Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bhutan - Paro and Thimpu

I've been MIA-ing cos I've been having an awesome 9 days in Bhutan and another 1 day in Bangkok (eating lots of thai food!) I've just got back from my first annual leave this posting on Sunday and I'm having major post holiday blues :( iPhoto uploader is down and I can't upload my photos onto facebook! I decided to go to Bhutan since they're so big on their Gross National Happiness and I could definitely use some happiness especially in the few weeks leading up to my annual leave :D
The national carrier for Bhutan is Drukair. It transits in Bangkok and flies to Bhutan via Calcutta though there isn't any time to go down to the airport during the transit. Takes about 4-5 hours from Bangkok.
The meal from Paro back to Bangkok - there was some vegetarian curry thing with lots of cumin which I didn't like (I'm extremely picky about food especially on flights) but their bread roll was soft and nice.
Their international airport is at Paro, which is one of their bigger cities.
Their largest city is Thimphu but it's still relatively small since their total population is only about 700,000 people.
View from the airplane window - the highest peak in Bhuatan is Gangkhar Puensum.
Bhutan is a very mountainous and there's lots and lots of greenery. It's also very peaceful and there's always pristine meandering rivers, golden rice fields, bright clear blue skies and fresh air +++ so it's a great place for relaxing and leaving all the worldly thoughts and wants behind. It's zen-ness +++ and it's like paradise on earth. Bhutan has just made its way onto my favourite country list and is on par with Japan, my ultimate favourite country in the world.
The traffic police man in Paro - no traffic lights here. Majority of the people can speak English as there's a national free education program up to standard 12.
Their national animal is the Takin (until I did my very minimal research on Bhutan, I didn't know that this animal existed). According to Bhutanese mythology, Lama Drupkpa Kuenley (who is also known as the Divine Madman) created this animal out of a goat's head and a cow's body. It's a rather docile herbivore. This picture was taken at the Takin zoo in Paro.
The Paro Fortress (the major attraction of each city seems to be the fortress, which usually houses a monastery and a government administration office. Tiger's Nest Monastery (aka Paro Taktsang) is perched on a high cliff a few kilometers away from Paro town, and is one of the most sacred sites in Bhutan. It is where Guru Padmasambhava made his second visit to Bhutan, on the back of a female tiger to tame a demon. It took us 5 hours for a round trip (including many photo stops and a break midway at the cafeteria) to get to the top with many rest breaks along the way but I'm very sure most people will climb it much faster. It was burned down in 1998 after a fire from a butter lamp broke out and the caretaker died (as was the case for the Victory fotress in Paro town too).

We were reading up on Trip advisor about the climb up to Tiger's Nest - it sounds as if it's terribly daunting but it really isn't so bad if the weather isn't so hot and it's not raining.
The Memoral Choten in Thimpu was built in memory for the 3rd King of Bhutan by his mother. When passing all religious monuments and prayer wheels in Bhutan, it is customary and respectful to walk in a clockwise fashion. The many coloured flags are supposed to be good luck. Apparently, the prayer beads used are also turned in a clock wise fashion too. There were alot of people in the temple praying it looked like a festival or some sorts.This is the Victory Fortress in Paro, which lie in ruins cos of a massive fire (where the caretaker also died). It's pretty creepy and I bet it's haunted at night. From the top you can view one of the ultra luxe and incredibly expensive (think USD $1,500 per night) resorts.Thimpu Fortress, where we attended our first festival. The building is divided into 2 parts - one is a monastery and the other is a government administration building. During the festival season, the rituals and dances are held in the fortress square.
It was a Sunday and the whole town was dressed in their Sunday best - to enter a fortress, the local Bhutanese have to wear their national costumes. The males were a Goa with a white sash and the females wear a Kira. They're having a security check and they're very strict about checking the males. Btw, the Goa is like a robe and doesn't have side pockets. Instead, everyone just stuffs their belongings into the front of the Goa.
This is one of the many masked dances done during the festive season and the dancers spin round and round in circles.
It's supposed to ward away evil spirits and bring good luck to the spectators. It was massively crowded in the fortress square, but the locals don't push or shove and everyone just sits in their own spot (some families bring mats or carpets) and watch the show. families with extremely old people and young kids all go to the fortress to watch the show, and its like a picnic - they'll come with chips, cucumbers, and lots of betel nuts and spend the day in the fortress square.
The Kira, which traditionally has a dress inside and a colourful blouse worn over.
Two Bhutanese boys in their national costume playing with a tourist's camera
The Thimpu market sells all the usual vegetables, meat etc but they have interesting foodstuff that I've never seen before. The strings with white rectangles is actually yak cheese. dried and coated in some white thing (I think it's mould?) and it's usually chewed by the locals (but most of them prefer betel nut chewing rather than yak cheese chewing). Many of the local dishes consists of chili and cheese (this soft, white creamy cheese). They also have butter (the brown parcel like thing in the middle of the shelf).
Close up of the yak cheese - it's extremely hard and has a gamey smell.
This is a starter for rice wine. The locals like to drink this home made wine called Ara. Ara is also given to worshippers in the temples (but the ara from the temples is blessed). I think it's some yeast starter for the fermentation process.
The old school way of weighing vegetables that we will never see again in Singapore.
The grains section of the market. The Bhutanese people usually eat broken red rice but they also have puffed rice, beaten rice and the equivalent of corn flakes.
Chilies play a big role in Bhutanese cooking, and their most famous local dish is ema datshi which consists of chillies and cheese cooked in oil. The locals dry their surplus chilies in the sun to store for winter.
The 108 stupas at the Dochula pass at 3150m above sea level on the way from Thimpu. 108 is considered as a lucky number.
Picture of how the locals make beaten rice. The unmatured rice grains are first fried over a wooden fire, and put into this rock with a depression in the middle, then pounded using these wooden sticks. Thimpu town from the top of a hill, taken with my star filter (best buy ever from Japan).We visited one of the local houses (this Bhutanese movie director that our guide knew) and he kindly opened his house to us. A traditional style house in Bhutan usually has 4 rooms, out of which 2 are prayer rooms.
The alter in one of the prayer rooms - the locals clean the alter and change the water daily.
Roasted corn in a shop by the roadside - the corn is not the sweet juicy variety but is a dryer strain. Lots of these holy water along the way. The locals will stop and take a drink from the holy water to cure sicknesses and for general health and well being, just like how some people pop lots of supplements. Just that this holy water is free :)
A shop in Paro with the 8 lucky Buddhist signs - a vase, 2 fish, a flower, a never ending knot, a flag of victory, conch shell, an umbrella and a colourful wheel. The government has a law where houses in Bhutan have to built in the traditional fashion - so you'll not be able to find modern buildings in Bhutan. It's an effort to preserve their culture, though the interior can be modern.
Betel nut being prepared - they're de-husking the betel nut which is imported from India here. Cigarette smoking is illegal in Bhutan, but somehow it can be quite easily sourced from India.

Bhutan is really an amazing country. The king is getting married tomorrow so it'll be a national holiday. I'll be covering the rest of my journey in the next 2-3 posts (hopefully) along with some of the food that we had along the way.

Sigh +++ to post holiday depression and going back to work and slogging :(


surfuz said...

Nice post, I think i'm in Bhutan the same period as you ;)

Cherry said...

Nice! I only recently found your blog, but have enjoyed the post and will be back to read again soon.