Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bhutan - Last post

Onto my last Bhutan post (been backlogging all the restaurants I ate at before gg to Bhutan).
I've gotten quite a few emails enquiring about travelling to Bhutan so I'll briefly mention a bit more about booking a tour there at the end of this post.
When we were there the guide kept asking if we want to have tea. Tea consists of hot tea either with milk and sugar or with butter and salt (this is their local tea, but I didn't like it). The butter tea reminds me a bit like the Werther's Originals (the buttery sweet) but just a salty version.

The meals were all included in the tour price - one reason for this is that they think that tourists won't like their local Bhutanese food cos they use alot of oil, salt and chili. Also, the hygiene level is very questionable as quite a few of their local restaurants don't have running water, and the food is usually pre-made so it sits there for quite a while before consumption. So your guide will try very hard to dissuade you from waltzing into a local restaurant and ordering a meal...
Our first dinner there - it's like a typical Asian meal with rice and dishes. Sometimes, the rice is broken rice but most of the time, tourists get polished rice. The food looks like a typical Chinese meal, but the taste is very different. For example, the bottom most dish is actually chicken, and looks just like sweet and sour chicken but it's just chicken with sauce. The cooking is very simple with salt, chilli and cheese being the main marinade.

Their main staple dish for any meal is chilli with cheese (ema dashi), which is something like Kimchi to the Koreans. The cheese they use is a plain fresh cheese very much like cottage cheese and the chili can be really spicy.
Most of our meals consisted of rice, vegetable dishes and one meat dish (usually chicken or fish). One of the other staples was deep fried potatoes. Bhutan produces lots of potatoes (usually a small variety) which are very much like new potatoes. Another thing that we had with every meal will be a vegetable dish cooked with cheese (as seen above) - either gourd with cheese or some dark leafy vegetable with cheese. The other vegetable dish will usually be a stir fried vegetable and the last one will be ema dashi. And potato. Throughout the whole tour, we had minor variations to these, but it's really essentially more or less the same. Sometimes, it'll be a buffet style meal where lots of tourist will congregate and have our non-spicy, less salty meal.
Variation with sliced potatoes and eggplant. The rice here is their local red rice. Sometimes, we would also get rice mixed with maize (cos rice is more expensive so sometimes, they use maize to bulk up the rice).
My best meals in Bhutan was in Bumtang Valley, at Wangdicholing Resort. It's a family run resort on top of a small hill overlooking the valley and a nice meandering river and many mountains and blue skies. If I'm not wrong, I think my guide mentioned that she was trained in Switzerland or had been to Switzerland and learnt to cook there.
A speciality of that region in Bhutan is their buckwheat produce. The first meal we had there was not very remarkable - cauliflower with cheese, cucumber salad with yogurt, fried soba noodles. Some of the American tourists had a pizza look alike, but we didn't get it the first day there.

We had buckwheat pancakes for breakfast - it's a very dense, clay coloured pancake but the best part of it was the locally produced Bumtang honey (which we kept drinking with hot water) and the resorts home made jam (bought back 2 jars cos it's really very nice - hand picked wild type strawberries from the resort's garden). Also, the chef made the yogurt in-house - and it was very creamy and delicious and went really well with the honey and the strawberry jam.
The first meal we had there, she cooked something similar to rosti (potatoes, egg and onion pancake) which I devoured after slowly starving for the last few days. The dried mushrooms with cheese (bottom left) was pretty good too. The lentil soup tasted like the Indian curry which comes with thosai.
The next meal we had there was spectacular. We were utterly miserable cos we weren't used to the food so we told our guide and he helped us ask the cook if she could give us something more suited to our palates for dinner. The hotel happened to have very few guests for dinner and the cook outdid herself. We got french fries (!) which tasted extremely good after eating roasted potatoes day in day out. French fries always taste good. And they even have their local Druk brand tomato sauce. Yum! I think that was the best french fries I ate. In fact, the other tourist in the same dining hall spied our fries and asked how come he didn't get any :P
And we got the pizza which was remarkably good considering that they don't have an oven there!
One of their local soba dishes (actually, I should stop calling it soba - it's actually handmade buckwheat noodles) is soba with curd and it's serve cold with some preserved vegetable which looks very much like konbu (though I'm very sure it's not cos it tastes like ?onion)
Our pizza :D Devoured all 3 slices. Best ever!
And despite being stuffed full, we had a fruit salad for dessert - fruit cocktail with vegetables and papaya and a vanilla custard. We were so stuffed that night and slept very well.
The Bhutanese people are very friendly and we were invited to a distant friend of our driver's family's friend (so they're actually unrelated) house warming. In Bhutan, the houses generally have 2 storeys, but only the upper storey is for living in. There's 4 rooms in each traditional house - one kitchen, one bedroom and 2 prayer rooms (which are usually connected). The toilet in the village houses are usually outside, but in some modern houses, the toilets are built in. I suppose it's quite tough to cook cos you'll have to carry buckets and buckets of water up and down the house to wash your dishes...
We were given some snacks during the house warming - from left to right - some deep fried rice crackers, rice puffs (which were plain and quite oily) and my favourite snack of fried puffed rice with butter and sugar. And milk tea.
Another local dish was this quite tasty boiled rice with milk and sugar. Reminds me of oats but it's creamier (probably cos the rice was boiled quite long?).
We had pork momos (like dumplings) which were extremely nice, much nicer than the ones we had at the hotels. It's very much like our gyozas/guo ties in Singapore just that they don't use vinegar as a dipping sauce.
Some beef dish which my friend said was very tasty but I didn't eat it.
The house warming party lasts for days and they have monks to pray and bless the house, and they also invite the local ladies to sing some songs and dance as part of the celebrations.
More momos - this ones beef from the trek up to Tiger's nest - smelt really nice but I didn't eat it :(
Charcoal roasted corn - we stopped by this makeshift stall along the road - the corn is not very sweet and much drier than the type that we get locally. I was totally convinced that I would get gastroenteritis after eating this but in the end I didnt!
Drying chillies on the roof top - the Bhutanese like to dry their excess food for storage purposes. Alot of times you will see them drying meats and vegetables to store for winter.
Rice fields where most of the harvest is done by hand
Black pig at Punakha - Bhutan only had black pigs and no pink pigs, and these pigs love to eat the marijuana which grows like a weed in Bhutan.
Another one of their interesting local dishes is beaten rice. It's made from unripe rice and these greenish grains are first dry fried over a charcoal fire. After which, they are placed into this stone with a hollow and pounded.
After the pounding, it's winnowed and the rice is then either kept or served as a snack.
The accommodation that we had was simple but comfortable, and the hotels were clean. Other than the hotel in Thimphu which had a lousy shower, the rest were really not too bad and exceeded my expectations. Most of the rooms had a television set, except for the one at Bumtang. The weather was cool so there was no need for airconditioning, though we had to use the heater on some of the cooler nights.
The bathroom - this is the at the same hotel in Paro - not all the hotels had bath tubs - most had showers.

I really enjoyed my trip in Bhutan and so far, it's my best holiday (other than my cherry blossom grad trip to Japan, where I got to lounge around in the onsen) and it has changed my life perspective (though my happiness index is probably negative 50 at this current moment).

Fortunately, I went to Bhutan before Khaw made his stupid idiotic comment on Bhutan or I'd be too embarrassed to say I'm from Singapore! But then again, reading about his comment online lead me to this nice Bhutanese blog which I visit from time to time.

I won't recommend the tour company that I used to book my tour cos they gave us quite a fair bit of grief, but the Bhutan tour company is called Thoesam Tours . If you're planning to visit western and central Bhutan (which is what I did) you'll need about 7 days minimum. I went for a total of 9 days.

If you're young and healthy, I would strongly suggest that you take a trek which can range from 3 days (the easiest is supposed to be the Druk path trek, from Paro to Thimpu) to >24 days cos the country is really so beautiful. I'd definitely come back and do a trek. It's a refreshing change from just visiting cultural sites. The altitude is about 2000 above sea level and it's not high enough to get altitude sickness though you'll feel a bit breathless on exertion the first few days.

If you're Bhuddist, then good for you cos you'll get to see all the extremely sacred relics and sacred sites like where the Guru (born from a lotus leaf) left his body print and hand print etc etc etc and you can buy lots of blessed good luck charms.

From next year, the Bhutanese government will be raising the visa prices from USD $200 to $250 per day per visitor, and there's a surcharge of about USD $30-40 for groups of less than 3.

However, this price is supposed to cover their local hotel (simple accommodation, not the high class world renown luxe hotels), the guide and the driver.

After paying for the tour, there's actually not much you'll need to bring for expenses (unless you're planning to buy lots of souvenirs and other than tips, we spent less than USD $30 (for drinks, snacks etc).

To get there from Singapore, you'll need to catch a connecting flight from Bangkok. Only their local carrier, Druk Air, flies to Bhutan, and there's a short transit (about 30-45min) at Calcutta (or some part of India - I was sleeping both ways so I'm not very sure abt this). There's only one flight per day, and for our trip, that was the limiting factor cos we couldn't get a flight on the day we wanted. The Druk air flight leaves in the wee hours of the morning so what most people do is to transit one day in Bangkok and stay at a hotel really near the airport so you can get up at the unearthly hour to catch a flight into Bhutan.

The peak travel seasons is from Oct to Dec (after which it gets to cold and rainy) and I think it'll be miserable being in Bhutan during the rainy season cos everything will be muddy and slippery and there'll be land slides. Even when we were there, the road was sometimes blocked off by land slides and the roads are already narrow and windy and it's quite treacherous at some points.

Do bring a long sleeved T-shirt cos you're not allowed to enter government places such as the fortresses which are in use (you'll know this when you see the Bhutanese flag raised on a flagpole).

I really had trouble appreciating their food so I'd suggest to bring your own cup noodles (though their local grocery stalls do sell instant noodles) if you're fussy about your food like me.

Other than that, go in with an open mind and you'll have an experience of a lifetime in this deeply religious, hidden country:)


PaSsu said...

A Quick Guide to Bhutan for first-time visitors- you were very observant and you pictures are nice.

Thanks for reading my blog.

surfuz said...

Hi, I trekked part of the Druk Trek Path. Find it rather challenging, esp when it rain when I'm descending.

Some pics of the path here:

Not used to the food there too.. had my best meal at Uma Paro, where most of the ingredients are imported from India.

surfuz said...

Hi, I trekked part of the Druk Trek Path. Find it rather challenging, esp when it rain when I'm descending.

Some pics of the path here:

Not used to the food there too.. had my best meal at Uma Paro, where most of the ingredients are imported from India.