Showing posts with label Bhutan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bhutan. Show all posts

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

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.

20 June 2016

Book review: A Splendid Isolation (2014) by Madeline Drexler, *****


What does Bhutan understand about happiness that the rest of the world does not? Award-winning journalist and author Madeline Drexler recently traveled to this Himalayan nation to discover how the audacious policy known as Gross National Happiness plays out in a fast-changing society where Buddhism is deeply rooted--but where the temptations and collateral damage of materialism are rising.

Her reported essay blends lyrical travelogue, cultural history, personal insights, and provocative conversations with top policymakers, activists, bloggers, writers, artists, scholars, religious leaders, students, and ordinary citizens in many walks of life. This book is sure to fascinate readers interested in travel, Buddhism, progressive politics, and especially the study and practice of happiness. A Splendid Isolation was a Finalist in the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.


A well-informed travelogue on Bhutan by someone who knows the country well. The only slight shortcoming is that she is too much in love with Bhutan and this results in a positive bias when she hands out her opinions. 

A small book of only 60 pages, it is packed with information, some current and some of historical interest. The first paved road was built only in 1962. Until 1974 no foreign visitors were allowed and that year only 287 visas were issued (in 2012 the total topped 100,000). There was no TV until 1999, the same year, oddly, that Bhutan was connected to the internet. They did install a grand total of 1 traffic light in Thimphu in 1992 or os but then removed it as it looked out of context. (I have still seen a policeman on the spot, directing traffic, in 2016.) And so on...

All throughout the book, the author delves on the issue of Gross National Happiness, the trademark policy of Bhutan, highlighting its successes and also its shortcomings and contradictions.

29 February 2016

Book review: Married to Bhutan (2011) by Linda Leaming, ****


Tucked away in the eastern end of the Himalayas lies Bhutan—a tiny, landlocked country bordering China and India. Impossibly remote and nearly inaccessible, Bhutan is rich in natural beauty, exotic plants and animals, and crazy wisdom. It is a place where people are genuinely content with very few material possessions and the government embraces “Gross National Happiness” instead of Gross National Product.

In this funny, magical memoir, we accompany Linda Leaming on her travels through South Asia, sharing her experiences as she learns the language, customs, and religion; her surprising romance with a Buddhist artist; and her realizations about the unexpected path to happiness and accidental enlightenment.

As one of the few Americans to have lived in Bhutan, Leaming offers a rare glimpse into the quirky mountain kingdom so many have only dreamed of. For over ten years, Leaming has lived and worked in the town of Thimphu, where there are no traffic lights and fewer than 100,000 people. “If enlightenment is possible anywhere,” she writes, “I think it is particularly possible here.” (back cover of the book)

About the author

Linda Leaming is a writer whose work has appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, Mandala, The Guardian , A Woman's Asia (Travelers' Tales), and many other publications. Eric Weiner included her in his bestseller, The Geography of Bliss. She regularly speaks about Bhutan at colleges, churches, seminars and book groups. She is married to the renowned Bhutanese thanka painter, Phurba Namgay.

Linda first traveled to Bhutan in 1994, and moved there three years later. This tiny Buddhist country hidden away in the Himalayas is a very happy place for many. Its king believes in Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product. Leaming writes about her life in Bhutan and how she learned to live more simply, how she laughs at herself instead of getting mad at others, and how she slows down to look for magic-- because it's everywhere. In Bhutan, she's known for using a salad spinner instead of a washing machine, and her village man makeovers.

Her writing has appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, Huffington Post, Mandala, Guardian UK, A Woman's Asia (Travelers' Tales, 2005), and many other publications. Eric Weiner included her in his 2008 bestseller, The Geography of Bliss. Originally from Nashville, she has an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Arizona, and she regularly speaks about Bhutan at colleges, churches, seminars, and book groups. She is married to the renowned Bhutanese thanka painter, Phurba Namgay. (from Amazon)


This is a solid personal story that will help you understand much about the country of Bhutan. Her personal love story with the Bhutanese man who became her husband is captivating. Her myriad anecdotes are most informing and entertaining, she really makes it a pleasure to read through them.

She is on less firm footing when (and this happens a lot) she compares the way of life in Bhutan with that of Western countries, and especially the US. One can hardly think of two countries that are less comparable.

Throughout the book one gets that feeling, that is common when reading so many books about developing countries, that life before modernization was tough but happy. That before Western influence began to make its way through the valleys the local ways and culture were not "contaminated" and pure. I am not sure life was happy in Bhutan before the arrival of electricity, cars, antibiotics, education for everyone and not just for the clergy, etc. I don't think it was. As far as I could tell when visiting the country, no one wants to go back to the "good old ways". They are happier now as they embrace development, albeit at their own pace. Bhutan is a quintessentially Buddhist country, and Buddha was, in his time, "imported" from neighbouring India and Nepal.

You can read more about Linda Leaming and her work on her own website.

Linda Leaming

You can buy the book on these websites

17 February 2016

Book Review: Bhutan - Himalayan Mountain Kingdom (2009) by Françoise Pommaret, *****


Shoe-horned into the Grand Himalayas, Bhutan - Land of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon - is a fiercely independent kingdom that celebrated its centenary in 2008. Isolated, charming, peaceful, and religious, the Bhutanese are a pragmatic, sensitive people who take from the West what will benefit their country and leave the rest.

The countryside is pristine, the lifestyle and culture have been preserved for centuries, and the love of life is abundant among the people. Few outsiders know Bhutan as intimately as Francoise Pommaret. This title presents a passionate introduction to Bhutanese culture and history by resident author - the world's leading expert on Bhutan.

It features literary extracts with an historical perspective. It offers information about: trekking and mountaineering in this spectacular kingdom; national symbols of Bhutan, ceremonial scarves, the Dzongkha language, chortens and mandalas; and, archery and other national sports.


Excellent primer on the country. Not a guidebook but a rich resource to deepen your understanding of Bhutan before and after a trip. Or if you never get a chance to go. There is a section on "Facts for the traveller" with practical info, but most of the book is devoted to the cultural and natural wealth of the country.

Special sections on Symbols, Chortens, Medicine, Ceremonies, Etiquette and much more will capture your interest depending on your personal preferences.

Beautiful pictures by a number of famous and less famous photographers make this a book one not to miss.

View a video on Bhutan by the author here

Here is another of her videos on cultural diversity in Bhutan

And here another on on tradition in the country

Finally on the biodiversity

In the UK buy it here

In the US buy it here