Bhutan

Friday 10/19/07 - Jakar to Mongar

We woke up at around 5:30 am. Craig turned on the hot water for the shower and nothing came out. He eventually managed to wash his hair with cold water, but I decided to skip the cold shower and stayed in bed for a while instead. We got ready for the day, packed up all of our stuff, and went down to breakfast at 7:30. We had cheese, toast, chum thup, sweet litchee juice, and tea. We chatted with the Brits at the next table and got a group photo of them.

Jigme had taken the van to get it checked for an oil leak before the first of several days of long drives. We waited for him outside the hotel playing with the extremely friendly German shepherd, who was once again playing soccer with baseball-sized rocks and then trying to eat them. Jigme returned at 8:10 and by 8:15 we were loaded up and ready to go. When I hopped into the van the dog hopped in after me, as if she wanted to join us. We wished that she could, as she was very friendly and seemed like good company, but after petting her we had to say goodbye and gently shoo her out of the vehicle.

We embarked on our long (6-7 hour) journey eastward, stopping for a quick photo of the dzong as we left town. We stopped for some photos and bathroom breaks along the way. We played leapfrog with the Brits' bus, and waved each time we passed one another. We passed the picturesque town of Ura on our right-hand side. We stopped to get a picture of the white peaks of the Himalayas. At Thrumsing La, the highest point in Bhutan's motorable road system, we saw a group of Japanese tourists hanging a string of prayer flags with the help of their guide. From here there was a gorgeous view of the snowcapped peak of Gangkarpuensum shining in the sunlight in stark contrast to the bright blue sky. It was breathtaking.

Once we crossed the pass, we felt like we had truly entered Eastern Bhutan. We were now seeing whatlay beyond the ridge...lush green mountains, and waterfalls. At one point we stopped for a bathroom break on the side of the road and Dorji warned us of leeches. My mind flashed to the scene in Eco-Challenge Borneo where a leech crawled up a man's urethra. Shudder. Needless to say, we were quite vigilant.

At 1:15 we arrived at Hotel and Bar Sonam Thidangbi, a small roadside building with a dining area and rooms to rent. We sat at a table and Dorji ordered tea from the proprietor. The Mountain Lodge had packed a hot lunch for us, and Dorji served it to us: white rice, beef, squash and cheese, chilis, and mango juice. One of the occupants of the hotel rooms was an adorable little Bhutanese girl who was carrying a stuffed monkey. She was afraid of me and covered her eyes and then ran to hide when I said hello to her. The Brits' bus drove by, and we waved to them. We finished up lunch, used the bathroom here and then hit the road again.

Dorji said that music helps digestion, and we put on the tape that Dawa had made and given to Dorji when we left Thimpu. We laughed about "24 Years Living Next Door to Alice", which was supposed to be a bubble gum pop song but had some sinister stalker overtones. (When we got home and looked it up on the internet, we found out it was a '70's song by a band called Smokie. That was the thing about Bhutan. It was such a time warp that you heard obscure songs on the radio and had no idea whether they were brand new or 30 years old). We saw some gray langur monkeys on the side of the road, and I got a photo of one perched atop a mileage marker stating that we were 11 km outside of Lingmethang. How handy! Where was it that we saw that monkey? Oh, it was 11 km from Lingmethang.

As we descended a hill, we saw a young woman in a blue tanktop working the fields with her mother. It was a bit unusual, as the majority of Bhutanese women (especially in the countryside) tend to dress more conservatively. She and her mother watched our vehicle with interest as we passed.

Our beloved "Shake Your Body" song came on when we were about 7 miles for our destination: Mongar. We were swaying and singing along when we were passed by a military police car with flashing red lights. Dorji explained that it was the royal motorcade carrying one of the queens (though we didn't actually see her in the car). How exciting! It made us think about the fact that there were no shortcuts here, not even for royalty. If the Queen was heading West, we knew exactly which route she would be taking (there are no other options) and it had been a long, slow ride.

We drove through an elaborately painted archway to enter Mongar, and we arrived at the Druk Yul Guest house after exactly 7 hours of driving. The guest house was in the center of town, located in a building above a shop. We had tea and crackers with the Brits in the dining room, and then went to our room. This was the first room we had that hadn't had separate beds. It was a very sparse room, as we had been warned to expect in the less-traveled Eastern Bhutan. It suited our needs just fine, but it was kind of funny that the lone chair in the room was a blue plastic one with the Pepsi logo on it. There was a small TV, which we hadn't had access to in a while. The bathroom had a small water heater and outlet with no shower curtain, the entire floor was susceptible to flooding. No multitasking in this bathroom!

We were wasting daylight, and decided to head out to try to get some photos of town. We locked the padlock on the room door, went down the stairs, and out into Mongar. While we were driving into town, we had noticed that the children we had seen hadn't really waved or seemed as outgoing as kids in other parts of the country. We were now in Eastern Bhutan which gets fewer tourists, and people here seemed a bit more reserved initially. As we walked around town, some parents tried to get toddlers to wave and smile but most were a little bit skittish. The town was a little bit dirtier and more run down than others we had visited and there was a garbage smell in certain areas (which we believe was the smell of rotting leftover produce from the nearby outdoor market). A lot of buildings were four stories tall, set close together, and had a tenement look to them. However, they were painted cheerful colors such as yellow and pink, and laundry hanging from the balconies gave them a lived-in look, reminding us that they were inhabited with real people.

Walking down secondary street, we met an adorable little girl in pink who smiled and waved, watching us as we walked down the street. I gestured that I wanted to take a photo, and she posed, hugging a porch column. After I snapped the photo, three of her friends immediately appeared, wanting a photo of all of them. Craig and I joked that they were the "four friends" of Buddhist lore. I showed the photo to the mother of the girl in pink, and she smiled. The girls were very cute and excited. They followed us up the street, but if we ever looked back at them they tried to look nonchalant. Some little boys were playing with a couple of marbles, and I took photos of them as well. As I took pictures, the girl in red was a little bit grabby with the camera, impatient to see the pictures. The others didn't approve of her forwardness and scolded her. It was really cute. We learned that they were "PP's" (pre-primary students). They had a jumprope and I got photos of them playing. When we left the girls they said "Tank you" in small voices and waved.

We continued our walk through town. We came across some boys playing soccer in their yard. Toddlers would run into their houses when they saw us, but we knew from our encounters with the PP girls that this was only initial reticence. The town had a small clock tower and a large prayer wheel in a park near its center. There was also a small white chorten. People sat on benches enjoying the late afternoon. As we meandered around, we ended up at a soccer match at a field across the street from our hotel. An orange team was playing a white team, and spectators sat on cement bleachers to watch. It was drawing quite a crowd. There were cows on one sideline, and small children were playing independent games behind the goal net. The soccer pitch looked like it was located at the edge of the earth. At the far end, there was a steep dropoff. It gave the same illusion that an infinity swimming pool does. We wondered who has to climb straight down to retrieve any ball kicked out of bounds. We saw one team score a goal and the game disbanded, as it was now getting dark.

We chatted with the Brits (who had also been watching the game) and then walked around the store below our hotel. They were selling all kinds of things, from children's toys to the ubiquitous elaborately painted Bhutanese thermos, to CD's and electronics, cosmetics, and snacks. As we exited the store, we were approached by three girls (two were in class 2 and one was in class 5, though the others teased that she was PP). They started to ask us questions,and we sat on the stoop in front of the store to show them our photos from home. Soon we gathered quite a crowd of kids of all ages. We explained the photos at least 6 times, and the children were soon repeating the information themselves to newcomers. There were probably about 45 kids all told. Three sweet girls came over and gave me a piece of cardboard to sit on, explaining that the stoop was dirty.

One boy asked my name. "Stephanie," I said. "Japanese?" he repeated. "No, Stephanie!" I laughed. Craig suggested that I show them a business card that has our name on it. This caused a maelstrom of kids wanting to keep the cards, wanting to send us emai, etc. It was crazy! I only managed to hold onto a couple of cards, and gave the rest away. Kids were hitting each other in good fun, pantsing one another, etc. At one point I got hit in the throat with a small stone in the crossfire and some of the girls got very angry at the perpetrator. Kids loved the pictures of us with the gorillas in Africa and kept calling one another "gorilla". Things got so out of hand that the proprietor of the store scolded the kids for being too rowdy. It was now dark and the kids needed to get home, as they had school in the morning. They all waved and posed for pictures as they left.

We also attracted some adult attention. One guide recognized B.B. King in our photo with Frank and said, "He played with Eric Clapton!" It turned out he had been educated in Japan, which explained why he recognized B.B. when noone else in Bhutan had (apparently the blues genre is virtually unknown here).

After 45 minutes of this we were absolutely exhausted and Craig was hoarse. We laughed about how we had thought that the children here were more standoffish when we first arrived. It took a little time, but interacting with them sure brought them out of their shells! We went back to our room (103) and rested for about 5 minutes before heading down to the restaurant. We chatted with the Brits in the sitting area of the dining room. Then the power went out across town. The staff set up candles and it was quite atmospheric. We all sat at one long table and ate half of our meal by candlelight. We had veggie soup, cheese momos, veggies and cheese, tasty pork, white rice, green beans, bananas, and guava.

The power came on once again and we went up to our room. I wrote in the journal about the day's events while Craig flipped through TV channels. We went to bed at 10:45. This was the first place where we noticed the noise of dogs at night, as they were in the streets around town. But we were tired enough to sleep through it.
Gangkarpuensum

Gangkarpuensum


Grey langur monkey, 11 km from Lingmethang

Grey langur monkey, 11 km from Lingmethang


Mongar housing

Mongar housing


Mongar housing

Mongar housing


Four friends

Four friends


Gathering a crowd in Mongar

Gathering a crowd in Mongar


Candlelight dinner

Candlelight dinner


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