22 August 2016
Douglas Returns to Bhutan
It's gets better every time
You know I am a workaholic who is at my desk 7 days a week, up to 14 hours a day. I rarely take "vacations," which is pretty strange for a guy in the vacation business. But I took advantage of a Thai five-day weekend to skip off to Bhutan for eight days. Bhutan is not exactly restful, but it was a good opportunity for me to see new things, do some business, research two magazine stories I want to write, and spend time with Bhutan Boy.
Here I am, Fresh off the plane. This is the third time I have had lunch at this restaurant in Paro. They have a small buffet, and once you sit down they keep bringing dishes to your table. On this trip my goal was to begin a story about "how to avoid the loathsome hotel tour group buffet," the single biggest complaint among visitors to Bhutan. We managed to succeed except for one single dinner, found some remarkable restaurants, and put on a little weight.
This restaurant was, hands down, the very best of all. Can't wait to go back.
In case you are wondering, Bhutan makes some exceptionally good beer.
The next photo shows me with Jamyang in Thimpu, about one hour away from Paro. On a hillside overlooking the city the world's largest seated Buddha is being built, a donation from Japan. The weather was warm, so Jamyang has tied the sleeves of his goh around his waist. The seated Buddha is now a standard part of most private tours. There are splendid views of the city. On the way up o down you might catch a glimpse of the "retired" king, who really likes dirt biking.
In the evening we took Jamyang's mom to dinner at the Folk Heritage Museum. They serve a set-course spread of traditional Bhutanese food that leans slightly towards "tourist taste." Their electricity was off, so we ate by candle light. Thus, no photo. Mom dressed in her best and clearly did not feel at ease, although she remained poised she must have been thinking 'Who is this old foreigner hanging out with my son?' I later learned that nobody had ever taken her out to dinner before. That has to change, Jamyang.
We made a trip to the "Weekend Market" with one goal in mind--dallay khoursani chillies. I am mad for these little bombs, which are in season June through August. (You can see them in the plastic bags--green when ripening, red when fully ripe.) They are really, really, really spicy, but the heat gives way quickly to a delicious fruitiness. If you live in a tropical or semi-tropical climate and want seeds let me know and I may have extras to give you.
My second objective for this trip was to write a story about the sudden emergence of a gay community in Bhutan. Yes, Dorothy, there really are homos in Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.
I spent a rainy afternoon interviewing four young, very smart, and very organized young men who are determined to change lives, attitudes and laws. Things are changing rapidly as Bhutan quickly fits into the 21st century. People are quite liberal. I really want to write something about being gay in Bhutan, but it is going to take another visit.
Then we hit the road, bound from Thimpu to the Phobjikha Valley, our overnight stop on the way to Bumthang. Two years ago Bhutan began a very ambitious effort to widen and straighten the single road that joins the east and west of the country. This road was a remarkable fete of engineering in the first place. It required cutting countless hairpin curves into steep, rocky Himalayan peaks. (For reasons I cannot explain, the local Buddhist hierarchy does not allow tunnels. Go figure.)
Now, they are dynamiting more of the rock at the tightest points in these hairpin curves and dumping the rock and debris into the ravines on the opposite side of the road. This has the effect of widening parts of the road to two lanes in each direction, and also straightening it. A ten-hour drive from Thimpu to Bumthang will become a six hour drive in 2017. July is rainy season, which made the road really messy. Between Phobjikha and Bumthang we were stuck between and behind four landslides. Road workers with backhoes are never far away, and we managed to complete the three-hour trip in nine hours. If you visit after September you should not have similar problems. The final road work will be done at night and your drive should be scenic and enjoyable.Between Thimpu and Phobjikha we made a lunch stop at Wangdue Ecolodge. This place is pretty remarkable. (You can see photos on the Better Bhutan website.)
But we visited Wangdue Ecolodge, not for the vistas, but for the food. The hotel has a reputation for fresh, tasty, innovative cooking. Rather than dazzling us with more dishes than we could possibly eat, as is often the case in Bhutan, they dazzled us with simple plates of remarkably delicious food--a medley of eggplant, sweet chilies and cheese, a curry of wild mushrooms, and a saucy minced pork with fresh herbs. Notice, please, that a fountain pen is standard part of my table setting.We reached Phobjikah Valley late in the afternoon. Aside from the Ganteay Monastery, which I have seen before, there is not a single important thing to see in the valley. But all of the nothing here adds up to something overwhelming. It's a long flat valley full of pretty homes and farms. The clouds cling to the surrounding hills and low-flying clouds cling to everything on the valley floor. It's all breathtaking in a way. We stayed in a very nice hotel built of local pine, like many hotels here. Seventy percent of the country is old growth forest, so controlled cutting is still allowed. I had a wood burning stove in my room. No TV or WiFi. I met the manager for breakfast the next morning and he announced that they would soon have WiFi and Satellite TV. I could not help thinking what a bad idea that was. At some point in a trip like this you have to stow all of your devices and reboot yourself.
I guess we got outa there just in time.