Outside Terminal 2 at Dubai International airport on a Tuesday afternoon.
Getting a bite to eat airside in the Marhaba lounge.
And I couldn't resist some dessert too.
I had a few days of leave about to expire from the previous year so started looking at possibilities for a quick getaway from Dubai.
I initially looked at a quick trip to Norway, the Balkans or Tajikistan, but it was the wrong time of year (winter). I hadn't been to Bhutan before and although it was winter there too, the weather looked relatively mild and dry.
A mountainous country roughly the same size as Switzerland but with a population of ~800,000, Bhutan as a country had always intrigued me. It is often billed as the 'last Shangri-La' and is also famous or pioneering the concept of Gross National Happiness, based on the four pillars of good governance, sustainable socioeconomic development, preservation and promotion of culture, and environmental conservation.
Bhutan adopted a “high end, low volume” tourism policy when the reclusive nation first opened its doors to foreigners in 1974. Hence the country imposes a minimum daily fee of ~$250 per person per night, of which includes a $65 government tax and a $10 Tourism Development tax. The fee typically covers accomodation, guide, car & driver, food, entrance fees etc., so while more expensive than neighbouring countries, it still reasonable for a single traveller.
I organised my trip through Raven Tours and Treks after a recommendation and the total price of my tour for three nights was $835 including the $40 tourist visa fee.
Paro Airport is situated at an elevation of 2,235 metres in a deep valley and is one of the world's most challenging airports. It is only possible to fly in on one of the country's two airlines, Drukair — Royal Bhutan Airlines and Bhutan Airlines.
Raven Tours and Treks organised my flight booking for me on Drukair — Royal Bhutan Airlines, flying from Kathmandu to Paro (KTM-PBH) return for $420.
To position to Kathmandu from Dubai I booked a cheap flight on Flydubai for $290 return.
Boarding the Flydubai 737 on time for the 6:20pm departure.
Looking over to the Dubai Creek and the Burj Khalifa in the distance just after take-off.
Chicken biryani that I had pre-ordered for dinner.
The rugged terrain below of Sistan and Baluchestan Province in Iran.
Tasty cappuccino for 10 AED.
The dry desert of Balochistan in Pakistan.
The lights of Delhi below in India.
Lucknow, the capital city of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Disembarking at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport.
Welcome to Nepal.
With my $5 transit visa for my short stay in Nepal.
And after a short walk I arrived at the Regal Airport Hotel. Very reasonable $22.50 including breakfast for my one night stay in Kathmandu.
Enjoying the hotel breakfast just after 7am.
I then made the short trek back to Tribhuvan International Airport.
Checking in for the 9:15am flight to Paro. I had been advised to get a window seat on the left side of the plane to get a view of the Himalayas and Mount Everest but the closest I could get though was a middle seat on the left.
Airside with my boarding pass in a colourful Drukair — Royal Bhutan Airlines folder.
After arriving at the gate one of the Druk Air gate agents had some good news for me, I had been moved to a left-side window seat.
Boarding the A319 at the rear stairs. Both Drukair — Royal Bhutan Airlines and Bhutan Airlines operate the A319 for its superior take-off and landing performance versus the A320.
The Flight Attendants performing the safety demonstration.
Two Xian MA60's on the tarmac belonging to Nepal Airlines.
The small snack box handed out on the short flight.
Looking out to the Himalayas with Mount Everest to the left and the 8,485 m tall Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world, to the right.
Banking left as we descend down into Paro Valley.
And disembarking at Paro Airport to clear blue skies.
With my passport stamped into Bhutan, my 116th country visited.
I then met with my guide, Hem and driver, Seren. Posing with Hem with my new Bhutanese scarf they had given me.
We then headed off for the ~40 kilometre drive to the capital, Thimphu.
On the way we stopped at an iron chain bridge dedicated to Thang Tong Gyalpo, a pioneering Buddhist civil engineer from the 14th and 15th century. Thangtong Gyalpo is said to have built 58 iron chain suspension bridges around Tibet and Bhutan, of which several are still in use today.
Hem explaining the details on the prayer flags. At center is a Lung ta (powerful or strong horse) bearing three flaming jewels on its back. Four powerful animals known as the Four Dignities adorn each corner of a flag: the dragon, the garuda, the tiger and the snowlion.
A Stupa with mutiple prayer wheels beside Paro Chhu river.
Tsa-Tsa or mini stupas amongst the prayer wheels. Tsa-Tsa are offerings for the well-being of someone – either living or passed away.
More Tsa-Tsa in the side of the hill.
Looking across the river from one of the towers of the bridge.
The colourful mandala on the ceiling inside the bridge tower.
Buddha with one hand on the earth and the other holding an alms bowl.
Looking down on the Thimphu Chhu river, and where it meets the Paro Chhu on the far left.
Also visible on the left is three stupas, one each constructed in Bhutanese, Nepali and Tibetan styles.
And arriving in the capital city of Thimphu. Outside my hotel in the city centre, Hotel Thimphu Tower.
I was offered coffee or tea but just opted for water.
The double bed dwarfed by the massive room.
The view of Clock Tower Square from my window.
And lunch at a local restaurant with spicy chicken and some locally grown red rice, a Bhutanese staple.
After lunch we headed out for some sightseeing. At our first stop on the edge of the city, Motithang Takin Preserve. A Himalayan serow feeding at a trough.
The Preserve is home to a herd of Takin, a goat-antelope that is also the national animal of Bhutan.
They were quite an unusual looking animal, looking like a cross between a yak and a deer. Unfortunately all the Takin were munching on grass quite far away and I couldn't get a decent photo with my wide-angle lens however (Photo below by Kyaw Thu Oo, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0).
On our way back into the city we stopped briefly at Thangthong Dewachen Nunnery.
The offerings included bowls of water, milk and a large, symbolic cake (centre).
Looking down the valley from Tashichhodzong View Point and into Thimphu with terraced rice paddies in the foreground and the impressive looking Tashichho Dzong, a Buddhist monastery and fortress, in the distance to the right.
At our next stop, the Jungshi Paper Factory. Jungshi means 'natural'.
The factory uses traditional methods to produce the Bhutanese paper known as Deh-sho from the bark of the Daphne bush and Dhekap tree.
The bark is first boiled and then allowed to soak.
The fibrous product is then separated by hand.
Next, the material is pounded into a pulp and mixed with water and starch made from Hibiscus plant roots.
From this mixture a thin layer of the pulp is filtered out, using a wooden frame and bamboo screen.
It is then elegantly shaken in a rhythmic fashion to spread out the material and laid down as sheets of pulp.
The pulp sheets are then compressed to squeeze out excess water.
The sheets are then individually placed on a heated surface.
And left to dry out to produce the final paper sheets.
In the graphic workshop where the paper is cut, printed and painted for products such as journals, envelopes, paper bags, and even lamp shades!
In the factory shop where I bought a postcard with the head of Druk, the Thunder Dragon from Bhutanese mythology and who features on the flag of Bhutan.
After the very interesting visit to the paper factory we headed to the local archery range.
Archery is a national and the most popular sport in Bhutan.
I was expecting more traditional wooden bows and arrows to be used, but they obviously take the sport seriously and were using compound bows and aluminium arrows.
There were targets at either end of the range and they would alternate between both of them.
It was my first time seeing competitive archery up close and was amazed by both the speed (300+ kph) and almost silence of the arrows.
Although it is largely a male-dominated sport in Bhutan, apparently women sometimes participate too.
An archer wearing a gho, a knee-length robe that is the traditional and national dress for men in Bhutan.
The target 150 meters away in the distance. It was incredible how accurate they were, especially since there was a gusty cross wind.
Although alot of arrows hit the surrounding dirt, plenty still hit the target.
After the fascinating visit to the archery range, we went for a walk through central Thimphu.
Two ladies wearing the kira, an ankle-length dress, and the wonju, a long-sleeved blouse, both of which are the national dress for women in Bhutan.
Two Royal Enfield motorcycles parked on the main street.
A policeman directing traffic.
In the late-afternoon we went for a visit to Tashichho Dzong.
Bhutanese men wearing a kabney, a silk scarf worn at special occasions or when visiting a dzong.
Looking across to the nearby National Assembly of Bhutan.
The VIP entrance to Tashichho Dzong. The entrance for ordinary citizens and tourists was ~100 metres further on but just as grand.
An angry and fiery looking representation of Buddha just inside.
And in the main courtyard. A dzong is a distinctive type of fortress found in Bhutan and Tibet with towering exterior walls surrounding a complex of courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monks' quarters.
Known as "fortress of the glorious religion", Tashichho Dzong has been the seat of the Bhutanese government since 1952 and presently houses the throne room and offices of the king, the secretariat and the ministries of home affairs and finance.
Looking up to a gargoyle like figure on the corner of a building.
Tashichho Dzong was built in traditional style using neither nails nor a written plan.
Buddhist prayer wheels.
Taking in the beautiful architecture.
Hem said that as the main type of wood in Bhutan for construction used is pine, restoration and replacement is required every decade or so.
Hem posing with his silk kabney. Ordinary citizens wear white while judges wear green, royal officals wear red, orange for members of parliament and saffron reserved solely for the King and the country's chief monk.
And outside the now lit up Tashichho Dzong at dusk after the very interesting visit.
For dinner I headed to the hotel restaurant. Chicken soup to start.
With some fish, rice, and chapati from the buffet.
And some honey banana to finish at the end of a great first day in Bhutan.