Bhutan Day 2: From Tango to Tashichho

Thimphu

THIMPHU

The glorious morning sun had greeted Thimphu valley, illuminating the traditional Bhutanese architecture and vapourising the morning fog as it continued to awaken the sleepy capital. (Above: mesmerising view from our room in Hotel Osel.)

Glancing at the mountains, we were quite anxious about our day ahead. Not because there was going to be any surprise or that we were going to meet His Majesty (which we were still hoping for).

We were anxious simply because our kind tour guide, Mr. Jigme had told us the night before that we'll need to climb more than an hour to reach our first destination today. And according to him, this was considered "easy".

1.5 hours of uphill trekking may sound like child's play to many. But to us, it was a tall order. The last time I ran 2.4 km was 24 years ago. I was an artist during National Service and didn't have to run a kilometre. I had no reservist, no IPPT. I have been driving for years and had rarely needed to walk more than 10 mins to anywhere in this well-connected lion city.

To make things worse, we don't exercise.

Bhutan people
I decided to take a short morning walk around Hotel Osel to warm up but it was too cold. So I ended up having a chat with these two friendly guides who were waiting for their guests at the hotel driveway.

After a hearty breakfast to ensure that our energy levels were at their fullest, we hopped onto our vehicle for an hour's drive to Tango Monastery. Along the way, we made a brief stop at a hairpin turn where we got our first photo-op with Guru Rinpoche.

Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava
A majestic, colourful cliff mural of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), an 8th-century Indian Buddhist master who was reincarnated in a lotus blossom, also more widely called the 'second Buddha'. And of course, he was the one who flew on the back of a flying tigress that gave Tiger's Nest its famous name today.

Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava
 Yes, please keep everywhere, everything, and everyone clean.

Prayer wheels
Two prayer wheels spinning with their integrated water mills and stream below the hut (the small building as seen in front of the cliff mural).

After another 15 mins of bumpy car ride, we reached the foot of Tango Monastery to get ready for our first hill climb in Bhutan. To our pleasant surprise, our driver Mr. Sangye pulled out 4 wooden walking sticks from the boot. They came in really handy in balancing our footsteps along the uneven tracks and sometimes steep gradient.

Tango Cheri Monastery
 The humble entrance and starting point to get to the Tango Monastery.

Tango Cheri Monastery
Our adorable and techie tour guide, Mr. Jigme, always providing us with interesting and useful information along the way. Typically, altitude sickness starts at 8,000 ft (2,438m) without acclimatisation.

Tango Cheri Monastery
Lots of friendly dogs in Bhutan. They were certainly as friendly as the people.

Tango Cheri Monastery
Somewhere mid-point. An elegant stupa and a rest stop.

Tango Cheri Monastery
And finally, after 1.5 hrs of uphill task, we arrived at the famed Tango Monastery.

The total ascend from the car park to the Monastery is approximately 280m in altitude difference. So theoretically, it took us 19 secs to conquer every 1m vertically. That may sound sloth-like but to be fair, we made several rest and photo stops as usual. And not forgetting the elevation to start with.

The Tango Monastery was extremely peaceful and indeed, like what a monastery should be, celestial and clandestine. Incidentally, there were ongoing repair works and those timber scaffolds and skip bin didn't do justice to the beautiful entrance.

Tango Cheri Monastery
Suddenly, the entire place burst into life upon entering the main courtyard. Cladded in burgundy robes, groups of monks gathered in the sun and gobbled their simple meals, some standing, some squatting, all sharing the limited common space for a time of good chat and fellowship.

Tango Cheri Monastery

Tango Cheri Monastery
Gorgeous architectural details and intricate wood carvings adorn every façade of the 17th century building.

Tango Cheri Monastery
Upgrading programme.

Tango Cheri Monastery
We were fortunate to come face to face with a troop of langurs, the Tarai gray langur to be specific. Native to Bhutan and India, they are classified as "near threatened". What a beautiful animal!

Tango Cheri Monastery
From reds to burgundy and maroon. Life is simpler when there isn't many choices.

Tango Cheri Monastery

Tango Cheri Monastery
Walked past several houses perched precariously on the rocky cliff on our descend. We really wonder why did Bhutanese in the past loved building on vertical surfaces so much.

Tango Cheri Monastery
While getting to one of these houses may not be easy, building them was definitely more difficult. But I guess all the trouble will be worth it with the million dollar views they offer of the surrounding valleys.

Prayer flags
Prayer flags fluttering gently in the forest breeze. These ubiquitous prayer flags of blue, white, red, green and yellow represent the five elements of sky, wind, fire, water and earth respectively. Hence, prayers are printed on the cloth and hung high for the wind to spread these prayers in all directions, spreading goodwill, peace, compassion and benefit to all beings across the world. It's a misconception that these prayer flags bring prayers to the gods.

Tango Cheri Monastery
A local resident in the Cheri mountains.

Dry day in Bhutan
If you have read the tips and info section at the end of each day's blog, you would know that alcohol is NOT available on every Tuesday. They call it the "Dry Day". I guess I'll call it "Thirsty Day".

Bhutan lunch
A group photo of our guide, Mr. Jigme and the beautiful staff at our lunch restaurant in Thimphu.

Bhutan Post Office
 After lunch, we visited the Bhutan Post Office for a short tour and some souvenir shopping.

Bhutan Folk Heritage Museum
The Bhutan Folk Heritage Museum is a small but well-stocked museum, showcasing the fascinating traditional Bhutanese way of life. A worthy stop to slow down and enjoy the tranquility that surrounds the museum - a 3-storey 19th century Bhutanese house.

Thimphu Tashichho Dzong
Our last stop for the day was none other than the monumental Thimphu Tashichho Dzong. Other than the colossal dzong architecture, it is also well known for its equally enormous national flag which cannot be missed.

Stray dogs in Bhutan
Extremely friendly stray dogs keeping us company before the doors of Tashichho Dzong were opened to the public for visit at 4.30pm, which is when the government offices in the Dzong have closed.

Thimphu Tashichho Dzong
The Tashichho Dzong is a massive complex and fortress. Behind the elegant and well-proportioned whitewashed façade of distinctive Bhutanese architecture lies a Buddhist monastery, government offices and most importantly, the throne room and office of the King.

Thimphu Tashichho Dzong
The only public entrance into the Dzong. Everyone was required to have their bags checked through metal detectors.

Thimphu Tashichho Dzong
Monks can be seen in the Dzong as there is a Buddhist monastery within.

Thimphu Tashichho Dzong
A panoramic view of the central plaza in Tashichho Dzong. Fortunately, it wasn't crowded at all, possibly due to the off-peak season.

Thimphu Tashichho Dzong
At around 5pm, the flag bearers will lower the giant national flag and safe keep through a brief ceremony. Remember to catch them in action!

Thimphu Tashichho Dzong
 Astonishing details on the façade and windows.

Thimphu Tashichho Dzong
The peace and tranquility was amazing as we exited the Dzong after the crowd. Do not rush, let other visitors leave first and take your time to enjoy the place while strolling down the rose garden.

Thimphu Tashichho Dzong
Nature versus architecture.

National Assembly of Bhutan
The National Assembly of Bhutan building could be seen opposite the Tashichho Dzong across River Wong Chhu. It's the parliament building of Bhutan.

Bhutan sunset
The same sunshine that had greeted us good morning was retreating with the same brilliance in the Himalayan skies as we made our way back to our vehicle.

Bhutan happiness
From soaring the monastery of Tango to strolling the grounds of Tashichho, it was no doubt a tiring day for us but definitely a happy and rewarding one! Thanks to our cheerful guide, Mr. Jigme.

Continue Day 3...


GENERAL TIPS AND USEFUL INFO:

Date of trip: 6 to 14 December 2016

Accommodation:
  • Osel Hotel, Thimphu
  • Hotel Lobesa, Punakha
  • Tashi Namgay Resort, Paro
  • COMO Uma Paro, Paro (additional stay)
Weather in Dec is cool and beautiful. The sun can be harsh and intense in the day. A pair of shades and sunblock would be good to have.

It could get warm in the day, especially when trekking up the mountains for hours. The option to layer multiple light clothing would be more sensible and convenient than one thick and heavy jacket. Temperature typically ranged from 15 to 20 degrees Celsius in the day, to freezing temperatures at night. Some hotels may not have very effective room heater. Hence, bring warm pyjamas just in case. Consider bringing a hot water bag to snug under your blanket (Hotel Lobesa had provided 2 and they were God-sent on that freezing night).

When visiting temples, Dzongs and places of importance, long pants and collared shirts/jackets would be required. For ladies, please wear long pants/skirts throughout the trip. Several places would require shoes to be removed before entering. Consider the ease of footwear removal if you do not wish to spend excessive time meddling with shoelaces.
A set of traditional attire - the Gho and Kira will be prepared for all tourists. You may choose to wear it any day, or every day. The tour guide and driver will guide you through the art of wearing.

Road condition was bad, as most roads were under repair or construction. The terribly bumpy road surfaces coupled with windy mountainous roads was the perfect formula for some dramatic motion sickness. Prepare for the worse - motion sickness medication, sour plum, mints, Axe Brand medicated oil, Tiger Balm; arm with them all if you need. If you know you are going to fall victim easily, request to swap with the tour guide for a front passenger seat, which I did for some parts of the journey before becoming Singapore's vomiting icon.

Food was delectable and palatable. The 4 of us, 2 Singaporeans and 2 Taiwanese, had all enjoyed every meal with smiles and praises. Ask for their local condiments and chilli to add some exciting flavours to your meal. Staff at any restaurant would usually be happy to serve. Their local chilli cheese (Ema Datshi) would also fire up any bland meal you may find. Ask what your tour guide and driver are eating and you may be in for some flavourful surprises.

Tuesdays are "Dry Days", which means, no alcoholic drinks are available.


GETTING STARTED

Visit Druk Asia (https://www.drukasia.com/) and start planning using their wide range of packages as a starting point. Contact their friendly staff if you have any question or would like to customise any part of the itinerary. It's not necessary to follow the itinerary strictly. You could arrange with your personal guide and work out a more "free-and-easy" programme when you are there. But your guide and driver would always be with you as there is no other way to get around this country.

It's best if you book through Druk Asia and going as a small group with just your family or friends instead of booking tours through big travel agencies. You'll then be getting your own tour guide, driver and vehicle.

The USD200 (off-peak) or USD250 (peak) per person per night includes accommodation, meals, and everything one needs in a day, minus frills and shopping. Ample bottled drinking water is provided daily in your personal vehicle and there is really no need to spend a single cent except for souvenirs, or at the Centenary Farmer's Market (Thimphu), if you are a fan of local flavours and ingredients.

For info on entry visa, daily tariff, and FAQs can be found here:


SOME PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES:

The sun can be harsh and intense in the day during this season. As you can see from the photos, most days were cloudless, which means intense direct sunlight hitting on your subject. The extreme high contrast in highlights and shadows would be a constant challenge for your camera's dynamic range. A fill-flash could be needed to eliminate harsh shadows on faces.

Carry light as there will be a lot of walking. Below are some popular places and their timings (based on our poor physical condition and carefree pace):
  • Tango Cheri Monastery, Thimphu - 75 to 90 mins ascend, 60 to 70 mins descend.
  • Chimi Lhakhang, Punakha - 40 to 45 mins (one-way) across the valley, paddy, and uphill.
  • Pho Chhu Suspension Bridge, Punakha - 20 mins (one-way) from Punakha Dzong.
  • Haa Valley View Trail - 60 mins descend (optional trekking to lunch).
  • Tiger's Nest Ascend First Section - 40 mins by horse, or 90 mins by foot.
  • Tiger's Nest Ascend Second Section - 120 mins by foot only.
  • Tiger's Nest Descend - 80 mins + 50 mins (usually with lunch in-between).
Bhutanese are generally very friendly and approachable. Most would love to have their photos taken. They are indeed a happy bunch and do not be shy to ask for a picture (wish I had done that more). Regardless, respect their preference and personal space.

Some parts of temples and Dzongs do not allow photography, with or without flash. Please check with your tour guide if unsure before firing off like there's no tomorrow. Show necessary respect to the people, culture and religion, please.

And here's what I've brought and used for this trip (was a tough decision):
  • Nikon D750
  • Nikon AF 16mm f2.8D Fisheye
  • Nikon AFS 20mm f1.8G ED
  • Nikon AFS 50mm f1.4G
  • Nikon AFS 24-120mm f4G ED VR
  • Nikon AFS 70-200mm f4G ED VR
  • Sony RX100 III
  • Sony X1000V Action Cam
  • Samsung Gear 360 (paired with Samsung S7)
  • ONA Messenger Bag - The Union Street

SO, TO VISIT OR NOT? WHEN TO VISIT?

Still trying to read up endless travel blogs and wondering whether you should be visiting Bhutan, or when you should be? First, it's a myth that Bhutan is expensive, because the daily charges cover everything! Second, it's not true that it's hard to get a tourist Visa (in the case of Singaporeans). It could be more difficult to get an air ticket during peak season simply due to the limited flights into the country.

It doesn't matter if it's the Happiness you are after or the Thunder Dragon you are seeking; or for us, just the Dragon King we were hoping to meet, there is every reason to make a trip to this magnificent country at least once in our lives. Or is there even the need for a reason at all?

"It doesn't matter when you get married
as long as it is the right person."
His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck on his Royal Wedding, 13 Oct 2011 

As the King has rightly said, visiting Bhutan is perhaps as emotional and impassioned as his big day. It doesn't matter when, which season, as there is no right time or best time to visit this lovely country, because it is certainly the right and best place to be.

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