May 302012

Up early to catch my flight to Bhutan, and if the shots with sherpas the night before weren’t enough to signal this was going to be an interesting trip…the rest of the day definitely would!

Check-out of the hotel was relatively easy, despite them making up a story about why they couldn’t take American Express (“the link to American Express is not working this morning” – really? at 6am you’ve already tried it?) and they found me a taxi no problem. Except, there was a problem. After 5 minutes in the taxi, it became pretty apparent that the previous day’s strike and protests were continuing, and the streets were lined with riot police and angry looking protesters. With a bit of sign language, and broken english (“there better” – pointing at the back of the van) that’s how I ended up in the back of the minivan/trunk area, covered by a tarp, peering out. Yes, the driver was concerned protesters might see a westerner in the taxi and cause trouble. I have to say this was a first – riding to the airport in complete secrecy!

Check-in was a non-event, and spent a little time in the only lounge in the airport – the “Radisson Lounge” – and then a two hour delay was announced. However, only 45 minutes later, the lounge agent came around again, and informed us all that boarding was now ready. Um, ok, sounds good to me!

Druk Air Flight 410
Kathmandu, Nepal (KTM) to Paro, Bhutan (PBH)
Departure 8:45, Arrival 10:20, Flight Time 1:20
Airbus A319, Registration A5-RGG, Manufactured 2004
Seat 4A

Since there’s not much online about Druk Air, I’ll be a bit more detailed with this part of the report. First, a shot of the plane as we walked up to it:

Despite being a short flight, with only 3 people in the business cabin, a decent small snack was served:

Now…the strangest part of the flight was the inflight magazine.  It had an article on the social situation in Iran that can only be described as…odd!  A few excerpts:

Completely amused, we landed in Paro.  The approach wasn’t as extreme as I’d heard, although we passed pretty close to several mountains and took several quite steep turns on landing.  A view of the airport as we walked to immigration:

Immigration was quick.  Just had to show the printout of the visa that the tour company had sent me, a few stamps in the passport, and it was through to baggage reclaim which was also quite quick.  My guide was waiting for me outside the airport, and after a drive of approximately one hour we were at the hotel for the first night in Thimphu.  I’ll talk more about the hotel later, but after checking in and dropping off baggage it was off to lunch.  We had lunch at the Bhutan Kitchen restaurant near the hotel.  They brought several small bowls of local food to the table, all of which I found quite tasty.  I can imagine if you were on a long trip in Bhutan that eating the same thing meal after meal might get old, but for now it was novel and tasty!

After lunch, we began our tour of the sights in Thimphu.  First stop was The National Memorial Chorten.   This stupa was built in 1974 in memory of the third king of Bhutan.

From there, our next stop was the takin preserve.  The takin is the national animal of Bhutan, and is somewhere between a deer, moose, cow, and goat.  I can’t really describe it, but it was unlike anything I’ve seen.  We were the only ones there, and it was down a dirt road that you had to walk – this is clearly not a prime tourist attraction in the western sense!

Next stop was up the side of a mountain for an overlook of the Thimphu valley:

Next stop was a local nunnery.  Wasn’t terribly much to see here, but here’s a shot of the entranceway:

Final stop for the day was the Trashi Dzong.  The dzongs are a series of temples/administrative centers in Bhutan, and all the major districts have at least one.  This one was built in the 18th century, burnt down a few times, and the current one dates back to the early 20th century or so.  No pictures were allowed inside the buildings, but here’s a few from the courtyard:

By this time the sun was setting, so we stopped at a small store to stock up on the essentials:  diet coke, bottled water, and something else fun I found….local wine!  Seems there’s a small wine industry in Bhutan, with advisors from India.  Um, if India is advising you on how to make wine it must be good…right?  For $3 I could resist.

It was before 7 when I got to the hotel, so I did a small walk of the area around the hotel…nothing terribly exciting, but was just interesting watching the local community go about its evening business.  Retreated back to my hotel – the Hotel Jumohari – for dinner.  They tried to steer me towards the buffet, but based on online reviews I asked for the set menu.  It seems anything I wanted for dinner was included in my tour price (except drinks) so I took the advice of the internet and ordered the butter chicken with garlic naan.  Seems the chef at this hotel is from India, and the indian dishes are the best.  Although there wasn’t a ton of chicken on the chicken, the sauce was amazing, and I soaked it all up with a couple of strong local beers.

Back to the room to catch up on e-mail (internet was surprisingly good in Bhutan) and of course, finish the evening with the local brew:

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