September 7, 2014 – Day 6 – Paro, Bhutan

September 13th, 2014

Today was Sunday and our last full day in Paro. We spent most of our day climbing up to the Tiger’s Nest Temple (Taktsang Monastery). The Monastery got it’s name from a story saying that the Guru Rinpoche flew to the site on the back of a tigress who was a manifestation of his consort Yeshe Tshogyel, to subdue a local demon, Singey Samdrup. Or it may have got it’s name because this site originally had a tiger den?

The first half of our climb was spent riding horses 800 meters up the mountainside. The horses were Mongolian style ponies, very sturdy and small. There were no bridles just a halter with ropes tied to it. They responded to an English style of reigning but mostly just followed each other up the mountain. It was a very steep climb for the horses. We were all glad we did not chose to walk up. As it was, we had to walk a long way up after the horse ride, another hour. Up & down stairs to this beautiful isolated Temple built into the rock face cliffs of the mountain. Built 3,000 feet above the Paro Valley right beside a beautiful waterfall, it was magical.

The mountain side was covered with pines and cypress trees. Only the Bhutanese Cypress trees are not columns like ours but fan out and are very lacy and feathery. Gorgeous trees and underneath all these beautiful trees are rhododendrons! Huge rhododendrons and in the spring the whole mountainside is full of colour from their flowers.

Originally the Tiger’s Nest Monastery was built in 1769 but it had a fire in 1998 and it took 5 years to rebuild. Today all the butter candles were contained in a cement room so there will be no future fires. The Monastery is made up of a series of little temples, all with a different Buddha or God to worship, eleven temples in all. There was one monk per room and he was responsible for that temple. Needless to say the view was spectacular from the Monastery. On one side of the temple was another temple where monks would go to meditate for two years!!

The hike took us 3 hours to climb up and two hours to climb down, stopping for lunch half way down. I was so tired by the time we got to the base of the mountain and back to our hotel that I booked another spa massage hoping to work out the muscle fatigue.

The Uma Hotel in Paro was wonderful. There was a courtyard with fire pits and another area with patio tables and heat lamps. There was a business centre combined with a library, a beautiful round room for the restaurant and a fantastic gift shop with samples of the Bhutanese handiworks. There were only 28 rooms so it had an intimate environment. They even had a dog mascot, a golden lab, lying around the lobby area.

Bhutan was what I thought Tibet would be like. Peaceful, fertile, beautiful, there was no garbage lying around, everyone smiled at you, no street lights but everyone cooperated while driving, no angry horn honking, no one is in a great hurry but everyone is busy doing something. We believe Bhutan is heaven on earth.

The National animal of Bhutan is a Golden Takin which looked like a cross between a goat and a cow. A goat’s head with a cow body. Very funny looking. The story about how the Takin arrived in Bhutan was: A Monk from Tibet visited a Bhutan family and they fed him beef and goat. The Monk was very hungry and he ate it all, leaving nothing for the family to eat. When he asked for more they said that they had no more food that he had eaten it all. The Monk then took the goat and beef bones, mixed them up and threw them outside. In the morning there was a Golden Takin grazing in the field.

The National flag of Bhutan is divided in two with yellow on the top and orange on the bottom. There is a white dragon in the middle overlapping the two colours. Dragons are called Druk and Druk is the Bhutanese name for Bhutan. So Bhutan means dragon. The yellow colour represents the monarchy and the orange represents Buddism. The dragons mouth is open which is protection from enemies and it’s claws are holding jewels because Bhutan is very wealthy.

September 6, 2014 – Day 5 – Paro, Bhutan

September 12th, 2014

The hotel Uma, in Paro was fantastic. Uma belongs to a group of hotels called Como Resorts. The atmosphere, the service, the building, everything was outstanding. This hotel was located above the valley where the town of Paro sat. The view was absolutely stunning, colourful Bhutan styled houses sitting on both sides of a dark fast flowing river, surrounded by light green rice paddies, red apple orchards and dark blue Himalayan Mountains. Daily we had a bright blue sky with scattered puffy white clouds. The temperature was always comfortable in the mid 20’s.

Our first stop for the day was at a monastery. On the way Jaz tried to explain a little about Buddhism. Jaz said that to be enlightened you could not possess any of the five poisons that tempt human beings, which are anger, ignorance (meaning, closed-mindedness), desire, jealousy and hatred.

The Bhutanese practise Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasizes compassion and the liberation of all living beings. Also the Buddhism is combined with astrology and everyday the Bhutanese plan their day according to their horoscope.

Traditionally the homes in Bhutan were two stories. Historically, the bottom floor was used to house livestock and store grain. (Today, many of the bottom floors now house little shops). The top floor was the living quarters with a kitchen in one room and a living room which doubled as the bedroom at night. If the household was lucky enough to have running water this was on the outside of the kitchen usually on an outer deck. The reason being was that many of the houses were made from mud bricks and if there was a water leak it could destroy the house. Therefore, the water was outside contained in a concrete area.

There was usually a craft room where the women wove their fabric and the men carved or sharpened their tools. In most homes there was also a worship room with a Buddha statue and prayer scarves which doubled as a guest room. Just beside the Chapel room would be a washroom which was a gravity toilet. Meaning a hole in the floor and everything dropped into a hole in the ground beside the house. The newer facilities have a pipe from the toilet into a septic field below.

Above the living quarters was a spacious attic used for storage and for drying their peppers and grains. The roofline had a low slope with long eaves and was raised up from the attic allowing air to circulate below the roofline. Many houses had wooden phallic symbols tied to them. A symbol of fertility.

The roof was made of wooden shingles held down by straps of wood laid across the shingles and the strapping was held down by large stones. At the top of the second story below the air space of the attic were elaborate cornices painted different colours.

Doors and windows had trims of decorative wooden carvings. Sometimes the trim around the window was painted in several colours to match the cornices. The walls of the houses were usually painted white. Often times the walls on either side of the door would have a symbol painted. Sometimes it would be a phallus symbol.

We drove past clusters of tall poles with white flags and wondered what that was all about? Our guide, Jaz, told us that they were 108 poles planted when a person died and the poles were used to help the soul of the deceased have a good time in limbo and to help them be reincarnated into a better life next time around.

Looking down into the valley from our hotel we saw many beautiful rice paddies. I originally thought that the rice was a commercial venture and they grew the rice to sell. But I was quickly corrected. The rice was for their consumption and every family was self-sustaining. They grew their own rice. Jaz said the average person in Bhutan ate one kilo of rice at every meal. That was a lot of rice consumed each year.

Much of the rice grown here was red rice. It was harvested in mid October and we could see that the fields were full of the rice grains almost ready to harvest. Apparently, in May the whooping cranes came here and that was the signal for the people to plant their rice crops again.

This valley of Paro, was so beautiful, not crowded at all, houses were spread out because their chartreuse coloured rice paddies surrounded them. The rice paddies were terraced for irrigation. Every family was given 5 acres of land, which was usually a combination of dry and wet lands. The maximum amount of property anyone could own was 25 acres. This protected the small farmers from the wealthy people buying up all the land. The dirt was red and above the houses and rice fields were forests of darker coloured evergreens growing up the mountainside.

Bhutan was not like the other mountainous areas we’ve travelled through where the mountains consisted of sand and rock here the mountains were fertile. Everywhere we looked there were different shades of green. And the villages were all built on both sides of the river, which added to their charm and beauty.

We visited the National Museum in Paro, which used to be housed in an old watchtower. But unfortunately, there was an earthquake a few years ago that damaged the building. A new modern building was constructed to house the artifacts until the watchtower can be restored.

Bhutan uses the same prayer flags as Tibet. Five colours where blue symbolizes water, white symbolizes purity, yellow is earth, red is fire and green is the environment. In the Buddhist belief death is followed by an intermediate state called limbo or here in Bhutan they call it Bardo. This state lasts for a period of 49 days and then the soul is judged, and sent to their next life depending on how they were judged.

The Bhutanese have a traditional tea called Suja, where the tea is mixed with butter and salt. When you drink this tea you first blow on it to push the butter to the back of the cup before drinking it. It tasted like tea with cream to me. This tea was used as a welcoming tea!

The national flower of Bhutan was the Blue Poppy. It grew high up in the mountains according to Jaz, our guide. We are hoping to see it before leaving Bhutan.

After the visit to the museum we went to the Paro Dzong, known as Rinpung Dzong (meaning fortress on a heap of jewels). The Dzong is an elaborate rectangular fortress, which houses the government offices on one side and the monastery and monks quarters on the other side. This Dzong was originally built in 1645.

To visit a Dzong everyone has to be in formal attire. For the Bhutanese man this meant the Gho and for the woman a Kira. In addition to the Gho (coat dress) and the Kira (long skirt and jacket) both the men and women had to wear a scarf folded over one shoulder. For the men,the colour of the scarf indicates the level of importance. The king wears a yellow scarf with 7 folds and ministers wore a blue scarf with 4 folds. Commoners wore a cream coloured scarf with a fringe. When the scarf was folded over the shoulder (no particular number of folds) and a few threads of the fringe was showing meant he was a paid employee or an employee of the government. No fringe meant they were not employees but farmers. If a commoner met a king or minister he unfolded his scarf and bowed down to the ground with the fringe of the scarf pointing towards the minister or king, his hands must not show but be wrapped up in the scarf. Also if a commoner spoke to a higher ranking person he must cover his mouth with his left sleeve. “Cover his stinking breath” said our guide.

There was at one time a moat around this Dzong with a drawbridge and there used to be tunnels from the Dzong through the mountains to escape and also to access water. Today the moat had grass growing in it, the bridge to enter was permanent and the tunnels were plugged up for safety. Just inside the door the walls were painted with the 4 guiding Gods of Buddhism, North, East, West and South. South is the God of war, East is the God of music (or the arts), North is the god of religion and West is the God of wealth.

My favourite painting was the Buddhist Wheel of Existence it explained their theory of reincarnation. A very simple description is: A large circle was divided into 6 parts: the human existence, the animal existence, the heaven, the hell, the demi gods and the starving ghosts. In the very middle of the wheel was a circle showing the 3 poisons: Anger, Hatred and Closed mindedness, represented by the snake, pig and rooster. On the outside of this middle circle was another circle divided in half. One half was a white carpet with gods taking the souls to heaven and the other was a black carpet with demons taking souls to hell. Outside of the large circle was another circle divided into 12 sections and these are the interrelated dependents. Lastly, outside of the wheel is Nirvana. What I did not understand was that heaven was temporary it was just one section of the wheel and if you were reincarnated into heaven you went for 1 day for every year you had lived as a human. And in the last 15 days you died a terrible death for 15 days and no one helped you. Very strange. The souls just kept circling around the wheel and the best section was the human phase because then you could think and make decisions.

Inside the Dzong were a few monks, some monks were little boys and they were selling necklaces. Each style represented a different piece of luck. Terry bought us all one. Mine was to grant any wishes I wanted.

Not only is the scenery spectacular but the food here is Bhutan is fantastic. We loved the dumplings and their vegetable dishes. After lunch we went to an archery match. The targets were so far away from each other it was hard to see the arrows as they flew past us. When a team hit the target, they would sing and dance. It was a noisy and fun game. The participants took their archery very seriously and played for money. The bows and arrows were all modern and very fast.

In the afternoon we all had spa treatments at the hotel and relaxed until dinner. Dinner was served at the hotel and was fantastic. We really love Bhutan and this hotel.