Bhutan

Friday 10/05/07 - Mt. Everest, Arrival in Paro, National Museum, Paro Rinpung Dzong, Drive to Thimpu

I managed to get an hour and a half of sleep, but Craig was less lucky. We got up at 3:30, brushed our teeth, and hurried downstairs to check out.

It was 4 am. The clerk said that the room hadnít been paid in advance, and we had to pay for it on the spot. We didnít think this was the case, but we needed to get to the airport and were rather frazzled, so we paid it and decided to figure it out later (it was the hotelís mistake, and Myths and Mountains had sent us a refund check by the time we arrived home, so it turned out to be no problem at all). We thought that we had a transfer to the airport, but it turned out that we had misread the itinerary. At 4:15 we asked the hotel driver to take us (which was what we were supposed to do all along). As we exited the hotel, the fancy doorman from 12:30 am recognized Craig and said "Sir, you just arrived!" We told him our situation and got into the car. Our driver was incredibly polite. "Welcome to my car, Sir." He told us about the new airport being built. He asked where we were from, and when we said "USA" he said 'Thank you" for visiting India. On the drive we saw homeless people sleeping under the highway overpass just yards from our fancy hotel. When we arrived at the airport, the driver told us to stay in the car while he got a trolley. He loaded our luggage onto it and pointed us at Gate 4.

There were mobs of locals outside, and we had to force our way through to get to the door. We were told we could go in, but a security guard with a machine gun stopped us and asked for our ticket or e-ticket. We had neither Ė just a Bhutanese visa and a note that said our tickets would be waiting at the Druk Air counter inside the airport. The security guards read this note over and over, but it didnít change the fact that we didnít have tickets in hand, and they werenít supposed to let us in without them. We didnít have a whole lot of time, so we started to get a bit nervous, but we held ourselves together well and dealt calmly with the security people. We explained our situation to multiple people, and they eventually sent us to the main entrance (Gate 1). There we got the same reaction. The guard had a sub-machine gun (we knew this because it was labeled "sub-machine gun").

Eventually, they got a Druk Air baggage handler to go to the desk to retrieve our tickets. They let us in the door and had us sit on chairs right next to the security men. Craig didnít hear them say "SitĒ and said he was ok standing. I said, ďThe man with the machine gun wants you to sitĒ. So we sat. The baggage handler came back with the tickets, security scrutinized them, and we were on our way, careful to be very polite and thankful. The baggage handler brought us to the counter where we checked in for our flight. We had thought it took off around 7 am, but it was actually 6:10. We hadn't left ourselves as much time as we had meant to, but luckily everything went smoothly. We had been told that we would need passport sized photos for our visas. We had a couple leftovers that I brought with us for this purpose. I tried to give them to the girl at the counter she just laughed and shook her head indicating that she didn't need them. We went through immigration and gave them our departure cards and passports.

We saw signs for potable water fountains and laughed, saying that drinking tap water at the Delhi airport probably wasnít a good idea. When our flight was called we went through security (ladies through one line and gents through another). We needed to put tags on our carry-ons and these were stamped after they were scanned. You would not be allowed to carry any bags onto the plane that didn't have this security stamp. Water bottles were allowed through security. We went down a flight of stairs and waited at the gate. Here we saw some monks on cell phones, which seemed surreal to us.

We got into a bus which brought us to the plane, which had the orange and yellow Bhutanese flag emblazoned with a dragon on its tail. The female flight attendants were wearing kiras (the traditional Bhutanese dress for females), but the males were wearing western style clothing. One of the female flight attendants was absolutely gorgeous and looked like a porcelain doll. The plane was a 3-3 configuration, and we took our seats next to an Indian woman named Rajshree who lived in Nepal. We found out that this flight actually had a stop in Kathmandu. We chatted with her and the flight took off around 6:35. The sun looked very red as it rose into the sky, due in large part to the pollution. We got apple juice to drink and we were fed a vegetarian Indian breakfast (croissant, muffin, sour yogurt, chickpeas, flat soft bread, and falafel-like vegetable patties, and a ketchup packet). It was very tasty and I had more of an appetite than I had on the Air India flight. When we landed in Kathmandu, the majority of the passengers disembarked. We chatted with an American couple seated behind us, Alison and Danny. It turns out that Alison lived a couple of miles from my parents' house for the first couple years of her life. What a small world!

The plane took off again, and the pilot came on the PA saying that the Himalayas (including Mt. Everest) were visible out the left hand side of the plane. Of course we were on the right. But they allowed us to get up and take a peek, so Craig, Alison, Danny, and I walked to the back of the plane and peeked out the tiny window in the exit door. We could see the summit of Everest, along with a neighboring peak, rising majestically through a layer of white puffy clouds into the sunlight. We never in a million years thought we would get to see this, and we got incredibly excited. We took some pictures through the small window, and, amazingly, they came out very well.

We were fed yet again - (a snack which included a cheese, cucumber, and tomato sandwich and some crumbly breadsticks. This was one again served with a ketchup packet) - and then soon landed in Paro. The descent wasnít as harrowing as others have claimed. Due to favorable weather conditions, we were able to approach from a different direction. Though the runway looked narrow and it seemed as though the wings might graze a mountain on either side, it was in fact rather uneventful. The stark contrast of the beautiful bright sunlight and clean air was astounding. On the tarmac in India we could barely make out the silhouette of the control tower through all of the smog and pollution. We disembarked the plane via a staircase and had our first up-close look at Bhutanese architecture. The terminal building was a traditional-looking structure that might have been standing for a century. It had the typical small arched windows as well as beams whose tips were brightly painted where they stuck out from under the roof. We stood on the tarmac for a few minutes admiring our surroundings. Bright green rice paddies surrounded the airport, and simple scarecrows dotted the fields. We took photos with Ali and Dan, and then headed inside. The decorative paint work on the inside of the building was elaborate as well. There were photos of the 4th and 5th kings, as well as posters about safe food preparations, etc.

We waited in lines to have our passports stamped. A woman approached us and said she recognized us; that she had met us, probably in Caracas. We apologized and said that we had never been to caracas. She named some other places she had been, but none coincided. She said we (especially me) looked very familiar. In an extremely long shot, we asked if she might know us from our website. She didn't think so. But I handed her our card, and after looking at the URL, she smiled and said that was where she knew us from. Wow, we had been "recognized"! Again...what a small world! After getting our passports stamped, and then picked up our luggage, which was quick to arrive since we had been on the only arriving flight. We then went through customs. The young woman who was in charge of verifying our (lack of) customs declarations was surprised we didnít have cigarettes, and asked us repeatedly about them. Cigarettes are a highly controlled substance in Bhutan. They are not able to be sold legally in the country, and any which are imported by people are subject to a 100% tax. She asked about electronics equipment, and so we declared our camera and accessories.

We headed outside and were met by our guide Dorji, wearing a gho. He led us to the van and introduced us to Tshering, our driver for the next few days. Dorji presented us with a katak (white silk scarf) around our necks as a sign of good luck. We hopped into the car and headed straight for a bank, where we converted $100 USD into approximately 3980 ngultrum (a currency equal in value to the Indian rupee). The process was very speedy, and we headed to the Chharo Restaurant for tea. In the lobby of the building was a weaving cooperative (Samden Handicraft), and we watched some women weaving on backstrap and foot looms. The process (and even the style of weaving and motifs adorning the final products) reminded us of Guatemala, and not for the last time on this trip. The woven silks were breathtaking. There was a piece which is used for a kira (national dress for women). I asked how much it cost, and they said it was a year's work and cost US $2200. I settled for some photos of it. I bought a couple of small items, including some small silk purses and a woven wallet. We took some photos and then headed upstairs to the restaurant.

It was a lot warmer in Paro than we had expected, and after our spicy airplane breakfast, we opted for a cold drink instead of tea. I got a "fresh lime soda" and Craig got a Red Panda beer, and we had popadums as a snack. We could hear the constant rhythmic "thump-thump" of the foot loom downstairs. We had the thought that Tom Waits could do a recording with good ambient percussion in here. We put the drinks on our tab, as we would be returning here for lunch.

Next we took a short ride up the hillside to the National Museum, housed in the historic Ta Dzong which was built in 1641. It is a tall, round structure which used to be a watchtower. The walls are 2.5 meters thick!! There was beautiful view of Paro Rinpung Dzong from the grounds. (A dzong is a monastery/fortress). We entered the museum and it was enchanting. The light was dim and there were treasures all around, from a scale model of the Tigerís Nest monastery to 17th and 18th century paintings and scrolls (known as thangkas), and crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling beams. We went up steep staircases to upper levels to look at the gorgeous art and artifacts. Photographs are not allowed inside, and it was probably for the best, or we would have been taking hundreds. Everything was so interesting and the workmanship of the art was fantastic. We saw a large, heavy, iron chain which was the first ironwork to be brought to Bhutan by Phajo Druh Dom Zigpo (the same craftsman who made it also made an iron bridge in Paro which we would pass later in the day). There were also very intricate and ornate daggers (ďphubĒ in the Bhutanese national language of Dzongkha) which Guru Rinpoche used to subdue a demon at the Tiger's Nest monastery, and an old broken bell which must have had quite a history to describe how it got into oits current state. Just when we thought we had seen everything the museum had to offer on its three visible floors, Dorji brought us down through spiraling corridors to lower floors, where artifacts such as ornate butter lamps and tea kettles, huge water urns, butter churns, wine casks, etc. were displayed. We saw betelnut containers. The man who introduced betelnut to Bhutan brought Buddhism and stamped out animism. He introduced the chewing of betelnut and lime as a standin for slaughtering animals and eating meat, as the betelnut turns your teeth blood-red.

We headed deeper underground and found ourselves in a room with weapons such as spears and guns, which were pointed out of the small funnel shaped windows of the fortress to defend against invaders. It was so atmospheric and interesting that we could have spent the entire day inside the museum. We went into a windowless room which was used as a dungeon, and it was quite creepy. The exhibits went on and on, and we were fascinated. We knew we had a schedule to keep today (we had to get to Thimpu for dinner) but there was just so much to see! We then came to a room of jewelry, amulets, and traditional clothing. There was a room which housed displays of stuffed animals and birds native to Bhutan, including the odd hornbill. We saw the head of a takin (The Bhutanese national animal which we would see later at the zoo) mounted on the wall. It was information overload, considering that this was our first glimpse of Bhutan. We tried to digest as much as we could before leaving. It was a spectacular museum, and I would like to return someday, now that I have seen more of the country and the culture.

After this, Dorji asked if we were hungry for lunch. Due to the altitude and jet lag (plus the fact that we had been fed twice on the plane from Delhi) we opted to wait a while, and instead visit the dzong. Paro Rinpung Dzong, with its yellow roof, was visible from the National Museum. Tshering drove us down there. Bhutanese need to wear traditional dress to visit government buildings, and they also need to wear a special sash. Dorji put on his sash and we headed into the dzong. I knew hats were not allowed, but I was surprised that I needed to take off my bandana as well. We passed through the entrance where there were police guards, and then headed out into the courtyard. Photos are allowed outside only, and we were able to get some good ones here. There were lots of prayer wheels, interesting architecture, and a nice view of the National Museum up on the hill. A dzong is usually divided into two halves, one used as a monastery, and the other used by the government. We were allowed in the religious half only. As we exited, Dorji showed us an elaborate painting of the Wheel of Life, and explained the six segments (three of heaven and three of hell). The detail of the painting was amazing. There was a cute little wooden covered bridge at the front of the dzong. As we approached it there were some adorable children sitting with their mother. They waved and smiled at us. The view of the dzong through the prayer flags on the covered bridge was quite picturesque.

We noticed that litter was a problem in Paro, and we would continue to see this throughout the country. It was unfortunate and unexpected, as Bhutan is such an environmentally conscious country. But it seems that on teh individual level, people don't think about it much, and just throw their wrappers on the ground. With a small population it's manageable, but it could become a huge problem in the future.

Next we headed back to the Chharo Restaurant for lunch. We were brought dish after dish of food. Little did we know that Dorji and Tshering werenít joining us, and this was all for Craig and myself! We did our best to make a dent in the coarse red rice, delicious momos (dumplings), chicken with chilis, sweet and spicy pork, mixed vegetables, green beans, and dessert of apples and pears. The food was delicious, but Craig wasnít feeling quite like himself. He didnít have much of an appetite. Our roles were slightly reversed, and I ended up eating more than he did.

We walked around town and bought some crafts and gifts for folks. Dorji told us that the items available in western Bhutan may not be able to be found the further east we go, and we wanted to try to get a head start on souvenirs while there was time and some interesting shops. We went to a postage stamp shop and there were many beautiful stamps. We bought a few as keepsakes and then bought some colorful 20 ngultrum postcard stamps. We went into Chencho handicraft and bought a colorful wooden dragon and a postcard. At bhutan Postcard and Antique we bought a few gifts for friends. The most interesting and eclectic shop we visited was called Made in Bhutan. They had a nice variety of items for sale, including prayer wheels, silks, statues, books, scrolls, etc. It was overwhelming because we wanted to buy everything we saw, but we needed to pace ourselves. It was only our first day! Plastic bags are banned in Bhutan (probably a good thing, as they would probably end up on the side of the roads with the other litter) so all purchases are given to you in lightweight cloth bags with cord handles, which makes them easier to carry.

The weather was really warm, and when men weren't in official government buildings or offices, they often took their arms out of the sleeves of their ghos; the effect being that they have T-shirts on the top and the skirt-like gho on the bottom. Dorji was wearing a T-shirt that said "Hari Potter" and had an Indian guru at a pottery wheel.

After finishing up our shopping, we got back into the van and headed towards Thimpu. We made a quick stop to look at the Tigerís Nest impossibly perched atop a mountainside. We tried to get some pictures, but none of them could do it justice. It seems to defy gravity, and how people could construct it in such an inaccessible place is mind-boggling. Guru Rinpoche flew here on the back of a tigress to subdue a demon, and hence the place got its name "Taktshang Goemba", or Tiger's Nest. The monastery tragically burned in 1998, and was rebuilt based on an analysis of people's photographs. It was re-consecrated in 2005. Most tourists made a hike of less than two hours to reach the monastery, which they are allowed to enter. However, our itinerary did not allow enough time. It is probably for the best, as we weren't feeling up to a high altitude hike today, but if we were ever to come back to Paro, we would definitely make sure we saw this impressive site up-close.

At this time of day, students were walking home from school. Most were wearing school uniforms, but some were wearing western clothes. We saw one girl with an Eminem T-shirt, which seemed to be in stark contrast to society here.

As we left Paro, we passed the original iron bridge built by Phajo Druh Dom Zigpo, the man who introduced the iron chain to Bhutan. This relic is no longer used, as there is a more modern bridge right next to it. There was a lot of road construction being done on the main road out of town. The work was being performed by Indian work crews (men, women, and children) who lived in little ramshackle trash-filled shantytowns near the worksites. The roads are windy and there is a lot of horn-honking, swerving, and passing.It started to get dark as we approached Thimpu. It had been a busy day and I dozed a bit in the van.

We arrived at the RiverView Hotel in Thimpu 6:30 pm and were checked in. Dorji made a dinner reservation for us for 7:30 and then he headed home to his apartment. Craig and I went to the room and both decided that we werenít even hungry for dinner. We just wanted to relax and go to sleep. So we called to cancel the reservation (the employee whom I spoke to sounded a little concerned and made sure we didnít want anything to eat). I wrote in the journal, we relaxed for a while and took some night photos from the balcony. We were on the opposite side of the river from the town proper, and we could see its lights on the opposite bank. This location proved handy, as we weren't near enough to be bothered by the barking of the city's dogs all night. We went to bed at around 8:15, without even turning on the TV.
Mount Everest as seen from the plane

Mount Everest as seen from the plane

Craig and Steph at the Paro airport

Craig and Steph at the Paro airport

Weavers at Samden Handicraft

Weavers at Samden Handicraft

Bhutanese weaving

Bhutanese weaving

View of Paro Valley from National Museum grounds

View of Paro Valley from National Museum grounds

National Museum (Ta Dzong)

National Museum (Ta Dzong)

Prayer wheel outside National Museum

Prayer wheel outside National Museum

View of Paro Rinpung Dzong from National Museum

View of Paro Rinpung Dzong from National Museum

National Museum

National Museum

Courtyard of Paro Rinpung Dzong

Courtyard of Paro Rinpung Dzong

Prayer wheels at Paro Rinpung Dzong

Prayer wheels at Paro Rinpung Dzong

Wheel of Life - Paro Rinpung Dzong

Wheel of Life - Paro Rinpung Dzong

Covered bridge - Paro Rinpung Dzong

Covered bridge - Paro Rinpung Dzong

Paro Rinpung Dzong from covered bridge

Paro Rinpung Dzong from covered bridge

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