29 June 2013

Site-Seeing in Thimphu

Day Six

The official itinerary of Bhutan, which seems to be copy/pasted between all the tourism company websites and wikitravel, lists a jam-packed day of monasteries and museums. We did not want to see every monastery and museum on the list. We knew Muffin wanted to see them even less than we did. So the previous afternoon, Mike pulled our tour guide aside and explained that we wanted some time outdoors rather than driving in the car and being in and out of museums all day. He understood and came up with a good solution, considering the rainy weather. In the morning, when the rain was light to nonexistent, we visited the taken preserve and took a mile-long hike to one of the monasteries; along the route we were treated to some wonderful views of the valley where all the dzongs and royal residences are. In the afternoon,when the rain was predicted to be heavier, we would visit museums and other sites.

Our first stop was the takin preserve. Takin is the national animal of Bhutan. Genetically they are so unlike any other animal that they are in their own class. However, they look sort of like cow-deer. We arrived just as a few taken were coming over to the fence for breakfast and Muffin was delighted to see them so close up. She was also delighted to be outside in cool weather and insisted on being our tour guide, making us all walk behind her along the path as she told us the takin were eating grain for breakfast.

Next, we drove up the mountain a ways to a power plant and parked the car. From there we took a mile-long hike along the side of the mountain to a monastery. Along the way there were clearings where we could look down into Thimphu valley to see the dzongs, the major government buildings, and the royal residences. After the monastery visit as we were walking back, Mike and Muffin walked so fast that they got ahead of me, and I was walking faster than the guide and the driver. Eventually Mike and Muffin were so far ahead that I couldn't see them, and the guide and driver were so far behind that I couldn't hear them. Then, a little dog came padding up alongside me. It crossed my mind that he was our guide, an animagi. Bhutan has a feeling about it that makes you think that's possible. He was just checking up on me. He walked beside me for a bit then ran up ahead to join Mike and Muffin. He continued to run back and forth between us, the whole time our guide was never in sight. Eventually he stuck with Mike and Muffin and even ended up scaring off some other dogs that came too close to them. When I caught up to them at the car later, the dog disappeared just before our guide arrived at the car, too.

Bhutan does not have much in the way of local handicrafts, but they have produced some beautiful and unique stamp collections and I'd read that a stop at the national post office in Thimphu was a must for souvenir shopping. I wanted to keep our shopping cheap and our souvenirs light-weight, so stamps and post cards were perfect. They also had a make-your-own stamp machine where they took your photo in front of a decorative backdrop and printed the custom stamps right there. We did not opt for that, but we spent some time browsing and chose some commemorative envelopes and post cards to send home to our parents and Muffin picked out a set of butterfly stamps to decorate her bedroom (I had the set framed to prevent her from sticking the stamps to random furniture and walls).

By the time we finished up at the post office it was noon, it was pouring rain, and we were ready for lunch. We went to the tourism-approved lunch spot and were a little early so they set us up with some tea while we tried to prevent a Muffin meltdown while waiting for the food to be ready. It was a buffet of Bhutanese food that we shared with another tour group. We were finding that the food was good at the restaurants and hotels but it was bland compared to the spicy Bhutanese food we'd heard about. We were being given the "Westerners" tour and we never fully broke out of it. Sometimes we were able to get extra chili paste, which worked out well because Muffin has been going through an anti-spice phase and was enjoying plain chicken and rice while Mike and I wanted a little more heat. I wish we'd had a little more of the authentic food though. One of our best meals the whole trip was our first day in Bhutan at the hotel in Phuenstoling, where Mike had spicy pork and I had the national dish of  cheese-chili stew. (Knowing that was the national dish, I was prepared to love Bhutanese cuisine!)

It was still raining after lunch but we decided to press on with visiting the sites. There was no sense in going back to the hotel to sit around being bored all afternoon.

We went to the paper-making shop, where I bought some hand-made paper to write notes to send home in the fancy envelopes I'd bought at the post office. Muffin picked out some gorgeous hand-painted post cards for "decoration" (I also had them framed so she cannot ruin them) and Mike fell in love with a piece of black canvas that had the Buddhist circle of life painted in gold. It was very expensive, but we thought it would go well with a golden-colored silk carpet we'd purchased in Jaipur. It seemed to have already been damaged from the early start to the rainy season, though, so ultimately we decided it was not worth the price.

We went to the national heritage museum, which is actually an old Bhutanese house that has been restored. It was three stories high, plus the hayloft on the roof, and the ladders were a little slippery and scary in the rain. We feigned interest and tried to move through as quickly as possible. Muffin was losing patience and we didn't want her to run away from us and fall through any of the ladder holes in the floors.

Then it was time for the national traditional arts and crafts university. There are four major traditional handicrafts in Bhutan -- sewing/embroidery, painting, wood carving, and sculpture. Young men and women compete for entry into this school and when they graduate from their program they get jobs practicing their craft for the tourism trade. It was fun and interesting at first, peeking in at the classrooms to see the different levels of students working on their projects. One of the wood carvers gave Muffin a small "imperfect" mask as a souvenir. In the sewing rooms, the young ladies went crazy for Muffin until the teachers came in and scolded them to get back to work. The guide insisted that we peek into every single classroom, though, four levels of classes for each of the four trades. It was repetitive and, I'm going to say it, boring. I have a lot of appreciation for traditional handicrafts but enough is enough.

At the gift shop of the arts and craft school Mike found another black canvas painted with the Buddhist circle of life in fine gold and the price was significantly cheaper than the previous one we saw. Since they accepted credit cards (we were low on cash and our ATM cards weren't working) and they had a sturdy tube to roll it up into, we bought it.

By then, we were ready to go back to the hotel. We wondered if there was anyplace to stop for ice cream or hot chocolate to reward Muffin for being so good all day. Before our final treat, though, there was one more mandatory stop on the itinerary, the national library. I had mentally checked out already, but the library houses some ancient sacred texts and beautiful Buddha displays. I wish I'd been a little more "there" to appreciate it more.

Off in search of ice cream. The driver parked in front of a watch shop and our guide told us to get out here for ice cream. We were very confused. We walked in and saw a small freezer in the watch shop. The owner proudly exclaimed that he makes the finest ice cream in Bhutan. And, he added, he's on TripAdvisor.com. It was a little odd, sitting on the floor of a watch shop eating ice cream, but it was pretty good ice cream.

Back to the hotel for the night.

Day One: 8 Days on the Road from Darjeeling to Bhutan
Day Two: Some Enforced Site-Seeing in Darjeeling
Day Three: Aloobari Monastery: Escaping Darjeeling to See Some Nature
Day Four:  We Made the Long Journey from Darjeeling to Phuentsholing
Day Five: Driving from Phuentsholing to Thimphu


Nancy said...

You're having quite the journey, Stephanie! How wonderful to take along your preschooler, a trip in and of itself.

I just discovered your blog and will go back to catch up on your previous posts.

Stephanie said...

Thanks for stopping by Nancy! It's definitely a challenge to travel with her, but we've been doing it since she was an infant so we're getting used to it and it gets easier as she gets older.