How better to start a blog on happiness than with a story about Bhutan…the only country that measures Gross National Happiness! Did Bhutan make me happy…absolutely! Did Bhutan surprise me…surprisingly yes!
The things I did while in Bhutan
Landed in Paro Valley
I started my trip from the Bangkok airport where I boarded a Druk Airways plane to Bhutan…the flight was almost full…we had one stop in India and then another 30 minutes of flying time to Paro…currently the only airport in the country. Landing was a bit insane…the plane was bobbing and weaving and swerving through mountains. What I thought were white clouds in the distance were snow covered mountains at the same altitude as the plane…gorgeous! There were a few tourists on the plane and the very nice Bhutanese passengers moved seats so new people could see the view. As we approached our landing in Paro Valley, it was like being in a video game, banking, turning, landing safely.
Roamed the Streets of Paro
I was then dropped off in the Paro town center and roamed around the streets for an hour or so. I interacted with some kids that were just running around with no supervision. One kid found a glass bottle and smashed it on the ground and was playing with the broken pieces…hmmmm. Another kid had some sort of pellet gun which made me nervous so I walked quickly past him. There are lots of stores that sell antiques and other stuff that tourists may like, but wow they are expensive. During my visit, there were very few tourists so really no one was around or in the stores.
Visited Bhutan’s National Museum
Bhutan’s National Museum seemed to be a very strict place…I had to leave my bag, camera, and phone in a locker. It is a round building that used to be a watch tower, and you are told the exact path you should take around the art and artifacts up and down the stairs. Displayed you will see some “old stuff”, lots of paintings and some very large intricate statues created by monks and a butter lamp. Since there were very few people, it was a nice peaceful walk.
One thing that was significant…STAMPS! The Bhutanese seem to love stamps. There were entire walls dedicated to stamps…hologram-ish 3D stamps, many Disney Bhutan stamps, lots of space stamps, man on the moon type stamps; however, no one can explain to me the Bhutanese space obsession. On display they have a small Bhutanese flag next to a few small stones with a explanation that the flag went to space on Apollo 11 and the stones were from the moon. Then more stamps…even a JFK stamp next to a Gandhi stamp….just lots of stamps.
Visited Bhutan’s Post Office
Since I was all hopped up on stampmanian I went to the post office and bought some stamps. Then…get this…I had a stamp made with my photo on it…OH YES…an Amanda stamp went on a Bhutan postcard to my family! Was it fun?? Hell Yes! I loved it….even the Bhutanese postal workers are fun!
Visited Drugyel Dzong
The Drugyel Dzong was built in 1646 and sadly burned down in 1951. As I was walking the ruins, I came across a group of local teenage girls hanging out and taking photos with their cell phones. I watched on as they spoke quickly in their local language and then yelled out “say cheese” in perfect English. It seems that many English sayings are making their way into the locals’ speech even in the small country of Bhutan. However schools in Bhutan are taught in English, which makes it quite easy for any English speaking tourist.
Visited the government Handicraft Emporium
While the government Handicraft Emporium is lovely…wow wow wow it is expensive. Things cost hundreds of dollars. Similarly, we visited a place and watched women weave beautiful clothes, but they were selling local dresses for $2000…yes $2000 US…crazy. Then we went and watched people make paper…it was really amazing to watch as well, but I did not purchase anything.
Ate at Happy Green Organic Restaurant
My guide heard me discussing my website SuperGreen365 and my interest in eco-tourism and he was kind enough to set up a lunch for me at an organic restaurant – Happy Green Organic Restaurant (Happy Green Coop) in Thimphu. The restaurant’s food is grown at an organic farm about 20 miles away and is also sold at the market. In addition, the owners have a vision to clean up Bhutan and are selling canvas bags to try to get people to use less plastic since it has become a serious issue. They were quite nice and gave me a bag to take home and set me up with a farm visit.
Visited the Motitthang Takin Preserve
The Bhutan Takin makes me smile. The big nose, the short horns and the Eeyore physique all come together to create the National Animal of Bhutan. The story is that the “the divine madman” or great saint Lama Drukpa Kunley created this lovely animal. During the 15th century, he was urged by his followers to perform a miracle. First he demanded to be served a whole cow and a whole goat for lunch which he devoured and left only the bones. He then took the goat’s head and stuck it onto the bones of the cow. He snapped his fingers and commanded the animal to rise up and graze on the mountainside, which of course it did. The animal came to be known as the Bhutan Takin or dong gyem tsey.
Visited a Nunnery
We visited a nunnery for a short time where there were lots of stray dogs, prayer wheels and beautiful women with shaved heads. I am not sure how many nuns are in Bhutan, but it is my understanding that it is a growing number. I found some interesting websites about raising money for the education of Bhutanese Nuns: Bhutan Nuns, Women of Buddha, and Portraits of Bhutan Nuns.
Visited Thimpu Dzong (Trashichodzong)
Visiting the Thimphu Dzong before 4:30 is forbidden since it is in use today. The King of Bhutan even has his office here and yes, of course, it is a corner office. He also lives across the street. I was hoping he would join me for tea, but we did not run into each other.
Walked the Streets on Thimphu
Thimphu is the only capital city without a stoplight. The city has about 100,000 people, but it has a completely different feel than Paro. Many groups of young people were walking around in western clothing, people chewing betel net and spitting. Red splotches can be seen all over the ground; it felt more “city-ish”. However the art is still beautiful and still too expensive for me.
Visited the 108 Stupas at Dochula Pass
Visited an Organic Farm and Greenhouse
Visiting the Organic Farm and Greenhouse was a great experience…I even had a chance to speak with the owner. I asked him why he chose to grow organic…”The chemicals are bad for the people. And the chemicals are bad for the land, they make it hard so you cannot grow anything.” Hmmmm….chemicals are bad….sounds about right to me … no experiments, just good old common sense. It was fun watching everyone work…so peaceful on the hillside. In fact, so peaceful that one of the girl’s had her baby sleeping happily in the field as she worked.
Drove on Cliffside Roads
There is only one road that connects the towns and it is on a cliff…very scary and dangerous driving. We turned a corner and saw a car flipped over. Luckily the people were OK, but just a huge reminder to drive slow or you may go off the cliff. Craziness!
Had Lunch at a Restaurant owned by a Princess
Apparently Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 4th King of Bhutan, has four wives…all sisters! Do I find this disturbing? Of course I do!! Anyway, from these sisters he has five daughters and five sons. Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the current king, and I am told he is unmarried, very well liked, can only marry one woman and takes the breath away from most ladies he crosses paths with. Again..why didn’t he join me for tea??
Visited Punakha Dzong
The Punakha Dzong is where the male (Pochu) and Female (Mochu) rivers meet…the color is an amazing blue-aqua. In the summer, there are rafting excursions for tourists that I am sure are exciting. The outside view is not the only thing that this dzong has to offer. I am not a building person, but the temple in this dzong is ridiculous. The paintings, the statues, and the butter cakes are just amazing!!! They even have the life of Buddha painted all along the wall…really the best temple I have seen yet. The ONLY issue is that you are not allowed to take photos in temples so you will have to take my word for it…OR better yet visit yourself!!! It was interesting watching the young monks run and play around with each other seemingly so unmonk-like. At the end of my visit, I asked if there was a bathroom. My guide said yes but it is the one the locals use…um…”OK” I said. I have to be honest I do get a feeling of happiness anytime I walk into a bathroom here that actually has toilet paper…plus I am always excited to see sit toilets…the holes in the ground do not make me smile. However one that did make me laugh, it was a sit looking toilet that you are supposed to stand on…very odd. It had feet holders two feet off the ground. Anyway, I started to walk over to it. (side note – in Bhutan you have to be with your guide all the time, but he said “I will go to car and you can meet me there”)…I was not alone for 10 seconds and some teenage monks sitting in the grass called me over to chat…some small talk and then I was off. OH WOW…the bathroom was awesome…doorless stalls over an open trough…just not nice. It has been awhile since I have had the opportunity to stand over a toilet trough; I forgot how much fun it can be
Visited the Fertility Temple (Chimi Lhakhang)
Hiking through the tiered rice fields to the fertility temple, although tiring, was beautiful. The location where we started our walk had buildings with large phalluses painted on them…oh yes huge penises. It was quite shocking and hilarious! The Temple of The Divine Madman (Chimi Lhakhang) was built in 1499. Apparently, it is a must-see for women who are infertile. I am told that if you make an offering you will be granted a monk run ceremony where you kneel before a giant phallus and are offered three liquids. Next you will be given a small red book and told to pick a thread. You will also have an opportunity to select your child’s name from a prepared group of papers. And finally, you will be blessed with the Divine Madman’s wooden phallus. Did I do this…absolutely not…I am not taking any chances…what if it really works?
Ate Buckwheat Dumplings
Although I saw very few tourists, I did meet a group of four guys traveling from Bangladesh. One night we all decided to meet for dinner and my guide called ahead so they would make me traditional food: buckwheat noodles and buckwheat dumplings stuffed with spinach and cheese. The food was great and the conversation even better.
Attended Bhutan’s National Day Festival
Bhutan’s National Day celebration happened to be held during my trip. During the festival I watched marching kids (and some soldiers too) all neatly dressed up. The funniest part for me, was the fact that the local dogs were just all up in the marching and no one yelled at them or ushered them out. I also noticed that I was the only foreigner, and I think only one of two people with sunglasses on.
Visited Phobjikha Valley
The drive to Phobjikha Valley was to see the black necked cranes. Along the way I saw goats climbing near the side of the road and asked if they were wild or someone owned them. My guide said they belong to the king. They let a goat out into the wild and then he hunts it; and if he kills it, he will have a long life. I hope the story is not true. We stopped for a moment and there was a lady with a large nose ring; I asked her if I could take a photo…she said “yes”…then she asked to have her photo taken with me so I said “yes”. The comparison of our cultural clothing…we both have hats and scarves…but not quite the same I then had the highlight of my day, we visited Gangtey Monastery where I got to hold a puppy!!
Watched Black Necked Cranes
We had a beautiful hike through the forest and down into the valley to look for the cranes. The cranes made an appearance and even flew overhead for me to see. How thoughtful of them!
Watched People Play Khuru (Darts)
We also watched some men playing khuru…for me it is a mix between lawn darts and horseshoes. Watching made me very nervous because the players actually stand near the target as people are throwing huge darts from far away using all their strength. One fun thing…when they hit the target they sing and dance…I am not joking!
Visited the Sunday Market
The Thimphu Sunday market has two floors, one with produce imported from India and the other with local produce. I bought gooseberries for 5 rupees (about 11 cents), but they were far more sour than I expected. Finally things I can afford to buy in Bhutan!
Shopped at the Handicraft Market
A trip to the handicraft market proved to be another price-shocking experience. As I walked around the open market I came across a necklace hanging from a rope. “How much is this necklace?” I asked. “$500″ the man said. Really? Who leaves $500 necklaces just laying around in an open market? Who are these people who carry $500 in cash and then use it to buy necklaces?
Visited the Wangduephodrang Dzong
The Wangduephodrang Dzong was special to me because I almost felt like I could feel it’s age. Viewing the old prayer wheels, I noticed one that was ripped and I could see the prayers written on the handmade paper…pretty cool.
While in the Phobjikha Valley I met, Sofie, a volunteer from Belgium working with the organization RENEW, which helps abused women. It is sad to hear that abuse is an issue in Bhutan but great that people are trying to help and make a change.
Sofie made friends with the owners of Mid Point Restaurant in Thimphu where she invited me for dinner. Everything about the evening was excellent, the food, speaking with Sofie and meeting the Bhutanese brother and sister duo, Sonam and Nicky. Best of all, I got to hold a pug…he was fabulous! Nicky happily explained that women, for the most part, are equal in Bhutan (unless your husband is a drunk she added). Women can marry whomever they want etc. They also told me many interesting reincarnations stories. Their great grandfather was a famous lama and was reincarnated and is now 18 and lives in Mysore, India. When the child was only 3 years old, he explained how he chose the family he was going to be born into. I really like the idea of reincarnation being true…I hope it is. All three of my dinner companions were great to talk to. At the end of our evening, Sofie and Sonam drove me back to my hotel and it was completely dark and locked…hmmmm. After banging on the door for several minutes, someone finally let me in…that was not fun… BUT the dinner and conversation made the momentary nervousness of sleeping outside worth it!!
Hiked to the Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang Palphug Monastery)
Ah….a 5 hour hike…this is not my cup of tea. In fact, I was actually scared. Our drive to Paro was dangerous…ice, accidents, a near rear ending…good times. Once in Paro…30 more minutes to the start of the infamous hike to Taktsang. The good, well great, thing about having a guide is he carried my bag…with my 120 pound camera
There are three hikes….
1. Start to Tea House
2. Tea House to Lookout (this is where my guide wants us to go)
3. Lookout to Monastery – Tiger’s Nest (this is where you have to climb up and down over 721 stairs)
Hike 1: We started…after the first minute of going up…I was wondering how I could do this for another 74 minutes until we get to that damn tea house! BUT a dog started walking with me and he was cute and happy, so I continued. However, then he was way too chipper and fast and just as I started to resent his speed, I calmed myself and realized it was like hiking with a guardian…bouncing (running) up the hill…so I smiled. We approached some guys from Assam who were equally tired, but we passed them…only after they took my photo of course. My heart rate was way too fast, and I was super hot and super cold all at the same time. BUT stopping and resting would just make it last longer…sort of like pulling off a bandaid…you just want to get it done quick…so…up up up. I am not sure anyone would call this an easy hike, but then again, I am not a hiker , so who knows what a real hiker would say. Finally a flat walkway…it was amazing…like eating a super yummy piece of candy!! FINALLY, the beautiful tea house. We sat, we drank, and it was wonderful. “Do you want to go to the lookout?” my guide asked. Now three things came into play here….1. I seemed to recover too fast and I was confused…I already forgot how horrible I felt during the first hike. 2. It is like bunji jumping…your mind, your body and your heart all say this is a really bad idea, but you do it anyway So, being a brainless photographer, I wanted the shot. I did not walk all this way not to get the perfect shot of Tiger’s Nest and 3. Everyone would tell me to strap a pair on ….so against all better judgment I said “yes”.
Hike 2: It seemed like we were going up forever, but eventually we arrived. I took photos and really I missed my wide angle lens…no real perfect shot for me. Done. Legs shaking and all that.
Hike 3: 500+ stairs down and then 200+ stairs up….Tiger’s Nest. “Do you want to go to the monastery?” my guide asked In a way, I knew he wanted me to say hell no. Well…I came this far…and I see other people doing it…and I have this weird thing about challenges…for some silly reason it seems that I just have to do them…no matter how bad of an idea it is…so….I said “let’s go” He looked less than thrilled with me. This time I carried my camera and at about stair 400 down I realized this may have been the worse decision I have made since hiking the Inca Trail. Eventually, I will have to walk back up all these freaking stairs. Then the 200+ upstairs….I was dying…then we arrived.
Tiger’s Nest: The guards took our phones, cameras etc. We visited a temple with a magical statue. They say if you make a wish there it will come true…so I tried…if my wish comes true, the stairs were soooo worth it Then to a famous cave…and my second dose of blessed water for the day.
The Return Hike: The terrifying part started…going back…hmmmm…what happens if I cannot walk up all the stairs???? We walked and walked and my guide was grunting a bit…he hated me! We passed a couple of women from Singapore and a couple from Australia. I felt super tired, yet I was better off than the others…so damn…how the hell must they feel???? Finally back at the lookout point. YES!!!!
Walking back down to the tea house was like heaven. While my joints were less than thrilled, my lungs and heart were super happy and I am far more attached to them! Each crunch and squeak of my knees just brought a smile to my face that I was not going up anymore! Lunch was lovely…since there is no electricity on the mountain they cooked it on an open fire. I had the hottest chilies of my trip!
Then came the last downhill trek which was very slippery and dusty, but we got down pretty fast. The hike was finally over and I asked myself, why would a non-photographer (or a non-nun on a pilgrimage) hike? Maybe to remind themselves how awesome it is to walk on flat ground? I have been told that hiking is like a meditation…maybe you get so tired that you are delirious (that was me in this case)…sort of like when people take drugs to get into a meditation state or exactly like when I passed out riding my bike in Seattle!…yes while I was actually riding and fell!
Once it was done, I forgot how horrible it was. I sat in the car and felt fine (I think that is what happens to women after they give birth…they forget the pain due to some crazy brain chemicals). The hike was an intense end to an amazing trip.
The things I Learned in Bhutan
Litter – There is so much trash everywhere…it is like no one ever uses a garbage can, but my guide told me that once a month there is a compulsory cleanup day to pick it all up.
Stray or Community Dogs – Bhutan is full of stray or community dogs. Overall they looked healthy to me, it seems that even though they are not pets people in the community will help feed them. My guide told me about a program that the Bhutanese Government put in place where they tried to collect all the dogs and placed them in a reserve. A man was hired to look after them and the government provided food. Apparently this man (this bad man) sold the food instead of giving it to the dogs. I am not sure if this story it true or not, but I do know that the Ministry of Agriculture of the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) and Humane Society International (HSI) are working together on a national spay/neuter/vaccination program, targeting more than 50,000 dogs to assist the dogs and humans in living harmoniously. I, of course, just want to hug all the dogs!
Monks – Monks eat meat, monks use cell phones, I even saw a monk wearing a red USA sweatshirt under his monk outfit.
Meat – To my surprise, Bhutan is a meat eating culture. However I was told more than once: “We do not kill the animal. It is killed in India and then shipped here.” Some believe that it is karmicly better not to actually kill, but eating is OK. I am going to stick with not killing and not eating, that works best for me.
Butter – Many things are made with butter in Bhutan: butter on veggies, beautiful butter cakes are created by monks for the temples and even Butter Tea is prepared for everyone to drink. What is Butter Tea? It is made from tea, yak butter and salt.
Chilies – With each meal I was served hot chilies….usually in cheese. Basically ever lunch and dinner I ate an entire bowl of chilies. I think it helped keep me warm and healthy throughout my trip.
Roadwork – I noticed both men and women doing road work which seemed like very hard manual labor such as smashing rocks with a hammer. I also saw a small baby sitting next to a woman as she smashed away. My guide told me that all the road work and construction work is done by people from India. (about 30,000 workers)
Tall Peaks – Bhutan’s highest summit is Gangkar Puensum at 7541 meters high.
Even more Expensive – Bhutan is not the cheapest place to travel, given the daily visa fee, but my guide told me that there is a hotel available where people pay over $1000 per night. At this same hotel he said people are working for about $150 per month.
Dating - Apparently kids are starting to date here at 13 years old, but they hide it from their parents since it is not traditionally what used to happen here. Romance is blooming!