Thursday, October 27, 2011

From the South China Sea to the Himalayas

Dzong in Bhutan
We woke up in Bangkok at 3 a.m. for the drive from our hotel to the Bangkok airport, allowing extra time for traffic and the potential of flooding on the roads. Photos in the Manila newspapers the day before showed extensive flooding on all sides of the city of Bangkok because of unprecedented rains.  Our hotel, which we had selected for its proximity to the airport, had sandbags around the perimeter and, curiously, around the wine bar on the lower level. Priorities!

But the reports of flooding at the airport proved false; the flooded airport was actually the old one, not the new one built in 2006 on drained marsh. Back in 2007 when we landed there, the runway had started sinking under the weight of the planes so we were naturally concerned about our flight to Bhutan given that the runways were built on lowlands.

Sandbags in wine bar
Fortunately millions of dollars had been spent building drainage canals, large runoff reservoirs and supplemental pumping stations, and our airport was dry. More importantly our hotel was outside of the flooded areas and we had no problems there either. The trip to the airport was fast and dry, especially at that time of the morning.

Our original itinerary had us flying into Bangkok for one night and then going north to visit the ruins in Ayuthaya. We had missed the ruins on our previous two visits to Thailand. But fate was good to us this trip and our difficulties in getting a flight out of Hawaii forced us to take a flight via Manila. So we figured we might as well spend some time on Boracay Island instead of spending those five days visiting ruins. We ended up loving the beach time on Boracay and we thus avoided the flooding which hit Ayuthaya. Sometimes a problem turns out for the better.

Our departure from Bangkok went off as scheduled and as we circled over the city to head north, all I could see for miles was water. Everything was flooded. It looked like northern Ontario with its thousands of lakes and rivers. Looks like we got out just in time.

Our luck continued at check-in as we were able to snag the last two seats on the left side of the plane. These, we had been told, would give us the best views of Mt. Everest as we flew north to Bhutan.

Sure enough, the pilot announced the peaks were coming up and there it was, the highest mountain in the world in all its snow-covered glory. Flying above the clouds we had a perfect view of the majestic Mt. Everest for at least five minutes. What a sight!

Downtown Paro
Landing in Paro, Bhutan, was even more exciting. Paro is located in a flat, fertile valley between ranges of the Himalayas. The airport is right in the middle of the valley surrounded by tall mountains. As we neared Paro, the plane suddenly dropped down into a narrow valley and began a terrifying series of zig-zag banks and turns as the pilot carefully navigated his way between and around the tree-covered mountains. On one of his turns, the pilot dipped his wing so sharply to the left that I thought for sure he was going to clip the treetops. He came so close to the hillside that I swear I could count the needles on the pine trees. You hear tales of the flying skills of the pilots in the Yukon guiding small planes through the mountain ranges, but try doing that with a giant Airbus 330!

The daring manoeuvres continued for roughly five minutes at an excruciatingly slow speed and then the plane bounced down hard onto a very short single runway. It was one of the hardest landings I’ve ever experienced. But then I realized the pilot didn’t really have a lot of runway to work with. The rice fields at the end of the runway came up awfully fast. Apparently, they have plans to build a new airport in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, but for now this is the only runway in the country.

What a gorgeous site for an airport, however, with dark, green tree-covered mountains on either side, towering snowcapped peaks to the north and a classic Tibetan-style “dzong” or fortress on the hillside right in front of the runway. When everyone disembarked, we all just stood in the middle of the runway and stared at the incredible scenery. I’ve never seen anyone do that before at any airport and I was surprised that no one stopped us. It turned out to be our first experience with the laid-back approach of the Bhutanese.

Paro airport
The terminal itself was done up like a Tibetan house with intricate wood carvings on columns, pastel plastered walls, and multi-hued paintings on window trims and the ends of the beams supporting the roof.

As we drove from the airport to our hotel, we happened to pass by an archery competition and stopped to admire the skill of the archers. Using high-powered, very expensive compound bows, probably bought in the U.S., the archers were hitting a target about the size of a dinner plate from over 100 meters.

Olympic archery team
Archery is Bhutan’s national sport and they take it very seriously. They dress up in the traditional flowing costume called a “gho” and chant and stomp their feet in encouragement in a ritualistic dance before each archer performs. With incredible strength, they strain to pull back the drawstring on the pulleys, aim high and let loose with a loud twang. All of the archers then shout and yell praise when someone hits the target. In turned out that we were witnessing Bhutan’s national team prepare for the Olympics.

The “gho” is a traditional robe that wraps around like a housecoat but only down to the knees. Everyone wears them, even businessmen. In fact, it’s the equivalent of a uniform or a suit back home and it is considered necessary attire for business meetings. A coloured sash called a “Kira” wraps around the waist and black knee-high stockings complete the outfit. It’s worn in all seasons and must be cold in winter.

Women wear the same robe, but it goes right down to the ankles. On top, a silk jacket is usually worn.

So here we are high in the Himalayas only 24 hours after leaving hot, steamy Manila. Overnight we've gone from sea level to 2,200 meters, from soft yellow sand to hard black rock hiking trails, from 30 C to 15 C (actually 4C at night).

The cold isn’t a problem; it’s actually a bit of a relief. And we have the right clothes. That’s one of the reasons our suitcases weigh so much. We’ve had to pack for all four seasons on this extended trip.

No, the problem is we’re downright exhausted. At first we thought we were just tired from our 3 a.m. rising and all of the travel over the last two days. But when we started sucking air climbing up the steep hill to our villa above the hotel, we started to worry. Then Carolann pointed out that we were now at 2,200 meters above sea level. Whoa, slow down, this isn’t the beach anymore!

It’s all quite a shock to the system, but Bhutan is a country you can only visit on their schedule so we had to take one of the few dates that they offered us. Access to this country is almost by invitation and is very limited. They are trying to avoid the mistakes of overdevelopment that other countries like Thailand have experienced.

They charge a premium to allow you to come in and only started to allow foreign tourists to visit back in 1974 with a daily fee of $40. Their objectives are to protect their culture and the environment. Now the fee is $250 per person per day and that does limit the number of tourists who can visit.

The fee seems high, but it includes the flight in from Bangkok, the exit flight, all accommodation, all meals, admissions to all sites, a car and driver, and a guide. Itineraries are custom designed to suit your interests and can be modified as you go along.

This policy of limited access seems to work. There are no backpackers, no campers, and no crowds. As someone put it to us, “no riff raff.”  In fact, most of the tourists we are seeing are older, mostly retired and well-heeled. Tourist sites are more likely to be crowded with local Bhutanese visiting the temples and chewing Beetlenut, or paying homage to a local relic in a shrine.

Here are some of the pleasant surprises about Bhutan. Upon arrival we noticed that the signs were in English and Bhutanese. We assumed this was just for passengers arriving at the airport, but it has been that way all over the country. The signs are in English, but the people don’t speak it.

Second, the temperature is actually quite mild all year long. While there is snow on the mountain peaks, they rarely get snow in the valleys these days. Our guide Sonam tells us that they used to get snow when he was a child but now climate change is even affecting this remote part of the world.

Third, there is little or no pollution and the air smells like sweet mountain fresh forests. The reason is partly that there is no industry here in Bhutan. Everything is imported, usually from India, its big neighbour to the south. Because the Bhutanese are Buddhist, they don’t even have any slaughterhouses. They let others do that for them and then import it.

Rice harvest
This is basically an agrarian society still. Rice fields are everywhere, even right beside the airport, in downtown Paro and beside the royal palace.

Fourth, there are dogs everywhere. They lie in the middle of the road and run around in friendly packs. The Bhutanese respect all life and make the effort to avoid them in the roadway. The packs are all over town, but are extremely docile and rarely even bark. They seem to be fed on restaurant leftovers and look quite content.

Fifth – although this wasn’t that big a surprise – the roads are terrible. Most are one and half lane at best, many are single lane and all of them are full of potholes. It makes for a bumpy ride and slow going, but that allows us to enjoy the incredible scenery all the better. I quickly learned the word for stop is “Du” so that I can jump out and take another picture of a snow-capped mountain or “dzong.”

Sharing the road
The other surprise connected to this is that they drive on the left side of the road, a custom imported from India, where they get most of their cars. This makes for some exciting encounters on the winding, single-lane mountain roads when two cars traveling in opposite directions are both trying to avoid a large pothole on a blind corner. Then, of course, there are the donkeys, dogs and cows wandering down the road. Yikes!

Sixth, while archery is the national sport, hunting is frowned upon. It’s partly the Buddhist thing and partly about conservation. They have wild pigs, deer and this weird animal called a Tarkin, their national animal, but they don’t hunt them. They also have rainbow trout in their mountain streams, but fishing is also tightly controlled and a special permit is required.

The bottom line is that the Bhutanese take conservation and preservation very seriously and this, combined with the lack of pollution, is making for a very pleasant introduction to this incredible country. Even though we’re still struggling to climb a flight of stairs, let alone a mountain trail, actual mountain climbing starts tomorrow.
Ta Dzong overlooking Paro valley

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