Alishan, Taiwan

The Old Trees of Alishan, Taiwan

Alishan, Taiwan

It’s two days before Christmas and we miss the last bus to Alishan. With no backup plan, we resort to hiring a taxi to drive us up the mountain. It’s an expensive endeavor, but so are the holidays. The road turns and twists for more than an hour and at times we wonder if we’ve gone too far off the beaten path with our latest adventure in Taiwan. Our driver even stops to light a cigarette in unspoken agreement that this road is something to be reckoned with.

We finally top out and arrive at Alishan House. It’s a bit too dark and foggy to gauge our elevation but we agree that having our head in the clouds is always a pretty good indicator that we’re somewhere worthwhile. It’s not until the next morning that we see the quiet Alishan forest when we set out by foot to explore the mountaintop.

We board a five-car train for a quick ride to the start of the hike, an unexpected beginning to what turns out to be a charming walk through the forest. An elevated plank path leads the way through the trees — a mix of new and old growth, cedars and cypresses, with a profusion of greenery at every turn. Giant red cypresses are the highlight — towering over us, impossible to photograph, firmly rooted in the mountainside, some for thousands of years.

Logging has ceased here and tourism is the economic force at Alishan. This has clearly been the salvation of these old growth trees. I think of the history through which they’ve existed, their lifetimes in pace with the redwoods and sequoias of Northern California on the other side of the Pacific.

We return to Alishan House for sunset where, above the clouds, we find a stunning view and finally sense our location high on the mountain. The old railway — no longer in use — clings to the opposite mountainside, a broken and dangerous reminder of years past. The sun sets as clouds roll past us and mountaintops just their heads above the fog to breathe freely from the sky, just like we do.

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Alishan National Scenic Area is located in south-central Taiwan, and can be reach by car, bus or taxi from Chiayi station on the Taiwan High Speed Rail route.

Miscellaneous Travel

Happy 50th Birthday, Singapore!

Singapore — the tiny island nation, the Little Red Dot — is celebrating 50 years as an independent country. The story of Singapore is remarkable, thanks to the exceptional vision of Lee Kuan Yew and the hard work of so many Singaporeans. To celebrate this historic birthday, I’m sharing a gallery of my favorite scenes and most memorable experiences. From Thaipusam to Chinese New Year, Supertrees to mooncakes, I share these memories with tremendous gratitude for the years I lived there and the countless ways it enriched my life.

SG50! Majulah Singapura!

Miscellaneous

The Best of Singapore

After living in Singapore for three and a half years, I think it’s time to reveal my favorite parts of the Garden City. These are the things I love, the places I explore over and over, the elements I never tire of. In no particular order, here’s The Best of Singapore from this local’s perspective.

Marina Bay Sands

Marina Bay Sands

Architecture
Singapore’s growing skyline includes the designs of world renown architects like Moshie Safdie, Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind. Marina Bay Sands is probably the most recognizable structure defining the Garden City with its curved top spanning three columns. Creativity and good feng shui have shaped the city into an architectural gem, yet heritage shophouses remain as equally important elements of Singapore’s character. Don’t miss the City Gallery for a fantastic look at Singapore’s city planning — past and future — along with three scale models (on the first and second floors) showing the development of the city center and entire island of Singapore.

Thaipusam

Thaipusam

Thaipusam and Fire Walking
Not for the faint of heart, these two major events of the Hindu calendar are enthusiastically celebrated in Singapore. Don’t be afraid. If you come to watch and learn you’ll be welcomed by the local Indian community who invite your respectful curiosity and take a lot of pride in sharing their faith.

Lau Pa Sat

Lau Pa Sat

Lau Pa Sat
The doyenne of hawker centers, Lau Pa Sat is both historic and charming. Existing in some form or fashion since the early 1820s, this place has more kinds of food than you could ever try in one sitting. More than 100 stalls serve up Singaporean, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Turkish and even Costa Rican specialties. If these don’t fill your belly, head outside to the barbecue satay stalls where you can dine on grilled shrimp, pork, chicken and mutton with a side of roti pratha. Yes please!

Masjid Sultan in Kampong Glam

Masjid Sultan in Kampong Glam

Arab Street/Kampong Glam
Sparkling textiles and beautiful rugs may attract you, but the shawarma at the corner will keep you coming back. From smoking the hookah to dining outside Masjid Sultan on a Friday night, Arab Street is a melting pot of Middle Eastern culture with a little dose of Blu Jazz and Zam Zam thrown in for fun. Don’t miss the hip shops of Haji Lane.

Tiong Bahru Market

Tiong Bahru Market

Daily Markets
Sure, you might need to go to Fairprice for a few bits and bobs, but plan to do most of your shopping at Singapore’s daily markets in every neighborhood of the city. Fresh fruits and vegetables abound, along with meats and seafood from the daily catch. For the widest variety, try Tekka market in Little India where you’ll find just about every spice and slice of meat you need for that steaming bowl of curry.

Pork Buns in Tiong Bahru

Pork Buns in Tiong Bahru

Tiong Bahru
Here lies the quintessential Singapore neighborhood. Explore on a Saturday morning to experience the old and the new, the hip and the classic – the full spectrum of Singapore within just a few blocks. Get a flat white at Forty Hands, linger over words on paper at Books Actually, don’t miss the kouign amman at Tiong Bahru Bakery, dip into the daily market to stock up on rambutans, head upstairs for some Chicken Rice, try the pork buns at the corner store next to Wangz Hotel, have a rooftop cocktail at Wangz, and end the day with spare ribs and chili crab at Por Kee Eating House. This is just the beginning.

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay
Baobab trees, infinite flowers, a mountain waterfall, a Supertree grove and some really cool architecture make this a marvelous outing. If all that doesn’t wow you, the cool air of the domes will at least provide a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of Singapore. Don’t miss the Supertree Skyway – one of the best photo opps in all of Singapore.

Sunday Brunch at Garibaldi's

Sunday Brunch at Garibaldi’s

Sunday Brunch
No city does brunch like Singapore. Nearly every hotel and upscale restaurant has something good to offer on Sundays. It’s practically a sport, with free-flow Champagne, cocktail carts, specialty grill stations, piles of fresh seafood and desserts to find the sweet tooth in everyone. But it’s not cheap, so save up for this Sunday treat. Favorites? Edge at the Pan Pacific Hotel for the variety of cuisine or the Fullerton Hotel for its seafood and setting. For something completely different try Catalunya where wallets, plates and eardrums are all broken at some point along the way.

Chinatown

Chinatown

Chinatown and the Buddha Tooth Temple
Give yourself a whole afternoon to properly explore this treasure trove of culture, food and heritage architecture. Shop for souvenirs, walk through the wet market, or just have a beer and watch the world go by. Retreat to the rooftop of the temple for a tranquil surprise, or head to Club Street where the road transforms into an al fresco party on Friday and Saturday nights.

The Merlion at the esplanade

The Merlion at the esplanade

The Esplanade and Marina Barrage
Pick any weekend afternoon to meander the esplanade and view the Singapore skyline from stunning vantage points. Rent some roller blades at Clark Quay for a fun spin down the river, or take a kite to the grassy rooftop of Marina Barrage for a breezy escape. Singapore’s waterfront is packed with local color, including the Merlion.

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All photos included are from my Instagram feed. Follow me on Instagram at compassandcamera.

Travel

A Person of the Forest at Semenggoh

While in Borneo, we stopped at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre outside of Kuching. Semenggoh has been successfully rehabilitating orphaned and injured wild animals since 1975. These animals are taught how to survive in their native habitat and then re-introduced into the wild.

Semenggoh’s orang-utan rehabilitation program has been particularly successful, with many having been released into the surrounding forest reserve — which has reached its sustainable capacity for these amazing, intelligent creatures. Orang-utan rehabilitation has since been transferred to the Matang Wildlife Centre in another national park in Borneo.

Yet Semenggoh remains a special place. Rehabilitated “semi-wild” orang-utans often return to this center during its morning and afternoon feeding times. It’s a safe place to find an easy meal. In Malay, orang means person and utan means forest, and there’s always an eager audience waiting and hoping for these “people of the forest” to make an impromptu appearance at Semenggoh.

We were lucky on this Friday morning, as a male orang-utan swung through the canopy and stopped for some sugar cane and durian. At first just a mass of reddish hair, I finally discerned his figure as he moved around a tree trunk — upside down, downside up, limbs stretching in all directions. Finally… a face. Just for a moment. Then a leap, a grab, a durian, and a perch under leaves on a tree limb. Breakfast, privacy, a glance at us on the ground, another bite. And then off again into the treetops.

Experience Nature Outdoors Travel

Tiger’s Nest and My Last Day in Bhutan

Tiger's Nest

My final day in Bhutan featured a journey to the location most emblematic of this demure country — Taktshang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Mention Bhutan in conversation and Tiger’s Nest is the image that comes to mind for most people. Its anomalous, cliff-side location distinguishes it among the world’s many monasteries and religious sites. A trip to Bhutan would be incomplete without seeing it, for the pride of this small nation reaches its heights and waves proudly with its prayer flags.

In the 8th century Guru Rinpoche, founder of Mahayana Buddhism, flew on the back of a tigress from Tibet to the cliff in Bhutan where Tiger’s Nest is located (hence the name). He slayed a demon and meditated in a cave for several months. Guru Rinpoche transformed into eight manifestations, or gurus, each with a specific purpose. Regarded as the second Buddha, Guru Rinpoche remains an important figure in Buddhism in Bhutan.

Many hundreds of years after Guru Rinpoche arrived in Bhutan, the 4th Druk Desi (civil administrator) Tenzin Rabgye became a key figure of the Drukpa (Bhutanese) state. Also known as Gyalse or “Prince” Tenzin Rabgye, he introduced Bhutan to the festival dances of Tshechu and its massive wall hangings called Thongdrol. Both remain important facets of today’s Bhutanese culture. Upon visiting the cliff-side cave where Guru Rinpoche had meditated in the 8th century, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye declared that a monastery should be built in his honor. Thus, the creation of Tiger’s Nest in 1692.

Tiger's Nest, to the right of the dip in the mountain

We left the hotel at 7:00 a.m. and made a short drive through Paro, into the hills, to the base of the mountain. Horses and guides waited to carry passengers to the top, but we went by foot. Tiger’s Nest was visible at the start — like a brush stroke of white on a gray granite cliff, to the right of a small couloir.

The morning was pleasantly cool — perfect for hiking. The terrain felt like home, with pine trees and brush and a well-worn trail that moved quickly from a flat introduction to a steep first act. Within ten minutes I was removing layers in a familiar habit from countless days spent hiking in California and Colorado. Now living in Singapore, it was SO good to be back on a real mountain trail.

Trail to Tiger's Nest

Switchbacks snaked left and right and gradually lifted us up the mountain where we paused for a photo and wondered if we were really getting any closer. We could see Tiger’s Nest again, this time high on the mountain in front of us as we passed a long line of prayer wheels on a flat stretch of dirt.

Prayer Wheels

View from the trail

About one hour into the journey, we reached the halfway point marked by a quaint cafe with an outdoor terrace and a good vantage point of Tiger’s Nest. With little traffic on the trail, we decided to keep going and stay ahead of other tourists making the same trip. But let’s be honest — there aren’t many tourists in Bhutan, so feeling crowded on the trail wasn’t really a huge concern.

Tiger's Nest

The trail went up and up again for another 45 minutes, finally flattening out along the side of the mountain. We had reached the highest point, now hiking straight ahead until we reached the mountain edge where the trail emerged from the trees revealing an eye-level view of Tiger’s Nest.

Paro Valley View

To the right and below, the trail dropped steeply and finished its delivery but the view of Paro, prayer flags and Tiger’s Nest across the gorge held me captive for several minutes. It was the view I had seen in so many photographs. Even standing in front of it with my own eyes I had to remind myself: I AM HERE. I AM AT TIGER’S NEST IN BHUTAN. Take it in. Look at the details. This is NOT a postcard. This is happening! And nothing is happening! It’s perfect — just sitting there for me to see, at this moment, in this life.

Tiger's Nest

View from the trail

We followed the stone steps, descending along the mountainside as the trail zigged and zagged. Tiger’s Nest loomed above us across the gorge as countless strings of prayer flags shifted in a colorful dance around us. We crossed the footbridge at the deepest point of the gorge where a white ribbon of water rushed down the granite face from above. We started climbing up again as I turned to look at the trail behind us.

Trail to Tiger's Nest

Door to the Nest

A final flight of stairs led through the entrance to Tiger’s Nest — double wood doors in a small stone wall with tin shed roofs. I was surprised that we would actually be able to enter the monastery, but that’s the rare beauty of a small country like this with the space and kindness to accommodate the curiosity of travelers like me. We arrived at the guard house where we were required to check our bags and cameras, leaving the interior journey to my description and your imagination.

As you would assume based on the unusual shape and location of Tiger’s Nest, its inner chambers are stacked and wedged into the mountain with connecting steps and staircases. We removed our shoes and entered the first room — an intimate cave that fit just a few people, with a low ceiling and a small Buddha statue. Warm, quiet, insulated. It is said that Guru Rinpoche meditated here for several months, and there is a gilded doorway (seldom opened) to another cave beyond.

Back outside, we climbed a ladder-like staircase to the next level. The second chamber was comparatively large, with bigger statues, a high ceiling and a trap door that revealed a cave connecting to the first chamber below. Mysterious, cold, cryptic. Each wall was painted and decorated with endless detail.

The third chamber was mid-sized and we were the only people inside. Familiar, approachable, positive. Kinga explained to us that if we had come to Tiger’s Nest to get a name for a child this is where it would happen.

“I want a name,” I said.

“You want a name?” Kinga replied, looking at me curiously.

“Yes, I’d like a name. Can I have a name?” What a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to partake in a Bhutanese tradition! Clearly there was no better place in the world.

Surprised by my request, Kinga scurried out the door to find the monk who would possibly fulfill my request. Upon their return there was a brief bit of Bhutanese negotiation, then Kinga told me to make a wish — boy or girl. The monk reached for a small glass jar filled with dozens of rolled strips of paper. He removed the top and offered the open jar to me, from which I picked a piece of paper. He unrolled it and wrote it down. I now had a name — two names actually, as is the Bhutanese custom. My name (which I will keep to myself) loosely translates to “Perfect Happiness” and yes, I was perfectly happy.

Our final destination was another mid-size chamber packed with statues, paintings, figurines, butter lamps, offerings and explosive color throughout. Grand, overwhelming, divine. A massive Buddha statue dominated the room, filled with natural light from a window on the south side. Again, I was astonished at merely being inside the monastery but viewing each chamber had been a personal experience that provoked a wide range of thoughts and feelings.

We stepped outside, put on our shoes and lingered at an overlook that faced the Paro Valley several thousand feet below… just the warm sun, cyan sky and pleasant breeze accompanied us in reverence.

Colors of Bhutan

Tiger's Nest

We departed the monastery and meandered down the steps, across the gorge and back up the other side. I think I shot a hundred photos — zoomed in, zoomed out, horizontal, vertical, snap, snap, snap, you may never be here again. The remaining trip to the bottom was far less arduous, filled new memories of a very special place. We stopped for a quick lunch at the cafe (good food) and then continued down the hill.

Back at the car we departed for the remaining two sites of our trip. We traveled a road leading up a hillside, past an archery competition, to another area of Paro. The National Museum overlooked the valley from a fantastic perch on the hill.

Paro Valley View

National Museum of Bhutan

Damaged by an earthquake, the National Museum looks like it might collapse at any moment with large visible cracks and a portion of its wall reconstructed with unpainted stone. It has a circular shape like a conch shell with a wall several feet thick. The artifacts of the museum have been transferred to a more secure building across the driveway. The exhibits include an incredible room of Bhutanese masks, as well as tapestries, tools, weapons and clothing from the past several centuries.

Puna Lhakhang entrance

Our final stop was a very old stupa in the Paro Valley — Kichu Lhakhang, built in the 7th century. It was modest and soft spoken, with a homier feel than its grander counterpart up the mountain. A couple of sleepy cats guarded the inner courtyard where a beautiful door led to the prayer hall. Its dark, worn interior breathed heavily with age and wisdom.

Puna Lhakhang

The exterior was perforated by a long line of prayer wheels and two kids kicked a ball as butter lamps flickered inside a small shed. It was a perfect scene to end the trip — life, peace, devotion and beauty in a country overflowing with the same.

Football at Puna Lhakhang

A Few Tips About Booking a Trip

Do your research (thanks KB!), understand what you’re paying for and consider booking with a local Bhutanese company like Bridge To Bhutan. (They are wonderful, by the way. Hi Fin! Hi Lotay!) Bhutan levies a tourism fee of $250 USD per person, per day. If you’re a single traveler, you will pay an additional $40 USD per day. (These totals may fluctuate slightly depending on what time of year you visit.) The government uses a portion of this fee to provide free health care and education for the Bhutanese people so your money is going to a great cause. The remainder of this fee goes to the local tour company who pays for your guide, your driver, your hotel room and your food (minus drinks and alcohol, airfare not included). So, all in on the ground for less than $300 per day? A pretty good deal.

Compare that total with some non-Bhutanese tour companies around the world who are charging between $4,000 and $7,000 USD for a single traveler on a week-long itinerary (airfare not included), which is $500 – $1,000 per day. This is a massive difference in price. Perhaps these companies would claim their guides, accommodations and/or services are premiere or luxury, but for me Bhutan wasn’t a destination I needed to experience at a luxury level. Nonetheless, the “standard” places we stayed at were great — clean, modern, even charming (Meri Puensum Resort), and our guide and driver were smart, well spoken, friendly and fun to get to know.

Bhutan is notorious as an expensive, out-of-reach, exorbitant destination… and wrongfully so, in my opinion. Choose wisely, do the revised math and put Bhutan back on your list. I think I hear the sound of one hand clapping.

Beauty Experience Miscellaneous Outdoors Photography Travel

Day Five in Bhutan: Punakha to Paro

Meri Puensam Resort

We left Punakha’s Meri Puensam Resort just after 9:00 a.m., according to the old fashioned clock hanging outside the reception cottage. Like a lot of things in Bhutan, the clock looked old but new, machine made but hand-lettered, a blend of old style and modern convenience. It seems like every detail in Bhutan has a story to tell, a bit of history to share or just something of interest that makes you wonder about its origins.

Punakha Dzong

We drove north from the hotel, stopping at a small park with a view of Punakha Dzong — the focus of our morning. The sun had just come up over the mountains to the east, illuminating the isthmus at the confluence of the wide Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu (mother and father rivers). Punakha Dzong was built here at the base of the hill in 1637 — at the tip of the trunk of a sleeping elephant as metaphorically predicted by Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Mahayana Buddhism.

Punakha Dzong

Nearly 400 years of history, including fires, earthquakes and flooding, sat quietly on the riverbank in front of us. Punakha Dzong looked statuesque, fortified and regal, reached by a diminutive bridge over the river at the west side.

In looking at this photograph now, it’s apparent how perfectly proportioned Punakha Dzong is to its surroundings. It is beautiful but not ostentatious. Its height complements the width of the rivers. The contour of the structure matches the contour of the mountain behind. How fascinating to wonder about the process of designing and building it so many years ago. Did the builders stand at this exact viewpoint, pushing the height and roof tops up, up, up until they seemed in perfect harmony with the landscape?

Bridge to Punakha Dzong

Upon crossing the bridge, I discovered the bridge is not diminutive at all and actually rather large with post and beam construction and a gable roof. Over the river and through the doorway, the gargantuan scale of the dzong became suddenly apparent as I stood in its shadow and looked up. This really is the essence of the beauty of Punakha Dzong — that its presence is harmonious with the landscape yet so grand and significant to those within and around it.

Entrance to Punakha Dzong

I walked beyond the entry and down the stairs to the gardens on the east side of the dzong. I wanted to get a photograph of the entire structure. I backed up as far as I could but I still couldn’t capture it full frame, as Kinga provided scale standing on the steps at lower right in the photo. He looks so tiny!

Punakha Dzong

Prayer wheel at the entrance

The north entrance has two steep staircases — one of which is wooden and can be pulled up to deny entry to any unwelcome visitors. We climbed up, reaching the landing with a walk-around prayer wheel and beautiful painted murals throughout.

Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong is unique in having three docheys or courtyards (rather than two). The first courtyard accommodates administrative offices, monks quarters surround the second courtyard, and the third courtyard has a temple and assembly hall. No matter where you are in Punakha Dzong, significant doorways and staircases are all around.

Punakha Dzong

Stairway to enlightenment?

Punakha Dzong

We removed our shoes and Kinga led us through the assembly hall where about 30 young monks were reciting texts in a continuous hum. They tried to sit still and ignore the handful of tourists walking clockwise around the room, but I caught a few curious glances as we admired the interior. We received a blessing, putting the water in our hands to our mouths and then pouring it over our heads. Kinga told us the story of  Buddha’s life as portrayed by the murals on the north wall.

Decorative metal work on the front door

Having toured the interior, we returned to the first courtyard and descended the staircase, passing this incredible embossed metal work on the front door. Outside, the morning was heating up as families and monks came and went across the bridge in colorful ensembles.

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After just a few more photos of Punakha Dzong we were back on the road to Thimphu, having seen some breathtaking sites in Punakha and Phobjikha Valley. Crossing Dochu La Pass and its 108 chortens once more, the skies were clear revealing Bhutan’s Himalayas to the north.

Chortens at Dochu La Pass

Chortens at Dochu La Pass

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We reached Thimphu in the early afternoon, and met up again with Fin, owner and founder of Bridge to Bhutan. We shared the details of our fascinating trip over great pizza (yes, pizza!) and salad at Season’s Restaurant. I highly recommend this quaint eatery if you find yourself craving a little variety amidst the Bhutanese buffets.

We bid a fond farewell to Fin and set out on an afternoon of shopping before heading to Paro for the night. Shopping in Thimphu was surprisingly good — the National Handicrafts Emporium sells many different fixed-price items (rugs, shawls, wooden bowls, boots, paintings, jewelry) with the guarantee that everything they sell is made in Bhutan.

The Bamboo Stalls in Thimphu

Not far from the emporium, the “Bamboo Stalls” also have a wide range of things for sale in more than 50 outdoor huts lining the sidewalk. (Apologies for the photo quality — I was using the point-and-shoot during this little outing.)

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The Bamboo Stalls have purses, bags, table runners (bought one), scarves, shawls, jackets, wood carvings and lots of great other souvenirs to take home. Many prices are fixed, but sellers usually offer a small discount if you show interest in something. Go early — the cold nights shut down the stalls shortly after dusk.

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Bhutanese boots (with tops rolled down)

And that brings me to the Bhutanese boots. Yes, boots. I became mildly obsessed with them during the six days I was in Bhutan. You will not find boots like these anywhere else in the world, which is why I think I was so enamored with them. They are embroidered, colorful, extremely decorative and usually very tall (just Google Image “Bhutanese boots” and you’ll see what I mean). K5 (the current king) is often wearing these boots in his stately portraits. They look like the boots of a court jester or maybe a circus performer with their swirls, stripes and embellishments. Awesome!

Time to make the boots

My obsession turned into a search for a boot shop, which we located in Thimphu after dark. We entered the shop where boots were being made in custom sizes and colors, awaiting pick up by their lucky owners. We saw the soles being attached and the sewing machine where the boots were put together. So cool!

Gimme some sole

Sew easy

If only I could have found a reason why I needed these boots! I figured I could wear them in Singapore for a special occasion like Chinese New Year or Formula 1 (hey, with a little black dress? surely no other girl would be wearing them!) but then again I didn’t want to disrespect their beauty, history and purpose. So I decided they were best… left in Bhutan. We said goodnight and I left the shop empty handed. Perhaps next time I go I’ll bring back a pair and put them in a glass case as a memory of the spirit and uniqueness of this country.

We drove on to Paro, checked into yet another charming hotel, enjoyed dinner together and departed for Tiger’s Nest in the morning.

Next: My Last Day in Bhutan

Architecture Beauty Experience Photography Travel
Phobjikha Valley

Day Four in Bhutan: Venture to the Valley

Meri Puensum Resort

We awoke in Punakha to a crisp, clear morning. The sun illuminated the Meri Puensum Resort, revealing all the intricate details I hadn’t seen when we checked in the evening before. As you can see, Bhutan’s traditional architecture is a magical balance of stone, wood and hand-painted details. Older structures have beautiful time-worn character while newer ones, like this main building at Meri Puensum, often have whimsical, almost fairy tale-like spirit. A sense of joy seems embodied in nearly all the architecture of Bhutan.

Meri Puensum Resort

A large prayer wheel sits at the entrance to Meri Puensum, which is located on a hillside with a northerly view toward Punakha. We had an enormous room here with two twin beds, en suite bathroom, sitting area and private balcony with view to the river below. Slopes around Punakha were dotted with intense red leaves of wild poinsettia trees.

Wild poinsettia

Always smiling, Kumar

After a quick breakfast of eggs and toast, we hopped in the car with Kinga (guide) and Kumar (driver) and began our journey to Phobjikha Valley. Getting anywhere in Bhutan by land requires patience and perseverance — the twisting, turning road (there is only one going east and west) climbs relentlessly along and over the mountains, until eventually it finds the next valley and barrels to the bottom. Thirty minutes up the road, we stopped to take some pictures while Kumar gathered some fresh blooms from the roadside to decorate the hood ornament on the car — a touch of beauty for the ride that matched Kumar’s constant smile and happy demeanor.

The Phobjikha Valley

The timing of our trip fortuitously coincided with the arrival of black-necked cranes in Phobjikha Valley so we were headed there to do a bit of  bird watching. After over two hours on the road the hills finally parted, revealing a glimpse into the valley. We continued on, arriving shortly thereafter at a small village called Beyta where we started our journey on foot at Gangtey Goemba.

Door to Gangtey Goemba

For approximately 450 years, Gangtey Goemba has overlooked the Phobjikha Valley from the top of a hill on the northwest side. Old, red double doors opened into the courtyard where the prayer hall suddenly appeared in silent grandeur — dominating, awe-inspiring and just… big.

Door to Gangtey Goemba

Gangtey Goemba

White exterior walls accentuated the goemba’s size and angularity. The structure seemed larger at the top than the bottom — articulating outward to a multi-tiered roof with rich, gold detailing and protective deities placed at the corners. The goemba seemed generally not of human-scale, inspired by something larger than life, dwarfing the characters in its doorways. A closer look at the carved and painted woodwork showed astonishing artistry — brush stroke after brush stroke, highlights, shadows and perfect portrayals of symbolic figures and animals.

Hand-painted details of Gangtey Goemba

Monks quarters at Gangtey Goemba

Monks’ quarters were located around the perimeter of the courtyard, each doorway with a number and a decorative swath of fabric hiding the interior. This was room number 37 with a scene depicting the “Four Friends”, a legend of Bhutanese culture involving an elephant, monkey, rabbit and bird and their harmonious relationship with each other and with nature.

Beyta

From the goemba we walked through Beyta, a small village with a central road and a handful of homes alongside. People were out tending to the needs of their daily lives — fixing a roof, hanging up laundry and drying those ever-present chili peppers in the warm sunshine.

Drying chili peppers

Gangtey Nature Trail

The Gangtey Nature Trail led east from Beyta, down the hill through pine forest and dwarf bamboo. Fences and rock walls defined plots of vegetables, like potatoes and turnips, surrounding two-story homes.

Valley farmland

Fresh turnips for breakfast

Breakfast! These kids were eating raw turnips just pulled from the ground.

Path through the pine forest

Phobjikha Valley

Emerging from the forest, the valley opened in front of us. A small deck near an enclave of prayer flags provided the perfect resting spot from which we could look for the nesting black-necked cranes. The cranes migrate from Tibet, arriving in Bhutan near the end of October. They winter here in Phobjikha Valley, returning to Tibet around February. Supposedly, every year the cranes circle Gangtey Goemba several times before leaving the valley on their way back to Tibet.

We were quite far away from several groups nesting down the hill, but in the midst of looking at them several other flocks took flight and passed us going east (click any image for a larger view).

Black-necked Cranes

Black-necked Cranes

Black-necked Cranes

I regretted I didn’t have a more powerful zoom lens to photograph the nesting cranes, but the blue sky was a nice backdrop for the several dozen flying to other parts of the valley. Black-necked cranes are endangered, numbering between 5,500 and 6,000. In the end, it was nicer to just put down the camera and watch them fly over us for there was something intangibly special about plainly seeing this endangered species for what may have been the one and only time in my life.

The Phobjikha Valley

Turning to the east, Kinga led us down the hill further into the valley. We saw a handful of nesting cranes here and there, sometimes among the grazing livestock. It seems the livestock isn’t helping the health of the valley’s low-lying wetlands — eating the grasses and trammeling paths across the habitat of the black-necked cranes.

Lunch

Reaching the bottom of the valley and the village of Tabiting, we stopped for lunch. It was just the two of us, Kelly and Kelly, along with Kinga and Kumar (we eventually called ourselves K4 in the spirit of the fourth and former king, also known as K4). We were welcomed to lunch by a Bhutanese woman who made a place for us to warm our hands and feet by the fire. Lunch was a heaping helping of several tasty dishes — potato dumplings (just like tater tots), scrambled eggs with tomatoes, cauliflower, roasted eggplant and a spinach-cheese Bhutanese combo.

The Black-necked Crane Information Center

We made one last stop before departing the valley at the Black-necked Crane Information Center. A resident nearby opened it upon our arrival — that day we were the only tourists as far as the eye could see. It’s an impressive center with lots of information about the cranes, a viewing room and two high-powered telescopes that enable you to see nesting groups far up the hillside near the base of the treeline. So far this year they had counted over 300 cranes in the valley. Here’s a gander of a black-necked crane up close and personal:

A black-necked crane

Leaving the Phobjikha valley

Back on the road, we began the arduous return to Punakha as the sun moved west and dropped shadows over the mountains. Turning a corner, we encountered a group of gray langur monkeys on the roadside (also known as Hanuman monkeys named after a Hindu monkey-god). Like little old men, tufty gray hair bearded their faces and framed their delicate features. But there was nothing delicate about their movement as they ran full speed and jumped into the trees nearby, swinging from arm and tail in a commotion of sound.

Gray langur monkeys

View from the road back to Punakha

Sound… noise. It isn’t often that I visit a place and become aware of the absence of something, but the absence of noise in Bhutan is noticeable. It is such a quiet country. There is no noise overhead — no engines buzzing as aircraft and people fly from one place to another. There is little noise on the ground — just a handful of roads have few cars and trucks compared to anywhere else in the world. There is no raucous nightlife or 24/7 need for convenience that drives this society into the wee hours of the morning. People sleep, wake and live like the rest of us used to. Yes, the Bhutanese have mobile phones, computers and televisions, but they’ve somehow managed to keep out the peripheral madness that often accompanies these advances. In many ways Bhutan seems to have astutely watched and learned from the rest of the world — taking what works (organic farming, nature conservation, regulated tourism, democratic voting with over 80% voter turnout) and discarding what doesn’t. Bhutan is very wisely marching to its own drum, making beautiful music in the process.

Next: Day Five in Bhutan

Beauty Experience Outdoors Photography Travel
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