Leaving Bhutan was, for me at least, an emotional experience akin to walking away from a friend that you knew you were unlikely to see again. The memories—the endless prayer flags, the Bhutanese people, the yaks in the mist, the dogs that were everywhere and barked endlessly at night—to name just a few, will last a life time. When you are leaving, you would like to see just one more emblematic aspect of this wonderful country to remember it by as if you haven’t quite had your fill. Bhutan will remain with me always, but I sure would like to return.

And, of course, we were leaving other things behind. The physical camaraderie of our group would be broken, as it had to be. We were also leaving behind our wonderful Bhutanese guides and our leader, Zach, and our river guide, Doug—they were off to kayak rivers only accessible by horse. (All the companies rafting in Bhutan are asked to look for vehicles that have fallen off the sides of mountains—just in case. Glad I didn’t know that fact on our foggy night drive.) The comfort of being looked after and catered to was also a thing of the past.

I don’t dwell on sentiment, but as our plane ascended in the clouds, I felt this sense of loss and yet I could not stop smiling. It was a fabulous time and I only wish that I could sell something from Bhutan in my gallery so I could return on a regular basis. (Believe me, I looked hard at all the artwork, carving, etc., but it was just not right for my gallery.) Bhutan seemed so unspoiled and protected by the seemingly eternal conflicts that beset the rest of the world. I hope that Edenic quality will endure and give someone else the pleasure that I so enjoyed. Shangri-La indeed!

Our penultimate morning was, again, bright and sunny and we loaded into our buses for the journey to the starting point for the climb up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang). The starting point for the climb is at an altitude of roughly 6,500 feet and the monastery is at roughly 10,000 feet. In other words it is quite a climb and I am very happy that we did not try it on our first day. As it was, when we were on the Paro Chhu on the first day of rafting, I had a moment of dizziness and disorientation that lasted for about twenty minutes which I attributed to the altitude. By the last day, my lungs were used to the altitude, but my leg muscles were not. Fortunately, there is a halfway point where you can rest and have a cup of tea.

There was a woman having tea, she must have been well into her seventies possibly even older, who had climbed halfway and chosen to stop. This was her second visit to Bhutan and she had been to the monastery before and chose to relax and gaze on it from the privileged few of the halfway house. That she had made halfway was quite a feat and she well knew that you do not climb directly up to the monastery, but instead climb high on one peak and then descend 400 feet or so and then climb up to the monastery. It is hard, but because it rests on this second peak, you always have a view of it as you climb and it is just stunning, clinging to the cliff in ways you don’t really want to figure out, particularly when you are walking around inside it. And, there is the spectre of prayer flags draped from one impossible peak to another. Another breathtaking sight in Bhutan.

I forgot that we would be entering a monastery and so only wore shorts. Fortunately, Anne Harris had a pair of pants and gave me her tights which made the bottom half of my body feel like a sausage, or what I think a sausage must feel like. There must have been four or five separate rooms to visit in the monastery and it was extremely cold on the feet—the air up there was cool and the heat we had generated in climbing evaporated forthwith. Furthermore there is no ergonomic standard to these old buildings (1692) so it is easy to stumble on an odd sized step if you are not careful, and very tiring to be looking out for such anomalies. One of our group, Corinne, was two months off a knee operation and managing so I could hardly complain.

Lunch at the halfway house, back to chicken and rice, allowed me to ditch the tights. Our descent was uneventful and running the gauntlet of vendors at the bottom of the walk was vaguely stressful. You wanted to buy something, but the suitcases were full and I was running out of ngultrum, the Bhutanese currency. Also, we had an hour and a half hot rock sauna at the hotel that I knew we had to pay for so I passed them by. After the hot rocks, I found that my cousin Peter was having a fancy dress party with all the men who had purchased ghos (the male dress of Bhutan which is required for every Bhutanese who wishes to enter dzongs or monasteries) attempting to learn how to put them on. This is another little mystery of Bhutan. Alexander might have dealt with the Gordian knot, but donning a gho, I can assure you, would have been beyond him.

Our last dinner together, another table for 20 magically in place, was punctuated by toasts from just about every one of us. It was an extraordinarily enjoyable group of people to share Bhutan with and the party that came to pass after dinner expressed this as well as any of the parties we had in the span of eight days, so much so that we had Bhutanese, British, German and other Americans singing and dancing along with us to celebrate. As vacations go, it was absolutely sensational and not just because I was in Shangri-La, but because I was in Shangri-La with people that I enjoyed sharing Shangri-La with and furthermore, it came about without being planned—it just happened. Makes you want to believe for a second or two.

The fog of the Phobjikha Valley was a thing of the past as Thimpu was bright and sunny. A relaxed day began with a visit to a craft center where they taught carving, sculpture, weaving and painting. It was fascinating as they were all working on religious based themes. The wood carving is well executed and very tight, but any interpretation by the carver is de minimis. This was equally true of the weavers, sculptors and painters as tradition trumps individual expression. I find an appreciation for the work that is being done, but not great excitement at what is being created. As my brother, David, remarked, however, anyone who has been through such training will know how to paint, sculpt, weave or carve.

A craft shop by the school was packed with tourists buying all sorts of things and from there, Anne, David, Susie and I went on to the Taj hotel of Thimpu for lunch. It is located in a new building which I understand caused some concern as architectural standards are very strict in Bhutan. The Taj is both large and tall, but done in the traditional Bhutanese style with a very mildly peaked roof as all roofs in Bhutan are. I don’t know what the controversy may have been about, but I will say that the food was excellent. It was tempting to have a hot rock bath and a massage, but our lunch lasted so long that we didn’t have enough time to fit it in and make our next event.

The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) runs tournaments all over the world. In Asia, it is the King’s Cup which dominates the schedule and we were lucky enough to be in Thimpu for a match between a Bhutanand Thai teams. Our entire group went and looked totally out of place in our North Face and Patagonia jackets. We tried out a few cheers (Ole, ole) and moves (the wave) which firmly cemented us as an attraction at the match. Interestingly, we found that the Bhutanese applauded Thai goals (there were 5) because they thought it polite. We, however, never got to do the wave as Bhutan went scoreless.

The only food that would suffice after a sports event was pizza and beer and Thimpu hosts at least one very good pizzeria. (What is truly miraculous is how every restaurant and every bar that we went to had a table set for twenty.) Eating in Thimpu meant that we would not arrive at our next destination, Paro, until quite late, but it was our first western style food—no rice—in a week. The bus ride, at least compared to the previous day, was a short two and a half hours, although there is a section by the Paro airport that is kidney shaking and clearly woke everyone up for the last half hour of the journey. Our Bhutan journey was just about over with only one full day left.

The Valley of the Black Necked Cranes is one of three areas in Bhutan where the Black Necked Crane winters. It is hardly tropical, but I presume the crane doesn’t mind the snow and cold temperatures it faces and is always able to find daily sustenance and quiet ground, without predators, in which to breed. To enable tourists to see the cranes, there is a visitors center that has a number of telescopes set up for long distance watching. It feels a little removed, but then if we were allowed to get close to the cranes, they would hardly stick around. The center also had a film and lots of information about the cranes movement, the most daunting being that there were 25 less this year than last. I feel very lucky to have seen Sandhill, Whooping and Black Necked cranes in the last four years. Long may they fly.

Susan held a yoga session in a local school and those of us that sat it out tried sleeping in the bus. When this proved futile, Zach led us up to the dzong that overlooked the valley and which the cranes circle three times before flying up over the Himalayas and into what used to be called Tibet. As you can imagine, the crane imagery in the temple stood out from other monasteries. What I most enjoyed was the lack of fresh paint on many of the wall surfaces, so rare for these religious and maintenance obsessed people, giving an aura of slightly dilapidated grace and making the surfaces far more interesting to gaze on. It is hard to take the antique dealer out of me at the best of times. Some might find it tedious, but I find the aesthetics of what has borne the hand of time that much more intriguing.

After the rest of the group had joined us and the dzong was ensconced in our memories, it was time for the very long ride back to Thimpu. This required our fabulous drivers to go over two mountain passes. I secured a seat for Anne and myself behind the driver and we were off. The roads in Bhutan, as I have mentioned, are not super highways. Indeed, the roads in Bhutan are under constant construction. And the construction is all done by hand. Laborers from India are given an 80 day visa and they come to the country to work, sometimes pounding rock, building walls, digging trenches. The pace is slow and I would suspect that people who visit the country annually might have a hard time distinguishing newly made highway. Might be a little wider, might be a tad smoother, but it will never, at least not in my lifetime, be fast.

Since we were returning on the same roads we came out on, we all knew what to expect. Delays are the rule, particularly when you have situations like the one we had where a truck with two long tree trunks—50 feet at least, twenty of which hung over the back—slowly crept along the road. No driver in Bhutan backs down, they all go forward and often it is the barest of margins, less than two inches, which allows the drivers to pass one another. Surprisingly, we saw very few accidents although the one we did see was a complete total. It is driving for the patient minded, hot rodders need not apply. But what really shook us, particularly those of us who could see out the front windshield, was the total fog that our driver flawlessly coped with. Trina, and this is my favorite moment of the trip, was transfixed as she sat in the co-pilot’s seat. “Don’t talk to me”, she would say to anyone addressing her, “I’m driving”.

It truly felt that way and I have to say that the sense of helplessness Trina and I felt was equally evident in Anne and Richard, across the aisle from me. The last bad fog I drove in was in England on the M1 in 1971—there is nothing more scary since not only are you unable to see anything, but no one else can either. The legendary pile-ups on the M1 are just that and periodically there are reminders of that past as people refuse to learn caution. In Bhutan, there were three things that scared me, the abyss down the mountain on the side of the road, oncoming cars that couldn’t see anything and drivers who felt that they were in a rush and had to pass us. But our driver, who I gladly would have given a medal, proved far steadier than his four hysterical co-pilots. What was truly unbelievable was the party that was happening in the rear of the bus. They had no idea! We lived to tell the tale obviously, but I felt no greater relief than arriving in Thimpu.

I am not sure whether we did the Mho Chhu or the Pho Chhu first, but our last day of rafting was similar to the previous day where we rafted to just beyond the Punakha Dzong. The difference was that we started by visiting the dzong which, as I said yesterday, was one of the most opulent we were to see, and which clearly was the pride and joy of the Punakha area. The previous evening we had seen it all lit up, not unlike a Loire Chateau, which it certainly rivaled in splendor. The interior was equally impressive and beautifully maintained, but then most dzongs were well maintained. The concept of wear and aging which I happen to love, particularly in regards to color, is not esteemed by the Bhutanese.

From the dzong, we started walking up the river and I have to say that I was particularly impressed by my sister-in-law’s taxonomic abilities when it comes to flora. I used to know trees, but I was a one noter in that regard—I didn’t know shrubs or flowers—but Susie was figuring out all sorts of plants. My mother had that forte and it was always impressive. As it is, Bhutan is not that far from the one of the great epicenters on the planet for biological diversity in southwest China and that diversity is no less apparent in Bhutan. It helps that the range is from the sub-tropical to mountain grasslands. Few botanists would be bored in Bhutan.

Our rafting, the last day of it, was not unlike that of the previous day and really good fun. I felt far more secure in my paddling, possibly because it was easier, but I was also making progress. We ended up at a beach just below the dzong where another al fresco meal was waiting. All the men in the group were cajoled into going swimming, a pain for someone who wears hearing aids as I do, but I eventually flung myself into the river waters with the rest of the group. (It also gave the women a chance to change out of rafting clothes in the buses.) Any water below sixty degrees Fahrenheit is cold and this was well below sixty, but machismo lives, even in a bunch of old guys, and no one groused. We shivered, however.

Our afternoon bus ride was going to take us over another pass to the Valley of the Black Neck Cranes in Phobjikha (which I pronounced, rightly or wrongly, pa- cheek-a). The road was not dissimilar to the one up the previous pass we had taken, switchbacks being the rule, not the exception. It was long but we were amply rewarded as the buses stopped at the top of the pass where we unloaded to see the local yaks, not that they would have been imported. Yaks are a little territorial and we were given a short and effective rhyme. Yaks attack, stay back. We did and again, we had a nice downhill walk of several miles to loosen the legs, mine stiff with yoga excess, before we piled into the bus again and made our hotel.

It was clear that we had not come down nearly as far as we climbed as we were surrounded by mist, which I suspected was cloud, even when we arrived at our hotel, one of the nicest we stayed at on the entire visit. It had an alpine feel to it with lots of raw, unfinished wood everywhere. The dinner, where I found my favorite Bhutan dish, tofu in curry, was excellent and, before we knew it, we had the entire dining room singing along with us. (That resourceful fellow, Richard, seemed to know the words to a vast array of songs.) We wondered if it might have been a defensive reaction on the part of the other guests to sing along, they didn’t stand a chance at conversation, but no bar fights ensued and everyone was smiling. It is hard not to in Bhutan.

The next two days were to be based around rafting, which made the wardrobe choices difficult. In starting the third day, we had to be prepared to hike, raft and visit monasteries. Monasteries required long sleeves and trousers, hiking just a pair of shorts and a short sleeved shirt (it gets hot going uphill all the time where the monasteries prefer to locate themselves) and then rafting clothes which were guaranteed to get wet. Sounds simple, but when the sun goes behind clouds, it feels cold and, even though you are paddling, you will get cold once you got drenched in the boat.

In essence, we were going to raft the Mho Chhu and Pho Chhu (Bryan, I need you and your notes here with me) or the mother and father rivers which joined at one of the more impressive and opulent dzongs (Punakha Dzong) that we were to see on the whole of the trip. Again, the water was beautiful and, for the first time, we started to see some bird life including cormorants, ducks and the odd kingfisher. Fishing is outlawed in Bhutan, although one of our kayak guides did find some fishing line which had hooked two fish and which were dead. That is very unusual for Bhutan as the respect that they show for Buddhism and non-violence is immense.

The rafting was not quite as exciting as that of the first day, but it certainly was fun. We were given the choice to walk the first mile and meet at a monastery or raft and meet at the monastery. I rafted and got behind another experienced rafter, Darrell, making my paddling thoughtlessly easy. We were at the first monastery quite quickly, well before the hikers, and so started the hike through rice fields and then a reasonably long ascent to a monastery overlooking the river. The view was, dare I say it, breathtaking, but then most of the views in Bhutan are breathtaking.

This is where yoga caught up with me. Susan corralled me and I found myself almost dead center of the group by a quirk of fate. I should have had the smarts to just move away, but instead labored, as I haven’t labored in quite a while, to keep up. My muscles were turned to jelly and the descent was a loose lope characterized by nonchalance engendered by muscle fatigue. That core of mine needs work, I know, but this was a holiday. It started to be a holiday again when we sat down to an al fresco lunch and I quickly inhaled a Druk 1100 beer to steady myself. Alcohol is occasionally the perfect palliative.

The afternoon’s rafting was not unlike the morning with a great deal of pleasant sight seeing with an occasional person shouting hi as we rolled along. English is the lingua franca of Bhutan as there are sixteen dialects and I suppose, in order to suppress regionalism, it makes sense to just choose a language. So, as a matter of course, you will walk down a street and a seven year old will engage you in conversation. It is basic primer stuff but they love to engage and use what they know. Quite often at the end of a conversation, they will say, “thank you”. It is beyond charming.

Our group was regaled with a mini-concert by my young cousin, Jenner, who has a delivery that would warm any club owner’s heart. He truly connects with his audience. Whether it will translate beyond intimate venues is yet to be seen, but the charisma he showed with our small group made him a ready favorite. Nobody wanted to intrude once he got going although he pulled us all in as we discovered a few quality voices that had heretofore remained silent. There seemed to be no end to our ability to entertain ourselves. Makes for very smooth sailing.

Our second morning was just as bright and cheerful as the first. Yoga was again offered at 7 and Anne, my girlfriend and muralist extraordinaire, decided to go. To say that she was leveled by the experience would not be too far amiss and I realized that, sooner or later, I would be in the same boat. Yoga was going to catch up to me and I would probably be turned into jelly from fatigue and, before long, stiff from the lactic acids hardening around and through my muscles. Anne’s spark, something that never seemed to waver, was severely dimmed and to say that I trembled at my fate is under statement.

Our journey to Punakha, our next destination, was over a mountain pass of 11,500 feet. Zach wisely allowed us to go to the Ambient Café to enjoy a latte and some chocolate confections leading us to believe that the drive would not be that extreme. It wasn’t but it was long and it was hairpins or switchbacks that went on and on. All good things come to an end, however, and we reached the pass which had an extraordinary view of snow covered Himalayan mountains about 20 miles across the valley that stand 22,000 feet high, the highest in Bhutan. The beauty of the view cannot be overstated.

Like all prominent locations in Bhutan, there was a monastery at hand for the traveler. This one, and I wish I had stolen Bryan’s notes on this, a man who always had a pen and paper to hand to note names and location, was quite new. Indeed the arms room, for men only, sported a number of automatic rifles and grenades. All the surfaces were painted and decorated with traditional Bhutanese art that included gods surrounded by symbols, the four friends (elephant, hare, monkey and peacock or some variation thereof) were always present. But the presentations were never identical. I realized it would take me years to fully understand the whys and wherefores of such art.

Our descent was not dissimilar to our ascent and, riding in the back, I felt the brakes as they groaned again and again. (You don’t have to be a genius to know that there were lots of brake shops in Bhutan.) Furthermore the roads often narrowed to a single lane and you would occasionally see the odd boulder that had tumbled off the mountain to come to rest in the road. We were often passed by more nimble vehicles which was fine by me, only they often chose what seemed was the most inopportune moment to do so. Ever so slowly, the vegetation reverted away from the alpine to lowland flora and you knew that the ride would shortly be over.

Our intrepid leader wisely understood the value of walking for people who have been on buses for four to five hours and we were given a lovely walk across rice fields to the monastery of the Mad Monk. I am equally unversed in Buddhism as I am in Bhutanese art as applied to Buddhism, but it was very clear that the mad monk was extremely keen on phalluses. We passed house after house with painted phalluses and you could buy penis key chains if you so desired. I was surprised that they were circumcised as Bhupen, one of our guides, said that circumcision was not at all common. Little mysteries are everywhere in Bhutan.


The first morning in Bhutan was bright and sunny and the window of our room looked out over the Paro Valley. I was not quite up for 7AM yoga with Susan and so I went to breakfast, the meal that I quickly learned offered a western selection of offerings that usually included toast and eggs, cereal or oatmeal. This was to be our first rafting day and the puzzle was what to wear. Not being a rafter, my purchases for raft wear were shots in the dark. The chances of getting thoroughly soaked and not being near a change of clothes was my primary worry. The secondary worry was just not to catch a cold.

The two buses pulled up to the Paro Chhu (river) where three rafts and a pontoon rowing boat were inflated and waiting. Helmets, vests and paddles were laid out as well and we were set to go fairly quickly after a run through of just what to do when on the rafts when approaching white water and rocks or getting flipped out of the boat or watching someone else getting flipped out as well as paddle commands. It is easily learned, hard to make second nature. In less than a half hour, we were on the water as I found myself behind an experienced rafter, Juliet, making it far easier for me than trying to figure out whether I was to paddle forward or backwards.

The Paro Chhu is crystal clear with some deeper stretches, but also with a lot of white water. As it was my first white water experience (in a raft) I found myself very much in the moment. Remembering every detail is hard, but I would say that it was exciting as could be. Lunch was an al fresco buffet and we learned that the afternoon paddle was hard with a short portage and that we could, instead, do yoga at the base of the large sitting Buddha that is on a hill overlooking Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. I chose to raft and that is when the rafting got really fun. We hit some really great rapids and it was exhilarating. By the time we finished, we were cold and wet, but it hardly mattered as we had a beer and chocolate which helped a great deal.

We arrived in Thimpu at a nice five story hotel and had our first tequila party in Susan and Peter’s room. Peter, a first cousin who I have had little contact with in the last forty years, plays the mandolin and his son, Jenner, one of our river guides, plays it as well as any other stringed instrument related to the guitar. Their singing and playing melded the group with ease as we rollicked through a number of old standards and before we knew it, we were all dancing. A great day.                                                                                                                                                                               http://www.nwrafting.com/