AsiaBhutanParo

Land of the Thunder Dragon

Paro Travel Blog

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Mt. Everest from Druk Air Flight

Note: A very special thanks to Andy and Soma at RBC for enabling our Bhutan visit!

4/28/07
Not that either of us slept much after struggling to get the Sikkim trip arranged and being excited about finally making it to Bhutan, but the alarm went off at 3:15 a.m. and we blearily dragged ourselves out of bed, packed up and hopped in a cab to the airport. Murli actually woke up at three something as well, just to make sure we were awake and didn’t miss our flight.

Cindy at Paro Airport

The airport was very busy already at 4:00am and we waited in line for security and check-in, before miraculously picking the shortest and of course slowest moving immigration line (one of my many talents). We finally made it through and eventually boarded our flight which actually stopped in Kathmandu and then flew on to Paro. We managed to snap some pictures of Everest and Lhotse out the side of the window. Someone had told us to request seats on the left side to see the Himalayas which was good as everybody was crowding over to our side to look out the dirty, murky airplane windows. There was one funny little older Chinese looking lady who came rushing over to our row with a huge smile, thick glasses and a pad on which she was sketching the mountains. She was also drinking beer (not bad for a 6:00 a.m. flight).

Downtown Paro

The landing is pretty spectacular as Paro is one of the only areas flat enough in all of Bhutan to build an airport. We did a huge power turn around a mountain and then zigzagged through the valleys, banking sharply from side to side at fairly low altitude before landing. Paro Airport is actually really nice looking with traditional Bhutanese architecture and really clean. Since there are so few visitors here, immigration is pretty small and funny with a list of all foreigners coming in that day. The men are all dressed in their gho, sort of skirt/jacket thing with a sash that just covers their knees. They all wear fancy knee-high socks and funny little shoes you can see in many of the pictures below.

We walked through customs and saw a sign for Snow White Tours, our government authorized tour agency, and met our guide Kemcho and our driver Tashi.

Windows - typical Bhutanese Architecture
They both seem like very nice guys, polite and perfect English, more on them in a bit. We hopped in our car, a nice Toyota SUV - very cushy compared to the Tata cars in India, and headed off through the green valley to our hotel, supposedly the original "tourist" hotel in Paro called the Olathang Hotel. The hotel seems reasonably nice if a bit old and shabby. It is on large grounds amidst a pine forest and very quiet and peaceful. Twin beds and a grotty bathroom were the only negatives but it’s only for a night.

We instantly liked Bhutan. In some ways, it is the antithesis of what we have seen the last three weeks in Rajasthan. Bhutan has cool weather (Paro is in the foothills of the Himalayas), beautiful green valleys, pleasant and peaceful people, very few blaring horns, very little traffic and blue skies with puffy white clouds.

Prayer Wheel in Paro
There is a reason they call it "The Last Shangrila". We were immediately sure we would love our visit here.Bhutan 101

Since most people we know haven’t ever heard of Bhutan, here are a few facts about the country. Bhutan is the only remaining Mahanaya Buddhist Kingdom in the world and is a small, landlocked country of about 700,000 people. Bhutan is bordered by Indian Sikkim (where we are headed next) to the west, Tibet to the north, West Bengal India and Assam to the South and the Indian North Eastern Hill state of Arunachal Pradesh to the East. Culturally and religiously, it is similar to Tibet and Nepal.

Bridge in Paro
The name Bhutan is actually derived from the word Bhotana meaning "The end of the Land of Bhot", Sanskrit for Tibet. The Bhutanese refer to their country as Druk Yul or "Land of the Thunder Dragon". A few interesting tidbits:

  1. There is not a single stop light in all of Bhutan - there are only traffic police (they tried it once in Thimphu, the capital, and it lasted less than a day when the King told them to remove it).
  2. There is one University in the Bhutan and it was specifically built in the far east of the country, away from Thimphu so that the students wouldn’t "be distracted".
    Rich Monk in Paro Dzong
  3. In Bhutan, chilies are considered a vegetable, not a condiment, and are served in large amounts at pretty much every meal.
  4. There are an abundant amount of phalluses in a variety of forms all over Bhutan. There are often six foot ones in various states of arousal painted on homes for "good luck" and "fertility". There are also lots of carved examples, often painted bright red and with wings. Most interesting was probably the one wielded by a monk to bless the believers at the "Temple of the Mad Monk".

OK, so a bit more historical information for the curious.

Rinpung Dzong
In 747 A.D. Padma Sambhava, now known as Guru Rimpoche made a legendary trip on the back of his consort, in the manifestation of a flying tigress, and landed at Taktsang Lhakang or the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in the hills above Paro. Guru Rimpoche is recognized as the father of the Nyingmapa religious school as well as being considered the second Buddha and is highly revered throughout Bhutan.

Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was a Tibetan Lama in the 1600’s who worked to unify the kingdom and is responsible for creating the numerous Dzongs or fortress monasteries. Several hundred years of regional infighting occurred until finally the leader of Trongsa in Eastern Bhutan defeated the leader of Paro in Western Bhutan and became the first King of Bhutan in 1907.

Archer in Paro
The current (fourth) King has just recently announced his succession to his son and announced the implementation of democratic elections starting in 2008. Both are adored throughout the Kingdom, similar to the way the Thai King is in Thailand. The Fourth King has four wives, all of whom are sisters. Apparently, he also wanted to wed the fifth sister, however she turned him down (which takes some large cojones). In talking with our guide Kemcho, we eventually found out that there was some controversy around the monarchy as the second eldest sister, now the Queen Mother, and the King had a son, the Prince and soon to be Fifth King, out of wedlock. The King had been dating a royal woman, however his uncle didn’t approve and eventually he married the four sisters. Soon after, they announced that the Prince was born - twelve years prior. Bhutanese Soap Opera! The Prince who is in his late twenties is currently single and a Harvard graduate. Rumor has it that he fancies Thai women. Not sure what that means for the Monarchy!

After we checked in, we started our sightseeing day in Paro, first with a visit to the Taa Dzong Museum built in the mid to late 1600’s.

Archer Victory Dance in Paro
The Dzong is a seven story, round shaped building, different than the typical Dzong and was built as a watchtower above Rinpung Dzong, the main Dzong in Paro. It has a large collection of arms and armor, ancient Bhutanese Scripts, stamps (the Bhutanese are very in philately) traditional textiles like the ladies dress called a Kira and the man’s costume called a Gho as well as teapots, wine vessels and of course tons of Thankas which are very richly detailed paintings, usually of the Buddha and other deities and Mandala’s. Most impressive were a couple of chapels inside the building. One had a large central sculpture of incredible detail showing the four different branches of Buddhism and the other housed the deity of wealth with a large sculpture in the middle of the room and then hundreds of small nooks and crannies around the circular walls, each housed with beautifully carved Buddha’s and other statues. Also, in the basement was the "dungeon" which didn’t look like a fun place to be thrown from the second story above. Unfortunately, like many of the temples, no cameras are allowed.

We went to a local restaurant on the main street of Paro (there is really only one main street several blocks long and lined with traditional Bhutanese buildings with shops below and living quarters above).

This is the archery target - 100 meters away!
The food was good but we don’t think Bhutan will provide the culinary adventure of say Thailand or Vietnam that we love so much. Lunch was a huge selection of corn soup, red rice, noodles, stir fried vegetables, a dry-fried beef dish, sautéed mushrooms and the national dish, Ema Datsi or chilies and onions stir-fried in a spicy cheese sauce. The Bhutanese eat a lot of food!

After lunch, we wandered around "downtown Paro" looking at the buildings and the prayer wheels which are everywhere. Then we headed off to visit Rinpung Dzong and the pretty footbridge in the picture. The little monk asked if I would take his picture holding all the money (still not sure why) and was very excited to see himself on my camera. His friend was to shy to participate. The Dzongs are very large, impressive buildings with virtually each and every huge wooden beam beautifully carved and decorated.

Bhutanese Magical Horse
The big Tshechu festival held every year around early April is held here and they have huge ceremonies, filling the courtyards with dancing and celebrating locals. Maybe next time….

On the way to see an old ruined fortress called Drukgyel Dzong, we saw a bunch of locals on the side of the road practicing archery which is somewhat of the national sport. We stopped and watched for quite a while and have to say, their skills are amazing. Two targets are set up 100 meters apart (i.e. longer than an American football field). Teams of two archers each take two shots at the target. A bull’s-eye gets three points, hitting anywhere else on the very small and barely visible target is two points and the opposing team can offer you one point for a close shot. Originally, this was done with bamboo bows, but as you can see, they now use compound bows and fancy arrows. They trust each other a lot as the opposing team stands by the target kind of taunting the archers. I asked Kemcho if anyone ever gets shot, and he said "Oh yes! Sometimes they die instantly.

Tiger's Nest Monastery from afar
" Any time someone scores, they do a little victory dance like in the picture and the scoring archer gets one of the colorful ribbons tied to his sash. We found out later that this is supposedly derived from the mating dance of the endangered Black Crane that winters in Bhutan. We also stumbled on a similar game with large, hand made darts that involved even more taunting than the archers. Afterwards, we drove out to the ruins (not much to see) but I really liked the white horse in the picture staring at me - straight out of the "Never Ending Story" or something…

Afterwards, it was back to hotel for a rest then a dinner buffet

4/29/07
Today started off with a fairly steep and rigorous hike to the Taktsang Monastery or "Tiger’s Nest" Monastery which is one of the most famous and well known monasteries in Bhutan.

Larry, Tashi our Driver and Kemcho our guide in Bhutan
The place is absolutely incredible, originally built in the seventh century and modified many times since. It is perched high up a mountain in the crags of rock and pine forest. A recent restoration project after a fire of unknown causes has restored much of the buildings and paintings. Once again, no pictures inside, so you will have to enjoy the views of the shots from across the chasm. Legend has it that Guru Rimpoche flew here on the back of his consort in the form of a Tigress and spent months here meditating. The temple is dedicated to him and also contains a statue that, according to local legend, flew here by itself from Punakah several hundred kilometers away. In one of the many temples inside, both Cindy and I were "blessed" with holy water scented with saffron. For a small donation, a monk will pour the holy water in your hand and then you rub some on your head or forehead and drink some (we are hoping that "holy" also means no parasites or other nasties…)

On the walk up, we stopped at a small cave where there were hundreds or more of the little miniature, white and gold stupas.

Prayer Wheel on hike to Tiger's Nest
These are actually memorials to those who have died and are placed near auspicious temples such as Taktsang. Some of the ashes of the deceased are mixed with clay and turned into the little stupas and then placed on rocks or in caves near the temple. Kind of cool…

On the way back down, Kemcho and I took a break at a small hut being built (my knees were acting up and for some dumb reason, I didn’t bring my trekking poles on the hike). We walked inside and an old man showed us several "sculptures" embedded in the rock, one supposed to be the Tigress footprint from Guru Rimpoche’s consort and another supposed to represent her "female parts". He is donating his time and money to build a small temple to protect these artifacts.

Our next stop was at the spectacular Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the most sacred shrines in all of Bhutan, built in the seventh century.

Funerary Stupas near Tiger's Nest
It is actually composed of twin temples and is truly amazing (once again, you will have to take our word as there are no pictures allowed inside either temple). We walked into the first temple and there was a dark, wooden room packed with nuns chanting mantras. The small temple within housed the future Buddha and was additionally packed with statues and thankas and the eight manifestations of Buddha. The whole reincarnation and manifestation thing is a little confusing to dummies like us but Kemcho (whose knowledge level is unbelievable with hundreds of deities all of whom seem to have multiple incarnations and manifestations…) did a great job of explaining. The second temple has a huge, twenty foot tall image of Guru Rimpoche, ornately decorated and covered in gold as well as statues of a famous Lama Delok Khentshe. The paintings on the walls were incredible and the statuary and offerings were too.

After sightseeing, we did the 3 hour winding drive following the river to Thimphu and checked into the Pedling Hotel.

Tiger's Nest Monastery
The drive wasn’t bad but a bit slow as they are virtually renovating the entire country in preparation for the coronation and elections in 2008.

halilee says:
Very good read!! Totally enjoying it! Some fantastic photos!
Posted on: Mar 18, 2013
cmgervais says:
I am considering going to Bhutan, and wanted you to know I found your log to be very helpful (and interesting!). Thank you!
Posted on: May 17, 2008
rosemary_mcandrew says:
Great photos. I am enjoying your blog.
Posted on: Aug 29, 2007
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Mt. Everest from Druk Air Flight
Mt. Everest from Druk Air Flight
Cindy at Paro Airport
Cindy at Paro Airport
Downtown Paro
Downtown Paro
Windows - typical Bhutanese Archit…
Windows - typical Bhutanese Archi…
Prayer Wheel in Paro
Prayer Wheel in Paro
Bridge in Paro
Bridge in Paro
Rich Monk in Paro Dzong
Rich Monk in Paro Dzong
Rinpung Dzong
Rinpung Dzong
Archer in Paro
Archer in Paro
Archer Victory Dance in Paro
Archer Victory Dance in Paro
This is the archery target - 100 m…
This is the archery target - 100 …
Bhutanese Magical Horse
Bhutanese Magical Horse
Tigers Nest Monastery from afar
Tiger's Nest Monastery from afar
Larry, Tashi our Driver and Kemcho…
Larry, Tashi our Driver and Kemch…
Prayer Wheel on hike to Tigers Ne…
Prayer Wheel on hike to Tiger's N…
Funerary Stupas near Tigers Nest
Funerary Stupas near Tiger's Nest
Tigers Nest Monastery
Tiger's Nest Monastery
Tigers Nest Monastery
Tiger's Nest Monastery
Paro
photo by: Kanya