So it was a good thing I arrived at the Kathmandu airport a little early for my flight to Paro, Bhutan. The flight was scheduled to leave at 1:40 p.m., but at 12:30 they announced boarding and by 1:10 p.m. we were scooting down the runway and taking off. Why the early departure? They never made an announcement, but it was my guess that the ominous skies over Kathmandu required the early flying time. (The Drukair ticket specifically provides that they reserve the right to change departure times depending on the weather, and the Kathmandu and Paro airports are notorious for shutting down their airports due to weather. So I breathed a sigh of relief once we took off for the very short 50 minute flight to Paro, Bhutan.
We landed just before 2:00, and while I was not one of the first off the plane, I was the first through the door and first in line in immigration because my fellow passesngers all decided to stop and take pictures of the beautiful airport building. Now it was pretty, but I’ll be damned if I was going to stop and take pictures of a building and then end up in a mega immigration line. So I was first through immigration and as luck would have it, my bag was one of the first to be offloaded. So with luggage in hand, I was first through customs and out the door to my waiting guide and driver. They were as surprised to see me out the door so quickly as I was.
Anyway, Thinly my guide and Dandin my driver, were all smiles and full of greetings. Rather than measure output as Gross Domestic Product, Bhutan measure output in terms of happiness … Gross National Happiness or GNH, which was apparently originated by the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s. The principals of GNH are “sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; environmental conservation; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance”. It is believed these tenants make people much happier. As a result, the Kingdom of Bhutan has been described as the happiest place in the world, and my guide and driver seemed to embody this happiness.
So the plan for the afternoon was to take in a couple of sites before the one hour drive to Thimpu (pronounced Tim pu) for the start of the Thimpu Festival on Saturday featuring a myriad of cultural activities, including day long dancing exhibitions. It is one of the top festivals in Bhutan and it was the primary reason why I secheduled my trip to Bhutan during this time.
First stop for the day was at the National Museum. The drive to the top of the hill where the museum was located took us through the main part of Paro (a town of approximately 60,000), across the river and then up, up, up past school children walking home and another group of school children picking up litter. Apparently, the teachers require the children to do good deeds and this was one such activity.
We reached the top of the hill to what I can only describe as a spectacular view down into the Paro Valley and the town of Paro.
Now the museum turned out to be very interesting. It was divided into rooms. The first room was the “‘mask” room where various religious masks were on display which are worn during the cultural dances. In addition, I was able to watch a wonderful 10 minute video featuring many of the dances I would see tomorrow.
The second room featured a series of religious (Bhudist) paintings, the third room was the clay room featuring old clay statutes, and the final room was a natural resources room featuring the birds, animals and habitats of Bhutan. It turned out to be a small museum, but it featured the highlights of the country, and I thought it was very well done. (No pictures though. They even made me check my bag.)
The second site of the day was the Ringpung Dzong or “fort” that was constructed in 1644 to protect against invading Tibetans. The front part of the building is now used for administrative offices while the backside is used for a monastery that houses around 200 monks.
The building was incredibly striking painted all white with red, yellow and black trim and gorgeous carvings around the eves. There was bit of a hike to the entrance and I had to put on long sleeves to enter (fortunately, I had a sweater with me).
We wandered through the entrance and down a flight of stairs and into a magnificent courtyard. We then took our shoes off and entered the tiny temple, which differed from many I had entered on this trip because there were no cushions on which the monks could sit, but instead there were only hardwood floors.
The unique feature of this temple was that the primary statute at the front was not one of the many incarnations of Buddah, but rather a statue of the 12 year old prince before he became the “enlightened one” or Buddha. I could not recall ever seeing a statute like this one.
The other interesting part of the visit was that there was a monk standing before the statue pouring “blessing water” into the hand of each visitor. So when in Rome … I walked to the front, held out my left hand into which some of the “holy” water was poured, I took a drink (it tasted a bit like cough syrup), patted my head and then my neck per my guide’s instructions. The drink was to cleanse my insides, the pat on the head was to clear my mind and the pat on the throat was to make my voice pure. I will let you all be the judge as to whether or not it worked.
So after the visit to the Dzong, we hiked back down the hill to meet our driver at the bottom. The hike allowed us to walk across the wooden bridge that spanned the Paro Chuu (Paro River). Pretty cool little bridge.
My guide then suggested that we visit a little shop in Paro so that I could be outfitted in ceremonial clothing for the festival. Now I went along with this, but I have yet to decide if I will be posting any pictures of the attire I will be wearing tomorrow. All I will say is the silk material is gorgeous, and I hope that the gal I have used in the past to tailor some of my clothes can make something of the Bhutanese garb I purchased.
Both my guide and driver seemed very pleased that I would be dressing like the locals (sure wait till you seem me). Anyway, we stopped at a little coffee house for some refreshments before taking to the highway as dusk was setting in. It was only 5:40 p.m., but darkness set in by about 6:15 p.m.in Bhutan. And this proved to be unfortunate.
As we began the slow one hour drive to Thimpu up and over the mountains, I noticed that every 1/2 km or so there would be a sign warning drivers about the dangers of speeding. Now these weren’t your typical signs. Instead the signs were very clever and in some cases downright hilarious. The unfortunate part …. it was becoming dark so fast I was having a hard time reading them all, but here is a sample:
“Leave early, drive slowly, arrive safely”. “If you are married, slow down.” (That one made me laugh for a quite a while.). “Speed Thrills. Speed Kills”. “Be Late Mr. Not Mr. Late”. “Life is a Journey. Continue it.”
I am looking forward to keeping a list of these hilarious and darkly funny signs.
Anyway, we arrived in Thimpu (population 200,000ish) to some major traffic jams. Because of the festival, there were numerous roads that were closed and we had to do what I can only describe as an “end around”. Rather than drive straight to the hotel, we head to go up and around the hotel and circle all the way back down a road that was not closed off. Then we had to park and hike two blocks with my luggage.
Once settled, I had a Bhutanese dinner (very spicey potatoes o’gratin and very spicey pork with vegetables) and quickly realized what I had read was true. The Bhutanese like their food very spicey.
Once dinner was finished, it was time for bed. Today had been a long day and tomorrow I expected was going to be equally long. (Oh and say a little prayer for good weather. The forecast is for rain. Ugh!)