Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Bhutan, the Kingdom of Happiness

Our journey to Bhutan was a long time in the making. I made the reservation back in January for the trip in June and you have to have your hotel and tours booked through a local travel agent. Many of the high end hotels can do this for you. Then in order to get a visa, you have to show proof that you have done everything you need to. Our hotel did this for us. Then to make things a little more difficult there are only 2 airlines that operate regular flights into Bhutan. Neither has a very good website and their schedules can be very strange. Drukair is the legacy carrier and Bhutan Airlines is a newcomer.

We chose to stay at the Amankora in Thimphu and Paro. Aman hotels tend to be in remote places or away from cities. Since our trip was in June, we benefited from some low season pricing but it was still expensive. Everything is included, transportation to and from the airport and all meals. We also booked a guide for every day which also included a driver. 

The Amankora experience began at the airport in Bangkok. One of their representatives met us at the check in queue which wasn't open yet when we arrived. He had personalized luggage tags for us and took our passports so that he could check us in. He invited us to have a seat until they opened the line. He did everything for us and showed us where the Air France lounge was which is the one that Drukair uses for business class passengers. He escorted us to security and bid us a farewell.

Check in for our flight from Bangkok to Paro
Our Drukair A319 parked at the end of the terminal
Special titles on the plane to commemorate the past King
Our flight was scheduled for 12:30p and about 40 minutes prior we headed over to the gate from the lounge. There were only 2 other people there when we arrived. They called the flight about 20 minutes before departure. There were less than 15 people at the gate. It turned out there were 12 passengers on the plane, 9 in business and 3 in coach. I found out later that a member of the royal family was on our plane and sitting in front of us in row 1. 
My view of row 1
We pushed back slightly early since it took all of 4 minutes to board everyone. We were served a lunch meal once we leveled off. The service was fine but nothing special. After about 2.5 hours we started descending into Paro. The weather wasn't great and we ended up aborting our landing, which was a little freaky because the captain said that they were unable to see the runway. We circled around for about an hour waiting for the weather to clear up. The approach into Paro is one of the most dangerous in the world and it did not disappoint. It felt like we were about to hit the sides of the mountains. It was crazy. When we arrived there was one other Drukair A319 there along with a Bhutan Airlines A319. Within minutes we were through immigration and customs. 

Bhutan Airlines A319
our A319 with the ominous sky behind it
Another Drukair A319
We were met immediately by our guide, Pema, and our driver, Tenzin. They would end up being with us the entire 5 days of our trip. We were taken to our SUV, which is absolutely necessary because the roads in Bhutan are notoriously awful. Besides winding through the valleys of the mountains, the condition is not so great. Sometimes the roads aren't even paved. It took about an hour to get to the capital city of Thimphu. The Amankora is about a 15 minute drive outside of the city up near where the Queen Mother and her sisters live. We were told that it was common for the royal family members to have dinner or drinks at our hotel. We were also told that we were the only occupants in the hotel for both nights. We were met by the manager and were given a white buddhist scarf. We sat in the lobby and had tea while our bags were delivered to the room. 

View of the driveway
One of the resident dogs
Only 2 buildings of suites

Lobby and restaurant

Everything about the Amankora is relaxing. The decor is very simple, yet elegant. The lodge blended into the natural setting and if you didn't know any better, you would think you were in the Rocky Mountains. We were escorted to our room and it was huge. Everything was spread out and open with a large sitting area, bathroom, bathtub, and closet. There was wifi throughout the hotel, but there was no TV anywhere. We ended up going to the spa for their signature massage. After that we went to the restaurant for dinner where they had set up a table especially for us. It was very strange having a full restaurant only make dinner for us. Dinner was great and there was even a local musician who played live music on two different Bhutanese instruments and he even sang. It was so nice.
Main hall

The next morning we had a great breakfast and we were out with our guide. We saw the Giant Buddha and a stupa, which is sort of like a temple but it has a unique steeple shape to it. We also went to a traditional house where women were weaving traditional fabrics. We bought some scarves and items there. We went to a Bhutanese paper making facility, which was in a house and was fascinating to see how they make paper from natural fibers. Our guide took us to a local market where we saw all kinds of grains and items for sale. We visited an archery contest, which was very impressive because they shoot from a distance of 100m away from the target. We took a stroll through the main drag in Thimphu and it is probably the only capital city in the world that doesn't have any traffic lights. We were brought back to the Amankora for lunch and a break. Then we headed out again to see the main temple or Dzong in Thimphu. It is also the location of the Royal Palace next door and some of the political offices are housed there too. We just saw the temple part and it was really nice and really old.
Big buddha above Thimphu
Thimphu valley

Stupa and temple grounds

Archery contest in the middle of Thimphu

Farmer's market in Thimphu

Dzong Thimphu

After that we were taken to a nunnery and another temple where our driver noticed that there was a VIP car in the parking lot. We walked up to the temple and our guide found out that the Queen Mother was visiting the temple and there was some kind of ceremony going on. We were allowed to walk in and watch. There was a lot of chanting going on by at least 30 monks and there were a few people coming in to get a blessing. The Queen Mother was in a different temple chamber and we didn't see her until she came out and she said hi to us. It was very cool. That was about the end of our day out and we spent the rest of the evening at the hotel.

The next day we had a great breakfast again and packed up to leave the hotel. We didn't really have to check out because we were just changing locations to the lodge in Paro back towards the airport. When we were leaving, the hotel had a buddhist monk give us a blessing for our onward journey and he gave us the blessed threads to wear around our necks. It was really special and there were several staff members there to see us off. The drive was about 1.5 hours long but we stopped at two different places after about an hour once we passed the airport. We first went up the hill to the National Museum of Bhutan in Paro that overlooks the beautiful valley. It was filled with all kinds of artifacts and history about the country. Then just below the museum is the Paro Rinpung Dzong. It was similar to the one we saw in Thimpu but a little smaller. It had a great view of the valley too and we ended up walking all the way down the hill from the Dzong and across the river where our driver picked us up once again. We took a little walk through a local market where we saw all different types of vegetables and spices. We walked along the main street for a few blocks where we were picked up again by our driver. He always seemed to magically appear right when we needed him.

Farmer's market in Paro

Paro's main thoroughfare

Paro valley
Paro Dzong

Inside the Paro Dzong

Private jet landing at Paro

Cluster of bees

After that it was about lunch time and we were taken to a local farmhouse in Paro where a traditional Bhutanese family meal was prepared for us. It was so amazing. All of the traditional homes are built so that they keep their animals on the ground floor and they live above them on the second and third floors. Our host was a really nice young lady who made at least 7 different dishes for us. All of them were good and they even served us some butter tea, which is a Bhutanese specialty. It tastes like tea with salted butter in it. It was not to my liking. We sat on the floor with Tenzin and Pema, who both ate way more than we did. I am not used to eating a huge meal at lunch and we had a feast. It was really special and something I will always remember.

Homemade Bhutanese meal
Shrine inside the Bhutanese home
Outside view of the home

After lunch we were taken to the Drukgyel Dzong, which was just past our hotel. It was a monastery and is now in ruins. It overlooks our hotel, rice fields, and farm land. After walking around the ruins we went to the Paro lodge where the entrance is right off the road, but you cannot see anything from the road except a sign. You have to walk at least 100 yards through the forest and you arrive at the main building. We were greeted with cold towels and taken to the main room for tea. This lodge was much bigger than the Thimphu location. There were over 8 small buildings, 6 of them had 4 suites each, the spa, and the main building that had the lobby and restaurant. The decor in the room was very similar to Thimphu with a few changes, but the suite was huge. That evening we were invited to a cultural dance performance and it was a real nice touch. After that we went to the spa for a massage followed by dinner.

Drukgyel Dzong

Amankora Paro behind the trees

The only Amankora sign out of all 6 locations across Bhutan
Walkway to Amankora Paro

Main entrance
Creek running through the property
View of our building
Bhutanese dance performance

The next day we woke up early to eat breakfast before our hike up the mountain to the Tiger's Nest temple called Paro Taktsang. It is literally built on the side of the mountain and is quite famous. It is also the most holy temple in Bhutan. It was about a 20 minute drive to the base of the trail. You can take a horse halfway up and then walk the rest, but we decided to walk the whole way. Our guide, Pema, was with us the whole time and he had water and snacks in his backpack. He also gave us walking sticks and we certainly needed them. The trail was really challenging and the worst part was the altitude. We ended up hiking over 2000ft up to around 9000ft. It was tough but so worth it. The views of the valley and even of the temple itself were incredible. Once you are up at the same level as the temple there are stairs that take you down along the mountain and back up since the trail is actually to the west of the temple. Pictures aren't allowed inside which was disappointing, but it had many of the same elements as the other temples we saw. There were several rooms and temples inside the complex.

Tiger's Nest temple

View of the temple from the trail

On the way back down we stopped about half way where there is a cafe. We only used it to use the restroom and we went down to a large prayer wheel and ate our snacks. There were at least 6 dogs there and we ended up giving them some of our food. In total our journey up and down the mountain took about 4 hours. It was so amazing and it is a must for anyone going to Bhutan.
Friendly dogs near the cafe

We went back to the lodge, cleaned up, and had lunch. After a rest and nap, I decided to try my hand at the national sport, archery. They set up a little place for me near the road. It was very difficult and I didn't do too well, but I did hit the board once.
That's the closest I got

We relaxed for the rest of the day and starting packing since we were leaving the next day. We were invited to a talk in the lobby in the evening by a professor about Bhutan's Gross National Happiness, which was a movement created by the current king's father who is very highly regarded. Once again we were the only ones in attendance just like with the previous night's dance performance. There were only 4 of the 24 suites occupied while we were there. After the talk we had dinner and called it a night.

The next day we had to leave the lodge around 9:30 to catch our flight. We wanted to stop in town in Paro to do a little bit of souvenir shopping since we never really had an opportunity to do that. After that we were soon dropped off at the airport and said goodbye to our driver and guide who were so incredibly gracious and wonderful to us.
Tiny boarding area 
Drukair ATR to Kathmandu

Really empty plane
Himalayas in the distance

The airport is tiny and when we checked in they told us that they were thinking of canceling our flight to Kathmandu because there were only 6 passengers booked on it. I told them that we had onward flights from Kathmandu and we had to travel. Apparently this is a common practice, but our flight ended up going with all 6 of us. The highlight was that we were able to catch pictures of Mount Everest. I'm sure I will never see it up close and personal but it was certainly a treat since it was a beautiful clear day.

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