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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.

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