Saturday, November 03, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Approaching The Death Star

Day Twenty-One

Getting out of Nepal was a pain.  We went through security - twice.  We were felt up - twice.  They went through our bags - twice.  They made the Wife unpack her carry-on including opening up the terracotta soldier box which had been neatly wrapped.  It's going to be hard to complain about the TSA after the Nepal airport security.

After Nepal I needed something to pick me up.  Bhutan turned out to be exactly what I needed.

It started with a morning flight (flight number ten) to Paro, Bhutan.  After our second flyby of mount Everest we approached Paro airport.  There is something you should know about the airport in Paro.  By some accounts, like this article from the Daily Mail, the Paro airport is one of the most difficult airport approaches in the world and there are only eight pilots qualified to fly into the airport.  As we flew in the plane banked left and right as it wended its way through the Paro river valley.  Looking out the window you could see just how close we were to the hills.  It felt like you could reach out the window and touch the hills.  This wasn't a small plane - this was a full size Airbus A319 passenger jet.  At one point I said to the Wife that it felt like we were getting ready to attack the Death Star - this made a few people in nearby seats chuckle.  It was probably the most exhilarating commercial jet landing I've ever experienced.

We arrived at the airport early, went through customs and grabbed our bags and went outside.  Our guide was not there since our flight was a full half hour early to the airport.  As we waited several airport employees politely asked us if they could help.  Once again we had no contact information for our guide so there really wasn't anything they or we could do.  Our guide, a twenty-something young lady and her driver showed up on time.

After apologizing profusely, and the Wife and I telling her it wasn't their fault as we were early, we left the airport and started driving to the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu.  Thimphu is about an hour drive from Paro.  The road reminded me of I-70 through Colorado.  The green mountains were beautiful.  There were rive paddies and farm fields where the valley was wide enough.

We stopped near a foot bridge that crossed the Paro river and led up to a Buddhist temple.  The temple was not open to foreigners but it allowed our guide to give us some information about Bhutan.  Bhutan is a Buddhist nation (Nepal is 80% Hindu).  She described the architectural style that is pretty much mandated by the government.  She pointed out a red/brown band around the bridge towers and the temple.  The band indicated it was a religious structure.

The red/brown band signifies a religious structure.
There were two bridges, one for people and one for horses.  The people's bridge used chain link fencing for the walkway.  The Wife who is a little squeamish on bridges, especially swaying, rickety ones which you ca see through, was a little unsure but the guide took her hand and calmly walked her across.  To make it more special, the guide did it wearing high heels!  We returned to the other side of the river over the more stable wooden walkway of the horse bridge.

The foot bridge over the Paro River as seen from the horse bridge.
We stopped at another bridge and we walked across where the Paro and Thimphu rivers merge.  On the shore north of the convergence there were three stupa - each stupa was in a different style (Nepalese, Tibetan, Bhutanese).  Back in the car we finished the drive to Thimphu and we were taken to our hotel.

Our hotel was one of the most impressive I've ever been in.  We were sharing it with a World Bank conference.  Our guide handed us over to a hotel representative you offered us tea and a cool, moist towel.  She gave us a short tour of the facilities before taking us to a small Buddhist shrine where a Monk blessed us and tied a Sungkeye (a yellow cord, usually worn around the neck) around our wrists.  The cord is knotted after it is blessed and will help protect the wearer and ward off evil spirits.  After our blessing we went to our room to freshen up.

After relaxing a bit we walked to some stalls selling Bhutanese handicrafts.  I was ready to walk the gauntlet of sales people but was pleasantly surprised when not of the shop keepers approached us unsolicited.  If we showed interest they would politely ask if we needed help.  It was like this all along the block long row of stalls.  It was a delightful shopping experience.

There were two restaurants in the hotel - a fancy one and a less fancy one.  Frankly, the less-fancy one felt a bit fancy to me.  We chose the less fancy one as it didn't require reservations like the fancy one did.  I can't remember what I ate but I do remember it was good.  After dinner we watched a nightly folkloric dance and music show in the restaurant (none of my pictures came out as they were moving a lot and it was a bit dim in the restaurant).

Bhutan was so different from Nepal.  It was quiet, clean, polite, and uncrowded.  Bhutan's population is just over 700,000 people which is less than that of Omaha and it's surrounding suburbs.  Everyone who works in the tourism and commercial businesses in Bhutan are required to wear traditional garb.  There is a strict building code that limits building to no more than five stories and they must all have traditional styling.  While this sounds a bit harsh it gives everything a cohesive, orderly feel and everyone seems happy and content.  In 2008 the King declared the first democratic elections would be held in Bhutan and then abdicated his throne to his son.  His son became the youngest king in the world at the time.  The new king  seems very down to earth and very popular.

Our first day in Bhutan, actually a half day, was wonderful. Even though we really didn't do much that day it still felt like we'd done more than any of our half days in Nepal.  I think the beauty of the place kept me mesmerized.  You could feel the difference in the air.  It's kind of hard to explain.  All I can say is the next three days would be great and on our first day I was already dreaming about coming back to Bhutan some day.

Pictures from day twenty-one (07/12/2012) can be found in my 2012-07 Bhutan Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...

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