Tag Archives: bhutan

D*ck pics, and other photos

The content of this post is cultural, I swear!

Josh and I had two more days in Bhutan without Kevin. After stomaching some car sickness on the twisty tiny mountain roads, we arrived in a town devoted to the Divine Madman. While the wikipedia page is delightful, I’ll sum him up as best I can: The Divine Madman was a monk that eschewed the traditional strict and staid lifestyle of religious men at the time, choosing instead to find enlightenment by drinking, carousing with countless women, and singing around the town half-naked. He subdued some very evil demons, and performed some miracles, which made people believe he was actually divine and not just a crazy hedonist. As the story goes, he subdued the evil spirits with his, well, phallus.

Now, people in Bhutan use wooden phalluses to ward off evil spirits. When we visited the Divine Madman’s monastery, the monk there tapped us both on the head with a small wooden phallus as a blessing. A visit to the monastery is supposed to help couples who are having trouble conceiving finally get pregnant. There were also pictures of phalluses everywhere around the town, I think to do the same thing (ward off bad spirits/bless people/bring fertility to the household on which it is painted).

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2017_01_06_0038.JPGJosh didn’t know that I put him in the picture, too. He was trying to get me to take a picture of the 3D art…

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2017_01_06_0028.JPG2017_01_06_0023.JPGPhalluses for sale

Josh and I visited other monasteries, did a few more hikes, and ultimately ended up back in Paro where we originally started. I’m posting images rapid fire because as I’m writing this, we’ve already had two full days in Bangkok and I have yet to post about that wonderful city!

2017_01_06_0049In front of the Dzong (or fortress) in Punahka
2017_01_06_0099A beautiful monastery designed by Sonam’s Swiss architect husband(!)
2017_01_06_0004While driving on the mountain roads, we saw monkeys!
2017_01_06_0383The Dzong in Paro, at night

The night before we left, we were back where we started, at that first room at the Gangtey Palace in Paro 

We have a very soft spot in our hearts for Bhutan, but we’re ready to get out of the relatively chilly temps for some warmth in Thailand.

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Thimphu: Where everybody knows your name

And we thought we had common names.

2017_01_04_0078Our leisurely trek to the monastery.

On our first full day in Thimphu, we visited a monastery where many residents get their names. When a baby is born, it’s customary that parents bring the newborn to a monastery to be blessed and given a name. A small number of names are associated with each monastery. To get the name, parents draw a slip of paper from one of two small tumblers (one for males and one for females). As a result, there are about 50 odd names that apply to nearly all Bhutanese people. Dorji is a common name that means “thunderbolt.” Our guide’s name, Chador, means power.
Speaking of Chador, it seemed that everywhere we went, he had friends. Other tour guides would accost him, shake his hand, and sometimes sit and joke with him. I was mildly surprised to learn that Chador had been the tour guide for the first Lonely Planet author on Bhutan.
For lunch in Thimphu, Chador brought us to an Americanized bar/restaurant to meet Sonam, his boss and the owner of our tour company, Yu Druk Tours and Treks. She greeted us with a smile, “I thought you might be missing western food after all of that rice up on the mountain.” We ordered a large pizza plus individual entrees of burgers and fries; so she was right.  (Editor’s note: only Kevin and Haley actually missed western food. Josh would’ve been fine to eat more rice with chilis and cheese. It should be noted that Josh’s burger was a yak burger.)
Chatting with Sonam was definitely a highlight of our time post-trek. We talked about the tourism industry, her career, her Swiss architect husband, healthcare, Gross National Happiness (a reference point for Bhutan’s success, more so than a determinant, according to Sonam), and her few trips to the west, which included San Francisco and Jackson Hole. While we were eating, Sonam had several friends and family walk in, including a well-dressed woman who was one of the five royally appointed members of parliament. While Thimphu is the capital and Bhutan’s biggest city, we started to get the feeling that everyone knew everyone, in some way or another.

2017_01_04_0002The wonderful Sonam, owner of Yu Druk Tours and Treks 

We visited more sights that day, but our second most memorable moment was drinking at a nearly empty bar. As we parted after lunch, Sonam recommended a bar for the three of us to get drinks at later, it being Kevin’s last night with us. At Benez, a bar/restaurant just a few blocks from our hotel, 750ml beers were $1.25 USD (much larger than a US beer) and the cheapest beer, called Druk 11,000, was 8% ABV.

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Drinks at Benez

Even though they were so inexpensive, we were getting to the end of our cash, so I offered to get some more from an ATM. Our waiter told us the nearest ATM was two blocks away — would I like him to escort me? I jumped up before the boys could protest and offer to go in my place.
The waiter was very kind, and made small talk with me while we walked. He told me the US seemed like a dangerous place (“Because you have guns. But here, people will use knife to fight”), that he had a daughter (“age 2 point 5”) and that he and his wife fight sometimes (“but that is how marriage is”). He then asked me, “Are you married yet or are you still a spinster?” I stifled a laugh because he sounded so sincere. Besides, making conversation in his non-native tongue was more than I could do. “I’m still a spinster,” I said with a hint of amusement in my voice, “but I have a boyfriend. Marriage costs a lot of money,” I added, thinking that was something he could understand. He nodded. “Oh, yes, marriage is different in Bhutan. Very easy, not expensive.” (Chador later told me that when two common people are in love in Bhutan, they simply get a marriage certificate, and that’s it.)

Back at the bar, another single patron walked in a placed his motorcycle helmet on the bar. Kevin asked what he was riding. After some small talk, he asked where we were from. (“Oh! Trump’s place,” he said.  Kevin asked if he had watched the election. “The whole world was watching. It’s amazing! The country with so many literate people elected the biggest idiot in the world.”)  We’d made a friend. His name was Thinley Wangchuk (the Th sound isn’t acknowledged, as Thimphu is pronounced Tim-poo. Thinley lead us through the pronunciation of his name: “TIN, like the metal, and then I lay“), he was from Bhutan, and he had opinions about everything. We spent the next hour or so talking about politics, Bangkok, urban development, Bhutan’s government (“The people — we didn’t want a democracy! We wanted a monarchy! But the exchange — completely bloodless.”), and his friend, the prime minister of Bhutan (“When I see him, we don’t talk much, we just huh!” he said, miming a fraternal chest bump).

“What brought you to this bar?” he asked at one point.

“We had lunch with the owner of our tour group, Sonam –,” Josh began.

“Sonam Wangmo, Yu Druk.” The bartender (and owner of the bar, we later learned), silent before that point, finished his sentence. Josh looked at her, “Yeah! Do you know her?” he asked Thinley.

He shrugged, “Yes, but I know her business partner, Rinzin, much better. He’s a good friend of mine.”

That extra cash I withdrew was completely unnecessary, as Thinley insisted on paying for all of our drinks.

2017_01_04_0069So long, Kev! We’ll miss you and your ideas, like “Let’s take one with our hands in our pockets.”

 

 

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Bumdra Trek

Unlike any camping trip I’ve ever experienced.


With only daypacks filled with the “warmest of the warm” clothing (our tour company’s words) we began our ascent at around 10am on the first day of 2017.

A day before, Josh had joked while on a run in Paro, “That’s our turnaround point.” He was pointing to a faraway monastery on a mountain, literally the highest point of civilization that we could see.

On Jan 1, that monastery was our lunch stop.

Getting there was much tougher than any of us had anticipated. They say that the physical prowess of Bhutanese men was once judged by the size of their calves. Breathing heavily, we trekked single file, getting glimpses of our impossibly high midway point between the trees. We stopped to take breaks and take off layers.

Once we reached the monastery, we greeted with a hot lunch prepared specifically for us, as well as the mews of three kittens and the smiles of a monk cradling a puppy.

I got to hold the puppy, who whimpered if he was left exposed to the wind on the cliff. After he left my lap, he tucked in under Josh’s coat. Josh says he thought the monk called him “Munchow” but also noted that it could be a directive like “Come here,” for all we know. 
2017_01_04_0103Relentless beggars, those kittens

After lunch, we continued on for about another hour or so, reaching the campsite below the Bumdra monastery. While 12,690 feet is not the highest we’ve ever hiked, it’s certainly the highest we’ve ever slept (that number was obtained through a non-connected smartphone, so not sure how accurate it is, but from what our guide told us, it’s close enough).

2017_01_04_0159Bumdra monastery 
2017_01_04_0151Our campsite

The accommodations were fantastic. Our tents were double layered and big enough to allow for a little bit of walking space around a queen-sized mattress in a wooden frame. There was a separate smaller tent for the toilet, which actually flushed once you filled it up with water (there were two barrels inside). We were the only ones at the campsite save for our guide Chador, our campsite-specific guide Vishnu, a cook, the cook’s assistant, and maybe one more assistant whom we never saw, but heard playing the guitar and singing top 40 songs. We were served full hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner in a separate dining tent, the only one to contain a small gas heater. A typical meal consisted of rice, meat, vegetables, chilies in cheese (a local favorite), and fruit for dessert. We were hardly “roughin’ it” save for the cold and elevation. I don’t think any of us changed our clothes for 3 days because it was too unbearable to strip down, even in the tents.

img_0644Hanging out in the dining tent before dinner with new best friend, propane heater

Even with the cold, we were euphoric that first night. At dinner, Chador told us stories about Bhutan and the various treks that Yu Druk (the tour company we chose) provides. On one trek, he told us that he saw what looked like an oversized human footprint, with seven toes, in the snow. When he showed his trekkers, they laughed, thinking he had made a “yeti” footprint as a joke.

Sleep was fitful that first night. We slept in 30-90 minute intervals, waking up frequently because of the cold, altitude and incessant barking from one of the dogs hanging around our camp. At around midnight, it sounded like some kind of animal was pacing outside of our tent, trying to get in. It took us awhile to realize that it was just the wind catching on the second layer of the tent.

In the morning, we experienced a wave of altitude sickness. With so little oxygen at 12,000 feet, we discussed our mutual headaches and nausea at the breakfast table. Our cooks whipped up some garlic and ginger to help the stomaches, and we took deep breathes (and some ibuprofen) for the headaches. (Editor’s Note: only Kevin and Haley experienced headaches and nausea and consumed food or medication to alleviate the pain. Josh didn’t do anything because he’s a manly man, impervious to his very slight headache.)

We visited the monastery in the morning, where Kevin partook in a full hour of meditation. Josh and I left early, but not before we spied a very fat and cute mouse nibbling at something beneath the offering table. It scampered away if we moved our heads even slightly.

After a few rounds of khuru (basically darts, but the darts are about as long as your hand, made of wood and metal, and you throw them maybe 30m or so, trying to stick them in a log), lunch, and a bit of rest, we started our hike to the sky burial site at the top of our mountain.

2017_01_04_0147It’s hard to make out in this photo, but the peak in the middle is our mountain, and at the very top you can see an assortment of white flags. When a loved one dies, white prayer flags are erected in their memory, usually near homes, monasteries, or in places of nature, like mountain tops. 

When adults die in Bhutan, there’s a lengthly cremation process that takes several weeks. However, when children die, it’s custom to leave their bodies at the tops of mountains at sky burial sites. There’s no actual burial; the bodies are left out in the open, and it’s expected that wild birds, like Himalayan griffons (aka vultures) will consume the body.

Personally, I was slightly horrified that I might accidentally step on a child’s partially eaten corpse during the hike. But Chador told us that we didn’t need to be careful.

As I approached the top, my western mind became increasingly saddened by the steep incline and arduous ascent. If it was difficult for me, a happy 25-year-old not carrying anything, it must be even more difficult for a mourning parent to carry the body of their child up the mountain.

We didn’t see any sign of human remains. The sky burial site was hauntingly beautiful; up there, all you could hear was the gentle flap of hundreds of prayer flags in the wind.

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On our way back down the mountain, it started to snow big, fluffy flakes. That night at dinner, one of the assistants brought a small bit of Bhutanese whiskey to the dining tent. The guys drank most of it to ward off the cold.

Getting into bed on the trek was the hardest part of the day. Once you were under the covers, it very gradually got warmer, to the point where you were shedding layers in the middle of the night. You’d pray that bathroom urges would wait until daylight (of course this wasn’t the case).img_0705

2017_01_04_0089Josh playing khuru in the snow

On day 3, we packed up our things, said good-bye to our caretakers, and headed down the mountain. I slipped and landed on my butt only twice on the snowy paths. We passed several monasteries in our descent, including one that had litter of puppies playing in the yard. A little over an hour after we left the camp, we arrived at the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, undoubtably Bhutan’s most iconic attraction built into the rock face of an otherwise sheer cliff.

2017_01_04_0047Three sleep-deprived yet victorious mountain dwellers after three days of not showering. Tiger’s Nest monastery in the background. 

For the first time in three days, we were encountering other tourists. We saw a yak on our hike up the mountain — that was it. Besides Chador, Vishnu, and the rest of our crew, we felt like the only people on the trails. Tiger’s Nest was crawling with people, and rightfully so — there really is no monastery as grandiose or as beautiful the Tiger’s Nest. The story goes that the man who would bring Buddhism to all of Bhutan rode on the back of a tiger to where the monastery is now located. He then proceeded to meditate in a nearby cave for 3 years. Several centuries later, the governor of Paro constructed the monastery in his honor. You’d never know that the monastery burned down in the late nineties. Each room is still impressive and intricate. Larger than life golden statues are seated in one room, honoring the men(/deities) most influential in the country’s religious foundation.

We still had to hike downhill a bit more after our visit to the Tiger’s Nest. The bedraggled hikers going the opposite way (up) continuously asked us how much longer it was to the monastery.

Happy, slightly sunburned, and thoroughly exhausted, we piled into Harka’s van at the end of the trek. It was about an hour drive to our hotel in the country’s capital, Thimphu, where we finally got that glorious hot shower.

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Happy New Year from the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan has thoroughly charmed us.

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It captured our attention from the moment our plane descended into the valley, completely surrounded by mountains. Stepping out into bright sunshine and a temperature of around 40 degrees felt refreshingly brisk after the haze of Bangkok. The plane was parked outside the airport door — the most beautiful and austere  international airport I’ve ever seen. There were some desks, two baggage claim belts, and a few chairs on the side. No gates, no Starbucks, no frills or rampant commercialism whatsoever. Come to think of it, I didn’t see any other planes other than the one we arrived on.

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Our guide, Chador, met us on the other side of the airport and drove us to our hotel, which used to be a palace. The rooms inside are far from opulent. Instead, they’re elaborate in an old world sense, with colorful Bhutanese designs on the wall, painted carvings along the trim, embroidery in the comforters, dragons on the rugs, creaks in the wooden floors and that fantastic almost cabin-esque wood smell permeating the air.


Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure its success in GNH, or Gross National Happiness. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to apply to tourists as well, but I certainly couldn’t stop smiling. We did a short run through the town, where I couldn’t stop staring at the peaks encircling us. After the best lunch of the trip thus far (IMHO), we visited a monastery, toured a fortress (called Dzong here), and watched local men exhibit fraternity and terrifying skill during archery practice.


Simple lunch, yet so satisfying 

2016_12_31_0057At each stop, Chador gives us a tour, and fields all of our questions

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Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. At this practice, two targets sit 140m apart. One group stands at one end, the other group at the other, and each side takes in a turn, like you would in a game of shuffleboard. Teammates are split between the two sides, so when someone hits the target, the member on the receiving end informs his partner of his victory by doing a little jig in front of the target, accompanied by jovial exclamations that must travel 140m. 

Chador and our driver Harka ferry us around in an 8-passenger van devoid of seatbelts. Stray dogs nap in the sunlight. Cows lumber up curvy 2-lane mountain roads. There are no stoplights in the country after their recent implementation went poorly. TV was first introduced to Bhutan in 1999. This is certainly the most remote country I’ve ever visited, and yet there’s wifi.

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Tomorrow we start our 3-day trek. We’re exhausted from today and feel no shame in making this the earliest New Year’s Eve of our adult lives. Cheers 🙂

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