Six Days In Happy Land

We are now in Nepal; quirky Internet connectivity made it difficult to do justice to beautiful Bhutan, so this post will be a quick collection of photos and memories of Happy Land.


A few years ago, Rio’s Christ the Redeemer was chosen as one of the seven new wonders of the world.  Thimphu’s gigantic Buddha didn’t exist at that time.  If it had, I’m convinced Buddha would be giving Rio’s statue some serious competition.

Buddha sits atop a mountain overlooking Thimphu

The base of the statue contains a temple, filled with hundreds of thousands of smaller Buddhas, butter lamps and butter sculptures. Yes, you read that right–sculptures are made of colored butter!

Just the artwork on the base would get MY vote

Dedicated to teaching Bhutanese arts and crafts, this school focuses on 18 traditional crafts including painting, woodcarving, metal work and embroidery.



Whenever I visit a country, particularly one whose economy is dependent on the tourist trade, I like to drop some dollars by buying gifts, so a stop in the school’s small shop was a definite requirement.

Handmade paper is another traditional Bhutanese craft.  We watched the entire process: the raw materials being delivered, heated, compressed, made into sheets and dried.



Notice how hard these young women are working?  They were all smiling as they were lifting those heavy bundles!  And yes, I most certainly did make a purchase at their tiny gift shop.

The modern world is rapidly creeping into Bhutan.  Construction is everywhere.  But it isn’t just new buildings and new technology.  Since the introduction of television in 1999, the western world has slowly been influencing Bhutan’s youth.

Thimphu’s clock tower plaza, right beside our hotel was the site of what looked like an  auto exhibit, but it was a whole lot more.image

Young Bhutanese shed their traditional clothes, donning jeans and tee shirts to dance to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”.   Unfortunately, my camera’s software is incompatible with my iPad, so you won’t be able to see the beautiful young girls I videoed dancing, but with any luck, I’ll be able to link a YouTube video of the boys doing their hip hop routine when I get back home.

You may be wondering what kind of audience the entertainment drew. Well, wonder no more, because when my personal paparazzi used his long lens to capture me unawares, he also photographed the crowd.

A bit sparse, no?


Much of the road between Thimphu and Punakha is under construction, making travel slooooow and very dusty.  We stopped at the Dochula Pass on the way to and from Punakha.

108 Stupas of the Dochula Pass

The Dochula Pass memorial honors the 15 Bhutanese that were killed fighting the Indian separatists from Assam.  The separatists were creeping across the Bhutanese border, creating training camps.  The fourth king actually led his troops into battle and was victorious.  No wonder he is so beloved!

The pass is 10,000 feet above sea level, so Tashi thought it would be good practice for the Tiger’s Nest if we took a hike in the Royal Botanical Park that adjoins the memorial.

The rhododendron were in bloom–they weren’t bushes, they were trees.

The jacaranda were also in bloom, outside the Palace of Great Happiness.

Notice the covered wooden bridge in the distance.

This is the entrance to the Palace’s temple.  Inside Tashi gave us a fantastic lecture about Buddhism, using the artwork that covered the temple walls as an ancient Power Point Presentation.image

I was so glad to see these monks, enjoying themselves by the river bank outside the Palace of Great Happiness.

We also visited a nunnery located atop a mountain, where I purchased some bracelets from this sweet 21 year old nun, who spoke perfect English.

Marilynn from San Francisco on the right, bracelets on the window sill on the left.

No visit to Punakha would be complete without a stop at the Chhimi Lhakhang Monastery.  To get there you need to hike through rice fields, a village and up a hill.

The shingles on roofs are held down with stones instead of nails.
These sweet villagers were happy to pose for me
Christmas presents for everyone!

imageThis monastery was founded by Drupka Kinley, the Divine Madman, whose “Thunderbolt of Wisdom”, also known as his “Flaming Thunderbolt” , brought his own special form of enlightenment to local women.  Infertile couples visit the monastery where the woman is doinked on the head with a huge wooden “thunderbolt”.  Could that be the Bhutanese version of IVF?

The Divine Madman is the inspiration behind the artwork that festoons the area’s houses.

Although not part of the “official” itinerary, our wonderful guide thought we might enjoy a visit to the 17th century village of Rinchen Gong.  These villagers are definitely not used to having visitors!  Our arrival was quite an occasion, especially for the children, who chased our van up the steep dirt road.

Like me, Jim enjoys photographing the locals
Like me, Jim enjoys photographing the locals
These boys loved seeing their pictures
These boys loved seeing their pictures
Shy at first, they warmed up when they saw the shots.
Shy at first, they warmed up when they saw the shots.

Our last stop was in Paro, where we climbed to the Tiger’s Nest and visited Bhutan’s  very first temple.  It was built in the 7th century by Tibet’s great ruler, Songtsen Gampo, and it is where he pinned the left foot of an ogress who once covered all of Bhutan and part of Tibet.

Jim, spinning the prayer wheel outside the sacred Kyichu Lakhang



The Cast of Characters

The Cast of Characters
For those of you who expressed concern about my traveling alone, after Mike and Greg had to cancel, have no fear. I now have five new friends. Here we are at the National Memorial Chorten, which was built to honor Bhutan’s third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk .

first row: Jim, Peter, Marilyn, Marie. Back row, Dick, me

Jim is a former hotel and restaurant owner from the greater San Diego area. His family used to own Marty’s restaurant and hotel, an establishment frequented by yestereyear’s stars, such as Lucy and Desi, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin.

Peter and Marie are from the greater Boston area. They retired from the financial industry, and have been traveling the world ever since. Prior to arriving in Delhi, they had taken another OAT tour through the Balkans, then spent a few days in Dubai. Jim, Peter and Marie will be heading home after Nepal.

Marilyn, a retired nurse from San Francisco, is like the little energizer bunny. She walks faster than I do!

Dick, from Seattle, retired from Boeing. He’s the most widely traveled of our group, having been on 27 OAT trips, plus tours with numerous other companies. Marilyn, Dick and I are the only members of the group that will be visiting all three countries. In Nepal, we will be joined by three new travelers.

Although not actually traveling with us, we see the royals EVERYWHERE.  Photos of them are on hotel and restaurant walls, on the sides of buildings, in museums and temples.   This official portrait is of the fourth King, known as the “Royal Fourth” with his four wives ( all sisters), the ten children they produced, (including the “Royal Fifth”) and the first grandchild. Since that photo was taken, the Royal Fifth has married.  He and his stunningly beautiful wife have produced an heir,  the Royal Sixth.

Tashi has identified which member of the royal family is in the motorcade when they go whizzing by.  So far, we have seen one of the four queens, and a royal uncle.

This photo of Tashi was taken at the Memorial Chorten.  He’s  instructing us on the proper way to circumambulate a prayer wheel.  Walking in a clockwise direction, you give each wheel a good spin as you pass by.  If we had been carrying rosaries, we would be using them to keep track of our prayers while we walked.


As with all mountain roads, Bhutan’s have their fair share of hairpin turns.  What they don’t  have are guard rails.  This tour is NOT for the faint of heart or the queasy stomached.  We have come so close to passing vehicles, we could have flossed the other driver’s teeth.  What a relief to have an excellent driver like Gembo getting us to the top of the mountain and back down again.

Gembo, our very skillful driver

An unexpected delight was the owner of our hotel in Thimphu.  Her story deserves an entire post, but that will have to wait till I get home, or until YOU stay at the Thimphu Tower.

Jim and Tshering, the owner of Thimphu Tower


Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan’s airport looks like it was designed by Walt Disney.  The buildings are covered with carvings of dragons (Druk means dragon in Bhutanese) and the windows are highly decorative.  It is the country’s sole airport, because Paro is the only area flat enough to accommodate a runway.  It’s a very SHORT runway, but a runway nonetheless.

The mountains that surround the runway make landing quite exciting.  So exciting, that only 8 pilots are skilled enough to fly into and out of Paro.  Fortunately one of those 8 was flying our plane today.

The airport is on the left. Take a look at those mountains

Tashi, our guide, and Gembo, our driver were waiting for us outside the terminal, ready to get this party started. First stop, Paro’s dzong. Every city/community had its own dzong. Back in the day when the Tibetans’ favorite leisure activity was invading their neighbors, the dzongs were fortresses. Today they have been repurposed into administrative and religious buildings.  

the demon of the west
The dzong courtyard
Young monks

Anyone thinking about visiting Bhutan should take a close look at those stairs.  They are steep, uneven, and lacking handrails.  And they are everywhere!

good thing i spent time at the Y before this trip!

After touring the dzong and the national museum, we stopped for lunch at a typical farmhouse.   In a “typical farmhouse” the ground floor is where the cows sleep.  They are protected from predators, yes, but this arrangement is multipurpose.  They also act as the home’s furnace, generating heat (among other things) for the floors above.  The second floor is used for storage, mainly food.  The room we viewed was loaded with drying rice.  The top floor contains the bedrooms, the kitchen/gathering spot and the altar.  

check put the floor boards!

Our hostess served us a delicious meal, complete with butter tea, into which you tossed grains of toasted rice. Okay, so maybe that last part wasn’t so delicious–at least not to me–but the fresh spring asparagus was particularly wonderful.

Benches were provided for thise that didn’t want to sit on the floor

Our hotel, the Thimpu Tower, is smack dab in the center of town, right by the historic clock tower.  It was very easy to stroll through the capital city and check out  their version of a traffic light.  

Bhutanese traffic light
the rotary

By the way, that’s the ONLY “traffic light” in Thimphu.  Like Massachusetts and New Jersey, they DO have “rotaries”, but their traffic circles are a bit more decorative.  

My lovely room overlooks the “clock tower plaza” and from my window, you can see the largest Buddha (in that particular contemplation pose) in the world.  Tashi tells us its construction is being completely funded by Asian Buddhists from Singapore, Thailand, China and Indonesia.  A much more up close and personal view will follow.  

There is construction everywhere in Thimphu. I needed to watch my step at all times to avoid the uneven pavement and the frequent holes in the sidewalks.  (I sure was missing Mike, who normally does all the watching for me, making sure I don’t trip over my own feet or fall into one of those holes!)

i wouldnt want to depend on THAT scaffolding

The kids roam freely in the land of gross national happiness.  These two were moving so quickly, I couldn’t get a good shot, but you’ll get the idea.  What better toy than a box and paper bag?  They were having a blast!  

Four Visas, Three Countries

We will be visiting three countries–Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet.  So why do we need FOUR visas?  Fair warning–this post will likely only interest those that are taking a similar trip, or are planning to visit India.

For the three of you that are still reading, here goes.

We fly into and out of Delhi, so since we have at least one overnight stay in India, we need a visa.  A visa that costs (depending on the service used) anywhere from $135 to $173, per person.  A visa that requires you to complete an on-line application that is challenging to decipher.  But there IS a positive aspect.  The visa is good for 10 years.  So, should we decide to spend more than an overnight in India, it will be best to do so before 2026.

If you are anything like me, you are probably wondering how to score the $135 charge.  Well, Cox and Kings is India’s approved visa grantor, so you get the best price if you opt to go direct to them.

Our travel company, OAT, sent out a package with very helpful, clear instructions.  Good thing, because there are lots of hoops you need to jump through for that India online application.

OAT recommends PVS, a visa processing company located in DC, probably because you can send your passport to one service and they take care of visas for both India and Nepal, which is not the case with Cox and Kings.  PVS is convenient, yes, but as with everything, you pay for that convenience.  If we had used PVS, we would have paid a total of $566 for both visas, including mailing charges.

Instead, our total cost was $362, a savings of $204.  How did I pull that off?  In addition to using Cox and Kings, I dealt directly with the Nepali Embassy.

I happened to be traveling to NYC to meet a friend for lunch and a show, so I figured, what the heck, I’ll just go in a little earlier and stop by the embassy.  Located at 216 East 49th St, it is only open between 9:30 and 1:30 during the week.   Right between these two restaurants,
you’ll find this sign on the side of the building:
IMG_2240 (1)You have to press the button on the side of the wall to get buzzed in.  I walked up to their tiny office on the 4th floor, but there IS an elevator.  The visas cost $40 per person versus $90 for PVS, so that represented half of our $200 in savings.

One thing that is important to know if you decide to go–they ONLY take money orders.  No cash, no personal check, no credit or debit cards.  Of course, I had everything that they didn’t take, but all was not lost because there is a place that sells money orders on the next block.  I have no idea what a money order costs, because my bank had a branch on the same block, so my money order was free.   If I had been smart, I would have found this website  before I left home.  It EXPLAINS the money order requirement and tells you what is needed to submit by express mail or courier–good news for those of you that have no intention of traveling to NYC.

It took 30 minutes for processing to be completed.  Passports and visas clutched in one hand, my other raised to hail a taxi, I was off for the Cox and King office 23 blocks away.

I thought I might be able to drop off my package (to be mailed to my home when processing was completed) and still be on time for lunch.  I was delusional.  It was a total waste of time and cab fare.  The smart thing would have been just to express mail the damn thing in the first place and be done with it.  Which is what I ultimately did.  Less than 2 weeks later, our passports arrived.

Two down, two to go.

Bhutan and Tibet both require that you send them a color copy of the first two pages of your passport in advance of trip. (OAT , bless them, is handling this part).  The actual visas are provided when you arrive, but only if you have 2 color passport type photos (2 for each country, 4 in total),  ANOTHER copy of our passport pages (for Tibet) and approximately $70 for Bhutan and $190 for Tibet, per person, in cash.  Cash means pristine bills–no wrinkles, tears or marks.  OAT recommends we bring more, because these fees are subject to change without notice.  See why we use a travel company when we venture to more non-traditional locales?  Knowing me, I  would have missed one or more of the requirements.

So, what did I learn from this adventure?  If you have enough time to submit directly to the embassy and Cox and Kings by express mail (or Fedex or UPS–whatever) you can save a bundle.  You just need to send for one, wait for the passports to be returned, then send to the other.   If, however, money is no object (that’s definitely not ME), and you prize convenience, or are short on time, then a service, like PVS is the way to go.

Next post will be about something other than this future trip.  I promise!


Hanoi on the Weekend

What do we fun loving volunteers do on a weekend in Hanoi? Well, on Saturday we took a cooking class, beginning with a visit to the local market to buy ingredients for our Caramel Pork dish.

"Get off the showcase!"
“Get off the showcase!” Bonus points to whoever can identify who said that.
We decided on a different vendor.
For some reason, we decided on a different vendor.
This guy reminded me of the lobsters in the bathtub!
This guy reminded me of the lobsters in the bathtub!
Didn't we pick these off rocks?
Didn’t we pick these off rocks?
What would the Massachusetts term for these guys be?
Slap a little paint on these shells, and you’ve got yourself an ashtray!
Our teacher had excellent English. In addition to cooking, he taught  us important Vietnamese  phrases.
Our teacher had excellent English. In addition to cooking, he taught us the Vietnamese equivalents for “cheers” and “bottoms up”.
If cooking gets too strenuous, I'm coming back here!
If cooking (or drinking) gets too strenuous, I’m coming back here!
Miss Shelley and Miss Sally,  who both answer to Ms Shally
Miss Shelley and Miss Sally, super chefs
Our waiter was happy to keep us supplied with free flowing wine
Our waiter was happy to keep us supplied with the “free flowing wine” mentioned in the brochure.

On Sunday, Jeannie, Sally and I made a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda, which we subsequently learned is Vietnam’s Mecca. We had thought that a boat ride on the river, into the mountains, would be a respite from the energy and dynamism of Hanoi. And had we visited during the summer, that is exactly what we would have experienced. Instead, we figured that it would have been more peaceful had we stayed in Hanoi, because it sure seemed like everyone in the city decided to visit the Pagoda with us.

Beautiful scenery; quite a bit of traffic on the river.
Beautiful scenery; quite a bit of traffic on the river.
A Vietnamese Starbucks
A Vietnamese Starbucks
I thought there were a lot of boats on the river; I had NO IDEA how many boats were already there!
I thought there were a lot of boats on the river; I had NO IDEA how many boats were already there!
Vietnam has no shortage of shopping opportunities, and religious sites are no exception.
Vietnam has no shortage of shopping opportunities, and religious sites are no exception.

It is difficult to capture the sea of humanity at the Pagoda.  As it got more crowded, it was impossible to photograph.
It is difficult to capture the sea of humanity at the Pagoda. I took this photo before it got crowded. Later, I couldn’t get my arms up to take a picture without bopping people around me.

One of the lunch options
One of the lunch options
There's a lot to be said for vegetarianism.
There’s a lot to be said for vegetarianism.

After lunch, we headed for the gondola. It didn’t take long for us to realize we were the only non-Asians in the very long line. During the one hour wait, the children used the opportunity to practice their English. Everyone wanted to say “hello” to us. Once again, I was impressed with the warmth and friendliness of the Vietnamese.
You jump into and out of these.  They don't stop for passenger entry and exit.
You jump into and out of these. They don’t stop for passenger entry and exit. And if you take too long, the attendant gives you a little push to send you on your way.

A sweet young French girl who was on our tour decided to walk up, and arrived at the top before we did. (I wasn’t kidding about the long lines!) She reported that the way up was very hot and crowded, with gift and food stands lining the road the entire way. We know exactly what she meant. We SAW the rooftops during our gondola ride. So much for fresh mountain air.
Sally and Jeannie, smiling on the boat ride back.
Sally and Jeannie, smiling on the boat ride back. You can’t keep those intrepid travelers down!