Hand-painted ceiling

Day Three in Bhutan: Local Color

Hotel Pedling

We departed Hotel Pedling around 8:00 a.m., passing through the center of Thimphu. Bhutan has no traffic lights — not even one — so the country’s busiest intersection is controlled by a white-gloved policeman who stands at a kiosk and keeps the traffic moving. We followed his signal and passed through the roundabout on our way to the weekend market.

Not a single traffic light!

Bridge across the Wang Chhu

The market is adjacent to the Wang Chhu river running through Thimphu. Before we entered the market I noticed a staircase to a bridge crossing the water. We climbed up the stone stairs to a white brick tower with a blue and orange flower motif on the interior and exquisitely hand-painted mandala on the ceiling surrounded by swirls of indigo. Post and lintel timbers framed the opening to the bridge and morning light filtered through string upon string of multi-colored prayer flags. A peek through the flags revealed a placid view of the river, flowing south toward India. These are the discoveries that make Bhutan such a special place — artistry, thought and beauty in the most unexpected locations.

Hand-painted mandala

The Wang Chhu

The craft market

Crossing the bridge, we found an outdoor craft market with treasures from around the region — printing blocks, decorative boxes, wall hangings, singing bowls, masks and tribal jewelry . I bargained (poorly) for a jewelry box beaded with red coral and turquoise. The seller smiled and offered a small discount — I was her first sale of the day and a sign of good luck. She agreed to a photo in return.

A picture of happiness

Bridge across the Wang Chhu

Back across the bridge (what a photographer’s dream), we entered the Centenary Farmers Market. Housed in an open two-story structure, vendors displayed their produce at yellow concrete stalls. Fruits and vegetables were on the ground floor — green beans, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, cauliflower, carrots, ginger, garlic, apples, oranges, bananas.

The produce market

More peace and happiness

A couple of adorable little girls eagerly struck an informed pose for a photo. The thrill of a digital camera is new to a lot of people in Bhutan, and kids seemed happy to pose and smile for us in exchange for a look at the photo (although these two scurried off as they giggled).

Chili powder

There were chili peppers everywhere — piles and piles of chili peppers! Red, green, fresh, dried, crushed and powdered into a fiery red dust. Thick, black sausages were stacked on a shelf like limp tire tubes. Dried yak cheese hung from strings, while dried fruits and nuts sat in open sacks. Another part of the market housed a muted palette of grains and rice. It was a Saturday morning scene like so many others in the world — people out to make some money, socialize and do their shopping for the week.

Yak cheese & sausage

Dried fruits and spices

Grains and rice

Thimphu and the sitting Buddha

It was time to depart Thimphu for the Punakha valley. I bought a bag of mandarin oranges and we returned to the car. Leaving Thimphu, I spied one last view of the sitting Buddha (top right on the hillside) before we started up the road to Dochu La Pass. Like so many “one and only” things about Bhutan, there is just one road going east and west across the country. And it is just that — a road, not a highway. It started out paved but twisted erratically up through the mountains with patches of dirt and mud. Barely wide enough for two cars to pass, the importance of having a good driver became very apparent. His skill and attention were the only things saving us from the trucks passing on the right and the precipice on the left. Think twice before you embark on this road — fear and car sickness are frequent companions.

Dochu La

The top of Dochu La Pass (3,140 meters or 10,300 feet) welcomed us with a grand display of 108 white chortens, built in 2005. A short hike to the top of the hill revealed a northeasterly view across the valley to a cyan sky partially filled with shifting cumulus clouds. On a clear day you can see Bhutan’s Himalayas, as we would discover on our return.

Sopsokha

We descended the mountain toward Punakha. Recently harvested rice fields stepped across the valley toward small clusters of two-story homes. We stopped for lunch at Sopsokha, laughing at the phallus handicraft store with its wooden souvenirs of every size. Phalluses are serious business in Bhutan — hanging from the corners of roofs, painted on walls and to the left and right of front doors of many homes.

Typical

Trail to the Temple of the Divine Madman

After lunch we set off by foot from Sopsokha to Chimi Lhakhang, or the Temple of the Divine Madman. The sun reached the western sky as we walked a wide road to the east side of the valley.

Valley rice fields

Harvested rice

Harvested bundles of rice were carefully stacked in circular mounds like pumpkins with stems on top, each golden bundle waiting to be manually whipped against the ground to release the grain. Daily life in Bhutan was yet again on display in a pastoral scene of incredible beauty. Walking uphill, we reached the temple where Kinga gave us a quick tutorial on the history of the Divine Madman.

Kuzu kuzu!

Temple of the Divine Madman

Temple of the Divine Madman

Lama Drukpa Kunley (born 1455) is known in Bhutan as the Divine Madman and creator of the takin (see Day Two’s adventure). He used his “Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom” to turn demonesses into deities, hence Bhutan’s abundance of phallic imagery and statues used to ward off evil spirits. His antics and exploits are legendary, and supposedly he enjoyed the company of hundreds of women thus the Temple of the Divine Madman is known as a temple of fertility. We turned the red prayer wheel at the entrance and toured the small interior where I made an offering of 20 nu. I was blessed by a monk who touched my forehead with 10-inch wooden phallus. Only in Bhutan.

Spinning the prayer wheel

Everyone loves football

From the interior courtyard, we watched young monks reciting prayers in a small room while another walked past me with a soccer ball under his arm. Here it was in Bhutan, the world’s most beloved sport with destiny and fortune at the whim of a black and white leather ball. Outside the temple the boy kicked the ball on the hillside. Does he yearn to be the next Messi? Or does he play to pass time, simply for the love of the game?

The Beautiful Game

Peeling oranges in the afternoon sun

Farther down the trail we passed a trio of women peeling a bag of oranges with their backs turned toward the sun. We walked past hanging laundry, stacks of firewood and doorsteps filled with the sandals of the occupants inside.

Sopsokha valley view

Making rice candy

Kinga led us into a small hut where a woman was toasting rice to make candy. She stoked the fire and stirred the skillet, and laughed when I stopped to photograph the heart-shaped lock on the door. Another two hours in Bhutan, another layer of life in this quiet, peaceful country.

Door lock at the candy factory

Dusk at the Punakha Dzong

Thirty minutes further by car and we arrived in Punakha — just after the sun had moved behind the mountain ridge to the west, casting shade over the valley. The Punakha Dzong stood proudly at the edge of the river against a backdrop of bluing mountains. Monks dressed in red robes gathered for dinner on the west side as we marveled at the site. We would return here in two days and tour the dzong on our way back from the Phobjikha valley. Until then… dinner, sleep and the promise of black-necked cranes in the morning.

Next: Day Four in Bhutan

Miscellaneous
Laying the paper

Day Two in Bhutan: This is Life

The Sitting Buddha

Our second day in Bhutan began with breakfast at the hotel and a drive up the mountainside near Thimphu. Fin was taking us to see Bhutan’s sitting Buddha — what will soon be the largest sitting Buddha in the world at nearly 170 feet tall. Bhutan is so small, and yet this Buddha is SO big — facing east, overlooking the valley and enormous in scale as you begin to approach it. The mountainside has been carved away and flattened out, with a massive expanse of concrete where the Buddha sits at the west side. The Buddha emanates good energy and happiness to everything in the vicinity.

The Sitting Buddha

Construction of the sitting Buddha is an exercise in international cooperation — funded by a Singaporean, constructed by Indians, with metal work completed by Chinese and land supplied by Bhutan. The project was started about six years ago and is nearing completion, although quite a bit later than expected. The Buddha was created in China and shipped in pieces to Bhutan, where it has been welded together on site.

The Sitting Buddha

The cone-shaped third eye at the forehead is five feet across and encrusted with diamonds. The hair is deep sapphire blue, the face with well-defined features and a gaze that looks past you toward the edge of the mountain. In the Bhutanese sun, the entire Buddha glows brightly against the sky.

The Sitting Buddha

Thimphu

From the site of the sitting Buddha there’s a terrific view of Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. From here, we headed across town to the hillside on the north side of the city for a morning hike at Sangaygang.

Sangaygang

The hillside at Sangaygang has been joyfully overtaken with prayer flags strewn in every direction. From here, the trail climbs steeply and leads to several monasteries and meditation sites in the hills.

Sangaygang

The current king’s residence, Samtenling Palace, isn’t far from here — we were able to get a glimpse through the trees. According to Fin, the fourth and former king (Jigme Singye Wangchuck or K4, as he’s known) is 57 years old and enjoys mountain biking on this trail. No wonder — it’s great single track with wide open views of the valley. Bhutan definitely has the terrain to become a world-class mountain biking destination of the future.

Wangditse Goemba

At the top of the hill we reached Wangditse Goemba, founded around 1750. A large prayer wheel stands at the south side, with prayer flags staked along the edge of the site.

Wangditse Goemba

Sangaygang

All over Bhutan, groups of 108 tall white prayer flags mark significant locations and memorialize people who have passed away. In Mahayana Buddhism, 108 is an auspicious number referencing 108 volumes of the Kangyur — a collection of the words of the Buddha. White prayer flags symbolize air, while blue, red, green and yellow symbolize space, fire, water and earth. Traditionally, mantras were printed on prayer flags with wood blocks. Wind spreads the peace, goodwill and blessings of prayer flags to everyone and everything around them.

Sangaygang

The Takin

From Sangaygang, we drove down the hill and stopped to see Bhutan’s national animal — the takin. Thimphu has a takin preserve (free admission), with fenced acreage on which they can roam with barking deer. Takins are strange looking animals. Legend has it they were created when Bhutan’s Divine Madman put the head of a goat on the body of a cow and brought his new creation to life.

Bhutanese architecture

A new building at the takin preserve will open someday as a museum and visitors center. It was amazing to see such beautiful new architecture, with ornamental spirit and exquisite hand-painted detail. Traditional artistry is very clearly valued, preserved and passed on throughout Bhutan.

Handpainted exterior

Land of the Thunder Dragon

Weaving scarves at the Takin Preserve

Departing the takin preserve, we stopped to watch this young woman weaving on a loom. She displayed stacks and stacks of colorful raw silk and cotton scarves she had created while overseeing the entrance to the preserve. I picked up a little souvenir for myself.

Thimphu Royal Golf Club

Back on the road, we drove into downtown Thimphu for lunch, passing the Royal Thimphu Golf Club along the way. Quite a few golfers were out on the course enjoying the sunshine amidst a few deep water hazards.

We ate lunch on the top floor of a building downtown — fried dumplings, buckwheat noodles, potatoes, vegetables and the usual Bhutanese chili-cheese combo. Fin, owner of Bridge to Bhutan who had accompanied us for our first 24 hours in Bhutan, introduced us to our official guide and driver who would take us from there. We were sad to see Fin go, but Kinga and Kumar were fun, well-educated companions from whom we would learn even more about life in Bhutan.

Thimphu Post Office

After lunch, Kinga and Kumar escorted us to the bank and the post office — the latter being well worth a stop on anyone’s itinerary. Bhutan has a rich history of stamp production, with elaborate and beautiful stamps from the past several decades celebrating everything from Olympic sports to aviation to Bhutanese folk lore to butterflies of Bhutan. Best of all, you can have your photo taken and printed on Bhutanese stamps you can use on the post cards you send home! So cool! Check the mail, mom, but it might take a few weeks.

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

After the post office, we were off on an afternoon tour of Thimphu which started with the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory. Housed in a one-story white building, the operation begins outside where fibers are soaked, boiled and cooled, then dumped in a heap on a table inside.

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

The grinder

The fibers are processed into pulp using an old grinder. The pulp is poured into a sink where it’s spread onto a screen, then the screen is lifted out and the paper is placed in a stack where it releases water and dries into sheets.

Spreading the pulp

Lifting the sheet

Aligning the edge

Laying the paper

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

When dry, the paper is hung up one piece at a time, brushed off and stamped with a logo. Jungshi has a small paper shop on site where you can buy the paper, posters and journals they produce.

Archery competition

Leaving the paper factory, we made an impromptu stop at an archery range where an afternoon competition was taking place. In retrospect, the 20 minutes we spent here is one of my favorite memories from the entire trip. Archery is Bhutan’s national sport, practiced with great enthusiasm all over the country.

About two dozen archers were at the north and south ends of the archery range which was 140 meters long. (What a VAST distance to cover with a traditional bow and arrow, not to mention the tiny target which is about the size of a dinner plate.) Archers at the south end of the range took turns shooting while archers at the north end stood behind concrete walls, out of danger, waiting to see if their arrows hit the target. When the archers at the south end had finished, the archers at the north end similarly took their shots.

When we arrived, an archer at the south end had just hit the target near us which brought about a synchronized “dance” with singing and shouting by all the archers at the north end of the field. Quite a production, no doubt steeped in years and years of tradition.

Archery competition

After the dance, the archers at the north end took turns shooting their arrows. Ready, aim, fire… then they each waited for shouts and hollers to see if they scored.

Archery Competition

Archery Competition

Archery competition

If I ever return to Bhutan, I hope to spend more time watching archery. It’s fun, spirited and pretty incredible to see these sharp shooters in action, even as an occasional dog wanders in front of the target. Just two Bhutanese athletes competed in the 2012 Olympic games — both female, and one of them in archery. It’s a sport loved by men and women alike.

Trashi Chhoe Dzong

The sun was setting and that was our cue to get to the Trashi Chhoe Dzong for the changing of the guard — newly implemented since last year’s wedding of King and Queen Wangchuck. We walked to the far end of the dzong where soldiers were assembling to march out and lower Bhutan’s flag.

Trashi Chhoe Dzong

Changing of the Guard

In a ceremony that lasted about 15 minutes (I’m hoping to get video up soon!), a monk led the procession from the dzong to the flag, then the flag was lowered, rolled, carried inside and stowed until the next morning.

I reflected on the day’s events over dinner at the hotel. We had canvassed Thimphu from morning to dusk, capturing many moments of daily life in Bhutan that didn’t seem all that different from my own life: hiking, golf, archery, paper making, the post office and bank, a dzong, the takins and one big, giant Buddha (okay, that part was very different). It was all foreign, yet not unfamiliar. Fascinating, yet similar. Strangers, yet people who are just like me and you. It was a day of adventure for sure, yet just an ordinary day in the life of Bhutan.

Next: Day Three in Bhutan

Beauty Experience Photography Travel
Donner Lake

Photo of the Day

Donner Lake

Back in California, today was a splendid day to drive over Donner Pass with blue and grey skies swirling about. Chain control was in effect, slowing the drive to a leisurely pace that allowed for full appreciation of the light show. I made a quick right turn to Donner Lake when I reached the bottom of the hill, parked, jumped out, ran to the dock and caught this photo of the last spots of light before sunset. Winter is here, and so am I.

Beauty Outdoors Photography Travel

Day One in Bhutan: Surprise, Surprise

Jhomolhari

Finding myself on the way to Bhutan was not something I expected to happen in 2012, so from the beginning Bhutan has been nothing but a surprise to me. Mr. Producer, generous husband who he is, secretly booked the trip as a birthday gift for me. A friend of ours wanted to go, had done the research and found a tour company but didn’t have anyone to go with so… Mr. Producer signed me up.

When I found out, I was speechless. I cried. And then I got REALLY excited. Bhutan is a sort of Holy Grail of traveling — mysterious, isolated, unspoiled and so abnormally expensive that young, uber-adventurous, jet-setting backpackers who have explored just about every nook and cranny of the world have largely been left at the Bhutanese border. The expense alone means that if and when you go to Bhutan, you’ll probably be exploring the country among a small number of well-to-do, well-traveled tourists who have been working and saving for a very long time to get to Bhutan. That said, Mr. Producer made a wise financial decision by seizing the opportunity to send only one of us to assess this expensive land of mystery. I was happy to accept the mission.

We, Kelly and Kelly (our friend and I share the same name), were off to Bhutan. We flew from Singapore to Paro, Bhutan with a quick stop in Calcutta on a plane that was nearly empty, as service by Druk Air just started in September. Calcutta looked hot and hazy from the air, with flat terrain crowded by apartment buildings and farmland. Upon landing we took on a huge load of passengers, all looking for a seat on the left side of the plane — the best vantage point for a glimpse of the Himalayas.

We took off and began the final 50 minute flight into Paro. The view to the west featured cumulus clouds as far as the eye could see, but Jhomolhari (7,314 meters/24,000+ feet) managed to poke through the blanket and reveal itself with a wisp of white at its tip. Suddenly the clouds were gone beneath us, we entered the mountains around Paro and began our descent — finding our way as if we were threading needles through mountain valleys, one after another, twisting and turning, finding our way to the airport while from the window it looked like we would surely skim the treetops along the way. Yikes! With one last unexpected tilt and dip of the left wing just before landing, we touched down and passengers burst into applause.

Arrival at the Paro airport

Leaving the plane in Paro, I savored the feeling of being somewhere totally foreign. Several men were dressed in traditional Bhutanese ghos — patterned knee-length robes with wide, white cuffs, a cloth belt around the waist, knee socks and leather shoes. Pretty charming traditional dress! Also charming? The architecture, even at the airport — white-washed with ornate columns and an elaborate wood cornice hand-painted with colorful motifs. And just to the left of the airport entry… meet the Wangchucks.

Meet the Wangchucks

Move over Will and Kate — the Wangchucks are a stunning young couple and admired throughout the country. Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the fifth and current king since the Bhutanese monarchy was introduced in 1907. He’s just 32 years old and was married to Jetsun Pema last year. She is 22 years old. You cannot turn your head in Bhutan without seeing their portraits hanging from at least one wall, signpost, building or billboard. They are simply everywhere, like exquisite fixtures of the kingdom who accompany your every move. Kuzuzangbo la!

Breezing through immigration, we bought a couple bottles of wine at duty-free (yes, Bhutan has duty-free) and pushed our luggage cart toward the exit where we were met by Fin, co-founder of Bridge to Bhutan. He greeted us with impeccable English, a smart gho and the charisma of a business owner who knows exactly what he’s doing. We loaded up the luggage and left the airport in his modern SUV — not exactly what I had expected from this surprising little country.Paro countryside

Headed toward Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, I surveyed the countryside — a lot like the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado or the Sierras in California. I felt right at home, as Fin drove along and gave us a well-informed lesson on the history and culture of Bhutan. We stopped along the way for a short hike to the river and the first suspension bridge in Bhutan. Strewn with prayer flags, the bridge employed under foot some of the massive metal links used in its original construction (see photo). The wood and brick structures at each end were painted with fascinating patterns. The river flowed cold and peaceful below us. I knew in those moments that Bhutan was a place I was going to love.Bhutan's first suspension bridge Outside Paro Fin on a bridge to Bhutan Downtown Thimphu

We arrived in Thimphu around 5:00. The sun had left the valley, hidden by the high ridge along the west side. We entered downtown — a busy streetscape surprisingly reminiscent of alpine villages in Europe. We drove along as Fin listed off quirky and fascinating facts about Bhutan: the only country without a single traffic light, only one escalator in the whole country, a building code that requires all architecture to adhere to traditional Bhutanese style, dry Tuesdays during which no alcohol can be bought or sold, an emphasis on local organic farming rather than importing fruits and vegetables, no driving in town centers on Tuesdays in support of “Pedestrian Days”, and no smoking or tobacco use anywhere — it’s totally outlawed. Bhutan is surprisingly progressive for such an insular country.

We checked into the hotel as we took it all in. Hotel Pedling was a quaint yellow building in the center of town. Our room was on the second floor, free wifi, toasty warm with wood wainscoting and practically Swiss in its alpine appearance. The tiled en suite bathroom was huge. I had expected we’d be roughing it so I was totally surprised by the modern facilities.

Fin accompanied us to dinner at Ama Restaurant — down a few stairs, just a short walk from the hotel. The food was excellent — potatoes, marinated chicken with vegetables, naan, rice, a curry dish and Druk 11,000 beer. Also, in a small bowl was an authentic Bhutanese dish that accompanied every meal we had during our trip: ema datshi, or chilies and cheese. Sometimes mild, sometimes crazily hot, and slightly different at every meal, I tried it a few times with mixed results. Regardless, let it be known that the Bhutanese love their chili peppers.Trashi Chhoe Dzong

Off for an evening drive, we stopped along the road to see the lights of the Trashi Chhoe Dzong and admire the National Memorial Chorten by moonlight. At 8:00 p.m. people were still circumambulating the chorten in daily prayer rituals. We would return to the Trashi Chhoe Dzong tomorrow to see the changing of the guard, but for now it had been a loooong and enlightening day. Fin returned us to our hotel. I reflected on the day’s events, reveled in all of the day’s surprises, and fell asleep as a plenitude of dogs barked into the night.National Memorial ChortenNext: Day Two in Bhutan

Architecture Beauty Experience Photography Travel

SIN to SFO

Approaching SFOAfter a week in Bhutan and several days afterward in Singapore, I’m home for the holidays in the United States of America! I’m so excited to see family and friends, catch up with everyone, get back to the snow and evaluate the personal impacts of living in Singapore. As I spend the coming month in Northern California, will I miss the Singapore steam bath of consistently hot and humid weather? Will I crave a steaming bowl of laksa with a cold beer? Will I yearn for the scent of incense when I step out the front door? Or can my two homes (original and adopted) peacefully coexist in my life, neither one better than the other — just entirely different experiences I love for different reasons?

We’ll see, but flying 8,447 miles across the vast Pacific ocean in about 20 hours door-to-door from SIN to SFO can feel like a bit of a time warp. Yet, there are subtle clues along the way that… Toto, we’re not in Asia anymore. The etiquette and protocol of Asia is often very different from that of America, not to mention that Asia and America are often totally different from the rest of the world. So in the spirit and humor of travel and cultural differences, here are my:

Top Ten Clues You’ve Flown From Asia To America
(I should note, this is flying on an American airline and
all clues were encountered during today’s travels.)

10. Luggage trolleys throughout the airport are free, regardless of arrival or departure. What a concept!

9. Security at the airport, specifically for your flight, is off the charts with no less than SIX baggage checkpoints for transit passengers from SIN > HKG > SFO, including a mandatory search of all hand-carried luggage in Hong Kong. (I’m not complaining.)

8. Passengers queue up for boarding at least 20 minutes before it starts, with marked boarding lanes to queue in, and the order by which people board the aircraft is determined by status, miles, time of check-in and thereby access to a computer and the internet.

7. Regardless of the boarding protocol, a passenger cutting into the boarding queue mid-stream (rather than going to the back of it) is not met with any animosity.

6. In-flight breakfast options are noodles or an omelet.

5. Passengers politely exit the aircraft row by row and no one gets hurt in the process.

4. A passenger rams her luggage trolley into yours and expects YOU to back up and get out of the way. (Interesting for many reasons, I must say.)

3. A passenger trying to cut into the exit queue at Customs and Immigration is met with, “NOW WAY BUDDY. That’s not cool. The back of the line is OVER THERE!”

2. The airport terminal and no less than three radio stations are playing Christmas carols 24/7.

And the number one clue You’ve Flown From Asia To America is:

1. You are devouring a burrito with tomatillo salsa within three hours of landing.

Yay, I’m in America! And I can’t wait to blog throughout the holidays! I’ve got lots to share — more on my trip to Kathmandu, a bundle of nuggets from Bhutan (six days with photography) and holiday flare galore. So let’s hot up the eggnog and get to it! Happy Holidays! It’s great to be home.

Miscellaneous Travel