Sunday, April 25, 2010

April 20 - Entering the land of the Thunder Dragon

The wakeup call came as requested at 2:30 AM. It meant that I had one hour to shower, take my luggage to the lobby, have some coffee and be at the hotel shuttle to the airport for our 5:40 flight to Paro, Bhutan. It had been over four years since I first signed up for a trip to Bhutan, before I was finally on my way. I met Robin, the tour leader, and Eleanor, another photographer, in the lobby restaurant for coffee and pastries. John and Marcia, two other members of the group were at another hotel in Bangkok, we would meet them at the airport. The final member of our tour James was already in Bhutan on trek and would meet us in Paro.

At the airport Namgay, our lead tour guide met us with a group of guides and drivers and three SUVs which were to be our transportation for the next 15 days. We piled into the cars and headed for the Gangtey Palace Hotel, which had been the home of a governor in the late nineteenth century. It was a very authentic place to spend our first night in Bhutan. My room was small, but clean and with a private bath with shower, tub, toilet and sink.

We take all our trips in three cars, with a guide and driver for each two tour members. The guide driver team stay with a specific car all during the tour, while the tour members rotate each day to get to know all the guides and drivers. The attention on this tour is very personalized, with one of the members of your guide/driver team at your side all during the day. If you take two cameras, he carries one, if you want to change a lens, he helps, if you need a “typical” Bhutanese for one of your pictures, he poses.

Our first trip was to the National Museum, to learn something of the history and culture of Bhutan. This was once the watch tower for the Rinpung Dzong, located high on a promontory overlooking the Paro Valley. A Dzong is a combined fortress-monastery that has both governmental and religious functions. Dongs are located in every major valley in Bhutan, and I will visit several on this trip. The museum is a circular five storey building which starts with artifacts from 1000 or so BC up to the present. Much of its written history has been lost in fires and earthquakes. Buddhism was became the dominant religion in Bhutan when the Guru Rinpoche, exorcised a demon from the king of Bumthang and converted the demon and the king to Buddhism. The present monarchy of Bhutan started in 1906 and the present king is the fifth in the line. The Bhutanese monarchy was recently converted into a British-style constitutional monarchy with a parliament, a prime minister as head of government, and the king as titular head of state. Adjacent to the museum is a more modern building, which is the kings “ego wall”, showing pictures of the king and other royals visiting foreign countries and meeting other world leaders.

Lunch followed which consisted of cream of mushroom soup (mushrooms are big in Bhutanese cooking) and a buffet of Bhutanese items, none of which were too spicy.

In the afternoon, we visited the Paro Dzong, taking pictures of the architecture and the monks. Afterwards we went to the archery field to watch a match. Archery is the Bhutanese national sport, and most towns have archery fields. The match we watched there were two teams of four players each, all dressed in the Gho, which is the national dress for men. The national dress for women is called the kira. National dress must be worn in schools, government offices, and on formal occasions. The man in the picture is wearing a gho, which may come in a number of different patterns..

After watching the archery, I took a Bhutanese hot stone bath in a wooden tub. The tub is divided with a small chamber at the end which is filled with hot stones, brought by an attendant. The attendant carries the stones in pair of tongs and drops them into the chamber at the end until you ask him to stop. After the water cools a little the bather can request more stones to keep the water hot.

I was accompanied to the bath house by Wangdi, my guide for the day. I also brought my camera, so we could document the event. When I got in the water was already hot, but as I eased myself in little by little my body acclimated to the heat. James had just returned from his trek and was in the next tub. He is a 39 year old city planner in Signal Hill CA, and the youngest person on the tour by 20 years. Namgay joined us in a third tub, and we had a group picture taken.

After a Bhutanese dinner, we all retired early for a 5:30 wake up on Tuesday morning.

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