Our day started way too early with a 03:00 wake up. We were in line for our Drukair flight by 04:20, but then we decided to see if we could upgrade and jumped over to the business class counter. Luckily, it wasn’t too expensive to upgrade (cash only!), so we got business class seats, priority lane passes for immigration and security, and a pass for the Air France first class lounge. Security was a breeze – no line at all, and we settled in to the comfortable chairs in the AF lounge for the next hour. Our flight took off right on time, and we were treated incredibly well by the Drukair employees.
There was a member of the royal family sitting right in front of us, which was very cool. We were served a lavish breakfast, with real glasses and cutlery. I had heard we would get to see Mt. Everest during the flight to Bhutan, but either we missed it or we took a slightly different route than usual. We did see some of the Himalayan ranges, and the steep descent into Paro was quite exciting.
Immigration was fast at the Paro airport. For some reason, they didn’t even ask to see our visas, which I’m told never happens. Our guide thought it was very strange when we told him about it. After withdrawing some ngultrum from an ATM and getting our suitcases, we headed outside and immediately saw our guide holding up a sign with our names on it. His name is Namgay, and he’s very polite, friendly, and well-informed. He’s from central Bhutan, but currently lives in Thimphu with his wife and one-year-old son. Our driver’s name is Lama, and he’s quite a character. He’s in his late 40s and has five children ranging from age 11 to 28. He served 10 years in the royal guard and was a chef for the king’s grandmother.
We immediately hit the road for Thimphu, but we were only on the road for a few minutes when they spotted a darts game being played by the side of the road. We pulled over to watch it, and it looked really difficult! The targets were tiny and the darts thrown a huge distance. Whenever one of the boys would win a round, there was singing and dancing.
Our next stop was a wire iron bridge built in the 14th century. We walked down to the river to look at it, and crossed over a newer bridge that has been built next to it. Then we were back on the road to Thimphu, and since it was noon when we arrived we went straight to lunch at Bhutan Kitchen. There was a very friendly cat in the restaurant who came right over to me and immediately jumped in my lap and started purring. I removed him when the food came but felt guilty about it. We were brought an enormous amount of food and couldn’t begin to do justice to it, but everything was quite tasty. There were huge bowls of red rice and white rice, cheesy potatoes, shredded green cabbage, a chicken curry, and the national dish, ema datshi – dried red chili peppers with cheese. They use a lot of dried foods here, both meats and vegetables. We were also served a tasty lentil soup.
After lunch, we went to the National Memorial Chorten, built by the 3rd king’s mother in his memory (he died in his 40s). It was beautiful, and there were many people there walking clockwise around the chorten in meditation ritual, using their prayer beads to count their rotations. We went inside the chorten and climbed all the way up; each level had statues of deities. (No photos allowed inside.)
We had time for a visit to Buddha point to see the Buddha Dordenma, a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha built high in the mountains above Thimphu. It is truly impressive, as were the 256 stairs we had to climb to reach it! The altitude is just under 7400 feet, and I could feel it in my heart rate. Inside the statue are thousands of small Buddha statues (the eventual plan is to have over 100,000, but there are still a lot of empty rows waiting for their little Buddhas inside).
We then walked over to the nearby Kuenselphodrang Nature Park, and took a short hike up to a great viewpoint. The prayer flags strung everywhere are beautiful.
We checked in at our hotel, the lovely Bhutan Suites, and took an hour to unpack and unwind. The hotel is very nice, and we have a huge space – a kitchenette/living/dining space, and then a separate bedroom with a king bed. There’s a balcony, but we haven’t been out on it yet. The wifi is a little slow, but it works.
It was 4:00 by this point, so we had time for a little more sightseeing. Namgay took us to the Weekend Market, held inside a large, open, government-owned building. On the upper level, the Bhutanese vegetables were sold – all organic and more expensive than the Indian vegetables and fruits sold on the lower level, which Namgay told us were filled with chemicals. We crossed over a bridge to see the non-perishables side of the market, which had a lot of handicrafts imported from Tibet and India. Then we went to the Tashichhodzong, the fortress that is now the government’s central administration headquarters, but unfortunately it was closed already (apparently they keep changing the hours). We lucked out and got to witness the retiring of the flag ceremony from behind the fence. It’s always interesting to see those rituals in other countries.
We killed some time wandering the streets of Thimphu and looking in a bunch of different shops before we went to dinner at the charming Babesa Village restaurant, located in a very old heritage home. We started with the national drink, salted butter tea. It was interesting – I can imagine it’s incredibly nourishing after a long, cold hike. It was kind of like a liquid version of movie theater popcorn. The butter made it extremely rich and I couldn’t quite finish. Dinner was all traditional Bhutanese dishes – rice, dried turnip greens, mixed vegetables, cheesy potatoes, a dried beef curry, a dried pork dish, and a slightly sour wheat soup.
We were completely knackered at that point, so Namgay and Lama delivered us back to Bhutan Suites and I did my best to stay awake until around 8:30, at which point I completely crashed.
Distance walked: 7 miles
Flights climbed: 43