Saturday, April 15, 2017

From Laya to Leech Socks: The Highs and Lows of an Asia Adventure Act VI

For Acts I - V, click on the
"Bhutan & Thailand" tab above

Act VI:
To the Victors Go the Spoils
...and the Shopping

"Monkeys!!! Stop!!!" Becky called out excitedly, shattering our individual reveries as we gazed out the van windows after leaving the Phojokha valley cranes and community behind. Tin-Tin braked, popped open the door, and we all practically fell over each other to get out, looking like circus clowns exiting a mini-Coop.

There was really no need to rush, though. Several gray langurs were hanging out in some trees next to the road, calmly looking at us like we were the freaky things, not them. Ah, perspective. We all need it sometime.

We stared at them, enthralled. They stared at us, bored.

Gray langurs are fairly common in the temperate Himalaya forest, and are a part of the Colobinae subfamily of Old World monkeys that inhabit much of southern Asia. One of several species of langurs, they form "troops" of dominant males, bachelor males, and families. There are actually eight species of gray langurs, as well as numerous other species of langurs, and they can be fascinating when they're not causing trouble like monkeys do when they're around humans who leave coolers, car windows, or purses open.

We soaked in the scene (monkeys in trees! we're not at a zoo!), snapped pictures, and climbed back in the van. We had a long drive ahead of us and a stop or two to make before arriving at our last destination, Thimphu, Bhutan's capital and the final leg of our amazing Bhutan journey.

Scenic view en route to Pele La
One of our mandatory stops on the way was Pele La, a pass at 11,100' elevation in the mountain range we were crossing. Pele La is mostly a stop at the top of the pass, with religious stupas and prayer flags signifying its value as a crossing point and panoramic view. We had heard about Pele La from Becky, who was eager to return, as there are often weavers and artists set up to take advantage of the perfect location for a leg-stretching break by tourists. After seeing what Becky had found at Pele La her first go-round, we were looking forward to it as well.

Pele La did not disappoint. Artists showcased woven yak wool shawls, silk and cotton scarves, and bags; metal trinkets like wind chimes and yak bells; knitted slippers--pretty much everything except hats and gloves. I still wasn't finding any hats or gloves to replace my lost ones; what's the deal with people who live high in the Himalaya but don't have hats or gloves?

Pele La pass; slurped from Google...

A loom used by a weaver in between sales

Slippers. No hat, not even one glove.
We shopped, talked with the sellers about their crafts, and bought keepsakes for ourselves or for gifts. Then, back in the van to face the last three days in Bhutan.

On the "road" again...
We felt victorious about our trip thus far--we climbed (and climbed...) to the country's signature Tiger's Nest monastery and broke our mental and physical barriers while hiking to Laya. We've danced with cranes and trekked with ponies. We've shared butter tea with monks and stayed warm with savory dahl (lentil stew) under the stars. We've been awestruck in temples that were simultaneously breathtakingly grand yet peacefully humble and we've crossed suspension bridges and mountain passes that left us speechless. We've traveled on precarious roads and steep trails, not knowing when, or if, they'd ever end.

Approaching Thimphu
The "16 Friends." The statue behind commemorates the Four Friends
iconic story of an elephant, monkey, rabbit, and bird working together
to enjoy the fruits of a tree. 
And now it was time. Time to relax. Time to stay in a warm hotel and sleep under clean sheets. Time to get those souvenirs. After all, our consumerism can't help but bubble up when markets and shops appear before our very eyes.

Our hotel in Thimphu
We were going to spend our last days in Bhutan in its capital city of Thimphu (tim-poo), basically doing whatever struck our fancy. Thimphu, up through the 1950's, was a north-south valley strung with a series of hamlets. Modernization efforts of the Wangchuck dynasty changed not only the political, cultural, and administrative life of Bhutan, but its capital as well. Shifting from the ancient city of Punakha to Thimphu starting in the early 1950's, this change was finalized in 1961. The Thimphu valley's fortress-monastery (dzong, remember?), Tashichho Dzong, built in the 17th century, now acts as the seat of Bhutan's government.

Tashichho Dzong, from a distance
It's actually huge
Now for some statistics: Thimphu is the third-highest capital city in the world. Ranging from about 7,300' to 8,600' elevation (only slightly higher than my home in the Arizona mountains), Thimphu's climate is a counter-intuitive warm, temperate one due to receiving the humid, almost tropical moisture moving north from India's monsoon season. Snow does happen, but quick melting does too.

Typical street
Thimphu is also one of only two capital cities in the world that do not have a single traffic light (the other? Ngerulmud, Palau). Well, city officials DID install a traffic light, but it was removed even before it was turned on. Instead, Bhutanese citizens prefer, and are quite proud of, traffic cops in pavilion-style booths at main intersections directing traffic with white-gloved, exaggerated hand gestures.

Took this little movie:

We had our choice of several activities, and Ugyen, Tin-Tin, and Phuntsho were happy to show us around. We organized ourselves into groups based upon who wanted to do what, and headed out to enjoy life in Thimphu.

Markets, selling everything from jewelry to prayer wheels, were within walking distance of our hotel. Becky knew where high-quality weavings could be found. Norris knew where we could pick up some red rice or spices to take home. Shopping awaited, let's go!

Image-slurps, thank you, Google. I think I was tired of taking pictures by this time.

Market items

Food market across the street
Some of my finds:

One of my creations with Bhutan beads!
There were also highlights such as the Buddha Dordenma, a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue built in the early 2000's on a hill overlooking Thimphu to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the fourth Wangchuck king. It is a can't-miss visual "whoa!" over the Thimphu valley, measuring nearly 170 feet height, and one of the largest Buddhas in the world. The Buddha statue and associated interior temple and exterior plaza house over one hundred thousand smaller Buddha statues, each of which are, like the Dordenma itself, made of bronze and gilded in gold.

Buddha Dordenma gracing the city of Thimphu
Up close; Sherrie, me, Lynn

 We crawled around Thimphu for a couple days. Fun stops included the city's post office (great shop; stamps, Bhutanese goods, and wonderful books); coffee shops, grocery stores (the biggest bay leaves you ever saw are in our kitchen pantry now), another chorta (religious site), and, best of all, a favorite weaving store where Becky had been on her first trip--where she became friends with the mother and daughter who owned the shop and did much of the weaving. It was a special place, and it was difficult to not want to take everything home with me, including the owners!!!

Artistry in action:

A hike to a scenic overlook thick with prayer flags helped us see the geography of the Thimphu valley and our next stop--a takin preserve. The takin (tock-in; briefed in my own Act I) is Bhutan's national mammal, and appears to be a blend of cow, goat, and antelope. While numbers in the wild are presumed to be stable, they are rare and have been pushed out of valleys undergoing rapid development. In the Thimphu valley, takins were rescued and placed in a sort of "mini-zoo" in one of the last forested areas in the lower Thimphu valley. Story goes that one of the Kings felt it improper for a Buddhist country to confine animals--so he ordered the release of these zoo takins, which were let go in the Thimphu valley. These animals, now almost domesticated after zoo life, rarely left the immediate zoo area, except there were reports of stray takins roaming Thimphu's streets in search of food. Officials went back to the drawing board and created the near-9 acre forested Motithang preserve, which houses a dozen or so takins and other rarely-seen animals.

Regardless of where we ventured during the daytime, we'd all gather for dinner. We couldn't wait to hear everyone's stories of their day. Our first big city dinner was one that had us drooling for three days prior when we heard the plan; The Seasons: Italian pizza, salads, and pasta. Most of us wanted, and ate, all three.

Never was a salad so welcome

...or pizza for that matter

A special spot was the Zorig Chusum School of Traditional Arts, a training academy for students preparing for a career in one or more of Bhutan's 13 "traditional" arts (painting, carpentry, wood carving, sculpture, casting, metal work, bamboo carving, gold and silver work, weaving, embroidery, masonry, leatherwork, and paper making). Students were focused on their projects as we wandered in and out of classrooms. You'd think that would be unnerving, but they seemed to be used to people sticking their cameras into their workspace.

After a whirlwind of bouncing from shrines to shops, our last evening's dinner was truly the culmination of our entire trip. Our wonderful guides invited us to one of their family's apartments for a buffet spread of Bhutanese fare. We were grateful for the opportunity to slow things down a bit and finally enjoy socializing with these new friends who had spent so much time catering to our daily needs. We also deeply appreciated that when you combine the host families and our 12-member group, a dinner for over 20 people was not a simple thing to pull off. This wasn't a dinner, this was an event.

A full, traditional Bhutan meal; yak meat, dahl, milk tea, red rice, yak cheese; it was all there! 

The kids sang these sweet songs--not a dry eye in the house

Ugyen and his family!

It is hard to put into words the meaning of our last night together. Speeches were made, songs were sung, tears rolled down cheeks, and hugs were plentiful. All of us carefully tucked this new treasure of an experience into our hearts, to live there forever. This amazing journey took us to the depths of pure exhaustion to the heights of unadulterated exhilaration. The best part was the human connections made between two different worlds, the thread that tied everything together. Buddha knew what he was doing.

Back in Bangkok, some of us took advantage of being halfway around the world to see a few more sights, me included. By 5:00 a.m. the next morning, I was off on yet another adventure--eight days traipsing around the Thailand countryside in leech socks, in search of birds. Stay tuned!

Farewell, Bhutan


  1. Wow! Another exciting entry filled with descriptive pictures. Love how they concentrate on the arts and make such intricate things. The prayer flags are amazing as well. A wonderful glimpse into your trip.

  2. I liked the traffic lights, er, I mean, the traffic cops!