Wow. Bhutan… where to start?
I guess a quick Bhutan 101 for those who are unfamiliar with this country (yes, it is an actual country) is a good way to kick this post off:
Bhutan is a tiny, predominantly Buddhist Kingdom (~15,000 square miles – roughly a tenth the size of California) of 770,000 people in South Asia just east of Nepal (but separated by India), lodged between Tibet (to the north) and India (to the south, east and west). It is at the eastern end of the Himalayas. The country is currently under the benevolent leadership of their fifth Druk Gyalpo (”Dragon King”), Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The kingdom operates as a constitutional monarchy and measures the country’s wealth in GNH (Gross National Happiness), a political commitment of the Bhutanese kings and government to “building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s culture based on Buddhist spiritual values instead of western material development gauged by gross domestic product” (thank you, Wikipedia). The GNH philosophy follows four pillars:
- Sustainable development
- Preservation and promotion of cultural values
- Conservation of the natural environment
- Establishment of good governance
Getting into Bhutan is quite strict – a visa is mandatory for all visitors (except for visitors from India, Bangladesh and Maldives) and it must be obtained in advance, either through sponsorship or through a Bhutan approved travel agency, meaning you HAVE to book an organized tour (which is what we did, as we don’t know anyone who can sponsor us). Though this is frustrating for most travelers who wish to visit this country (especially for backpackers, like us, who can’t exactly afford this type of adventure when living on a $30/person/day budget), this limitation prevents backpackers and too many tourists from coming into the country and disturbing any one of the four pillars of National Happiness.
After much research, we ended up going with Firefox Tours as they were able to fully and customizably (I think I just made up a word) cater to our desires and interests, at a still fairly reasonable cost. So how did we swing this portion of our trip, you ask? These 10 amazing days were parentally funded, gifted to us by the amazing humans that raised us. As they see it, this is a once in a lifetime trip for us (it’s not particularly common for a married American-ish couple to quit their jobs in their late 20s/early 30s and backpack around the world) and we don’t exactly know when our next chance to visit a country as incredible and unique as Bhutan will be. So we are dedicating this blog post to the units – Thank you so much for making this trip a reality for us. We love you guys.
P.S. We’ve included a LOT of hyperlinks in this post, as we could literally write a book if we went into more detail on every thing and place we saw and visited. But since many of you have asked about Bhutan and would like more detail, the hyperlinks seemed like a fair balance. Also, they are almost ALL Wikipedia pages, because I love Wikipedia. It may not be the most “official” sourcing, but I feel safe using it, just as I did writing every single college essay of mine.
Miles walked/hiked: 36
Miles transported: ~400
Nov 19: Paro to Thimphu
Though Thimphu is the nation’s capital, the only international airport is in Paro (see previous blog post), so we landed there:
We were greeted at the airport by our awesome tour guide, Dawa and our driver, Ram (you’ll meet both of them soon). As per Bhutanese tradition, they adorned us with the white scarves you see in this picture to welcome us to their beautiful country. Our first visit was to the Tashichho Dzong:
A Dzong is a Buddhist monastery and fortress that serve as the religious, military, administrative, and social centers of their district (yes, I copied and pasted that directly from Wikipedia):
Francy and our tour guide, Dawa:
These pictures don’t give the beauty and magnitude of this Dzong justice, so here’s a quick 360° clip to help you better visualize:
Came out in time to catch the flag lowering ceremony (which occurs every evening, of course following a flag raising ceremony every morning). Officers march, following monks and nuns, to lower the flag:
Silhouette of Bhutan flag being lowered:
Getting ready to roll it up:
Monks leading the way as the officers carry the rolled up flag to its nightly abode:
Celebrated our first night in Bhutan by sampling one of many delicious local drinks. This one, called Druk (meaning “Dragon” in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese national language) 11,000 is 11%!!!
Nov 20: Kickin’ it in Thimphu
Reading the morning news over breakfast, getting ourselves ready for a jam-packed day in Thimphu:
Francy walking clockwise around the stupa with monks and fellow worshipers in prayer:
This adorable little girl was praying too:
Paid a visit to the Buddha Dordenma Statue, which was very recently (September) completed – yay! Standing at a height of 169 feet, this Buddha is one of the largest in the world:
Samsonite was so excited, he took flight!
And we caught some awesome views of the city of Thimphu and the Thimphu valley:
Then headed on over to the Sangay Arts & Crafts School to check out the incredibly talented students at work. They had this awesome sign hanging over the entrance:
Saw some wood carving in action:
And some sculpting:
And some painting (Francy is up to something, as always):
And some embroidery:
Students hanging out in the courtyard:
On our way out, caught sight of this cool printout hanging on their noticeboard:
We then made our way over to the National Library of Bhutan. On the way, this fun little painting on the side of a building popped into view:
Now, I’m not trying to be immature here (although, let’s face it… I can’t help it and that painting’s just a whole other level of fantastic), but phallus paintings are found ALL over Bhutan on walls of houses and buildings and are intended to drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip (click here to read more about this). For those who know me… OF COURSE I tried to take pictures of every single penis I saw… pshh… who do you think I am? An amateur? But alas, there are only so many photos of wieners that I can include in this blog without taking it in an entirely (not necessarily undesirable…) direction, so I will leave you all with one more:
Samsonite, being the book worm that he is, was excited to check out the National Library:
Aaaand that’s pretty much it:
Made a quick stop at the stamp museum where we saw some cool collections of stamps and then Dawa surprised us with THESE!
On our way out, drove by the below little gem. After not seeing a single fast food chain restaurant for the past month (for reals – no McD’s, no Starbucks, etc. in neither Nepal nor Bhutan… it was glorious!), it was SO random to see this, especially since Taco Bell is predominantly a U.S. brand? I actually just looked this up and apparently they have Taco Bells in India… so that would explain the below influence.
We then visited the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory to see handmade paper being made!
In short, handmade paper is made from the bark of a tree. It’s soaked for hours (or days?) then the “mulch” is sifted into these nets to make sheets:
The sheets are laid out in a stack:
The stacks are later pressed to squeeze out all the water:
You can even make pretty designs in the paper:
Finally, the papers are hung onto massive hot plates to be dried:
Our next destination was the Takin Zoo (I’ll explain what a Takin is shortly), but on the way we made a quick stop at the Thangtong Dewachen Nunnery:
Where we had an amazing view of the Tashichho Dzong:
And the Buddha Dordenma up on the hill:
And then Francy threatened to leave me at the nunnery:
Made it to the Takin Zoo! The Takin is the national animal of Bhutan. I’m still unclear as to what this animal is exactly (a hybrid of a cow and a goat? Maybe?) but it was definitely amusing to visit:
Quick visit to the Weekend Market:
Where someone was a little sleepy:
And these kiddos were having a grand old time playing with a broken skateboard:
Capped off the day at Dawa’s apartment, where we got to meet his lovely fiancé, Apsala, her sister, and her sister’s ADORABLE twins, Mina (which means “Moon”) and Dawa (“Sun”):
Samsonite was quite fond of them:
And wrapped up our first official glorious and busy day in Bhutan by tasting local red (TAKIN!) wine:
Nov 21: Thimphu to Phobjikha (aka Gangtey) Valley
Said goodbye to Thimphu and took off for the Phobjika/Gangtey Valley, passing through the Dochula Pass on the way to visit the Druk Wangyel Lhakhang, or royal temple, which was built to commemorate 100 years of monarchy in Bhutan. 108 chortens, called the “Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang Chortens”, sit at the bottom of the temple as a memorial to honor fallen soldiers. They are thus also called “Chortens of Victory”:
At 3,100 meters (10,171 feet) above sea level and with the absurdly good weather we got lucky with that day, this spot provided us with incredible views of the Himalayas, including Bhutan’s tallest peak – Gangkhar Puensum, which at 7,570 meters (~24,836 feet), is the tallest UNCLIMBED mountain in the world. Challenge accepted! (yeah… right…)
Snuck up to the temple for a visit:
And found this little dude enjoying a nice nap in the sun:
This relatively modest abode is where the royal family stays when they come to visit this temple. And I’m not being sarcastic… for a king, this is amazingly modest. In fact, I didn’t get a picture of it, but the royal family’s house in Thimphu (the capital) is VERY modest as well. This might just be naively optimistic thinking here, but it truly does seem like the king and past kings of Bhutan truly care for the welfare and being of their country. What a concept, huh?
Drove through the Punakha-Wangdue Valleys (which we would come back to the next day) and saw the old Wangdue Phodrang Dzong perched up on the hill, overlooking the valley. It burned down in 2012. Click here to see an image of what it looked like in its glory days:
Just an awesome little village sitting on a hill (Francy LOVES this photo):
Finished the day by having a hot stone bath… definitely something I’m content with only trying once in my life, as it was like immersing my body into a pot of boiling water and it took me more than 30 minutes to even get halfway in. But this guy had a grand old time:
Nov 22: Phobjikha Valley to Punakha Valley
Woke up in the gorgeous Phobjikha/Gangtey Valley to this amazing view:
Our awesome hotel (with the MOST comfortable beds I have ever slept in… getting up that morning was literally devastating):
First stop of the day – Black-necked Crane Museum! The Black-necked cranes are unique to South Asia, especially in this specific region as they breed in Tibet and then winter here, in the Phobjikha valley, and some remote parts of India:
Lucky for us, it was winter, so we saw cranes galore! Samsonite was so excited to test out the telescope:
Aha! (This isn’t real, obviously… they had a cool little introductory movie with live pictures and spotlights and this picture just fit so well here):
As we headed down into the valley to kick off our hike, look who we caught sight of, just snacking on the grass and chillin’ in the valley:
And cruising around:
Began our 1.5 hour hike to the Gangteng Monastery, one of the most important monasteries of Bhutan:
With our new friend, Ralph 2.0, who is obviously too good for bridges:
Met this cool little monk at the monastery, who Samsonite took to very quickly:
And Francy befriended these adorable Buddhist puppies:
This Dzong is the second oldest and second largest Dzong in Bhutan, formerly serving as the administrative center and seat of the government before the capital city was moved from Punakha to Thimphu in 1955. This is also where the Royal Couple (who are both ridiculously good looking, if I may add) got married 4 years ago. Think we three look royal enough?
One last snap shot before heading back to the hotel for the evening:
Nov 23: Adventuring in Punakha
Started the day off with a 1 hour hike up to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Monastery:
Picked some guavas from the King’s Garden (so yeah, these were royal guavas) on the way up:
Thoroughly enjoying the royal guavas:
Made it to the monastery!
Got some great views of the Punakha Valley and the Mo Chhu River (the female river) from the top of the monastery:
On the way down, Francy got rammed by this super aggressive goat and literally had to hold him by the horns to stop him from attacking him. He was coming for me next!
Awesome hike. Next up – rafting!
As neither of us had ever been properly rafting before, we were both a little nervous, especially since they were taking us on the Pho Chhu River (the male river), which is a class 5 river in the rainy season! But since the water levels were pretty low, they thought we’d be fine, so we rolled with it:
Had the coolest group of dudes leading our raft:
We filmed an absurd amount of the rafting with the GoPro (22 minutes!) so slicing it up and only picking the good parts was a bitch, but if you know my anal and OCD self, you know that I had to do it (Francy helped on this one), so here you go:
Had a blast on the rapids and saw some incredible views along the way:
The Punakha Dzong sits exactly where the male and female rivers meet, forming the Punatsangchhu River (aka Sankosh River). Got a nice shot of the crew + Dzong together on the river:
Hopped onto this rock for a minute, because that’s obviously the cool thing to do:
Now, these guys are all roommates and have SIX dogs! Three of them caught up with us towards the end (close to where the guys live) and ran along with our raft, until they decided to SWIM over!
And jump ON BOARD!!
Don’t get me wrong, the rafting itself was exciting, but this was the best added bonus EVER!!
After cooling down from the excitement of rafting and drying off, we went to check out the Chimi Lhakang Monastery, otherwise known as the fertility monastery. This site was built by Drukpa Kunley, the “Divine Madman” or “Mad Saint”, who had a very unorthodox way of practicing his Buddhist beliefs and enlightening others. In short, he was sex-obsessed. They also called him “The saint of 5,000 women” (you can guess why) and he is actually credited with introducing the practice of painting penises all over walls and buildings in Bhutan (exhibited in the beginning of this post). He’s actually quite an interesting read and his Wikipedia page (yes, yes, I love me some Wiki) is short and succinct, unlike me, so give it a read (link above).
We found these little monks up to no good:
And the rest of the monks playing soccer!!
And now, introducing the latest addition to D.C.’s superhero lineup… BATMONK!
After getting our fill of monks playing soccer, we headed back to our hotel for the evening, feeling pretty damn fertile (get it? cus it was the fertility monastery? har har, I know…):
Nov 24: Punakha Valley to Paro
Said adios to the gorgeous Punakha Valley and headed back towards Paro, stopping in Thimphu for an hour to walk around and hang out for a bit, as we barely got any time to do so during our jam-packed day there. Thimphu is a super cool little city:
No traffic lights… only this dude!
This is awesome:
And this is also awesome:
The people really do love their kings!
Arrived in Paro, catching a great glimpse of the city as we made our way down into the valley:
The view from our hotel room in Paro. Not too shabby…
Nov 25: Paro to Haa Valley
Said Goodbye to Paro (but only for a night… don’t worry, Paro… we’ll be back!) and took off for the stunning and not frequently visited Haa Valley. The plan was to drive up to the Chelela Pass, at 3,899 meters (13,084 ft), and bicycle down ~1,200 meters (or ~4,000 ft) into the Haa Valley from there. Well, the day started out great, especially with this inspirational message we found next to the bike rental shop:
We successfully made it up to the pass:
And began our cycling descent!
Stopped on the way for a delicious picnic:
Samsonite was so excited to eat:
Francy finally mastered the 10-second timer:
And then we continued on our journey!
We made a short little montage of said journey. I highly recommend watching this, if only for the fantastic audio commentary made along the way (it’s only 50 seconds):
And then some CRAZY driver, who was racing up the mountain around all the tight curves, almost hit Dawa, causing him to veer off the road (to dodge the crazy driver) and suffer a terrible fall. The driver didn’t even stop to check if Dawa was OK. We all went to the hospital to get Dawa fixed up. Fortunately, there were only surface wounds (and no concussion), but let this be a lesson to crazy people driving on mountain roads – be less crazy!
After the hospital, we were all pretty shaken up and opted for a relaxing evening. We were staying in a homestay that night, so relaxing was pretty much the only item on the menu:
Our awesome hosts preparing ara – a traditional Bhutanese alcoholic drink:
But tastes DELICIOUS!
While we were getting our drink on, our host was cutting up some dried beef for dinner:
And grandma was getting high on Betel Nut:
Exhausted after quite the eventful day (and a full pot of ara). Tucked in and fast asleep:
Nov 26: Back to Paro
Made our way back to Paro, stopping along the way for another delicious picnic by the river, which I was clearly thrilled about:
From there, stopped by the Rinpung Dzong, the Dzong of Paro, to check it out:
I swear, these monks are always up to something…
The Dzong offers amazing views of the Paro Valley:
If you read our last post (“Flight to Bhutan”), then you’ll remember that even though Paro is not the capital, it’s the only place in the entire country where large planes (as in, international flights) can land. I also mentioned how terrifying the landing was… weaving between the mountains and all that jazz. Well, if you look closely, you can see the international airport in the distance (the large building with the green roof is the hangar:
Mom – I may not have inherited your incredible taste and fashion sense, but let’s just be grateful that I didn’t turn out like this guy:
Spent the next hour wandering around Paro and exploring the city:
Another great view of the Dzong:
Met this daring dog:
And this adorable puppy (Bhutan seems to be FILLED with adorable puppies!!):
Went to a famous local Mo:Mo place and snuck into the back to learn all the secrets to Mo:Mo making:
And then, of course, ATE the Mo:Mo:
Then headed back to our hotel to call it a night, but not before acquiring a massive bag of guavas, because you can never have too many guavas:
Nov 27: Exploring Paro
Our final day in Bhutan!! Ahhh!! And what a day it was. Kicked it off with an item on the list of “500 Sacred Journeys of a Lifetime” by National Geographic Books (no big deal) – the hike up to the famous Tiger’s Nest (aka Paro Taktsang or Taktsang Palphug Monastery). The Tiger’s Nest is an important Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple, built into the cliff, with a sheer 500 meter (~1,600ft) drop to the floor of the Paro Valley. It is a very sacred site to the Bhutanese people as it is said that Guru Rinpoche (aka The Second Buddha aka Padmasambhava), who apparently brought Buddhism to Bhutan and is the tutelary deity (guardian/protector) of Bhutan, flew there from Tibet on the back of his wife (no joke), whom he had transformed into a flying tigress (also, no joke). There, he defeated an evil demon and then meditated for 3 three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in a cave. I can’t even sit still for three minutes. The monastery was later built around said cave and is today one of the most sacred and visited sites in Bhutan. There she is, precariously perched up on the cliff, still covered in the morning fog, awaiting our arrival:
People (and the internet) were trying to psyche us out about the climb, as it is supposed to take about three hours, gains a total of 900 meters (~3,000ft) in elevation, and culminates at an altitude of 3,120 meters (~10,200ft), which is “altitude sickness territory”. But, at the risk of sounding super cocky (frankly, I actually don’t really care if this sounds cocky, but prefacing this statement with “at the risk of…” seems like the thing to do to sound SOMEWHAT modest, which I am not…), we were not concerned in the slightest. I mean, we had just knocked out the Annapurna circuit less than 2 weeks prior. This hike was chump change. It took us less than 2 hours and we barely broke a sweat. Yes, we were breathing pretty heavily (oxygen level is about 86% at this altitude), but even if you’re not the fittest person ever, this hike isn’t really much of a challenge. Our Franconia Ridge hike up to Mount Lafayette in the White Mountains of New Hampshire was WAY harder, in my opinion. Anyhoodles, since Dawa wasn’t yet fully recovered from the bike fall, Ram accompanied us on this journey and we had a blast! Here’s us hiking:
He sure knows how to make hiking look sexy:
We’re getting close!
Not entirely sure what this exact structure is (most likely monk housing, as none of the monks actually live inside the Tiger’s Nest), but we haven’t touched this photo up in any way and this structure is literally emanating rays of light:
These are Tsa Tsa memorial cones, molded by monks from the cremated remains of people and placed in sacred places (such as the Tiger’s Nest) to be forever honored:
Now we just need to walk 150 stairs down to cross a bridge and climb 150 stairs back up to the Tiger’s Nest. Efficient, right? This lazy turtle thinks not:
Sadly, no cameras (or any personal belongings, for that matter) are allowed into the Tiger’s Nest, so we have nothing to share but our memories: The temples inside we’re stunning, but most exciting was the visit to the actual Tiger’s Nest, which is a shrine deep, deep inside a cave, lit only by a single candle. To get there, you have to climb down rickety wooden ladders and planks into an open crevice in the rock. Coming out, we took a roundabout way, sliding ourselves out through the rocks to the outer edge of the mountain. This gave us an incredible view of the valley, but only about a foot of rock to stand on, the only thing keeping us from a 2,000 foot plummet to our deaths. After about a minute of standing, frozen solid, glued to the wall and mesmerized by the beauty/terror of our location, we continued on, sliding through another narrow slit (Francy had to take off his down jacket to fit through…), then scaling up rocks back out of the Tiger’s Nest. Whew – what an adventure! We both came out covered in dust. Now, the descent:
As this was Ram’s 19th time hiking up to the Tiger’s Nest, he knew of a cool shortcut down through the trees (took us only about 1 hour to come down!):
Cool wall paintings and prayer flags:
And super stacked cairns that Francy and Samsonite were really excited about:
The only way to get building materials up the mountain (well, there’s mules, but they can’t carry these beams)… each beam apparently weighs 15kg. This dude is carrying 30kg (that’s about 65 lbs!) up a mountain. In sandals. Now THAT’S badass.
Four hours later and the fog has cleared, leaving us with a gorgeous view of the Tiger’s Nest to forever imprint in our memories. And in case we forget, we always have IMG_1604 to remind us:
The adventure wasn’t over yet! Our car battery died, and since the car was a manual, we were able to jump start it by pushing it down the hill, with the help of some fellow guides and tourists (I suppose I could have helped too, but standing to the side and taking pictures seemed like way more fun):
We then went horseback riding through the valley:
Happy as a clam:
Horses are awesome:
Made it to the Drukgyel Dzong, which is one of the oldest Dzongs in Bhutan. This Dzong is now in ruins, after a fire in 1951 almost entirely destroyed it:
Amazing view of the fields from the Dzong, which overlooks the Paro Valley, making it an excellent strategic base for defense of the region before it burned down:
Next stop: Archery, the national sport of Bhutan! But first – we dress up in traditional Bhutanese attire… “Gho” for the men and “Kera” for the women:
And now, the epic battle between husband and wife commences: 2 competitors, 15 arrows each, 1 target, 1 victor…
Channeling my inner Katniss:
After 15 arrows, we were tied!
Well, naturally, we have no choice but to bring on… a TIE-BREAKER! 3 arrows each. Francy takes his turn to win a chance at the championship. I stand by, eagerly watching:
I go in for the kill, as Francy stands by, eagerly watching:
This battle was so intense, we managed to gather an audience:
And the victor is……..
Apparently, we are each quite good at archery… Dawa said that most people don’t even hit the board… and I actually hit a bulls-eye! Took Samsonite outside to celebrate. He wanted to wear the hat:
I know, I know… it’s clear that I have a very promising career as a Kera model:
And back to our hotel for our last night in Bhutan, after an incredible day. One last glance at the beautiful valley of Paro:
And the Paro Dzong beautifully lit up at night:
Goodbye dinner with our amazing team: Dawa, Ram and Dawa’s awesome Fiance, Apsara. Thank you guys for an absolutely incredible, unforgettable 10 days. We had a blast with you and loved getting to know you. Until next time!
Nov 28: Farewell, Bhutan!
No pictures here, just a quick note to Bhutan and all of our readers: Visiting Bhutan was a dream and we are so grateful that we had this dream realized. If you are in the midst of planning your next travels, I highly recommend this country and Firefox Tours. It was a perfect combination of history, culture, religion, adventure, and plain old fun. We loved our team, we loved the people, and we loved every adventure the country had to offer. We hope to be able to go back one day to relive this incredible 10-day experience. Cheers, Bhutan!