Our Top 3 Bhutan Experiences

Foreign Service Life
December 27, 2019

As I’m sure you can tell from the pictures and blog posts I’ve shared thus far, Bhutan as a whole was pretty darn special. However, there are 3 experiences we had that stood out from the rest. Oddly enough, they all involve monasteries. Today I’ll share a little about what made them so special for me.

Finally Making it to the Fertility Temple

Back in late 2010 we booked a trip to Bhutan for Easter 2011. These were pre-Nia days and we were planning to start trying to get pregnant in 2011. As we were selecting what we wanted to do in Bhutan, one of our “must do’s” was to get a fertility blessing from a monk at the Fertility Temple Chimi Lhakhang. Turns out we didn’t need that fertility blessing after all, because we found out in Feb 2011 that we were expecting! Unfortunately we had to cancel our trip, as my Doctor did not think it was a good idea to go to that high of altitude during my first trimester (something about it affecting the baby’s development). Was amusing to finally get to the temple nearly a decade later with Nia in tow and share that fun story with her.

While in the Punakha area where the fertility temple was located, we were a bit taken aback to find penises painted on all sorts of buildings – shops, houses, restaurants, etc. Lots and lots of creative, intricate penis drawings.

There was also a whole host of penis-related paraphernalia (wooden phalluses, keychains, paintings, etc) that one could take home as a souvenir. It took a little getting used to (and led to quite a few conversations with Nia) but we came to learn that for the Bhutanese the phallus represents not only fertility but power and good luck. While phallus paintings were common in rural areas, they are now being discouraged in the major cities.

40th Birthday Blessings at Cheri Gompa Monastery in Thimphu

We arrived in Bhutan on Dec 15th and spent the day driving and settling in to Thimphu, our first stop. We awoke with great excitement Dec 16th, as it was time to celebrate Nick’s 40th birthday!! Our day began with a 9 AM hike up Dodena Hill to Cheri Gompa Monastery. It was an hour hike uphill at a 45 degree angle. I thought it was hard at the time, but in retrospect it was a good warm-up for the Tiger’s Nest Hike we’d be doing later in the week.

We were delighted to find that we were the only foreigners at the Monastery. The place was humming though. Cheri Gompa is the oldest monastery in Thimphu, dating back to 1620. It was in the process of getting renovated, so there was loads of wood carving & painting going on, as well as hand-carrying and carving of stone. It was really enjoyable to watch all the action.

We eventually proceeded inside the Monastery, at which point Nick received this beautiful birthday blessing from a monk. No pics were allowed inside, so you’ll just have to use your imagination (lots of gold and colorful fabrics)! After returning to town, the tour company manager joined us for a birthday lunch and surprised Nick with a cake & some birthday gifts. It was a really sweet touch and made his 40th super memorable.

Making it to Tiger’s Nest

This wouldn’t be a “highlights” blog post without including the trek to Tiger’s Nest Monastery (formal name is Taktsang Monastery). Legend says that Guru Rinpoche (the person who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan) flew from Tibet to this location on the back of a Goddess who turned herself into a flying tigress. It was at this place where the Guru meditated for an extended period of time and anointed it as the place to build a monastery. The first temple complex was built in 1692 and has been rebuilt several times due to fire (the most recent being in 1998).

The hike to this monastery is probably THE THING that Bhutan has become most famous for. It’s no small feat though – the climb begins at 7,800 ft altitude and finishes at 10,200 ft ( a 2,400 ft gain) and is 8 miles round-trip. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I walk a lot but hiking at altitude is a whole different beast…

It’s hard not to be intimidated when you’re standing at the bottom and craning your head upward to find the white speck on the mountain (upper left in the photo below). I kept saying to Nick, “We’re supposed to get THERE??”

The trek to the top was between 2 – 2 1/2 hours depending on your pace. The first hour was grueling. The trail was super rocky and was literally a 45 degree angle the whole way. I was crabby and swearing a lot. We stopped frequently. I was especially jealous of Nia, who had opted to ride a pony up the first half. Man how I wanted that pony 30 minutes into the climb.

We hit the mid-point rest stop/cafeteria after an hour (around 9:30 AM). We had a few biscuits (crackers) and some tea, which re-energized us. We also re-united with Nia, who was bursting with energy. I was curious to see how she’d do now that she had to actually climb the rest of the way. This is her “fierce climber” face.

The second hour went MUCH better. I think my body had finally acclimated to the altitude because although we were still going up, up, up it didn’t feel nearly so hard. I started to think, “Well maybe I just might do this…” Was definitely feeling more hopeful. We also started coming to some beautiful viewpoints and the gorgeous views incentivized me to keep going.

We reached Tiger’s Nest just before 11 AM, 2 hours and 45 minutes after we began (including our 15 minute break at the mid-way point). Not too shabby. Unfortunately no pics were allowed at the Monastery, so I can’t show you anything inside. It was basically a series of little temple rooms, each dedicated to something different. No one lives there anymore except a caretaker. It’s used primarily as a meditation place. If I’m honest, it was a bit anti-climactic once we got there. It was, after all, a temple with interiors similar to the others we had seen. We explored for about 30 minutes and then began the descent down. We were trying to stay ahead of the big tourist groups that we knew were coming right behind us.

We had agreed on a celebratory treat of pizza, so we barreled down the mountain in 2 hours time (shaved off 30 minutes). Nia was moving so fast that we sent her ahead with the guide and went at our own pace. I think she beat us by about 15-20 minutes. Small legs are good for hiking, it turns out! :) For the portion I was with Nia, she was totally cracking me up. She was in great spirits and had loads of energy left. There were a huge stream of people going up and they kept congratulating her on making it. She was eating it up and turned into what I’m sure was a very obnoxious cheerleader, saying, “You’re almost there, stick with it”.

As I reflected on the Tiger’s Nest experience after the fact, I realized that it was more about the journey to the top that was satisfying, not the end goal (the monastery) itself. And despite being very hard, it was at the same time quite satisfying. A good metaphor for life – enjoy the journey & trust that you can and will do hard things!

We’d definitely recommend using both our tour agency (Heavenly Bhutan) and our tour guide (Rinchen Dorji). He was knowledgable, flexible & great with Nia. And best of all, he didn’t try to scam us once! Our driver (Namgay Dorji) was also excellent. They were a great team.

Yes, it’s expensive, as you pay per day per person and have to book through an agency to get the visa approved, but it’s a great trip to save up for and do for a special occasion. This definitely makes it in our top 5 vacations of all time. In the event you want to see ALL the photos, you can CLICK HERE.

Three different monasteries, three unique experiences, one fascinating trip. Thanks for journeying with us. We appreciate you taking times out of your busy lives to share in our adventures.

Happy New Year all! Cheers from the Novaks

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