Thimpu – Capital of Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan
At airport in Bangkok before dawn and recovered from sleep fuddled text message which read “Welcome to Afghanistan” – momentary panic and then realized I had left my cell phone on during flight from Zurich and must have picked up signal somewhere over the Khyber Pass. Line-up beside check-in counter reserved for monks, a dozen board our flight in saffron robes.
Just 3.5 hours from Bangkok I arrive in the birthplace of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan – nestled in the Eastern Himalayas between India and Tibet. It is winter but surprisingly warm and blindingly sunny.
We overnight at the Aman Thimpu. Fireside temple dancers over cocktails and a night in the quietest capital city in the world. There is one main street and one man with snow white gloves directing traffic – not a single traffic light in the entire country. It is the King’s birthday, so a national holiday…
Early start on our journey to the east – over the 10,000 ft Dochu La Pass from Thimpu to the Punakha valley. Everywhere women in the traditional kira and men in their gho – kilts without the pleats. Punakha Dzong lies at the fork of the glacial Mother and Father Rivers, the valley full of nomadic camps of yak herders who have come down from the mountains for the winter. The Aman Punakha, partly traditional Bhutanese farmhouse and other partly Amanfabulous. We hike up to a shrine and down through rice fields and villages.
At sunrise we are blessed by monks and set off to festival in Punakha Dzong – we join in and are the only “chilips” (foreigners) for a day of dances and socializing with everyone in their finest and most beautiful traditional dress.
The following day we go to market – a festive affair with nomads hawking piles of chillis of all description and colours, monks buying sugar cane, and our chef buying vegetables and spices.
Lunch is a picnic at riverside – crystal and china Aman styled and delivered. We join our guides in a post-lunch game of dirt darts (like horseshoes but with darts); then an archery shoot-out – it is their
national sport and the “chilips” are embarrassed.
Off early, regaled with stories of The Great Unifier, who brought Buddhism here from Nepal, and my personal favorite The Divine Madman, we travel over snow-covered passes 15thC fortresses or Dzongs to the magical Gantey Valley. One of the wintering grounds for the endangered black neck crane. We hike all afternoon and return to hot stone baths – set in a traditional stone hut and candle lit, red-hot stones are taken from bonfire to heat the water – there is room for two to soak in views of Phobjikha Valley as complete darkness sets in. Dinner is a 10 min walk from the hotel – martinis where olives are replaced with whole bright red chillies set the tone for feast in adjacent potato shed…the first “what day is it” question?
The following day, we hike to Dzong in village where monks are schooled – we listen to mantras and see locals come for blessings. We traverse the valley for hours on foot – rest stop is set up by our guides and lunch – a lengthy leg-resting affair in the sunshine. An early night in dark and silent valley.
A hairpin journey with mid-way stop in Trongsa and its incredible Dzong. Onward to Bumthang …we stop enroute to buy a carpet – it involves the entire caravan as I need a collective 7000 ngul to pay for it. No one has money but guides volunteer all the petrol money from the drivers and the carpet is secured. Hopefully not too far to Bumthang as we have four cars and no petrol money. Arrive Bumthang late afternoon – feels like the frontier. Crazy energy and a karaoke bar in town.
Hike to farmhouse the following day along river where lunch is cooked by lady of the house who also cooks for the king. Chillies done six ways, with hot sauce, and flaked chillies on top … and rice wine with worms in it (expensive worms apparently – cordyceps – they sell for $25,000 kg dried and are gathered by the local yak herders). But they are still worms …and we all drink it … as one does. “What day is it?”
It is the Amankora year end party tonight – people from all over the country here for weekend of partying and team building – we find ourselves the guests of honour. The night ends with the chilips dancing on a stage in front of a few hundred howling Bhutanese – we have been given a giant phallus (yes … I kid you not) which we individually have to dance with … team-building for the chilips.
We charter to fly back from Bumthang to Paro to avoid long drive. Guides ride with us – their first flight. They recognize all their local haunts on the ground 1000’s of feet below as we fly through a channel in the Himalayas.
Speaking of guides – our team was spectacular. Anticipating our needs before we knew we had any, taking over all things that could possibly be annoying – bags, cameras, forgotten sweaters, sun glasses – sharing their stories, great pride and knowledge with us with much humour and laughter.
Amankora Paro does not disappoint with mountains towering 23,900 ft high around lodge. Our last tranquil stop we have long sunny lunch on patio with invented cocktails that include tequila. We are here to hike up to Tiger’s Nest – 3,000 ft up from the valley floor to a temple hanging on side of granite cliff face. We leave early and after hours of switchbacks, and much needed “altitude stops” we get to the final 900 stairs that get us to the Nest. Impossible to think how it was built – and that we manage to get up and back in five hours.
Our final night and we don traditional kira and gho and gather with our guides and local friends in old temple for dinner.
After tomorrow there will be no prayer wheels, or mountains, or monks in alter rooms chanting mantras for good karma . Suddenly we all know what day it is … Tashi Delek