Paro to Bumthang

Saturday – We woke up, checked out and had breakfast, then it was off to the airport for a short flight to Jakar (2800m/9186ft) in the Bumthang region. Since it was a one-night trip, we left most of our luggage and took off with just day packs. Kutira had driven the road with another group the previous week – that trip took over 17 hours because of construction. The Indian government is widening it in conjunction with new hydroelectric development, so they were delayed for hours and we didn’t want to repeat that.

The flight in a small prop plane, was less than 30 minutes – flying was clearly a good choice. After arrival at the airport three guides met us in three cars, led by Kuenzang, the son of Kaila, the proprietor of the Kaila Guest House where we checked in. It was a beautiful wooden building the the traditional style surrounding a central courtyard, near the middle of town. The town burned in a big 2010 fire, so nearly all the buildings were new. After a welcoming tea, we began our tour.

The first stop was Jampey Lhakhang, a small complex near town built in the seventh century.  We entered the meditation hall, where a group of monks were chanting. Afterwards we circled the building, which had a comfortable, ancient feel to it.

Next we moved on to Kurjey Lhakhang, a larger temple complex. The entrance was beside a group of chortens, with inscriptions on nearby rock, built into the hillside. Kutira had arranged special access to the far temple built the mother of the fourth king for incarnation of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche – this is not normally viewable by the public. She said in ten years of visiting Bhutan she had not been able to enter here until now.

Of course it is respectful (and not allowed) to take photos inside. We understood, yet this was a truly fantastic room filled with Buddha statues and paintings. I knew it had to be enough to simply have the memory of this place – being inside was the most incredible experience. To one side was a Kalachakra Temple, off limits to all except Buddhist men. Artwork depicted demons from the 49 days of bardo between life and death. All in all, this room was the most elaborate we had seen so far.

The second building we entered was the Guru Lhakhang, heading to the upper sanctuary containing 1000 statues of Guru Rimpoche. Its window gave a great view of the valley. The room adjoins a cave in which Guru Rimpoche had meditated, leaving behind an imprint of his body. Again, the paintings and statuary in this room left us at a loss for words.

Finishing the visit, we drove a short distance downhill, through a gate opened specially for us, to the Zangto Pelri Lhakhang. There we found a reception room for the royal family, with their photographs displayed throughout. Its centerpiece was an incredible “3D mandala” three stories tall. A recently created depiction of paradise, it was a colorful artistic rendition including floral, elaborate artwork. Kutira asked the monk a spiritual question about how to reach paradise, and not quite understanding, he pointed to the stairs – which unfortunately were quite steep and not available to us westerners! To the side of the room were pedestals with seats for the king and queen, and for high lamas.

On the way back to town for lunch we passed a hazelnut farm under development. Our guide said the valley has felt the effects of global warming; now snows are infrequent. The government is working to expand organic agriculture – even considering planting rice here.  Further on we passed the royal family’s compound where they stay during their visits.

Lunch once again was fantastic, with carrots, cauliflower, rice and meat. I had not expected the food to be so good on this trip! The restaurant owner had created his own recipes, more fusion cuisine mixing Indian, Chinese and traditional Bhutanese influences. And of course the penis statue on the bar was a nice touch. These penises (including another one over the front door) bring luck!

Next we visited the Tamshing Goemba, a monastery on the west side of the valley. We arrived at the car park, next to a solar powered bathhouse and kitchen!  There was a ceremony taking place inside for a grandmother who had recently passed away, with monks chanting in a ritual for the family. We entered the temple and each of us tried on the historic chain mail vest; it gives great merit if you circle the temple while wearing it! There must an odd number of cycles – some of our group did three circuits but I didn’t have all the many things to release (hey, I’m on vacation in Bhutan!) so I circled just once.

And finally we visited the Swiss Farm, the cheese factory that Fritz Maurer from Switzerland had established. It included the Red Panda brewery and the Yoser Lhamo Shop. We bought Bhutanese whisky and herbal/apple brandy. And after yet another great meal at the hotel, it was off to bed, tired but happy!

Bangkok to Bhutan, Tour of Paro

Friday – The Druk Air flight leaving from Bangkok was jam packed with Indians heading for Kolkata bearing excess baggage. In the world of international trade, it was interesting to see this personal shopping technique still thrives. The airline people took us out of line to a special counter. It was probably wrong to use our Special Western Privilege, but I do hate lines, so…

The new Bangkok airport is humongous. I followed Cynthia of our group to the business class security check line, smiling my way through. Later, the others said the regular check wasn’t bad. I had a latte and then passed the gate for the bus (Paro passengers first) to the plane way out on the tarmac, just as it began to rain. It took a while to get loaded. Still, the plane took off only slightly late.

Surprisingly, after a flight over Burma and Bangladesh, I found myself briefly back in India as we landed in Kolkata (somehow I had thought the flight went through Kathmandu). We were on and off the ground again quickly, considering how much stuff was offloaded there. Guess I’m visiting a few countries on this trip even if I only set foot on two. I definitely could not live for long in Bangkok or Kolkata – or Los Angeles for that matter.

The rest of the flight was amazing, with clear view of Mt. Everest and the Himalayas. The approach was a low altitude S-curve through mountain valleys. I relaxed and figured the pilots must know what they were doing. I took video which was quite fun to watch later.

The airport at Paro (2250m/7382ft) was beautiful, as we’d arrived on a perfect clear day. It was easy getting through customs with the group. Kutira, our driver Pema, and guide Sonam were right there to meet us with a small bus. We drove over bumpy roads, becoming impressed by cows and architecture, and checked in to our hotel, the Bhutan Metta Resort and Spa.

After that, lunch was delicious at the restaurant Sonam Trophal owned. She has been friends with Kutira for many years, and made a Bhutanese fusion. There were about a dozen dishes including ginger potatoes, spinach, pumpkin, chicken, and momos, all incredibly seasoned with chili’s – which are a thing here. Really a spectacular meal. Lowered our center of gravity.

Next, we went to the Paro Dzong, a 17th century fortress overlooking town. A dzong is a combined monastery and government building. More incredible (I’m having an adjective shortage) architecture and views from the courtyard. We visited two prayer rooms. There, ancient murals (under a cloth protecting them from sunlight) depicted living and future Buddhas. Everywhere, the statuary and painting boggled our minds.

From there, we strolled down a path next to the dzong and met the bus after crossing a wooden bridge over the river. The water was crystal clear as it flowed through town. The valley is definitely a Shangri-la, mountains rising around it in every direction. Global warming is noticeable even here – Sonam said they have not received snow in recent years.

Despite uniquely progressive policies on the environment and a desire to maintain what makes the country special, change is coming –  and already here. Everyone seemed to have a mobile phone, and most cars were new. The country looks prosperous, particularly in comparison to Nepal or India. The Buddhist culture and traditions are strong, yet opening up could prove a mixed blessing. Winna in our group recalled that Nepal had a similar feel before television and westerners arrived there. Kutira thought Bhutan maybe has five years before the culture shifts greatly. It’s quite amazing now, so this was not such a happy thought.

The bus stopped then at a ceremonial gathering in the middle of town. Over a thousand people were waiting to receive a blessing from prominent religious teachers. Everyone was sitting patiently, peacefully. We went to the side to take photos…since we are tourists after all. Instead of “security”, those managing the crowd wore shirts saying “friends of police”!

We continued down the road and visited Kyichu Lhakhang, a smaller temple compound surrounded by happy dogs. We entered the courtyard, removed our shoes and moved into the meditation room (Jowo Lhakhang). Before the altar, there were indentations in the wooden floor, marked from hundreds of years of prostrating devotees. We continued to a small meditation room (normally off limits) where the Buddhist teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche had given instruction for many years. In fact, he actually passed away on the bench in the room while in meditation. We sat for a time in contemplation and meditation ourselves – the nicest and most peaceful moment thus far, as we remembered to be more than just tourists.

We returned to the main room, and behind the altar viewed a side room filled with ancient Buddha statuary. Kutira noted this room had previously been open to the public but was now closed, viewable only through a screen. With the influx of tourists, particularly from India and China, more and more of the religious buildings had to limit their access. There is also a room in the Paro Dzong – a Tara shrine which she had visited privately before – but this is no longer allowed.

Then it was back to the hotel for packing, a short dinner (after the big lunch I could hardly eat), and then the hot stone Bhutanese baths. The bathhouse was a traditional building, each room with two wooden tubs, painted walls and draped with fabrics. Behind the rooms was a fire where an attendant heated the rocks, lifted a trap door and place them in a trough containing water flowing to the baths. The rooms were filled with candles, very peaceful and calm – but the water was really hot! After a half hour or so it was a shower and then back to the room.

I really liked the hotel bathrobes. I’m not much of a shopper, but fortunately Kutira is an expert.  Clearly I will need an extra bag or two going back.

I went right to bed – we were getting up early for the flight to Bumthang.

Bangkok – Grand Palace, Khao San Road, Tu’s Place

Thursday – Took a taxi to the Grand Palace, lots of tourists as this is one of the biggest attractions in Bangkok. There are spectacular murals, the shrine of the Emerald Buddha, beautiful art and statuary. Went to the museum in the back of the palace compound, which I had somehow overlooked on previous trips. After a couple hours of tourism, I took a tuk-tuk to Khao San Road a mile or so away. It isn’t much different than it used to be, though a bit cleaner. I remembered the last time I was here in 2000, seeing The Beach movie in a restaurant here, which was perfect. Had a non-memorable lunch in a sidewalk café.

Then I decided to look for Tu and his guesthouse simply known as “Tu’s Place”, where I’d first stayed in 1995. The walk was very familiar although the government buildings on the main road were gutted shells after having been set on fire during 2010 political demonstrations. The lottery sellers, the 7-11, the Mercedes dealership all were there as I remembered them. The walkway off the alley across from the service entrance was slightly more decrepit than I remembered it, new barbed wire on the neighbors’ fence. Just a short walk down and to the right, there was the guest house courtyard door just as it has been for 20 years.

Mu answered the door and we had a nice visit. Unfortunately, I had once again missed Tu who went to India two days before (he was away on my last 2000 visit, too). He’ll be back in December so I will call then, now that I have the phone number. The place was exactly as I remembered it, the teak construction, the green patio in the back. Even the Coke machine was still in the living room – by now it must be an antique.

Tu is evidently still into music but has no albums, and stays off email and social media. Too much time answering questions from potential guests – better they call or show up here, lots less work. Mu let me take pictures, we talked for a bit and then I went on. It was great to see things haven’t changed.

I also sent him breadsticks via Berlin in 1998, which is another story.

Took a taxi back to the hotel (driver got a bit lost but we finally found it after cruising the airport in error). Then I had a 90-minute massage at the hotel spa, it was really great (she had very strong hands an included a great scalp massage) though I probably could have paid half the price on Khao San. You pay for convenience. At least, evidently I do.

Missed meeting up with Michael and Janice, who will also be on the Bhutan tour, they’d gone to bed early by the time I finished my massage. We all went to bed early…big day tomorrow.

Bangkok seems much bigger since my last visits 20 and 15 years ago if that is possible. They are building skyward, with dozens of new skyscrapers and the new light rail (which wasn’t on my route but I saw it from the taxi). The new airport is near the port and I could see this is where stuff heading to the US comes from. Miles and miles of warehouses and factories, millions of people making their way around doing something or the other. Seemed prosperous from a standard of living point of view, if you count being in gridlock constantly as living. We humans are a funny bunch.

San Francisco to Tokyo to Bangkok

(Note: this is my trip diary from October 2015 in Bhutan and Thailand – I hate to do that “coming soon” thing but it is going to take a bit to finish organizing photos and then adding some of the videos…please be patient!)

Wednesday – First time in Japan! Does Narita Airport count? Had a drink at the bar between flights – they were long but uneventful. Arrived in the late evening in Bangkok, then took a shuttle to the nice and modern Best Western (a little further from the airport than I’d thought, but hey) and then slept soundly…