I’d nearly forgot about all of the articles and YouTube videos I’d seen touting Bhutan’s Paro International Airport as one of the most dangerous places in the world to land, but I quickly remembered this once the plane hit an air pocket, passengers let out a howl, and the flight attendants grabbed on to whatever they could.
“Crap, is this how it ends?” I thought. Then I did what I do whenever I get scared on airplanes: remember the math…I think about the actual “chances” of a problem happening, and usually (depending on how much more turbulence is ahead) that settles me down. Calming, spiritual Bhutanese music played over the plane’s overhead speakers. It helped manage my nerves a little, but a glass of bourdon would’ve helped more.
And then I saw it: the landing strip. Nestled snuggly in the tight valley pocket, I knew this was going to be a fun landing, but I just about lost my sh*t when the plane circled around for approach and I couldn’t, geometrically, understand how the plane was actually going to get itself onto that runway. There was a giant hill—or small mountain—almost right in front of the landing strip. Picture a game of Tetris, where you have to quickly slide one of those skinny long blocks under some others in order to shove it down into a slim crevice. You have a half a second to complete the tricky move, or it’s game over. This was totally Tetris with an airplane. But needless to say we made it; the pilot expertly passed this level of Tetris like a boss. I’d later find out that only specially trained officers were allowed to fly into Paro; only pilots who were experts in this challenging landing are permitted to execute it, and after experiencing it myself, I totally understand. The runway also doesn’t comply with international standards. It’s not long enough. You basically have one chance to land…no go-arounds!
Everybody Wang Chung Tonight
My guide, Wangda Tobgyal, was waiting right outside the airport for me with a sign. He’d become one of my favorite guides of all time over the next five days, and even better, a friend. You’ll get to know him too, as we get farther into this article.
I limped over to our car like a cripple, my left foot majorly tweaked from overdoing it the day before in Myanmar. I was a little worried: I’d been waiting for this special trip for so long: Bhutan was a bucket-list destination for me that would require a lot of hiking, and here I was with a bum foot. It hurt so much and I just wanted to lay down. Ugh…the worst! I was fearful I’d be benched during this trip. This couldn’t be happening!
I met our driver, Sangay Wangchuk (lots of Wangs here), who would commandeer the white Toyota Prado SUV for the next five days. Sangay was a lot darker than Wanga, with deep brown skin, very almond-shaped eyes and the just the right amount of facial hair to make him a dead-ringer for a character in one of those old school Kung-Fu movies from the 70s with lots of stereotypes; one of the bad guys. But he was anything but a bad guy. He was very soft-spoken, with a gentle smile. Most importantly, he’d keep me safe on the windy roads of Bhutan for the next few days and I was very thankful for that. Both Wanga and Sangay wore ghos, the traditional and national dress for men. The government of Bhutan requires all men who work in a government office or school to wear the gho. It was the first of many special and sacred traditions I’d witness during my time here.
We arrived in the capital, Thimpu, in just a little over an hour after leaving the airport; Wangda educating me about his country the whole ride there. He was proud of Bhutan and I tried my very best to absorb all I was learning. My entire stay would be a real-life, non-stop geography, history and culture lesson. It was a lot to take in, but all so fascinating.
Wangda checked me in to the Gakyil Hotel; the lodge itself was pretty simple, but its location was excellent. I had three hours to chill before we met for dinner. I rested my poor foot and got online for awhile, before attempting to limp around the block to check out the town solo. It was freezing, so my first stop was into a clothing store to buy a winter hat. I’d just arrived from tropical Myanmar earlier that day, and before that, Laos and Thailand, so the sudden climate adjustment was anything but subtle, however I’d soon adjust. The nights were freezing, but the days would be warm. Add to the fact that I’d be doing lots of rigorous mountain hiking, I ended up being comfortable with just a t-shirt during most of my activities. Well, pants of course, too. Soon it was off to dinner with Wangda. We ate like kings.
Speaking of royalty, Wangda would often mention “His Majesty” throughout my tour, paying respect to the Druk Gyalpo or “Dragon King” of the Kingdom of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. His Majesty’s framed photo was on display in most homes and businesses I’d visit. The people here definitely adored their king and took royalty very seriously here.
We had a very busy first full day in Bhutan, first stopping to see Memorial Chorten, the biggest stupa in the country. Then, it was up the hill to the breathtaking Big Buddha statue, before heading back down to explore Tashi chhoe Dzong. We’d visit the Thimpu Farmer’s Market and witness a local archery competition before getting back on the road and heading to the old capital, Punakha, via Dochula Pass…and it wasn’t even noon yet!
We arrived in the old capital of Punakha that afternoon and started with a lovely walk through a small village with buildings covered with paintings of phalluses. I didn’t know if it was disrespectful to giggle, but the 5th grader in me definitely awoke and was very entertained. We passed residences, markets, restaurants and offices, all adorned with big bright paintings of the wangs. Soon we arrived at gift shops that specialized in these penile-prizes. And although I thought these wooden dongs would’ve made some fun gifts to take back home, I surmised that my HR director would not have been amused; and then there’s the airport security I’d have to deal with in the next seven countries. No thank you!
But seriously, why all the penises? This goes back to a legend based on the popular Bhutanese saint Drukpa Kunley, also known as The Fertility Saint. According to the story, he used to hit the evil forces with his penis (or cohabited with them) and turn them into protective deities. You can’t make this up. There is a very long and informative (and entertaining) Wikipedia article detailing the entire history HERE. Now, please enjoy the photos…
Take a Hike
After the penis-patrol, we started on our first hike of the trip, which was nice and easy; they’d gradually get tougher, building up to that grueling trek up to Tiger’s Nest on my final day. Thankfully, my foot was healing well and I was able to get through the fields and up the hill with no issue. The hour-long walk took us up to Chimi Lhakhang, a Buddhist monastery that just happened to be right in the middle of a lively ceremony with over a hundred guests and live music. I didn’t know what was happening, but it sure looked like a party!
I had a nice rest at Meri Puensum Resort. It was such a peaceful stay, except for the howling dogs in the middle of the night. I have never in my travels seen a country with so many wild dogs and that was okay with me: I’m a huge dog lover! But really, there were more stray canines than you could ever imagine–packs and packs around every corner–and at night is when they really went to town. I would soon fall in love with one special doggie. More on her later.
It would be another jam-packed day. After breakfast, we’d take a peaceful hike up into the hills to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyel Chorten, visit Punakha Dzong, explore the town of Punakha, walk across the longest suspension bridge in the country and then drive up the mountain to visit a nunnery. There wasn’t a dull moment!
Bhutan continued to delight me on day three, including a wake up call from my favorite new doggie! I’d met her yesterday at the resort and she’d been sticking to me like glue, keeping me company wherever I’d go. Such a loyal doggie; she would even curl up by my feet when I’d sit on the couch in the reception area to check my email. I wanted to take her home so badly. I seriously considered it.
The first stop today was a highlight not scheduled on the itinerary; a surprise visit to the tiny, hillside village called Rinchengang, located in the Wangdue Phodrang district. This was one of my absolute favorite places of the entire journey. I loved it because it was so medieval. All of Bhutan was such a throwback to the old times–there isn’t a stoplight in the entire country–and Rinchengang just looked like something out a movie. Carved into the side of the mountain, there were no roads nor vehicles here, and not even one tourist in sight…just narrow passageways that winded around houses at an incredibly steep slope. What was most amazing, was witnessing all the elders trek up and down the extremely vertical paths; incredible! We ran into a group of four older ladies in the village beginning their long trek up into the mountains to pick crops…and they were all just wearing flip-flops! I couldn’t believe it. These women are ten times tougher than most men I know–certainly more rugged than me!
Livin’ For The City
After exploring the rural nooks and crannies of the mountains of Bhutan, arriving back in Thimpu seemed like I was returning “the big city.” It’s funny how quickly your senses adapt to a new place after only a few days. I quickly acclimated to “country living.”
A few absolutely mind-blowing fact about Bhutan: The country was completely isolated and cut-off from the world until recently; I mean literally cut-off. That means no roads in or out and no airports. With no way in or out, the country was truly isolated from the rest of the world. Only recently did things start to change…
The first road in and out of the country was constructed in 1962. The country was completely dark and without electricity until the late 1960s, imagine that! Bhutan only joined the United Nations in 1971 and foreigners weren’t even allowed to visit until 1974. Internet and TV have only been allowed since 1999. I wish I had the memory and time to write more details: the stories Wangda was telling me were just incredible! Long story short, this “delay” in catching up with the rest of the world makes Bhutan–in my opinion–one of the purest places one can visit on earth. If you took the vehicles off the road, and you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were in 2020 or 1820. Almost everything else, besides the vehicles, is a throwback to centuries earlier…and in many ways Bhutan wants to keep it that way: they have many rules, including enforcing that construction and architectural styles stay traditional. Bhutan is also the world’s only carbon-negative country. Simply amazing.
There are no stoplights in all of Bhutan; not a one. I absolutely geeked out watching the traffic cop man “the nation’s busiest intersection.” His eloquent turns and hand gestures looked like a super fabulous version of the Macarena. I could’ve watched him for hours! I thought it was one of the neatest things ever and was equally awed by the realization that this was just normal life and nothing special for the people who lived here. For me, this was like one non-stop ride at Disneyland, but in real life. I don’t think I ever stopped being in awe during my time in Bhutan.
Radio Free Bhutan
Next, one of my guilty pleasures while traveling: a visit to the local radio station. Wangda continued to wow me on just how well connected he was, bringing me by the station to meet his DJ friend Supe. Fun fact: They call DJ’s “RJs” in Asia, an acronym for “Radio Jock.” I enjoyed meeting the staff and seeing the facilities of Radio Valley.I think Wangda might have had even more in store for us today, but I was pooped…Papa’s gettin’ old! I needed just a little R&R before the big hike tomorrow, so it was over to Hotel Olathang to rest my bones for a bit. Wangda would pick me up a couple hours later to take me to his house for a big family dinner…it was Christmas Eve!
This was the big day and the moment I’ve been waiting for: Hiking to the world famous Tiger’s Nest is a total bucket list item for me, as it is for many. I was just grateful I’d had so many sweet surprises leading up to this day. From the food, to the people, the culture, and the constant feeling of stepping back in time 200 years; my whole experience in Bhutan felt like a movie. Now it was time to trek to the one spot so many travelers around the world aspire to get to one day: Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
I’ll let the photos do most of the talking. I’ll just say it was a very long and steep (overall) hike. I loved every moment of it, but I’m not ashamed to say it kicked my butt. At times I felt bad that I was moving so slow, but Wangda was very patient with me. This guy is in amazing physical shape and runs marathons and bikes around the entire country in his spare time! Me on the other hand, I haven’t seen a gym since 2017!
We stopped and admired stunning views along the way, said hi to lots of wild doggies and met other travelers. It was a day I will never forget and left me very mentally satisfied and physically exhausted.
A Secret Treasure
Like most temples, photography was prohibited inside Tiger’s Nest and that was actually okay with me. It was nice to leave my phone for a while (it had to be kept in a locker) and be completely disconnected from my device, and the world. The compound was pretty incredible, built right into the rock, with many different levels, steep stairs, narrow pathways and many different rooms, most of them with spectacular views. Inside the different rooms were shrines, statues, candles, and detailed paintings. Every doorway contained a surprise on the other side, from visitors praying, to monks meditating. One room was a completely dark and I had to navigate the area via touch, praying I didn’t fall down a hole! I even lost Wangda for a few minutes after taking multiple turns inside this ancient labyrinth. A giant stone terrace overlooked the valley. The entire experience was just magnificent and a once in a lifetime experience. But now, how to get down? There must be a tram???
Pizza My Heart
While I loved the cuisine in Bhutan, I was going through some serious American and junk food withdrawals and asked Wangda if we could go for pizza tonight. I thought it would be a great reward for the work I put in today getting to Tiger’s Nest. Bhutanese pizza was a little different, but man did it hit the spot. If anytime was right for carb-binge, tonight was the night. Every muscle and bone was throbbing.
What a journey! In my mission to see all 193 countries on earth, it’s rare for me to stay in any one country for more than two nights, but Bhutan deserved more. My five nights in Bhutan were exhilarating, exhausting and educational. I enjoyed all the nature, seeing so many beautiful temples, befriending doggies and getting to Wangda. I’m not sure what got more of a workout: my body or my brain. The trip was as educational as it was spiritual and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I may have found myself fantasizing about finding a Bhutanese woman* to settle down with, cashing out my 401K and moving to Bhutan to enjoy the simple life. *Preferably a member of the Royal Family…so if you know anyone, put the word in.
I’d like to thank Wangda Tobgyal and Sangay from Bhutan Lakhor Tours and Treks, his wonderful wife and children, and everyone I met along the way. My favorite quote that sums up my journey is, “Bhutan cannot be explained; it must be experienced.”
Ready to Visit Bhutan?
Unless you know someone that’s been there, just surfing the web to look at tours of Bhutan can be daunting. Many of them are extremely and obscenely overpriced. Luckily, Wangda was a recommendation from a trusted friend. While I did have to pay the usual “daily fee” to the government just to visit Bhutan, the total price for the package included the tour, the lodging, transportation and even my meals. At the end of the day, the price was actually extremely reasonable and much less expensive than so many of my other trips. Add to the fact that my guide was one of the absolute best, it’s safe to stay I scored on this pick, and you will too. I’m not being paid to recommend Wangda, but if you do use him, tell him I sent you, and most importantly, please be on your best behavior. Bhutan is not a place for the uncivilized. I trust you will come to learn and respect the culture, traditions, land and people. Promise? Okay, go HERE for Wangda’s info.
Next stop: Nepal.
And Now…the REST of the (Insta)Story:
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