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Trashi Chhoe Dzong, Thimpu

Thimpu to Punakha

Punakha Dzong

Guru Rinpoche Rock

View from Tango Goemba

Taktshang Goemba (Tigers Nest)

After seeing all the sites in Paro we made our way to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan which is no bigger than a small town. I was staying at the house of Kesang, the lady who organized my trip. During my stay here Kesang made me feel like part of the family. I was served delicious Bhutanese food made by her niece with lots of chilies. Chilies are not used a spice in Bhutan but rather served as a vegetable, often in a cheese sauce. Once you get used to it they are quite delicious, although once in a while you get a sneaky extra hot one that blows your head off. Next morning Chewang, Jamyang and I were off to see the sights of Thimpu including a stop at the "zoo" to see the bizarre national animal called the Takin. These strange creatures look like a bee stung moose and spent a lot of time fighting over some holly branches...no accounting for taste! Later on we went to visit the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, which is used as the administrative center and houses the offices of the king. Yet another impressive and beautifully decorated Dzong, the best bits of which I can't show you!

Next day dawned with gorgeous blue skies and sunshine as we drove the 76km from Thimpu to Punakha. As we drove the temperature warmed up from chilly Thimpu which is at an elevation of 2320m and never gets much above 20oC even in the summer. When we got to Dorchu La at the height of the pass to Punakha we were greeted with a stunning vista of the eastern Himalayas marked by 108 small stupas erected by the oldest queen (the king has four wives!). A visit to Punakha Dzong was yet another visual feast. This Dzong used to be the seat of the government and it's construction was foretold by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava). There is a much smaller building that predates the large dzong and the architect was told to sleep in front of the Buddha statue there. In his dreams he was taken to the palace of Guru Rinpoche and from his vision the new dzong was constructed, which, in keeping with tradition was never committed to paper and build from memory. At the south end is the "hundred pillar" congregation hall (with only 54 golden pillars!) where the walls are decorated with the most exceptional paintings depicting the life of the Buddha. The altar is dominated by a huge golden statue of the Buddha which literally leaves you awestruck. I swear that as I stood to look at this incredible site I could almost imagine the statue coming to life.

The following morning I attempted to hike up to Tango Goemba which was built by "the divine madman", Lama Drukpa Kunley in the 15th century. He had an unusual way of teaching the dharama which included getting drunk and womanizing as a way of teaching. This was an important event as to get to the goemba I had to climb up 280m. I wasn't sure that this was either a good idea or a possibility given the gimpy nature of my knees but I gave it a go because I was sure the rewards would be worth it. I made it to the top which afforded yet more splendid vistas of the mountains and more jaw dropping sights in the main temple. We were very lucky also because they were cataloging the relics inside and were treated to a rare view of solid gold butter lamps and stones with the footprints of Lama Drukpa Kunley. The highlight of the day however was a visit to Kesang's aunts for sunday lunch. Her aunt lives in a three hundred year old traditional farm house surrounded by apple orchards and it was a very special experience to be asked into her home for a traditional Bhutanese meal. Traditional farm houses have four stories, the ground floor is where the animals are kept, the first floor stores grain etc, the third floor is where the people live and the final story is an open attic for storage and drying. You have to climb ladder like stairs to get to the living rooms which was a bit scary where there is a big earth stove and kitchen, an alter room and one living room where everyone sleeps. We had a delicious meal of chilies (of course!), red rice and seaweed soup (made from river weed as there is no sea in Bhutan). But that's not all, yet another treat was in store for me when I got back to Kesang's house where we went for a hot stone bath. This is the Bhutanese equivalent of the hot tub where special stones rich in minerals are heated to red hot in a wood fire and dropped into water infused with herbs. You sit in a wooden tub outside, which, in this case was separated from the stones but traditionally you have the stones in the tub with you...ouch! Kesang put some of her home made lemon grass oil in the water and I stayed there soaking and sipping ara, the local home brew served hot with an egg in it, until I was suitably prune like...fabulous!

After the success of the previous days hike I decided I would tackle the walk to Taktshang Goemba, one of Bhutan's most famous monasteries. Perched 900m above the floor of Paro valley clinging to the face of the rock it is hard to believe that it is not about to fall off. The walk up there takes about two and a half hours and is no mean feat for someone in my physical state! Apart from the knee situation it is really hard to breath due to the altitude and I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath. When you get to the view point there is a further crippling decent of 400 steps followed by a breathless accent of another 400 steps to the Goemba. It was very hard for me to get up there but I was rewarded with one of the most spectacular sights in Bhutan... and that's really saying something! The name means "tiger nest" after Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown there in his wrathful manifestation on the back of his consort, a tigress. I can't blame him either it must be infinitely better than walking up! There is a fantastic temple build around the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months. The inside walls are decorated with the most trippy paintings of the wrathful form of Guru Rinpoche and I couldn't help thinking what a fantastic place it would be for a psytrance party! Milarepa also mediated there and I would be hard put to imagine that you wouldn't reach a state of enlightenment in such a spectacular spot as this. Jamyang helped me a lot to get to this fantastic place, supporting me on the tricky bits as I made the descent back to the car. Looking up at Taktshang Goemba from the road I'm amazed that I made it all the way up there. I came to India all those months ago requiring a wheelchair to get around the airport and now in Bhutan made it up a climb that I would have thought impossible for me to do. Bhutan is a magical place :)

The five days I spent in Bhutan feel like weeks, I crammed so much into the days. I saw the most spectacular monasteries that leave you astonished by the exquisite nature of the adornments inside, I really have never seen anything like it. There is nowhere like Bhutan and it was worth every penny to come here. But far and away the best thing about Bhutan are the people. They are an absolute delight, so hospitable and polite and permeated by a deep sense of Buddhist dharma that is an example to the world of how it is possible to live in peace and harmony with your surroundings. Kesang, my guide Jamyang and my driver Chewang were absolutely lovely and they made my stay here a fantastic experience. Save up your pennies and come to Bhutan and if you do I cannot recommend my hosts highly enough!


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