Sightseeing in Bhutan

Sightseeing in Thimpu

Despite the fact Thimpu is relatively small, there are a number of sightseeing options. If you’d like to read about why and how I got to Bhutan in the first place please click here. I also took on the ‘Tigers Nest Trek’ which you can find hereAll 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.

BUDDHA POINT

It was clear before we got anywhere near the Buddha that we had chosen possibly the worst – but also the best day – to visit. It was the final day of ‘Prayers for world peace’ and it seemed that many local people were converging, possibly for the 8th time in as many days (as many people visit every day) on Buddha Point. The traffic snaked around the mountain for a good 2k or so. Still we persevered as it seemed that if this many people were going there, it would be worth the journey. And it was.

As the car park was shut we were dropped off at the foot of the steps to the Buddha – and thank goodness. I would urge anyone going to make the climb from the bottom of the steps rather than driving up to the car park. It looks quite daunting but it is well worth it, especially as you can stop as many times as you like, turn around and be rewarded with breathtaking views across Thimpu.

The steps to Buddha Point

The steps up to Buddha Point

As we were climbing the stairs dozens of people passed us, some carrying tiny babies in their arms, many walking with whole families, lots of young children laughing as they bounded up without effort. I even saw an elderly lady who was hunched over and barely able to stand being helped step by slow step. It was clear she was going to make it no matter what and her cheerful companion was going to encourage her the whole way.

Once we were at the top it was evident what all the fuss was about. Over the loud-speaker the chant of prayers was being played to the hundreds of people sat in front of the Buddha. All there to give thanks and prayer, all there of their own will, all there to celebrate. Rows and rows of people of all ages, sitting sedately on the ground, in front of them, rows and row of monks sat under a large marquee that had been erected especially for the occasion. In front of the monks was another more auspicious bright yellow silk ‘tent’ where apparently the Abbott himself was reciting the prayers that could be heard (we couldn’t spot him from where we were). This is the equivalent of the pope being in attendance apparently and there was certainly a reverential, and joyous, atmosphere around.

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A sea of people gathering to give thanks and prayer

We walked around the structure of the Buddha – and around the fenced off area where the people were gathered sitting in prayer. Although we couldn’t go up the steps that led to the foot of the structure we could still get a feel of the majesty of it and why it is regarded as a must see whilst here. All around, outside of the fenced off area children were playing happily, families gathered together, people shared food and monks and security guards alike passed by.

We went to give offerings to the monks and found we had a choice of worthy causes to give to. As we walked the steps back down I took in the amazing views once again and for the first time since arriving felt the true beauty of Bhutan and its people. The happiness was palpable and I felt honoured to have shared a part of this special day.

SIMPLY BHUTAN

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Dorji taking one for the team!

As the name suggests, this simply is Bhutan – a living museum that has been set up to show Bhutan as it was, before development kicked in. A very small museum that actually has a lot to offer. The initially shy guide – although I think her shyness was possibly more about our charismatic guide ribbing her than anything else – took us around each display explaining them to us. The first room she gave us the opportunity to try some traditional local wine.

If I were to say it was like firewater that would be an understatement! A small sip was all I could manage. Luckily Dorji was kind enough to finish it for me so I didn’t appear rude 😉

Other displays included a phallic garden (yes, with phallus of every shape, size and colour), the inside of a traditional Bhutanese house, festival masks, local craftwork, archery and a wishing bowl to try. Some women also performed a local dance whilst constructing a house!

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The very talented Pema showing us his craft

 

 

One particular display that is well worth making the visit for is a local craftsman called Pema (http://www.simplybhutan.bt/tshering.php.) He creates the most intricate wood carvings, carving and painting them all himself. Pema has cerebral palsy and does all the work with his feet. With his beaming smile and willingness to share his craft he won us over completely. His story of being ‘found’ in a small mountain village and then being given a place at arts college is inspiring and heart warming.

 

CHANGANGKHA TEMPLE

There are any number of temples/monasteries to see in Bhutan, and in Thimpu. I chose Changangkha after reading about the resident astrologer who can provide your very own prayer flags according to your date of birth. I was intrigued. Not the most worthy of reasons I grant you, but hey, a little frivolity here and there doesn’t hurt right?

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Changangkha Temple

The monastery is perched high on a ridge above central Thimpu and dates back to the 12th century. Climb the steps and walk around the pilgrim path where you can sit and rest on the benches there to admire the spectacular views offered of Thimpu.

Guru Rinpoche, (link to Tigers Nest) the Tibetan who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan, settled in this area and so the monastery was built here and is regarded as one of the holiest temples in Thimpu. Parents bring their children here to be named by the protector deity Tamdrin. Whilst we were there one mum was holding her swaddled baby waiting for his or her name. A slip of paper was passed to her and she left – all very quick and without ceremony. Very unlike the naming ceremonies and christenings I am used to  My guide, Sonam explained that he was named at this monastery. Apparently names are unisex and there are only a small number – so there are many Sonams around!

Astrologer in Bhutan

My cheery astrologer who found my perfect prayer flags to bring me luck – I hope!

After our visit we head back down the steps to visit the astrologer – a portly round-faced man whose teeth and mouth were stained with the beetle nut he obviously chews on a regular basis. He reminded me of a cartoon monk with his large belly and cheery demeanour. After requesting my date of birth he told me – through my guides – that this year was in fact a bad year for me in business and up until the 2nd December I should avoid any business decisions. He gave me four sets of prayer flags (well, sold me!) and told me to hoist them any time from the next day to nine days time. Of course, the higher and holier the place the better.

Lucky for me I just happened to be trekking to Taktsang temple (link to Tigers Nest) the following day – possibly the best place for flags there is.

THE NATIONAL LIBRARY

As a lover of books I am always up for a quick look around a library. Bhutan’s national library is slightly different to your usual one. For a start there is no one in there! Maybe it was the time of day? Also, it didn’t look like you could actually borrow the books, although I didn’t check this out.

The books there seemed to be mostly reference and historical books. I’m guessing this library is used more for research than finding the latest JK Rowling.

However, the building itself is beautiful inside and out a worth a quick look if you are in the area.

 

 

CHOKI TRADITIONAL ARTS & CRAFTS SCHOOL

Bhutan has 13 traditional crafts and these crafts are plain to see all over Bhutan and you cannot turn a corner without seeing some beautiful painting on the side of a house or traditional wood carving on a pillar. The Choki Traditional Art School  in Thimpu is one of two in the country set up to teach young people the traditional skills of their ancestors.

Open to the public, the school is a place to see the crafts being learnt from the ground up as it were – and it’s fascinating to see the painstaking detail and intricate way in which each craft is taught.

From ‘Rimo’ (drawing),  Patra (carving), Tshem-Zo (embroidery) and Thanka (scroll painting) the young people who qualify at the school then have a skill they can use throughout their lives and ensure that these age-old techniques do not die out.

 

JUNGSHI PAPER FACTORY

Having wandered around the local market stalls I’d already noticed the beautiful paper and paper products on sale. The intricate flower pressed gift wrap, the delicately bound notebooks and the robust looking sheets of paper caught my eye. So when the guide suggested we go visit where it is made I was keen – after all, it could feed my notebook fetish if nothing else.

At the factory, visitors can watch paper being made from start to finish and it’s a fascinating journey. The paper is made from the bark of just two tree species – the Daphne tree and Dhekap tree. Using traditional age-old methods, the bark is soaked, pulped, squeezed, wrung out, placed on racks, dried on a wall then laid out. I make it sound so easy – it clearly is a finely honed skill. As we watch the man smooth out thin sheets of soaking wet paper on to a hot wall that dries it in minutes ,and then peel it off (before it dries out too much; a matter of seconds) and place the sheet in a pile before starting the process again, it’s clear that this is something he’s being doing for a long time.

Whilst you are not going to spend hours at this little factory it is well worth a visit. Of course, I bought a notebook!

 

TASHICCHO DZONG THIMPU

There are Dzongs on every hill in Bhutan it seems. Dzong actually means fortress and were built not only to protect the Bhutanese but also as administrative centres, houses for the clergy and somewhere people got together during festivities.

This particular Dzong is one of the most important and was restored after a fire in 1698 (originally built in 1641). It houses the secretariat, throne room and offices of the King of Bhutan. It was also where the fifth kings coronation was held in 2008. The northern part – which is not open to the public  – is the summer home of the Je Khenpo (most Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body)

An interesting and photogenic place to wander around, be aware you cannot take photos inside some areas so check with your guide first.

POST OFFICE

Now I’m no prude when it comes to stamp collecting – there is a history of stamp collecting in the family – the prospect of visiting a post office during my trip seemed slightly weird to me. My guide though was keen, and as he said, at least I could post my few postcards whilst there.

Housing a small museum that gives a brief, but thorough history of post in Bhutan is worth a visit if you’ve got half an hour to spare. Considering Bhutan still doesn’t have consistent street names and no postcodes it’s tricky enough now to consider posting something. Back when you were reliant on the strong legs and resolve of the mail runners – who literally, as their name suggests – ran around the hills with mail, it must have been quite hit and miss.

But for me, the piece de resistance of the visit to the post office was being able to buy stamps with my own mug on! Oh yes, I stood in front of a really obviously fake ‘background’ of The Tigers Nest lead to much excitement when I wrote out a few postcards and was able to slap my personalised stamp in to the top right corner. Can’t wait to hear people’s reactions when they get their postcard!

 

 

REFLECTIONS

Looking back I still can’t believe the numbers of dogs I saw on the streets of Thimpu – and I understand this is true throughout most of Bhutan. Not only that, the noise those dogs make at night isn’t something that I remember fondly. Having said that, there are lots of things I do.

The warm people, the stunning views, the clean air, the sky that goes on forever and the fabulous guides. Also knowing that there are people there that need a helping hand. Here are just some of the pictures I took of the wonderful Bhutanese people.

 

LIKE TO TAKE YOUR OWN JOURNEY TO BHUTAN?

If you are interested in joining a journey in the future I am currently working with ILJ to organise a writers retreat, yoga journey and a volunteer journey to work with the Ability Bhutan Society. Please do get in touch if you are at all interested here and put Insightful Learning Journeys in the title bar.

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Chukie and Khatiza our facilitators and cheerleaders!

Please do click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.

Here for how it all began

Here for my volunteering experiences

Here for the Tigers Nest Trek

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback…

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My trek to The Tigers Nest

I’ll be honest, trekking isn’t a past time I’d choose (what are you laughing at?)

In fact, apart from a trip to Wales in my teens I’m pretty sure trekking has never featured in my life before now. Unless walking the dog around the local woods counts?

When I decided to go to Bhutan it was always part of the plan to see the Tigers Nest – but honestly, this was purely because it was suggested to me as a must see. A Buddhist monastery that clings to a granite cliff more than 3,000 above sea level and apparently every Bhutanese person should take a pilgrimage there at least once, as should every visitor if they can. So in for a penny and all that!

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The Tigers Nest perched on the edge of a very craggy rock

Really I went with little expectations and even less knowledge. It’s said that ignorance is bliss – this saying could not have been more true in this instance. I naively asked my guide Thinley how difficult the trek was. He laughed and said it depends on each person, but not to worry. Another guide I talked to told me the worst part were the steps at the end – around 800 of them. What he failed to mention was that you had to do them twice – obviously! There and back!

The morning of the trek we drove through Paro and I was struck by how pretty a town it is compared to Thimpu. Not as heavily built up, more land around and without the bustle.

As we turn a bend Thinley points to a dot in the distance that is apparently where we are heading. I squint. Mmm…put it this way. I couldn’t even make out the temple.

Tigers Nest in distance

It’s up there you say?

Having parked up and acquired a walking stick we begin the trek. I don’t know what I was expecting but it was not at all what I got. An open expanse of land that could be someone’s garden (if your garden looks like barren land at the bottom of the foothills of the Himalayas that is) is where you head through to start the trek upwards. Oh, and when I say upwards, I mean upwards. No, you’re not rock climbing – but it’s not a gentle stroll let’s be clear on that.

We pass a water wheel housed inside a white building that looked like the woodchoppers cottage from childhood fairy tales. Complete with icy cold stream and wooden bridge. Honestly, I think Grimm himself couldn’t have created a more fairytale like picture.

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The faiytale ‘cottage’

Thinley had offered me the option of taking a pony up (they only take you half way) and I scoffed at the suggestion. After all, I was fit woman in her prime – ha! as if I’d need to be carried up a little incline. We often had to stop to let lines of ponies coming down pass by. Interestingly some of them seemed to choose their own path and didn’t mind climbing the most awkward way down so I was feeling pretty good about my choice to use my own two feet.

Ponie rides half way

Ponies can help you half way

Just ten minutes later I was regretting the pony decision. You see, it’s not that it’s a difficult climb per se. It’s just a really bloody difficult walk. Obviously you have to factor in the altitude – which was what got to me I think. (No, it was not that I’m very unfit) I literally had to stop every ten minutes to take a breather. The first half dozen times I was a little embarrassed at my tardiness and laughed it off, the next few times I apologised to Thinley for my stop-starting. After that I didn’t care – I had to breathe for Gods sake!

Each time the every gracious Thinley simply stopped with me and we took in the view – and a few dozen photos. So not really a bad thing to stop at all. As the path snakes up through the pine forest the views over Paro are amazing.

The path is a little treacherous in places. No hair raising drops, which is what I had been having nightmares about the night before. You just had to watch your footing, it’s dry and gravelly after all. But nothing the many sprightly elderly trekkers that we passed couldn’t deal with. There was a sense of camaraderie whilst walking amongst other trekkers too. A simple nod of the head (often talking was out of the question due to lack of breath) that said “I feel your pain, but keep going” or a quick “hi, how you doing?” as people passed you on their way down. A couple of “keep it up, it’s worth it” were thrown around too.

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Just a few minutes to catch my breath

I played tag with a Japanese couple who seemed to be going at a similar pace. I’d pass them, stop, they’d pass me, they’d stop… The guy was playing buddhist prayers through his phone and this rhythmic chanting was fantastically uplifting and completely in keeping with the walk. I pushed to keep up with him at times just to listen to the comfort of the prayers. Funnily enough I saw them both at the airport a few days later and we greeted each other like long lost friends – even though we only ever exchanged facial expressions on that day.

On the way up there are rest stops where you can sit and admire the view. Prayer flags are strung in many places giving a real sense of calmness to everywhere. I also spot small pots here and there hidden in the rocks. Thinley explains they are ‘Tsatsas’  which are stupa-shaped clay statues that sometimes have the ashes of loved ones embedded in them, these are meant to liberate their souls.

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Tsatsas nestle amongst the rocks

After an hour we stop at an opening which all but shouts ‘here, take a look at how beautiful I am’ and is home to stunning giant prayer wheel that looks out over the valley and framed with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.

Tea & Biscuits

Tea and biscuits – a welcome break half way!

Halfway and time for tea

Half way up and there’s a welcome place to stop and rest – and have a cuppa (as you do up a Bhutanese mountain). For me this rest stop was also somewhere to contemplate the fact that the worst was yet to come. The dreaded steps!

Oh, and have a comfort break, where I took the obligatory toilet selfie (not going to beat that one in a hurry!)

After fifteen minutes or so I could put it off no longer. So, with Thinley grinning like someone who knew something I didn’t, we headed to the white flag where the steps began (and dozens of sweating, bedraggled people gather either before or after climbing the steps).

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Just some of the steps…

Seeing the wooden steps snake down, around, down, around and then back up the other side of the mountain is daunting to say the least. Apparently it’s only in the last ten years that the hand rail has been put in place so I was dutifully grateful for small mercies. In fact, Thinley mentioned that the steps were an add on too – previously the only way to the monastery was picking your way on a precarious path. Again I was grateful.

As it turned out the steps were, for me, the easier part. It was simply stepping up and down right? I still stopped every ten minutes and my strange brain decided counting the steps as I went was a good idea. Distraction or motivation? I’m still not sure. I counted 390 up and 430 down. I’m pretty sure I got confused a couple of times but the numbers are not far out.

The waterfall at the bottom is a welcome distraction too and you can’t help but wonder at it’s power. Although no Niagara falls, the fact you know it’s path runs a very long way – and that you can spot it’s baby streams as you walk up the mountain is breathtaking. I also think back to the fairy tale waterwheel at the bottom of the trek.

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The viewpoint before the steps

Of course, once the Tigers Nest is within touching distance it’s all about the finish line. Luckily we made it just in time as the monastery closes for lunch at 1pm. Yes, it took me almost three hours to get there (we left just before 9:30am).

We went inside the monastery (and climbed even more steps!) and Thinley told me how this was the birthplace of Bhutanese Buddhism as Guru Rinpoche flew here from Tibet on the back of a Tigress and came to meditate here for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. He showed me the underground cave and I lit a butter lamp to honour lost loved ones in the intensely hot, glowing Butter Lamp room. We also visited the altar room where many come and offer their prayers. Others – like me – simply stand and take in the amazing display of offerings and the famous bronze Padmasambhava (or Guru Rimboche). This statue was the only thing to survive a fire in 1998 that destroyed everything else in the monastery! I also sat and spent a few minutes meditating as best I could, just to connect with the spirituality of the place.

You are not allowed to take bags or cameras in to the monastery which means it’s somewhere that naturally seems to imprint on your mind. As it was about to close we didn’t take in the breathtaking views as much as we could have. Instead, we started our descent back ready for the ascent up the 800 steps. On the way this time we stopped at a fantastic look out and I dutifully posed for what can only be described as travel photographer porn. Beautiful! The view, not me!

The walk back was, without doubt a LOT easier than the walk there. I got chatting to lovely gentleman on the way down and we said our goodbyes only to meet up ten minutes later at the cafe where lunch was laid on. A very tasty – and very welcome – vegetarian curry buffet. Just what the doctor ordered!

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Lunch time – a delicious buffet is laid on

Coming down is tough on your knees though so the walking stick comes in handy. But it’s much easier on the lungs and not as hard work as it all downhill. Again, be careful of your footing. On our way down we hung the prayer flags I had been given at Changangkha Temple. The ever helpful Thinley thought nothing of pulling of his shoes and shinning up a tree to find the perfect spot to hang them. I truly felt like luck would be on my side leaving my prayers in such a spiritual place.

As the fairy tale water wheel came in to view my sense of achievement grew. I’d done it. Five hours of sweat, groans, puffing and huge wows and we’d made it. I spent the journey back to the hotel grinning from ear to ear. Literally.

I’d climbed a mountain!

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The end is in sight

 

 

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Looking out at the view

Is this not the perfect place to sit and think about what you’ve just achieved – and take a photograph that will instantly become your profile pic..

PHOTOGRAPHS

Trekking up to the Tigers Nest really is a photographers dream. Here are some more of the shots I took.

 

 

Please do click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.

Here for how it all began

Here for sightseeing in Thimpu

Here for my volunteering experiences

 

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback…