OK, so here’s the thing. I was super lazy before my trip to Bhutan because everything had been taken care of by our travel agency – itinerary, transportation, meals, hotel, visa, everything. I did not even spend time to look up the country’s ‘must-visit’, ‘must-see’, ‘must-do’ or ‘off-the-beaten track’ lists like I usually did before any trip. Once I was there, the peaceful and relaxed atmosphere made me even lazier, so I did not bother to take any note at all. Now that I am back and buried in work again, what is left in my head of Bhutan is a random mix of facts and trivia 🙂
Here’s what I knew about Bhutan before my trip:
- It is a tiny landlocked country squeezed in between China and India (right) and Nepal (obviously wrong, Bhutan and Nepal don’t have a land border)
- It is where Gross National Happiness (GNH) is valued much more than Gross National Product (GNP) or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (right), hence Bhutan is the happiest country on earth (this is controversial)
- Bhutan’s tourism philosophy is based on quality, not quantity (true). It is the only country that imposes an extortionately expensive compulsory daily rate of $250 per day (actually it’s not too bad as it covers domestic transportation, meals, accommodation, and entrance fee to most tourist attractions), and all tourists must travel with a tour operator. No tour operator, no visa, no air ticket. Quite a colossal pain for independent travelers.
- Its official religion is Buddhism. Actually it is the last Buddhist Kingdom on earth.
- It is the place where Hong Kong’s cinema star couple Tony Leung and Carina Lau managed to stir up a lot of jealousy in people like me with their amazing wedding photos taken with a congregation of monks in red robes.
Well, that’s a relatively short and boring list compared to what I now know about the country after a 10-day visit:
- Its royal family is seriously good looking. Portraits of their current (5th) king and queen are everywhere, and they look deceivingly convincing as posters of The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong (Anh hùng xạ điêu – Kim Dung). But I must admit I have a little crush on the 4th king. He looks super smart, and he IS smart. He’s the one that introduced democracy and GNH concept to Bhutan. No wonder he managed to woo 4 sisters into marriage.
- Connection or dumb luck can give you quick access to the royal family. Our tour guide happens to be first cousin of the current queen. We had dinner with a princess who is first cousin of the current king. Another tour group from Vietnam just bumped into the 4th king randomly while visiting the Royal Palace (jealous!!!). The locals often sight the 4th and 5th king cycling in Thimphu streets in their typical outfits – a gho for the father, and an athletic cycling outfit for the son.
- Bhutan has a very unique culture and a strong national identity. Well, have you been to a country where ~90% of the population wear traditional costumes everyday, and almost all houses (with the capital Thimphu as an exception) follow the same traditional architecture and design? Have you been to a place where people write poems and folk songs about the phallus? I’m sure Bhutan is my first. That’s not to mention their super weird-looking national animal, the takin. And their national flower? The blue poppy. Seriously, how many people have seen that flower in their life??? They could not have picked a rarer flower.
- There are many ‘only in Bhutan’ things. Bhutan is probably the only country in the world that has outlawed smoking (Tobacco smuggling is now happening, but people still respect the law at least in public places. On the other hand, drinking is quite common, and their traditional ara is super strong). It is also probably the only country in the world without any traffic light. When the government in Thimphu attempted to install some, they were met with such a huge public outcry over this loss of personal touch that they had to scrape the plan and promptly removed all traffic lights. White-gloved traffic officers still prevail. And it is the only place that you’ll probably come across a beef dish as tough and chewy as shoe leather. Eating their dried beef is a good workout for your biceps and jaw muscles.
- Homosexuality is illegal in Bhutan, but polygamy and polyandry are allowed. If a man wants to take a second wife, he has to ask for permission from his first wife. But if a woman wants to get a second husband, she doesn’t give a damn whether her first husband approves of it or not, or so we were told. Women are often heads of the households. When it comes to gender equality, Bhutan is on another league.
- It is super quiet in Bhutan. With a tiny population of ~700,000, and an even smaller number of tourists (~133,500 in 2014), you are always guaranteed a sound sleep over there.
- Even though it is tiny, Bhutan has never been conquered, occupied, colonized or ruled by a foreign power. Quite impressive, right? However, since the early 20th century, its foreign relations have been handled first by Britain, and currently by India. Actually India is by far Bhutan’s best neighbor, ally, and provider of essentials like foods. The royal family sends their princes, princesses, and their relatives to India to study. Indian citizens can enter Bhutan without a visa and don’t need to comply with the compulsory rate. On the other hand, Bhutan’s government gets so much money selling hydro power to India that they can afford to provide free education and healthcare to everyone. I just find it fascinating that such a tiny nation has the courage to not give a shit about kissing China’s ass.
- Even though TV, mobile phone, and internet are quite new to Bhutan (the government lifted their ban at the turn of the millennium), they are widely used nowadays. Many young Bhutanese including monks are now turning into mobile addicts, just like in many other Asian countries.Cars are everywhere. The country is moving into the 21st century fast.
- Gross National Happiness is no joke. It is a very complex concept with lost of metrics and indicators behind, which goes far beyond whether we ‘feel’ happy or not. It is quite eye-opening to read about GNH. I’ll have a separate post on this.
- Bhutan is very photogenic. This blog series will contain a lot more photos than my other posts. So just sit back, relax, and enjoy 🙂
Day 1: arriving at Paro, then travelling to Punakha via Thimphu
This is what was in sight when we first stepped out of the air plane at Paro Airport. The 5th king and his queen – don’t they look like movie stars?
Tachog Lhakhang – on the way from Paro to Thimphu
The famous iron chain suspension bridge across Paro Chhu (Paro River) with Tachog Lhakhang in the background.
The bridge was built by Thangtong Gyalpo, the famous Tibetan ‘iron-bridge builder’. Thangtong Gyalpo built numerous bridges in Tibet and Bhutan to help pilgrims visit holy places. While meditating along the Paro Chhu, he had a vision of a spiritual horse that inspired him to build Tachog Lhakhang (meaning ‘temple of the hill of the excellent horse) and this famous iron bridge. The metal mesh is sturdy and safe for people to walk on but its holes are too big for animal’s hoof.
The bridge is flanked on 2 sides by 2 towers
Tsa-tsa – these stupa-shaped offerings are common in Bhutan. You can find them in caves, underneath rocks, near temples or holy places. Most are painted white or of natural clay color, but some can be seen in other colors. They are indeed moulded from ash collected from cremation pyre. They are commissioned by the deceased’s family, made by monks, and placed in sacred places as memorials of the departed loved one.
Stupa-like mini structures built from small rocks and pebbles are also common sights near sacred places
Prayer flags are everywhere in Bhutan.
The famous traffic roundabout in Thimphu
Beautiful flowers in Thimphu
The ceiling of a hotel lobby in Thimphu
On the way from Thimphu to Punakha
Locals sitting around an open fire
Dochula Pass – on the way from Thimphu to Punakha. This famous landmark offers a 360 degree view of the surroundings. On clear days, you can see the Himalaya range in the distance (we were not so lucky). The 108 chortens were built by the Queen Mother to commemorate Bhutanese solders killed while fighting against Indian rebels in 2003.
View from Dochula Pass
The 108 chortens are arranged in circles. Walking clockwise around them is quite an experience for any visitor.
Beautiful wide flowers covering the ground of the 108 chortens
View from the top chorten
Shadow on the wall
A gian incense burner
Having milk tea and biscuits before moving on
A local tour guide wearing patterned socks and red sport shoes. Most local men wear more conservative black socks and leather shoes.
Arriving at our home-stay in Talo village near Punakha
Preparing for hot stone bath. The stones must be burned for a few hours, then dropped into a huge bath tub to heat up the water.
Each family in Bhutan has an alter like this in their home. Bowls of holy water are filled in the morning before sunrise and emptied after sunset.
Every home is decorated with portraits of the 5th king and his queen, and the Je Khenpo (religious leader). Our home-stay host also has a portrait of the 4th king (upper right). Some big hotels and restaurants even hang portraits of all 5 kings.
Our home-stay host preparing her daughter for school. She is actually the head of her household. Over dinner, she just sit, while her husband was running around fetching bowls and plates, and refilling food. He was the last one to sit down for dinner 🙂