3 mins

The hardest way to leave Bhutan

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, hits a final stumbling block before leaving Bhutan

Leaving Bhutan (Marie Javins)

A gaggle of guides was chatting and shooting the breeze over breakfast in the rustic Gangtey hotel restaurant dining room, when some monks who had been chanting downstairs showed up to sprinkle water on them. To a man, they obediently bowed their heads as if they'd been having water sprinkled on their heads by monks their entire lives.

Which, this being Bhutan, they probably had.

"What was that about?" I asked my guide after the monks had roamed around the room a few times, chanting and sprinkling until the ceremony had ended.

"The hotel has an annual ceremony to ward off evil spirits."

Of course.

We headed out for our final journey with our driver Tobgay. We were en-route to Paro, which is where I'd fly out to continue my trip around the world in a few days. As a former monk, Tobgay was still active in his... monastery? Church? Community? I wasn’t sure. But he and his wife and children were going to hike somewhere for a multi-day ritual, and so he couldn't drive us in Paro when we went sightseeing.

"Who will drive us?" I was worried. Tobgay was sweet-as-pie and a slow, safe driver. And I was used to him.

"Ugyen will take us, don't worry," said Tsering. Ugyen owned the travel agency that I’d booked with. I hadn’t yet met him, but we’d spoken on the phone.

Tobgay drove us along out of the Phobjikha valley and up past the winter playground of the black-necked cranes. Soon we were winding back along the little road that snakes across the mountains to Paro.

And then, in the middle of nowhere, we slowed to a halt.

Traffic jam!

Actually, it was a landslide. We had to wait for a half-hour while workers cleared the road. Tsering and Tobgay wandered up to check out what was going on, while I took a nap. I hadn't been staying up late, but I'd been overwhelmed by Bhutan. It's unique and unusual and while things were in a way, quite normal in that there were roads, cars,and electricity, Bhutan also had a way of handing me the unexpected – men in robes, birds that determine when people can have electricity, religious guys providing lucky charms to roads and buildings, women having all property rights, and of course, the giant phalluses painted on rural buildings.

In time, we arrived at a small restaurant atop Dochu Lu pass. The guys went to munch chillies while I ate alone. I headed into the souvenir shop, where I admired some orangey-red wooden phalluses with fierce faces. Perhaps I should buy that, I thought, but I already had a kamasutra souvenir that I had to post home from Bangkok, and it's illegal to mail pornographic material from there. I'd have to hope no one looked too closely at the post office, but I didn't think a bright orangey-red wooden phallus with a face would be so easy to slip through.

And souvenirs were pricey here. I'd complained about it to my guide, and asked him where the bargains were.

"Handcrafted work is expensive. It would cost me the same to buy these, and there is no special local price or local market."

We arrived in Paro just after 3pm. The National Museum closes at 5pm so we drove straight to it, on a hill overlooking town, before checking into the hotel.

No photos were allowed, and rightly so. There is a “horse egg” on display here, and I would have tried to sneak photos of it for sure if the rules hadn't required us to leave my camera and our phones inside a locker.

The majority of the museum is inside a restored watchtower, which is round – "conch-shaped" actually, though I'm not entirely sure what that means. The building itself, with its rickety floors and short ceilings, is over 300 years old but was renovated 40 years ago into the museum it is now.

Tsering showed me alcoves where Bhutanese could once jump out at invading Tibetans, and "chop off their heads". We also saw ancient thangkas and sculptures and weapons – all kinds of interesting things – before moving on to the fascinating masks on display in a modern building nearby.

Now I really wanted to take photos. All of the masks have meanings and are used in annual festivals.

Outside in the parking lot, two little kids were blowing a car horn inside their parent's vehicle. The parent was nowhere to be seen. Tsering looked disapprovingly at the kids, just as a security guard arrived to sternly chastise them. The kids guiltily stopped for about 20 seconds, then started blowing the horn again the second the guard's back was turned. Tsering and the guard chatted briefly.

"We are just wondering where their parents are," he explained.

Some things are universal.

We walked down the hill to go into a dzong, but it had closed for the evening. So we found Tobgay and went to check into the best room at the top of the Gangtey Palace Hotel, a 100-year-old traditional Bhutanese aristocratic home and former palace that had been converted into a hotel.

The sun set and the lights came on in Paro, spotlighting the dzong and National Museum against the dark skyline.

All this beauty, culture, and kindness was too much for me. I was missing Bhutan already, and I still had a few more days here.

The next morning, I was giving the hairy eyeball to my guide and my tour operator over breakfast. They'd both showed up at breakfast before I'd had my morning coffee.

Never chat with a tourist before she's had her coffee, I thought.

But here was time to rest in Bangkok in a few days. I had limited time here in Bhutan, where my mere presence incurred a $240 per day admission fee. I could sight see now, then process and rest later.

The guys took me first to some atmospheric ruins of an old fortress/monastery, Drukgyal Dzong, and then it was time for the hike to Tiger's Nest.

This seemed pretty innocent at first.

We started much too late for the trek up the mountain to the sacred temple and meditation site that hugs the cliffs over Paro, so the sun was already sweltering. The hike is steep and challenging, but not so much that I should have been suffering the way I was. Was it altitude? Tsering strolled along just ahead of me in his Bhutanese national dress and trekking shoes. For this special occasion, he'd switched to white sports socks rather than his usual black knee socks. I tried hard not to let on how hot and tired I was.

I should have hired a pony, I realised after we were too far along to turn around. You're allowed to go as far as the rest house on a pony.

Even better, if I had meditated for 13 years, I could just ride up on a flying tiger.

But no flying tigers were available today – perhaps they were all in Tibet along with the black-necked cranes – and the climb turned out to be hellish. I could see Tsering practically skipping up the hill, trying hard to slow down and walk at my pace. Later, I read a blog account of this trip that said: "This hike is great for learning how unfit you are."

Which is true. I was miserable.

But then, the tiger gods had mercy on me. The rain started as we approached the cafeteria for a rest and some snacks.

I wasn't at all sorry for the excuse to turn back. I was, however, embarrassed by my level of fitness.

Going down was a great deal easier, especially since the sun was no longer fierce since the rain had started. Ugyen was waiting for us back at the car.

"How was it?" he asked.

I mumbled something about yetis or tigers and changed the subject.

Our next stop was an archery match. On the way, the guys showed me some weeds by the side of the road. These grow everywhere in Bhutan.

"We feed them to pigs to make them sleepy and happy," he explained. My friend Chesley later quipped that this put a new spin on "grass-fed" pork.

The men's archery match wasn't so different from the women's dart match we'd seen in Thimphu. The men, dressed in plaid robes, knee socks, and sneakers, would heckle and mock the opposing team when it was their turn to draw. When someone scored, the whole team got to do a song and dance. The men who hit the target would get scarves to hang in their belts, so you could always tell who was good at archery and who was just messing around.

But this time, there were cheerleaders.

These cheerleaders were not, of course, dressed in shorts, leggings, or mini-skirts as they would be at home. Certainly, there were no pom-poms on offer. Instead, they were women in traditional Bhutanese long skirts, finely sewn jackets, and sandals, singing songs and dancing together in a circle.

A drunk guy tried to cheerlead. The women kept looking embarrassed and pushing him away.

"Let's go," said Tsering after we'd watched the archery, the cheerleaders, and the drunk guy for a while. "We still have another monastery and the dzong to see."

"Another monastery?" I wasn't sure I had the energy to keep going. But I did, and after the monastery and dzong, we stopped at one last sight, another archery match, but this one was using traditional bamboo bows. The other match had involved carbonite bows from abroad.

We watched the archery until the rain returned, then headed back to Gangtey Palace.

One more day left in Bhutan. And I didn't want to leave, but at the same time, I was too tired to stay.

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