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Bhutan - Part 2

Trekking, Thimphu & Departure

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Our trekking in Bhutan involved four days of hiking between the two most populated valleys of the country, the Paro and the Thimphu valley. Paro is hosting Bhutan’s international airport, while Thimphu is its capital. Bhutan does not have the kind of infrastructure for trekkers that you would find in Nepal, so instead of staying in tea houses, we spent the three nights camping outdoors. Just for the two of us, our tour company put together an incredible amount of gear and a sizeable crew. Besides our guide, we were accompanied by a cook, a helper and a pony-man with seven mules and ponies to carry the gear.


The first day of our trek was a gradual climb through the forest out of the Paro valley. The cook and the pony-man went fast ahead to set up our camp before we got there, while the helper carried our lunch. Lunch was kept in thermally insulated pots so that we could enjoy a hot lunch along the way. Near a monastery on a hill, called Jele Dzong, we reached our ready-made campsite. Our campsite consisted of a sleeping tent, a kitchen tent, a dining tent and even a toilet tent. In the dining tent, we enjoyed our dinner consisting of fresh soup, rice and different mushroom and vegetable dishes. We did not know camping could be so luxurious. However, as we were at an elevation of around 3’400 meters, it got bitter cold at night and we had to wear all our layers inside the sleeping bag to stay warm.


The ground was covered in frost the next morning, bearing witness to the cold night. Luckily, it got warm again as the sun rose and we enjoyed our breakfast, consisting of scrambled eggs, toasts and pancakes, warming up in the sunlight. Throughout the day, we enjoyed views of Bhutan’s second highest peak, Jomolhari (7326m). We again spent most of the day hiking through a nice forest where the leaves were starting to show their autumn colors. Besides us, there were maybe 5 to 10 other hikers on this path (plus the usual crew and animals), a vastly different experience from Nepal.


On the third day, we reached our highest point, around 4’200 meters above sea level. For our last dinner, after the usual soup and 5 different hot dishes, our cook surprised us with a big cake with the inscription “happy to meet / sad to depart”. Our crew definitely went above and beyond to make us happy on this trip and the food was by far the best of any treks we have done. We spent the evening warming up around a bonfire, while gazing at the stars. From this secluded location, we were able to see more stars than ever before. Even the Milky Way was visible to the naked eye.


Bhutanese food is so overwhelmingly spicy, that no common Westerner could ever eat it. In Bhutan, chilies are used like we use potatoes, pasta or rice. They are not a spice, but the main part of a meal. For this reason, we were not usually served real Bhutanese food, but dishes more appropriate to our palate. Our guide never stopped pointing out how bland this food would be for him and that he could never eat it. The only real Bhutanese dish we were served was Ema Datshi, which is, essentially, chilies baked with flour and cheese. That way, we were able to add some more spiciness to our other dishes according to our taste.


The last day of our trek involved only two hours of descent down to the Thimphu valley. Upon arrival we were greeted by the director of our tour company with pastry, cakes and local beer. While the views along the trek were not quite as impressive as the ones we had in Nepal, we enjoyed this trek a lot because of the peaceful, quiet atmosphere it provided.


We only had the afternoon to explore Bhutan’s capital, so we were grateful to meet with Cheku, Marta’s friend from her PhD studies, who gave us a quick tour of Thimphu. Our favourite sight was the giant Buddha statue that was overlooking the valley. We have seen many, many Buddha in the past months, but this recently built 52-meter-tall statue was the most impressive. Another interesting sight was the Memorial Stupa in the center of the town, where many locals were praying while going around the stupa. Nowhere outside of Bhutan have we seen so many recently built temples and statues, which brings us to believe that Buddhism is alive in this country like nowhere else.


We bid farewell to Bhutan the next morning as our short stay came to an end. There are not many destinations you can fly to directly from Bhutan, so we had to go to Bangkok first on the way to our next destination, Seoul.


Posted by samandmarta 21:00 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Bhutan - Part 1

Arrival & Paro

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In the morning of the 24th of October, we left Nepal towards Bhutan, the small kingdom in the Himalayas. The flight between Kathmandu and Paro, Bhutan’s international airport, is probably the world’s most scenic one. The plane flies just south of the Himalayas and you can see 4 of the world’s 5 highest peaks along the way: Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and on the border between Nepal and India, Kanchenjunga. On the day of our flight, the air was exceptionally clear. We could see all the peaks very clearly and even the Tibetan highlands were visible. Already this vista made the trip to Bhutan worthwhile.

There could be no better way to prepare you for Bhutan than the arrival at Paro airport. Unlike the usual glass and steel buildings, the airport in Paro consists of beautiful traditional wooden houses, each painted and decorated more like a temple than an airport. The arrival hall is perfectly clean and the friendly immigration officers greet you with a smile. There are no lines and the entire process is very efficient. That is Bhutan in a nutshell: traditional, clean, secluded, friendly and efficient.


Almost everything about this country is unique, like for example their concept for tourism. Everyone is welcome to visit Bhutan, but the government prescribes a minimal price that every tourist has to pay per night. For our budget, this price was very, very high, which is why we only stayed for 6 nights. This fee however, not only grants you a visa, but also includes a personal guide and driver, 3-star accommodation during your stay, all meals during your stay, entrance to every place you visit and all the necessary transportation within the country. In addition to that, it helps them finance free education and health care for all their citizens. Bhutan does not want mass tourism or backpackers, because they are afraid that this would hurt their culture and environment. The effect of this is that you can visit unique and beautiful places in peace and quiet without the common selfie-crazy Instagram hipsters.

After lunch, our guide brought us to Rinpung Dzong, a former fortress that now hosts the local government and a monastery. We were impressed with how well the old fortress was maintained, compared to similar places in Nepal and Tibet. Also, we were almost the only visitors there. Next, we visited an important Buddhist temple that was founded by the King’s grandmother. 100% of Bhutanese are Buddhists and our guide always made sure that we circled everything of significance in the clockwise directions to assure good fortune for our upcoming trek.


In the afternoon, we strolled through the center of Paro, where red chilies were hanging from the walls of the pretty houses to dry in the sun. It was very curious to see many shops selling penis sculptures between religious items. Apparently, these are revered as symbols of fertility and are popular items for decoration in Bhutanese households. In the evening, our accommodation surprised us with a delicious three-course meal. Soon we would learn, that this is the standard for tourists here.


We left early the next morning to hike to the most famous sight in Bhutan, the icon of the country and a place we were excited to see ever since we had the idea of visiting Bhutan: the Tiger’s Nest monastery. The monastery is built into a nearly vertical wall of rock, at the location were Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated after flying there on the back of a Tigress.


After the hike, we asked our guide if we could visit a monastery that we have spotted near our accommodation. This spontaneous visit turned out to be the most authentic monastery experience we’ve had on our entire trip so far. This was not a tourist site, so we were the only visitors there and during our visit, a group of monks, probably aged between 6 and 18, entered to practice some prayers. They allowed us to stay and sit with them while they played various traditional instruments and recited their prayers under the supervision of two elder monks. The monastery, apparently sponsored by a rich businessman from Hong Kong, was just a few years old and decorated lavishly with gold and intricate paintings covering every millimeter of the building.


We enjoyed our two days in Paro immensely. While we did pay a lot of money for our stay in Bhutan, we did not expect that our visa fee would translate into such a great experience.

Posted by samandmarta 15:00 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

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