By Sandy- March 2015

Sandwiched between India and China, the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has remained isolated from the rest of world. This has certainly helped to preserve their Buddhist traditions, tight family ties and pristine landscapes. About 11 years ago, Bhutan got TV, the internet and its first radio station! The mountain biking handsome young king decided to return his country to a democracy and 2008 saw the first elections. Here the pursuit of Happiness and Mindfulness are encouraged more than the accumulation of stuff. With all this in mind, I was super excited to join a hiking trip with Backroads to Bhutan this March.

Day 1

Our group of 9 hikers met the Backroads leader very early on Day 1 in Bangkok airport for the 4- hour flight to Paro. After a brief stop somewhere dismal in India, (a place where you were happy to stay on the plane), we crossed the Himalayas and got a wonderful view of Mt. Everest.

After a delicious lunch of yak burgers at the Uma Paro, our beautiful hotel in Paro, we headed out for our first hike. The altitude is around 7300ft and we could certainly feel it as we began the first of many climbs. We passed an abandoned temple as we worked our way to the magnificent Paro Dzong. A Dzong is a fortress that was built to govern and protect a region. A Dzong is usually divided into two sections, a secular administrative section and a religious monastic section. Paro Dzong was built in 1644 and is one of the best representations of Bhutanese architecture. The Paro Dzong is home to 300 practicing monks. Back at the charming Uma, we hit the pool where my travel mate, Suzee, and I perfected our synchronized swim routine to the delight of our new friend, Lilly and nephew, Alex. Backroads hosted a wonderful meet and greet with local beers, non-local wines (thankfully) and nibbles. We all shared our personal hopes and dreams of the journey ahead. My brother-in-law, Brad, set the tone by announcing that he hoped to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. Others had more heartfelt and longwinded longings. We dined under the stars, covered in yak blankets and turned in for a well-deserved rest.

Day 2

After the most amazing scrambled eggs ever, we left Paro driving to the Punakha Valley via the Dochu La Pass which is at 10,000 ft elevation. It is a long slow drive with lots of switchbacks and construction so we really got to know each other on the drive. Reaching the pass, we were rewarded with magnificent views of the Himalayas and a much-needed tea & pee stop. The peak hosts 108 chortens commemorating the victory of Bhutan keeping their pesky Indian neighbors on their side of the border. Hundreds of prayer flags flutter in the wind releasing blessings. The long white flags are to commemorate loved ones who have passed away. The smaller prayer flags come in five different colors: blue, white, red, green, yellow and represent different elements of water, sky, fire, wood, earth. So, anyone who has a prayer flag tacked up in their dorm room, it won’t work, unless you have a fan.

We had a picnic lunch at a monastery overlooking the valley below where we distributed workbooks to the young monks, which we called monklettes. They looked like they would have preferred I-Pads. We set off on our daily hike along the Royal Monastic Road. This historic path was the traditional route used by the Royal family and monks to travel between the summer home in Thimphu and the winter home in the Punakha Valley. The monks still use this route today. It became clear that we had a speedy bunch of hikers who would always be up front, and a slower bunch who brought up the rear. I tended to be in the middle and this worked out superbly for me as I got to know my new friend, Melissa, who also lives in NYC!

The best part of hiking was stopping to hear a story by Namgay, our lovely Bhutanese guide. Namgay is the Encyclopedia Brown of Bhutan. Namgay often hung in the middle of the pack as well and never hesitated when I repeatedly asked him if I could ask him a personal question. Namgay is the force behind restoring one of Bhutan’s most magnificent monasteries and runs his own adventure company where he does some really intrepid hiking trips. We checked into the contemporary Dhensa Boutique Hotel, our base for 2 nights. Scandinavia Design meets traditional Bhutanese architecture at this very comfortable, friendly hotel. Here, Suzee and I watched the BBS, Bhutanese Broadcasting Services, rendition of American Idol. Think 1970’s small town high school cable access TV and that’s the BBS! Adorable.

Day 3

Today we set off at 6:15 for a short hike to visit a nearby nunnery for a sunrise chant in the temple. I closed my eyes and got swept away by their meditative chantings. The young lady monks had shaved heads and some were so astonishingly beautiful, you could see why their parents got them to the nunnery! After breakfast, we hiked up a ridge line toward the 700 year old Chorten Nebu, a remote monastery which is home to 25 monklettes.

At both the nunneries and monasteries young people are able to receive an education along with furthering their religious studies. There is a point where they make a decision to either remain in the religious life or leave. No one is forced to stay.

We were able to tour the beautiful old monastery before enjoying lunch on the monastery grounds. Our local guide Namgay along with trip leaders Matt and Gabe made it possible for a couple on the trip to have a little alone time in the monastery where Will popped the question and Laura accepted. Chatty and spirited Laura was so quiet and subdued afterwards that we thought…hmmm maybe she just wasn’t that into him. This was a woman who bounded along the trail to the Jackson Five and got the bus to dance and sing along to YMCA (yes, even the back of the bus). Turns out she was in total shock and surprisingly thrilled. Congratulations Will and Laura. Backroads brought a soccer ball to the monklettes which they loved. Give a bunch of kids a ball anywhere and happiness will follow. Our soccer star, Lilly, played a mean goalkeeper against a flurry of kicking red robed footballers. I asked Namgay why we didn’t give the girl monklettes a soccer ball to which he replied that girls don’t play soccer. You can be sure I schooled him on this!

From Chorten Nebu we descended down into the valley to hike through the rice paddies below. Next, we picked up the shuttle and visited the Punakha Dzong which was built in the 17th century and has served as the winter capital for over 300 years. The Dzong is amazing, especially the meditation hall full of golden buddhas. It hosted the 2008 coronation of the fifth king and celebrations commemorating the country's transition to democracy.

We feasted at a local Bhutanese restaurant in a town where each house is adorned with a giant penis painted on the wall. This is pretty common around Bhutan as the penis represents fertility. There are other things painted on Bhutanese houses that represent Buddhist teachings, but of course, we sniggered over and photographed the penises. We had a fashion show tonight and learned about the national dress of Bhutan, the gho for men and the kira for women. Although the Bhutanese wear normal western attire as well, the national dress plays a big part in their lives as it must be worn to school and to work, and for religious ceremonies etc. We saw very few Bhutanese who were not in the national dress. Alex was our male model and the lovely, Nancy from Toronto, was our female model.

Day 4

Today, we mixed it up a bit and had a delightful meandering hike along the banks of the Po Chuu river to our rafting put-in spot. It was a fun trip along a Class II-III river with a couple of exciting rapids. Namgay initiated a water war, which I’m sure he regretted as Alex and I are professional river warriors!

Thunder dragon is the symbol for Bhutan or as the locals refer to their country, Druk Yal, land of dragons. Images of dragons appear everyone. The national airline is even named Druk (Dragon Airline). I thought I’d tell Namgay about this cool American TV show where a young woman is actually a mother of three dragons. He cooly replied that he couldn’t wait for the next season of Game of Thrones to start.

After lunch at a hotel on the river we began our journey back over the pass to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The road closures are announced ahead of time but it can be difficult to get the timing just right so we had a few delays getting over the pass and into Thimphu. Suzee, Alex and I elected to hike past the huge line of local transports, colorful Indian trucks and tiny put put cars to a serene stretch of highway with the occasional temple built into the hillside (this is Bhutan after all!). In bustling Thimphu we checked into the Taj Thimphu, a lovely oasis in the heart of the capital. While some of us stayed in to dine on the most amazing Indian food ever, others ventured out for karaoke Thimphu style.

Day 5

One of the great things about Backroads and why they’ve earned the nickname, Snackroads, is the fantastic array of snacks put out each morning during our daily briefing. By this time in the trip, we were not shy about stuffing our pockets and later our mouths with M&Ms, dried fruits, nuts, energy bars and CANDY! Of course, they also had all the water we needed and first aid too. Today’s hike took us to the far end of the Thimphu Valley where we hiked up to the Tango Monastery situated high above the valley floor. The monks had made our journey easier by putting Buddhist teachings along the path. Of course, you needed to stop and read each provocative saying and they were wonderful, such as: The end of every hoaring is spending, of every rising falling. Of every meeting parting, and all living things dying.

Upon return to Thimphu we did some shopping and had dinner at a great Korean BBQ joint. Bhutan has no traffic lights! In Thimphu there is one kiosk in the middle of a ‘busy’ intersection for a policeman to direct traffic. Since it was after rush hour, the kiosk was abandoned so Alex took it upon himself to climb in and direct traffic. Luckily, everyone thought it was hilarious and no major traffic snafus resulted. We thoroughly butchered The Police’s Every Breath You Take on the karaoke stage before hitting the sack.

Day 6

Today we hiked above Thimphu to the giant Buddha statue which gazes over all of the valley and Thimphu. At 169 feet tall, this monumental Buddha is one of the largest in the world and has 100,000 smaller Buddha statues inside. We did our obligatory jumping photos in front of this impressive statue. Today’s hike was one of my favorites. We were all getting super fit by this time and more acclimated to the altitude. This hike took us under hundreds of fluttering prayer flags. We feasted on Taj Indian empanadas under this canopy of prayer flags under the watchful eyes of Bhutanese dogs who are the most chill dogs in the world. Buddhism Bhutan style puts dogs close on the wheel of rebirth to humans. Therefore, they are treated really well and basically roam Bhutan free range since we were maybe just a dog or about to become one.

After a brief shopping stop in Paro, where Lilly’s mom, Liza, discovered a much missed latte, we checked into our final hotel, Zhiwa Ling. This magnificent hotel is totally owned by the Bhutanese and is elaborated designed with intricate hand carved cornices and impressive masonry. Archery is the national sport of Bhutan and even sent a women’s archery team to the London Olympics. We were told the sport is for men only in Bhutan so how a women’s archery team made it to London…who knows? The hotel let us have a try on their archery mini field. Alex and Lilly got some impressive forearm bruises while Gabe was the most successful at hitting the bullseye. Of course, the official course is many many many meters longer.

Dinner tonight was a treat. After touring a 400 year old farm house with our I-Phone flashlights to see how a traditional family lives, we huddled under blankets and cozily tried lots of local dishes. Bhutanese food mainly consists of yak meat, dried beef, pork, pork fat, and lamb with red rice. Soups and stews of meat, rice, ferns, lentils, and dried vegetables, spiced with chili peppers and cheese, are a favorite meal. Zow shungo is a rice dish mixed with leftover vegetables. The absolute ‘must eat’ is Ema datshi, a spicy dish made with large, green chili peppers in a cheesy sauce. I’m hoping that Trader Joe’s stocks this soon. After dinner and many Druk 11000 Bhutan brewskis, we were ready for Namgay’s story of Night Hunting. He saved the best story for last.

According to Namgay, young men go out at night to sneak into a girl’s window to engage in hanky panky. It is the rural equivalent of an urban date as there is no other place, such as a mall, for boys and girls to ‘hook up’. After touring the traditional two-story farmhouse, we had lots of questions about how this could even happen as families sleep together in a communal room on the second floor. Apparently, strategies vary from sneaking in the door to climbing up the side of a house to enter a window or even dropping in from the roof. If the boy successfully infiltrates the dwelling, he still may be rejected by the girl he is pursuing or a waking family member. The hunting may be foiled due to wrong footing or a wrong body (it is pitch dark in these houses), which may wake up the whole family. The intruder may be thrown out of the window or he may just be invited to stay for breakfast. Strict parents chase the intruder or threaten him with marriage or a stick while liberal ones pretend to be asleep even if they know the a potential suitor is around. It is not difficult to guess who the prowler might be in these small close-knit villages. It was a bit hard to get our Western minds around this custom and I had many more follow up questions for Namgay during the big hike the next day!

Day 7

Today was the day we had all been waiting for. But, first, Liza took us all for a pre-hike yoga session which got us all primed for the big day. All the hikes coming up to this day were helping us to prepare for the elevation gain and distance to the mother lode — Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Taktshang or the Tiger's Nest Monastery is one of Bhutan's most sacred places and an important pilgrimage destination. We hiked along with people from all over Bhutan and neighboring countries. The temple is perched precariously and spectacularly on a rocky cliffside at an elevation of 10,000 ft. The hike is very steep with some difficult footing. When you reach the steepest point of the hike, you can take in the View of Views looking across the divide to the monastery. From here it’s a challenging hike (all steps) down one side of the mountain and up the other side (and then back again). Today, I spent most of the day hiking with my bodacious bro-in-law, Brad, a great travel partner and photographer. This was a real treat. Getting alone time in the real world with Brad is tough. He’s a successful corporate lawyer and charges even family members by the hour (JK). As we puffed closer and closer to the temple, Namgay guided me to a sacred site where I could place an offering to my Dad who left us not long ago. It was a very special moment of closure for me. The speedy bunch had long since left Tiger’s Nest when we arrived. We lingered in each room, listened to Namgay’s stories, and meditated in front of Buddha. It is said that if you meditate for a minute here, you are set for life. We’ll see! Making our way back down the stairs, we were thrilled to encounter Steve, the other half of Nancy. This delightful retired couple are great travelers and hikers and an inspiration to us all. Steve was helped along the way by our terrific trip leader, Matt, who had an infectious Paul Lynde laugh.

After Tiger’s Nest, some of us went with Namgay to explore the fortress of Drukgyel Dzong which was built in the mid-17th century overlooking a valley not far from Tibet. This fortress reminded me of the castle in Monty Python’s Holy Grail as you could just imagine cows being catapaulted onto invading Tibetans. (Perhaps the high altitude was getting to me). We met up with the rest of the group back at the hotel on the deck making sure to try all of Bhutan’s beers including Red Panda.

Tonight’s farewell cocktail party and dinner was over the top amazing in a private area of our hotel. Brad plied us with champagne as we toasted Will and Laura’s happiness and each others’ accomplishments. It was a memorable evening. As usual with these group trips, it’s just incredible that you only met your fellow travelers a week before. Now, we were a tight knit group of merry adventurers.

Day 8

Before we headed to the Paro airport, Backroads had a couple of special parting rituals planned for us. Namgay led us in a meditation in the hotel temple which we were all pro with by now. Outside, a local monk conducted a blessing service for a safe journey and we all selected a prayer flag to leave our intention in Bhutan. And, then it was off to the airport, a brief stop in another unremarkable pitstop in India and, onwards to bustling Bangkok where we said our quick and sad farewells and hopes to keep in touch and meet again. Months after being home, Bhutan is still with me. I feel very fortunate to have traveled to this intriguing country. As usual, I was super impressed with Backroads — their trip planning, leaders, organization, local guide, drivers and snacks were sensational.