Part 3: Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon (and a lot more besides…)

Today we were off to Paro, but not before watching some archery – the national sport of Bhutan. I’ve never really thought much about archery. Really my only exposure to it was on one of those activity holidays at school. I was expecting old-fashioned wooden bows and arrows. Boy was I wrong. The crowd was huge (considering that less than 700,000 people live in Bhutan, I think a large percentage of them were here), maybe as a result of the presence of one of the King’s brothers, who is apparently an archery expert. I did see him but unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take any photos of him. It’s amazing how little security there was considering the fact that he must be something in line to the throne. The archery itself is quite impressive – they use carbon fibre American hunting bows. Lots of dancing and singing goes on and the archers are certainly enthusiastic. Whenever one of them (they shoot in groups, not as individuals) scores a bulls eye (or maybe just hits the target, I’m not sure!) the group puts their arms around each other and starts doing a funky dance, complete with singing. I wish I’d had the video camera with me.

Archery (and archer)

Archery (and archer)

Archer and bow

Archer and bow

From the archery we drove up to the Dochu La pass to see the 108 chortens. These were built in 2005 to atone for the deaths of Assamese militants who invaded the south of Bhutan. If the weather is good you can also (apparently!) get an amazing view of the Himalayas. Unfortunately the day I was there the place was shrouded in mist, but this just made it more atmospheric. I did two rounds of the whole place and my hair was wet by the time I got back to the car.

Some of the chortens at the Dochu La pass

Some of the chortens at the Dochu La pass

Detail on one of the chortens

Detail on one of the chortens

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From here we drove back down , heading for Paro for the last two nights of my trip. On the outside, Paro looks far more like a traditional town than Thimphu – wooden buildings, narrow streets (the main street was only built in 1985). It reminded me of film representations of the Wild West in the US. The centre is stuffed full of craft shops.

After lunch we headed off to my second-favourite place in Bhutan, the Kyichu Lhakhang. This beautiful, peaceful temple is obviously well used by locals, and there was a small herd of friendly dogs hanging around too (I remember dogs like this in the monasteries in Tibet). The temple was supposedly built in 659 by Songsten Gampo, a king of Tibet, and there is an interesting story behind the construction. In 659 the king built 108 temples in a day to pin down a recalcitrant demoness and, in the process, convert the Tibetans to Buddhism. Temples were built on parts of her supine body, and the Kyichu Lhakhang is helping to pin down her left foot. Whatever you think of the story, the temple is lovely. One of the buildings contains a huge statue of Guru Rinpoche and one of Red Tara (I am familiar with Green Tara and White Tara, but this was the first time I had seen a Red Tara). The original wall paintings are visible – just – but are now covered with a layer of black as a result of the years of butter lamp smoke. Now only one or two butter lamps are lit in a single day in an effort to stop the damage getting worse.

Kyichu Lhakhang

Kyichu Lhakhang

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So by now you’ve probably gathered that I like markets. My next stop was the weekend market, which was in the process of setting up. Already there were a lot of stalls selling vegetables and flint-like yak cheese (both natural and smoked). There were also stalls selling doma (the same as Indian paan – betel nut etc – the reason for splashes of red on the ground). The national dish of Bhutan is chillies with cheese, which sounds like an acquired taste but is delicious. And luckily I LOVE chillies and put them in everything, so I felt right at home at the dinner table 🙂

Fern fronds (used in cooking here)

Fern fronds (used in cooking here)

Dried yak cheese - the brown squares are smoked yak cheese

Dried yak cheese – the brown squares are smoked yak cheese

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Delicious fresh chillies

Delicious fresh chillies

My home in Paro was the Hotel Olathang, which was built in 1974 (and is thus 2 years older than me!) to house people coming to the coronation of the fourth King of Bhutan. The room was good and the buffet dinner included chillies with cheese, so I was happy 🙂 After such a full day I decided to have a bottle of Druk 11000 beer, a great way to round off the day! And I certainly needed my sleep before the next day’s main activity – my trek up to the Tiger’s Next Monastery…

Me + Druk 11000 = a match made in heaven :)

Me + Druk 11000 = a match made in heaven 🙂

Travel arranged by the lovely Thinley at Sakten Tours and Treks (thinley@sakten.com).

All photos by me 🙂

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