Bhutan Day 5: Going High and Haa

CHELE LA & HAA VALLEY

Day five had marked the mid-point of our itinerary, a point that might not be the climax, as everyday should be extraordinary in a place like Bhutan. However, it was definitely the high point of our trip, literally. At 3,988m, Chele La is the highest point one could reach in a vehicle in the country and we were all looking forward (and upward) to it!

Paro Bhutan
Mountains of Paro waking up to another beautiful day.

Paro Bhutan
We could see the Paro International Airport clearly from the hotel's restaurant verandah on the second floor. It was still quite mind-boggling looking these massive mountains that surround the airport, thinking how pilots have manoeuvred the plane safely onto the short landing strip everyday.

Tashi Namgay Paro
A beautiful resident cat in Hotel Tashi Namgay. Stray dogs are aplenty and cats are rare in this country.

Snow Bhutan
Snow and ice could be seen on the roadside as we continued to ascend in the comfort of our vehicle.

Bhutan road travel
Our fantastic driver, Mr. Sangye, doing his best to ensure a comfortable journey for all despite the challenging road condition. Not forgetting the jokes he would crack to fill the vehicle with laughter along the way. And I had requested to take the front passenger seat to minimise motion sickness.

Chele La Pass
A breath-taking view from 3,988m at Chele La after 1.5 hours of hardship in the vehicle. We shouldn't complain about the rough journey, as we seriously would not consider conquering such altitude anywhere else on foot or by ropes otherwise.

Chele La Pass
Another panoramic view of the magnificent scenery around. We were surrounded by such staggering beauty that we decided to get out of our vehicle and walk up the road for the last stretch.

Chele La Pass
Simply mesmerising to look at the majestic mountains, smell the fresh air, and feel the cold Himalayan wind in your face.

Chele La Pass
Closing in on the snow-capped mountains.

Chele La Pass
The 5-colour prayer flags flying high against the vivid blue sky, leading up a small hill.

Chele La Pass
The white vertical prayer flags are erected 45 days after the death of someone to honour, guide and protect the soul on its way into the next life. Where possible, there will be as many as 108 of them - a number of significance in Buddhism.

Chele La Pass
Prayer flags flying high at 3,988m. They are allowed to stand in its place until the cloth has surrendered itself to the forces of nature.

Chele La Pass
Not exactly on the top of the world, but the experience and incredible views were good enough for us. This is probably how far and high we could take anyway, before any altitude discomfort.

Chele La Pass
Blue, white, red, green and yellow fluttering across the mountain range as far as our eyes could see.

Chele La Pass
Enjoying a cup of nice hot tea from.... Nescofe?

Chele La Pass
The mobile café where we got our hot tea from. The entrepreneurial owner had even brought up a wide variety of food and souvenir. Possibly the highest café and pop-up store in Bhutan.

Chele La Pass
Our driver, Mr. Sangye singing with his friend, sending beautiful voices echoing across the mountains.

Chele La Pass
Thanks to DANTAK for building the highest road pass in the country, hence allowing us to reach such altitude with ease. Project DANTAK is a part of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers and has been responsible for the construction and maintenance of over 1,500 km of roads and bridges in Bhutan since 1961.

Chele La Pass
Without saying, our visit to Chele La would not be complete without a group wefie.

Yak
Moving off, we saw several yaks along the way, chilling by the roadside.

Haa Valley
Just 45 minutes from Chele La is Haa Valley. Another photo-op quick stop looking down at this peaceful valley before entering the town. And our guide, Mr. Jigme, with his favourite binocular.

Lhakhang Karpo White Temple
Our first stop in the Haa Valley was the famed Lhakhang Karpo, also called the White Temple. It is one of the two sacred temples in Haa, which are among the holiest sites in Bhutan.

Lhakhang Karpo White Temple
Black dog at White Temple.

Lhakhang Karpo White Temple
Beautiful hand-painted details at Lhakhang Karpo, with prayer wheels that go around the temple building.

Lhakhang Karpo White Temple
The main temple building of Lhakhang Karpo.

Lhakhang Karpo White Temple
Our driver, Mr. Sangye, doing his prayer wheels around the building.

Lhakhang Karpo White Temple
Lhakhang Karpo and its beautiful surrounding. The temple was established in the 7th century and went through extensive restoration and rebuilding in recent years.

Bhutan food
It was lunchtime. Wonderful Bhutanese food to satisfy our growling tummies.

Haa Valley
Women workers getting to work. Many road construction workers are women in Bhutan.

Haa Valley
After a short drive, we were dropped off along the Haa Chu river surrounded by stunning scenery. We had arrived in the town of Haa and would take a stroll into this sleepy and relatively unknown town.

Haa Valley
The first impression we got upon entering Haa was it seemed like we were thrown back in time. Everything was authentic and almost ancient.

Haa Valley
Locals scattered sparsely along the sidewalk and chatting about the day.

Haa Valley
And carefree children running along the car-free roads.

Haa Valley
Piling up enough firewood for the coming winter.

Haa Valley
Filling the quiet streets of Haa with some local music.

Haa Valley
Many "General Shops" could be seen along the main street of Haa town. Take a peek into one and you'll be fascinated by the local products on the old wooden shelves, many of which we would not have seen before in our lifetime.

Haa Valley
Locals gathered around a street vendor with a massive slab of yak remains, presumably haggling and deciding which part to get.

Haa Valley
Getting their selected meat weighed.

Haa Valley
Sun-drying meat.

Haa Valley
The town of Haa is very small and peaceful with only one street and a row of traditional shophouses. After all, it was opened only in 2002 to tourists, hence retaining its beautiful authentic charm.

Haa Valley
Some locals in Haa remain quite curious yet reserved with the occasional sight of tourists in their town. Probably still not used to seeing foreigners with big cameras around.

Haa Valley
While some continue to radiate with that same brilliant Bhutanese smile at us.

Haa Valley
A group of young local girls started chatting with us along the street. I handed over my phone to one of them after this photo was taken and she started transferring it into her own smartphone with a few clicks. They are certainly good with their smartphones and social media, better than me for sure.

Haa Valley
Getting the best view of a soccer match.

Haa Valley
Cats are rare and they are mostly kept as house pets.

Haa Valley
Thrown back in time at a local hardware shop.

Satyr tragopan pheasant
Spotted a satyr tragopan pheasant on the roadside while travelling back to Paro. With the help of our vehicle's headlights, their gorgeous feathers of striking vermillion had made the bird luminous and cannot be missed along the windy roads.


Yellow billed blue magpie
Our driver, Mr. Sangye's sharp eyes had spotted another beautiful bird along the way, and on the tree this time - the yellow-billed blue magpie.

Paro Bhutan
Country road, take me home... Travelling back to Paro and chasing the setting sun, with Paro Dzong on the right.

Paro Bhutan
The main street of Paro town, flanked by two rows of local supply stores, souvenir shops and a few new cafes.

Paro Bhutan
Other than being a happy bunch, Bhutanese are also known to be kind and honest. You may look for your lost items at this 'Lost & Found' box along the street.

Paro Bhutan
The streets of Paro town could be cold and quiet with only a few people at night...

Paro Bhutan
But if you were to walk into some shops, it could be bustling with life, where many locals would gather in a warm and joyous atmosphere.


Continue Day 6...
http://aikkianphotography.blogspot.sg/2017/05/bhutan-day-6-flying-tiger-hidden-temple.html


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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