Day 1: Paro
After a 20-hour journey to Bangkok, followed by a just a few hours of restless sleep, we are finally en route to Bhutan, nestled in the breathtaking Himalayan mountain range.
Landing in the one-strip Paro airport, we exit the small airplane and wave goodbye to the pilot. We've just set foot on one of the most remote and isolated places in the world--a place where, for centuries, the Buddha's timeless teachings of wisdom and compassion have infused every aspect of life.
Our local guide, Kinga Dechen, greets us dressed in the colorful Bhutanese "gho," the compulsory robe for all the country's men. He soon becomes our trusted friend and a beloved teacher.
We head for the hotel, made up of small, traditionally-decorated cottages on the slopes of the Paro Valley. The views are spectacular!
After a quick buffet lunch, we set out for Ta Dzong ("lookout fortress"), now the National Museum. There we see a wonderful collection of old thangkas (wall hangings which illustrate stories of the Buddha and various Buddhist deities). Our Beliefnet scholar, Larry Mermelstein, explains the hangings, conjuring up images of dancing dakinis and awakened beings.
Day 2: Paro
We're granted special permission to visit the inside of Dungtse Lhakhang, the 3-story temple of Thangtong Gyalpo, before we head off to visit our first "dzong", the majestic white fortresses which house the administrative offices of each local district. Most dzongs in Bhutan are built on hilltops and are architectural symbols of strength and unity. Paro Dzong is known as the fortress built on a heap of jewels.
We have lunch in a tiny restaurant called Sonam Trophel, where Mrs. Sonam cooked up incredible ginger potatoes and chicken wings. It was to become our favorite eatery in Bhutan (just second to the "pizza palace" in Bumthang!)
Larry has a wonderful surprise for us this afternoon: a dharma talk by a very young lama named Yangsi Khyentse, the reincarnation of His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. His older brother translates for us. We're allowed to view the amazing, rarely seen murals of the "eight logos" mandalas, and end the day with the lama's family at a sumptuous dinner.
Day 3: Thimphu
On the spectacular drive to Thimphu (Kinga warns us not to use up all our film: "wait until we cross the mountains and travel to the East!"), we stop at Tachok Gompa. It was built by the famous Thangtong Gyalpo, a famous Tibetan saint who, Larry explains, discovered the art and design of iron chains used to build suspension bridges.
We reach Thimphu. Bhutan's capital has one main road, no traffic lights, and little traffic. We explore book stores, antique shops, fabric shops and our favorite, a Swiss bakery which sells traditional European pastries.
Day 4: Chendibji
Our journey east begins. It's a long, windy drive across two mountain passes but, as Kinga says, it's one of the most magnificent drives in the Himalayan world. Our first stop is Dochu Pass (10,000 ft), covered with thousands of tall prayer flags. A prayer flag is set up high on the mountain pass for each person who passes away, carrying the soul of the dead across the land. It's a truly magical place.
Larry performs a "lhasang purification ceremony" by burning juniper and reciting a number of Tibetan mantras. The ceremony is designated to restore balance and harmony in the universe.
We make a quick stop to view Punakha Dzong before we reach our campground at Chendibji Chorten. Our camp staff greets us as we arrive. The tents are set up (the Bhutanese like their beds firm!) and our cook has already prepared one of the most delicious meals we'll have on the entire trip. As a matter of fact, our cook continues to amaze us with great cuisine every time we set up camp.