Wednesday, February 25, 2015

[THIMPHU] Land of the Thunder Dragon

Driving to Thimphu was as scenic as it could be in terms of the view outside and very informative thanks to my guide. Dorji hails from the eastern part of Bhutan but makes a living in the capital as a freelance tour guide. He is like a walking Wikipedia article on everything Bhutan especially on the subject of Buddhism which seems to be his favorite. That was a welcome change because I am also interested in Buddhism, as opposed to the favorite topic of some tour guides which happens to be Politics.

“Westerners say we are like the second Switzerland,” he said. I haven't been to Switzerland but I could imagine it to be similar. Those mountains offer not just a majestic background for your selfie but also natural protection for its inhabitants. Just ask the Tibetans who have tried many times to invade back then but ended up going home to Mommy in tears. The Brits tried to do the same and also came back home weeping, but with a British accent.

The country is often referred to as the Land of the Thunder Dragon and it is not that hard to imagine Seiryu flying over those hills hurling lightning bolts at unsuspecting Tibetans for fun. I always compare Bhutan to North Korea due to the exorbitant fees you have to pay and their reclusiveness, but the comparison ends right there. If I am to choose between the Thunder Dragon and Kim Jong Un’s haircut, my choice would be quite easy to guess.

Yes we can argue that both countries seem to be stuck in a time loop due to their reluctance to completely open up to the modern world. But Pyongyang looks like an impoverished city stuck in the Soviet Era; Thimphu, on the other hand, is a Shangri-La that just wants to preserve its simple way of life. This is why they invented the concept of Gross National Happiness as an indicator of their collective well-being. We cannot really apply that concept to North Korea without laughing our asses off, no matter how brutally hilarious the truth appears to be.

But enough with the illogical comparisons! Did I mention that the restaurant where we had lunch charged me 100 Ngultrums for a glass of Coke? I am not complaining but why do tour packages discriminate against drinks by not including them in the total cost of the tour? Are drinks not worthy of belonging to a tour package just as much as the main course and desserts do? I'm just concerned about the feelings of the drinks here. That’s, like, bullying.

And so that was the first dilemma of the day. I had USD 480 and BDT 300 in my wallet, the former just enough for payment of the tour package. Since the waitress would not accept Takas, I ended up paying her with the single USD 10 bill that I had. Later on I tried to exchange my BDT to BNT but the bank said no. Wow, these SAARC countries really hate each other’s currencies that much. And so Dorji and I ended up hunting for an ATM that accepts Cirrus cards.

I inserted it once, twice, and a couple more times, each one more aggressive than the last, heaving a deep sigh with every thrust, imagining that it won’t be too long before the much anticipated release. Word of advice to Filipinos traveling to Bhutan: Your BPI Express Teller card, or any other Cirrus card for that matter, will only be accepted by Punjab National Bank’s ATM. The others are all local and picky allowing only MasterCard/Visa to be inserted into their slots before they release your cash. #bhutan50shadesofgrey

But that ATM hunt happened after the city tour which started after lunch. The National Memorial Choeten, a giant white stupa erected in honor of the third King of Bhutan, was the first stop. The reigning monarch is the fifth one, in case you didn’t know. Anyway, you won't be that overwhelmed if you have already been to Myanmar, particularly that one in Mandalay with hundreds of stupas lined up to form an amazing sight. Thimphu’s is impressive because of its size and its role as an integral part of daily community life.

Dorji explained how those Buddhist wheels work. In case you are not familiar with them, they are those brightly colored cylinders which vary in size and should be rotated clockwise in order to bring you good luck. If you rotate it counterclockwise, Kris Aquino will suddenly appear and tell you about the latest update regarding her love life. It’s not uncommon to see locals gathering in the area, with some of them just passing by at certain times of the day to pay their respects before moving on with their lives.

The next stop was Buddha himself. Dorji reiterated the difference between the first Buddha and the second one. The one present in this next stop is the first one, Siddharta Gautama himself, seated in lotus position and looking after Thimphu from high above the ground. It gets very windy there so make sure you are properly dressed. Feel free to don your latest swimwear if you are suicidal and want to do die of pneumonia the following day. It would be a lot better if you are insured.

The next stop had nothing to do with Buddhism unless you consider a Takin as a relevant part of that belief system. Considered as the national animal of Bhutan, this mammal is an odd-looking one. It somehow looks like a goat, but as big as a cow, and with horns similar to a Tamaraw. Sorry, just look at the picture below because my brain is hemorrhaging right now trying to find the right adjective to describe it. There were many of them that day, just hanging out in the open doing each other’s pedicure while talking about Kris Aquino’s love life.

We checked in at the hotel after that, in an attempt to freshen up before we pay a visit to one of the country’s most recognizable landmarks: the Tashichho Dzong which is right across the Parliament and the residence of the king. In any case, the two buildings look alike and stay true to traditional Bhutanese architecture. I think most of them house a temple which warrants such interesting design. We had to wait before the civil servants ended their day’s work before we could get in.

Inside we were allowed to see the temple but not take either photo or video. Security is strict and you have to go through x-ray machines as if checking in at the airport. The complex houses a big temple as well as some of the important administrative departments of the country, which explains the tight security. The king himself is said to frequent the place given his role and the proximity of his humble palace. Dorji started to lecture me about Buddhism again, and I found it really interesting to say the least.

It is unfortunate that I forgot almost everything he said. I mean, my brain can only process so much at any given time and the info overload was overwhelming. Suffice it to say that I got the bigger picture regarding what he was trying to say. The one that stuck with me most was the bit about anger and how it could be controlled. Now how much do I need that advice, right? At least I am leaving Bhutan with a better philosophy on how to handle my everyday affairs.

The day and our Thimphu trip ended at a local restaurant where we were served local cuisine. I really loved the potatoes they served us. The soup tasted good but left a tingling sensation in my lips perhaps because of the mild spiciness. For a while there I thought the waitress was doing some weird voodoo on me. Anyway, I am just glad that we got to see Thimphu too, because I thought this tour package was all about Paro. It really offers a good perspective on how Bhutan is as a nation.

[THIMPHU] Land of the Thunder Dragon

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