25 August 2016

5. - 25 August: Jakar to Mongar

We wake up at 6 o'clock, have breakfast and hit the road by 7. Low clouds at dawn give room to a sunny morning very quickly and it promises to be a gorgeous day.

Very long and tiring drive on a road which badly needs some repair work. Bhutan makes a lot of money by imposing expensive daily charges to tourists, hopefully some of that money will go to road improvement.

We drive through the Ura valley and over the Thrumshing pass (3800 meters) one of the highest motorable roads in the country. Lots of multicolored prayer flags, and many white ones as well.

Stop for lunch in a local restaurant, the Wogon Villa, in Sengor village. Momos and other local veggies and meats. Not too much variety but strong and inviting flavors and smells, I love it.

Our guide today tells us about the African snail infestation in Bhutan. The snails got into the country who knows how, they liked it and are now multiplying out of control. Good Buddhists cannot "kill" them of course, so the king approved of a policy to "reduce" their population.

Most of the country is buddhist, except for substantial minorities of Hindu practitioners, mostly Nepali immigrants in the south of the country, and amounting to some 25% of the total population. The first Hindu temple was built in 2012, in Thimpu.

Thsering tells us how Christian missions have been welcome in Bhutan for some time, but no preaching is allowed, that was the deal with the government as a condition to be permitted to operate. Yet, in the last few years some Christians, both foreign and Bhutanese, have been arrested for displaying their faith. In theory the constitution of 2008 provides for freedom of religion but in practice it seems there is still some way to go. No religion is allowed to do any proselytism at all actually.

Accommodation at the Wangchuk resort. Before dinner we take a walk around town, lots of people in the streets, street vendors, old folks spinning a prayer wheel in the main square of the town. Two kids play with an old typewriter, who knows maybe it belonged to their grandfather.

At some point I strike a conversation with a policeman and a policewoman, very relaxed and unarmed. It's hard to think what police would have to police here.

A public garden/playground is full of kids running around and playing with their toys.

We have dinner and hit the sack early as tomorrow it is going to be a long and, we already know, momentous day.

Road sign of the day:

Wish you a safe and happy journey

24 August 2016

4. - 24 August: Bumthang

Today we drove about two hours each way, to the Tang valley.

For lunch we had the opportunity to taste the food prepared in a farm house. Local cuisine such as buck wheat noddles and pancake. It was quite staged for us but nonetheless interesting to see them preparing their traditional fare.
Traditional Bhutanese farm tools

The Ugyencholing Palace and museum which we stopped at next was full of old masks (a bit eerie!), tools, furniture. A look at Bhutan a few decades ago.

En route we visited the Pema Choling Nunnery, where we spent some time witnessing an afternoon session of the nuns singing their mantras. A peaceful atmosphere.

We all sat around the young nuns and listened to their recitations. I started to use a flash but stopped as it would disturb them.

After the mantras we were offered some tea and light refreshments and of course gave our offering to the temple.

Toilet door. Pema Choling nunnery

I was struck by a sign posted on the door of one of the common toilets. It reflected the education of these nuns, learning to take pride in each and every task they were assigned to. A lesson for all of us.

Dinner in local restaurant for momos (Bhutanese dumplings) similar to what I had eaten in Ladakh. At night we were back to our Yugarling hotel.

23 August 2016

3. - 23 Aug: From Paro to Jakar, Bhumtang

Keeping Paro clean
A couple of hours in Paro in the morning, just getting acquaited with the small town and doing a little shopping. Locals are friendly if somewhat detached. The town is relatively clean, some ladies sweep the streets with simple brooms. We would have to look around when we return but the first impression is one of placid serenity.

In order to save a dozen hours of driving (we'll have more than plenty anyway) today we're flying east from Paro to Bumthang.

The small ATR 42-500 (the only one in the fleet of Druk Air we were told) tooks off after a short acceleration and made a steep ascent into the clouds. Some 45 minutes later the pilot pointed the aircraft's nose down to make a stopover at Gelephu.

A few passengers disembark and new ones board. Again the turboprop was the only game in town at the tiny airstrip and as the turboprop headed up to the sky one more time.

Landed at Bumthang again in dramatic scenery. It took them forever to unload the plane even though it was the only plane at the airport (probably for the whole day). No problem, we sat around the runway and took pictures. Then headed to our hotel, the Yugarling 3 star resort and checked in.

We spent the afternoon exploring the ancient temple of Jamphel Lhakhang. Quite understated compared to other in the country. We also went to Kurjey and Tamshing on foot. We walked over a suspended bridge that was once made of ropes but was recently reinforced with steel cables, like many in the Himalayas.

At the end of our long walk we stopped at a tea house that doubled up as a souvenir seller. A young girl managed the shop and let us use the toilet. Some of us bought some tea.

Bhutanese mountain roads, much like in India, are peppered with road signs that encourage cautious and responsible driving. I noted them down, some were pretty funny and often rhymed, and would note them at the end of each post on the day I saw them. Road sign of the day:

Mountains are pleasure
only if you drive with leisure

22 August 2016

2. - 22 August: From Bangkok to Paro, Bhutan

Early checlout and transfer to BKK airport, where we leave our bags intended for our subsequent trip to China at the left luggage. It is a bit of a nuisance because they only accept local cash, Thai Baht, a bit complicated. The x-ray everything and tag it. They also ask to see our electronics first, possibly to ensure they are genuine gadgets and not explosives.

We land at Paro airport after a smooth flight from Bangkok which includes a stopover in the Indian city of Kolkata (the new name for Calcutta). Very few airlines fly to Bhutan, so the flight from Bangkok always stops in an Indian city to pick up passengers.

Many Indians go to Bhutan because they are the only foreigners (together with Sri Lankans I believe) who are allowed into the country without visa or currency exchange requirements. We would find out why in the course of our trip: Bhutan wants Indian labor to do its construction and soldiers to guard its frontiers.

Paro hosts the only international airport of Bhutan. They will explain us that the king decided to build the airport here because he did not want to create noise pollution in the valley of the capital, Thimphu.

I try to get window seat but no luck, yet when we board there are plenty window seats free, which is great to be able to watch the amazing landscapes of the Himalaya. Spectacular landing after a few tight turns by our plane as it finds its way among the mountains and into the narrow valley of Paro. Landing here takes special skills!

On the plane we met our group. Diverse mix of nationalities, age, and cultural backgrounds. It was always part of the fun in taking these photo tours: you not only get to know the country you visit, you also learn more about your own country, or anyway about fellow Western middle-class internationally curious photographers. This time we have quite a few nationalities represented: German, French, Chinese, Italian, American, Australian and British, both for and against Brexit!

Easy border formalities. Our electronic visa has been arranged in advance and we go through passport control quite smoothly indeed. At my request the lady officer agrees to enrich my passport with an unnecessary but cute rubber stamp. She even asks on what page I'd like to have it stamped on.

Bags are quickly delivered to one of two luggage carousels in the cosy arrivals hall. Ours is the only plane on the tarmac in this balmy late morning.

After a quick and relaxed x-ray check we are out into the tiny parking area where we meet Matt, an Australian photographer who has organized this trip as a roving photo tour of Bhutan. We also meet Tshering, our local Bhutanese guide, who will turn out to be very knowledgeable and speaks excellent English. 

We all go for lunch at a scenic restaurant near the airport. From the terrace of the restaurant you can see the runway. Not that it is a very busy, only a handful of planes land at Paro every day... if the weather is good enough, that is. Our first encounter with Bhutanese momo and other specialties.

In the afternoon we visit the Paro Rimpung Dzong (17th century fortress) and arguably the most interesting sight in town. Lots of local and foreign visitors. One young lady was breastfeeding on  the steps of a prayer room. I was happy people left her alone, I read many times recently how in the US and in Europe it was considered socially unacceptable for women to breastfeed in public. How silly.

Produce sellers on Paro's main street
Afterwards we walked back down from the Dzong to town in a little less than one hour and went for some shopping for basic necessities along the main (only?) shopping street of Paro, a small town that sported rather heavy traffic of cars and motorcycles. A few ladies were selling fresh produce on the pavement.

In the evening we dined at the Sonam Trophel Restaurant, a traditional local eatery in Paro. It is run by a friendly couple and their daughter, they make local as well as Indian and Chinese food. He is a local but she comes from India. We would see how both India and China have, or have had, great influence over small Bhutan over the centuries. We went for local fare and were quite happy with it.

Final task of the day is transferring to our accommodation, the Olathang, a 3 Star Hotel. Our first night in the supposedly happiest country on earth, we'll see, I am always skeptical of broad-sweep claims like that but the first impression is quite positive: a serene place.

Sonam's momos

21 August 2016

1. - 21 Aug: Arrival in Bangkok

Land at Bangkok in the early morning after a relaxing flight.

It is a bit of a nuisance to get through passport control because we need to get a visa on arrival for Lifang. To get a visa we need to get her photos. To get her photos we need to get some local currency 1000 Baht in cash. To get the cash we need an ATM. Luckily one is available in the transit area of the airport. All of this takes time and we are tired and jet lagged but hey it's part of travel. Other than that Bangkok airport is quite efficient and clean.

I booked a room at a hotel near the airport, the Ammata Lanta resort. The hotel pick-up is late, they had forgotten us and I had to call them, but eventually they do come and take us to the resort, 5 minutes away. Very convenient to rest for a day before starting out to Bhutan tomorrow. The resort is huge, we are driven around in open electric vehicles. Rooms are really small villas spread out over a large green area.

Staff at Ammata Lanta is friendly and always available. Our room was large and comfortable if a bit dark. Restaurant offered good Thai food and excellent value. Also a good breakfast a la carte is included in the room price. Our masseuses are OK, but not great, Thailand can do better. Free wifi fast and free.

A large jacuzzi in our villa's terrace is a nice touch. You can sit in the hot water under the rain and watch planes land at the airport!

Nice Thai dinner, a 8pm we're the only patrons in restaurant, which is decorated with sculptures and paintings from all over the world. Apparently the owner is a collector. Baroque bordering on kitsch, I like it.

In the evening it is raining hard so we climb up an observation tower and watch the scene of the hotel grounds under heavy downpour while more and more planes keep landing at the busy international airport. A Chinese family also on the tower is a bit too noisy and spoils the atmosphere a bit, but luckily they soon leave and ...leave us alone!

20 August 2016

0. - 20 August: Departure to Bhutan

Off we go: time to fly again to Asia. I can never get enough.

Destination Bangkok, where we plan to spend a night at a hotel near the airport before joining the rest of our group of travel photographers for a tour of Bhutan.

Bhutan has a reputation of an exclusive destination, and it is, mainly because their government makes it an expensive destination by means of a minimum daily expenditure, 250 US dollars to be precise, that goes toward the visitor's hotel, food and transportation in the country, as well as the mandatory local guide that will escort him or her every step of the way. The current king's father is credited with having replaced gross national product with gross national happiness: money is less important than spiritual contentment. But the spirit is evidently aided by a nice trickle of dollars.

This time it's British Airways via London. Good service, not great really and the plane looks a bit tired, but it's comfortable and punctual. BA seems to be among the few of the old flag carriers to survive. Let's try to get a good night sleep.