Bhutan – Gangten, Haa & Paro

After the initial day in Punakha of exploring the city itself, the next day was for an excursion to the Wangdue – Phodrang district of Bhutan.

We stopped at Gangten Monastery, which was a nice starting point for the trek that followed.

My guide casually observed that most places look the same, but since I’m not in the habit of visiting Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms I didn’t really feel the need to ask for fewer temples or dzongs. 

It really enriched my tour to have a guide who was a practicing Buddhist. I got to ask all sorts of questions, and was able to observe him when we visited temples. On this day’s trek I think he went an entire hour repeating mantras as we walked. Not that I know what it means, but after hearing it repeated so many times I’m confident I can recite a Buddhist mantra in Dzongkha. I’m going to go ahead and glorify that as the strangest skill I’ve picked up on the trip.

From the temple we started our walk through Phobjika Valley. The valley is known as the winter migration home of the black necked crane, so if you plan on visiting Bhutan I’d recommend you have your visit coincide with their arrival.

Of course it’s stunning any other time as well.

I felt like I had gone back in time walking through this town. The water running over the road was clearly a permanent fixture as the existence of the wooden walkway attests.

This trek was completely free of any other people, it was so peaceful.

I really like that last picture, it prompts you to imagine what a cow rolling down a hill might look like.

Meandering alone through the valley, on a partially damaged walkway as it started to rain slightly was a tranquil experience.

The drive there and back was difficult. Hours of driving on less developed winding mountain roads was my only real complaint about Bhutan. On the other hand, there are some pretty great road signs advocating good behaviour like “mountains are pleasure when you drive with leasure,” “after whiskey, driving is risky,” and “safety on the road is safe tea at home.”

Then I was caught off guard with “don’t gossip, let him drive.” 

Following that beautiful day, we returned to Punakha for the evening. The next day we departed Punakha for Paro, taking us back up into the clouds.

On the way we had to drive through Thimphu again, so while there we visited a sanctuary for the national animal: the takin.

It’s a strange looking goat/antelope creature that lives in the Himalayas.

After the stop in Thimphu we successfully made it to Paro where I spent some time in the national museum overlooking the valley.

The final stop of the day was the Paro dzong. 

It was here in front of the following painting that I got my most comprehensive lesson on Buddhism ever. My guide explained the painting and how it showed the lessons of Buddhism, and answered my many questions.

According to the painting, people are trapped in one of the 6 worlds depicted unless they achieve enlightenment like the Buddha who is depicted outside the circle in the top right. 

I was then checked in to the last hotel not only of my Bhutan stay, but likely of the whole trip. I made sure to drink lots of complimentary tea – had to get my money’s worth. 

Smoking, even cigarettes, is not allowed in Bhutan. One curiousity I encountered in Paro was the abundance of marijuana just growing on the side of the road. We were driving by tons of it and my guide causally gestured to the side of the road, “that’s marijuana.” Apparently foreigners get a kick out of that. 

I was to be kept in anticipation for one more day, as instead of staying in Paro we went on an excursion to the town of Haa.

By law, 60% of Bhutan must be forested. It keeps the country very green. 

To get there from Paro, we had to drive over the Chele La Pass at an altitude of 3,988 metres. 

Haa is one of the least visited places in Bhutan, and only opened to tourism in 2001. It was peaceful to walk through, and the temple was beautiful as expected. According to my guide the temple was more decorated than usual because they were expecting a visit that day from the princess. 

I did have to take a pass that day on a proposed hike, because the chilli peppers had finally incited revolution and my stomach was attempting to secede from my self. 

The next morning I felt much better, and ready to take on the final day. This was finally the day I would go to Paro Taktsang, the Tiger’s Nest. 

If you remember me talking about a temple built on the side of a mountain, this is that temple. 

I think I underestimated just how up in a mountain it was. 

I think the hike up took about 2 hours but don’t quite remember. 

It hurt. That’s what I remember. 

From that perfect viewpoint of the temple, there was a dispiriting additional set of stairs down and up again to the temple as the cliff curved around. 

The temple complex itself was amazing. There were a number of monks doing all sorts of chores and rituals, and a number of tourists who made the trek up. It gave the temple a busy feeling, but in my opinion didn’t detract from the majesty of the place.

According to legend, the guru Padmasambhava, who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan, flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress. Thus the name Tiger’s Nest.

After months of anticipation, I’d gotten my wish. 

Before the end of the day we visited one more temple. 

I’m glad we did because I finally got a picture of a very cool type of art that had so far only been inside the temples. 

This intricate sculpture is made of butter. 

Bhutan had drawn my curiosity all the way in Canada and finally visiting had lived up to all of my expectations. I’m so lucky to have made it to such a unique and mysterious country, and consider it completely worth the effort as I will carry the experience with me my whole life.

I hope it becomes more accessible for others while continuing to protect both the environment and its distinct culture. 

Now, I mentioned a while ago the countries I was most nervous for. From day one of my plan, the clear winner in that category was my next destination: India.