Yes, I know.
This is more than a month overdue. (Mainly due to the fact that I’ve been busy with another visitor! – which shall be a whole separate post for later.) This is more than two months overdue. (Due to the fact that, not only did I have a visitor, but I was out of town for a bit as well…which will be two separate posts…which will take me even more time to blog about…haaaaa.)
Ok. So Bhutan.
If you’ve ever heard of that country before the Mau family visited (or before you stumbled on this post) give yourself a pat on the back. And, if you actually know where it is, geographically, I’m impressed!
I, on the other hand, did not know of it’s existence until 2011 when the media put a spotlight on the King and Queen’s wedding. (Yes, they are a kingdom – a Buddhist kingdom. And just as an FYI, the Queen is absolutely gorgeous!)
So here’s a few quick facts for you about Bhutan that you should know, if you didn’t already:
- This is one of the very few countries who attains this happiness by limiting foreign culture in their nation.
- The country doesn’t measure their economic growth like other countries (GDP), they measure their happiness. Called the Gross National Happiness (GNH), the king decided to track the nation’s happiness collectively to measure their progress as a nation.
- It’s a pretty mountainous country since it’s right next to the Himalayas. Average elevation is 8,000 ft or 2438 m. To be honest, it never really occurred to me that the elevation would be much higher than Kathmandu…and I was wondering why I was so dehydrated and out of breath after running 10 steps (yes, I know I’m out of shape as well….lol). This also means that almost all the roads wind around these mountains…(if you get car sick easily, make sure you bring something!). This also means that, like Nepal, it takes forever to get anywhere (although, Nepal’s roads are worse….).
- It’s a pretty small country. The largest city is Thimphu, the capital, which has a little over 100,000 people. Just to give you a comparison, Kathmandu (Nepal’s capital) has over 1 million people…which also happens to be more than all of Bhutan, itself. (Population of Bhutan is almost 750,000)
- Bhutan is considered a South Asian country and lies between India and China, much like Nepal, but is east of Nepal. A section of India separates Nepal from Bhutan.
- They have a cap on how many tourists can visit their country.
- It’s quite difficult to get to the country. There are only a few flights every day and you must have a visa.
- Anyone who visits Bhutan (except SAARC citizens…if you don’t know what that is, then you don’t qualify…ahahaha) MUST go through a reputable travel agency to book their tour (yes, you MUST visit via tour) that requires you to have a guide and driver with you during the whole visit.
- There is a minimum fee that one must pay to book this tour. $200/person/day during low season and $250/person/day during the high season. Yupp…it’s expensive. You won’t find any backpackers here! However, this includes in-country transportation, food, and accommodation for the whole trip.
- They’ve done a pretty good job at preserving their culture, although you can sense a Western influence seeping in. Even though most everyone has a cell phone and internet is prevalent in tourist areas, most buildings are constructed and decorated in the traditional manner, and a strict [traditional] dress code is enforced for those in a government office, school, monastery, and important functions.
- It’s a gorgeous country – landscape and people.
Now, that we’ve got all that out of the way. Let’s get to the adventure!
Our family embarked on the journey from Kathmandu, Nepal and flew a short hour flight to Paro, Bhutan. We were thankfully sitting on the left side and got to see peaks of the Himalayas, but Mt. Everest was covered by clouds, sadly.
The moment we disembarked from the plane, I could feel we were in such a peaceful place and was in awe of just the airport! Lol.
After getting through immigration, we were met outside by our guide, Pratap, and our driver, Choki. (Actually, this is partially a lie as Choki didn’t join us until the next day….they had to switch drivers for some reason. Lol.)
Our first stop was Tamchog Chakzam, an iron chain bridge over one of the many rivers. I have no clue what the significance of it was, but it was so picturesque, that I fell more in love with the country…and it had only been an hour into the journey!
After stopping to snap some pictures, we arrived a little bit later in the capital city of Thimphu and spent the night there. It was a lot colder than when we had left Nepal, so wearing our jackets and huddling around the small heater was a must!
The next morning we journeyed along the winding mountain roads to Punakha, stopping at Dochula Pass, which is one of the highest passes in Bhutan sitting at over 3,000 meters (10,000+ feet). It has the loveliest view of the Himalayas – thankfully it was a crystal clear day, as it is usually covered by clouds. Dochula Pass is also the place where 108 chortens or stupas were erected by Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk as a memorial in honor of Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the battle against insurgents from India in December of 2003.
After snapping a ton of photos and taking in the picturesque scenery, we continued on to Punakha. Everyone managed to fall asleep as the roads were super winding and making everyone car sick. Lol!
We arrived in Punakha and meandered our way through a village down to Chimi Lhakhang, a Buddhist monastery. It is said to have been blessed by the saint, Drukpa Kunley, better known as the “Divine Madman”, due to his unorthodox ways of teaching Buddhism (read: outrageous behavior and sexual overtones). Nowadays, women who are seeking to become pregnant make the pilgrimage to this monastery where they presiding Lama will hit them on the head with a 10 inch ivory/bone/wood phallus. Yup, it’s a thing. After the child is born, they make another pilgrimage to pay homage.
I was trying to take a picture of a puppy but it wasn’t cooperating, so these two cute kids, below, helped me out by scooping up the pup and holding it up for me. Lol!
This kid was showing off his archery skills to us.
Meandering through the village was absolutely lovely.
Of course, mom is super curious about everything – as you can see in this picture….lol.
The rest of us, naturally, followed her by poking our heads into the gated window. Turns out the lady was making puffed rice.
For some reason, Jeremy took a strange liking to all the street dogs and took photos of almost every dog he passed (which, was a lot!). I took a few, but not as many as him!
And daddy took pictures of birds….so we all took pictures of birds to see who could get the best shot. Hahaha.
Prayer wheels come in different sizes….
And I don’t think this young monk was impressed with me….lol.
After an enlightening morning at Chimi Lhakhang, we made our way to the Punakha Dzong (fortress), the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan. This elaborate building, which has three courtyards, serves as a religious and administrative center for the region. It’s also constructed where the Mo Chu and Po Chu rivers meet, making for a beautiful place.
The next day, we headed back towards Thimphu and Paro on the same mountainous road, stopping once again at Dochula Pass to snap more pictures.
But first, we stopped to watch an archery match – the national sport.
Once at Thimphu, we took a pit stop at the post office so Mom could buy stamps for our family members that collect stamps. Then, we traversed over to the zoo. “The zoo?!”, you may ask? Yes. You know why? B/c Bhutan’s national animal is very unique – and also listed as a vulnerable species due to hunting and habitat loss. (Ok, so the zoo is more of a preserve area, not a zoo….lol.)
The Bhutanese Takin is a pretty strange looking animal, which looks like a cross between a bison and a goat.
Before we entered, we saw a young girl weaving scarves and we promptly bought two from her.
We also got to see three other types of animals, which, frankly, I have forgotten the name of them, but just know they are mountainous species and can be found in the Himalayas.
We took a pit stop at Memorial Chorten, which is a highly religious landmark in the country – dedicated to the third king, who is known as the Father of modern Bhutan. We watched as many elderly community members walked around the chorten and thumb prayer beads as a religious act.
For the final stop of the day, we drove up to Golden Buddha Statue (otherwise known as the Great Buddha Dordenma). This statue is pretty impressive, as it is one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, at 52 meters (169 feet). Inside, there are over 100,000 smaller Buddha statues – all made from bronze and gilded in gold.
The next day, we woke up early to climb to the Taktsang Monastery, also known as the Tiger’s Nest, which was built in the 17th century. Who decided to build a monastery precariously on the side of a cliff, hanging at 3,120 meters (10,240 feet), is beyond me; however, it makes for a pretty great excursion!
It is said that the Guru Rimpoche arrived in this particular spot on the back of a tigress (hence the name, Tiger’s Nest) and meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours during the 8th century.
Mom and Dad decided to take a horse half way up…in hindsight, I probably should have too as it was a pretty steep climb! Thankfully, we made it up and down in one piece!
A little more than half way up, there’s is a rest stop where people usually take tea and/or lunch. We got to go inside the kitchen and watch the chef cook over a traditional wood stove.
It doesn’t look that big from afar….
But, it’s pretty big, actually….
What they don’t tell you is that after you walk all the way up, you have to walk back down and then up again! So misleading! Lol.
Mom was super excited that she made it up and down. Haha!
The horses that take tourists up half-way can be found meandering the streets later in the afternoon when their job is done.
When we went into town, we stopped and watched the locals play a game…which, coincidentally, was very similar to a game Dad grew up with.
We stopped by a monastery on the way to the hotel…except the name of this place has escaped me…plus, for some reason, I forgot to take a picture of the actual building itself. Lol.
Jeremy and I went downtown and walked around Paro….all these drivers would have failed the driving test in the US b/c they’re more than a foot away from the curb. Haha.
The next day, before we headed off to the airport, we made one last stop at the Rinpung Dzong, which holds government offices and monastery.
It was actually pretty entertaining b/c each team would sing and dance occasionally.
Rinpung Dzong at night…
And at day…
I also love this photo….b/c it looks like sketchy things are going on, but they aren’t really. Haha.
This picture cracks me up…
(This picture also cracks me up….haha)
We were the first visitors since it was still a bit early and only a few other groups had trickled in by the time we were about to leave. Literally, as I was stepping outside the building to walk down the path to our car, our family quickly got shuffled back into the fortress by Pratap and other people. Confused, we found out that a VIP guest was just about to arrive and we weren’t allowed to leave yet. We lined up with the other handful of visitors on one side with the monastery’s monks on the other side.
(This is right before we all lined up…)
No picture taking was allowed and so we all stood solemnly waiting in anticipation since we didn’t know who it was. Traditional horns blew, announcing the arrival of this important guest. A procession of people streamed in and a regal lady appeared. “The Queen Mother!!”, our guide whispered to us. He bowed to her as she passed. Not knowing what to do in a situation like this, I smiled back at her as she glanced our way (I know, I’m super awkward…hahaha). After her whole posse passed, we were finally granted permission to leave.
And that, my friends, is how we happened upon [one of the] the former Queen, Her Majesty the Queen Mother. (Yes, previously, there was more than one Queen…you should look it up as it’s pretty interesting.)
After that exciting encounter, we headed back to our van and got a glimpse of the airport from a lookout point before we headed off.
And thus concluded our tour in Bhutan!!
Phew! It was definitely a whirlwind trip that was entirely too short, however, I’m so glad I got to experience such a beautiful and peaceful country with my amazing family. If you ever get the chance to visit, I encourage you to go!!
Additionally, I highly recommend our travel agency, Amen Bhutan Tours. You can find them at explorebhutantours.com and their email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Do ask for Pratap to be your guide!! =)
Oh, and on the way back, we had a pretty great view of the Himalayas from up above!