Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Bhutan Bliss - Paro

Day 5 was going to be mostly driving day. From Wangdue we are to head back to Paro, near the airport, and today was going to be relaxed and a dry night because the next day was the hike to Tiger's Nest. In hindsight I realized how clever it was that in the itinerary, Sucan labeled day 5 as "cultural tour" which is really a euphemism for "if you drank a lot last night you probably need this full day to recover". 😁

Somewhere along the road we saw a big red deer! It was clearly very used to people, probably expecting to be fed. When 3 of our vans stopped to join the fun, it was immediately drawn to the trash bins inside the van. Still a wild animal though, as it was getting aggressive to those who came too close to take a selfie.

:-P



We made a stop at Dochula pass again and we still had no luck. Cloudy skies meant no view of the Himalayas. Again. And the stopover was not as great this time because there were a lot of tourists; the queue to the loo took all the time we had allocated to be there. I didn't get a chance to see the 108 chorten again. Ah well. I got me a chocolate eclair to go. 

One thing that most of us was looking forward today was getting to wear  traditional Bhutanese clothes. An ensemble typically consists of kira, wonju and toego. Kira is a long skirt that goes all the way to the ankle and made of a colorful, woven cloth. Wanju is a long-sleeved blouse (I noticed they're mostly made of silk) that has a very long sleeve meant to be folded over the short jacket called toego. A brooch is then pinned to close the jacket. Bhutanese clothes are quite colorful and fun. We paid 200nu (4sgd) to rent the clothes for a short while for a photo shoot. We were all suddenly transformed from our plain commuter clothes into looking regal and fabulous! Even with our sneakers on!






I thought it was going to be similar in Japan where you can transform into a maiko and walk around town for a bit, but no. We had to return the clothes before we head to our next destination which was walking distance from this shop. It was an art shop where intricately painted decorations are made. I enquired how long it takes to create a big art piece painting (on paper) with the wheel of Dharma design and the lady said it takes a month!

We drove back to the hotel and when we turned the corner to get to the reception the first thing I noticed was a spa! Bliss! It's always delightful to get a good deep tissue massage after a hike. After dropping off our bags and a welcome drink, we boarded the van again to head to town for another bout of shopping. More bottles of wines and whisky were purchased - this time to bring back home. I also started shopping for souvenirs to give my beloveds and then settled at the Champaca cafe with the rest of the group. After a little rest back at the hotel, I looked for the way to the river and saw a few ladies just chilling too. 







We were all quite straight laced that day (meaning, nobody was drinking) and the next morning, everyone was up and ready to go hiking. Tiger's Nest is arguably the most popular attraction in Bhutan and with its proximity to the airport, definitely top of the list for visitors. So we definitely wanted to be ready for it. We got our packed breakfast and arrived at the base 30 minutes later and set off immediately while there was no other crowd. The start of a hike is never the most fun, because the body takes time to warm up, and especially when it's so early in the morning I need to get over being a not-morning-person and get my legs moving. I also needed my morning tea. In the mean time the stench from horse poo that dotted the path was a less pleasant alternative.



As soon as I got in the rhythm, the hike was a breeze. 6 of us ladies were walking in the same pace and I really enjoyed it. I proclaimed us as the "A Team" haha. There are prayer wheels in specific areas as you hike up which I suppose act as a checkpoint and rest area. Sucan mentioned that there is a cafe halfway into the hike, and we were sort of surprised when we got there sooner than we thought we would. When we arrived there were sugar-dotted biscuits and hot tea waiting for us. Yasss! The second and third groups arrived after, and we headed out first to make room. 



As we get closer to the monastery there were some really good photo spots and of course we took the time to snap some. Kezang was with us so we had a photographer by default haha.






When we reached the monastery, Kezang we had to report to the officer in duty, with the list of our names. We put our stuff in the locker and then went in. Then we went in one by one, with a monk putting saffron-infused water in our palm that we need to put up in our lips and our head. We just sort of followed Kezang's lead. Photos are not allowed of course, and we had to remove our shoes in every room we went in. There are 13 temples in total. 

Tiger's Nest is actually called Paro Taktsang in local language. Tak means tiger and Tsang means lair. According to legend, Guru Rinpoche flew from Tibet to this location on the back of a tigress, hence it was called a nest (as he flew like a bird) instead of a lair. Inside the main temple is a big statue of Guru Rinpoche. Kezang said that it was believed this statue was being transported into the sacred temple up in the cave but the monks carrying it could not bear it as it was so heavy and the road (or lack of) made it very difficult. They heard the statue itself speak to them and asked them to leave it behind, and it will make its way to the temple. By the time they arrived at the temple, the statue was already there. 

While each temple was interesting, my most favorite part though was climbing down a narrow ladder, into the darkness right inside the cave. It was believe that it was there where Guru Rinpoche meditated. When our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw a small altar right in a crevice of the cave. It was adorned with prayer flags and money donations. 

We then descended slowly and it was agreed that we will convene in the nice photo spot and take some photos as a group. Everyone was pumped up, fulfilled to have completed the hike, except for the sleepy dog. I must say though, our guides and drivers make photo-taking look so cool. Check them out looking so effortlessly swag, while taking these photos.







After the hike some of us went back to town to complete our final souvenir shopping and exploring town, while the others went back to rest or go for their massage appointment. And then in the evening, we had a cultural show over bonfire, which turned out to be way too warm. We had to evacuate and move closer to the river side. The evening's dinner was special. We started with some appetizers and the best news was that we had a box full of wine and beer to consume! Alcoholics, rejoice!


It was time for wrap-up, so we all were reminiscing about the fun we had. Sucan made his closing speech and distributed gifts to everyone. We got some swanky laptop bags with a woven design. Those who didn't pack yet had to leave sooner, but some of us stayed behind. We tried to max out the evening as much as we could, because in the morning everybody gotta chiong to the airport - leaving the hotel at 6am sharp.

Saying goodbye is always difficult. Hugs were exchanged all over the place as we bid farewell to our amazing guides and drivers. At the airport as we boarded we tried to get as much we-fies as we could, before we inevitably go back to our lives. 






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Thanks Kezang, Karma, Kencho, Tsewang (and I'm sorry I didn't get the name of the other drivers) for welcoming us to your beautiful country. It was an honor to be able to visit and experience for ourselves why it is called the Land of Happiness. 

Thanks Sucan for carefully curating this trip, it was well-planned and definitely had the crowd in mind, knowing what would make the collective group enjoy the experience. Of all the trips I did with Adventures Unlimited this is probably my most favorite.


To all of you ladies (and our only gent, Patrick) - thank you for making this such a wonderful trip. You're all special in your own way and collectively that's what made this such a trip to remember! 💗




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*some photos are from myself, Adventures Unlimited event host and participants, and local guides in Bhutan

Bhutan Bliss - Punakha

On day 3 we checked out of Hotel Bhutan and was back on the road en route to Punakha. As per itinerary, it was going to be a two hour drive but with a pit stop in between to Dochula pass, where - on a cloudless day - we might have a chance to see the Himalayan range. Well, that morning clouds abound so there was no hope to see anything at all. Also because of the rain, we had to cancel the Lungchutse Hike (which was supposedly a notch harder than yesterday's hike). No complaints there haha.




what we would have seen
On day 1 I had no problem making it known to the world that I had a twisted stomach after the dizzying ride so for today's journey, I got the luxury of claiming the passenger seat. It was definitely more comfortable, not just to ease my motion sickness but also because I had deluxe view. I found it so amusing to see the cows or dogs just hanging out on the road, not scared of getting ran over. Tsewang, our driver, told me that they do this because the flies and bugs that keep sticking to the cows or dogs fly off when the cars drive by and I suppose no animals were ever harmed with this practice so it's become a norm. Quite charming, and hilarious! Sometimes we also encounter a herd of cows or horses migrating. They, too, prefer to travel via the concrete road!





Despite the gloomy weather It was still a nice stopover in Dochula because we all got to relax in this cafe and I had some yummy chocolate eclair and tea. I was having high tea on a late morning! Outside the cafe are some cute dogs, one is a Bhutanese mastiff. On the other side of the road there was a commemoration: 108 chortens erected to remember the soldiers who fought for Bhutan during an attack by Indian rebels. I didn't take any photos though.










After Dochula pass the rain stopped as we headed to Punakha and the view of the rice terraces garnered some "oohhhs" from the group and Tsewang was nice enough to drive slowly, sometimes even stopping on the roadside, to allow us to take photos. Good guy Tsewang. 




We finally arrived in our next destination and we definitely knew we were in the right place because of the shops nearby. Phallic symbols everywhere! I snapped one of this shop, because I found the winged one a bit too preposterous! 😄 




We had an enjoyable venture to Chimi Lhakhang - we walked through the rice fields and had to take just a little hike to the monastery. Along the way we met an old lady, 82-year strong, working the fields. Karma had a little chat with her, and he explained to me that he asked why she's working alone and she mentioned that his son is away but a nephew was there to help out. She was harvesting tomatoes and she graciously gave the group some to sample!












The visit to Chimi Lhakhang AKA fertility monastery was kinda anti-climactic. I enjoyed the walk more than the temple itself. However, it was quite interesting to hear the stories of couples who came to this temple and wished hard for a child and actually conceived soon after! The guides were asking if I would like to wish for one too but I decided it might be too soon, I want to go through the wedding ceremony first! 






Post lunch we ventured to Wangdue Dzong. In 2012 this important heritage site was up in flames and underwent a massive restoration. The Dzong was built between two rivers, acting as a fortress against rebels. All Bhutanese kings were crowned here, and the Dzong also serves as a winter residence of the dratshang (monastic body). It also used to be the symbol of the seat of power, before the capital was moved to Thimphu. Nowadays the Dzong acts as an administrative center for the Punakha district (dzongkhag). 





their view
our view
Inside the fortress there are three courtyards. The main one is a beautiful courtyard with a magnificent bodhi tree and a white stupa. 







A few minutes' walk from the fortress was a suspension bridge, the longest metal suspension bridge in Bhutan. Along the edge of the bridge are people selling plums and cucumber. The lady had a final bag of plums to sell, and even though I'm fructose intolerant I thought it prudent to buy them and the group enjoyed it accordingly. Later Karma bought some cucumbers and gave me a slice of it. Sprinkled with chili, it was quite a snack. 







Dandayamana-Dhanurasana
After an exciting day we finally made our way to Wangdue ecolodge. Of the 3 hotels we were to stay at, this was the one I was looking forward to because I found some awesome photos in Trip Advisor where breakfast is being served on the balcony, overlooking the valley. The journey to the ecolodge was quite an adventure - a little too exciting, in fact! We were driving on a narrow dirt path at the edge of the mountain road which I felt was just a good ruler length away from falling off! But Tsewang expertly maneuvered the van and we arrived in one piece. If I was the one driving, I'd have left the car and wept. 😅











We wanted to stretch our legs and see the windmill nearby so a group of us went out. We spotted an abandoned house. "Haunted House!" Kezang said. "Let's go check it out!" said I. How can I miss out on a chance to see ghosts - if they do exist - especially when there's a good lot of us? 😁 But in the end only 3 of us went, and Kezang had to escort us like a good guide. We didn't see any ghosts, just weed. LOL. Eventually we made our way to the windmill. It felt like trespassing as we had to go over a wired fence.




twilight zone


weed here is, well, unwanted weed


ghostbusters


the not-so-brave ones
the brave ones



Sucan announced that dinner was at 7:30, but we were hungry so we were hanging around the reception area much earlier. Teng asked the staff about alcohol, and we all found ourselves crowded in the small bar shortly after. We examined their small collection of wine, whisky and beer. And by examine, I meant we consumed them haha. They properly ran out of beer stock that night.








The night was going well, so we requested that we start late the next morning. Sucan agreed and let us have breakfast at 9 and leave at 10. In hindsight, it was not necessary, because we were all up early anyway. But it was nice to take it easy in the morning too. We had time to just hang out by our room's balcony and bask in the scenery. Oh, and remember the breakfast-in-balcony photo I saw in Trip Advisor? It didn't work out for us because... flies. Hordes of them. We retreated to the dining table indoors out of defeat.






The caveat was that the sun was already prominent by 10. By the time we reached our destination, the clouds cleared and it was scorching hot! Most of us decided to hike with an umbrella. No shame there because it was really not fun to sizzle under the sun.









We went up to Khamsum Yueley Chorten, a stupa built by the Queen and it looked like a pagoda. It was so hot I wasn't in the mood to take photos. We hurriedly got in because it was almost lunch break for the admin staff, so we climbed up all the way to the rooftop. I was just there for a good minute because I was starting to melt. As we waited back inside, Kezang arrived and explained that the deities appear to be in an intimate embrace. He said this represented a union of wisdom and compassion. Since we couldn't take photos, I googled one for you to imagine.


taken from Buddha Weekly

The descend was not much better. But the good news was that our hosts have planned this day well. After a sweaty hike, we were to cool down via river rafting! Woot! The water was so cold and refreshing, even though I got pretty drenched from the water fight. Now that everybody's wet, there's a need to change clothes. We were told we can change in this tent, but there's about 9 of us and doing it one by one was gonna take forever. We all decided to change at the same time and have been officially ordained into sisterhood. 😝

Well, we didn't want changing clothes to get in the way of lunch, which had been prepared under a large tent by the riverbank.








I don't remember how it started, but my guess was that some people were talking about this Singaporean lady who went to Bhutan and ended up marrying her guide. Because we decided that we wanted to have a Bhutanese wedding ceremony! Poor Keira and Karma were put on the spot, and we agreed that on the second night at the ecolodge they were to get married. So before we headed back, we made sure to stop by a local grocery story and stock up on wine. There, we met a Lama monk who have given each of us a blessed 10 nu. Sweet! I am keeping that in my wallet for good luck.

(Flash edit: We got a confession! Teng admitted that she was the matchmaking mastermind. Karma was making a wish in the temple and she asked what he wished for. He said he wished for a bride (awww) and Teng said we will make his dream come true in this trip! Keira being one of Teng's first buddies in this trip and knowing she's single, was immediately offered. LOL)

Back in the ecolodge, the assembly was set at 7:30pm. The groom was having cold feet and only emerged after being coerced later on. There was no escaping his fate. The wedding was a done deal haha. The wedding party was sealed with the couple going for their first dance, followed by random dancing and a conga train! 








The next day we were gonna drive back to Paro, near the airport. So even though it was a big night, we had to wake up at 8 and check out by 9. We democratically settled our booze bill and realized that for about $200 for 2 nights of big drinking for a group of 20, that was not bad at all. And who else can throw an awesome Singaporean-Bhutanese wedding party for just $200 anyway, eh? 😁


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*some photos are from myself, Adventures Unlimited event host and participants, and local guides in Bhutan