Shwedagon…and on…and on

I’ve been lucky enough to see some pretty amazing places in my life – the Taj Mahal, the pyramids at Giza, Machu Picchu, Mount Everest, the Potala Palace, Khan Tengri, Swayambhunath, Rakaposhi, Ushguli, Paro Taktsang – are you noticing a bit of a theme (or rather two) here? Mountains and ‘spiritual’ places? Well, the latest addition to the (hopefully ever increasing) list is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

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People (including me) maybe overuse the superlative ‘breathtaking’ but this literally did take my breath away. I am an inveterate atheist and nothing, not even an incredible, gold leaf- and diamond-encrusted pagoda is going to change that, but I admit to welling up and my knees feeling just a little bit wobbly as I got to the top of the stairs. The quiet beauty of the place just gets to you.

I was supposed to visit Myanmar in the early 2000s, but history got in the way. This year I was lucky enough to finally get there. And Shwedagon was worth the wait. Leave your shoes at the entrance, climb up the stairs with everyone else – monks, little kids, old ladies, young canoodling couples, everybody – make sure you have plenty of time and absorb it all. The first time I went very early in the morning when it was relatively quiet, with just a few people lighting incense and praying, kneeling on the soaking wet marble.

Possibly the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world (so some say) Shwedagon is believed to house various relics of the Buddha, including four hairs, and is 110 metres high. The pagoda holds eight planetary ‘corners’, one for each day of the week, with Wednesday split into morning and afternoon. Each day is also represented by an animal. I was born on a Saturday so apparently my animal is a giant snake (naga). I don’t mind snakes but I’m not sure I’d want to be one.

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When you come down again (literally!) don’t forget to collect your shoes – I almost did. Whatever you think about religion, whatever beliefs you do (or don’t) hold I don’t think you could leave this place without feeling at least a little moved. And then you can go on to the next place feeling enlightened…

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All photos by me 🙂

 

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Part 4: Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon (and a lot more besides…)

And so I woke up and it was the morning of my last full day in Bhutan. My flight back to Kathmandu left at 8am the next day, so I had to be at the airport at 6am. At least I would be back in Kathmandu for breakfast!

My final day was the most enjoyable of all. I love hiking, and combine that with climbing 900 metres up a rather large hill to see an amazing building, and I’m happy. Taktshang Geomba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) graces all the travel books and publications about Bhutan. Go to any travel show and I guarantee that the Bhutan agents will have at least one picture of this iconic place, maybe a few from different angles. It certainly is incredibly photogenic, and as you can get under it, above it, next to it, and in it, there are plenty of opportunities for taking great photos.

Up we go

Up we go

Grey langur giving us the once-over

Grey langur giving us the once-over

Tiger’s Nest monastery is somehow clinging on to a cliff 900 metres above the Paro valley. Guru Rinpoche was lucky – he flew up here on the back of a tiger to do battle with a demon. I walked. Once he got here he had a nice sit down and meditated for three months. I was there for about an hour and a half and didn’t stop looking at things – it is a magical place. You leave all your technology at the door (no cameras, no phones, no video cameras) and make sure that your arms are covered (I had to borrow a jacket from one of the receptionists at the hotel. It was so lovely that I was tempted to nick it :)).

I’m pretty fit so I was bounding up the first bit, passing another couple of people who had also left their hotel sensibly early. Then I realised that we were climbing quite steadily and I slowed down. We walked through beautiful forest, saw sunbirds and disturbed some grey langurs, who leapt up, staring at us. We were passed by one group of blokes from the Indian Army who rather annoyingly had their mobile phones playing tinny Bollywood hits. We let them get far ahead of us and then continued.

The viewpoint

The viewpoint

After just over an hour we were standing looking at the monastery close up, with the waterfall at our backs. This powers the prayer wheel at the bottom so it never stops turning and prayers are constantly flying off into the sky.

Waterfall on the way up

Waterfall on the way up

Prayer wheel turned by the waterfall

Prayer wheel turned by the waterfall

Once we got to the monastery there was a great feeling of camaraderie, as people struggled down across the bridge and then up the other side. First up was where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months after he flew in on the tiger. The cave itself is hidden behind a gilded door and seldom opened. Today it was shut but the murals more than made up for that. I have a thing about these wall paintings and there were plenty of them to look at all painted in beautiful, vivid colours. There were a few Buddhist pilgrims worshipping, praying, chanting and bringing offerings for the monks (mostly bags of crisps and packets of biscuits. I hope their normal diet is healthy!).

Mini-stupas left by pilgrims

Mini-stupas left by pilgrims

There it is

There it is

Despite being 100% atheist I did appreciate the spirituality of the place and I could easily have taken some of the murals home with pleasure. How on earth the monastery clings on to the side of the cliff I have no idea, but it does. It almost looks like an organic growth.

Going down the mountain was quicker, even being careful of knees and ankles. We stopped for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two at the cafeteria and carried on back down. What an absolutely amazing place. I don’t think a trip to Bhutan would be complete without a visit to the Tiger’s Nest monastery.

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After another enormous lunch (they feed you a LOT in Bhutan) we went off to see our last sight, the Rinpung Dzong. As it was raining we had the entire place to ourselves, with the exception of one very grumpy young monk, who was manning the charm stall. You can buy a charm to protect you from most things you can think of. Rain wasn’t one of them though. The building itself was beautiful, with more of the exquisite wood carving that adorns a lot of the buildings in Bhutan.

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

The dzong was damaged by a fire in 1907, and when the ashes were investigated the massive thangka that is unfurled once a year in the courtyard was found untouched. The murals here are beautifully fresh and vibrant. Some tell the life of Milarepa, the Tibetan saint. Again, these could cheerfully have come home with me, but it wasn’t to be.

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

On my last night in Bhutan I went to a farmhouse a short drive out of Paro, into a more rural area, for some home-cooked food. Part of this involved trying some home-brewed firewater (arra), which I think is an acquired taste! It was good with chura (beaten rice) though 🙂 After eating my fill of chillies it was back to the hotel for my final bottle of Druk 11000 and my last night’s sleep in Paro. The alarm call was booked for 5.15am…

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

All photos by me 🙂

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 🙂

Part 2: Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon (and a lot more besides…)

Thankfully I’d asked for an alarm call for my first morning in Thimphu as the bed was so comfortable and everything was so quiet that I could easily have gone on sleeping. The contrast with Nepal is striking. I’m so used to waking up in Kathmandu at about 5am to the dawn chorus of motorbikes revving, taxis honking, dogs barking, pigeons cooing, people chattering away, shutters going up, bells ringing for puja etc etc. Thimphu was the total opposite. The only sound was the chirping of the birds who had made their nest above my window. At breakfast I shocked the staff with my prodigious English tea-drinking ability. In the end they just gave up and brought the whole pot over 🙂 By 7.45 there was still nobody around, the clouds had begun to lift and the sun was streaming down onto the square.

After breakfast our first stop was the memorial chorten built in honour of the third king of Bhutan, Jigme Dorje Wangchuck. The nice thing here was that it wasn’t just a sight, it was also obviously well used by local Bhutanese people, including those doing their prostrations first thing in the morning. I had seen this in Lhasa too. Some people do it for miles and miles, and in fact when we were on the road from Thimphu to Paro later in the trip I did actually see a man on the main road lying flat out, getting up again, moving slightly forward, and repeating the whole thing. It must take months to get anywhere.

National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

Morning prostrations at the chorten

Morning prostrations at the chorten

Morning prostrations at the chorten

Morning prostrations at the chorten

Most people here were spinning the prayer wheels on the way to work or school, and it was a peaceful place to start the day.

From here we drove up, up, up the windy road to visit the Buddha Dordenma, an absolutely enormous (51 metre tall) statue of the Buddha, which overlooks the Thimphu valley (and has great views). Many people from around the world have donated money to help finish the Buddha, which is still being constructed. Once finished it will contain thousands of smaller Buddha statues. An amazing thing to see standing guard over the valley.

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View over Thimphu from the Buddha

View over Thimphu from the Buddha

Buddha Dordenma, Thimphu

Buddha Dordenma, Thimphu

As I’m interested in crafts my tour included a lot of visits to craft workers. Our next stop was the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre at Changzamtog, just outside Thimphu. I was lucky enough to see some of the women weaving beautiful fabrics, which are for sale upstairs in the shop. I managed to restrict myself to just one silk scarf that has the most amazing colours. Many Bhutanese women have looms at home and spend time every day weaving; in fact I saw this myself on the drives through the country. The houses have wide verandahs that can accomodate a back-strap loom and a pile of fabric ready for sale.

Weaving at Changzamtog

Weaving at Changzamtog

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If you’ve been following the blog for a while you’ll know how keen I was to see takins, the national animal of Bhutan. You’re unlikely to see them in the wild unless you’re super-lucky, so I tromped off to the Motithang takin preserve which houses a few of these amazing animals. The fourth king was not happy that animals were being kept in an enclosure (I guess it’s not good for their gross national happiness!) so they were released into the wild. However, as they were so tame they ended up strolling round Thimphu in search of a meal, so they were put back into captivity. I was lucky to see them close up, as one of the takins was unwell and was being treated, so they were all close up to the fence. They are rather odd-looking but I have a soft spot for anything like that, so I really enjoyed visiting them.

Takins

Takins

Well hello there

Well hello there

The Bhutanese have 13 traditional arts and crafts (Zorig Chusum), including carving, painting, weaving, embroidery and paper making. I was excited at being able to visit the National Institute for Zorig Chusum in Thimphu and watch some of the students learning their trades. I felt slightly uncomfortable at first, as I was worried about disturbing the hard work going on, but none of the students batted an eyelid. They must be used to tourists sticking zoom lenses into their faces and just got on with what they were doing. They have a shop onsite where you can buy pieces that the students have made. Touchingly the students write their names on the back of whatever it is that they’ve made so I now have a beautiful piece of embroidery made by a student called Dawa Choden (thank you Dawa!).

Embroidery class

Embroidery class

Painting a thangka

Painting a thangka

A paper factory was my next stop. Making paper is a laborious process – first the plants are stripped and boiled in a huge vat. The pulp is washed, pressed and dried, and then the paper is made. The smell is something you have to experience to believe. The end product is worth it though. I found the way they dry the paper on huge electric heaters interesting, as I’ve only seen it dried in the sun in Kathmandu (think of a big washing line).

Preparing the lokta

Preparing the lokta

Drying the sheets of paper

Drying the sheets of paper

The lokta bush

The lokta bush

The National Textile Museum was a lovely place to see. In the first toom I watched a DVD which explained the different types of weaving and how different ethnic groups in Bhutan make different types of cloth. There are then two main rooms of exhibits: one contains clothes that the royal family have worn, for example at weddings, along with some of the history, and the other was a more general display of traditional clothes and jewellery. This was all beautifully presented and if you have even a vague interest in textiles, I would recommend a visit.

The last stop on my full itinerary today was the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, which contains the government offices and also houses some monks. It is only open for an hour or so in the evening, once the civil servants have gone home, but it’s worth the wait. The buildings are atmospheric, with monks wandering around, and the sound of horns and chanting coming from the rooms on the first floor. The rooms are painted with lovely murals and one of them is lined with small golden statues of the Buddha.

Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Prayer wheels at Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Prayer wheels at Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

By the time I got back to the hotel I was more than ready for a sit down, dinner and a beer. I had had a great day, and was looking forward to the next. But first another massive dinner to get through 🙂

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

All photos by me 🙂

Part 1: Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon (and a lot more besides…)

If you’ve been reading the blog/are my friend/husband and have had to listen to me rabbiting on, you’ll know that on my recent trip to Nepal I managed to squeeze in a 4-night trip to Bhutan as well. Bhutan is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go and it’s an hour away from Kathmandu by plane, so it seemed rude not to!

As landing and taking off from Paro airport is highly dependent on the weather [visual rules, so the pilot actually has to be able to see. Useful I’d think] I made sure I was at Kathmandu airport at stupid o’clock and was rewarded by the 50-seater twin prop plane taking off 10 minutes early. I had a seat on the left-hand side of the plane but unfortunately the clouds were obliterating the mountains so no Everest for me. Luckily I’ve seen the whole range from Tibet so I didn’t feel too disappointed, although seeing mountains is always a good thing. Drukair was impressive. It was a titchy plane but there were two stewardesses and even lunch (maybe not traditional Bhutanese fare: mayonnaise sandwiches, peanuts, biscuits and a mango juice). The sign above my head stated: ‘Meal plates must be stowed in a sofa drawer during take-off and landing’. I loved it.

Plane on the tarmac at Kathmandu airport

Plane on the tarmac at Kathmandu airport

Plane on the tarmac at Paro airport

Plane on the tarmac at Paro airport

The King and Queen keeping an eye on us all

The King and Queen keeping an eye on us all

We arrived safely at Paro, where immigration and baggage control was a breeze. My guide and driver, Tshering and Pema, were waiting for me outside [Anna, UK, 1 pax – just the way I like it] and they whisked me off to my hotel in Thimphu. Along the way I picked my jaw up off the well-upholstered floor of the car numerous times. The scenery was superb and Tshering filled me in on various things we were seeing along the way. Lush green paddy fields, densely wooded mountainsides (apparently nobody is allowed to cut the trees down), plenty of signs exhorting people to drive carefully [my personal favourite: ‘This is highway, not runway’]. Women selling fruit (mainly apples) and veg by the side of the road, small temples and houses dotted around, cows and calves strolling down the middle of the road.

The hotel in Thimphu was new and comfortable (Hotel Thimphu Towers) and central, in fact on the main Clocktower Square. A perfect place for me to take sneaky photos of people walking around, not realising that there was a tourist on the third floor observing their every move. So I’m nosy, I can’t help it 🙂

DSCF8841 DSCF8842 DSCF8844Bhutan is unusual in that most people wear traditional Bhutanese dress, as in the photos above. Some younger people are now wearing jeans and t-shirts, but people in offices and businesses, and school children, are all dressed like this. Personally I think Bhutanese women are the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen (particularly the current queen, who makes even my knees go wobbly). And it seems effortless. I felt clumsy and red-haired in comparison. And while we’re on the subject of knees, if you go I hope you don’t get too excited by male knees, because you’re going to see a lot of them!

Before I went to bed I watched people in the square while drinking tea. According to Tshering 98% of Bhutanese are Buddhist, and there were certainly plenty of people spinning the prayer wheels in Clocktower Square. It was a very peaceful place and just right for a good night’s sleep.

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

All photos by me 🙂

My second home

In January 2006 I went over to Nepal for a 10-day holiday and loved it all so much that I went back to live there, moving back to London in June 2007. I now visit at least once a year, and Nepal has become a second home to me. It’s just one of those places that gets under your skin.

Ason market

Ason market in the heart of Kathmandu

Friends who have come with me have liked it, but it hasn’t had the same effect on them. The only person who had a similar reaction was my mum, and she now comes over with me on every trip. We also run a small business bringing over craft items, which we then (try and!) sell at local markets over here. Our main, and favourite, market is the lovely Duck Pond (www.duckpondmarket.com) – we have been at the Ruislip version since the second market, and we now also have a stall at Pinner.

I am off back to Nepal on Sunday for 18 days (not like I’m counting or anything!), and am also fitting in a 5-day trip to Bhutan. It’s only 45 minutes on an amazingly scenic plane trip. Hopefully I will get to see Everest again too 🙂

It will be our first trip back since the earthquake in April 2015 so it’s going to be good to see friends again. We had a panicky few days trying to locate people, but Facebook worked wonderfully well, allowing people to tag other people who they knew were okay. Most of our friends were incredibly lucky, but we do know that others weren’t. It’s going to be great, but it’s also going to be sad. I’m just glad we have the luxury of being able to go back.

Fishtail mountain in Pokhara

Fishtail mountain in Pokhara