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Day 4: Bangkok, Thailand to Paro, Bhutan

Our new guide and driver, both of whom shall remain nameless because I can’t recall their names, are waiting in the lobby. It’s about 5:30am. It’s dark.

The hotel has provided us with a boxed breakfast. I dive into it once we hit the freeway deciding it is safest to go with the familiar first. Bread. I find the jam later but it is too late. I discard what feels like a crispy apple after weighing the risks. Breakfast cookies are good. Juice comes in a box. LeeAnn needs instructions to break into hers. She is probably still asleep or maybe it’s because Max doesn’t have juice boxes.

There are four of us including our driver and guide in a ten-person van speeding towards Suvarnabhumi Airport. Traffic is light but the city is on the move. As dawn breaks, street vendors are already setting up their carts on the sidewalks. Come early and get a good seat, I guess.

The tolls on the expressway are 45 and 25 Bhat today. It must have something to so with the distance travelled or the district we past through. I am not sure. On both sides of the highway there are miles of housing in various stages of decay. Many homes lack doors and windows. There is great poverty as well as great wealth in this city.

The airport is new and glitzy. There are gigantic pictures of Brad Pitt pushing Channel  No 5 and VISA ads at every turn. We find our way to our gate for Druk Air and then retrace our steps in search of water. On the way we spot the Jim Thompson store. Following the Second World War, this American returned to Thailand and is credited with the development of the cottage silk industry. The jewel like colours used in feather weight scarves and wraps are stunning. I succumb to a cloud of turquoise blue.

To reach our flight we board a bus and cross the tarmac to an A319 Airbus. LeeAnn gets the window seat and my “point and shoot” in the hope that we will get our first peek at the Himalayan Mountains from the air. We are on a breakfast flight. It’s better than my first breakfast today but then I can actually see what I am eating this time.

There is a one-hour time difference between Bangkok and Paro. Somewhere in the middle is a stop in Bagdogra, Bangladesh. This must have been in the excessively small print in our travel package. The first I hear of my pending stop in this country is from Captain De Clares who announces that we are in Bangladesh airspace and that Dhaka can be seen out the right side of the plane.  We are on the left. As we make our approach lots of palm trees and fields are visible from the air. There are few roads. The airport itself is small and reminiscent of one found on a Caribbean Island.

Our stop is about forty minutes in duration. It’s 38 degrees out there.  Half of the plane disembarks and walks to the terminal, while the rest of us hold our positions and reclaim our luggage in the overheads. It’s sunny and there is a light breeze today but I am thankful that the air conditioning is still on.

Drukair, Royal Bhutan Airlines, is the only carrier that flies into Paro, the country’s only international airport. The air service was initiated in 1983 and flies to eight destinations in five countries. The airport in Paro is one of the most difficult in the world to fly into as it is situated in a deep valley 7333 ft above sea level and is surrounded by mountains that soar to 16,000 feet. All landings are visual. Staff wear traditional kiras in red and blue plaid with blue silk jackets. When you fly with Drukair, you know you are headed for a unique experience.

It’s a twenty-five minute flight from Bagdogra to Paro. That’s not enough time to fill out the immigration form, drink the orange juice and eat the coconut covered peanuts!

I couldn’t help gawking as I crossed the runway to the terminal building. After all the modern steel and glass in Seoul and Bangkok, this terminal is in keeping with the traditional architecture found throughout the country –-lots of white stucco and decorated wood. LeeAnn and I dig for our visas and line up with what appears to be a National Geographic Tour group.

Bhutanese Flag

The process moves slowly as each visitor has been approved for specific activities on specific days. The government keeps close track of who is in and who is out.

After clearing immigration we change US dollars into Ngultrum, the local currency. For some reason one gets a different rate for $50 bills than for $100s. At any rate, for me,  $200 US is worth 10,700 N.

We follow the flow of traffic and walk out the front door of the terminal to meet Jaim Yong, our guide and Dorji, our driver who are waiting expectantly. It appears we are a party of two. How cool is that. Our own private tour for a full week!

We load into the Hyundai van for the short ride into the town of Paro. The airport road parallels the razor wire fence that protects the runway. untitled-8553untitledThe road is a little over a car width wide but that really doesn’t matter.  Vehicles are technically on the left but it appears you take what you can get when you are sharing with other cars, pedestrians and freerange cattle. It’s a bumpy and adventuresome introduction to Bhutan.

We pass acres of paddy fields that have been newly cut. Straw like stubble sits in the dry mud. Rounded haystacks with little top knots made from the straw are distributed across the landscape like kings on a checker board . Two weeks ago this view would have been greenish-brown and blowing in the wind.untitled-9520untitled

Paro is an old town with a broad main street and numbered shops. untitled-8590untitledWe pull up to our Bhutanese style hotel and go up a darkened set of stairs to a restaurant next door. Jaim Yong says we will check in later. He brings us tea…the first of many cups.

This first Bhutanese meal is like most of the others we are to experience in the days ahead. It is served buffet style. Rice and peppers are staples in this country as are spinach and mixed vegetables. Chicken comes like it has been hacked into pieces with a cleaver. Beef chunks are small, similar to what we might have in a stew. Sometimes there are potatoes, nice and crispy, like chunky French fries.

As we sip tea, the folks beside us strike up a conversation. They are from Mississauga which is about an hours drive from my place. The gentleman and his wife are in their late 60’s or early 70’s and are near the end of their trip. They came via England and eventually Katmandu to arrive at this same spot. A Tilley hat and hiking boots make him appear to be the adventurer while her Tan Jay outfit makes her look more like she is ready for a visit with the grand children. Nonetheless I think that under that UCW disguise, there must be an adventurous spirit as they say they have just hiked to the Nunnery.

Jaim Yong talks a blue streak in a quiet voice. Much of it I cannot understand but perhaps that will come as I get used to his inflections. He and Dorji are ready to take us to Druk Choeding, Paro’s five hundred year old temple. This is our introduction to monastic life in Bhutan as well as more of the intricacies of driving here. The parking lot at Druk Choeding looks like a bumper car track with vehicles sitting at odd angles on a patch of earth that has a twenty-five degree tilt.

A “blessing of the crops “ is in progress as we enter the courtyard.untitled-8539untitled Villagers listen as monks chant. Prayer wheels spin and flags flutter in the light breeze. We wander the grounds and after removing our shoes, and our hats, enter the old temple. A monk is busy dusting ancient artifacts. It is hard to know what to do other than be as respectful as possible. Jaim Yong prostrates himself in front of the Buddha.

It is dark in the temple and the air is pungent with incense. Numerous statues of the Buddha stare out at us. This belief system is very complex and filled with tradition. As we exit the intricately painted prayer wheels that sit in alcoves along the sides of the monastery are momentarily silent.

The Paro Valley is known as the rice bowl of the country.  It stretches out at our feet as the car takes us away from the center of town and up towards the Paro Rinpung Dzong.

The Dzong, consecrated in 1646, is a large five-storey monastery and was once active as government offices. It is huge.

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

A flight of stairs that would take the breath away from most western tourists leads to an entrance hall and a display of murals that are replicas of those within the temple itself.

The versions close to the main entrance tell of the circle of life and the need for people to help one another as seen through the tale of the elephant, the monkey and the rabbit.The originals that are within the temple are protected by large sheets of canvas that hang in front of the painted walls.

Circle of Life

These murals were painted hundreds of years ago with vegetable dye paints and have suffered the ravages of time and the smoke of countless butter lamps. It is sad that they need such protection as it also means that they are largely hidden from view.

We leave our shoes at the entrance and step over the copper covered threshold into the mammoth sanctuary.

Entrance to Temple

A large coffin like box holding a ceremonial Thangka sits in a corner of this large temple room. These huge pieces of religious art are displayed during festivals when they are unrolled against the monastery wall. Originating in Tibet and Nepal this art form usually depicts Buddha and other deities painted or embroidered on silk. They are a teaching tool and may describe historical events, and myths.

Jaim Yong is careful to help us understand that the artwork is not the thing. During a festival the blessing it receives brings prosperity to the people and that is what is important.

Photography is permitted in the courtyards of the monastery but not in the temple itself. Only my mind’s eye captures the image of a monk in his red robes, nestled comfortably on a meditation cushion, as he happily talks on a cell phone.

In the courtyard, it is impossible not to marvel at the detail in the architecture and the precise nature of the painted designs. I walk the huge stones and try to imagine this place during a festival or when it was being used to defend the community against Tibetan invaders.

Detailed woodwork

Dzongs are said to have hidden passageways and many small temples deep in their bellies. Copious amounts of food and water are said to have been stored there for use in hard times or when under siege.

I look out from the second story into the valley.

Paro Valley

Directly below me construction is underway to build new steps at the front of the Dzong. Techniques don’t seem to differ much from what would have been used centuries ago. The workers use hammers to break rocks into usable pieces. Then people cart and pile them to make retaining walls. Nothing is easy here.

High on the mountain behind the Dzong is the watchtower, built in 1951. It houses the national museum but was damaged during a recent earthquake and is not open.

We wind our way back down the mountain towards town. Uniformed school children swinging circular, pink plastic lunch-buckets, make their way home along the narrow roads. Traffic has to be respectful or someone or something would surely fall off the cliff. Red chilies lie drying on many rooftops. Cattle wander where they will. The air is fresh.

When we arrive back at the hotel we decide that there is just enough time to walk through town before supper. LeeAnn and I head downhill from the Jigmeling. At the first corner, a group of workers are socializing at the end of their day.

End of the Day

They laugh and sing as they stand around fires that are burning in old drums. A lady has her vegetables spread out on the curb. The shops are still open. Each is small and laden with a mix of wares. Signs say, “ Get your cell phone charged here”.

The streets themselves are not user friendly. The step up and down from the sidewalk to the road is large. The pavement is broken and irregular.  The gutters that take away the flood waters of the monsoon season are deep and wide. Everything is uneven.

Each of the shops on the wider main street has an official looking sign and number.  Often their entrances are up a few steps from the level of the sidewalk. Rows of small prayer wheels periodically grace the walls of the stores.

One of many

Dogs, lots of dogs wander or loll in the dirt.

More chilies hang drying in bunches from windowsills. untitled-8605untitledLaundry graces an alley and cows graze unperturbed beneath it. At the end of the main street a small plaza holds a large prayer wheel. Its yellow fringe flaps in the breeze as a man gives it a spin as he passes. High on the mountain, the Dzong looks down guarding the valley.

By five we are back at the hotel. The dogs, that Paro is famous for, bark us to sleep.untitled-9523untitled

Two hours later, hotel staff knock on our door to wake us for supper. It is a lot like lunch except we have our first encounter with a national dish called Ema Datsi, chilies cooked with cheese. Somewhere between the cheese and more tea, a generator fails and we return to our room by the light of candles set on the steps leading to the second floor.

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