Bhutan – Himalayan Kingdom

In November of 2002 I was invited by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) to attend the first GIS Symposium in the Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny country in the heart of the Himalayas. There was virtually no “tourism” in the country since the only people from outside allowed to enter had to be officially invited by a Bhutanese government agency, so this was an opportunity that I wasn’t going to miss. My trip started with a stopover in Rome to meet with FAO staff and conduct a short training class. Then it was on to Bombay and finally New Delhi where I was to connect with a Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Kathmandu and join UN staff who were also going to the symposium in Bhutan. Arriving at Indira Ghandi Airport I had four hours before the scheduled departure of the Kathmandu flight at 7:15pm, or so I thought. My heart sank as I looked at the monitor and saw the flight was delayed until 1:45am! Naturally there was no one from the airline around to discuss options. The Royal Nepal Airlines flight was to connect in Kathmandu with the Druk Airlines flight to Bhutan, and since that flight would begin in New Delhi in the morning, I made a decision to stay overnight in New Delhi and try to get on the Druk Airlines flight in the morning. But of course there was no one from Druk Airlines around to confirm a seat on the flight. After a cold Kingfisher beer in the one and only bar open in the terminal, I heard an announcement of the arrival of the Druk Airlines flight from Paro, so I hustled up to their office and found a nice young man who listened to my story and said, to my great relief, there would be no problem to change to the Druk Airlines flight in the morning. I left a note at the office of Royal Nepal Airlines informing them of my change in travel plans and then got a taxi to the new Radisson Airport Hotel, after bartering with the driver to pay 300 rupees instead of the 500 he was demanding. After a short but chaotic drive amidst trucks and buses belching huge, foul smelling clouds of heavy black diesel smoke, we arrived at the 5 star luxury hotel. Entering the beautiful pink marble lobby was a world away from the crowded streets of New Delhi, and the complimentary upgrade to a nice business class room was most welcome after 27 hours of travel from Rome. After enjoying happy hour in the Concierge Lounge, I headed to the hotel’s “NYC Café” for dinner. All of the restaurant staff were dressed in sombreros and colorful blankets to celebrate “Mexican Buffet Night”. (To be entirely honest, they all looked like “bandidos” from Poncho Villa’s army!) But they were exceptionally courteous in offering me a selection of Mexican beers. Later on another “bandido” came by with a large bottle of tequila slung over his shoulder and offering shots. Not wanting to eat Mexican food while in India I chose a delicious dish of chicken tikka masala to go with my Corona beer. Back in my room I set the alarm clock for 5:00am and watched a National Geographic film about a young Pakistani woman who had been blinded and disfigured by her husband after she became pregnant as the result of a rape! Later she escaped to the US and was treated by a Pakistani doctor in Washington, DC who literally “rebuilt” her face. It was an amazing and truly inspiring story. (She was much more fortunate than many Pakistani women who are killed by their husbands and even their fathers in some cases, being justified as “honor killings”)

Early the next morning I took the hotel shuttle back to the airport to arrange a seat on the Druk Airlines flight. It came as no surprise when I saw the Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Kathmandu was now scheduled to depart at 6:00am! Thankfully I was given a seat on the Druk Airlines flight since I already had a confirmed seat on the sold out leg from Kathmandu to Paro. As I went to pay for the new ticket with my credit card, a frown appeared on the airline manager’s face, and I was informed that the airline would only accept cash in the form of Bhutanese Bhat or Indian Rupees! Then he lead me to the Thomas Cook foreign currency exchange where I was able to get a cash advance of 18,000 rupees, enough to purchase the ticket – thank goodness, as there was now less than 20 minutes before departure! After going through a thorough security check we joined other passengers travelling to Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The 1 ½ hour flight to Kathmandu was pleasant and a nice breakfast was served by flight attendants in native Bhutanese dress. Landing in Kathmandu, more passengers boarded, including my UN colleagues. The flight was absolutely jammed with people carrying bulky backpacks and huge plastic bags stuffed to overflowing on to the small aircraft! Departing Kathmandu, the plane climbed steadily to 29,000 feet and the captain began pointing out the highest and most important peaks of the Himalayan Range, including Lothse at 28,000 feet and of course Mt Everest at over 29,000 feet, which was actually just slightly above us.

High Peaks of the Himalayas
High Peaks of the Himalayas

About 45 minutes later we began our descent toward Paro, the one and only airport in Bhutan. Slowly the plane weaved its way down through the steep, narrow valley and the mountains began to close in on us. At one point I could look out both sides of the plane and see nothing but trees and rocks clinging to the steep slopes less than 100 meters away! I could only imagine what it must be like to land in bad weather? We finally landed in Paro under beautiful clear skies and were met by our Bhutanese host Drungkar. We loaded our bags into the Landcruiser and headed east on one of the few roads in the country. After an hour or so we stopped for tea at the Pegyel Hotel beside the Wang Chhu River, where we enjoyed a gorgeous view of the mountains and the trees in their full autumn glory along the banks of the river.

Paro Valley
Paro Valley
Tea Break at Pegyel Hotel
Tea Break at Pegyel Hotel

The hotel was built in the unique and traditional style of a Bhutanese wooden building, with intricate details carved around the windows. Then it was back on the road to Thimphu, the country’s capital – a long two hour drive on a rough, narrow winding road that followed the river. The “highway” was only one lane in many places and the maximum speed limit was 30 – 40 kph (20 – 25 mph). It was typical for everyone to drive down the center of the road, swerving to the side at the last moment for oncoming traffic! They all seemed to know the “rules of the road”, but whenever our vehicle swerved toward the outside edge on a sharp curve, with only a foot to spare where the dropoff was well over 100 meters (350 feet) down to the river, it was pretty scary! Finally, we arrived in Thimphu and were taken to the Jambayang Resort, a small, rustic hotel on the hill across the river from the city. I was shown to a nice “apartment” with a balcony overlooking the river and the city beyond, surrounded by steep forested mountains.

Jambayang Resort Hotel
Jambayang Resort Hotel
View of Thimphu from Jambayang Resort Hotel
View of Thimphu from Jambayang Resort Hotel
Enjoying a cold beer on my balcony
Enjoying a cold beer on my balcony

Soon I was sitting on the balcony in the warm afternoon sun, enjoying a cold Black Label beer from India. Later that evening we were all invited to a formal dinner in the hotel, hosted by the Secretary of the National Planning Commission. Lots of Indian beer and Nepalese whiskey flowed freely all night, and I was introduced to the local “Red Panda” beer produced in Bhutan. It was a nice Weisbier developed by a Swiss sponsored aid project originally targeted to develop a cheese making industry in Bumtang, a small town in eastern Bhutan. During the dinner there were many toasts and at one point I noticed the Secretary was wearing a long white undergarment under his traditional “Gho”, and it was exposed above his high socks, but it didn’t seem to bother him, or anyone else for that matter.

The next morning, I arose early to find clear blue skies and a chill in the air. Before retiring for the night, I had placed the one and only small electric heater in the marble floored bathroom to ensure a warm place for a shower in the morning. But to my dismay, I found the old extension cord had a bad connection and the heater had failed sometime during the night. So it was literally a stone cold bathroom, but luckily there was hot water for my shower. Following a delicious English breakfast, we drove up to Dochu La Summit viewpoint for a spectacular view of the high Himalayan peaks covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow. We were standing at an elevation of 3150 meters (11,000 feet) and staring at peaks soaring over 7500 meters (25,000 feet) on the northern horizon.

Dochu Summit viewpoint
Dochu Summit viewpoint
High Peaks of the Himalayas from Dochu Summit
High Peaks of the Himalayas from Dochu Summit
Buddhist prayer flags at Dochu Summit
Buddhist prayer flags at Dochu Summit

It was one of the highlights of my visit to Bhutan. Leaving the summit, we followed a very narrow, rough winding road down through heavily forested mountains, descending over 2000 meters (7000 feet) to the ancient village of Punakha, surrounded by huge rice terraces. In the region surrounding the village were two beautiful and ancient Buddhist monasteries. One was “Punakha Dzong”, also known as the Palace of Great Happiness. The other was “Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag”, a very impressive ancient fortress that eventually became a monastery. (Several ancient fortresses had been built by the rulers of Bhutan as protection against raiders from Tibet)

Rice terraces near Punakha
Rice terraces near Punakha
Punakha Dzong - Palace of Great happiness
Punakha Dzong – Palace of Great Happiness
Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag
Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag

As we walked around each of the monasteries, many young monks came running up to greet us. I ended up giving away all my pens, save for one, and the expressions on their faces were so beautiful and welcoming. Everywhere I saw incredible architecture of stone and wood, along with brilliantly colored paintings.

Inside a Buddhist monastery
Inside a Buddhist monastery
Painting of "Enlightenment"
Painting of “Enlightenment”
Traditional Bhutanese architectural wood carvings
Traditional Bhutanese architectural wood carving

That evening we checked into “Hotel YT” in the small village of Lobesa, just south of Punakha, where we enjoyed dinner outside on a large deck overlooking the valley. Later that evening the one and only television in the hotel was showing the English language news from BBS (Bhutan Broadcasting Service). Among the very important news stories were (1) locations and dates for census reporting, (2) locations and dates for school exams, and (3) weather conditions and forecasts for virtually every town and village in Bhutan. (We never heard any international news – no wonder this country is so isolated in the world)

Road sign pointing our way
Road sign pointing our way

The next day we drove back to Thimphu, once again over narrow, rough winding roads. Unfortunately, thick clouds covered the high peaks of the Himalayas. After a couple of hours we stopped for tea at a police checkpoint along the border with India and watched an Indian Army convoy pass by on their way to resupply the road maintenance stations. The remainder of our journey back to Thimphu passed through beautiful, thick pine forests that carpeted the steep mountain slopes rising thousands of feet above the road. Once back in Thimphu I spent the afternoon walking around the old town and had a nice lunch at “Plums Restaurant” with my UN colleague Sushil. We discovered that Thimphu has no traffic lights, nor does anywhere else in the country for that matter. However, there was a traffic policeman directing the few cars in the city from his post in the middle of the intersection.

Traffic control in Thimphu
Traffic control in Thimphu

On our walk back to the Jambayang Hotel we stopped to watch an archery competition, the national sport of Bhutan. Nearby was a street sign about the “prohibition against public urination and defecation” – something I could certainly support. After another delicious Bhutanese dinner, I retired for the night as the chilly air crept into the valley. The next morning, following breakfast with our host Kinley, we drove up into the Thimphu valley, passing a large Dzong (old Buddhist monastery) that had been converted into use as a government headquarters building – a very impressive structure. Further up the valley was a military training post and a small Tibetan refugee camp. Then the road became very steep and narrow as it clung to the side of the steep mountain slope amid the beautiful pine forest. At the end of the road we came upon an old monastery literally “hanging” on a sheer rock face directly above us. Nearby was a small stone bridge entirely covered with different colored prayer flags blowing in the wind. This place also happened to be the entrance to a national park.

Buddhist monastery in the Thimphu Valley
Buddhist monastery high on the mountain in the Thimphu Valley
Stone bridge - entrance to the national park
Stone bridge – entrance to the national park
View of the Thimphu Valley
View of the Thimphu Valley

As we gazed at the monastery, Kinley told us that young men from every Bhutanese family must enter a Buddhist monastery for at least three years, and during that time they have no contact with their family. It’s a tough, rigorous religious training, and some of the young men choose it for life. On our way back to Thimphu we stopped at the zoo to see Yaks that are native to the Himalayas and Tibet.

Yaks at the zoo
Yaks at the zoo

Then it was time for traditional Yak butter tea at Kinley’s house. It’s a very popular drink in Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet, but the taste borders on greasy and rancid – definitely one that must be acquired! The day ended with another dinner at the Jambayang Hotel, where I met a fascinating one-armed American guy who was working on a USAID sponsored mushroom production project in the eastern provinces of the country. On our last day in Thimphu we met with probably all of the GIS users in the country, where I gave a technical presentation and some software demos, despite a couple of power outages. Eventually it all worked out and people appreciated the opportunity to see the latest software developments. That evening we were honored guests at another fabulous formal dinner of traditional Bhutanese dishes at the historic Druk Hotel, hosted again by the Secretary of the National Planning Commission. The hospitality of the Bhutanese people is well known throughout Asia and we were the very fortunate recipients. During dinner Kinley informed me that all government officials and school children were required to wear the traditional Bhutanese dress that included a religious shawl and knee-high socks for men. In fact, the men love to wear very colorful “Argyle” socks.

Our drive back to the airport in Paro the next day was another hair raising experience on the narrow winding mountain road. Our group stopped twice to replenish their supply of “paan” – the essence of the Beetle Nut which produces a mild feeling of intoxication and relaxation.

The stop for replenishing "paan"
The stop for replenishing “paan”

Upon arriving in Paro that evening we had a spectacular view of the famous “Taktshang Monastery” perched high on the sheer vertical cliff thousands of feet above the valley. It is more well known as the “Tiger’s Nest” and dates back to the early 1600’s.

The "Tiger's Nest" monastery
The “Tiger’s Nest” monastery

Back at the Pegyel Hotel we were invited to join a reception and dinner by a group from the World Trade Commission. As we all sat around a huge campfire, we were treated to a beautiful performance of traditional Bhutanese music and dancing. Later the Aussies in the group also gave a memorable performance of “Waltzing Matilda”, to the delight of everyone. All in all, it was a lovely evening under cold, clear night skies. Before retiring for the night, Kinley and Sushil insisted that I join them for a traditional “stone bath”. There was a large stone tub buried in the ground and the water was heated by red hot stones from a fire at one end. It was very relaxing, like being in a modern hot tub, but this experience dates back hundreds of years, as compared to my 10 year old hot tub at home.

Pegyel Hotel in Paro
Pegyel Hotel in Paro
Traditional Bhutanese "hot tub"
Traditional Bhutanese “hot tub”

The traditional Bhutanese music continued into the late evening hours as we soaked in the hot water. It was a very restful, quiet, and peaceful sleep that night. The next morning, to my dismay, there was no water in the hotel so it was a very chilly beginning to the day. Outside the air was quite cold and there was even ice on the car. But once we arrived at the airport, I was fortunate to get the last window seat on the flight back to Kathmandu, and I had amazing views of the highest Himalayan peaks, as well as the Tibetan plateau beyond. Upon arriving in Kathmandu it came as a bit of a surprise to learn that it was less expensive for me to stay at the new Hyatt Hotel ($45 per night) than at the UN Guest House. The hotel was a gorgeous five star property in a park like setting with a beautiful view of the valley and the mountains. In the lobby were lovely scale models in stone of famous Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout Nepal.

Hyatt Hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal
Hyatt Hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal
Stone scale models of Buddhist temples in Nepal
Stone scale models of Buddhist temples in Nepal

For the next three days I conducted a training class for the UN staff at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). Following the work in Kathmandu I joined some of the UN staff on a trip to Lhasa to attend the first Tibetan GIS Conference. But that’s another story, and a fascinating one at 18,000 feet – so stay tuned!

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