Behind the Prayer Flags - Part 1
Our guest Pat Barlow delights in getting beneath the surface of a country, enjoying moments of serendipity and connecting with the locals. She recounts some of these moments on her tour of Bhutan. This is part 1 of a 2-part series.
My journey started with a brief stay at the Nammo Buddha Organic Farm Resort just 45 kms to the east of Kathmandu in Nepal. Its tranquil setting was the ideal place to get over the journey from England and acclimatise to altitude a little before heading on to Bhutan. The resort is set in the midst of its own organic farm on a hilltop with views of the Annapurna and Khumbe Himalaya. We were able to walk to the nearby village and monastery and have a good look around the area as well as enjoying the home produce served at meal times. The food was delicious and all produced from the home grown vegetables, fruits, grains and eggs. It was especially peaceful as the other guests were monks on a silent retreat.
The flight into Bhutan is a must! We had considered travelling overland but when you look out of the left hand side of the plane and see Everest you know why it must be part of the trip. Then there is the approach to Paro airport, the stunning scenery of Bhutan and one of the world's more 'exciting' approach paths. Looking down on the mountains, beautiful houses dotted on the hill sides, clear rivers and the rice paddies in 40 shades of green built the anticipation of what lay ahead.
Many places you can read about in the guide books but the most special experiences come from chance encounters on the way or going off the beaten track. Panoramic Journeys are quite good at that, they know their clients like to go beyond the normal tourist path and really get to the heart of a country.
Soon into our trip we met our guide Kharga ‘s family on the way to Punakha. His father had just finished teaching for the day and was taking a stroll up the road as we drove down from Dochu La pass. We were delighted to be asked into their home for tea. The Bhutanese are such hospitable people, everything is done with such grace and gentleness and really echoes the strong Buddhist traditions. Perhaps it is the way things are given to you with such reverence, everything feels special.
The Punakha valley seems to be very fertile with its variety of crops grown and the rice terraces making lovely patterns on the hillside. The two rivers, the Mo Chu (Mother river) and the Pho Chu (Father River) gush down from the mountains. Beautiful roaring clear water makes them look so inviting. A possibility of rafting sprang to mind and no sooner had we thought about it than Kharga arranged it. We found ourselves heading down the Pho Chu going through rapids with evocative names like Crazy Horse. It was a sunny day so it didn’t matter too much when we got wet. The rafting guide was very enthusiastic and so a noisy High 5 with paddles raised was given every time we got through the rapids successfully. It happened on most occasions!?!?
The roads in Bhutan are not the easiest to negotiate, some cling to the mountainside with little between you and a steep drop, others are littered with dogs asleep, children playing or cows meandering home. Our driver Thillay, we thought, must be the best driver in Bhutan. Nothing phased him, he took great care as he drove around every obstacle or negotiated yet another hairpin bend.
After rafitng we found ourselves at the village of Talo which is at the top of a mountain at 2400m. Monks from the nearby monastery carried our bags from the car to the farm house (a Bhutanese homestay) where we were greeted with a welcome cup of tea in the courtyard. It was lovely to be staying with Sangay’s family and seeing Bhutanese life close up. The wood fire was lit, the corn was drying on the racks above, pots were put on to cook and we soaked up the homely atmosphere whilst learning more customs and traditions. The local rice wine, Arra, flowed freely and we really were enjoying gross national happiness with Kharga, Thillay and other PJ guests. We learnt to flick our wine three times with the third finger and to place a few grains of rice on the floor at the start of a meal all done to please the deities. It obviously works in Bhutan as everyone is so well cared for. We sat cross legged on the floor in the eating room and enjoyed a typical Bhutanese meal served to us by our host – rice, dahl, cheese with chillies and mushrooms although the butter tea is definitely an acquired taste! That night we slept on the second floor of the farmhouse and discovered just how steep stairs are in Bhutan. They are more like ladders than stairs and apparently built this way to keep the evil spirits out. Perhaps not the most terrifying spirits if they are scared of stairs with gaps!
Follow Pat's journey on to more remote districts in Part 2