Bhutan: Local experiences - Highways, Cockroaches and Mermaids
I spent the night in Punakha valley. That was AN EXPERIENCE. First of all, I tried for the first time the best Bhutanese beer, called Red Panda. It is 600ml, it is dark and has a very rich and creamy taste, close to dark Belgian beers and it is made by...the Bhutanese army. Since Bhutan is not engaging in any wars and conflicts, the army has a very symbolical role in the society and deals with many different activities, one of which is making the Red Panda beer.
I am sleeping in supposedly a 4-star hotel and this is where I see the largest and scariest cockroaches in my entire life. As I am in my bed reading, first one suddenly appears looking at me from the top of my blanket and I am like "OK, we have a situation here." I try to kill it but without any success, it hides under the bed. Then I look in the bedroom, another one is watching me undisturbed from the sink...I have grown up in a village but yet, I am truly petrified. I go to reception and bring the receptionist for help. The poor guy is not allowed to kill any cockroaches so he starts jumping around the room trying to actually CATCH it. After a long fight he throws it outside. Later I find the buddy in my luggage...room change needed. The receptionist later asks me for my number and if I wanted us to be friends on WhatsApp (?!?!) - I apologize but that night is not my night for number exchanges. Room number 2 - seemingly very clean and cockroach-free but this is obviously just an illusion in Punakha valley. I try to get out of my room to get the receptionist again - there is a sick dog sleeping in front of the door. In this moment I surrender. I stuff toilet paper around my door to try to prevent at least any possible flee invasion and I read all night with no sleep cause I just can't get over the thought of this gigantic cockroach climbing on my face. I am happy when the night is finally over.
We are heading towards a small not very known monastery called Talo. It is normally not in the most frequently visited monasteries by tourists in Bhutan but it is close to where the family of my driver, Namge, lives and they ask me if I mind changing plans and going there. I am actually enthused by the idea of visiting a less known monastery and meeting a local Bhutanese family, so I am all for it.
We take the Highway...which is literally a HIGH way. I am almost getting dizzy in the car as we take these turns, the road is narrow, hardly enough for two cars to pass each other, in many spots they are still building it, it is so bumpy that I am getting my free massage for the day, it is hanging just above a scary, steep, almost vertical ridge and there are obviously no guardrails. It is foggy again, I can't even see where we will go in the event of falling off the road...which is probably a good thing. Meanwhile Tashi and Namge are extremely excited that the road is open and in such a good condition, I am thinking to myself "Oh Lord, we are never coming back."
Then we drive for an hour up in the forest, I can't even explain to myself how it is possible to drive upwards for such a long time, this forest is not ending. But the landscape is breathtaking again, it is cloudy but there are some sun rays striking through the clouds, which makes the sky extremely colorful and magical and the higher we drive, the more we become at the level of these beautiful clouds.
The atmosphere is very mystical, the monastery suddenly erects among the trees, it is so quiet and hidden. I can feel the peace and isolation and I truly enjoy the fact that I am the only tourist there again. As we reach Talo monastery, it starts raining. At the door we are welcomed by one of the monastery lamas, which is the most senior role at the monastery. He speaks good English and is ready to talk to me and answer all my questions. He says he is extremely excited I have come because when a guest comes to the monastery and it starts raining, according to Bhutanese tradition, it means that this is a very virtuous person (well, virtuous me!!) and he treats me with a great respect.
He tells me about the daily life of monks who wake up around 4:30 every morning to pray and then eat when the Sun rises. Then their days are dedicated to prayer and studying. Besides immersing in the Buddhist philosophies, monks should also learn all their books by heart. One of the secrets of the monastery is that there is a great guru, who reached enlightenment and died in his meditation. How they understand that he has reached enlightenment is that after being dead, he remained sitting in the same position for 7 days, which is the time when his soul was still inhabiting his body and living between the two worlds. He had been mummified in this pose and is still in the monastery, but unfortunately women are not allowed to see him.
After Talo we pay a visit to Namge's family. They are extremely sweet people, do not speak any English whatsoever but also do not stop talking to me in Dzongkha (the official language in Bhutan). The grandma has prepared boiled corn, grilled rice and the so famous butter tea, which I heard legends for. It is...strange :) it is like tea but very oily, very rich, very think....and salty. I imagine it gives you a boost of energy and keeps you up throughout the cold Bhutanese days in the Himalayas.
In the evening we head towards Paro where I will spend my final days. I have made an arrangement to meet the army officer, who I met and took care of me on the plane from Delhi to Bhutan. My guide, Tashi, is a little nervous as it turns out the person is very senior and he does not dare to call him. Anyway, we arrange to eat all together at a local farm. The food is again very very simple - rice, potatoes and some chicken, but everything is just too tasty. The sergeant brings his 9-year old son, who speaks perfect English and is such a lively and open boy. They bring me a lot of gifts, I feel uncomfortable as I am not prepared with gifts myself and they honor me like a princess. People with big big hearts. Afterwards, the sergeant has booked a karaoke just for us and we go all together - the officer, his son, Tashi, Namge, me (and a few rats?!) and we are having the time of our lives. It's honestly too much fun. The decoration in the karaoke bar consists of walls, covered with those old square cardboard egg holders painted in different colors. We eat peanuts, have some Red Panda and all of us take turns to sing. We sing all kinds of songs - from Taylor Swift to me singing in Bhutanese. One thing, which I find very very cute is that all these big men around me are crazy about some new Bhutanese song telling about mermaids - apparently the mermaid in Bhutanese culture is regarded as something particularly miraculous and attractive.
A wonderful day...Bhutan can simply be what you want it to be.