The Swiss Guest House
So we left the hotel in Punakha to start our drive to Bumthang, however it seemed that what was a mildly itchy elbow the other day had turned into full blown poison ivy today. Kemcho, being the expert in diagnosing skin ailments, said that we better go to the local hospital to check it out. Good thing that healthcare in Bhutan is free as I seriously doubt that UHC Cobra Health Insurance would cover a visit to the specialist in Punakha, Bhutan for contracting poison ivy whilst climbing to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. I saw my second Bhutanese doctor and she prescribed some antihistamines and good old Calamine Lotion, neither of which they had at the hospital.
We went to the market and found the pharmacy and bought my meds (quite cheap - Pfizer is ripping off the American Market!) and then headed off for the long drive to Bumthang.
Dzong in Bumthang
The road wound on and on through more dense pine forests and eventually, over the Pelela Pass at 3,300 meters. This is the pass that separates Western and Central Bhutan and is a fairly spectacular drive (Tashi did manage to avoid nearly getting us killed with a giant truck laden with oversized logs that almost bashed through my window).
We stopped for lunch at a small place outside of Trongsa where we struck up a conversation with three Aussie’s who were traveling together.
The younger woman (we think the daughter) was married to an Indian guy and currently lives in Udaipur, Rajasthan and is a tour guide there. The couple were traveling through India and Bhutan for fun, having recently attempted to get to some place on the western sea board of India where they dismantle huge cargo ships - quite a story. They mentioned that they had just come from Bumthang and had stayed at a really cool, quaint little place called the Swiss Guest House that actually serves real salad and real coffee, both rarities in this region. We had to ask Kemcho, so when we got back in the SUV, we mentioned it to him and he tried to pretend to make a call and “change our reservation” but then started laughing not able to pull it off, saying that was where we were staying and we would like it.
Dzong Guardians in Bumthang
We crossed the second pass and drove down into Bumthang, actually four different valleys combined into one district that is peaceful and small compared to Thimphu and Punakha. After driving through “town”, a two street affair (you can see the busy intersection and cow crossing in one of the pictures below), we crossed a bridge and drove up switchbacks to the Swiss Guest House, a quaint little place nestled in the hills above Bumthang with orchards surrounding the property. Our room was a cute, cozy, pine wood place complete with pot belly stove for heating and, believe it or not, another queen sized bed. We had heard about the food from the Aussies and had a nice dinner of Bhutanese food and a real green salad, quite a treat in this locale even if it was somewhat drenched in dressing.
An older Swiss man who has lived here for like 30 years with his Bhutanese wife owns it and his son and daughter-in-law run it. They all seem really nice and the bar is fun too. Kemcho said that this is the “Real Bhutan” so we are looking forward to our stay here.
Today was Bumthang sightseeing day with visits to Kurje Lahkhang, Jambay Lakhang, Tamshing Lhakhang, and Jakar Dzong, all these Dzong visits start to get confusing and meld into one place! We now understand why Brent and Rosemary, our friends we met in Laos last summer, said they were “Dzonged Out!” after their recent trip to Bhutan in March. As Rosemary puts it, “AFD!” - if you don’t know what that means, you will have to read our SE Asia, Laos blog from earlier this year ;-)
At Kurje Lahkhang, a large set of buildings with several temples inside where Guru Rimpoche meditated, we watched lots of young monks chanting mantras.
The monks spend the winter in Trongsa and the summer here in Bumthang. In another building was a large group of elderly people who come here for a fifteen day pilgrimage. They spend the day chanting and spinning their prayer wheels, occasionally falling asleep as Kemcho pointed out several snoozers. We ended up having tea with one of the senior monks who was one of Kemcho’s many “brothers” having been his close friend since childhood.
Next we visited Jambay Lakhang which is one of the 108 temples constructed by the King of Tibet in the seventh century. There were no monks at this temple but there were several elderly people walking the perimiter, twirling their prayer wheels and counting their laps on their 108 beaded prayer necklaces. We liked the huge Prayer Wheels at the entrance you see in the picture.
Kemcho told us that this Dzong is famous because of the infamous “Naked Monk Dance” which thankfully is an annual event that we missed. All of the monks come out into the courtyard and dance around naked, wearing nothing but masks (perhaps so that no one can comment on their manhood?) and swinging themselves around at the audience. Apparently, it is now held only in the inside courtyard where they can “control” the tourists as previously, when it was outside, many tourists ignored the “no photo” rule, gleefully snapping away at the monk’s exposed members…
Downtown Bumthang and Cow
We briefly visited Jakar Dzong which is the Dzong of the White Bird and is the administrative seat of Bumthang. It was an interesting, Dzong with a narrow courtyard and no monks. After all that, it was time to visit the local liquor store and purchase a bottle of “Special Courier Whiskey” which is supposed to be one of the better of the Bhutanese Whiskies. Not bad for under $5 - somewhat cognac-ish with a bit of a sweet aftertaste. Cindy liked it too - we are going to take it on the trek for sustenance.
That night for dinner, The Swiss Guesthouse prepared a Bhutanese version of the famous cheese dish called Raclette. This is usually prepared tableside with a huge hunk of Raclette cheese, a somewhat strong smelling Swiss type cheese, bread, potatoes, pickles and a broiler under which they melt the cheese and serve it bubbling hot with the condiments. The Bhutanese version was similar although used Bhutanese cheese melted in the kitchen, pickled garlic, shallots and baby corn and lots of potatoes. There was a group of seven French tourists at the guest house who were dining too (and drinking lots of red wine) and even they had to wave the white flag after a bit and say “No more cheese!” We later found out that their bar tab was almost $1,000 in just four nights. I guess they can afford it since they stayed at the Amman and Uma resorts in Bhutan which are very nice and very expensive. One of the bar guys at the Swiss Guest House said something about them spending “Twenty Five Lakh” which is 2.5 Million Ngultrum (almost $10,000 each) on their additional vacation lodging. We can’t imagine what their bar tab at the Uma was! Poor Cindy - has to stay at “C” rated hotels from our guide book. To make up for it all, Cindy decided to dry my Smartwool trekking socks on the heated stones on top of our pot-belly stove. I was happily messing around with the laptop and photos when I thought I smelled something funny. Ends up it was my socks cooking and melting on the rocks. Tomorrow we head off on our trek through the Bumthang valley with one less pair of hiking socks L.