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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Bhutan June'17: Pursuing Happiness In The Last Shangri-La (Part 1)


Me to people around me: "I'm going to Bhutan to draw and paint."

People around me: "Where? To do what??"

Me: "You know, Bhutan! The happiest country on earth? The one with the handsome King and beautiful Queen that just gave birth to the cutest kid?"

Bhutan's King Jigme Khesa Namgyel Wangchuck and his wife Jetsun Pema with their newborn baby son. Basically the perfect royal family.
With zero expectations and very little prior research, I embarked on a truly magical travel sketch journey with Erwin and DrukAsia in this unique country that measures its development through something called GNH - Gross National Happiness Index. That's just how otherworldly Bhutan, this tiny Himalayan nation nestled in between China and India, is.

All essential sketching and painting materials provided by Drukasia for #SketchBhutan

#SketchBhutan // Travel Sketch to Bhutan with Erwin Lian and Drukasia

Upon hearing my news, some people looked at me with bewilderment and asked me, "Why the heck are you going to such an ulu (meaning unknown in Singlish slang) place to draw and paint?"

"I don't know why, exactly," I answered them. "But I love sketching and painting, and wouldn't it be cool to do something absolutely out-of-this-world instead of just travelling to the usual touristy hotspots and just shopping/eating/sightseeing like I always do?"

Most casual readers are probably not aware that I used to be a digital illustrator, and studied art and design for three years before working in the industry for two years. Although I've been out of touch with drawing and the arts for a super long time, I'd attended a botanical watercolor painting class at Bynd Artisan with Erwin last year, and enjoyed getting in touch with my rusty painting skills tremendously.

Thus, when Erwin invited me along for #SketchBhutan - a 7D6N travel sketch trip to Bhutan, I said YES!!! almost immediately! :) Goodbye Singapore, HELLO exotic Himalayan nation!

Disclaimer: Druk Asia kindly sponsored my meals and accommodation - I paid for my flight tickets in and out of Bhutan. Thank you, Druk Asia! 

Travelling To Bhutan with Druk Asia

Bhutan has historically been known to be closed-up when it comes to tourism. The first tourists were only permitted to travel to Bhutan in 1974, and all travellers require a visa (unless you hold an Indian passport, I believe) to enter the country.

Independent travel is forbidden, and the only way to travel to Bhutan is via a licensed operator, while you will need to be accompanied by a guide and driver everywhere you go within the country.

It is also mandatory that every tourist has to pay a minimum daily tariff of USD250 (USD200 for 0ff-peak seasons) via their licensed operator to travel in Bhutan. This fee covers accommodation, food, guide and vehicle with driver, or basically, the entire travel expenses and payment has to be made upfront for your visa to be processed.

This explains why travelling to Bhutan isn't cheap in the slightest - Be prepared to spend 4-5K SGD for a seven days trip to Bhutan during peak season (March, April, May, September, October & November).

I highly recommend Druk Asia - Druk Asia specializes in Bhutan travel and is also Druk Air's (Bhutanese airline) representative in Singapore with over a decade of experience. Druk Asia also ensures guaranteed Visa approval for all travellers and has excellent customer service and great reviews.

Travelling to Bhutan in June

According to websites and weather forecasts, June isn't the best time to visit Bhutan as it is the monsoon season. A word of advice - Don't trust the online weather forecasts! I packed in my coats and knits because I thought it would be cold and rainy, but ended up being severely over-dressed and spent most days in my tee-shirts and jeans only. Also, it didn't rain half as much as was forecasted, thank goodness! We actually had perfect weather on most days, and lots of sun too.

As June is a non-peak season, it's cheaper than travelling during other months (mentioned above), and another plus point is that there are also much lesser tourists around, which makes the entire travel experience so much pleasanter!

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Arriving at Paro Airport

Here's a little bit of trivia: Did you know that only EIGHT pilots in the entire world are qualified to land at Paro Airport, one of the world's most difficult for takeoffs and landings?

That's due to its short runway in a narrow valley that's surrounded by the Himalayan mountains - Flights to and from Paro are allowed under visual meteorological conditions only and are restricted to daylight hours from sunrise to sunset due to how challenging it is.

That sounds scary, but our flight from Changi Airport to Paro Airport (stop-over at Kolkata - No need to disembark) had little turbulence and a very smooth landing with no cause for terror at all. Take a window seat on the left for the best view of Mount Everest as you descend into Paro Airport, the most scenic airport I've ever landed at.

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Changing Bhutanese Currency & Getting Wifi Connectivity

The Bhutanese currency is the Ngultrum, which is pegged to the Indian rupee, so 1 ngultrum = 1 rupee. Most hotels and some tourist shops accept USD as well.

Change your currencies from SGD or USD at Paro Airport, and if you have any remaining ngultrum at the end of the trip, you can have it changed back into USD only at Paro Airport when you depart. (Remember to keep the money changer's receipt until the end of your trip cos you'll need it to change any unused ngultrums back into USD!)

As your entire tour package would have been paid for beforehand, you won't need much money at all - I barely spent 150 USD while I was in Bhutan. That included tips for the guide and driver (which you can also give in USD or SGD) as well as splurging on a shawl made of baby yak wool and a massage session at one of the resorts we stayed at.

Stay connected with the rest of the world by purchasing a pre-paid sim card at the airport (right next to the money changer) - I got myself a sim card with a 5GB data plan for something like SGD20? I can't remember how much exactly but it wasn't costly at all! Tashi Mobile is recommended for the best data network.

Note: Most hotels offer free WIFI but be warned that connectivity is weak and patchy in many places.

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My accommodation in Thimpu - So gorgeous!

Accommodation & Meals

I didn't have any issues with the accommodation booked for us through Druk Asia - All of the hotels and resorts are 3-star accommodations and more than decent. My favourite accommodations were Hotel Lobesa (in Punakha) and Metta Resort & Spa (in Paro)! :) Most of the rooms were gorgeous and spacious with a rustic, traditional character that came through strongly in the wooden structures and woven tapestries. Everything was clean and well-maintained, hot running water wasn't a problem, and the beds were comfortable and restful.

Some of the hotels/resorts even provide in-house massage and spa services at affordable prices, which was a treat after a long day!

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A typical Bhutanese meal comprising of rice with veggies cooked with cheese or chilli
Food-wise, Bhutanese cuisine is strongly influenced by Chinese, Tibetan and Indian culture, so it wasn't too much of a departure from what I'm used to. We were mostly served rice with dishes of veggies and meat that were cooked simply with no extra frills. Everything was so healthy and yet tasted hearty and delicious! Most meals were served in buffet style, which I quite liked because I could pick what I wanted to eat more of :D

If you're not a fan of chillies or cheese though, watch out!! Expect to find cheese and spicy hot chilli in some dishes, the Bhutanese LOVE their cheese and chilli!

***

Bhutan Day 1: From Paro Airport to Thimpu City

Now that I've covered most of the basics, I'm now going to share some of the highlights of my trip - I'm splitting the images into two posts, starting with Days 1-3!! :) I'll also be sharing bits of trivia about Bhutan that I learned about from our Bhutanese guide, Kuenzhang!

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Tachogang Lhakhang Bridge
This pit stop we made in between Paro to Thimpu was my first taste of Bhutan's breath-taking scenery, and words can't describe how liberating it felt to be surrounded by so much nature all around, from the flowing blue waters to the distant peaks and lush greenery.

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There's quite a bit of history behind the (old) iron suspension bridge across the river which is no longer open to the public as it's too dangerous, but the newly constructed bridge is just as pleasing to the eyes. Adorned with a multitude of prayer flags, it was a colorful sight that would be common all over Bhutan during my one week there.

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"Traditionally, prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. The flags do not carry prayers to gods, which is a common misconception; rather, the Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space."

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Gorgeous, isn't it?

First taste of Bhutanese food - Nothing fancy to shout about, but the food was hearty and kept us full.

Checked into our accommodation at Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan!

Love the rustic wooden elements and colourful tapestries!


Buddha Point
After a short rest at our hotel, we drove up to the famous Kuensel Phodrang, or Buddha Point. It is a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue - the largest Buddha statue in the entire country! The massive three-storey base houses a large chapel, while the body itself is filled with 125,000 smaller statues of Buddha.

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If you noticed, the entire area is still under construction, but that doesn't detract from how imposing and grand the huge Buddha statue is, as well as the magnificent view of Thimpu City from Buddha Point.

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Thimphu City
Despite being the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu feels more like a small town that still retains much of its backward charm. The streets are lined with mom-and-pop shops ranging from tiny pharmacies to handicraft stores and convenience stores that'll make you feel like you've stepped back in time to the 80s.




Did you know that Thimpu is the only capital in the world with not a single traffic light at all? Apparently, traffic lights were once installed in the year 1995 but received so many complaints from the public that they were done away with completely and the Royal Bhutan Police traffic controllers put back in place as human traffic lights. Haha!

We witnessed how one expert policeman guided traffic from all directions with his efficient gestures - When we waved to him and shouted a hello, he didn't miss a single beat and waved right back with a straight face while calmly continuing to keep the traffic flowing smoothly! Salute!

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In fact, the whole of Bhutan has a population of just 776,000 - That's 18 people per square kilometer, which is one of the lowest population densities in the world. Quite a mind-boggling fact especially for us Singaporeans - Singapore has a population density of 7,987.52 people per square kilometer!

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A small mom-and-pop store selling sweets, toys and other knick knacks.

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Jewelry being made in the backroom of a small jewelry store.

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One of the most distinctive features of the Bhutanese is their traditional dress, unique garments that have evolved over thousands of years. Men wear the Gho, a knee-length robe, while ladies wear a kimono that is tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as Kira.

In 1989 a strict dress code was enforced across Bhutan, with violators subject to hefty fines. Men were required to wear the Gho, and women the Kira.

These days the rules are more relaxed - uniform is now only mandatory in government offices, schools, monasteries and during important functions - and Western fashion influences are beginning to seep through into the national dress.

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A Bhutanese lady on the street of Thimphu dressed in her traditional Kira and looking at her mobile phone - What a juxtaposition! 

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Our first day was rather relaxed, and we retired after dinner to rest so that we would be ready for a good start the next day! :)

Bhutan Day 2: Changangkha Lhakhang, Centenary Farmers’ Market & Tashi Chho Dzong
Breakfast was a quick affair at the hotel before we set off for the day! I was all revved up to get the sketching started - First stop was Thimphu Eco Park that has a great view of Changangkha Lhakhang, the oldest temple of Thimphu!

Changangkha Lhakhang was built in the 12th century and is where many pilgrims take their children for blessings or to receive names for newborns.

Armed with the art supplies prepared for us by Erwin, we kicked off the sketch journey by warming up with some pencil drawing at Thimphu Eco Park! Erwin as well as co-teacher - local Bhutanese artist, Rajesh, helped us along to get our attempts right :)

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It was two hours of solid concentration as I struggled to get my rusty sketching skills all warmed up again, but also extremely gratifying at the same time.

We ended our morning session in time for lunch and a short stroll around the area!

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We stumbled upon a small outdoor bazaar selling an assortment of drinks and goods outside the local hospital - Do you see those hanging strands of cream coloured cubes? Those are dried yak cheese strung up for sale! In case you're wondering, nope I didn't try, and I don't know what it tastes like!

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Notice how the bags of chips are all puffed up like plump pillows due to the high altitude in Bhutan?

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Passed by a street-side vendor selling prayer beads and incense.

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I love seeing the Bhutanese dressed up in their traditional garb :)

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The little kids are especially adorable when wearing the national dress!

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Centenary Farmers’ Market
An interesting place to people-watch and soak in the local atmosphere is the Centenary Farmers’ Market held on the weekends, where villagers from the valley and other nearby areas come to sell their range of agricultural produce. This market is by far the largest domestic market in Bhutan!

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We also did a spot of sketching at the market and attracted a fair bit of attention from the curious locals who were wondering what we were up to! ;)

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Tashi Chho Dzong
Our final stop of the day was this beautiful garden from where we got an excellent view of the  Tashi Chho Dzong, which presently houses the throne room and offices of the king, the cabinet secretariat and the ministries of home affairs and finance.

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From this view, we embarked on our first water-colour painting session of the Dzong, with the guidance of Erwin and Rajesh!

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The entire group was hard at work and completely immersed in capturing the beauty of the Dzong in ink and water-colours.

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Pleased with my first ink-and-wash drawing of the Dzong! :)

Bhutan Day 3: Live Portraiture Class at VAST, Dochula Pass & Punakha Valley

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I was looking forward to Day 3, where we had a live portraiture class at VAST, short for Voluntary Artists' Studio, Thimphu!

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Our adorable little Bhutanese model!

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Rajesh doing a demonstration on how to capture live portraiture right :) Though it was obviously a lot easier watching him sketch with his experienced hand as opposed to when we attempted our own renditions!

With the beautiful Mindu and her adorable daughter who did portrait sittings for us!

Sketches done by the entire class all put together!

We then departed Thimphu City via a 2.5-hour long drive on the National Highway and over the Dochula Pass, to get from the cool heights of Thimphu to the warmer and lush landscapes of beautiful Punakha Valley.

The journey can get a little uncomfortable because of the change in altitude and some slight bumpiness on the roads - I recommend getting motion sickness and altitude sickness medication on standby if you're prone to either one.

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Dochula Pass
Along the way, we made a stop for lunch at Dochula pass, a popular location between Thimphu and Punakha as it offers a stunning 360-degree panoramic view of the Himalayan mountain range on a clear day. We weren't so fortunate, however, as it was a foggy and drizzly day and all we saw was a sea of fog obscuring the mountains and view.

The 108 stupas/chortens seen in the above image - known as the Druk Wangyal Chortens - were commissioned by the eldest Queen Mother, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk and were a stunning sight even amidst the fog.

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I've never seen as many stray dogs in Bhutan as I have anywhere else!

Druk Wangyal Lhakhang Temple - A small but picturesque temple at Dochula Pass built in honour of the fourth Druk Gyalpo (head of the state of Bhutan).

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Carrying on our journey - We stopped for some grilled corn by the roadside!

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Snapshots of some of the Bhutanese locals we interacted with - From a wizened old grandmother with betel-nut stained teeth to these adorable young girls who said their thanks shyly when Sarah (one of the girls in our group) gave them some chocolates :)

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We finally arrived at the crazy beautiful Punakha Valley!

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Punakha Valley
We walked through these terraced rice fields to the temple of Chimi Lhakhang: Located on a hillock, this temple is dedicated to Lama Drukpa Kuenlay, an eccentric religious teacher of the 15th-century who used humor, songs and outrageous behavior to share his teachings, earning him the title of "The Divine Madman".

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Just another adorable stray that we ran into along the way, he was such a cutie :)

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An especially outstanding trait of the houses of Punakha Valley is the depiction of phallic images abound - Bhutanese paint phalluses on their homes to protect their families from evil spirits and to promote fertility.

Flying phalluses are also tributes to the adored religious teacher and master of Mahamudra Buddhism, “The Divine Madman”.

I was pretty amused by the way the penises were depicted, some had eyes and resembled dragons, while others came complete with hairy testicles and ejaculation wtf.

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The walk through the valley was lovely. Fields upon fields of cultivated paddy fields swayed serenely in the breeze as we made our way leisurely to Chimi Lhakhang, the famous temple of "The Divine Madman".

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The greenery of vast terraced fields framed in on all sides by gently sloping mountains was absolutely stunning to take in. Walking through the valley and experiencing the beauty of all that nature evoked a profound serenity within me and I'd never felt so peaceful as I did at that moment.

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Rajesh was working on a water-colour painting on-the-spot, and I love the colors and feel that were captured with every stroke of his paintbrush!

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We reached Chimi Lhakhang just before the temple closed for the day. This tiny temple on top of a hillock is said to resemble the breast of a woman - Hundreds of childless Bhutanese couples make pilgrimages to Chimi Lhakhang, where a giant wooden phallus is used to "bless" and bring forth fertility, as comical as it sounds.

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As the evening drew to an end, we rested under the spreading canopy of the Bodhi tree outside Chimi Llakang. This Bodhi tree is said to be the same species that Siddhartha Gautama, the spiritual teacher who later became known as the Buddha, is said to have attained enlightenment under.

Ended off a lovely Day 3 and checked into Hotel Lobesa that overlooks Punakha Valley and has a marvellously panoramic view of the beautiful surroundings!

Therein ends my Days 1-3 travelogue in Bhutan - I'll carry on with Part 2 in a separate post so stay tuned!

If you'd like to find out more about Druk Asia or sign up for the next Travel Sketch to Bhutan that's happening in September, head over to Druk Asia's website!

xoxo


Read:
BHUTAN JUNE'17: CONQUERING TIGER'S NEST, PUNAKHA & PARO (PART 2)


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