Bhutan 2009 Day One: Paro to Thimphu

by Kara on September 29, 2009

UPDATE: Stephen has posted all his pictures (547 of them) from Bhutan on his website, so if you want to see more Bhutan pictures than are in my travelogue, please check it out.

Well, at the last minute, we decided to bring my laptop. Our first hotel, here in Thimphu actually has wireless, so I had Stephen set it up for me to post from here. Posting will surely be intermittent, but at least I will be able to blog a little bit while traveling.

I am so tired of traveling and very glad I will be sleeping in an actual bed tonight. As usual, I didn’t sleep very well on the planes and arrived exhausted. It was not quite 11 hours from San Francisco to Tokyo Narita, then we had a four hour layover at Narita. Then we took a six hour and 40 minute flight to Bangkok. We were slightly late getting out of the gate, and we ended up getting to the Novotel hotel at the airport at 1:00 am. Unfortunately, we had to set the alarm for 3:30 am to catch our flight to Paro. Neither of us slept, but it did feel night to lie down in a luxurious bed for a couple hours. That will definitely be the nicest hotel of our stay. We had a little trouble with the room controls. We couldn’t figure out how to shut off the light in the foyer and ended up shutting off all the power to the room. After stumbling about in the dark a bit, we managed to get it figured out.

After a quick trip back to the terminal, we were off to Paro, Bhutan. When we checked in at Druk Air, we learned that the flight had a quick stopover in Dhaka, Bangladesh. So it took a little longer. They served breakfast, which was powdered eggs (“scramble egg”), some sort of little hot dog, a tiny wheel of hash browns and some other stuff. The service was very good and the Druk Air staff was very friendly. You don’t have a choice but to fly Druk Air to Bhutan, so luckily the staff is excellent.

This is the plane on which we arrived in Bhutan.

We landed in Paro at 11 am. It is definitely the most beautiful airport I have ever seen. The painting is amazing. The elaborate painting of many of the buildings here reminded me of the palaces in Korea, except that here it is not just the palaces. You find beautiful painting everywhere. Anyway, there is just one runway at the airport in Paro, which is really all that is necessary, with only one airline flying in from just a handful of other airports. You take a stairway down onto the tarmac and you are standing there right next to the entrance to the airport. Inside, you are immediately in the immigration line. A guy came through to collect H1N1 questionnaires we filled out and to check and see if we had a fever. Then we got our visa stamps and that was it. We changed money right at the airport (about 45 nu to an American dollar) and walked out the other side to meet our guide.

Restored iron bridge south of Paro, Bhutan

I liked our guide immediately. His name is Pema Sonam. He was wearing the traditional gho, which is the tunic the men here wear. A lot of the men still wear them, though not all. When we got in the car, he reminded us that we need to drink a lot of water because of the altitude, and said that we would get out of the car frequently for photography opportunities because of the winding roads. This was great for me, because I get motion sick if I even think about a winding road. Our first stop was at an iron bridge of the kind originally made by a famous guru – I can’t locate his name at the moment.. This bridge was restored, but they had some of the original iron links on display there. There was also a stupa and a monastery there. There were actually several stupas, and a retreat for the local deities built into the mountainside.

Next we stopped at Chunzon, which was the confluence of three rivers. The people there had a lot of dogs, in fact, there are MANY dogs all over Bhutan. These dogs were sleeping in the hot sun, but I’ve read that by night, they turn into barking machines. Pema did say that they have tried to reduce this problem because it is the number one complaint of visitors to Bhutan, although I can’t think of much else people could complain about here. They were going to get rid of the dogs, but there was a huge outcry, not surprisingly for a Buddhist country that reveres animals. So they have a lot of dog shelters out in the country away from tourists, and they also fix the dogs now, to keep the population from getting out of control.

Chili peppers drying on a roof

I kept thinking I saw red roofs, sometimes in strange patterns, then I realized people were putting chilies out on their roofs to dry, sometimes hundreds of them. Chilies are probably the most important part of the Bhutanese diet, except for maybe rice. Being a wimp about spicy foods, I was a little worried about this, but Pema said they usually don’t serve the spicy stuff to the tourists unless they ask. Of course, Stephen loves spicy food, so he will probably ask.

After about 45 minutes more on the road, we made it to Thimphu. The original plan was to see a few things in Paro today, like the National Museum, but because of the Thimphu Tsechu (festival), it is a holiday and many places are closed. We checked into our hotel, the Jumolhari, which is modest, but clean and nice, and then we met Pema back downstairs for lunch. We went to a place called Karma Coffee for lunch. There was some sort of potato dish, similar to scalloped potatoes, a beef dish, some spicy dish I didn’t try, a noodle dish, and a plate of fresh chilled tomato, cucumber and lime slices. Pema also ordered a small dish of chili paste for Stephen, with chilies, tomatoes, and cheese. It looked really good, so Pema separated out a piece of tomato for me to try. It was very spicy. He said he had some Mexican clients once who didn’t think any of their dishes were spicy. He couldn’t believe it. They served a dish of strawberry ice cream for dessert, and I realized I had never actually eaten strawberry ice cream before, which seemed kind of weird. I thought it was some exotic Bhutanese flavor.

In the afternoon, we just wandered around Thimphu on our own. I realized that I had forgotten to pack my glue stick for my journal, so when I saw some in the window of a store, I ran right in and grabbed one. The girls in the store were laughing at me, perhaps because it seemed as if I was so thrilled to find a glue stick. It was only 45 nu, which is about a dollar.

There is very little begging in Bhutan, although we did have one woman following us around quite a bit. When I stepped away while Stephen was taking a picture, she asked him for money. We were told not to give anyone money, so Stephen didn’t. Then she said, “I am very sorry.”

These boys were playing on a sandpile, but stopped to chat with us.

We met some little boys who were playing in a sand pile. Like most kids, they got really excited when Stephen went over to take their picture. They really hammed it up for us. They started doing backflips off a rock, which freaked Stephen and I out, but they said, “We are experts in freestyle!” They also wanted to know if we knew certain Bhutanese singers, but of course we didn’t know any. So then they asked us if we knew Michael Jackson, which of course we did. They thanked us for taking their picture when we walked on. The kids here love to have their picture taken and they always say thank you.

After a shower, we met Pema for dinner in the hotel restaurant, which was served buffet style. I liked the meal better than Stephen, mainly because they served some bread that was immensely, melt-in-your-mouth tasty. There was also breaded fish, chicken, vegetables and a delicious red lentil stew.

At 8 pm, we went back upstairs and straight to bed. We put in our earplugs, but it really didn’t seem that noisy anyway, and we didn’t hear the expected barking dogs. We both conked out immediately, and woke up at 6 am. The 10 hours of sleep was wonderful.

Check out more of Stephen’s pictures of Bhutan.

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