The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Saturday, 26 December 2015

From Madman to Naked Man

Over peanut-butter-jelly sandwiches and French fries with a side of rubbery fried eggs for breakfast we vow to learn how to open a door again and work on our flabby arms by carrying our own bags.  An hour later I'm stifling giggles as Mal luggage-wrestles again with petit house-keepers in crisp kiras of beautiful woven thread and high silk cuffed toegos. 

We leave a mist covered Punakha early and begin a long drive into dust clouds and bone-rattling ruts all the way to Jakar.  The national highway that runs through the middle of Bhutan is undergoing major construction, turning it from dual lane to four lane - all at once!  We're told by our guide that the government has given the contract to a company who in turn has contracted the work out to many smaller companies; all of which appear to be competition with each other as to who can make the road the most dug-up, rubble filled,  need-a-monster-truck-to-drive-it road possible.  
I'm sure the country-side here is breath-takingly beautiful with abundant waterfalls cascading down the mountain side and plunging valleys filled with trees but mostly what we see is the colour of grey.   The dust covers everything and when we stop for moment of clear sky I notice that there's a film of fine grey powder covering not only the whole outside of the car, but also all the luggage in the back the car and every crevices of the dash at the front. Even my nose also needs a good industrial blow out!  
As well as all the construction work we need to navigate, our driver also has to hopscotch the tree-fellers along the road who are 'trimming' the sides.  We witness lots of creative ways to  cut overhanging branches from trees clinging to near vertical cliff-faces, there's absolutely no occupational health and safety here - cutters dangle themselves over the side of the cliffs, wedging their feet against trunks or branches as they saw away precariously with hand saws.  Or whole trees are felled onto the road and gangs of cutters chop and cut great chunks of timber into rough blocks which they then lug into tip-trucks or just 'tossed' over the side of the road and down the mountain. 
Near Pele La (a pass of 3420mts) our driver adds dodging Yaks to his navigation skills. In the valley below herds of Yaks graze on green paddocks, some making their way to the roadside where they graze and lounge without a care in the world. They are gentle looking creatures, mostly black with a few sporting white tails, but according to our guide, wild yaks are dangerous and therefore we are unable to stop for a closer look. I find myself feeling a bit sceptical about this, but make do with taking my photos of these doe-eyed beasts from inside the car. We zip past a gorgeous little stupa that reminds me of the Boudanath Stupa in Nepal - it's beautiful - and before I can yell "Stop" our guide turns around from the front seat of the car and informs us that we'll stop here on the journey back from the east and off we continue. 
We do stop however at Pele La where we jump out for a quick once around the Chorten in the middle of the road, and string a line of prayer flags to join all the other colourful flapping good wishes, then off we go again. The road works are getting worse as we bump along and just as I'm bemoaning about my sore backside I take notice of the blue tarped and corrugated iron humpys that dot parts of the roadworks.  When I first saw these huts I thought they may be equipment storage huts, but as I peered into an open door of one as we pass I am horrified to see bedding and woman and child sitting on the floor.  "People live in there?" I ask the guide.  He shrugs and says yes, the workers and sometimes their families join them.  He explains to us that many of the road workers are Indian citizens "Bhutanese people don't like to do menial work" he explains " many are well educated, this type of work is below them."   I find it hard to comprehend how the ethos of Gross National Happiness this country lives by correlates to the working and living conditions of these workers and their families. I also find myself wondering about the health effects on the workers and their families with all the dust that fills the air - surely their lungs and eyes must suffer greatly.
We arrive on the late side of noon to Trongsa - a town located in the very middle of Bhutan and the power rise of Bhutan's Monarchy.  The first kings father, Jigme Namgyal, moved to the area and rose to power in the late 1800's and ever since each of the kings prior to taking the throne are required to undertake a stint as governor (penlop) of Trongsa.   The Dzonng of Trongsa is enormous and one of the most spectacularly positioned buildings in the whole of Bhutan, perched on the side of mountain overlooking a gorge with ancient trails.
Behind it sits the watchtower and our lunch stop.  Our weary bone-rattled bodies  can barely make the few steps up to the Tower restaurant and when we sit down to eat,  I have to admit we wonder why we bothered - the food is dreadful.  I really cannot understand how an Asian/subcontinent country whose traditional dish is chock full of chillies, can cook meals so lack-lustre in taste.  It doesn't take us long to eat, our meal consists more of a beer than food and then we make way to the Royal Heritage Museum to view among the many treasures, the Raven Crown.   The official crown  of the king of Bhutan, the one sitting on display in the museum is a stunning piece of craftsmanship and needlework. And if I may be so cheeky to suggest - also an outstanding piece of sugar skull art!  The building is beautifully preserved full of winding stars and strange tiered floors and we are banned from taking our cameras into the building and leave them at the 'front' of the tower.  We are directed to follow a maze of floors and as we near the end, our guide tells us he will double back to collect our cameras and bags.  Just as we're about to exit the back door, a museum official indicates that we should go up a set of stairs to the viewing platform. We head up and are awarded a fabulous view of the Dzong and valley - stunning! 
As we wander back down the spiral stairs our guide runs smack-bang into us, thinking something is wrong we ask if there is a problem, but instead he looks embarrassed and we realise that he doesn't want us 'wandering about' by ourselves. Back at the car, we're told there is no time to look at the Dzong, that we'll stop on the way back from the east.  I'm seeing a big lists of things to see on the way back on a very long drive - I also see we'll be missing a lot of them again! We wave goodbye to cheeky monkeys striding near the tower's carpack and back on the road, bumping along to Jakar. As we near the township our guide informs us that there is not much to Jakar and that we'll be staying in the  Chokhor Valley, a distance from the town. I find this information about Jake strange and read what the guide book says about Jakar to our guide, but he insists there is nothing to see in the town itself.  We soon reach Jakar and instantly I love it - it's a quaint little place, bustling with life and lots of colourful shops, tucked in a valley and straddling the Chamkhar Chuu- I'm eager to explore it but instead we must drive through and off into the countryside to get to our hotel for the night.   Again I'm far from impressed about being roomed so far away from the town.   
The next day we're up early and hitting the Festival trail.  Today is the first day of the  Jambay Lhakhang Drup. The festival is held in a small temple called Jambay Lhakhang and is located in the heart of the Jakar valley.  built in the early 7th century, the temple is dedicated to the 'Buddha of the future' - Maitreya - and holds an annual consecration ceremony (unlike a normal consecrate at a temple or church once and that's it) with the highlight being the Naked Dance or Dorling Tercham as is its official name.  The temple is delightful, and when we arrive is a hive of activity with preparations in full swing.   Men (in full ghos) are on the rooves hanging fabric valances, next door to the temple a paddock is being turned into a market place with makeshift huts going up and tantalizing smells wafting through of roasting meats and lots of chili cheese being cooked.  
In another building tables filled with butter lamps burn brightly and when we walk in there we can only bear to stay a few minutes as the heat is extreme and the smell from the burning wicks saps away breath. But it still looks wonderful.  After exploring the temple and its surrounds we take a walk through rural farmlands to a group of temples sitting near a small hill.   These are called the Kurjey Lhakhang - a complex of three temples surrounded by 108 chortens,  each of the temples are beautiful, but its the last temple, highest up in the complex that I find the most special. 
Upon entering the inner sanctum I find that a group of monks are chanting and many people are meditating.  I join them, mainly for the need to regain touch with my inner self, but also to find peace from the claustrophobic attention our guide is bestowing upon us.   I am suffocating from his intense attention and constant watching eyes. I don't know how long I sat there staring into my navel, but soon it was time to leave as poor Mal was sitting outside under the Bhodi tree - he was totally 'templed-out'  and had decided to sit this one out.  I took a quick peek at the treasure of this temple - the hollow impression of Guru Rinpoche (apparently he sat so long in meditation that he left an indent in the rock.  When I meet up with Mal again I agree with him that at this very moment, I too am templed out and that we should go in search of a beer and try some cheese.  Jakar is famous also for it's Panda Beer of which its brewery is next door to the cheese factory.   We tell the guide we'd like to go there, but he takes us to another temple first where we are encouraged to put on some chain-mail and try and make three coras of the temple.  
I can't even lift it, but Mal gives it a go and does the coras without breaking a sweat.   We then make haste to the brewery only to find they are not undertaking tours or tasting,  we have to buy a full bottle to try.  This of course doesn't perturb Mal any, but when he takes his first sip, the noes is wrinkled up and a tight lip pull is formed.  We then pop across to the cheese factory and enjoy a small tour of the factory - unfortunately for me, the cheese misses the mark a little - although it's more like a swiss style cheese, I find I've become quite taken with the Bhutan style of feta instead.  I'm still not game enough to try the rock-hard little square cheeses we see strung up like curtain-streamers though.
Later that evening we head back to Jambay Lhakhang where we find the place absolutely teaming with people and totally unable to get anywhere near the action is taking place.   We stand on tippy-toes and hold our cameras high above our heads in hope to catch something of the dancing that is taking place (and then look at it later) but it is not until the crowd starts following a group of fire holders that we snaffle a spot near the ring.  Unfortunately there is nothing to watch as now all the action is taking place in a field on the other side of the temple. 
Malcolm wanders over to see what is going on while I 'stand guard' over our new-found spots.  Turns out the Mewang was taking place - the  fire offering.  Mal comes back all excited and tells me about how a 'bough' exploded into flames and everyone, including people carrying children on their shoulders ran under the sprays of embers.  It also turned out that just prior to the lighting of the bough, the black hat dance had taken place (an absolute highlight!) and we had missed it, although I did get a photo of a chap in his glorious outfit as he passed me on the way back to the 'green room'.  By this stage it was close to midnight and I was freezing, the temperature had dropped to frigid and try as I might, I just couldn't keep the teeth from chattering . As we readied to go, the Naked Man stormed into the ring to show off their rings to the crowds  and I can see it wasn't just my teeth that were feeling the cold.  

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Ten, nine, eight.... LAUNCH !!!!!!!!!!

It's here and happening, right now! And I'm as nervous as can be.  Tomorrow I stand up for all the world to see.  Well maybe not all the world,  but definitely a few passer-bys.    What am I talking about you ask?  Well I'm proud to write but terrified to say... Buddhas, Bombs and the Babu is no longer a dream but a reality,  it's a bright, sparkly, shiny cover wrapped around 80,000 words with a beginning and an ending and riotous trip stumbling through Nepal in the middle.  And tomorrow I do my very first Author Appearance and signing.   

But for a moment indulge me as I take you back to last week, just after we arrived back home from Nepal.... yes I know,   I haven't posted anything on Nepal the moment I'm running late with my Bhutan posts... and Nepal is next, but just for the moment  I'm going to steal a post (or two) to tell you how excited I was to arrive home and find my author copies of Buddhas, Bombs and the Babu waiting for me - all 400.

I opened the first box and stared at the lovely cover,  bright and vibrant.  I love this cover so much.  The image was painted especially for the book, by a wonderful North Coast artist - Donna Sharam - and it represents every thing that is quintessential Nepal; colour, life, strength and vibrancy.  Then it was down to work - within 24hours of arriving home,  I'd thrown a couple of boxes into the car and was making a trip around to the book shops in my area - Byron, Bangalow, Ballina....Lismore - in the hope to sell a few.  I couldn't offload a one.  Not even a single page!   Was I disappointed?  Not at all... because they had all ordered in the book and there it was, sitting on the bookshelves.   I could hardly contain my excitement. 

Books in shops, it was time to have the Launch Party, which went off with a bang last Thursday.   I was terrified no-one would turn up.  Well I knew Mal would turn up - he had too or it would have been pretty frosty at home.   And I knew Seb and GG would be there; especially if they wanted free babysitting,  but I was worried no one else would come.  

I'd booked the wonderful restaurant at our local TAFE institution - The Nightcap Restaurant - for the Launch Event where they were to serve the most delicious canapés and yummies and promised to ply everyone with wine for me.  The incredible Samba Blissters were to roll the book out with a bang and an art exhibition by the cover artist herself - Donna Sharam - would add extra colour and vitality to the night. As I watched the clock tick over while I unloaded the goodie bags and Kata scarfs I'd brought back from Nepal, I prayed to the bodhisattvas to shine their blessings down on me.  On the dot of six, the car park began to fill and lines of guests made their way up the path to be greeted with a Kata and a wish of "Happy Journeys - where ever you may travel in life".

It was an amazing night with over 100 people attending - including my Publisher - Mark Zocchi of Brolga Publishing, who announced on the night, to my absolute surprise and delight,  that the book had been sold into the UK.  Talk about shrieks of delight! 

And now it's time for the tours of the bookstores.  The lovely little book shop of Books@Stones, at Logan Road, Stones Corner is my host for my first ever book signing and author appearance and I'm very excited to be visiting this bookstore just 4kms from the very heart of Brisbane's CBD and located in the village atmosphere of Stones Corner.   I can't wait to spread out the beautiful covers for all to I have a chocky or two to entice

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Chasing a Madman

We're off to meet a madman today, though the way I'm feeling, I'm not sure if the madman would like to meet with an 'off with the fairies' lady.  It was a hellish night in our hotel at Thimphu with lots of groaning, banging of doors and running in and out of rooms - and that was just in our room.   Outside in the hallway and stairwell it was all yelling, squealing and I'm sure, stair-master time.... judging by all the pounding feet up and down the endless levels of stairs.  My earlier headache and unease back in Haa and Paro had morphed into full blown 'cranial crush', 'gut groan' and butt... well put it this way, I was visiting the little room more times than I cared too.  As the sun rose, I emerged looking like I'd had a heavy night - grog-eyed and stumbly without the enjoyment of indulging in a glass or two. 

Our guide meets us in the foyer and suggests a short hike up a hill then down dale to the Motithang Preserve -  I suggest a lay in the back seat while we drive there - this doesn't impress the guide any and he comments that I need to be doing these little hikes to get fit for Tigers Nest which we are to do at the end of our trip. As much as I could see his point, I was actually flat out seeing anything as my head is pounding and just to open my eyes actually hurts.   I stumble out to the car and lay prone as the usual luggage tug-a-war eventuates between Mal and the hotel girls - they win again.  
First stop for the day is the Motithang Takin Preserve where we are to see the 'handiwork' of the Divine Madman.  The Divine Madman - Lama Drukpa Kunley - is a Bhutan saint of great reverence, but he was also a 'kidder' with outrageous humour and 'crazy wisdom' and it is said that he magically produced the Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. After eating a whole cow and a whole goat, he put the bones together to make a single animal. 

The Takin we are visiting were from the original zoo of Bhutan which was dismantled by the Fourth King in keeping with the philosophy of Buddhism and all the animals set free.  The Takin however were so tame they refused to 'run away to the bush' and instead wandered around the city of Thimphu, getting in the way, searching for food, lounging on the roadway and generally causing mayhem, so they were returned to the zoo which was made into a reservation for them... along with some deer.
Just down the road we come across a lively game of darts - Bhutanese style.  Called Khuru, the dart is an enormous timber ball with a long metal bar that looks like a lethal nail and is thrown with great gusto at a target about twenty meters or so away ('stabbed' into the ground very similar to the archery target) while people stand infront of it.  
As in Archery, a lot of intensity and concentration goes into it and just like archery, there's a lot of song and dance too.  And bravado as we watch to spectators jump out of the way of the flung dart...crazy is not the word.

The Wang Chuu falls away are we climb out of the valley that holds Thimphu and drive up towards Dochu La, past a small village and roadside stalls selling baskets and baskets of apples. Dochu La soon comes into viw - a vision of white and red brick shimmering against a 'confettied' blue sky. 
One hundred and white chortens encircled with strands and strands of prayer flags. Built in 2005 as a memorial to those who died in 2003 battle against the Assamese Separatists from India. Dochu La is also a hive of activity with multitudes of cars, busses, and trucks parked in the middle of the road and a throng of bodies milling about, taking photos of each other, of the chortens and of a large building sitting out a hill that looks like a museum.  Last night we had purchased a set of five prayer flags and I'm keen to add to the swathe of flags already covering the woodland and hillside beside the Chortens. Just before I get out of the car, I hand a roll of prayer flags to our driver - had had shared with me earlier as we walked from the Taken enclosure, that his sister-in-law had passed away, just that morning. We are devastated for him and I immediately suggest to him that he go be with his family, and I will ask the tour company for a 'step-in' driver until he returns, but he has declined.  Now I hand him the flags - although a small gesture, I hope it will convey our sincere condolences.  Mal and I follow our guide up the hill, under the strands of glorious colour to where a group of men are chanting around a small fire. "they are saying prayers" our guide tells us and we are just about to move away, when one fellow rises and gestures to us to come over and hang our flags in the wisps of smoke. "How auspicious" I whisper and eagerly unfurl the flags. As I hand one end to Mal, our guide takes it from him and directs me to stand near a tree, he ties the end he's taken, I turn and go to tie mine, but before I have a chance to finish the knot he takes the cord from me and proceeds to tie it. I'm far from impressed and feel a flash of anger - something I would never want associated with such a sacred piece.  The beautiful moment is gone.  Mal has already turned and is heading back to the car park, he too is far from happy. 
Back at the carpark Mal had come across a group of people dressed in bright orange, at first we thing they are defence, but soon learn they are the DeSuung Volunteers (Guardians of Peace and Harmony) and serve the nation and community is times of disasters and community events.     I'm eager to also go up to the building on the other side of the carpark where a lot of people are wondering up to but our guide tells us we need to get moving. We have much to do. 
The bitumen road soon becomes a dirt track and we find ourselves driving along the National Highway in full construction mode.  It's a bumpy dusty ride as well as exceedingly slow and we reach a small village called Sopsokha on the late side of lunchtime.   
As we alight the car our eyes almost jump out of our heads - the whole town is decorated in phalluses of all sizes, colours, and differing dancing stances. I want to explore and photograph the colour and hilarity but we are whisked off the restaurant to eat.  The food is a bland version of Continental done so badly, vegemite on ricecrackers is a tastier choice.   Lunch done I bound out to find the nearest dancing dick, but our guide tells me we have little time and need to take a walk through the rice fields to a temple sitting on a far side of the hillock - Chhimi Lhakhang - the temple that had been blessed by the Divine Madman after he had lulled a demoness with his magic 'thunderbolt' (hmmm, an interesting moniker for it).    We wander through the fields, watching the men thrashing the rice while the women lay the sheafs in rows.  
It's beautiful scenery, pretty green fields dotted with golden hay stacks resembling small stupas with their spire top and waving poles of white remembrance prayer flags. We arrive to the temple and find a crowd of people enjoying the beautiful scenery and a large bohdi tree, it's enormous canopy and stone sitting area offering a cool respite from the afternoon sun. Also there is Colin, having just received a 'bop' on the head from a monk who used  an ivory phallus and the Divine Madman's bow and arrow, along with a name for his soon to be born baby.  He tells us the name and it has a poetic ring. He's already rung his wife with the news.  We all leave the temple together and wander back towards Sopsokha, chatting about babies and parenthood. Our guide calls our names and indicates to us that we are going to walk in another direction through the rice terraces so we bade Colin a farewell and traipse into the fields. To our astonishment we then turn, climb up a terrace and walk almost parallel to the road.  And to Colin.  But we are too far up to continue our conversation.  I cannot believe what has happen - our guide has just isolated us. Again.  Mal and I had noted this on another occasion, in a restaurant when we were directed to sit at the far end of the room, away from all the other tourists.  At the time we thought it a little strange, but this was so obvious.  We returned to the village and the carpark, waved goodbye to Colin and continued on to visit the beautiful Punakha Dzong.  

It's magnificent.  Sitting next to a coursing river of the most vibrant green, it's claimed to be the 'most beautiful' Dzong in Bhutan.  It's definitely got the most beautiful scenery surrounding it. We stop near the fork of the river and I go to get out of the car to photograph the scene. Our guide is at the car door taking my camera as I step out.  I tell him it's right, I can carry it but he insists on taking it - across the road.  Then he raises it and takes the photo.  I'm flabbergasted. 
Inside the Dzong is stunning in every way, incredible artwork, gloriously entwined iron lacework and timber with mother-of-pearl inlay. As we wander through the corridors we turn a corner and come across a wedding being photographed.   I love how every country I stumble through I stumble upon a beautiful bride.  And here she was looking exquisite against the beauty of the magnificent whitewashed walls glinting with gold and red. 
We leave the Dzong and make our way towards an enormous swing bridge.  It's high and long but I get the jellies even thinking of walking across it so I remain at the car while Mal and our guide go for a 'swing'.   
The air is cooling and the afternoon shadows become long.  It's too late to see any of the town of Punakha so we head to our hotel which turns out to be a good half hour drive from Punakha,  or anywhere else we notice,  our hotel overlooks the river and rice fields and is well away from any towns.  It’s very pretty, but isolated. Just as we are following two very tiny woman lug our enormous bags up rows of steps and paths to our room, our guide informs us he has just received a phone call from our previous hotel in Thimphu.   I'm horrified to learn I've left my laptop there. In my earlier groggy state of altitude haze, I'd left it sitting on the table in the hotel's foyer.  Where's a Divine Madman when you need one...

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Food for thought - "were you ever happy?"

Happiness appears to be all around, even the graffiti in Bhutan exudes messages of joy and positivity – soulful scribble. “Different is beautiful” and “Never let go of your dreams” whisper to us from the side walls of the shops.  Around one corner I’m delighted to spy an advertising slogan of “get enlightened, read a book” in front of a small bookshop and then a few meters away a smiley face and rainbow with “lets all read”. 
Over breakfast we read our itinerary and decided there’s too much packed in for such a short time frame – 1 day, which isn’t due to begin until at least 9am. There’s a few-hours-hike to a monastery, three museums, three temples, a Dzong, the weekend market, and later in the evening – the one thing we definitely earmarked for our tour - and are really looking forward too - a cooking class.   We’re not ‘go and tick it off’ people and so we narrow it down to the weekend market, the Giant Buddha and the Dzong, with our cooking class in the evening.   When we meet our guide and tell him our plans along with wanting to have the whole of the afternoon to wander by ourselves in Thimphu so we can do some shopping and chill at Ambient Café, our guide is a little confused – most tourist want to see it all he tells us.

First stop is the wet market which is quite a chilled – and chili – affair.  The produce market is in a spacious and spotlessly clean multi-storey building and practically every stall has a bag or tray of chilies for sale along with all its other goods.  I’ve never seen so many vibrant fire-red and glossy green chilies in my life, there are fresh chili, dried chili, crushed chili, chili garlands, bags of chilies, chilies in jars and chili mixed with other ingredients.  Along with the chilies, the other very common item for sale is cheese, especially the strings of hard-as-a-rock (insert name of cheese) which needs to be left in the mouth for quite some time to soften before biting into it, unless you’re keen on a dentist visitation. We’re surprised by the varied selection of fresh vegetable and fruit on offer for sale and our guide tells us that Bhutan grows a lot of its own produce – all organic and completely spray free – and what it doesn’t grow, comes from India. 
Their meat and fish selection however is not as varied nor as plentiful, but Mal finds a sniff delight in the sausage department and hankers after a slice of salami.

Across the road and over a delightful timber and brick covered bridge – with the most gorgeous mandala on the ceiling – is the handicraft market which is full of thangkas, prayer wheels in every size, phalluses in every colour and surprisingly, crude ashtrays - very strange in a country where smoking is basically banned.
From the market we wander along the road past the very elaborate and manicured football stadium where we join a number of monks to peer through the closed barred gates and watch the national team practise.  The monks are super excited.  After a while of watching the team do warm up stretches and not much else, we leave and soon find ourselves at the National Archery Stadium of Changlinethang where a tournament is in place. 

The archers are in full national dress (the Gho) with joggers, which although looks a little strange with long socks doesn’t at all reduce their elegant appearance – and it’s all very serious.  We’re very close to the shooting line and clearly hear the swoosh and thud. 
The thud is always followed by a rousing cheer and yell from down at the target end and from the shooters end the team encircles and begins a song and dance. I notice that amongst the crowd of keen onlookers, there’s only males; grown and child and many monks – they absolutely love the competition and watch with intense concentration – I’m the only woman in the audience.   I ask our driver if women compete and he laughs and shakes his head, “No, this is for men only.”   I tell him that back home women compete in all sports and we have very good archers.  He looks amused.  

As we leave the ground, we find ourselves amused by the notice warning about stray arrows, and wonder how many tyres get 'punctured'.

Just as we’re leading the archery our guide suggests we stop at the National Memorial Chorten, built in memory of the third king in 1974 and being the temple junkie I am I eagerly agree.  It’s beautiful.   A large white chorten with twelve enormous mani wheels near the front entrance, it sits on a large gardened  round-a-bout and is well visited.  Our guide tells us that many elderly people come here every day and spend most of their day here, chatting, meditating, and doing 108 circumambulations of the Chorten.  We do three. 
From a beautiful peaceful memorial to a much loved king to an oversized enormous Buddha that I’m sure would confuse the original Buddha as to the true philosophy of his word.  It screams ‘look at me’ and is all gold and glitz, so much so, it hurts the eyes to look at it in the stark midday sun.  Gifted to Bhutan by Singapore we’re told that every piece of the building and its adornments were imported in from Singapore and costs a ridiculous amount.   As we walk around it I can’t help wondering “Why”?   and wouldn’t the money been better spent helping the Bhutanese improve their medical and education programmes.   I find I’m becoming more perplexed about the contradiction of happiness and simpler life with the over the top ostentation and can’t see how gold leaf attached to a wall can bring happiness to a nation. I mention this to the guide and he smiles and says "It brings happiness to the people to see it."  He then tells me that the 'third eye' is made up of precious stones - it all doesn't make sense to me.   Up-close and inside the building is wall to wall gold, and houses 1000 small buddhas along with some beautiful artworks, including an intricate thangka made entirely of silk thread embroidery – the thangka is unbelievably stunning.
Next to Buddha park, is a walking trail to a prayer-flagged festooned park that was opened in celebration of the marriage of the 5th King.  Holding a Guinness World Record for the most amount of trees – one thousand - planted at exactly the same time, Kuenselphodrang Nature Park is at a height of over 3000feet and has the most spectacular views of Thimphu city and the valley.  

Spectacular however falls short for describing the Thimphu Dzong, our next stop. Surrounded by rose gardens, the Dzong is opposite the Royal Family’s palace and the National Parliament of Bhutan.  We’re asked not to photograph the right side of the roadway as we walk up to the Dzong, as well as the first part of the Dzong as it is the administrative centre for not just the area but also the nation.
There’s only a small part of the Dzong we can visit – the temple and the central courtyard – it’s a beautiful Dzong and what we are allowed to click away at shows nothing of its majesticness and beauty.  The temple is incredibly beautiful and ornate and inside all I want to do is sit and while away some meditation time, but this is barely possible with the coming and goings of the tour groups. Plus our stomachs are grumbling – it’s lunch time, and as breakfast was nothing more than toast and tea, I’m eager for some real flavoursome food. We’ve noticed there is no such thing as morning tea on our ‘tour’ nor is there any chance to pop into a coffee shop for a pick-me-up caffeine shot. 

Unfortunately lunch is again a buffet affair and consists of rice, noodles, butter fried vegies, fried potatoes and a stewed chicken dish.  The only flavour on offer is good ol’ chili cheese as a side-dish. I’m mystified as to why we can’t choose our own restaurant or menu choices.
After lunch we question our guide as to what dishes we will be learning to cook in our much anticipated class tonight.  He tells us ‘chili cheese.’  ‘And?’ we ask.  He looks perplexed, ‘just chili cheese,’ he replies.   ‘Better not be just chili cheese.’ I retort, then I ask if it's possible to go to the restaurant and speak to the chef.  We drive to a very swish looking restaurant that has a French-cum-vintage look to it, a beautiful restored Royal Enfield is displayed at the front and inside it has beautiful thick chunky timber tables and iron lace chairs.  We’re introduced to the chef and with solemn apologies, he tells us we won’t be having a class tonight as he has a function to cater for.  We stunned and wonder when this was (if it was) portrayed to our tour company or our guide.  Back in the car we ask our guide what alternative might be made, he replies with, ‘That activity will no longer be happening.'   I’m far from impressed.  We ask to be taken back to town so we can have the rest of the afternoon to ourselves, and also suggest that because tonight’s class was cancelled, and as last night’s dinner was not very nice, we will find our own restaurant for this evenings meal.  Our guide tells us we are not allowed to choose our own restaurant, he will organise it.  And as we drive back to the centre of town he then tells us that we are going to the paper factory. My patience has become rice-paper thin.
The paper factory tour does not eventuate and as we alight from the car we notice the air has cooled and it is late afternoon, the sun no longer lighting up the beautiful artwork on the centre of town - it's too late to get photos. Instead we spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing at Ambient Café and indulge in a coffee bean haze of joy.  Later we wander down to the square and find a large screen in front of the clock tower and lots of excited locals eagerly waiting for a film on the Black Neck Crane to begin.  It’s the National Conservation Film Festival, being held as part of the celebration lead-up for the Fourth Kings 60th birthday.  We join the crowd until the cold gets too much for us then we scurry away to the restaurant that has been organised for our dinner.  It’s an upmarket restaurant and we get  all excited at the thought that it’ll be al-la-cart and eagerly await a menu – but no, it’s buffet.   As we line up to help ourselves we begin chatting to one of the staff behind the counter and find she is the manager of the restaurant.  Our conversation comes round to our cancelled cooking class and how disappointed we are and she tells us she owns a little homestay/lodge in Paro and offers cooking classes to her clients, and if we’d like, we are welcome to do a cooking class there when we return to Paro at the end of our tour.We are delighted and ask for a card to pass onto our tour company and guide. Then to our surprise she apologises for the lack of spicy flavour to the food serve at the restaurant and adds that she is 'embarrassed.'   "But you will be delighted with the real taste of Bhutanese" she adds. 

Just as we’re finishing our meal and readying to leave, the manager comes over to wish us a good journey and then tells us our guide has rung to check that we came to the restaurant for our meal.  A feeling of being ‘watched’ comes over us. 
As we leave we pass a graffitied wall -“were you ever happy?” - the message whispers and I wonder - are they.