Bhutan

Monday 10/22/07 - Trashigang to Samdrup Jongkhar

We woke up at 6:30 am, showered, and packed up. The shower process was difficult, as running the shower drenched the entire bathroom. We couldn't even keep a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom itself, or it would be soaked. So we put the toilet paper on a shelf right outside of the bathroom, safely out of harm's way. We wouldn't particularly miss this small cramped hotel room and its dysfunctional bathroom.

We had breakfast in the outdoor dining room at 7:30. For some reason all of the guests were served eggs made to order except us. We were served only toast and tea. Oh well. We wondered why this was, but weren't bothered enough to say anything. We took a photo with our buddy Tony from the UK group in the hotel lobby, and one with Jigme and Dorji outside the hotel. As we got into the van we saw a cute little boy and girl eating apples and watching our every move. They were adorable. The girl had some apple debris in her hair - Craig and I joked that we could call her "Apple Junior" after our little friend from Shelmakha. The children posed for the camera. I took a picture and showed it to them and their family, who were seated on the ground amusedly watching our interactions. We left the hotel at 9 am as a caravan with the UK group's bus. It would be another long ride, and the further toward the border with India we got, the more dangerous the political situation would become, with Maoist rebels sometimes causing problems. We were hoping for safety in numbers.

We stopped in the small town of Khaling for a coffee break in a small local hotel called Karma Choden. Four little girls were sitting on a stoop next to where we parked, eating cheese puffs. They happily agreed to a photo and giggled and looked at it. We went into the rustic hotel and sat at a table near the bar. the Brits sat at tables as well. The proprietress made a tray of coffees and served them to all of us. We were taking in the rusticness of the place when a small kitten jumped up into the window. It was soon followed by the appearance of four small heads - the children we had seen sitting on the stoop. They teased the littlest girls by putting cheese puffs on her head. I went outside to get a photo of the girls with the kitten. The littlest girl ran over to the kitten and tried to pick it up by pinching it. Then the older girl picked up the kitten nicely and posed for a picture. I went back into the hotel and finished my coffee. By now it was time to get back into the van and resume our journey to Samdrup Jongkhar.

We continued along the road and stopped for lunch after 1:00. We ate lunch in the van (which Jigme parked in front of a small general store) : red rice, mango juice, beans and cheese, spicy curried beef, Asian veggies, cauliflower, and little bananas for dessert. We were wondering why we were eating in a parking lot when there were so many prettier spots Dorji could have chosen. It turned out that our packed lunch hadn't included tea. Dorji had decided to eat here so he could buy tea from the store. After finishing our lunch, I went into the little store in the hopes of buying some crunchy snacks. We had no ngultrums so Dorji bought us two bags of Korntops spicy corn snacks from India. American money really is of very little use in Eastern Bhutan. The bags were covered in a layer dust, but based on the date printed on them, they were still perfectly fresh. We got back into the van and continued driving. We passed some gorgeous scenery - blue mountains in the distance, green mountain valleys flowing with rivers below us, and white puffy clouds hovering overhead.

We stopped in the little village of Narphung at around 2:00. There was a small market, and they had some very cute handmade baskets for sale. I was tempted, but they would be awkward to carry home safely. Brightly colored vegetables such a red and green chillies were for sale, and an older man in a gray gho was weaving brooms and tying them into bundles. There was a small counter selling snacks and groceries. The whole scene was very picturesque and quaint. We all stretched our legs and we were just getting into a conversation with a local man (He asked where we were from. We said "Boston," and he thought we said "London,"and went to find someone to translate) as the Brits were boarding the bus and we realized we had to go. It would have been a nice town to spend a few more minutes, but we did have many more hours on the road, so we needed to be on our way.

We stopped at a checkpoint where a group of men were playing volleyball behind a barbed wire fence. I snapped a few photos, and then we were on our way again. As we drove through the countryside, the mountains were a sun-dappled patchwork. We saw something in the trees. It was a large bird, perhaps a hawk or eagle. We didn't have a great view from where we pulled over. The Brits' bus stopped behind us and they had a look with binoculars. The hawk took flight and I got a photo. We asked the Brits if they could identify the bird. David said, "I wouldn't trust us! We thought it was a monkey until it started flying!"

We stopped at an overlook to stretch our legs. The view was very nice and we enjoyed being in the sunshine for a few minutes. We could see nearby mountains with colorful prayer flags in the foreground. Throughout the whole ride, the landscape was changing. We were descending in altitude, and the vegetation was becoming more tropical. We saw lots of vegetation, with an occasional white house breaking up the green pallette.

We passed a chemical plant, immediately giving the place a more industrial feel than the rest of the country. As we stopped at the final checkpoint approaching Samdrup Jongkhar, the police were laughing with Dorji and apparently teasing him. We asked what that was all about. He nonchalantly said, "I acted in a movie and they were surprised to see me guiding." What now? It turns out that he acted in a movie about 6 months ago and it has been screened all over Bhutan by the BBS. The movie was called "Chunyen" (Childhood Engagement) and he was the male lead. Who knew we had a celebrity in our midst? The movie was produced, directed by, and starred Bhutanese tourist guides. We'll be on the lookout for that on DVD, Dorji.

We continued onto Samdrup Jongkhar. It was a rather run-down city. The buildings were shabby and didn't have the architectural details of those in the west. It resembled Mongar, but without the nice view. It looked more like our traditional notion of a city than the actual capital city of Bhutan (Thimpu). It had the usual border town reputation. There certainly weren't a lot of tourists here; just locals going about their daily business. However, we saw beauty in this. A man was getting a shave on the balcony of one of the ubiquitous cement three-story buildings. A group of men sat at a table beside the road playing cards.

We checked into the TLT Hotel, room 103. The floors of the place were made of marble tiles. Our room had a pair of hard-mattresed twin beds, a desk and chair, a small TV, and a wardrobe. The pillows had no pillowcases, but luckily we always bring our own. We went downstairs to the dining room and I went onto the balcony to take some photos of town. A group of adorable children ran over and looked up at me, smiling for a photo. They all wore brightly colored plastic sandals. One of the smallest girls was wearing a very cute dress, had a pony tail on the very top of her head, and brightly colored plastic bracelets up her arm. It was amazing the difference in physical features in people here in the east when compared to western Bhutan.

We were warned not to stray too far from the hotel, but while it was light out we had to do a little exploring. We stayed in the same general block as the hotel, but we walked around to try to get an idea of this town and its people. The kids we had seen from above surrounded us and we took some photos. One of the girls was proud to show off an English storybook. They were all very friendly. We walked down the street and around the corner. A couple of boys were playing catch and we got a photo of them. Behind our hotel was a river, on the banks of which was the public toilet building. We passed a butchery with two billboard-sized red signs with yellow lettering in Dzongkha and English: "Rates of Meat 2007: Beef without Bone 70 Nu/kg, Heart 40 Nu/kg, Head 20 Nu/kg, Limbs 15Nu/kg. The above rates must be adhered to, failing which shall be dealt in accordance with the existing trad. rules and regulations in vogue."

Then we passed a little shop. Two little girls, one of whom looked more Indian than Bhutanese, were sitting together on a bench eating a snack.They put their arms around one another and posed for a photo. I brought the camera over and showed them the photo, and the littlest girl burst into tears. I felt bad and hoped her parents wouldn't think we were harassing her, but there was no need to worry. They were just looking on, amused. Two older girls who were tending the shop wanted a photo as well and posed next to their wares. We saw parents with three babies sitting on the ground. We waved and the parents told the babies "wave to auntie", and they did. As we turned the corner toward the hotel, Craig said he smelled betelnut strongly. Just then we saw a group of Indian women and girls husking and shelling betelnut. They used sharp curved blades and had their thumbs wrapped in cloth to prevent injury. They demonstrated the process and let us take a photo, which they then wanted to see. It was interesting and they were very friendly. It is moments like these that cannot be contrived - meeting up with someone and having a spontaneous cultural exchange. They share their knowledge, we share a smile. These moments are so memorable, and have come to be one of our favorite parts of traveling.

The sun was now fading. We could see the moon up behind some of the buildings. We went back into the hotel for tea. Dorji joined us and we talked about his film career. We were still flabbergasted. He said that he has another role scheduled for December where he plays a blind man who has been in love with a blind woman since childhood but they never got together. The Bhutanese sure are sentimental. We joked that the premise sounds like the ubiquitous Bhutanese hit "Living Next Door to Alice", a nice stalker love story. We also learned that Choden in Shelmakha had recognized him from the movie, which was why she was too shy to speak to him in person. It all made sense now.

We finished our tea and went back to the room at 6:00. I wrote in the journal and Craig flipped through the TV channels and settled on the Simpsons (though we were both really eager to see the commercials - that was the best part of Indian television!) We met Dorji and Jigme at 7 in the dining room for our farewell dinner. We flipped through pictures, joked, and had a lot of fun. We also joked with the Brits' guide Kunzang and Indian driver Ganesh. Ganesh donned a wide-brimmed women's hat for a photo op. We were served a very tasty vegetable consomme with cream and then we hit the buffet: white rice, dal, tofu curry (my favorite!), beef in sauce, salad, and noodles. Craig had three different beers: Hit and Eagle (each for the first time), and the more familiar Druk Lager. I had Cokes. We had a nice conversation over dinner.

Dorji and Jigme left around 8:30. We chatted with Tony for a while and went back to the room and packed for our flight to Delhi tomorrow.
Khaling


Khaling


Girl with kitten in Khaling

Girl with kitten in Khaling


Eastern Bhutanese mountains

Eastern Bhutanese mountains


Broom maker in Narphung

Broom maker in Narphung


Samdrup Jhongkhar welcoming committee

Samdrup Jhongkhar "welcoming committee"


Samdrup Jhongkhar

Samdrup Jhongkhar


Indian ladies shucking betelnut

Indian ladies shucking betelnut


Farewell dinner with Dorji and Jigme

Farewell dinner with Dorji and Jigme


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