- Friday, 25 October 2013

Bhutan: Some Quirks and Some Secrets (Part 1/2)


Who would have thought this remote little landlocked Himalayan kingdom could offer some seriously quirky and novel experiences which not only surprise you, but make you simply fall in love with the country. 

Here I am listing down some interesting things to do in Bhutan- some are quirky while some are simply heart warming. A lot of it might not feature in any guide book or travel agent's must-dos, but I think these are some really interesting things to do in the country in order to see the country beyond touristy trails of dzongs (monastries) & single night homestays. These are all based on my own personal experiences in the country.

(Part 2 of this series can be accessed here)

1. Tashi Tagay Drayang, Thimphu (Dance Bar)

These little dance bars, or drayang as they are known in local language, came as real surprise in Bhutan. What was even more suprising was that very few local people knew that drayang existed and most of those who knew had never visited them or could tell clearly where are they located. Even though main Thimphu town is pretty much located across a main road and everything is in walking distance, it took us almost an hour to hunt down the place, because no one could clearly tell where it is located.

Eventually we found this drayang called Tashi Tagay on lane opposite Taj Tashi. There is no hoarding, or sign of a dance bar up a white color residential building. The drayang was located inside this building, in a converted residential flat. These drayangs are completely different from those which existed in mumbai or even in Thamel street in Kathmandu. These drayangs are sort of 'traditional', serve only beer and ofcourse allow you to bring your own snack from street outside. 




 When I say traditional, it means girls here strictly wear their modest national dress called 'kira' and dance to the tunes of mostly bhutanese love songs. The owner runs this drayang as a charity helping out these girls from remote villages in Bhutan to be able to earn a living in the city of Thimphu. There seem to be about 6-7 dancers and 2 singers (one lady and one man- both of them blind). Apart from a monthly salary, the prime source of earning money for these dancers and singers is by 'request' put up by drayang customers. Owner himself is a singer and doesn't shy away from going on stage and singing a few local tunes. Girls are friendly and upon talking to them we came to know they come from really far off villages, most of them have never gone to school or infact never had an opportunity for it. They seem to love dancing and the city life of thimphu. I cannot help but notice how well they are trained to coax the customers into 'requesting' songs or dance. Slowly I realize, they all carry their own diaries where the customer needs to sign off and put a request. One song or one dance is for Nu. 100.

Ofcourse after noticing us (the only customers for first hour of evening), they even coaxed us into requesting a 'hindi dance performance'. Apparently the girl in green dress is an expert in bollywood dancing. This was our 4th 100 buck, but totally worth it. Have a look below :)





We also noticed these drayangs were very much visited by young boys not more than 16 or 17 just killing time, ordering a full bottle of beer costing Nu. 100 and sharing it with 4 friends. Ofcourse, most of them never bothered to request any song or dance. These drayangs, eventhough not too many in Bhutan, have been in much debate in bhutanese political and social circle. Their existence is many a times questioned, as many of us might as well, for these beautiful young girls of some drayangs could very much be on the brink of being pushed into prostitution or might as well already be in it. Its difficult to say. 

Anyhow, on a lighter note, I don't think anywhere in the world could you find such a innocent dance bar.  So do drop by !


2. Homestay, Haa valley

While homestays would pretty much be on everyone's itinerary who is visiting Bhutan and is on a lookout for local food and culture. But I highly recommend staying  in the homes for more than just one night as that is when the family would eventually open and one can be part of the family activities in real sense.

Bhutanese people are very warm and friendly and I happened to stay with this family in remote village called Dumcho in Haa Valley.  Family is headed by Ugyen and his wife Dolay, they have two beautiful children, the older son Kinga and younger daughter Yangzom. Well the family doesn't end here, there is an elderly lady relative also who stays around and almost everyone around in the village somewhat belong to the same family line. Eventhough the elders do not speak or understand hindi/english, communication is not much of a barrier, if you are patient enough with little signs and smiles you can manage easily. The children, however, speak good english and when they are not in school can be the best guide.

I am really glad to have visited this place for this is where the local traditions and food can be savoured at it its best. The house is very traditional made of wood, kitchen is the centre of the household, where all the activities are conducted like watching tv, children doing their homework, sleeping (because kitchen is the warmest part of house) and ofcourse cooking. Its a small walkable village surrounded by crop fields and apple orchards. Walking around the village, its river stream, through the fields, little shack of bars, vegetable market is simply mesmerising. We were also invited into Ugyen's father and sister's home which is just across the street for some tea. Ugyen's sister, Chimi, also runs a homestay. While both these houses retain the traditional architecture and detailings, small changes have been done for comforts of the tourists like a western toilet and very comfortable and thick & cozy mattress for sleeping. There are seperate private rooms for guests, while the rest of the family sleeps in the kitchen.

On our second evening in the house, there was a whole commotion, for Yangzom was late in submitting her mathematics assignment in school where she had to prepare several cardboard cut-outs in different geometrical shapes. Somehow cardboard, scissor , paper and colors were arranged and whole house including us got over together to help her finish the assignment. I closely helped her understand the shapes clearly and in spite of almost six of us working on her assigment, it took us over an hour ! It was a total fun and an impromptu night. And in return the family was so generous that they stayed up late that night and prepared a speciality dish from Haa for our breakfast and departure day called 'Hoento' or buckwheat dumplings filled with turnip leaves, chilli and fermented cheese !

Now these are the experiences which can never be had on strict guided tours.














Address : Ugyen, Village- Dumcho, Gewog- Issue, District- Haa
Contact: Dodo (Ugyen's brother who speaks english and communicates on the family's behalf)
Email: dodoafo@gmail.com / Mobile: +975 1711 1116


3. Phallus Paintings on Houses 

May be a little embarassing to the urban lot or may be superstitious, these paintings on walls or small wooden cut outs hung by the door is actually a sacred symbol to ward off evil eye. These can be easily sighted and seem to be more prevalent practice in villages and not in town anymore. The practice originates from Chimi Lakhang monastry in Punakha which is built in honour of Drukpa Kunley- an ascetic saint of 15-16th century who apparently loved women and sex. His ways of teaching were highly unorthodox and challenged the otherwise conservative ways of Buddhism. His sexual exploits included many many women around Bhutan who bore thousands of his children everywhere. And therefore Chimi Lakhang monastry, very much on tourist radar, is considered as the fertility temple frequented by not just local but international tourists seeking blessings for bearing children. While these paintings can be seen on village houses, these are not visible inside the monastry or dzongs where lamas and monks reside who live a celibate life and seek other spiritual ideals. 

Only place where this sacred symbol of fertility and warding off evil eye could be found in 'urban' centres like Thimphu and Paro were inside tourist gift shops as souvenir in form of key chains etc. 





More on Bhutan:

For second part of this series please click  here.
For for information on entry routes & permits, please visit Bhutan: Entry Routes for Indian Citizens



26 comments:

  1. Hi Richa,

    Thanks for excellent posts on Bhutan!

    What I loved at the word go was your travel philosophy. Exactly what me and my family try to do. Live local- enjoy the flavor of the new place responsibly.

    We are planning a visit to Sikkim+Bhutan in May 15 for couple of weeks. Your blog is one of the really useful ones on Bhutan out there. Since I saw couple of Pune mentions on your facebook page and we are from Pune- I thought I will drop you a line. Can we bother you with a few details in case we need help while planning the trip to Bhutan?

    Thanks again.

    Cheers,
    Sandeep

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    Replies
    1. Yes sure Sandeep! You can write me in any-time.
      And, thank you so much for stopping by my blog and dropping these kind words :)

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  2. I can visualise my upcoming trip. Superb

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  3. Hi , Richa, Excellent information. We are planning to visit Bhutan in May. Can you please send the contact details of budget hotels in Paro and Thimpu. My emai is bcmouli123@gmail.com

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  4. Nice details Richa :-) The blog really helps in planning :-)

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  5. Hey Richa. Useful info, thanks. Just wanted to check - are permits at the border only issued from monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm at the border to enter Thimphu and Paro? Does it mean that I cant get a permit on a weekend?

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    Replies
    1. Yes, you can not get permits on weekends.

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    2. Hi..I liked your travelogue. Please tell me whether September is the right time to visit Bhutan. And what would be an ideal trip duration to explore Bhutan's authentic culture and pristine beauty.
      Niyas.

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    3. Yes September is good ! You need at the very least 10 days. However, 15 days would be ideal !

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  6. Hi Richa,

    Thanks for putting up such wonderful information. I have a few questions regarding the Haa Valley homestay that you might be able to help me with -

    1. Do you know many guests can Ugyen's and Chimi's homes accomodate respectively?

    2. Can I reach the village by public transport? If not, what is the cheapest way to reach the place?

    3. Are there any other places to eat out in the village. We are planning to stay for about a week and it will be better if there are alternatives just in case some of us do not like the food in the homestay.

    Cheers,
    Moy

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    Replies
    1. Hi Moy,

      1. You must check out their website and contact Dodo (give him my reference): http://haavalleyhomestay.com/. Both houses can accommodate about 4 people minimum. Rooms are big, so if yours is a big group, they might be able to make extra bed arrangements.

      2. Public transport is cheapest but there is only 1 bus with very erratic schedule. you will have find out details at local bus stand or from Dodo. Next option is private taxi.

      3. There are small eateries around, but they will serve you pretty much what the homestay will give. You will find local food everywhere. May be you can discuss the option of them allowing you to cook on few occasions. You can buy groceries or carry them with you.

      best,
      richa

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    2. Thanks a lot!! You keep traveling and sharing your stories.

      With a heart full of gratitude,
      Moy

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    3. Hey there, Booked a place with Dodo. All thanks to your blog! Couple of more questions:

      1. Are 500 and 1000 rupees notes (Indian currency) accepted in Bhutan?

      2. How is the good is the atm network in Bhutan? Will be aware of the typical charges and withdrawal limit per transaction at an ATM in bhutan?

      Cheers, Moy!

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    4. Hey, that's great. Please scroll up. Answers are available in the comments. ATMs only in Thimphu and Paro. Do not remember any surcharge as such.

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    5. ATM is avable at any part of country side in bhutan and we acept visa n pnb atm too

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    6. And u dt need to exchange ur currancy unnessary if u r having Indian currancy(rupes)

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  7. amazing experience.pls tell me about whether we can use indian currency or whr shud we xchange?and the ratio?

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    Replies
    1. Yes, you can use Indian currency except Rs. 500 & Rs. 1000 notes. Ratio= 1:1, exchange possible in local banks in Thimphu.

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  8. Hey Richa,

    First of all, thank you very much for the valuable info, I have read through nearly 3 times including the Q&As. You are just great with your response.

    I'm planning to visit in Dec 2015 last week and planning to stay in Haa during the NYE. How do you think the weather would be, I was looking at the temperatures and cold and sub zero temp aren't a big issue for me, however the cloud and fog covering the views may be a bummer. Does the snow fall cause problems for travelers like roads blocked or land slides etc.? We are game to experience anything but any tip from you would be quite useful.

    Thanks

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    Replies
    1. Hey there, Thanks for writing in and taking care to got through all the Q&As first. NYE could be snowy in Haa. I really can't tell you for sure what the road/weather conditions might be. It's best if you write to the homestay contact Dodo at dodoafo@gmail.com. Give him my reference if you want. Hope that helps. All the best! :)

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  9. Hey Richa,
    This really is very good information that you have added here! Very helpful. I am planning a road trip (on Royal Enfield) with my husband in May 2016 for approx 15 days to Bhutan. And such inputs are helping me strengthen my itinerary :) . Do you have any idea if Haa Valley falls under the Paro/Thimphu permit that is available at Phuentsholing?

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    Replies
    1. No, you need separate permit for Haa from Thimphu.

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    2. What are possibility of travelling by bus with in Bhutan main places. Bus conditions, safe and cost etc

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    3. Hi Hukam Singh, please find more info on buses here: http://www.travelsandstories.com/2013/10/bhutan-some-quirks-and-some-secrets_28.html. They cost roughly Rs. 180- 250 on long routes.

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  10. Hi Richa,
    This is such a wonderful and informative article.I was looking for some offbeat places to visit during my trip in May.Any other treks or villages you would recommend that we visit or food places?

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  11. Im Bhutanese n i give u this information that u r free to travel through public transport n its safe too. The bus charges r bit expensive comparing to India. N if r traviling through public transport than u have to vist every immgeration cheak post to varify urself s tourist. For more information u can contact me. Im employed in Bhutan Olympic Committe. I will give my gmail.namgay11208002765@gmail.com

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