Flag of Bhutan

5/23/2009 – I wanted to let the good folks at StarkSilverCreek know about a fantastic trek that myself and four other intrepid adventurers (Dom, Scott, Rob, and David) took in late May to Bhutan. Bhutan used to be one of the most isolated nations in the world but has continued to open up its borders and visitor policies so that we could get a glimpse of this beautiful country. Bhutan has tried to strike a balance between its culture and the inevitable modernization. It doesn’t describe the success of the country in GDP as most nations do but through GNH or Gross National Happiness.

Fresh wontons and noodles
Fresh wontons and noodles

We had two other false starts (David’s foot injury and riots in the Bangkok airport) and so we are two years late for this trek! Flight out on Cathay Pacific was cramped but spent most of the time sleeping. Many people are wearing masks due to fears of swine flu including all of the flight attendants. Not sure these really help, most swine flu contractions are through touch not air borne.

Once in Hong Kong we stopped at a noodle bar in the airport for a big bowl of noodles, fried wontons, and fresh chow fun. Delicious! Took some great footage of the chef making the noodles by hand over a steam table with my Flip Ultra.

Dom had problems with his TV unit from SFO -> HKK so Cathy Pacific kindly bumped us to business class and gave him a $50 gift certificate to boot. Nice people. Lots of leg room and they served fresh dim sum for breakfast that just melted in my mouth. So we ate. Again! Shu mai, mushroom dumplings, and no mo gai.

Once we touched down in Bangkok it was a short taxi ride to the Landmark hotel to freshen up. Make sure that the driver puts the meter on. No flat rate—they will rip you off. Service at the hotel was outstanding and the room was pleasant.  But no rest for us!

After a shower and quick change of clothes we decided to head out for a stroll. The Skytrain dominates the landscape rising 100 ft above the road on massive pylons. The traffic is jam-packed with a thick smog rising from the idling cars and tuk-tuks (three wheeled taxis that sound like their name) as motorcycles and scooters weave in and out of the lanes. We wandered around aimlessly as most things were closed which was odd for 3pm. A friendly off-duty policeman told us that it was a national holiday and that was why shops were shut down. He helped us locate a tuk-tuk driver to take us farther afield.

First stop was the garish Gem Production shop, which was a gem cutting and jewelry factory. Although there were some beautiful pieces neither Dom nor I were interested. It would have been better with the girls as they have a keener eye and are less sensitive to sticker shock. We hightailed it out of there with the sales ladies trailing in our wake only to find that our tuk-tuk driver had flown the coop.

More wandering until we found another driver willing to take us to Chinatown. I can’t imagine what Chinatown looks like when it isn’t a holiday. It was overflowing with people and produce: every side alley was a makeshift market of exotic fruits, dubious meat, and other fare. Predominant were fresh lychee, smoky sweet chestnuts and deep fried pork skins.  We pushed our way through the market peering at unfamiliar wares and listening to the hawkers trying to out do each other in volume.

As we emerged, blinking in the sunlight we decided to walk to the river to take a ride on the water taxi. It was a long walk: the city is much larger than it seems at first glance. Along the way we met Hai, a tuk-tuk driver that offered to tour us around the city for 100 Bhat or about $3 US. We’re pretty flexible especially as the temperature was continuing to rise.

Off to the Golden Mountain, a temple near the edge of the Old City. There are over 300 steps to the top of this man-made mountain which was once the highest structure in Bangkok but it is now dwarfed by the high rises that modern times have dotted all over the cityscape.

Along the way up were large bells that you could ring by hand. Lengths of rebar served as a substitute for those bells that had lost their original clapper. Up and up the steps until we finally reached the temple proper and a final set of stairs to the roof. Much of the temple was in poor repair: even the buddhas were participating with their thin gold leaf peeling off and fluttering away in the wind.

A 50-ft high gold dome dominates the roof with prayer bells jingling in the wind. As we had doffed our shoes at the temple entrance we had to be careful to walk in the shady spots on the gray-painted and rather toasty roof. Once inside, the temple resounded with chants from kneeling penitents, connected through their praying hands by a string from one to another and finally to a saffron-robed monk sitting in lotus position. His droning chants must have been channeled through the string like a spiritual telephone.

Dom ringing the bells on the Golden Mountain
Dom ringing the bells on the Golden Mountain

Back down on the ground in the tuk-tuk, Hai takes us to a small temple that contains enormous buddhas: standing, sitting, lotus, and reclining. Next he wants to take us to a clothing store but we’re not interested. He notes that if we go in then he will receive a coupon for gas and as a favor we reluctantly agree.

Dom is naughty. The salesman wants to create a hand-tailored cashmere suit for him (2 suits, 2 shirts 2 ties) for 20K Bhat or about $600US.  The suits would be made from 180 cashmere from Italy, which would be light and cool for the summer. Dom’s not sure so the price drops to 17K Bhat. He looks at samples and asks for a business card. They pull out more cloth, draping it over the chairs in the show room with exaggerated flair. Look at the quality! The softness! Dom doesn’t want ties. Now it’s 4 silk shirts and 14K Bhat or $420US. Dom doesn’t know about the style. Don’t worry about the style! We’ll measure now and work out the lapel width and other details later. The salesmen are frantic as we make our way out the door to a disappointed Hai.

Apparently no purchase equals no gas. On our way back to the hotel Hai announces that the fare is now 200 Bhat. We disagree, that’s not the price we agreed on. Not that $3US is going to kill us but the principle stands. I would have easily tipped him that amount for his trouble except for his complaints and wanting a new deal.

Back at the hotel we take a short nap before heading out to Kinaree for dinner. Excellent Thai food: pad thai, crispy catfish with hot peppers, mussaman lamp curry and shrimp/chicken paper crisps. All washed down liberally with Singha. Back at the hotel we had a final drink of Johnny Walker Black on the rooftop bar as we looked over the city with its lights stretching off into the distance, the skyscrapers shining like twinkling sentinels. Flight leaves tomorrow at 6:00am so we need to be up at 3:15am. Good night!

Where is Bhutan?
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