The alarm went off at 4:00 and disturbed our very comfortable sleep. Indu, our driver was outside waiting for us at 5:15 so that we could stop at an ATM, drive through Delhi traffic to the airport and make our 8:00am flight to Paro, Bhutan. Kate and I were both fighting something – me with stomach issues and Kate with a sore throat. But we were happy to be on our way to a new adventure and excited to be breaking out our winter wear for the weather in Paro, which was forecasted to be around 50 degrees.
We decided on Bhutan rather than Nepal because we were more interested in the history of Bhutan (and their happiness) and were not that focused on trekking. It is a tiny country of 700,000 people. They have a King who is 37. His father recently abdicated after being on the throne 30 years or so. Their pictures are in every house and every business. Interestingly, Bhutanese people do not have surnames, except for the king’s family, which has a dynasty name. They still wear traditional dress most days. They are 85% Buddhist and life centers around religious festivals and traditions, like having your house blessed every year. Therefore it is nice to have a monk in the family but it is not required. They have a national military of 15,000 and have a budget surplus based on hydro-electric power that they sell to India. They love their rivers and environment in a spiritual, connected way. As Buddhists, there is no hunting or fishing in Bhutan but they do import meat for meals. There is no unemployment or homelessness but they are struggling with a steady migration from rural farms to the cities.
We paid $2260 for our four days / three nights in Bhutan. The King has set a fixed daily fee to come to tour Bhutan. This amount (along with transportation cost – there are only two airlines that fly to Bhutan and visa fees) is wired to the royal bank prior to travel and is held in trust for your tour company until after your visit. We used Access Bhutan Tours and it was a wonderful choice. The owner, Chimi, was very open to crafting what we wanted to do and her communication prior to the trip was detailed and quick. But the real proof is in the driver and guide we were provided, the food and the accommodations. This matters because it is all included in your price – all our meals of traditional Bhutanese food and Continental breakfasts, our driver Kingzang and our excellent english speaking guide Namgay, amazing hotels and a home visit to a farm with traditional hot stone bath. Total out of pocket besides the base fee was $105 – a few drinks, a few prayer flags and tips for our team.
We went straight from landing in Paro to driving to Punakha. We stopped for tea at the Duchula Pass. The stuppas here commemorate the King’s victory in 2003 in the 3 day war against terrorists that were threatening to drag Bhutan into a battle with India. The cafe had a wonderful fire in the center stove which threw off just enough heat and smell to make it feel perfect. The Himalayas of Bhutan are like the mountains or Oregon or Idaho, but twice as big and majestic.
After covering the winding mountain road with only one stop to give Kate some air, we loaded into the beautiful Meri Puensum Resort. Kate was struggling with chills and feeling generally run down so she skipped dinner. And after John enjoyed his Sprite and some rice he too retired, leaving us to enjoy a wonderful dinner with Michael and Loretta, a charming couple from Liverpool (he saw the Beatles in a tiny dive bar in 1963). We thought we had best turn in at a decent hour because the next days were packed with tour activities.
That is where my cautionary tale of rapid dehydration begins. We were four in the room – Kate and I feeling not great were sleeping in the big bed and Judi and John on the mattresses. The room was beautiful but only had one tiny space heater and all of a sudden I could not shake feeling frozen. As everyone fell asleep I started to uncontrollably shiver and then began what would be a constant and rapid series of trips to the toilet. Each trip required opening the door and shining light on everyone, listening to the deafening creak of the door and sitting with my feet on the coldest tile floor in the kingdom. I felt like crap. Each time I went back to semi-slumber I would take a sip of water. But I only had a partial bottle and while we had water somewhere in the room I didn’t want to wake everyone to dig for it.
By 3am I was thirsty like I have never been thirsty. It is hard to explain but it was beyond thirsty; it was like being thirsty but it was more like the feeling when you know you will have an epic hangover the next morning. The room started to spin a bit but I thought it was the lack of sleep – since we had started at 4am in Delhi that day – and not having my glasses on. I stood to get my glasses and my stomach suggested that I try to throw up. With nothing in my system, staring in to the bowl, I honestly thought of the irony of how appealing curling up on the coldest tile floor in the kingdom now was when a few hours before I had been cursing it. At this point I decided it might be a good idea to call for help. And then blackness, nothing.
Judi tells me that when she got to me I sat up and then, with eyes wide open, I pitched straight back into the tile floor thumping my head and sending my glasses flying. She screamed for the kids to get help while she started CPR and then realized I was actually breathing. The kids could not get the door unlocked in the dark but Judi found the rehydration powder that we brought to make sure the kids did not get in trouble like this and she slowly fed my the best strawberry flavored water I have ever tasted. Several bottles of fluids later, I crawled to a mattress and went to sleep while my scared stiff family sat watch over me. And it was pouring rain so hard it actually started to leak in our room.
I couldn’t think of food and could barely imagine movement. But we were scheduled to check out and start the day at 9:00. I begged off until 10:30. I rallied to visit a temple but while the monks prayed I had to take a seat on the floor and then eventually head back to the car. I sat in the car while the rest of our crew went in for lunch. Our guide brought me beef porridge and our driver brought a cup of hot water (in a wonderful mug of the King, Queen and their son). I drank the water with EmergenC and tasted the porridge so I could only semi-lie and say I had some of it. No one was buying it. Then word came that the universe loved me. The rain storm had brought a freak snow storm to the Duchula Pass and it was closed. We were forced, thankfully, to return to our resort and curl up under giant, thick blankets. I was asleep by 3pm. I couldn’t imagine dinner but the hotel staff brought rice and and special-made noodles with almost zero spice and some tea. I nibbled and slept while the kids watched a Marvel movie marathon.
The next day brought new strength (and an epic headache and goose egg on the back of my head) and we set off to see if they were going to open the passes. The snow was magical. Bhutan’s major road system is basically a lane and a half of paved surface for cars and trucks to navigate which leading to huge back ups. Whenever there was a wait, people would get out and play in the snow. It is the first snow storm in March anyone has heard of and our guide (honestly) in part blamed himself for discussing Donald Trump the day before and bringing bad feelings and negativity to our journey. But for our family’s health recovery, it was a blessing.
We had time in Thimphu, the capital city, to see the world’s largest Buddha, which was spectacular.
We stopped in downtown Thimphu for a bit of shopping and an ATM. Our guide pointed out the only traffic control in Bhutan – a traffic officer in a stand directing traffic. I love the simplicity and raw beauty of this place.
We continued on to Paro, where we were scheduled to stay our last night in Bhutan in order to fly out the next morning. Just outside of Paro is the epic Tiger’s Nest monastery. The snow, rain and mud made any chance of hiking up to the Tiger’s Nest out of the question (as if Alan and Kate could physically make it anyway, but sure, it was the weather). It is a marvel even just to stand at the foot of the mountains and stare up at it. For the number one attraction, the entry road feels like an after thought. While the King has delivered on his promise to create a dirt road to every farm, has protected all farm land and is generally revered, he might want to think about upgrading this access point. John’s suggestion, should he meet the King, is to create a ski resort out of all these mountains so he can snowboard. There is no skiing or snow boarding in Bhutan but since the King’s father has taken up road biking there is lots of new bike trails and interest in biking.
It was well after dark when we drove to a local farm house for a dinner made of things grown there on the farm, a visit through their home and a traditional stone hot bath. The barn was accessed through a steep ladder and our driver, who really bonded with John, even gave him a piggy back ride. By the end, Kingzang suggested that John stay on in Bhutan and John was all for it. The farm home only recently got glass on the windows. We started with traditional butter tea (really hard to choke down) and appetizers of bits of puffed rice and corn niblets. We had our stone baths before settling into a wonderful farm grown traditional meal.
Judi likes a real hot bath and so does Kate. When we got out back of the farm house there is a make-shift bath house with tubs about five feet long and one foot is a portion for smoking hot rocks to be dropped in. The baths are filled with natural spring mineral water. The farmer heats up the rocks in a huge fireplace next to the bath house and then brings them in by giant tongs.
Judi and Kate both thought the water was not hot enough so they asked for more and more rocks to be added. Well… this is not like adding hot tap water, where you add a bit and stick your finger in to check the temperature. The rocks go in but then continue to throw off massive heat. This is of course, the beauty of the whole thing, that we didn’t quiet understand at the start of the adventure. By the time we were all nude and ready to the jump in, the girls’ tubs were so scalding hot they would never cool down enough to get in during our scheduled thirty minute soak. The farmer must have thought those Americans are just nuts as we asked for more and more red hot rocks to be added. But John found the hose of cold mountain water and we lowered the temperature from scalding to smoking hot. John spent the thirty minutes talking about how he wants to build these at home. I told him our friend Kai Reynolds will probably have them built at their place by the time we are back in Ashland.
We retired to the Raven’s Nest Resort where the beds were soft and the bathroom tile floor was heated (where was that when I really needed it?). We were sad to leave the next morning but left with a love for Bhutan and its people. As a final note I need to say a special thanks to my good friends, poker buddies and doctors Lee Murdoch and Minor Mathews who have been willing to weigh in on our medical questions and fears from the road. I am glad to say that they suggest, with the limited information they have, that Kate and I will both survive our escape from India and eventually this damn headache will go away.