Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sightseeing in Paro

Breakfast time in Paro, Bhutan. I was giving the hairy eyeball to my guide Tsering Penjor and my tour operator, Ugyen Dorji. They'd both showed up at breakfast before I'd had my morning coffee, and Bhutan being a pleasant country, I was trying to be polite but this was a challenge at the moment.

"Never chat with a tourist before she's had her coffee," I thought. But I didn't say that out loud, of course. Still, Tsering probably knew. I'd just met Ugyen for the first time, but I'd spent enough time with Tsering now that he was beginning to see that my under my steady stream of one-liners was one exhausted traveler.

But there was time to rest in Bangkok in a few days. I had limited time here in Bhutan, where my mere presence incurred a $240 per day admission fee. I could sightsee now, then process and rest later.

The guys took me first to some atmospheric ruins of an old fortress/monastery, Drukgyal Dzong, and then it was time for the hike to Tiger's Nest.

This seemed pretty innocent at first.

We started much too late for the trek up the mountain to the sacred temple and meditation site that hugs the cliffs over Paro, so the sun was already sweltering. The hike is steep and  challenging, but not so much that I should have been suffering the way I was. Tsering strolled along just ahead of me in his Bhutanese national dress and trekking shoes. For this special occasion, he'd switched to white sports socks rather than his usual black knee socks. I tried hard not to let on how hot and tired I was.

But again, he has eyes. He could see. We both pretended I wasn't incredibly unfit and that there was some chance I might make it to the top to see this legendary monastery. After all, this was the number one attraction in Paro, and maybe in all of Bhutan.

I should have hired a pony, I realized after we were too far along to turn around. You're allowed to go as far as the rest house on a pony.

Even better, if I had meditated for 13 years, I could just ride up on a flying tiger.

But no flying tigers were available today—perhaps they were all in Tibet along with the black-necked cranes—and the climb turned out to be hellish. I could see Tsering practically skipping up the hill, trying hard to slow down and walk at my pace. Later, I read a blog account of this trip that said "This hike is great for learning how unfit you are."

Which is true. I was miserable.

But then, the tiger gods had mercy on me. The rain started as we approached the cafeteria for a rest and some snacks.

Shucks, we had to turn back.

I wasn't at all sorry for the excuse. I was, however, totally embarrassed by my pathetic level of fitness.

Going down was a great deal easier, especially since the sun was no longer fierce since the rain had started. Ugyen was waiting for us back at the car.

"How was it?" He asked.

I mumbled something about yetis or tigers and changed the subject.

Our next stop was an archery match. On the way, Tsering showed me some weeds by the side of the road. These grow everywhere in Bhutan.

"We feed them to pigs to make them sleepy and happy," he explained. My friend Chesley later quipped that this put a new spin on "grass-fed" pork.

The men's archery match wasn't so different from the women's dart match we'd seen in Thimphu. The men, dressed in plaid robes, knee socks, and sneakers, would heckle and mock the opposing team when it was their turn to draw. When someone scored, the whole team got to do a song and dance. The men who hit the target would get scarves to hang in their belts, so you could always tell who was good at archery and who was just messing around.

But this time, there were cheerleaders.

These cheerleaders were not, of course, dressed in shorts, leggings, or mini-skirts as they would be at home. Certainly, there were no pom-poms on offer. Instead, they were women in traditional Bhutanese long skirts, finely sewn jackets, and sandals, singing songs and dancing together in a circle.

A drunk guy tried to cheerlead. The women kept looking embarrassed and pushing him away.

"Let's go," said Tsering after we'd watched the archery, the cheerleaders, and the drunk guy for a while. "We still have another monastery and the dzong to see."

"Another monastery?" I wasn't sure I had the energy to keep going.

But I did, and it's a good thing, because after the monastery, it was dzong time, and I knew how important the dzong was by how fancy Tsering dressed. When he pulled out his special sash and preened a bit, I knew we were going somewhere important.

"Do I need socks?"

"Not here," he said, glancing to make sure I had on my long skirt. I'd changed out of my hiking clothes in the car while Tsering and Ugyen had both politely averted their eyes.

Once again, no photos were allowed inside the dzong. But I could take photos of the landscape beyond, including the palace being built for the 31-year-old king's wedding in a month. He was marrying the daughter of the friend of my hostess in Darjeeling.

Our last stop for the day was another archery match, but this one was using traditional bamboo bows. The other match had involved carbonite bows from abroad.

"Is it better to use traditional bows?" I asked.

"No, but these archers like it."

We watched the archery until the rain returned, then headed back to Gangtey Palace.

One more day left in Bhutan. And I didn't want to leave, but at the same time, I was too tired to stay.


  1. So the pigs eat weed to get sleepy and happy. Do the Bhutanese in turn eat the pigs, or drink their milk? That might explain why their all mellow and happy themselves.

  2. For sure, people eat pigs in Bhutan. I don't think anyone drinks their milk though. I didn't even know you could milk pigs. Can you? I guess if you can milk a white lion, you can probably milk a pig.