- Thimphu, Bhutan
- 17,843 miles flown
- 27°26′N 89°25′E
- Temp: 63 deg
- 3 books read, 6 massages in the books
- Days 19-21
It’s difficult to describe Bhutan without using hyperbole. It’s the most beautiful, most mystical, most serene place I’ve visited, and yet to describe it as such seems to do it an injustice. The people of Bhutan are largely Buddhist and describe their history in what often sounds like a mythical story of Tigresses and dragons and evil deities, but it’s that exact mysticism that you can tangibly feel as you drive through the country, hike to the top of mountains and walk circles around prayer wheels and temples. It’s a magical kingdom.
Far above the clouds on our approach to Bhutan we passed Mount Everest before zig zagging through the Himalayan mountain peaks. The approach into Paro isn’t for someone with a weak heart as you make a few hard lefts and hard rights before finding the hidden valley and runway for landing. But it’s easy to be distracted from the fear of crashing into a mountainside as some of the most beautiful landscape unfolds on the horizon. Already I was taking pictures out the window and we hadn’t even landed. It’s winter here, but imagine all those blocks of rice paddies in vibrant green any other time of the year.
We were met by Jigme, our guide for the week, and Chencho, our driver, (AND NEW BEST FRIENDS) right outside customs. They placed a welcome scarf around each of our necks and quickly loaded us into the van for a drive to Thimphu, the capital. We could tell immediately by their warmth that we were going to love every minute with our new friends.
For the next five days we immersed ourselves in vibrant culture of Bhutan, in what I can only describe as the most spiritual, physical and emotional experience of anywhere I’ve ever traveled.
We did a series of three hikes in Thimphu to prepare for our big Tiger’s Nest hike in a few days. But hiking in Bhutan isn’t simply about climbing a mountain to reach a certain altitude or getting dust on your boots. It’s a spiritual journey that starts at the bottom of any path by spinning a prayer wheel three times and chanting Om Mani Pae Me Hun, which means “may all the sentient beings be liberated from suffering.” These prayers are always intended to be for other people in your life in an act of total selflessness. The physical climb is intended to be your own spiritual journey — the hours, minutes, seconds dedicated to reflection on your life. You don’t realize how powerful hours of being alone with your thoughts can be until you do it. Rarely in our normal, busy lives do we take hours or even minutes to do this, but we should.
As you climb the winding, dusty path you try to remember to stop looking at your feet as they make the next step, but to look up and out at the horizon, the vibrant green mountains dotted with buildings in the traditional painted Bhutanese architecture, the sun rising over the furthest peak, the mist burning off from the higher altitude. You can’t capture this in photos (although I tried) as the magnificence is too great. And it’s not just about the visual, it’s about the smell of the trees, the smell of wood burning to warm houses in a distance, the warmth on your face from the sun, the gentle cool breeze reminding you it’s January, the sounds of long-tail birds singing in the trees above you, and the river rushing down below. It’s about the colorful prayer flags hung from tree to tree flapping in the wind. These vibrant flags wrapping the entire country like ribbon every direction you turn. Who left these flags? What were they praying for? What are your wishes at this moment? It’s the whole experience that can’t be described or understood unless your own two feet are standing there.
Our hike in the morning to Cheri Temple at 8,500ft was our first step into this experience, while it was also an opportunity to learn much about the Bhutanese culture as Jigme taught us about the prayer chants, showed us hundreds of miniature stupas, called Tsa Tsas (which people make out of clay and ash to share a prayer and hide under overhanging mountain cliffs where they are protected from rain,) and led us to the top of our hike to visit this temple built in the 12th century. We removed our shoes, entered the monastery and learned how to do our first prostrations in prayer. The dark temple was measurably cooler than outside, but the smell of burning incense and light from the butter candles provided a warm place of peace for these prayers.
After we made our way back down from this hike, Chencho had setup a folding table with hot tea and butter biscuits to welcome us back from the first of these journeys. Their kindness and generosity always made us feel like we were with two friends who we had known for years and were making us comfortable in their home.
We no sooner sipped our tea and ate our biscuits that we hopped in the car and drove to eat a traditional Bhutanese lunch together. Outside. At picnic tables. With the sun warming our faces. In January. I’m going to take a break from describing how wonderful everything is, to describe how wonderful everything is in JANUARY. It’s winter here, but feels like the best Spring day in New York. It’s 60 degrees, the perfect cool-warm. The sky is the color you’d probably call periwinkle if you worked at Crayola, somewhere between lavender and blue. Why is this the off season? Why are there no tourists here right now? How did we plan this so perfectly without knowing we were doing so? Forget Spring or Fall when all the other people visit, come in January when you have this magical place all to yourself.
Ok, resume meal. As the four of us sat around our square wooden table, we were first served a cup of butter tea. I’ve never heard of butter tea before, but let me assure you this is another one of those things you want to bottle up and take home with you. The red tea leaves make the liquid a light pink, while the melted butter clouds it to an opaque, salty cup of warmth. I’ll have a refill please. And another.
As we sat there enjoying the perfect outdoor setting, sipping our tea and chatting with our friends, an array of chili-laden dishes started coming out and were displayed before us in beautifully hand-turned wooden bowls (might have bought one or two or those.) Jigme explained what each dish was — traditional local red rice, chili cheese (we’d be eating a lot of this), chicken, pork, cauliflower, potatoes, noodles, all seasoned with local peppers. Perfection. I love this way of eating, small portions of lots of different things to build up a plate of so many flavors. Another thing I want to bottle up and bring home with me.
Our bellies were full and we were ready for a nap, but it was time for our second hike of the day. Buddhism teaches you to try to combat human demons such as laziness, so we’d have to postpone that nap for a visit to the 169ft high golden Buddha and our hike around the surrounding hills. As the heat of the afternoon sun beat down on us we again marveled at the views of the Thimphu valley down below. Prayer flags waved overhead and we took more pictures, trying again to capture that uncaptureable feeling.
The next day we set out on my favorite hike of the entire trip, a hike at the high pass to 10.5Kft through what can only be described as a seussical forest (although its real name is Lungchutse Hiking Trail.) Our altitude was so high we were literally hiking through the clouds, so our spiritual journey felt appropriately placed. Before we departed, Jigme’s colleague informed him of a bear sighting, so Chencho joined our journey as master bear wrestler. Side note: Chencho is a man of few words, but we learned from Jigme that in addition to being our driver, he was once a monk, a yak herder, a truck driver, fought in the war against India in 2008 and was shot twice in the leg, is competing to join the Olympic archery team, and basically has done ALL THE THINGS. He was the man I wanted bringing up the rear.
As we set out into the mist, Chencho taught us the chant “lha gaylo” which we shouted three times in unison to drive out the evil spirits (and hopefully the bears.) What we didn’t drive out was the herd of yaks, which we became CLOSE friends with. Throughout the hike Chencho and Jigme let out what can only be described as Bhutanese yoddles to announce our presence and perhaps scare off any unwanted to friends. And every so often I could hear Chencho singing a Bhutanese song behind me as four friends alone with their thoughts made the climb.
We climbed the next few hours through dark Spanish moss covered trees (aka old man beards), contrasted with more colorful prayer flags. We saw more wild dogs than humans, making it feel like we had the entire trail to ourselves. We felt the temperature drop drastically as we reached the peak with our heads above the clouds and the trees sparkling with icy crystals. It was everything I struggle to find the words to describe. After doing our prayer prostrations in the monastery, we circled the temple three times and made our way back to earth.
About halfway down we stopped to hang our own prayer flags that we had blessed by a monk. Chencho scaled a tree to secure good placement and we marveled at our unweathered flags, newly hung for eternity.
We ended our hike clear-headed, fresh-faced and cold-limbed, but like all other hikes a hot cup of tea awaited. We sat in a charming little tea house in front of wood-burning ovens and let the chill melt away. Side note: one of my favorite things about Bhutan is the beautifully painted traditional architecture. Every building from the temples to the dzongs to the homes dotting the hillside have been built in the same style with intricate paintings around the windows and on both the exterior and interior walls. This cloud motif looks like wallpaper I want to buy and hang somewhere, but is actually hand-painted with remarkable precision. Know any starving artists who want to replicate for me?
After our hike and a stop for lunch in town we visited a handmade paper factory, an archery field (Bhutan’s national sport) and the weekend farmers’ market before making our way to Paro at dusk for our final three days. Hiking isn’t the only thing we did, I promise. Want to read more? See below…
There’s more to Bhutan than being one with the mountain…
After checking into the hotel on Day 1, our first stop was to visit the Takin Nature Preserve to see their national animal (cross between a cow and a goat.)
Cute, but the highlight of the short first afternoon was our visit to the National Textile Museum. The people of Bhutan still wear traditional dress — men wear what’s called a Gho and women wear a Kira. While many wear western clothes, it’s mandated that they wear their Gho or Kira when at work, so you mostly see traditional dress, adding to the magical feeling of visiting a place untainted by the outside world. The fabric of their clothes is all handwoven on a loom and we learned about this artistry at the museum, but were not allowed to take pictures. After the museum we visited a workshop where young girls were learning the craft of pattern making and weaving and also silk hand-embroidery.
We visited a paper factory where the bark from the Daphne plant is soaked and softened in hot water over an open flame for hours, then each strand is painstakingly pulled apart by hand, before being fed through a shredder to create a wet pulp, which is then poured into a water bath and layered onto a screen to create each sheet. The sheets are covered in hibiscus oil to keep the paper from sticking together before being dried on vertical walls that are kept warm by a hot water heater. Let’s hope the internet doesn’t kill this craft.
At the weekend market there doesn’t seem to be anything distinguishing one farmer from another in their designated sections — rice/grains, produce, spices, incense. They all sell exactly the same thing. If you’re in the spice section, you’re selling red chilies — whole, flaked or powdered. We asked Jigme if people have a favorite farm stand and he looked at us blankly. You just walk up to the first one you encounter and that’s where you’re buying x that day. It’s that simple.
Ok, let’s talk about archery, Bhutan’s national sport. They live for this sport. Will play for hours, dressed in their ghos (a mandate, and also noteworthy that the fact I said gho means women are not allowed to play.) It’s also worth noting that if a stray arrow accidentally kills someone you’re subjected to 3-5 years in prison for manslaughter. I nearly found myself there. Eeep.
We first sat down as spectators taking in how the professionals do it before trying our own hand at archery later at our hotel in Paro. The difference between them and us? They shoot the arrow 145 meters or the equivalent of 2 soccer fields, we only had about 35 meters to cover. Still, I apparently was born with a natural talent for Bhutanese archery and managed to shoot my arrow over a fence into a walking path down the road. Lucky for me there was no one there and I’m safely not in prison. I did manage to hit two targets and have a killer bruise from the bow to prove it. No pain, no gain. There was no shortage of laughter as we tried our best to look like we knew what we were doing as Chencho, the true professional, looked over our shoulders and cried “short!” when we missed the target and screamed with joy when we hit it, running down the field and teaching us the crane dance to celebrate a successful hit. It basically involved us singing words we didn’t know, swinging our legs into a circle with our arms stretched out and then skipping from one leg to another in a circle.
All this and it’s only been two days. So much to love, so much to say, not enough words to say it. We packed a lot into two days before heading to Paro for our big hike up to Tiger’s Nest. See you in a few…