In December 2020 I booked a holiday in Bhutan. Twice, due to the pandemic, this had been postponed. So I found myself holding my breath as the days drew near for when the trip was finally supposed to happen.
A kind neighbour took me to the Northampton train station to start my journey. The train to London Euston ran on time. I’ve learnt the route on the London underground which allows me to avoid steps (recommended when carting luggage), and so I made my way via the underground to King’s Cross. Unfortunately, the lifts weren’t working in the first area, so I had to bump my case down two sets of steps. What wheelchair users are meant to do in these instances is beyond me.
I arrived at Terminal 4 with three hours in hand before my flight. Although I’d booked in on-line, I had to do so again at a kiosk, with a member of staff coming over to check my documents. The baggage drop was also self-serve, but I confused myself when I misread the label and thought my case hadn’t been booked through to Kathmandu. I asked a member of staff for assistance, discovered that I was mistaken, and had to take my case to a human being to sort out.
Went through security and surprised when I had to take off my belt (no metal!). I had time for a meal where I talked photography with a nearby Swede who had just spent a few days photographing waterfalls in South Wales.
Lucked out on the first flight. No one in the middle seat! I placed my glass of sparkling wine on the tray at that seat, only for it to slide down and empty itself on the seat. I did my best to mop it up, and the air steward refilled my glass for me. (She urged more wine on me during the flight, and I found myself unable to resist temptation…)
I tried and failed to watch ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’, giving up after around twenty minutes. A rather gentle film called ‘Saving Sloane’ kept me amused, as did reading several books on my iPhone.
We landed at Doha midnight Qatar time. I had two hours to change planes, which was plenty. A bus took us from the air-conditioned terminal through the hot evening to air-conditioned plane.
The flight to Kathmandu was full, and the person in the middle seat spread himself into my space at times whilst he was asleep. I did my best to get some sleep during the 4 ½ hour flight, interrupted by a meal.
At 10am local time we were at Kathmandu. Immigration was the first stop. I followed the signs for ‘Visa upon Entrance’ only to find out that we had to visit an electronic kiosk first. A German woman helpfully explained to me, in German, what we had to do. It took awhile to enter all of the information and, as the printers weren’t working, the final confirmation had to be photographed on one’s phone. Then over to a payment counter, where my 30-day visa (as I’ll be in Kathmandu overnight again at the end of the trip) cost me US$50.00.
Finally at the visa counter, where I showed my passport, payment receipt, and boarding pass for my flight from Doha. A rather shiny sticker was placed into my passport. No mere ink stamp here!
Down a set of stairs and to a huge queue. We all had to go through security to get to the luggage collection area. When I finally made my way through, I found my case had been pulled off the conveyer belt and was in a pile on the floor. But at least it had arrived safely!
On the way out I exchanged US$100 for Nepalese currency. My guide and driver were waiting outside the airport. To my surprise, in Nepal they drive on the left. We crawled through the streets, including ones too narrow for cars to pass each other. Somehow our driver always convinced the other party to back up to let us through.
The hotel was in the tourist area of Kathmandu. Small stores sold well known backpacking brands. Others offered Nepalese handicrafts and souvenirs. I was flagging by this time. My bag was carried into the hotel. I checked in, had a lovely welcoming drink of watermelon juice, and was shown to my upstairs room.
After a shower, I took a several hour nap before rising to catch up on emails. After a cold cappuccino in the hotel’s front patio, I had a meal in their restaurant. Stir-fried wild boar with vegetables and rice, washed down with a local beer. I finished off the last of the large bottle outside, where hotel staff lit candles and rang a bell for prayers.
I returned to my rather warm room. No air conditioning in the charming, rather ancient building, and the high for the day had been 27C. I went to bed at 8.30pm.
I slept well, only disturbed by the heat a couple of times. When my alarm went off at 6.30am, I rose feeling quite well.
Breakfast was what you might expect from a Western hotel. Fruit, cereals, real coffee, juice. Cold cow’s milk, which I haven’t always experienced in Asian countries. I declined eggs or pancakes.
At 8am my guide collected me. He told me not to worry about the state of the roads we’d experience as we had a very good driver. We headed out of Kathmandu to the local hills. Clouds wrestled good-naturedly with the sun, giving the sort of shadow and light contrast over the views which I like to photograph. As usual, the best viewpoints occurred where we didn’t dare to stop. The narrow, twisty roads were barely wide enough for two cars, never mind the buses of excited students enjoying a field trip into the hills.
We halted near a small farm, where the light eventually behaved. The farmer and children emerged, as did a number of their goats. My guide showed me the various plants grown by the family, including some cannabis for private consumption. The latter isn’t legal, but it sounds like the government doesn’t worry if it’s small scale.
A viewpoint much further up offered views of the Himalayas on a clear day. We could hardly see anything when we arrived. I took the opportunity for a ‘jungle break’, almost using a small area which, fortunately, I realised was a place for prayer before defiling it. A small bell and a ribbon gave it away.
The guide told me ‘We wait five minutes’ when I returned. Although we didn’t see the mountains, the mist cleared enough to reveal the valley below. The buses travelling along the valley played musical tunes which floated up to our position. Feral dogs trotted up hopefully every time I opened my camera bag, but I had no food for them.
A short drive took us to a popular tourist attraction, namely a suspension bridge built, well, for tourism. My guide pointed out the markings on local pine trees. In the spring, the resin is collected in order to make glue. He seemed worried that I might be alarmed by the suspension bridge, but I put his mind at rest. I haven’t had any fear of heights after my skydive in New Zealand—it was quite the cure!
I walked most of the way across to enjoy the views. Afterwards, we returned to the car and went on to an ancient Hindu temple. Changu Narayan dates back to the fourth century and is one of the oldest temples in Nepal.
A family was there to celebrate their son reaching six months of age. He’d been brought to the priest for a blessing, and now was being fed his first solid food. The family (mother, father, a couple of others) fed him rice. They also gave food to the feral dogs and a couple of goats, as well as the pigeons. Seems it’s bad karma to hurt a pigeon so rice was scattered for them as well. I bit back my usual description of them as ‘rats with wings’. A mynah bird sang noisily from a solar panel nearby.
A large number of souvenir stalls lined the walk to the temple. My guide explained how badly the pandemic had affected people. Thirty percent of Nepal’s income comes from tourism. Many small businesses suffered badly during the lockdowns, and tourism hasn’t yet recovered.
Our final stop was the ancient town of Bhaktapur, founded in the 12th century. My guide paid the visitor’s fee before taking me on a tour. This included areas which appeared to be well off the beaten track. We came across another religious ceremony, many young people dressed in their traditional clothing, enjoying a meal with their elders. Afterwards, my guide explained, they would be playing drums and musical instruments.
The town had been damaged by an earthquake in 2015. New buildings were still in the construction stage. Other old buildings had survived, including the many temples and the royal palace. We walked over the uneven cobble stones and did our best to stay out of the way of the many mopeds. I found it intriguing that the moped drivers had to wear helmets, but not their passengers.
We had a small lunch in a garden courtyard. I went safe with a cheese sandwich and a Coke. My guide had rice and vegetables, to which he added a chili sauce so dark that my eyes watered just looking at it.
Afterwards we visited a few more squares before heading to the car. Some rain came down as we drove back to Kathmandu, but on the whole the weather was much better than the forecast of thunderstorms.
Once back at the hotel I went to my room to work on photos before going down to the hotel restaurant for a light meal. I met four people who are on the Bhutan tour with me. To my surprise, the vegetable fried rice I’d ordered had a number of whole peppercorns, which made eating a rather spicy experience.
Our flight to Bhutan was scheduled to depart at 9am, so I rose at 4.45am to pack bags and go down for a 5.30am breakfast. At 6am we left the hotel. Traffic was very light, and we arrived at the airport thirty minutes later.
The advice given by the travel company was to try to get seats on the left hand side of the plane, with the hope of seeing Mount Everest during the flight. When I reached the counter, I was told that I had already been checked in and had a window seat on the left.
We had to show our boarding passes numerous times during our journey to departures. Security wasn’t happy about the small pocket torch in my backpack. I had to pull it out for a thorough inspection.
After we took seats by the gate, I wandered off for a coffee. The flight took off at the scheduled time, and we flew past Everest whilst eating a small meal, namely a cheese and coleslaw sandwich, a packet of peanuts, a carton of juice, and two cookies.
Clouds and rain greeted us as we landed at Paro. I had decided to carry my light raincoat on to the plane, and was glad of it as we walked to the terminal. I exchanged my US dollars into Bhutanese currency before going through immigration. Therefore I was well behind the rest of the group and the guide and they were waiting for me. It turned out that there were only five in our group.
We drove along twisty roads to the capital, Thimphu, following the valley. Rivers gushed below, and pine trees straggled up the steep hillsides. Chillies were spread out on roofs to dry. We stopped briefly to view Tamchhog Lhanhang temple from the side of the road.
Once in Thimphu, we had a traditional Nepalese lunch. White rice with a number of shared dishes, most of which had chillies. Together the group worked out which dishes were safest for those of us who can’t eat very spicy things. I quite enjoyed the dried beef with stir-fried vegetables.
It was noticeable that the majority of signs and advertisements were in English. Later on in our holiday, our guide would explain that she knew families in which English was the only language spoken at home and the children weren’t learning Bhutanese. English is used extensively in schools.
We checked into our hotel and thirty minutes later regrouped for a walking tour of Thimphu. The rain had stopped and the sun put in the occasional appearance. The rest of the group did not have local currency, so we started our search for an ATM. Or should I say, a working ATM. Our guide was good at finding them, but time and again it was either out of order or wouldn’t accept any of our cards. We visited a currency exchange where I traded most of my Nepalese currency for Bhutanese.
Finally we came across a bank, where the ATMs did work for us. After the difficulties we’d experienced, I decided to take out some extra money myself.
Our guide took us along a row of handicraft stalls. Mostly the same items featured again and again, namely woven bags, wooden carvings, and phalluses. The latter, which could be purchased as wooden carvings or pottery, in many different sizes, is traditionally placed on the tops of houses as a symbol of compassion. ‘Look at the glaze on that one,’ I mentioned to a member of our group. ‘Very colourful.’ ‘Until the glaze worn off,’ she replied, which made me ask her, ‘Depends on how you use it, surely?’ We also debated what should be the group noun for phalluses.
At one point in the main road we came across a man directing traffic from a specially built pagoda. Our guide explained that each person does a two hour shift. The man used various arm signals to let vehicles know who could move when.
We visited the National Textile Museum. The weaving of intricate, multi-coloured cloth has long been a tradition in Bhutan. The patterns and the materials used vary across the country. There were two main exhibits, one about the Queen Mother and her efforts to conserve this handicraft. (She was one of the four wives of the previous King: He married four sisters on the same day.) The other offered examples of clothing and a few other items, including cloth woven as tax payment.
We had a couple of hours to relax in our nice hotel rooms. As would prove to be the case for the rest of the holiday, the rooms featured kettles and internationally accessible electricity sockets, so I didn’t need any adaptors to charge up my devices.
We met in the bar before dinner to have beers together. Dinner was a buffet, and I managed to find food which wasn’t too spicy, although some chillies had been added even to the pasta dish.
My birthday! And a niggling neckache which I’d had since the evening before.
The hotel breakfast was a bit basic, although the coffee was excellent. We headed out at 9am, in rather persistent rain, to visit sites in the area. We halted for a few minutes to watch an archery competition at the Changlimithang Archery Ground. The men (and one woman) competed in teams, with several people standing in front of the target to taunt those firing from the other side. This didn’t seem quite safe to us, especially when a couple of arrows landed at their feet.
Our first stop was at the Memorial Chorten. We huddled under our umbrellas whilst our guide told us about it. The stupa was built in 1974 to honour the third King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. This was our first real introduction to the reverence which so many Bhutanese show to their royal family. Photos of the kings, particularly the current one, appeared in many establishments and people wore badges bearing the King’s image.
We walked past the prayers wheels and the separate building where candles could be lit. To enter the temple, as was the case at all the religious buildings, we removed our shoes, leaving them outside along with our umbrellas. Also common was the prohibition of any photography inside.
The chorten offered three levels for worship. Each held large statues in the centre of the room. The walls were painted with more Buddhist symbols and images. Our guide explained what we were viewing. It was all quite a bit to take in, and we told her she’d have to repeat it again at the next temple.
We returned to our minibus, which then chugged up the hill to the Buddha Dordenma. This huge statue was finished in 2015 and celebrated the 60th anniversary of the fourth King of Bhutan. The statue is 52 metres tall, made of bronze, and covered in gold leaf. We admired from afar before going inside. I wish I could have taken photos inside. The interior was also covered in gold leaf, and 125,000 small replicas of the Buddha rested on shelves lining the walls. Four thrones rested along one wall, set up for the King of Bhutan, the head religious leader, and the other two for members of the royal family or other religious leaders.
The next temple we visited was quite the contrast. Our guide called it ‘The Baby Naming Temple’, Changangkha Lhakhang. Three days after a baby’s birth, the family brings him/her to this temple to have the child blessed and for the mother to choose the name. Our guide showed us two containers, one which held names for boys, the other for girls. The mother pulls out a name, which she can either accept for the baby, or she can reject and pull out another one. She can keep going until she’s happy with the name.
Families are supposed to visit once a month with their child. A number came whilst we were there. The monk on duty poured water into their hands, from which they sipped a small amount before running the rest across their foreheads and through their hair. They also bent their heads to have the monk touch the top with a wrapped dagger.
We drove further up the mountain to take a walk through the forest. As the minibus ground up the road, I changed my boots. During the process, I did something to my neck. Throbbing pain rising along the back and along my head made my eyes water.
Despite the pain, I decided to try the walk. The rain stopped as we walked along the mostly good path. The soil was rather sandy, which meant there were fewer muddy bits than might have been expected. We were at around 2100 metres in altitude, which possibly didn’t help my neck and headache either. I concentrated on breathing through the pain and keeping up with the group.
The forest opened up to views over Thimphu. Prayer flags were strewn across the trees. Mist clung to the Wangditse Goemba temple as we approached, clearing a few minutes after our arrival.
We admired the views before visiting the temple. A number of small cats clamored for attention, or more likely food. The sun actually made a brief appearance, and I took photos of the views down the valley.
My neck had improved, and I was nearly pain free on the flat portions of the trail. Going uphill was unpleasant. Fortunately, the main uphill stretch was at the end of the walk, and soon afterwards we were back in the minibus.
We returned to the city and had a late lunch, enjoying a buffet. The others had beers, but I decided to play it safe and ordered a Coke. Going up the stairs to the restaurant had made my neck pound again.
Our last visit of the day was to a weaving centre. We saw women working on looms, one on an intricate silk cloth, others on simplier designs. Of course there was a shop on the next level. A full-length silk-based cloth, long enough for a woman to wrap around her as a dress, costs US$3000. I was happy enough to buy a cushion cover at a fraction of the price.
Back to the hotel for a couple of hours. At 7pm the minibus took us through renewed rain to a restaurant at the edge of the city. I drank a low alcohol lager. We were brought various dishes, most of which were mild. I particularly liked a dish of ginger and carrots.
At the end of the meal, the lights were dimmed and a birthday cake was brought to our table. I blew out the candles and served out portions. Our guide had asked me what was my favourite colour, and as a result the icing was blue. This turned everyone’s tongue blue! The inside was a fruit-based mousse, very nice.
We returned to the hotel. I entered my room to find a slice of cake and a card from the hotel. A rather overly-caked birthday!
Heavy rain overnight. We left the hotel at 8am and headed east. The minibus climbed up into the mountains, giving us views of wet and cloudy hillsides. We stopped at the top of the 3140 metre Dochu La pass, using umbrellas as we explored the 108 chortens and looked longingly at where, on a clear day, we could have seen snow-capped mountains. We visited the café for coffees before carrying on. As we passed through the mountainous area, we saw a troop of monkeys walking on the walls at the side of the road.
At the village of Pangna we disembarked, wearing coats and carrying umbrellas against the still fierce rain. A road and then a concrete path led us through rice paddy fields. I missed having a third arm as I tried to take photos whilst still keeping the umbrella over me and my camera.
We reached the village, walking past many shops selling various handicrafts with a focus on phalluses. These came in all sizes, varying from plain wood to elaborate painting schemes. Some had wings, others had eyes. ‘So he can see where he’s going,’ one of the group quipped.
Our destination, and the reason for the many phalluses, was the Temple of Fertility, called Chimi Lhakhang. The final part of the path was steep, laid with stones made slippery from the rain.
The Temple of Fertility was built in honour of Lama Drukpa Kunley, a 15th century saint who subdued a mighty demoness with his penis. Women who have not been able to conceive come to the temple to seek a blessing to cure their infertility. Inside the temple is a wooden phallus, which the woman carries around the temple three times. She goes back inside to prostrate herself in front of the depiction of Lama Kunley. Afterwards, a monk invites her to pick out a small card, which will have the name of a child. The name indicates whether the woman will have a boy or a girl. She is given an image of the saint, and a prayer she is to say daily until the baby is born. People are encouraged to write to the temple if they successfully have a child after their visit, and we were shown a photo album of couples with their babies, sent from all over the world.
We three female tourists declined to undertake the ceremony. Our guide, who already has three children and doesn’t want anymore, did so in order that we could take photos. She obtained forgiveness from the monk on duty that she wasn’t asking for a child herself.
Afterwards we returned to the tourist shops. The two couples in the group own a chalet together in France, and they bought a phallus to place in the downstairs toilet. I bought a black one decorated with a dragon. To me, it’s not immediately obvious that it is a phallus. So if any guest asks if it is, I can accuse them of having a dirty mind…
We had a buffet lunch with lovely views over the rice paddy fields and the temple in the distance. I watched the others enjoying their beers whilst I sipped on my Coke. Although my neck/head were much better, going uphill still caused some me some pain.
Our final stop was Punakha Dzong. The original palace was built 1638 and it has been repaired many times since. The first king was crowned here in 1907. Climbing up was a bit challenging, consisting of a steep staircase. We walked along the covered edges of the various courtyards. The only interior open to visitors was the temple. Our guide once again explained the various saints and depictions of the Buddha which were on view. The statues used a lot of gold leaf and wore intricate robes. She also took us along wall paintings which illustrated the life story of the Buddha and his path to enlightenment. Ants crawled along the walls.
The rain finally eased as we left the palace and walked to the nearby Punakha suspension bridge. We crossed over to the other side then back again. A few lovelocks were on the bridge, and I explained them to our guide. She’d never heard of the tradition, nor the problems they were causing on bridges in other parts of the world.
Our hotel was set up in the hills overlooking the palace. I was delighted, when we entered the common area of our lodging, to find a praying mantis inside. I’ve not seen one since my childhood in California. I scooped him up from the floor and admired him for a little while before putting him outside.
The balcony of my room allowed me to view the grand sweep of the valley and the river, although rather annoyingly bushes and a pole hid parts of the palace. I headed down the road with camera and tripod before sunset and then again later when the castle was lit up.
I met up with the others in the bar before dinner. We had a beer, and then went down for the buffet dinner. They each had another beer. I ordered a shot of the most expensive Bhutan distilled whisky on the list. It was acceptable at the £1.20 it cost, but nothing special. More like a blended whisky such as Bell’s or Teacher’s.
I got up at 6.30am and looked down into the valley. There was broken sunshine to start with, before mist rolled in to hide everything from view. When I went to breakfast at 7am, the clouds had cleared, but the light was in the wrong direction for photos of the scene.
We set off in sunshine at 8.30am. A short stop allowed us to photograph the Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, our destination of our morning walk. I looked at the climb up the hillsides and wondered if my head would be up to it. I’d finally woken up without needing immediate ibuprofen, but I wondered how I’d cope with going uphill.
After parking up and walking over a suspension bridge, we continued along a muddy trail past rice paddies. The walk was a steady uphill one, occasionally offering steps, at other times only mud. My head began to pound, and I wondered if I should find a place to wait for the group to finish the walk and return. I pressed through the pain, deciding to take more regular breathers rather than push myself to keep up with the group.
The temple came into view, and then we were there. I took deep breaths, glad to have made it. Our guide took us inside and yet again patiently explained the stories behind the various sculpted images of animal headed gods. The uppermost level led out onto platform which provided wonderful views up and down the valley.
Several artists were working on intricate paintings in the grounds. One explained to us the training they’d undergone and the techniques they used. He said that the faces were always painted last, and only on an auspicious day and after prayers.
Back down again. At the river, our raft was waiting for our white water rafting trip. I put on waterproof trousers and slid a small camera into a drybag, attaching this to my lifejacket. We were also given helmets to wear and flipflops to take us to the raft. Our guide didn’t come with us, placing us into the hands of a rafting guide with thirteen years’ experience.
We were given instructions on how to hold our paddles and to row. Afterwards, we climbed on board and set off.
The river at this time of year was graded at level one, very small rapids and lots of level stretches. A mixture of sunshine and shadow keep us cool as we mostly drifted down the river, admiring the views of the mountains and various birds. Going through stretches of rapids made us very wet. Although my trousers were waterproof, water poured down my back and inside said trousers. We used our smartphones to take photos of the local scenery.
Around an hour later we arrived at the end point. We disembarked. I changed trousers, but hadn’t packed spare underwear. So dry trousers, wet underwear. But the trip was fun and the discomfort was worth it!
A short distance away we stopped for lunch. This was served outdoors, at a picnic spot near the palace. A cooked meal of chicken and various vegetables. Hopeful dogs sat near us, all of them with identical notches in their left ears. Our guide wasn’t herself certain what this signified. Perhaps ownership?
We were given the option of visiting either a temple or a nunnery and a village. We voted for the latter. The minibus took us high into the mountains, with stunning views of the valley below.
The Sangchen Dorji Lhendrub Choling Nunnery was perched high in the mountains. We walked around the grounds, visited the temple, and a nun played on a small traditional flute for us. Her head was shaved as close as a monk’s, which felt almost shocking.
Another long drive up the mountain brought us to Nobgang village. We drove carefully through an archery competition to the end of the road, from which we went for a short walk. Our guide tried to gain entry to a house for us to see the views, but no one was home. So we walked down a steep section to see the views. I came to regret this, as the walk back up brought on my throbbing headache again.
We walked down to the archery competition. The teams were using compound bows, and shooting a long distance along the road. When an arrow hit the small target, the other teammates broke into a celebratory song and dance. Just as we were preparing to leave, a cow had to be chased from the road.
Back down the mountain. Our guide had talked about a visit to a vegetable market and then a visit to a café, and although it was now 5pm, she seemed determined to make good on her promise. We had a quick walk through the market, but then assured her that we did not need to visit a café. We were quite happy to go back to the hotel for a shower and to relax before dinner.
The washing I’d hung up on the balcony was dry when I reached my room. A squad of insects attacked me as I stood outside. I hurried to unclip the washing line, fending off something large and black which went for my right ear. A phalanx of smaller bloodsuckers headed for my bare feet. I hurried back into my room and slid the insect screen shut behind me.
As arranged, we met in the bar for pre-dinner drinks. The others had decided to try a bottle of Bhutan red wine with dinner. The wine was very drinkable, a nice Syrah. I was rather impressed. We only found out later that all wine labeled ‘Product of Bhutan’ is imported, merely blended and bottled in the country.
An early start, leaving 7.30am for a long day’s drive. We had to take our time going down the narrow road from the hotel, as we had managed to hit the school run.
We headed east, enjoying the mixture of sunshine and shadow as our minibus climbed up the steep mountain roads. A couple of times we stopped to take in the views and to stretch our legs. We had a coffee at a café. Another stop gave us a good view of the Trongsa Dzong. A temple was first founded on the site in 1543, and in 1647 this was replaced with the first dzong.
Lunch was at the restaurant next to the Tower of Trongsa Royal Heritage Museum. A kitten was interested in our meal, and finally a child came to scoop her up and take her away.
We visited the museum, where we had to leave not only cameras but also phones in lockers. We first watched a documentary about Bhutan, which gave the history of the royal family. The exhibits comprised of old sculptures from various temples and garments worn by the kings and queens of Bhutan. We had taken steps down to the entrance for the museum, and we climbed back up through the galleries, emerging next to the restaurant. Our guide insisted that we remain at the top whilst she went back down to collect our items.
Several hours later our drive, including a brief stop at a place selling garments made from yak wool, brought us to our hotel. I busied myself with doing some clothes washing in my room.
We gathered at 6.30pm for drinks, opting for the local beer, a weissbier called ‘Red Panda.’ The electricity went off as we were drinking, and staff brought out candles and battery powered lights. Around fifteen minutes later, power was restored.
After dinner, we all turned in early. As one commented, ‘I can’t believe how tired I am after doing nothing all day.’
A late start of 9am. We drove out to the Jampey Lhakhang temple. Dried branches of fir were being burnt as incense near the entrance, and the usual dogs greeted us as we went into the grounds. A number of local people were saying prayers inside the building. As usual, our guide said some of her own (praying softly aloud) before explaining the imagery which we could see. Although I have found the sheer detail of all the many gods somewhat overwhelming, the repetition meant that I was beginning to recognise some of them.
We walked to the next temple. The route first took us past farmland, red rice growing in paddies and cows grazing in fields. Cannabis plants grew on the sides of the dirt road. The sun was warm and the air humid. We turned down on to a path beaten through a wildflower meadow.
The large temple complex of Kurjey Lhakhang was our next stop. The red robes of monks hung out to dry by what I assume was living quarters. A short-lived rain shower began just as we were leaving the first temple of the complex to visit the second one. The oldest temple was built in 1652 and the youngest in 1984.
Our guide showed us an entry into a tunnel which, if you climb it, takes you up to the top of the hill. This spiritual exercise was not one any of us felt the need to undertake.
The sun had come out again by the time we left the third temple. We put our boots back on and resumed our walk. There were public toilets nearby, but the signs for ‘men’ and ‘women’ confused us. The men’s traditional clothing is like a short skirt, and women’s like a long one. So the sign for the men’s toilets showed someone in a short skirt, which made us think it was the ladies’. The urinals inside quickly put us right, and we went into the one which had the image of someone in a long skirt.
The final temple was across the river. A bull was resting on the road bridge, looking quite content with life, so I walked past him rather than use the pedestrian walkway so I could take some photos. Cars simply veered around him.
As we reached Tamshing Gooemba temple, people were bringing in food to share with the monks for lunch. We went inside. The upper sections offered views back down into the worship area, where three kittens wrestled with each other. We admired the masks which were used during festivals, stored in the upper level. After we’d gone back down (on a rather steep ladder), our guide showed us a long and heavy looking silver chain locked away in a cabinet. People can wear the chain as they walk three times around the outside of the temple as a way to cleanse their souls.
Our lunch was in a nearby house. We sat in the front room and were served by the family. For the first time in days I wasn’t being haunted by a headache, so I joined the others in having some beer. Our guide also served us a sample of spirit distilled by the family, slightly pink and flavoured with sandlewood. Drinkable, but none of felt a need for seconds.
We drove into town. There we visited the Red Panda Brewery. The proprietor, a man with a thick Germanic accent, gave us a short tour of the brewhouse. The only beer they produce is the weissbier. We had small samples in the café, finding it not quite to our taste. The café looked Germanic/Swiss, with a mixture of items and decorations from both countries.
Back into the minibus, for a drive of less than fifty yards to our next stop! This was a cheese making factory. We went into the shop and were given cheese samples before a short tour. The company makes Emmental and Gouda. We bought some wine and cheese.
The minibus took us up into the nearby hills to visit the Jakar Dzong, founded in 1549. The fortress, like many the other dzongs, serves both as a local administrative building as well as a monastery. After climbing up the steep pathway, and admiring what we were told was the tallest prayer flag in Bhutan, we caught our breath as we took in the views down into the valley below.
We walked through the complex. Monks were practicing their chanting for an upcoming festival, the low notes making our throats ache. In another area, monks were practicing their dance moves. Although photography was permitted outside, I had to keep my hat off the entire time.
Our guide had said that we’d visit the town as the last part of our day. My fellow travellers felt rather tired, and we agreed to go back to the hotel instead. Having driven through the town several times, I wasn’t that bothered about walking through it. The town seemed functional rather than beautiful.
I sat outside in the sunshine to catch up on emails until the increasingly cold wind sent me back to my room. At 6.30pm we met in one couple’s room for a wine and cheese party before going on to dinner.
An 8.30am departure. Our original itinerary had us attending a local festival today, but the date of the festival had been changed to the next day. So we headed further east, climbing up into the mountains on a very narrow road. At a lookout point we stopped to take photos of a nunnery which clung to a hillside on the other side of the valley.
A couple of hours later we arrived at the manor house complex of Ogyen Choling. The origin of the house dates back to the14th century, with the most recent rebuild taking place after an earthquake in 1897. The manor house had been the home of the local noble family for centuries.
One of their descendants, a young man dressed in a sweatshirt and jogging bottoms, gave us a two hour tour of the main building. We climbed up very steep ladders to see the various exhibits about rural life in the area. This included weaving, agriculture, battle implements, and costumes from religious festivals. A couple from Canada joined us for the tour.
Several women had set up souvenirs outside the museum. ‘Shopping, shopping!’ they called out. I was tempted by the red prayer scarves, which I felt could be used as a red stole. But the quoted price of 3000 Bhutanese (around £30) was more than I wanted to spend, so I declined.
We drove back down the road and had an outdoor lunch near a choten and the river. Dogs and crows waited hopefully as we tucked into a hot meal. After we’d finished, our guide gave the leftovers to the waiting pack and flock.
On our way back, we stopped at the Burning Lake. Our guide had told us the tale a previous day. Pema Lingpa, in the 15th century, had a dream that treasures hidden by Guru Rinpoche were hidden in a pool in the river. Pema went to the site and returned with several treasures, but the local people doubted him. So he told the people to go to the pool with him. He lit a lamp and said, ‘If I am a genuine revealer of treasures then may I return with the treasure and my lamp still alight. However, if I am a devil, may I drown.’ He dived in, and was not seen for a long time. When he did emerge, it was with a statue, a treasure chest, and the lamp still lit.
The site is an important Buddhist place of pilgrimage. We walked down the steep path, prayer flags marking the way. A wooden bridge gave views of the pool. We stayed in the area near the path. The rocks are slippery and people have slipped and drowned in the river.
We headed back up. After a day of being headache free, it came back soon after we’d climbed back up to the area where we’d parked. I sighed and took some ibuprofen as we headed back to town and our hotel.
As it was only 4pm and sunny, I again sat outside to catch up on emails. A couple of dogs joined me. Once the sun went in, and the wind again picked up, I went to my room.
As usual, we met for drinks at 6.30pm, dinner at 7pm. The hotel was full of Westerners, which probably explained why the buffet featured only mildly spiced food.
After dinner, I used my tripod to take photos of the palace, which was lit up by floodlights. The travel tripod managed to cope with the weight of the large 100-500 lens.
We packed our bags and left the hotel at 8am. Our guide had been told that the local religious festival would start at 9.30am. We arrived at the Thangbi Lhakhung temple at 8.30am, parked up, and followed our guide to the temple itself. She showed us around inside, and found out that the festival would start at 10am.
The two stacks of wood for the fire blessing had been prepared outside the temple grounds. The rest of the group decided to go for a walk. As I did not want to miss the fire blessing, I opted to stay nearby.
More and more vehicles arrived, disgorging mostly local people in colourful clothing. Many were wearing their best outfits rather than the day-to-day ones. A teenage girl struck up a conversation with me. She was thrilled, she said, to be speaking with a native English speaker. It was her first time. Her English was very good, although I had to assure her several times that, no, she wasn’t bothering me. I was quite happy to talk to her. Our guide had told us that young people were enamoured with Japan, and this was the case with the teenager. She was desperate to visit Japan.
Around 10am the monks processed from the temple with the fire. I didn’t see this part, due to where I was standing. Masked dancers twirled around the wood stacks and kerosine was added to the timber. The moment of lighting the two stacks was again something I missed.
Then chaos. People dashed back from the blazing wood stacks, others started circling and charging between the two large pyres. I did my best to keep my footing and to take photos. The heat from the fire was incredible, as was watching people circle and dash past the flames three times.
Our guide rounded us up to head to the temple to grab good places inside. She helped me to find a seat at the front, where a family made room for me. I sat on the stone-lined ground and noted ruefully that I’d obviously stepped into a cow pat or two during the fire blessing ceremony. I did my best to cross my legs in a way which didn’t dirty my trouser legs.
The young boy with the family offered me some sort of corn based snack. I accepted, and the heat from the chili flavour made my eyes water. Fortunately he didn’t press me to have any more.
The sun came out and blazed down upon us. As others were wearing hats, including locals, I put mine back on.
Drumming and clashing cymbals accompanied the first ceremony. What looked to be the main religious figure in the temple came out and undertook an elaborate series of gestures, culminating with grain and flower petals being scattered on the ground.
Next a man in a traditional military costume did a dance with a sword and a banner. This was followed by women singing and dancing, before the Black Hat dancers came out. The men twirled and strutted. Two young boys had taken seats in front of me, so I did my best to take photos without including their heads in the image. Clouds came over, which was a blessed relief after the earlier heat.
After this dance had ended, I left my spot to go see the group, who were seated well back. It was decided to stay until we’d seen some of the masked dancing. I found a new spot to stand, and used my big lens to take photos of the masked men.
We left and went to the local town for a quick lunch. Then we settled in for a six hour drive, making a couple of stops to stretch legs. Other towns were holding festivals of their own, which occasionally slowed our progress. We were heading back on the same road we’d used earlier, now heading west.
Our guide had hoped to show us an art centre, but when we halted there the workshops were shut and locked. We watched two monks kicking a football around before returning to our minivan.
We arrived at our hotel around 6.15pm. At 7pm we met in one person’s room for wine, before going on to dinner at 7.30pm.
An 8.30am start. We’d been given the option of the walk either starting at Gangtey Gompa temple and walking down, or starting at the bottom of the valley and walking up. I wanted the walking down option, as going uphill seemed to be what triggered my head and neck aches. The others wanted the uphill option, so they could test their ability at altitude (we were at 2900 metres). So I accepted the majority decision but also decided to skip the walk. Instead, I was driven to the temple.
Unexpectedly, a local festival was just finishing. Multiple stalls were set up along the side of the road and down the path. One stall had the same red scarf as I’d admired the other day, and the seller wanted only 1800 Bhutanese. I bought it, very pleased that I’d not purchased earlier. Our guide later explained that stall holders often drop their prices at the end of a festival, as they don’t want to take stock back.
As I walked, I realised that the town was larger and busier than I’d anticipated, and no arrangements had been made on how I was to find the group. I decided that I probably had at least 90 minutes before they would arrive. I wandered around, mostly focussing on people photos as the grey, overcast skies made the landscape rather dull.
The minibus driver found me about an hour later. I asked him if there were any toilets. He led me past the temple and pushed open a door marked ‘No admittance.’ The building beyond appeared to be living quarters. Around the back was a rather dingy toilet, but I’ve experienced much worse. I was more concerned about being challenged as to why I was there in the first place.
We were at the main entrance to the temple. I decided to wait until the rest of the group arrived before visiting the complex. A murder of crows was attacking bags of potatoes piled up behind a tractor, and I amused myself by taking photos of their squabbles.
I returned to the gate which led to the temple, reasoning that the group would have to come this way. The driver was there, and he informed me that the group should only be another thirty minutes. I took photos of monks wearing bright yellow hoodies under their robes and women selling vegetables at any open space. At a stall near me a man seemed to be operating the equivalent of a tombola. People paid him money, he rattled a jar, and they pulled out a small numbered ball which could win them a prize. Parents caught toddlers in order to put their shoes back on. This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.
The group arrived and we walked up to the 17th century temple together. This was a bit different to others we’d seen before, with carved animals featured outside. Our guide explained that it was more like Tibetan temples than Bhutanese. A long row of monks sat in the courtyard, working together to roll up a large banner which had been used for the festival.
The minibus took us to the Black Necked Crane Centre. From late October to mid February hundreds of these cranes migrate from Tibet to the valley. Two cranes, which were injured and cannot be released back into the wild, live in an enclosure at the centre. Inside we watched a film about the cranes and viewed a number of exhibits. The upper floor offered a large viewing area, which must be good when the cranes are in the area.
After lunch, another walk. This one was promised to be less uphill than the morning’s, so I joined the group. We went downhill into the valley, on the barest hint of a path. At the bottom, we picked our way through marsh and past grazing cattle. Then it was a steady walk up a dirt road. The path wasn’t particularly steep, but we could feel the 2900 metre altitude.
The walk brought us back to the hotel. We had some down time before meeting again for wine in one couple’s room before going on to dinner.
A long driving day. We left at 8am to start our drive back to our starting point, Paro.
Around an hour in we stopped at the café we’d used on the way out. After a comfort break, we walked down the road to the local town, collected by the minibus after twenty minutes of our leg stretch.
The temperatures warmed during the morning. We stopped to photograph and then went on to visit the Wangdi Phodrang Dzong. This fortress has been rebuilt several times since its foundation in 1638, after destruction by an earthquake in 1897 and a fire in 2012.
As with other dzongs, the buildings are now used for administrative offices and a monastery. The entrance led to a large courtyard. Monks went about their business as we walked across and then up several levels. The temple on the third floor featured elaborate woodcarvings. As ever, I followed the rules and kept camera tucked away.
We drove on to lunch. All the food has been perfectly edible, but I guess in an attempt to cater for Western preferences it’s become rather samey. Yet again ginger chicken (chopped roughly, so bones are imbedded in the flesh), steamed vegetables, rice, pasta. We’ve had much the same lunchtime and evening for several days.
At the Dochu La pass we halted. Clouds still hid the mountains from sight, but at least it wasn’t raining this time. We also saw monkeys again, sitting on walls lining the road.
A bit of rain accompanied us and we saw a rainbow stretched across a hill. Our guide gave us several options to stop, asking if we wanted a short walk up to a temple, or visit Paro itself. We were all a bit travel weary, and opted to keep going and reach our hotel.
We arrived just before 4pm. The hotel was just across the river from the airport, built around an old family home and set in quite a few acres. Our rooms were around a five minute walk from reception.
At 6.30pm we met in the bar. I had hopes that finally the Bhutanese stout might be available, but only the beers we’d been drinking thus far were in stock. The buffet offered pretty much the same as the one at lunch time, as well as Indian food. There were a large number of people from India at dinner, which explained the options.
I went back to my room. As a tube strike was due to take place on the day I was due to travel home, as well as disruption on the trains because of an overtime ban, I booked a ticket on a National Express coach to take me from Heathrow to Northampton.
An 8.30am start. We went first to the National Museum of Bhutan, driving under grey skies. The National Museum was inside the Paro Ta Dzong, first built in the 17th century as a watchtower.
The views over the valley and the town of Paro were excellent, although the photographer in me grumbled about the dull light. We deposited cameras and phones into a locker before going into the museum, passing through a metal detector on the way.
The exhibits were set out on several levels and covered a wide variety of Bhutanese life. There were many religious paintings and statues. One section featured cooking implements, another held weapons. Rather fancy stamps gleamed in well lit cases. In an area dedicated to the royal family, we learnt that the King has to abdicate when he reaches 65 years old.
After our visit, the minibus took us further up the mountain for the start of our walk. We climbed up further, taking only a few breathers. The views back into the valley were stunning, and I called out ‘Photo stop’ several times. The sun had come out, adding colour to the scene. My head ached again from time to time.
Eventually we headed downhill. The path was slippery in many places, due to mud, loose stones, and large rocks. I stayed at the back and took my time, relying on my boots and my walking stick to help me not twist or break an ankle.
Our destination was the Rinpung Dzong. It was in sight when the path narrowed even further. The cliff dropped off to the left, and there were slick stones to negotiate. I must admit that I was somewhat frightened as I carefully picked my way down the stones, trying to keep my boots on the path.
We walked up to the entrance to the dzong, passing several tethered horses and a complaining donkey. The insect noise was nearly as loud as the donkey’s braying. Our guide took us inside the dzong, which as in the previous ones served both as administrative offices and as a monastery. A large number of young monks, which looked to be pre-teenagers, hovered around the entrance.
Afterwards we walked down to the bridge and were collected by the minibus. Sitting down for lunch was very welcome. Lunch itself finally featured more interesting dishes such as beef and fried eggplant.
We took a short walk through the town, a very attractive place as the buildings were all in the traditional style.
Our last visit was to Kyichu Lhakhang temple, built in the 7th century. Bright banners decorated the building due, we were told, to a visit from the royal great-grandmother. To our great delight, some monks were saying prayers. We stepped inside the temple and watched them sing, hit drums, blow trumpets, ring a bell, and clash cymbals.
We were back at the hotel around 3pm. After a shower and a wash of the day’s shirt, I sat outside on the balcony to catch up on emails.
The usual 6.30pm drinks in the bar before dinner. I’d gone out at 6pm to take photos of the lit up watchtower. A thunderstorm began just before my walk to the main building, so I used the umbrella hung up in my wardrobe. Our guide joined us in the bar and warned that the rain could make the trail to the Tiger’s Nest rather slippery.
My legs ached a bit from yesterday’s hike when I rose from my bed. I took what I needed with me to breakfast, saving myself the walk back to my room.
Gentle rain was falling as we left the hotel at 7.30am. This persisted as we pulled into the car park for the Tiger’s Nest walk at 8am. We walked past the horses which could be hired to take one up to the cafeteria, about halfway up the mountain to the monastery. I had intended to ride, but from what I’d read, it wasn’t recommended if rain had made the path muddy as the horses would be slipping and sliding. So I walked with the group.
The path was wide and varied. Sometimes we walked along sandy stretches, at other times around and over rocks. Steps had been put into places in some areas. There were steeper shortcuts, but our guide kept us on the more gradual paths. At one point, this meant sharing the route taken by the horses. This was tricky, as the horses had churned up the soil, making a very slippery and muddy stretch to negotiate. I slipped several times, but managed not to fall. I was very grateful for my walking pole.
We reached the cafeteria around 10am and had a breather. The yellow-billed blue magpies snatched at our food. The rain stopped and mist swirled around the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, still high up the mountain ahead of us.
Off we went again. The altitude was around 2900 metres, which led to many stops to catch breath. Two members of our party were doing much better than the rest of us, and we told our guide to catch them up rather than staying with us. I’d already decided that I’d go as far as the viewpoint, and not attempt to visit the monastery itself.
The path was steep. I took my time, although I was finally headache free. Finally the route levelled up. I stopped at the first view point, taking some photos of the complex. Then I went down a set of steps to the view platform which offered the classic view. There was quite a crowd, everyone wanting to pose in front of the monastery for a photo. I took my photos and, as it was clouding over again, headed back up the steps. The state of my legs when I was back at the top told me I’d been wise not to attempt the 800 steps (half down, half up again) to visit the monastery.
The legend behind the complex is that Guru Rinpoche flew to the cliffs on the back of a tigress. The first temple was built in 1692. The temples were rebuilt after a fire in 1998, and Tiger’s Nest still operates as a monastery.
Two other members of the group were sitting near the first view point. We started the trip back down to the cafeteria. I took my time, particularly when rain began to fall again.
At the cafeteria, we had excellent coffees and found a sheltered place to sit. When the rest of the group and our guide joined us, the three of them having visited the monastery, we had the buffet lunch offered by the cafeteria. The others in the group had beers, but I ordered a Coke. I knew the path down would be challenging enough without a beer buzz.
The crowds had thinned. We met very few people coming up. Others passed us going down, including a woman carrying a toddler in a backpack and a photographer holding a tripod and a camera with a huge telephoto lens.
At last we were down. Taking a seat in the minibus was very welcome. We stopped briefly for one person to photograph the airport runway and then returned to our hotel. An hour later a rainstorm swept through the valley. We were very glad not to have had to navigate the path down in those conditions.
Our flight to Kathmandu was scheduled for 7.10am, so we left the hotel at 4.40am. I had gone to bed early the night before, but had woken early and not been able to fall asleep again. Rain splashed against the minivan windows as we left the hotel.
When we arrived at the airport, about twenty minutes later, the place was very quiet. After saying goodbye to our guide and driver, we went into the building. By 5.20am we had checked in our luggage and were through immigration and security. We found a place to sit and passed the time reading emails and viewing the airport shops. I spent the last of my Bhutanese currency.
The flight only took 50 minutes, but in that time we were served a sandwich breakfast and hot drinks. The rain was even heavier in Kathmandu as we rushed from plane to bus, and then bus into the terminal. As we had our visas in hand from our previous entry into Nepal, immigration took very little time. We went through security and then waited quite some time for our bags to emerge.
The same man who had guided me on my day in Nepal was waiting for us. We were taken to our hotel and allowed to access our rooms at 10.30am.
At noon we met up to walk to Durbar Square. The steadily falling rain, the mopeds which swooped and swirled around us, and the run-down environs made us long to return to the peacefulness of Bhutan. When we reached the square, the entry fee to visit put us off. We found a café nearby, situated on the top floor of a building. The views over the square were good, even in the damp conditions, and we sat under a shelter for beers and a light lunch.
The rain became harder as we walked back to the hotel. I tried and failed to have a nap, so I actually dealt with some work emails.
We met up at 6.30pm for drinks and dinner. It was a relief not to have yet another buffet. At 8pm we returned to our rooms and I contemplated how to lighten my check in bag. According to the scales at Paro airport, the weight was 26.6 kilos. This was okay against the 30kg limit for the flight to Kathmandu, but my limit was 25 kilos for the two flights to take me back to the UK. I decided to carry my warm coat (not used at all for the entire trip!) rather than leave it in my case and thus lighten the load.
My first flight, to Doha, wasn’t until 11am, so the time I was collected for the trip to the airport was a much more reasonable 8am. The others in the group, who were flying on to Sri Lanka in the afternoon, appeared in the hotel lobby to see me off.
My check in case weighted only 24 kilos when I reached the counter. I made my way through security and spent the last of my Nepalese currency on the other side.
All went well on the two flights back to the UK. We landed at 10pm, and after going through immigration and collecting my bag I headed to a nearby airport hotel, which I’d booked rather than try to get home at that late hour. I was very pleased to collapse into bed around 11pm. The next morning I caught the coach home… holiday over!
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