Saturday, September 3, 2011

On to Paro

Tsering had eaten dinner with me last night and then built me a fire while I stood by—useless and awkward—but this morning, he was being cool, hanging out with the other guides at the breakfast bar. The guides were all chatting and shooting the breeze until some monks who had been chanting downstairs showed up and sprinkled water on them. To a man, they obediently bowed their heads as if they'd been having water sprinkled on their heads by monks their entire lives.

Which they probably had.

"What was that about?" I asked after the religious guys had roamed around the room a few times, chanting and sprinkling until the ceremony had ended.

"The hotel has an annual ceremony to ward off evil spirits."

Of course.

We headed out, our final day's driving with Tobgay en route to Paro, which is where the airport is in Bhutan and where I'd leave from in a few days. As a former monk, Tobgay was still active in his...monastery? Church? Community? I'm not sure. But he and his wife and children were going to hike somewhere for a multi-day ritual, and so he couldn't drive us in Paro when we went sightseeing.

"Who will drive us?" I was worried. Tobgay was sweet-as-pie and a slow, safe driver. And I was used to him.

"Ugyen will take us, don't worry," said Tsering. Ugyen owns the travel agency that had brought me here, hired Tobgay, and handed me Tsering Penjor, a senior guide who was National Geographic-certified and quite possibly one of the top guides in all-of-Bhutan. I supposed Ugyen must own the Hyundai we were driving around in. He'd do fine as a driver, I was sure, though it might be a little odd to have the boss acting as chauffeur.

We drove along out of the Phobjikha valley and up past the winter playground of the black-necked cranes. Soon we were winding back along the little road that snakes across the mountains to Paro.

And then, in the middle of nowhere, we slowed to a halt.

Traffic jam!

Actually, it was a landslide. We had to wait for a half-hour while workers cleared the road. Tsering and Tobgay wandered up to check out what was going on, while I took a nap. I hadn't been staying up late, but I'd been overwhelmed by Bhutan. It's unique and unusual and while things were in a way, quite normal in that there were roads, cars, and electricity, Bhutan also had a way of handing me the unexpected—men in robes, birds that determine when people can have electricity, religious guys providing lucky charms to roads and buildings, women having all property rights, and of course, the giant phalluses painted on rural buildings.

In time, we arrived at a small restaurant atop Dochu Lu pass. The guys went to munch chilis while I ate alone. I headed into the souvenir shop, where I admired some orangey-red wooden phalluses with fierce faces. Perhaps I should buy that, I thought, but I already had a kama sutra souvenir that I had to post home from Bangkok, and it's illegal to mail pornographic material from there. I'd have to hope no one looked too closely at the post office, but I didn't think a bright orangey-red wooden phallus with a face would be so easy to slip through.

And souvenirs were pricey here. I'd complained about it to Tsering, and asked him where the bargains were.

"Handcrafted work is expensive. It would cost me the same to buy these, and there is no special local price or local market."

We arrived in Paro just after three. The National Museum closes at five so we drove straight to it, on a hill overlooking town, before checking into the hotel.

No photos were allowed, and rightly so. There is a horse egg on display here, and I would have tried to sneak photos of it for sure if the rules hadn't required us to leave my camera and our phones inside a locker.

The majority of the museum is inside a restored watchtower, which is round—"conch-shaped" actually, though I'm not entirely sure what that means. The building itself, with its rickety floors and short ceilings, is over 300 years old but was renovated 40 years ago into the museum it is now.

Tsering showed me alcoves where Bhutanese could once jump out at invading Tibetans, and "chop off their heads." I tried demonstrating but had no luck hiding. We also saw ancient thangkas and sculptures and weapons—all kinds of interesting things—before moving on to the fascinating masks on display in a modern building nearby.

Now I really wanted to take photos. All of the masks have meanings and are used in annual festivals.

Outside in the parking lot, two little kids were blowing a car horn inside their parent's vehicle. The parent was nowhere to be seen. Tsering looked disapprovingly at the kids, just as a security guard arrived to sternly chastize the kids. The kids guiltily stopped for about 20 seconds, then started blowing the horn again the second the guard's back was turned. Tsering and the guard chatted briefly.

"We are just wondering where their parents are," he explained.

Weren't we all.

We walked down the hill to go into a dzong, but it had closed for the evening. So we found Tobgay and went to check into the best room at the top of the Gangtey Palace Hotel, an hundred-year-old traditional Bhutanese aristocratic home and former palace that had been converted into a hotel.

The sun set and the lights came on in Paro, spotlighting the dzong and National Museum against the dark skyline.

All this beauty, culture, and kindness was too much for me. I was missing Bhutan already, and I still had a few more days here.


  1. Hi Marie, Beautifully expressed. Good wishes from Bhutan. Ugyen

  2. Thank you! I hope you enjoyed the royal wedding.