The Thunder Dragon Kingdom

So we went to Bhutan. Yep. Bhutan. Oh, you haven’t heard of it? It’s that little, hidden, off the beaten track kingdom nested snuggly in the Himalayas bordering India to the South and China to the North. Why Bhutan, you ask? Well, why on earth not!

You see when you live in a remote and isolated country like Mongolia, it’s only natural to want to experience other, similar off-the-beaten path kind of places and when Tante Anne told us she had always wanted to go to Bhutan, it was a done deal. We were going to Bhutan.

Lots of planning ensued since, as it turns out, it’s not so easy to just book a flight to Bhutan. The kingdom is still very much off the beaten path and tourists can only visit if they are sponsored by a tour operator (unless you have an Indian passport in which case you can visit on your own). We researched a bit since there are tons of providers (tourism is a major industry) and finally settled on Blue Poppy tours primarily because we liked the name (turns out the blue poppy is Bhutan’s national flower) and since they were very helpful in identifying a few itineraries for our visit.

Tante Anne then outdid herself and secured a travel babysitter invited her niece to join the fun whom the kids adored to pieces and who had the patience of a saint (hi, Naomi!).

With only 4 full days to explore the country, we chose to split our time between Thimphu, the capital, and Paro, a major “city” (let’s use this term loosely since there are really no “cities” in Bhutan…..think “towns” – the entire country has a population of less than 800,000) close to one of the Tiger’s Nest monastery which was certainly one of the (many) highlights of our visit.

There are not many flights into this small country. Our flight from Singapore stopped briefly in Calcutta and the 1-hour flight from there was nothing short of spectacular – we had clear blue skies to allow an amazing view of Mt Everest (yes, that is one tall mountain!) before we landed at Paro airport, the only international airport in the kingdom.

We had heard a few rumours about landing in Paro – specifically that it is known as one of the most dangerous airports for pilots to fly in and out of so we might have been a tad bit anxious about descending.

Why? For one, mountains – lots of them. Paro sits in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains and pilots have to very carefully navigate mountains and wind to land safely by skilfully moving the plane side to side to make sure that airplane wings don’t touch mountains or trees (yes, you get many close-up looks while descending). And then there’s the runway – it’s by far one of the shortest worldwide, barely meeting minimum requirements. Did I mention there are less than a dozen pilots worldwide who can fly in and out of Bhutan?

But we landed safely and rushed to the windows before the announcement came “ladies & gentlemen….your Majesty of the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan.” We might have been a bit puzzled by what that exactly meant but then we saw the airplane doors open, a red carpet being laid down, official looking people dressed in their finest uniforms and local dress lining up in front of the plane before the Royal King himself descended the steps from the plane. Yes, we had indeed been on the King’s flight. What a welcome!

We learned a lot about Bhutan in our 1-hour drive from Paro to the capital, Thimphu:

  • The country is really ruled by the same King (literally called “Dragon King”) who hopped a flight with us as well as a Prime Minister (not a Dragon King).
  • There is really a dragon on the flag.
  • The tallest building in the entire country has 7 stories.
  • There is only one escalator in the entire county (and people travel to hop on it). Interestingly, we saw a few elevators.
  • Buthanese wine is really a thing and our guide promised to make sure we’d get to taste some (much to Naomi’s relief!).

We spent the first two days exploring the capital and many, many temples and buddha statues and learning a thing or two about Tibetan Buddhism and prayer flags and Bhutanese fortresses. There was a lot to be learned in this beautiful country.

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We visited the School of Traditional Arts to learn how students create beautiful handicrafts. I was amused when I looked over the shoulders of some of the girls to see that they were using their break time to play “candy crush” on their phones – quite a cultural contrast!

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We also visited a paper factory in which locals make paper out of native plants.

Paro: Tiger’s Nest

After exploring Thimphu for 2 days, we drove back to Paro for more amazing experiences. First, a visit to the Tiger’s Nest monastery (also called Taktsang Palphug Monastery). In case you’ve ever looked into going to  Bhutan (and seriously, who hasn’t?!), this is the picture you will see as it’s THE “must see” in the tiny kingdom. Bhutanese people hike up the mountain at least once in their life.

Yes, hike up the mountain. You see what makes this monastery so special (other than that a tiger flew there, really) is that it’s build high up in the mountain literally into the cliff. So there’s a “tiny” bit of walking involved.

See our “before” picture? I’ve circled the location of the monastery for scale. Yes, it’s very high up (~3,120 meters, close to 1,000 meters above the “city” of Paro) which really makes one wonder how the materials were transported since the monastery dates back to the 17th century.

I was a bit nervous about what this hike would entail but I prepared in Singapore by stocking up on motivators for the kids (in the form of jelly beans and gummy bears) but our secret weapon to carry this mission through would be Naomi who hiked up with Luca ahead of the group and enjoyed many discussions on electric eels, piranhas, and other sea life. And then turned around and took Juliana by the hand for our climb down. Can we just say “best travel buddy of the year award?!”

What was the hike like? One word – STEEP. Very steep. Our calves got quite the work-out (my legs were sore for days). It took us about 1.5 hours to reach the cafeteria at the halfway point and then another hour to climb steep stairs up, descend into a gorge and beautiful waterfall, and then climb up again to Tiger’s Nest. The roundtrip is anywhere between 8km and 12km depending on whom you ask (tour guide vs. person sitting next to me on the plane who used her phone GPS to track her climb).

Visitors are not allowed to bring anything into the monastery so no pictures, sadly, but the interior did not disappoint with numerous temples and hidden rooms like the “real” tiger’s nest which freaked the kids out as they assumed, of course, that a real tiger lived there.

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After that it was an “easy peasy” (yeah, right) couple of hours down. Once at the bottom, we quickly decided that we would need to support Bhutanese business for the rest of the day in the form of visiting a close-by cafe for coffee and ice cream. We certainly deserved those treats!

Bhutanese Festival

We spent our last day taking in a traditional Bhutanese festival in one of the dzongs. We were told that these festivals are for locals and not geared for tourists so there was a bit of disappointment when we realised how crowded it would be and that there would be no easy seating.

Not one to give up, I found an empty room overlooking the courtyard in which the dances were to proceed. Our guide advised me that this room was reserved for monks and other VIPs and that we shouldn’t stay but after finally finding a place to sit (there were chairs!), I decided to take my chances.

And that would become the best decision of the day. Not only did we all have a place to sit, we literally had front row seats from above and in the shade as we also had a ceiling. After an hour, the monks and other special guests who sat next to us viewed us as part of their group and brought us drinks and not even the police who were guarding the door from the outside took notice (we were literally a few feet from important officials and the head monk who loudly whipped his whip on the ground as he walked towards his very special VIP seat). Quite the experience.

So we stayed for a few hours watching the dances and entertainment as the kids read books, coloured, and found a new Bhutanese friend to play with (leave it up to Juliana to make friends wherever we go).

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So what’s Bhutanese food like?

We were quite pleasantly surprised by the flavours of Bhutanese cuisine – lots of spice (chilli peppers galore). The food reminded us of a combination of Indian and Mongolian food – many stews, rice, chicken, and milk tea … yep, that buttery salty tea so commonly found in Mongolia (and that I cannot drink for the life of me!).

A quick note on Bhutanese wine since that was a high priority on Naomi and my “must taste” list. Wine is traditionally served in beautiful containers – we would have loved to buy one to take home but discovered that these bottles only sell when they are filled with water, which we thought was a major offence in the “drink and shop Bhutanese wine” department.

The first taste we had of Bhutanese wine was quite memorable – we were told ahead of time to expect a stronger wine, more along the lines of sake rather than Western wine. What we didn’t expect was the taste of clear moonshine liquor our tongues tasted instead! Fortunately, the next few tastings we enjoyed were much less pungent and quite nice, actually.

Oh, and fun bonus fact – Bhutanese children grow up drinking/tasting wine. Really! See that picture above of that cooked egg? It’s been cooked in wine and is served as a dessert. Neither Naomi nor I could stomach it after our last dinner in Bhutan but we tried…

So, overall it was a very fun and busy trip exploring Bhutan. In some ways, we found Bhutan to be a combination of India and Mongolia so there weren’t too many surprises except for ….

  • The Bhutanese traffic light: Yes, that is indeed a police officer directing traffic using artistic hand gestures.

And that’s a wrap: Over and out from our A-team of excellent travel buddies …. ’til the next adventure (yes, plans are indeed already underway!).

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