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 🙂

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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 🙂

Nepal – Be Here Now

I was lying awake on my first night in Nepal on this particular trip, and my mind was going round and round as it has a habit of doing, when I realised something. I had seen photos of the intrepid tourists who had braved their friends’ worries, their governments’ advice and maybe even their own fears, and had defiantly travelled to Nepal anyway after the earthquake in April and taken photos of themselves holding placards stating something like ‘I’m in Nepal and it’s safe’. This is great, and I don’t want to diminish the power of these photos – ultimately travelling to Nepal or not is an entirely personal decision, but seeing other people there, enjoying the sights, activities, food, drink and culture is surely encouraging.

I wanted to do something a bit different. I wanted to take photos of my friends in Nepal holding a similar sign. These people work in hotels, restaurants, shops and other service industries related to tourism, and have all been affected directly by the earthquake. Some of them have lost friends and relatives, some of them have lost houses, some of them are worried about losing their livelihoods – a result of the fact that far fewer tourists are coming to Nepal than would usually be expected.

That’s enough from me – these photos say everything I want to say as far as I’m concerned. This is an amazing country that has been badly wounded by recent events, but it is far from moribund. I want everyone who reads this blog (and the fact that you’re reading it probably means you love travelling as much as I do) to seriously consider visiting Nepal – whether you’ve been ten times or you’re a Nepal virgin. And if you need any help, get in contact with me or any of the people in these photos. They will all be more than happy to welcome you to their beautiful country.

http://www.hotelmanang.com

http://www.abcadventures.com

https://www.facebook.com/womensdonepal

http://www.lsrpokhara.com/

Yakka, bell captain at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Yakka, bell captain at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Ramesh, of ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Ramesh, of ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Bhim, of ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Bhim, of ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Narottam, of ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Narottam, of ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Meena, office assistant at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Meena, office assistant at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Surya, senior teacher at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Surya, senior teacher at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Apsara, top waitress at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Apsara, top waitress at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Bijay, waiter at LakesideRetreat Pokhara, Pokhara

Bijay, waiter at LakesideRetreat Pokhara, Pokhara

Sunita, shop assistant at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Sunita, shop assistant at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Rustam, managing director of the best travel agency in Nepal, ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Rustam, managing director of the best travel agency in Nepal, ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Nanda, computer operator at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Nanda, computer operator at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

The absolutely wonderful Ram Kali, founder of Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

The absolutely wonderful Ram Kali, founder of Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Anup, International Manager at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Anup, International Manager at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Friendly snake, Pokhara

Friendly snake, Pokhara

Tej, owner of LakesideRetreat Pokhara, Pokhara

Tej, owner of LakesideRetreat Pokhara, Pokhara

Pradeep and Prem, Kathmandu

Pradeep and Prem, Kathmandu

Parmeshwor, laundry owner, Kathmandu

Parmeshwor, laundry owner, Kathmandu

Kuber, maintenance man who can fix anything at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Kuber, maintenance man who can fix anything at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Ganesh, waiter at LakesideRetreat Pokhara, Pokhara

Ganesh, waiter at LakesideRetreat Pokhara, Pokhara

Friendly elephant, Pokhara

Friendly elephant, Pokhara

Prem, world's best tea maker, Kathmandu

Prem, world’s best tea maker, Kathmandu

Sunil, at Pilgrim's Book House, Kathmandu

Sunil, at Pilgrim’s Book House, Kathmandu

Raju and Prajen, Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Raju and Prajen, Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Raju, senior receptionist at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Raju, senior receptionist at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Krishna, shop owner, Kathmandu

Krishna, shop owner, Kathmandu

Mukesh, the yak shawl man, Kathmandu

Mukesh, the yak shawl man, Kathmandu

Krishna, best waiter ever, at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Krishna, best waiter ever, at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Mahesh, bell captain at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Mahesh, bell captain at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Friendly dragon, Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Friendly dragon, Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Pradeep, world's best driver, Kathmandu

Pradeep, world’s best driver, Kathmandu

Mukund, scarf and shawl expert, Kathmandu

Mukund, scarf and shawl expert, Kathmandu

Deepika, receptionist at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Deepika, receptionist at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Prajen, receptionist at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Prajen, receptionist at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Henary, internet cafe owner, Kathmandu

Henary, internet cafe owner, Kathmandu

Delicious veg thukpa at Mustang Thakali Chulo, Kathmandu

Delicious veg thukpa at Mustang Thakali Chulo, Kathmandu

Dipika, receptionist at Hotel Manang Kathmandu

Dipika, receptionist at Hotel Manang Kathmandu

Shatrudhan and his daughter Neha, from Mithaila Women Craft, Kathmandu

Shatrudhan and his daughter Neha, from Mithaila Women Craft, Kathmandu

Archana, from Mustang Thakali Chulo, the best thakali food in the world, Kathmandu

Archana, from Mustang Thakali Chulo, the best thakali food in the world, Kathmandu

Milan from Mustang Thakali Chulo, Kathmandu

Milan from Mustang Thakali Chulo, Kathmandu

Sanjiv, from Mustang Thakali Chulo, Kathmandu

Sanjiv, from Mustang Thakali Chulo, Kathmandu

Subarana from Unique Cargo, Kathmandu

Subarana from Unique Cargo, Kathmandu

Kedar the wonderful mask maker, Kathmandu

Kedar the wonderful mask maker, Kathmandu

Ramesh, world's best F&B manager, from Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Ramesh, world’s best F&B manager, from Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Suresh, world's best Operations manager, from Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Suresh, world’s best Operations manager, from Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Gyanu, from Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Gyanu, from Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Nirmal, Saroj and Adarsh from Unique Cargo, Kathmandu

Nirmal, Saroj and Adarsh from Unique Cargo, Kathmandu

Ananta from Amrita Crafts, Kathmandu

Ananta from Amrita Crafts, Kathmandu

Kiran from Amrita Crafts, Kathmandu

Kiran from Amrita Crafts, Kathmandu

Dibya from Paper Park, Kathmandu

Dibya from Paper Park, Kathmandu

Mum with Deven, actor, model, lyricist, the owner of the Manang Hotel, Kathmandu and, most importantly, our very good friend

Mum with Deven, actor, model, lyricist, the owner of the Manang Hotel, Kathmandu and, most importantly, our very good friend

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

The first go

For weeks now one of my friends has been nagging me to start writing a blog. I’m having a bit of an interesting year (in both the usual and ‘English’ sense of the word), and I enjoy writing (in fact I do it for a living), and so I thought why not. Now I’ve started I’m not sure whether anyone’s going to want to read a word I write, but there’s only one way to find out.

So far this year I’ve managed to go on my usual annual trip to Nepal (in March, narrowly missing the Turkish Airlines crash, which meant we lost a week of our holiday), visit Rome (fascination with Roman buildings and history), get married (in May, for the second time!) and be accepted on the MSc Control of Infectious Diseases course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – I still can’t quite believe the last one, even though I have the official letter at home. The course starts at the end of September, 5 days before my 39th birthday, and so I’m leaving my medical writing/editing job on the 30th July. During the 2 months between then and the start of the course I’m going to sit in a cottage in Somerset for 3 days and read and think, and go back to Nepal for 18 days (also hoping to get to Bhutan for a few days during that time). In my spare(!) time I run a crafts business with my mum, importing (mostly) fairtrade goods from Nepal to sell at local markets, which is one of the many reasons we go over every year.

I live in Brentford (not Brentwood!!) in a flat full of books and pictures and stuff I’ve brought back from travelling. Luckily there is also some space for my husband, and my degu Elvis. We don’t have a TV, which leaves more space for books.

Unbelievably, that’s the first mention of books. Books are one of the reasons that I get up in the morning – another is travelling. Both are incredibly important to me. As is super-hot curry, and a nice glass of Shiraz, or two. However, I am not a fan of cooking (or washing up!) so I prefer to go out and eat. This is easy round us, as there are lots of good restaurants nearby, although we usually end up in one of two of them. Creatures of habit, definitely.