Day 71 | Up, down, in and around Thimphu, Bhutan

On our second day in Bhutan we hiked to a hilltop monastery, circumambulated a memorial stupa, visited one of the largest Buddha statues in the world and watched archers shoot an impossibly far target.

We woke up around 7am to amazing sunrise views from the Thimphu valley. Despite the many dogs barking all night, we slept well in the super comfy king size bed. It was also the very first time we felt a little cold at night since the beginning of our trip. For us, a much appreciated break from the extreme heat of Southeast Asia.

We left the room for breakfast at 8:30am. The restaurant had only two other customers. Even though it is the high tourist season in Bhutan, it seems like there are very few travelers at Bhutan Suites. Breakfast was served Western style, consisting of tea/coffee, pastries, fresh fruits imported from India, omelettes, toast and jam. Good but not memorable. Too bad we did not get to try a more traditional set of Bhutanese breakfast dishes. (When we asked our guide about this, he said the traditional Bhutanese breakfast is just rice!)

Our guide showed up in the hotel restaurant at 9am to start the day. Just kidding it was his doppelgänger! We were fooled and stared at a random mustached man across the restaurant. Our real guide Kesang was waiting outside with our driver Tandin.

Our drive to the start of the hike was super scenic going along the river. We crossed a bridge and passed in front of the school for royal bodyguards. We kept going up with the car for about 45 minutes until we reached the entrance of the national park which is also where the start of the hike to Chagri Monastery is located.

It was a beautiful hike up. We started by crossing a river. The ascent was pretty steep and the landscape absolutely breathtaking.

The sun was shining and we were happy to breathe the fresh mountain air.

Hiking to Chagri Monastery

We passed by this dog who must have been exhausted from barking all night long with his gang.

Dog yawning

On the way we learned more about our guides, talked about US TV shows they watch (turns out they probably watch more American TV shows than we do!), US politics, gun violence and also the 2016 presidential elections. They knew a lot about all these topics, especially Tandin, our driver who is younger.

Tandin and Kesang lead the way

We encountered this stupa overlooking the valley as we were approaching the monastery.

Stupa atop the hill

We got to the monastery at the top of the hill in about 45 minutes.

First glimpse of Chagri Monastery

There we spotted several domesticated goats and sheep. These were brought here by worshippers to save the animals from being slaughtered in order to earn good karma. The animals now live a happy life next to the monks (unlike sad goat from yesterday).

The monastery is a school for monks to learn meditation. It’s the oldest monastery in all of Bhutan, established in the 17th century by the founder of Bhutan Zhabdrung Rinpoche when he came from Tibet. After praying inside, our guide told us a lot of details about the monastery, and the specific branch of Buddhism that is followed in Bhutan which is different from the one found in Myanmar.

There is something so calming about the click-and-spin sound of prayer wheels rotating.

These in particular were beautifully painted.

Prayer wheels at Chagri

Our guide Kesang also mentioned some monks come here and then stay in solitude in the forest for 3 weeks, 3 months or even 3 years, talking to nobody during that time. While inside we only saw one monk. We also bumped into very few tourists, perhaps only a dozen or so.

We finished our visit of the monastery, took more pictures and got back down to where we started.

Trail out of Chagri Monastery

Car ride back to Thimphu through the beautiful winding roads again. We stopped for lunch at Bhutan Kitchen, which had a mostly vegetarian buffet.

Bhutan Kitchen from outside

The food was excellent and the style of the restaurant is very cute / family owned. More tourists than yesterday at lunch. Several Indian and Chinese families were there as well as a group of maybe 12 German people.

Lunch at Bhutan Kitchen

After lunch, we took the road to the big Buddha. On the way there, we stopped by the Memorial Chorten (or stupa) built in 1974 to honor the mind of the third King who passed away at a young age, and walked three times around it clockwise.

Memorial Chorten

The clouds passed quickly over the stupa.

Blue sky above the chorten

We joined many elderly worshippers as they walked the circumference of the stupa as well. Some of them relaxed by sitting next to a structure housing the prayer wheels.

Elderly worshippers at Memorial Chorten

We also turned the big prayer wheels that contain many mantras.

The sky was now covered with big storm clouds when we left the stupa.

Storm clouds over the chorten

As we drove the rain chased us through the winding hillside road.

Rain over the valley

Leaving the car, we walked a short distance to the Buddha statue.

Short hike up to the Buddha

The big Buddha Dordenma statue was super impressive. The complex is still under construction at the moment (the statue itself was completed a few months ago in 2015). The statue was made in China but assembled on-site in Bhutan. It measures 51.5 meters tall.

Buddha Dordenma for size comparison

We caught this shot as the sun parted the rain clouds over Buddha’s head.

Sunlight over Buddha's head

Then we visited the inside of the temple as well with walls covered with paintings honoring the Buddha’s life and his teachings. Very few tourists here.

Colorful statues of animals and deities lined the pedestal around the statue.

Elephant statue

Next we went to check out the archery field to watch men practicing Bhutan’s official sport. On the way there we stopped for pictures of the Thimphu valley. Kesang pointed out in the view of Thimphu various things such as the city’s only helicopter landing pad.

Overlooking the valley

When we arrived at the archery field, Kesang explained there are two types of bows: traditional and compound. Traditional is harder to aim vs. the compound one. Small groups of Bhutanese men were in the middle of a game. We were amazed by the distance between competitors and the target: 145 meters. Given that, it is very impressive to witness shots that reach the target. We saw a handful.

Archery target

Tried to capture the arrows flying into the air after release from the bow but they go so fast that it was impossible to get them in photo, even using continuous burst mode with our camera.

The traditional bow.
Old fashioned bow

And the modern compound bow.

Modern bow

Then we had extra time to go window shopping in Thimphu. We went to the arts and crafts market which consisted of many little stores on a single street, some of which were closed.

Thimphu's quiet gift bazaar

Every city we go to, Maurice shops for a souvenir fridge magnet.

Souvenir shopping

After a quick walk in front of the market, our guides gave us additional time to walk around some more in central area of Thimphu. Saw a lot of migrant workers from India (all men) in the area. Also saw the human traffic light directing the very sparse traffic at an intersection. Funny to see there is such a job given the small number of cars there!

Countless dogs were sleeping in the streets, though a few of them were roaming around.

One of many dogs roaming Thimphu

Then it was time to head back to our hotel which took just a few minutes. We had tea with Kesang and Tandin and talked with them more about Bhutan, its history, its culture, relations with its neighbors China and India, etc. Super interesting to exchange perspectives on the world with them.

We then went to our room to rest, work on the blog and nerd out on the web. We captured a time lapse sequence from our balcony as the sun was setting over Thimphu.

Sunset over Thimphu valley

At 8pm, we went downstairs for our second Bhutanese dinner at our hotel’s restaurant. Food was good just like yesterday. Some of the dishes were the same and others were new. We loved the pumpkin soup and mushrooms with cheese in particular. For dessert, we had a cup of fruits in milk. We were the only ones there pretty much the entire time. Probably the staff was waiting for us to leave before they could go home (since the kitchen closes at 9pm).

We came back to our room and worked some more on the blog before going to bed.