Trip Report - East to West

Posted on 10/January/2012

Fionna travelled to Bhutan with Druk Asia in November 2011. She spends 13 days in Bhutan and was guided by Chenco Bull. Chenco is a full-time guide with Druk Asia.


21 May 2011


Going to Bhutan was a trip of a lifetime and ours was a journey packed with surprises. This trip far exceeded our expectations. Bhutan is a magnificent place with unspoilt landscapes and wonderful people. In my opinion, Bhutanese are like SingDollar, everybody likes it because they do not carry a face value. I tried to fault their sincerity and honesty, I could not find any.


We spent 13 days in this landlocked Kingdom covering Western, Central and Eastern Bhutan. Our guide told us we are the first two Singaporeans from Druk Asia to swing to the East. When I visit any Country it is the people I want to visit, learnt their traditions and taste their foods first hand. The cities are fine to see so are the spectacular preserved sites, but the countryside is the real feel of the country and its people. I observed the lives of the Bhutanese people, their hospitality, culture and heritage, reminded me so much about humanity the rest of the world, in our pursuits of material wealth, have forgotten.


In Thimphu, I saw young Bhutanese trying to adopt a Western lifestyle represented by pricey ”stuff” like electronic gadgets and branded clothes. We visited the newly open Shearee Square shopping mall where shops carry mostly imported and branded merchandises. I spoke with young Bhutanese at the Clock Tower where youngsters hang out, to get an insight of the minds of these young people. There is a token boy too, for the numerous song-and-dance routines requiring couples to beam at each other while making declarations of love. At least I’m guessing that’s what they’re about. This is karaoke Bhutanese-style.


Compared to Thimphu, people in central & eastern Bhutan are still materially impoverished. There is still no electricity in most parts. Many families live below the poverty line, hence are devoid of education and quality healthcare. Life is simple - they earn their livelihood through subsistence farming, eat their own farm produce and make song and dance for entertainment. Ironically, Bhutan is what many people in much richer countries like Singapore feel they are lacking in their lives and culture. We had an enjoyable time because of our great guide Chencho, who is a witty street-smart kid. Our driver Nidup whom I call boss is shy and is best described as a man of three words. Throughout the 13 days, he said only 3 words to me ”yes”, ”no”, ”okay” and 3 words to my husband ”Sir”, ”yak”, ”picture”.


They bend over backwards and went beyond the call of duty in a conscientious effort to make sure that everything was near perfection. Their professionalism and scrupulous attention to details are highly commendable. We would like to make special mention of a particular incident which heartened as well as saddened us.


At Ogyen Choling, our car could not start in the morning due to the cold. By the time we got it jump-started, we were 3 hours behind time. To prevent a recurrence in Gangtey, which was even colder, Chencho and Nidup arranged to take turns to wake up in the night to start the car every 2 hours. We objected to the arrangement because it would deprive them from sufficient rest, especially Nidup who needed quality sleep for the long drive. But Chencho convinced me to let him do it since he could sleep in the car the next day. He did...


On our first night we camp in a clearing at about 3,000m, beneath the isolated monastery of Jili Dzong. The next morning, the farmhouse lady gestured me to our car where I found Nidup sleeping in the back seat with the engine still running. (he?d been sleeping for 3 hours). I knocked on the window; he sat up and gave me a big sweet smile (see pic). This smile will ingrain in my memory for as long as I live. Obviously, he did not know that the carbon dioxide could have killed him. When we arrived at Dochula pass, it was colder than Gangtey. Nidup again was concerned that if the car could not start again, we would miss the roadblock accessible time, hence get into Thimphu late and miss the weekend market. This time, I ”threatened” to confiscate the car key and told them to sleep-in and let the car die.


Well, the car did die and despite our repeated calls to come indoors, they both persisted in getting the car started in the freezing cold & rain so we could set out by 11am and get to the weekend market. Just to give you an ideal how cold it was - Chencho is a hefty 90kg yet I had to ”defrost” him for a good 15 minutes by rotating him like a kebab close to the wood stove because his gho was wet and he was shivering.


I left for Bhutan in search for an answer to Gross National Happiness and I came back with the question unanswered. Are Bhutanese really happy? My conclusion is, the GNH Index is difficult to gauge. It encompasses qualitative and spiritual as well as material aspects of a nation, on a personal and collective level. Along with how much money and amenities they have access to. I guess there will never be an absolute answer because happiness means different things to different people. For some it is abundance of material things, for others it is freedom and for some it is a state of mind. The senior citizens of Bhutan pray, chant, pace rounds around the monasteries and spin the prayer wheels with amazing steadfast. They, in my opinion, are the happiest people on earth.


While many travellers enjoyed their stay at Uma Paro, my ”6-star hotels” are the two-farm stay. At Ogyen Choling, all four of us (Chencho + Nidup) slept in the same room smelled of cow dung. No thanks to clumsy Chenco who brought it into the house. In Gangtey, we slept in the kitchen with the year old kitten. It crawled into our sheet and cleverly perched on Hubby?s chest (Tiger?s nest) for warm. This is our version of happiness.


Bhutan is still very much a medieval society now but is beginning to change. Internet has changed the world. Children in Bhutan today have access to Internet and when they see what are available in the West, they would want it. I can only hope the next generation of Bhutanese realize that their country has equally, if not more, valuable propositions and they should learn to blend their strong traditions with western modernity in a balanced manner.


Unique to Bhutan - I list a few interesting Bhutanese ’specialities’ that I have observed and learnt since I boarded Druk Air.


The Phallus - I bet there are no other airlines in the world, that offers an in-flight magazine, which you innocently open and inside you find a half-page picture of the male organ, which is called the ’divine thunderbolt of wisdom’. The ”thunderbolt” is also painted on houses across the country in various shapes, sizes and forms to protect the house against bad spirits.


The Druk Gyalpo - King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck - His Majesty is the only King on this planet who has an Elvis Presley haircut. I commented to my guide while looking at his photos at the museum and one of the guides from other group told me His Majesty is a loyal fan of Elvis.


One morning I catch my breath as I spot a paw print, large and clear in the mud by still mountain lake just metres from my tent. I’m sure it wasn’t there when we set up camp last night. Could it be a tiger? Or a leopard?


Bhutan banned freewheeling tourism and was the last country on Earth to set up an airline and TV service. Until 1999 it was also the only nation on Earth not wired up to the Internet. Thimphu is the only city capital in the world, which is not served by an airport and does not have any traffic lights. Only a policeman directing traffic from a booth at a roundabout, just like Singapore in the early 50s. I learnt that Thimphu used to have a set of traffic lights but residents complained that they were ugly, so the local council removed them and enshrined in a chorten before they became operational - making Bhutan the only country in the world where traffic lights are enshrined in a temple.


Better known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and more recently branded the Land of Gross National Happiness, it is a country of which many people have still never heard.


Personal Names - The only country I know where names are unisex. Except for royal lineages, Bhutanese names do not include a family name. Instead two traditional auspicious names are chosen at birth by the local lama. Do not be surprised if you find a Sonam Younten in Bhutan who is a female.


There is no doubting the attractions of Bhutan. Its Buddhist faith is fascinating, with countless monasteries and colourful prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.


The Language - The official language is Dzongkha. Singapore has ”Singlish” and Bhutan has ”Dzonglish” where they mix Dzongkha and English. In Thimphu, I heard a guide talking to another guide in ”Dzonglish”. 



Guide A: Where are you going, la? 


Guide B: To Paro, la. (Some Dzongkha..) I’ll be back to Thimphu tonight. We can have dinner, la. 


Guide A: (some Dzongkha...) okay, okay, la...

Bhutanese add a la? At the end of a sentence to signify respect. Besides Dzongkha, there are around 18 other local languages. At Tang Village where we spent a night, Chencho was unable to communicate with the local family. Fortunately, Nidup could speak their language.


Land & Property - Bhutan is still a matriarchal society. The woman passes own House and land down through the daughters. The sons leave home and settle with their wives? Family. Land is split equally amongst the daughters so some land holdings can be very small. 


Black Dog - There are more black dogs in Bhutan than anywhere else I have seen. I guess only Bhutan dogs are able to preserve their nocturnal nature. They sleep during the day, totally oblivious about their surroundings and came alive in the night. So please don’t complain to the hotel if you hear loud barks in the night.


Marijuana - Once I heard that Bhutan's pigs can fly. (I didn't know what it meant then). Yes, it is because Bhutan is the only nation where marijuana is growing freely & legally everywhere and usually given to pigs as an appetizer - until the pigs feel high?.


Foreign Children - This is the only holiday where I didn’t see any tourist bring their children along and allow them to run amok in the restaurants.

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