It was early in the morning when we stopped by the National Memorial Chorten hobnobbing with the regulars who circled around the Chorten chanting mantras. To the right of the gate, some people whirled beautifully sculpted prayer wheels to purify their Karmas.
We walked into a small room with burning flames of butter lamps as spiritual offerings were being made. Before entering the Chorten, as respect, we left our shoes out. Our guide explained various structures in the interior, it was pretty intense. We walked up the wooden creaky steps to the second floor which revealed intricately carved wooden structures and shrines dedicated to various deities.
Soon after, we drove up into the mountains to Buddha Dordenma, a massive statue of the Buddha gilded in gold to honor the 4th King of Bhutan that sits above the meditation hall and houses 125,000 Buddhas in its interior. We walked around the super packed meditation hall and studied various manifestations of the Buddha. I sped through because I got a full blown anxiety attack about somebody running off with my shoes. I was possessed with thoughts of my missing shoes, a barefoot hike and questioned my minimalist attempt of living out of my backpack for 8 days.
I took a deep breath and wandered around the massive patio dotted around with tourists, predominately from India. Up until Feb 2020, they were allowed free entry into Bhutan. Now they’re charged a Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) to manage tourist traffic, still cheaper than what tourists like us pay.
We took a bunch of pictures of the distant Thimpu Valley split into several hillsides that looked different from every angle. We started our hike along the Kuensel Phodrang Nature Reserve Park on a visible and safe route that left us breathless, Buddha Dordenma visible from everywhere. It was the first of many warm up hikes during the trip before hiking up the famous ‘Tiger Nest’.
Hike No. 1
We started at an elevation of 2,600m went up to 2,760m and back down to 2,470m.
6km, 1 hour 47 minutes
We stopped for lunch at a tourist friendly spot that included non vegetarian options. In no time, I made the abrupt decision to follow the Bhutanese diet until flying back to Singapore. In every meal, I indulged in locally grown vegetables, red rice, potatoes and Ema Datshi made from yak’s cheese and chilli peppers.
At Motithang Takin Preserve, we spent an hour spotting Takins from afar. Takins are a mix of goat and cows found in the Eastern part of the Himalayas. They were freed from the zoo and now shy away from tourists wiling away in the gated forest.
They couldn’t care less, and were unresponsive to camera lenses pointing at them and repeated catcalls. After a futile hour, we caught on some culture. First by disrupting the classes at National Institute of Zorig Chusum. Here, students are employed and trained for 6 years to master the art of wood carving, statue making, embroidery and painting masks and religious figures. It was set up by the government of Bhutan to preserve the cultural characteristics of the society. We popped our heads into the rustic rooms and watched the young artists pursue their crafts.
Next, the postal museum. We were pushed into the souvenir shop that included all stuff Bhutan and essentially to get a personalized stamp of ourselves before the museum visit. Pass. In all these years I’ve learned that some things you buy on a whim end up buried under a pile of books you find years later during a spring clean. So I entered the museum. It was a large display of coins, stamps, masks and the history of the perilous path of delivery. It also covered the history and geography of Bhutan in immeasurable detail. I picked up a couple of interesting facts in haste because we were pressed for time. The Jungshi Paper Factory was closing soon.
We drove up narrow winding roads to reach the factory. We learned the techniques of traditional paper making from soaking the tree bark to the final product in live format. The process was super ancient and demanded physical strength.
We called it a day at the Folk Heritage Restaurant.