Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bhutan 2 - Central Bhutan: Bumthang, Wangdue, Punakha

Central Bhutan is even more beautiful then western Bhutan (Paro and Thimpu).
Shop in Bumthang with yak cheese hanging by the windows. All the Bhutanese buildings have these painted decorations.
Bhutan has many many dogs all just lying around peacefully - they curl up in the sun when its cool in the morning , and lay in the shade when it's warm at midday. The Bhutanese believe that dogs will be reincarnated into human beings after they die, so all dogs are treated with respect. The dogs aren't the rowdy, noisy strays that you find usually, but instead, they will just mind their own business and not bother you. Occasionally, the shop keepers or monks will feed them food so they're always well fed. Btw, if someone accidentally knocks a dog down and kills it, they will light a butter lamp at the temple for the dog.
There's lots of construction going on in the town square in Bumthang. They're in the midst of building their domestic airport. Most of their construction works are from India. Construction is one of the least desirable jobs to the Bhutanese, and most Bhutanese aim to be government officials. If they do well at school, the government will sponsor them fully for their university education after completing the compulsory 12 standards in school. There was a recent fire which burnt down most of the town so they've got a firetruck now. If I'm not wrong, its a gift from India. Bhutan has a very good relationship with India, and there's even Indian troops stationed in Bhutan for military protection against China.
The one and only Bumthang post office. You can get really nice stamps of Bhutan's festivals, flora and fauna here.
We stayed in this nice quiet hotel overlooking a beautiful valley in Bumthang. It was my favourite hotel for many reasons but the main reason was because the cook there was superb. It's called Wangdicholing Resort and the head chef was trained in Switzerland so she cooks really well. They make their own yogurt, strawberry jam (from strawberries grown in the hotel), buckwheat pancakes (very dense, grey coloured pancake shaped), pizzas, pound cake and she even made us french fries just because I was dying for familiar food (there were only about 8 guests that night and she had time).
Bumthang is also known as 'Little Switzerland'. It's really extremely pretty and it reminds me of New Zealand without sheep or Norway. You can see the town in a distance. This is the view from Wangdicholing Resort.
The temperature in Bumthang is much cooler than Thimpu. It was quite chilly the night we got there but our room had a traditional warmer (the Bhutanese have one of these in every house. They use wood shavings and firewood.
Our room got supremely overheated (no adjusting knobs to adjust the temperature) and felt exactly like a sauna cos it's made of wood, so we opened the windows to let some cool air in and the whole colony of insects descended upon our room to enjoy the lights with us. Gave us a lot of grief the first night cos we couldn't get rid of them :( Thankfully, they somehow disappeared or died after the first night and so we had a peaceful second night. (I was just reading some reviews on Trip Advisor - the beds are comfortable and the shower is decent, hotel staff are friendly +++)
Another view from the hotel - we took a walk back from the town square to the hotel and walked along the river.
More views of the Bumthang valley cos it's so pretty. I imagine that it's what the 'Land of milk and honey' looks like. Bumthang is also famous for producing honey and I bougth a few jars home.
Soccer match between 2 schools - I think nearly the whole town came to watch and support the local school team in the finals of this competition. The Bhutanese enjoy archery (their national sport, though it's not like the Olympics kind of archery) and soccer. There's only one soccer stadium in Bhutan, and it's located in Thimphu. Many of the Bhutanese have cable TV from an Indian company and they have all the channels under one package deal (unlike in Singapore, where you have to pay for a basic tier and pay even more to get the premium channels) so they have AXN, Star world, HBO and all the sports channels.
A house with a large vegetable garden along the way back to the hotel. The red stuff on top is chilies drying on the roof top. The Bhutanese eat whole chillies with nearly everything and their staple dish is chillies with cheese.
Dog with puppies - the dogs in Bhutan look nearly all the same and comes in various colours.
The Burning Lake in Bumthang which got its name from this story: it was prophecized that the lake had a holy treasure in it, and the disciple of Guru Padmasambhava (the one who has 8 forms and was born from a lotus leaf) had jumped into the lake with a lighted butter lamp to retrieve it. Under it, he saw 100 doors, and one of them was lighted up. He went into this one and retrieved a holy scroll, and when he returned to the surface, the butter lamp was still lighted. For the record, no one has gone swimming or scuba diving in this lake, so we will never know if there's really 100 doors under water - it's really very dark. It gets rather dangerous when it's crowded cos there's this outcrop of rock which you stand on to admire the lake and there's no rails. An Indian tourist died here sometime last year cos he fell in.
More chillies drying on the house. If you look carefully, there's a long piece of wood below all the chillies which prevents them from rolling down.
Trongsa Fortress, which was built by the great-grandfather of Shabdrung (this great king who unified the country). The day that we were driving back to Wangdue, we decided to trek across from the fortress to the view point (where this photo was taken) and our guide kindly obliged us even though the trek wasn't in the itinerary and we were super tired from sitting in the car.
This is the river seen from the fortress, we basically trekked down from the fortress and climbed back on the other side after crossing the river (there's a proper concrete bridge at the bottom). After hating trekking for nearly my entire life, I have now learnt to enjoy it -but only when the weather is extremely cool (hate being hot) and there are no frogs or toads lurking under mossy rocks. I have been so un-enlightened all these years, maybe because the only trekking I ever did was up Bukit Timah Hill (equivalent to torture in my secondary school days) and in McRitchie reservoir which was always muddy and slippery (during the obligatory annual cross country run, also in secondary school). Miserable days since it's always hot and humid.
Spider's web
Lingzhi look a like mushroom
Domesticated yak that we saw on the way back to Wangdue - they're really smelly and when the wind blows there's many tiny specks flying out from their fur - I don't want to know if it's dust, dirt or fleas or one of the many assorted insects flying around them and they're quite smelly, just like yak cheese. More yak - btw the yak cheese which I tried (the hard white rectangle thing that I wrote about in the post before this) had a strand of hair so I wasn't really enthusiastic about chewing it in my mouth (also the idea of the white powdery thing being mould wasn't a very pleasant one). The yak come down from higher altitudes when winter comes. The yak herders are quite rich now cos they also sell cordyceps which is in high demand overseas.
White languar (which looks like a monkey) that we saw on the car journey - both to and fro from Bumtang. The Bhutanese believe that it's a lucky omen - we saw a whole hoard of them just chilling by the side of the road. Apparently, spotting the golden haired languar is an unlucky omen!
This is a stupa that we passed in Trongsa, which is a replica of a Tibetian (or was it Indian?) one, and the make actually carved it onto a turnip so that he could replicate it back in Bhutan.

We return to the Fortress in Wangdue, where festive celebrations were happening cos an ancient scroll had been rolled out. It occurs only once a year, and throngs of people will flock to Wangdue to see it. We had to get up at 6am to see the ancient scroll (whoever sees it will be blessed++) and since it's so ancient, it cannot be touched by the full sunlight and will be rolled up. Again, even though it was massively crowded, there wasn't any pushing or shoving, though these policemen had to make a human barrier to prevent too many people from being too near the scroll.
People of all ages queue up for really long just to walk infront of the scroll and to receive its blessing. They will do this bowing ritual in front of the scroll, which involves them bowing down (forehead all the way to the floor) for a total of 3 times.
The monks at the festival.
The extremely sacred scroll which only comes out once a year. I suppose these monks are going to make it their handphone wallpaper? The scroll is supposed to be hundreds of years old but it's really well preserved (asked our guide if it was preserved or retouched but he said no, its holy so it doesn't decompose. I think the biggest figure is Guru Padmasambhava (the one who was born from a lotus leaf) but my knowledge of all these things is appalling despite my guide's numerous attempts to explain it to me repeatedly (until he started saying 'the one who unified our country' or 'the one who was born from a lotus leaf').
Old monk watching the celebration from on top
This was a masked dance (not sure if it was at Wangdue) and it's supposed to chase away the demons.
Young monks resting in the shade - the Bhutanese are really friendly and will turn and smile for the camera.
Marijuana plants grow in the wild - in fact, it can be found nearly anywhere in Bhutan. Apparently the pigs love to eat them (but cows don't) and it's illegal smoking the weed.
At the Chimi Monastery near Punakha. It's the Divine Madman's temple and it was where he subdued a demon and kept it within the black chorten. Women wanting to have children will come to the temple to get blessed.
Local cow herder with a very interesting cap
Golden rice field in Punakha
Happy black pig resting in the shade - it's really hairy and black and big. Apparently there aren't pink coloured hairless pigs in Bhutan. I imagine this is what kurobuta pigs look like? When the locals slaughter pigs, they will use a piece of wood to whack the snout - apparently all of the pig's life force is concentrated in that snout and the pig will instantly die, after which they will soak it in hot water and shave the hair off and eat nearly every part of the pig - the cheeks are the most prized part.
Punakha fortress, where the King just got married today! It's a national holiday for 3 days to honor the event. Punakha is really a very beautiful place and it's very serene too. When we were there, the Punakha fortress was all decorated in preparation for the royal wedding.
One of the many interesting things in Bhutan - they have phalluses painted in front of their houses and it's believed to bring the houses good luck, thanks to the Divine Madman and his unorthodox teaching methods. If you look closely at the masked dance picture a few photos above (near the divine scroll) you can see that he is also holding a phallus...
Drive back from Wangdue to Paro
Bhutan is super quiet and serene (if you're not in the town center) at night and the next day you get to wake up when the sun is slowly rising and there's mountains, trees, blue skies and fresh air +/- a clear river. They really make an effort to preserve their culture and traditions (the locals favourite tradition is chewing betle nuts!). The first day after Bhutan, when I was in Bangkok it struck me how different it was waking up to tall grey buildings, grey skies, traffic jams and the hoards and hoards of people. The people here have their needs met and no one is in the highly stressful rat race. I don't think they're deliriously happy but they're contented.
Last time, I used to think that it was terrible to live in a developing country with no modern medical facilities - if you got knocked down by a truck you'd surely die cos there's only very basic medical facilitis, but I think it's better to die happy and have lived a fufilling life rather than to aim to accomplish millions of things and then get knocked down and die just before you achieve that. Or even worse die from some ruptured aneurysm from all the stress at work.

I'll be posting more on the food and the accommodation in the third and last post.

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 :(