Customs was quick and painless as was collecting the luggage and I was met straight away by Dorji, one of the ever smiling guides who welcomed me with a white silk scarf and warm greeting.
A short drive took us to Gangtey Palace, a boutique hotel just up the mountain from the airport. Once a summer palace to the aristocracy and residence of the Governor, it was gifted to an ancestor of Tobgye Dorji’s family for services to the monarchy. The family is justifiably proud of their gift. The gardens – looked after solely by the mother of the family – was reminiscent of an english country garden in its planning. Fuchsias, carnations and sweet peas were near to the end of their season but I’m sure were blooming resplendent throughout the summer months. The whole landscaping was breathtaking. However the similarity to an English garden stopped there as the whole hotel is beautifully traditional.
Stone pathways lead to a huge lawn – a former apple orchard I believe – that would simply say ‘ta da’ if it could to the view. And what a view. Paro and it’s surrounding mountains glistened in the beautiful sunlight. The sky was picture perfect blue and the air was clear and fresh – and not at all cold! I felt I may have over packed slightly as had brought thermals and LOTS of layers. However I was assured that come that evening I’d be glad of them.
Tea was served at tables on the edge of the lawn giving us all the opportunity to take in the view some more. Again a seemingly English affair with cups and saucers, milk and sugar (in Singapore you have to beg for milk) Although on tasting it was possibly condensed – but that didn’t spoil the moment.
Soon Tobgye, the owner of the hotel and his business partner and daughter Chukie came to meet us. It’s clear here is a man who has stories to tell – and he loves to tell them with aplomb. Not in a pompous or arrogant way, but in the way only someone who truly feels comfortable in his own skin can. Stories of past misdemeanours in the family, of the feisty Bhutanese battles with surrounding countries and most passionately of all, his Buddhist faith. Quoting various buddhist teachings he explained how he truly believes in karma and that we should all look towards altruism. He then invited us up to the altar room where he told us more of his fascinating families history and showed us family portraits and treasured Thangka’s (A buddhist painting on cotton or silk).
Tobgye then led us all in a meditation which, considering was our first time together, proved to be easy to slip in to and thoroughly relaxing. Trying to stay awake was a challenge for all I think – and this is the challenge of meditation. Finding that space between relaxation and peace whilst awake. I would have loved to have taken time to do this every day of the trip, but it wasn’t to be.
The Gangtey Palace chefs provided a delicious lunch of rice, chicken, fish and vegetables and the local cheese which is very similar to Indian paneer. Highlights were definitely the delicious vegetable balls and some little dumplings filled with what tasted like spinach and ricotta. The traditional ‘Ema Datshi’ chilli kick was served as an accompaniment – which, Tobgye explained was his idea. He realised that the Bhutanese taste buds were slightly different to tourists – and he always ensured his guests were happy. This also meant limiting the amount of salt that would traditionally be added.
Most of the group commented on the fact they had expected the food to be more ‘foreign’ and maybe difficult to enjoy at first – and considering we were a group including Chinese, Taiwanese, Australian, Singaporean, Brits, Czech’s and Americans – this wasn’t as ignorant as it sounds. Our guide Dorji said that things may differ at dinner (whilst laughing at our naivety).
As someone who doesn’t eat cheese and has a child’s palate for chilli, I had been a bit worried I’d be living off rice for the week. But, I was very wrong.
After lunch we headed to Thimpu and our hotel for the next few days. On the way we stopped at Tachog Lhakhang bridge. Apparently it was built over 600 years ago by a local engineer called Thangtong Gyalpo. He is said to have built around 58 iron chain suspension bridges around Bhutan and Tibet – many of which are still being used today.
Unfortunately the bridge was shut for repair, but we got a chance to cross the wobbly enough wooden bridge next to it. With its fluttering prayer flags and unusual chain mail construction, there was something haunting about the bridge. This ten minute walk also gave us a chance to see how we were coping with the altitude. And yes, most of us walked back up (the not very steep) incline puffing more than we would usually.
The twisty turny mountain road was not as hair-raising as I had expected, although bit queasy at times. Driving in to Thimpu I realised it’s much busier and more developed than I expected it to be. A mix of traditional style buildings and derelict looking places, as well as shops overflowing with local crafts, knick-knacks and souvenirs for the growing number of tourists now visiting. There are roads and pavements, but you need to watch your footing and take care as there are steep steps in many places, as well as the odd gap or two.
Thimpu was playing host to a car exhibition when we arrived which seemed to include a turn by local dancers, singers and a host who chattered away on the microphone. I didn’t actually see any new cars but just the logos. There was a pretty big crowd though and the heavy disco music went on for a couple of hours.
Walking around town I was struck by the number of people there were. Many in groups just hanging out it seemed. I walked down one side street which will now always be known to me as “meat street” where people were queuing for fresh chicken and other meat I couldn’t identify in the shops there. It didn’t smell very pleasant as you can imagine and as I walked through spotted a lady doing something with some dried fish which involved pulling off a part and chucking it behind her. I walked past without stopping.
Local farmers – or their family – were sat on the side of the pavement with their produce spread out in front them. Many people were walking along carrying bag loads of vegetables. And I don’t mean a bag load of vegetables. I mean one bag full of one vegetable – mostly chillies. I watched one lady crouching down filling a whole bag full of green, red and orange chillies. I seriously cannot imagine how long it would take my family to get through that many chillies. I’m starting to see what Dorji could be referring to.
Some parts of Thimpu were not so pleasant to walk through if I’m honest, the drains full of rubbish, pavements with holes to break an ankle if you’re not careful and tired looking shop fronts that are maybe struggling to find a niche for themselves now. But, the overall feel of the town was quite festival like with lots of laughter and chat amongst people as they moved around. Stalls selling Cokes attracted a crowd and yet I didn’t spot any restaurants that seemed to be busy. Maybe that comes later in the evening?
The hotel itself – Thimpu Towers – was pleasant enough and offered a great view of the town square and the clock tower. The rooms are large and well equipped. I was slightly concerned by the supply of ear plugs though!
A developing city
Dusty, busy, lots of cars, lots of people, quite a few tourists. All things I didn’t think I’d use to describe Thimpu. But it is a busy city/town (by Bhutanese standards you understand). Rows of shops selling everything from balls and clothing to incense sticks and buddha statues. The streets are laid out in a way I couldn’t fathom, many steps up and down pavements, some missing steps where they were needed so jumping was the only option. The smell of petrol bothered me slightly and the number of stray dogs was also surprising. It soon becomes clear this is an issue in Thimpu as they sleep all day in the sun and bark all night. Apparently the government are introducing spading to reduce their number.
The Bhutanese people are also a mixed bunch. Men seem to have an air of authority about them wearing their traditional Goh, as many do. It’s funny to see them reach in to their Goh and pull out things randomly – it’s where they keep phones, keys, notebooks, sweets. cigarettes – you name it, it’s tucked away neatly. In fact, it often explains the portly shape of some of the men.
Lots of young people can be seen hanging around and children roam freely in the way children did back in the ‘good old days’. Sometimes their closeness to traffic made me gasp, but it’s clear these kids are street smart from an early age.
The women in their Kira amazed me with their elegance in heels, especially on the broken pavements and steep kerbs. Many are made up beautifully and I’m ashamed of myself for being surprised at this. Why wouldn’t women in Bhutan use make up and do their hair after all?
A wander along the craft stalls shows the various traditional crafts Bhutan is rightly protecting. Silk wall hangings, hand-made paper, simple knitted scarves, beautifully decorated scarves and throws, prayer flags, woven bags, even a traditional archery stall. Many of them selling the same as the next person, but each one important to the survival of many of these handicrafts (see Choki school below). Apparently the stalls are subsidised heavily in order to offer the workers a way to continue their tradition.
Sightseeing in Thimpu
Despite the fact Thimpu is relatively small, there are a number of sightseeing options. If you’d like to read about the places I visited, please click here. I also took on the ‘Tigers Nest Trek’ which you can find here. All of my cultural learning whilst there was part of a learning journey with Insightful Learning Journeys. which Founder Khatiza Van Savage facilitates. In this particular journey, I was included in a self funded volunteering and cultural immersion learning for Google Employees.
I travelled independently of the group but we met for breakfast and dinner most days. I also took part in my own mindful volunteering that you can read about here. As I was part of a larger group I was lucky to have a pick of wonderful guides – Dorji and his team of Bhakta, Thinley and Sonam are seasoned guides and drivers who have supported Khatiza Van Savage in her learning journeys for many years. They are proud and gracious Bhutanese nationals, well versed in their culture and eager to ensure that your journey is memorable on many levels.
LANDING AT PARO AIRPORT
For those, who, like my husband are airplane geeks here are some shots of the runway and airport. And, just for your enjoyment a video I took from Paro view-point of a plane coming in – amazing!
Please do click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.
Here for sightseeing in Thimpu
Here for my volunteering experiences
Here for the Tigers Nest Trek
I’d love to hear your comments and feedback…