November 5, 2016
Before this trip, we were deciding between Nepal and Bhutan. After our friends Sean and Marcel told us about their trip last year, we decided on Bhutan. Lucky for us, Marcel had done a ton of research on tour companies, so we contacted the same group that coordinated their trip last year, Adventure Planet Travel. The owner of the company, Ugyen, was very responsive and gave us several suggested itineraries based on our interest. We decided on a 7 day itinerary focusing on central Bhutan.
There are only a few cities from which you can fly into Paro, which is the only city with an international airport in Bhutan. One of those was Bangkok, so we headed to Bangkok after our last night in Tokyo for a short overnight to catch our early morning flight to Paro. The airline booking systems for the Bhutanese airlines are a little bit on the primitive side, so seat assignments weren't available until checkin. We were told to try to get seats on the left side to get a view of the Himalayas as we entered Bhutan. Although in the distance, seeing such high peaks from the plane was impressive.
After landing in Paro, we were greeted by our guide Nidup and driver Tandin. We didn't waste any time and started our tour with Paro Rinpung Dzong (dzong in Bhutanese is "watch fortress") and Paro Ta Dzong, where the National Museum is housed.
Each dzong is typically separated into one side for the monastic body and one side for the administrative government body. Immediately after entering a dzong, there are typically elaborate paintings throughout the entryway. Nidup had a wealth of knowledge that he shared with us about all the meanings of each painting and the individuals depicted all having their place in the history of Buddhism in Bhutan.
One of the most elaborate paintings found in many locations in dzong and temples was the samsra, or cycle of existence. Samsara is the beginning-less cycle of repeated birth, mundane existence and dying again. Samsara is considered to be unsatisfactory and painful, perpetuated by desire and ignorance, and the resulting karma. Rebirths occur in six realms of existence represented in the samsara. There are three good realms (heavenly, demi-god and human) and three evil realms (animal, ghosts and hellish). A person is reborn in a given realm based on karma and what they have done in their past lives. Samsara ends if a person attains nirvana.
We were immediately impressed by the massive dzong architecture. Most of the dzongs in Bhutan were built in the 17th century. Suprisingly, by tradition, dzongs are constructed without the use of architectural plans. Instead, the construction proceeds under the direction of a high lama who establishes each dimension by the means of spiritual inspiration. Pretty impressive that these structures came together so well.
High up on many hills, we noticed what looked like prayer flags and asked Nidup what their meaning was. He informed us that when someone passes away, the family will put up 108 prayer flags high on a hill to pay their respects to the person who passed. The significance of the number 108 is 1 for a single thing, 0 for nothing and 8 representing infinity.
Our next stop was in Thimphu where we stopped to see Tashichho Dzong, which has traditionally been the seat of the head of Bhutan's government, the king of Bhutan.
The Bhutanese flag features the Thunder Dragon, which is the country's emblem. The yellow of the flag represents the authority of the king; the white represents purity and loyalty while the orange symbolizes the Drukpa monasteries.
November 6, 2016
Our second day began with the national memorial stupa on the edge of Thimphu. Built in 1974 as a monument of the late third king of Bhutan, many older generations come here daily to pray.
Needless to say that Jonathan always gets a lot of attention and stares when we travel. This trip was no exception. The old woman below came up to Jonathan smiling and praising his mohawk. Unfortunately we weren't able to communicate due to language, but we were still able to share a smile together.
It was here that we learned more about prayer wheels. Prayer wheels come in all shapes and sizes and are spun clockwise. Mantras are written on the outside and wrapped on the inside. When spun, it is believed to be the same as reciting these mantras.
Next stop, Kuenselphodrang National Park, where the tallest sitting bronze Buddha in the world sits atop a hill.
After, we had a quick stop at Changangkha, Thimphu's oldest temple built in the 12th century.
Lucky for us, Thimphu has a large local market on Sundays, we headed there next. One of the biggest surprises to us was that dried chilies were a staple of Bhutanese diet, so of course, these were everywhere around the market.
There was also an entire section just selling incense.
We were also surprised to find out that cheese was a common food in Bhutan. Most Asian cuisine we've had does not include dairy, so seeing this dried cheese and eating chili cheese (not prepared the same way you're thinking) with almost every meal was quite a surprise.
Bhutan's favorite past time is archery, but not in the same sense that Americans thing of. Extremely small targets are placed about 145 meters apart. The targets typically stand about 3 feet tall and are only 11 inches wide. And if that does sound difficult, generally only traditional handmade bamboo bows and arrows are used! Traditional Bhutanese attire must be worn while playing as well. We got to watch a few men practicing. No bulls eye hits nor target hits were seen, but we were impressed nonetheless.
Thimphu is the current capital of Bhutan, and thus, the streets can get pretty busy from Bhutanese standards. However, there are no stop lights, so the main intersections have traffic officers directing traffic. Pretty legit job if you ask me.