September 9, 2014 – Day 8 – Paro to Thimphu, Bhutan

Unbelievably, we still had jet lag 8 days into our journey and all of us had been waking up at 4 or 5 a.m. each morning. This particular morning it was dawn and the scenery was magical, the valley was a little dark with just a few lights starting to come on. The clouds had settled down into the valley over night, puffy white clouds settled over the houses with the river flowing through them. As the lights continued to come on as people were starting to wake up, it looked like little ferries flying through the valley. I tried to take a photo but it really didn’t show the magic of the valley. Eventually the sun rose dimming the fairy lights and it was time to start our day.

Thimphu was the capital of Bhutan and we were looking forward to seeing it. But very disappointed to be leaving Paro. We loved it here and could have stayed here our whole trip. Paro was beautiful, peaceful, serene, warm and we all voted Bhutan number 1 of all the countries we have travelled in, I suppose because it still felt like virgin territory even amongst their world class hotels.

We finally dragged ourselves away from the Uma Hotel in Paro around 9 a.m. and it was 18 degrees celcius. The coolest day we had thus far but still a beautiful day. Leaving Paro we passed the airport and there was a Druk Air plane with the Bhutan Flag on it’s tail, was just landing. I said to Gillian and Bea wouldn’t it be funny if we saw Jon, Mary, Rod and Didi getting off that plane? It turned out that they were on that plane and they had seen our cars and were waving to us from the planes windows!! The airport was so close to the houses in the village; it was amazing the village put up with the noise.

Next we passed a three legged donkey, very sad must have been hit by a car. All the cows, horses, donkeys and dogs run free here. But they all look very healthy. Actually the cows are huge in Bhutan. They had a spaying and neutering program for the dogs and when completed they cut the corner off one ear and let the dogs loose again to wander in the streets. Most are pretty healthy and happy. We had a difficult time finding dogs to feed.

As we drove to our destination we passed lots of road construction, making new roads or repairing old roads. There were just as many female workers as there were men, carrying heavy rocks and doing the manual labour. The women were all built very slight but obviously they were very strong.

Our drive was less than 2 hours before we reached Thimphu city and it looked very different from Paro. Here in the capital, it was a high density area with apartment buildings and new construction everywhere. We also noticed car dealerships everywhere, Volvo, Tata, Toyota, Hyundai even Mercedes. The construction workers used bamboo as supports for their projects and even built bamboo ramps, where the bamboo was laid side by side horizontally and sloped up the sides of the building. These ramps were used to carry building materials up to the different floors. Amazing how strong the bamboo was. We use metal scaffolding and they use bamboo plus the bamboo was used over and over again in different construction sites.

The apartment buildings were still decorated with the fancy windows and painted cornices but they looked modern because of the higher density. There were still prayer flags flying and anyone would know it was a Buddhist Country.

We arrived at the Aman Hotel in Thimphu and it reminded me of an Anglican Church. The walls were high and painted white. It looked much like a fortress with long, narrow windows down the length of the walls. I believe it was built to look somewhat like the Bhutanese Dzongs, but not sure. Inside the hotel the rooms had very high ceilings and the walls were all wood with no artwork. It felt very peaceful and serene. When you looked outside through the windows you viewed a forest. The hotel was built in the middle of a forest. It felt like we were living inside a nature park. The service was superb and the rooms very large with a tub and a wooden stove in the centre of the room. At one end was the shower, sinks and toilet and at the opposite end was a large kingsize bed. Everything was a light coloured wood, ceiling, walls, floor and furniture.

After a delicious lunch at the hotel we went to a fruit processing plant. The main fruit in Bhutan is apples and they make juices and jams at this plant. They also bottled water at this plant. It was interesting to see how the bottles were made. India supplied little plastic tubes which were inserted into a machine which blew the tubes into a bottle which was used for the water. They could make different sized bottles depending on what they needed. Their water came from the local streams and was filtered and bottled. There were no additives. They had chemists who took samples for quality control. One interesting thing I learned was that bottled water was safe as long as it was sealed. Once the seal has been broken they do not recommend you storing the water, it must be used right away or the water leaches out chemicals from the plastic bottle! The plastic used for these bottles was called PET.

It was apple season so we watched them make apple juice. First they bought all the apples that the farmers brought to them. This helped the farmers out because they have created a market for all the small apples which would not sell as retail products. They culled out the bad apples and pressed all the good apples in a machine. The pulp was used as feed for the cattle. The juice was then boiled to kill any bacteria and put into wax boxes or glass bottles immediately, then the sealed bottles and boxes were put through a cooling process before moving along the belt to be put in large containers for shipping. We sampled the juice and it tasted very good. They also processed other fruits such as mangos, cherries and peaches.

This plant was owned by the government and it created a market for the farmers. Because the most land a family could own was 25 acres and the land was a combination of wet and dry land, the farmers did not have many trees. This plant allowed the farmers a way to sell their apples. It also created jobs for other people, employing 120 to 140 people at the plant. The product was sold in Bhutan. It was a win-win for all involved.

Next we visited the largest sitting Buddha in the world and the size was amazing. It sat on top of a temple built on the top of a mountain overlooking the city of Thimphu and I believe it was 169 feet high. Directly opposite from this site was a new construction site for a hotel/resort called Six Senses and it was being built by the Prince who was the owner of the tour company we were using.

Many Bhutanese Monks and people practise astrology. Everyday they get a report on their mobile phones of their astrological do’s and don’ts. Our guide follows this report and takes it very seriously. When a person dies, an astrologer tells the family when the body can be cremated because some days are better than others for the burial ceremony. Also the Bhutanese have a different calendar than we do, for example today was July 15th for them and September 9th for us.

Next we stopped at a wild preserve for the Golden Takin’s, the Bhutanese National Animal. It was difficult to get a photo because they were behind fences and there were trees blocking our view. They were a different looking animal, that was for sure. Head of a goat and the body of a cow. Apparently they grind up the antlers of the Takin and use the powder to help women deliver their babies. The meat of the Takin was used for medicinal purposes.

When we arrived back at the hotel there was a dance performance. The different tribal dances were being performed and it was very colourful and entertaining. For the last dance they included all of us and it was very fun. Just as we were finishing our group two arrived; Jon & Mary with Rod & Didi. We were all very excited to see them. They were exhausted though because it took them 30 hours to get to Bhutan and they had climbed Tiger Nest’s Mountain before the car ride to Thimphu. Rod said he never would have finished climbing it but he heard we had climbed it and he wasn’t going to cop out when we did it. Later they found out we rode horses up part way and they all walked the full way up. LOL.

We all had a wonderful dinner at the hotel. Team Two was falling asleep at the table but everyone was very happy. When we went to our rooms for the night, we had all received a Bhutanese book about a stray dog named Bawa. How sweet was that!!

September 8, 2014 – Day 7 – Day trip to Haa Valley, Bhutan

Monday, September 8th and the team vetoed the drive to Haa Valley, instead we wanted to tour the village of Paro and visit a farm for lunch. But most importantly I wanted to organize our bags. Russ and I had left a bunch of stuff in India from our last time and I wanted to sort through all of this and label the bags so I knew what was where. Right now if I wanted something I would have to sort through 10 different bags!

After a couple hours of sorting we hopped in our cars and went to the village of Paro. It was a cute town but really only one main road with craft shops all selling basically the same things. But it was interesting. Terry bought some new runners and Gillian and Bea bought a Kira each. (Long Skirt).

Next we went to a farmhouse for lunch. It was three stories but exactly the same layout as I previously described. Animals on the bottom floor, living space on the next two floors and a drying attic before the roof. To get to the second and third floor was a ladder, not stairs. The beds were mattresses on the floor and they sat on carpets. But for us they had set up chairs and a large coffee table to eat on.

They grew both red and white rice here. But the younger generation wanted to develop a tourist business by serving custom meals to guests from other countries. The meal started with Suja (butter) tea and roasted rice. It was really good much like popcorn. Next they brought our hammered rice and hammered corn that were also roasted. This tasted like coconut to me. Terry liked the hammered corn but I had to stop him from eating it because I could see the bowl was infested with little bugs. Everyone laughed it off and Jaz our guide said the protein was free. We tried to be polite but it did put a damper on us experimenting with the rest of the meal.

The meal consisted of red rice, greens beans, beef, potatoes and scrambled eggs with cheese and vegetables. It was very good but way too much food. They must think we North Americans eat a lot! One thing that was different was they only gave us a spoon to eat with. This made cutting anything difficult but interesting.

The Bhutanese style of eating was using your hands and picking up a handful of rice and squeeze it into a log shape then dip it into a hot sauce. Or sometimes they just put a whole hot chilli onto the rice and eat them together. They like their food really spicy. Typically they eat 1 kilo of rice and 1 cup of hot sauce with whole peppers.

The main crop in Bhutan is apples which surprised me. Some farmers will sell their rice and buy a lower quality rice from India to make money. Rice is the biggest import into Bhutan. The second biggest import is Doma. This was very interesting because tobacco has been banned to sell; whereas, Doma has not. A person addicted to this habit chews 15 to 20 nuts per day costing around 100 Nu per day!

Our guide Jas, chewed Doma which made his mouth and teeth red. It is acidic and rots the teeth. He knows it was affecting his teeth and told us his boss did not like him chewing Doma but he still chewed it and at the same time told us he was not addicted to it.

Called Doma in Bhutan or Paan in India it is the areca nut grown from the areca palm commonly grown in tropical areas in the Pacific, Asia and parts of Eastern Africa. It is commonly referred to as the betel nut and is most often chewed wrapped in betel leaves. A lime paste made from limestone is put in the centre of the palm leaf and half a nut is then wrapped up in the leaf and chewed. Apparently the lime balances the acid from the nut but every person has their own like of how much lime they want. People who participate in this custom scrape the lime off the leaf with their finger and then wipe it off their finger onto the door jams, pillars or fence posts. It is disgusting to see white marks painted on the sides of everything and then big splashes of red juice running down the sides of walls from when it was spit from a person’s mouth.

This habit has many harmful affects in addition to the unsightly effect it has on a person’s teeth and the landscape of Bhutan. It is carcinogenic and causes mouth cancer. The betel nut contains substances that narrow blood vessels, it is a mild stimulant (much like caffeine) and causes a warming sensation in the body. Betel leaves are not cleaned properly and are the main cause for infections. The lime which is mixed with water makes calcium oxide, which is usually contaminated and unsafe for use. It causes irreparable cellular changes in the body. In addition to all of these harmful effects, additives are sometimes included in the wrap, like tobacco or sweetening agents adding poison to poison.

After lunch as we were leaving we could hear chanting. Jaz said there was a temple just up the road and they were doing a ceremony. He told us to hurray up and he would see if we could watch the ceremony. Well, Jaz did it and we were allowed to go into the temple to watch the ceremony. It was a ceremony to bless the crops which is only held once per year. It is a two day ceremony where the monks chant and play instruments. We were privileged to be able to view this ceremony.

It was really interesting and the Monks were very welcoming. Monks and lay persons chanted the scriptures and played music. The instruments were long, long, horns they called trumpets and smaller horns they called flutes. They had drums and also human bones (looked like a thigh bone) that were used as horns. They also clapped and we joined in.

The lay persons who were helping the Monks with the ceremony were men that were trained in the Monasteries but chose not to be Monks. They were now married but they earned money by performing in these ceremonies. They knew how to play the instruments and knew the scriptures to sing. The singing of the scriptures at times sound very much like the throat singing that the Mongolians sing.

Driving back to our hotel we noticed mounds of dirt beside the road with plants growing in the dirt. I thought it looked like a squash plant or pumpkin plant but Jaz explained they were rat walnuts. These plants had nuts which were very prickly and these plants were planted inside rat holes to keep the rats away. Interesting.

« Older Entries