Rachel’s trip to Bhutan
The land of temples, Gross National Happiness, and phalluses. Bhutan is certainly unique.
There’s not much known about Bhutan from the outside world yet. A lot of people asked me “Is that the same as Tibet?” Someone else asked me “Isn’t there a massive civil war going on there at the moment?”. The answer to both of these questions is no. Bhutan is a country in it’s own right, with a king, and a government, and a very happy, albeit small at around 800,000, population. The previous king actually introduced something called Gross National Happiness – the wealth of Bhutan is measured by how happy it’s people are. I think us in the west could learn a thing or two here.
You can only get to Bhutan from neighbouring countries, so I flew to Bangkok first and the next morning boarded a 6:30am Bhutan Airlines flight. Not without a hiccup first; I hadn’t received my “letter of invitation’ from our host Yonten, and as he assured me that he would be sorting out my visa I didn’t think anymore of it until I was asked for it at the checkin desk. Luckily I was able to raise Yonten at 4am and he emailed it over. As I sat on the floor waiting for the email to arrive I made a mental note to myself to start checking these things in advance, and not wait for some poor airline ground crew to break the news to me that I can’t fly. Still, it all adds to the excitement! And I’ll probably never learn.
As we descended into Paro airport I gawped out the window at the colourful wooden houses, greenery and valleys. So far it was what I had expected, or seen in my Lonely Planet travel book. I was greeted at Arrivals by Sonam, who was to be our guide for the next 12 days, and our first driver Ugen. Of course, with it being a horse riding holiday a guide is to be expected, but actually no tourists are allowed into Bhutan without a guide, which is why the letter of invitation is so important. Bhutan promotes ‘high quality, low impact’ tourism, and this is apparent from the way Bhutanese children run up to you in the street, the more curious ones wanting to say hello and have a chat, while the more timid hide at the back and just wave. White faces are yet to become as ordinary as they are in so many other Asian countries.
Sonam was full of chat and I could already tell that he was going to be a character. Ugen silently drove the van, and was so quiet that I initially assumed he didn’t speak English until he sparked up a conversation with me later that afternoon.
My first experience of Bhutanese culture was a trip to Thimphu, the capital, to see a Buddhist festival, known as a Tsechu. The area in front of the temple was packed but Sonam got us a good spot near the front to watch the dancing. I felt a bit bad, I’m not exactly a giant but at 5ft 7in I towered over a lot of the locals and blocked their view to what was a special day for them. This is where I first learnt the significance of the Phallus. There was a clown going up to spectators, jabbing a large wooden penis at them, and occasionally trying to pull down people’s undergarments. Now apparently this isn’t at all weird, this is seen as a bit of fun, and the phallus’s were to become a regular feature of our trip.
That afternoon my three companions arrived; Verena, Fray and Claudia, who had all been on the same flight into Paro from New Delhi. After brief introductions we had some dinner at the hotel, and then had an early night, ready for our hike up to Tiger’s Nest the following morning.
Tiger’s Nest is the holiest of all the temples, after a buddha rode a pregnant tiger there many years before. Sonam is incredibly passionate about his religion and is a devout Buddhist. I desperately tried to keep up with his stories about deities, buddhas and gurus, but I have to say that Catholism seems to be a little more straightforward, although not nearly as colourful. However, I felt I could keep up with the gist of it, and even the most ignorant would be able to tell that Tiger’s Nest is something special.
We started early to avoid the impending heat. The hike up took around 2 hours, and that was with stopping to take photographs and to catch our breaths. Being a runner, I like to think I’m quite fit, but the high altitude got my heart rate up and left me breathless even after a short climb. We passed a sobbing 17-year-old who couldn’t go any further, and were overtaken by people on horseback, showing how hardy and surefooted the horses in Bhutan are. The horses can’t go all the way to the temple due to the number of steps, and I’m not sure if the riders carried on or gave up before they reached the summit.
There are thirteen temples inside the monastery, which is cut into the side of the mountain, making them cool, dark and eerie in a spectacular way. It is suggested that you give an offering at each temple, but nothing too extravagant; 5NU or a dollar is sufficient. Anything too outlandish and the buddhas perceive it as a way of getting something back, not as a selfless offering.
Going down took a lot less time, around an hour, and we then went into Paro for lunch. The food in Bhutan is the same everyday, yet each chef seems to have their own spin to add a bit of variety to the dishes. Rice, noodles, potatoes, meat on the bone, steamed vegetables, and the national dish, chilli cheese. That’s actual chillies, cooked in cheese and butter. As someone who’s palette cannot handle anything even remotely spicy I passed; even the sauce was too much for me.
Day 3 of our trip was where the adventure began. We were scheduled to take a 25min domestic flight from Paro to Bumthang, where the riding trail would take place. Unfortunately, something broke on the plane and the airline had to wait for a part to be flown over from Thailand. We were given the option; wait a day or two for the plane to be ready and miss some of the riding, or drive the 12 hours on the West/East highway to make sure we got to the ranch by the next day. The four of us were unanimous in our decision, and at 2pm we set off, having stocked up on snacks and beer for the journey. Rather than dampen spirits, the change of plan seemed to ignite our sense of adventure, and we seemed to thrive on venturing into the unknown. Poor Ugen thought he was finished for the day, yet made absolutely no complaints about the change of plan and the long drive ahead of him. He didn’t even pick up a change of clothes or supplies from home, which just shows how accommodating and flexible they are.
It was a long drive, and the road in parts was horrendous; incredibly bumpy and slow going, but with spectacular scenery. The locals must get some serious wear and tear on their vehicles! We stopped for a fantastic dinner and had our first taste of Bhutanese wine; and then finally called it a night in Trongsa at 10pm. Short break, and we were back on the road by 8am the next morning.
We finally made it to the ranch just before lunchtime, but not before some car trouble! We had changed drivers after a coffee stop in Jakar and the new van began making a rather strange noise just outside Thang. Luckily we were rescued by a local who’s guesthouse we were due to be staying in on the last day of the ride, in his tiny car. So tiny that Sonam was relegated to the boot! We made it to the ranch and after wolfing down our picnic lunch we met our horses. My horse Prince was around 14.3hh so he was easy to hop on and off, but he felt solid and comfortable.
The following morning started with a visit to the Kunzangdra temple before a short walk down to where our horses were saddled and waiting for us. A great ride was had today to our second campsite with lots of canters and a picnic lunch. The weather was again glorious, hot and sunny, and the scenery was outstanding. I was desperate to see one of the native black bears, and we did hear one in the forest, but we weren’t quick enough to see him, plus Sonam and Pema, the backup guide, were making plenty of noise to try and scare away anything that might take a fancy to our horses.
We arrived at our second campsite at Padtseling Gonga which was next to the monastery, and after sorting out the horses and having some refreshments we wandered over. It was Tshokhor, the tenth day of the lunar calendar, which meant that the monks prayed all day and gave offerings to Guru Rinpoche. We were allowed to sit in and watch, and were included in the food and drink that was passed around. Some of the monks were as young as five, and they were clearly fascinated to see four white women sitting in on their ceremony.
The third day of riding was shorter at 3 hours, and we left the campsite for Jakar after breakfast in order to make it to the dance festival in the town. It was a smaller version of the one I saw in Thimphu, but it had the same colourful costumes and the clown going around with his wooden phallus! There was also some singing by women, who sang beautifully while the clowns messed around and caused chaos.
The night’s accommodation was in a mountain resort hotel, which meant we could take a shower after our two nights of camping, and take advantage of the laundry service. We also had a look around the town, and I even managed to go for a run, which was hard at 2500m!
Day four of riding saw our first bit of rain, but the temperature was still warm and we dried off pretty quickly. We rode along the river which was steep and technical in parts, and required us to dismount and tackle some of it on foot. We arrived at our homestay in Chokhortey late afternoon, where we were spending the night with a Bhutanese family. They gave us an amazing milky sweet tea, and dinner was homemade buckwheat noodles, red rice and lots of vegetables. The accommodation was basic; we slept on mattresses on the floor of our rooms, but it was good to see inside a family home and watch them cook our dinner from scratch. They had chillis drying on windowsills and pictures of the past and present kings hanging on the walls.
The last day of riding was the longest at 6 hours. We set off after a breakfast of buckwheat pancakes and eggs and headed for Febila, the highest point. It was slow going but the horses took it all in their stride. When we reached the summit we hung colourful prayer flags to wish luck to other travellers and took in the view. Back down to the ranch in Thang, but not before a few canters across the meadows. Definitely the best day of riding!
We stayed the night at the guesthouse of the man who rescued us from the side of the road on the way into Thang, before an early start at 7am the next morning. We had a lot of ground to cover as we were making our way back to Paro, but first we visited the Thang Bapzur nunnery. The women dress exactly the same as the men, even down to the shaved heads, and we enjoyed breakfast and more sweet tea with them before a quick visit to the Tsongsa Dzong. The Dzong is used as the winter accommodation for the monks in the area, and in the past was used as a fort.
We carried on to Punakar to our accommodation, which has a more tropical climate than Bumthang. Here is where you will see oranges and rice growing, and the ever-present chillies drying on rooftops. We had to keep the windows in our room shut to keep the monkeys out (!), which chattered away all night long!
The next day saw us visit the most ‘interesting’ temple at Punakar, the Chimi Lhakhang monastery. Constructed by the Divine Madman Drukpa Kunley, the monastery is renowned throughout Bhutan as having fertility inducing powers. Sonam wanted to put it to the test, and myself and Verena were the guinea pigs!
First we had to bow three times to the altar, then give an offering while saying our wish. We were then handed a giant wooden phallus with a ribbon tied round it (I’m not even joking) and had to walk around the outside of the temple three times before coming back inside and bowing three more times. We were then required to roll three dice, aiming for an odd number. The monk in charge was obviously not happy with my effort and made me walk around the temple with the phallus three more times! I then did something right and rolled the correct number and was allowed to pick a name out of the book. To sum up, I will be having a baby girl when I’m 38. Watch this space….
After lunch we set off to Thimphu, and thanks to the crazy Bhutan highway we had more car trouble! The new
part that had been put on in Thang had come loose, so we stopped at a roadside construction site where some very helpful Indians got us back up and running.
The penultimate night was spent in Thimphu, in another superb hotel with a gym, swimming pool and spa. I was enjoying a slower pace and unwinding after a hectic eleven days, and I was thankful that our last day was a very relaxed look around Thimphu. As capital cities go it isn’t anything special, but it is the only capital city in the world that doesn’t have traffic lights! Instead you can see traffic police waving their arms around in dramatic fashion during rush hour.
I have never before enjoyed the non-riding portion of a holiday so much, but the combination of hiking, culture and sightseeing was just brilliant. Bhutan is such an interesting place; it is not a poor country, yet the people do not live extravagant lives or beyond their means. The Buddhist religion goes hand in hand with daily life, and they are one of the only carbon negative countries in the world. I think that everyone could benefit from visiting Bhutan at least once in their life, to learn how to live happy, simple lives without the materialistic excess that we’ve become accustomed to in the west. And failing that, you can always get a laugh out of seeing phalluses painted on buildings.