The next morning we drove to Thimphu, the nation’s capital. On the way we stopped at the Dochula Pass, sitting at an altitude of 10,200 feet. 108 memorial stupas, known as Druk Wangyal chortens, cover the pass to honor the fourth king. The clouds were too thick to see the distant Himalayan Mountain Peaks, instead we had tea inside and warmed ourselves by the fire.
As we descended into Thimphu, we saw an expressway for the first time since entering Bhutan. We took the scenic route to a giant statue of the Buddha, which at 169 ft is the tallest seated Buddha in the world. The statue looms over the city and was built strategically so that you could see it no matter where you stand in Thimphu. Upon completion, the structure will house 100,000 eight inch and 25,000 ten inch statues of the Buddha, all provided by private donors.
We headed back into the city and had lunch with some of the staff from Yangphel Adventure Travel. We met Sonam Peldon, the executive manager of Yangphel and Lotay, the Operations Manager who oversaw our entire trekking experience. We also met Jamayang Choda, the General Manager of Yangphel, whose family we had visited on our trek to Mangdechu and Bemji. They grilled us about the details of our experience on the road and trekking and made sure that everything was perfect. We had conversations about life in Thimphu versus the villages as well as urban development in Bhutan and in the United States. They talked about the photography skills our guide Jigme Reegyal had learned from Barry and the beautiful pictures he had sent to the Yangphel office. After a long and tasty meal we said goodbye and our new friends welcomed us back to Bhutan in the future.
We walked across the street to the National Memorial Chorten. Dozens of people were on the grounds of the stupa, circling the structure clockwise in prayer and visiting with their friends. It was cold outside so we retreated to the warmth of the room that housed the butter candles and met the caretaker and her young daughter.
Outside, we came upon an 89 year old woman, as beautiful as she was ancient, and stopped to talk to her about her life. She told us that she had walked here from Tibet when she was just 15 years old to escape from the Chinese invasion. Before she left she had spent 3 years in jail with her parents, who sacrificed their lives so that she could escape with her infant daughter. Her daughter now lives in Thimphu and is happily married with children of her own.
As we walked back towards the hotel we came across an archery tournament. Archery in Bhutan looks very different from archery in the United States. Most noticeably the field is 140 meters across and, rather than standing behind the archer, spectators stand anywhere on the field and just run when an arrow is coming their way. Two teams compete with each other across the field and the team that we were standing closest to was waiting for their turn. They mocked their opposition by fearlessly putting their face close to the target and shouting things like “you’re supposed to put it here!” Whenever the opposition would hit the target, the players would do a crane dance to celebrate. That only happened once. Each time the opposing team would miss the team in front of us would do a mock dance to taunt their opposition. It was hard to understand their animated insults but it was fun to watch their movements and listen to the spectators around us burst into laughter.
We checked into the Le Meridian Hotel and were welcomed by Pema Denkar, the Operations Manager. Our rooms were spacious and comfortable. We freshened up and headed out to join Karma Lotey’s wife, Namgay, for dinner in their beautiful home. There we met their two sons and various cousins and friends. We shared good wine and food and stories from our long journey across our hosts’ home country. Namgay was very impressed with our Dzongkha and remarked that our journey through Bhutan was much more authentic than most people’s quick trips to Paro and Thimphu. After a few hours we said goodnight and returned to our hotel to get some rest.
The next morning we had a delicious breakfast and set out to explore Thimphu. We visited the station of the officer responsible for directing traffic in the busiest intersection of Thimphu, who Jigme referred to as the Ballet Dancer. We learned that Thimphu is one of only two capital cities in the world that does not have a single traffic light. At some point the city attempted to introduce a traffic light but so many people complained that the fourth king ordered it removed.
We visited the Jingshi Paper Factory, the largest and oldest paper factory in the country. The paper is produced from Daphne plants and bark, using the same process that the Tibetan monks used to make the paper on which they wrote scriptures in the 8th and 9th centuries.
After that we went to see the Takin, Bhutan’s national animal, which the Bhutanese believe Drupa Kinley created after consuming a goat and a cow and fusing the left-over bones together.
We visited a vantage point where we could see the sprawl of this growing, changing capital. Barbara and Barry talked about all of the changes to Thimphu since their last visit in 2001, and Jigme reminisced about growing up in the city. It’s so interesting to observe the ways in which modern development meet the ancient values of Buddhism and the Bhutanese culture in the city. The Himalayas literally collide into the growing, changing landscape of Thimphu. The city stood below us, surrounded by the Himalayas and covered in traditional Bhutanese architecture, updated to suit modern apartment and office buildings. Down below, monks and elderly people in kira and gho mix with teenagers trying to dress like the American people they see on television. We had traveled through the East of Bhutan, the so-called “last frontier of the Himalayas,” to this bustling, modern capital with expressways and bistros and many of the problems that come with urban development. The differences are stark and complex and hard to pin down in a blog post. If I had more time in Bhutan, I could probably write a novel about the unique cultural landscape unfolding in this tiny Shangri-La.
We descended back into the city and visited a cafe where we had pizza that tasted like home, happiness and mozzarella cheese. Barry ordered a “Spicy Devil” pizza that proved to be really, really spicy. We split the slice of cake that the wonderful people at Le Meridian gave me at check-out to celebrate my birthday.
As we left the restaurant we saw two monks holding hands and picking lint of off each other’s robes. I couldn’t help but notice their beautiful friendship and when I stopped to watch them they bowed and gave me a warm kuzuzangpo.
I returned their bow and jumped into the van. We drove over to Karma’s Coffee which was not named after our Karma, we learned with disappointment. I had an Americano and thought about just how easy it could be to get used to life in Thimphu.
We finished our coffee and set out for Paro, the home of Bhutan’s only international airport and our final destination. Throughout our drive we passed many hand-painted signs, erected by the Road Safety Transport Authority and bearing various, catchy slogans urging drivers to be safe along the windy roads. My favorites include, “Peep Peep, Don’t Sleep,” “Mountains Are a Pleasure if You Drive with Leisure” and, the clear winner:
We arrived at the beautiful Zhiwa Ling Hotel, named one of the 20 most unique lodges in the world by National Geographic and proudly Bhutanese owned and operated. The management at Zhiwa Ling has worked hard to incorporate the concept of Gross National Happiness into their business plan, making it a priority to inspire and empower their mostly Bhutanese staff. The result is top-of-the-line customer service and a well-trained, motivated, and friendly staff. Its lobby and rooms are intricately decorated with traditional Bhutanese wood carvings and paintings.
The beautiful grounds that house the hotel contain a creek, a greenhouse with vegetables and rare Bhutanese orchids, a spa and yoga center, a teahouse and a mediation center. The spa has a hot stone bath that is best enjoyed under the stars with a glass of wine. The upper floor of the main lodge houses an altar room containing 12th century pillars from the Gangtey Monastery that we visited in the Phobjika Valley. Beautiful suites surround the altar room. The rooms are cozy and inviting with large beds and central heating. Each night, traditional Bhutanese dancers fill the lobby in intricate masks and costumes.
We got a good night’s rest for the National Day festivities taking place the following day in Paro’s downtown area. National Day takes place every year in a different city in Bhutan, meant to celebrate the day of the first king’s coronation. This year Bhutan celebrated it’s 108th National Day, a very auspicious number in Buddhism. When we arrived in the morning, the entire downtown area was decked out in flags, dyed in colors to represent the five Buddhist elements, and pictures of the fourth and fifth king.
The streets were full of Bhutanese of all ages in traditional kira and gho, and various officers in decorated official uniform. At first, security told Jigme that foreigners were not invited to the ceremony, but later relented when they heard we were with Yangphel. Cameras and phone’s however, were not allowed inside of the festival grounds.
We stored our cameras in a restaurant and entered the festival behind hundreds of other people, many of whom had arrived as early as 3am to catch a glimpse of the fourth and fifth kings. As the kings entered they were followed by a procession of monks wearing traditional headdresses and carrying large staffs. The fifth king took the stage to give a speech about the state of the country. He talked about problems that plagued various countries abroad and remarked that Bhutan was fortunate that it did not face such issues. “In 2015, some countries suffered economic crises, while others had to deal with internal conflicts, terrorism, war and natural disasters. However,” he said, “in Bhutan with…the merit of the people, the prayers of our ancestors, and the protection of our guardian deities, this year was filled with peace and happiness.” Looking around at the smiling faces of the Bhutanese people, it was hard to disagree with him. His voice was thick and deep, much like the lama we met in Kasphay but more official and somehow quite soothing. He was handsome and stood a head or two taller than the other officials surrounding him and probably most of the people in Bhutan. I thought to myself that it was easy to see why a country would respect a man like that. The king then awarded 50 teachers and other civil servants medals of achievement. As he concluded his speech His Majesty wished that “the sun of peace and happiness forever shine upon Bhutan.” As he walked off of the stage, traditional dancers began their performances and all of the festival attendees joined in.
We left the festival grounds to have lunch and then walked around Paro, taking in the sights. I bought a phallus keychain and some red rice. Barbara and Barry bought a traditional singing bowl. We stopped to photograph the local Dzong as festival goers poured out of the downtown and headed back into their homes.
That night we made a visit to Pemba’s Bar and General shop where we met his beautiful wife and two young children. Pemba’s wife fed us home-made pork sausages with onions and cilantro and we all drank Druk beers. I asked Pemba’s son, who understood English if we spoke slowly, what he liked to do with his dad. “I like to protect my father,” he answered sweetly. Barry told him that his dad was a great singer and he wobbled his head in a gesture that basically means “I guess” on this side of the world.
We returned to our hotel to rest up for a hike to the famous Tiger’s Nest the next morning.
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